A life in ruins

A life in ruins: Angkor Wat temple

We find life in ruins. That may seem like an oxymoron since ruined buildings usually denote death, decay and the absence of human existence. In most cases, the only life found in such places comes in the form of plants and animals that reclaim what humans once made their own.

A life in ruins: Front of Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

But life is more than breath. And in the forgotten and fading remains of wood, stone or concrete fragments, we discover another kind of life in ruins: our own.

A life in ruins: Angkor Wat

Last time (as well as the photos here) used examples from San Juan de Dios hospital in Granada, Nicaragua and the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia to explore five reasons why ruins fascinate us.  But here’s the main explanation, at least to me, as to why we’re intrigued with the broken-down and crumbling:

Ruins are beautiful. They speak to us in ways we can’t always comprehend and they tell us a deeper story.

A life in ruins: Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

We may find the cobwebs, debris, small animals and flora emerging from the ancient walls to be curious – even, in some cases, disturbing – but the stonework, the carvings, the details and craftsmanship of those walls? These are works of art. Works that survive because they were well-made of materials meant to last. Such work and the ruins themselves touch us and move us in the way only beauty or affliction can, for they represent elements of both.

Angkor Wat monkeys

The beauty of ruins, however, is very different than the beauty of the original buildings. Visit other temples in Cambodia or Asia or visit other hospitals in Central America. Some are lovely, but many can feel decorative. Overdone. Even (to our Western sensibilities) a bit tacky. But when time and weather have their way with these places, what’s left are the elemental forms. The aesthetics of structure and support. The colors of decay: rusts, grays and gritty pastels. In the end, what remains is the character of the place.

A life in ruins: Hospital doorway - Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

And so it is with us. Ruins remind us that when you strip away all our superficialities, what remains is our own character. That can be a simple wreck. A collection of fallen, broken pieces. The remnants of what we strove to be but never quite pulled off.

Or, our characters can reflect the real us. The core of who we are beyond our faded pretenses, poses and props. The depths of our true selves, something of great wonder and beauty that people marvel at. Our characters can, in a way, reflect the summary of our lives, the end result of all the shaping of time, circumstance and choice.

Thus, in the end, it might be that ruins evoke a deeper story in, from and through us. A story of great beauty. One that reminds us that beyond what we see in the present is something far greater and much richer. One we don’t always appreciate until all else is removed and we are left only with the character.

Of a place…or of a person.

 

5 reasons why ruins fascinate us

Why do ruins fascinate us? Why do so many of us seek out the old and the antiquated, the weathered, worn and barely-still-standing?Why ruins fascinate us: the Hospital San Jaun de Dios - Granada, Nicaragua

 A tale of two ruins

The images you see here are from two recent trips. The more modern ruins above are from Antiguo Hospital San Juan de Dios in Granada, Nicaragua that I visited a few weeks ago. This old hospital was built at the end of the 19th century and has long ago fallen into disrepair. Rumors of rebuilding it as a museum seem to be merely rumors. I had been informed that guards stand outside the shell of the building to keep trespassers away. Yet when I visited, they too appear to have to have abandoned this place.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Angkor Wat - entry

The other, more famous ruins shown here, are from my son Sumner’s trip last month to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Built in the early 12th century these temples cry out to be explored. Tomb Raider and other movies have been filmed here. As Sumner noted, visiting here makes you feel more like Indiana Jones than anywhere else he’s been.

Two very different trips. Two very different types of places. One common appeal. But what’s behind our interest in the old and run down? Why do ruins fascinate us so?

Here are some theories. Add your own in the comments section.

 Reasons why ruins fascinate us

Why ruins fascinate us: Back of Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

First, we tend to romanticize the past. What came before us seems more interesting than what lies in front of us today. History and the richness of its associations sparks our imaginations. We give in to nostalgia or associations with symbols from the past in ways we may not even realize or admit.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Angkor Wat - sunrise

Second, we live in a culture of perceived impermanence, transience veiled under the guise of mobility. Thus, we gravitate toward representatives of permanence or at least the rootedness we find in old buildings that have lasted for decades, centuries or even millennia.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Facade of Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

Third, we appreciate a level of skill, craftsmanship and materials we rarely see today. Unless you’re an eccentric millionaire, you’re not likely to build a castle or cathedral. So we marvel at works of splendor that last for generations beyond the life of the builders.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Carved faces at Angkor Wat

Fourth, I think we’re drawn to ruins because they remind us of our own condition. Let’s face it: deep down we’re all wrecks. Ruins remind us that there is something of value and magnificence even in our brokenness and in those places that are falling apart.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Doorway of Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

Fifth, ruins also may remind us that we are mortal. In college I worked at Disneyland. There they told us a story about the building of the park. Apparently Walt Disney hired a psychologist to guide the design of the various “lands.” One suggestion Walt followed was to construct Skull Rock from Peter Pan and put this universal symbol of death (the skull) right in the middle of Fantasyland. The reasoning went that people would feel even happier when they saw the skull because they would subconsciously have a sense of overcoming death. So perhaps we like ruins for similar reasons: We encounter them and witness their crumbling facades and broken walls. And yet we emerge from them as vibrant as when we entered.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Angkor Wat - courtyard work

Beyond these five reasons, one other remains as to why ruins fascinate us. To me, it’s the most important and thus deserves its own entry. So join me next time for the main reason ruins fascinate us. And in the meantime, please share below your own thoughts on the subject.

 

It’s a nice place to visit but…

Frozen Fountain New York

What follows are photos I’ve taken on various trips to NY at various times of the year. Some are things you’d see as a tourist and some are less so…

New York is a nice place to visit but…

View from the High Line

View from the High Line

I love New York.

Usually for about a day.

I get to New York every two years or so for business. And each time, whenever I arrive, I’m like a little kid. I scan the skyline for outlines of familiar landmarks. I get caught up in all the things I could do here if I only had more time. I even, if I’m arriving at night by cab, look up to the warm lights of windowed brownstones and wonder what the people who live there are doing.

Playing chess in the park

Playing chess in the park

Once there, I usually sit through long days of meetings and, in most cases, enjoy a nice dinner with the client or with colleagues. And then I’m left with the after hours, the time when the stores (except for the tourist shops) and museums are closed. It’s too late to see much but too early for the nightlife of New York to kick in (as if my work-worn body and mind could remain awake that late anyway). So what do I do? I wander.

Store Display

Store Display

That first night of wandering is magical. Even familiar places like Times Square seem so full of life that I think, “What a great place to live.” And then, if I’m there for more than one day, I find that that same magic wears quickly. The next evening, Times Square is just another over-commercialized tourist trap.

Times Square

Times Square

It’s not just New York. Many locations are fun at first, but if you spend much time there, they lose their charm. They are a nice place to visit, until they aren’t. I’m sure that if I lived there, I’d discover new interests not available to the typical tourist. But I have no intention of finding that out. Instead, I treat New York like so many other places and leave thinking, “Nice place to visit, but I’m glad I don’t live there.”

Cloisters Entry

The Cloisters is one of my favorite places in NYC

But what if I did?

Instead of burning out on a place by exhausting all the tourist activities, here’s a new approach I’m going to try and I invite you to explore as well. If you’re in a location that feels stale because the touristic novelty has worn off, ask yourself this: What would I do if I lived here?

The Cloisters

I like the Cloisters (a museum of medieval art in north Manhattan) because it is such a peacefully different place.

It’s an intriguing question. On first thought, I start checking off all the things that a local can do that I can’t: meet with friends, take care of daily routines, visit special places I’ve only discovered by being a place for a long time. But then I think, “Okay, how do I translate those into something that I, as a traveler, might partake in?”

NY at Night

NY at Night

Some of this takes advance planning like asking friends for contacts in the city you’re visiting. Having a local guide can completely change both your experience of a place and how you think about it.

Central Park Singer

Musician in Central Park

Others simply require a bit of ingenuity and effort. You may not be able to take care of routine issues, but then why would you on a trip? Instead, what about hobbies or other interests? Find stores, museums, sporting venues, places to run, festivals or other events that align with your interests. A little effort goes a long way.

Finally, in terms of the “special places” simply ask around. Go online or ask friends or acquaintances. Ask the bartender in your hotel bar for his favorite hangout. Ask a work colleague about some undiscovered gem. Ask the concierge not for the best restaurant but the one he’d take a friend to from out of town or where she might go to on a first date. Simply asking the right questions can uncover a wealth of options.

30 Rock

30 Rockefeller Plaza

So next time you think, “It’s a nice place to visit, but…” think again. Think about if you did live there. And that can open up a completely new way to see what has become old and familiar.

 

 

Collect, connect and share

I recently read The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer. She’s a musician who achieved a great deal of notoriety by being the first performing artist to raise over $1 million on Kickstarter to fund an album of hers. The book came as a result of a popular TED Talk she did on the same subject.

I doubt I will ever be able to apply all the principles of trusting and letting others help in the way Amanda has. But it’s a wonderful challenge to consider. She sums up the book and this need to trust, connect and simply ask for help this way:

“…this book is not about seeing people from safe distances—that seductive place where most of us live, hide, and run to for what we think is emotional safety. The Art of Asking is a book about cultivating trust and getting as close as possible to love, vulnerability, and connection. Uncomfortably close. Dangerously close. Beautifully close. And uncomfortably close is exactly where we need to be if we want to transform this culture of scarcity and fundamental distrust. Distance is a liar. It distorts the way we see ourselves and the way we understand each other.”

What I found particularly relevant in the book was her approach to capturing the creative process as being one where you collect, connect and share. As she puts it:

“You may have a memory of when you first, as a child, started connecting the dots of the world. Perhaps outside on a cold-spring-day school field trip, mud on your shoes, mentally straying from the given tasks at hand, as you began to find patterns and connections where you didn’t notice them before. You may remember being excited by your discoveries, and maybe you held them up proudly to the other kids, saying: did you ever notice that this looks like this? The shapes on this leaf look like the cracks in this puddle of ice which look like the veins on the back of my hand which look like the hairs stuck to the back of her sweater… Collecting the dots. Then connecting them. And then sharing the connections with those around you. This is how a creative human works. Collecting, connecting, sharing. “

She goes on to note how some people are best at collecting — noticing the details others miss, having experiences that then become the raw materials for poetry or songs, examining a scene until the truth of the place is revealed.

Others thrive on connecting the dots:

“…think of a sculptor who hammers away for a year on a single statue, a novelist who works five years to perfect a story, or a musician who spends a decade composing a single symphony—connecting the dots to attain the perfect piece of art.”

Collect, connect and share - The Art of Asking book coverFinally, there are those who most enjoy sharing: the writer who puts her work out there in print or online, the painter who hangs his work for others to see, the performer who reveals aspects of her own life and ours as well through a live show.

What I love about this construct of collect, connect and share is that it applies not only to creativity, but to travel. One of the best points of synthesis between what occurs on a trip and what changes in us when we return is our ability to take what we’ve collected while traveling, connect the dots in creative ways when we get back and then share the result with others.

Too often, we think that the sharing part only applies to showing our photos or having others read our travel blogs. But the wonder of great travel is that the experience seeps into every aspect of our lives. Thus, when you come back and make all the unlikely connections between what happened on the trip and where you are now, you begin to see how your travel experience affects how you relate to others, how you go about your work, how you spend your leisure time and even how you learn to serve others in new ways.

Sharing can manifest itself in every area of your life. And you’ll be better at sharing if you’ve been more intentional in collecting and connecting along the way. It’s a rewarding way to think about trips and creativity and frankly, a better way to travel.

Thanks, Amanda.

 

Look for the who behind the where

The who behind the where: El Albergue

Here’s a small hotel in Ollantaytanbo, Peru where the people were as nice as the rooms

Want to make planning a trip easier?

Sometimes I am most lost on a trip before I ever leave.

Whenever I start planning to visit a new place, particularly a new country, I go through a three-step progression.

  • First, I get excited by the possibilities of what I think might await me there.
  • Second, I get informed through guidebooks, friends and websites about what actually awaits me there.
  • Third, I get overwhelmed by the first two.

The result? I end up playing possum with the details. Sure, I’ll book my flight and make any other reservations that require advance notice. But after that, I sometimes do nothing until the looming departure date requires action.

But lately, I’ve rediscovered a new approach or rather, a more intentional utilization of an old approach: Let someone else take care of things for you.

No, I’m not talking about a travel agent, though good ones can be invaluable (which may explain why there’s a surprising growth in that field). Nor am I suggesting you pass on the planning responsibilities to another member of your traveling party, though sharing the task can be rewarding on a number of levels.

Instead, I’m recommending you find a local resource. Someone in-country who knows what’s hot, what’s not and what’s just off the beaten path but not so far off that you’ll never find your way back.

Sounds great, right? But how do you find such a person?

Find the who behind the where

Ironically, they out there just waiting for you. I’m referring to the friendly owner, manager or employee of a hotel, B&B or apartment where you plan to stay. Unlike tour companies or guides who may have vested interests in you booking other travel services, most small hotels or B&B’s are busy enough with managing their own properties. Their entire focus is on making their guests happy.

As a result, if you find the right who behind the where, the person behind the place, they can be a wealth of valuable information.

I uncover the helpful ones by emailing various places where I’m considering staying. I ask a few questions about their place. See how they respond, how friendly they are and how good their English is. I also look for how responsive they are: Do my questions seem like a hassle to them or do their responses indicate an enthusiasm and genuine desire to help?

The who behind the where can make all the difference

It’s been a revelation for us to find truly helpful owners of small hotels from Scotland to Peru to Belgium who go out of their way to answer questions not just about their hotel or B&B but to ensure we have a great overall experience in their country. Many have connections with other hotel owners across the country (like the secret concierge society in The Grand Budapest Hotel). Thus, they can recommend from firsthand experience other places to stay, which routes to take, the best time to visit certain places, as well as hidden sights to see and local restaurants to consider.

Sure, you risk not knowing if their place is any good since you haven’t yet been there, but usually you can determine enough from online reviews to figure that out. And even if it isn’t (which has never been our experience — the most helpful hosts tend to run the best properties) you still win by gaining all their insights before you even arrive.

So try it. Next time you’re planning a trip, pursue the who behind the where. Start with a search for a more personal accommodation in one city or area on your itinerary. Large chain hotels won’t work for this nor will locations where language is too much of a barrier (though never underestimate the power of using Google Translate in your emails!). But hunt around. Focus on finding not only a great place to stay but a great host. And then listen to what they have to tell you.

You may end up making a new friend and having not only one of the best vacations, but one of the easiest to plan.

 

Thoughtful Travel: A new way to go

Thoughtful Travel - Airport TravelerEver watch people at an airport? You can usually spot the first-timers who are looking everywhere all at once. Or the families going on vacation, hauling enough plush and treats to run a daycare center. But my favorite are the business travelers. You can detect them from their typical posture: head down, body leaning forward, efficiently packed bags towed briskly behind them.

They are purposeful, focused and almost always on their cell phones. Sometimes this is obvious: the rectangle pressed tightly to their faces as they risk a cheek bone or jowl inadvertently ending their call. Other times, you see them scurrying like well-dressed homeless people, mumbling — apparently to themselves — until you detect the Bluetooth device in their ears.

Their conversations are surprisingly similar: fragments of “Just go back in there” or “We need to get it higher” or “What were you thinking?” or “Did you bring this up with _________?” A foreign anthropologist listening in for the first time might conclude this was some kind of bizarre mating ritual. But no. It’s simply business people airing their private conversations so the rest of us can enjoy their angst about market share or meeting their numbers by month end.

I know this world well because I am one of them. On business trips, I have a lot going on in my mind usually related to logistics or my upcoming meetings. But rarely, I find, am I thoughtful.

I use this word, thoughtful, in two senses.

First, thoughtful as in reflective. I’m often as preoccupied as the next business traveler. But I’m not usually present. I’m more on autopilot. And rarely am I aware of what this particular trip means, how it might be more than what it appears, how I might find more meaning and life amidst the hectic schedules of meetings, meals and the evening deluge of emails crying out for a response.

Second, thoughtful also can imply being considerate as in, “That was so thoughtful of you.” And when I’m in autopilot mode, I’m rarely thinking of others as we all stand in the boarding line jockeying to get 200 carryon bags into half that many overhead slots.

But maybe it is time for a change.

Meaningful travel is thoughtful travel. Or it can be when we seek to make the experience meaningful for others as well. I once missed a dinner meeting near the Orlando airport because I stopped to help a wheelchaired Vietnam vet find the bus to Jacksonville. Funny thing is that he wasn’t particularly pleasant or appreciative, but that didn’t matter. At least for that one evening, I took a moment to pull outside of my own little world to be thoughtful and helpful to someone else.

Give it a try. Be more thoughtful — reflective and considerate — when you travel. It sounds good, but if you attempt it, you may find like I do that it is easier to talk about than to practice. But give it a shot and see what you think…

To give you a nudge, I’ve just added another resource to this site. It’s free if you’ve signed in. I call it A Guide to Thoughtful Business Travel. Take a look and see if you don’t find something there to help make your next trip — especially a business trip — just a bit more thoughtful.