Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pushing Limits, Taking Risks, and Thoughts on the Meaning of Failure

Knee deep in a gurgling, swampy, road-side mud pit I began to laugh.  Our guide, Otto, had insisted that I wear the rubber boots.  They didn't come close to fitting properly (it took 3 grown men and 10 minutes just to get them off) and I had wanted to be barefoot, but without boots I wouldn't be allowed to enter the swamp.  Now I was glad.  Thirty seconds into our endeavor, with my wife and our other traveling companions watching from the safety of the road, and in the middle of a warning from Otto to be sure to poke around well with my stick before taking a step, a 5 foot caiman (South American alligator) snapped at us as he lunged from his resting place below the dense growths of water hyacinth.  Ahh, rubber boots ... good idea.  Ten minutes more of poking our way through the water, mud, and vegetation (and two or three more encounters with grumpy gators) and our driver, Barbarito, had found what we were looking for.  With beautiful reddish-orange streaks down the side of her enormous head, various shades of green and brown organized in perfect camouflage along her back, and a gorgeous, vibrant yellow underbelly, the 15 foot female anaconda was a testament to nature's ability to plant both inspiration and awe into our hearts.  At first we could only feel her, and watch as the mud and water plants began to give way as she woke from her slumber beneath the surface.  As the giant snake began moving beneath the water and plants in my direction Otto and I ran around to the tail and pulled the enormous snake out of the mud and into full view for our audience.  It was a spectacular moment as I felt the power and life twisting and tugging inside the body of this incredible animal.  I'll never forget it.

To be honest, I won't forget much about our most recent trip to Venezuela.  It was truly remarkable.

Four days in the mountain state of Merida with four friends from the International School of Curacao did not disappoint.  The beautiful scenery and delicious food (specifically referring to the gallons of 'fresas con crema' that we devoured) provided the perfect surroundings for our day of adventure canyoning and paragliding.  To be lifted off a narrow mountain crest and into the air by means of a giant kite is thrilling - adrenaline courses through your body and its almost euphoric - but as you settle into your seat and a sense of security you imagine what it might be like to be a bird.  The freedom and beauty of those brief moments in the sky (flying for 30 minutes seemed to go by in an instant) are impossible to adequately describe, but will also remain with me forever and leave me leaping for another chance to take flight.  Everyone in our group participated ... even those with aversions to heights and a significant amount of anxiety to overcome, and for all it was a tremendous success.  I decided if Erin and I ever establish a school that paragliding (and the equally fun and exhilarating canyoning - you should see the 'Psycho Jump' we had to do on that trip) will be a mandatory part of the teacher and student orientation and training.  I know not everyone is an adrenaline-junkie, but the lessons in risk-taking are a necessary step to achieving continual progress and growth.

From the mountains of Merida we traveled southeast into the flat plains region of Venezuela known as Los Llanos (that's spanish for 'The Llanos').  We enjoyed our last night with three of our friends from the International School and then ventured deeper south into Apure state to visit El Cedral, a gigantic cattle ranch (or hato) that has also become a prime spot for birders and wildlife viewers from around the world (excluding the United States given current political differences between the two countries).  It was here where the story I first recounted about the anaconda took place, but the adventure was not limited to that one animal encounter.  We saw pink fresh-water dolphins, went fishing for piranas, were chased by 14 foot Orinoco crocodiles, snuck up on giant anteaters, watched a large anaconda catch and swallow a duck, and sat back in amazement at the seemingly infinite number of birds and other wildlife co-habitating on the fields with the 19,000 head of cattle managed by the ranch.

It was truly an adventure of a lifetime, the kind that Erin and I have been lucky enough to have several times since we first started traveling together over 3 years ago.  If we had listened to our friends and family we might never have made the trip - Venezuela is on a 'no go' list for many people, not just Americans.  Caracas, it's capitol, is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and perhaps rightly so.  Our friends from that city were shocked to hear we wanted to travel to their country and many warned about the various dangers of going there - ranging from petty theft to kidnapping to murder.  So we avoided Caracas and couldn't have found the parts of the country we did visit to be any more inviting.  We are so glad we took the risk - we have left Venezuela more inspired as travelers, explorers, global citizens, teachers, friends, and partners.

Although we haven't posted about Colombia since putting our pictures on the blog upon our return in February, we have much the same notion about Colombia as well.  Known in recent history as the home of the likes of Pablo Escobar and FARC as well as the world's #1 cocaine producer and exporter many people came to view Colombia as a 'no go' country.  In recent years, under the leadership of President Uribe and the crackdown on the drug trade and guerilla groups it has rebounded and the country is a vibrant and intoxicating place for travelers.  Our trip there in February found us enjoying the cosmopolitan and colonial blends of Bogota and then heading for some colonial relaxation and backcountry adventure in the mountains north of the capitol.  The photographs we took tell a story of a Colombia filled with incredible history, vibrant cities, adventure, and brilliant colonial towns hidden around every bend of the Colombian Andes.  From El Museo de Botero, the funicular up Monseratte, sunsets and horseback riding in Villa de Leyva, eating big-assed ants in Chicamocha Canyon, whitewater rafting outside of San Gil, to the Bodies Exhibition back in Bogota before returning to Curacao, we are so glad we went back to this amazing country - as with Venezuela, Colombia too has made us into better people than we were before we went there.   It would be dishonest and naive to say that either of these countries are anything close to ideal, or that their recent histories and political situations don't lead to sometimes unstable environments, but my warning is not against their minor (or possibly even major) failures, but rather against not embracing them.  There is so much to learn from the stories of these two countries, as there are from each and every country, community, or tribe on the planet.  Failure is an integral part of who we are and the growth we experience, as individuals and as a community.  It is also fundamental to a life of risk-taking, but these are also a fundamental part of a life of great reward and fulfillment.  

As I reflect back on our last few months I am amazed at the amount of growth we have experienced.  In every dimension of our lives we have added new and exciting perspectives to our lives.  Right before we left on our Venezuelan adventure I came across an interesting short post from Daniel Pink, one of our favorite authors and a genuinely kind and thoughtful guy.  It was about failure vs. mediocrity and I enjoyed the discussions I had with my students on their fear of failure, our definition of that word in the school setting, and how they felt about mediocrity.  We all agreed we knew how we were 'supposed' to feel: that failure was ok, something to learn from, and that mediocrity was the real evil - but our lives, our actions, didn't play out that knowledge nearly enough.  Failure is 'bad' and at best it is something to gloss over or ignore, even pretend it didn't happen.  I think that's dangerous, and entirely off-target.  Whether it is traveling to unknown or 'dangerous' places, wrestling with anacondas or antagonizing crocodiles, running half-marathons or competing in triathalons, or any other risk, challenge, or boundary you are presented with in your life take it as an opportunity.  I sometimes joke that "I'm not livin' unless I'm almost dyin'" and I mean it - I crave the growth, rewards, and success that come with overcoming limits, but I also cherish those times I try and fail.  I have tried to climb mountains, failed, and loved every minute of it.  My basketball team lost by 1 point in the Curacao School Championships but I'm so proud to have had the privilege of being their coach.  Failures are a gift - a chance to see things in a new way and a chance to try again with more creativity, desire, and focus.  Of course I hope to live a long and happy life (notice the ALMOST in my aforementioned joke) but I am not willing to settle, or compromise, for anything less than the best.

In recent months I have spoken with a lot of friends, students, and colleagues about failures in our lives - whether they're unhappy at work, or in a broken relationship, struggling to find motivation at school, or whatever the case might be, and I'm convinced that those moments of failure will pass and play an integral role in bringing about the fulfillment and success they're looking for.  An incredible life rarely falls in your lap - you have to keep trying to find it.  That means taking risks (sometimes crazy ones) and pushing limits.  It means becoming a better person, through failures and triumphs, each and every day.  It means living an inspired life.  I am so thankful that Erin and I get to live inspired each day, and hope the same for you.

Enjoy the photos of the trip ... In a while, Crocodile