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…

Freedom Now: South Africa and the Apartheid Museum

I’ve never been to the Holocaust Museum. Though I have friends and ex-girlfriends whose families were impacted.

I’ve gotten to see first hand the occupation of Tibet by the oppressive Chinese regime.

I’ve never seen an in-depth history of something horrible and horrific that had happened in my lifetime. Until now.

I stopped in Joburg, as they call it, to explore the history here; especially Nelson Mandela and Apartheid.

It did not disappoint.

In the 80’s and 90’s, I was not particularly engaged in the struggle that was occurring in South Africa. I had heard about it, but without it being in your face, it was quickly pushed to the back burner. I was on to my next fraternity activity or studying or looking for a job.

The 80’s were when knowledge of goings-on in the world were brought to the masses via big name musicians. Live-Aid etc. and Artists United Against Apartheid. U2’s iconic “Rattle and Hum” album made reference to South Africa in a few songs.

It wasn’t until 1999 when I was getting my teaching credential at Chico State and had to teach a section on Africa that it grabbed me.

Since history wasn’t completed yet while in high school and college, I hadn’t read about Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison before his release and ascendancy to the president.

Having grown up in the 60’s and 70’s, I was unfortunately numb to reports of racism and violence. Having witnessed it first hand in small doses.

When I taught the class on Africa, I focused on Nelson, Bishop Tutu and Stephen Biko. All big ñames. During that time, I had also been studying Gandhi and the Dalai Lama so I understood non-violent protest.

For those that don’t know, after Mandela was released, South Africa nearly devolved into Civil War. More people died AFTER he was released than all the years of apartheid combined.

Once negotiations for a new gov’t were achieved, he was elected president. Once in office, Mandela had to devise a way to bring the country together. The answer was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

If you confessed your crimes, amnesty could be granted and healing could begin. That was the plan. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if it worked or how well.

The museum slowly walked you through the history of South Africa and apartheid, mainly through the black and colored lens, but also the world lens.

Through pictures and videos, the museum movingly displayed how mercilessly apartheid was administered and how lives of all colors were impacted. Most notably the non-whites.

After two hours of education, you were deposited into a small theatre with a 40 min video of live testimony from the commission. Whoa. Tears were shed. It was intense to hear someone openly admit to murder, face the surviving family and, in some cases, be forgiven.

Being able to see these events unfold chronologically, much of it in my lifetime, had particular resonance.

Seeing how people treat each other and are treated, and their ability to rise above things, is a deep view into humanity.

And being insulated from much of this while living in the US in my 20s makes me sad. But not anymore.

It’s why I came to Joburg.

Lasting Spanish impressions

I have learned a really hard lesson here about my Spanish. My desire to learn it has been a Catch-22. Meaning, learning more makes me want to learn more. Knowing nothing makes me shy about it. I have never really sat and made it the number one priority in my life. When in grad school, i was always running, working and in Mexico. NOT using my Spanish. When I lived in Guatemala, I had my job, of course, and was volunteering. And I saw it would take massive effort, if ever, to get to a point where I could have the kind of conversation I wanted. And my brain worked at one speed with those ideas and my Spanish mouth was slow. I didn’t have the “time”. It is the same way with the guitar but I can put that down for weeks and be okay.

When I left from Cadiz with this shitty infection that continues to block my hearing, I rented a camper van for my 14 day quest to wander the north of Spain. I had the desire to learn more about the culture and have some of those “moments” I have collected over the years through my travels.

Well forced “moments” rarely happen and its certainly hard when you are driving a ton and spending the night, camping alone, on remote beaches. It is when you don’t force them they come to you. And it might just be an incredible sunset over the North Atlantic after days of rain or a short conversation with a Spanish Air BNB host that is not hurried. Especially when understood by both parties!

Leaving Cadiz, I drove hard and straight thru the north of Portugal to get to Galicia, in the remote northwest. One thing that is obvious here, is not only are the accents and words in Spanish different in each region, but most regions also have their own separate language! Change regions and the street signs change. Catalonia, Galicia, Basque.

Galicia is gorgeous and home to Santiago de La Compostela. For those that don’t know, it is basically the end of El Camino. The Way. A pilgrimage of hikers that walk across Spain or Portugal and sometime France to get there. Paying homage to the Patron Saint of Catholicism, Apostle Saint James. Thousands of people walk either part or all of the trail, staying mainly in towns and can actually come from many directions. It is not really my scene, and I have heard both good and bad things about it. Anyway, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the dozen or so “pilgrims” I saw on their way a few hours past Santiago, trying to get to Fisterra, gained my respect. The lighthouse at Fisterra is the real end of the trail and having walked hundreds of miles, dammit, they are going to the lighthouse to close the deal! I shit you not the wind gusts were near 50 mph as I drove past these people, walking in sideways lashing rain, trying to get to the lighthouse. Man. I jumped out of my van for just two minutes for photos. One of the worst storms I have seen wind and rain wise on the coast.

I wandered up through Galecia, spending some gorgeously quiet nights just pulling off the road, camping for free, and feeling safe. I would cook in my combination Ford/Westphalia (can you believe it?) and attempt to beat my infection by sleeping 9 hours a night. Simple. Easy. Stunning.

The small villages perched on cliffs were dreamy places that you can only wish you lived. I mean, what would you do? They are mainly farming communities.

Unfortunately, as in most beautiful places, the environment is being destroyed by people cutting down trees, building houses from outside money, only spending summers there, and wreaking havoc on the economy.

This is my first real trip to Europe. I am astonished at the amount of drinking, eating and shopping in the big cities. It seems its all that people do. And this is low season. Either you have cash and are hitting the touristy spots or you don’t and you’re 25. I know that is a generalization. And I am somewhere between. Well, I am not loaded, and not 25.

Europe is just one whole country, it seems, and everyone is competing for the rich tourist. Everyone. And i would say the only larger town that didn’t make me feel strange is San-Sebastian. Basque Country. It seems just a little more normal.

The Basque people, of course, ALSO have their own language (street signs included) but speak Spanish too. They are visually the most stunning of the groups I have seen in Spain. Naturally striking with dark hair and dark eyes. Friendly. Engaging. San Sebastian is the same latitude as central Oregon and warm and green. It is this city of about 180k people right on the Atlantic with mild temperatures. 500 to 1000 foot rolling hills behind the town. There is a fairly large beach here (and a good surf spot) and some rocky outcrops. I stayed 10 min away from Old Town so it feels mellower. There are still shit tons of people here though. I like it here and would maybe pick this place to study Spanish in Spain. But not right now. It is closer to what I am used to. It also like 20 miles from France.

The drive along the coast was pretty incredible with jaw-dropping sunrises and sunsets and few people.

Lots of tour buses and a few travelers. I hiked a canyon trail in the Picos de Europa and the snowy peaks are visible from the ocean. I could spend a few months here exploring but maybe in September? Longer days. Less chance of rain.

The Spanish people feel more like a conglomeration of countries instead of one. That might seem obvious but it is what it feels like. This is really the first “western” country I have traveled in and its an adjustment. There is a vibrant middle class and very few homeless. People have dogs. And they are small. They sit on beaches a lot. They don’t get up really early it seems. I feel really safe here. People don’t seem uptight and they speak a lot less English than I thought they would. But since there are LOTS of tourists the people really don’t give a shit where you are from etc. on the main route. Not super engaging generally. The Spaniards don’t move around as much and are fiercely connected with their place of birth.

Everyone raves about the food. It is just okay. Until San Sebastian. Normally, the food is bland in my opinion. Like in the UK, ketchup and mayonaise are spices!

But its healthy. Rarely am i ever served processed foods. And they serve you olives for appetizers and only oil and vinegar for salad dressings.

But the pinxchos in San Sebastian. Wow. They say this the best place for food. Imagine every possible way to make a tiny half sandwich on homemade bread.

You walk into a bar/restaurant/coffee shop and there are tons to choose from. As a sandwich fanatic I’m in heaven. Oh, maybe that one with salmon? Mushrooms? Goat cheese? Only sausage and cheese? Ummm. Okay. Good stuff. Maybe even a pepper in there to spice it up. And you order and eat and drink and just pay when you leave. Feels pretty awesome and friendly.

I can say with certainty, that other than a few folks at the surf/yoga retreat, I haven’t had that in-depth conversation with a Spaniard I crave. History. Current events. The lifestyle here. I wanna know the real deal. It seems I get the best info at hostels. They are all local people working at my hostel here and I have learned a bit.

After spending time with Dave, I went solo for awhile. I had been keeping in touch with my good friends from Bellingham, Derek and Laura. They were traveling down from the UK and Ireland with their friend’s car. As we slowly starting moving in the same direction, BAM! Meet up in San Sebastian!

The next five days were awesome. We shared Air BnBs and hostels, we drank, played music, and my hearing loss allowed me to share a room with a snoring Derek! We cruised along the base of the Pyrennees and the southern French Border, hiking and catching up.

Quite the treat. We got to experience an incredible day hike, fell for our Air BnB host and slowly drove through the beautiful fall foliage in the hills and mountains on the way back to Barcelona.

Our last night before Barcelona, we stayed in a small town north of Barcelona with my Argentinian friend Bruno. Bruno stayed with me couchsurfing when he was at the tail- end of an epic 2 year motorcycle trip from Patagonia to Alaska 18 months ago. A really cool guy I connected with and got to cross paths again. If only for one night!

Imagine me, Laura and Derek Duffy hanging out with two Argentinian guys that play guitar and have traveled a bunch. We made dinner and had lots of laughs. It so happens Bruno’s friend is heading back to Argentina, speaks good English, and guides in the mountains. What luck for me! Lots of fun. It made for a great last week here.

I really like Spain. It is like many different countries in one. Some of the landscape is just stunning. Though there is little wildlife here and it feels as though you can’t really get lost. Capitalism also has it in its grasp. Even though people want their independence in some areas, they are captive to the buck.

I will return here. I would buy a camper and spend time only in the north. With better Spanish. It has been a different trip for me for sure. Challenging in many ways. But I am glad I saw what I saw. I have a good grasp on the cultural and geographic diversity. Not sure I could live here. But I could keep coming back. And I am trying to raise Spanish higher up the priority scale.

Election: At least we have a sense of some checks and balances on this guy we call President. Folks. The guy isn’t stupid. He smartly tapped into three groups in our country. Those that have money and having more is the number one priority, those that make anti-abortion their number one priority and those that will buy into whatever shit you serve them that makes them feel not as ignorant or disempowered as they really are. And they have been able to suppress enough voters to make a difference. I thought I saw it all. Remember. If you want to know what the guy (Senor Trump) is going to do, ask yourself what he needs to do to benefit him. Always.

It has never really been easy for me to be an American. Right now it is really, really hard. And we are viewed very, very differently in this world. And not in a good way. I always like to have a conversation about it with people who think differently. I have learned to soften my rhetoric and tone ever since my opposition to all things patriotic after 9/11. Yet, I still have not been able to have a conversation with any friends or acquaintances that support this guy that is based in reality. No matter what common ground I seek (and strangely i do agree on some things he does but for different reasons. See NAFTA), it always devolves into either disinformation, emotion, or they just “believe” something different. Usually facts. Or it is justified with the stockmarket. Our willingness to compromise our values for the almighty dollar has never been more evident.

Adios por ahora. Leaving for Johannesburg!

A birthday in Spain: Infections, injections, and breathing on the beach

At 3 AM on my birthday, I woke to a splitting, mind numbing feel like someone punched me in the cranium headache behind my right ear.

Hoy shit what it THAT?

After a few days of trying learn to surf, humility in hand, I woke to go the bathroom and jam some ibuprofen down my throat.

Wow. This is painful. Google swimmers ear. Text my buddy back in CO and he says vinegar and alcohol. None in sight.

I’m staying at a yoga/surf retreat that teaches you how to surf and does yoga in between to help your body.

Nice. The first two days of weather were rain and 50s. Made me feel at home.

The instructor did her best to help me get up on the board but I was failing. I’m mean it is hard at first.

My bday I was gonna sneak out at sunrise and try on my own without the watchful gaze of Carolina.

But instead I stumbled down the street, past the bars still raging from Friday night and luckily found a cab to the pharmacy.

As stuck my face into the tiny darkened hole that was more like a prison window, the woman there listened to my plight. She gave me antibiotic ear drops.

The taxi driver had waited, drove me back and wished me luck. I dropped back into bed but the pain was bad so I popped a few painkillers to solve the problem the Ibuprofen didn’t.

I sent a WhatsApp message to Carolina as she lives upstairs to check in when she wakes and yoga won’t be happening.

As i woke at 9 the searing pain in my ear began to get worse. Oh man. She says let’s go to the doctor.

They let me right in, look at my ear, give me more antibiotics and something for inflammation. 180 bucks.

Good right? I go home to sleep. Pop two MORE painkillers and more drops and try to sleep. It’s now 3 PM. I am starting to get concerned. My head feels as though it is being inflated by a bicycle pump when I move. The pain is now a 7.

One of Carolina’s friend shows up, Berta, and she’s a nurse. Her English isn’t great but she says if you’re in that much pain you can get a shot for it. Really?

As I pace around the backyard the girls prepare to go and we go back to the private doctor. Now the pain is 8.5 and I am close to tears. I pace around the waiting room as I can’t sit.

THIS IS BRUTAL. Happy. Birthday. To. Me.

The doc grabs me, jams this huge needle in my ass and I laugh as I can’t really walk now. The girls help me to the car, after 10 min the pain goes to 7, 6, 5, and 4. Wow.

We walk to beach, do a yoga breathing practice, watch the sunset, come home, have dinner, and play some music.

Then I passed out. Birthdays are never dull.

By the way, the doctor didn’t charge me for the shot. The visit was expensive.

Don’t take healthcare for granted. If you vote for people that say they want to cut Social Security and Medicare etc., you only have yourself to blame. The people trying to come to our country won’t take it from you.

That adventure would have cost me a grand in the US without insurance.

Even on my birthday.

Thanks for all the great birthday wishes! More to come!

Tres semanas con mi hermano en España

Two brothers who haven’t traveled together in years. Well, other than a Springsteen concert here or there or with Dave’s family. Our lifestyles are different yet not so different. Dave has a family that includes a wife, two boys, a dog and a gecko like creature. I’m solo.

Both of us “unemployed”. On the same budget. About the same interests and pace. Although Dave has a greater interest in history and more of a “carpe diem” mentality since he’s traveling for three weeks. Enjoying a different kind of freedom.

Interesting how we can drop right into our daily banter of work, politics and family. Because we didn’t have other family or friends around (and of course are aged) the usual ball busting was absent except for playful ribbing about Dave’s humorous take on his Spanglish or questions on who is older.

The folks were astonished that the younger brother was a teacher and actually retired. Where the older single brother just wasn’t working.

Dave knowing and using less Spanish, but still having some basics, allowed me to sit back and let it be more of his trip.

Watching him step in and attack a conversation with locals in a mix of Spanish or English was normally pretty hilarious. His personality showing through more than his efficient use of the language to get his point across. “Mi esposa no permite!” garnering laughs from both men and women. He fearlessly never shied away at an attempt and fortunately, with two rental cars, 1 flight, 1 bus, 1 train, 5 Air BnBs and 5 hostels, we never got into a crisis situation.

He could order and ask for what he wanted and our biggest f up was directions. And let’s be honest. That’s Siri’s fault. Always.

We drank EVERY night. Never to excess as Dave has a “blind date” reaction to shots we learned the first night. He refused beer bongs in Lagos (I complied) and he enjoyed getting up, planning our day and our meals, as we wished. Not having to take into account the changing wishes of his two young boys.

The route of Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon had me needing the outdoors.

Renting a car down the coast of Portugal gave us a diverse look at rural Portugal and some hiking. Heading back to Spain was great as I could communicate again and at least say “have a good day” as I was useless in Portuguese.

After a few days in Seville, enough to see the Alcazar and a Spain/UK “futbol” game, we rented a car and perused the stunning “White towns” that showed quite a different lifestyle.

Stuffing ourselves every night with beer, wine, meat, cheese, and olives made it (slightly) easier for Dave to avoid any gluten infused cuisine.

We saw Fado, Flamenco and a stunning sunset off the Alhambra the day before we witnessed its intricate work inside.

We had beers on the beach, slept in from time to time and shocked some poor German college students, with whom we shared a hostel room, as to the state of affairs in America. They are likely scarred for life.

Dave’s life of working with kids made it easy for him to connect with the college crowd although he likely wasn’t used to drinking with them.

Pub crawls in Lisbon, tapas trail in Granada and eating more olives in 20 days than we likely have eaten our whole lives kept us moving.

Whenever I needed a break from Dave’s curiosity for the history, I would take a nap, hit the gym or rent a kayak.

Dave got into a rhythm of washing the clothes he wasn’t wearing everyday and hanging them to dry, masterfully traveling with one small backpack to my three. He devoured the minimalist lifestyle and relished the fact that his toughest choices were bottom or top bunk and beer or wine? And since he always slept up top when we shared a bed, his only real choice was beer or wine.

His grasp of history kept the younger travelers interested and when he met older teachers “just retired”, you could feel their admiration for him having pulled off quite the feat; retiring from teaching at 50 after starting at 28?

As Hannibal on the A-Team used to say, cigar in hand, “I love it when a plan comes together”. We are lucky.

Off he went to Barcelona this morning while I make my way to Cádiz and getting ready to explore the north.

Suerte mi hermano!

The old guy still has some game

Well it depends on what that means. I have to copy and paste this to Facebook. Sorry.

I arrived in Barcelona after a long and crushing overnight flight via Iceland. Took me a night or so to recover. Before I left I got to spend five days with Joe and Jenny and my two beautiful and fun god daughters Elena and Thea in Milwaukee.

I’m staying at a hostel for the first time since…geez. I don’t know. There are some in Guatemala. But this is the first time I’ve shared a room if you don’t count the porters when trekking in Nepal. In like, um 20 years?

I’m staying here for a week until my brother Dave comes. I am in the section of town called Gracia.

Because I’m staying more than a day or two, the other three beds in my room cycle thru daily. Because they are mostly way younger than me and here to party it’s like two (actually 4) ships passing in the night. I get up early and the others are just getting home. Israeli. British. American. You name it.

I can get just about any type of food a block or two away from me. It’s a 20 min walk to classes, we have a rooftop, and a 10 min walk to the gym. So I got my bases covered. The folks are pretty friendly and it safe. A bit pricey though.

The hostel employees are incentivized to get us to do stuff. They make dinner every night for about 3.5 euros. It’s served at 9:30. Then they organize a pub crawl AND go with us. I begged off the first night, got pulled in for awhile Thursday then last night went for the whole Kahuna.

There are three hostels owned by the same group so all three congregate in a pub around 11:30 PM then go to a club around 1:30.

So if you can picture me walking down the streets of Barcelona with a pack of 40 20 somethings you’ll get the picture.

At the pub I played pool with an engineering student from Holland that was struggling with trying to make positive change in the world without doing a deal with the devil. It was a fascinating conversation that centered around accumulation, free markets, IRR, economies of scale and greed. Why folks that have a lot need more. He would NOT let me talk about Trump. He says “we all agree he’s a dick. Let’s not waste our time.” Fair enough.

I walked to the club with Diego, a Mexican guy from Toluca. We chatted about Mexico City, Chiapas, Baja and how I feel safer in Mexico than the US.

At the club I mostly hung out with a German Med student that was astonished I was doing my trip at 54. My age came up as we had a long conversation with a jack off US college student who lived in Madrid and was here for the weekend. Without prompting, he went into a rant how great it was to spend mommy and daddy’s money and be able to have sex with anyone without consequences. As he sucked down his Budweiser (no shit the clubs here only sell Bud and Corona! WTF?) he bragged of dropping 300 euros in the bar that weekend and how his dad (who’s my age) flies to Seattle EVERY week from Philly for his job at Amazon. Um. Contrast?

I told him I was using the college money from the children I don’t have to travel. He was obnoxious, self absorbed and had no interest in Spanish. Nice.

Max (the German dude and I) waxed philosophically about Healthcare and travel. He couldn’t find an ATM so when I couldn’t drink any more Coronas (okay it was also 3 AM), I offered to lend him 20 euros so he could hang, drink, and get home. He was like, “I’m leaving tomorrow. You TRUST me?” Sure dude. I just hung out with you for three hours. Leave it at the desk as the old guy will be sleeping.

I went for one last piss before I jumped in a taxi to avoid a 45 min walk/metro home. As I navigated the dudes washing their shirts out in the sink after puking on themselves I thought about the night.

Some people may think I’m crazy. But I am traveling, having incredibly intellectual (at times) conversations with people from all walks and countries, working on my Spanish, my guitar. And my book. My brother meets me in a few days. Carpe diem.

Max came into my room this morning to wake me up and personally hand me the 20 Euros. He was effusive in his appreciation. Said he had one of the most interesting conversations of his life, is staying another day and appreciated my trust.

All that and I never had to dance…..

I’m getting into a rhythm. It’s beautiful here.

I’m a travel snob

I’m leaving for an extended trip to various parts of the world on my list. This will be the second longest trip of my life after a 13 month sojourn starting nearly 24 years ago. Just saying it makes me feel…well, older.

What differences are they are other than being older? That’s a long conversation. But maybe a greater confidence in appreciating what i see. A greater discernment in the traits I see in people. A greater value for kindness I experience. A greater understanding in the importance of how and where you are born and raised and the luxury of that lotto ticket in life.

I certainly have a more distinct understanding of politics, religion, economics and environmentalism. I also play guitar and harmonica.

More or most importantly, is that I’m a travel snob. A minimalist. But I like to push my limits a bit. I’ll spend money to go farther and to be more remote. But mainly to experience a culture more nakedly. Meaning being able to drop into a world that is not contrived or presented to me. It’s hard to find many times. It requires time and a willingness to (sometimes) be uncomfortable. Both physically and socially.

I don’t travel to see the good restaurants or hot spots in the world. Although I do partake at times. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging anyone or putting myself above. I’m just noticing. But it is all relative to each person what that means. It’s just how I roll.

Hard travel when you CAN have a clean bed and a nice meal every once in awhile has that benefit of seeing a spectrum. Holding your feet to the fire knowing you can pull them back. Hopefully before you get burned. (Or get sick). THAT’S my drug. And I’m addicted.

I was sick for nearly two years. Now I’m not. I appreciate it. So I’m going.

After seeing my best friends (and now TWO god daughters) in Milwaukee, I’m meeting my brother Dave in Spain and Portugal for my very first independent travel in a non-English speaking country that is considered Western.

The plan is then Morocco, S Africa and the dream of a lifetime. Kicking around the mountains of Patagonia speaking Spanish and playing guitar.

Every single day will be a gift. How long? See ya when I see ya. But it will be awhile.

I have text and social media to keep in touch.

Para vivir yo necesito experiencias en otras culturas. Tengo suerte!

One last trip? Carpe diem?

Is it my last trip? Or is it the fact that I treat every trip as though it will be my last. Faced with declining health a few years ago, I was fearful I was done with venturing out to explore and learn more about the world with my backpack and (sometimes) guitar.

25 years ago I left Cleveland for a ten day trip with friends in Europe. I was hooked. A year later, I left Chicago. Unencumbered, with a few bucks in my pocket, I backpacked around the world for 13 months. Visiting five main countries.

My most recent relationship ended earlier this summer. During the deliberation process I had to decide between a relationship not serving my best interests and the life that I love.

Easy not easy. But it seems easy from this side of that decision now.

I now get to hoist my backpack again, in good health and completely unencumbered, for the first time in 24 years.

I have no job. No relationship. No dog. No grad school. Just some savings, a desire to continue writing my book, getting better at guitar and Spanish and connect with my brother Dave in Spain, my friends Andy and Jo in South Africa, my friend Chris in Argentina, and my friend Michael in Chilean Patagonia. All of that sandwiched between Joe and Jenny and my beautiful goddaughters Elena and Thea in Milwaukee to start the trip, and the incredible Solar Eclipse in Patagonia next July.

My place is sublet. My shit is (getting) packed. And I’m out. Click below for more specifics.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Yh-QWKGbm2Q

September 20th is liftoff from Bham. Hope to connect before I go. WordPress. Facebook and Instagram if you’re bored. Would love to hear from everybody. T-minus 24 days.

A throwback from Kathmandu nearly 12 years ago

As I prepare for a massive trip soon (More on that in the next week), I found an old email I sent while in Nepal that sums up my love for travel to some of these places. It’s below. I wish I could post my friend Carol Conzelman’s beautiful commentary. I will let her do it.

I. Can’t. Wait. To. Go.

Dec 2006 Kathmandu

Hello my friends,

Nothing like a quick dose of Asia to cure one of his self-absorbtion (if

that’s possible), loss of direction, and terminal American-ness. An

all-night flight to Delhi, little sleep there and a surreal flight for a

weekend in Kathmandu. Why a weekend you ask? Not about me, I answer.

I spent the afternoon at Hotel The Earth. It is now closed but the owners

still live there so I knocked, they answered, and they remembered me. Every

night I have ever spent in Kathmandu was spent there. Three trips (now 4)

over 11 years and maybe 20-some nights. I sent friends, girlfriends,

ex-girlfriends, anyone I knew to stay there. Maybe it WAS about me. Allowing

me to re-live experiences when my friends go there. My first time there I

had hair down to my shoulders. Now, almost none. The Nepalese seem vastly

different after 6 1/2 years (can you believe it?), 5 jobs, three

relationships and several cities.

The owners offered to let me stay, which I did for 5 minutes tongiht before

realizing Thamel (the tourist spot here) doesn’t close at 10 PM anymore. It

is packed with 16-25 year old Nepalese in Jeans and western clothes. Very

loud.

My perspective came when walking down the street (or at least it began) to go

see Sagar and his family. Tears started (and continue now) as I approached

the home of the family I have spent maybe 10 days total with and not seen

since Sagar was 13. Maybe it is the god-like status (I say that in a

self-degrading manner) that Bob Uncle (as they call me) has achieved because

of my many visits, friends that have come, and dollars turned to rupees I

have sent for school. I don’t know. I sat in thier home feeling like I saw

them yesterday; wondering how I could have any self-pity over my rough year

when the Mom is now an indentured servant in Kuwait, Sagar is second in his

class but must quit school to work, one daughter has dropped out to help,

and Sunil (the father) was in tears while telling me his hardship in broken

english. All the while feeling good about myself because they treat me so

well; savoring this “event” like I seek and savor so many others. The

addiction of traveling and moving. People rise up to make an effort when you

do. Well, some do.

Nepal has just come out of nearly ten years of civil war and near financial

collapse for many businesses. The group called the Maoists have supposedly

lay down their arms to join the political process after years of carnage.

Things seem lively aside from the swelling population of young people with

no jobs or prospects of any. Sagar is a black-belt in karate, very smart and

has just a beautiful heart. Why was he born in Nepal you might ask? Why was

I born a white-man in America?

The idealism of a place like this (and any for that matter) is shattered once

you get close to people that struggle. I mean real close. Enough to feel

their pain and feel it daily. Only when you leave to go back to your life

does it drift away and only pictures of mountains and foreign friends

remain. Sending a few rupees eases the pain, and the guilt, right? It

becomes an addiction. Makes you feel powerful. Allows you to go out and

drink, see music and have nice dinners because you might be paying $100 a

month to help with some kids school. Or less. It forces your consciousness

on you when you come here. Forces you to pay attention to the wastefulness

of our American lives, even though the mere consciousness of it does nothing

to alleviate the suffering of others. Or does it? Ask the Dalai Lama about

that one.

The overwhelming gift that I get from these people in Asia is the ability to

connect to another human being regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, language,

or socio-economic class. Their human-ness is right in your face. They

develop personality and love and kindness DESPITE abuse, pain, suffering,

and violence. Not that we don’t have those traits, we just just don’t relish

in our freedom to exhibit them. We tend to hide them whereas in some cases,

this is their only freedom. Their only form of expression. No government or

empty belly can tell them they can’t say “Namaste” and truly, as the phrase

means, “salute the god in you” without fear of reprisal and

misunderstanding.

Don’t take any of this the wrong way. I have enjoyed the ability to weave in

and out of these people’s lives at my choosing for ten plus years. To give

when I can, but in my mind, not nearly enough. That is a tough way to look

at it. However, I think the true gift I have received is the ability to feel

a connection and understand how hard it is to be a human being sometimes.

Only three days into my trip and already Asia is that vivid, wild and

beautiful example of the human condition that seems to drag me back forever.

Namaste and give thanks today. Off to Dharamsala in a few days and maybe

some pictures next time.

Love,

Bob

All things immigration

So I am  not traveling. Or working. But looking. And trying not to watch the news. But I must chime in if only to pacify my visceral need to explode on this issue.

First and foremost. The people that are coming across the border are people. And lots of kids. Kids that have no choice.

 

Second, we have an immigration problem and have for a long time.

My first job with Cintas Corp when I left college was in East LA in Pico Rivera in 1987. Wow. I was a management trainee for a uniform company. I worked the night shift. I did not know one soul when I drove my Ford Tempo to LA start my job. Found an apt. Drove in LA traffic to work. At the time, the “roach coach” or taco truck was high-end food for me. As was McDonald’s. I made ham sandwiches and microwaved Campbell’s soup. I was broke but my dad and mom gave me the gift of little college debt.

During my only three months at this job I worked hand in hand with, and sometimes supervised, many Hispanic workers. The first day, my supervisor said “go wash clothes with Eddie.” I used my college Spanish and loaded clothes and learned the plant life. I came in the next day and asked what I should do. My boss said “go work with David to tag rugs.” I was like “David?” He says yeah, “the guy you washed clothes with yesterday.” “But that’s Eddie”. “He was Eddie yesterday. Today he is David.”

Eddie/David was close to my age and befriended me. Obviously undocumented hence the name changing. Was kind. Showed the lily white college boy how to do the stuff that I would one day manage. We talked baseball. He asked me if I wanted to play. He invited me to meet him at the ball field in Compton.Yes, THAT Compton. To play. Nine innings and the only white dude. They accepted me. And my Ford Tempo!

In the late afternoon/evenings, I was forced to ride herd on the mid forties Hispanic women (again undocumented) folding the now clean shop towels (small hand towels used for industrial cleanups) to get done and get out of there before midnight. I would help sometimes and would chat about their lives.

One weekend my college friends were coming in. I had to get home soon on Friday night. But those damn shop towels! Couldn’t leave til they were done. I remember the woman’s face like it was yesterday. “Bob, we will get you out of here to see your friends” says the woman making about a third of what I make, a single mom, and undocumented. The 4 women busted their asses double time to get me out to before 10 PM to see my friends. They knew I wasn’t their boss. Just a guy.

So to start with. Our president says Mexico and other countries “aren’t sending their best”. I disagree. I also know we haven’t elected our best.

Do you think people travel 2000 miles anyway they can to steal and rape and sell drugs? No. “The Best” people in the world are those that are dealt a shitty hand, yet somehow persevere without changing who they are. They are still kind. They still treat people as people. That is their freedom. How they treat fellow humans.

Fast forward to 2015. I am living and volunteering  in Guatemala. In the small town of Nebaj, a crying mom I had met and worked with asks me to help her find the whereabouts of her son who was last seen in the northern deserts of Mexico trying to get to the US for work. I called the border prisons, tried everything. No word.

A gal I know here has a family that left everything in Honduras as they were threatened by gangs. She was able to marry her boyfriend and come. Now her family can come and will survive.

I hate making generalizations. But these folks aren’t coming here for our culture. They aren’t coming here for our food. They aren’t coming here for our politics or our reality shows or to test their mettle by crossing a desert with their children in the summer.

They are coming here because the life they have is untenable, unsafe, and unacceptable. They are taking a risk. They aren’t animals. Most aren’t criminals. They are people.

They are no different than seniors from the US who move to Ecuador to retire for cheap healthcare. The difference? Less cash, education and a grasp of the process.

THEY ARE PEOPLE. THEY ARE KIDS WITH NO CHOICE! DON’T PENALIZE THESE KIDS!

So yes, we have an immigration problem. It is solely economic and safety based. For years employers hired people that were undocumented. For years it wasn’t enforced. Now we have some guy in the White House that wants to demonize these people and separate families to make a point.

How about taking the $25 Billion for a wall and A. work with some of the other govts to create rural sustainable economic development or B. create a joint force to attack corruption and gang related activities? Not easy, but the long view.

How about cracking down on exploitative American companies that don’t pay living wages and employ children in these countries? How about setting up policies that don’t push down the poor even farther?

It’s complicated. It’s difficult. Elect people that have some compassion. We are talking about people here.

These people want to stay in their countries. How about we try to give them a reason instead of saying we will take your kids and throw you in jail?