In the weeks leading up to my 35th birthday, the thought of leaving behind the 18-34 age bracket terrified me. For me, aging has always been so much about expectations: where I should be, who I should be, and who's by my side. And every birthday, my inner critic seems to get louder, informing me that by this age, my parents had been married almost a year, owned a beautiful home, and had begun family planning. I'm not that greedy. I don't want all those things — not at once, anyway. Step one, finding my ideal mate, would do. But at this point in my life, I had no clear plan for the future. What I did have was a plane ticket. Amidst a massive freakout a month before the big day, I received a press trip invitation to escape NYC — and all of my fears — for a long weekend. Superfeet invited eight adventure journalists on an all-expense paid, four-day trip to Panama. This amazing opportunity wasn't out-of-the-ordinary for my line of work, but the timing was exceptional. The trip was scheduled to take place over my birthday weekend. Message received, universe. Generally, I love to celebrate with my closest friends and family, but this time, I needed a much bigger distraction. Because travel always makes my heart sing, I decided to say “YES!” to kicking off my new year in a new country. There was only one thing that had me nervous: With the exception of my hosts, Ryan and Ali, everyone else in the group of 14 would be strangers. Would it be awkward to celebrate with all these unfamiliar faces? Would they sing to me? Thankfully, it didn't take our group long to bond in the beautiful Casco Viejo (a.k.a. Panama City's Old Town). Our first night, we toasted cocktails in the lobby bar of the American Trade Hotel, happy to have escaped the cold Northeastern winter. By the morning, we were hiking and zip-lining in the Anton Valley, the largest inhabited volcanic crater in the world, with our local guide, Manuel from Leading Adventures. When I voiced my fear of heights and asked to skip the zip-lining, no one insisted I “just try it.” I had spent my 20s “just trying” things that scared me, and now I had a “nope” list and was so grateful when people didn't question it. My birthday weekend was already off to a great start. The following day, the eve of my birthday, we drove for four hours, cutting through a veritable jungle to the Caribbean coast. From there, we took a speedboat to our home for the next 24 hours: three luxury yachts floating like a mirage in the turquoise sea with teeny, palm-tree-covered islands on either side. Once aboard, we stripped to our bathing suits and leapt off the side into the pristine 80-degree water. Before lunch, we set sail for the San Blas archipelago, made up of 378 mostly uninhabited islands spanning 100 square miles. I'm half Dominican and no stranger to the charms of the Caribbean, but napping on this smooth, white deck in the middle of nowhere was next-level. At sunset, we embodied a real-life postcard: three catamarans cruising toward the fiery horizon. That night, we were invited to a barbecue lobster dinner with the locals on a nearby island. Within minutes of arriving, I got singled out and pulled into a line dance with hip-swaying women. In the light of the full moon, it felt magical to be channeling my inner Beyoncé with these friendly folks.
At sunset, we embodied a real-life postcard: three catamarans cruising toward the fiery horizon.
My group eventually gathered in a large hut to buy beaded bracelets and meticulously handmade cloth designs called “molas.” I watched one woman's face get painted with henna (a straight, thin line from the center of her forehead to the tip of her nose) and decided I wanted a temporary tattoo (henna usually lasts a week or so) to commemorate the special evening. In Spanish, I asked for an “emblem of love” on my right wrist. Cheesy as it sounded, I wanted to start my 35th year with an open heart and thought this could be a nice reminder. The woman seemed to comprehend my request and began diligently working on my arm in a dark corner of the hut. When I asked if she preferred to move into the light, she shook her head without breaking focus on her blank canvas. I thought it was odd, but shrugged it off. When the black, broken dashes she traced around my wrist didn't seem to form a cohesive shape, I expressed some concern. In a hasty response, she called a friend to take over. Confused, I asked the new girl what was going on, but she only laughed, sticking her tongue between her teeth. The first woman quickly returned, insisting she finish her masterpiece. I called over Manuel and, on a hunch, asked if she was drunk. “No, she's just happy,” he said dismissively. When he talked to her, though, he instantly realized he was wrong. She was wasted. He politely asked her to finish up, and so she did. I was left with the craziest-looking design that made me flush red with embarrassment. I was pulled back to reality, the calm and happiness replaced by the dread I thought I had left in New York. Standing there alone, I tried to quell the urge to cry (yes, I can be dramatic; I'm a Pisces): I now had a very visible Scarlet Letter symbolizing all the things I didn't have in my life, most principally romantic love — and maybe common sense. As trivial as it was, this silly stamp showed me that even in paradise, I still didn't have what I wanted.
I now had a very visible Scarlet Letter symbolizing all the things I didn't have in my life.
I told myself I had two choices: 1) to allow myself to feel foolish, get upset, and risk ruining the night for myself and everyone else, or 2) shift my perspective and see this for what it is — a funny symbol that love can be messy, imperfect, and still wonderful. I decided to laugh (because it was actually funny) and made light of the situation. The whole group followed my lead and applauded my optimism, which only encouraged me to truly see the humor in it. Less than an hour later, everyone in the hut — maybe 30 people total, including the intoxicated artist (who sat by my side, hugging me) — sang “Happy Birthday.” I could feel my heart swell with joy and gratitude. The next morning, I woke up on the yacht, looked at my dark tat, and smiled. Everyone wished me happy birthday again over breakfast, and we reminisced about the amazing night before. Mid-morning, we hopped a puddle-jumper plane from San Blas back to Panama City. At the American Trade Hotel, my iPhone lit up with texts, emails, and Facebook messages from family and friends sending me wishes and urging me to “come home” to celebrate. I felt so loved. The best birthday message of all might have been from my long-time crush (one to whom I hadn't spoken in two months), whom I had hoped would reach out to me on this day. His kind, simple words made me beam with hope. I looked down at my emblem and wondered, had it worked? So it happened: I entered a new age bracket and, surprisingly, it feels amazing. At 35, I know who I am — a spontaneous, adventurous, vertically challenged, sometimes gullible, very sensitive, globetrotting writer who is open to love and new experiences. I might not have a husband or own a home, but I do have friends in some of the most remote places on the planet, a passport full of stamps and unforgettable memories, and the courage to follow my heart, wherever it may lead me.