Navajo Nation

Navajo Nation - The most perfect of beginnings

June 7th 2013

The North of Normal project could not have begun more poignantly. On June 5th we recorded our first interview, with Curlinda Mitchell Blacksheep. Speaking only Navajo until the age of 5, Curlinda is now Chief Park Ranger at the Navajo National Park and one of the last of her people to speak both Navajo and English fluently. On the spur of the moment, as we walked through the small national park museum, we decided to make the big leap and request an interview with her. She generously agreed and proceeded to open our eyes to the opportunities and challenges facing the Navajo people. How extraordinary that Curlinda would be our first interviewee on a cross-cultural world research trip beginning in the United States. Her responses were simultaneously surprising and universal in their relatedness. And she confirmed to us both that this is a research project worth doing - indeed, one that needs doing. To hear and transmit the passions and peak experiences of people that we might never otherwise meet is truly a privilege.

We began the trip on June 1st after a whirlwind week extricating ourselves from our lives in Dana Point (mental note to selves: get rid of stuff! Why do we have so much stuff?). We have gone from a 5-bedroom house to two small backpacks and an equally small Miata, and could not be more fulfilled. Our first stop was Yuma AZ where we visited with Monica's Montijo family. Meeting her grandmother for the first time was heart warming and reminded me that this trip is not only about traveling across space but also, in a sense, across time. From Yuma we headed east to Tucson to see the other side of Monica's family, the Navarretes who allowed us to catch our breath and rest with their signature hospitality and support. And then it was off to explore the Wild West. Oh the hilarity of watching Monica zoom down a slippery river rock in mossy Sedona, size 7 paws joyfully flung up above her head. The awe of the Grand Canyon emanates not so much from its physicality but from the tangibility of its silence and the weight of an ancient energy that seems to seep from the earth. The energy intensified as we headed towards the Navajo Nation but not before we stopped for the night in Tuba City, a place that exists uncomfortably, even precariously at the junction of the Hopi and Navajo reservations. There is more to understand about this place - so, so much more. And this, we are sure, is a statement that will be made more than once on this journey.

From Arches to the Great Plains

His name is Daniel. He has a tattoo with what we think is his son’s name across his neck. We were about to cross the state border, leaving Missouri without an interview from this place of contrasts – of natural beauty and inner city poverty – and we were miserable…

The week leading up to our meeting with Daniel is almost indescribable. Traveling from the fire red sands of Utah through the resourceful Rockies and on to the wholesome mid-West was like traveling through Europe – the landscapes are entirely different, as are the people, and the feeling of each place. Arches National Park, Utah remains the undisputed heavyweight champion of the trip thus far. Our day of hiking had us caked in red dust, gnat bites, sunscreen and mosquito spray. But most of all we were drenched in awe at the magnificence of these rock formations, like Mayan gods erupting from the salt lake. Colorado is self-sufficient and down-to-earth. In Grand Junction we stayed with Dennis and Connie, artists who make lamps from gourds and door handles from garden forks. Connie moved us deeply as she spoke of caring for her son under difficult circumstances, “He has taught me to fight.” Harvard friends revitalized us in Denver with their generosity and laundry facilities (humidity and socks do not make good travel companions). The Great Plains of Nebraska include fields upon fields upon fields, occasionally punctuated with minute museums commemorating pioneers and the near extinction of buffalo and Native American tribes. Nebraska City was a gorgeous, tree-lined surprise. Home of National Arbor Day, everything here closes at 5pm. You can feel homegrown values in the air. It was here that we met Gail, manager and curator of Wildwood House, an 1869 Victorian country home. Decked head to toe in Victorian dress, Gail was humorous, honest and warm. She talked about her kind husband and her horses “who help me with people – I am learning to listen more.” Kansas City, Missouri knocked the wind out of us. The barbeque more than lived up to its reputation with its sweet smokiness. But we were drained by contemplation as we saw the economic downturn etched on too many faces in the inner city. Our hearts were heavy as we headed to the blues of Memphis. On the state line we pulled into a rest stop and there we met Daniel…

He is a young man, softly spoken. Although present, he keeps his eyes lowered. Our six minutes with Daniel were some of the most poignant yet. He is a man of few words. But then few words are needed when a man who has seen the harder side of life chokes up – almost imperceptibly as he talks about his kids. “I would be nothing without them.” There may be something fundamental in our humanity beneath our diversity and differences. But it is early days in this research and it is too soon to tell. For now, we are content to ponder the possibility while challenging our assumptions and reminding ourselves to allow the themes to emerge unbridled from the interviewees themselves.

Depth in the Deep South

It is Day 23 of being full-time researchers and documentary makers. Interview #11 today demonstrated how seamless we have become in identifying a good location, approaching a potential participant, and building rapport as we simultaneously unfold the tripod, locate the best lighting, focus the camera, and set up the audio recording and microphone. At this point Ange and I can improvise like the jazz musicians we had the privilege of seeing play at Preservation Hall in New Orleans.

Our days begin and end with downloading and tagging data in our external hard drives, which are roughly the size of an 8-track. We have documented an estimated 6,000 photos and 300 minutes of HD video footage. The Deep South presented a range of opportunities from National Geographic like nature of an alligator in the swaps of Alabama to the journalistic realism of seeing countless For Sale signs of properties devastated by Hurricane Katrina along the white sand beaches of Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi.

We have shot B-roll of world class jazz and lost and forgotten chones on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, as well as two huge Harley Davidson events at Wednesday night Bike Night on Beale St. in Memphis and the Lynchburg Motorcycle Rally at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery located off the beaten path near the border of Tennessee and Alabama.

The absolute highlight of the Deep South was the people. Janette from Reminisce Antiques in Columbia, TN took $30 out of her cash register and directed us to have lunch at Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse, where the servers and staff are professional country singers in nearby Nashville. Joel, a Fitness Specialist with the City of Birmingham, was generous enough to give an interview in the scorching sun outside of the historic 16th Street Baptist Church (where moments before Ange and I both encountered our first declined requests for interviews). Our final interview of the Deep South was with Lisa, who we met in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Lisa and her grandkids would literally cast a line into the lake and seconds later reel in little 4-5 inch fish that her husband would use as bait for bigger, delicious specimens. Lisa’s interview was the most profound we’ve experienced thus far. Replete with stories of "huntin', fishin' and killin' - but only after many hours of just sittin' in the woods watchin' the animals", Lisa embodied a quiet patience that we are learning as researchers. We are learning to ask questions and then wait and listen for the answers, without judgment. Like Lisa and her family, we have to be willing to cast our line into the water, appreciate the moment, and wait for the magic.

Positive Endings

We are leaving the US tonight having raced back to LA through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The people we saw, the lessons we learned, and the stories we have to tell are bursting from us. The reason for the frenetic race back to the West Coast was the World Congress on Positive Psychology in LA, hosted by our university, Claremont Graduate University. At a dinner attended by the foremost expert on passion (Prof. Vallerand), the living legend on Flow and peak experience (Prof. Csikszentmihalyi), and the guru on positive emotions (Prof. Fredrickson), we were asked to stand up and articulate the reason for this research trip, and what we have learned so far.  The world’s leading thinkers listened to stories we have so far collected from people who, for the most part, would never expect their stories to “matter”. But they do. Oh how they do. The Congress highlighted to us, once again, the need to step out of the lab and speak to people in their own place and in their own time – and to listen, observe, and understand their experiences, not through the language of academia, but in their own words.  And so it is that we now head to London, with our hearts full and our eyes open.  

Eclectic Frenetic London

London was our first European destination and the research was at the forefront of our minds. The interviews came in pairs and included two anonymous students, one English and one English-Palestinian, and a Comedian and Non-profit policy advisor. We explored the Horse Stables at the Camden Market where we found vintage NBA jerseys, tea sets starting at £1, and leather outfits for every occasion. Each stable was like its own universe of style and culture, which mimicked the various boroughs of the city.

The beauty of London lies in the accessibility of a vast range of experiences provided by the tube. The people of London never quite look you in the eye, perhaps it’s due to the violation of personal space that occurs every day in the cramped underground cars. One funny thing Monica discovered was how the civilized order of the culture was contrasted by the literal no holds barred rat race of scurrying through tunnel after tunnel to get to where you are going. Nevertheless we were grateful to scamper to eat curry in grungy Brick Lane where colorful street art decorates empty space and melodic accents solicit your business from their restaurant porch. We took the bus and spent a day enjoying one of London’s finest traditions of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, where women wear their summer hats and dresses while sipping Pimm’s and savoring strawberries and cream in the sun. In less than an hour, for less than $5 we could get to Central London to see the strange stomping ceremony of Buckingham Palace’s changing of the guard, to the gorgeous tree lined and well manicured Hyde, Kensington and St. James’ parks, or to busy Westminster Pier to catch a boat up the River Thames and capture London’s best sights.  

London was home to Ange for 9 wonderful years, and we were grateful to reconnect with her people. The biggest learning from London was we have really outstanding, extraordinary friends. We are incredibly lucky to have shared laughs, pints, and picnics with people we haven't seen in years. The wonderful texture of their lives as mothers, newlyweds, entrepreneurs, expats and Wicca enthusiasts has restored us after a grueling 27 days of driving through the USA.

Drunk Uncle of Holland

Our favorite thing about Amsterdam was Vondelpark, a sprawling green oasis where doggies and their owners run and be free. Locals flock to sun bathe, picnic, roller blade and enjoy the many fountains, creeks, and winding paths. There we interviewed Martina a 58 year old who loved swimming, her two dogs and eight cats, and Erisvaldo, a young Brazilian import and street performer who dazzled us with flips, jumps and an electric smile.

We discovered that the Red Light District and legal highs of Amsterdam were like the drunk uncle of the Holland family tree, tolerated but not celebrated. The Dutch value freedom above all else, and it was clear to us that the highs you could buy were limited to dodgy offices in random cafes through the Red Light District. Our peak experience here was dancing to "It's Raining Men," and enjoying the patrons’ enthusiastic belting of iconic Dutch songs at Café ’t Mandje the oldest gay bar in Europe. The bar is owned by Diana, the niece of leather jacket wearing rebel Bet van Beeren. “Auntie Bet” bought the bar in 1927 and is said to be the first woman in Holland to be openly gay and have a motorcycle license! The warm-heartedness of this place is uplifting, welcoming young and old, men and women, intelligentsia and sailors for decades. Their mantra: "Fun and respect. We don't know any better".

We jumped on the train to Brussels and a few hours and A-framed houses later we arrived. Our B&B was literally a stone’s throw from Mannekin Pis – although you don’t want to throw anything at the Mannekin (a) because he’s incredibly cute and (b) because it’s rude to interrupt nature’s call. When you step into the Grand Place the architecture subsumes you. Surely this must be the grandest square in all of Europe. With so much to take in there was only one thing to do – sit down, order a Belgian beer and stare up incredulously. It was good to be back here – I felt I know this place from previous visits, but I tell you, sipping Belgian beers with Mons made it even more fabulous than I remember. Monica is like a smorgasbord of spices. She just makes every experience more flavorful.

Brussels is grungier than Amsterdam but less clichéd – although you do feel like yet another visitor being shuttled through the conveyor belt of beer, chocolate and lace. The excessive tourism of the city (with identical plastic menus printed in seven languages) wore on us quickly. But our interviews were – again – insightful. Brussels being a place of migrants, both interviewees were from elsewhere, but living in Belgium. Mathias, our B&B host is a French stage actor and he gave us our first unapologetically hedonic quotes of the study. For Mathias food is “orgasmic” and sharing a meal with friends an “intimate” experience. With many of our interviewees being eudaemonic in orientation, Mathias provided a pleasurable (sic) balance. Hannah is a 21-year old accordian player from Seattle, hitchhiking through Europe. She was animated and wise as a result of her travels, wise enough to acknowledge that she “doesn’t know anything”. Hannah reminded us that humility is the soil for awe, and in awe we see the whole of the moon.

Bonnie, Beers, and Buda

Bonnie Raitt will star in our movie! OK, it’s not true. But we were this close to having blues legend Bonnie star in North of Normal!

It all began with Straffe Hendrick at the Minnewater (Lake of Love), oft cited as the most gorgeous spot in Bruges. We had arrived at this UNESCO world heritage city determined to sip a few Belgian beers on the lake while pondering Belgian culture. So, Straffe Hendrick in hand we trotted behind the horses along the cobblestoned streets towards the idyllic locale. That’s when we just happened upon a summer concert where Bonnie was headlining. We perched ourselves in the park just outside the gate of the concert where we heard Bonnie belt out her set. So happy were we that we smiled inanely into the camera and chanted, “Bonnie Raitt and Belgian beers. Bonnie Raitt and Belgian beers.”  As the set drew to a close we hustled to a side street where we had seen the tour buses parked. Five minutes later a flash of streaked red hair barreled towards us. I whispered to Monica to “Get the camera ready. Get the camera ready!” She did and fired off 100 frames as Bonnie strode past us, not 5 feet away, and then into the sanctity of her trailer. We were thrilled. What amazing B-roll footage! What amazing photographs for the book! What amazing synchronicity that we just happened to be here on this tiny side street and cross paths with Bonnie even for a moment!…But alas, it was not meant to be. Those darn little buttons on the Canon 7D are so pesky after Belgian beers. Just so many knobs and dials and they all twist in different directions. Urgh. So here is our masterpiece – the day that Bonnie nearly starred in our movie.

Fortunately we did interview August (“The Americans call me Augie”), a native of Bruges nearing his 79th birthday. He is originally from France, he explained…in the 1600s! His family has been here for centuries and he is as spritely as they come. Augie meanders the streets of Bruges daily, entertaining friends and visitors with his stories of the old city. At 4 ‘o clock he heads to the pool to do some laps. It keeps him young. He his passionate about being married to his wife (“a Dutch woman”, we were reminded a couple of times), but his deepest affinity belongs to lady Bruges. The following afternoon we saw Augie sitting on the same bench in the same square deep in conversation with more young people. Augie, you are a true ambassador and we are privileged to have you in our movie.

Monica says, “I like Budapest. I like the women who carry fresh food in woven baskets and the markets that sell the most delicious ham (2nd only to Spain). I want to return and visit Rudas, the Turkish bath where on female only days you can rejuvenate in natural hot springs, saunas and steam baths from the 1500s, without any clothes. I like the food. Fresh markets line the streets and even the big Tescos has a local feel to it with freshly baked bacon rolls, pretzel breads and more. I like the bargain of Budapest. I always felt I was getting a fair deal here and they respected my money as they would a local’s. The city was spectacular because of ancient architecture, gritty realism and authentic flavor. The view along the Danube at night is one of the best I've ever seen.” 

I did not expect Monica to like Budapest so much. After a day of a culture shock she just came alive – and what did it? Some delicious meats, cheeses and nougat from the tiny little market close to Shantee House (our hippie hostel), as well as a visit to the Central Market where we shopped with real Hungarians for sausage, pálinka, and goulash. The old city in Buda was my favorite with its quiet cathedrals and gothic statues. We had a glass of Mihaly wine in Buda and toasted Mike (Csikszentmihalyi).

Our hostel was a trip (sic). Shantee House was a rainbow coloured hippie enclave which, as Monica put it, “straddled the line between a clean, efficient home away from home for travelers and a halfway house for lost twenty-somethings.” We interviewed Bori, the Hungarian manager of Shantee who shared with us her thoughts and philosophies on love, energy and harmony. Bori is a kind, beautiful woman and we are better for knowing her. At the Central Market we met 71-year old Louis, who looks like a fit, bearded George Clooney. We don’t know what he has done to remain so incredibly youthful but he kept talking about the pálinka so perhaps we should take note. An engineer by training, Louis left Hungary for Austria as a young man. At the time he didn’t feel the country had anything for him. He has seen much of the world and today shuttles between Budapest and Canada, which he calls home. Both Bori and Louis represented Budapest beautifully. There is a warmness and openness among the Hungarian people. It was important for us to visit Hungary, given the ancestral roots of our great mentor. But as Mihaly reminded us, he spent most of his formative years in Italy. As luck would have it, Rome and Tuscany were calling and it was here that we began to understand the environment that allowed for the flourishing of this great Psychology mind.

In Appreciation of Italy

You could spend a lifetime and never know all there is to know about Rome. Although we missed seeing the Sistine Chapel, we were awed by the sun setting through the arches of the Colosseum and by the enormity, power and opulence of St. Peter’s Basilica. As we walked by the many statues, paintings and ancient relics, we felt like they whispered secret wisdom about human nature, history and cultural evolution. 

We experienced unparalleled warmth, kindness and a genuine desire from Italians to tell us their stories and share the best vino, food and hospitality in the world. Our friend Megs recommended a restaurant off the beaten path in Rome. Her efforts to search Google Earth for directions rewarded us with the most superb meal we have yet to savor! The seafood spaghetti arrived to our table in a swan shaped foil wrapping where homemade pasta simmered with clams, mussels and prawns. Our waiter was so impressed with our story he brought us limoncello and cookies to top off our buona cena.  

We interviewed an aristocrat, a psychotherapist and an environmental and social psychologist in Rome. Our B&B host Gina warned us that travelling in Rome is absolutely nuts and true to her word it took us 3 hours by foot, train and tram to meet our first interviewee. First, a fierce torrential Roman rainstorm thundered and lightning, and we were cooped up in a tiny neighborhood pizzeria run by one older Italian gent. Without an umbrella or rain gear for our equipment we had to ride out the storm, so we devoured very tasty ham and mushroom white pizza while we waited for the rain to relent. After 45 minutes we braved the sprinkles and had Italian cappuccino and pastries while we searched for directions to meet our interviewee. Ange called this interview the "inconvenient sample" because it took 3 plus hours to get, but we would never have interviewed a bonafide aristocrat without it!

Sapienza University Professor Marino Bonaiuto was instrumental to our amazing experience in Rome. He was generous with his time and contacts, which ensured our research was rich and textured. We also interviewed his sister Flavia and were moved by how honest and quintessential both of their responses were. Both interviews give us an important vantage point about peak experience, passion and love from the insider perspective of professional psychologists.

We left Rome too soon but for the justifiable reason of renting a car to drive through Tuscany. We spent our first night in Siena watching a full moon cross the Mangia Tower in the most beautiful square in Europe, Piazza del Campo. After cappuccinos the next morning on a terrace overlooking olive groves, Ange wrote the following heartfelt ode, “Italy, you have stolen my heart. Surpassing my childlike love for you at 17, my awe for you has returned 10 fold!”  

Our final Italian interviewee was Poggibonsi born Valeria, an archeologist by training but because of a lack of funding in her field, works seasonally for a Chianti winery that has been making wine for hundreds of years. Her interview highlights an interesting trend in the research that has begun to emerge from the demographic question of, “What is your ethnicity?” Consider that a census box forces a clear answer and ignores the nuance we are finding exists not only with people’s responses but with their body language and facial expressions as well. “We are all homosapiens,” she said.

We left the history and people of Italy wiser about the art of cultivating joy, positivity, love and connectedness.

Cultural (Ex)tensions

Africa! It was my first visit to Ange’s native land, and she was joyful and excited to be back on the continental soil she was born. She shared special moments of connection with strangers we met in Morocco when they shared their African roots.

Our driver from the airport, a Berber man informed us about the cultural and racial tensions that underlie Moroccan society. The Berber are the indigenous people of Morocco who have been on the land for tens of thousands of years, people who according to him have their rights constantly threatened by the Arabic people. He said he was involved in Berber rights, and that he believed in respecting all religions and cultures. I did not miss how his voice became more aggressive when he insisted that the Arabic people were not so. Ange was savvy and insistent on injecting into the conversation the possibility that not all Arabic people were close-minded.

We booked into Casa del Sol, a riad in the heart of the Medina. The Medina is the ancient walled city of Marrakech that is considered sacred. No alcohol, dance clubs or typically Western restaurants are allowed inside. The riad’s caretaker, Hassan, was lovely, and we were grateful to have a safe haven to call home for three days. After our first couple of hours in the main bazaar, I was aghast, astonished and awed in a bad way about how skilled and ruthless people are in stealing or grabbing your attention. The street food solicitors are young men who have memorized western meme lines, "hey homie!" "chica bonita!" They shout at you, block your line of walking and grab your arm. Men clink coins to sell cigarettes. Women call out and tell you their name and make you promise to return for henna tattoos. If you say maybe, some are audacious enough to call you a liar. Baboons and snake charmers set up shop in the main square. Their eyes dart from person to person as they search for a twinkle of interest to pounce on. If you are not careful you will find a monkey in your arms or a snake around your shoulders followed by demands for the equivalent of 20 Euros. Every 5 meters there are sad, weathered looking men, women and children as young as four who beg for your attention and then harass you until you pay them to go away. You have to avoid eye contact at all times. I let Ange do most of the talking. I don't respond at all, and after the first day I wore sunglasses even at night. I felt a mixture of fear, curiosity, and wonder. Was this place always this way? With slick, tricky ways to persuade and disrespect?

The extremes are exponential. We were here during Ramadan and tens of thousands prayed together and read the holy Quran daily. It is a mandatory month for the Muslim people to refrain, fasting from 4am to 9pm and abstaining from sin. Yet the men selling freshly squeezed orange juice from rows of stands in the Medina swore at us when we ignored their calls to stop by, the modern ice cream shop in the city had an American music video singing, "jump that pussy, that pussy, that pussy, that pussy..." (the euphemistic kitten in the video doing nothing to disguise the message), and we were hard pressed to interact with and find a Moroccan woman who would speak with us, let alone be interviewed. We did however, after being turned down numerous times, secure an interview with Nabil, a 22-year-old Moroccan with roots in Saharan Africa. Ange was brilliant in asking the young guy soliciting us to try his recommended restaurant if he or anyone he knew would be interested in helping us with our Ph.D research. He said maybe and to find him after our meal. We followed his instructions and were led upstairs to an office full of tourists in negotiation for desert camel rides and guided tours to the Atlas Mountains. I wasn’t sure if we were going to be harassed into buying a tour or if there was someone genuinely interested in helping us out. Much to my surprise the gentleman we met was excited to hear about our project and studies and proclaimed, “We don’t do things for reward in Marrakech! That’s not how we are.” After we explained the project, we were led to another more comfortable room with a large red leather sofa where Nabil was ushered in by his friends. All of the men worked for a travel agency and seemed to enjoy the experience of being on camera and sharing their views on love, passion and peak experience. Their kindness and gentle, respectful manner was in stark contrast to some others we had come across in the Medina. 

We’ll be honest. Marrakech left us rattled. Although Ange had spent three enriching weeks here six years ago, the atmosphere was different this time. For sure there is goodness here – and flourishing, such as in the reggae café, Mama Afrika, managed by welcoming, accepting, Rastafarian Moroccans. But we understand the feral cats of the Medina. They scuttle nervously through the souks avoiding human contact, skittish, on high alert. If they are smart and quick they learn to navigate this maze and survive. They become surprised by small kindnesses, but thirsty for it. In the end we experienced enough beautiful moments and great people for Marrakech to redeem itself in our hearts and minds but the truth is, as we touched down in the south of France, we were jittery.

A local doctor described Marseille as “the naughty child of France”. She is frequently rebellious and fiercely independent, an energy brought to life during a deafening electric thunderstorm on our second night. While the port is lovely, filled with yachts and surrounded by replica Dali sculptures, this European Culture Capital for 2013 is also littered with debris, abandoned construction zones and ever-present graffiti. We were told that despite money pouring in, ostensibly to develop cultural venues and programs in the city, poverty and corruption abound. However, if you are willing to commit, Marseille rewards you with unexpected beauty like the rocky coastal hideaway of Calanque. To reach this azure cove among the white limestone cliffs you need to brave two sticky bus rides, but the transition to a 4km hike through forest and down to the water is made more exhilarating by the contrast. Plunging into the Med while watching local university kids and their dogs jump off the cliffs was the R&R we desperately needed.

Marseille is alive with a myriad of co-existing cultures that provide this city with its undeniable flavor. We interviewed a pigtailed Anglo-French film writer who spoke about her passion for the creative process and the peak experience of seeing her first film on screen. She chooses to live between London and Marseille, extracting the best from both worlds. The diversity of and between the cities appears to feed her perspective on life and her ability to describe the human experience in all its complexity. She spoke of the judgment that she sometimes feels in France and explained that in London she feels more free. In London you can be whoever you want to be. The story was slightly different for our second interviewee, Morad, a medical doctor who also shuttles between London and Marseille with his English partner. As we drank red wine and Morad smoked cigarettes, he talked about “the art of wasting time” – of enjoying a four-hour coffee, of sleeping for three hours. His passion is aperitif…sharing delicacies and vino with friends in the late afternoon. Morad finds aperitif translates in Marseille but is somewhat of an anathema in bustling London where the thought of wasting time is rather unpalatable. We took a page from Morad’s book for the next part of the journey, visiting renowned vineyards in Chateauneuf du Pape and Chablis, as we wound our way softly through sunflower fields. We are seeing that travel teaches you much about others but more about your self – we can feel ourselves extending, expanding and growing with each new encounter. Any way that we see the world is simply a way, one way, with a kaleidoscope of perspectives available to us.

Our final days in Paris were hurried, as we wished for more time to waste in the halls of the Louvre and the cafes of the Latin Quarter. True to the themes emerging from our interviews, our peak experiences over the last 60 days have typically followed intense, often challenging days, while our passions are nurtured in the slow, timeless moments that may be too rare in our modern world. 

The Fish Whisperer

Holy cheese balls. Sweden is wicked! We spent four days sitting on the deck of our converted sawmill in Nykoping (knee-shopping), an hour out of Stockholm, watching the sun melt into the lake. The light is different here – a soft, hazy Monet-drenched glow. We were surrounded by elegant trees, and geese flying in formation. Fish punctuated the silence with wet ka-plonks in the sunset. Massive cranes swooshed by the peer as Monica teased tomorrow’s bait with breadcrumbs sprinkled past the dragonflies.

This place is paradise. We woke up in the morning, collected fresh berries, and exhaled. We were here by accident really. The plan was to go to Stockholm but Ryan Air flies into Nykoping. In need of some respite from the city vibe we decided to find a spot in this small town to unwind for a couple of days – except that there is very little in this town – just one main street, a church, a supermarket, and an ever-present McDonalds. Nykoping shuts down at 9pm – every night. Tumble weed might as well roll down the side streets because no one is here. And so it was that we booked a “hostel” 10 minutes out of town. Welcome to Kristineholm, population 5. The bus driver had no idea where to drop us, because the stop was in the middle of a motorway dissecting a cow-dotted field. Someone on the bus Googled Kristineholm and we were delivered, rather unceremoniously, into the middle of nowhere. There we were, roll-aboard in tow, traipsing up gravel paths from one lonely farmhouse to another. When we finally found our hosts they apologized, “The website doesn’t give many details or directions. We will fix this…next year”.

Our abode was just gorgeous. A few years ago the farmers converted the old sawmill into a guesthouse. This is no “hostel” – not a bunk bed or 2-for-1 Budweiser special in sight. The sawmill has reindeer and moose antlers on the wall, a self-catering kitchen, IKEA living room, and rolling lawns down to the lake. And so we spent our entire Swedish time here (but for a day trip to Stockholm). Why would we ever leave?

The highlight was Allemansratten (“everyman’s right”). Sweden’s Constitution guarantees the right to roam in nature. With very few exceptions, forests, beaches and lakefronts are available for all to explore, including those on private property. However, with this right comes the responsibility to respect homes, gardens and to protect biodiversity – “do not disturb, do not destroy”. Living in the United States where individual rights reign supreme, there was something deeply beautiful about Allemansratten. We paddled our canoe up the lake all afternoon, knowing that we could enjoy our picnic on any of the green islets we drifted past. Here is an understanding that the "Commons", in truth, "belong" to us all. Sweden is pristine and restorative, and we couldn’t help wondering whether part of the reason for this is the Swedes’ deep appreciation for the natural world with which they interact so closely.

Four observations from Sweden:

1. Alcohol-free wine abounds. There is a zero tolerance attitude to drinking and driving so they sell this terrible red juice and call it Merlot. We ran (I repeat, ran) 10km to get some dinner and a bottle of wine and we got red juice. Not happy.

2. Nykoping has a weekend fair where vendors sell the same kitsch plastic that we saw in Marrakech, Marseille and Memphis displayed next to foot long Swedish liquorice, while baby boomers sing La Bamba.

3. When sharing a sawmill with Estonian construction workers they generally keep to themselves, until you ask them about their country, at which point the iPad comes out and you find yourself watching videos of mock Viking battles in Estonia.

4. The Swedes are lovely while being reserved. We interviewed Jonathan, a Royal Guard, in front of the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. His great love is Sweden. He quietly explained that he would die for his country. Inasmuch as his voice was gentle, his eyes were fierce. His patriotism was tangible but classy.

And finally, Monica can catch a fish with a bare hook. I tell you, I saw it myself. After two hours of casting breaded bait into the water with no luck, she simply dipped the hook into the lake off the side of the jetty, sprinkled some cheeky breadcrumbs, and then watched two little silver guys literally jump onto the hook. If Positive Psychology doesn’t work out we are making a nature documentary, “The Fish Whisperer”.

Mumbai Express


The good people of Virgin Atlantic flew us from London to Asia, our fourth continent, for a week in India. We landed in Mumbai, the entrepreneurial and Bollywood capital of India. We were lucky to have amazing friends, Kiran and Riyaaz, who generously made sure our experience was 5 star. I cannot imagine what it would be like to navigate this city without resourceful guides who serve as guardian angels.

Mumbai is chaotic. Black taxis with Ganesha statues compete with rickshaws, three wheeled contraptions without doors that zoom in and around traffic. Everyone honks to compete for slivers of space, and traffic lanes do not exist, which makes L.A. or New York traffic seem civilized and genteel in comparison. Red lights are ignored, and I felt as near death as I ever have when a taxi drove us to the airport.

Mumbai is a city of extremes. Extreme poverty and wealth are situated adjacent to one another. A picturesque coastline is littered with trash and young children and mothers who wash the family’s linens and clothes in dirty, greyish seawater. Ugly building facades contain clean, tastefully decorated modern flats. Tall high-rise financial buildings and luxury apartments compose a breathtaking skyline, but upon closer examination you can see that some of the buildings are unfinished and forgotten. Throughout even the city’s most upscale neighborhoods, rows of families live in small square structures made of scrap metal, cardboard and wood. Without running water, someone must rise early in the morning and walk with buckets to fetch water from community taps. Perhaps the most glaring extreme is in the bustling entrepreneurial spirit of Mumbai where we met models, DJs, musicians, fashion designers and savvy clothing distributors. However, India adheres to an implicit caste system, and those born to families living in poverty become the domestic staff of those born to families of lighter skin and privilege.

Our experience was also one of extremes. At the positive end, Kiran and Riyaaz treated us to every comfort imaginable. It was the first time I’d ever lived like royalty. Gunshum, their “houseboy” made us three delicious meals a day. We ate dosha, curries, and daal, always served with freshly made naan. They arranged for us to have drivers and organized an amazing, romantic dinner at The Tasting Room, one of Riyaaz’s finest restaurants. We enjoyed top-notch service, wine, cheese, prawns, tenderloin and dessert. We also savored culinary delights at his Smokehouse Grill restaurants, which made our frequent European diet of ham and cheese sandwiches a distant memory. 

At the other extreme, the culture shock of monsoon season, Mumbai’s fast paced demeanor, and the nakedness of poverty were difficult to process. Locals reassured us that Mumbai was safe to walk in, and we did not feel overtly threatened. However, heavy traffic and curvy streets without names or sidewalks meant navigating on foot was next to impossible, which made us feel a bit trapped at times.

Mumbai is unique, and the interviews in India were as diverse as any place we have been. We captured the stories of 2 women and 4 men ages 25-58, high school to Oxford educated, housewife to successful businessman. The parallels to Western culture were undeniable, yet modern attitudes about gender, politics, and business were interwoven with the country’s more conservative religious and colonial history. It was a week we will always remember and a reminder of why we are doing this type of research. We believe it is next to impossible for the field of Positive Psychology to accurately interpret data about love, passion and peak experience without developing an awareness of the memes prevalent in the research context. Although we visited only one city in India, our awareness of the culture will allow us to ask interesting questions and see patterns that beforehand may have been hidden or obscured by our assumptions.

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Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika

Monica: I needed South Africa. My journey through South Africa has impacted me with the power of context in the same way we hope our research might impact Positive Psychology. Context makes the story more complete, bright, and clear. I have always admired Ange’s story of growing up in apartheid South Africa, but my admiration was more sympathetic than empathetic. I could understand the stories in my mind, but I did not feel the spectrum of emotions in my heart until all of my senses were engaged. A trip to Darling led us to learn about the message of hope and potentiality of humor to heal that Pieter-Dirk Uys (Evita Se Perron) has lived for almost 40 years.  I heard personal stories of home invasion and saw thousands of houses guarded by electric wires, 2 inch spikes, and signs promising armed response. We visited a township village where over 50 orphaned children and 20 weathered, elderly “gogos” were starving for attention and love, and were inspired by Marianne, Michael, Ria and Florence who devote themselves to making a difference in their corner of the world. I felt frustrated and entrapped by the subtle, invisible prejudice and mistrust that Teboho David Molorane, our 56th interviewee, is working hard to ameliorate with Batho's Place. And most importantly my life was enriched by the complexity of ecosystems, animals, cultures, worldviews and histories living in relative harmony, united by the ideal of a Rainbow Nation.

Ange: I have never been more proud to be South African. As we left my spiritual home I reflected deeply. There is a newness in the air. Our country feels like a fresh, green shoot emerging from a complex soil, onwards towards the sun. People smile. Diverse accents are still everywhere but young people tend towards a single South African tone – a pleasant and subtle mix of English and African sounds. There is a positivity here that I don’t remember feeling in years gone by.  I remember optimism and hope from some – perhaps against all odds – but these feeling states were future-focused. The positivity now is grounded in the present, and that is the greatest and most crucial difference. The country, with the exception of politicians and rabidly political people, is moving on. There are problems, yes. But as a good friend remarked (in a different context, talking about therapy) “You can spend your time saying ‘Shame, that’s terrible’. But then you have to ask, ‘Now what?’” South Africa has asked the question and answered with world-class theatre, exquisite wines, breathtaking landscapes, the planet’s most spectacular animal life, and people that stir me to the core. I have said it from the time I could articulate my feelings. Our greatest strength lies in our complexity, in the integration of our rich diversity.

We spent a week in the African bush on the banks of the Crocodile River. Here we slept in a cage - a room built on the roof of a house surrounded by metal bars rather than walls. At night we heard hippos grunting, zebras trotted through the garden below, and hyenas laughed as we stripped the bed each night checking for snakes, scorpions and monitor lizards. But the only thing that really made us jump were the vervet monkeys jumping onto the cage in the mornings, no doubt waiting for a morsel or two. Africa rewarded us with sightings of the Big 5: Rhino, Buffalo, Lion, Leopard (in a tree with its kill) and elephant with their young.

In Hectorspruit we visited a small village mostly supported by church-led foundations who look after the many orphans and elderly people as best they can. The desire for physical affection was tangible among old and young alike.

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After the dry heat and dust of the Kruger Park and Swaziland, Cape Town wowed us with its oceanic landscapes. Almost nothing beats a drive around the coast with visits to quaint villages like Kalk Bay.

...almost nothing! The winelands of Franschoek were world-class. It was here that we met David who, despite having to leave school at 14 to look after his family, has a thriving restaurant in Langrug, a township outside of Franschoek. David's dream is for South Africans to really know each other - to eat in each other's kitchens. This remarkable man also feeds hundreds of children and people with disabilities in his community, and graciously agreed to an interview with us.

Our visit to the "museum / nauseum" of Pieter Dirk Uys, aka Evita Bezuidenhout, in Darling (Western Cape) was as moving as it was hilarious. Tannie Evita has long held up a satirical mirror to the insanity and beauty of South Africa. 

In our final days in South Africa we met the extraordinary indigenous people of Southern Africa, the San. We visited !Khwa ttu, a San Cultural and Educational Centre near Darling where we interviewed four people who shared their heritage, hopes and dreams with us. Like our time in the Navajo Nation this place will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Land of Rice and Smiles

We enjoyed Thailand for 13 days in four different locations around Bangkok and Phuket. We interviewed nine folks such as a hotel manager with an engineering Ph.D., an American ex-pat of 9 years who lives in a rural part of the south teaching English to Muslim nursing students, and four Thai women under 30 who each shared a powerful story about their relationships with family. 

In Bangkok, busy streets are congested with tuk-tuks, buses, pedestrians, and brand new colorful Toyota Corolla taxis. The city doesn’t sleep and you never know what night market or food sanctuary is waiting to be discovered just around the corner.

Our favorite experience was visiting Khlong Latmayom Floating Market about 20 kilometers outside of the city where we were one of three Westerners amongst at least a thousand locals. Here we witnessed the strong family bonds our interviewees referenced in their responses. Grandparents, parents and children sat down at long picnic tables to feast on dishes such as salt roasted fish, papaya salad and sweet sticky rice. We bought tasty and exotic juice from a woman and her young son as well as warm, steamed-on-the-spot corn and taro cakes from a woman and her brother. It was a refreshingly authentic experience and unlike many of the other markets in Bangkok, which cater to tourists with cheap branded and manufactured goods.

Thailand is often referred to as the land of smiles, and it could also be known as the land of rice. The country is the world’s second largest exporter of rice yet farmers and people in rural areas are languishing as a government attempt to manipulate global rice prices backfired and stunted the country’s development. 

In Phuket, a popular holiday and resort destination, we witnessed the deleterious effects of billions wasted by a short sighted government decision. We expected to spend eight days in paradise, however after our first couple days in Surin Beach, a location touted by travel websites as upscale and luxurious, it was clear something was amiss. Prices were outrageous yet the quality of experience was low. Businesses and beaches were run down and largely empty. An anonymous 29-year-old Thai woman born and raised in Phuket shared that her peak experience was one of despair and worry when she didn’t have a job or a place to live. And Winnie, the manager at Pen Villa, a quality boutique hotel in the area lamented at the destruction of Thailand’s natural beauty from an unregulated tourism industry and uneducated local population. 

We spent our final days in Thailand in Patong Beach, a popular area for backpackers and vacationers. The coast is lined with cheap plastic lounges for rent and locals selling massage and water sport adventures to tourists. The lack of regulation and safety protocols was astonishing! We saw parasailing tourists guided 30 meters into the sky by an unstrapped local hanging on for dear life. Then two teenagers risked not only their lives but those of nearby swimmers as well when they zoomed a jet ski full speed into powerful waves and flipped the 700+pound vehicle near the shore. It was clear they went out without proper instruction when the man responsible for the jet ski had to wade into the water after they flipped to show them how to restart the engine and steer.

On our final day we took the bus 15 kilometers to Phuket Town, and along the way to visit a Buddhist temple we saw shantytowns and intense poverty. It was a stark contrast to the rows of restaurants, resorts and hotels in Patong Beach. The third world conditions of the local town were further evidence that many people in Thailand are suffering despite their relatively happy dispositions. Our experience highlights once again the primary reason for qualitative field studies in positive psychology. As researchers we need to see and experience the environments people live in to more fully grasp their interpretation of love, passion and peak experience. 

East West Conversation

Scientific research about cultural differences often tells the story that Western people are individualistic and value independence whereas people in the East are collectivist and value interdependence. On balance, when looking at a statistical mean, this may be correct. However, we have discovered something important is lost when science simply reduces human beings and entire cultures to neat categories and ignores variation within groups. Consider the following stories from Malaysia and Singapore, which we believe illustrate the growing complexity of our global environment and suggest broad cultural labels for East and West are incomplete and perhaps misleading.

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur sparkle like Swarovski crystals in the night. They are the world’s largest twin buildings in a city that looks more modern than it is developing. It was here that we had our first Malaysian interview with a 30 year old, married Malay-Muslim man born in a small, rural island village. He says his great love is Malaysia, his passion is diving and his peak experience is landing a job as a tour guide for Arabic speakers visiting Kuala Lumpur. His answers demonstrate how collective and individualistic values are divulged in the best moments of his life.

We met a 22-year-old Malay-Muslim teacher from Singapore at an upscale café started by the former Malaysian Prime Minister in Bukit Bintang, a world-class shopping district with 7 floors of shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment. Our interviewee met us from the airport with her backpack in tow, returning from a week of solo traveling. Traveling alone and wearing a hajib is not uncommon for her. She revealed that her peak experience came on the heels of a heart wrenching break up that inspired her to travel for two weeks alone in Spain. Visiting a culturally foreign country was admittedly scary for her, but through the successful trip she learned how strong, courageous and autonomous she is. Now she is determined to live authentically and never compromise herself for the sake of a relationship. 

Finally, we met a stunningly gorgeous woman in Singapore at a quiet hostel in Chinatown. She is a 26-year-old Filipina, born and raised in a small town in a predominantly Catholic nation. Her story was amazing. She told us that as soon as she was an adult, she left her family and transitioned from a man to a woman. Unfortunately many transgender male to female people are discriminated against and believe their only hope of acceptance is to participate in the sex industries. She said thus far people and employers in the Phillipines have been supportive and accepting of her, which gives her hope that other transgenders in Southeast Asia will find similar pathways to live wholeheartedly. She is dedicated to her passion of helping people feel beautiful and free to be who they are.  

We believe these stories illustrate how the oft used paradigm of the independent/Individualistic West and the interdependent/Collectivist East fails to capture the nuance and lived experience of people from around the world, and demonstrates once again the value of in context qualitative research to scientific investigation. 

Dream Time

I was 10 when I read Amazon Adventure cover to cover in an afternoon. The Willard Price series about a pair of brothers traveling with their zoologist dad around the world enthralled me. Part of it was my love for animals. Part was a fascination with the adventure of discovery – trekking to far-flung places to discover their true essence.  As a teen I devoured Lost World of the Kalahari in which Sir Laurens van der Post recounted his learning and transformation during his many months with the San. The best part of my own zoology degree was studying Darwin’s endeavors on the HMS Beagle, articulating his theories while on the Galapagos Islands. A passion for embracing the naturalistic world as life’s greatest teacher has never left me. There is something profoundly elegant in going back to first principles, getting back to the field, immersing in the context of a place, and allowing it to reveal its true nature.

One of the cornerstones of the North of Normal research project has been in-context research. As we have traveled the continents these past months some people have bantered, “Yeah, right! Nice ‘research’ project”.  There is, perhaps, a suspicion that traveling the globe to explore what people love is a convenient way to dress up a world trip as Ph.D enquiry. Given the brilliant personal experiences we have had, that is understandable.

However, personal experiences are by definition ours. What we care so deeply about as researchers is bringing to light the stories of other people – the extraordinary and the mundane, the unbelievable and the pedestrian stories of everyday people in the context of their time and place. Why? Because the stories are there, waiting to be told.  They exist. They await discovery. And if we care about what makes for a flourishing life these stories deserve our attention.

We landed in Australia with these thoughts in mind.  We wanted to capture the true essence of being Aussie, in all its complexity. And so we decided to travel the east coast by Hippie Campervan, stopping in small towns as well as larger cities, eating with locals, listening to stories, and asking questions surrounded by cassowaries and wallabies.

We were rewarded with some of the most iconic characters and memorable quotes of the trip.  Like South East Asia, Australia was a lesson that there is no “typical” Aussie. And the trip drove home the message that engaging with people on their own soil provides a rich understanding of who they are, what they care about, and why. There is no substitute for sitting in the red earth surrounded by mangrove branches while learning about personally transformative experiences of a sinewed, heat-drenched Australian. Nor is there a substitute for hearing about the bush and the interconnectedness of all things from an Aboriginal elder while enveloped by the rainforest of North Tropical Queensland.

We want to extend our heartfelt thanks to all of our Australian interviewees who taught us so much about this amazing land and its people: Mama M who will be a ballet dancer in her next life, magical Dr. Ernie, croc hunter Dave, inspiring Lisa and Guy, salt of the earth Spider, Aboriginal grandma extraordinaire, enthusiastic Pru, generous Gerald, and wise-beyond-your-years Luke. You reminded us of a Dream Time painting – many dots making up the full picture of Australia. Thank you.

Polynesian Triangle

Land of the Long White Cloud: It was my first time to the magical land of Aotearoa, New Zealand where Ange spent the first 8 years of her adulthood. New Zealand is the westernmost point of the Polynesian Triangle, a group of over 1000 islands that share enduring cultural bonds, namely their integration with the ocean environment and spirit of exploration.

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We also visited Fiji, a conglomeration of 333 islands and Hawaii, the apex of the triangle. In each place we were able to flex our appreciation of beauty muscle. Stunning coastal views, unspoiled nature, geothermal wonders and vibrant plant biodiversity greeted us daily.

Although these islands share deep cultural and historical bonds, political and economic factors have cultivated different environments for locals as well as tourists. In New Zealand, the standard of living is high, and the ethos to travel and venture beyond the shores was witnessed in everyone we met. Often times, as in the case of Annabel, a trial lawyer in Hamilton, young New Zealanders leave the country to gain valuable experience abroad before ultimately returning home to settle down.  

In stark contrast was Fiji where a weak currency stifles dreams to visit other places. In addition, the social climate is muddied by deep mistrust between some Indian and Fijian communities resulting in political jousting for power. Of all the Fijians we met, none had travelled beyond their borders, and economic hardship was apparent in those we interviewed and met.

Our interviews in Fiji reignited a potentially rich theme in participants who describe their passion in life prospectively rather than in the present or past tense.

Hawaii has the largest population of all Polynesian islands and the tourism industry is second to none. We visited Oahu and stayed in the heart of Waikiki Beach while also visiting the North Shore.

Our interviews in Hawaii reflect the cultural diversity living on the island: a Cook Islander working at the Polynesian Cultural Center, a Korean video store owner moonlighting as a cab driver and a Mexican-American nurse. A common theme among these three interviews was the importance of family, however there were major differences in the story of why. Beginning in mid January our job will be to make sense of complex stories like this from over 30 diverse cultures who report similarities in what they love and are passionate about, yet also paint diverging emotional reasons why. 

Alpaca Punch

“All I want to do in Peru is eat ceviche.” So said Monica as we headed to the final continent of the trip.  A week later we were curled up in the fetal position in the Inca city of Cusco, Monica shaking uncontrollably like a Chihuahua at Christmas. A parasite caught by eating uncooked fish? Bacteria from unclean water and contaminated produce? Whatever it was, notwithstanding six months of adventurous eating on the streets of the world, this time we ended up in urgent care…in Lima airport (you have to wonder when an airport has its own emergency room).

Despite this hiccup, two of the best meals we have had on the entire trip were in Peru – trout in Lima for Thanksgiving and alpaca steaks and organic veggies in Ollantaytambo on the Inca Trail. We refused to be beaten by a bug so much smaller than we are. And so we interviewed up a storm and absorbed the culture and history of Lima. 

In Cusco we marveled at the Inca Temple of the Sun (which the Spanish colonizers promptly built a gigantic church on top of) and enjoyed the golden glow of the main plaza at night.

Determined to remember this fascinating country at its best, we drew on Positive Psychology’s peak end theory and spent our final days hiking, climbing and scrambling up the big daddy of Inca ruins…Machu Picchu and Wayna Piccu.  After a 5am start to the morning we headed out of Aguas Calientes with light daypacks and oodles of enthusiasm. Two hundred meters into the hike we picked up a little friend who decided to follow us all the way to the summit.

I'll admit that after a couple of kilometers on the flat I was over confident and wondered why friends had said the climb up to Machu Picchu was so strenuous. Oh. My. God. How wrong I was. We are hardly strangers to exercise (even at altitude) but this was full on. After 75 minutes and at almost 8,000ft above sea level we arrived at the ancient ruins sweating and panting like the perrito who had accompanied us. For most of the way up we counted 100 steps before stopping to breathe for a few seconds. Unbelievable. But the workout was well worth it for the views of the surrounding mountains, for being in the thick of the forest breathing thin air, for getting a feeling for how the Incas felt so many years ago climbing these same heights, and for the smug satisfaction of knowing that we had avoided the tourist buses snaking their way to the top. After downing a Gatorade and Monica taking a brief snooze against the walls of the ruins we charged on up to the final peak of Wayna Picchu at just under 9,000ft above sea level. The climb up was treacherous and slippery as the rain began to fall.

The view of Machu Picchu from the very top was stunning. There we were, up in the clouds, swimming in endorphins and just staring out at the Inca terraces neatly packed into a forested mountain top. There was a moment up there that the enormity of this trip dawned on us – six continents in six months have been a true privilege and a genuine challenge. It is something that we will always remember and that has strengthened us individually and as a partnership.

We slowly wandered down the mountain in the pouring rain feeling at one with this natural colossus. In the final analysis, the lesson of Peru – particularly Machu Picchu – is that the good life is not without its difficulties. Indeed, it may very well depend on them.

Communists and Canals

Quito, Ecuador

We had no idea that our time in Ecuador would land us face to face with American Communists, but that’s exactly what happened as we sat enjoying our dinner in Plaza Foch. Colleen, a young 20-something from Baltimore Maryland arrived with a proudly diverse group of youth who had travelled to Quito for the 18th World Festival of Youth and Students organized by the World Federation of Democratic Youth. The conference theme was, “Youth unite against imperialism, for a world of peace, solidarity and social transformation.” Colleen graciously agreed to participate in the research and urged us to attend the weeklong event.

The conference was previously held in Moscow, Russia, Pyongyang, North Korea and Pretoria, South Africa and brought together groups as large as 25,000 from over 100 countries. This year there were 8,500 participants from 80 countries, and we jumped at the chance to be a part of this experience. We visited on Middle East day and saw youth dancing to live music and chanting “Hands Off Syria", an African man shouting pro-Mugabe rhetoric, and Ecuadorian leaders championing Hugo Chavez’s leadership. Most but not all of the people we saw were under 25. However, we were able to interview three leaders of the Ecuadorian and Namibian coalitions. The Communist and Socialist undertones of the conference notwithstanding, these people were primarily inspired to attend by a deep desire to help others and improve the social conditions in their homelands.

Our week in Quito was facilitated by the amazing hospitality of Charles and Alli, friends from Arizona who ushered us into their world of teachers, ex-pats and Ecuadorians. We heard stories from a 10 time Iron woman and ultra distance marathon runner, an avid photographer, and a soon to be father. Thematically their responses represented a wide range of human experiences. However, we continue to be moved by the level of honesty and authenticity ten simple questions have elicited.

Panama City, Panama 

Panama City was immediately distinguishable from the other Latin American places we have visited by its wealth. On the taxi ride from the airport we were awed by an impressive skyline of skyscrapers of banks, businesses and high rise apartments that rival any city.

In 2014 the Panama Canal will celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the most daring engineering project on Earth and its legacy as an integral global transportation hub. Capitalism is king in Panama City, a stark contrast to the Socialist feel of Ecuador.

We interviewed two young Latinos working in the hospitality industry who demonstrated the current advantages of living and working in a country known for commerce. One was a young Venezuelan who relocated to Panama City to chase dreams of becoming a filmmaker and finding acceptance as a gay man, and the second was a Panamanian woman of Chinese, Indigenous, European and Caribbean descent working as the successful manager of a boutique hotel.  

The North of Normal journey has spanned more than six months, and among the profound learnings for us has been the importance of nature to restore and renew our energy. Panama City was the perfect embodiment of this lesson because in an ironic twist, the development and sustainability of the Panama Canal requires the government to protect the native jungle environment, which ensures enough water will flow to maintain the efficiency of the canal. In one of our more wild adventures, we encountered torrential rain in Parque Natural Metropolitano, 232 hectares of unspoiled tropical forest in the middle of the city. Somehow in a city of millions we were there alone with monkeys, turtles, trees and birds, left to marvel at the mutual benefits of mechanized and organic ways of life.

Completion in Contrast

Our brains are differential machines. Our happiness depends largely on contrast.

As we sit on our balcony, back in California’s Inland Empire, we have had a few days to reflect on what just happened. Seven months ago we craved learning, novelty, and the open road. We needed to shake off the barnacles of track-changed documents, cell phone plans, and credit card reward points. Adventure. Insight. Challenge. Our wishes were granted in abundance. But oh how things change. Today we savored the mundane. We hung up our new shower curtain. The plastic silkiness brought us such joy. We carefully secured a reduced fat Gouda in a trustee Ziploc bag (for freshness). Who knew the euphoria awaiting us in the simple act of washing our socks, in our own washing machine, with an eco-friendly detergent? Or of watching a cat stare at the ceiling with a twitching tail? Extraordinary.

Two of the greatest lessons of our research trip have become abundantly clear. First, happiness is not “out there” – necessarily. We’ve heard this before. We are told that happiness lives inside us. Happiness is a choice. Happiness is being, not doing. All probably true, but that’s not what we mean. What this trip has taught us is that being happy is always relative. When you are stifled by the 9 to 5, happiness is a full tank of gas and a destination unknown. But when your life revolves around fitting 3.4 ounce shampoo bottles into one quart-sized, clear, plastic bag for seven months, happiness becomes a bathroom cabinet stuffed with 6.8 ounce bottles of every conceivable oil, lotion, and exfoliating gel. The lesson is, enjoy where you are...but only until it is time for change. And then move on, without question, without hesitation, towards your next happiness.

Our second great lesson is don’t judge a book by its cover. Again, the old wisdoms hold truth. Nothing is simply as it seems. Every place, every person has value. And often life will surprise you, if you only suspend your assumptions, biases, and expectations long enough to let it. Nowhere was this lesson more salient than in Mexico City, our final destination. We weren’t sure what to expect after the Yucatan – a mostly picturesque coastline dominated by tourism but interspersed with sacred ruins. We had heard that Mexico City was dangerous and polluted although its sights were notable. What we encountered was as surprising as it was humbling. The city rivals any in Europe in terms of its history, music, food, art, and intelligentsia. Every street corner is crowded with delicious morsels, whether a pozole from a street vendor or taco spread in a high end restaurant. Every musician was top notch, whether singing jazz or mariachi.

The Museo Nacional de Antropología captivated us for hours on Christmas Day with its quite unbelievable collection of Mayan, Aztec, Toltec, and Olmeca treasures. To me no museum has ever come this close to the quality of the Louvre.

On a different day we were silenced by the provocative and thought-provoking murals of Diego Rivera at Palacio Nacional de Mexico before being spilled into the streets heaving with merchants peddling their wares. And who could ever forget La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo's haven in the charming Coyoacán? There is something in the way that Frida lived her life that resonates with those contemplating purpose.

Her art dangles a macabre relationship with reality before the viewer. But it was the corsets, her easel, her built up shoe…it was staring at the mirror mounted above her bed, the haemoglobin glaze of Revlon nail polish juxtaposed against the puritanical lace of an indigenous blouse that really got us. The texture and complexity of Frida is painted all over Mexico City. 

And so, these are the thoughts we are left with as we move from the physical to the intellectual and creative phases of this research journey: Leave aside judgment. Observe. Listen. Think. Talk. Share. Enquire. All is not as it seems. Beneath the Vogue layers may lie a shattered pelvis – and an iron breast.