Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Looking Back Makes You Fall Down

There is a scene in the Au Revoir, LA clip on the website in which an emotional Amy S. gives some moving advice about our then-upcoming trip. It was poorly filmed, horribly cliche, and backed by an unexpected, yet appropriately sappy soundtrack. Despite all these faults, it was a near-perfect prognostication of things to come.

"... Don't forget that this is a life-changing experience..."

In the build up to the trip, things tended to move quickly. There was three years' worth of momentum behind us that kept us moving in the same direction, and there was a lot to do to get everything ready. Early in the design phase of the trip, I had some idea of what it was we were planning. I mean, I always knew what it was, but I only had an inkling of what it actually meant. Then, as the date got closer, the excitement grew, along with the list of things to do. I always kept myself focused on the goal, without really realizing why I was reaching for it. In essence, I had forgotten about the why, or, at least, I was ignoring it. I was so focused on the how, I just didn't have the time for anything else.

Even if I had truly sat down to think about what this trip was going to mean to me, I doubt the words life-changing would have crossed my mind. Somehow, Amy knew better...

"... you guys are so excited that you're doing it, yet you have no idea what's going to happen..."

We tried not to over-plan things. We made very few reservations in advance, and had almost no hard dates. The "plan" was just to be in certain areas of the world around general dates. Just get there, throw ourselves in, and let the fates determine our course. Even the few places we did have plans for remained a mystery. Just because we knew that we were going to be Antarctica for New Years' Eve doesn't mean that we knew what was going to happen, or even what we were supposed to do once we got there.

This was a bit tricky in the beginning. When we first landed in Estonia, I remember feeling so lost. We stepped off of the plane, and there we were, in our first truly foreign country. After three years of waiting, and saving, and organizing... we were finally at our destination. No dates, no responsibilities; just exploration. Life was wide open in front of me, and all I could think was, "What the fuck are we going to do for the next 12 months?".

"... it really changed your lives. It made you who you are..."

When people ask me to sum up my experience during the trip, my most common response is, "I've never learned so much in one year." Short, and entirely accurate.

Before the trip, the world really was a mystery to me. I mean, I knew a reasonable amount about my friends and family, and the few locations and cultures in which they chose to reside, but the vast majority of the world was just a grey fog to me. I knew all of the required pieces of trivia, but they didn't fit together to make a whole story. During the trip, that changed.

And it wasn't just that I learned a whole new set of trivia. Although I did read quite a few history books, and I've now walked tens of miles through museums of all sorts, that isn't really the kind of knowledge I'm talking about. I'm talking about the kind of knowledge that you glean from being in a country, sitting down in a cafe, or taking the bus, and just seeing how shit works. Sometimes it was familiar, sometimes it was strange; sometimes it was ugly... but, every step of the way, it really opened my eyes. It's hard to describe, but I just feel much more aware of breadth of human experience. And, more importantly, I learned exactly how little I knew before, and how much more there is to figure out.

"... and you'll remember how much people loved you before you went..."

I didn't realize how much I had missed my friends and family until I get back to the States. During the actual trip, there was always so much to do and see. With so many new destinations on the horizon, it was easy to keep home out of the mind. But, once I landed back on US soil, and I started seeing those familiar faces again, it all hit me. I couldn't wait to see everybody.

I spent a few months traveling around the US and reconnecting with many of the people I hadn't seen in over a year. The entire time I was doing this, I knew that I wanted to try living in Buenos Aires, but I kept putting it off, and putting it off. It was just so comfortable to be back in the States, seeing all of those people that I had lost for over a year. Eventually, I basically had to force myself to move to Argentina.

And it didn't stick.

I'm back in California now, a bit further south, in sunny San Diego. Another lesson that I learned on the trip was to appreciate the ones that I love.

"... It will be just the best thing ever you could do for yourselves..."

I used to think that going to Caltech was the best choice I had made in life. But, I think the OC has forced a tie, if not a complete coup. It was simple in concept, and slightly more complicated in execution, but it far exceeded any of the expectations I had. I went into it somewhat blindly, just hoping to have "a good time", as ephemeral as that goal can be. And I did have some good times, along with some embarrassing times, some frustrating times, some exhausting times, and even a few frightening ones. But, ultimately, what I'm taking from this trip isn't just the memory of a few good times. It's the fact that because of the OC, I'm a little bit closer to knowing exactly what it is I'm supposed to be doing here.

Also, take the fucking photograph, niggah.

ps... Just because it's my blog, and I can, I want to give a shout-out to Mike. I was initially a bit surprised that he wanted to do this trip with me, and, historically, we've never really been BFF, but I can't imagine anyone better to have experienced this thing with. Despite his penchant for belligerence, embarrassing behavior, and heart-wrenching hangovers (or, perhaps, because of these things), he was the perfect traveling companion. Endlessly courageous and persistent, he kept the OC moving at times when I would have been perfectly happy sitting on my hands, or just catching the bus with the other tourists.

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

While in the world's largest inland swamp, we were fortunate to meet a family from Sweden. They impressed not just because of their easy going demeanor, cosmopolitan background, excellent sense of humor, and adventurous choice in family vacations. They were also superb conversationalists, mostly because they asked good questions. This is one skill that I have definitely not developed. I tend to think of a nice chat as more an opportunity to speak than to listen, probably because I have so many intelligent, well thought out things to say.

One question in particular caught me off guard. Momma Swede asked what it was that I had learned about myself during the first 8 months of The OC. I have spent a lot of time writing in this blog about things that I have learned about the world, but rarely do I consider what I may have learned about me. It seems that my level of introspection is roughly equal to my level of modesty. The following is an effort to record whatever insights I have gained into self during the year of the OC.

Lesson 1 - I do not need much luxury to be happy. The OC only roughed it for periods of days at a time, but I see no reason why I could not live in a hut and bathe in a stream for periods of years. Seeing the way the world really lives has left me feeling a bit awed and embarrassed by the largesse of the West. We spend a lot of time cleaning things that are clean enough and expanding homes that do not need new features. All this luxury seems symptomatic of skewed goals. I call for less DIY and more time with family and friends. Furthermore, possessions are a giant pain in the ass. Unless you can pay somebody else to maintain something, it probably isn't worth owning.

Lesson 2 - I am at my best in situations that require immediate action. That is not to say that I can not make and execute a plan, but it is to say that I really shine when I am thinking exclusively on my feet. A large part of this is the willingness to make immediate decisions with the expectation that some of them will be wrong. I only feel paralyzed by choice when I have a long time to think. I reckon I might be a good low-level military officer, as they are put into situations where making a decision immediately is almost more important than making the right one. Thankfully, cocktail party banter is probably as close to an actual firefight as I will ever get.

Lesson 3 - Learning is a great joy, but it easily frustrates. I get turned off of things quickly if I do not feel like I am making steady progress. During the trip, I managed to learn a bit of Spanish because I could see immediate progress and results. I did not mange to become a video editing expert, because the tools require patience and careful practice. When I need to learn something to achieve a goal, I have learned to continually remind myself that short term frustration will be totally erased by long term accomplishment.

Lesson 4 - I have strong preferences, and I stick to them to the point of what some might consider irrationality. For example, I do not like to wear short trousers. They make grown men look like little boys. Even in situations where I might be more comfortable in shorts, I prefer to wear trousers and keep my dignity intact. Similarly, I do not care for semi-colons in my prose. They are just the right combination of showy and pointless to really raise my ire.

Lesson 5 - All of my biggest regrets in life - the ones that haunt me late at night when I can not get to sleep - involve backing down from fights. Despite all the civilized logic to the contrary, sometimes I think that receiving or handing out a beating would be much better than a lifetime of nagging shame. Even if you get a good kicking, at least you stood up for yourself. It may sound a bit silly, but I do not feel like a fully grown man because I have never been in a decent brawl. Also because I can not fix a car to save my life.

Coming Down

The OC officially ended one year ago today when Jason and I parted company on a German train platform. He was on his way to Buenos Aires by way of Budapest, Virginia, and San Diego and I was making a dash for London by way of Munich, Vienna, Melbourne, Nice, and Milan. I've still got my celebratory miniature bottle of sparkling wine. Maybe I'll build a little ship inside of it. When I made it back to London, there were two questions at the top of everyone's list: 1) Which country did you like the most (that is, which country had the hottest ladies), and 2) How are you ever going to get back to normal? I always had an enthusiastic answer for the first, but really only a shrug for the second. It's a lot easier to answer now that I've found a steady job, a place to live, and started investing heavily again in human relationships. Our one year anniversary seems like as good a time as any to record my thoughts on the matter.

Was it difficult to make the transition from free-spirited wanderer to desk-bound code jockey? Nope. A year off comes with a high opportunity cost. While we were out seeing the world, exciting offers of work passed me by, old friendships faded, and new friendships with any prospect of longevity were few in coming. Taking a break from normal life is also taking a break from all the things that make life richer as you get older - accomplishments to be proud of and friendships based on memorable shared experiences. By the time we got back to Europe, the accumulated cost of everything missed was beginning to overwhelm the value of new adventures. I was feeling useless, lonely, and self-indulgent.

Do I miss the free-spirited wandering? Yep. Normalcy is not all roses and Lifetime Movie moments. The thing that bothers me most is not a lack of freedom or excitement. Daily life doesn't seem dull. It's the stresses that come from commitment and responsibility that get me down. Now I've got no excuse to let friendships wither. If I don't contact somebody, it's not because I'm out of touch in the Himalayas, it's because I prioritized them behind something else. This is particularly difficult when it comes to family. At work, I am part of a very dedicated team, and worry about letting them down is a big stress, especially when you're surrounded by the kind of pipe-swinging uber-nerds we've got in the Lokku shop. Keeping up with these kids keeps a man busy.

Surprisingly, nobody ever asked me if the OC was "worth it", I guess because the downsides are much less apparent than the up. I will forgive you if you don't have much sympathy for a man who finds negatives of a year-long, globe-spanning vacation. Nonetheless, the question is important to me. A year used badly is a lot of life to waste. Thankfully, I can say now with confidence that the journey was excellent value for time (and probably money). I have secured major bragging rights among the traveling crowd, learned a number of important things about myself, made some (occasionally saucy) new friends, and exposed myself (ahem) to a wide variety of cultures. All of this came at the cost of a few friendships lost, a slight decay in immediacy of career-related skills, and all the money I had in the world. Good deal, I reckon.

Perhaps the best endorsement of the experience is that I would happily do it again. I've already started daydream-level planning of OC II. The general plan is to hit all the places "in the middle" that got missed the first time around. Tenative agenda is: Africa north of South Africa and South of the Sahara, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Central America. I would like to start in Namibia, zigzag through the Dark Continent, cross Jordan, Israel, and Syria on my way to the area between the Black and Caspian Seas. From there it's eastward through The Stans to Tibet and maybe eastern India, then over to Caracas for a smooth glide up through Latin America and back to SC for some home cooking. Anybody interested?