Saturday, July 22, 2017

What is Wealth to You?

I realized that I haven't been writing much the past few years, and when I have been it has revolved around sharing memories from vacation experiences I have had. So I thought it was time to start "journaling" again and not focus so much on only highlighting epic moments in my life. I'd like to be able to look back and also remember the thoughts and feelings I was having on a more regular, real-life basis. So, here is my first post in that direction.

I recently began reading Tim Ferris' book called "Tools of Titans" after my good friend Chris gave it to me for my birthday. Within, Ferris highlights tricks from different people he has interviewed throughout his life, mostly on his podcast "The Tim Ferris Show." I was listening to one of those podcasts episodes on a Saturday afternoon on my way back from San Marcos, where I had class as part of my graduate degree program. Now I have to admit, this podcast (both this specific episode and in general) is not my favorite, because Ferris can often times come across as a very self-absorbed douchebag. And yes, I see the irony in the fact that I am making that statement while writing a blog post that I am assuming other people will read, but here we are. In this particular episode, Ferris was answering questions his listeners had voted on via Twitter, and as I sat my cruise control to 75 and was only half listening to his answers, he said something that actually hit home with me.

"Wealth is not stuff, wealth is time."

Now, out of context, this may not make much sense. But ultimately what it boiled down to was that Ferris was pointing out how he does not value materialistic things as much as other people he might encounter in his highly successful career, but rather he enjoys the freedom his success has given him. This freedom affords him the opportunities to test the tips and tricks he writes about in "Tools of Titans." His "wealth" allows him to choose experiences over "stuff" if he so chooses. His success gives him the flexibility to do what he wants, where he wants, when he wants. My ears popped up when I heard this, because that is exactly what I want for my life.

I've typically had a hard time explaining to people that I've never really felt motivated by money. I view myself as a hard-worker, and I am notorious in all my past jobs for never being late and rarely missing work due to illness or otherwise. However, most of my childhood I was fortunate enough to have the freedom to do whatever I pleased. School came easy to me, so there was never much stress involved with grades or homework. Sports also were second nature to me, probably because of the freedom my hardworking parents allowed me to have that basically translated into me playing any and every sport I wanted, whenever I wanted, wherever I wanted. Unfortunately, this did not translate well into my adult life. Despite my youthful dreams, I was not naturally physically gifted enough to turn sports into a profession. And despite obtaining degrees with relative ease, I had no direction for what I would do with my career as I transitioned into adult life.

Picking a major for my undergrad was difficult, as I was good at a lot of things but never great at any one thing (I made the exact same score on math as I did on verbal on my SAT's - 600/600, for example). I started in psychology, and ended up with a Bachelor of Science in Human Resource Development - that to this day I have never used. I just hoped my interpersonal skills might bode well for me in that field. The goal of moving to Austin blinded me to what the next step would be once I got here, because I was sure that getting here would lead to me being happier. I succeeded in getting here, but it didn't take long for me to start asking myself "well now what?"

Since then I've had jobs in customer service, sales, marketing, and even as a photographer, but could not figure out a calling or a passion. The goal of making money has never been my endgame, it has simply been the means to an end. Whether that be to continue to live Austin, travel more, or now to pay for graduate school, it has never been the idea of "wealth" that has propelled me forward. It is that longing for freedom, the ability to work on projects I am interested in, or passionate about, and the flexibility to work on those projects when and where I feel I would be most productive and/or happy. Knowing that, my smart and loving wife helped me find a graduate degree program in a field (Mass Communications in Digital Media) that hopefully will help me end up in an environment that resembles at least some of those goals.

It seems funny that most of us work jobs we don't like simply in the pursuit of financial wealth, just so we can purchase things that we hope will distract us from the unhappiness we feel in other aspects of our life. What is the point in having a car that is so expensive you are afraid to drive it? Or that in order to afford it you have to work so much that you don't have the time to drive it? I know I am not the first person exclaiming this feeling of wanderlust and wanting flexibility to not have to "keep up with Joneses," but I feel compelled to ask the people close enough to me that took the time to read this all the way through... what is wealth to you?

Friday, January 27, 2017

South by South America

Back in March, I was fortunate enough to use my week off from graduate school to visit my father. At the time, he was teaching English in the city of Quito, located in Andes mountains of Ecuador in South America. It was a chance to get out of Austin during one of the busiest weeks of the year, SXSW, and see my dad for the first time in over 6 months. Now, over 6 months later, I am reflecting back on the journey, which was my first time traveling internationally outside of going to Mexico for my senior trip after graduating high school.

Earlier that previous Fall, I actually had to go through the long process of getting my passport before I could take the trip, meaning I didn't have one until I was 28 years old (all I needed was a birth certificate to go to Mexico at the time). Once I was over that hurdle, I booked my flight, and let my dad know that his Christmas present was that I was officially coming to visit him. We were both very excited that we would get to share the experience together.

My flight to Quito included a long layover in Miami, were talking 8 hours, which I spent in an Irish pub in the airport drinking one too many pints of Guinness, because despite having taken long flights before, I was still pretty anxious about both the flight and the trip in general. However, I lucked out with an exit row seat (on the biggest plane I have ever been on), which meant I had plenty of legroom for the remaining 6 hour flight. I landed at the Quito Mariscal Sucre International Airport around 10:30 PM local time, and earned my first passport stamp. I met my dad just outside the baggage claim, excited that my checked bag had also made it to South America with me. We took a long but seemingly tame cab ride to his apartment, caught up while watching a soccer game on TV, and tried to get some rest for the big week my father had planned for us that would begin the next morning.

We awoke early on Sunday morning, and my dad made us breakfast. Then we set out on first "big venture." We walked through the mostly empty city streets down to the closest bus station, and took the bus to Parque La Carolina, essentially Quito's version of Central Park. There were people walking dogs, rollerblading, playing soccer, basketball, and volleyball. We walked past the soccer stadium across the street, and bought passes for a bus tour that would take us outside the city to Pululahua and Mitad del Mundo. We got to sit up top on the double-decker bus, and the hour long bus ride took us through a lot of the city, which had a very impressive graffiti art scene that covered a lot of the walls we passed by.

Our first stop of the tour was the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve. "Pululahua" means “cloud of water” or fog, and is a collapsed volcano that erupted over 2500 years ago. The view overlooking the now extremely fertile valley was impressive. I was thankful I brought my GoPro for the trip, which
provided some great wide angled shots, and I had to own up shamelessly to using the "selfie stick" I brought along as well. Another interesting thing about Quito is how drastically the weather changes throughout the course of a single day. As you can see in the picture, I have on a pullover plus a rain jacket, when I started the day in a t-shirt and was sweating while siting in the park. Bringing layers everywhere we went was something dad had thankfully prepared me for.
There was also a performer playing a pan flute, which if you've seen that episode of South Park would understand why I found that so funny.

Next on the tour, we went to Intinan Museum. This museum was small, but very informative, which appealed to my history teaching father. We got to take our photos while standing on the equator line. The demonstrations the guides provided were fun, such as showing how water swirled in different directions when funneled through a hole while on opposite sides of the equator, shrunken heads, and tribal dances. The next leg of the tour took us to the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, or "Middle of the World," which is a large monument constructed in 1979 to honor a French expedition in 1736 to map the equatorial line. We enjoyed some local beers and coffee at the shops nearby before taking the bus back into the city and heading back to the apartment. It was a great first day.

The next morning, we headed down to Centro Histórico, or "Old Town," which is the oldest part of Quito, to witness the weekly changing of the palace guards at the presidential palace on Plaza Grande or Independence Plaza. The President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, appeared on the balcony and waved to all of us in the crowd. It was the first time I have ever seen a president of a country in person before. It was cool to see the long standing tradition in person, as guards lined the square, road in on horses, and there were even police present in riot gear. Unplanned, we ended up running into some people my dad knew from the church he had been attending while living there, and we all went to grab coffee and lunch together after the ceremony concluded.

After lunch, we walked to the Basílica del Voto Nacional, which the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas. Building began in 1892, and I had never seen a church this big before in person. It reminded me of the types of architecture you would find in Spain. We climbed the steps to the top of the spires, where we had magnificent views of the most historic parts of Ecuador. Although we did not visit another famous landmark in Quito, the "Virgen de Quito" statue atop El Panecillo, we had a great view of the hill and the statue atop from the church. You can see the spires and the statue in the picture to the right. I was impressed with the beauty of the architecture in this part of Quito.

Our next stop in this part of the city would be a hostel I had read about online that was supposed to have a great rooftop bar. My dad had warned me that he hadn't experienced a lot of nightlife since he had been in the city, so I wanted to try and find somewhere laid back where we could drink a few beers and maybe meet some other travelers. It took a little exploring to find the appropriately named Secret Garden hostel, we found our way onto the roof and rested our weary feet on the beautiful patio, drinking tall bottles of South American beer. Originally I thought we might just have one or two and head home, but we began getting into convesation with interesting travelers from Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, and other interesting places. As the sun set, a fire was started in the pit and dinner was served, so we stayed and watched the historic downtown light up. We shared stories and cigarettes with our new friends, and if I ever find myself in Quito again in the future, I know exactly where I will be staying.

The next morning, we had breakfast and then took a cab to a popular gondola called the Teleferico, which takes visitors up a few thousand feet on the western slopes of Pichincha, an active volcano. We got there early enough to be one of the first people up the mountain, and our early arrival also ensured a clearer view of the city before the inevitable clouds blew in for the typical afternoon rain showers.

From the Teleferico, there are trails you can follow that take you up the rest of the mountain volcano, which dad had ventured up a few times (but never all the way to the top). After about an hour or so of hiking (which is a lot more difficult than it sounds at that altitude - over 10,000 feet) we reached a sketchy part of the trail, which is where my dad had turned around each time he had made it that far when previously hiking up there. We thought about turning back, but earlier on our hike had picked up a solo traveler (ironically enough also from Texas) and when we saw him successfully maneuver the part of the trail to continue on-ward, we decided we too would try to take on the mountain. After that, we caught up with some more hikers (this time from Holland), and we felt a little bit better about continuing up the sometimes treacherous trail. After a couple hours, we made it all the way to the top! At over 14,000 feet, it was definitely a challenging experience, but both dad and I knew we were thankful to have done it. It's not everyday you can say you climbed to the top of a mountain volcano in South America!

Having not been quite properly prepared to be hiking for 6+ hours, we were exhausted (and dehydrated / famished) by the time we got back down the mountain. So after eating, we spent the rest of the day recovering at dad's apartment. We knew we needed to get our rest of the rest of the week.

The next morning, we packed up and caught a bus to another bus station, where we would board a different bus to take us outside of Quito and into the jungle. We were headed to Mindo, Ecuador, known for it's "Cloud Forest." It was a nice change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Quito, and after an only somewhat terrifying couple of hours on the bus on some windy mountain roads, we arrived in the sleepy tourist town of Mindo. Dad had been here before as well, and had found a great hotel for us to stay in. We checked in, dropped off our bags, and found a restaurant to eat at right on the river which runs through town. We sipped beers, and watched as dozens of hummingbirds fed on the feeders hanging around the patio we were sitting on. We spent a long time here just soaking in the sound of the river, talking with the different travelers, and enjoying the time getting to spend together.  Afterwards, we took advantage of the ping pong table back at our hotel. That night, the owner of our hotel had his band perform for the guests, playing authentic Peruvian and Ecuadorian music including pan flutes, and it felt like we were getting our own SXSW experience all the way down in the Cloud Forest. It was also nice to end the night in a real bed versus the somewhat uncomfortable couch I had been sleeping on back in Quito.

The next morning, we took a taxi down a very wet, muddy, potholed filled mountain road to the "Terabit," which is a cable-car that takes visitors over the top of the Cloud Forest canopy and over to the other side where there are trails you can hike to a bunch of different waterfalls. Despite my fear of heights (and the somewhat sketchy looking cable car that was powered by an old car engine) it was awesome to be gliding across the top of the jungle. We hiked for a few hours to a couple different waterfalls, and I couldn't help but get in the water at one of them (despite some reservations about a certain kind of fish we had heard about on an earlier tour...). It was one of the most green places I have ever seen in person, and was a great way to spend St. Patrick's Day. We were enjoying Mindo so much that we decided to stay an extra night, taking in the live music one more time before departing back to Quito the following morning.

Once back in Quito, I began packing up my stuff since I would be leaving the next day. We spend time in the garden behind my dad's apartment building, enjoying the beautiful view of the mountains. We went to dinner in a nice part of town and had a great meal with some terrific wine, then casually walked through the city back to dad's apartment. We woke up the next morning to go have some breakfast and coffee, and then grabbed a cab back to the airport. A tear-filled hug, and back to America and reality I went. It was absolutely the trip of a lifetime, and I am so grateful I got to spend time with my dad and best friend for my first trip abroad. Dad successfully moved back to Texas, and I am so proud of him for taking the leap to do something he had always wanted to do which was live abroad. He truly is the most interesting man in the world. I hope we can both look back at this post and relive such a wonderful trip, and I hope we get to take another one somewhere like this again sometime soon! Thanks for reading, Cheers!