Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Vision of Peace Through the Olympic Ceremonies

Admittedly the opening ceremony for the Olympics last night started off slow with several instances leaving me scratching my head and trying to piece it all together.  The dream scene seemed odd with that giant baby, and the entire first half hour consisting of a hodge-podge of people stomping around in a giant cluster were less than impressive.  Criticism is flying all over Facebook this morning, understandably so, but in the end I feel more than satisfied.

The thing is, what makes these ceremonies so special is not the cinematic or theatrical representation of the home country; it is the joining of the nations that occurs half way through and then witnessing the culmination of the entire world celebrating together in one small space.  For me, each marching group of athletes, adorning their home garb and proudly waving their flag, gave me an incredible feeling of satisfaction and appreciation.  The organization of the parade of nations is perfect, separating the various cultures and nationalities merely by alphabetical order.  And as they placed their waving banners along the grassy hill top, equally represented regardless of size or number of athletes, we could all clearly see that we are neighbors to each other, not distant foreigners.

I attribute the enjoyment of watching the commencement of these games to the traditional significance of them, what they represent, and all the boundaries they manage to cross.  As the final torch was lit and one brass flower peddle for each nation was individually set a blaze, my heart fluttered.  When the peddles rose, creating the symbolic Olympic flame, it was quite honestly an emotional moment.  This show transformed from being about Britain and became an ode to world unity.  The grand finale, sky lit up with an epic display of fireworks and Paul McCartney belting out Hey Jude as the crowd sang in unison “Nah nah nah nah- ne-nah nah, nah ne-nah nah, hey Jude!” sent goose bumps down my spine.

These global games mean more to me this year than any year prior due to my personal world exploration that has exponentially increased in recent years.  In contrast to four years ago during the last summer games, I have now lived overseas, visited many different countries, and become deeply bonded with new friends from all around the world.  In this very moment, as I await a rapidly approaching move, I am essentially without a home and have been in this situation for a while.  It brings me even closer to this idea that the world is my home and I am a global citizen.  At the same time, I feel a new appreciation for being an American, oddly enough.  After spending so much energy trying to disassociate with my home nation, watching them walk in last night in all their glory helped me to better understand where all that patriotism comes from.  We truly are a great country and for the first time in years, I’m eager to establish my home here on American soil.

What a wonderful power this athletic competition can have.  At least for this spectator, I have a heightened awareness and love for my fellow nations, and simultaneously feel so proud to cheer on the states.  Could it be possible that for this little snap shot in time we can have a fleeting image of something that somewhat resembles world peace?  If that were true, then maybe, somehow, in the words of Paul McCartney, we could begin to make it better, better, better, better…

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Life is Like a Box of Golf Balls...

The best analogy I've ever been able to come up with when pondering what it may feel like for life to perfectly come together would be comparing it to golf.  Stay with me.  While I am no golfer, I have experienced the magical phenomena that occurs when the head of the club meets the tiny golf ball at the perfect angle and in the ideal spot, creating that "ping" sound that sends the ball sailing straight for it's target.  It's only happen a few times for me, but all of those other attempts where I'm hacking at the grass, whiffing the ball, or directing it in a horizontal trajectory, make these unique, dead-on hits feel incredible.  Many more skilled golfers hit the ball just fine, but still experience the "ping!" moments only on rare occasions.  But it's those pros who have found a sweet spot and stayed with it, achieving greatness in their game and rarely missing that perfect match up of ball to club, who are the people made for the game.

This is a lot like life to me as I scavenger through the various options of occupations, activities, geographies, and lifestyles.  I've experienced an increasing number of "sweet-spot" moments peppered throughout my days, becoming more frequent as I learn the lessons of life.  But then something miraculous happened.  Could I have made a whole in one?  This new job is the culmination of my pursuits and Denver appears to be a fertile breeding ground for joy.  And since accepting this new role and planning my rapidly approaching move, every shot is sailing right off the tee.  I don't know what to accredit this sensation or stroke of luck but to the same force that pros are gifted with as they consistently play on par.  I have to assume and hope that in some way I found my match and for that, every shot is lining up.  It's taken 27 years and relentless persistence, but I have this striking feeling that I may find my greatness, at least for the moment, in this next pursuit.  While it must be nice to be a golf pro, this experience proves to me that we are all pros at something, it's just a matter of taking enough swings to ultimately find the sweet spot.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A New Adventure Begins

And so it is official-- the end of one adventure ushers in the beginning of an incredible, very different new one.  After an excruciating two months of scattered ideas, disparate thoughts, and incomplete plans, the best case scenario has somehow come to fruition.  I feel compelled to write this entry as a personal reminder to not give up on the dream, no matter what anyone says or what you may have to give up to do it.  The job:  OneSeed Expeditions in Denver, CO, bringing adventurous and socially conscious travelers to sought after destinations for weeks of trekking, camping, and experiencing the local culture.  With part of the sale going toward women to start businesses in Nepal, my philanthropic contributory itch is satisfied.  My role: bringing these trips into people's lives anyway I know how and helping this incredible start up grow. For me, the mission of finding the perfect balance, that essential transition out of the epic vagabond adventure and back into functional society, is deemed a success.

As always, there has been a massive lesson learned as I fit together more pieces of the giant puzzle we call life.  There is a natural flow of things.  It's our responsibility to adamantly strive for what feels right down to our core.  I am living proof.  As the dollars dwindled and loud voices of discouraging forces challenged my big plans, I somehow managed to mottle through and keep pushing for what I knew was right.  Contemplation of settlement constantly plagued me, festering when complacency fell upon me, but I knew that it would drive me crazy to do something out of desperation that felt so wrong.

What I've discovered is that as you persist in carving out your path, the core feeling of either dread, or excitement, contentment, or discomfort become increasingly striking and impossible to ignore.  It's scary to start with nothing and figure out what to do with your life, seemingly out of mid air.  But there are signs, and when you listen to that internal voice with complete assurance and confidence, it will tell you what to do.  Have faith that there is order to it all.  Making sacrifices and being persistent and patient are part of the challenge, but in the end it's worth the roller coaster ride.

So now begins a new life.  There is hard work ahead and closing the door on this phase of free spirited travel and discovery still leaves me with twinges of sadness now and again.  With that said, finally I feel a sense of satisfaction and closure with this chapter.  Jumping back on a plane to run off to Spain or some other foreign locale is no longer a tempting distraction.  Instead I have a feeling of deep appreciation for all of those supremely meaningful experiences and, in retrospect, I can say with complete assurance that the time spent abroad, every ounce of it, was precious.  It achieved what it was intended to achieve and so much more.  Denver will bring a new type of fulfillment to the forefront as I am at last ready to dedicate my time and energy into something bigger than myself.  The previously terrifying idea of commitment is now the one thing I welcome.  Hello new life, I think we are going to get on quite well.

I leave this entry with a quote that sums it up quite perfectly:

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life.  Don't be trapped by dogma- which is living with the results of other people's thinking.  Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice.  And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.  They somehow already know what you truly want to become.  Everything else is secondary." -Steve Jobs

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Run Bulls Run: A San Fermin Story

The five of us pour out of our tiny Euro rental car after the long voyage from Madrid to the Basque country.  We’re decked out from head to toe in our white digs, smacked in the face by the rapid temperature drop,  and totally unprepared for what will become one of the most fantastically chaotic weekends that can only be summed up as a perfect debacle.  Little did we realize that in just moments we would be covered in red wine, dancing in the streets, and beginning a sleepless marathon with thousands of heavy party animals from all around the world.

The highly anticipated annual festival of San Fermin, held in the northern Spanish city of Pamplona, is a week long time honored tradition where hordes of crazy locals and visitors run through the streets with massive bulls taking their final journey from their corrals and into the main bull arena.   It is considered the most internationally renowned celebration in Spain. Its roots date back to as early as the 16th century but San Fermin’s boost of worldwide fame can be attributed to Earnest Hemingway’s account of his experiences in the 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises.  For some, San Fermin is a chance to witness a part of history; for others it is an opportunity to party nonstop; and for those brave (or crazy) enough, it’s the possibility of being able to get a glimpse of the bulls while run alongside them.

Our group was here for all of the above.  As Spain expats, my fellow English teacher buddies and I couldn’t miss this highly anticipated event.  How perfect that a few of my dear friends and brother decided to make the voyage thousands of miles from the US to join in the revelry.   We agreed to rent one car and squeeze in to meet other friends who were already way ahead of us.

Accommodations for the week were slim pickings and cost an arm and a leg, so we jointly shared a tiny hotel room outside of town for the seven of us.  The tight sleeping arrangements were of little concern to us as we arrived and eagerly hopped on the regularly running shuttle where the party was already underway.  It dumped us off in the city center and we dove into the sea of white and red that was buzzing with excitement.

Our first mission was to make a few essential purchases:  signature logoed red scarves to finish off our uniforms, bocadillos to provide sustenance (these common Spanish hoagie sandwiches were the only food we were able to get our hands on for the entirety of the weekend), and lots and lots of red wine.  We filled giant clear plastic cups and peculiar leather satchels with cheap boxed vino tinto (red wine) and hit the streets.  Before we knew it we were completely immersed in the celebrations, jump-roping with strangers in the center of a spontaneous dance party, frolicking in the bull stables, and having an all out wine fight in Plaza de Castillo, Pamplona’s central square.  Hours slinked by as we lost all conception of time and reality.

Eventually our brave bull runners, my brother and Carolina friend, decided a bit of shut eye before their daring dash was a wise decision.  But with more of my local friends joining us to continue the all out fiesta, it took little contemplation to conclude that a few of us would probably not be seeing the inside of that hotel room before the 8 a.m. run.  We proceeded to let the good times roll as the streets became even more chaotic and the real party heated up.

More hours slipped away and before we knew it the street cleaners were clearing the way for the morning event.  My local amigo brought the three of us that remained to a spot that was prime real-estate to be front and center for the main show.  Makeshift wooden fences were constructed each morning for a select few to grab a spot above the crowd.  We wrestled and elbowed our way to a sliver of fence and at 5:00 a.m. we proceeded to shiver away the next several hours, straddling a wooden log as our buzzes wore off and a mean rush of hunger and sleepiness swept over us.  All we could do was wait and hope that we would at least get to witness my brother and friend’s proud moment as they dart by us, triumphantly outrunning a herd of agitated bulls.

Three hours have now past since we found our tiny sliver of fence to prop ourselves up on as we eagerly wait to see our companions run by.  The hunger and exhaustion have past and at this point we are simply delirious.  The others from our group have joined us, comfortably squatting behind the fence, and all of us are eagerly await the big show.  

There is a sea of heads in front of us, packed into the narrow streets of the old town and pouring out into the clearing ahead.  Thousands of adrenaline pumped runners are bouncing up and down, bursting at the seams with pent up excitement and anticipation.  Spectators craning their necks, squeezing onto the tiny balconies, and climbing anything they can find, fight for a glimpse of what is to come. Reporters take their position and rescue workers prepare stretchers for the fallen ones.  This continues for the next half hour.  Finally a ripple of shouting and intensity rushes over the jumping participants. 

The first bull tears through the crowd and a herd of men barrel past us.  My hands full with cameras and trying to prop myself up on the wobbly post, I fix my eyes on the plethora of people running for their lives.  The next several bulls run by in mere seconds.  Desperately scanning the scene for my brother, all I can see is a mass of white shirts and red scarves, and the frantic expressions of those crazy enough to take on this adventurous endeavor.  At last I catch a glimpse of one familiar face as my brother is triumphantly completing his mission. 

 It’s been less than five minutes since the run began and the crowd is already dwindling.   Once the last of the runners reach our spot, we at last can peel ourselves off of the fence and begin to make our way towards the bull ring, the bulls’ final destination.  At this point, a new level of tiredness falls upon us as we approach the 24 hour mark of this sleepless adventure.  Desperately, we search for my brother and friend becoming increasingly hopeless to finding our needle in the haystack.

Finally, after an hour, the boys proudly march into sight, glowing with elation.  We discover that after the run, the true dare devils convened at center stage within the bull ring to go toe to toe with young steers.  With nothing but a thin layer of rubber separating the sharp tips of their horns with the novice “bull fighters”, the steers frantically bucked about and crazy thrill seekers got their fix.  The boys share with us their unbelievable accounts of this rare experience.  My brother recalls: 
“There was a pack of guys, 30 of them or so, crouched down at the opening of the gate where the bulls run out.  They expected the bulls to jump over them, but to their horror, one bull lowered his head and plowed right through the bodies… The craziest one of them all was a Texan, adorning his cowboy hat.  He jumped on the back of one of the steers and rode him as if he was in a rodeo. “

Their enthusiasm pumps us up with an essential second wind.  There is nothing more to do than celebrate, so at 10 am we find the nearest eatery where we pop a bottle of bubbly and share in the revelry over bottomless glasses of cava.  We find ourselves in a new state of delirium and spend the afternoon roaming about the streets yet again, as parades march by, children and adults play in the streets, and a new batch of visitors join in the fun.  With nothing but a short siesta on the grass in the central plaza, we all are running on nonexistent fumes.

Once arriving at the final anticipated event of our journey, a live outdoor concert by a local celebrated band, we are dead.  Our mission has been accomplished: we squeezed as much excitement as possible out of our San Fermin weekend.  Like sardines, we finally crash in our tiny hotel room, all seven of us somehow managing to carve out enough space to slumber.  And in the morning, we hop back into our little car, saying farewell to San Fermin and still in a foggy state of disbelief about this incredible two days that we would not soon forget.    

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Top Five To-Dos in Madrid

The traditional Spanish capital of Madrid is often overlooked as a top European destination, getting lost in the shadows of other cities like Paris, London, and Rome.  But with a plethora of outstanding food, a world class football team, green space galore, world famous art, and rich culture Spanish culture around every turn, it is fascinating how more tourists do not flood the streets as they do in these other hotspots in Europe.  With so much goodness to take in, how can visitors possibly decide how to fit it all in?  Here is a top five list of must-do activities for those fortunate enough to discover this absolute Spanish gem.

5) Tapas, Tapas, Tapas

 From upscale eateries to tucked away bars, one thing virtually all of the restaurant establishments in Madrid have in common is tapas.  This tradition of serving a small taste of food with each beverage began centuries ago as barmen sought out a solution in the hot summer months to keep pesky insects away from patrons’ drinks.  They would place a lid on the glass that was often a small plate, and eventually began to add a snack to the top, realizing that people tended to drink more when they were eating.  Since then, the Spanish have become increasingly creative in their tapas offerings.

Some minimal bars will merely plop down a pile of potato chips or fresh olives, while others provide creative pinchos (small bites served on top of a piece of bread) topped with goat cheese, salmon, or foie gras, to name a few.  One famous tapas bar in Madrid, El Tigre in the Chueca district, offers massive plates full of rich Spanish tortilla (popular egg and potato dish), fried croquettas (breaded balls of creamy dough), and spicy chorizo (Spanish sausage), piled high and free with the purchase of a cold drink.

4) Futbol!

After winning their third consecutive world championship, mentioning team Espana is a must.  And with several of the country’s team members regularly playing for local team, Real Madrid, catching a game at Santiago Burnabea Stadium makes the top of the list for things to experience while in town.  The famous football stadium is located in the north of the city, not far from the only towering skyscrapers in Madrid.

During off season or when there is a break in the action, the impressive sports arena offers comprehensive tours year around where visitors get a sneak peek into the modern dressing rooms, presidential balcony, press box, and trophy room, along with a walk around the pitch and a full panoramic view.  When it is game time, an elite group of the world’s finest football athletes show their skills.  World Cup and Euro Cup leading goal tender, Iker Casillas, and notorious celebrity sports star, Cristiano Ronaldo, sport the white B-win jerseys and guarantee an exciting match.

3) Green Space

Walking through the streets of Madrid, gazing up at the impressive architecture boasted throughout the main roads, it’s clear that this was a capital made for a king.  This goes for the parks as well.  The most central and famous park is Parque de Retiro, which was originally created for the royal family to enjoy a peaceful get away, or retirement, from the palace.  Today, several kilometers of green expanse and hidden nooks are free rein to residents and visitors to enjoy a leisurely day at the park.  In the center of the grounds is an elaborate fountain pouring into a small lake where paddle boats are offered at a steal.  Within the grounds are also small art exhibits and the famous glass palace, Palacio de Cristal.

Madrid’s largest park, Campo de Casa, was formally hunting ground for the royal family and now offers hiking trails, sports facilities, an amusement park, and a zoo.  And if that isn’t enough green, there are numerous smaller neighborhood parks always a stone throw away.

2) Art and Museums

Art is plentiful in this culturally rich Spanish city.  The most famous of the art museums is the world renowned, Museo de Prado.  It holds seven centuries of Europe’s finest art work, including the most impressive and largest collection of Spanish paintings and sculptures.  People come from far and wide to spend hours making their way through the massive halls of this monumental structure.

For a taste of modern art work, the Riena Sofia does not disappoint.  Fascinating seasonal exhibits utilize the senses and technology to create an entire art experience and great works of modern art geniuses span the walls.  In addition to the Prado and Riena Sofia, throughout the city there are always various temporary exhibits displayed anywhere from train stations to plazas.

1) A Walk through the Old Town and Beyond

The best thing to do in Madrid is simply walk around and experience the sheer greatness of this impressive Spanish city.  The best place to lose oneself is in the old town.  Plaza Mayor is situated in the heart of Madrid and must be experienced more than seen.  The accordion plays softly, couples amble by, and patrons fill patios.  People watching here is a must.  Beyond the walls of the square is the Mercado de San Miguel, filled with the finest food products and perfectly prepared cuisine.
Not far down the old cobble stone streets, the crowd parts and the massive palace, Palacio Real, fill your view.  The spectacular grounds give way to incredible views and tours are available to get a taste of Spanish royalty.  The famous opera house, culturally rich neighborhoods like La Latina and Lavapies, and the center of Spain, Sol, are all a short walk away.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Unlocking Life's Mysterious Puzzle

For the last month I've been on a mission to find employment, a new home, and a lifestyle that suits me here in the United States.  But what I've discovered as the puzzle begins to at last come together, is that this month long search is merely the culmination of a life long pursuit up to this point in unlocking how my own personal greatness will be manifested.

Each of us has a personal greatness; a potential "sweet spot" that consists of the perfect marriage of our passion, values, and interests, and our skills, experience, and ideal occupation.  Some of us are born with the knowing of what our calling is, while others, like myself, have to dig deep within to uncover that essential match.  I believe that many people trudge along in their day to day life doing something that is just close enough to the mark that they are satisfied, performing life's duties and adapting to the situation they find themselves in.  There is no harm in this, but one never gets the opportunity to realize their own great contribution potential.

This mission of finding that match, or what I like to call that "sweet spot", is one that has become dormant during particular phases of my life, and then reared it's head in strange syncronistic moments and powerfully vivid dreams.  For me, after this current stretch of time as I proceed with my head down to focus on job applications and research, I was gifted with a blatant reminder to continue hunting while remaining aware of the bigger picture.  I've become swallowed by the sea of options that lay before me and the multitude of life altering decisions.  But this weekend, as I took a moment of rest and stepped away from all of the planning and analyzing in order to still my mind and recall the purpose of all of this, it all became clear once again.  It popped up in a lucid dream, and that dream stirred the pot once again, encouraging me to keep plugging away at finding the next step in the right direction.

The are giant question marks still hovering over head: Where will I go? What will I be doing?  With who?  When will it all begin?  How will I make it happen?  But what I do know is that it is all coming together as long as I remain patient and steadfast, following the natural course of life and not settling out of desperation, frustration, or resignation.  Everything happens for a reason and as I look back on the past five years, reflecting on how it is all leading me to my personal greatness, it all still fits into the puzzle so perfectly.  The hard work put into the IBM experience, followed by a reflective time abroad, peppered with these stalled moments in limbo have all be equally essential to finding this purpose, this calling, this greatness.

Even as I sit with no job to speak of in a temporary home, there is an exciting energy and deep reassurance that I'm on the right track.  Life has a peculiar way of working out if you trust and listen to the inner voice that is sometimes whispering and other times shouting what it is you are supposed to do.