Into the Rabbit Hole

I had this whole entry planned about exposing yourself to bulk, positive randomness. It was outlined in my Moleskine. My Moleskine that, as I type in the sunny dining room of my apartment, is sitting in the office, probably under a pile of court opinions.

Nonetheless, I can’t think of anything more appropriate than taking a random approach to writing about randomness. Screw plans! Let’s freestyle this sucker.

I see your fingers inching toward the X. Resist. It will be worth it.

(Self, that was super convincing. You’ve dazzled them with your charisma! Stop slouching. And growling. Rar.)

So, uh, as we were.

This post really came about from a series of conversations with friends, work things and life things. When I take my experiences in totality, the ones I remember the most were largely unplanned.

For instance, when I moved to New York, as people who move to New York often do, I planned just enough to get me here. Everything else, I left up to the universe. But I know I wouldn’t have had the courage to do that had I not exposed myself to bulk, positive randomness beforehand.

That, to me, was Spain.

“Can you look up (insert something derogatory here)?”

I rummaged through my purse for my Spanish dictionary. “Fuzz on the lip?”

“That can’t be right.”

It was 2007. A friend and I had ended up at a random bar in Seville and, laughing about the day’s adventures, had attracted the unwanted attention of two men. They’d sat themselves down at our table and spouted off rapid Spanish. We pretended not to speak the language, hoping they’d leave us alone.

It didn’t work.

Instead, they spewed vulgarities, laughing to each other in self-congratulatory fashion.

Insert something vulgar. Cackle. Another something vulgar. Cackle.

After a couple of minutes of this, I looked them in the eye and, with a smile, said, “No me gustan los hombres viejos.”

“Y feos. FEOS. FEOS.”

I don’t like old men. Or ugly ones. (UGLY. UGLY ones.)

I refer to my study abroad experience quite a bit because while it was only for a semester, there has been no other time in my life when I experienced so many changes in such a short period of time. After all, I was in a different country, in a different culture with a different teaching style in close quarters with people from different countries.

Such a situation is pretty much an experiment in social dynamics. It’s so unnatural and out of your comfort zone that your emotions are heightened. You react differently to things there than you would if you were among the familiar.

Given this, I saw people mainly reacted in one of two ways: they clung to the familiar or at least the closest thing to familiar – by refusing to learn the language, eat the food and by sticking close to those who resembled their friends back home.

Or they dived right in.

One of my favorite adventures in Spain happened during the study abroad equivalent of spring break. Semana Santa, as it’s called, is a weeklong respite from diligent studies (I use diligent loosely), and gives you the opportunity to do whatever.  One option was the group-organized trip to Morocco. At first glance, you probably think the natural reaction would have been for me to say: Hell yes! Morocco! When else am I going to travel somewhere so exotic with an organized group of friends and age-similar group leaders?

But by that point, I was familiar with these group-organized trips. All I saw was itinerary after itinerary. Organized tours. Planned meals and meetups. Fun activities confined to specific timeslots.

It was exploration in bullet points, which, to a meanderer, is kind of like reading the Cliffs Notes version of a really compelling novel.

Screw that, homeslice.

Instead, I opted for the bulk, positive randomness route: backpacking through Southern Spain with a friend, a book, a Moleskine.

I don’t need to tell you it was amazing. I should probably tell you that I, still relatively new to this type of travel, had moments of – Oh my God, we’re going to end up sleeping next to Evil Brain-Sucking Tree Gnomes. It helped that my friend, a seasoned wanderer, was there to tell me things would all work out.

And they did. I’m certain I became a much braver meanderer as a result, moreso than had I gone the group route.

Whenever I feel trapped in a grand life scheme I’ve made for myself, I look back on that semester. I’m reminded that we have the tendency to plan things out – school, work, marriage, kids – and stick with the plan regardless of the variables that arise. The plan, after all, gives us the illusion of control over some linear path. But life isn’t linear. Success isn’t linear. Travel doesn’t have to be linear. We’d do much better preparing as much as we can while also giving ourselves the freedom to deviate from that plan.

To embrace bulk, positive randomness is to recognize that deviating from the plan isn’t a form of failure but an opportunity to create something new. Yet, it doesn’t mean venturing into the wild unprepared. In Spain, my friend and I armed ourselves with the language, sufficient street smarts and did enough research to know where we should and shouldn’t be. We recognized when people were being extremely creepy – two girls in their early 20s, believe it or not, had no trouble attracting the creepy – enough to abort conversations and when to trust that the people we met were truly as awesome as they seemed.

The funny thing is, as much as exposing yourself to bulk, positive randomness relies on trusting the uncertain and unknown, the ability to continually do it gets better with experience. Partly because our minds, unchecked, run wild. We imagine the absolute worst (Evil Brain-Sucking Tree Gnomes) to explain away what we don’t know, only to find that the anticipation of the unknown is actually worse than the thing that does occur. Even when it’s really bad.

Granted, the specifics of each situation are different. The effect, though, is the same: it hones your ability to adapt. It lets you know what it’s like to feel completely hopeless and lost and frustrated and beat. And, just as important, it lets you know what it’s like to get yourself out of it.

In a way, you become comfortable in the uncomfortable to the point that when you’re feeling your senses atrophying, you seek it.

The great thing about it all is while the change of scenery is temporary, the change in mindset lasts. I took that mindset home with me, to work with me, to moving back home with me. That kind of consistent exposure prepared me for what was next. Two years after Spain, bolstered by my previous random experiences, I moved to New York. Sure, I thought up worst-case scenarios where I slept in a cardboard box in Central Park next to Evil Brain-Sucking Tree Gnomes, but I didn’t let it consume me. It has worked out just fine.

As for the creepy old men, how did they respond, you ask? Unfortunately, we did not burst into spontaneous song about good versus evil (I imagine it would have gone something like this, and it would have been AWESOME.).

They simply picked themselves up, gathered what was left of their dignity, and left.

5 responses to “Into the Rabbit Hole”

  1. awww I love your writings especially about your time in Spain! I’ve never been much of a planner and i sometimes hate myself for it, but then I want to punch myself in the face when I make serious plans as well because, naturally, I never go according to… I’m taking 6 months off (or who knows, maybe more…) starting this October to travel South America extensively, and attempt to perfect my espanol while I’m at it. So far I only have plans for one country… the rest is ummm, up in the air! But always good to know people who can appreciate randomness – it’s what makes life even more fun.. or messed up! haha =o)

    1. karenmaywrites Avatar

      I know what you mean. I find it best to keep some places in mind because I really, really want to see them, while still leaving plenty of time to wander. If something is a so-called OMGMUSTSEE and, after some thought, it still fails to pique my interest, I just don’t go. Something is only an OMGMUSTSEE if you believe it is. Otherwise, you’re just on someone else’s itinerary. I’m super jealous of your trip (Take me! Take me!), and I’m sure I’ll read about it on your blog. I hope to one day take a grand backpacking trip, too. For now, I guess I’ll just enjoy everything in between.

  2. I love reading about others’ experiences traveling, particularly study abroad experiences. It’s true: international students, Americans in particular from my experience, tend to either gravitate toward one of the extremes of jumping in or clinging to the familiar. I lived in Belgium for a year on Rotary Youth Exchange, which was magical because even though it had basic rules, it simultaneously didn’t have any–there weren’t things I had to do, there weren’t classes I had to excel in or even take, there wasn’t work I had to do. I just… lived it up! It’s a kind of mentality I’ve struggled to keep with myself outside of those travels but maybe studying abroad this upcoming academic year will be a refresher.

    Thanks again for your post! Do you have more writings about Spain around here?

    1. karenmaywrites Avatar

      I remember thinking something along the lines of: Wow, this is great! In the US, it’s all about work work work, school school school, rush rush rush. And here, I get to read and write and think and explore. I’ll take this home with me, for sure!

      And then I got home, and it was back to work work work. Strive strive strive.

      I must admit, though, that even though that kind of lifestyle just wouldn’t realistically work here (a girl’s gotta eat and pay rent, namsayn?), I still took the core ideas with me — the love of exploration, thought and adapting to the unfamiliar — and I’m able to apply those to the everyday.

      Most of my Spain writings are lost in a now-defunct LJ. Here’s one entry that survived:

      Thanks for visiting! I wish you luck in striking that balance in your upcoming study abroad adventure.

      1. I fully agree with everything you said, about the transition from constant exploration back to constant striving. It’s something I’m gradually rediscovering today, throughout the past couple of months, despite still being in the society and the culture that forces me to work so hard.

        Loved visiting and thanks for the luck!

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