Every once in a while my game of life is interrupted by a quiet but seductive voice that is not mine. I’ll be executing a well thought out life strategy and a very particular tiny voice will rise above the noise and declare that I should abandon my current plans and try something entirely different. I savor these moments as these are the ignition sparks I need to escape my overly contriving mind. I call these moments, tipping the chessboard sideways.
I am currently living in Medellin, Colombia while I study Spanish and temporary switch my life into a low gear. My studies are heavy in the best way possible as I go to bed most nights not sure if I will be able to fit anything more into my saturated mind. During the day, I have hourly ups and downs but generally my routine and progress towards learning Spanish (one of my last remaining Life List items) seems like it is going in the right direction.
It is these times of routine that breed the enticing voice.
Last Thursday, I woke up to my recurring morning alarm and immediately noticed that something felt different. Everything around me seemed the same but I felt different.
I loaded up Google Flights, did a tiny bit of exploring and bought the cheapest airfare I could find that would take me the farthest distance away. The next morning, I woke up at 4:00am and started the process of traveling from Medellin, Colombia to Asuncion, Paraguay.
Having already purchased the airfare and while at the airport, I started my research on the country I knew almost nothing about. I started the process of discovering the local currency, determining if the country was currently violent, identifying which language the locals spoke and trying to learn as much about the local history before my inevitable arrival 12 hours later.
On the last leg of the flight I sat next to a girl who was playing a trivia game on the screen in front of her. Feeling anxious about the idea of reading about more dictators, I switched my gaze to her screen. The trivia questions were all in Spanish but my classes had taught me enough to get the general gist of most of the questions. As her game timer ticked toward zero, I offered my opinion on one of the questions (Canonical was the main company associated with Linux). My answer was correct and we started chatting in Spanish.
Several hours later our conversation was still going strong. (Although admittedly in both Spanish and English)
Eventually, she asked me what I was planning on doing in Paraguay. I mentioned that I had no plans and didn’t actually know a single person in the country. I was going to play without strategy. She laughed at me and invited me to join her family on a weekend family road trip. I agreed, we swapped WhatsApp contact information and I sat there wondering if this new detour was actually going to happen.
24 hours later, I walked out of my hotel and into the family car of a Paraguayan family that I had never met. I sat squeezed in the middle seat with the girl from the plane on my right, a slightly intimidating guy on my left, a woman in the back and the parents of the family in front. In the middle seats, all of our knees were squeezed together and a tiny puppy named Larry was taking full advantage of this as his own personal walkway.
The mother had cooked local pastries for the family road trip (which along with Larry, sat on my lap) and we drove off in a direction I had never been in. As we passed through small pueblos, the conversation took place largely in Spanish.
Our first stop was a pretty town that architecturally looked entirely out of place. The girl from the plane mentioned that the town was settled by Germans in the 1940s and was notable in that some of the houses had hidden escape tunnels. Germans with reason to flee in the 1940s? The girl confirmed my suspicion and said that most of the settlers were Nazis fleeing war crimes. I smiled sheepishly.
Paraguay is a land of taking chances. The various government leaders throughout history have played their own versions of chess in extremely interesting and sometimes maniacal ways. On multiple occasions, the government offered free land and farm supplies to groups of foreigners who wanted to attempt the creation of utopias. None of the players ultimately succeeded but Australians, The French, Germans and other foreign groups all started their own communes and played the game with serious effort. Dictators have come and gone and have left both foundational infrastructure and absolutely brutal wars in their wake (the worst of which killed 90% of the male population of the country).
The cuisine and language was as unusual as the history. Locals served Sopa Paraguaya (Paraguayan Soup) which was actually a corn bread, not a soup, and spoke both Spanish (which I expected) and a second official language called Guaraní which was unlike any language I had ever heard (Guaraní doesn’t have a word for ‘hello’. I didn’t realize that was even an option.)
Driving around the country my new family and I shared maté (a Argentine, not Paraguayan tea) and we chatted about various historical events and places in the country. Back in the capital, my family gave me a tour of the city and we ate at the country’s most famous restaurant (Lido Bar).
We finished the trip with a quick exploration of the boardwalk and a discussion about the beachfront property that the government had reserved exclusively for the poor.
We exchanged good intentions and appreciation while saying goodbyes. The journey ended just as abruptly as it had started. In all likelihood, I will never get the opportunity to see that family again. The turn had taken place.
Too often I spend my days using my head to plan and optimize my next move. I create elaborate routines and put into motion long term strategies in the pursuit of something called happiness, an idea which I can never nail down long enough to define. I act as a chess player in a world that really only looks like a chess board if you make it so.
Looking back on my life thus far, I do see some things I have done right. The time I have spent making plans has been valuable but the time I have spent executing those same plans has generally been meaningless.
My chess moves are never partially fulfilling but the times I find myself with my life chess pieces in unanticipated or even impossible positions are the moments I cherish.
I have found that meaning, at least for my human experience, comes from the unforeseen side effects of great plans. Putting yourself in unlikely situations is not meaningful in itself but being in unlikely situations does open doors that would otherwise be unimaginable.
We live in a chaotic and largely unpredictable world but there are certain anchoring devices deep within us all that can lead us in the right direction. The next time you hear that voice in your head questioning your next well planned move, consider taking a step back and tipping the entire chessboard sideways.