Travel, like life, is full of unexpected mysteries. There was this time, for example, on a trip to India that I spent half a day at the post office, trying to send a package home. The package went from person to person, station to station, getting dressed up like a bride for her wedding. First it had to be wrapped in cloth. Then the corners needed to be sealed in wax. Then it had to be tied up with twine. Finally it was stamped and sent off for what turned out to be a 4-month journey! During the whole “production,” I kept wondering, “Why are they DOING this?” In retrospect, I’m guessing that it had something to do with keeping a lot of people employed, not to mention providing repeated opportunities for extra baksheesh. But at the time, it was a complete mystery to me. Kind of like when I was walking through Golden Gate Park and two naked bicyclists passed me by. “Why aren’t they wearing clothes?” To quote Geoffrey Rush’s character, Henslowe, in Shakespeare in Love, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery!”

While scouting a treasure hunt in old Boston (along the “Freedom Trail”), I came across a similar head scratcher. Outside of an ordinary-seeming Starbucks coffee shop I stumbled upon this giant, copper tea kettle, hanging off the building. “What is that doing here?!!” Well, it turns out that the kettle (the world’s largest in fact), was created as an advertisement over the door of the Oriental Tea Company. As a contest, the OTC challenged observers to guess how much liquid the tea kettle could actually hold. Clearly the contest was a success, as ten thousand people filled the square on January 1, 1875 and 13,000 guesses were submitted prior to the event. To add to the drama of the event, 8 young boys and a tall man hid in the kettle and stepped out before an official could start filling it with liquid. The final measurement, later inscribed on one side of the kettle, was “227 gallons, 2 quarts, 1 pint and 3 gills.” What’s a gill, you ask? It’s about ½ cup. The eight winners, all within 3 gills of the final answer, received about five pounds of tea. That doesn’t sound much like of prize to me, but hey, five pounds of tea is five pounds of tea!

Interestingly, the choice of a tea kettle to represent the company was intentional and exceedingly clever. At the time, Boston was a city of immigrants, many of whom spoke their home-country languages but not necessarily English. A giant teapot accurately represented the company’s products across all language barriers.

A side note: before this location was a Starbucks, it was a café appropriately called the “The Steaming Kettle.” To this day, if you arrive at the right time you can see the kettle – a working steam apparatus — producing a steam over the sidewalk. Wow.

(I once delivered a training game that was so baffling that a participant stormed out of the room, exclaiming, “I don’t understand this stupid game!” Clearly she wasn’t comfortable with uncertainty, with mystery. How do you react when something has you baffled and confused? Do you throw up your hands in frustration? Do you doggedly ask around until you get an answer? A third, rather delightful option, is to simply embrace the mystery and let it be unanswered. The world loses something, I think, when every enigma has been analyzed and explained. As Fezzik says in The Princess Bride, why not leave a few mysteries “Inexplicable!”