eat watermelons, slow down, and you’ll see more in life

This is the second part of the weekly blog series, where I'll be posting a new excerpt from my upcoming book, Living Forward, Looking Backward, right here each week.

If you missed the first post, go back and check out Part 1 here.

Costa Rican Watermelons

- slow down and you’ll see more in life -

"I didn’t know that we’d end up there. It just sort of happened. So ultimately, after deciding to slow down, I was actually seeing more of the country and absorbing more of our trip."

The majority of my days feel like plain vanilla ice cream. Unremarkable and predictable.

I eat, get dressed, commute, and spend time transitioning from one routine to another. Can you relate? It would seem, then, that breaking from my daily schedule to backpack Latin America for weeks with a good friend would have produced all kinds of new learning and maturity. In reality, the excess of new experiences and photogenic moments distracted me from an important reality. I missed the fact that we don’t need exotic trips to learn from life. We just need to look around. I found that when I finally stopped hurrying from one adventure to the next, I began to grow. I actually saw more of the country by slowing down.

“Dude. This. Sucks,” Greg said as he lay out on the hard tile floor at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. He rolled over as I nodded in agreement. I glanced at my watch. It was about 1:00 a.m. We had been lying on the ground for three hours thanks to a flight delay, and we weren’t interested in experimenting with the only restaurant in the terminal. It served warm beer and “Chicago” style hot dogs from rotating warming trays.

“Yeah… not quite the start we were hoping for,” I laughed half-heartedly.

I was too tired to laugh, but I had to feign some excitement like it was all just a part of the adventure. Greg and I had $4,000 in traveling money between us, and we’d decided to travel to Nicaragua and Costa Rica for one month before we each started new jobs. I had been hired to work for a consulting firm in Chicago. Greg was headed off to work for a big energy company in Philadelphia. It seemed appropriate that a new adventure would precede new cities, new jobs, and new paychecks.

Here’s a travel tip for you. If you’re planning to travel with only $2,000 to your name, you need to start with a fair amount of confidence that you won’t run out of money along the way. So, to save for food and hostels, Greg and I decided we’d book our flights to Managua, Nicaragua on some budget airline known for canceling or changing flights without warning.

Clearly, our idea wasn’t as smart as it first sounded.

I reached into my backpack and grabbed a small folder of papers. “We planned this trip down a T, but I guess that doesn’t mean we’ll get to follow the plan,” I said to Greg. I realized then that backpacking requires an odd blend of meticulousness when planning a route, but spontaneity to actually travel it.

“Now boarding: All passengers to Managua. Please, line up near the gate.”

“Thank heavens. Let’s go, Greg.”

Once aboard our plane, I settled into my seat and slipped my sandals off my feet. I stretched out to the whopping 20” of legroom that tin-can-of-an-airplane allowed, and I closed my eyes. I wondered if we’d encounter more setbacks once we landed in Nicaragua, or if we’d have a smoother trip from that point forward. The engines spooled up and the pilot taxied out to the runway through the humid summer air. I created future Instagram captions in my head while drifting off to sleep, “Here we are diving into an active volcano to catch alligators…”

“So, man, what do you wanna do?”

Greg set his phone on his chest and lifted his head from his pillow, awaiting my response. We had done a lot of traveling already, and we had generally stuck to our plan. We checked off cities and experiences from our list, one after the other. We actually did climb an active volcano (sadly, there were no alligators), surfed next to small sharks, and watched the sun set over the ocean while eating tacos from a little lady grilling on a roadside cart. By all standards, we had moved from one extraordinary adventure to another. Even traveling from city to city was interesting. We’d throw our backpacks atop a 10-passenger van and cruise the narrow streets, taking it all in.

Despite it all, I had grown restless.

Sitting on our hostel beds, I found myself looking for the next big thing. I didn’t feel full. I just wanted to do, see, and explore more. I felt like our trip, if not built on one bold moment after another, wouldn’t be that epic pre-wife-and-kids trip you recall with a longing fondness as you try to calm a baby that’s crying and pooping at 3 a.m.

“I’m not sure man, but I know I want to do something. Why don’t we just go outside? We can walk around until we find something. Or at least until something finds us.”

I framed it as a suggestion, but before Greg could reply, I had already put on my sandals and sat at the edge of my bed. I was halfway to the door by the time Greg shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Sure man, whatever you want.”

He would have given me the same shrug regardless. That’s Greg. He was the ultimate travel companion. Up for whatever and content with anything from playing games on his cell phone to jumping off the tallest bungee platform in Latin America (which we also did). If I was honest with myself, I’d have admitted I envied Greg’s ability to enjoy our ordinary moments just as much as the high-octane ones. It was clear Greg’s ease would sustain him after our trip, continuing in his everyday life at work and home.

I wanted that inner calm.

Throughout our trip, Greg’s needs were pretty modest. He focused on two things; finding one good bottle of wine and ensuring we had enough capital left in our bank accounts to buy it. That’s all he cared about. My mind, on the other hand, was an unquenchable firestorm. As soon as we finished one activity, I was already burning for the next and figuring out the fastest way to get there. Instead of relishing the high of a new experience, I was over that event, past its memory, and yearning for something different.

Greg slapped on some sandals and pulled on a yellow tank top he’d bought for $1 on the beach. Then, we left the hostel to cure my restlessness. We wandered down the county road for 15 minutes before Greg finally asked, “Where are we going?”

We had drifted by the fire station, the local park, a grocery store, and we’d pretty much covered everything our little Costa Rican mountain town offered. “To that corner store,” I pointed straight ahead. “I’m thirsty. You want something? Maybe they have ice cream.”           

We hadn’t found anything to do, but I figured I’d drive Greg nuts if we just kept wandering around until we stumbled across something unique enough to satiate my hunger for adventure. I stepped into the little store and scanned the rows of snacks. I saw a little woman sitting behind the counter, quietly counting coins and ignoring us as we stepped inside.

“Hola,” I said as I walked toward a standing refrigerator. I eased the glass door open and tossed Greg a frosty bottle of Coca-Cola.

“We’re looking for something to do. Is there anything you recommend?” I asked her in Spanish.

Have you ever seen the movie Pirates of the Caribbean? Where the pirates become part of the ship’s mast and railings after living at sea for so long? It was the same deal with this woman. I guessed she had been sitting on that same stool since she was a teenager, restocking rows of chips for decades. I assumed that after her years of shop-tending and coin-counting, she’d know more about the town than Google and a guidebook combined.

I leveraged my Spanish to learn that not far up the road, while the tourists paid $90 to relax in fancy hot springs fed by the Arenal volcano, the locals had their own hangout in the same thermal streams. The shop tender said that if we journeyed up the hillside for a half-mile to a wooded entrance hidden on the side of the county road and passed a few low-hanging trees, there would be a clearing that opened into a set of naturally formed rock baths (simple directions, right?). Each cascaded into the next, all fed by the volcano’s heat, creating a hideaway for the city’s Ticos (a.k.a. locals) to enjoy.

She told that us that with some “sandias y cervezas” – watermelons and beer – we’d make fast friends. I relayed the good news to Greg, who speaks Portuguese but not Spanish, and I saw him flash a smile. I paid for our supplies and with some extra direction from the woman, we learned how to direct a taxi to the right spot along the highway.

It was almost sundown as we stepped back onto the street, so we decided to head straight to the rock baths. Greg whispered as we walked, “I wonder what other secrets that lady’s hiding behind her counter.”

“Want beer?” I asked in Spanish, holding up a few cans above the steam and passing them to our neighbors sitting in a pool of thermal water.

“This is pretty wild, dude. Who would have guessed there’s a rainforest paradise hanging out behind some trees on the side of a random highway?” Greg said while slamming a watermelon on a pointed rock.

He stuck a spoon in my half of the watermelon and passed it to me. “Yeah man. It’s amazing. Refreshing, too. Too bad it’s so dark now. I can’t even take a picture,” I lamented.

“Maybe that’s part of the beauty,” Greg said. “I mean, we just have to enjoy it in the moment, you know? It’s one of those things we’ll get to remember in our heads.”

I sank down and dipped my head below the water. Bubbles leaked from my nose as they escaped back to the surface. I thought about Greg’s words after drowning out the sounds around me. We had completed most of our journey at this point, but I was just beginning to realize that in my quest to create an extraordinary trek – documenting each step with photos and videos and searching for one high after another – I had been trading joy in the present for thrills in the future. I cared more about recounting impressive past stories than savoring them as I lived them with a beloved friend.

I obsessed over finding new highs, and I had overlooked the wonder all around me. I breezed past the simple beauty in spending time with one of my best friends. I robbed myself of the bliss found in just looking around. I was always searching for the “next big thing.”

We stumbled into an incredible memory of Costa Rican hot springs and watermelons because two people were living their ordinary, everyday lives. Had we not wandered into that store and met the woman who’d sat behind its counter for years, we’d never have discovered such a picturesque, local secret. If not for the taxi driver who’d driven the same roads for years, we may never have found the hot springs along the highway’s curves.

“I think it’s good not to have expectations. Just to feel what we feel and find what we find,” I said to Greg after emerging from the water, sharing what I’d discovered below the surface.

“Yep, I totally agree,” Greg said, closing his eyes and laying back.

I continued, “I don’t think I’m very good at slowing down. I don’t really soak up what’s happening around me. You know? Like, I need to look at all the good our life is so full of. I think I’m supposed to be learning that.”

“I also agree with that,” Greg laughed as he listened to me uncover what he’d known all along.

We sat in those baths eating watermelons and drinking beer for a good while longer, appreciating the moments for what they were instead of how they compared to our expectations. The longer we sat, the more content I felt. The longer I absorbed the conversations around me, the less interested I became in moving on to the next activity. I was no longer sitting in suspense of the trip’s next step. I felt free from the weight of my mental expectations.

Ultimately, I was in fact seeing more of the country after deciding to slow down.

There are two battles fought on opposite fronts that block us from noticing the natural wonder in our lives. The first and more prominent battle for me is a hyper-focus on success.

I forget to slow down and squeeze the learning out of my life’s current season because I’m too focused on catching the next shiny object. I don’t sit still, and I miss the small miracles of life as a result. I wake up demanding something new from the world each morning, forgetting that simply waking up is a gift.

Chasing success may get us to the pinnacle in one season of life, but it leaves us searching for something more in the next. Conquest sounds big and meaningful, but the idea that increasing accomplishment can fulfill our deepest longings is a slippery temptation with no end in sight. Personally, my demands for instant gratification and my impatience for success too often disrupt the maturity that’s gained through steadily pursuing a long-term goal.

The second and opposite battle we fight is apathy. Apathy leaves us feeling drained and disinterested in watching the stories unfolding all around us. It expresses itself as indifference instead of scurrying from one high to the next. It sucks your energy. It actually requires a tremendous amount of focus and intentionality to find depth and meaning in the relationships and rhythms of our everyday lives. Rich life lessons surround us all the time, but routine and familiarity can camouflage them.

Apathy is like standing in our backyards and assuming we’ve already turned over all the stones and counted all the rocks, so it must be time to move on. In the process, we overlook the trees, flowers, and blossoming plants waiting for us to notice their beauty. It’s like taking a Rock Climbing 101 class at your local gym and concluding that scaling Mt. Everest couldn’t be too different. That box has been checked! Time to move on.

Apathy is not conscious neglect. Often, we just forget to pick our heads up from the daily grind and look around.

On my worst days, I feel like I’m fighting these two battles at once. I want the high of knowing what will happen during the next chapter of my life, but without the slow build-up and steady effort required to get there. I hurry past the plush, colorful settings and dynamic characters in chapter five, instead of expending the energy to study them. As a result, I miss my chance to start chapter six with richer context and fuller appreciation.

Now, of course, we can’t know when we’ll breathe our last breath, so we also can’t know where exactly we are in our life stories. We may have years’ worth of chapters remaining, we might not. But, we do know with certainty that all stories come to an end. In rare moments of clarity, I’m able to remind myself that making it to the end isn’t the goal. We were created to enjoy our stories as the plot slowly reveals itself. We shouldn’t have to skip ahead to the last page.

We weren’t meant to write our own stories, you see. If we were, we’d know our lives’ expiration dates and we’d have total control over the events that unfolded before then.

You’ll discover this as you continue reading – we’re not authors, we’re just characters. Each one of us was created to play a specific role in a much larger, communal story about our world. This story’s collective plot, which governs every part of our lives, was set in motion by God, our Creator, centuries ago. In what I’ll call the “Big Story” of our world, God included two universal themes: the principle of paradox and the story framework. These two themes are the keys to discovering deeper meaning and greater purpose in the ordinary and everyday moments of our lives, including my life and your own (no backpacking trips required, by the way).