Outside of temples and padogas across Southeast Asia, there are cages full of tiny birds. If you buy a bird and release it, this symbolic gift of freedom is believed, by some, to bring good luck or to ensure a wish will come true.
I asked a guide in Vietnam about this and she said that, for her, the practice is symbolic of animal cruelty rather than luck. But, pointing at a group of fish swimming lazily in a pool outside of a temple, she said: “These are wishes that I can believe in.”
The massive fish in question were purchased in a market where they were destined to be dinner in the very near future. Instead, released in the waters of the temple with a wish from their benefactors, they grew large with their freedom and fat with the gifts of food from temple visitors.
Only one week later, on a boat cruise on the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, I was presented with the opportunity to make a wish while freeing a fish.
I was glad that I had asked the question about the fish in Vietnam and, therefore, understood when our captain asked us to write a wish on bamboo leaves that would be released along with three fish purchased from the Luang Prabang morning market that day.
It was, our captain explained, a second life for the fish.
The timing was good not only because I had clarity on the meaning behind the release of the fish, but also because my five-month journey through Southeast Asia is coming to an end. Any time an adventure comes to an end, there is a mandatory period of reflection.
And Luang Prabang is an ideal place for such reflection. This city of temples houses more than 1,000 apprentice monks who are often seen walking to school or maintaining one of the temples.
At dawn, the city reverberates with the sound of gongs and chanting, signaling that its time for the giving and collecting of alms, a practice that brings monks and their apprentices into the neighborhoods to collect food and offerings from the people who line the street waiting to provide this daily gift to their local temple.
Surrounded by this spirituality, the peaceful mountains of northern Laos, and the calm rustle of the Mekong River before the rains come, I have come to two realizations with surprise and with relief.
The first is that I am actually ready to go home. This is a new feeling for me and, I think, it is closely related to the second thing.
The second realization is that, for the first time since my partner, Jeff, died, I feel like myself again.
I still miss Jeff very much, but I see the world once more for what it can give rather than for what it can take away.
And so, as I look toward home, a wish for a second life seems particularly powerful right about now.