Finding Fulfillment · Travel

What I Learned About Gratitude Searching For Dolphins in Key West

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Bellies full of breakfast, my family stepped out into a 57-degree wind on an overcast Thanksgiving morning to load up the car for our drive down to Key West from Islamorada. Here in the Florida Keys, I was wearing a fleece sweatshirt and shorts, trying to fend off the wind. “It’s got to get warmer today or my snorkeling trip will be ruined,” I thought, “Please, please let the sun come out soon.”

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I was prepared to Tweet these thoughts when I pulled out my phone and saw how many of the people I knew had updated their Facebook statuses with messages of thankfulness to God, appreciation of friends and family, and overall gratitude for the gifts they had been blessed with in life.

I felt pretty ashamed of myself.

Here I was, with my whole family, enjoying an entire week off from work and school, vacationing on some of the most beautiful islands in the world, and I was worried about the less-than-perfect weather. I had lost all perspective, and I’m glad I was reminded of what really counted. I decided to take in the rest of the day as it came, rain or shine.

The first stop when we reached Key West was the Ernest Hemingway House. The Sun Also Rises, which was required reading for me in 10th grade, has been one of my favorite books since, so stopping at this historic spot was a must for me.

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The house, located close to Key West’s southernmost point, actually reminded me of Ekamra Nivas, our ancestral home in India. There were numerous cats roaming the grounds, as Hemingway owned a six-toed cat himself. Since then, his home then and now have hosted polydactyl cats, who either carry the gene or exhibit the trait themselves. Each of the cats was named after a famous personalities, for instance, movie stars who have played the characters in Hemingway’s beloved tales. Behind the house in a stone-paved courtyard area, there’s even a small cemetery for all of Hemingway’s cats– a morbid sight, until you see the interesting names the cats have been given over the years.

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From the Hemingway house we headed to the dock from where our glass-bottomed boat would depart. Winds and gray skies warned of a bumpy ride ahead, so my expectant sister chose to stay on shore.

The tour only reminded me further of how quickly I’d taken for granted what had been available to me my whole life. I’d lived in Florida for 22 years and had never visited the Florida Keys. This was my first visit. I had taken trips to far-off places to lounge on beautiful white sand beaches and bathe in calm, blue waters when right here in front of me, the Keys, which play home to the third largest barrier reef in the world, offered a similar experience and was just one car ride away. 

During the tour of the reef, we saw a variety of parrotfish and even moon jellyfish, which our guide indicated was a sign that sea turtles could likely show up in the waters too, since sea turtles are a major predator of moon jellies.  We learned about the reef ecosystem, but it was difficult to make out the varieties of coral due to the murky waters. The wind hadn’t let up and the sun was still hiding, and for most of the boat ride I stayed indoors, except for when I ate my lunch of homemade puliyogare rice and green beans curry on the outer deck, to save the fellow passengers from the smell of Indian spices.

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As we headed back to shore, I was pretty convinced that I would likely not get in the water for the snorkel tour. It was just too cold, and I didn’t mind if I didn’t see fish and coral underwater. I had been out snorkeling numerous times before, and skipping out this time was no great loss. I’d still get to see dolphins, and that would be pleasure enough.

It certainly was.

We came across a few dolphins, including a young baby dolphin. They remained in the shallows of the pier, though we did see one again later at the spot where some bold tourists braved the chilly waters to snorkel— a pretty rare sighting in that spot, according to our boat’s captain.

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The dolphin sightings made my day, and as the sun set behind a veil of clouds, I realized: Just like when you’re looking for dolphins in the sea, sometimes the gifts you’re given in life have been right there in front you, but you won’t notice unless you’re in the moment and paying attention. 

To speak frankly, I can tell you that I have spent my life constantly living outside of the moment, searching for something else, something better, looking to the past, reminiscing about old friends and great memories, or to the future, anticipating or worrying about what’s in store. I’m trying to change that. 

More recently, I’ve been trying to do a better job of looking for the dolphins in my life, to take a moment to focus on the present, because then it will be hard to miss those wonderful things that have been right in front of my eyes. 

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