Wandering the great Argentine Northwest, homemade wine and goodbye to the van

My buddy Chris showed up in San Pedro de Atacama and we spent five days hiking and camping and drinking and exploring. Fresh off of a repaired achilles tendon, he rocked our high altitude and canyon hikes. The altiplano is a stunning place as you have seen and San Pedro is tucked up against it. We did a long day drive up near the altiplano on our last night and were just astonished at the variety and diversity of colors and contours of this volcanic region. If there are any regrets, it is that I wanted more time up there. But the van…..haha!

After Chris left I drove east along the spine of the altiplano crossing back again into Argentina from Chile. It was a pretty incredible drive. I am sure you are all sick of the stunning desert scenery! You become spoiled. Oh there’s another stunning vista with Llamas (pronounced Yahmas here!).

I dropped back into Salta spending a few days in Jujuy again where I had dinner and celebrated a birthday with the nice family I met on Air BNB. Then I started the long and remote trip thru the desert to do some scouting for spots to see the eclipse coming here soon.

This area of Argentina, tucked up against the Andes, is as spectacular in colors as you will find anywhere. Long dusty dirt roads, hitchhikers, little to no cell service, and lots of homemade wine.

I reconnected with my Basque boyfriend Txaber (for the third time) and his Argentine friend David. David spoke no English but we connected as brothers immediately. Okay, it helped he made us Asado three out of four nights! Imagine camping in the high desert and we somehow found a butcher, plenty of homemade wine, and a parilla to grill meat. Yum. Utilize that van baby! Hiking and fires in the desert. Stunning. Nobody around. Awesome. I could spend at least a month just out there exploring. Next time!

The changing colors and endless rock formations had me constantly comparing it to the US. I have said it before. There are places with more spectacular scenery, but the US has it all. And we continue to try and destroy it with our habits. But we are not alone, the world’s infatuation with more, newer, faster technology has these areas under threat. For beneath these stunning seas of salt lay the largest lithium deposits in the world (a key component in microchips). And our appetite for tech will quietly destroy these pristine lands. Sound familiar? It is.

Saying goodbye to the boys, I did my best sales job to get them to meet me for the eclipse July 2. David is from that area. We will see. Here’s a nice pic where his grandfather lives.

Sneaking up close to the Andes and heading south, I took the long route thru just a spectacular river valley near the Chilean border (rockslides, shitty roads, and yes, snow)

I dropped down the back way to Mendoza to spend a few days with friends i met there at the beginning of my trip in December. I wish all the doggie pics came out.

I was in heaven. I helped them with the construction of their earth house, didn’t even realize the entire country was without power, and again sampled local wine while listening to Valentin play Johnny Cash on my guitar.

A very long and boring drive brought me back to Buenos Aires, where I started in December. To say goodbye to Chris and his family (they are moving to Chile) and to say goodbye to the van.

She was shipped back to WA, ending an epic journey. While I wait for the eclipse and slip back into backpacker mode. Shed my identity.

This isn’t a breakup. Just a break. Everyone knows I had problems with my Westy during our 9 plus year relationship. I can’t blame it all on her, but I DID make a commitment to her. Yes, I finally did end our relationship but she was just so untrustworthy. You would think I would have broken up with her sooner. But when times were good….

My Ford van did well for the thrashing she was put through. I estimate 8-10 thousand miles were put on her. I estimate 9 border crossings (and the scrutiny associated with it) but I really can’t remember. Thousands of miles of dirt roads and over 100 nights camping. I basically lived in a van for five months. In hindsight it was not easy. You always had to pay attention. Especially when the gas tank, the shocks, the bumper and the electrical system all failed at one time or another. Plus, the drama of being stranded on the altiplano on the Salar de Uyuni.

As I limped into Buenos Aires, the penultimate insult was the battery alarm (that had been sounding intermittently now for 3 months) started to sound off every 47 seconds. Nice. Long drive. The dust and dirt and well, shit that had accumulated was causing issues. Even a thorough cleaning inside and out had the drug dog freaking at the port. And we never had drugs in the van!

I never stopped realizing this was a very very different trip. Cities were hard and generally avoided. The van both brought me adventurous interactions and kept me from interacting fully with the locals. I was an island at times but it also was a good conversation starter and I picked up tons of hitchhikers when I was solo. It gave me privacy, but also reclusion when traveling alone. It got me lots of attention for sure. If I had a nickel for every Chilean, Bolivian, or Argentine woman that pointed at it and said “es mi sueno”. It is my dream.

WHILE HER MALE COUNTERPART WAS STANDING RIGHT THERE!

It was funny and silly and somewhat weird to have someone objectifying my ride. But whatever. It got the job done. I am not sure the stress was worth it. Haha. Of course it was! I got to drive through three amazing countries and explore at my own pace, meet amazing people, and enjoy the incredible natural wonders down here. And for that, I am grateful.

And I want to do it all over again.

Bolivia, the breakdown, and the amazing Altiplano

Shit. We are stuck. 18 inches of mud. Can’t move. No panic yet. Don’t have to drink our urine or chop off an arm. But I realize we are likely not getting out. Into problem-solving mode.

The Salar de Uyuni is the largest Salt Flat in the world. Perched at around 13000 feet it is a visionally stunning desert landscape that leaves you in awe as it changes by the hour in light, temperature and vastness. To drive all the way across will take you over 4 hours. At 40-50 mph. Which is easy to achieve on a table flat landscape, as white as driven snow.

We spent the night by Isla Incahuasi, a beautiful island in the desert I visited five years ago.

Cacti, rocks, sand and salt, it was an oasis. The sunset was amazing, even though it meant we would soon have 20 degree weather and an even lower wind chill.

We popped the van top, boiled water to put into our Nalgene bottles to serve as hot water bottles, and settled into a sleep after a movie.

The next day we decided to explore a bit and the van never seemed to even make a dent in the already years old tracks on the salty terrain. If we veered from the tracks, the same thing occured. Like driving on pavement. After a lunch break (and using lots of water to clean dishes), we headed back to the main area but wanted to loop around a different way. I am sad I have to explain myself. We were playing by the rules and trying not to have a major impact on the area. Until the next part, you could barely see our tracks.

The salt flats are well, flat, but assuming the entire area has the same consistency of water, salt and mud is/was a crucial error. As we started south after lunch to connect with another main route, I noticed the drag on the van and could see imprints in the salt. Now was the error. Instead of turning back, I turned north to try and intersect the original trail we took. As the tracks got deeper, I now couldn’t stop. That would be a problem. At full steam ahead in 4WD, our speed went from 30 mph to 20 to 10 as we slowly bogged. Feeling the engine labor, I stopped. Shit.

When I last left you i was leaving the amazing Chilean Atacama and suffering the instant altitude and loving the incredible beauty of the Altiplano. The Altiplano is a large flat area (with mountains and volcanos all around) that basically starts in Bolivia behind the stunning volcanic sentinels that are the Andes. It averages around 13000 feet and I actually had to cross a 15,000 foot pass to get there, just 150 miles from the coast as I crossed the heartstopping Bolivian landscape at Tambo Quemando.

I drove and camped for a few weeks, dipping down from the Southern edge of the Altiplano to visit northern Argentina, the Yungas, and slipping back into Bolivia. Spending time in beautiful and traditional towns of Tarija and Tupiza. All the while reveling in the easier to understand Spanish and the colorfully indigenous Bolivian people.

Meeting Pascalle again in Tarija, we slowly ascended back to the Altiplano to give her some acclimatization time. Enjoying the awesome red rock formations and traditional Bolivian culture. One highlight was giving an aging Bolivian woman a ride back to her farm (I picked up a bunch of Bolivian hitchhikers. Eager to use my Spanish). However, when trying to get back to the main route thru the remote dry riverbed, we blew out a shock absorber.

As we climbed to Uyuni, we realized the back bumper of the van (that was super burly and heavy and held the spare tire) was separating from the van. I used a strap to hold it on and stupidly did not get it repaired. The shocks were enough of a scare and once repaired and gassed up, we were on to the Salt Flats.

Back to the crisis on the Salt Flats. One more self-extraction effort had us confirmed. Not only are we stuck, it is 3 PM (with a 5:45 PM sunset), and what vehicle can reach us? We have a little water, food and blankets. And crucially, some cell service.

I have a Bolivian SIM card, so can only use data as that was the package I bought week by week. So we had to find a business or friends that used Whatsapp for communication. I also had email. Pascalle thought Esmeralda Tours in Uyuni had good reviews so we emailed them, and sent messages to their phone. They didn’t have Whatsapp, but they did reply later that night, along with Pascalle’s hostel owner friend. I also put out an all points bulletin on the Facebook page Overlanding the Americas to hear suggestions.

What we didn’t realize was that underneath the salt, is a silty conglomeration of dirt and mud that is much like peanut butter. It doesn’t freeze, and with the salt layer above, doesn’t dry. My van is heavy. We were sunk.

In the morning, we recieved many messages and attempted calls, but importantly the gal with the tour group called and said the local police know we are in trouble and will help. This was about 9 AM. Our mental target for rescue kept moving.

We hunkered down, tried to watch episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, and counted the hours. Staying hydrated and trying to distract ourselves from our plight.

At 3 PM (now 24 hours in), we saw a vehicle approaching. It stopped a km or so away and I started walking in that direction. I met with gusto, Sargento Miranda and his three companions from Colcha K, a local community.

Joking I only had one beer left, we made our way back to the van, carrying wood planks and a jack. They assessed the problem, and got to work. Over the next four hours, they jacked up all four tires on my heavy van and put the broken pieces of salt we all gathered painstakingly in the fading light underneath the tires to create a surface. Once jacked, they pushed me up on the planks and said go for it. I did. I immediately bogged again. Now back to the same process. Jack up, put in salt, then wood. Each time took 90 minutes.

At the time, I thought they were going to put the wood down, have me drive, and then pull the wood pieces in back and put it front. Again they said go for it. Again we bogged.

At that time, Pascalle mentioned that we need to do just that. Put the wood down, drive on it like a boardwalk and pull the piece from behind the van and start all over.

Well Sargento Mirando realized it was serious shit. He sent two boys back to get more wood. We jacked the car a third time and waited. It was now way past dark and not only was the temperature dropping below freezing, but the wind was picking up. I told Sargento Miranda we could sleep in the van again tonight and hit it in the morning. “No” he said, “El chico necesita ir a La Paz manana. Vamos a sacarlo esta noche.” The guy has to go to La Paz tomorrow. We are getting it out tonight. Mmmkay.

As we walked to where the returning police car would meet us, we could see the headlights in the distance. The police Jeep showed up, with another very large local man, and more wood.

As we set into a rhythm, Pascalle and the four Bolivians set the pieces of wood down, some as thin as six inches, into a ramshackle boardwalk that I slowly drove (with the direction of one police officer) over and stopped after 15 feet or so. Only 3/4 of a kilometer to go. Paso por paso. With little room for error. The boards creaking and sometimes loudly splitting beneath me.

In a stunningly display of, well I don’t know what, we were about 150 meters from the Jeep after maybe three more hours of this. The guys again tell me to drive off the planks. Afraid to tell them no, I listened. Bogged again. Damn! We had only maybe 30 min more!!!!

Now at 11:30 pm, they jacked the van for the last time. 90 minutes later and exhausted, we started the last 20-30 board switches to get us past the Jeep. At 2 AM, we drove the last 2 km to freedom and safety.

The policemen would not take any money, but we paid the locals about $500 for the 11 hours of work. Amazing, tireless champs. One guy NEVER used gloves. Amazingly friendly and diligent guys, they stopped only for a drink, a cigarette, some shit talk and a piss. Lots of laughs but focused extraction! We gave the guy who really knew how to work the jack a ride back to Uyuni to catch the bus to La Paz. I even let him drive. Imagine flying thru the dark, desert landscape at 50 mph not being able to see anything. Pascalle and I slept in the van on a vacant side street near the train graveyard in Uyuni at 4 AM.

Needing to get to Chile in three days, we slept til 9 or 10, gassed up, got the salt washed from the van, got water, ate, and hit the road for the Laguna route; one of the more scenic, and rougher roads in the world.

After 4 hours of shitty but beautiful road, it became evident our “fixed” shock was now unfixed. It also became evident my nearly 300 pound rear bumper was a hindrance and the constant vibration of the road was beating it up. We had bought and carried an extra 5 gallons of gas for this remote drive. As we rolled into the first small town of Villa Mar, we were exhausted from the shitty road, the vibrating shocks, and the nauseating smell of gasoline vapor. We opted for a small hostel for the night.

As we prepared for the next day before sleeping, I topped my tank hoping to reduce the gas smell from the cheap tanks in the van.

In the light, it was obvious the back bumper was not long for this world. We began the laborious 85 km journey of sand and washboard (worst road ever. Not just this trip. Ever). With a busted shock and a dangling bumper, we averaged about 10-15 mph for the next five hours as i tried to steer the van into piles of sand and dirt instead of the rough road to soften the blow. Stopping to check shocks and bumper from time to time. I was terrified I would destroy my van. At this juncture, extraction would be costly and time consuming. I was being mentally beat down with managing every meter of the drive. And Pascalle was a champ. Staying upbeat.

The low point (No, the salt flats weren’t. Surprisingly) occured at about 1 PM at 15,000 feet with a temperature of about 35 degrees and about a 70 mph wind. The back bumper basically fell off. I jumped out, took off my 75 lb spare tire in the lashing wind and dust, cut the cord I had used to hold the bumper to the van, and snipped the wires that powered the camping light in the back of the van.

In the howling wind, Pascalle and I struggled to drag this behemoth bumper to the edge of the road and its sandy grave; knowing we had no where to put it in the van. Nor could we lift it.

We continued our slow southward journey, taking sidetracks created by other cars to find the softest path; knowing now every knock was the shock, not the bumper. As we crawled down the grade, the hostel (and the welcome Thermal Hot Springs) came into view. Well at least we had people, shelter, and wine.

A beautiful hour long sunset dip in the Hot Springs (these were ones I visited five years ago and if you read my Nepal blog was where my locket with Namche’s ashes melted off). Pascalle made a big dinner, I drank with the Bolivian guides, and played a little guitar.

The next day we knew had about half the previous day’s drive to the Chilean border and asphalt road. Salvation. White knuckling and trying not to pee on myself in the howling wind, we limped along at a slightly faster 20 mph; trying not to get greedy and completely wreck the van so close to safety.

As we crossed the Chilean border and coasted down the nearly 7000 foot descent to San Pedro de Atacama (and a shock mechanic) we looked at each other. “Are you kidding me?” THAT WAS INTENSE.

I said goodbye to Pascalle today as she flew out and my buddy Chris is flying in here. What a travel companion! She will likely miss the van more than me. I will miss her.

One thing is for certain. She’s likely scarred for life.

Northern Chile: The Atacama Desert

When in southern Peru in late 2001, I dreamed of traveling the Atacama Desert; the driest non-polar region on earth. I never dreamed I could take my own rig since in 2001 I was hitch hiking there. I stared down the coast before I made my way up to Arequipa and Cusco. I wanna be there!

The Atacama (depending on who you talk to) spans a massive coastal part of northern Chile (and to some it just sneaks over the border to Peru). It is a stunningly desolate place of constrasting landscapes. It’s Baja meets Death Valley meets the Mojave meets Argentina. At certain points, you leave the coast and drive straight up over 6000 feet to in just 20-30 miles! Then wind thru the high desert for hundreds of miles until you plunge back to the coast. And there lies either a tiny fishing village or a 200,000 person cosmopolitan city, flush with casinos and clubs and duty free ports. In the middle of nowhere.

To give you an idea of distance, me leaving southern Tierra del Fuego and heading north to Arica (the northernmost coastal Chilean town), would be like leaving Prince Rupert BC and driving to Oaxaca, Mexico! But it blows your mind that you are driving NORTH and its getting warmer.

After Pascalle left from Puerto Varas to head north, I settled into the van. Solo. Other than a few days in Tierra del Fuego and a few days on the ferry, I had been traveling with people in my van for a solid two and a half months! I needed Bob time. Unfortunately, Puerto Varas to Arica is a pretty stiff drive. So my time was spent behind the wheel, rocketing north and wild camping wherever I found a spot.

The drive is spectacular; especially north of La Serena. I could spend a year just hiking and fishing that region. The colors, the sea, the mountains, the desert. And you are mostly alone. Except for the odd park ranger or drunk campground host. Very safe. Very tranquil. I would use my Spanish with the guys pumping gas as they loved my van. At times the odd local would chat me up and give me tips. But for the most part I flew under the radar except for the gawking at my van.

As you get north, the people seem a bit more friendly if not standoffish. After five to six long days of driving, fixing a flat tire and getting stuck here or there, I settled into Iquique for 4 days of hostel life. The owner let me park my van on the street, pay for a dorm bed (ten bucks) and use the place. But I slept in the van on the street. Nice. A few days of working out, playing guitar, practicing Spanish, and eating right. Shower. Nice. Recharged.

The things that matter the most to me as I am rolling along is to connect with people when I can. Especially locals. But it is hard. You need a reason other than food and shelter. A coffee shop? No. Hostels? Rarely. So you rely on the rare circumstance that brings you together. If even for a moment. And if they speak normal, somewhat slow Spanish? My heart explodes! I have given up getting better this trip at Spanish. The only way for me to get better is two solid months. Immersed. No travel. No work. No guitar. No hiking. Just Spanish. Stay tuned.

As I drove slowly north and finally got to see the main Andean range, the big mountains, I started getting excited. I finally get to get up to the Altiplano and explore indigenous communities and remote regions in my van. Back to hiking. Cold nights. Warm days. Volcanos. Hot springs. Wandering. I dreamt of this part while in Bolivia five years ago. Its a special place. And I’m going back. Bolivia. The only place in South America that reminds me of Nepal. The pictures hopefully will do it justice and hopefully I can get out there and interact. It is one drawback of the van. Local interaction is enhanced with buses and tours. But you can’t have it all.

Patagonia: The Final Chapter

I might not have been completely descriptive with my Patagonia blogs. Patagonia is a section of wild and harsh environments. It is a country all to itself although it spans across parts of two countries. Splitting itself in two along the Southern Andes as they slowly dive into the southern Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The Chilean and Argentine cultures are different for sure, but as in most regions where countries are divided between arbitrary lines, there is a blending of cultures and activities and certainly landscapes that make two countries seem like one. And truly Patagonia, at least in the south, should be one country. Separated only at times by high mountains with glaciers that allow only foot traffic.

It is for sure a unique place. The mountains aren’t the most beautiful. The glaciers not the most dramatic (well, that might not be true). The rivers and fjords not the most majestic. And the population is certainly not the most colorful or culturally stunning.

Yet there is a uniqueness to the place that takes a while to percolate thru you. There are industrious farms passed down thru immigrant families. A smattering of what is left of a decimated indigenous population. And these small, kinda lifeless towns set up for mainly tourism that go back to their lives once autumn sets in.

Chile is a nearly 2600 mile long country (second longest in the world; barely losing out to Brazil) but it averages only 110 miles wide and that’s counting islands. You can basically drive one main road thru the whole country with only pollution keeping you from seeing mountains the entire way.

Patagonia is a travelers heaven. Hordes of young mainly European backpackers hitching their way north or south, sprinkling the odd bus ride in to make life more predictable. Wild camping is not only accepted but encouraged. And if you speak the language, use of private property is allowed. And that is important, because the historical use of estancias (private farms) down here has the majority of the wild lands fenced off. But when you find that sweet spot. Man.

I will say Patagonia is not this exotic place. The stunning nature of the scenery does sear its way into your soul. Breathtaking does not describe it and my pictures don’t do it justice. But the lack of marauding insects and animals that can eat you or get into your food (even the pumas aren’t really feared here by humans) takes away some of the wild backpacking lure of Alaska, BC, or even WA and CA.

There is rarely any crime. We habitually locked our doors when sleeping in the van, but not when we had a big group. I locked my van out of habit in towns but not always. And I was pretty much set at ease the whole time. I recently told my travel companion Pascalle that up north we have to get our spidey sense back when we are in towns.

So it has left me so far with this feeling of love and wonder for the place and for wanting to come back to visit some places that i would like to see again. More in-depth. And certainly the mountains and glaciers again. But the people haven’t grabbed me the way they do in more indigenous areas. They have been kind and friendly and engaging. But no pull there for me. Well, maybe in Argentina a bit. But now I head north and that may change. You do see the quirky small town folks and I am sure there are some characters here I would get a deeper feel for if I was better at Spanish. But I can connect nonetheless with a laugh or a smile or a wink.

The ability to quickly get up to incredible mountains and glaciers at around 2000 feet in elevation is quite a mind bending experience. With every new glacier bringing an expectation of grandeur. And I have seen more glaciers in this trip than my whole life combined. And it is the decimation of these beautiful and ancient ice repositories that just gives me that sinking feeling that we, as humans, are just fucking things up. And we know it. And its getting worse.

If you want a wild and woolly outdoor experience with little danger (but higher cost), take a vehicle down here and take your time. Explore the incredibly diverse landscapes, the continual beauty, and the friendly people. Don’t expect to understand the Chilean Spanish if you speak Spanish. Give thanks for the slower speaking Argentine who listens to you when you say “Si puedes hablarme como un nino, puedo entenderte.”

Do it in December or March to avoid the crowds and still get good weather. Be patient with summer weather as it still can suck here then. But when it clears…Wow. The contrasting colors and shapes and differing landscapes that seem to change every 100 km will wow you. But its not easy travel. It takes time and effort. And patience. And I can say I haven’t even scratched the surface. And I am a bit sad my Spanish is not better. But it is a good motivator.

When you are done here, you can sit back and be amazed at realizing a dream. And wanting to do it all over again!

Patagonia Part V: Perros

Everyone that knows me knows I love dogs. They know about my dog Namche and about how I really can’t get another dog. It hurt too much to lose her and my life is un-doggable for the foreseeable future.

Not everyone knows I loved dogs before Namche. I volunteered at shelters, watched and walked friends dogs when i could. I loved them. Always.

The dogs here are different than any country I’ve ever been in. I love them.

When I arrived in Buenos Aires, I didn’t see the usual unkempt street dogs. My previous experiences in South America in Peru and Bolivia had me expecting the throngs of brown, mid-sized, tick and flea infested, constantly reproducing dogs that basically would stop being friendly once they weren’t puppies anymore.

In southern Patagonia, mainly Ushuaia and Puerto Williams, I came across some dogs I bonded with. Some would hike the trails with you and leave. Some would ignore you or give some attention.

But it wasn’t until i got to El Calafate that I experienced (and I experienced it over and over again while visiting there) the “love em and leave em” dogs here.

What you essentially get is breeds of all kinds (Big. Small. Short hair. Long hair. Seemingly pure bred. Mutts. Labs. Shepherds. Poodles) that will lock eyes with you (or anyone that will lock eyes with them for that matter) and come up to you to embrace all the love and affection you are willing to put out. They are normally well-kept, don’t fight much with others, and steer clear of pissing off shop owners on the Main Street. And truth be told, it seems to be the same in every town!

Many have collars and appear to belong to someone. In fact, I’ve encountered the same dogs when returning to El Calafate. They are clean. Not mangy. Don’t obsessively itch. They don’t really even beg too much.

Then there are the dogs that people own at their houses and hostels. Balto, the dog owned by the man who runs my favorite hostel in El Calafate. He was like an old friend when I returned. My buddy Michael and I (Balto looked like his old dog) would fight over who would play with him.

Pascalle and I would ask dogs if they wanted to come along in the van. Kinda joking. Kinda not. None would take us up.

What’s the catch you ask? Well. Don’t get attached to them. Because they won’t get attached to you.

I came across one in El Calafate that looked and acted a bit like Namche. He looked at me like I was his long lost owner as if he recognized me from years ago. I sat on the stoop at the restaurant. “Oh my god!” I exclaimed. “What a sweet dog.” He loved on me and let me pet and scratch every part of his body. Completely connecting with me and giving me his unwavering attention for 10-15 minutes. “Oh my god I love this dog!” Time stood still. He took it all in. Played with me. Wrestled with me. Kissed my face. I paused. I for one second hesitated. He looked right and saw a woman walk by. Gone. Not even a look over his shoulder. Not even a hesitation.

Strangely I saw him again the next time I was there. He was pausing and trying to make eye contact with people like a seasoned street walker. When I saw him he gave me the same reaction. Love. Attention. Interaction. Then gone.

I’ve fallen in love with dogs here more than any other place in the world. I can’t keep track. Sometimes they wanna come in the van. But rarely will they follow me. Mostly, they just wag their tails, come up to me, roll over on their backs, and let me love them. Then they are gone.

And I never get sick of it.

Patagonia Part 4: The van, Captain Jack Sparrow and freedom

The camper van showed up a few weeks late. In an epic stroke of luck, I managed to get it out of customs by myself when the guy helping me got fired. I bounced back and forth between the port and Santiago, Chile. Batteries were dead but what little things stored in there were intact. I prepared for the long trip south. While meeting a buddy I met traveling in Santiago, he introduced me to Pascalle, a gal traveling from Holland (or the Netherlands. Its confusing.) Pascalle had her previous plans fall thru and was looking to head south. “Jump on board” I said. “I have an extra bed up top and just split gas with me.”

We rolled out the next day (after I slept in the streets of Santiago outside the hostel). I knew I had a good companion when she neither stressed about the van delay nor about me getting stuck in the sand the first night in my beefy 4wd van! I had to get pulled out (twice!) by locals. Humility in hand we headed south. She knew it was gonna be a fast trip but was up for it. I had to meet my buddy to trek in southern Chile so we rocked the 2000 or so miles in 8 days. Nearly running out of gas once and blowing out a shock absorber another. We drove past mountains and volcanoes and lakes and deserts. It was a stunning trip. Like the Colorado plateau meets Flagstaff meets the north Cascades. I really wish we had more time as the people were amazing and the views (and wind) epic. Pascalle did great driving when I got tired and we mainly camped for free when we found a spot. We got to spend time at a local Chilean Fair being the only tourists, camp out under an amazing sky similar to Joshua Tree and and swim in lakes and rivers.

We arrived back in El Calafate, Argentina for my third time and felt at home at the hostel with my friends there. Pascalle and I said our goodbyes, hoping to connect later. She was probably one of the best travel companions ever. She rocked it as a co-pilot.

Busting my ass to get across the border back into Chile to meet my buddy Michael, I had another gal with me for the ride to split gas. Thus still not having any solo time with my van!

Michael and I have backpacked together in India, Guatemala, the Grand Canyon, California, and now, Chile. We always laugh as for two guys in their fifties that seemingly have their shit together, we somehow screw shit up when trying to connect. True again as I was napping in the van in Puerto Natales airport while he landed in Punta Arenas! Three hours south! How we goofed it up I don’t know. But he got to ride a Chilean bus!

Our backpacking trip to Torres del Paine got canceled because of rain. Long story but when the busiest park in Chile has a hiccup, your reservations gets screwed. Since Michael was only down for 2 1/2 weeks, I needed to make the call to get us into the mountains. So we crossed the border (again) back to Argentina, El Calafate, and El Chalten. There was a trek there I heard about and knew that neither weather nor reservations would hurt us.

The Huemul Trek turned out to be one of the most dramatic ones I have done. It is a 60k trek over four days that skirts the Southern Patagonia icefield; getting up close and personal with several glaciers. Unfortunately, both Michael and I got blisters in the first hour (new boots!) Even though we have both been hiking a lot, the wind and blisters hurt us. But we still knocked it out and experienced breathtaking views. I wanna go back to all of these treks. I could spend a month in El Chalten alone.

With me planning to take a 2 1/2 day ferry from southern Chile (Puerto Natales) we headed to Punta Arenas (got the airport right) for his flight. An Air BnB snafu had us homeless the second to last night and a stroke of luck (again) got us to meet Juan Matric, the owner of a hostel that hooked us up.

After seeing my van (and me lamenting I had had no alone time in the wild yet with her), he convinced me to take the road all the way down to the tip of the Pan American hiway to explore. Hoping to be alone, I drove all the way down after taking a two hour ferry to cross the Straights of Magellan. Through a blinding rainstorm. Couldn’t see a damn thing.

After reaching the end of the road (it was Saturday and there was no one there so I ignored the warning signs and drove the last 5 plus miles waiting for the end.), I turned around. This road is being constructed to connect the rest of Chile to the Beagle Channel near Ushuaia, Argentina. It is way the fuck out there. Tired, sick of the rain, but glimpsing a few hanging glaciers along the Cordillera Darwin, I said, what the hell. There was a small “town” on the map towards the water. I just wanted to rest, hike a bit and maybe play some guitar. What I got was a different story.

I rolled in Caleta Maria, and its one house, as the clouds diappeared and this beautiful inlet presented itself. Pechuga is an aging fisherman turned tour guide. As I rolled up to the beach I asked where I could camp. I also jokingly asked him in Spanish when we were eating when I saw the lamb being grilled over the fire.

He asked me if I was alone when I walked back after parking and I said yes. Him and his 6 buddies invited me over to play music in this stunning, fjord-like utopia. You can see pics I posted.

They fed me (salmon, ceviche and lamb) and gave me local booze and played music with me. Allowing me to practice my Spanish. I was also told Camilo (he lived in the house; Pechuga lived in a camper on the beach.) had kayaks. So the next day I joined a pre-planned trip to paddle by the glaciers. It entailed a one hour boat ride and lots of preparation.

When we paused for lunch, we hurriedly built a fire. Not knowing the plan, I inquired. Captain Jack Sparrow is going to make us a traditional stew from Chiloe (that’s north Patagonia). I’m like who? Johnny Depp? That’s what they kept calling him.

As I napped in the sun on the beach (after these fisherman grilled me right out of the water scallops, gave me some wine and some local steak, it started getting late. Like 4 PM. Who and where is this guy? These guys dive all day and all year in suits to get lazy people like us our restaurant delicacies. A rough life they have for sure. It’s brutal down there.

Like a vision out of a movie, this strapping 40 something sleeveless Chilean smoothly walks thru the bushes to our little setting in the woods. Everyone hops to it and he makes the handmade dumpling like things, makes the salsa, and puts the clams and chorizo and potatoes and mussels into this massive stew pot on the fire. Camilo asks me what I think.

Damn. I just wanted a day alone with my van in the wilderness. No plans. Just freedom and rest. AND I GOT THIS! It was deliciosa!

That is why I don’t plan much when traveling. To have the ability to stop for a bit.

We said our goodbyes and I got my quiet time in the van.

My next stretch is a ferry north tomorrow. It arrives at the southern part of the Careterra Austral. One of the most stunning and remote drives in the world. From there, its all driving and a few local ferries. No flights for me for awhile. I am liking it down here if you can’t tell. But neither my spanish nor my guitar is improving. The people are great. It is safe. To be continued…

Patagonia Part 3: Wind and acceptance

The books say its windy here. This is mainly on the southern part of of the main Andes range but north of Tierra del Fuego. Near the third largest icefield in the world. “How bad can it be?” I asked myself.

How about in your face constantly, nearly knocking you down, hurting your eyes wind? Making you hate being outside, shifting directions and speed wind. Keeping you from wearing a ballcap wind. Sand in your eyes and making them water wind. Bracing yourself against it then it dies for a second and you fall wind. Gusts to 75 mph easy. And it is summer.

Watching people riding their bikes in it and talking to them about it I was like “no thanks”. But I wanted to trek of course. The previous description was just walking down the street. Especially in El Chalten, the backpacking central of Patagonia.

Essentially, everyone jams into the 100 or so hostels here in January and February (summer right?), hoping for good weather to get up into these easily accessible (two to three hours) campsites and maybe farther up to the lakes and glaciers.

All shapes and sizes and ages come here because, well, the books say it is beautiful. And it is.

Maybe 50 day hikes and overnights await. If you get lucky and it is not rainy and just a little windy, it is incredible. My Facebook pics of Fitzroy etc were windless.

After a day of heaving changing weather, I somehow scavenged a tent to be able to get up into these beautiful mountains (they are not that high here. Maybe 6-8000 foot peaks? But what a dramatic difference just 1500 feet can make! Glacial valleys still being carved. Peaks and valleys constantly being shaped by wind and ice.

I hiked around lots of the range here and got accustomed to the mountains. Crossing between sections, I did a fairly long day with the wind and rain abating just in time for a sunset attempt up to Laguna de los Tres and Mt. Fitzroy. Securing my tiny and shabby borrowed tent, I felt confident as we left the weather had cleared. If even temporarily. Learning from experience, I decided to hike to the lake with Tom, a guy I met on the trail. The weather was perfect.

Everyone wants the pink sunrise pics on the spires. The towers. Of this range especially. But I wanted to take it in during “un pausa de viento”, even if the sun was setting behind them. Knowing I could also get up at 4:30 AM and make the 1 hour and 1200 foot climb a second time; especially once i saw what was waiting.

We passed tons of people coming down and the campground where we had pitched our tents had maybe 70 tents? And there were only about five people up there so we had the whole beautiful place to ourselves for the most part. Hanging glaciers, lakes, spires. Colors changing by the minute. Different angles. I opted for naked plunge instead of just the photo. Yeah it was cold. Wow. Stayed til we needed a headlamp the last part of the descent.

As I settled into my tent, the wind started picking up just enough to drown out the obnoxious group of Israelis that were ignoring the “quiet hours” signs right up to and past midnight. As the night wore on, the wind increased to a ferocity that had the tent bending over me in the night, waking me up regularly. It drowned out my alarm. But hey, I wasn’t climbing up there in the now gusting to 75 mph winds. Plus, my tent would be gone with me out of it. Around 7:30 am, the gusts finally snapped a pole. So now my planned two nighter would be only one. But what an incredible two hours up there.

The acceptance part hit me today. The Buddhist

Patagonia Part II: The White Continent

I know Antarctica is not part of Patagonia but it begs to be included in my description as it is indeed an extension of Patagonia. It’s farther, colder, whiter and more remote.

Anyone that knows me, knows I have a disdain for cruise ships. Now keep in mind, my commentary on any of this is just that, commentary. It is not judgement of people, places and things.

I have been on one cruise in my life. A two day sales meeting cruise from LA to Ensenada and back right before I left for Nicaragua during grad school. I made the best of it, but hated it. The feeling of self-importance and dare I say cultural ignorance had me throw up in my mouth. But I did it. It was a big boat.

Fast forward to now. I had not planned on going to Antarctica as I had heard of the prices and let’s be honest; I am a travel snob. Yeah I drop cash on dinner or a plane flight but I like going as simple as possible. If only to avoid separating me from the regular guy. Especially the locals. It is my choice. And sometimes a necessity.

Antarctica cruises are expensive and if you do a month long one, well, they are crazy expensive. I met Frank, a German engineer in my hostel. He had just returned. You must go Bob. 10 days.

I had heard they sell trips last minute discounted up to 50%. I had just filed it in the back of my mind. But Frank sold me in two minutes. I booked the next day.

I checked into my 3 person dorm type room to meet a man I was perhaps unprepared to meet. Tito. Tito was convicted of drug smuggling and tax evasion. He wrote a book that is an Amazon best seller. Gringo. Recently made into a movie. I shit you not. He got out of prison about 18 months ago after ten years and is in his mid 60s. The other roommate is a Romanian programmer. Strange bedfellows.

I got the full Tito the moment I met him. His unassuming manner of describing his “reverse” rendition as he was kidnapped from Venezuela by US authorities and held for a month without charges. I mean, can you make that shit up?

Hearing him tell his stories again to the unsuspecting suburban americans was pretty funny. The looks on their faces were like “When is he gonna say gotcha??”

He never did. It is all real.

Tito and I got along great and I just thought, well, he is what he is as he took pictures of himself holding his book in front of the penguins. He was a good guy.

The two day trip down and back thru the Drake Passage (some of the roughest water in the world) can be either the Drake Shakes or the Drake Lake. We had mainly the former but like a 5-6 on a scale of 12. On the way home it was so calm. We left Ushuaia, Argentina around 6 PM on Dec. 29th and had a gentle evening of beautiful skies as we cruised the Beagle Channel between Argentina and Chile. Around 10-11 PM we hit the Drake. I had never been seasick since a kid so I was hopeful. Many people had gotten these patches behind their ears to help with motion sickness that made them look like CIA or members of a secret society. I was not privy.

I got the cheap version of some relief from the doctor that entailed acupressure wrist bands and ginger tablets. I did okay. Morning one I was met at the dining room by a guy on all fours in the carpeted hall, horribly missing his barf bag and blasting the walls and floors. Don’t look. Keep on moving. As long as I don’t smell it…

By end of day 2, (which was really our first full day) I was feeling a little rough. Laying down and small meals got me thru. Mid day New Year’s eve had us in calmer waters and I could have a beer. The trip was beautiful but it’s all water, no land, you can’t read, can’t play guitar. Because of the motion. And my only form of distraction was eating, coffee, and endlessly watching the numerous birds that followed the boat. Mainly the albatross. What an incredibly beautiful animal. Essentially, the albatross (and a few other birds here) rarely lands. They lock their wings and simply ride the wind up and glide down; efficiently traveling hundreds of miles on little energy. Their beautiful dance with the wind as they circle the boat in the now seemingly endless sunlight had me mesmerized. I watched for hours. Always hoping for that one really close flyby, that had the bird stop in time, right by the deck, before he stopped his ascent and turned back to ride the wind. It was this beautiful, magical event like watching salmon catching the current or an expert kayaker paddling the rapids. It was poetry. And it had me appreciate that animal more than I thought. And birds in general for that matter. Because it really is all about birds down here. And whales.

The boat was built in the 90s and tastefully done. I was on the pull out couch which made me feel I was remotely roughing it. 6 foot 1 on a 5 foot 7 couch. Dining room, lounge and bar (manned by an Eastern European banging out hits with an accent but more like Murph and the Magic tones of Blue Brothers fame or Bill Murray singing Star Wars on SNL). But he was a good musician and a good guy.

The crew was an eclectic group of international naturalists/ex military/outdoor enthusiasts. They loved it down there and their enthusiasm was catching. Imagine 3-4 Joe Lamannas without the music and you’ll understand. I connected with many of them. During our journey down we were given presentations on the wildlife and geography to have us better understand what we were about to see. The staff was knowledgeable and friendly and with only around 100 passengers, it was easy to get to know them. During our private conversations the topic inevitably turns to the fact that many on the cruise either don’t know their good fortune, didn’t pay for it themselves (lots of millenials with parents), or have no idea about climate science. But I’m sure some did. And me being a traveler for a year and not a fly down/fly back guy, had the others asking me “What’s your deal Bob? Why are you here?” I like being the odd person out. Sometimes.

I had some really interesting and deep conversations with the staff on a variety of topics. And I connected with some of the other travelers. Especially a nice family from Colorado originally from Ohio.

On the first day I stupidly said to one Canadian crew member that Alaska was more beautiful, has animals, blah blah blah. I’m a dumbass. Should have waited.

By the time we actually got to the Antarctic Peninsula, and set foot on the actual continent (my 7th!) and not an island, I was mesmerized. I went on the daily hikes and penguin watching and sought a little nook to hide and watch things unfold. We dressed up in our warm weather gear and life jackets and marched through a decontaminating wash so our boots don’t bring contamination to the penguins and we don’t bring smelly penguin shit back on the boat. They drop Zodiac boats in the water to shuttle us back and forth. Since I joined late, I got no kayaking or camping in. A little bummed but the rest was just magic.

We passed by an 11 Km long iceberg on New Year’s Eve. Think I posted a pic of that with me in it.

The night after New Years I think, was so beautiful I played my guitar outside til 10 PM in the fading sunlight. Watching the last pink glow on the mountains until after midnight. Not sure if the glow would ever leave, I finally went to bed.

The night after that I needed my Bob time, so I left dinner early and went up on the top deck for about an hour and half of solo ice, glacier and whale watching until it became evident to everyone what was happening all around us. The slow fading light and no wind made it seem like I was in some episode of Game of Thrones or just fairyland. Hours of looking, watching, hearing, and just feeling really really lucky. It truly is stunning.

We were treated to 6 or 7 feeding Humpbacks and 5-6 feeding Orcas. A mad dance of light and ice and fins ensued as the captain kept moving the boat slowly in their directions. Ooohs and ahhs as the magic Fluke of the humpback disappeared. Over and over.

The penguins are just amazing yet hard to describe. They are funny and seem to be both collective and individual in their actions. Sometimes they are curious. Other times they don’t care. They are playful and silly. Go solo or trudge through the snow in pairs or more. Then walk slowly up these massive hills, stumbling as drunk here or there and bounce back up; seemingly invincible and oblivious to pain and embarrassment! They look clumsy on land but swift and nimble and playful in the water. At times they were living on cliffs 500 feet above the water!

It is not lost on me that the regular backpacker will never see this stuff without a loan or family money. You can do it cheaper like me but it still required a credit card and is once in a lifetime for me. Although I would do it again.

It is also not lost on me the amount of waste, consumption, and carbon emissions it took to get us there and back. All to view a place that could be disappearing and some species that are at risk. BECAUSE of consumption like this. But it is lost on many. Yet it is the only way to see this place unless you score a gig down here or a volunteer opportunity.

I had to succumb to the crew talent show which included karaoke singing of some classic 80s tunes. I Will Survive, All Night Long, and yes, Sweet Caroline. YMCA and a Conga line brought it home. Whiskey saved me. But the pain I experienced through the trite display of cruise life, was worth it to see what I have seen.

There are many moments in my life that resonate and they are mainly in the outdoors. Watching Namche take in the smells while watching a sunset over the Pacific, the last bit of sun on Everest, dusk in the Grand Canyon, a kayak sunset in Alaska, and the seemingly endless dusk or dawn down there in Antarctica amongst the quiet animals and peaceful ice flows. Only the random bird squawk, the wind, and the sound of ice against the boat. I wanted to sleep outside one night but didn’t get it approved in time. Watching the water and the mountains I spent hours above and outside. Thinking we might see a night like that again, since we had gotten two nice ones in a row, but knowing it would likely be the last magic one. It was. And it rocked me with its beauty and serene solitude.

The beauty of that place has filled up my heart and has me recommitted to exploring nature as much as possible on my trip. And for the rest of my life for that matter. I am committed to being outside. As much on my own power as possible. This place is magic. While talking to an British ex-military on staff last night around my age he said “Yeah, you really can’t explain it. You have to experience it.”

Exactly. Especially the Polar Plunge.

And i hope I can recommit my efforts in that environmental direction. If I can just finish this book….

Patagonia Part 1: Es como Alaska pero no hay animales que pueden comerme!

Patagonia is the last great place I have really dreamt of going. I can use my Spanish and hopefully improve, hike in the mountains, and wander around a pretty safe environment. And I have no real schedule. Finally.

My trips to Spain and South Africa were mainly to spend time with friends and family. That was the priority. Being in Spain, Portugal and South Africa was a side benefit, and amazing.

But during that part of my trip, my heart and mind were continually looking towards South America. Part of it was that I didn’t have to really plan around a plane flight once I got here and could plan just a few days in advance, thus settling into a rhythm of “how do I feel?” and what I have learned from fellow travelers and locals about what to see and do. It is a rhythm I love and tends to dictate my life. It is also why I can only travel with a certain type of people; those with a flexibility to their day and an understanding that me not wanting to do something is not dismissive of their wishes. It’s why seeing Dave and Derek and Laura and Andy and Jo was so awesomely easy. It is also why solo travel can be amazing as your life path crosses someone else’s if only for a hike or a beer or sharing a conversation in your hostel room. It is a rhythm that, while harder to accomplish as you get older, still resonates deeply with me and does not go unnoticed. It can be lonely at times but not much. I connect with people easily, even in Spanish, and they usually respond to my enthusiastic basic spanish.

I spent a week with a grad school buddy, Chris, in Buenos Aires. He had just had achilles tendon surgery and his wife was on a work trip. So I settled into my “manny” role I am used to and just stepped in when I could to supply “Uncle Bob” time with his 3 and 5 year olds. While he slid up and down the stairs on his ass and around the place on a wheeled office chair!

Buenos Aires IS A BIG CITY. I stopped liking cities awhile ago. But I enjoy seeing friends in them. It makes it easier.

I rolled over to Mendoza which is so much like Napa/Sonoma but so much more beautiful and farther from the ocean. Hot, dry, and high. Couchsurfed on a young angry feminist (self-described) hippy chicks floor and played music with her friends. She lived in a small place amongst the grape farms and it was really nice, and really quiet. Day hiked with my new buddy Alejandro. I liked Mendoza.

A long flight to the “End of the World” in Ushuaia brought me to Tierra del Fuego. The geography here is really unique. Ushuaia has the feel of Juneau as it has the cruise ship shit show and is around the same latitude in reverse. Juneau is way more stunning as the big mountains are right there as are the glaciers.

Here the mountains are smaller but no less stunning. Jagged peaks and hidden hikes. Day hike mecca. Its fucking windy here. When it is not, it is incredible. No bugs, no animals to be afraid of (but that DOES diminish the allure a bit). It is an island, cut off from the rest of South America by the Straits of Magellan. Tierra del Fuego includes both Chile and Argentina and was named by Europeans that saw Native fires burning as they sailed up the Beagle Channel and Straits of Magellan but the indigenous folks hid in the trees. That didn’t save them unfortunately. They are now eradicated here.

Puerto Williams, on the south side of the Beagle Channel, is really the southernmost city and also on an island. Isla de Navarrino. It is also in Chile. Chile is expensive. And this town really is. All goods have to come from Punta Arenas; a 30 hour boat ride. Instead of two hours from Argentina. There is weird shit between Chile and Argentina about importing food. It is mainly the Chileans issue.

To that end, Argentina and Chile are different. Argentina is to Chile as Canada is to the US. As Portugal is to Spain. That is my first pass. Chile is a bit more intense. A bit more arrogant, and a bit more capitalist. Argentina a bit less ignorant. That is my first take. I bonded more with the Argentinians. They are more open-minded.

Because of last minute decisions, I was forced to stay at an “Eco” hostel here in Puerto Williams. I am not sure the exact connection with ownership here. But the 30 something couple here calls themselves owners. But they are doubling the size of the place (and the original place is not finished), have only a small kitchen that makes me feel uncomfortable to cook (as they make expensive meals for guests), and seem to have more employees than guests. The hostel is 6 km outside of town and there is no communication as to expectations and who is in charge.(I got a ride to the hike yesterday but after a 16 km hike I had to walk the last 4 km home) It is kind of a shit show actually. But I have connected with some of the employees, it is in a beautiful setting, and I needed a break anyway. Hmmm. Some millennials that are trying to be hip and eco groovy and failing miserably. Sound familiar?

The light changes and moonrises and wind and sun and clouds and rain and super long days make you feel like you are staying in a different place every day. Overlooking the Beagle Channel and staring at Argentina is pretty cool. And that moonrise….Wow! My body feels great after three pretty burly day hikes in a week with a maybe ¾ full pack?

I’ve done the unthinkable. Popped my credit card down for a last minute discount trip to Antarctica. The boats leave from Ushuaia and some fellow hostel folks said I “must” do it. And I am. Check out Facebook for my recent pics. I really can’t be bothered with the Cyber jerk off between these tech companies and sharing info. Greedy fuckers.

Merry Xmas and Happy New Year!

Searching for the perfect dirty Martini: Three weeks in South Africa

I met Andy Withers in 1993 on my first trip outside the US with friends Denny Young and Andy Adams. In London. He was Denny’s travel buddy/bromance from a previous trip. But they had an open relationship. A few months later he visited Cleveland to see Denny. So we had beers. We connected.

While traveling for a year in 1995, I hung out with him and Denny in Sydney, where Andy now lived and reconnected. Later that trip, I met his soon to be wife Jo and had dinner and laughs. We got along so well we later planned to meet on my 1998 trip to Nepal, TIbet and India for a few weeks. They had to cancel as Andy had a reaction to a rabies vaccination. In 2000, while living in Dublin, Andy was home visiting family in the UK and shot over to see me for a long weekend excursion to the Dingle Peninsula to hike and explore and see Irish music.

In 2007, Jo and Andy visited the west coast and spent time with Namche and I in the Mission in San Francisco before I moved to Arcata for grad school. In 2009, while in grad school, I flew to Vegas on a work trip to see them while they traveled the west again. Of course, through all of this we kept in touch and tried to stay in each other’s lives as best we could living halfway across the world.

Fast forward to 2018. I hadn’t seen them for nine years and had spent maybe 9 days together over 20 years? Of course that means a three week visit!

Anyone that knows me, knows that I have never really had a fascination with Africa. I haven’t dreamt of climbing Kilimanjaro or fantasized about paddling around the Cape of Good Hope. I did, and still do, have a fascination with the history here. And the animals. Nelson Mandela and to a lesser extent, Desmond Tutu, are people that have had a tremendous influence on me with respect to hope and perseverance and truth. They are icons in my mind.

WIth Andy and Jo moving here last spring, and me planning a year long trip (and well, South Africa IS on the way to South America right?), the timing was perfect.

Andy and Jo took me in as though I had seen them yesterday.

Their older, fun loving 4 legged friends, Ringo and George, made my stay comfy. So how lucky was I to connect with good old friends, travel throughout South Africa for three weeks with them on a trip they planned! They are such kind and great people and just allowed me to slide into their lives and travel and explore.

We drove the Garden Route along the southern East Cape coast and visited various wineries, game preserves and small towns.

We saw elephants, lions, warthogs, rhinos, jackals, penguins, wildebeests, cape buffalo, baboons

and many more. We were close enough to both male and female lions for me to actually jump while sitting in our open jeep (and nearly piss myself) when they got up to move.

The highlight for me was the nearly 50 or more elephants moving around the water hole in the morning. Walking around (and nearly on) our car. Meandering around traffic, rocks and trees.

These gentle giants have truly a Zen way to them that I never have seen in a zoo. I wonder why? Their regal beauty had me loving every minute watching them interact. Silent. Blowing water and mud on each other. The (not so) little babies running around like cartoon characters in a Disney movie. Ears flapping. Every once in awhile a massive one would walk by and take our breath away.

It is truly different sitting in a car or jeep on a safari, passively taking it in. And I enjoyed it. Not knowledgeable on the poaching issue, I learned a lot. WE are destroying these creatures for their tusks. And I feel helpless to do much. Poaching and policing it is a war here.

While in Cape Town, we explored the beaches and of course, Table Mountain, the iconic Urban mountain that reminds you of Jurassic Park.

It was amazing to climb. And I would do it every week if I lived there. We saw District Six (where apartheid displaced thousands of minorities from their homes and relocated them), visited Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner

and of course, George and Ringo time.

Andy and Jo and I see eye on many things and basically view the world in similar fashion and travel in a similar way. So it was very easy. Andy works for ESPN and they both have seen lots of the world and now about eight months of South Africa. I feel so lucky to be able to jump into and out of people’s lives and spend time doing cool things.

But dammit, they don’t make dirty martinis here. Or any martini for that matter. So I suffered. I wanted one. I needed one. And every dinner out began with the question of did they make them. And the denial. Martini racism. I hate it.

That being said, I spent my time trying to figure out South Africa. Since Jo and Andy have only been there 8 months, they hadn’t fully experienced personally some of the bad things going on here. Mainly crime. So we were all forced to pay attention to what HAS happened to others and heed warnings. Muggings on trails. People flying through the gated communities when opened. It was different for me.

These are my impressions. Not judgements or the gospel. Just how I saw (or didn’t see) things.

Apartheid is no longer government policy. Yet, it remains a country of two separate cultures. You drive through Shantytown areas (for lack of a better word) and see and hear about black on black crime. Yes there are blacks and whites living together in communities but not many. I also have heard of the gov’t being black now but super corrupt and enriching themselves. By butchering Mandela’s dreams. Simply switching the color of the oppressor. There is fear of repatriating white land to the blacks in ways similar to Rwanda. Now I don’t advocate any of that, yet the continual process of trying to right past wrongs always leaves someone in the lurch. One family may have inherited land that was taken from blacks centuries ago and one family may have slowly earned that ownership over time. Which is fair, if any? I don’t know. But I do know that South Africa is current example that greed and power are color blind. But the blacks got screwed here. How to right that wrong is above my pay grade.

There is no WHITE GENOCIDE. It’s bullshit. Is there violence? Yes. Tossing that word around does a disservice to places where it has really happened.

What I also know, is that I have never been met by, spoken to or helped more by people of color than here on a daily basis. Yeah, it was mainly on the surface, but the blacks and colored were friendly and helpful in all areas. I felt safe. I learned a lot. The whites were mainly older and somewhat disinterested but since they weren’t working service jobs much, what does that mean? I don’t know. And I certainly haven’t walked in any of their shoes. So I remain clueless as to the underpinnings of society here. There is this disequilibrium I don’t quite understand. Yet seeing hotels, restaurants and houses with gates and barbed wire is a stunning sight and made me uncomfortable. Because of the history here, it had me become more fearful of blacks. It really did. And that is coming from someone who normally is not and who has examined racism very deeply, taught a class on it in Ireland and pride myself in giving every race and religion a chance, no matter my previous experience. So that’s a glaring example of what propaganda can do to people. When you hear something a lot you subconsciously believe it’s true. See invading Hispanic caravan.

Knowing that most crime came from the black community is a total mind fuck for me. And it saddens me to see a much more recent example of exploitation, racism and prejudice in a society where the blacks were the first ones here. Unlike our horrible history of slavery in the US. But it allows me to more fully understand crime. When most of the people that are impoverished here are black and most of the crime involves them? Hmmm. Poverty. Crime. Coincidence?

So my struggle was that I didn’t know where I fit. Like most places i go, I connected with the local, mainly indigenous population. But on the surface. And I can’t be in their world for many reasons. For the first time in my life, I really felt uncomfortable about my whiteness and cared what they thought of me for my skin color. And I couldn’t (and still can’t) rectify it in my brain. This was the defining example for me of how much the white man has really screwed up the world. I just wish I was more present during the hopeful time when Nelson Mandela was president. An empowering and more positive time here. It just shows how a leader’s rhetorical content and tone can lift up a nation when it real and positive.

It’s a beautiful country full of contradictions and confusing social messages. Which one is correct? All of them. Off to my last stop. America del Sur! I think you can just see it…