Dusty Addendum: get lost, burning man.

Near the end of my time at Burning Man, I realized I hadn’t spent any time in The Temple.

About the Temple: if most of burning man is white water rapids, the temple is a placid alpine lake. Although both are completely devoid of any water whatsoever, so my analogies leave something to be desired. Whatever, moving on.

This is one of the main constructs and the last to burn. It is a place for people to remember and honor people or things close to them, and hopefully find closure and peace. It’s also a quiet and contemplative place amid the maelstrom.

While I had thoroughly enjoyed my time thus far, I felt I was missing some of the deeper, more potentially “spiritual” aspects of burning man. Which, since so many people had reported that Burning Man could be a life-changed experience, I felt I hadn’t so far gotten the full experience.  I didn’t feel changed.  So I wanted to seek that out.

Nature, however, elected that day as national “dust-storm-a-palooza” day, and as such once I got onto the open playa I was in a near white-out (or “tan out” as the case may be).  I was not to be denied, however.  I pushed on, happy to have a full liter of water on me, good goggles for my eyes and a shemagh for my face.

Burning Man is laid out very logically with roads aligned at hours of the clock, and the giant Man at the center to serve as a focal point so you always know where you are.  This method breaks down when you can see neither the Man, nor any of the camps or roads.  I ended up pushing off in the direction I thought the Man would be, and ended up in a brown cloud of nothing.

Every now and then the blowing would ease up and an opening would appear, allowing me to actually see around for a few seconds.

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A brief clearing in the storm.

However, nice as this was, it didn’t actually help me orient myself, so I continued trying to triangulate myself from various art installations I happened upon, trying to recall by memory where I thought they were in relation to the Man. Anyone who knows me and my memory probably cringes at this thought.

I was not alone out in the storm though. Many people on bikes, on foot, and especially in the roving art cars were out enjoying the storm, and I would from time to time have booming music come through the dust cloud to my right or left, or somewhere ahead of me, only to pass by unseen. A few times I had alarmingly close calls as a behemoth emerged from a cloud of sand nearly on top of me.

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You wouldn’t think this kind of beast could materialize out of nowhere.

A couple times I stopped at an an art installation, just to take a break from the wandering, and the increasing complaining coming from my bike chain. It did not like the gathering of dust, it seemed, and cried out for oil, sweet oil.

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Any port in a storm.

Eventually however, a clearing in the storm happened when I was close enough to actually make out the Man through the dust.

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Ooo! Look! Landmark. Finally.
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Hey… man. Where’d you come from?

I took this opportunity to walk around the Man and see what activity was there. Surprisingly what was normally a busy hub was mostly devoid of people. Only a very dedicated drum circle remained, pounding out a beat invisibly.

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Normally a bustling den of activity. Or wretched hive of scum and villainy. Depending on your perspective.

Back on my bike, now that I had orientation from being at The Man, finding the Temple was pretty quick. The number of bikes outside its perimeter clued me in that even in this storm it would be crowded. Once inside, I noticed the blowing dust winds less, and an overall feeling of quiet and stillness prevailed.

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Somber.

The center of the Temple is the focal point, and where many would leave their momentos and offerings. However, the walls and surfaces were also littered with messages, drawings, papers, and comments. The Temple becomes the embodiment of everyone’s projected emotions. Looking around, I found the Temple itself, even without the emotion attached, to be beautiful and ornate.

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Giant dangling decorative structure.

While I pondered all this, a man in a hot pink mesh shirt, pink skirt, and bright pink furry boots stepped gingerly over other people near the center, and knelt in front of offerings he had apparently left here before. He straightened them, tenderly brushed the dust off of them, and stared silently for several moments. Suddenly his face twisted into a grimace and his body rocked and heaved with open sobbing. I was shocked at his sudden and public outpouring of grief. I wanted to step over the bodies between us and offer comfort, but had no idea how.

Then out of nowhere, the opening strains of “Ode To Joy” erupted. It was a surreal moment, and I wondered at its source: an art car nearby blasting classical music?  Was it possibly in my head and I was having some sort of spiritual awakening in the face of this man’s grief? Seconds later I would realize that an orchestra had amassed in the Temple and begun to play.

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If you look closely you might see a bow.

In the midst of a dust storm, in the middle of the desert, a twelve piece string orchestra had gathered. Violins, cellos, even a double bass I think. These people in their burner garb, goggles and boots, were putting on a performance worthy of black tie and tails in a concert hall.

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The masses press in on the orchestra

They ran through all manner of songs from Ode to Joy to Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, and many I didn’t recognize. It was beautiful and strange. After a few songs I remembered the grieving man and wondered how he was receiving this. When I looked for him he was gone.

The concert finished, silence resumed, and I left the temple.

On the ride back to camp, the dust storm had diminished somewhat so I and my wailing bike chain had a pretty straight shot back.  Which was good because I was out of water and thirst was becoming an issue.

I went looking for a deeper experience, some spiritual side.  But the heavens didn’t weep, my soul didn’t soar, my mind didn’t crack open with new and miraculous understanding.  However, I did get to wander, lost in a desert, without any need to panic or fear for my life; I was safe the entire time and could just enjoy the moments.  And I gained understanding that grief and release are assisted by physical objects and places; to walk away from the physical representations helps one move on.  And lastly I got to experience sublime music played by people who dearly love it, received by people who dearly needed it, in a place everyone shared.

You really can’t ask for much more from an afternoon.

The start of the search

My daily writing has involved a lot of reminiscing about moments from my past that stand out for me.  This one felt still meaningful enough to share.

Also: 100th post!  <golf clap>

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“Dad, what is God?”

I had picked my son up from his mom’s house on a Sunday night. He was six; my separation from his mother was more than a year old. he rode in back, strapped into his car seat, playing with his favorite action figure.

The freeway was dark, and my eyes had to adjust and search for him in the rear view mirror, blocking out the headlights behind me to find half of his face reflected back at me.

“What’s that bud?” I stalled.

“What’s God?” his face was neutral, like he might have just asked why honey is sticky, or if He-Man would win in a fight with Conan. He moved the action figure’s arms and legs around, making small shooting motions with it. I was reminded that my mother tried to eliminate violent tendencies from her kids by keeping us from seeing violent movies or having toy guns around. Didn’t work. Boys will find a way to simulate conflict.

“Well, it depends” I stalled, unprepared for this question; I thought I had several years yet before this would come up. What’s next, the sex talk at age seven? Educating him on Roth IRA’s at nine?

He stayed silent, waiting for me to continue.

“Some people believe that there is a… well, a being, that watches over everything, and created us and everything around us, and that when we die we either go to heaven or hell. Some believe there are many Gods. Some believe there is no God.” I breathed easy, happy to have given him an answer that placed no demands on him to believe in anything specific. Committed to nothing. Safe and vanilla.

“Well, what do you believe?”

He wasn’t letting me off easy. I groped for the right words, the right way to step through this potential minefield of personal programming and prejudice. If I tell him there is no God, does he grow up to belittle religion and those who practice it? Will he lose hope and never get any benefit from what I see as the good parts of religion? Does he become a nihilist? If I don’t tell him there is someone watching out for us, does he become fearful of the world and the evil that people do, knowing he’s all alone in this universe?

I want to provide him comfort. Something to hold on to in bleak moments. I want to tell him that it will be okay, because there’s a plan for all the bad things that happen, that there’s reason and sense and structure, even if you can’t see it. I want to give him the equivalent of a mental and emotional security blanket to carry with him at all times.

But I can’t. I won’t start his life with what I believe to be fairy tales. I won’t sell him on stories that are made up to comfort and guide us, teach us right and wrong, justice and acceptance and humility, but are still just that: stories.   I read him plenty of fairy tales, and I tell him many stories that I intend as parables, teaching devices that will hopefully stay with him. But I don’t pass those off as truth or fact.

I haven’t given any thought to how I will raise my son in regards to religion. As a young man I railed against the evils I saw wrought by religion: the inquisitions, witch burnings, stoning and holy wars and oppression. I counted religion as inherently bad, a force for separation of people, not acceptance and understanding.

As I grew, my conflict with religion took on new dimensions. I saw individual people who believed strongly, and did great things through their faith. I came to accept that some people were better people through following religion than they might have been without it. The community that supports it’s own through religion did very well, both for those in the community and some outside of it as well. I could no longer believe that religion was a force for evil, at least not that simply.

In my late twenties, I studied world religions to better understand what all the different branches of Christianity believed, what Muslims believed, what Jews believed. I read up on Taoism and Buddhism. I tried to find commonalities and differences. Eventually I came to understand that a personal devotion to a religion can be a very good and powerful thing, but large, organized religion can be a very dangerous and damaging thing as the individual’s personal work to understand the religion is replaced by mindlessly following one man who interprets and dictates.

In Taoism I found concepts that finally made sense to me. The interrelation of all things. The universe itself as inherently good, the potential for a positive force through all things. Of one’s own infinitesimal spot in the vast cosmos and spread of time and space. The meaninglessness of struggle and pain, and the juxtaposition of the beauty of experiencing every moment. Buddhism as well had teachings that rang true for me: detachment from possessions and desires, seeing wonder in every small thing.

But still I did not choose to follow a religion. The teachings in those belief systems still seemed like lessons, guides, and words of wisdom. Not a dogma to base my life on. Not a scripture to follow and use as a lens for my entire world. And now here my son was taking his first hesitant step into this complex and maddening world of religion. “What is God?”

I opened my mouth to speak, not exactly sure what to say, but fumbling my way through an explanation as I found words that at least felt true. I gave him the only answer that seemed true to me. The only answer I could give him without feeling like I had dictated his beliefs yet had also not steered him away from what I think is a crucial search for meaning.

I told him that I believed it was everyone’s personal job on this earth to search and decide what felt true for themselves, to ask of many people what God meant, and find a way to believe in something larger than yourself. That you shouldn’t accept what other people believe, you should search for what you believe.

He seemed to consider this a moment. Silence stretched on, and I stole a nervous glance back in the mirror to see if I had troubled him, or soothed him, or set him on an inquisitive path. Cars passed me in dark and wet of the freeway, their dull, muffled roar approaching and receding in a never-ending pattern. He posed his action figure and walked it along the safety bar of his car seat.

Finally he spoke: “Dad, can I have a snack when we get home?”

“Yeah bud. Yeah, you can have a snack.”

Auditions

In trying to bash out a story per day, I find I’m mining my memories and setting them into bite-sized stories.  This one stood out to me as it was actually a huge transition point in my life where I met some of the best friends of my adult life.  Seemed worth putting up here. Oh: and welcome to a new site layout.


Singing Young Man

A song.  A song?  As in, I need to sing a song?  This seems like a bad idea.

I’m on a hard chair in a cafeteria at Microsoft.  I came here before my night job, working nights answering tech support calls.  The late afternoon sun crawls weakly through the giant windows, filtering through fall branches that still retain the odd withered leaf or two.  Other strangers around me clutch papers in their hands, their mouths moving silently, reciting.  Memorizing.  Practicing.

I’ve never been what you might call “musically gifted”.  A more apt description might be “musically challenged” or even “musical menace, don’t let within six yards of noise making devices”.  In second grade I decided I’d like to try violin.  The expression on my father’s patient face as he tried to help me learn to form a C or E flat on the cruel device was not unlike someone trying to smile encouragingly while cats mate beside his ear.  Several years later I would try piano.  I got as far as learning the opening notes to Close Encounters of the Third Kind before giving it up.  Trumpet followed in Junior high, and was quickly jettisoned for Science class.  Guitar was attempted in high school.  Because, you know, chicks, man.

None of it stuck.  When I was married, I remember gleefully singing along to a song on the radio.  My lovely wife attempted to inform me in the nicest way possible that I really was not cut out for this sort of thing.  Ever the perceptive lad, I was able to piece together all the clues and arrive at the conclusion: music and I are like a camp fire and a block of ice trying to be friends.  At a distance we are alright, but trying to do something together could only lead to disappointment.  And potentially damage.

So why would I subject myself to singing a song in front of strangers on purpose?  Madness?  Did I lose a bet?  Do I crave humiliation?

Well, I was recently divorced.  I really had no social circle to speak of, and I craved a creative outlet.  I had fond memories of drama class in high school, and a play I took part in Junior High (even though I ended that with a broken nose).  There’s nothing like the camaraderie of a cast after a performance; nothing like the rush after stepping off stage to applause.  So when I saw an add for a community theater play being put on by a bunch of fellow Microsoft folks, I swallowed the nervous lump and chose to dive in.

The requirements: memorize a short monologue (comedic preferably), and choose a song to sing.

Monologue was no problem.  I knew several Kids in the Hall sketches by heart already.  A frivolous choice?  Why not something from Shakespeare?  Nah, too dry, too expected.  If people couldn’t appreciate a good KITH sketch, they weren’t my people anyway.  Anyway, the idea of performing one of my favorite skits in front of people just got me eager and excited, so I stayed with it.  But a song?  Like, to sing?  With my own voice?  And likely ‘a cappella’ since I don’t know how to play an instrument.  This seemed less of a try-out tactic than a hazing ritual.

Still.  Their show, their rules.

Nervously I selected “Candy” by the Presidents of the United States of America.  Because it was as ridiculous as I felt.  Oh, and I love candy.  Plus it had about three notes to the entire song.

So now I watch nervously as people are called, one at a time, and enter through a plain office door into god-knows-where, to do god-knows-what.  The waiting numbers dwindle.  Then, far too soon I hear a woman call my name in a questioning voice.  I stand up and manage to blurt out “here”.

The room has long tables with more hard chairs; it is a conference room usually used for presentations.  Three people, a woman and two men, sit at one table.  I hand them the paperwork I was to fill out.  They smile, and one of them invites me, with all the politeness of a recruiter asking for one’s resume, to begin my monologue “whenever I’m ready”.  I’m pretty sure I will never be ready.

I had a bad stuttering problem as a kid.  Couldn’t get a word out without skipping across the letters like a needle stuck on a record.  I suddenly feel it will come back.  I open my mouth to begin and the words won’t come out.  I’m sure if I can just get started it will all flow out fine.  But the air won’t come out.  There is a boulder in my throat, nothing gets by.  I close my mouth and turn sideways, picturing in my mind how the sketch played out on TV.  Mimicking exactly, I turn my face to them and begin: “Want to know something?  I’m a bad doctor…”

I blitz through the skit, gaining speed as I go.

It is over before I know it.  I’ve seen some smiles, a little forced laughter, but overall encouragement.  I’m heartened.  I smile weakly and sit down.  They ask some questions about my past, my acting experience.  I don’t remember it well; that familiar adrenaline rush that follows a performance is spinning in my head.

Then the crucial moment: “so what are you singing for us today?”

How is that a question that can just be asked?  You can’t expect someone to just, well, sing.  That’s not how it works. There has to be some kind of lead-up, some fore play.  You must ease them into the mood.  Maybe light a few candles?  I don’t know, but I know it’s not supposed to be like that.

But there it is.  The question hangs in the air, smoke from a gun.  I explain my choice and they look at each other for any recognition.  Seeing none, the woman says “well, we are eager to hear it, begin whenever you are ready.”  She also asks if I have accompaniment, and I kick myself for not arranging something.  Anything.  A kazoo.  A small badger beating a drum.  Anything.

And then, without knowing it I’m belting it out.  Singing.  In front of people.  My hand lightly and nervously slaps my leg to keep time.

And it feels good.  It sounds good.  And I get into it.  I like this!  It’s great singing for other people!  Why doesn’t everyone do this all the time every day?  I’m a changed man.  I’m pretty sure from now on I’ll be singing my order at the lunch counter, serenading support calls at work, rising every day with a full-throated bellow and yodel.

In short order the song is done and I look back at them, having avoided any kind of eye contact during the song, and I’m suddenly, thoroughly, and powerfully embarrassed.

The man who I learn is the music director explains that I have “a really interesting sound” and asks what my range is.  I bunch up my brow like a wad of paper you are about to throw away.  He asks me to sing scales as he taps away on a keyboard that he has in front of him.  I oblige.  He goes low, low, lower, until I just can’t hit a note any more.  Then he takes it higher, higher, into squeaky teenager territory, and sure enough my voice cracks and strains at the top.

And then they thank me.  And I’m dismissed.

I walk out buzzing in my head and at my limbs.  I feel exhausted.  And I feel energized.  A bird chirps his song in a barren branch above me.  I quietly mimic his song.  Very quiet, right under my breath.  But out loud nonetheless.

Backwards and forwards

For most of 2013 I was unemployed and homeless, and it was everything I imagined it could be.

Okay, putting it that way is probably in poor taste: I was out of work on purpose, and traveling with no fixed address was no hardship, it was living out my dreams.  Let me put it another way: 2013 will be a hard year to top.

So now at the start of a new year, I’d like to make sense of it so I can understand what to bring forward.  Specifically: did I get what I wanted out of it, and was it worth what I lost / gave up?

Quitting my job, leaving a multiple-decade career behind was scary.  I worried that I was throwing away a great career and I would come to regret it.  This fear turns out to be mostly unfounded.  I was incredibly lucky to be able to have my pick of jobs when I returned.  While it’s true I didn’t step right back into the career I had when I left, that was never the goal so I don’t count that as a down side.

Getting rid of what I “owned” was less scary; I’ve never been terribly attached to stuff.  I say “owned” in quotes because I now think a better way to relate to things you buy is more that you are renting or borrowing it.  At some point it will pass to someone else, and there may or may not be an exchange of money when that transaction happens. In the interim you are responsible for taking care of it.

Leaving all my friends and social groups behind was less scary than it should have been because I didn’t understand what I was leaving.  I’m lucky in that I have been able to make some fantastic friendships over my life, and it’s easy to keep in touch with folks virtually, but now that I’m in a new town, trying to find a social circle (or several as I had back in Seattle) is going to be difficult.  I think the older you get the harder it is to form or join really tight social groups.  Of everything I lost on this trip, this is the hardest trade off.  Not to say I’ve lost friends; I’ve still got contact with my peeps, it’s just that I don’t see them on a regular basis now and it’s going to take extra work to maintain the relationships long distance.

So what did I get out of the trip?  Was it worth it?  Short answer: best thing I’ve ever done.

To elaborate:

I learned that living without stuff is incredibly freeing.  Knowing that my sole physical responsibilities are in my backpack clears out a background noise of nagging worry and responsibility that I didn’t even realize was there before.  Car payments?  Insurance?  Rent?  Is my stuff safe?  Did Bob scratch that nice new table with his stupid class ring last night when he had a couple too many?  Did Bethany like or hate the color of my area rug?  Is their mangy dog going to pee on my curtains?  (well, I never had curtains, but you get the point).  And my god: the clutter!

Noise.  It’s hard to imagine the quiet silence when all that is gone.

I learned that meeting fellow travelers is probably the best thing you can possibly do when traveling.  Sure, seeing sights is pretty cool, but those are just kind of activities like going to the movies with friends.  It’s fun to do, but usually the real point is to go do things with people.  Fellow travelers are going to be full of interesting stories, great recommendations for things you need to see and do, and will know way more interesting drinking games than you.

I learned that graphic art is probably never going to come back for me.  Growing up I drew constantly.  I wanted to be an illustrator and comic artist.  My friends told me I was pretty good.  I expected on this trip, once I freed my mind from all the day-to-day crap and didn’t have a job that I needed to fill my time with, that I’d be right back drawing and creating cool stuff again.  Not so.  And that’s okay.  For the most part.  I do have a friend that gave up her job and is doing intensive art school now and I’m pretty inspired by her example.  Who knows what my future holds…

I learned that I love writing, and have a lot of potential outlets.  Back in Seattle I had a writing group that met far too seldom, but created fantastic stuff when it did.  We’d work on short stage plays or scripts, and talk about ideas for longer things.  On my trip I not only kept up this blog, but wrote a novel I’d had bashing around in my head for a while, and started on a couple more.  This is what I want to explore much deeper in the coming years.  I had thought about this as my creative outlet for years before, but this trip confirmed it for me.

I learned that you can break your foot and still dance on stage with crutches in Barcelona.

And I learned that work, just like “stuff”, is temporary.  It can be your life’s passion, it can be your legacy, but it can also be a means to an end, “just” a paycheck, or a distraction.  Previously I defined myself in large parts by my work.  Now I’ve got a much healthier relationship with it.  I am still passionate about what I do and doing it well, but success or failure here doesn’t define me.

So what does this mean going forward into the rest of my, and what lessons do I wish I could share with people who haven’t had an experience like this (yet)?

Detach from your stuff.  What you own comes to own you.  It’s very true, it’s very insidious, and it’s very difficult to break out of.  I have reacquired all the trappings of a city dweller (car, dresser, table, sofa, broom, tea strainer, etc).  I now feel the weight of each thing I acquire and hear the background noise it generates in my mind.  Keeping a healthy detachment from it mentally and emotionally is key to keeping that noise down.

Do good work.  It matters.  If you aren’t proud and engaged in the work you are doing, do whatever you must to change that.  Change jobs, gain skills, throw it all away and start again.  It may take time, but don’t lose sight of the fact that doing good work is important.  It is important for you, and it is important for the world.

Dance more.  Even if you think you shouldn’t.

People are what really matter.  I am in danger of losing sight of this as I throw myself into my job.  Making trade offs on spending time with people that matter to you in order to succeed at work should be done with great care and sparingly.  Our time here is so short and you only have a handful of days when it comes down to it.  Spend them wisely and with people that fill you and enrich you.

And for God’s sake people: if something scares you: do it.  In fact, to paraphrase my current company: Just Do It.  Fear will always put up things that sound like reasons to not do something.  There are a billion ways to tell fear to go suck it.  Remind yourself again: you have precious few days, so don’t let them go by without doing something you want to.

Unreasonable Optimism

Warning: this post is full of rainbows, ponies, sunshine and kumbayah.  Proceed at your own risk.

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I am sunshine made solid. And cuddly.

I’ve talked to a few friends lately that are kind of beaten down. Defeated.  Whether it is from dating rejections, failed job interviews, or personal goals that just haven’t panned out, the result is the same: they are ready to just crawl into a cave and give up.

They have taken one too many hits.  It’s not just one setback, it’s a whole string of them.

It’s not just stubbing your toe, it’s Rocky getting pummeled by Apollo Creed, Ivan Drago, and Clubber Lane all at the same time, while also experiencing erectile dysfunction, incontinence, and bankruptcy.  Also, that very morning?  His cat died.

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Why, Fluffy? WHY???

Sucks.

It sucks to watch: these are fantastic people, capable of greatness.  It’s trite and cliché to point out that you can’t see the picture when you are inside the frame, but it’s very true.  These people just don’t see their massive awesomeness.

It’s also trite and cliché, but no less true: optimism leads to success.

I’d like to take that further: Unreasonable Optimism leads to greatness.

To clarify: the world will send you many messages, lots of data for you to sift through.  Some of this will be negative (I don’t date short guys, you don’t have the skills we are looking for, you aren’t strong enough to achieve your goals), but many of them will be positive (the girl who finds you funny and engaging, the employers interest in the first place that got you the interview, the progress you’ve made towards your goal).  It’s your job to select what data you let in and what you don’t.

It’s easy to let the bad in.  It’s a very safe thing to believe the negative.  You’ve been poked with a sharp stick and it hurts, so you’d like to avoid that in the future.  It’s safe and easy.  Even though it feels bad, it’s a dull ache instead of the sharp, burning, embarrassing, emasculating, sting of failure. So you accept the messages: “you aren’t meant for this, you don’t belong here, this is not for you.”  Just give up, already, go do something else.

You accept it the same way you accept “it burns my hand when I put it in fire, so I won’t do that anymore”.

It’s unreasonable to ignore this kind of data.

Here’s the thing though: these negative experiences are NOT the same thing as your body telling you “dude, don’t put your hand in fire”.  They are nuanced, situational, and highly related to circumstance.  They can be changed.

Overcome.

Conquered.

The biggest thing you can chose is your attitude, and it’s probably the most important aspect of success as well.  Optimists succeed.  They succeed because they dare to try.  They believe that something is possible.  They believe against what common wisdom says.

In dating, someone who sees potential, excitement, and adventure, will always be attractive.  The one who tries eventually succeeds.

In careers, someone who is optimistic will make others think “this is a person I can give a difficult problem to, they will figure it out”.  The optimist will lead to greater things.

In personal goals, optimism pushes you that extra mile, pushes you past where your mind or body thought you could go.

It’s tempting to string together negative data as a trend, as proof that you should be looking at this data and going “ah, this is really proof that I’m barking up the wrong tree.”  This is where pessimism becomes realism.

I’m not giving up, I’m just being realistic.

Screw realistic.  Realistic gets you a mediocre life, a vanilla existence, a safe position.  Avoiding pain leaves out the greatest chances for pleasure.

Instead, try Unreasonable Optimism.  Realism takes in the available data and makes a logical decision based on interpreted facts.  But that’s a bunch of crap because you are a terrible interpreter of your own facts.  You experienced that pain and you think that makes you an expert on what you should do.

Nope, it makes you scared and shy.  You are a terrible judge of what risks you should take simply because you listen to the negative data.

Unreasonable optimism will push you to continually believe in more.  You actively reject the negative data.  You choose to believe again, at the risk of being hurt again.  Only then can you push past your own (self-imposed) limitations.

People who achieve the most in life are completely unreasonable in their optimism.

Henry Ford failed at business and went broke five times before he found success with Ford Motors.  Fred Astaire, at his first screen test was noted as “can’t act, can’t sing, slightly bald, can dance a little.”  Oprah was fired from jobs in her early career, being deemed “unfit for TV”.

Whether it’s Steve Jobs pushing people to design something simpler and more beautiful, or Edmund Hillary climbing Everest, the greatest success stories in the world have at their root people who rejected every message of “can’t be done, don’t even try”.  They rejected all the negative data, and believed instead in their own unreasonable optimism.

This way of living is scary and leaves you open to failure and ridicule.   It is also energizing, powerful, and ultimately extremely attractive.  Think about your own reactions: do you hire the person who is flatly realistic, or the person who can see beyond and believes that things can be better?  Are you attracted to people who give up easily, or to those who see unrealized potential and adventure?  Do you achieve your most when you set aggressive, almost unreachable goals, or when you set a realistic, very achievable goal?

But what about all those failures?  Should you just ignore them?

No.  They are all learning opportunities.  You can use them to become better.  They are not there to tell you “you can’t do this”, they are there to make you reflect, question, and improve.

Dealing with negative data is simple.  Ask yourself: is there anything I can learn from this?

  • If yes: learn that, then try again.
  • If no: reject the data as situational, a one-off occurrence, and continue on.

To answer that crucial question, use friends or any other external feedback you can get.  They see your picture differently, and sometimes more clearly, than you do.  Remember: you are inside the frame.

You always get rejected by women?  Talk to friends who will help you figure out how to change your approach.  Also be open to the possibility that those women actually just suck, there’s nothing wrong with you. Don’t string together the data and think “welp, I’m just unattractive, guess I’ll sit at home and eat a tray of brownies every day for the rest of my life.”crying-eating

You didn’t get the job you interviewed for?  Or the five before that?  Again, get feedback.  Does your resume convey the wrong thing?  Are you nervous and fidgety in the interview?  Do you actually need to learn a bit more before interviewing for that kind of job?  Or did the interviewer suck?  Is it actually their problem?  I’ve done my share of interviewing and sometimes (too often, really) the interviewer sucks that day and the wrong call is made.

Important: rely on friends and co-workers for feedback. Do not rely on them to decide what you do, what is possible, what your dream is. That’s yours, and people will tell you that you are being unreasonable.

Embrace that.  Unreasonable optimism changes everything.

Once you’ve reflected, put the experience behind you and relegate it to its proper place in your history, which is just that: history.  It’s gone, behind you.  The present and future stretch out with unlimited possibility.  And the Unreasonable Optimist will achieve the most from that unlimited possibility.

It is scary.  You are consciously choosing to put your hand in the fire again.

Against all reason.

Against all data points.

It’s completely unreasonable.  And it’s awesome.

Unreasonable optimism is a frightening way to live.  In my experience it’s the only way to live fully.

Speaking Croatian for complete morons!

While in Croatia, it was necessary to learn a bit of Croatian.  Here I attempt to pass my wealth of knowledge on to you.  Rosebud may correct me vehemently as I could be wrong about all this, but this is my current understanding.

Croatian, as a language, is rather fun when you get used to it. If you took a Russian couple, got them good and mellow on a patio in the sun and taught them conversational Italian over a couple beers you might come up with something close to Croatian; lots of harsh Russian consonants rounded off with Italian lilts and vowel-endings. Unlike a vodka-fueled tirade you can picture in Russian, Croatian just doesn’t get all worked up much. Sure, you can get a good head of steam going if you get angry about something, but eventually with all the “Ch”, “Sh”, “Ts” and rolling of “r”s, Croatian just gets exhausted and sits back down to an espresso or wine and forgets why it was so miffed in the first place.

Right, now that you have the right attitude, on to mechanics:

When first approaching Croatian, you’ll be happy to see that it is a phonetic language, so basically every letter has a purpose and sound, unlike tricky bastard languages like French or English where you must guess at whether to actually pronounce a letter or not. If there’s a letter there, you must make a sound.

This also means it streamlines words to remove combinations. No instances of things like “Ch” to make one sound, or “Ph” when an “f” will do just fine. Nope, one letter per sound. Also, Croatian doesn’t put in extra constants (“ll”, “mm”, “nn”) like English does just because they are taking up too much room in the warehouse.

Now having specific sounds for each letter necessitates a unique letter form for all sounds.  For some reason they do this by overloading the letter “c” with funny hats and eyebrows:

  • ć (pronounced “ch”)
  • č (also pronounced “ch”, but slightly different, only imperceptible to a foreign ear)

Now, with English when you see a normal “c”, you are unsure if you pronounce it as “K” or “S”.  Croatian keeps consistency: only “k” makes that sound.  If you see a “c” in Croatian it is always pronounced “ts”.  Huh?  Right, you get used to it.

So, there’s lots of good stuff.  That’s not to forgive its obvious transgressions as a language. For example, many words pile an unseemly number of consonants together, often at the beginning of a word necessitating you take a running start at it lest your tongue just smash against the rough wall of pronunciation. Luckily most words also trail off on a nice downhill slope of vowels so you can coast through, gathering momentum for the next wall of consonants.

  • Examples of consonant abuse:
  • Vrjeme (time)
  • Crne (black)
  • Mvpei (Minister)

Those are all pretty simple, right? How about a random sign I saw in Zagreb?

  • Knjigoveznica (Bindery)

Right? Once your bandage your tongue from that attempt, we’ll continue.

So while their flagrant abuse of consonants is bad, they attempt to rectify this by treating “j” and “r” as vowels.  I can kind of give them the “j” one; after all, this will always be pronounced “y”.  However, they seem to think that an ‘R’ is a fine substitute for a vowel. For instance, their name a town square?

Trg.

Yep, that’s not an abbreviation. That’s the whole thing.  And you have to roll your ‘r’ slightly.  No sane person will consider this a vowel.

Okay, here’s some examples of some of the above rules:

  • English: Collective.
  • Croation: Kolectiv

See how easy that is?  No repeating letters!  No ambiguity on pronunciation!  Nifty faux-Russian look to the word!

  • English: Street
  • Croation: Ulica

Note, this is said as “ulitsa”, not “ulika”.  See how nice it is to not have ambiguity?

Right, that’s your language lesson for the day.  Or month.  Or maybe ever.  I’ve never done language lessons before, who knows where this goes?

Here’s some pictures so you can stop reading so many hard words:

The Patriarch left us, but Jbird joined us, so we three toured some cool places.  First off: Bakar:

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Looking down on the city from a cliff. Oooo, pretty and exotic!
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Down in the town, looking up at where I’d taken the previous picture.
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Walkin’ through the old town (or “Stari-grad”)
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Looking for peacefulness? Found it!
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Does this not just scream “old school Europe”? Well, it’s very peaceful so it probably just whispers it.
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Watch out people, he’s trying to be artistic.
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Many old buildings in great shape. One that’s in a little worse shape.
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That’s a freeway on-ramp. Inspired by roller coasters, I assume.
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Old church. You will find many of these in Europe. I can’t seem to stop taking pictures of every single one, though.
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Nice ‘stache, yo.
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More of this town. Just beautiful and calm.

Next up, a day trip to Brseč (remember your pronunciation guide? That’s right: “Brsech”!)  This is a quaint little coast town that seems to be completely stopped in time.  It can’t hold more than, like, 30 families.  Yet they have four churches in this place.

Also, we got to see our first example of a Croatian werewolf.  This took the form of an old dude shambling along the streets aimlessly.  When he turned his giant noggin toward you it was clear from his profusion of facial hair, wild expression, and dark, pock-marked skin that he was a were-creature, despite his fine taupe jacket and his roaming around in the daylight.  Sadly, no pictures were possible without attracting his attention.  And we didn’t want that.

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Croatian beach!
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…with a WWII machine gun nest overlooking the sea. How, er, relaxing?
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Brsec is OLD.
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Panorama!
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Quaint hand-pump well.
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Looking down to Brsec from the cliffs.
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400 year old church. Give or take 100 years.
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More cliff viewing.

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Imposter

A friend is doing a talk about “Imposter Syndrome“, which is a fancy term for the feeling that you are totally out of your league in your job, making stuff up and it’s only a matter of time before some official person discovers you and says “Hey, who let you in here?” at which point you will sheepishly apologize and leave before they throw you out.

So she asked a lot of people for their experiences with this, and it reminded me I’ve had this feeling often throughout my career.  I meant to write a short note about this, but I seem to have a problem with brevity.  Since I wrote it up, figured I might as well put it here as well.

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My first experience with “imposter syndrome” was when I was hired at my first real job, which was cleaning a meat room, washing blood off the walls, wiping bone dust off the saws, etc.  I was fifteen and at the time I couldn’t figure out why they would trust a kid to this kind of responsibility.  Surely this place needed to be professionally cleaned.  After all, this was people’s food we were dealing with.  I could barely pick up my clothes and comics at home, I couldn’t possibly be trusted to clean and disinfect all the equipment and surfaces properly, enough for this business to keep running.

Each new job after that I experience some of the same feeling, but gradually in lesser amounts.  After all, I was now an experienced employee; I knew what made a good worker.  Be on time.  Work diligently and thoroughly.  Do what your boss tells you.  Punch in, punch out.

Then I landed my first job in computers.  In this case, it was totally true: I was absolutely an imposter.

See, I went to college to study art, hoping to be an illustrator.  When I decided I didn’t like the term “starving artist” (I took issue with the first word), I tried a number of different things: biology, criminology, psychology, pretty much anything with an -ology to it.  I then dropped out of college when I realized I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Eventually I found myself in Everett, Washington, renting an apartment that offered free cable to its residents.  I picked up a cable guide at the local cable company, and saw they were hiring for a “computer operator”.  I figured it would be better than the current job I had, which was flipping burgers.

I had briefly lived with my computer programmer friend, and during that time had learned a few things.  Like the difference between a hard drive and a floppy drive (oh early 90’s, your 3.5 floppies bring such nostalgia).  Also, I learned what a “wildcard” was in DOS terms.

As fate would have it, these are the exact two things they asked me in the interview before concluding I must therefore know enough about computer hardware and operating systems to be entrusted with the position.  And just like that, I was responsible for taking care of the Tandem mainframe system that ran the cable systems for millions of customers.

So, yeah.  The Imposter Monster loomed up and scared the hell out of me.  This time it was so strong it forced me into action.  I was definitely unqualified to do this work in any capacity, but I really liked the job and so I wanted to not just keep it, but be great at it.  I studied nights and weekends.  I read obscure manuals about the TACL command language for running jobs on the mainframe systems.  This was pre-internet, so mostly it was borrowing manuals and trying to glean information from strange and esoteric technical jargon.

Over time I got better, then eventually even comfortable with the position.  At about that time, the company decided to set up a new-fangled Local Area Network, and as such was hiring for a LAN Administrator.  I applied and got the position, again as an imposter.  I had read a manual for a Token Ring Adapter the night before and was able to regurgitate the buzz words “Token Ring”, “Ethernet”, and “Packet” during the interview.  It probably helped that the guy doing the hiring was the finance administrator and hadn’t read the Token Ring Adapter manual.

Again my knowledge that I was an imposter was strong enough to force me into action.  I enrolled in classes at a local community college, eventually earning a certificate in Unix Administration and C programming.  On the job I learned everything about Ethernet protocol, Novell Netware, and PCs.  I also learned TCP/IP as we made the switch to this new-fangled Internet thingy that might be big someday.

As soon as I had a pretty good handle on all that, a headhunter called me out of the blue and I found myself working at AT&T Wireless, working on their routers and taking care of a country-wide array of devices.  Again, I was not in any way qualified, and the feeling that someone would discover my deficiencies at any minute returned in a big way.  Now, however, I had the benefit of the Internet to help me learn everything I needed before they found me out.

Next would come Microsoft, and an interview process so grueling that it exposed every weakness I had.  After the hour and a half phone screen which ended in “you need to work more on your hardware knowledge”, then seven hours of in-person grilling by about ten people, I felt laid open, exposed for the fraud that I was.

But they hired me anyway.

And this was the first time I didn’t feel like an imposter, because they obviously knew what they were getting.  I asked my boss point-blank: “you knew I didn’t know any of this stuff, why did you hire me?”.  His response: he needed to know the limits of my knowledge to know what he needed to teach me.  Fair enough.  I stayed and learned.

Soon I moved positions from Tech Support to Testing, and was then promoted to Test Lead.  Along with my promotion I was also visited with a surprise return of my old friend mister Imposter Monster.  Now I was managing other people.  Surely they would see I was not qualified to direct or review them?

Over time I became a Test Manager, responsible for directing other Test Leads and their teams.  I regularly sat in my office and wondered when the men would arrive, give me a baffled and slightly annoyed look and ask “what do you think you are doing?  That desk is for a grown up”, and they would then forcibly eject me out the window.

I took a job as a Program Manager, which was a big relief for my Imposter Monster: no longer did I have the lives and careers of others hanging on my unqualified shoulders.  However, I soon realized that I was responsible for the software the team was building.  I was writing the specs that developers and designers then implemented.  Why were they doing that?  Didn’t they think I has some sort of expert?  Clearly I wasn’t.

Soon I took a job of producer in a game group.  I was responsible for creating process solutions that would make the team more efficient, predictable and trackable.  I eventually was appointed “Executive Producer”, and given the responsibility of a hugely important game and a team of fifty and growing.  My Imposter Monster loomed over me every day, whispering failure at me.  I continued on, learning best practices from every post-mortem I could find and pouring through software development theories in Agile, Waterfall, and everything in-between.

It was at this point that I really started mentoring other people.  A funny thing happens when you try to teach somebody something: you end up learning a lot yourself.  Trying to mentor others made me reflect back on all these challenges, all these times when I felt like I was doing a job I was not ready for, and realize this was a good thing.  I eventually succeeded at each challenge I took on, and learned far more along the way that I bargained for.

Now I think of the Imposter Monster as a reminder that I’m pushing myself.  It tells me that I’m out of my comfort zone, doing something that grows me and challenges me.  If I’m not feeling fear that someone will question why I’m the right person for the job, then I’m playing it too safe, I’m only doing the expected.

sully

My monster is now my friend.  I like to think of him like a big, blue, cuddly guy who might snap at any minute and tear your leg off for no reason.  Keeps you on your toes.

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Yeah, so Sully as played by Jack Nicholson. That’s about right.

Amster-done. Now: what’s next?

Wow, my planned time on this trip is getting short. I have plans through August, but September will see me at the end. What’s next?

First: a few parting thoughts on Amsterdam:

The city is fabulous.  Easily one of my favorite European cities.  Take time to walk around it. All of it. The central rings have a gravity to them so you will constantly get pulled toward the center and all the madness that is the Red Light district.   That’s all good.  However, you owe it to yourself to explore further than that as well.

  • See the museums.
  • Take a tour of the canals.
  • Get to some nice restaurants.
  • Rent a bike to explore further in town.
  • Also: bike out in the countryside.  Don’t think about it, just do it.

And then, there are some other distractions.  Like touring the Heineken brewery.  Culture?  No, not really.  But fun.

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Beer.
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Video wall set up to look like a bar. Pretty slick to see in real life.
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Some dude chats you up from the ceiling. Potentially this is ceiling cat’s owner?
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One can make a lot of beer in these.
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LED wall made of beer bottles. I think some enterprising college students should build this in their dorm.
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The rooftop deck, complete with bbq. It was a less than warm day, so there weren’t a lot of takers for their seven Euro “burger on the roof” offer. I, however, felt right at home.
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Decent view from the roof.

After taking in the brewery tour (and three beers, since they were provided as part of the tour…) A cruise along the canals seemed in order. I was surprised by the fact that as you cruised past many houseboats, you were basically just looking in on people going about their daily lives. Seemed a bit voyeuristic.

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Canal cruising. Looking in people’s living rooms from water level. A bit awkward.

Still, it’s another beautiful way to see the city.

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Canal is a great way to see many old and awesome buildings.
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The entire town just begs to have an overwrought romance written for it.
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Boom mic? Camera? On a boat? Curious. Alas, I never found out what they were recording.

And then, what post about Amsterdam would be complete without a couple of signs. Neither one of these are bashing on the Dutch language though!

So, in the U.S. there is the saying “hang up and drive.” Here there is a different problem: people are cruising around on their bikes and scooters, no helmets, blissful and mindless, chatting away on their phones. Looks like they have put up signage to attempt to discourage this behavior. Isn’t working:

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Not strictly obeyed.

Lastly, I’ve engaged in discussions in the past about the obvious and inevitable trend towards a cashless society. Turns out the starting point is here in the Netherlands at a little bakery / market. Who knew?

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You cash is no good here, sir.

Now I’m back in London, and I’m contemplating the end of my travels. I’m feeling a bit travel-weary, and can see that I’ll soon want a place that is “mine” again. To stop living out of a backpack, and have a place to put my toiletries and not pack them up the next day. I have one or two more adventures in store (Arctic!  Edinburgh!  Croatia!), but it’s time to plan for what happens after that.

So, when I started this, I wanted to accomplish a few things:

  • Figure out what is next for me career-wise.
  • Decide if I want to re-build a life somewhere other than Seattle.
  • Figure out what life I want to build next.

Basically I thought I wanted to “find myself” but actually I think I wanted to lose myself. To do this I selfishly cut off all ties I had: people, job, responsibilities, and looked to experience new things with no pre-conceived notion of who I was or how I would deal with them.  I feel like I’ve gotten far enough away that I can now accurately see back to who I was and what my life was like.

I know that I had it pretty good.  Amazing friends, fantastic job, great city, the works.

And it wasn’t enough.  Why?  Well, no surprise: ’cause I wasn’t settled with myself.

Now?  Still not there.  But I’ve got perspective.

  • I’ve spent time in places that I fantasized about living.  Mexico (nope, couldn’t live there), Spain (Barcelona and Valencia are tempting), Amsterdam (kinda in love with this city right now) and London (pretty attractive… but man there are things I would miss about Seattle).
  • I’ve found that I just don’t stick with any sort of drawing like I used to when I was younger, when I would lay in bed all day and draw comics.  So, art?  Probably not in my future.
  • Writing: love it.  I write every day now, sometimes for hours, sometimes for minutes, but every day something.  I have a “story ideas” folder that runeth over.  Can I make a career of it?  Would I want to?  Well, it’s worth seeing how I can take it to the next level…

So: September.  Probably time to get gainfully employed again.  Having this amount of time off from working makes going back to work very scary.  All my freedom, gone!  My free time, gone!  Shackled to a desk, responsibilities, deadlines, stress and demands!

Also: teammates who become friends, satisfaction at making a difference, doing good work, creating things that others need or will use, learning and being challenged.  Oh, and money.  That’s always nice.

So, my next job I need to ensure one of two things: either the job allows me time (and brain power) to pursue my other passions (which right now is writing), or ideally: it enables me to exercise my passion at my job.  Now, most writers I talk to say “dude, you don’t wanna be a paid writer, it sucks, the pay is awful, and it takes your soul away”.  Okay, warning heard.  But I will still look for something that could light me up.  The alternative is a job that I can still have enough energy in my spare time to pursue writing as well.

Where to re-build my life?  Ah, that’s a big question.  Luckily I still have July and August to stew on that one.  And to check out potential jobs.  And to answer all the questions about my life.  Sweet.

However, next: bring on the arctic!  I’m quite excited: this will be so very different from all the traveling I’ve done to date.  No big cities, no works of man to admire, no teeming crowds and exciting restaurants and new bars to try out.  No beaches and sun and warmth.  Nope: a boat, a bunch of ice, cold weather, never-ending days, salt water and barren tundra and freezing winds.  Plus: no Internet.  Gasp.

Hmm.  Is it too late to just go back to Spain?

Health Care in London.

Ah, London. (This clip is required viewing anytime London is mentioned anywhere)

I have come here far earlier than planned due to the unfortunate state of my right foot.  My plan is to discuss options with someone in the medical profession through a purely English dialect, instead of trying to fumble my way through the details of Spanish + medical jargon.

My brilliant plan has a catch: this being the UK and I being a foreigner who doesn’t pay into their medical plan, I’m not exactly sure how all this will work out.  However, so far I’m quite happy with the approach.  There is one number to call to begin to “triage” your issue (111, pretty easy to remember, really).  Once you get hold of this number, the kind person on the other side will ask you a string of questions, much like troubleshooting a computer issue really, before recommending your next steps.

It took a bit of wrangling to get to this point though.  First off, the number my friend (we’ll call him Baylor) gathered for me before heading off to work turned out to be old, and when dialed advised me instead to dial 111.  Trying “111” from Skype was met with no success as Skype flagged this as an emergency number and thus wouldn’t call it (???).  So I attempted the call with my Spanish phone, which yielded some recorded Spanish message explaining that the number didn’t exist.  Adding in the country code + 111 didn’t help either.

However, Baylor came to the rescue again and guided me to a local SIM card he wasn’t using which fit my phone perfectly and I was then on the call with NHS.  After numerous questions, it came down to the fact that my cast has begun to see some wear and tear in form of a seam opening up near my ankle, and thus the advice was: go to your nearest hospital’s ER and get them to assess it.  Fair enough.  Baylor advised me from afar that, since it was already late in the day by the time I got to this point I should just go tomorrow since wait times are notorious for being several hours and usually at their worst later in the day.  Also, the nearest hospital is Mayday, colloquially known as “May Die”.  That doesn’t bode well…

This was not all I have done on my first day in London though!  First off: whatever image you have of London, potentially influenced by the clip included at the start of this post, is wrong, based on my current experience.  I arrived in Gatwick and am staying in an area near Croyden called “Crystal Place”.  This is ostensibly all “London”, but very much on the outskirts.  The drive in from Gatwick is gorgeous: you go through Surrey so it’s all rolling hills, trees, bushes and greenery.

The weather has been absolutely perfect: Sunny, about 70 (20 C), not a cloud in the sky.  I took a mid-day hobble 3 blocks away to a Chinese take out place and was greeted with an absolutely stunning view of London from atop the hill.  I would provide a picture, but sadly my phone (which is my only camera) has decided it hates electricity and refuses to charge.  So you get stock views (my view is actually prettier than this):

Horniman_London_skyline

Regardless: beautiful! The addition of that monstrous building in the center that dwarfs everything else is new since I was here briefly 4 years ago.  It’s called “The Shard”, and simply dominates the skyline.  Broken foot or no, I need to get down to see it.

I got my Chinese food and wobbled back to the house (stopping to sweat every block or so) where I discovered my hosts have a lovely back yard / garden area which proves to be perfect for enjoying a bit o’ chicken-n-broccoli.

While tucking in (see, I’m already picking up the London vernacular), I heard a surprised “Oh, hello!” with a strong English lilt to it. Looking up I saw a head of colorful curlers suspended atop a woman, perhaps in her 60’s, looking over the fence at me, much like Wilson from Home Improvement.

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Though not nearly this close.

We ended up having a lovely little conversation, similar to the following:

“Are you moved in then?”

“Oh, no I’m just staying with my friends.  I broke my foot so I’m staying here to heal up”

“Oh, I see!  Well, you’ll be a proper nuisance then won’t you?”

“Er, yes, I suppose so…”

In addition, I should point out you haven’t experienced adorableness properly until you have a 3-year old boy with a budding English lilt tempered by a bit of German accent as well (Baylor speaks mostly in German to him so he can grow up bi-lingual), come up and ask you:

“Kodey, would you like a cup o’ tea?”

I’m not sure there’s anyone out there who could turn that down, even if drinking tea gave you hives and projectile vomiting.  Simply crushing with cuteness.

Tomorrow I’ll see how May Die performs, whether the waiting times are as legendary as expected, what an American in London can expect to pay for health care, and more.  What fun!

A day in ruins

The plan: visit the Mayan ruins of Coba.
The method: roughin’ it. Meaning, don’t do a tour or anything like that, just go.

First off: the pronunciation is “co-BA”, accent on the end, which helps you keep things straight when you talk about Cuba and Coba in the same sentence using your heavy American accent.

Three of us students met up in the morning and boarded the Colectivo. I’ve seen this word written on vans and buses of all shapes and sizes roaming around town, but until today didn’t know how it worked. Apparently it’s as easy as making sure you know the final destination you are aiming for, then you just get on and pay when you get off. We wanted to go to Coba, but were informed the Colectivo would only take us to Tulum.  However, we were advised we should be able to pick up another one in Tulum that would take us to Coba. Fair enough.

The van is not large, and people will pack in much like they might on a Tokyo subway. At least there is air conditioning.

Colectivo 1:

  • type: large van, probably holds 9 comfortably. We fit 12 by my count.
  • Soundtrack: American top-40 interspersed with a few Spanish songs that I assume are the local addition to the pop genre.
  • Added bonus: An air freshener wedged into the vent on the dash spewing sickly-sweet odors that did nothing to cover up the rest of the humanity in the van.

The Colectivos careen down the freeway with a casual disregard for trivial matters like speed limits or lanes.  They stop frequently to drop people off and pick up more people. Some stops are marked, some seem just arbitrarily made up on the side of the road. Regardless, it seems to work just fine. We did stop for gas on the way, which I can’t remember ever doing in public transportation back in the states. But it must happen: cars need gas, right?

Interesting note about gas stations in Mexico: no prices posted. I think this is because the government controls the gas, so you will pay whatever they set as the price and be happy with it.

After 45 minutes we arrived in Tulum. Pretty quickly we were able to pick up another ride. This, however, required a bit of negotiating as the driver wanted more than 3 people in the car if he was to go all the way to Coba. We agreed to pay a bit more instead of waiting around hoping others would show up, but then we acquired around 6-8 more passengers on the way, so we ended up paying the base rate.

Colectivo 2:

  • type: large van.
  • Soundtrack: Driver frequently noisily clearing phlegm from his throat and expectorating out the window.
  • Added bonus: No AC?  Windows down the whole way.

After another 30 minutes or so, we arrived at Coba:

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Nothing to see here.
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Where do we get in?
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Ah, now we are on our way

So, a few things to know about Coba. It is the ruins of an ancient Mayan civilization that experts believe once had over 50,000 inhabitants. They built networks of roads to connect everything. Coba at its heyday covered over 80 square kilometers, and most of the buildings haven’t been found and are still buried in the dense jungle or lost to time. The ruins you get to visit are just a small part (but a very central part) of what Coba used to be.

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The first ruins! I must do my tourist duty!
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This seems like it was a lot of work, carting around heavy stones. And in this heat!

After the first group of ruins, you come to find out there is much more in store for you, and you’ve got the option to stroll leisurely over the 6 kilometers, or rent bikes. We opted for bikes. Now, I’m quite a bit taller than your average Mexican, so even though I tried to find the largest bike available, it was still a bit of a mismatch.

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Objects in picture are smaller than they appear.

I decided to call my bike Charlie. Charlie has seen better days. He passed middle age long ago; his tires are poorly inflated, his paint is peeling, and he squeaks when he runs. He and I were a poor fit to begin with, but over time Charlie exhibited several more behaviors such as an occasional rattle from some indeterminate location that made me wonder if I would break down on the road. However, for all his flaws, he was a faithful and diligent steed.

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Check the sweet rides, yo.

Now we were off proper to explore Coba!

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The map of Coba. This didn’t help us at all.

While biking around Coba, you will frequently park your bike on the road, then walk around the various ruins.

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Exploring. There are many rocks. Stacked on top of each other.
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The smooth sides mean this must have been where they rolled stones down on people who ran through. An early game show.
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I really REALLY wanted to go inside. I think that’s frowned upon, what with the giant stone slab keeping you from going in and all.
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Not a real skull. In case you were concerned.

Sometimes you aren’t sure that you’d seen everything, and you can end up going on some odd little side-paths. For example, we took one such path that quickly diminished to just wilderness:

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Secret jungle path! Turns out it lead to a lake.

This ended at a lake, which was cool to see, but since it’s basically in the middle of the jungle none of us were terribly interested in finding out what was IN the lake.  No swimming, moving on.

Eventually you come to the main event: the big pyramid called “Nohoc Mul”. Unlike the more famous pyramid Chichen Itza, you can actually climb up this one, which is one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Coba instead of Chichen.

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Time to climb
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Action shot.
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The view from the top. Rather spectacular
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Going down. Slower than going up. The Mayas like steep things, apparently.

After the big pyramid, the other places pale in comparison, so I’d recommend seeing all those things first. However, even if they aren’t so grand and impressive, there’s still just a lot of really beautiful places to explore.

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Some very beautiful and tranquil places in Coba

I’ve included a mess more pictures below if you are still interested in seeing more, but that’s the main parts for me. We returned out bikes, walked out of the ruins area, explored the little shops they have set up outside to sell you all the some tourist crap that you’ve seen everywhere else in Mexico, then reversed our travel back to PDC:

Colectivo 3:

  • type: Just a car.  Fit three of us plus driver just fine.
  • Soundtrack: mostly static, interspersed with Spanish guitar.
  • Added bonus: no other passengers joined us.

Colectivo 4:

  • type: large van, again we overstuffed the recommended passenger count.
  • Soundtrack: 80’s butt rock.  Some specific selections: Jump (Van Halen), Made for loving you (Kiss), Can’t live without you (Scorpions), We’re not gonna take it (Twisted Sister), and Whip It (Devo).  How is this a radio station in Mexico?
  • Added bonus: nothing can top the soundtrack.

So, there you have it.  If you are going to Coba, I recommend you ride the colectivo.  It’s cheap, quick, and interesting.  Below are more pictures than you could possibly be interested in.

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