Travel Essays

Granite and Chartreuse

Recently I ascended Mount Whitney, a relatively high chunk of granite in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. This I did with a friend of the truest kind.

Mount Whitney lies on the Sierra Crest, a long row of high peaks running north-south less than 100 miles from the Badwater Basin of Death Valley; the lowest point in North America. At 14,505 feet, she is the highest point in the Lower 48. That’s a pretty killer contrast if you ask me. Whereas not as striking a peak as the Jungfrau or Matterhorn, her eastern face is sheer and dreamlike, a steep fault scarp rising to the sky with a gradual descent to the west.

It should be noted that I have a thing for high and low places, which if you don’t already know, is part and parcel to my crazy.

Friends for over 15 years, Nicole and I have seen much of this world together. From the streets of London to above the tree line in the Alps to the savannah of Uganda, we have definitely clocked some miles. Both of us are of the Type A goal-driven sort and, although now wives and mothers, our thirst for the world has not and will not be diminished.

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Rather than the challenging, well-trodden 22-mile day hike on the Mount Whitney Trail, we chose instead to take the Mountaineering Route. A straight shot up the east side gaining and losing 6,100 feet in only 11 miles round trip and first ascended by John Muir in 1873.

Piece of cake, right? Wrong.

We trained long and hard. We packed as ultralight as we knew how. And, we hired an experienced guide, Tristan Sieleman from Sierra Mountaineering International, to help us be more successful up and back down on this challenging terrain. During the drive from Reno, we talked at length about what we thought our weak points might be. We discussed the need to push ourselves and each other beyond our comfort zones. Finally, and albeit a bit silly, we established a code word for the point at which the risk outweighed reward. The point at which we needed to let the other know – I will go no further.

Chartreuse.

There are friends with which you can uncover your weaknesses, take them out of the closet and look at them straight on and then from every angle. There are friends with which you can prepare for, endure and even thrive in Type 2 fun. And, there friends with which you cannot.

I prefer the former.

We arrive late to Lone Pine near the base of Mount Whitney, quickly consume large quantities of carbohydrates (happy dance) and then fall asleep early in order to rest up for the long day that lay ahead.

At morning light we had our first chance to see the significant prominence of Whitney. Her sheer eastern face and the uppermost point we sought to reach towered almost 11,000 feet above us.

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We drive up to Whitney Portal, begin to sort gear, parcel the shared loads and repack our packs. When I first lift my pack onto my back, I recognize immediately that I should have thrown in another dumbbell during those sea level training hikes.

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For the first 500 vertical feet, we travel the shared trail. At our first stop we fill up on fresh water from the creek (thank you wag bag), learn a few high altitude trekking tips from Tristan and turn up the hill to the steeper North Fork Lone Pine Creek Trail, which will connect us to the East Buttress and the Mountaineering Routes.

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After ascending 1,000 or so vertical feet on a somewhat steep trail, we cross a beautiful creek bed which is just brightening with autumn color. On the other side, we look up to the sheer granite wall. At this moment we are smiling on the outside, but that is about to quickly change.

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After a short and rather easy Class 3 scramble, we arrive at the base of the Ebersbacher Ledges, a challenging scramble up a steep wall to a narrow traverse with serious exposure and a sheer 300 foot drop. Turns out people have died on this, which I am glad I didn’t know at the time. Our experience up to this point has been more of the hiking than climbing kind, so this part really gets the ‘ole blood pumping.

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At the narrowest point on the ledges the trail is less than 12 inches wide. Luckily we lean into the wall to feel more secure across this short but ‘I may have just peed my pants’ section.

Now above the willows we trek on to Lower Boy Scout Lake where the trail gives way to an expansive talus field. This is the kind of stuff I love – up and down over secure talus makes for a fun puzzle to solve. Tristan reminds us to always follow the path of least resistance. In other words, be smart, use your head and plant your foot carefully each and every time.

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Next is about 500 vertical feet worth of talus scrambling at which point it begins to sleet. We take cover for a bit before starting out over the large, bare and very slippery granite slabs taking baby steps close together not so slip and diligently keeping our nose over our toes.

We end the day at Upper Boy Scout Lake at an elevation of 11,300 feet, setup camp, eat dinner and head straight to bed to recharge. Our summit bid will begin at 5am.

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The night is long, the weather is calm, the tent is confined and our anxiety levels are high. We were unsure of what lies ahead of us the next day and remarkably self doubt arrives just on cue. Can we do this?

Around 4am we hear the stove fire up and it is time to get started. Donning headlamps we head up the loose slope above Upper Boy Scout Lake. About an hour into our climb, the sun begins to rise and we are able to appreciate the full, otherworldly landscape of The Moraines.

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As the sun creeps higher above the horizon, we are immediately confronted by Whitney’s East Face and the adjacent needles. Here in this ancient debris field amongst the remnants of long-departed glaciers, I get a stark reminder of the degree of my own insignificance and within this awareness, I can garner tremendous strength. This is the very reason I love to climb.

Soon enough we arrive at Iceberg Lake, a poignant milestone on this climb and in the context of all my previous climbs. At 12,700 feet this is where the real adventure begins, on go the helmets and harnesses for this is the point at which we move from hiking to mountaineering.

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We load up on pretzels and refill on water from the lake knowing the last 2,000 feet to the summit will be challenging, to say the least. The East Couloir looms above us with a steep and nasty mixture of loose talus, scree, sand and a dusting of ice. When covered deep in snow, this section can be navigated with crampons and ice axe, but the mere dusting made the loose scree even more of an ass kicking.

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When we reach the top of the Couloir we are at 14,000 feet and look down upon Iceberg Lake and the creek trail below. We take a moment to rest and refuel at a spot known as The Notch and discuss which route to take to make our final ascent to the summit.

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The customary route is straight up the North Chute, 400 utter panic-inducing vertical feet of rock, a tough Class 3 with some Class 4/5 moves sprinkled in for added fun. Again, when covered in snow, there is a fixed line which helps with a stable ascent. And again, we weren’t so lucky. The other option is to traverse the north face on Class 3 terrain and come up the backside to the summit plateau, which is longer and can be tricky with the loose scree and sand giving way under your feet.

Nicole and I look at each other and, not being ones to take the easy route, opt for the straight up option. Tristan prepares the ropes to belay us as we creep up this slippery face and we quickly get started.

We are instructed to make all moves together. With belay on, Nicole hoists herself up about 8-10 feet and then pushes off to the side so that I might do the same move. As I start up, Nicole begins to slip on the icy surface of the rocks. As I make it up to her, she says to me quietly, “Chartreuse.” I look to her and reply, “Chartreuse. Chartreuse. Chartreuse.” We were absolutely in agreement.

We both could easily see that we were sliding slowly along the curve where individual risks outweigh the individual return. For many this route is acceptable, but in our assessment it just wasn’t worth it.

Chartreuse.

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So we climb off that steep course, not elegantly I might add, and opt for the traverse route to the summit. No easy task either, but a level of risk we could justify in our minds and hearts.

As we stood upon the summit of Mount Whitney it mattered not how we got there, but the view was absolutely worth every well planted step.

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As I stand there swimming in my dull headache, choking down a Kind bar and enjoying a moment of pride, I suddenly remember that we are only halfway there. The summit is never the finish line, it is merely the halfway point. My stomach begins to churn. I think to myself – if going up was tough, how am I going to get down that same terrible terrain . Every move had been so carefully considered, like a giant granite chess game.

I ask Tristan if there is an easier route down. He looks at me charmingly and says, “of course not my dear, just make sure you have 50% left in your gas tank and take the same path of least resistance in the opposite direction.”

It turns out that up is indeed the easier direction. On the up you can plot your steps more carefully. Down may be faster, but it is far less intentional. Plus, on the down your body is tired which makes an unintentional sloppy step more likely.

The descent is brutal, my feet are shredded, the scree unforgiving and my gas tank draining faster than expected. But as in life, it is always more mental than physical. So, I told myself to take it one step at a time. 30% left in the tank, 20%, 5%, I can see the tents way down there, 2%…one step at a time.

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Rest.

Wind.

Rest.

Wind.

Rest.

As I emerge from my tent once more, the wind is howling and the sun rises gracefully across the Owen Valley below.

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I tend to my tired, blistered feet and then it is down, down, down the remaining 3000 feet until we hit the trailhead once more. This was the real summit – reaching the top, making good decisions, planting each step carefully and then arriving safely back down again.

Upon that granite peak we achieved our shared goal; and, we did so with lots of laughter and by respecting our own limitations – both real and perceived. I guess this is the good stuff of getting older – you know yourself better, trust yourself more and have the confidence to shout “Chartreuse!” when the level of risk surpasses your perceived reward.

What else is good stuff?

Loving your body not for what it looks like, but for where it can take you in this life. Doing so with those who lift you up and fill your gas tank when it’s running low. Finally, celebrating the sublime beauty of accomplishing something you set your mind to, no matter what it might be.

Thank you Nicole.

Thank you Tristan.

Thank you Kurt.

And, thank you to Tristan’s German alter ego who guided me where to step.

 

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Opinion, Travel Essays

South Sudan, Invest in Lasting Peace

What comes to mind when you think of South Sudan? Crisis, refugees, casualties, corruption, and starvation likely top the list. You also probably think hopeless. You rarely think investment potential. But South Sudan represents an opportunity to move from aid to trade, and with the help of creative philanthropists and frontier market investors, this could happen over the coming decade. What is being proven elsewhere in Africa is that we must move beyond traditional aid models and increasingly focus on direct private capital flows into locally sustainable solutions.

The world’s youngest state is a chance to reimagine aid as a catalyst for innovation and partnerships. A vast country of 644,000 sq.km. – roughly the size of Texas – with possibilities for solar energy, health innovation and agribusiness development. Where some see only problems, others recognize untapped human potential in a country with over 11 million and at least 30 million hectares of arable land, less than 5 percent of which is currently cultivated.

Don’t get me wrong, South Sudan unquestionably needs a hand up right now, and those providing aid are bringing help that is desperately needed. Sixty years of war has left a devastated infrastructure and traumatized population with some of the worst health indicators on Earth. But, this new African nation can easily become yet another ill-fated example of reliance on foreign aid. In 2014, foreign aid totaled US$1.8B out of a total GDP of US$13.0B, with the U.S. being top donor at US$645MM. It’s no secret that long-term aid creates devastating dependencies and economic distortions that hinder the natural social, economic and human development of a nation. South Sudan can avoid the well-worn dependency trap and chart a path towards growth and prosperity, but the trick is that the work must start now. When it seems most impossible.

In his compelling 2012 New York Times op-ed, Bishop Elias Taban, a recognized national leader in South Sudan, called upon his people to turn sword to plough and for the American people to walk alongside his countrymen and women to ensure the world’s newest nation survives infancy. Three years later, however, the nation continues to struggle through cycles of conflict while the West, trying to help, repeats the failed approaches of the past.

Instead of sizeable, cumbersome block grants only accessible to international NGOs with huge operational infrastructures, we should instead focus on scaling systems that are locally owned and driven. Venture philanthropy is conducive to such an approach; based on venture capital principles and placing value on social return alongside economic return. It is a growing and compelling way to promote development in environments where large-scale commercial investment is limited.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) developed a small but groundbreaking program called Development Innovation Ventures, which pioneers venture philanthropy through foreign aid. It is an investment in potential – not aid – and is simply a smarter, more accountable way to support growth. By investing in Solar Sister, USAID will bring solar lighting and mobile phone charging technologies to people across South Sudan, where 50 percent of the population uses firewood or grass as the primary source of lighting and 27 percent have no lighting at all. An example of applying market-based principles that catalyzes nimble, creative, and sustainable solutions, instead of grant making from afar. Venture philanthropy amps up accountability, requiring rigorous due diligence, clear objectives, mentoring, technical expertise and well-defined performance measurements. Rather than directing funds toward dire problems, this approach directs funds toward the most effective, revolutionary solutions.

In addition, along a narrow red-soil road in Yei, South Sudan, is the EPC Clinic: a sustainable primary care clinic addressing preventable diseases affecting the surrounding community. This clinic sees 600 cases a month and operates with a local staff, independently of donor funds. Deep within a teak forest on the outskirts of Yei is the Nehemiah Secondary School: a top-notch secondary program educating the future leaders of South Sudan and funded by a local trucking company, not an international NGO or foreign government. These are examples of the future of South Sudan and are manifestations of the vision cast by Bishop Taban in 2012; scalable local innovations in the most difficult circumstances.

There are numerous other local solutions, which may not be as well known, but are working and need our attention and support. Well-structured, direct investments offer these ideas the potential to flourish. We should seek them out and align our skill sets and capital to their vision.

Investing in local solutions is an investment in lasting peace. It is the role the U.S. must play if we wish to chart a path towards healthier, more sustainable long-term development. Some will say that any investment in such a fragile context is unwise. It’s certainly no easy task, but it’s an investment worth making. For South Sudan, it requires leaders with the willingness to put nation before personal ambition and redirection of public spending into development rather than security. For the U.S., it requires patience, the willingness to reimagine aid and getting past the notion that we know best. We must walk toward the future alongside South Sudan with humility and have the courage to deploy strategies that ignite local innovation, foster independence and promote self-reliance. It isn’t going to be fast and it’s hardly simple, but it’s certainly not hopeless.

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Travel Essays

Suggestion Box

 

This shot was captured in an abandoned train station in Moshi, Tanzania. A weathered wooden box, which once collected anonymous input now swings uselessly from a rusty anchor. A small, thought-provoking relic of a bygone colonial era. When I saw it, I imagined the human faces of foreign powers who descended one-by-one in please take a number fashion upon this corner of the world. Continue reading

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Travel Essays

Broken Wing

It’s 5am and I wake up in a hotel in San Diego. I meet up with my friend Candor and we set out while it’s still dark to reach the bottom of the cliffs. Our plans includes some running, a smidge of hiking and a beach at sunrise. Once at the bottom of the trail, we spend some time at Black’s Beach. Candor, the one of us who actually runs without complaining, takes off down the beach while I hang back just be.

I breath deeply to take in the sea air, look down and see kelp washed up on the beach. I look behind me and see knife-etched memories of love’s past on the rocks along the shore. I wonder, did Jan love Chris? Was it passionate, yet brief, unrequited or everlasting love?

Then I look out to sea. The surf is calm and the clouds cast a melancholy hue. I stand  silently and feel the breeze on my face, then look closer. That’s when I see him. He is an average-sized gull walking along the edge of the surf. At first, he is just coastal context for me, until I look a bit closer.

The gull’s right wing is broken and it drags in the sand and surf. I crouch down and watch him for several minutes. He walks to the surf, back toward the cliffs, then back again to the surf. Over and over he repeats this pattern. A man passes me on a morning jog and comments how the injured gull has been flightless for days and that the end should be near. This gull will never again soar over these turbid waters. His fate has been sealed.

I have always been transfixed by the hovering flight of gulls. They are, for me, a powerful symbol of freedom – from the faint childhood memories of Port Lavaca and Galveston to the courageous heart of Jonathan Seagull, who overcame and guided others to overcome limitations imposed by self and others.

“Come along then.” said Jonathan.“Climb with me away from the ground, and we’ll begin.” 

“You don’t understand, my wing. I can’t move my wing.”

“Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way. It is the Law of the Great Gull, the law that is.”

“Are you saying I can fly?”

“I say you are free.”

– Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Jonathan knows that flight is a window – a window to discover what he can and can’t do in the air. Happy, hungry, learning – yes, and even dying to know his limitations. Not content to be just another one of the flock, he fights to uncover what he has the potential to become, with speed and courage there as teacher.

I wonder to myself, what is it like to soar high above these cliffs and waters? To escape earthly limitations and be free to dance on the wind. My wings aren’t broken, so why do I live like they are? Why don’t I shout into the wind?

I return to the hotel, but the gull is still on my mind, my mind restless and distracted. It’s two hours until my flight. Once again, I think about what would it be like to soar over that beach, like the gull before he was rendered flightless by a broken wing.

The gull is still there.

Why am I so distracted? I am blessed, I tackle interesting challenges each day, right here with my feet firmly planted on the ground. Then the beautiful faces of my family glide through my head.

Today, another side of me is calling and I am listening.

The gull is still there.

A decision is made. One pair of nude pumps goes in the bag. One pair of sandy sneakers goes on my feet.

I hop into a cab and five minutes later, I am dragging my roller bag up the hill through deep sand. This is the place where I will run, leap off a cliff and soar above the sea before catching the 4:50pm back to Texas.

I scrawl my initials and sign upwards of 75 places on over 10 pages of documents. Reading is optional because it isn’t going to change my mind. However, I do wonder how many lawyers were involved in this stack of liability-releasing madness.

The gull is still there. So, I will soar.

No thinking. Ready. Pull back. Lean. Walk forward. Run slowly. Silence. I hear only the wind now.

After a few moments, over my shoulder he asks if I want to really feel it now. Lean into it and feel the real power of this freedom.

Absolutely ready. We soar away from the cliff towards the water. Lean to the left. Now, lean to the right – HARD.

I feel it, I am soaring. Spiraling through the air, the force pulling me. I see fragments of water, fragments of canyon wall. I think of nothing but this moment. The bliss is without bounds and I scream into the wind.

Again.

This time, I release the death grip I have on my harness and once again scream into the sunlit silence. After a few moments, my feet with the sandy shoes are back on the ground firmly planted on the exact same spot where they started. Now I have seen what the gull with the broken wing has seen. Felt the joyful bliss of staring down a fear and overcoming self-imposed limitations.

I think once again of Jonathan Seagull…

“He was alive, trembling ever so slightly with delight, proud that his fear was under control…He swallowed, knowing that if his wings unfolded at that speed he’d be blown into a million tiny shreds of seagull. But the speed was power, and the speed was joy, and the speed was pure beauty.”

Why did I decide today was the day to strap myself into a harness with a Korean named Ki, jump off a cliff and soar out over the San Diego coast?

Because in the light of dawn, a gull with a broken wing whose fate is sealed, taught me that mine is not.

—–

A special thanks to Ki at Torrey Pines Glidersport for taking me to new heights. You made me laugh all along the way.

Author’s Note: This post originally appeared on lifeonespoonfulatatime.com in August 2011.

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Travel Essays

Summer’s Winter in Paris

Paris is bewitching.

A thought which is far from original, but nonetheless, truer than the day is long. Throughout history, many a poet, artist, musician or otherwise have looked to and inhabited her for inspiration. The images and recollections are countless. I love to think about what life may have been like in the Paris of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. A talented, young and “lost” lot living along her two banks and lingering within her cafes. They came to her seeking the mental freedom and imagination with which to carve their places in literary history.

Ernest Hemingway once said of her:

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

A moveable feast. A veritable trove that leaves a deep and lasting impression. One that be called upon whenever and from wherever when you need a dose of inspiration. That is solid gold.

I had been to Paris once before, over a decade ago. But when I arrived this past July, with a prepaid 5e address, plenty of time and impressionable offspring, it was an altogether different experience. This time it was Paris in the summer. This time I was thirstier. This time she affected me.

I pulled up to her table, watched carefully and became forever intoxicated by what I saw.

I saw her feast.

Strolling along the narrow streets of Montmartre

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Sunning in the Parc de la Tour Saint-Jacques in Le Marais

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Clowning across the Pont des Artes

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Performing in the Place de Tertre

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Reading at a café in the 5e arrondissement

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Mooning along the Rive Gauche

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Standing behind the Sacré Coeur de Montmartre

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And reclining in the Jardin du Luxembourg

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Sure she contains amazing buildings and more famous art than you can shake a stick at. And the food, well it makes a girl scream with ecstasy. But, for me, the real moveable feast lies in her stories. Those etched forever in her mortar and written upon the faces of her people – both native and immigrant.

Wait, who is that?  She’s not a Parisian. How’d she get in here?  My oh my, she has more lines around her eyes than I remember, especially when she smiles. Looks like the girl hiding behind that cotton candy became a woman while no one was looking. Then fell in love with Paris in the summer. She came looking for her own kind of mental freedom and was lucky enough to take the feast with her.

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Summer is long gone and it is now the dead of winter. Mental freedom has given way to something more akin to the Twilight Zone. One continuous abstraction with absurd twists, copious doses of reality and a touch of the macabre. It seems the girl with the newish laugh lines now finds herself standing in the mud out in the pouring rain. But perhaps the rain is not real, only imagined. Maybe it’s just a technically-sophisticated special effect in the new plot line being filmed on Soundstage 4. Maybe there is an escape hatch just under foot or a vintage Monte Carlo around the next corner, gassed up and ready to play the getaway car. Maybe, just maybe.

Weeks back, I wandered around the Dallas Museum of Art for a bit. The first work I laid my eyes upon was a print by the French artist, Félix Buhot, entitled Winter in Paris (1879). I studied it closely.

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Such a very different era than the one I inhabit. One with horse-drawn stagecoaches being pushed through deep snow. Life in a by-gone Paris in the dead of winter. I stood motionless before this timeless work and was struck by its intense melancholy. But mostly I stood transfixed by the woman in the elegant coat holding her young daughter’s hand, crossing the street and looking straight at me. She was and remains part of the feast.

Then I remembered the feast I took with me. The one that lives inside me, for all seasons. Which now serves as my summer’s winter in Paris.

Author’s Note: This post originally appeared on lifeonespoonfulatatime.com in December 2013.

 

 

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Travel Essays

Ebb and Flow

A while back I read a piece about the differences in the way Eastern cultures and Western cultures view life. It boils down like this. Eastern cultures tend to accept the ebb and flow – the natural process of destruction, cleansing and rebirth that often happens several times throughout the course of one’s life. Conversely, Western cultures (in this case, the US being the comparison) tend to see life as a linear process of sustained upward development. One in which we (those experiencing life) exert control over our position and outcomes. The first view is naturalistic or even perhaps fatalistic. The other, while vastly more egocentric, holds within it the promise of self-made progress, or Manifest Destiny. Also sometimes known as CONTROL. I suspect religion has a large influence here, but I won’t even go there.

It seems to me that we Western sorts have a rather dismal record of dealing with uncertainty. We have been conditioned to stand in judgement of ourselves (and others) when faced with setbacks or restarts. What I find perplexing is how we don’t see the silliness of it all. How we have been sold a bill of goods that keeps us weighed down rather than that life-affirming chance at a big flush of the toilet.  We have been trained to think up is the only way and down is a dirty secret. Rather than seeing setbacks or natural cycles as grand opportunities for cleansing and renewal, instead we let our internal jury convict with little to no evidence – leading to shame, depression and despair. Then, when we are unable to live in the constant upside, we seek solace in our consumption – whether alcohol, IKEA, drugs, sex or the Kardashians, the numbing ensues and the Technicolor of life in either direction grows dim. For there is no true joy without true sorrow and by buffering one we also buffer the other.

What we are left with is a watered down and backed up mess.

But, nature has in her toolbox an infinite number of devices for resetting the stage. She uses them all constantly. From the extreme such as earthquakes, hurricanes and forest fires, to the twice daily rise and fall of the ocean tides. Today, I had the opportunity (or perhaps they had the misfortune) of explaining the concept of high and low tide to my small children. Remember these are seriously land-locked offspring, so this is not a concept with which they are intimately familiar. My explanation would have probably made my sixth grade science teacher wonder why she wasted her time, but to illustrate my Neanderthal explanation, we visited the same beach in British Columbia twice in one day.

Once in the morning during low tide.

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And again in the afternoon during high tide.

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The tide went out leaving colonies of mussels exposed, huge driftwood timbers tossed about like tidily winks and the floor of the sea to air dry. Only hours later, it came rushing back in all its power and filled it all in again. Rinse and repeat. Twice daily. This experience and my infantile attempt to explain the magnificence of the natural world reminded me once again of the notable difference between the Eastern and Western way of thinking.

My take is that nature is a bad ass bitch that creates and destroys on cue. It seems only reasonable that the human experience should be the same. There are forces at work so vastly out of our control, yet our control-obsessed culture teaches us nothing of surrender. It seems this tool doesn’t fit neatly into the contemporary American toolbox.

So why can’t we just let go and ride the tide?

Being from Texas, I am all for making my own way in this life. Hell this is me down to the molecular level. I bet if you were to view my blood under a microscope, it might look something like Wiley Coyote whistling Dixie. Obviously I am no scientist and anyway, perhaps this is too personal, but I have found an ounce of peace in the surrender. Now, hey there, don’t go crazy and think I won’t fight when a fight is called for, but I no longer try to fight the natural course of things. For inevitably, the tide will go out and the tide will come in twice daily – ebb and flow. As it is in nature, it is in human life.

Author’s Note: This post originally appeared on lifeonespoonfulatatime.com in August 2013.

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Travel Essays

Crossing the White Nile

By some standards I was raised in humble circumstances, by others I was raised in stark privilege and opportunity. This duality is something I struggle to reconcile, but regardless of perspective, I’ve seen first-hand how education, a bit of ingenuity and shit-ton of hard work can take you to places you never dreamed possible. One odd job at a time, if that’s what it takes.

Places like riding shotgun on a questionably legal motorbike in the East Texas piney woods. Places like sleeping under a desk in architecture school to sleeping on a couch at the United Nations to putting my soul into hibernation while playing the advertising game. Places like the joyful vulnerability of motherhood and the immense sadness of losing a father too soon. Places like learning the art of negotiation in Geneva from a professor with wet, quivering lips to learning the art of traditional healing from a medicine man in a hut along Lake Bunyonyi. Places like atop 16,000 feet while looking into the eyes of my partner in this life, as a killer clot threatened to take him from us. Places like South Sudan in the midst of civil war to see something most say is impossible. Places like a twin-engine prop plane crossing the White Nile.

I spent only three short days on the ground in Yei, South Sudan, a spot of relative calm in a nascent nation taking two steps back. I had the unique opportunity to deposit a pint in a bankrupt blood bank, looked up at the stars from the floor of a teak forest, scrubbed in for hernia surgery on a teenage boy and sat under a mango tree with a ninety-three year old blind woman who has lived long enough to see peace in a land where most have only known war. There was black market fuel bought in recycled water bottles and dinner in an Ethiopian restaurant with no food. A mature male goat was exchanged in sincere appreciation for a well that now gives life-saving water, the sun rose over the Yei River and I held my ears as the man in the next guesthouse coughed up a lung for at least an hour each morning.

I did not, under any circumstances, eat termites.

I played sidekick to a dear friend who lives by “whatever it takes” and has drilled over 600 wells in his adopted land. He stops at nothing to embolden others and issued me a challenge, one I willingly accepted and I am undoubtedly stronger for.

A great man and his wife were my generous hosts. I saw how they uplift their community in the midst of desperate times and make the things happen that others say are impossible. They left me speechless.

When it was time to leave, we had to travel a few short miles on the “good side” of the road to Juba to get back to the airstrip. A few dozen miles ahead had recently become a path even the UN won’t travel, but we were still a fair distance away. Two uniformed soldiers motioned us over as we crossed the bridge on the outskirts of town. I held my breath as the truck edged to a stop. From the passenger seat, I looked briefly toward the soldiers out of the corner of my eye and saw a wild emptiness in the eyes of the taller one. This was the moment I had feared most. What did they want? I tried not to look directly at them as they uttered a few indecipherable words in Arabic. What they wanted I don’t truly understand, but after a few moments they let us pass. As we inched forward, I saw another soldier a few yards behind them with an automatic machine gun and full ammo belt aimed at the bridge.

Less than an hour later I was flying over the White Nile listening to a Western middle-aged-mother-of-two playlist on my tattered headphones. I asked myself the question, “How in the hell did I get here and what does it all mean?” How I got there was by invitation from a dear friend who told me to come see something miraculous for myself. So that’s what I did and I would do it again, for what I gained far outweighed one fearful moment.

The White Nile is one of the two rivers that come together form the main Nile, the longest waterway in the world. It is called the White Nile because of its milky waters created by the light-grey clay sediment it carries as it flows north. I now sit at a table in a guesthouse on the peaceful side of the White Nile, twenty-four hours after lifting off from a red-soil airstrip in South Sudan. I am swimming in the ex-pat bubble trying to separate and appreciate each and every experience I had on the ground there. I ask myself why I was given this place in the world and exactly what I’ve been put here to do. You see, I can simply lift off in a twin-engine prop plane and fly across the White Nile, because I won the latitude lottery. I have the privilege of spending a day across from a clay tennis court while drinking bottled water; pondering the places life takes me, making obscure references and posting pictures of a milky river in East Africa.

I wasn’t given the clarity of purpose many enjoy, but life is after all an iterative process. However, I do have clarity on one important fact – health, well being and prosperity are universal human rights worth fighting for. From this truth comes The Cassiopeia Project, a quest to uncover, invest in and bring forward innovative, locally-driven programs working to advance human potential.

Because…

We should be undeterred by things others consider impossible. We should be willing to wrestle with life instead of sitting on the bench. We should seek out and uplift great people and great ideas. We should make investments worth making. We should because we can fly over the White Nile.

I might just be crazy, but maybe, just maybe, I’m not.

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