Why I Love Turtles

The year was 1996. It was sometime in the month of November. I found myself in Los Angeles, at a restaurant, waiting to embark on a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia with one of my best girlfriends, and feeling impossibly sad and strange because I didn’t know what would happen next. I wasn’t concerned about the trip; I was more worried about what would happen once I returned home.


I knew I needed a change: I needed to get out of what I thought I knew and get away from who I thought I was, but I was hesitant. Aren’t we all? Change is tough. Transitions are scary. Strangely enough, healing can be scary, too.

It’s all about trust. In the universe, in yourself – all that stuff they tell you in yoga class, or in meditation, that we’re always ready to dismiss because that doesn’t fix all those “important” problems.


Anyway, there I sat, in sunny California, feeling low because I didn’t want to say goodbye to my then boyfriend (don’t worry, this story doesn’t end badly, he’s now my husband). So what did he give me as a parting gift? A ring. But not just any ring: a silver turtle ring.

I still wear it every day.

I have always loved turtles. My childhood pet, Telly, was very dear to me, and I even took to rescuing turtles at Culebra during an expedition with Earthwatch, which I did after my father died. In fact, one of my first jobs after founding Seriatim was helping a man in Manhattan – I’ll call him Mr. O – who had hundreds of turtles and tortoises he needed to move out of Broome Street. He actually ended up in two different apartments in two different places in order to accommodate him and his collection of living beauties.

One of my favorite children’s stories is the Legend of Mackinac Island. It touches my heart, mostly because I love a good underdog tale. The myth is about what it means to be brave, trust in yourself, and endure.

Endurance, coincidentally, is the name of the game when traveling through Nepal, India, and Thailand. It was more than a journey. It was a maddening, humbling, incomparable experience. It gave me the gift of seeing people for who they really are, and the desire to spark conversation with anyone and everyone, to just be with them, human to human. Oh, and one other tiny thing: to try to never take for granted what I have. Twenty years later, I’m still processing that one.


The pack on my own back was a constant reminder of what it means to carry more than just things. I had to confront who I really was and what I really needed --  the stuff you can’t carry with you doesn’t mean very much. I enjoy that clarity: to have to justify what you’re carrying and why. The essentials always have multiple purposes, and the more you can focus on them, the quieter you can become with your real self: being more involved, more aware, and less distracted. Trusting your instincts rather than your emotions.

If hoarding is the extreme—what is the opposite? The monks and the priests in their tiny rooms. They’re present both in their mental spaces and in the literal, tangible space around them.

We all have to develop that hard outer shell; the goal is to keep softening the core underneath. But when you’re safe – really and absolutely safe – you’ll know when it’s time to come out from the darkness. You learn that the inside isn’t as safe as you thought – that it’s the outside, and the experience of really living, that is most fulfilling.

May you always travel with those you love, and may your summer be safe, happy, but above all, educational.

With love,


Matthew Callahan