Ivo – Man with a World Instead of a Country
We do not live but a quarter part of our life—why do we not let on the flood—raise the gates—and set our wheels in motion. –Henry David Thoreau, 1851
In Nelspruit, South Africa, in an almost vacant backpacker hostel, I step out of my room clutching a travel thermos and a wad of tea bags, in search of a kettle. The air is crisp, and the sun hasn’t risen yet above the trees. Across the small brick courtyard, in front of a covered porch that serves as a kitchen, sits a wild man—wiry, face creased by sun and cigarettes, a tangle of blondish-brown hair that could make small children hide behind their mothers. As I pass, he nods a greeting. I find and fill the kettle and fumble with a tangle of switched outlets and cords, and then, while the watched pot takes its sweet time, we talk.
Ivo is Czech, or was, or would be if he were anything, or will be perhaps when he needs a final resting place, but for most of his life, he has been a wanderer, a man with a world instead of a country. The Czechoslovakia of his youth, under the communists, had locked borders. Most Czechs, stuck inside those walls, stayed home and cultivated gardens and hobbies. But when Ivo turned fourteen, he brought his divorced parents together so that they could sign papers granting him permission to leave the country–to mountain climb in Yugoslavia. They must have had no idea what they were putting in motion. For years after, Ivo spent much of his time traveling Europe with a Czech climbing team. “I know all of Europe,” he says, “Cities, mountains, small back roads.” In his twenties, he lingered at home long enough to pursue a university degree, get married, have two children, and get divorced.
Fifteen years ago, he hit the road again. “I go to a country, find work, see everything I want to see, and then move on.” He has been in Southern Africa for eighteen months. From his home base in Nelspruit, he has done local safaris to Kruger Park and adventure tours to Botswana’s hinterlands or Mozambique’s beaches. He spent two months living in a South African township because he wanted the experience—just Ivo, the sort-of Czech, and 10,000 black Africans. It went fine until he returned from a holiday in Maputo to find that his room had been cleared out by thieves. Back to work in Nelspruit. He shrugs away the loss. “I don’t have anything, but I am rich. It’s all up here,” he says, pointing to his head, “and no-one can take it away.”
There’s a disciplined austerity to his lifestyle. The austerity of mending clothes by hand. The discipline of saving—for the time off work and for plane tickets. The austerity of traveling alone. The discipline of being a master at what you do so that your skills are sought. Ivo makes a living creating the forms and mesh of rebar that are the skeleton of cement construction. He is good at what he does; his South African boss would have him working on all of his construction sites at once if Ivo could only clone himself.
The owner of our hostel emerges, a tidy woman in her seventies. She speaks to us both and gestures at Ivo with a sort of headshaking warmth. “Look at his hair,” she says, touching it. “Look at his hands.” She turns one over displaying the calluses that are testimony to sustained hard work.
“I used to be able to hang by these four fingertips,” says Ivo, “and pull myself up. Now I am old. But all those years of training pay off; I am still strong.”
Passionate about pulling his weight (metaphorically as well as literally), and passionate about freedom, Ivo harbors an abiding distain for the communists who used to control Czech and who he perceives as having undue influence still. When we talk, he has been reading news on his cell phone about the Czech elections in which the communist party is gaining seats. It is giving him fits. He uses a litany of English swear words in the endearing way that only non-English Europeans can. The kind of focused restlessness that leads to world class climbing and world travel doesn’t go well with socialism.
Back when Ivo was growing up, we in America thought ourselves leaders of the “Free World” and spoke in terms of somber regret about the “Iron Curtain.” But how many of us really live as if our freedom matters?
While Ivo, as a teen, was crossing borders, I, as a teen, was hunkered down in my hometown community of Evangelicals, aka people like me. We had a buzz phrase that we liked to repeat: “Christians are in the world but not of the world.” It meant that we were a people apart, above the pleasures and sins of other humans. But it also meant that we were closed to the here-and-now living that revels in other cultures and other people’s pleasures, mentally insulated from the life- affirming dance with mortality that Ivo has sought on the face of a cliff or the streets of a township. My type crossed the Iron Curtain only to smuggle Bibles which said that Ivo’s world was a mere shadow of something better—a place where the streets are gold and the walls encrusted with gemstones.
Not everyone can hang by four fingertips and hoist themselves up. Not everyone wants to. Not everyone is cut out for the transient lifestyle of the lone wanderer. But how often do we ask ourselves what we are cut out for? Ivo feels like he is living his life one hundred and fifty percent. How many of us feel that way? What might it mean, truly, to live with open borders rather than erecting iron curtains of our own making? What might it mean to live as if the whole blue planet is our home and its people our people?
In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt talks about why so much of our pursuit of happiness brings little satisfaction. We spend our money on objects—clothes, tv’s, the latest gadgets and appliances—and we feel good briefly. But then we habituate to our new possessions, and our happiness level falls back to where it was. Much of what we buy serves the purpose of social comparison—it falls in the category of “conspicuous consumption” designed to give us a sense that we are better off than others. Then they acquire the same stuff—or better–and by comparison we are back where we started, caught in an acquisitions arms race. Ivo laments that Czech friends fall into this trap. “They say, ‘I want to come visit you,’ and I say, ‘Do it—it’s just a focking plane ticket!’ But then they say, ‘I have this mortgage– I have this flat screen TV I have to pay off . . .”
Psychological research shows money can buy happiness only if you know where to shop. After basic needs are met, we are happier if we invest in activities and relationships rather than stuff. We are happier, for example if we take more vacations and spend them with people we love. We are made happier by giving to others (whether we spend money or simply spend the energy required for random acts of kindness). We are happier if we invest in housing close to work, reducing our commute even if it means living in a smaller house. But in the U.S., the trends have been the opposite of these: more stuff, fewer and shorter vacations, less community involvement, bigger houses farther away.
There’s another key to happiness that Ivo seems to have come upon in his own way. Psychologist Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi had research subjects carry around a beeper that signals them to record what they are doing and how much they are enjoying it. He found that people, not surprisingly, often are very happy when they are experiencing sensory pleasures: sex, the warm sun on a beach, a good meal with friends. But these pleasures have their limits. As philosophers have said for millennia, pursuit of pleasure doesn’t bring lasting satisfaction. Fortunately Csiksentmihalyi discovered that people can experience an equally intense (and more sustainable) happiness when they are completely immersed in a consuming activity—a creative, intellectual challenge like writing, for example, or a physical activity like climbing or volleyball, or a craft like making pottery, painting or carpentry. The key is losing yourself in a task that is gratifying for you. Csiksentmihalyi calls it being “in the zone.”
Ivo seeks to give his children access to the wide world of activities and experiences he has claimed for his own. Every year he sends an airplane ticket to his son, who comes to stay and work with him on school holidays. “My English is stupid, but his—ah!—he speaks English and French . . . .” Across the barriers of language and distance, a father’s pride is unmistakable.
The son, it appears, also has his father’s ability to focus. At 21, he has obtained specialized training in restoration of medieval furniture. He is also trained as a blacksmith, a maker of swords and knives. “I have to show you,” says Ivo. He stands up, and I think he is going to fetch something, but no, he is holding out a small chain around his neck. From it dangles half of a nail, held to the chain by thin copper wire. “He put his knife against the nail and hit the back with a hammer and . . . and there was no damage to the blade.” In my mind’s eye, I picture the son at twenty-five, blond and wiry like his dad but in Tokyo or Sapporo, bent over a traditional forge in the shop of the world’s finest knife-maker—in the zone.
On my way out the door later, I give Ivo my card in case his wanderings should ever take him to Seattle, even though I know that Patagonia is next on his agenda. “Oh,” he calls after me. “My daughter—she is in Paris, playing for the Czech National volleyball team.” Passion plus focus plus discipline plus open borders. Activities that demand all you’ve got—and can carry you away. As I say goodbye I wonder how well I am living these dynamics, how much I am inspiring them in my own daughters.