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Dancing With Death

© 2019 Jean-Philippe Soulé

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A tale of adventure, sacrifice & physical endurance.

 

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Central American
Sea Kayak Expedition 2000

Paddle into the Past with an Eye to the Future!

Tensions bubble over…

Our recent personality conflicts have become more virulent.  I become increasingly passive-aggressive with prolonged exposure to Jean-Philippe’s sustained intensity.  My attitude becomes more blasé and I needlessly question every move he makes.  I become the naysayer.  For him, anything worth doing is worth doing well—and then double-checking.  In the abstract, his thoroughness and attention to the minutiae of details is commendable but, in reality, as his partner dealing with it every day, I start to feel inadequate and defensive.  After a while, I just lash out: “Screw it!  It doesn’t need to be done that way.  If you feel so strongly about lashing all the dry bags, pelican boxes and loose gear to the poles of the tent so that they won’t be stolen in the middle of the night way out here in the middle of fucking nowhere, do it by yourself!” 


A couple of weeks ago, we almost threw up our hands in frustration and gave up on the whole expedition.  We’d been having those negative interactions for days so, while out on the water paddling, we kept our distance from each other more than usual.  Over the course of many hours, it was common for Jean-Philippe to be ahead by as much as a mile.  One day, while paddling a particularly remote stretch of beach in northern Nicaragua and after being mugged by armed bandits, I lost sight of him as we crossed a mile-wide zone of churning six-foot chop at the mouth of a fast-flowing river.  After clearing the zone, he headed for the beach to take a planned break but, when I came through 15 minutes later, I was so blind from exhaustion and dehydration (in addition to not wearing my glasses) that I missed him and kept on paddling.  Meanwhile, back on the beach, he was jumping up and down, screaming and waving his arms trying to get my attention.  I recall nothing but shimmering heat waves and the sound of surf.  Thinking that he had abandoned me, angry and totally spent, I paddled on for another hour, barely going through the motions of pulling my blade through the water.  


Eventually, from behind, I began to hear a noise through the wind that sounded human.  I looked back to see him in pursuit, stroking at full tilt.  When he reached me, I didn’t have a chance to get upset.  Already in a boiling rage, he launched a preemptive strike.  He was sure that I had deliberately passed by him on the beach, ignoring him, because I was upset about an earlier trivial altercation.  His lips were trembling and his facial muscles were twitching, and for a moment he lost the ability to speak English.  “Putain, merde!” he shouted almost incoherently.  “As soon as we reach Costa Rica, we split!  No more of this shit!  I can’t take it anymore!”  I was so shocked I couldn’t move.  “Fine!” I snapped, petulantly.  “It hasn’t been a party for me, either.”  We were both on edge and didn’t say another word to each other the rest of the day.


Eventually Jean-Philippe gave me a “come-to-Jesus” speech in which he beseeched me to examine my motives and dedication: “You know, Luke, I put my life into this project.  When we are in town, I stay up nights planning, making contacts and designing the website.  My soul goes into this expedition; I made you an equal partner yet you don’t put in one tenth of the effort.  We have the chance to do something amazing with the website and the documentaries but you don’t seem to give a shit!  Why are you here, what do you care about?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, from the start, I’d really only wanted to be a role player.  I never fully invested every ounce of heart and soul because I knew that the expedition was his baby.  He was on a mission.  The breadth and scope of my vision for the project was not nearly as profound.  How could I possibly hope to be more proactive in its design?  My mistake was that I never fully communicated at the start or at any time during the expedition that I often acted like a passenger because I felt like one.


Much of our miscommunication and misunderstanding has resulted from the disparity between the respective goals and limits that we set for ourselves.  My tolerance for pain and discomfort is high, but nowhere in the same stratosphere as his.  My ability to work and focus comes and goes in bursts.  His is enduring and seemingly infinite.  I look at the labyrinthine sprawl of the website and groan.  He sees only its glorious potential.  I tell him that if we branch out any more we are at risk of spreading ourselves too thin.  He tells me that I possess neither vision nor work ethic.  We go back and forth with concessions and compromises but inevitably we come to an impasse: there is a point at which I can no longer temper his fanaticism and he can no longer squeeze inspirational blood from my stone.  


For extreme expeditions, success is defined by results; only the results determine how you are perceived in the public eye.  A common problem is that the desired result dominates the process.  Expedition leaders have to walk a fine line between being patronizingly particular and astoundingly inspirational.


Over the past two years, I think Jean-Philippe has come to the conflicted realization that all expedition leaders do: success requires a proprietary, iron-willed approach to leadership and a willingness to take responsibility for and pick up the slack of less-inspired members.  Few people have that capacity.  Few among us are willing to invest and risk everything for even the most righteous cause.  Yet, in true leaders, that inclination is like a biological imperative, a mantra: Go Big or Go Home.  When the rest of us don’t put in commensurate effort, it burns them up inside; they don’t understand why we’re not trying harder.  In every leader there must be an ember of resentment smoldering in the pit of his/her stomach at all times, no matter how hard he/she tries to control it.  

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Will their friendship withstand the intense pressure of this grueling journey? Find out in Dancing With Death, available now, exclusively on Amazon!

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