Roads, Paths, and Other Clichéd Metaphors for Life

Ever since 1916, when Robert Frost first wrote his exalted poem about two roads diverging in a wood, society and schoolchildren alike have been inspired by this whole notion of taking “the road less traveled by.” We praise and honor him for being so daring, for forging his way through unknown waters. A regular Christopher Columbus, that Robert Frost.

During my final weeks in Venezuela, I thought of him often, all the while scoffing him for his claim to fame in the wake of how simple I perceived his life to have actually been. After all, it was a life that only presented him with two roads to take. The way I saw it, there were about fifty roads in the wooded-forest-of-a-life that I had been wandering around in. There was the road I was presently traveling down—clearly a “road less traveled.” I could continue on it, or I could switch over to a different road that would lead me back to school to get a Master’s Degree, or take the road to teach English in a different country where I felt more comfortable than I did in Venezuela. Or, how about taking the road that led me to my roots in Northern California? That was the road my parents most wanted me to take.

The problem was that I really had no idea what I wanted. I didn’t know when I got to Caracas, and I certainly hadn’t figured it out when I left. I was searching and searching, and around every corner was some new opportunity. As children in modern-day America, we are told that the world is our oyster and that we can go and be and do whatever we would like, wherever we would like. Yet, the dilemma inevitably becomes that sometimes this big beautiful spinning world of ours presents us with way too many choices, and we haven’t the slightest idea which to choose.

My final decision to leave Caracas was born of several factors, one of them being a rainy afternoon. I had just left a company called Cemex where I was supposed to be giving an English lesson to a man named Pablo Lopez, only he had cancelled it at the last minute. This was becoming quite a routine for Señor Lopez. He was known around the Optimal English office for dodging his English classes on a regular basis. There were emergency staff meetings that always seemed to come up, operational issues that needed to be resolved. Upon hearing this news, I handed my appointment log to his secretary and asked her to please fill it out so that I could still get paid for this appointment. The second she signed the form and I put my foot out the door, the dark clouds that had been gathering overhead decided to burst, and I suddenly found myself without an umbrella in the midst of a torrential downpour.

Strolling through the streets of Caracas—even on the brightest and most beautiful sunny day—is never without its hazards. The sidewalks have a habit of ending without warning and leading directly into unmarked construction zones that can’t be avoided, unless one would rather get side-swiped by a crazy driver. Those are generally the two options presented.

On this particular rainy afternoon, I quickly surveyed the territory and noted that there was both good and bad news. The good news was that I saw a mall only about a block and a half away—that would certainly provide me with cover and entertainment until the rain let up. The bad news was that the only way to get to it would be to charge across a muddy construction zone in open-toed, high-heeled shoes.

Darn that business casual dress code.

I gritted my teeth, let out a groan, and then made a run for it. The point where the normal sidewalk and the construction zone met was filled with an ankle-deep puddle of water, and I needed to step at least one foot directly into it. I used my hands to gather the bottom pant legs of my black slacks and hike them up to a point just below my knees. I reluctantly placed my right foot into the puddle, and let out a squeal, accompanied by a few choice expletives. As my foot exited the puddle, I could already feel the grime in between my toes, sliding around underneath the balls of my feet. I ran the rest of the way into the mall and figured the rain would let up any minute.

But it didn’t. The heavy rain lasted for at least two hours, which gave me ample time to clean myself up in the bathroom, followed by window shopping, wandering around the food court, and contemplating life. What was I doing here? What did I want out of life? Why did I want to leave Caracas so badly? Was it because I was a wuss who couldn’t suck it up and live outside her comfort zone for seven more months, or was there something deeper going on here?

I sat at a table in the food court and wrote a list of pros and cons for staying in Caracas on the back of a paper napkin. I also reflected on my previous conversation with Matt. He was the only person in Caracas that I had confided in about the topic.

“But you just got here!” he had said. The two of us were hiking up El Avila, an enormous mountain range that frames the city of Caracas.

“I know, but this isn’t what I expected. Work doesn’t really take up much time and for the rest of the day, I feel like I’m stuck. I sit in my room and read and write but then I just get antsy and bored. . . Maybe I want to go teach in a country that’s not as boring.”

“Not as boring?” he asked. He looked at me skeptically, and for a moment I thought he might be offended. Then I remembered that Matt had come to Venezuela to do research and to study their political system because it fascinated him. “Well, maybe you’re the one that’s boring,” he said.

“Hey!” I responded, a little taken aback at first, but then impressed that he felt comfortable enough to say that to me—to call me out and to express his obvious disagreement on the subject.

“Christy, Caracas is a lot of things, but boring isn’t really one of them.”

I smiled. I had offended him. “That’s true,” I agreed, “but I think what I’m trying to say is that I’m bored a lot of the time because everyone is constantly telling me that it’s too dangerous to go here, and to do that, and to take pictures there, and so I end up just staying in my room, like I’m on house arrest or something.”

“Well, next time you want to do something, just let me know and I’ll go with you,” he offered.

“You’ll protect me, eh?”

“But of course,” he said. “Not that I think you need a ton of protecting, because I honestly don’t think this city is near as dangerous as everyone makes it out to be.”

Ah yes, Matt and his unrelenting optimism. I agreed that I would call him, and tried to refrain myself from making knight in shining armor jokes. Yet, something inside me still felt unsettled. I knew there was a deeper reason for wanting to leave, but I couldn’t quite articulate it.

That afternoon in the food court brought me a bit closer to a revelation when I slowly realized that my list of pros and cons was completely irrelevant. My intuition seemed to be saying that it was time to walk to the nearest crossroads and choose a new path to follow. So that is exactly what I did. That evening, I called up the airline and moved the date on my return ticket from June to November. Then, I called my parents to tell them I would be home a few days before Thanksgiving.

Once word got out that I was leaving, everyone I knew seemed to have an opinion on the subject, including Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, heads of the Caracas Urban Think Tank. Alfredo and Hubert now shared an office with Cara and Nicole because they had been promoted from teaching English to writing textbooks. They worked down the hall from us, and I would sneak over to say hello to them as often as possible. I missed having Cara around the main office, and Nicole was always off with her Venezuelan boyfriend, Luis, so I only rarely saw her outside of work. She was a few years older than the rest of us and possessed a quiet sort of wisdom, coupled with a gentle spirit that always put me at ease.

On one of my last afternoons in Caracas, I was in the middle of chatting with Cara and Nicole when Hubert and Alfredo waltzed into the office.

“Tonight, we are going to dinner at a Uruguayan steakhouse,” Hubert said with a heavy German accent that very much resembled Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.

“A Uruguayan steakhouse?” Cara asked.

“Oh yes,” Alfredo chimed in, “not an Argentinean steakhouse, but a Uruguayan steakhouse because everything that Argentina is famous for, they actually stole from Uruguay.”

Alfredo was a goofy and charismatic architect with wire-rim glasses and wavy hair that was slightly flecked with gray. His father was originally from Caracas, but chose to move his entire family to New York to give his children a better life. Alfredo was born and raised in New York, and later met Hubert while studying Architecture at Columbia University.

Hubert was originally from Austria and his face always bore a serious expression that was slightly intimidating, yet slightly misleading. He had a knack for making witty, sarcastic comments that could challenge most anything that anyone said. After working with Alfredo at Columbia, he became interested in urban development in third world countries, and agreed join him in Caracas where they now run the Urban Think Tank, guest lecture at universities, and are in the midst of publishing their first book called, Informal City: Caracas Case. It’s a study of the living conditions in the barrios and an in-depth look at how to improve them.

“Would you ladies like to join us for dinner?” Alfredo asked.

Nicole and Cara and I looked at each other in consensus. How could we refuse?

The Uruguayan steakhouse was darkly lit and came complete with live music and tango dancers gliding gracefully across the floor.

Could it be true that Argentina had stolen tango dancing, too?

Alfredo took it upon himself to order wine and steaks for the whole table, and let’s just say that I wasn’t complaining. As someone who was a vegetarian for a good five years of her adolescence, and who rarely ever eats steak, allow me to pause a moment and reflect upon how completely amazing this piece of meat was. It was juicy and flavorful, melt-in-your-mouth amazing. I still to this day have not tasted another steak like it, and it revolutionized my whole conception of eating red meat.

The wine was fantastic, as well, and Alfredo was never shy about queuing our server to bring another bottle whenever we ran low. Cara was leading the dinner conversation with a discussion of Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, The Tipping Point. She said it was about how certain brand names, places, and inventions could become a major phenomenon overnight, such as the ipod, The Da Vinci Code, and the sudden popularity of Orange County. The latter, they asked me to shed some light on since I had been living there for the past five years. My description of Orange County led to my mention of the South Coast Plaza, which led to Claim Jumper, the restaurant where I worked in the mall, which led to the fact that I was leaving on Monday to go back to California.

“Wait, wait a second,” Alfredo interrupted me. “You’re leaving? On Monday?”

“Yes,” I told him, dreading the direction of this conversation.

“Hubert,” Alfredo said, trying to gain his attention. Hubert was engaged in a different conversation with Nicole and could clearly hear Alfredo calling his name, but chose to ignore him.

Everything was theatrical with these two.

“Hubert, this is serious,” Alfredo insisted. Hubert finally turned to listen.

“She’s leaving Caracas on Monday,” Alfredo told him, “to go work in a mall.”

“I’m not working in a m--------,” I protested.

“You’re leaving?” Hubert interrupted, in his thick, Scwarzenegger-like accent. “How long have you been here?”

I looked desperately to the tango dancers, hoping they might give me some inspiration. The music rose, and the female dancer raised her right knee into the air as her partner turned to guide her in a new direction. It was an interesting backdrop—the dancers, the tango music—that gave me the distinct feeling I was living through one of those Agatha Christie murder mystery novels.

“Six weeks,” I finally answered.

“And why did you come to South America?” Hubert asked.

Feeling trapped, I used my creativity to invent a bunch of poignant reasons on the spot, some of which I actually believed were true. I told him of my desire to learn Spanish, the impeccable job offer from Optimal English, my reading of The Motorcycle Diaries, and my discovery of Ché Guevara and what a brilliant writer I found him to be.

“Yes, but Ché wouldn’t leave to go work in a mall,” Hubert responded.

This was a bit of an understatement, I reasoned, especially in light of Ché’s glaring hatred for capitalism.

Nicole, who had been observing our conversation this whole time, noted my expression and quietly said to me, “You don’t have to explain yourself to them.”

I smiled in gratitude. Nicole, my ally.

“They don’t get what it’s like for us to come here,” she continued. “They drive around the city in their air conditioned SUVs and spend their days in high rise office buildings. Then in the evenings, they return to their homes that are in nice, safe neighborhoods, complete with live-in housekeepers.”

I thought about Nicole, living in a city she despised with a language she didn’t speak, and working a job she was overly qualified for.

“I would leave in a heartbeat if it wasn’t for Luis,” she said.

Looking back now, I can see that even if I had been given a life of luxury in Caracas, I still wouldn’t have wanted to stay. I wasn’t leaving because I was a wuss, I was leaving because it simply wasn’t for me. Caracas didn’t call out to me, it didn’t entice me, and at the end of most days, all I could think about was Barcelona and how much I was regretting having left. I had gone off course; I had chosen the wrong path and for all the wrong reasons. As ironic as it sounds, I had taken the job in Caracas because I actually thought it would be easier. Now that I recognized my mistake, it was up to me to redirect—to find my way back there.

I thought about all the roads that lay before me—all the choices—and how each choice could be further divided into subcategories of other choices. If I chose to get a Master’s, then in what subject and at which school? If I taught English, then in which country? If I moved back to Northern California, what job might I be able to get, and would I ever really be happy living there?

Yup, Robert Frost was one lucky bastard. He had a fifty/fifty shot of getting it right.

What were my odds?