Friday, November 14, 2014

Gratitude


Rights should never override gratitude. We lose perspective when we lean on any kind of entitlement.

Any grants bestowed by law are part of a social contract in which we agree to give and receive, not because of a divine privilege, but because we learned the lesson from History.

It’s foolish to perceive ourselves as immortals just because a law grants us the right to live. That law is not there to protect one singular existence but the harmonious coexistence of the group. The enforcement of that law and the attainment of that harmony are imperfect and incomplete. But even in the precise mechanics of a Swiss clock, a certain level of imprecision is expected. It’s not gratuitous that in certain languages that inaccuracy is called “tolerance”.

We can’t take the law personal because it’s not personal, it’s social. It’s meant to keep your state to collide with another state, not to solve any issue that may arise between you and your neighbor.

It’s tempting to regard the rule of law as code for moral conviction, so everybody wants a bill pass to reflect their beliefs as if they were in need of some sort of formal enactment. This may be a reverberation of the religious nature of earlier social contracts. Now we need to learn that laws are not an enumeration of principles but a set of rules that, over the course of history, we have come to regard as practical for the good of society, but not always for the good of an individual.

The media is particularly interested with those exceptions when somebody is victimized, and even more when acquitted by the legal apparatus. That gives us the false impression of a “broken” legal system, while nobody gives much publicity to those cases where it actually works. Precisely the fact that a fair verdict is not news is good news.

Those of us that came from abroad had the experience of living with governments that grew too much and with systematic corruption. Those who came here after not having the American system are prone to gratitude before criticism. The endeavor of perfecting the law is way easier that the bloody task of establishing it. The journalist business of entertainment will not persuade me otherwise.

I love this country, not for the obligated call of duty but for the warm whim of choice. I love the attainment of the present and embrace the dream of the future. What America gets with new immigrants is more than cheap labor; it’s a wave of gratitude. We renew the spirit of this country for those who have never skip a meal or sleep on the floor to attain their goals. We keep coming in, from England, Spain, Cuba, China… and we are here to give, not to take.

This call is not for the natural born, but for my comrades, the newcomers. We came here as guests, and as such we should behave at the table. It doesn't matter what your papers say; don’t feel entitled. You know better how fragile those “rights” are. Never demand respect, earn it.  Some groups are marked by the ingratitude of others that came here to demand things or even to destroy. Instead of begging to be perceived as an exemption, be exceptional. It may take more than one generation to clean up the bad reputation our grandparents delegated to us, but we are here to give, and even with nothing in our hands we can always deliver humbleness.

Laws will come and go. Forms will be filled, and “rights” will be granted. Take the bread but never demand it. Let’s build a new reputation. Let’s compensate for our broken English and dislocated manners with an irresistible disposition towards gratitude. And when your children start to grow spoiled, buy them a ticket to your country of origin and ask them to try to get a job. You need to experience some scarcity before appreciating this land of abundance.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why the Mountain?


Why the man climbs the mountain? 

I wanted to experience the highest altitude in Costa Rica, El Cerro Chirripó. 3.82 Km above sea level. Roughly a third of the altitude of a commercial fly.

I checked with everybody and there was a myriad of reason for not doing it: people with office jobs, people afraid of the insects, the rain and the effort. And those who had the physical condition told me that you need to reserve space three months in advance because there are only 25 permits per day.

So I decided to go on my own.

I picked up the phone, asked for the next available permit, and I got it for the very next week. Then I went to the bank, paid the fee ($24) and faxed the slips to the ranger’s office. That granted me a stay for one night in the hostel of Crestones, into the park. I needed to arrive at the closest town to get the actual paper permit one day before start hiking.

I packed my things and hit San Isidro del General, a small city three hours south of San José. I almost forgot the excitement of traveling in El Cerro de la Muerte (The Death Hill) while the bus driver was passing trucks through dense fog. The road is full of crosses in memory of those who died in frontal collisions.

Once there, I asked for the next bus to San Gerardo de Rivas, the town where the ranger seals the permit. There was only one bus, and it was scheduled to make its second and last trip at 2 PM. I had up to 4:30 PM before the park’s office close, but I didn’t want to gamble, so I took a cab. When the driver got to the main road to San Gerardo, he found it was closed. A guy sitting aside told us that it was under repair and it won’t open until 4:00 PM. It was midday. So the cab driver took an unknown route through the hills. Fortunately, it was a 4X4 car. The trail was just suitable for horses and dirty bikes.

The guy found a way around, and we managed to get to San Gerardo de Rivas. The whole town is nothing more than a soccer field, a church and a bar. There is a welcome sign that says “San Gerardo de Rivas: inhabitants 305. Leave only your footprint and take only your memories”.

After getting my permit, I spent the afternoon at the local bar, where almost everybody was speaking English; bohemian characters from all over the world in that foggy isolated place surrounded by dense vegetation. A young man made conversation with me and dip into my nachos while he was asking for his tenth beer. He told me that he knew dear secrets of the USA government and the CIA was after him. Then he diverted his attention to a group of Canadians to whom he was trying to sell parts of crashed planes.

I slept in a local set of rooms that I wouldn’t call a hotel. Next morning I had a good breakfast cooked by the wife of the owner, a woman in her 50s that was born in that little town. The owner of the cabins offered me transportation to the entrance of the trail that goes into the mountain, a couple of kilometers from there.

Just at arrival, a group of Germans were descending. They told me it took ten hours to come down starting at night and they weren’t able to complete the whole trip.

I started at 7:00 AM. That was late, but I didn’t know it.

My heart started pounding vigorously with the first slope. I was sweating and gasping just like in my regular workout, but this one was estimated to last eight hours. There are fifteen kilometers to the Crestones hostel and five more to the mountain’s summit. After half an hour climbing, I heard that popping sound in my ears that indicate a change in altitude. But I was very disappointed when I read the milestone and found out that I just completed my first kilometer (0.6 miles). 

The place is beautiful, and the silence is so deep you can only hear your own heart. Long trails packed with leaves cracking under your feet and a green wall of moss decorating the stone walls.

Another thing I didn’t know was that you can actually pay for a horse and have all your gear been transported up to the Crestones hostel. But I was climbing with all the weight of food, a spare pair of shoes, sleeping bag... everything.

At 11:00 AM I was midway to Crestones. At the kilometer seven, a ranger asked me why I was getting there so late. - Is it? - I asked. I thought I had plenty of time before dawn. Yes, I did, but there was another consideration: weather. Starting at 2:00 PM it began to rain nonstop. That added weight to my already oversized load.

Here is one interesting aspect of extreme physical stress: At one point you want to give up, but then, when giving up isn’t an option, you feel like you can go even farther. The main weight you carry is your mind.

The walk would have been tortuous if I were thinking about the final destination for nine hours. Instead, I narrowed my conscience to the next step, and then the next one, and then the next one. I wasn’t trying to climb the mountain; I was just this wet walking creature which existence was constrained to the current moment.

I got to Crestones at 4:00 PM. I took off my wet shoes. The hostel’s attendant was kind enough to borrow me the dryer machine. He let me know about the cargo service, and I set apart all those things I won’t need tomorrow.

The place has WiFi, so I had the chance to send some pictures and updates. I fell asleep as early as 7:00 PM. The walking to the summit was resumed the next day at 3:35 AM

I joined a group of climbers that were guided by a guy familiar with the area. The idea of getting up this early was to see the sunrise at the top. But our guide lost track when we were half an hour on the trail. The darkness was complete, and not even the moon was showing up that night. At some point, we ended up with the shape of a hill in one hand, the sound of a creek in the other and a labyrinth of trails over the rock. But our guide was able to find the path and he signaled us with his lamp from a distance.

We made it. The sun covered the shoulders of the mountain with a coat made of shadow. A quiet lake, flat as a mirror, reflected the sky so clearly that it looked like a hole in the ground filled with clouds.

A couple from Quebec joined us and started to climb the last stretch with four limbs.

What really moves you on the top is this sensation of everlasting calm; a silent that has been there for tens of thousands of years. The air is so clean of noise we could hold a conversation with people that was still at the bottom. 

Physically I felt great, and I naively thought that going down must be easier. That was my last mistake. I took my time on my way back to Crestones, shooting pictures and contemplating the landscape that was hidden from me at night. I only had one chocolate bar, so I convinced the cook to sell me some rice and beans before heading down. The food was actually part of a more expensive tour package.

I was doing a good speed down, like three kilometers per hour. One thing you remember while walking downhill is that your feet are not designed to fight gravity. I took the stress on my knees without a problem, but something strange started to happen with the nails of my toes, they began to detach from inside. The constant pounding of the toes against the shoes over the course of hours creates an internal hematoma and, all the sudden, you can’t walk anymore. Your muscles are fine, but you feel that something very painful is happening with your nails. 

With seven kilometers left, my feet started to swell. Had I kept my current pace I would have been in the town by 4:00 PM. But at the third kilometer, a heavy rain started to fall. To slip up with wet feet adds more pain to every step. Whit the help of a stick, I was barely at the speed of a ninety years old. The sky was dark and the sun kept going down. I knew that in minutes the road would be completely dark.

I hit the main road of San Gerardo just at sunset. Not having an idea where to stay for the night, I kept walking very slowly under the torrential rain with my stick aid. By the way, don’t try to do this without hiking poles. I learned this the hard way. I stopped at the first light, and there was a beautiful hostel. I showed at the main entrance begging for a room.

The next day I was able to walk normally again. La Casa Mariposa turned out to be an excellent discovery. I went to the “Asociación de Arrieros” where my backpack was waiting for me. I had enough time for a delicious breakfast in the local bar, which also functions as a restaurant and a massage center. I would love to have one for my feet but had no time. By then the road was open again, so I took the bus to San Isidro, then traveled from San Isidro to San José, and a few hours later, fly from San José to Fort Lauderdale.

My feet took a couple of days to recover, but the purple tone of my nails is going to stay for a long time.

It was an excellent adventure. Don’t think those tours offered by local hotels are overpriced. Pay for a good guide, order your food to be served at Crestones, stay two nights on the mountain (not one) and be ready to be wet. Don’t forget to rent hiking poles, you will love them in the way down, and you will avoid the nail injury in your feet.

Also, if you haven’t walked for nine hours straight in a single day, practice in some smaller hills. San José has a popular hike called Monte de Alajuelita. Is a populated area and you can hardly get lost there, especially if you carry a phone with two batteries. Have a lamp if night catches you outside and never get out of the trail.

The park and the hike are loosely regulated, which is nice but risky. If you twist an ankle and you can’t walk, you may have to sit that night under the rain until the horses pass through at dawn. There’s no communication for miles, and you may be the only human soul in the forest.

So again, why the man climbs the mountain?  I have made an observation in every hiking: the higher I climb, the more interesting the people I find. At the summit there’s a bunch of achievers; back in the city, all those square lifes with so many reasons for doing nothing. 

That’s why the man climbs the mountain.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Behave as Your Dream

You start a journey to lose weight, and you end up in the business of knowing yourself. So many analogies in life are concentrated in the simple task of physical training that you can’t help but wake up.

Our language is infected with common places like “just be yourself” and you immediately agree with your counterpart on the other side of the table. But the reality takes the “just” part off of that sentence. 

Been yourself, confronting what you have, and most importantly what you don’t, is a colossal task. It’s an endeavor we can postpone forever with clothes, entertaining and postures of self-confidence, but one that is going to catch up with us the minute we rest our head on the bed.

Physical exercise exposes you to objective, measurable and indisputable limits. Then it probes than breaking these boundaries is not enough since you need to be able to come tomorrow and do the same. It makes you quit, it makes you try again, it makes you try different things. Then you go to the corner of pain, frustration and good arguments for giving up. But the call is in your head, and sooner or later you are back in the ring.

What we may be missing is the value of frustration. If we are getting a bad deal between effort and results, is because we are forcing our body to get ahead of our character. You can’t have the body of a winner with the attitude of a loser. You can’t behave like a passionate person if nothing really ignites your ambition, makes you dream or moves you to tears. You can’t look like a god while acting like a worm.   

You don’t pursuit a healthy body to artificially and sporadically show it off at the beach, and answer to the question “have you been working out?” with a hypocrite “some”. You get that body because it’s an unavoidable reflection of what you perceive as worthy. You got there because your perception of beauty and your constant enjoyment of open spaces made it impossible to accumulate more fat than necessary, because you are not eating to distract yourself from a job you hate, because you increased the intensity of your workout very gradually, always feeling it as an experience not as a routine.

After 10 years of writing down every little thing I ate, I started to find patterns. I get in shape when I’m working in something I love or just creating. I lost shape when I fulfill social commitments; people which company I no longer enjoy but keep gravitating around. I get in shape when I run little but regularly. I lost shape when I work out fiercely but irregularly. “Starvation mode” is a myth: when your body needs something, it asks for it. Diet should never include hunger and exercise should never be painful. You are not doing this for the way you look, but because you started behaving with dignity.

I covered the wall in front of my bed with portraits of people I admire: physicist, conquerors, artist, entrepreneurs, athletes, writers, actors, philosophers… My mantra is this: If I walk into a bar and see all these guys sitting at a table, I want to behave as one who can pull off a chair and have a beer with them.    

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Bless of Stupidity


For a long time, I thought that stupidity was the enemy. All the crisis in the world, the credit card household finances, the marketing victims, the cult sheep… all that looked like the result of not enough thinking, not enough data, and the lack of scientific method.

But then again, who is going to buy municipal bonds? Who is going to have children on their own, even with all the liabilities associated and the cost of education? Who is going to vote? Who is going to drive that brand new car out of the dealership so I can buy it for 20% less some months down the road?

I’ve been served for stupidity as much as from the smartest products of humankind. If not for stupidity, nobody would take care of my childhood without collateral. Without stupidity, I wouldn’t have a free college education in my country to get pay better in another one that doesn’t tax its business so heavily (to pay for free college education). Without stupidity I wouldn’t enjoy the products of so many endeavors that operate with poor margins or loss, nor would I have the advantage of technologies subsidized for overinflated stock prices. And let’s face it, without stupidity more than 80% of IT professionals wouldn’t have absolutely anything to do.

We complain about reality TV, ethnic wars, budget deficits and congressional lockdowns; but after getting over the first rush of indignation, we realize what is in front of us: a vast ocean of opportunities. Stupidity is better than crude oil: we never run out of it. You don’t need to cheat or lie, not even mislead. People will defend their own fallacies with their lives and force bills into your pockets.

But beyond the parody and the sarcasm, who is to deny that love can’t be smart? The selfless service to another human is the key for survival and one of our strongest evolutionary advantages. So if we get too clever, we face extinction.

This paradox seems to be a matter of semantics. When we talk about smarts what we really mean is “individual” smarts. The concept of a group that is collectively smart is not that obvious. By been individually stupid and collectively intelligent, we guarantee the survival of the species above any particular individual, just as our cells die anonymously for the wellbeing of the whole body.

Conscience is the misleading factor in this equation. Because we are individually (not collectively) conscient, everything we perceive is absurd. Of course, it's personally absurd, but superb in the aggregate. Since we don’t have the capacity to enjoy as a group, we suffer as singularities, just as a clumsy spermatozoid bouncing against a sterile wall who finds no consolation in the idea that “one of us is going to make it”. But he keeps swimming because he has no idea; we do. So we stop, we think, and by thinking we quit trying, and by doing so, kill the whole system.

Stupidity seems to be necessary for the survival of our species. A system composed of selfish smart individuals will cancel itself by logic. Stop complaining about the irrational population and bless them as the key element of our long-term resilience.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Match Yourself

I haven’t been inactive since my return to Florida. The exciting trip I took helped me to sense the nonsense of the life I was living. The world is full of people that give up and disguise its inertia as prudence. It’s nothing but cowardice.

Some visits to my family got me extra pounds, so the next step was to lose weight.

Every time I need to wrestle with my own body I find a hall of reality that I can’t fool. My system will react to effective measures, nothing else. Good intentions and dreams have not the slightest effect on my waistline.

For many years, I have been trying to find my formula to weight control. Since I was in my twenties, I ran into the error of explosive training and demoralizing crashings. Then I tried long term discipline, just to crash in several episodes instead of one.

My error was seeing my body as a separate project of my existence. A weak mind can’t wear a strong body. You can’t have a body that doesn't match your mentality for too long, the same way you can’t wear that Halloween custom every day to the office. 

First thing, my goal can’t be being attractive (external reward) but being worthy (internal stimulus). I love the image of that old man that wears a tie even when retired. He’s not trying to follow anybody’s dressing code but his own. If you shower and shave just when there is somebody watching, then you are really a beggar in disguise. The ONLY person who cares is watching all the time, yourself. 

Once you understand that simple fact is when discipline starts to boil in your heart. 

Romans had a word for this: “Dignitas”. It’s the root of the modern “dignity” but for Romans, it was deeply personal. Having “Dignitas” was to behave, look and match the way of a worthy life. When you find your “Dignitas”, the rest of your physical manifestations follow. 

That clears the path between mind and body, but still, you need to go through the technicalities of knowing yourself. Your body is unique, and there is a distinctive way in which it reacts to different combinations of nutrients, tasks and circumstances. At some point, you need to stop listening to diet experts and take note of those things that have a real and measurable effect on your system. You will be surprised by who far you may be from the average. 

The good news (great news indeed) is that controlling your body is not a challenge of will but one of self-knowledge. I got rid of sixteen pounds with a mild cardio workout of 40 minutes every other day, and I feel better than when I was a teenager.

I’m not doing this to impress anybody but the guy in the mirror.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Road Trip Benefits


I want to wrap up the experience of the last road trip in a practical way. What's in for you?

First, your job may have you trap in a vicious circle. The cycle takes your time and gives you money. With that money you buy things that consume the rest of your day and, sometimes, they demand even more money. A road trip not only cuts that process but also shows you that:
  • The world is big.
  • There is thousands of ways to make money, some of them more profitable and less stressful than the path you have chosen.
  • People are really happy with very little IF their social capital is big enough.
  • None of the adversities you have encountered compares with the misfortunes of the people that founded the cities you will see.
  • You will feel the obligation to match the beauty and the majesty of the landscape.
  • You will fall in love again… several times.
  • You’ll feel the urge of handwriting.
  • You'll lose weight, especially in cold weather.
  • For some reason you never get sick.
  • You’ll not want to be anybody else on Earth.
  • You'll feel (not just understand) that life can be lived in many ways other than the half dozen you ever considered. 
  • You'll realize how useless pictures are to grasp experience.   
  • You'll feel the distance.
  • You'll feel the silence.
  • You won't feel time.
"Feeling" is the missed piece of this Google generation. It’s not enough to see the numbers and say wow!

I circled the whole country, and the distance I covered was less than the one I used to drive from home to the office in one year. So I was already making the mileage but in an uneventful path.

Ok, yes, I’m single. But having a family makes the trip even more enduring. Remember this: a relationship is a collection of shared experiences. So don’t use your family as a pretext for inaction, use it on behalf of the action.

If you are happy, ignore me. You are there. But most of the people I have met know deep inside that there is something else in life. They are just afraid to lose the little piece of bread they have if they go to the oven. If you are in that state I have good news for your heart and bad news for your guts: you are wrong. Yes, life is a miracle, one that is worth to be repeated and propagated.

You know that you are really happy when you don't want to have sex, you want to impregnate. It’s an urge for giving. Is this assurance that the source of your happiness can never be exhausted because it falls all over like rain.

Cities are not another choice for living. They are the wrong choice. They generate humans alienated from their own nature, cynic as Scrooge, sarcastic as teenagers, indifferent as portraits, and bitter as bus drivers. 

We can confidently demolish all the existing cities and start from scratch. There is so much arid space that it’s unnecessary to knock down a single tree. A healthy city should expose the inhabitants to light, water, plants and animals. Public transportation should not be crowded by losers. Affordable facilities should be the reward for good character, not lame performance.

So, if you suffer from chronic depression, you may be reflecting the mood of the city. You can’t attain health from an unhealthy baseline.

But you don’t need to wait for the creation of the perfect town. You can give yourself a healthy dose of city life at some point and then move to a different environment. That requires a disposition for change that is rare in city rats. Road trips are just a mild exercise to build that state; to remind you over and over again that your world is not THE world.

You don’t have to wait until sixty-five to retire. You can retire from your past life and start a new one every 7 years or so. Don’t commit the sin of getting stuck in the same routine. That would be like living in Paris and having lunch every day at McDonald's. Don’t pass on the stimulating adventure of being in this world.

video


Friday, December 7, 2012

What Can A Mountain Do For You?


I’m back to the starting point; back in South Florida.

12,871 miles and 583.49 gallons of gas later, I’m here to evaluate the products of my journey.

The first thing that happens to you after a long trip like this is that you can’t see home the same way. This place looks different. It hasn’t changed much; it was me who changed.

After traveling through the best and the worst of US, I have to admit that Pompano Beach is ghetto. I walk with ease here just because I come from Central America, but for USA standards, South Florida is not one of the best places.

I saw that they are making pathetic robberies like grabbing your cell phone and running away. That’s revolting. It’s even better to have a gang of Colombians storming a bank with high caliber weapons; at least you need to be organized and have ambition. These criminals are just picking the wrong venue. With two more ounces of a brain, they may get into politics and steal in order of magnitude thousands of times bigger, all while attending social events and been applauded in the red carpet. But that you get with courage and organization. The kid that runs frenetically with that purse will never get there because he is already thinking too small.

And you may tell me: well, the damage is small too. No, it’s not. A raving dog can be located, vaccinated, trained, caged or ultimately killed. Small bugs instead are everywhere and infest the whole place beyond repair. If the mayor of Evergreen City makes headlines because he was caught cutting red tape for his fellow contractors, does that keep you from buying a house in there? But if the windshields of the cars are regularly crashed by bandits looking to steal CDs in your neighborhood, can you sleep well?

The face value of the damage is not the only variable in the equation. Big conglomerates of anything can be identified, controlled or eliminated; while small amounts spread like viruses and demand many times more resources to be eradicated. The big fish can be articulated within the system and even contribute for a while. The virus has nothing but the small goal of surviving.

If you change the goals of a bold criminal, you get a brave entrepreneur. That’s easier and more rewarding than trying to infuse ambition in a coward. Even when the coward changes his ways, he lacks the drive to accomplish anything, no matter how noble the goal.

And that’s what mountains will do for you. They will call the giant within. There's an endemic testosterone deficit. Too many people trembling for a salary: “Yes sir, no sir…” what kind of man is that? You give that level of submission on a battle, no at the office. If you are right, you are right and bleed all the way through. If the corporation can’t share your principles you make a move; you convince others of your ideas. If they don’t get it, go where others bright like you, or bright for your own. 

Oh, morality; you will find those questions on the road. Just be sure to make it big. Don’t be like the petty theft that runs with the lady’s purse. It’s never wrong when you win, just after you die and your enemies tell the story.