Everyone has been asking me if I have felt a dramatic change in myself since the conclusion of the trip. And to them, I respond, “I’m not really sure. It hasn’t really sunk in yet.” And that’s the truth of it. I recognize the enormity of the accomplishment that we just completed. I haven’t, however, noticed a change in my outlook on life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to live my life in accordance with the Oscar Wilde quote that I put on the back of the cards we printed for our trip:
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
Over the years, I’ve developed an appetite for the unknown. When I was younger, I decided to attend Boston College without ever having seen the campus beforehand. I wanted something completely different than the homogenous “sunny and 75” days that LA brought 90% of the year. I was bored by the warm and clear Los Angeles sky, free of blemishes. I certainly didn’t feel that way all the time, and at times it felt like I was living in la-la land. I had this urge that I needed to get out and see some more of the world to figure out where I fit in.
Towards the end of my time at BC, I felt like I had become confined to the bubble of privilege and entitlement that existed on campus. It was suffocating at times, and towards the end of my graduation I had this feeling, much like before leaving high school, that I needed to get out in the world and learn how to live again.
I had a decent amount of money that I had saved up from a couple jobs that I had in college. I wanted to spend it all traveling before I moved to Paraguay to teach English. I backpacked Europe by myself for two months, meeting friends and seeing places that I had only read about along the way. I went to Paraguay, penniless, and eager to start the next chapter of my life.
In Tobati, I learned how to live again. It took some time, and certainly a lot of patience. I discovered, however, that I learned the most about myself when I was completely out of my element. It was sink or swim for me in Paraguay. I could either coast through the year, and not put myself out there or adapt to the ever so different Paraguayan culture. Or, I could challenge myself to improve my Spanish and get better on a daily basis. I think this mentality that I developed has inspired me to challenge myself in every aspect of my life and see truly just what is possible.
My work with Joel Unzain, ICRM alum and current UPENN freshman, further enforced our idea that truly “todo es possible,”—everything is possible.
It sounds like such a cliché at times, but Darren and I try and espouse this mindset and set an example for the kids at school. All of the students look up to Joel. They see what he has accomplished, and they set their focus on achieving exactly what he did. Joel is a kid who came from Punta del Este, a remote town in the jungle that loses electricity on a daily basis. The kid would study for the SAT by candlelight until 4am in the morning, only to switch to chemistry after that in order to prepare for an exam later that day.
Joel never complained about the conditions he endured. Not once. He recognized the elements around him that were unchangeable, and instead focused all of his efforts on things which he had control over. He couldn’t help where he was from, or if there was a rainstorm that knocked out electricity in his house. He DID have control over things like his own will and determination. He set his goal of getting into college, and he wasn’t going to stop until he got there.
I remember being on the phone with an admissions officer from one of the schools that Joel applied to. She told me that they had accepted Joel and he would be receiving a 100%+ academic scholarship. I was frozen. I didn’t know how to react. It was the most significant moment of my life, yet I had no outward reaction. I could envision Joel graduating from UPENN and holding an influential job down the line, forever changing the lives of his family members and those in the community. This is the type of change that Darren and I aim to create in Tobati.
As happy as I was for Joel, however, I couldn’t help but start thinking further down the line. What could I do to replicate this for other kids at the Institute? How can I help establish a system of giving back that will exist after I stop working at the school? I suppose that’s just the way that my mind works. I am always looking to the next step.
I remember being with Darren and Eric (previous director) when we initially had the idea to do the cross-country bike trip. The whole thing was actually Eric’s idea. The more we talked about it, we realized that it would be entirely doable during summer break (winter break for US). Unfortunately, Eric wouldn’t be able to join us because of his grad school commitments at Fordham.
Darren and I saw the idea as perfect for the Institute. Neither of us were cyclists. Darren’s cycling experience included riding his mountain bike to Little League practice when he was 12. Mine was riding my bike from my house to the ma and pop donut shop a mile from my house to get snacks before a full day of watching football on a couch. We wanted to show the kids that truly anything was possible if you set your mind to it. Just look at us—a couple rookies who bought some bikes and pedaled for 3,000 miles across the country.
When we were on the bikes, enduring tough gravel and increasingly irritating saddle sores, the only thing on our mind was the finish line. We encountered more obstacles than you could imagine. Fierce, protective and vicious pit bulls. Constant, frigid headwinds that sought to demoralize you to the point of quitting. Snow, rain, freezing rain, hail, tornadoes, sand storms. Flat tires and cold feet. Indigestion and insomnia. Abominable snowmen. You name it, and we had it.
You learn to focus on the good, on the things within your element of control. At one point, Darren and I would just start laughing after encountering a vicious and swirling 15mph wind. What’s the point in getting frustrated? You’re just diverting your attention away from your positive energy that has the power to convince yourself that you’re capable of achieving something as crazy as crossing the country on a bike.
I’d hear all the time while on the road how “young and stupid” I was. I guess that’s where the nickname, “The Young Gun” came from. I suppose I hadn’t thought everything out before the trip started. But how could I? We would never know where we were going to stay more than a day or two in advance. Each day we woke up with a goal to get to the next town, and we didn’t stop until we did. We networked like crazy on sites like warmshowers.org and couchsurfing to find hosts in the cities that we would pass along the way. But sometimes things happen like you getting stranded on the side of the road, and a psychic wearing a tie-die tee shirt and high top basketball sneakers invites you to crash at her place for the night (thanks Yvoty!).
The entire trip was a crash course on how to embrace the unknown. If you learn to trust yourself, you’ll be able to flourish in any situation that you find yourself in. For the past two months, Darren and I have been living in a constant state of uncertainty. Because of this, we were forced into tough situations where there often weren’t any rays of hope. It was sink or swim. We decided to swim.
Darren detailed my second to last day of riding well. It was a 45-mile ascent through a mountain range. A storm was lingering right above the mountains, waiting to wreak havoc on San Diego. All the buzz for the past few days was how big this storm was going to be, and how dangerous the conditions were. Each person we ran into had something to say about the storm. Everyone and their mothers love talking about the weather. I sware, I must have listened to over ten hours of conversation solely about the weather over the last couple days of the trip.
Now I, in my naïve (and according to others, stupid) outlook on intangibles like weather, saw this as just another obstacle. There wasn’t anything that was going to stop me from getting up that mountain. It was the homestretch of the trip, and I wasn’t about to sit this one out because of a couple rain clouds and wind gusts. I had my sights set on San Diego, and as far as I was concerned, there wasn’t anything that was going to stop me from getting there.
Even after Graeme’s multiple attempts to convince me otherwise, Darren looked at him and said, “Mate, I know this guy. There isn’t anything you can say to stop him from getting to the top of that mountain tomorrow.”
Everyone I talked to saw the storm as a blockade. I saw it as an obstacle, an impediment. I remember being at the RV park in Ocotillo (at the base of the mountain), and listening to Graeme and Jackson talk about just how threatening the weather was. I sat back listening, with a mischievous grin on my face. It was all this negative talk about the weather, and how it would be impossible to ride in those conditions. Impossible is nothing. Something is only impossible if you tell yourself it is. If you set goals for yourself, however, and don’t stop till you get there, then you’ll constantly be pushing the limit on your realm of what’s achievable or not.
The whole time I knew that I was going to climb that beast whether there was rain, snow, wind, or pit bulls in my path. It was a challenge I set for myself, and I wouldn’t be denied.
And I did it. And it was the most glorious day of riding. I was by myself, taking in the most astonishing sights of the trip. The storm had a way of creating these unbelievable colors in the sky when there was a clear moment. The air was crisp, and my mind was clear. There I was, atop this mountain that I had just scaled, with no one but myself. It was as if I was being rewarded for pushing the limits. My enduring the most brutal conditions of the trip led to the most rewarding feeling of the entire voyage.
I hope that our students will see what we did and realize that they too are capable of doing things that people have told them are unachievable. Darren and I are all about breaking the mold of complacency in Tobati. One must believe in himself and see beyond the walls that have been set in place by previous generations.
This trip, along with my travels and my experiences in Paraguay, has been an attempt to continue actively living. You’ll know when you are truly alive, like the moment where I was weightless on top of the mountain near San Diego with a rainbow above me and the clouds beside me.
Like Mr. Wilde said, “most people exist, that is all.” Find a way to live, and the rest will fall in place.