Designing for sustainability – what we learned from three weeks in a small Guatemalan village


By Valeria Gaitan and Titiaan Palazzi

We spent the last three weeks in a small village on Lake Atitlán, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. In addition to its natural beauty, the lake is a resource for surrounding villages. Unfortunately, population growth, modern innovations (such as motorized ships), and climate change are threatening the lake’s health.

Families around the lake face many challenges: lack of clean drinking water, high costs of wood and electricity, respiratory disease, and a local economy based almost entirely on tourism. These challenges are interconnected, so addressing them requires a systems perspective. How can we improve quality of life for people in such vulnerable conditions? How do we design for sustainability in such a complex system?

IDDS: summits to design for local development

We were in Guatemala exactly to answer these questions, by participating in an International Design for Development Summit (IDDS). IDDS summits are organized by MIT, IDIN and local professionals. For three weeks, we went through a design process to design and prototype solutions around the theme of sustainable homes. Our group included about 20 facilitators and 50 participants. Importantly, we were not working for the community but with the community; 16 of the 50 participants lived in Santa Catarina Palopó, a picturesque town of about 1,000 families where the summit took place.

The group was split into smaller teams, each addressing one specific subtopic of sustainable homes: energy, cooking methods, organic waste, plastic waste, food, water, sanitation, and construction methods.

Learning about people’s needs: Observe, Ask, and Experiment

Our team focused on energy. Our initial goal was to build relationships with the local community. To identify a specific problem, we had to learn about our users. To do so, we used a framework of Observe, Ask, and Experiment. We went from home to home, guided by our local team members, to interview people. We observed how people prepared their meals and washed their clothes. We spent hours in small kitchens learning to make tortillas and bathing in temazcals (a local form of sauna or sweat lodge used 2-3 times per week for bathing).

Energy influences every aspect of daily life


As we lived with local families, we realized that energy informs almost every element of daily life. The wood burnt in open fires or cook stoves causes respiratory diseases and eye problems. As villagers collect wood from surrounding hillsides, forests are decimated. This in turn can lead to destructive mudslides (a 2010 mudslide destroyed many of Santa Catarina Palopó’s homes). Families spend as much as half their income on energy; as a consequence, many families can’t keep their kids in school or visit a doctor.

This stands in stark contrast to the United States and Europe. Here, a shift to clean energy is critically important to prevent global climate change. But after switching a home in Copenhagen or Texas to solar PV, the people in it don’t perceive a difference in their daily lives.

Prototyping solutions to reduce the use of firewood and electricity

After our first week, we narrowed our focus to two problem areas: high consumption of firewood for heating the temazcals (used 2-3 times per week), and high electricity costs, largely as a consequence of incandescent lighting.

We then developed design requirements for each problem. Based on these design requirements, we brainstormed different types of solutions. During the final week, we focused on two efforts:

1. An effort to redesign burners in temazcals, with the key purpose to reduce wood consumption while improving the user experience (e.g., by reducing smoke inside the temazcal).

2. An effort to reduce electricity bills by changing incandescent bulbs to LEDs.


Most villagers heated their temazcal by building an open fire inside, on which they rested tiles and a pot of water. We built two wood burner prototypes applying the rocket stove design. We tested these prototypes with the families in Santa Catarina Palopó. Their feedback was positive: the prototypes reduced wood consumption from 10-15 logs to just 3-4 logs of firewood, while reducing smoke in the temazcal via a chimney. The prototypes are still in pilot phase at the homes, to analyze burner performance and user adoption.

To show the quality of LEDs, we developed a wooden box that fit an incandescent bulb, a fluorescent bulb, and two LEDs: one white, one yellow. We also developed marketing materials to explain the economic benefit of LEDs.

Reflecting on our experience, here are three key lessons about design for sustainability:

1. Design with the community, not for the community


At times, we were tempted to move ahead with a design without extensively consulting the local community. The organizers constantly reminded us to listen to the community and to engage them in the design process.

Although sometimes frustrating, we listened. The effort paid off.

First, by engaging local women in problem selection, we worked on problems that mattered to them. During a local workshop, we asked women what they found most frustrating in the experience of using the temazcal. We learned that the large volume of smoke was particularly challenging, especially for the women who were asked to start the fire inside the temazcal.

Second, by engaging our two team members from the community in every step of the process, we created advocates for our solutions. Days after we installed the first LEDs, Jessica and Lidia told many others about the opportunity to save electricity by switching lightbulbs. A message from them has an impact far greater than any message coming from people outside the community.

2. Local entrepreneurship can keep small communities alive


We asked several community members—most of whom were in their late twenties or early thirties—about their dreams. Many did not have full-time work. Most expressed a strong desire to find a well-paying job so they could support their families and create a better life.

Typically, jobs can only be found in larger towns and cities. If much of the younger generation leaves to find work elsewhere, this could mean the loss of many small towns and communities.

We learned that one path to create professional opportunities is through local entrepreneurship. What if young people can stay in their communities by creating new businesses?

This is exactly what both our initiatives are set up to do. Tech-savvy community members could manufacture the temazcal burners out of local materials and sell them to families in and around Santa Catarina Palopó. Well-connected local women can go door to door to inform people about the potential savings from LEDs, and then sell LEDs to families.

One of the most exciting moments was when Jessica, one of the two community members on our team, took us to several homes to inform people about LEDs. Typically shy, Jessica blew us away by giving a passionate, clear pitch at every home. Jessica showed herself to be a true advocate. She expressed a strong interest to build a local business to sell LEDs.

3. Business is a double-edged sword

New businesses can greatly improve quality of life. Cell phones allow people to be in touch with their families, avoiding many unnecessary trips. Better cookstoves reduce smoke, related health problems, wood burn, related energy costs and deforestation.

At the same time, big businesses have negative consequences. A national fried chicken chain, Pollo Campero, drives out many original, local restaurants. A national chicken vendor reduces the business opportunities for local villagers to grow and sell chickens. Toritos bags and Coca-Cola is sold in every small store and clearly leads to unhealthy diets.

The types of businesses that seem to add most value are those that provide high-quality products sold by local people.

Sustainability = Continuity

Of course, the work to date is just the beginning. Impact in the community requires sustained efforts. Fortunately, three of our team members live in Guatemala. They are already planning a next visit to the community, to ask about the two prototypes, and to organize a workshop for local people to build temazcal burners using locally available, reused, and low-cost materials.

We also seek to partner with a top-tier LED manufacturer to bring high-quality bulbs to the community, and to continue to train the local community members to become a door-to-door information and sales force.

Thank you to the Energy team who made all this possible: Maya Pérez, Lidia Cúmes, Jessica Pérez, Andrés Viau, Daniel Connell, and Amit Gandhi.

Thank you to the IDDS organizers María José Saenz, Sher Vogel, Omar Crespo, Oscar Quan, and Paul Crespo.

3 lessons from a week in Lourdes

I just returned from a week in Lourdes, France. With 70 volunteers we guided a group of 50 elderly people, many seriously ill, on a religious pilgrimage. Millions of people travel to Lourdes each year to bathe in its springs that are supposed to have healing properties, after a young girl had 18 visions of the Virgin Mary there in 1858.

Equipe 5, Lourdes 2016.JPG

I am not a devout Catholic and I don’t believe in the miraculous healing properties of Lourdes’ water. So why did I go? I went because I wanted to help. My motivations are quite selfish, really: I know that serving others fills me with positive energy.

Here are three lessons I learned from a week with 50 elderly people.

1. Compassion can be cultivated.

We know that we can show kindness to our friends, and that on a good day we may even help a stranger in the street. But can we be kind to everyone? Surely there are some people we just don’t get along with! In Lourdes I realized that it is possible to develop sincere kindness for anyone.

On my first day, I felt repelled by an elderly man in his wheelchair. Subjecting my immediate reaction to walk away, I started a conversation with him. After chatting for fifteen minutes I had seen so many commonalities between us that my initial feeling of repulsion had shifted to sincere compassion. Through this incident I realized that we can cultivate compassion, even for people who we initially despise, if we just have an opportunity to see their humanity.

That’s exactly the insight that drove an Israeli restaurant owner to offer 50% discount on meals in his restaurant shared by Palestinians and Israelis. This Zen Habits guide of 7 practices will help mean—and maybe you too—to be more compassionate.

2. Helping someone matters.

Following the logic of Effective Altruism, it is easy to conclude that helping a few elderly people does not matter. “Why would I spend a week pushing old people in a wheelchair if I can work on a scalable solution for healthcare?” I think the lens of “impact” fails here for two reasons. First, I believe that if everyone would take care of their neighbors, the world would be a better place. Second, I believe that when we help someone directly, we are reminded what really matters in life. This causes ripple effects in how we choose our careers and lives.

 3. Religion can be a powerful framework for personal growth.

In an interview with New Scientist, E.O. Wilson said that we should eliminate religion because it causes great danger to our humanity. After Lourdes my view of religion is much more positive. Going to mass every day, I saw that religion can be a framework to become a better person. By reading stories of saintly behavior; reflecting on your own actions (and sins); and wishing each other peace during mass, religion can help people to be kinder. That is why I recommend everyone to read Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists.


In summary, the week reminded me how helping others truly is “food for the soul”. It also reminded me that I should treasure the moments I still have with my grandparents.

What role does service play in your life? Are there experiences that have transformed you? Which experiences would you still like to live?

Reflections from Burning Man 2015

Burning Man 2015

Victor, Irene, Titiaan, Lisanne, Thomas, and Pim. Photo credit: Brendan Curran.

Last Sunday, I returned from my second year at Burning Man. It was a wonderful experience, very different from the year before. Three elements stood out to me:

  1. Creating time for deep conversations with friends old and new
  2. Experiencing the joy of serving others
  3. Witnessing the connectedness of all human beings

Creating time for conversations with friends old and new

Some of my best Dutch friends decided to come to Burning Man this year. Thanks to Jan Overgoor, about half of them could stay at my camp, Mooncheese, making it easy to find each other. Throughout the week, we actively looked for each other to go on walks and adventures, creating time to reflect on past experiences and discuss new adventures. Having several hours of uninterrupted time to talk with such dear friends was rare and heartwarming.

In parallel, I had some enlightening conversations with people who I had never or barely met before. IDEATE, a camp run by changemakers in sustainability and social justice, was a particular example of an oasis again which led to many interesting conversations—with topics ranging from spiritual enlightenment to how to reduce Burning Man’s carbon footprint.

Experiencing the joy of serving others

Everyone who comes to Burning Man tries to give something to the larger Burning Man community. Mooncheese served grilled cheese sandwiches at night; Shamandome offered healings and other guided spiritual workshops; and IDEATE organized speaker series. On one of our nightly adventures, we even discovered a one-person Caribbean bar at a 15-minute biking distance from the city!

In our everyday lives, we think about what we want to get, with the implicit assumption that getting things will make us happy. It’s powerful to realize how much joy comes from giving. For many in Mooncheese, the best moment of Burning Man were the 2 hours of their grilled cheese shift, during which they prepared and handed out grilled cheese sandwiches to hungry people. For me, spending a few hours to help a friend prepare a meal and to help someone fix a flat tire stand out as highlights in the week. It’s worth remembering daily how much joy comes from providing small acts of kindness—I try to continue to live this message as I return to normal life.

Witnessing the connectedness of all human beings

One special experience this year was to take part in a 5 Rhythms dance session. At 10am on a Friday morning, 200 people (all sober, or at least most of them) gathered on a wooden dance floor to move to the tunes of a Swedish DJ. His music started very slow, but progressed to more upbeat to a strong climax and back, hence the name 5 Rhythms. During the second hour of the dance session, you could see in everyone’s eyes true compassion for the other people on the floor. It was a totally different experience than seeing the judging way people look at each other on their morning commute by bus or metro.

The tough environmental conditions—this year was particularly bad, with several white-out dust storms and temperatures occasionally dropping below freezing point—further increase the connectedness. You had to hug people, just to get some of their body heat.

Serving grilled cheese with Mooncheese camp.

Serving grilled cheese with Mooncheese camp. Photo credit: Brendan Curran.

I definitely plan to go again next year. My intention is to go with a small camp that has a strong commitment to service—I’ve realized that spending a few hours each day serving others is a gift. As a friend, Ed Silhol, said “Burning Man is my school”, a place to learn new things through service.


For those of you who’ve never been to Burning Man: to me, the experience is best compared to visiting a city as a tourist. You spend time reading the map, trying to understand the city’s design, deciding which buildings and events you want to visit, making new friends and visiting acquaintances. Already after a few days in the new city, you feel increasingly at home. That’s what it feels like at Burning Man.

Lessons and Impressions from Beijing

I spent last week in Beijing, my second visit to the city after a short visit with my father and brother in 2009. I was in Beijing to work on “Reinventing Fire: China”, a collaboration between Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, China’s Energy Research Institute, and Rocky Mountain Institute to model a deeply efficient energy future for China up to 2050.

I enjoyed Beijing tremendously, and I was struck by how different an impression the city made just a few years after my first visit. Below are some of my impressions.

Public infrastructure

We mostly used the subway to get around the city. For 2 RMB (less than $0.30) you can ride the subway wherever you want. Trains arrive every three minutes, are spick and span, and there’s enough space not too feel like a sardine. Riding Beijing’s metro was a far better experience than taking the BART in San Francisco, and it rivaled the best European subways I’ve been in.

(The subway is also much quicker than taking a taxi: Beijing suffers from heavy congestion, despite (or because of?) the five-lane roads throughout the city.)


Anyone who walked around Beijing in the last few years will know that the air is typically full of smog. People check air quality on their phone, just to see how many times the limit of the World Health Organization is hit. Fortunately for me, the air in Beijing was exceptionally clear this week: we had blue skies every day.

The streets were also very clean. Returning to my hotel after dinner one night, I walked through a series of Hutongs, traditional Chinese urban settlements, and noticed that there was no trash or dirt anywhere. Several Hutongs also had public toilets, a piece of infrastructure you don’t see even in financially rich Western cities.


Diet and health

Most days I would get breakfast, typically an egg sandwich, from small carts on the street. For lunch and dinner we would frequently have big, warm meals. (To deal with the after dinner dip our Chinese collaborators would take a little nap face-down on their desks.)


Despite the big meals, most Beijing inhabitants were quite fit. I did not see any of the gigantic bellies you spot in the United States. (Hopefully this will not change as American fast food and soda spreads in China.)


Outdoor exercise equipment was installed in multiple public spaces. Chungliang Huang, the Tai Ji master who taught at Esalen this weekend, said it was normal for Chinese people (at least traditionally) to start the day with movement. I forgot to ask my Chinese colleagues if they typically work out before coming to the office. (One day after lunch, our Chinese colleagues were in full battle gear, playing ping pong in the hallway.)



The palaces of the Forbidden City and the buildings around the Temple of Heaven had a beautiful color scheme: dark red, gold, deep green and ocean blue. I love the simplicity of many of the temples, and the order of the floorplans when you look at the old palaces (and Hutongs!) from above.



One goal of our work in China is to define what the maximum potential for energy savings for different industries is (e.g. for production of cement). It has now happened multiple times that agreed upon analyses are changed the night before a big presentation by “expert adjustment”. The reason for this seems to be that our research colleagues want to tell a message that their bosses will agree with. This hierarchy creates challenges for scientific rigor (and innovation).

Our team now has several Chinese nationals on board, who can communicate directly with our Chinese colleagues and clients (most of whom do speak English). That said, having an interpreter often take the flow out of the conversation. I look forward to the day when spoken word can be instantly translated, so that both parties can engage in interactive conversation.

Chuangliang Huang, Amory’s co-teacher at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, explained that a single Chinese character can hold many different meanings, depending on its context (the characters that surround it.) Amory speculated that this leads native Chinese speakers to be more comfortable to hold in their mind ideas that seem paradoxical to Western minds, a helpful quality for anyone who wants to study quantum physics.


Overall, I was really impressed by how quickly Beijing is developing. I realize that living in one city for a few days do not represent life in a country of 1.4 billion people. That said, working in Beijing during a period of clean skies felt more like living in London than like living in Bangalore. Culturally, Beijing feels different from Bangalore too: if life in India is chaotic, colorful, and emotional, Beijing is much more organized, clean, and productive.


If you’ve been to Beijing, what was your experience? For some of my Chinese friends, how do they think about this? Should a Chinese government stimulate urbanization, or incentivize people to stay in rural towns so the deep social disruption between elderly people doesn’t take place?


4 Dutch projects you should know about

Now in Beijing, I spent the last two weeks in the Netherlands. Here are four Dutch projects that inspired me.

1. Ocean Cleanup
Boyan Slat’s ocean cleanup addresses a truly super-national problem (floating waste in oceans), with no direct commercial benefit to the founders. Supported by a young founder who combines a hacker-ethic with deep skill in involving the public (the team raised $2.1M through crowdfunding) , you see why it’s easy to be a fan. Boyan would fit well between the Thiel fellows.

2. Vandebron
Vandebron is a platform for Dutch citizens to buy renewable power from local farmers with excess electricity production. The idea of decentralized electricity sharing is promoted by many, but Vandebron is the first company I know that has successfully created a platform through which individual citizens can sell and buy power, becoming an “airbnb for electricity” as Matthew and I wrote on RMI’s blog.

3. Smart Highways
During the Singularity Summit in Amsterdam last week, Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde showed the audience two of his latest pilot projects: a bicycle-path inspired by Van Gogh’s “Starry Nights” and a glow-in-the-dark paint that can illuminate highways without overhead lighting. Roosegaarde’s ability to apply natural inspiration to objects in our physical world like roads, churches, and public parks in an artistic way fascinates me. Watch his excellent Zomergasten video here. Highly recommended!

4. Stroomversnelling
During a visit to Shell with Amory, Maaike Witteveen told me about this project to reduce energy consumption of Dutch residential buildings, called “rijtjeshuizen”, by 80 percent, by adding insulating wall panels, superwindows, solar PV, an air source heat pump. Led by BAM, a Dutch developer, and financed by housing cooperatives, incentives between tenants and the housing cooperative align: tenants reduce rent when using less energy; housing cooperatives reduce costs. Maaike and I will soon post a blog describing the potential of the concept on RMI’s blog. For now, here’s a description from the Guardian.

Rapid Prototyping by Orangutans … and other reflections on three days in Kalimantan

Matt, Casper, Caroline and Titiaan

Casper invited me to spend a week with our good friend Caroline and his sister Laura at a primate-research project in Borneo, Indonesia. Casper’s friend Matt, the communications director of the Orangutan Tropical peatland project and avid wildlife photographer, had offered to host us. On December 31st 2013, I booked my flight from Bangalore to Kalimantan – starting the new year with an adventure inspired by this article.

It was a great decision. Orangutans are beautiful animals. At rest in the crown of the forest, they look similar to a man sitting in a tree, honoring the origin of their name: “person of the forest”. In their natural habitat they are solitary – orangutans live alone. They feed primarily on fruits and some leaves growing in the rainforest canopy. Males grow flanges (the big cheeks you recognize from pictures) when they start to get ready to reproduce. Few females in the animal kingdom are as dedicated to being a good mother: young Orangutans stay with their mother for 7 to 9 years before they gather their own food.

The Borneo Orangutan Survival foundation operates a rehabilitation centre where orphaned Orangutans are fed and nursed to go back into the wild. To get re-acquainted to living in natural forest, Orangutans spend months to years at the half-way stop, an island in a river where they can room around freely but still receive food. Every morning a boat drops bags full of vegetables and fruits at several feeding locations on the island’s banks. We were lucky to see this spectacle from a boat moored at a few meters distance.


Alfred making his canvas’ hammock

After one bag of ears of corn had been emptied, one of the Orangutans – let’s call him Alfred – showed us his inventiveness. Alfred ripped open the bag along one side and put it over his head a cape. Fed up with the cape, he put the canvas material under his armpit and climbed up a tree to show us some rapid prototyping skills. Alfred hang one side of the cape onto a branch and tried to crawl into the canvas bag to use it as a hammock.

Once he succeeded, preparing to take a nap, one of his friends came to claim his hierarchy by stealing the bag. Alfred was scared out of the tree, but his fellow Orangutan did not have the perseverance or curiosity to make a hammock out of the bag – it looked so much easier when his friend had done it – and threw the bag down into the river (as for humans, easy access to an object often seems to reduce the pleasure experienced of that object). Alfred climbed down immediately to fish the bag from the river, trying to make a hammock once again. A creative, persistent fellow.

Before visiting the BOS foundation, we spent two days in the natural forest with OUTrop. As Matt and I made our way through the forest on one of the morning walks (walking through knee-deep peat-swamp), we had a direct encounter with a young male Orangutan. Fully focused on eating fruits 10 meters up in a tree, the Orangutan did not notice Matt and me at first. As I cracked a branch, the Orangutan suddenly saw us. He looked us straight into the eyes, grabbed a branch above his head and snapped it from the tree. He held it threatingly above his head, and then threw it to the ground with his strong arms. Then, he aggressively swung his body to another tree and Matt and I left the site. It made a deep impression on me.


Leaving Kalimantan tomorrow to meet with Willie Smits, the Orangutans have left a deep impression on me. They are peaceful animals, able to determine their own plan, not disturbed by the process of group decisions. I came to see the Orangutan as the “philosopher king” of the animal kingdom, not disturbed by trivial matters, peacefully exerting only the necessary effort, solitary contemplating the meaning of life (whilst chewing leaves) from a treetop.

When did you feel a deep connection to other animals?

Bustling Bangalore

Sunset in Bangalore

Last week I arrived in Bangalore. After a thrilling week in India, I am glad I had the courage to book a last-minute flight to Bangalore once I was told that I had to wait for two more months for my U.S. working visa.

Adjusting to life in Bangalore is easy. Many speak English and tasty food is available on every street corner. Several great groups of people invited me to work with them, bringing meaning to my days in India from the moment I arrived. I stay with wonderful friends who double as great hosts. I go to sleep every night having learnt at least three new things.

Buildings, infrastructure and transportation

Buildings shoot from the ground everywhere, although access to a proper home is unevenly distributed. The picture below shows a tent community in front of a newly erected building.

Building and slum

Bangalore’s streets are surprisingly clean, but waste’s final destination may be nearer than you think. I was surprised to discover this garden with integrated garbage dump one morning as I woke up to watch the sun rise from my roof terrace in Indira Nagar.


Transport in Bangalore is hectic. The first days I traveled by riksha (called “autos”, I actually drove one an auto last Sunday evening), but I quickly decided to test the public bus system. Boarding the bus on my first ride, I was surprised to see only women sitting! When I turned my head to look towards the rear of the bus, I realized that all men were sitting in the back. This is an unspoken rule I’ve observed on buses since, so that women have a place to sit. I wonder how it was first implemented.

Women in bus

Providing access to electricity to the poor

On Wednesday and Sunday I went out into Bangalore’s tent-communities (slums) with the wonderful fellows and interns of Pollinate Energy. Pollinate provides access to electricity to people who do not have access to the grid. They do this by recruiting entrepreneurial twenty-year-olds from local urban communities – called Pollinators – to sell products that people want: solar panels, lights integrated with mobile-phone chargers, cookstoves and possibly soon modular homes; tablets and low-voltage TVs.

I quickly learned that it is essential to work with local entrepreneurs if you are to sell products. When I enter a community – a European with blonde hair and white skin who speaks not a word of Kannada – it stirs up many reactions, yet these do not necessarily lead to an interest in the service we are trying to provide. The real value is created by someone the community can trust – a boy like Madu in the picture below, who gently explains the benefits of not using kerosene. What is important is that the community can trust the storyteller.

I also learned that people’s dis-interest in an electricity-providing product can have many more reasons than poor product design. In two days, I have heard people explain that they fear that the solar panel will be stolen; that neighbors will destroy the solar lantern; or that they simply do not want to be the first of their friends to buy the product.

Madu in tent camp

A little running

After Wednesday’s visit to the slum, Monique and Jamie from Pollinate invited me to participate in Bangalore’s midnight marathon run – the 10km version, not the original Greek length – on Saturday night. Dressed up as light-emitting bees (yellow shirts, black tights, LED-light strapped to our chest) more than twenty of completed the track in Whitefields – cheering and screaming to one another as we passed.

Bengaluru midnight marathon

I spent the last two days with Infosys’ Green Initiatives team. Under the leadership of Rohan Parikh, this group of 15 very competent engineers are committed to realizing the world’s most energy-efficient buildings. Since 2008 the team has reduced energy consumption in new buildings by almost 50%. My goal is to work with part of the team to realize a bold project in the next five weeks.

Sunset from the roof

Friendships as a calibrator for life

From Apple’s dictionary:

calibrate |ˈkaləˌbrāt|

• carefully assess, set, or adjust (something abstract): the regulators cannot properly calibrate the risks involved | (as adj.calibrated) : their carefully calibrated economic policies.

Earlier this week I was in Berlin. I had two wonderful conversations: one with a dear friend who I hadn’t seen for a year; the other with a woman I had never met before.

When you meet a friend you have not seen in a long time, it seems easier to talk about deep topics than with friends you see very regularly. Time together is perceived as more precious, because rarer, hence you want to use every minute to speak about stuff that matters.

There’s a second reason why long-distance friendships hold much value. Friends who see you only once every so often naturally maintain a distant perspective on your life. They don’t know about the details of every project you undertake. When these friends listen carefully and ask critical questions, such occasional conversations are a reality check: are your actions aligned with what you say your values and dreams are? These friendships serve as a calibrator for life.

How can you guarantee you have these conversations, these check-ins, to make sure you’re living a life you’re proud of?

One answer, I think, is to set time apart with friends – close-by or far-away – in which you start by discussing the very basics (your principles, your beliefs) to the very acute (what are you doing today?).

The art of flying

Clouds from the planeI love to fly. On flights I find time for long stretches of reading. Floating high above the earth’s surface brings a mental distance that is great for reflection.

But the experience of flying can be more tranquil and pleasant if airlines make these small changes:

  • Board passengers in small groups, with group numbers printed in large font on your boarding pass. If it is clear when you are allowed to board the plane, there is no need to push yourself forward in a long line at the gate.
  • Do not interrupt movies for (duty free) announcement messages. Also, why is it not possible for passengers to start movies when the plane is still at the gate or taxiing?
  • Do not turn on all cabin lights on an overnight flight 1 hour before landing. The flight from Boston to Amsterdam takes five-and-a-half hours, leaving 3 hours of sleep between dinner and arrival. Why would you wake everyone up for the final hour-and-a-half? Is it not possible for passengers to switch on their individual reading lights if they want breakfast?

You can try to find tranquility even when your environment disturbs you:

  • Plan to be at the airport early. I have created an annoying habit of delaying my departure to the airport to the latest moment. This led to my first missed flight recently. Plan to be early: you will make up for the “lost time” of leaving early by a gain in mental clarity during your travel to the airport.
  • Do something at the airport that makes you peaceful. Annoyance builds up when you focus your mind on the chaos around you. Listen to classical music, a podcast or an audiobook. I sometimes read even while standing in line to board, although this makes me look like a failed acrobat – trying to move my bags with my feet while keeping my eyes on my reading.
  • Bring an eyemask and ear buds in your carry-on luggage. When you enter the plane, you can take a nap straight away.
  • Talk to strangers. Have a chat with the person sitting next to you at the gate or on the flight. Small talk and jokes bring happiness. Plus: the person sitting next to you may tell you an amazing story (or even become the love of your life).

What are your travel tips? What do you do when you’re waiting at the gate or on the plane? Do you bring special things with you?

The end of Spokes: Q&A and reflections



What did you most enjoy?

I loved the daily rhythm of physical activity. I loved jumping into lakes and mountain creeks to swim. I loved meeting local people and hearing their stories. I loved listening to Long Now podcasts. I loved to sit in a forest and enjoy nature. I loved camping or sleeping straight under the stars. I loved building things with kids. I loved the taste of chocolate milk after a long day on the bike.

What was your favorite state?

Lake Silver in the Sierra Nevada was beautiful and so were the Rocky Mountains. The most beautiful state as a whole was Utah: deeply colorful formations of red rock, pine forests and mountain creeks.

What was the hardest part? 

It was never difficult for me to get into a good mood. I quickly learned that good old 80s music would make me happy, even in pouring rain with pain in my bottom.

I found it surprisingly hard to wait for other people in the morning to get ready. I would get agitated when people were taking things slowly. I realized that this caused no good to anyone, so I decided that when I was done I would pick up a book and read. That worked – most of the time.


# People have an intrinsic desire to help.

We have received kindness from strangers countless times along our ride. Most strangers did not benefit from helping us, yet they cooked us dinner or offered us a place to stay. Philosophers who claim that humans are intrinsically evil haven’t cycled across America in the 21st century.

# Human interaction is an important ingredient to happiness.

It’s easy to build a negative train of thought on your bike. I have found talking to someone – a lady in the gas station or a team member – the surest way to turn from upset to happy. Some of the best moments on my bike were spent riding side-by-side.

# The US is beautiful.

We crossed pine forests, mountain lakes, stretches of desert – all were gorgeous. Natural environments “re-appear” around the globe: the Katy-trail reminded me of Costa Rica; the Rocky Mountains reminded me of the Alps.

# United States’ cities are not designed for cyclists.

I find suburbs and strip malls the ugliest parts of the country. Riding into Nashville was really ugly – tens of miles of gas stations, fast-food chains and car repair shops. My hypothesis is that (1) cities are widespread because the car existed before many cities started to grow and (2) there was little or no spatial planning because there was abundant land.

# Intimate experiences are a fast way to learn about people’s character.

I only knew Turner when I started the trip. Camping, cooking, buying groceries, cycling and making friends with gas-station clerks is a quick way to get to know your team. I learned within days that Jeff will always do what he says; that Claire makes friends with strangers easily and that Ethan works best when he can deeply focus on one task.

# … but you need personal time to keep peace in the team.

There are days when the tensions in the team get very high: people want different things; the tents are wet and everyone’s tired. Time by yourself is the best way to take a fresh perspective on tensions and to become happier.

# Most people strive for relatively simple things in life:

a loving family; a nice home; good food to eat; education for their children and time to hang out with friends. The idea that every person is on a quest to become enlightened is false (if you are on this quest, pick your friends wisely).

# It does not seem that internet has deeply changed life in rural areas.

I had expected young people in rural Kentucky to have the same role models as young people in NYC. This does not seem true. The few young people I met in rural Kansas or Kentucky had dreams of working in local grocery stores and farms in stead of starting an organization.

# Be careful for sprinklers when you set up camp on a grass field.

# Swimming and napping are always a good investment of time.