Turning 28 Abroad and Reflecting on Success

Hiking Tirol Region, Austria

As I sit here in a small internet cafe on a blustry Turkish day in the small coastal town of Bodrum, I find it hard to believe that I’m already celebrating my 28th birthday.  I suppose it isn’t the most remarkable of birthdays.  It’s not one that signifies becoming a man, earning new rights, or one of life’s cornerstones.  Yet, this past year was one of my favorite so far.

At the risk of sounding like an overly optimistic braggart, I’ll confess that life is good.  Or, if I throw modesty to the winds it would more accurately be described as spectacular!

At this time last year I had just returned from my introductory visit to Turkey. I was preparing to head to Italy where fantastic new opportunities and friends awaited.  I was also finally getting settled and adjusting to life in Copenhagen. The remainder of the last 12 months saw me continue to fall madly, deeply, passionately, in love with Copenhagen.  Bolstered by the support of my parents and brother, it also saw me visit Africa for the first time in the form of Zambia and Botswana, as well as a return to Asia by way of Dubai. Later we would pause in the Czech Republic, Germany, England and Scotland.  I  spent Halloween in Canada having just wrapped up a polar bear safari, and then prepared for the new year with a re-visit to Prague. The new year came and with it a quick trip up to Norway. Now, as I write this post, I’m on the tail-end of a trip to Austria where I learned to ski in the heart of the Alps and, a culinary and cultural meander through Turkey.

Each of these adventures provided fresh, exciting, and wonderful learning experiences. They fed my voracious appetite for new stimuli and a better understanding of the world. They were also largely made possible, either directly or indirectly, through the endless support of family, close friends, and you, my readers. It was one of my best travel years to date and it really pushed (and tore down) a lot of my old comfort boundaries.  Last week I broke 500,000 views on youtube (thank you!). The website continues to perform well and I’ve been approached about a number of exciting opportunities which will help showcase VirtualWayfarer, my photography, my writing, and my videos. It is an exciting time with a lot of irons in the fire.

Beyond pure travel though, the year also brought challenges and change.  I’m in the midst of finishing up my Masters degree and will be polishing off my thesis come August (assuming all goes according to plan).  I’m very happy with my progress, the grades I’ve gotten as part of the program, and above all the wonderful experiences I’ve had while doing a two-year masters abroad.  Still, it has been 21 months since the last time I was back in the US. That in and of itself poses a wealth of challenges. Over the past year we lost several extended family members and several close family friends. Those are always some of the most difficult moments while abroad.  It is easy to beat yourself up for not being there or being able to return to say goodbye.  They also make you wonder if you’re making a horrible mistake and doing a grave disservice to friends and loved ones by spending time so far away and apart. Luckily, Skype and Facebok help bridge that gap in a way that still amazes me. Not a week goes by that I don’t spend an hour or two in casual conversation with my folks and brother, despite the long distances between Zambia, Arizona, and Denmark.

Positive Choices and Perspective

This past year was possible because of decisions I made and priorities which I set and stuck to, despite significant challenges.  I’ve chosen to keep my daily expenses low, not to adopt a dog or cat, and to avoid buying a house. At a certain level my tangible ties to a specific place and things are limited – something which is rewarding, but also has a certain cost to it and comes with a periodic sense of weariness and transience.  I’ve had two succesful careers outside of my time spent as a student, but even those were selected, honed, and sustained only so long as they moved me in the general direction I have chosen for myself financially, intellectually, professionally, and personally.

What only a few select friends know and truly understand is just how difficult it can be for me to drive myself forward towards the goals I’ve set for myself. To overcome the doubts, the false turns, an inclination for stability, fear of the unknown, to face the profound weight of expectations, and then persevere.

The face many see is one of confidence. Of someone who unflinchingly tackles the unknown and the exotic.  Who embraces new things and new challenges with a smile and a laugh, while leaving behind the stable and the comfortable again and again. Yet, beneath the confident image is a raging sea of uncertainty and discomfort.  I am, by my very nature, a long-term thinker.  I weigh potential benefits, and if left to act based on impulse, operate conservatively.  I’m rarely reckless, and seldom completely impulsive.  When I was younger, I suffered from a fairly strong case of social anxiety. It is something I’ve overcome and mostly conquered but, at times I still feel physically nauseous when preparing for important social events or acting outside my social comfort zone. It can still be so strong that I’ve been tempted to consider anti-anxiety medications and similar tools – but I’ve always come back to the same conclusion.  It would treat the symptoms but do little to overcome the source or to help me truly move forward in my personal development. After all, discomfort is not necesarilly bad, and sometimes it is a strength. Part and parcel of that inclination towards conservative action is a strong desire not to come across as appearing silly or ignorant.

Perhaps that is why I find travel so addictive. It constantly forces me to push each of these boundaries and to become a stronger person. I still get slightly sick to my stomach before a long bus ride or flight. Figuring out public transportation in a new city is not only an exciting challenge to unravel, but also an unnerving one. Travel takes simple things that we are used to and familiar with – such as toilets and bathrooms – and turns them into new challenges.  It provides new foods, new peoples, new languages, and new cultural norms. It also allows us access to new communities we have previously avoided or missed out on.  Most recently, this was embodied by my trip to the Tirol region of Austria to learn how to ski. It took until I was 28 to learn, in no small part, because I was deeply anxious over my complete lack of knowledge and skill.  Sure, there were plenty of excuses to justify the delay, but at the end of the day, it came down to a fear of the unknown, looking like a fool (even in front of complete strangers half a world away), and failing to perform at the level I expect of myself.  As has happened so many times before, the fears I had built up in my head and the what-ifs were mostly hollow.  Oh, sure, there were moments of embarassment as I had to ask basic questions and as I stumbled my way through the ski and spa culture.  Challenges that included figuring out everything from what to tip my ski instructor to what (not to wear) and how to get comfortable (quickly) with sitting naked in a sauna across from a mixture of German and Austrian men and women.

As I reflect, this year has re-affirmed time and time again that it is all about moving forward.  About constantly pushing the comfort zone, and re-visiting past successes.  It’s not only a matter of pushing our personal comforts, it is a matter of re-visiting those new conquests until they become comfortable and burned into our muscle and conscious memory.

In my Ignite Phoenix talk a few years ago I told people to “Just Say Yes”.  This is something that was re-affirmed in a major way once again this past year, but it is hard and seldom gets easier.  It is a constant challenge and for every two uncomfortable YES!s I manage, there is at least one “No” or “Not Today” to go with it.  Still, I consider myself a YES person, not an “If only…” person.  The truth of it is that if you’re unhappy with (or merely content with) the opportunities life has presented you with, if you look at other people and dream of doing things they’re doing, or wonder what that life might be like – then you’re probably justifying inaction with excuses.  While luck may exist, it is more often a matter of choice. Of not putting things off, or justifying passing on opportunities by qualifying everything with, “If only I…” or “If only it…”.  The choices we make and the role of fear in shaping those choices is paramount to crafting who we are and who we want to become.  We can justify inaction by looking at others and using their own success and appearance of confidence to justify our inaction or we can drive ourselves forward one small step at a time.

As I prepare for life after my Masters degree, which will entail a return to the corporate world, I know that I have to fix my end goals in mind’s-eye and then strive to work towards those goals while being very aware of how I may act (or fail to) in order to hedge my bets. It’s the small things – like failure to book a flight or to get paperwork filed before an application deadline that are fatal to our success and pushing our comfort zones – not big decisions.

This year has also led to conversations that have re-affirmed and helped me better formalize my understanding of the pressures that go with success.  The truth is that the more success you enjoy, the greater the yoke of responsibility that comes with it. Years ago, one of my college suite-mates committed suicide. It was a shock, in no small part because he was profoundly succesful, both socially, academically, and within the local community.  Despite being in the final stages of University, I remember noting that one of Arizona’s State Representatives was present and spoke at the funeral. His death, and others like it, have contantly reminded me that while we often look at our peers and those people we view as profoundly succesful, inspiring, and (perhaps) useful for a bit of introspective self intimidation, what we overlook is the unspoken pressure to perform that goes with success.   My old suite-mate had one failiure that he felt so overwhelmed and doomed him, that he lost sight of all his other assets and successes.  While his was an extreme case that resulted in extreme action, we all take similar, if greatly diluted, actions on a regular basis.

There is a deep fear of failure. To even admit its existance potentially shatters that image of confidence, success, and casual ease.  As I push myself to succeed and I face the prospect of failure, I am constantly reminded of the lesson his actions taught me. I am reminded that failure, while daunting, is seldom half as uncomfortable as the fear of failure itself.  I am reminded that to enjoy success and to grow as an individual, I have to come to terms with the challenges of failure, of external judgement, and of decisions and actions that may be the right course for me, but which may differ from those otherwise expected of me – be it by family, by friends, by culture, by work, or by social contract.  I must also remember that inaction is often every bit as damning as a failed attempt. Luckily, this past year – as with those before it – has shown me that I won the familial lottery and have been blessed with incredibly supportive parents.  That alone makes it much easier to push myself forward and develop as a man; to grow as an indivdual into who I choose to be – not what fear and failed opportunities leave me. It also makes it easier to be selective as I seek out the friends I choose as company and the people I surround myself with.  People who inspire me, who drive me forward, and who challenge me. These are the foundations which sustain true success.

So, as I reflect on the past year, I invite you to join me in looking at your own lives, choices, fears, and the challenges that go with them.  It need not be something as major as jumping out of an airplane, or catching the next flight to the most war-torn part of Africa.  Instead, start simply and aim for repetition.  Order something outside of what you would normally eat, take a public bus for the first time, or force yourself to ask a question or voice your ignorance when a topic arises that is beyond the scope of what you know now, at this moment. Read, research, and browse. Surely, the end result will be new perspective, new opportunities and new confidence. All of which will better prepare you to say YES the next time opportunity presents itself.

So, I leave you with these thoughts and a heartfelt thank you for your support, your wisdom, your knowledge, your curiosity, and for helping me challenge myself and mature.  Each year, and each new experience, moves me closer towards who I want to be as an individual.  Which is not to say I am not deeply happy with who I am now.  Today.  But, life is a process of continuing growth and for the chance to craft who we are into something even wiser and more capable.

Safe travels, open roads.

When Sky, Fire and Water Meet

Faces of Zambia

The sweat from my palms soaked the steering wheel as the tense muscles in my hip throbbed.  My body was on edge and had been for the entirety of the drive south.  Upon arriving in Zambia, I’d been informed by my family that I would be the one responsible for driving our rental car.  Ordinarily not a big deal, but it was my first time driving on the opposite side of the road and in a non-North American country.  The roads in the Luapula Province of northern Zambia did little to allay my fears.  Many are paved, but in such a poor state of repair that there are no such things as lanes.  In truth, you spend at least one third of most drives with one (or both) tires off the road, the car at a 25 degree angle while zig-zaging between potholes large enough to swallow a small tank. The scrape of the car’s undercarriage is a constant reminder that you zig-ed when you should have zag-ed.  By itself that might not be so bad, but then add in large freight haulers and buses that race along the roads at high speed. And if that is not enough, add in head-height grass which lines many of the roads and conceals everything and everyone.  My eyes constantly scanned the road for potholes with quick glance at my rear view mirror in search of large trucks bearing down on me. Then back to the sides of the road where I diligently watched for erratic movement from the veritable army of goats, small children, old grandmothers, and bicyclists who use the roads as walking paths and have a tendency to dart into traffic.  Despite constant and nearly un-blinking vigilance I  found myself forced to slam on the brakes  to avoid people and things at the last moment.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As I turned the key off and the car stilled I let out an audible sigh of relief. Somehow I’d gotten us to a small guest house along the shores of Lake Bangweulu just outside of Samfya.  As I sat in the driver’s seat collecting myself, I wiped my hands on my jeans leaving dark streaks of sweat.  Finally, I allowed myself to take in my surroundings. The parallel-parking spot I had pulled into faced out onto what looked like a small sea. In reality, it was a sprawling lake.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As we settled into great little rooms that opened out onto a small sand beach and a wonderful view of the lake, we all struggled with the day’s contrasts.  We had started out in my brother’s small mud brick and thatch hut. A building that is a lovely and cozy place but which lacks electricity or running water and has a small outhouse located behind it. Now, a few hours drive away, we were back on the grid with semi-reliable power, running water, and perhaps most importantly western flush toilets.  It made for a powerful contrast which set the stage for the rest of the evening.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

My brother David is a Peace Corps volunteer and he had brought us to Lake Bangweulu to see the sunset.  I’ll confess that as a big fan of sunsets, I wasn’t entirely sure why the multi-hour drive south had been worth the pleasure of a simple sunset.  Still, he was our guide, the local expert, and it was hard not to be won over by the prospect of a real bed and a cold beer.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As the sun began to set and the early twilight of late afternoon settled over the lake, it quickly became apparent why the sunset was worth the drive.  Lake Bangweulu is known as the place where the water meets the sky.  It is an aptly chosen nickname for this unusual body of water.  More than 70km by 40km in size, the lake’s depth averages about four meters and fluctuates more than a meter between Zambia’s dry and rainy seasons.   During our visit in the midst of the dry season the lake still stretched beyond the horizon.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Just beyond a small fence at the end of the beach, we watched as a group of children washed dishes, did laundry, and then set to fishing.  The children, some barely old enough to walk, participated in chores.  The older children kept close eyes on their younger brothers and sisters though I doubt the oldest was more than 10.  There’s a certain responsibility among the young Zambian children that I found incredible to watch … a certain level of maturity that most western children twice their age lack.  Perhaps the most powerful of which were the (slightly) older sisters who diligently took care of, disciplined, and watched over their 2 and 4 year-old siblings with great care and competency.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Shortly after the children finished their bath and their chores, they wandered back up the bank. A young woman and her son waded down and out into the reeds with bamboo fishing poles.  With the poise, elegance, and stillness of a heron they carefully raised and lowered their poles, gently jigging and probing the reeds for fish.  Their patience and control reminded me in many ways of the street performers who pose as human statues, perfectly still and seemingly lifeless before moving smoothly to the shock and surprise of those passing by.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

In one last rush before the sunset stole the remaining light, a near constant flow of chitenge-clad women atop reed and dugout wooden canoes made their way past us.  Some used push poles to take advantage of the lake’s shallow depths while others had rough-hewn wooden paddles attached to long poles which they used from a standing position.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

The weather was perfect. The wind was still which left the lake with a glass-like surface and the air was thick with the haze of pale gray smoke from local controlled burns.   By day the late afternoon sky was devoid of clouds but boasted the moon and later the bright glow of a nearby planet.  The horizon itself quickly faded away, lost and indistinguishable from the lake’s smooth waters.   I’ve never seen a sunset that was able to so perfectly blend water and sky. The combination of gentle smokey haze, mirror-perfect water, and clear skies accomplished the unbelievable.  What was left were strange little boats that seemed to have taken flight to float among the clouds.  The sort of strange and mystical spectacle that one might see in movies of far-off places and imaginary lands – but never in the real world. Then the color changed. The soft blue-gray transitioned into a multi-spectrum rainbow centered along the horizon.  The sky’s dark blues re-emerged while the waves reflected the violets and purples of the next stage of the sunset.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Then as the sun approached the horizon the violets deepened and transitioned into oranges and golden hues as the smoke served as a filter that split off the sun’s otherwise harsh rays and left it visible to the naked eye as a glowing red orb.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

I’m not sure how long the sunset lasted, I suspect close to 30 minutes.  It’s hard to tell though, as every 5 minutes it seamed to drastically change. The colors would shift, the haze would lift, the sun would slip into a smoke bank, or one of the local fishing boats would slowly cut their way across the horizon and in so doing add a new perspective and human element.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As we sat on the beach enjoying a local Zambian beer I couldn’t help but feel an emotional connection to the area. One brought about and highlighted so beautifully by the sunset.  It was a thing of contrasts, just as Zambia and Sub-Saharan Africa is a place of similarly extreme contrasts. It can be a profoundly harsh place, but it is also a warm and welcoming place with its own element of profound hospitality.  A trip to the heart of Africa, one that takes you into authentic Africa, beyond the walled compounds and neatly pitched tents of safaris and large cities is a must.  It will change you by infusing you with a new perspective and understanding.  It will give you a renewed respect for all nature has to provide, a deep  sense of awe, and an opportunity to connect at a deep level with people who live vastly different lives.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

When we set out for Samfya to watch the sunset, I expected a few minutes of transient natural beauty.  A wonderful thing, but something that hardly seemed likely to offset the hours of anxious and uncomfortable driving required to get there.  As often happens in these types of situations, I was not only wrong but met with an incredibly rich experience that was one of the gems of my visit to Africa.  I’d place the sunset in my top 5 and will forever have its beauty and the wonderful musings that accompanied it burned into who I am and how I see the world.

Travel Fears: Africa – Disease, HIV and Light Hypochondria

Luapula Province, Zambia

I began this series of posts with a piece exploring the topic of race.  In this, the 2nd in the series, I will continue to share the concerns, uncertainties and revelations that led up to and culminated in my visit to Zambia.  I do this in the hope of helping many of you better understand  your own fears, paranoia  and to perhaps answer questions you might otherwise be uncomfortable asking or discussing.  The topics in this series are delicate ones, many of which are considered off-limits or too embarrassing to discuss openly.  As I seek to express, analyze and discuss them, please keep this in mind.   A more in-depth introduction can be found in the first post in this series: Travel Fears: Africa – Revelations as A White Traveler.

I don’t write about romance on the road much because…well…contrary to the stereotypes about hostel, backpacking, and study abroad life it’s not something I pursue actively while traveling and/or when it does occur, it’s not something I feel inclined to write about. One factor that shapes my more reserved approach to travel romance is what, for the sake of this post, I’ll call low-level hypochondria. This is a bit of a disservice to true hypochondriacs and their personal challenges as I’m not truly a hypochondriac but  better conveys the nature of some of the unfounded fears addressed in this post.  I have an overly developed fear/paranoia when it comes to STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and TDs (transmitted diseases).  To the point that, despite being very empirical by nature and knowing the effectiveness rate of things like condoms they still do very little to alleviate my fears.  Fears which can be strong enough to alter my behavior or prevent me from enjoying opportunities.  For example,  I know how safe condoms and common sense are, but at the end of the day that knowledge is insufficient peace of mind and protection to allow me to pursue passing travel romances as opportunities arise.  From chlamydia to herpes to HIV/AIDs I have a deep seated fear, not just of exposure through sex, but of any form of exposure what-so-ever even if the risk is .0001%.  Add to that the TDs such as Cholera, Typhoid, Dysentery etc. and, well, there was a lot to worry about.

So, I – perhaps like many of you – was unsure what to make of Africa. In Europe and the US the media tends to focus on three topics when discussing sub-Saharan Africa.   Starvation, war, and HIV/AIDs. In Zambia, where multiple concurrent partners are a regular occurrence even among couples and a mixture of doctrine, urban myths, and lack of education are huge issues, HIV/AIDs infection levels are a massive concern. As I prepared for my three week trip, you can imagine some of the thoughts racing through my head … I was, about to go into the heart of the HIV/AIDS epidemic where the average life expectancy at birth is a mere 52 years up from ~38 a few years ago (vs 78 in the US) and the HIV infection rate in 2009 was 14%.  Down from 21% in 2001 and ranking it as the country with the 6th highest level of HIV/AIDs infection in the world. Every day more than 200 people are infected in Zambia alone.  Keeping in mind that these are the statistics for HIV/AIDs and not other STDs should highlight that there was absolutely zero-chance of me partaking in any, and I do mean any, type of romantic encounter during my visit. But, that didn’t mean I wasn’t extremely nervous about the HIV/AIDs issue when planning my trip – after all, you can catch certain types of STDs and TDs (HIV included) without sexual contact, right? Which brings me to the central focus of this post.

In the US where perhaps 1 in 300 people is HIV positive there’s not a lot of exposure to HIV or information.  HIV positive folks don’t advertise their illness, are well medicated, and generally invisible, productive, normal members of the population. A big difference from Zambia where even young children are dying of HIV/AIDs on a regular basis.  In the states there are HIV awareness campaigns and I’ve read numerous articles discussing the nearly non-existent risk of infection through casual social contact.  I know that HIV/AIDs cannot be spread outside of the exchange of sexual fluids, breast milk, or blood being passed between both bodies through fresh/bleeding cuts.  So, as I prepared to take my trip I knew at an intellectual level that short of a sexual encounter or blood transfusion I had absolutely nothing to fear. I planned to avoid any type of sexual contact and had no plans of ending up needing a blood transfusion. I had nothing to worry about.  Yet, at an emotional and irrational level I was still worried.  Knowing that 1 in 7 people was HIV positive … how would I react when expected to shake hands, share silverware, cook together or interact with young children with their myriad of scrapes and cuts knowing that many were likely HIV positive.

Zambian Children - Luapula

These fears are hard to quantify because they’re not the result of general ignorance.  I know that my level of risk from commonly shared surfaces, utensils, food, and social contact is effectively non-existent.  I also have read extensively in school and elsewhere about how brutal and isolating the impact of these types of unfounded fears are on people with diseases like HIV.  So, let me say it again.  I know and knew that these fears were bullshit … but that didn’t matter. It did little to overpower and abolish the mental image of having to shake a construction or farm worker’s cut, callused, and scabbed hand while unsure if they were HIV positive.  Or the thought of an HIV-infected child with the bloody cuts, scabs and snot covered cheeks that go with childhood reaching out and wanting to engage in the simple dignities of human touch. How would I respond?  Would I shun them?  Would I hold myself apart?  Would I embrace them?  Or when the time came, was this all mental gymnastics and would everything be the same?

So, as the wheels of our aircraft touched down at Lusaka International airport I felt a small knot in my stomach.  This was the moment I had been dreading.  Where I would come face to face with my uncertainty.  I shouldn’t have worried.  As I reflect on my behavior during my three-week visit, I know that I was slightly more controlled and reserved than I would have been in the US.  But only slightly.  When I washed my hands, it was out of general hygienic concerns, not out of a fear of HIV, STDs or TD infection.  I shook hands, interacted with kids, hugged the amazing people I met, ate nshima prepared lovingly by local’s hands, and interacted with the Zambians I met with the sincerity and dignity they deserve.  There were moments where I would catch myself hesitating, but these moments were slight and few and far between.  Oh, and yes – many of these individuals were HIV positive.

If, like me, you find yourself preparing for a trip to Africa and worrying over the HIV/AIDs and disease issue I hope this post A) lets you know that you’re not alone  B) that there’s nothing to truly worry about and C) that once on the ground it shouldn’t negatively impact your experience or be an issue.

 

Tight Places – Fear

Caving in Budapest

Fear gripped me. My teeth ground against each other. This wasn’t an old friend, it was something new. My feet kicked at thin air desperately. I moved half an inch. Sweat beaded on my forehead, collecting dust and then running into my eyes. My arms burned as my fingers dug at the hard packed clay soil, trying to pull myself through the hole I was trapped in. The urge to vomit wracked my dehydrated core forcing me to pause while I battled for control. I fought for gulps of dirty cave air. My primal brain screamed at me and demanded action: Panic. I refused to cave to its call.

I had signed up for this, heck I paid to do it. It was ok. I was with people – experts. People did this all the time. They survived and seldom got stuck. It would be ok…it had to be. Then a reassuring touch. Hands pushed, supporting the bottom of my boots. I heaved. Kicked. Crawled my way forward up the tiny tunnel. It widened slightly. My left arm pulled free, previously stuck to my side as I “superman’d” through the narrowest part of the tunnel. Both hands were free. Fingers clawing at bulges along the cave wall as I dragged my 193 pound, 6’3″ frame up and into the pitch black open space before me.

I stood shaking. Rattled. Wondering if I could go on. Then, I realized I had just felt claustrophobia for the first time. I was terrified. I was thrilled. As I stood there quivering I stared at the tunnel that had just birthed me, let out a sigh and then kneeled down and began crawling into the next tunnel. My resolve set. I refused to let the sprawling caves of Pál-völgyi-Mátyás-hegyi beneath Budapest’s rolling hills do anything but strengthen me.