May 2005 Reflection

With a pre-approved extension from Dell, I write this journal entry late, in the hope that it will provide an insight into my adventures and misadventures of late. To say that these past months have been formative would be an understatement – they have been full of intense experiences, both brief and extensive, which, I believe, have contributed greatly to the development of my character.

I put my pants on backwards yesterday. I think this is important to note, since the rest of this update is quite serious, and I didn’t want to give the erroneous impression that amidst all my self-reflection, I’ve become any less clumsy or take life any more seriously.

Unlike many of the other listed journal entries, this is not a goodbye. I have decided to exercise my right to stay in Ireland one year, so at the time of this writing, I still have a good four months ahead of me. There is much to do here – I’ve finally sunk my teeth into a couple of projects which I am furiously pushing myself to complete.

I’d like to work events a little backwards. The reason I asked for an extension from Dell was because I was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro on the day our final entry was due.

I asked our Tanzanian guide what he thought about people climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. He said that although he appreciates the business the mountain provides the local community, he quite frankly thinks foreign tourists are lunatics. Who in their right mind, he asked, flies across the world to subject themselves to multiple muscle pains, colds, lack of sleep, more colds, dry skin, freezing weather, sunburn, thin air, altitude sickness, more altitude sickness, the worst altitude sickness, lack of toilet paper, squatting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and finally having to go down the whole mountain after you’ve reached the top? His rhetorical question, combined with multiple hand movements (mainly ones that signaled “these tourists are CRAZY”) and a rare I-will-tell-the-truth-even-if-you-are-a-tourist attitude, left me in pain from laughing so hard.

After climbing the mountain, the only response I can offer is, he’s right. But to borrow from the Irish irony: it’s a mad, mad world, and we are all part of it, so if I get a chance to scale Everest or K2, I’m going.

Kilimanjaro is beautiful. I highly recommend that anyone and everyone (the youngest person to climb the mountain was 13 – the oldest 80) climb the mountain, even if they don’t reach the top. Actually, save the view at the top, the most beautiful part of the mountain is the rain forest at the bottom. The multiple lagoons with the peaceful sounds of the animals alone make the trip worthwhile. It truly is a special place, and more power to the Tanzanians who go out of their way to preserve the mountain for future generations. Make sure you get good guides though – ours were fantastic, and without them, we would have never made it to the top. After descending Kilimanjaro, I have come to value certain things (like breathing) that I had taken for granted.

The Kilimanjaro climb provided me ample time to think, and I devoted long hours to issues that have been bothering me for some time. The main one is pitting the desire to make money (private sector) against the desire to do non-profit/government work. I am still not sure which path to follow – but if nothing else, Kilimanjaro gave me time to build up arguments on both sides. On the one hand, there is a need to provide for family, which can be more fruitfully done in the private sector than in the public sector (mostly, not always). On the other hand, there are some serious problems in the public sector that need to be solved. I believe that we can do good through business, that the market is the source of most innovation, that incentives can push us to achieve great things to better humanity. I also believe that there are many issues that need to be solved, and that either the market is uninterested in solving these problems (say, solving malaria in poverty-stricken Africa) or that when the market does become interested, it will be too late (for example, in trying to solve rapid depletion of the world’s water resources). The worst assumption about human innovation is to believe it will always work. The most pessimistic supposition to make in the non-profit sector is that business is evil, solely profit driven and uninterested in social problems. It’s funny how walking up a mountain, slightly hallucinating thanks to the altitude, can help you examine clearly the issues that bother you.

Kilimanjaro taught me two things.

One: Human beings have an incredible capacity for work, one that is rarely exercised, and whose true nature belies our often sedentary existence. On one day of our climb, we hiked for almost 16 hours, the vast majority of it at a height of over 4700 meters. I estimate that I lost anywhere from 5-8 pounds on that day alone, as my climb was coupled with an absence of hunger and a consistent loss of water. What is strange is that last day I probably could have done 16 hours more, had I been pushed. I have a much better understanding of my physical limits now, and I would like to think that my mental tolerance for physical exertion and will power to achieve a goal have both grown from this experience.

Two: Having a long-term goal makes navigating short-term challenges less difficult. It is much easier to climb the mountain when you know you are trying to reach the top (and much, much, easier when you can gauge approximately how long it will take to get there). It is easy to get frustrated with day to day living when you have no greater purpose in mind. I preferred the ‘actively pursuing’ mentality of Kilimanjaro climbing (reminiscent of years at Duke) to the ‘passively reacting’ mentality I’ve felt in Ireland until recently.

Yet, it would be unfair to say that my only powerful experiences have been outside of Ireland. Day to day living has become much more comfortable and exciting, because Dublin is my city now, and will permanently reside among the places I can call home. I remember standing at the entrance of Trinity College with a friend, scowling at the waves of tourists who took multiple pictures of the opening greens, grumbling about the visitors who were making Ireland less Irish.

It was a goofy moment.

I recently spoke to a gardener who absolutely loves his job. He admitted that he didn’t make a lot of money, but he thought he had the best job in the world. He said he was getting paid for his hobby. I know this seems like a random thought – but it segues into something I’ve been wrangling with lately. An end goal is important for focusing one’s life – but should the achievement of that goal come at the expense of gathering different experiences along the way? I think about this a lot as I sit in front of a computer often and for great lengths of time. No answers to this question yet.

Amidst the flurry of completing my exams for the second semester, I’ve still found time to continue to explore Ireland. A visit to Limerick and a picturesque Abbey reminded me (again) that Dublin is almost a separate Ireland from Ireland. I had some amazing conversations with the monks about the similarities between religions. One monk had traveled extensively in India – his knowledge of Hinduism made me feel quite uneducated. I’ve observed that while everyone says Ireland is a Catholic country, I know nobody who goes to Church. Again, I think this is a Dublin phenomenon. Every time I leave Dublin, I meet the pious, peaceful people living in the countryside who live up to all the stereotypes of Ireland.

Another interesting phenomenon I’ve encountered in Ireland and Europe is the different concept of friendship. In America, it seems to me, we have a lot of friends. In Ireland, you have a few friends, but the friends you have are for life. This was something I was educated about by the Alliance, but something I didn’t understand until I got here. There’s a higher bar for friendship – but once you pass it, you build incredibly strong relationships that, I honestly feel, will last forever.

Perhaps what has been changing me most are Conversations. I use a capital form of this word merely because I’ve engaged in multiple in-depth conversations that continuously force me to expand my thought processes. I’ve been speaking with the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy, Jonathon Benton, about the American Foreign Service, and have been amazed by his experiences. As a patriot with a desire to build international bridges and work in human rights, I’m drawn to the Foreign Service. Our conversations have helped me understand more clearly the reality of working for the government, and for that I am grateful. I recently spoke with an Irish thriller writer, Brian Gallagher, and gained a better understanding of the mechanics of putting together a thriller. These conversations have given me a desire to speak with successful people in any field – I’ve rediscovered a curiosity in everything.

With exams behind me, it’s time to start chasing after some projects I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Firstly, I’ve committed to an internship with the Fatima Regeneration Board, and it is already promising to be a challenging endeavor. Fatima is one of the poorest communities in Dublin, one of the drug communities on the south side. Fatima, the local community, and the government have put together an amazing amount of resources to establish an outreach program. My specific task is to try and devise a business plan that uses nine donated computers with broadband Internet connection to enhance the lifestyle of the community – whether it be through providing the local community skills for employment or simply helping the children navigate their way around the Internet. The project is really making me exercise my creative skills, and a couple of visits to Fatima have already drilled home the importance of the work.

My plans for the immediate future are many and varied: I am off to Oxford to see the famous university, am going on a bike trip of Ireland, Mom is coming to visit, U2 concert, up to Belfast for the final Mitchell gathering (gulp….ok, so it is getting close to over here), SEE EUROPE (which strangely, I have barely done), a jaunt to Edinborough specifically to visit new friends, a bout with falconry (right – this is one of those things that keeps getting cancelled) and one major adventure somewhere around the world. I’m thinking of going scuba diving in the Red Sea in Egypt, or in Thailand. The goal (of course) is to: 1) get platinum status on American Airlines; 2) get more passport pages; and 3) get my scuba diving license. I see no reason why these goals have to be incompatible, and indeed, sincerely hope that they are not.

As this is my final entry, I would like to thank the US-Ireland Alliance. I will get to say thank you to Trina, Dell, and Kathleen in person, but to all the people who have supported the program but who I have never met – I am grateful and hope that someday I can be of some service. As I have hoped to describe in this entry, Ireland is changing me in all the right ways, and I can only hope that it will continue to do so in the upcoming months.

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