If I can pin-point one moment when things really shifted for me, it was participating in a Startup Weekend in Boston in 2010. A friend dragged me to it. I didn’t really know what startups were. We ended up taking 3rd place (and bought Indian food with our winnings).
*That video makes me cringe. But hey, the memories*
Since then I’ve been lucky to have some wide-ranging experiences, from teaching entrepreneurship in Ghana to working on a farm to growing a venture-backed startup.
This exposure has taught me one simple truth: You only learn by interacting with the world.
… And you never know where you might end up. Okay, two truths.
Training through the sea
In large part, my thinking around education has been shaped by Kurt Hahn, the Founder of Outward Bound (OB).
Today, OB offers over 1,000 expedition-based programs and focuses on personal development. They work with cohorts from struggling youth to veterans to those interested in developing wilderness skills, and more.
I first learned about OB in university while researching leadership and educational training. Their structure for experiential learning was so different (and more interesting) than my experience in class. I enjoyed science labs because they had an integrative function, but my greatest education about science came from my coops (internships) working in real biotech labs.
When I came to entrepreneurship, I knew this wasn’t something you could download from a book, you had to go through the gauntlet. So I did.
Before Taking Flight on Orla Perć… My Not Very Good Stay in Zakopane
Orla Perć is known as the most difficult and dangerous hiking trail in Poland. According to Wikipedia more than 140 people have lost their lives on the route. For the 4.5km stretch of hiking/ scrambling/ climbing, that comes out to 31.11 people dead/ km.
The hike itself is a ridge traverse that consists of rock scrambling, metal chains, and the occasional slick ladder. The peaks are thin and jagged, rising and falling like sharp spires. To move horizontally across the path requires ascending and descending hundreds of feet (or, like, many meters) — down then up then down then up. As a result, while the line is only a few kilometers long, you end up doing much more with the vertical movement.
The trip I had planned was to take 13 hours, consisting of 16km of distance (about 10 miles) and 3,183m (10,443 total feet) of elevation gain and loss.
I never trust these estimates and figured it would take me about 10 hours.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, The Lead Up
The “Eagle’s Path” came onto my radar via S, someone with whom I have an “it’s complicated” relationship. Which is really neither here nor there.
We were on one of our upswings and decided to spend a long weekend together. We were deliberating between four days of climbing in the Będkowska Valley or hiking in the High Tatras, both in Poland.
“I’ve wanted to do Orla Perć for awhile, want to do that? It’s supposed to be pretty dangerous. But I think you can do it,” She offered.
“It’s probably not so bad, you just have to be careful. People do die every year, though.” She can be rather matter of fact.
“Uhh, are you trying to get me to have an accident?” I mean, we have had our ups-and-downs…
Logistically, the Tatras were going to be a challenge. This was high season in the mountains and rooms at the huts had been booked out months in advance (I had called and emailed several of the lodges, and thanks to internety magic (google translate) determined there was nothing available. That is zero. Zilch.). There’s also no camping in the park.
(Later, I’d learn the huts have a rule that prevents them from turning you away. You can show up in the evening and sleep on the floor, wherever you can find space. It’s supposed to be for safety in case of inclement weather, but they don’t seem to make a fuss of it. This would come in handy in a few days.)
In the end, we went to Będkowska.
We camped, we climbed, ate pierogi, had fun. Our transitory, back-and-forth relationship-thingy continued and I followed her to Budapest to stay for a few days. When the going’s good keep it going, I guess.
Now or Never to Hike Rysy and (Maybe) Orla Perć
Rysy, the highest peak on the Polish side of the Tatras, had been firmly on my radar since July. This was the mountain I was excited for. Orla Perć, not so much.
I only had a few free days before flying home for my sister’s wedding, and I wasn’t sure if or when I’d ever be back in Poland. It was now or neverish.
And what the hell, Orla Perć is right there, so I added it to the itinerary.
But but but #YERGONNADIE!, you say?
Well ya, but the pictures look cool.
I took an overnight bus from Budapest to Krakow and would leave for the Tatras the next day.
Day One of the Tatras was a parade of minor frustrations.
I arrived in Krakow at 7am, groggy and achy. The bus had been light of fellow passengers and I’d wrangled the back row to myself. I was able lie down completely. Lovely! If not for the belt buckles gouging my ribs it would have been quite accommodating.
The first step was to gather my gear from an airbnb host who had been holding on to it (thank you again!). I needed to wait for them to wake up, and it was unclear when that would be.
The hope was to leave Krakow by 9am and attempt Orla Perć that day. She’d been responsive the night before and knew I was getting in early. There was a chance.
In the meantime, I wandered through empty squares in the Old Town. Tranquility emanated from huddled walls while the cobblestone streets hummed softly. On the sidewalk, an elderly sweeper gathered dust with gentle strokes from a straw broom.
Around the corner a club was closing up. There was a throng of partiers carousing on the sidewalk surrounded by a moat of cigarette butts. I felt like a grumpy old man. I sat along the Vistula River for awhile and waited.
By 10am I was arranging my pack and made it on the bus to Zakopane at 11. I’d arrive around 1pm which meant I would have to put off the long hike for the next day. Oh well.
Zakopane, You Obtrusive Impediment to Wonderful Mountains
Zakopane is a mountain resort town. It’s full of annoying tourists doing annoying touristy things like clogging up the trails and eating smoked cheese. Stuff I would never do.
That night, I’d have to find a place to stay alongside them. Yuck.
During the bus ride down, I scanned my options on HostelWorld (nothing!), made a desperate plea to a hostel on Facebook (could I sleep on the floor?), and felt disheartened by the listings on Booking.com (every place had “only one room left!”) and was expensive.
While I waited to hear back from the hostel I took a nap in lieu of making a decision.
An hour later, I still hadn’t heard from the hostel and hotel listings were disappearing. I’d be in Zakopane in half an hour.
I bit the bullet and choose a place with good enough ratings at a reasonable enough price. On the map, it wasn’t too far from the bus station.
A Mountain Town
We pulled in around 1pm as expected. I disembarked and made my way towards the bnb. The route zigzagged along traffic circles, up into a residential neighborhood and onto a hiking path. Interesting.
Then the rain started.
Turns out the place was located at the top of a small mountain, a 1,000 feet up (or 300m if I’m staying consistent with units of measurement). By now it was pouring and the trail was muddy. I’d get a hike in after all.
The path passed through spotty tree cover, fields and farm land. 45 minutes later, one last damp road veered to the left and opened into a clearing.
The map said this was my destination. I stared about at a chained compound featuring, seemingly, a ski lift. Huh. I walked around, poked my head this way and that then moved to an awning. Nope. Nah. Didn’t appear to be the place. No sir.
I double checked the confirmation email and, lo and behold, it listed two addresses. The Polish instructions were still unreadable. I plugged the other coordinates into me map and made like Keanu Reeves in Constantine (to get the hell out of here).
Well, I’m Bad at Reading Maps
It looked like I had to follow the road away from the lift. The rain soaked street was flagged by a procession of quaint shops and restaurants. It felt like an empty carnival. A group of kids were splattered over with neon paint, for some reason.
A few hundred meters down things didn’t feel right. I checked my phone and it was the wrong direction. Then where was this place? There was only that sharp left at the top of the hiking trail… I backtracked anyways, found a smaller trail (aha!) that did indeed head to the right, tip-toed across downed branches and came to a field clearing. Map said that a-way. I passed by cows that “moo’d.”
A Quiet, Quiet Place. Except for the Screaming
A mere hour-fifteen after getting off the bus I came to a three-building complex that appeared empty. There was a car in the driveway. I walked into the building closest to the road. No reception. This too appeared empty. I entered the dining room. The place was empty(!), save an open laptop and a disarray of receipts on a table in the corner.
I called out, “dzień dobry!,” and a wraith-like woman slithered in from the shadows.
“Czy mówisz po angielsku?”
“Nie mówię po polsku.” We stared at each other.
But she was a professional and knew the routine. She fished some keys out of a plastic bag all jumbled and clanking with metal. I was guided to the other side of the complex where I saw shoes drying outside a door. Signs of life! On the second floor there were more booties around the corner from mine.
Ah. Home sweet home. We entered my residence, a cold room with a lot of exposed wood. I was ready for a quiet evening when… Noise! Noise like banging and screaming. I noticed. She seemed to willfully ignore the sadistic groans above.
She proceeded to give me a tour consisting of a dirty shower stall, a kitchen counter, and the flicking of some lights this way and that. I just wanted her to leave. She made to the door and gestured concernedly about the keys in the lock and other sorts of handwaving. She wanted to make sure I understood so I nodded like I did.
Her vaporous body shuffled down the hall and slipped into the floorboards.
Finally alone, I began to take my wet clothes off to dry. The compound hadbeen dead silent until now. The only noise was being summoned from hell directly above my room. It was a sort of thumping, cackling horror film blaring with overactive teenagers jumping from bed to bed.
I arrived at Logan on Saturday night nervous about the next leg of my trip. Terminal E is laid out in a long corridor, and I began distractedly searching for Primera Air to check in. I walked down the length of the counters, back and forth. No signs. Nothing.
This seemed normal because when I flew with Primera in September, they had set up a temporary desk for check in. I watched the process in action and figured this might be the case again.
Impatience got the best of me and I decided to confirm (or discredit) my hunch. I approached a Virgin Air attendant and inquired, “I know this isn’t any of your (bloody*) concern, but where do I find Primera Air?”
He said, “They don’t operate here anymore.”
I says to the guy, I says, “Oh, you mean I’m in the wrong terminal?” My thoughts immediately concentrated on the logistics of a transfer and the remaining time until boarding.
“No,” he emphasized the word, “they are no longer in business. Didn’t you read the news?”
“You can talk to British Airways or Norwegian, they are offering discount tickets…” He failed to mention that Virgin was offering a similar deal.
Thus my attempt to leave the country crashed with a thud.
This scene was fitting for how I was feeling: The trip isn’t as easily navigable; I am ambivalent.
My main jam for the next few months is to focus on climbing.
Continuing the theme of 2017 and 2018, I’m pursuing activities that have long been of interest (but which remained neglected). Specifically, farming and traveling.
I believe you need to pursue interesting — the notions that you get truly excited by — because this teaches you about yourself.
Yet, there has been an associated compunction with these endeavors, that self-interest is a thin distance from selfishness.
I am grappling with two concepts that focus one’s energy in opposing directions:
1) To understand myself better while 2) broadening my concern for others.
One lens is angled inward, while the other enlarges your circle of care. My hunch is that expanding this circle from misguided principles leads to disdain and burnout. Or, you need to know yourself in order to truly care for and help others.
In advance of boarding the plane (eventually, on Sunday night), I kept deliberating:
What does a life focused around pursuit of self-interest and connection to community look like for me?
The month-long stay was coming to an end and I didn’t know much more about the city than when I arrived.
The only “museum” I visited was the masochism-themed bar, Masoch, eponymously named for Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the 1800s Lviv author and sexual submissive (obviously). There were no information placards and I didn’t learn much more than he wrote Venus in Furs (about his trip to Italy as a subservient to his mistress). I did see some people get whipped (and took a few licks myself), though.
Reflecting upon my stay in the city, I began formulating answers to “what did you do in Lviv?”. I concluded that I hadn’t “seen” much objectively, relative to the time spent there (and especially compared to the TripAdvisor lists).
Yet, my goals had been achieved:
Climb 3x per week. Check
Hike in the Carpathian Mountains. Check
Try salo (cured back fat from pigs) and varenyky (Ukrainian pierogi). Check
See a play at the Lviv Opera. Check
Still, I kept thinking, “I should have done more.”
The anxiety arose from the delta between what I “thought” I should be doing and what I actually felt like doing.
I should have gone to the observation tower at the top of City Hall, explored the former site of the ghetto (and sneak into the sewers?), perambulated through the various historical museums and art galleries. But I didn’t.
Admittedly, I felt lethargic during my stay and didn’t love the vibe of the city. I spent quite a bit of time on the internet, meandering, and reading. Yes, there was an “exotic” world outside, but I just didn’t feel like seeing more of it.
Expectations shape your experience.
This incident is a microcosm of the larger chain of reactions that occurs in every day life. We adapt to and incorporate expectations, whether self-imposed or from outside forces (we see this in experiments with lab rats, in-group/ out-group, etc.). We don’t typically analyze how we are making decisions or where our ideas about how things should be come from.
The notion that I need to see a lot of a place is not how I like to travel, and yet it was on my mind. I knew this consciously and yet it still proved to be a nuisance.
What else is guiding my behavior away from what I know I want?
Upon further review (in writing this piece) I did actually see a lot in Lviv (thank you very much)…
Yet the point stands that anxiety crops up when reality doesn’t meet expectations, and the gnawing imposition from this generic-expectation-from-ambiguous-other actually influenced how I felt I experienced the city. It can feel like you’re a race horse but your feet are tied…
That’s some expectation-based jedi mind trick shit right there.
The aim of my travels has been about the pursuit of freedom, especially mentally. I want to live in a manner that feels authentic to who I am.
When I add undue complexity to my life angst and uncertainty are sure to follow. In this context, complexity is an accretive process that obfuscates the core of who and what you are.
Think: What do you really care about? What is truly of interest to you? Then move away from that… That’s complexity.
This process is like carrying extra baggage on a trip which adds physical and mental clutter; It is heavy and each thing has a way of wanting to be accounted for. (Oh no, did you leave your el ten eleven t-shirt behind? Where did my extra usb cable go? What happened to your adorable cable-knit gloves?).
We tend to hold tightly to the things we already have and focus on what we’ve lost. What if we instead appreciated the lighter load?
Robert Persig, in Lila, gives a helpful analogy to a cup of tea:
If you want to drink new tea you have to get rid of the old tea that’s in your cup, otherwise your cup just overflows and you get a wet mess. Your head is like that cup. It has a limited capacity and if you want to learn something about the world you should keep your head empty in order to learn it. It’s very easy to spend your whole life swishing old tea around in your cup thinking it’s great stuff because you’ve never really tried anything new…
When my mind is filled up, it is hard to think and see clearly, like trying to find something in a messy room. The “mess” tends to hover in the background of my consciousness, feeding into uncertainty and overwhelm because it’s one more thing to worry about.
For me, mental freedom is having the space to explore ideas/ events/ interactions as they arise, to be able to consider what is there, and process as needed.
With psychic openness comes clarity and with less obligations comes the ability to pursue interesting.
The key will be to take this manner forward and transpose it into new situations, for example, if/ when I get back to a “normal” life. (Gotta practice like you play, brah!).