How to Talk to Your Taxi Driver (In Argentina)

“Hola, ¿como va?”

“Bien, ¿vos?”

“Bien. Ehh, bueno— Suipacha y Juncal, porfa.”

“Bueno.”

“Gracias.”

“No, a vos.”

Well, that’s how. Nothing tricky there. You could even go without the pleasantries; a simple, “Suipacha y Juncal” is all you really need to get yourself home.

Perhaps, then, a better question is not how, but rather, why should you talk to your taxi driver.

I’ll answer with an anecdote, not surprisingly, about a taxi ride.

It was late March, and I was leaving La Bomba, which is a drum circle directed by a conductor who uses a language of cues and gestures to create combinations of rhythms between the drummers, real time. Very cool. It was a correspondingly energetic crowd, featuring all of the festivities that such crowds often offer. Namely, I was drunk (legally; this is Buenos Aires, OK). But that night, I was feeling a little off, not really grooving with the vibe, maybe missing home a little. It had been a good night already, even before the concert, so I decided to call it quits and stumbled my way out of the crowd onto the street.

I hailed a taxi.

I had precisely the conversation transcribed above.

And then I slumped back in my seat feeling grateful for cushions and wheels and the fact that I didn’t have class till 14:00 the next day.

The driver, an older, mustachioed guy with a cross hanging from his rearview mirror, asked me how I was doing. Tired, I replied. Wasn’t really feeling it tonight, I said. He asked where I was from. I gave him the spiel. I’m from outside of Boston, MA, here studying sociology, Spanish, and art, living with a host family, and yes I like Argentina very much (they’re a prideful bunch, gotta stroke that nationalist ego).

We had a very pleasant conversation: about how corruption is present in both of our countries, but perhaps only more obvious in Argentina, about the role of religion in our countries, about the recent election of el Papa Argentino— and so on. Somehow, late-night drunk Spanish conversations always flow so smoothly, or perhaps that’s just how I (don’t) remember them.

He asked about my family and friends, and whether I missed them. I said yes, of course, though I especially miss my girlfriend, who is back in los Estados Unidos. That’s probably part of why I wasn’t feeling it tonight, I said. Concerts are better with girlfriends.

Then he asked me, “¿Y qué tal con los mujeres acá? ¿Te la están dando?”

“¿Cómo? No entiendo..”

“¡El sexo! El fuckey-fuckey, el baile sagrado. Y qué de la novia, ¡no la vas a ver por cinco meses!

I laughed, mostly in reaction to his sudden burst of colorful language, but also a little unsure what he was getting at.

“I mean, yeah, that’s true. I will not be having sex for several months. Quite the conundrum,” I replied, not seeing where this was going.

“What if I told you that I could take you right now to a place where you could choose from four rooms; from four photos. For 110 pesos (about $15) I can take you there and you can see the photos, and for $450 pesos (~$65), you can do anything you want to whichever one you choose.”

It probably appeared to him as though I were actually contemplating his offer, as it took me solidly thirty seconds to sort out what was actually happening.

“What? Like, what? Now?”

“Si, ahora. ¿Vamos?”

“Whoa, whoa. ¡No! No, hombre, ¡no tengo ningún interés! Tengo novia. Tengo… ¡dignidad!”

He said OK and kept driving, acting like nothing had happened. It got silent for a full minute.  Still five minutes from home. I finally asked him, “So you, like, do this? With like, prostitutes?” He said yes. I asked for how long. He said about twenty years. Whoa, okay. I paused, considered the situation. I felt almost as if I were watching someone else being taxied through Alto Palermo. I don’t talk to taxi-driving pimps every day, okay? Suddenly, I realized the opportunity at hand and became very intrigued by my situation, almost in an academic sense. There he was, “the oppressor,” driving along, nodding to the cumbia playing quietly in the background. Now that I see him, what do I say?

Well, I’m not sure how I feel about it now, but at that moment, I felt compelled to get on my horse and spout that righteous academia which I do generally prescribe to: I talked about cycles of poverty and abuse, and about how every person is just as logical within their bounded rationality as each other person; these women don’t want to be selling their bodies, but they do so, because they have ended up in situations where it has become the logical course of action— which is tragic, on an institutional and human level. I fairly ranted, knowing I had only another two or three minutes to make the impression that I needed to make— my shot to exert direct influence, however insignificant, upon this global patriarchy. After each of my sentences, he nodded his head in silent accordance, and when I finally had gotten my points across and we were pulling up in front of my apartment complex, he said only, “Si, si. Muy triste, muy triste.”

I paid, and said goodbye, and then went up to my room and asked myself whether I had just imagined the whole thing. It’s not that strange an event; we all know those people do exist in the world— but I will admit that at that point in time, it was a shock for me to meet one of them.

So then, to answer my question: Why should you talk to your taxi driver?

Because that’s where life gets interesting. The moment you step out of your daily bubble and touch upon that which is foreign and new, you open yourself up to seeing a world you have never seen before. Yeah, he could have been dangerous, and I could have unwittingly ended up at a whorehouse. But in retrospect (and even in the moment), I realized that this was something so removed from my customary sphere of interactions that I would never have come across it had I not then talked to my taxi driver. And obviously, there is much more to discover from the taxi drivers of the world than prostitution rigs; everyone, including yourself, is living hir own unique experience, and in my opinion, it can only benefit you to open yourself and learn from them.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Coming Soon: Mantis&Me, Travel Edition

Happy new years everyone. I hope you celebrated in style. Personally 2012 was a rough year, complicated and formative and sad. I think I’m quite ready to leave this one behind. As Pooh said to Rabbit, “thanks so much, I’ll be leaving now!”

I am about to encounter a lot of things new and foreign. I say ‘things’ because, well, I don’t yet know what I’ll learn, who I’ll meet, or how I’ll change from having done whatever I end up doing. I know little more than skeletal facts: In 1 week, I’m going to Israel on a birthright trip with friends from Wesleyan; and then in about 2 months, I’m leaving to study abroad for a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Birthright is much more predictable an experience- 10 days with a clear-cut itinerary in the company of a well known crew. We’ll see some ancient sites, visit a Kibbutz, experience an Israeli Shabbat and hopefully get an authentic, unfiltered-by-the-media feel for what it’s like to be in Israel and why there has been so much conflict over so many ‘things’ for so many years. I come from a non-religious background of reform Judaism, and while I do have some relatives who maintain a strong connection with Israel, I am relatively uninformed about many of the debates and thus look forward to learning. What I will see is fairly clear, but how will I feel? Who will I meet, and what will they say? How will my encounter with Israel affect my perspective on issues regarding the Middle East, my relationship with Judaism, my view of humanity?

On a different and recurring note, I will be in Israel during a difficult time, during my father’s first yahrzeit. I will be sad to be apart from my family during this time. I will be glad to have my close friends with me there. Perhaps I will feel something spiritual or profound being in Israel but really I anticipate just sadness and maybe some peace. At least this year will soon become part of the past.

After Israel, I am home in MA for an awkward month until I leave for Argentina in the last week of February. During this time I’ll be with my family and will probably visit Wesleyan for a time. I’ll also be relearning español hardcore and familiarizing myself with argentinan spanish, which is apparently different but pleasant. This time in itself is exciting: a whole month’s worth of time to get shit done. I’m working on a few things primarily these days… firstly selling some of my dad’s posessions that are worth $ and taking up space in closets because they dont-and-wont fit or suit anyone ever. Hard to let some of it go. Anyone want a really cool globe? (If you contact me after having read this post I’ll give it to you for $30 instead of $180 on ebay (cackles madly)). Secondly I’m working on a newsletter for my fraternity, which has been a learning experience though not unpleasant. Coordinating 30 guys into writing something is like diapering an octopus. Thirdly, I’ve got a whole bunch of things to read that I’ve encountered on the internet or received from a friend or kept from a class where I didn’t get to read everything because of just that— school keeps me working from assignment to assignment, leading me to list future readings furiously so that one day I might further round my education. This task is endless and not unpleasant.

Enter Argentina. I have many feelings about Argentina, as this next real phase of life looms hazy on the horizon. I am a predictable mix of excited, bewildered, eager for it to begin, and sad to be soon disconnected from my various networks of friends and family. It shimmers with promise of new excitement and learnings, and also new challenges and unfamiliar situations that will call upon new skills and competencies.

What can I do in preparation? Read travel advice online? Talk to people who have been, lived, or studied there? Learn about the country and its history and culture? I can do all of the preparatory work in the world but when it comes down to it, it’s really whether you can be quick on your feet, kid. Can you walk the world, kid? Can you, having learned everything you’ve learned in the environments you’ve learned them in, successfully transpose those skills into a different social key? Can you exude yourself with everyone you’ve never met, to win yourself allies and defend your place in the world, and can you do this with grace and with vigor?

The tests I’ve just described are the reasons why I have chosen to pursue a study abroad experience in college. I chose Argentina because 1) I want to gain fluency in spanish, having previously reached an academic competency that would be most effectively brought home, so to say, by an abroad experience, and 2) because of the city of Buenos Aires, which I hear is full of character, magnificent with a unique blend of Western European and Jewish immigrant influence which can be seen in architecture, food, and art, all, of course, while situated in South America. My freshman year in high school, I went on a white-guilt-volunteer trip to Peru, where I saw great culture and great poverty. I will certainly want to travel through other parts of South America if this is possible. I feel an Amazonian bike-trip fantasy slowly formulating…

Anyways, Argentina is probably the most developed of the South American countries, and Buenos Aires is apparently all about education, home to four(+) very large universities, and libraries on every corner, says my guide book. I love libraries, and books and good headphones. I want to sit in a library in Argentina and read and write and think and observe and create. I want to discover and learn about new problems. I want to learn about old problems in new ways. As per Einstein, I think that I’ll spend 95% of my time thinking about the problems, and thereby let solutions become self evident. And I want to think a lot, so as to maximize my chance of thinking of something that doesnt suck.

I’ll take four or five classes; two: one spanish language course and one Argentinean culture course from my international Abroad program, and two or three more from a subset of classes from any of the three or four beforementioned very large universities in the city. I will look for classes in economics, sociology, entrepreneurship, marketing, art/design, or anything regarding collisions of technology or science and society.

I will live in a home stay. I listed as my highest preference a middle-aged, middle-class couple with young kids. I thought it was interesting and logical that I should get to choose so closely, though they obviously don’t guarantee perfect placements. I look forward to meeting my host family– what an exciting opportunity to meet people who are likely to be similar enough to connect with me and different enough to provide a totally new experience.

At the very least, much is about to change. I feel very positively about most of it, and the rest I will learn from. Or I wont, and I’ll make the same mistakes over and over again. We don’t ever do that now do we?

* * *

I want to thank a lot of you. And I have, in person or online, with words of gratitude for all that I know that I have been given this year. Yes, it is true that, well, something took itself way from me this year. But I have been given outstanding quantities of kindheartedness and positive energies, most outstandingly by those very close to me, but also by so many others whose genuine concern for myself and my family has been completely heartwarming. My community rallied and hoisted us up, and my family can only murmur thanks in return.

Let this be a good new year, and I wish peace, health, and prosperity upon you all.

Summer Summary

So I didnt end up blogging biweekly, or even more than once, and I think thats okay with me. It’s not that I didn’t have anything to say, or that I was too lazy to write, or that I was too busy doing fancy internships and having corporate meetings. I have plenty to say, and I wrote more this summer than any other time in my life, and, as I said before, I pointedly avoided any-and-all career-friendly resume-builders this summer. Plenty of time for all of that.

I came to view this summer as one long, disjointed (yet cohesive) meditation. Yes, meditation— though perhaps my definition of the act is not in accordance with those of antiquity, as I spent very little time in any cross-legged positions— but I did meditate according to this wonderful definition:

Meditation is a practice of concentrated focus upon a sound, object, visualization, the breath, movement, or attention itself in order to increase awareness of the present moment, reduce stress, promote relaxation, and enhance personal and spiritual growth.

This, I did. Usually it was between 9am and 12pm (although those wee morning hours are always contemplative), and usually I was alone at the time, though I could have been sitting on a train zipping through some windmill-dotted countryside with my family quite by my side. Disjointed, yet cohesive, as it is all now bound between black walls; a summer’s worth of thought, poured into a paper vault. A lot of molting happened in these pages.

I am my own best audience, just as I am also my own best companion. Thoreau said something like that. Screw quotes, I go for gist. The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit. Hear that, Joe?

But I actually ended up doing a lot this summer. I’m not good at doing nothing, so I don’t. Instead I chose experiences and activities that I thought would grow my point of view, help my search for self, raise a new perspective— all with the aim of exercising our human-specific infinite molting potential. Lord let me shed my skin!

Early in the summer, I participated in StartingBloc Boston ’12, which was hosted at Babson College in Wellesley, MA. Though I touched upon this experience in “Reflections…“, I want to highlight this experience in my timeline of life events. StartingBloc was important: a five-day entrepreneurial boot camp that brought me into the remarkable company of my fellow fellows, an inspirational bunch of socially conscious, entrepreneurially-minded folks who are all working in unique and impressive ways to change the world. We prescribed to mantras like “CRUSH FEAR,” and “embrace uncertainty,” heard verbal inspiration from folks like Scott Sherman from Unreasonable, and Rachel Weeks from School House, we had entrepreneurial dance parties, and we drank a lot of coffee. This was framed by the Social Innovation Challenge (SIC), in which ReWork, a company that “connects exceptional professionals with companies that are making the world a better place,” challenged us to dissect, analyze, and rebrand key elements of their business plan, company message, and expansion strategy. 100(ish) StaringBloc candidates were separated into 9 (or so) teams, which each presented their innovations in a friendly and competitive forum. PROUDLY, my team, the Blueberries (BLUE, BLue, blue…!) won the challenge, which earned me and my team special interaction with the ReWork founders and a ticket to the all-fellows summit in Chicago in October. Hell yeah.

So that was all really exciting, and most importantly, affirmational of my current aspiration to create something, to start something, to bring something into the world. However, as I have realized repeatedly and again this summer, I have not yet discovered what I am passionate about.

I’ve been doing graphic design for TEDxKabul this summer. If you don’t know TED, you should first hire a contractor to heavylift the boulder you’ve been living under,— and then go immerse yourself in one of the greatest collections of knowledge and discovery ever assembled. It’s glorious— TED presents extraordinary people with extraordinary “ideas worth spreading.” TEDx conferences are independent TED events, where accomplished individuals each give “the greatest speech they can speak” in 18 minutes or less. TEDx events have been organized all over the world- Tokyo, San Francisco, Boston, Mumbai— and now, (in mid-October), Kabul, the war-torn capital of Afghanistan.

And so I’ve been working with Eileen (whom I met at StartingBloc) working on event branding, social media, and infographic design. And from watching video after video, and reading article after article, I have become quite convicted about Afghanistan’s current plight and future promise. I have thought even, after watching&reading such articles, that I could dedicate a solid decade of my life to building Afghanistan, and I would feel righteous and fulfilled contributing what I can to their struggle.

But then I remember MINDS— the nonprofit that I work for at Wesleyan, which works to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness in rural India. Please explore the website for more information, but this is an incredibly important issue of human rights, and another that I would feel righteous and fulfilled contributing what I can to their struggle.

I have elected my path- entrepreneurship- but I have not yet found what I am truly passionate about. I am just as attracted to (or horrified by) this disenfranchised group as I am the next poverty stricken neighborhood. The world is a big place. There’s an awful lot of poverty and disenfranchisement. I will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people that I can, taking into consideration my unique characteristics and attributes. But what will be my angle? Which problem, of those millions, am I to tackle? Cue the age old musing: what is my purpose in life?

As these questions are obviously inconclusive, I return to my current catch phrase, that I’m “gathering inspiration and education” in order to figure it all out. I’m happy with that. I am just about where I’d like to be in this whole process of becoming.

And so I collect! I read a lot this summer, including Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography (written to his son), Walter Isaacson’s biography on Ben Franklin, Sula – by Toni Morrison, a hefty chunk of My Life – Bill Clinton, The Power of Unreasonable People – John Elkington, Audience Evolution – Philip Napoli, and because he’s a creative master, Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

And as Susan Cain stresses in her IMPORTANT speech about the power of the introvert, I spent a lot of time in nature, sitting, writing, (taking pictures). If you sit still enough (and the fates feel kindly), sometimes the mosquitos don’t seem to notice you.

And now summer is coming to a close, and while I’m still prone to never-ending contemplations about best-using-my-life-for-the-world, I think I am a few inspirations closer, and slightly more educated, and also altogether happier than I was at the beginning of summer, as death and time begin to tire of combat. I am ready for my classes, eager to have some structure and predictability in my days, and looking forward to reentering my long-abandoned social spheres. Summer, check. Ready, set, molt.

Reflections— and new directions.

It is time that I write concretely about my recent past, my present state, and my intentioned future. Partially as a cathartic establishment of my place in time, and partially in order to hold myself accountable for the words I am about to write. You see, for the last five-months-or-so, I have actively shirked responsibility, reduced expectations, avoided any-and-all future obligations— a ghost of my former state. This is to be expected, as great tragedy demands great change.

This year has seen unprecedented highs and most destitute lows. To be true, 2012 has erred somber, with the memory of my father’s death tainting even my most exalted victories. One might think that the fresh and whipping air at the summit of Mt. Jefferson would provide the grounds for untarnished joy, or those many nights laboring single-mindedly at the organ in Memorial Chapel might allow me to set the sadness aside. But the mind is cruel, and my thoughts yet run their course unthwarted.  And as I have often been present in situations where the prevailing emotion is not morbid, I have too-often experienced what I now know as emotive dissonance, where my environment and my emotional state are painfully incongruent. This has been rather difficult, and has precluded me from being quite present during most college parties, concerts/shows, classes, and most commonly, routine human interaction. So if I have been distant, or distracted, or entirely rude and blunt — I am moderately apologetic.

And so you’re getting a sense of my modus operandi over the last months: complete only the necessary minimum, do only what is fundamentally essential, interact with only those close friends who are also proximate and well-informed, and avoid any unnecessary LIVING, or life experience.

The day after my father killed himself, I found out that I had been accepted into the Startingbloc Boston ’12 Institute for Social Change. At the time, I was like, “great, now I’ve got to go talk to hundreds of people and act all professional and be motivated and happy.” I wasn’t even sure that Startingbloc was right for me- I was only 19 and hadn’t started any companies or accomplished any great feats of “social innovation.” But it was months away, and even under my sorry storm cloud, I was still excited about my future in some distant sense. So I paid tuition to obligate myself to actually go (SMASH FEAR) and continued my grieving-ghost-living.

I made it through the school year, finished my final exams, made it home, and had about a week to collect myself before Startingbloc. I went hiking for three days in the White Mountains in NH with some of my best and oldest friends. I watched some stars, ate some ramen, listened to the quiet of the mountains, and reconnected with some roots, with who I was pre-tragedy. I felt more control over my own destiny than I had in months.

So I approached Startingbloc with wide-open-eyes, – partially in bewilderment of the passionate and high-achieving cohort I had joined, but more importantly, with a receptive outlook than I had not felt even once during my ghost-living. I realized that my passion for life- my vital energy that I had long felt distinguished me from most others- was merely in hibernation, and could be reawakened mindfully. After every day of Startingbloc, which were each intense and socially demanding 9am-9pm experiences, I felt myself slowly reaquainting with my prior self. In others, I (quite obviously) saw the passion that I used to relish, the kind of energy that keeps you up until 5am learning- every night. I saw the excitement that I used to feel when I would finish a blog post or get that precious inspiration-from-the-gods’ inexplicable motivation to suddenly write down an idea. I remembered. I remembered! I remembered.

One of the most important moments for me (I will share more about SB in later posts) was a conversation I had with my friend, Ngozi Nezianya. I had just met him, really- we had known each other no more than half-an-hour. And we stumbled on to discussing a topic about which I have thought long and hard. He asked me (something semblant of) “… in life, would you pursue Joy, or Happiness, and how?”

My father had many sources of happiness in his life. He loved his (immediate) family, and he derived great happiness from his “toys” including guns (he was a hunter), knives (he was a hunter) and too-many-pairs-of-boots (he had a masculinity complex). But he was not a joyous individual. As I have come to understand the important difference, joy is from within. Joy emanates from within oneself- perhaps it is some glorious and deep satisfaction, perhaps it is the result of true contentment with one’s situation— but joy has very little to do with one’s “toys” or one’s accomplishments, or and is not even immediately fulfilled by having a family

I have thought much about this, and will always still think more— but I believe that Joy is intimately related to one’s purpose, and can be fulfilled only be aligning oneself accordingly. Purpose is the most difficult to define. What is the “purpose” of a life? Is it something more than the biological mission to procreate and evoke new life?

We are unique animals, humans. I do believe we carry a mission greater than procreation. Why? Because we canDefine your purpose. Why? Because you can. Aim HIGH. Why? Because you are SO POWERFUL. Startingbloc is a strong believer in Marianne Williamson’s quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

My father never defined his purpose (for a host of socioeconomic and personal reasons) and thus never found life-sustaining joy from within. But I will define mine. This summer, I will take active steps to learn about myself in this sense.

  • I do not have a “job”. No internship, no café-barista, nothing resume-friendly— intentionally. I will first focus on completing the immediate grieving process, which, though lifelong, can be tackled in phases.
  • I will then read, and learn, and become educated on ALL of the topics that I find compelling. Find me a willow tree, and beneath thee I shall sit. For a long, long time. I can’t wait.
  • I will learn some sort of code-related skill: Ruby (on Rails), HTML5, or Python. Advice on which to choose?
  • I will write (blog) intermittently- perhaps biweekly. Quality over quantity.

I am ready to stop shirking life, and will instead greet it and learn from it all that I can. Here’s to moving forward.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections— via email, or phone, or in the comments below.

All the best, Alex