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Indoor Treasure Hunt Challenge 1: Black Pepper

When things get boring, I try to add some dramatic flair to everyday activities to spice them up. When I worked at Citibank, I’d picture myself as an adventurer. I’d imagine I was a quest to solve a large complicated problem, getting clues from various people on the way. Sometimes I’d come across a treasure chest with some tool in it. I wouldn’t know exactly what the tool was for, but I’d file it away in my toolbelt for later use. I didn’t do it every day, but something fun came up every month or so. It made daily tasks more interesting and provided motivation for my team. I learned that I can add excitement and drama to things that aren’t inherently interesting by changing the way I look at them.(1)Psychologists call changing the way you look at a situation “framing.:” In her podcast, The Happiness Lab, Laurie Santos gives an example. She tells the story of how Olympic silver medalists are less happy than bronze medalists winners. The silver medalists compare themselves against the gold medalists so they see themselves as just missing out on the gold. The bronze medalists compare themselves against those that didn’t medal.(2)I got some of these ideas from the career planning book, Level Up Your Life: How to Unlock Adventure and Happiness by Becoming the Hero of Your Own Story. The author uses the fantasy genre for life planning.

If there was ever a time that I needed to insert more excitement into the day, it’s during the pandemic. So I’ve become a socially distant adventurer inside my home. I wanted to make my adventure a bit challenging. It’s relatively easy to find fun things online, whether it’s a Hamilton Reunion or comedic vlogs on The New Normal Under Quarantine. But a true adventurer needs to strive to do something more! I sought a more worthy goal—to find adventure inside my house. You’ll be glad to know that I’ve completed the first in-home adventure. I’ve discovered a treasure chest is filled with… black pepper. Let’s open it up.

We all know the story of Christopher Columbus. He was looking for a new route to India. Why? For spices. It seemed so exotic in the history books when they said spices. I thought of him searching for wonderful flavors like saffron or cardamom. But the real story is far less fun. Far from trying to add exotic spices to their recipes, Europeans were desperate for something to make their food edible. The spice Columbus was looking for was black pepper. At the time, 75% of the spice trade was in pepper.(3)Pepper is still 25% of the spice trade today. Pepper was called black gold at the time as it’s price per ounce was higher than that of real gold.

The stories that traders told about black pepper were even more amazing. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Arab traders would scare off others by telling harrowing stories about acquiring the spice. They told of the grove of pepper trees in India that was guarded by poisonous serpents. In order to harvest the pepper, the trees had to be burned, driving the snakes away and in the process turning the spice black.(4)Traders had stories about fierce creatures guarding many of our now common spices, like the cinnamon bird. According to Herodotus, the giant cinnamon bird used cinnamon sticks to build their nests, which were fastened to sheer cliffs. The Arabian traders would leave pieces of oxen and other large game near the cinnamon bird’s nests for them to scavenge. When the meat was brought back to their nests, its weight would break the nests off the cliff, allowing the traders to gather the pieces of cinnamon.

I’m proud to have completed my first quarantine quest, performing a sort of alchemy, taking something common and everyday and turned it something fascinating. Now, whenever I sprinkle pepper on my food I’ll think of Christopher Columbus, the fearful snakes, and the beauty of everyday adventure.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Psychologists call changing the way you look at a situation “framing.:” In her podcast, The Happiness Lab, Laurie Santos gives an example. She tells the story of how Olympic silver medalists are less happy than bronze medalists winners. The silver medalists compare themselves against the gold medalists so they see themselves as just missing out on the gold. The bronze medalists compare themselves against those that didn’t medal.
2. I got some of these ideas from the career planning book, Level Up Your Life: How to Unlock Adventure and Happiness by Becoming the Hero of Your Own Story. The author uses the fantasy genre for life planning.
3. Pepper is still 25% of the spice trade today.
4. Traders had stories about fierce creatures guarding many of our now common spices, like the cinnamon bird. According to Herodotus, the giant cinnamon bird used cinnamon sticks to build their nests, which were fastened to sheer cliffs. The Arabian traders would leave pieces of oxen and other large game near the cinnamon bird’s nests for them to scavenge. When the meat was brought back to their nests, its weight would break the nests off the cliff, allowing the traders to gather the pieces of cinnamon.