My wife and I are sitting on the top level of a pagoda-like bamboo tower. Ahead of us, trance music is abloom on a stage fronted by revelers pulsing, swaying, embracing, and, in some cases, sleeping. Looking up, I see an outbreak of stars, sharp and fertile against the Costa Rican sky. It’s Day Three of Envision and the pageantry and saturnalia of nightfall have once again arrived.
As usual, though, I’m stuck inside my head, and something’s nagging at me. It feels like there’s something I should share with my wife, but I’m not sure what it is. Or how to say it. Or how she’ll receive it. Actually, I’m not sure of anything right now, except that it’s time to start moving again.
I lead Sara down two sets of ladders to the festival grounds where we’re met by a throng of hippies and surfers and hula-hoopers. At ground level, everything shimmers and chirps. Tripped out tunes liaise with the wail of insects; glow sticks illuminate tribal tattoos and facial piercings; neon stage lights beckon onlookers, coaxing their feet into motion. Coaxing our feet into motion. Welcoming us back to the fold.
Before the night is over, I’m adorned with face paint and caked in dirt and reeking to high heaven, and I’m not one bit self-conscious about it. What’s happening at Envision has become home. Somehow, I’ve become a festival guy.
I’m a business school professor. For the past several years, I’ve written about and lectured on the importance of pursuing experiences that take people beyond their comfort zones. That’s because, over time, people lose mental agility and succumb to rigid thinking in work and life—unless they know how to fight back. By seeking out uncomfortable situations, people can stave off intellectual atrophy. That’s my spiel, and it’s a mouthful.
It’s also a cover up; a relentless act of self-deception. The more I tout the virtues of breaking free from habits and routines, the easier it is for me to believe I practice what I preach.
I’m wrong, of course. Truth be told, I embrace the comfort of my predictable (though, thankfully, non-suburban) lifestyle and rarely deviate from it. Of course, I often tell myself I’m a model deviant. But those pep talks are mainly justifications for a few holes of golf in the rain, a brazen comment to a leading scholar in my field, or an extra margarita at last year’s holiday luncheon.
“An act of breaking free!” I say to myself in these moments and return to writing and rhetoric renewed and inspired.
Looking back, it was only matter of time until someone called me on this. That person turned out to be my wife, and the charges she brought were self-serving. On a scale of adventurousness, Sara is near the top of Mount Kilimanjaro while I’m blissfully sipping microbrews at base camp. The further from my comfort zone I venture, the more simpatico she and I become.
It’s been that way always with the two of us. From the first moments we spent together alone on a marshmallowy couch bespeaking my graduate student income, Sara told me about her travel history and cravings. Africa. Asia. Latin America. The more politically charged the region or country, the better. Travel within the United States, I learned, was passé. The world is here to explore as widely and wildly as possible. This worldview thrilled me about her. But maybe I was just conflating her travel tastes with her skinny legs and impish smile. Still, it was easy enough to play the role of exotic travel aficionado—and rewarding, too. Proclaim to her that I’m all in for globetrotting, concoct some travel fantasies, build a bond, breed attraction. Repeat the cycle.
In the years since, I’ve traveled plenty with Sara. Internationally, even. But here I’m talking Europe—with upscale accommodations. That’s it. That and domestic travel. For years, I’ve been professing the importance of entrenchment-breaking activities when, in practice, I’ve foregone the very type of adventures that would have meant the most to my wife. Life lived in hindsight isn’t simply clear; it’s clearly absurd.
It took some effort but Sara was persuasive—and right. It was high time for me to spring loose from my ivory tower quarters and do something that truly defied my identity. We booked our tickets for Envision, and I braced myself.
Actually, I did some research. Here is the very first thing I read after Googling “Envision”—an article from The Tico Times:
“Are you ready for a funky-electric-earth-fairy-rainbow-wonderland? It’s ready for you.”
I wasn’t ready.
I visited the festival homepage and learned some key information. I learned that fire spinning was permitted in designated areas only. That one of the festival guests was named Cosmic Nymph. That there is a strict no-drowning policy at Envision—that “absolutely NO ONE is allowed to drown!”
I also learned that under no circumstances should one camp under a coconut tree. Googling “Camping at Envision,” I spotted a picture of colorful tents adorning a tropical paradise. In another photo, a bikini-clad woman stood proudly, mugging for the camera. It occurred to me that my wife looks great in a swimsuit.
I began to feel a bit more ready for funky electrics and earth fairies.
I clicked on Bikini Woman, which led me to someone’s blog post about a previous Envision festival. I learned that a couple years ago, the average temperature was 93 degrees, drinking water was hard to come by, and each day the music, which featured “deep bass and was extraordinary loud,” began around 6:00pm and continued until as late as 8:00am the following morning. I also learned that due to “tight quarters” it wasn’t easy to sleep in the tents—a point clarified by the observation that, this being an electronic music festival, “the point was not to sleep.”
I concluded that no amount of reading would prepare me for Envision.
* * *
“Who wants a shot? I’m taking a piss!”
A bearded backpacker wielding a bottle of liquor is stumbling toward the bathroom at the back of the bus and making his intentions clear.
Having landed in San José a few hours ago, we’re on a bus with forty or so festival goers—most at least a decade my junior—many of whom are indiscriminately pounding Corona and Imperial (Costa Rica’s national beer) and fifths of Tanqueray and Cuervo Gold.
Characters abound on this ride: guys straight from the pages of High Times; college girls draping themselves around those very same guys in some kind of rebellious act; a self-proclaimed “former fat kid” whose first sip of beer in a year is escalating into the consumption of an entire case. They’re all screaming and squealing.
“Who here is Canadian?” someone shouts.
Cheers erupt from the back of the bus.
Maybe it’s the age gap or the fact that I was never much of a spring breaker—or maybe I’ve just been unnecessarily prudish in declining the booze people keep offering me—but I’m not contributing much to the decibel level here. At times I’m chuckling, but mostly I’m watching. Observing human behavior. Distancing myself from others not with intention but rather out of habit.
* * *
When we finally arrived that night, our weariness confronted and soon curtailed our excitement. In a stupor, I began asking around about the tent rental process when, in fact, we had a less rustic option: a room we’d booked in a private residence in the nearby town of Uvita. Coming to our senses, we hopped a taxi to the town center (a short and lonely block of shops on one side of the street; a grocery store on the other) where we disembarked, eyed an ascending dirt road, and conceded we hadn’t a clue how to find the house. In small towns in Costa Rica, buildings lack addresses. On top of that, it was dark, so our printed directions, which carried clues like “continue past the pink house,” were meaningless.
Fortunately, serendipity intervened. I asked a young woman at the counter of a convenience store where the house was located and she pointed at two men outside, conversing. As I gathered, one of them owned the residence we were seeking. Dutifully, I approached him.
“Buenos noches, señor. Dónde está Hospedaje El Bosquecito?”
Signaling familiarity with the destination and comprehending my broken Spanish, he gestured us toward his pickup truck and offered us two options: sitting with him in the front or riding in the truck bed.
Question: When you’re a novice traveler in a small town in Central America and a stranger who speaks no English gestures you and your beautiful blonde wife toward his truck, would you get in?
Don’t answer that. Please.
Sara tossed her backpack in the rear and saddled up in the cabin. Shaking my head, I followed her lead. The truck sputtered its way up the road, spewing dust, and arrived at a moonlit and startling attractive property skirted by a creek and tropical foliage.
What I remember most about that first night were the welcome efforts of a little girl—the owner’s daughter, I assume—who was enchanted with Sara’s yoga mat.
“Joga?” she inquired.
“Sí,” we replied warmly, and we promptly ran out of things to say in Spanish.
* * *
Throughout my festival experience, I put a lot of thought into (and at times struggled to understand) the purpose of Envision. In part, Envision is about music. World beat grooves and nightclub tunes emanate from several stages and reverberate across the festival grounds from early afternoon until deep into the night. But deeming Envision a music festival is akin to calling Disney World an amusement park. It’s not that it’s wrong; it’s just that it doesn’t capture the experience very well.
At Envision, people express themselves in many ways and a spirit of giving accompanies these acts of expression. Some people share their expertise. I’ll forever recall a field of figures on yoga mats kicking their legs skyward at the word of a renowned instructor. Others contribute visually. Several times, I wandered through a tent full of paintings depicting mythological deities, woodland creatures, and dreamlike sequences. Trippy material, for sure, but completely aligned with the festival’s motifs. Even the gifts of mischief I received were a delight. Walking a sinewy path to the beach, I was sprayed by someone firing a water gun from the canopy of foliage framing the walk. The blast was as refreshing as it was unexpected.
Most fundamentally, Envision is about movement. The festival produces an intoxicating blend of gyrations and whirls at all stops. Take a look at those awash in aerial silk. Climbing satiny fabric hung from trees, these acrobats intertwine their bodies with the hanging fabric and adopt a variety of poses, dangling precariously with graceful intensity.
Now look at the hula hoopers. As I quickly learned, “hooping” is prominent at festivals like this. The methods I saw went well beyond the basic technique you’ve seen and street tested. With a flourish, hoopers roll and fling their hoops around, above, below, and throughout their appendages. In their hands, the hoop seems to be everywhere at once; their moves harmonize with the thrum of the music fueling their devotion.
At Envision, movement isn’t limited to physical pursuits. One afternoon, Sara and I attended a panel discussion concerned with…what exactly? Community. That’s it—community. The focus was on the values and characteristics of those who had converged for this event and an implication of the discussion was that these individuals—those forming the community—shared a vision for the type of world in which they wished to live. As I could tell, the world they envisioned was one in which the simple and sustainable lifestyle of yesteryear is married with the miracles and merits (and very few of the curses) of modern computing and communication technologies. Typically, such slippery images—devoid of technical details or implementation plans—make me uncomfortable. They lack foundations in the academic literature. They aren’t “evidence-based.”
Even so, I had to admit the vision being promoted had appeal. At least in principle, who can find fault in a world wherein the march of technology doesn’t threaten nature but rather safeguards it?
Still, my discomfort grew as the panel discussion continued.
“Recently, I reread The Communist Manifesto,” stated a panelist matter-of-factly, proclaiming Marx’s exhortations more relevant than ever.
Were the people around me…commies? Were they plotting some kind of revolution?
I don’t think so. Not in a stereotypical sense, at least. My concerns on this score lessened when another panelist, Grateful Dead songwriter John Perry Barlow, suggested that it’s important to work within the current system to bring about change. He told us that change happens slowly. In his words, “The final victory will be invisible; no one will realize that we’ve won.”
I couldn’t discern entirely what battles the members of this community are fighting or what type of victory they’re after. But it’s clear that many of these people—especially those who have been involved with this community for years—are committed to seeing through the promise of a particular world. In some form or fashion, they’re seeking progress.
Sometimes, you don’t have to grasp all the details to sense movement at hand.
* * *
It’s Day Four of Envision, the final day, and night is approaching once more. People are refilling their water bottles at the hydration station, lamenting the heat rising on their arms and legs from the day’s sun. Between the falafel stand and the vegan burger vender, a man is strumming a ukulele. Along the perimeter of the festival, a host of species and unnamed critters convene, witnessing the merriment of those who have gathered to celebrate the natural world.
Stirred by the rhythms of the evening, Sara and I begin walking to the beach. Navigating the path connecting Envision to the shoreline, we emerge from a tangle of vegetation and step onto the sand, which is just recovering from its daily scorching. We walk without agenda, mindful of the nude bodies dotting the water’s edge but reserved in commenting on them. In time, there’s no longer anything or anyone else ahead of us, except the ocean on our right, swelling toward high tide, and the jungle on our left, extending inland for miles.
Solitude, it seems, can enhance community; it opens our eyes to what we’ve left behind and bids us to reconnect.
Turning back, we spot a group of people who have assembled in a rough circle. Some are playing drums; others are clapping. All are chanting. A tribal ritual is at hand but these aren’t natives. They’re people from the festival, enacting something ancient and moving.
“Eyaawaawaawaah,” one chants.
“Eyaawaawaawaah!” the others respond. Back and forth it goes. Chants and counter chants. Incantations and thunderous echoes. Sounds from an unwritten past reawakening and rejoicing in the present.
With that, Sara and I are ready to dance. We return to the festival grounds where, entranced by the music, we part ways with everything but the moment at hand and the company we’re keeping. Like those around us, we’re simply here. Dancing.
* * *
Every time I looked around at Envision I spotted something eye opening. A young woman dressed as a unicorn. Surreptitious sales of cocaine and LSD. A banner hung from tree to tree in the campground stating, in a Tolkienesque script, “Hard as Fuck.” People covered from head to toe in blue clay. A session entitled, “Meditation in Action: Trance Dance with Hula-Hoop to Awaken the Kundalini.”
How is it that I became comfortable with the proceedings of an event so foreign to my daily routine and lifestyle? Throughout the festival, I chewed on this question.
I think I’ve figured it out.
* * *
Try as we might, it’s difficult to focus on the present moment. That’s because mind wandering is a natural and inescapable human tendency. In some cases, it leads us to consider uncompleted tasks and goals. No matter how much we might wish to forget today’s shareholder meeting or tomorrow’s root canal, mind wandering keeps us honest.
In other cases, our mind runs roughshod as it wanders. It daydreams. Through our daydreams, we steal away from our surroundings and cast ourselves in colorful plotlines. We exult in the receipt of a well-earned award. We feast upon acts of revenge, orchestrated to perfection. We delight in great wealth. We strike down the villain. We succeed against all odds. We meet clichés head on.
We also conceive some bizarre scenes. Mythical creatures at play. Monsters in closets. Gory disasters. Bathroom hijinks. And yes, orgies.
“I’ve seen it all before,” some have said.
To that I’d reply, “Yes, indeed—but where exactly did you see it?”
At Envision, my daydreams materialized. Figments of my imagination took on physical form: the dirty hippie, the tripped out dancer, the vegan foodie, the acrobatic nympho. I hadn’t anticipated all of it, of course, but in some fashion I’d foreseen what was to come.
And yet, I hadn’t.
Experiencing something new and initially uncomfortable is different than daydreaming about it. It’s thicker: rich with detail and infused with feeling. Novel experiences release us from our preconceptions and attune us to possibilities unforeseen in our mental wanderings. Steadily, they shift us from Observer to Actor. I’ve been saying this to students and colleagues for years. Now, thanks to Sara’s importuning, I actually know it. And that’s not all I know.
Having experienced Envision, I know that one of the hoopers, a white woman with dreadlocks, lives in New Orleans and rents her house during Mardi Gras. She’s comfortable traveling alone and willing to strike up a conversation for no reason at all except to say hello and be kind.
I know that a guy who insisted on buying me beers one evening lost the key to his rental car and spent all night searching for it to no avail. I know that some of the Envision volunteers loaned him a tent and made an announcement on his behalf because, as one of them said, “We all know how good it feels when someone returns something you lost.”
I know that two men, young and brash enough to greet us with Cali slang from the nineties, helped a stranded motorist navigate the descent of a steep hill and blazed our trail to a bewitching waterfall, complete with divers plotting their next leap and monkeys crooning in the trees above.
In experiencing Envision, my daydreams became incarnate. They began to breathe. And through those breaths I encountered complex, relatable people. Souls in search of things tender and universal: acceptance, connection, a better world.
* * *
Sara and I are sprawled out on the grass just far enough from one of the stages to talk. She’s wearing a neon green bikini that frames her features and tortures onlookers even in the muted shades of dusk engulfing the festival’s final hours.
“Tell me a story,” she says.
Without flinching, I begin sharing stories. One story after another of things I haven’t once mentioned before. Stories from before we met, unvarnished tales of foolish decisions and checkered relationships and overvalued sexual flings. Then I tell her about my daydreams. The ones I’m having here. The ones I’d like to see through. Her eyes are wide, but she’s holding my hand tightly and smiling.
She starts telling me stories of her own.
In time, there’s nothing left to tell, and the music and revelers are calling. Without a word, we work our way back to the stage, hand in hand.
* * *
Before leaving Costa Rica, I snipped off my Envision wristband, which I had worn throughout the festival. For several days afterward—most noticeably in my office, full of academic articles and evidence-based claims—I felt the phantom presence of that wristband. With it on, I rarely registered its presence; with it off, my body kept telling me it was still there.
Any moment now, I expect I’ll feel its touch again.
Erik Dane is associate professor of management at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. His research, which has been published in several academic journals, explores how people focus their attention and engage their expertise to solve problems and make decisions in organizations. In a previous foray into essay writing, he critiqued academic articles for sounding “stilted, distant, and overly qualified.” Any backlash he may have received was too circumlocutory for him to notice.