My Origin Story

I grew up reading books. In fact, almost all of my interests can be traced back to the things that I read in volumes as a child. I consumed reading material as a snack-deficient zombie would apply his deteriorating pearly yellows on a human brain. I used to stack my books in the order that I wanted to read them and then I went through them in rapid succession. It’s not to say, though, that I didn’t take time to understand what I read because I loved shaping every word into moving pictures in my mind. I’m not trying to be poetic, it was just really the case before the time of the internet and digital media, there was no choice but to animate things with your own imagination. There was a small library in my parents’ house, nothing grand but just a room with floor to ceiling shelves filled with all kinds of dusty things to read. I read everything there in one summer and still had time to crash my bicycle and knock out some of my teeth. I started with the good books, of course, the ones about dragons, the Jabberwocky and fearless explorers like T.E. Lawrence and Sir Wilfred Thesiger on his exploits in the Rub’ al Khali. Afterwards, I moved on to arts and crafts magazines, textbooks from school, the illustrated hard-bound Dinotopia, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and then finally in-flight magazines and industry publications about aviation. When I ran out of things to read at home I started going to neighbors houses and read whatever they had available. I would be gone the entire day until late in the evening coming home with eyes that were red from reading.

Illustration from the book “Dinotopia” by James Gurney

I formed an idea of what I wanted to be from reading books, and back then it was William Shakespeare’s work that had the most effect on me. Partly because our small library at home also had references about different times in history that made it easy to imagine the world of Marc Antony, Hamlet and the three witches who might have been prognosticating the celebrity of Gordon Ramsay when they chanted “double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.” Shakespeare is known, of course, for his plays and sonnets but lesser so as a man whose Last Will included giving some of his money to the poor and his “second best bed” to his wife whose name was Anne Hathaway. I cringe now with the thought of how I volunteered to join oratorical contests at school, doing my best delivery of words from the Elizabethan age of England to a crowd dressed like MC Hammer. I remember looking at the audience and thinking about how everyone’s hair had enough alcohol and butane from hairspray to combust the school auditorium to ashes with a single wayward electrical spark. It would have been tragic and funny at the same time if it happened, and disturbingly Shakespearean.

I performed excerpts of Shakespeare’s work in dusty auditoriums to crowds who sat in very uncomfortable Rattan chairs, the kind that if you’re not careful you’ll get a nasty nick from a rusty nail that usually stuck out from different parts of cheap rental furniture. There was no backstage, no dressing rooms and the stage was lit by bare bulbs and out-of-season Christmas lights, hardly inspirational circumstances that can inspire the pursuit of a life in theatre. I did end up working in theatre, though, on stage and off, and even going on tour for a while and living in different hotel rooms and tour buses. I loved every moment of it, the physical work of setting up the stage, the technicality of production and the world that only exists behind a stage. It was mostly chaos, a blur of costume changes and people screaming about all the little things that needed to be in place before the music started to roll. It was physically and mentally demanding but there was something about it that makes a person fall in love with the drama and the aggravation. Then one day I woke up in a hotel room and I couldn’t remember what city I was in.

Photo of Vienna Opera from Wikimedia

If I had my way, I would have stayed in theatre and happily ended up like the artists who eventually settled on doing choreography, direction and teaching classes. All I had to do was work very hard and be consistent for as long as was necessary, even though there were surely shortcuts I could have taken. There is, however, no real way to pretend if you want to stand on a stage – it’s something that’s equally generous in giving out rewards and dishing out penalties. The stage rewards you for your dedication, for showing up for class or rehearsal even in the middle of a typhoon, and it punishes you mercilessly when you dare to stand upon it without genuinely deserving your place. It was the same kind of brutal honesty, the certainty of reward and punishment, that made me pursue adventure after I left the stage behind. It didn’t take long for me to find a new passion, rekindling my interest in adventure that I’ve always had since I was very young. I’ve always loved the mountains near where I live, and I spent most of my time climbing back then, following the same kind of learning process that I got used to during my time in the theatre. It was a very simple thing. Where others would rely on periodic opportunities to learn about climbing and adventure I chose to show up for my education every day. Of course, it was easy for me to do that because my house was only an hour away from an imposing volcano that was always enveloped by clouds and tropical jungle.

It would be inaccurate to say that I went regularly to the mountains to climb, because it was almost like I went there once and I didn’t actually come home for a very long time. I only went home to restock my supply of butane, eggs and rice and then I’d be off again. I was on the mountain through all of the different seasons of the year, and I’ve seen the mountain being beautiful and also in its darkest moments. After a while, I started to meet the myriad of characters that lived deep in the jungle and in the most unlikely places on the mountain. There were armed insurgents who would sneak past my tent at night, there was the mysterious man who collected special things for albularyos and mystics, the hermit woman who had been there alone since the last world war and there was the fat orange cat who kept me company whenever I camped at the highest point of the volcano’s crater. The cat was very friendly and would occasionally crawl into my tent to take a nap before disappearing into the jungle to hunt for crows. I had climbed a lot of other mountains but it was that ancient volcano where I felt most at home. There came a point when the local village officials got so used to my presence that they didn’t even bother to discourage me from climbing even when I showed up at night, they just nodded in my direction and pointed at the top of the mountain that was over eight hours away. And I went climbing this way all the time, on my own, and not just without a climbing buddy but completely alone on the mountain in the off season. It was how I found the sense of adventure I had always wanted to experience reading about solitary explorers crossing boundless deserts or battling storms in the open ocean.

Facing the elements alone is a very powerful experience. On a mountain at night, pummeled by a powerful wind that made it feel like I was falling through the sea of clouds that washed over the crater ridge like a flood. I would sometimes stay up all night until the deluge of clouds would pass and the night sky turned into a sea of a billion stars. In a way, I think it was a good thing that there was no way to share this experience back then. I don’t think there’s any real way to translate something that is reserved for those who are willing to pay the price of a front row seat to a view of the universe at its grandest. This is how I learned the value of showing up for the difficult things, and I appreciate the education I got from this experience even more now. We live in a time when our origin stories are more important than ever, the true version of ourselves instead of something invented that we haven’t deserved. “All the world is a stage,” said Shakespeare all those centuries ago and he’s still as right today as he was during his time. We need to perform our part but only after we’ve put in the time and effort to deserve our place on that stage that badly needs us to play our role. We need to show up for the difficult things and learn to accept that where we need to go there will be storms and there will be darkness. It may be the scariest thing you’ll do in your lifetime, to look into the wind and see nothing but clouds, but be brave a little longer and the sky will fill up with constellations that will show you the way.