Seizing the Eye of the Storm
Vietnam: May 11, 2021 – June 26, 2021 | Hoi An, Da Nang
USA: June 27, 2021 – July 28, 2021 | California, Arizona, Chicago
Mexico: July 28, 2021 – Sept 12, 2021 | Merida
Spain: Sept 13, 2021 – Dec 11, 2021| Valencia, Xátiva, Sevilla
Mexico: Dec 12, 2021 – Jan 23, 2022 | Guadalajara
Jan 23, 2022 @ 12:54 pm CST: I just received a text message that brought a tear to my eye. Not a tear of sorrow but a tear of pure joy and appreciation. A message that seemed to bring together a bunch of emotions bubbling up in me in this moment. A moment, in which I’m finishing a book that I only heard about on a whim just a few short days ago. Now the ending of this book and the message I have just received are combining to give me the emotions that I need to finally begin to write these words and begin this reflective journey. One that started in a country half-a-world away and ends on this day in a place where I would have never thought I’d be sitting a year ago at this same time.
What is it about tennis books?! The last one I read brought me to tears but for very different reasons. Ironically, in the same country (but not city) where this reflection shall begin. Perhaps, it’s because tennis has been with me since my adolescence and a part of every step of my journey over these last 25-ish years. But this story isn’t about tennis nor my adolescence. Instead, it’s about little lessons that have taken a lifetime and a pandemic to fully flourish.
And what is a lifetime? For some, it’s much too short. For others, luckily enough, it can be long and hopefully fulfilling. But that’s also relative given the numerous events that take us on the rollercoaster of existence. Over the last two years, our existence as humans has been challenged and questioned, and we’ve all had to find different ways to mitigate and move through this period learning from our own individual lessons.
For my part, there are two simple words that define this period of existence – change and appreciation. Since leaving the States to live abroad over these past six years, my life has been lived in seasons. Such are seasons, periods of constant change – for what may seem like stability is one in which things are never the same.
We see it in nature – the air, the beach, the trees – at times change happens slowly and other times it occurs violently. But it’s always happening, in the ever-slightest of ways, and in doing so creates life and time in which no second is ever the same.
“So it is with repetition; although it may appear to be the same thing, it is always different. Look at the windmill. To someone who glances at its sails only once, they seem to be moving at the same speed, repeating the same movement. But those familiar with windmills know that they are controlled by the wind and change direction as necessary.” – Paulo Coelho | “The Archer”
To our naked and naïve eyes, these changes are so subtle and sometimes this degree of perceived certainty allows to live in our comfort bubbles. But the world whispered and then screamed, bursting these bubbles of certainty at their seams. It left many of us wondering how to adapt and ponder on what time and life truly mean.
In many ways I’ve prepared for this period during my six years away from home – such is a life lived while traveling the globe. Change is actually what is constant and something to be appreciated for the results it creates in scenery and self. And within self in these last several months, I’ve had to live and adapt with constant change by focusing repetitively on ways to simply maintain self.
Perhaps, as sports are a microcosm of life, the true test of an elite athlete is the ability to slow the game down, focus on the fundamentals, and find their game when things aren’t going their way. It’s a learned skill through practice and repetition over many years. Practicing fundamental thoughts and actions repetitively (almost obsessively) allows for the body and mind to change as necessary based on the conditions at hand.
Months ago, I escaped to reflections in the rice fields, yet, that isn’t even the full story be told. There’s still another act of several chapters to unfold. Five lockdowns endured with travels through five different countries – the outcomes of the next steps often unsure. The lockdowns, the tests, the contract tracing, the ever-changing protocols and documentation – each movement filled with angst, uncertainty, and fleeting embers of frustration. It’s enough to make one lose their patience and breakdown amid the seemingly illogical consternations.
Yet, it was through the constant practice of appreciation that I now sit here with tears of pure joy at the edges of my eyes, and the desire to look back and excavate the memories along this unforgettable ride. A period of experiences forever etched in my mind. Memories that I can now share with joy and pride, even though some may still bring a tear to my eyes.
Never Before & Never Again
May 18, 2021 @ 5:00 pm – Hoi An, Vietnam: We’re peddling feverishly trying to escape once again. Yet, this time it’s not to rice fields but away from a scene that is ringing alarm bells in our minds. There is an elder Vietnamese man shouting obscenities in our direction trying to create chaos at our expense. Rather than confront, we decide to high-tail it out of there to defuse the situation. But there’s something about this guy that just doesn’t make sense.
Yesterday, I saw this same guy in the center of town in his attempt to take advantage of a situation. My wife was sitting outside of a convenience store checking something on her phone, while I was standing across the street waiting to pick up food at a restaurant. I saw what seemed like a guy down on his luck read the situation and park his bike along the side of the street. Shiftily, he began to check his leg, which appeared to be bandaged before walking towards my wife in a shifty manner.
But something told me this was odd and so I began to walk back across the street to create a bit of cover. As I neared, I got my wife’s attention, which seemed to both startle and enrage the shifty character. I guess he had wanted to play his luck with an unsuspecting, foreign Vietnamese lady but once he realized my presence, our connection, and the fact that I wasn’t allowing the situation to play as he had hoped, his attitude quickly shifted to anger and passive rage. Again, rather than confront, we made the decision to remove ourselves from the scene.
So, you can imagine the shock and alarm the following day during our daily afternoon ride, when we were enjoying two of the finest banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) on an absolutely gorgeous day at the banks of the river with a view that reminded us of one of our favorites places in the world – Chiang Dao, Thailand. Yet, no more than a minute after echoing this sentiment to each other, do we see this same man approaching us at the river to ask us where we are from and if we could provide some money.
This time he seems cleaned up – with a fresh shave, sunglasses, and the look of a rather fit and astute older Vietnamese man who also speaks a decent level of English. But again, as soon as the situation turns against his favor, he quickly changes his stripes and begins to yell out all types of obscenities and impurities in Vietnamese. While my wife can do a good job of faking that she doesn’t speak Vietnamese in these situations, it’s clear to her that this guy is saying things are foul and flagrant in an attempt to draw attention to us and cause shame amongst all those in our presence.
But now is not the time nor the place for fisticuffs, so we hop on our bikes and bail, turning a beautiful sunset ride into one of anxiety and escape. We bike tirelessly clear across town and, ironically, end up in the rice fields not far from our short-term apartment. We had only been in Hoi An for one week by this time. Yet that evening, as we watch the sun set over the rice fields behind the mountains in the distance, we decide that we’ll only stay another week before heading back to Da Nang.
“…with adversity you are shocked to higher levels, much like a rain storm that is so violent, but yet afterwards all plant grows.” – Bruce Lee | “Letters of the Dragon”
The last time we were in Hoi An was almost exactly one year ago. The initial COVID-19 lockdown in Vietnam had just ended in late April and we decided to take a weekend trip to Hoi An to getaway and enjoy a semblance of travel once again. It was clear at that time that things were closing down around the world and we’d be “stuck” in Vietnam for at least 3-6 months.
Even though there weren’t any international travelers in the country at the time (only those like us hemmed in due to travel constraints), domestic travel was flourishing after the initial 3-week lockdown. The country still had some of the lowest COVID infection rates in the world and people were still “living their lives” – albeit with limited social precautions. Now the Vietnamese could enjoy their own tourist sites without the deluge of foreigners, though to the naked eye the volume of people felt no different.
Now a year later, everything feels different. The old, historic town just entered its third lockdown after more than 14 months of dealing with the economic effects of the pandemic. There haven’t been any international arrivals in that time. A place that had boomed due to its UNESCO status, its overwhelming charm, and South East Asian simplicity, is now practically empty.
For us, it takes a while to come to grips with the voids we witness on a daily basis. It’s like visiting a friend who has been full of life, energy, and excitement for years, who now has been reduced to a shell of themselves – gray, empty, and depressed. Rather than dwell on the despair, we recognize the uniqueness of the moment. Never before and never again we will be able to enjoy this place in this way. Being able to live in such an historic place and enjoy it for what it is rather than what it’s become.
Mornings started with local banh mi, dragon fruit, and Vietnamese iced coffees, enough to fuel our hours spent coworking in the apartment with the warm breeze blowing in the smell of rice fields burning the distance. Middays exercising, resting, and reading before heading out on daily sunset rides across town and through the dry rice fields to grab our favorite sandwiches and pineapple drinks. And, to say “chao” to our local vendors, who are just as happy to see us as we are them during these daily jaunts of limited liberty.
While these days may have seemed simple and the same, it was with repetition of meaningful and memorable actions that we made them different and deliberate. The mystery man who ran us off the riverbank and eventually out of town, actually did us a favor. He reminded us of the uniqueness of this moment in our time, raised our desire to maximize our limited time in this place, and pushed us closer to returning to the one place we needed to see and experience again after all that we had faced.
In a Day it Can All Be Taken Away
May 25, 2021 @ 11:30 am – Da Nang, Vietnam: We have no idea what to expect. The last time we were in Da Nang, we had endured two lockdowns and I had just said “Good Mourning” before we departed to Saigon for an undetermined amount of time. Now, we’re returning after eight months in Saigon and two unexpected weeks in Hoi An. Ironically, just this morning while checking out of our hotel in Hoi An, the receptionist tells us that the lockdown has been lifted in the city and asks if we wish to lengthen our stay. Yet, our plans and minds are already made up, we were finally returning Da Nang – our fourth place – no matter what.
Like Hoi An, we returned to a Da Nang that was a shell of its former self – a close friend who had endured a period that had all but beat the life out of them. Massive hotels and beachfront resorts shuttered for now more than a year. Construction projects that had done all they could to endure the first two lockdowns were no match for two devastating tropical storms and another lengthy lockdown. While life is returning to normal in Hoi An (just 13 miles away), Da Nang is still imprisoned, and we only hope it won’t last much longer.
Just 30 minutes after leaving the new liveliness of Hoi An, the beachside bonanza of bewildered luxury comes into focus and we are both delighted and despondent. A mix of emotions fitting for this period in our lives. The city is noticeably muted but what catches my eye and causes my senses to spring once again, is a scene also symbolic of this time.
As the car turns the corner and heads towards our new apartment building, we are driving towards a police barricade. Luckily it starts on the opposite side of the street from our apartment but the weight of its presence is profound and a powerful reminder of the way things work in these parts.
For the next 10 days, while I can walk “freely” from my apartment to the local markets for food and maybe even a brief stroll along the road opposite the beach, my neighbors are quarantined to their little street block, unable to leave its confines simply because someone within their immediate distance caught COVID. It’s a good chance that unlucky person has been “removed from society” during their ordeal, while the rest are left in the prison of their homes. It’s a stark daily reminder as I enjoy the evening sunset and full moon views from our rooftop, while also looking down on my neighbors in their impromptu prison camp, complete with guards on both sides.
These are also the thoughts that accompany you each and every day – realizing that at any moment someone in our building or even on our block can contract COVID, shutting us all off from the outside world. Like the eye of storm, you learn to seize the calm at the center of it all. You could focus on the whirlwind of chaos or find calm in the center – by being centered – focusing on repeating those simple thoughts and actions that keep you balanced and finding ways to appreciate the simplest of things.
“Simplicity – to express the utmost in the minimum of lines and energy.” – Bruce Lee | “Letters of the Dragon”
June 9, 2021 @ 4:00 pm – Da Nang, Vietnam: Finally…finally, my feet have returned to the sand. For months in Saigon, this was the only thing I wished to do, and yet it was so far away from reality. This morning, after enduring a month-long lockdown, Da Nang finally reopened, albeit with limited restrictions. So, I made it a point to hit all my spots as soon as the sun came up this morning.
While I could patron a few spots during the lockdown by purchasing carryout, there were some spots I simply couldn’t enjoy and faces that I couldn’t return to see. But today, I saw everything and went everywhere – and am ending it with my footsteps on the beach. The light that had left the soul of the city returned today and I could see it in the eyes of those who I missed in these last (now) 9 months. Faces who I saw on a regular basis prior to the sojourn in Saigon and in whose eyes, I could now see life and excitement again. There’s something to be said and truly appreciated about returning to places after such a long absence and people light up when they see you, they remember your favorite orders and favorite places to sit. It’s the collective feeling of freedom, hope, and appreciation.
I’m still not comfortable exercising on the beach – having to wear a mask and all – so this evening I’ll do it from the rooftop instead. But now only I stand here with my feet in the sand, looking out over one of my favorite beaches in the world, and giving thanks for simply being able to finally return here.
Stay in the Moment
June 13, 2021 @ 11:30 am – Da Nang Province, Vietnam: It’s been only four days since Da Nang reopened and our time in this country is limited. Recognizing the waves of COVID and projecting the impending doom that Delta may inflict in a country with a zero-tolerance COVID policy, we bought our tickets to depart the country last weekend and only have two weekends left. Now we’re back in a car going the opposite direction, away from Da Nang towards Hoi An to enjoy a day we dreamt about just a few weeks before.
Off in the distance on the opposite side of the highway, I see yet another police blockade – a checkpoint – one that we didn’t expect. Given that Hoi An had been open for weeks now and Da Nang just reopened, we were informed we wouldn’t have any issues crossing between the two provinces. But the lines are long and our hearts are racing. We don’t have time to turn around.
We ask the driver the purpose of the checkpoint if the two cities are open, and he assures us that it’s only for drivers, as they are trying to limit trafficking in the area. We’re not fully buying it but we have passed the point of no return. So, we are left to try to simply enjoy the day, while our passports – and perhaps our only means to return to our liberty – remain in our apartment back in Da Nang.
While we could spend the next few hours anxious and wondering if we’ll be able to return home this evening or anytime soon, we quickly realize that any energy expended on these thoughts is futile. Instead, we choose to focus on that which we can control and enjoy one of the simplest yet most unforgettable days in a peaceful paradise.
Weeks earlier the rice fields were dry and burnt, now today they are the brightest green I’ve ever seen. After grabbing a couple of day bikes from the hotel we stayed last month, we head off. Café and light reads…check. Banh mi…check…well sort of – in the two weeks since we left, our daily spot has closed for good. But given the limited tourists in the area, we were able to hit one of the most famous spots in town without all the hassle.
Then we went on a brief exploration, something that we’ve lost a bit during our life abroad. While at the café reading a book of travel essays, I came across a story about a fountain in Hoi An known the world over for being the birthplace of the local dish – cao lau. So we set off to find it, weaving through the beautiful yet deserted alleys of historic Hoi An.
Next, it was back to the rice fields to visit a café that I’d seen during our daily rides last month but that had been closed for obvious reasons. Inspired by the music of the Beatles, the café was a gem in a jewelry store. Sitting along the rim of the rice fields with a Vietnamese iced coffee listening to the sounds of my childhood, I reflect both on the day and dramatic period of time we are enduring.
Many times, all we have wanted was to simply enjoy a moment like this and now we were here doing just that. Sure, the impending events of the day and time were on our mind, but when you’re able to slow it all down and look out towards the mountains with nothing but lush green in your eyes’ grasp, it quickly makes you realize how meaningful this moment is.
Leaving the café, we tell the owner how much we love the place and wished to finally visit it one day. As we are the only ones in the café and perhaps have been the only ones for most of the day, he shares his appreciation and his desire for us to return again. We can see and feel the plea in his eyes and his smile, and we are heartbroken knowing full well that even though we say we hope to return, it may be years before we step foot in here again.
The same goes for our pineapple juice lady on the other side of town, who we visited daily during our two weeks here last month. We are both happy to see her again but sad to know that this is our last time – perhaps for a very long time. But there was no better way to wrap up a magical day and a random “skills check” in the rice fields. As we returned the bikes to the hotel and departed in our private car on the way home, the anxiety of a successful return soon re-emerged.
We’ve been driving for what seems like more than half the ride back home. I’m starting to wonder if the checkpoint is even still there, and looking over to my wife, I can tell she’s thinking the same. Oh, but the car is starting to slow and as I raise my eyes and look into the distance, reality rears its head.
The scene is chaotic – cars and bikes parked all over the place, tents full of people, and Vietnamese police in their famous green suits and caps in every direction. But there’s nothing we can do now, except hope and wait. Our driver parks and exits the car to proceed into the mayhem. We sit idle, trying not to fidget and worry, though our minds are cycling through different scenarios to plead for our possible freedom.
Moments later, our driver returns and a police officer comes over to our car. Yet, it’s only to make room for us to exit our parking spot and proceed around the barricade. We’ve made it out…no passports needed. But this is the last time we’d live through this type of torment and it’s another stark reminder that our time to leave this way of living is imminent.
The Last Sunrise
June 19, 2021 @ 4:30 am – Da Nang Province, Vietnam: The room is pitch black, my alarm just went off, and neither of us feels like getting up. The next five minutes are do or die crucial, as we have limited time to get a move on before the sun rises. We toss, turn, and fuss but eventually drag ourselves out of bed and out of the apartment to walk the two blocks to the beach.
The sky is a shade of colors almost unimaginable, true words are limited to the describe it. It’s changing tones and hues by the minute, and each becoming more intense as sun begins to pierce the horizon. We aren’t the only ones to reach the beach right before sunrise. It always seems half the city is at the beach at sunrise and sunset every day. The stifling heat of the rest of the day causing all to shelter in more shaded places.
After brief individual moments of awe and gratitude, we proceed on our mission – a sunrise “skills check” on the banks of the ocean before the morning sun begins its daily burn. It only takes 45 minutes before the burn starts to take effect. We were able to complete the “sunrise skills check” and now it’s time to head back, shower, rest, and reset. It’s our last full Saturday, since we’re scheduled to leave next week. So, we have a full slate of activities to take advantage of our last days in the city.
We hit all of our favorite cafes and Vietnamese restaurants in the neighborhood but were too tired to say goodnight during sunset at the beach. Little did we know, that the next morning we arose, another spike in local covid cases was detected, and just like that the city was once again closed. With just 7 days left, we were fortunate to have pushed ourselves to enjoy what became our final sunrise. Now we were left with the stress of our impending departure and the sudden shock of the immediate lockdown surprise – only 10 days after the city once again opened its eyes.
June 24, 2021 @ 7:15 am – Da Nang Province, Vietnam: Damn…he stuck that swab up my nose and it just keeps going. The swab looked about the size of a straw and more than half of it disappeared in my nose before I closed my eyes and patted the chair in despair. Not once but twice must I endure this now routine practice of displeasure. I went first and so now I wait and watch the swab disappear up my wife’s nose, as she writhes in discomfort. COVID PCR tests complete and now we wait…anxious for the results and the green light to eventually board our flight in a bit over 48 hours.
The next 8 hours are almost as tight as the last week. Since the city went into lockdown again, Delta has begun to rage and little is known about it or how it made Da Nang its latest destination. If anyone in our building or block happens to contract it, we could be locked up here for weeks – requiring us to cancel our flights, hotels, and pay indefinitely to stay in this apartment. Let alone the thought of being contact traced to a store we may have recently shopped at, a place we bought food, or a person we happen to enjoy the same space. Not to mention if our tests come back positive, we might be removed from our apartment, taken to a military base, and left to isolate there while Delta continues to rage.
It can be nerve-racking to stay the least but like the day in Hoi An, energy wasted on thoughts of things out of our control is futile. Instead, we hunker down and focus on the simplest of things – things to get us through these last days and ready for our departure.
“So remember that one who is possessed by worry not only lacks the poise to solve his own problems, but by his nervousness and irritability creates additional problems for those around him.” – Bruce Lee | “Letters of the Dragon”
Shortly before 4pm, the text message is received – “Negative!” The relief is huge and our anticipation mounts, though we still know there are still a thousand things that can happen to prevent our leave. Neighbors testing positive, flights cancelled, or even flights rescheduled such that our tests become invalid due to the intense time restrictions placed on their sampling and our expected arrival. We have three flights to make it to our destination and if anything happens on any of those flights, all this will be thrown out the window and we’ll have to start over again, wherever we might happen to be.
Saturday morning, we arrive at the Da Nang Airport, passing by a deserted international terminal that hasn’t been open since the days shortly after our fortunate arrival in March 2020. It’s eerie and a quick, vivid reminder of the state of the world. Inside, the domestic terminal is half empty with only a handful of flights departing to Hanoi – all other flights have been cancelled and nothing is going south to Saigon – the epicenter of the latest outbreak.
While the country is overly aggressive in public places regarding social distancing and cautionary measures, the airline has a different policy. They had rescheduled our flight 3 or 4 times in the last week and now we see why. They booked everyone on normally scheduled flights and then compressed all of those flights into the lone flight going to Hanoi today. Though masked, we are packed like sardines and if you’ve ever flown in Asia, you’ll know how public customs quickly change once inside an airplane. At the very least, we have negative tests and regardless if we catch Delta during this voyage, we’re on our way out of here. Well not quite…!
It seems my passport is causing some consternation with the immigration officials at the international terminal in Hanoi. When traveling through Vietnam, my wife and I have a strategy for passing through immigration – I always go first. Generally, I don’t have any issues. But to help limit their desire to nag her – being a Vietnamese-born US citizen – I always go first, so they see my name and then realize she is my wife.
But today, I’m the one with the problem. During our extended stay in the country, my 5-year visa exemption expired – allowing me access to the country for 6 months at-a-time. Yet, given the unique situation, I was granted another six-month extension 4 months ago. No problem, right?! Well, apparently this approval was news to them and the lower ranking official summoned a higher-ranking official for clearance. More anxious moments emerge, as I now want nothing more than to get my stamp out, cross the line out of this country, and proceed into international lands.
Anxious moments abated. Now I’m through to international lands and enjoying my final Vietnamese pho and tiger beer in the country I’ve called home since this whole pandemic began. I’m relieved that our flight is on-time and I’m finally out of this country. Japan here we come!
But oh no, not again! We still have an hour before our flight departs and while sitting at the boarding gate, another immigration official motions for my wife and I to hand over our passports. Apparently, he needs to review the issue for his own eyes. Damn it…I thought I was out of this country already?! He’s flipping pages and comparing stamps, looking at my passport and then glancing over to hers – we’re not sure what he’s even checking. My stamp is official, from the government itself. But it’s something they haven’t seen before and perhaps are afraid to make a mistake they won’t be able to correct. Five minutes later, he hands back our passports and nods goodbye. No sorry, no thank you, no nothing – actually it’s quite typical in these parts.
Five minutes to go and I want nothing more than to get on this ANA Dreamliner and take off towards Tokyo in the middle of the night. But what do I see? The same low-ranking officer from the original immigration booth is running in my direction.
WTF, man?! Seriously?! Sheepishly, he looks over my passport (only) – for what, I don’t know – but he nods and confirms something in his head. With the passport now back in my hands, I look at the gate and notice they are starting to board. The hell with this – we’re out of here. Who cares if they haven’t officially called our row yet!
Maybe it was the stress of the day, the dark of the night, or the soothing feels of a Dreamliner in flight, but I slept like a brick throughout the 5-hour flight.
June 27, 2021 @ 2:30 pm – Cupertino, California: Less an hour after we dropped our bags and checked into our hotel, we had shots in arm and were ready to conquer our first day back in the States in over 23 months. It’s amazing how distant was the possibility of a vaccine in a country half-a-world away, and yet how easy it was to receive our first shots in less than 2 hours after landing back in the States. The gravity of the situation was not lost on us, at all.
Walking through Trader Joe’s for a bit of grocery shopping to grab the basics for the week, we are struck by how comfortable yet different everything seems. Cupertino is my most comfortable place in all of the US and given the political and social events of the time, it’s the only place I want to “quarantine” upon this initial return to the States. Rather than the usual car rental and house hopping that I do each year, this year we’re forgoing the car and shacking up at a hotel for two weeks. We just arrived from South East Asia where Delta was starting to run rampant and we don’t want to be the unfortunate international transporters of doom to our friends and family back at home.
But Cupertino also feels different. California has only been open for 12 days after several months of one of the most restrictive lockdowns in the country. You can feel it. A once bustling main intersection outside of our hotel feels to be on the cusp of a ghost town rather a normal hectic Sunday afternoon. Offices and local businesses have been shuttered for months and there are vacancy signs posted in seemingly every other open window. The signs of the times are clear in our eyes, as we walk with groceries in hand back to our hotel.
He Has No Idea What This Means
July 5, 2021 @ 9:54 am – San Jose, California: This trip back home has been unlike any other. For as abnormal as it may be, we are doing everything we can to make it feel comfortable – the essence of seizing the calm within the storm. The hotel and location were perfect, just steps from a myriad of grocery stores, cafes, and parks. It’s the perfect setting to settle in for these 14 days and serve as a convenient and serene place of connection with friends unseen for nearly two years.
Just the simple ability to sit in a park without a mask on and enjoy a coffee, a chat, or a moment of mindfulness, is without words. This fact was also not lost on me when my heart skipped a beat during a chat with my friend Laura while in the Cupertino Library Park the other day. Off in the distance, I saw a guy in a green outfit walking towards our direction, as we sat with drinks in hand, at opposite edges of the bench (social distancing protocol – of course), yet without masks on. I stopped Laura mid-sentence to exclaim the fact that I just had a PTSD-type moment, as the gentleman immediately caused me to think back to being out in public in Vietnam and the possibility of a police officer coming over to berate me and/or fine me for not wearing a mask. Yet, it was all a distant illusion at this point. I was now home and out of the authoritarian atmosphere of South East Asia.
Over the last week, I’ve made the most of the amazing early summer days in California and the comforting scenery, spending afternoons in the local parks, taking walks, and getting lost in my thoughts. Much has occurred in these last two years, let alone the last 11 since I moved away from Cupertino. And there’s much to share and catch up on with friends who graciously make the trek down to spend a few hours in my pensive paradise. We all know the weight of the times and while we may have stayed in touch via digital means over the last 24 months, there’s nothing like finally being able to look each other in the eyes and say I’m happy you survived without even saying a word.
But there’s one friend that I’m looking at now who has no idea of any of this. For him, last year was yesterday and there is no tomorrow. As I look into his eyes and pet his soft fur, I can feel all the memories of these last two years flood over me and how much just simply seeing and holding him brings me back to my center. While there are literally no words to express to him all that I feel in this moment, ironically, I think he can feel my weight of my gratitude. I can see it in his eyes, as he looks up to me almost as if to say, “why are you so moved by this moment? It’s just another day, let’s go play.” Yep, he’s right, after all is said and done, it’s just another day.
A Day Second-to-None
“It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.” – Alizé Cornet | “Transcendence – Diary of a Tennis Addict”
July 25, 2021 @ 10:54 am – Chicago, Illinois: Today is not just another day, it’s a perfect day. It’s summertime in Chicago. It’s sunny, warm, and there isn’t a cloud to be seen for hundreds of miles. It’s the type of day that makes up for the months of dreary winter days for those that reside in the Windy City. Everyone is out and the cafes and restaurants are packed. For a moment you could almost forget that we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. But it’s a momentary dip between the waves and I’m not taking any precautions, even though I received my second shot a week ago during a brief stay in Central California visiting my aunt.
Serving as today’s chauffeur, I’m masked up and maneuvering through Chicago’s traffic as I take my parents along a scenic ride down memory lane. While I’ve been downtown with both my parents (individually) over the last two decades, we’ve never really had a chance to spend a day here all together. We drive by my old apartment where I lived for two years during my graduate school days. In nearly 20 years, so much has changed. I barely recognize the neighborhood that served as the foundation for the professional adult I eventually became. Driving through the Chicago Loop, I ponder if my parents feel the same. They’ve spent 60+ years plus in this city and I’m sure their memories are blurred by what their mind’s eye sees. A city under constant change – change so subtle yet substantial over the hundreds of seasons that they’ve seen.
We drive under the “L” tracks and through the maze of streets where my mom and dad used to work and meet. They are calling out restaurants now long gone where they used to eat. We park in front of my graduate school, just two blocks from the Sears (Willis) Tower, where my mom worked for more than 100 seasons. I turn to snap a few photos and am flooded by a collection of reasons – reasons why I chose this school, why I’ve never walked these streets with both my parents in toe, why this moment means so much to me, and why I’m taking a bunch of pictures in the distance to capture a moment that for the rest of my life I’ll behold.
The story of my family can be said to mirror waves of a pandemic. It’s been up and down over the decades. But for those that know the ins and outs, this period is one to be cherished without a doubt. For nearly two years, I wished for nothing more to return to see my parents again, enduring the effects of the pandemic from half-a-world away. Not a day has gone by in the last 25-ish years since I’ve lived away from Chicago when I don’t think the next text or phone call may be the “one.” To be gifted with this special moment is something I’ll never forget. Like a pebble of appreciation, I can forever hold in my pocket. A day that was truly second-to-none.
After returning home, my dad cooked up one of my favorite meals and, after a surprise visit that left me lost for words, we ended the night playing chess – the result of which was in my favor, but I digress. Two days later, before my inevitable departure, my mom and I do what we do best. In between running a few errands in the morning, we stop at a nearby park to walk, chat, and simply digest. Life can be long but all the little moments are short. Strolling through the park on another perfect summer morning, we reflect on the moments of the week, the last year, and our respective life journeys.
These are the days full of simple, perhaps mundane, moments that are so significant when we slow down and truly ponder on what time and life truly mean. My time back home to check in with friends and family has now come to an end, as I depart Chicago O’Hare International Airport to begin my next season abroad. The clear skies and warm smiles I’ve enjoyed epitomize the calm before the storm. Now I embark on a journey to a place that weeks ago I never thought I would ever explore.
Eye of the Storm
“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” – Alizé Cornet | “Transcendence – Diary of a Tennis Addict”
August 19, 2021 @ 2:45 pm – Merida, Yucatan, Mexico: During the last day of our 14-day stay in Cupertino, we pulled the trigger. While we had been hoping to head back to Spain at the end of our American adventure, the cards were still not stacked in our favor and so, we opted for Plan B – Merida, Mexico. For a myriad of reasons, this wasn’t just Plan B, it was pretty much plan B-Z. There were no other real options given the climate of the season and the climate of the times, so we punched our tickets to place where we had a couple of friends who continuously lobbied for us to reside.
While I’d traveled to Mexico numerous times prior to our time abroad, the country never made the cut on our seasonal itinerary. There were other places to explore and, over time, places that became our seasonal homes. Yet, given the situation with the pandemic and the borders raised around the world, Mexico was the only real spot we could go to wait it out. Spain was just beginning to reopen and the requirements to enter were still a bit too narrow for our situation. So, we figured a few weeks in Merida, visiting friends, and laying low while things smoothed out in Spain would be the best option.
But right now, we’re seriously questioning this option – not so much about the city but the amount of time we might spend here. We came here without any real exit date, simply to hang out, assess the situation in Europe, and wait. We’ve been here about three weeks and our fill of this place is reaching its maximum. We’ve lived in the tropics before but never quite like this. The days, while sunny and hot, are unbearable during most of the day. For a person who loves to walk around and be in nature, it’s simply tortuous to be out in the middle of the day. Not to mention, everything is so spread out and the cafes just aren’t that great. Per usual, I find a few decent spots to cycle through my days. I also make use of the amazing elevated pool deck to enjoy some epic exercise scenes towards the end of most days.
It’s not just the city but the season that is causing consternation. Just an hour ago, the sky went dark, and the wind whipped up, the rumblings of a Caribbean hurricane and whose eye was our eventual location. For the next 6 hours, the windows shook, the walls rocked and swayed, the power went out, and we were left to ponder our next stage. Like the guy in Vietnam whose behavior shooed us out of Hoi An, this storm that is raging around us is also forcing our hand.
Three weeks later, we depart for our return to Spain, but not before making sure to eek the most of out a place that we probably won’t return to again. In the end, Merida is meant for us. But it would ultimately serve as a meaningful catalyst for a future decision, as we once again found ourselves confined due to the pandemic and its never-ending wave of restrictions.
The Return to the New Normal
September 13, 2021 @ 8:50 am – Valencia, Spain: I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I’m actually here – again. What seems like forever ago also feels like yesterday. If I’m not careful, I could easily forget all that has transpired in the last 2+ years since I’ve seen the beauty beneath the ashes here. In that time, the world whispered and then screamed, I shed bricks on the beach a half-a-world away while saying “Good Mourning”, and then spent 8 long (but seemingly short) months in the pit of personal purgatory before I escaped to reflections in the rice fields.
These steps I now take on the tarmac soon after sunrise have seemed so far away for so long and for so many reasons. Now, here I’m trying to take it all in, as my mind drifts back over the lessons learned and the experiences gained during these last 8+ seasons. While our residence may be different, the neighborhood is still the same. The feeling of being home again – a feeling we could only feel again once we eventually returned to Spain.
“My home is not a place but a pattern…a collection of places during different seasons.” – from Escape to Reflections in the Rice Fields
We have experienced so much change during the last 27 months we have been away from our springtime home. Many close to us have found it difficult to understand why after all this time it is so important for our sanity to be back here again. True, it’s not our normal season but what is normal now, anyways? Like the windmill, we have adapted to the winds of change and made subtle adjustments along the way to maintain – maintain self, balance, and belief that one day we’d be here again.
All that we have endured makes everything ever more so sweet. From the cafes, tostadas, paella, fideuá, and vermouth, we savor each moment and each flavor of life that we have waited so long to recoup. Like the day Da Nang reopened and I finally felt the smiles of faces missed during the depths of the isolation, I was welcomed back to one of my favorite cafes in Valencia with a face filled with surprise and gratification.
But the thing I missed most was my time spent in nature, and the day I finally returned to Túria was a day to surely savor. It’s truly a park like no other in the world, and one that always bring me back to center, no matter how much life and the times leave my soul disturbed. Now, every walk in the park is sweeter, the leaves brighter, and the sunny skies more beautiful. It’s really the culmination of a cycle in that has been both full and crucial. In this time, I’ve tried to teach myself many lessons – things to help me dig deep during the depths of bewilderment and reflection. Now is the moment to take the time and enjoy every little detail of my special place in the world, as well as everything in these last two years that I’ve absorbed.
Complete and Overwhelmed but Not Completely Overwhelmed
September 26, 2021 @ 4:32 pm – Xátiva, Spain: Music is playing in my ears and I’m counting off my reps…10…11…12…in between short but focused breaths. I hit 15 and for some reason I keep going, far beyond the reps I’ve ever done and doing something that two years ago in this same spot, I’d never known.
My annual trip down to Xátiva is long overdue, and today we were doing both the hike and something a bit new. During the covid era, we have raised our workout game and here, high above the clear skies of coastal Spain, we are completing a “skills check” of all of the exercises and skills we’ve gained.
Eventually, I hit 20 reps and I think that’s enough. Never would I have thought to hit that number today, especially after the hike up the side of the mountain and a full workout before, but it wasn’t that tough. Perhaps, it was the energy of the moment and pure joy of being at the peak of one of my favorite little-known spots in the world. Maybe it was also that I was at the peak of my own performance, simply appreciating the moment, focused on the fundamentals, leaving my soul undisturbed.
Since I’d learned these new skills, I dreamt of returning to this special place. High above the hills and the Spanish sky, almost like the culmination of finally finishing a long, exhausting race. While I’d hope to return to Xátiva at least one more time before the end of our Spanish season, neither weather nor train schedules would allow me to make this a reality. Instead, I move on embodying one of the key lessons of life during this covid era – make the most of each moment, because it can all be taken away as easily as the wind blows a feather.
“It is the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” – Alizé Cornet | “Transcendence – Diary of a Tennis Addict”
Where it All Began
November 29, 2021 @ 2:39 pm – Sevilla, Spain: My toes are numb and my fingers are freezing. Yet, I’m warmed by both the afternoon Sevillian sun and the whirlwind of thoughts running through my being. Sevilla is the place where our journey abroad began. Each time we return and walk above the cobblestone bricks here in the Alameda, I’m taken back to first spring we spent here and all that has occurred in life since that season. There’s something to be said about returning to places at regular intervals in life. It’s yet another way that repetition allows us to comfortably deal with change and recognize all that occurred in the time that transpired.
I stop and look up at building that was once one of dreams. Five years ago, it was for sale and I briefly contemplated buying it. The original idea was to live on one level and rent out the other, or perhaps open a coffee shop, a language school – one idea or another. It never came to be, primarily because we were just getting started, on a journey that would take us around the world five times since we first departed. In that time, we’ve met old friends in new places and created new friends and experiences in unforgettable places. Similar to those who’ve joined us on this latest journey. We’re spending an American Thanksgiving here in Spain with friends visiting from Turkey.
Sevilla always brings about a strong sense of self questioning and this moment is no different. I think back to my dream idea here and why it never came to fruition. Luckily, it did not or otherwise I’d have missed out on so many amazing life experiences. But it’s also clear to me that I’ve been on the path that I chose, fulfilling my own life’s mission. The day will come when I’ll finally make a drastic change and start to do something different. But until then, I’ll continue to do what feels right for the times and stay ready for the moment life requires a shift.
“The end of a journey is always the beginning of an adventure.” – Alizé Cornet | “Transcendence – Diary of a Tennis Addict”
Winds of Change Whisper Again
December 14, 2021 @ 3:00 pm – Guadalajara, Mexico: It’s clear that they’re not getting it and I’ve grown tired of trying. This conversation feels not too different than the one that set a transition in motion earlier this year in March. At that time, I was ready to walk away if I didn’t see some semblance of respect and cooperation. And here I sit again, half-a-world away with the same feelings of imminent change. Throughout this year, it’s been my mission to help this client transition and move to the next generation, one in which I have no desire to be part of the equation.
It’s fitting that I would be in this same place in the world where my consultancy began to take hold. The last time I was here in this city was the day after I sat on the patio of my office in Palo Alto and told my boss, that in less than 90 days, I was ready to go. The day after that conversation, I landed in Guadalajara, and treated my then girlfriend (now wife) to her first international trip abroad. Guadalajara has always felt comfortable to me but a month ago it wasn’t even in our plans. Days before our trip to Sevilla, we had to make a final decision – take the chance of trying to return to Thailand this winter season or scrap the covid craziness and simply return to where we spent our recent summer exhibition?
We knew Merida was not in the cards and Mexico City was out of the question, so Guadalajara became natural next suggestion. There weren’t any expectations, given that I hadn’t been to the city in over 11 years. Suffice it say, the land of the Tapatios has surprised us with its level of comfort, negating any of my limiting fears. In all the years we’ve traveled, we’ve collected a mental postcard of our favorite places, and surprisingly Guadalajara seems to have a small bit of each of those cherished destinations. A little bit of Spain, San Jose (California), Medellin, and even Chiang Mai. We couldn’t have asked for a better place to spend this winter season and I couldn’t have been in a better place to weigh my next professional ride.
I guess there’s a deeper reason why I’ve gravitated to tennis over the years. It’s an international sport of independence. Where (generally) individuals train and challenge themselves, mentally and physically, to reach the height of their limits. They travel the world, to many of the same cities I’ve visited, seeking to maximize the limited time they have at the height of their sport and attempting to save as much as they can for a different life once their athletic career has ended. And that phase of life is short, usually 10-15 years of earnings if they’re blessed, and hopefully they have enough skills and money to fund the rest of life they’ll have left.
But there’s a key difference between their path and mine. My desire to grow within my profession has declined with time. Not just time but the continued evolution of a way of being that with every passing year continues to leave me disillusioned. It’s as if the game I’ve played over these last two decades has changed so much that it’s no longer a game I want to play. Hence, I think of different paths, like opening a café or writing a book. What’s becoming clearer to me each day is that my next phase is no longer along the path that I once took. It’s taken me to places far and wide, and allowed me to have experiences that would have never crossed my mind.
“I wasn’t scared of missing, looking bad, or being embarrassed. That’s because I always kept the end result, the long game, in my mind. – Kobe Bryant | “Mamba Mentality”
My only real desire after all of this covid crap, is to take a couple of years off to relax and sit back. Create some space and time to find my new identity, one that isn’t so tied to the immediate gratification, shallownness, and eyeball acquiescence of what now feels like such an ephemeral marketing industry. My goal has always been to seek solutions to complex situations, and develop unique ways to communicate value to interested patrons. And while I’ve done very well to carve my little niche in the market, it’s clear that the time is nearing to fiddle with my Rubik’s cube of life to find my next target.
So, thanks for your indecisiveness and your lack of professional respect. It’s the push I needed, in the best place possible, to reflect on the totality of my past successes and the ponder future ideas where I may also be profitable.
“I never felt outside pressure. I knew what I wanted to accomplish…Besides, the expectations I placed on myself were higher than what anyone else expected from me.” – Kobe Bryant | “Mamba Mentality”
Weeks before I made that faithful decision in 2011, my dad said something to me that I’ve never forgotten.
“You have the rest of your life to work, if things don’t go as planned.
So, just try it and see where you’ll land.”
Perfect words from a pilot and a man of reason, and words that are once again speaking to me during my time in Guadalajara this season.
The Gift of the Present
“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called present.” – Master Oogway in Kung Fu Panda (taken from Alize Cornet’s book, “Transcendence – Diary of a Tennis Addict”)
January 23, 2022 @ 2:30 pm – Guadalajara, Mexico
The final chapter of the book I just finished starts with these same lines,
and they are quite fitting in this moment for exactly how I’m feeling inside.
Reading someone else’s journey can often put you in a reflective place.
Riding their wave of sadness and joy, you can better appreciate all that you’ve faced.
We don’t often give ourselves credit for the myriad of things we overcome.
Sometimes it takes an outside eye or voice to show us just how much we’ve done.
But if for nothing else, I’ve embraced in these last several months of adventures,
that simple appreciation is what truly helps keep me centered.
Years ago, a friend complimented me on my ability to stay poised in challenging situations,
and asked me what it is that I do to maintain my patience.
I told her when everything around me speeds up, I slow down.
It’s the only way I know how to simplify my thoughts and do my best to react sound.
Like an elite athlete, this is a skill that takes practice.
It requires repetition to train the mind and body to find comfort
when discomfort is at its maximum.
From the mystery man in Hoi An and the immigration officers in Hanoi,
to that afternoon stuck in the eye of a Caribbean tropical storm.
When the winds of change swirled throughout my life in these last few seasons,
I tried my best to slow down and find the simplest moments of appreciation.
And along the way, I tried to share my gratitude with others,
hoping to give them a bit of energy to continue to survive this pandemic plunder.
For it has robbed us all of a significant time in our precious lives,
but hopefully it’s a period in which we can simply appreciate that we have survived.
And survive is what my father accomplished reaching his 80th birthday today.
It’s also why I’m sitting here in this moment in a teary-eyed daze.
I sent him a 10-minute video to mark his special moment in time.
Reflecting on his life, it’s not hard to reflect on mine,
as many of the moments in the video, we’ve shared together over time.
Yet, this gift also made me reflect on my own journey,
during a time that has been so far from the norm.
Along with all the special, little moments
I earned by seizing the eye of the storm.
Behind the Pen: Writer’s Notes
“To know and yet [think] we do not know is the highest [attainment]; not to know [and yet think] we do know is a disease.” – (Taoist quote taken from Erich Fromm’s book, “The Art of Loving”)
My original notes for this reflection began the day I arrived in Spain for the first time in over two years. The initial idea was to reflect on the “Return to the New Normal”, as it was a full circle culmination of finally arriving to our springtime home as we planned back in March 2020. While I had a full page of notes, the feel of it just didn’t seem right. For months, I kept coming back to my notes but just couldn’t get beyond the first page of writing. Ultimately wondering if the lack of ability and desire was telling me that it was now time to move on from this “Tales of the Nomadic Adventure” series.
Then, like a flurry, two days and 10,000+ words later, it all came out in. A text from a friend, the final words of a book, and all the emotions and thoughts that had been built up from within. It’s much, much longer than I anticipated, and now the longest reflective piece I’ve ever written. Perhaps these types of reflections are getting longer over the years, as I need more time and experiences to communicate my stories of lessons in way that feels complete and clear. The places I travel are no longer the point of the message, but rather it’s the lessons that I learn along the way that I need to absorb and digest.
Along with the books that I read, the conversations that I have, and the music that speaks to me throughout each journey, I can only hope the lessons I share will help others live a life more fully.
Inspired by a text message from Elvis, conversations with Elisabeth, the video tribute for my dad’s 80th birthday, as well as the books that I read during this period, including the five cited herein; “The Archer” by Paulo Coelho, “Mamba Mentality” by Kobe Bryant, “Letters of the Dragon” by the Bruce Lee Library, “Transcendence – The Diary of a Tennis Addict” by Alizé Cornet, and “The Art of Loving” by Erich Fromm, as well the series “Tokyo Moments” by Michael Pronko. Also inspired by songs of this period, including “Calm” by Otis Ubaka, “RIP Lola” by Mr. Heiwa & Cushion Head, “Doom” by Cap Kendricks & DJ Access, “Laguna” by Liphe, “Love, Wine, Talks” by Vens Adams“ and “Lost in Thought” by the Pastels.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.
DjmoemoeFebruary 2, 2022
What an emotionally epic ride this was! Just reflecting back on all our convos over the phone and comparing notes was so surreal! I am so glad you were able to express and catalog your wonderful journey