The Serendipitous Universe: A Boat on the Tigre River

Will et al on the Tigre River (See all the Buenos Aires pics here…)

Before I recount this story, please allow me to cut myself a thick slice of retrospect pie. I have a serious, kneel-down-and-lower-your-head kind of respect for the serendipity of life. Every time I start tracing back the probability of the present moment I start to drive myself into a frenzy of logistical wonderment. Of course any one of us can look back at life’s crazy twists and turns of circumstance, experience and relations that have created our reality. In fact if you’re resourceful and imaginative enough, you could dig so deep that you’ll probably find yourself trying to answers the same Big Bang questions that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider was built to help explore. Amid the mind numbing improbability of it all, there are certain moments and individuals that especially stand out; I refer to them as ‘vector shifts’, poignant encounters which profoundly affect everything that comes after them. One such experience in my life was volunteering at the TED conference in 2005. After completing Rhode Island School of Design in 2002, I had been on a tour of all the big US conferences (always attending for free in return for stuffing goodie bags or working the reception) and after the five days TED conference, I left the charming California town of Monterey with my mind completely blown. I was 25 and realized at that moment that I was experiencing my first conscious vector shift – in fact that’s the very moment that I coined the term.

As they say, retrospect is always 20-20 and 5 years later I can describe two huge ways that the experience has directed my life’s course. First and foremost was meeting Adam Mefford, another volunteer who possesses the kind of intense character that I always find intriguing. To many, Adam can come across rather bluntly; he would rather skip the social graces and get right to the core of issues, whether by means of an edgy, opinionated vision or a deep critique of your life’s goals. In fact I witnessed that very type of an interaction between him and Dean Kamen, and it’s probably the very reason that volunteers were no longer invited to TED after 2005 πŸ˜‰ His curt but honest nature was augmented by an occasional, wry smile that either made people see a glimmer of good-humor or the underpinnings of a sociopath with aspirations of megalomania. Either way I admired, and still do, the stability of his character; like it or not, you know what to expect with Adam. The following year I left Providence and lived in Mexico and then China for some months while I made money doing web design and figuring out my next move. Finally I decided it was time to give LA a proper shot and moved into a loft Adam had scored the previous year and now shared with a few roommates. The place was on the top floor of the Edison Electrical Building #3 in the Brewery artist district near downtown LA and was an incredibly beautiful and inspiring space. All the machinery had been removed decades ago and the previous tenants had been an architectural firm so the 4000sq/ft was a modern space cut by geometric forms and convex walls that created living areas. Some months later, still inspired from TED and mutually dissatisfied with the typical LA bar scene, Adam and I began Mindshare.LA in the loft, with about 20 attendees. It was like an Alcohol Anonymous meeting for thinkers and doers, with coke and pretzels: β€œHi my name’s Doug. I like hikes and paying for traveling by doing remote web design.” Everyone stood in a circle and chimed in unison: β€œHi Doug.” In the following 4 years, the event and more importantly the community it birthed has grown so big and has such a deep and ongoing impact on my life that it’s nearly impossible to imagine what life would be like without it.

The second connection that I made at TED was by starting a discussion in the elevator on the first evening. I always try to be friendly, but I have a special disdain for silent elevator trips. We’ve got a handful of seconds together people and we could either stand and wait for it to be over or engage each other, even if only with mild pleasantries. Most people are relieved when the awkward silence is broken but I take special joy in the reactions of those that aren’t. So removed are they from normal human interaction that their expressions can’t help but convey a fearful ‘what does this person want from me?’ Just a smile and a friendly exchange for 14 seconds, thanks. But by all means, then feel free to continue in your bubble of reality, my friend. I introduced myself to a group of Google employees including the then project manager for Blogger, Eric Case. Being a huge fan of the inspiring company I’d always wanted to visit the Googleplex in Mountain View so I paid him a visit some months later. We ate lunch and talked about the future of technology and communication. Over the next couple of years we kept in touch and from time to time we would meet up in San Francisco when I’d come through town. On one occasion, when I was probably feeling exhausted from some compulsive activity or the other, I asked him how he managed to keep so calm as I knew he had to deal with so much pressure at work. He turned to me and with calm, equanimous eyes said: β€œDouglas, let me tell you about Vipassana meditation.” He explained briefly about the simple teachings of Buddha, before the subsequent fallibility of human nature layered them with dogma and ritual which came to be known as Buddhism. During my first 10 day, silent experience in the NorCal woods, I was impressed by the immediate results, appreciated the calm mind that the meditation technique fostered and enjoyed the logical discourses offered nightly. Two years and 3 courses later, I’m hardly a saint and find it hard to keep up the practice but it still maintains an impact on me. I’m fairly certain that the core of Vipassana’s teachings is something which will be increasingly important in my own life. Wait is that predictive retrospect rearing it head?

Actually the idea of predictive retrospect is a great close to this pre-story rant. It’s easy, especially for those of a hyper-analytical bent to start getting slightly addicted to the very unpredictable nature of serendipity. The compulsive logic is that to maximize the occurrence of serendipity you need to continually be stoking the fires of chance with new people and experiences; the idea being that the more connections, the more likelihood of finding some magic, hidden gem. Many people call this string of causality ‘destiny’, a notion that I don’t really put much faith in; a predetermined fate does not only seems ridiculous but also quite a limiting way to look at things. Destiny is the lazier sibling of blind faith – and I wouldn’t invite either to my party. Instead I prefer a world view of abundance, one where there’s infinite possible outcomes. A typical and often endorsed mis-belief is that there’s one true love for you out there; the soul mate who you were destined to meet and spend your life with. That’s beyond romantic, that’s completely insane. Some might say I’m cynical and just haven’t found true love yet, which may well be true, but I’d retort by saying that if that’s the case, the sheer odds of you meeting that person is effectively impossible. And I would conclude that the delightful partner you’ve chosen to spend your life with, while no doubt of perfect soul mate material, is just one of many who could fit the bill. Similarly, when you look back at your life from any one of multitude of paths possible, many say to themselves: β€œIt was destiny! See how it’s all meant to be!” Actually it’s all you have known, so of course for the unimaginative mind it seems like destiny. With just one twist added you could be bankrupt, a billionaire, dead, missing your left foot, a Hari-Krishna, a parent to a child piano prodigy or any other thing that you can’t even imagine. Sure some outcomes seem more pleasant or well suited than others but more often than not, even the worst turns of fate make sense; if they don’t it probably means that you just aren’t standing at the right viewpoint or haven’t waited long enough. This can mean only one thing – you’re very attitude has the power to shape causality. The more positive and innovative you are with the unpredictability of life, the more life will seem to swing in your favor. The more negative you are, the more you will continue to blame a person, an event, a gypsy curse and in fact anything else other than yourself. But hey, it’s your reality pal.

And so… as a result of this love of serendipity, when good friends offer to introduce me to their good friends, I rarely pass up the chance and Buenos Aires would be no exception. First up was Artur – a fellow Burning Man aficionado who had come recommended by the charmingly gregarious Ted Werth in LA. We met at a place called Bar Bangalore in the trendy Palermo neighborhood of town where we traded the usual quick life summary for each other; an informative but humorous life pitch is something I always enjoy practicing. We actually had quite a few things in common, including an almost impossibly similar idea for a web startup πŸ˜‰ Around 9:30pm, standard dinner time in Argentina, Artur, who’d been living in BA for a few years suggested we move location to a sidewalk ‘Parrilla’. To refer to these restaurants as mere grills just doesn’t do them justice; they are meccas of meat; rich smelling nightmares of bovines throughout the country. Cars whizzed by the cobbled streets within inches of our table. Besides the good looking meat on our plates the shear amount of stunning women was impressive. It was, as Artur explained, normal for groups of these divine creatures to gather for meals or drinks; similarly, groups of men often stuck together. He informed me that jealousy was such a national past time that platonic relationships between the sexes just didn’t occur as much here as in other parts of the world. If my Spanish was better or I knew some good magic tricks I would have had a wonderful time trying to make them smile. But better to focus on my far less troublesome Bife de Lomo then embarking into that territory. Important to note that when you order a steak n Argentina that is exactly what you get, no more, no less, and as I dug into the two large filets that sat alone on my plate, I couldn’t help but think of the vegetarian diet at the Vipassana center from where I’d emerged just days earlier. I could imagine the horror in the faces of my soft natured fellow meditators if they could see this plate, which by now looked like the botched work of a drunken surgeon in a 3rd world hospital. After enjoying a couple of Caprirosca’s, the Brazilian version of the sweet and minty Caprinia, we parted ways, but not before Artur politely invited me on a boat that Sunday.

β€œI’m not sure if there’s room but I’ll find out.” He said as he shook my hand.

β€œThanks buddy, let me know..” I said as I narrowly avoided getting run down by a bus while crossing the street to get a cab home.

The next day I went exploring the town with the charming Norwegian girl, Veronica and another backpacker, a German by the name of Martina. We headed to the old district of La Boca where European immigrants found an expressive and romantic outlet in the form of the disarmingly dramatic Tango. We pondered if the harsh economics conditions of those times were the reason that Tango dancers always look like their 401Ks had just been obliterated. Or perhaps it was the harsh economic conditions of these times and the fact that their 401Ks really had been obliterated that gave them their dour expression. The streets of Boca were lined with colorful houses and elaborate decorative signs hung over the cafes, where you could have overpriced drinks and get your picture taken with Tango dancers. I was only too happy to take a break from the touts when Veronica asked for my opinion on tight fighting sports tops from the local football club, the Boca Juniors. I made sure to insist she try them all on, completing full circles for me each time. It was playful and harmless of course; I am a pure example of self restraint and stone-cold will power and if I say that enough then it might actually begin to be true. After wandering away from the touristy part, we were approached by a police man:

β€œWhere are you trying to get to?” He inquired in a friendly but concerned way.

Veronica replied in Spanish that were planning a walk along the river’s edge to get back to our hostel. I couldn’t fully understand his reply but I heard β€œladrones” which I knew meant β€œthieves”. It turns out that in a typically three-blondes-in-a-foreign-land move we were walking into a β€œdangerous section of town” and he was not going to let us continue. He told us how to get back to the hostel via another route and on we went, away from La Boca, the neighborhood that the subsequently referenced Lonely Planet guide book describes as β€œthe poorest section of town and a place where you should not venture out of the tourist area even during the day.”

We had walked for so long that I developed a blister on the sole of my foot. The girls were beat too so we were pleased when we came to Plaza Derrego, a charming square where people were enjoying drinks and light snacks at the numerous street cafes that filled the tree lined square. While some of the city is quite dirty and covered in really shitty graffiti, much of it bearing the anarchist’s β€œA” and illegible rants, a big portion of it was thankfully built to incorporate greenery. In fact, Buenos Aires really had the feel to me of certain sections of Rome and Barcelona – at times it was truly striking. I had intended to meet another friend of a friend in about half an hour but now all I could think about was sitting here and sipping cafe du leches while avoiding the advances of street tango dancers, who took turns entertaining cafe goers and teaching the more bold and less blistered of them, much to the enjoyment of the onlookers. I messaged Will and told him to meet the three of us there.

β€œSo who’s this friend you’re inviting to join us?” One of the girls asked.

β€œYou know, oddly enough I know him as well as you do – in other words I have no idea!”

We were taking pictures of each other when a tanned and well groomed man walked up and in a thick spanish accent asked:

β€œYou like I take your pictures?”

β€œSure, thanks.” I replied.

β€œHah, I’m just joking, I’m Will.” His American accent now apparent, β€œBut I’ll take your picture anyway.” His demeanor painted a picture of the sort of naughty, cocky child he’d been, who I’d never actually met of course but who’s character now burst through the ages and revealed itself through a wide grin and mischievous eyes. I instantly liked his energy and it added a welcome perk to our tired group. I’d been connected with Will through friends in LA; the Bushnell brothers. The Bushnell’s were fun-loving and jolly guys; knowing that they were the sons of the entrepreneur who invented Chuckee Cheese restaurants might help explain why, but by no means did that guarantee it; they both had naturally kind demeanors. Brent, the brother that I know better from working together on interactive projects in LA, is so nice you almost suspect something had to be amiss. Searching for this side, I had asked him once:

β€œBrent, you are the nicest guy I’ve ever met. What’s the catch? What really makes you mad? Where do you hide your victims?”

After rolling his sparkling, happy blue eyes upward and smiling to himself he said: β€œyou know, I don’t remember, but I remember back in high school I got really mad at this one kid…” You gotta love people like Brent.

After a few beers we learned that Will was an entrepreneur and successful furniture designer. He was in his early 30s and had married an Argentine woman. Together with her and her father, they had started manufacturing and exporting furniture to top end hotels in the US and business was booming. He worked quite a lot and he was a little tired of not having enough time for exploring outside the city but he was happy to be our Buenos Aires tour guide for the evening:

β€œHave you guys seen the pink house yet?” He asked.

β€œWhat is that?”

β€œIt’s like the US White House, but pink! It’s not far from here. Let me take you exploring, then we can hit the cemetary and then all grab some dinner.” He’d obviously had guests before and it probably gave him a nice break from his routine.

Sure enough, Will entertained us for the rest of the evening and then we all went to a restaurant to meet his wife and another friend but they hadn’t arrived yet. He had called ahead to order the meat, a special cut which took a long time to prepare and we HAD to try. In fact we never touched a menu; Will ordered everything with minor input from us which was fine with me. Finally, he looked up toward the door and said:

β€œAah, here’s my wife.” We all turned around, wanting to be friendly and simultaneously met the inquisitive gaze of a surprisingly old woman.

β€œNo I’m kidding..” He smiled sneakily. β€œBut here she is really..” We turned around again, this time it was an old man. Repeat, very fat woman. Repeat, group of old women. When she did arrive, Barbara was a vision of Argentine beauty. So who cares if she was an hour late? Earlier Will had said:

β€œBarbaras was 45 minutes late for our first date. And things never changed.” He smiled. β€œA few months ago I got an electric guitar and put it near the door so if I have to wait for her I can practice.”

β€œHow’s it going?” I asked.

β€œI’ve can riff pretty damn well by now!”

Sure enough the meal was fantastic, consisting of various cuts of beef and lamb including my first taste of sweetbreads, in this case the glands that surround a cow’s heart and (used to) keep it beating. Tender and rich. The main course was a full rack of lamb. Will had been right and everyone enjoyed everthing. He is a perfect example of what I refer to as the benevolent dictator: ‘Just do it my way and you’ll enjoy yourself. Trust me.’

At one point Will had gone to the bathroom and Glen, his buddy who’d arrived by this point, was telling a story about a New York group called Improv Everywhere and their ‘pantsless subway’ public act. Being a favorite story of mine too, I blurted out β€œYou’re telling it wrong!” and started telling it from the beginning. By this point Will had returned and blurted β€œYou’re telling it wrong!” HAHA! That’s when I realized why I liked Will – he reminded me of me! Ha! He was a lovable jerk. Opinionated and confident that you’ll enjoy his plan – as long as you go along with it. A benevolent dictator.

We finished dinner and right before we departed in mutual stupors of excessive meat and Malbec consumption, Will leaned in towards me:

β€œI don’t want to invite everyone because I’m not sure if there’s space, but I’m heading out on a boat on Sunday… would you like to join us?”

β€œAwesome,” I replied, I’d love to. Another friend of mine was going to invite me but I haven’t heard back from him.”

β€œOK, I’ll email you instructions tomorrow, and if things go well with Norway, you can bring her too.”

The following morning I woke up, checked my email for directions and headed to the train station accordingly – my goal was to arrive at the station in Tigre by 1pm. Tigre is the small town that sits on the mouth of the Tigre river delta. It offers a convenient, one hour getaway to Buenos Aires local who want to escape the oppressive summer heat and speed around the 100,000sq/km of criss-crossing waterways. I was determined not to be late for such an opportunity and since the girls had already made plans to go to a thoroughly dull antique market, I decided to roll solo. When I got to the station I made sure, on advice of the taxi driver, to be on the lookout for thieves. It’s funny how when you get a warning like that you can’t help but be suspicious about everyone; is that old lady scoping me out? Is that screaming baby a ruse to distract me? That kid with the lolipop looks suspicious. As is usual when in a hurry, I found myself at the back of a huge line. I narrowly made the train for Tigre, and oddly enough, Will was on the same one.

When we made it to the docks I was amazed at the shear amount of boats both on the water and being winched from their multi-story mooring structures into the water below. I was introduced to ‘Chuck’, the captain of our boat, a 20ft flat bottomed beauty, and his wife who made us coffee while we waited for the others to show. There would be 12 of us in total, and as is typical with Argentinos, everyone was late. When the next batch of weekend sailors arrived who was among them, but Artur.

β€œI had almost assumed as much.” I said. β€œIt’s bizarre how these things seem to happen. Everyone found it funny. Will was amazed: β€œSo this is the guy you were talking about inviting you last night, but who didn’t get back to you? What are the odds?” Artur was apologetic that he hadn’t gotten back to me.

β€œNo problem, it all worked out in the end.” I assured him.

Now, if that was the end of the story it would have been a strange enough of a coincidence. Two fellows, introduced by two different friends who didn’t know each other, that just happened to be going out on the same boat in a town an hour away, on a river with literally thousands of people heading out to enjoy the water. But sometimes the cosmos just likes to throw you another ‘small world reality’ just for kicks. The final group to arrive was a bunch of fun looking fellows who were ready to party. The streamed down the pier towards the boat carrying coolers and bags of booze. As we were introduced, ‘Ed’ removed his sunglasses to which I exclaimed:

β€œHey, you look familiar – didn’t we go to Harrow school together in England.” And of course in a thick english brogue he blurted:

β€œDouglas Campbell! That’s ridiculous! What are the chances, mate?” It had been more than 10 years, and Ed Balme, who had been younger than me at school was now much larger but obviously still a likable nutcase.

Will thought it was a joke at first but finally exclaimed: β€œI thought I was the connector here, but it seems like you’re the one who knows everyone!” And just when it couldn’t get even more bizarre, Ed said: β€œAnd do you want to know something even more odd? Just yesterday I just requested you as a friend on Facebook!”

A truly unlikely occurrence amid the thousands of boats of this foreign country, but it confirms the idea that the more you engage with the world, the more it engages you back.

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