Surf’s Up: Part 3

I went to Puerto Rico for New Year’s this year.  I had never been before, and it was burning a hole in my bucket list.  I was dying to get there.

When we decided to go, one of the women I was going with told me about Rincon, the surf town in the northwest of the island.  I immediately signed up for surf lessons.

It has been years since I last surfed, but I was focused on getting back on a board.

PR Surfing

It was a lot harder then I remembered.  The paddling turned my arms into spaghetti.  The rocks under the water make my legs look like purple eggplants.  The surf rash turned my belly into hamburger.  (I must be hungry as I write this!!)

But, it was also so much more rewarding than I remembered.  I earned every wave I caught.  Each ride was a celebration.  Every time I made it back out after seemingly endless paddling was a triumph.  The turtle that swam by my board was a miracle.

It is clear:  I am not a natural surfer.  But without any doubt:  I am a surfer. 

 

Now You See It–Now You Don’t

When I started seriously traveling I bought a camera.  Two actually.  Traveling and photography and complementary disciplines.

I religiously took photos across Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe.  I catalogued the pictures based on location, who I was with, why I was there.  I am great at creating organization systems, and I had I system I was very proud of.

I published some of the pictures on Facebook, some on this blog. Others I just kept.  I also digitized all my old photo albums and added those to the library, painstakingly noting dates and locations.

It was all going swimmingly, until…

Yep.

I lost it all.  I had too many photos and iPhoto became corrupt and somehow the backups weren’t backing up my pictures and my hard disk backup was also corrupted.  The chances of all this happening are infinitesimal.  The geniuses at Apple assured me I was special.

I didn’t feel special.  I felt miserable.  I felt picked on.

Until, I had an epiphany.  Two actually.

The first:  if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it still freaking fell.  Just because I don’t have the pictures of what I did and where I went and who I met didn’t mean it didn’t happen.

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Pictures are a memento of travel, not the point of it.  I still climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.  I still dove at the Great Barrier Reef.  I still floated in the Dead Sea.  It sucks that I don’t have the pics, but I have the memories.

The second:  things are just things.  And, they can often be recreated.  When my mom died I inherited the ring she wore everyday.  It was a garnet (my birthstone) surrounded by pearls, in a diamond shape setting on a simple gold band.  I loved that ring when my mom wore it, and spent hours playing with it while it was on her finger.  It meant the world to me after she died.  Until…

Yep.

I lost it.  At my company’s gym.  I took it off to workout, and somehow it disappeared.  I was miserable.

Until I had an epiphany.  Things are just things.

Mom

My mom didn’t raise me to be materialistic.  This ring was just important to me because of the symbolic connection to my mom. So, I went to a jeweler and had them make me a replica.  It means as much to me as the original would.

So, with my pictures, I found a company who can restore corrupt digital files. They said they were able to restore 18,357 of the 19,146 files that were on the hard drive.  The restored files are sitting unopened under my desk, waiting for me to be ready to start my photo library from scratch again.

Surf’s Up: Part 2

My next few times surfing after Hawaii I realized what a fluke my first experience had been.  In San Diego, Costa Rica and Mexico the ocean kicked my ass much harder than it had in Hawaii.  The water was colder.  The beaches were rockier.  My body immediately broke out into surf rash whenever I looked at a board.  And the waves were not as easy to catch.

But, I kept at it.  Like a true addict I turned a blind eye to the signs that I was hurting myself.  I laughed off my arms that were so sore I couldn’t lift them to brush my hair.  I slathered on aloe vera and Neosporin to my surf rash, pretending my body didn’t look like I had taken a cheese grater to it.  And I was secretly proud of all the bumps and bruises making me look like a 7-year old girl at the end of summer.

Every wave I actually caught washed away the pain.

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And, it wasn’t just the thrill of the ride I craved.  I relished the whole ritual.  Waking up before dawn, and waxing my board.  Carrying it down to the beach, my feet tortured by the pebbled roads.  Paddling out in the dark, silent water.  Watching the sunrise over the horizon.  Straddling the board and gently rocking as I watched the first class surfers cutting across the sea.  Spotting the occasional turtle or dolphin.  And, yes, riding the few waves I managed to catch.

Surfing taught me patience.  And living in the moment.  And that the wave missed is just as beautiful as the wave caught.  And that anything worth doing is worth working hard for.

Surfing taught me that I am strong, and can be graceful, and have great determination.  It reminded me to look around, catch my breath, and just go for it.

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That’s me…standing up…and surfing!

Riveting Travel

When I left my job a few years ago, I wasn’t sure what job I’d want to do next.  I have never looked for a job in my life, things have just evolved naturally and easily.  Some call it lucky, some call it lazy.  Either way, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, and thinking about it was new to me.

While I was traveling and learning about the world and myself, I started writing.  When I was younger I used to write, but for decades this passion was dormant.  But, slowly at first, and then with more and more energy, it started to reawaken.

I spent a year and a half writing.  Going to conferences.  Attending workshops.  Meeting with writing groups.  Reading books.  And writing.  I started this blog, I wrote several children’s books and I completed a novel.

And, I am still writing.  It feels great to have ideas run through my head, and to chase them from my head onto the paper.  It is a challenging and rewarding craft.

Last summer, another opportunity fell into my lap.  I still wasn’t looking for an actual job, but a friend started a company and he wanted me to be the general manager.  I offered him three days a week.

Nine months later I am working 60 hours a week for this new gig.  It is an internet news radio company called Rivet News Radio, and we launched our app on iOs in December.

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I would never in a million years have applied to work as general manager of an internet news mobile app.  I don’t have any experience in journalism, broadcast or otherwise.  I have never launched a consumer mobile app.  I have never been involved in VC fundraising.  Or even really been a radio news person.

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But, I am a crazy internet news junkie.  During my travels over the last 3 years I have become a BBC fanatic.  My friends make fun of me for how many times a week I forward them articles from BBC.com that I think they’ll find interesting.

It makes sense.  I am interested in the world around me, so finding out current events is relevant to me.  More often than not, I have been to the cities and countries being discussed, and/or I know people living there.

So, working with the news is just an extension of my passion about travel.  I wouldn’t have put that together myself, but here I am.

You can call it lazy or lucky; I call it happy.

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Prague Marathon

I am not an athlete.   My sister is.  We have good genes.  We are both strong.  We have good body proportions.  We are coordinated.

But when she wakes up she will move mountains to squeeze in a 20-minute workout.  I will move mountains to squeeze it a visit to Starbucks for coffee and a sausage sandwich.  That’s the real difference.

But, because of my sister mostly, I have always been a borderline athlete.  I ran track and cross-country in high school (she medaled regularly—I didn’t).  I did Tae Kwon Do with her (she got a black belt—I didn’t).

So, the idea of running a marathon wasn’t entirely insane.  When I got it into my head, nobody suggested medication to control my delusions.  But, it was definitely a stretch.

I realized quickly that I needed to somehow commit in a serious way, otherwise it would be too easy to back out.  First, I found a friend who was going to do it with me.  But, I worried she would back out, so I needed more of a commitment.  I decided to sign up for a marathon in a different city—even a different country.  If I got a plane ticket, a hotel, told the world, I couldn’t back out.

It immediately came to me:  Prague!  Prague is an important city to me since I spent my last semester of university there.  I met a guy I fell in love with there, and he was a significant part of my 20’s.  And, my mom came to visit me there.  Every experience tied to my mom was more significant after she died.  Plus, it is a very flat city (minus the giant hill of the castle).

So, I decided on Prague, which meant May (2000).  That meant training through the winter — in Chicago.  Running the streets in ice and snow was a daily experience.  The alternative was running 10-15 miles on a treadmill—not fun.

This marathon was becoming more and more significant.  It was a chance to visit a city in which I transitioned from kid to adult.  It was a chance to prove to myself I could set a challenge and achieve it.

My sister and my aunt flew to Prague to cheer me on for the five hours—yes, it took me grueling hours—to finish the race.  That is love and dedication and support that is unparalleled.

And, at the start of the race I met Amy-Catherine, and woman who was also running her first marathon and with whom I have stayed close.  Amy-Catherine is a being so full of love and lightness and energy and smiles that we ran the whole race together, with our arms above our heads waving at the throngs of supporters.  Every time someone cheered or clapped for us, we waved.  By mile 15, I couldn’t move my arms any more.  I hadn’t done my hours of training in the dark cold Chicago streets with my arms waving above my head.  They throbbed.  I thought they might literally fall off.

At mile 22, Amy-Catherine got a surge of energy, and I told her to go on.  I was puttering out.  They were literally taking the race course apart as I ran I was so far in the back of the pack.  I was spent.  I felt like quitting.  Just then, my sister appeared at my side and ran the last 4.2 miles with me, not letting me walk, not letting me quit.

When I crossed the finish line under the famous Prague clock tower I burst into tears.  I had been here with my mom.  I was here with my sister.  And I had just pushed my body to the extreme with the help of them both, as well as the magical city of Prague.

Surf’s Up: Part 1

I learned to surf on a whim.  My friend Ellen had a work trip in Hawaii (Oahu) and I tagged along, staying for free in her room.  During the day she worked her ass off in 12-plus-hours of standards meetings, and at night we drank Mai Tais together with her colleagues.  While she was stuffed in a conference room debating the merits of our company’s way to store map data on a CD versus our competitors, I roamed the island.

Sure, I felt a little guilty.  But, dwelling on the injustice wasn’t going to do either of us any good.  I’d wake up, go to the gym, hit the Japanese style breakfast, walk along the beach, shop, get a fruit shake and sushi for lunch, play in the waves, and shop in the craft markets.  By the time Ellen returned from each day’s meetings, I would be waiting with Mai Tais in hand on our balcony, full of energy to listen about her day’s frustrations under the fluorescent lights.

Mai Tais

That is probably how my week would have progressed—not a bad week!—if I hadn’t met Mike.  Mike with his big smile and muscled torso was standing at my fruit shake stand.  Like the neighborhood crack dealer, he offered me my first surf lesson for free.

And, as he somehow knew I would be, I was hooked.  It was only an hour, and it involved very little paddling and was not long enough for me to develop surf rash.  I had no idea the pain and effort surfing involved.  All I knew was that standing up on a surfboard was an incredible rush—a strange combination of zen and pride, peace and adrenaline.

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For our second day’s lesson he drove us to the North Shore, our boards casually slung in the back of his pickup truck.

My eyes widened as I saw the waves. The huge waves. The waves that could wash away the entire pick up truck.

Mike looked at me, smiled his magnetic smile, and rubbed my shoulders in encouragement.  “You’ll love it.  You were a champ yesterday.  You’ll do great!”

Who was I to challenge this maestro of his sport.  If he said I’d be great, surely he knew best.

With forced bravado I carried my board into the water, and started paddling out behind Mike.

Within minutes the illusion cracked.

Surfing is hard.  Ridiculously hard.

As I lay on my belly and paddled my arms as hard as I could, I was barely inching forward.  Worse, every few seconds a giant wave would crash in front of me.  And I kept being slammed in the face with white water, occasionally being knocked from the board completely.

Whenever Mike looked back at me I managed to smile, and pretend that this weird waterboarding paddling treadmill wasn’t pure torture.  I refused to give up.  I kept paddling.

Pretty soon my knees, thighs and belly were covered with something I would learn is called surf rash.  Tiny red raw bumps caused by a reaction to surf wax, that were screeching in pain in the salt water and every time I slid them over the board.

Twenty minutes later, I finally made it “out.”  I was past the breaking waves, into the calm of the open water.  I paddled bravely over Mike, who was straddling is board, keeping an eye on me and the ocean.

“Ready for your first wave?” he asked, skipping the gushing praise I thought I deserved for getting out.  “After you catch the wave, paddle back to me.”

That’s when the illusion shattered into pieces.  Every time I rode a wave into shore I would have to paddle back through the white water.

Swallowing, I assumed the position, and paddled with all my might as the wave Mike indicated started to break right behind me.  “Pop up!” I heard him call out behind me, and my body obeyed.  I stood up, and was surfing.

I turned my head and Mike’s fists were in the air, celebrating my success.  I turned back to shore and rode the wave, my body electric with joy.  After jumping off the board, I began the long painful paddle back to Mike, and back to my next fix.

Exercises in Style

In my continuing research about how to be a writer, I picked up a copy of Exercises in Style written in 1947 by Raymond Queneau.

exercises in style

I was instantly amazed and amused by the book.  It tells the same simple story 99 times, each in a different style.  The story is:  man gets on a bus, sees an altercation between two passengers, then sees one of those same passengers a couple hours later getting fashion advice.

Short and simple, right?

Like so much in life, the brevity and simplicity is part of the genius.

Queneau’s 99 versions, each stylized in a different way, are priceless.  As I was reading it, I imagined how much fun he had writing it.  Like the best courses, this seminar in writing entertains as it educates.  Not only does it instruct on the different types of styles it is possible to employ in the craft of writing, it also demonstrates the effect of each.

American Female on the Loose: Part II

In writing this series of entries, I have realized I actually do think about gender more than I knew.  So much so, in fact, that I have developed my own set of expectations (okay, maybe biases or stereotypes is more accurate) for how I will be treated by men in different cultures.

I used to think the USA was gender neutral.  I grew up here, and because of that experience, I am fortunate enough to assume that I will be treated as an equal member of society.  No one looks twice at me driving myself, paying for myself, walking by myself.

I have learned that is not universally true around the world.

A case in point is the Middle East.

I took at sightseeing trip to Israel, and then went scuba diving in the Red Sea.  When I got to Israel, I started to understand what it would really be like to be somewhere gender neutral.  (Disclaimer: I know this may be offensive to Israeli men, but I am only recounting my experiences.)

In Israel, my friend Valeria and I were pushed, shoved, had doors slammed in our faces, were expected to carry our own (very heavy) scuba tanks and kayaks, and even had tall men push us aside at a concert so they could stand in front of us and get a better view.

These are behaviors I take for granted as being frowned upon in the “gender neutral” USA.  It made me realize that the USA is not really gender neutral, and I am okay with that.  I don’t mind living in a nation that is “gender aware,” where the taxi driver will help me with my luggage and my male friends will offer me their sweaters if it is cold outside.

I decided (because I am always doing root cause analysis in the back of my mind) that, in Israel, the fact that Israeli woman serve right beside men in the army is, perhaps, why there is such gender-blindness in how men treat women in public.  I don’t mean to imply that I am against women serving in the U.S. military – quite the contrary.

But because 100% of the population serves in the military in Israel, and woman are enlisted along with men, my theory is that has changed the societal norms for that country.  Thoughts?

So, coming from Israel where we felt genderless, it was a complete shock when we crossed the border into Jordan.  On the one hand, we were looked after.  Our dive masters carried our heavy tanks, took care of our fins, and offered to escort us to dinner afterwards.

They were protective and kind, and fun to be around.  On the other hand, I had one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life there.  When my dive master, Akmed, and I were coming out of the ocean after snorkeling, a man was walking by with his two sons.  The man asked if I would take a picture with his boys (2 and 5 years old).  I said yes, by now used to being my own walking tourist attraction.

But, his sons were terrified of me: a foreign speaking blond lady wearing just a bathing suit (in a conservative Muslim country where woman’s bodies are modestly covered).  They started crying, and screaming, and pleading, and grabbing on to their fathers’ legs, trying desperately not to be forced any closer to me.  I smiled and started to walk on, sure that Dad saw how bad an idea the photo was.

Nope.  The father started to physically force the boys closer to me, and their screams raised to bloody murder level, as huge tears poured down their faces and snot streamed out of their noses.  I kept walking, and the father started yelling something at me and Akmed.  Akmed shook his head no, and told me to keep walking.  Apparently the dad wanted us to help wrangle his hysterically terrified children, and now wanted me to pick his younger son up for a picture.

We escaped into the confines of the dive center, with the children’s inconsolable wails and the father’s angry shouts audible through the walls.

It’s a lesson in being careful what you wish for.  I claim to want gender neutrality, but when I experienced it, I was irritated at the disrespect and wanted to be seen as a woman.  Hours later, I was treated very differently for being a woman, and longed to disappear into the cloak of gender neutrality.

Those contrasting experiences within one trip highlight the magic of travel.  Travel isn’t just an opportunity to learn about the world, it is a chance to learn about yourself.  And, in some cases, what I’ve learned (about a place or about me) can be confusing, or uncomfortable.  In all cases, I am a better person for having learned it.

Mongolia Infection

My sister took me on the Trans Siberian Rail, from Beijing to Moscow.

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That experience is fodder for a future blog entry (or series), where I hope I’ll be able to capture how truly life-changing it was.

But, I want to carve out our time in Mongolia separately.

Mongolia was unexpected, awesome, fascinating, and infecting.  By infecting, I mean I “caught” an unexpected love for the country and its history and its people.

In preparing for the trip, I had read all kinds of accounts of the Trans Siberian experience itself, and I had read about the nomadic camp in the Gobi desert thatin which we’d be staying in a ger tent.  So I had done my research, but I hadn’t really spent any time considering its people, history or culture.

After having “caught my infection” I am now an avid reader of Mongolian current events, and am fascinated by its history, ancient and modern.

First, our trip…

We exited the train at Ulan Baatar, Mongolia’s capital city, and were struck by the juxtaposition between being in the middle of nowhere, and being in a highly industrialized soviet city.

That is only the first of many contrasts we encountered: food that is a cross between Russian, Chinese and “nomadic”; a language that is written in Cyrillic (although the Mongols are highly resentful of their Soviet history); a poor economy, rich in minerals (see Soviet resentment); a people who are working to regain their pride, identity and nationalism, and yet trying to also enter the modern world culture and economy.

All of this is dizzying, and I found it addictive as well.

On our drive to the nomadic camp where we stayed in a ger tent (which is like a yurt) for a few days, our modern van broke down.  So, we had to hike miles through the Gobi Desert, until we were rescued by carts and horses.

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At the ger camp, we rode horses, watched cultural shows, feasted, drank fermented milk, and hiked in the desert.  And we played volleyball, fell in love with the wild dogs, and flirted with the cowboys.

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It was sad to say goodbye to Mongolia, it was, by far, the hardest place to leave on the whole trip.

When I got back to Chicago, I was still buzzing with my love for the place, and quickly read two books:

1. Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World 2. Michael Walter’s The Shadow Walker

Between these two books, you get an excellent idea of the ancient history of and the current situation in Mongolia.

The best thing about Weatherford’s book on Khan is that he focuses on more than the bloodthirsty conquering aspect of the historic icon.  I finished his book with a real appreciation of why the Mongols are trying to resurrect him as a national hero.  Of course, they want to identify with the man who helped the Mongols become a fearsome powerhouse (he conquered more in his reign than the Romans did in centuries).  But, also, they want to celebrate the progressive man who promoted tolerance of religion and cultures, and who opened new trade and communication channels.

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Walters’ fictional murder mystery was fun to read because Ulan Baatar and a ger camp make up the setting, and he does an entertaining job of bringing to light a lot of modern Mongolia’s quirks and challenges through the eyes of a foreign (British) detective.

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I can’t honestly be sure if I would have enjoyed the book if I hadn’t been to Mongolia, or at least had an interest in it.  But, as both are true, I turned the pages as excited to see how Inspector Nergui solved the crime as I was to read about the setting and surrounding events.

I think of Mongolia on a daily basis, since I have named my dog Gobi.  She looks just like one of the dogs my sister and I met and adopted for the duration of our stay.  Like my dog, my memories of Mongolia are never far from my heart.

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American Female on the Loose: Part I

Something I really do not spend a lot of mindshare on is my gender.  I love being a woman; I am proud of it, I wouldn’t change it for the world.  But, I simply don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.

During all my travels, it has become clear that the rest of the world sees me as a woman, first and foremost.  Some of the my most colorful memories are directly related to the fact that I am a woman, and I am thankful for each and every one.

Here are just a few cherished nuggets…

Africa

Traveling in Africa (Mali and Ethiopia specifically) as a solo female traveler allowed me to interact with local women and children in a way I would not have otherwise been able to.  I was alone, so the interaction felt intimate and non-intimidating.  And because I’m a woman, there weren’t any social taboos preventing the women from touching me, inviting me into their homes, handing me their babies, inviting me to cook with them.

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Girls braided my hair, boys held my hand so I wouldn’t fall on steep hills or in rivers, women invited me to dance at weddings and try on their clothes.  I had given embarrassingly little thought to what it would mean to travel alone as a woman in Africa, and I am glad I didn’t.

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Instead of feeling afraid or self-conscious I was ready to embrace these moments of joy.

Morocco

Road tripping through Morocco gave me some slightly less pleasant, but nonetheless, memorable moments.  And, as every traveler knows, sometimes the worst experiences make the best stories and most vivid memories.  This is true about my Moroccan experiences.

An old woman threw stones at me because my calves were exposed (I am sure my blond hair didn’t help), teenage boys spit at me (I assume for the same reason), a man tried to buy me from my boyfriend (who was posing as my brother), and a woman pressured me to marry her son and take him to America.

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I safely pin-balled my way through this series of bizarre events, heightened in their craziness by my dysentery and our rental car’s breakdown in the Sahara.  While these experiences only occurred as a result of my gender, I also believe (maybe in a sexist way) that, had I been a man subjected to these insults, tensions would have surely escalated.  Instead, I accepted them as cultural phenomena and moved on.

Portugal

In Portugal, my friend Ellen and I were invited aboard a warship, and given a private tour of the bridge.  The ship was open for public tours, so the fact that we were invited aboard had nothing to do with our gender.  But, all the other tours were groups of twenty-five people, and none were invited to the bridge.

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Just moments earlier we had been lamenting that we had spent our entire weekend in Portugal without getting on a boat, and if we hadn’t been women, I think the weekend would have ended boat-less as well.

Zanzibar

There were three gender-specific moments in Zanzibar.  Two occurred in Stone Town.  One was in the market, where I was given a tour through all the meats, fruits, vegetables and spices.  The first section we went through was the seafood section, and the smells were overpowering — as were some of the images of fish being hacked to bits.

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But when we got to the meat section, I found myself wishing we were still with the fish, as the bloody cow heads were lined up to be made into soup.

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I didn’t even notice, at first, that my guide kept abruptly pushing me down all these different aisles, trying to avoid a man who was chasing us through the market, trying to touch me.

What could have been a terrifying experience wasn’t because as soon as I noticed my pursuer (who was clearly not mentally competent nor aware of what he was doing), I also noticed that all the vendors and the shoppers were forming human walls to keep him away from me.

If I had not been a blond woman, I would not have been this man’s target.  But, I also believe that if I had not been a foreign woman, I would not have received the protection and aid from over thirty strangers.

The second Zanzibar experience was in a museum.  Two teenage boys wanted me to take their picture, which I did as they posed with their arms around each other.  Then, they each want to take a picture with me.

The one posing with me first asked, “Can I touch you?”  I think he meant, “Can I put my arm around you like I just did with my friend when I posed with him?”  But it was a strange question to be asked, especially in such a Muslim area, where women are not supposed to be touched.

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So, by saying yes, what was I saying about myself?  But, this was all processing in the background while we posed since I immediately said “of course” and proceeded to smile for the pictures.  I am sure it was just two young boys who were excited to practice their English and pose with an American lady.  But, had I been a man, I probably wouldn’t even remember the incident today.  And actually, the boys probably would have been too intimidated to practice their English with me as an adult American man, so I wouldn’t have had the experience at all.

The final Zanzibar experience took place at my resort later that day.  I changed into my bathing suit and took my camera to the beach to photograph the intricate rock formations, aqua-blue water and baby powder sand.  The rising tide caught me by surprise and I was faced with a dilemma: the safe move (from a drowning-and/or-ruining-my-camera-prevention perspective) would have been to get out of the water and walk back to the resort through the town.

However, I had been warned that outside of the resort, I needed to be modestly dressed.  While my bathing suit was indeed modest by resort-wear standards, it was not modest by rural Muslim village standards.  So, my other choice was to brave the rising tide and waves, now crashing against the rocks.

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I opted for the latter, especially given my fresh memories of the market and museum.

Had I been a man, I could have safely walked back through the village and probably taken hundreds of awesome pictures along the way.  But, I would not have the story about how I risked life and limb (and camera).

As you can see from these few anecdotes, my travels would be very different if I weren’t a woman.  As much as some of them were a little trying at the time, I am immensely grateful for each experience, as both a life lesson and a colorful tale.