Letters to Our Younger Selves: Dear Nina

Nina Kokotas Hahn
Dear Nina,

I came across this photo of you, and that little face of yours made me smile. It wasn't just the chubby expression or the pink swim cap, but the tongue darting in delight and determination, the in-it-to-win-it glee of a fearless 4-year old. That our travel agent mom is at your side is perfect because she's the reason you were on yet another vacation (this one at Wet-n-Wild, Orlando, circa 1978) and the reason travel will inspire your life as it ultimately does.

I know you're shuddering at the thought of your very uncool mom now that you're a teenager, and you've already decided you want to be a veterinarian or a doctor, but that will change. One day, you'll recognize a strong pull toward adventure and a need to keep canvassing the world. Gratitude will hit you when you realize that you are who you are because of this unconventional, ballsy woman and the gift of travel -- of conquering -- that she shared with you.

You'll ditch medical school to pursue writing, coming full circle when you discover that travel writing is where you were headed all along. You just have to trust me on this; I'm you, only older and wiser, and now a mom myself.

You'll look back and see that it started with the souvenirs Mom could not unpack fast enough. A boatswain whistle from Alaska, a necklace bought during Carnival in Brazil, Guatemalan worry dolls, a guiro instrument from Acapulco. You brought them all to school because they were like nothing you and your friends had ever seen. The souvenirs spurred an insatiable curiosity.

Bring home only the most exotic souvenirs for your children; your heart will light up someday when your daughter, opening her gift, tells you that it only makes her want to see more of the world.

Subscribe to the belief best shared by Keith Bellows that the passport is the new diploma, and take your daughter and your son everywhere, just as your mom did for you.

Right now, your many family vacations are the best kind of break from school. But later you'll understand that travel laid a powerful foundation, propping you up with pillars of daring, spontaneity, unconventionality and open-mindedness.

From New York's Little Italy and Mardi Gras in New Orleans to Caribbean cruises and countless road trips, you've already had a small taste of cultural differences. Down the line, you'll crave more of what lies off the beaten path; as I write to you now, I'm dreaming of Myanmar, Cape Town and Croatia. Adventure will make you slightly uncomfortable at first, but remember: you were made for it.

You have stayed up later than most kids for beignets and café au lait in the French Quarter and midnight stars on the deck of a cruise ship. You've been encouraged to choose things you like (even if it's boy stuff like riding a go-kart and collecting Civil War souvenirs) and taken a wash rag bath on a train after visiting a Missouri pig farm. As you get older, breaking from convention -- taking your kids out of school for a trip, or leaving them home so you can go solo -- will seem like a bad thing, but embrace it. You and your family will experience nothing more liberating or fulfilling than seeing the world often and on your own terms.

Although you're just like your mom now -- brave and determined -- there will be big moments that shake you. A terrorist attack on U.S. soil will take down several planes and the Twin Towers (the same ones you stood at the very top of with Mom). A few rocky flights, one involving lightning, will rock your world. Panic and fear will begin to work you over, and you'll wonder where that fearless girl has gone.

Look back to your biggest adventures and to photos like this one -- that girl is always there. Listen close and she'll have you jetting off and confronting those fears over and over again, keeping your eyes on the reward that lies at the end of every plane trip.

Your older you forever,


In sharing this story, and others, we hope you are inspired to Raise Your Hand for girls' education, helping us spread the word on this crucial effort.

Nina Kokotas Hahn writes about travel and adventure, loves both the city and the great wide open, and dashes stress via marathon running, Shark Week and good wine. Follow Nina on twitter (@ninakhahn) or at Chicago magazine, where she pens a weekly travel column.

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