Friday, November 14, 2014


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.