A long slow stunning meander into the belly of Patagonia: The Coronavirus Chronicles

After our most recent PCR test in beautiful Hornopiren, Chile, we settled into a few days of waking while camped near the beautiful blue, fjord-like waters of our “wild-camp”. It’s something we tended to do on average 4-5 days a week. Getting an air BNB or cabin the other two days to clean up, wash clothes and re-supply. We also like to time it for bad weather.

Volcán Hornopiren, the town of the same name and normally dolphins greeted us on the first super clear mornings here; our rhythms becoming in sync with the growing tide changes.

One last night in the Air BNB To stock up on smoothies and veggies and stuffing ourselves with mostly farmed salmon they produce down here. Tough to find the wild caught.

We thought we had our information correct. Boarding the ferry in the morning, the angst set in. What if they turn us away?

As I mentioned before, there is one road from northern Patagonia to the south that runs about 1000 miles. The only way in is by ferry, or in non-pandemic times, crossing the Andes through a series of passes from Argentina that crisscross the worlds longest mountain range. Since we are in a pandemic, it’s one way in and one way out.

I know this sounds strange, but Camila said it feels like a police state. Our documents are checked, our temperature taken, our details noted, and off we go on our 5 hour water journey to the south. But if we make one mistake …

There are two ferry rides split by a 20 minute van ride that drops us into Caleta, Gonzalo at the top of beautiful Parque Pumalin.

Another checkpoint for some reason and a drive thru volcanoes had us settle into our free beach campsite in Santa Cruz near beautiful Chaitén; a city destroyed by its volcano in 2008.

We caught some sunsets with locals, climbed near one of the volcanos and spent time coordinating to get another PCR to move farther south. Huh?

On a weekly basis, the Chilean government publishes the state of the pandemic in each “communa”via their “paso por paso” program. Or “step by step.” By rating communas 1-5 (1 being quarantine and 5 being open), they control movement. 1 is basically lockdown and you can’t move on weekends. 2 is you can drive through but not stay. Weekend shutdown also. You can enter a 1 or 2 but you can’t leave a 1 or 2. And they change weekly. And as I mentioned, one road. Challenging ? Yes. You also must fill out a digital “sanitary passport” that shows where you stayed and where you are staying next. Scanned by the authorities. Quite the game and the dance moving south. Forget to fill it out while in cell service and back you go.

We tried getting through the checkpoint in desolate La Junta with our now five day old PCR. Result? Back you go.

We arranged another PCR in Chaitén and took in beautiful Futalafeu and the stunning river that bears it name. A breathtakingly beautiful 5 hour day paddle had us cold and exhilarated. More good food, a cool camp spot, a negative PCR and we shot through the La Junta checkpoint moving south once more.

A brilliant move of mine, driving through some standing seawater, had the van with some engine alarm lights. No worries, the next town of Coyhaique has a Ford mechanic I visited two years ago. Coyhaique was in Paso 2, it wasn’t a weekend, so we could stop but not stay. A quick checkup, a part ordered for our return north, fighting the grocery store lines before lockdown and south we went. Coyhaique went into quarantine 3 days later. Now we were in the “real” Patagonia. Small towns. Farms. Glaciers (well more of them). Wild and incredible rivers. Huge snow capped peaks. And the unique and beautiful Lago General Carrera.

This might be time to talk about water. There is a lot of it here. The Campo del Hielo in the Aysen region is the 3rd largest ice field in the world but contains the largest source of freshwater in the world. It’s also owned by Spain though Endesa, Switzerland vía a Xstrata, and the US via AES GENERA. I need not go into my 25 year-old philosophy that the farther an individual is from his/her money or investments, the more the planet suffers.

Your 401k has one of these companies via a fund? You paying attention? THE WATER IS OWNED!

I won’t go into the details of the proposed dams and protests that blocked them, but thankfully there are none right now. Burn water is a major issue. Even down here.

The next ten days we spent enjoying the ultra warm weather, day hikes to glaciers and lakes, and wild camping. A cabana in Puerto Rio Tranquilo allowed us to enjoy a warm night at the beach on Lago General Carrera (with no wind!), the enormous San Rafael Glacier, and a morning kayak trip on the lake.

Moving south again we enjoyed other views of the lake, a local swimming hole our kayak guide told us about and a few nights on the beautiful blue Rio Baker; which happens to hold the most water of any in Chile.

Let’s just say that fishing has not been a success for me and leave it at that.

Rolling south into Cochrane we got to experience it’s desert-like heat while finally seeing guanacos with huge glaciers in the distance. A day hike in Parque Tamango allowed to experience the rich diversity before calling an audible and heading further south to take advantage of the heat. 85-90 by day. 45 at night. We are close to sea level.

As we arrived at this beautiful camp run by a family on the banks of River Baker and its confluence with River Nadis, surrounded by snow capped peaks, we were like, “um, audibles are nice.”

For $5 a night to camp we could use the place. There happened to be other travelers there including two couples from Belgium we had met on the glacier boat. They happened to have purchased half a Cordero to cook in the quincho. Would we join them? Si!!

A little music and vino and sheep by the fire and we had our first social interaction (and hangover) in a long time. But it was a beautiful night and we used the next day as a rest day!

Having leftovers and soup with the 50 yr old German/Chilean owner, we heard her story. Landed here at 25, married a gaucho, had two kids, and built this “project.” No phone. No WI-FI. No mail. Nearest neighbor miles away.

I didn’t get the whole story til later, but I felt her sadness. Her partner had died recently and the 16 and 18 year olds were in Cochrane. Alone she didn’t have the energy for this beautiful ranch and garden. She said, “the next 25 years will be? Who knows?”

No guarantees huh? Live for the day. Carpe diem. All her dreams were close. But then they were gone. It made me sad.

As we headed south again with a mere 120 miles to go (yet 5 1/2 the map says) I was left to wonder how and when we may start north again.

The van can stay for as long as we want as during emergency times, they suspend the rules on time limit. Normally it’s 90 days but you can renew by simply crossing the border with Peru, Bolivia or Argentina. But they are all closed.

We found we could extend our visas by email for 90 days. But you have to pay the US$1 fee at a bank. Which there are none down here. Also, in a wild stroke of bad luck, Camila received her extension via email. With the wrong person’s info on it. And you can’t call them. Geez. Cmon man.

So we slowly lurched our way to Caleta Tortel and it’s town built on stilts. Wasn’t really friendly two years ago. Wasn’t again. But the weather was ridiculous. 20 degrees above the norm.

An hour drive the next day brought us to another ferry. A free one hour ride from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo. We passed the three hours waiting by chatting with the owners. The woman knitted hats. She loved my hemp Nepalese sombrero and my sisters knitted neck gaiter.

Off we went to make the last push to the end of the Carretera Austral; Villa O’Higgins. Of course we picked up our second broken down biker; jamming him and his bike in the back. Countless Chileans ( and one policeman) had refused to help this guy over the past 24 hours. We gave him grapes, water and air conditioning. We were out of booze.

Finally, the never ending roll into O’Higgins was there. The road is way better (though still just dirt) and a series of over looks, stunning weather, and waterfalls had us oohhing and aahhing the last hour. The final jaunt around Lago Cisnes was beautiful with many local folks actually lying on the beach in the abnormally scorching hot 85 degree weather.

We spent three days hiking and exploring this desolate town (at the same latitude south as Bellingham is north) of 700 that just had the road reach them 20 years ago. The Carretera Austral ends about 10 miles south of town on beautiful Lago O’Higgins. Having been built during the Pinochet years, this remote road has had positive and negative impacts on this part of the world that could be debated over beers forever. The gaucho culture is thick there and tourism brings both good and bad things. But generally, we met kind people and I felt a bit more connected to the place than I did two years ago when I took the most incredible flight of my life from here and stayed one day.

Our last day was a full one. Our hostal owner used Camila’s kind ear to lament about some of her life’s choices over a 90 min breakfast. We did a nice two hour hike above the city. We met a gaucho on horseback that needed some Camila therapy also (I’m lost after five min). We found a lost puppy and (sadly) returned him to his (dickish) owner. Not before we considered keeping him. Then we hopped on the 100 km dirt road to catch the small 1 hour ferry again that keeps the place remote.

As we approached the dock, the Chilenos leaving the arriving ferry decided to drive a bit faster than normal. One pickup truck hit the van hard. When I saw his cheap plastic fenders flying all over the place, i feared the worst. But my front end emerged nearly unscathed. We boarded the ferry like “what a fast moving day!”

As we start our way back north, we plan on hitting places we missed and visiting some we loved again. Van repair. More Lago General Carrera. Hopefully an over night trek. A ferry to Chiloe (we hope). Then? Quien sabe?

We are still the only foreigners down this far south. We have met two other couples that are foreigners (and only one that shipped their rig).

It is incredible that we get to enjoy this place with fewer people. I reiterate this wasn’t our choice. But we are really making the best of it. You wouldn’t think I’d have to say it, but we wouldn’t be country hopping and living in a van during a pandemic if we weren’t forced to. It truly was our only option last fall. Or stay

We feel lucky being to spend time together exploring a beautiful place that is stunning and truly unique. Breathtaking vistas and heart stopping mountains seen to await us at every turn. We have more summer still. Yet you never know.

The eclipse, finally some peace, and the old (new?) northern Patagonian Gaucho life: The Coronavirus Chronicles

“They’re partying AGAIN?” I ask incredulously as Camila and I settled into a Netflix show before we went to sleep. We had gone to bed around 11:30 and thought this New Year’s Day/hungover, gaucho/German group was done. The thumping music proved otherwise.

We last left you rocketing south in my van, dodging quarantined communities and filling out our “sanitary passports” to move between communities that actually allowed departing and arriving travelers. Not an easy venture in this super long and narrow country with only one major hiway north/south. We moved from Pucon, a stunning region of volcanoes and lakes, towards the coast; my angst constantly gnawing at me as it seemed we were going to get a storm at the exact day and time of the eclipse.

I had seen two. I wanted this for Camila. On her birthday.

We found a camping spot expecting 100 people and settled in for five days of rain, sun, wind and pseudo-outdoor time. The seafood is this town of Puerto Sevaadra was so good. Every time we thought of making pasta or soup, I said “hey, let’s get some Machitas!!” and Camila agreed.

Eclipse day came and we had this crazy storm sandwiched between two completely clear days. The Mapuche (the local indigenous community) has been hit hard by the virus but the eclipse promised an economic injection. The community was safe and kind in its approach to pando-tourism.

We were told that our spot was going to be the best chance for eclipse totality in Chile. I would have chosen Argentina and being on the dry side ( and seeing my Argentine friends) but closed land borders prevented that movement.

Eclipse time came as we ventured to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We had chosen that spot the day before on a stunning sunset evening and hoped for a mid day miracle. As totality neared, we had glimpses of near totality through the alternating thick and thin clouds.

As totality neared I kept saying “ I see a blue patch coming!” However, as totality hit and we were plunged into surreal darkness in this intense rainy, windy scene right out of “The Ring”, there was just enough clouds to prevent us from seeing the intense “black hole sun” that can be life changing. Camila was astounded at the changes. But she didn’t know what she missed!

We were told the Mapuche want nothing to interfere with the sun. It’s bad luck. So it certainly seemed they had a hand in the weather as it cleared completely a few hours after the eclipse. Fortunately it wasn’t ten minutes!!

Being the only travelers from other countries there, we didn’t mingle much. But did get to chat with some locals and make some friends for post-pandemia.

Heading south towards Patagonia we weaved our wave around communities locked down to get to the beautiful lakeside town of Frutillar and it’s volcano-ringed shoreline just north of where Patagonia and the Carretera Austral begins.

We found an old boutique guest house/hotel and reveled in the daily stunning sunsets and got some hiking in. The owner/matriarch was a kind woman of German descent ( many of the folks here are). She cooked us breakfast and shared her life story. Her kids are planning to turn this charming place on the cliffs overlooking the lake into an event center. Ughh. One night turned into three and we stocked up on our supplies and secured a cabin (really a dome) off-grid thru air BNB. We talked to the owner and got a reduced rate for a multi-week stay in a 40 year old property founded by her father.

As we crossed the tiny wooden bridge to the property in my big ass van, loaded down with a month of supplies and camping gear, her brother assured me it was okay. With all of eight inches on each side, I nervously accelerated.

The cracking and flying wood behind us fortunately did not destroy the bridge. Nor drop us in the river. But it did have us realize there wouldn’t be in and out privileges; especially after the mile and half jaunt thru the forest on a dirt road made for the suspension (and width) of a pickup. An intense 30 min slow roll thru the darkening forest had us arrive at this beautiful small lake with stunning snow capped peaks in the distance. We made it. Camila and I. Together. Finally.

No more flights. No more quarantines. No more PCR tests. No more time apart. I’m not getting kicked out of a country. She’s not prevented from entering a country by an opportunistic asshole president.

We can stop. And enjoy each other. For awhile at least.

Wait what? Other than the first two months of our relationship, we had been chasing for this moment. We are here.

I think we slept 16 hours a day the first two days. We were mentally and physically drained. But as we slowly realized how intense that was, we got to know the Venezuelan family who was caretaking this place of three cabins. 18 months ago, they had risked life and limb to illegally cross into Colombia and, along with 20-30 other refuge-seeking Venezuelans, jammed their two kids into a private bus that made the 40 hour direct 3000 mile journey to Patagonia in search of a better life; leaving older family members behind.

As we spent Xmas dinner with this family and heard their story, and thought of people griping about wearing masks in my country, I just couldn’t help but think Américans in general have lost all grip on reality. Or certainly live in a different one.

Our location is basically geographically and climatically like northern CA. Think the Eel River valley minus pot growers but with a border near Canada. No bears or snakes but the odd “prepper” who neither believes in the pandemic, nor the ability of society to survive it. Huh?

Gaucho country is full of friendly colorful multi generational families that focus on subsistence living. Well, if grilled sheep and stocked salmon is subsistence!

We dropped our stuff in the dome and explored the property. 300 or so acres of trees and rocks and meandering roads/trails to towns and other houses.

Camila and i settled into meals and smoothie making. I had jammed my Vita-mix into the secret van compartment (i learned the technologic shortcomings of blenders down here two years ago!) and, while we are on solar, figured how to run it low enough to mix our daily smoothies!

Our days consisted of exploring and meeting other rugged souls that live out here within spitting distance it seems of Argentina.

The place is ringed with giant glaciated mountains. But while we’re only at 600 feet of elevation, it feels like we are in Switzerland!

The beautiful El Puelo river crosses the border from Argentina thru a series of lakes and winds it’s way thru the verdant hills. We got lost walking one day and happened across the owners cabin perched over the river. Stunning!

He’s an approximately 77 year old German that’s lived here 40 years. Huh? His kids are trying to improve the place for tourism and expand. Sound familiar?

Wild animals are scarce. But pigs, horses and sheep are plenty. Just ask Camila. She was forced to climb a tree to flee an angry (or amorous) sheep and avoid being attacked. Or so she said. I laughed “sheep don’t attack people.” She assured me she was in danger. When I found the sheep in question, I patted his head but he looked at me with these piercing (and seemingly dead) expressionless eyes.

Like the “Night King” in Game of Thrones, his soulless eyes challenged mine. He seemed to try and push me with his head. I thought we had reached an understanding. I was wrong. As I turned to walk away, after three or fours steps, it felt as though someone had kicked me in the ass. A sheep? I thought only goats did that! Quite a shock. After another “attack” on Camila yesterday, we had another chat.

With very little, and certainly intermittent, cell service, I had to use my US number for phone calls, text and WhatsApp; almost never accessing the news to monitor sports scores or to keep track of our democracy-bashing asshole-in-chief and his Republican enablers. In case you didn’t know America, we are NOT a direct democracy. If Rs held both houses, we indeed would be concerned about what we just saw. Who would have thought Mitt Romney was the voice of reason!!

After 10 plus days of solitude, 20 or so folks from the gaucho side of the family descended on our quiet camp for a night (or three) of food, cheap beer, and thumping accordion-based traditional music.

They weren’t too interested in Camila nor I, but nonetheless were kind and sharing and let us partake in their fun. I got to share another moment with my sweetie at New Years and we stayed up to see the nearly full moon rise over the hills; making our way back to the dome around 2:30 am as the party seemed to just be getting started.

The next day, as we walked down to the lake, the riddled corpses of festive gauchos lay amongst beer cans, grilled fish and sheep remains (sadly not the Night King’s!); resting up for round two!!

Over the next several days, Camila and I explored the lakes and rivers and mountains, finally spending our first night in a tent together!, and got to know these colorful, spirited folks a little more deeply.

Finally deciding to leave, we needed WIFI. The youngish German/Argentine/Chilean guy owner whom I took a liking to (with his rapid fire Spanish I somehow was able to slow down and understand), invited us to camp at his house. We arrived yesterday to his three kids (with whom we connected with over New Years but now were un distracted.

They greeted us with cherry eating and showing us around their third generational farm of cows and ducks and dogs and horses and pigs and well, every back to the landers dream. All off grid.

The kids are adorable and we spent several hours with the gaucho clan that afternoon and the next day.

A day of community closures, more Covid test requirements and a stunning drive to Hornopiren (one I missed two years ago as it was as raining) have us back in 2-3 day planning increments. It’s not fun. But it’s fun.

As I watch the US news from afar, I am sick to my stomach over what’s happening there. We all knew it would come to this. If you still support the president, for whatever reason, you’re pathetic. Just admit you made a mistake and move on. And still…

I can’t wait until January 20th.

Rural Peru, false positive and the Van! The Coronavirus Chronicles

When we last left you we were on our way to Panama; executing a plan to make useful time of our ever-changing options while waiting for Chile to open. If you think that’s a mouthful, so was the process.

We spent two weeks in the jungle with the Geoversity group I had mentioned in my previous blog. Nice people and just getting started again after the COVID shutdown. We spent time in the garden, being Uncle Bob and Aunt Camila to the five kids there and trying to sample all the venoms of the various stinging insects that inhabit el bosque.

Nearly every appendage of mine seemed to have been stung or bitten at some point; spiders giving the worst reaction. With no electricity in the cabanas, we had to rely on mosquito nets instead of a fan; useless against no-see-ums. Lots of itching.

Hurricane ITA barely missed us. We got rain and wind, but just 150 miles north got about 10 times more than us. And sadly Nicaragua and Guatemala bore the brunt. Give money there to help if you can.

My 57th, yes 57th, bday was spent watching election returns and stuck in the jungle due to a flooding river. The ass whooping for Trump I had hoped for was not as large as needed for his juvenile brain to admit defeat, but enough to get him the hell out of our lives soon. But not soon enough. As I predicted in August, we won’t see him at the inauguration. This small man will likely resign to get pardoned. And he’s not big enough to contribute to the peaceful transfer of power the US is so well known for. You voted for him? Fine. But can we just move on? Just leave and shut up dude.

Back in Panama City, we had beers with my friend Myrna, and opted for a few days at the beach with A/C and fans so we could have a real sleep and a little more predictable schedule. And settle into our 4-6 day horizon for decision making. My van had arrived in Chile and the port was starting to charge me for storage. To discourage leaving things at the port, they double the price every week. Ouch. Please open soon Chile!

We spent a few days at a deserted surf town then made our way back to arrange for the obligatory COVID test for our next step.

With our negative test results, we flew to Peru to break up the seven hour flight from Panama to Chile. We arrived in Lima and tried to have a normal type trip while waiting.

After two days of Air BNB in the not so Peruvian Miraflores (and news that Chile was opening Nov 23rd) we opted to rent a car and explore a bit. A few days near the stunning desert landscape of Paracas allowed us to catch our breath.

We then decided to visit the Andes. The road didn’t look bad so, as usual, we were winging it when we stopped for a break at 3 PM. We realized we didn’t want to stay there that night and opted to push on to the next town that was nearly four hours away.

A crucial error/s at that point made the next four hours a tad nerve wracking.

As we climbed out of the valley and into the high Andes, I had neither filled up the gas, nor got a feel for the altitude we would be at. No matter how we searched for places to stay, there wasn’t much out there in rural Peru.

So as we got up to close to 16000 feet in elevation, I thought we would get over the pass and move down. With no cell service, we were not able to confirm the elevation of Ayacucho; our destination.

After about an hour at high elevation, i started to become concerned. With no downward trend in site, my head starting hurting. And we were low on gas.

Camila has spent most of her life at 9000 feet so she would have no issues. But if we ran out of gas and/or Ayacucho was at 12000 or above, I was in for a rough night since we had left from sea level that day.

As the sun was setting and we drove through a stunning landscape of high mountains, llamas, alpaca, cows, sheep and traditional Peruvian lifestyle, I had what I now know as a visual migraine. I’ve had them before, but didn’t know what they were.

Essentially, you get a rainbow or foggy vision in one or both eyes and feel a little shitty. And you can’t really see. Not good. They last 20-30 min or more but I didn’t know what was going on. Basically blinded, I pulled over and had Camila drive. And while she can drive, it’s not something she does daily; certainly not in the high Andes.

With the sun down and having re-established cell connection, we realized Ayacucho was at 9000 feet and we started going down. Once we passed the 12000 foot barrier my mind eased and hey, we can coast if we run out of gas right?

Well, as super dark night came quickly as only you can experience in the tropics, 35 miles from Ayacucho, the unthinkable for me occurred. We started going up again. How is that possible?

The grade increased and we rolled along these twisting, climbing mountains roads. The roads were narrow and they had these six foot drop offs to the right for rain runoff. If we run out of gas now, it could be dangerous. Nowhere to pull off. Would have to walk or hitch and get gas. Couldn’t turn around and even then? Just the stopping could be tragic. Rookie mistake.

Fortunately, after what seemed like an eternity, the grade changed to down again, the lights of Ayacucho became visible and there was a lonely gas station 20 miles outside of town. Crisis. Averted.

After a few nights in Ayacucho, we only really had one option back to Lima. Continue the rural slog on a now shittier 12 hours of road and rural communities. Over two days, this stunning drive along a river valley had us observe a traditional indigenous wedding, go for a swim in the river and get destroyed by sand fleas.

As we barreled down the mountain, before our last night outside of Lima, we crossed a railroad track and felt rental car tires hit the tracks. Hard.

I knew immediately what had happened. We had instantly blew not one but both right tires. I stopped. And of course there was a tire fixer dude right there. Camila joked with him if the railroad tracks were part of his business model as he jacked the car and did his work.

Once back at the airport the next day to drop the car, we were party to the scam that is rental car insurance in Peru (and likely other countries).

When I rented the car, I purchased insurance. The woman was adamant that I call if there was an accident and that I get a police report. Of course!

Last time I checked, hitting a pothole didn’t constitute a reportable accident. Upon return I was shaken down for cash. Lesson learned.

Back in Lima we prepared for our flight to Chile with the frantic task of timing our COVID test and filling out the appropriate Chilean documents.

We had everything prepared for our flight the next day to Santiago. We were just waiting to get our negative PCR tests back from the clinic and upload them! Easy right?

We got our emails from the clinic and Camila opened them. “Don’t freak out” she said with no emotion. “Ha ha. Don’t joke with me” I replied. “I’m not”, she replied.

With the intensity of waiting for a pregnancy test result, I said “positive? She didn’t blink. “Both of us?” then I said “me?” thinking I had had a slightly greater chance of exposure than Camila as she was more fastidious with her type of mask, hand washing and perhaps dog petting?

“Me” she says. “What?!!” I say incredulously? You’re joking.

The next 24 hours turned into getting flights changed, scrambling for a follow-up test to hopefully show the results that were provided by the “in-hotel” tests were wrong, and telling the port handlers in Chile our months long debacle in getting my van would continue.

The next day we went to a clinic, got retested, both were negative (but had to wait til night for resultados) and went on our way to re arrange everything and arrive in Santiago late Friday night; knowing our movements would be checked and scrutinized as the country had just opened for tourists and rules were changing daily.

Hotel near my buddy Chris’ house, checking in with the Chilean govt on our movements, and preparing to take the local bus two hours to the port (plus ANOTHER COVID test to allow for movement ) kept us busy. Monday morning brought the moment of truth. Picking up the van.

As will filled out the paperwork, the gal was telling us we weren’t getting it that day. Really? We only gave you like a months notice? Blah blah. The local guy made some moves for us and his father (a perfect English speaking septuagenarian) kept us entertained with conversation.

Since I had sandals and shorts on (no bueno inside the port) he said he would get the van and drive it out; accompanied by the office gal who seemed to know how to get shit done.

As Camila and i waited for what seemed an eternity, they come out and said “it’s dead. Won’t start.” I’m like “that happened two years ago and they jumped me. What’s the deal?”

COVID, gringo, blah blah. Okay. I’m going in.

Placing oversized boots on my sock less feet, helmet and yellow vest, Paula and I marched into the port; flashing credentials and passports as if we owned the place.

There in a lonely corner of the port lot, amongst large containers and no other vehicles, sat the van. It looked like a giant animal had taken a dump on it. All dusty and gross. As I opened the back door, it was obvious my luck of it being untouched the last time I shipped it did not continue.

Mattress and blankets strewn everywhere inside the dusty and dirty interior, I quickly took stock of what was there and what was gone. Okay. Blankets and pillows dirty but alive. Fridge. Good. They had messed with the seat/bed in the van below; likely trying to get at the fridge.

They stole my beer!!! Not having room for an extra six pack of Bellingham local Heliotrope IPA, I had stuck it under blankets on the side. Gone.

If you haven’t seen the van, I have a roof bed that cranks up to sleep. In a stroke of genius (it only took me three years to figure this out) I realized that I could fit a ton of things up there (basically laying things six to eight inches thick like solar panels and camping chairs and sleeping bags and tent etc) as it couldn’t be stolen without a massive amount of destruction (and knowledge it was there). I also installed a secret storage place where the spare tire was below the back seat that when taped down and covered by the camping fridge, was large enough to conceal a wild animal. Or in our case, an extra foldable guitar, a Vitamix, some freeze dried camping food, fishing gear And yes, another six pack of Heliotrope!

I grabbed my jumper cables, carefully attached them to my spare battery I use for the fridge and éxito!!! She started right up. I must have a short somewhere.

Armed with all the shit I didn’t have two years ago, we continued the govt process of monitored movements and, with our final negative Covid test in hand, spent five days with my friend Chris and his family in Santiago. Buying food, cleaning and preparing for the journey south. Packed efficiently, the van fits a lot of shit.

And so, after overcoming nearly every obstacle to be together and to be in central Chile for the total solar eclipse on Camilas bday Dec 14th. Six months of planning and waiting. God knows how many flights and COVID tests. One speed bump after another. We seem to have made it. She hasn’t wanted to kill me just yet. We navigated highly stressful times that didn’t seem super stressful as we seem to feed each other energetically. But cumulatively, it certainly was.

Unfortunately (and ironically), it’s supposed to rain for the eclipse. If the land borders weren’t closed, we would go to Argentina. But, they are, so we are not. We hope the storm moves thru and we get to see it. If not, we are pretty stoked and feel lucky to experience a beautiful place together in peace.

America: Love it or leave it? I’m leaving it for love. The Coronavirus Chronicles

As we lounged on the bed of our Air BnB in rural Bogota in late May, Camila and I listened to the entire album of Springsteen’s Born to Run, on shuffle. Having been nearly inseparable for over five months, she had received a steady diet of Springsteen and other “Americana” music.

We were contemplating our goodbyes, not knowing when we would see each other again, yet holding out hope we could create a life OUR way. Normally a benefit of living and working hard in western style countries. There was strangely no angst. Just sadness at having to be away from the one I adore.

Those of you that know me, know I have been a supporter of couchsurfing.com since 2007 when I started grad school at Humboldt State. I have hosted over 50 people at my house in Árcata and in Bellingham where I showed travelers the areas where I live. The premise is a free, local, verified and safe place to sleep and check out the area. It can be a social network too as I maintain friendships with those I have met years ago. Think free Air BNB.

While in South America in 2019, I couch surfed a few times and normally when searching for a host, I chose a woman.

Interested in yoga for many years, it is normally women in Latin America that practice yoga, there are fewer hosts and well, women tend to be more discerning with travelers for obvious reasons.

Arriving in Bogota early January of this year, I had built three days in to see the city on my way to Medellin for a month of Spanish to enhance my consultant opportunities. After two days of exploring, I wanted to stay with a local in Bogota before I left for Medellin.

Searching through couchsurfing, there was one person that had an interest in yoga, travel and outdoors (not easy in a big city) and I sent her a request to stay.

When she opened the door, this five foot tall attorney for the military, used to having extreme boundaries set up for men, was gracious in her welcome and showed me my couch. We launched into an hour long conversation in Spanish about her job, my career, her family and our common interests.

Asking me if I wanted to walk down the street for tacos (of course), I started finding myself drawn to Camila. We switched to English (I had no idea she spoke it) and started connecting more. A night of running into her cousin and her old friends and fun and dancing (me wearing my old guy travel outfit of hoodie, long johns, shorts and sandals with socks) at a club only strenghtened our connection.

Having to leave for Medellin the next day was causing me angst. Who is this woman? Raised in completely different cultures, how could we possibly see the world the same way? And will i miss out on a potential relationship?

I had built a one day buffer into my schedule, I changed my flight, and the rest is history. We maintained our relationship over the next month (needless to say my Spanish suffered) by weekends together and then I came back to Bogota after the Spanish class. We planned to travel together in Colombia when her vacation started and after my week long sojourn thru the southern part of Colombia (with a completely spontaneous spiritual Ayhuasca session. Look it up), we met in Cartegena. No work, no school, we traveled and even went trekking for four days to Ciudad Perdida; the Lost City. Although only climbing to maybe 4000 feet, the stunning 20,000 foot snow capped peaks showed their heads on occasion and i dreamed of someday visiting their beautiful spires, only 20 miles from the coast!

Four days of being led by a local indigenous guide (who called the white man “little brother” since we are intent on fucking up the world with our greedy habits), we got to explore their ways and have our first experience together. We also were unaware the world was about to change.

At the end of the trek as we finished our lunch and jumped into the jeep for a return to the beach, Camila mentioned she wasn’t feeling well. By the time we got back to the hotel, the puking began. Having many puking treks under my belt, I knew the approach to take. Wait a bit.

Camila got worse and was puking every few hours. Finally, with my bad spanish we got a ride to the local pharmacy. Supposedly there was a doctor there that could help. Closed.

It was now pitch black out and we were informed that the nearby “clinic” was 30-40 minutes away along a notorious “narco” hiway. I negotiated (poorly) a tuk tuk to take us to the clinic. They checked Camila and gave her several very unsanitary IVs (I mean the nurse literally took an empanada delivery while putting the needle in.)

Returning to our hostal, her wave-like symptoms continued as did the puking. Okay. We gotta leave. The 2 hour bus back to Santa Marta (the nearest hospital) had me feeling a bit better as to her care. She was amazing.

No help there as the tests were negative and antibiotics I gave didn’t help. Okay. Back to Bogota and a big hospital.

At this point we knew there was good care, I got to meet Camilas parents and we spent one of our few nights apart as she stayed in the hospital and I in her apartment. More tests. Day 7 of no food and constant puking.

For some reason, other than a short relapse, the problem resolved itself the next day. While at the hospital in early March we were hearing of this coronavirus thing coming there. Uh oh.

Camila went back to work and we pondered our future. We had become extremely close during the illness and I started meeting her extended family.

News of the virus worsening had Bogota contemplating a “simulated lockdown”. Camila said let’s get out of here, I can work remotely. We will return after the simulation.

I grabbed my guitar and backpack, a few changes of clothes and we secured a quiet air BNB an hour outside of bogota amongst strawberry farms.

Well four days turned into 6 weeks there and two weeks elsewhere as we clandestinely moved around a country in complete and total lockdown.

Our days consisted of an early rise for stretching and meditation, Camila working and me out for a hike with the five farm dogs. Only allowed to visit the town for groceries once or twice a week, I would grab my empty pack and, making sure the doggies didn’t follow me, made the 30 min walk to get supplies.

I was pondering at this point what to do. I meet someone that shares my life view and whom I adore, but i can’t stay in Colombia for four more months. Or indefinitely. Hmmm

Well, changing my humanitarian flight home 2-3 times and discussing our future, i was stressing about leaving someone I didn’t want to leave. Ultimately, our relationship going super well, we decided the time was now for me to head home. Late May.

This could be just the longest story so I’ll try and keep it short.

The fear of never seeing Camila again was there. But we were committed to keeping our relationship close and normal until Colombia re-opened. Projected for September.

During our time together, we had discussed Camila coming to the US. It was then, through research and immigration lawyers, I got a closer look at Donald Trump’s (and Stephen Miller’s) sinister plan to stop as much immigration into the US as possible.

Right after Trumps inauguration in 2017, while most were focusing on his “Muslim ban”, he and Stephen Miller instituted a required in-person interview for visas from most countries that were non-European. Taking a page out of suppressing abortion in Texas and other states (sure you can get one but there are no providers), Trump and Miller slowly and quietly cut funds and staff for immigration of nearly any kind. Before the Coronavirus, the wait for just an interview in Bogota was over three months!

Now if i have any right leaning friends left that read my posts, I ask you, “do you have any immigrants in your family or inner circle that have enriched your life?”

An Italian immigrant that makes wine? An Nepalese Sherpa you met in Colorado? A Germán brewmaster like my great grandpa? An Irish musician that you share beers with?

Throwing down the gauntlet against nearly all immigration, including visitors, is the one thing that makes me want to leave our country. Hey, I understand we have an immigration issue. I also think I have a pretty deep understanding of the immigration issues. And I have some ideas for solutions. But blocking all visitors makes our increasingly ethnocentric country even more so. And demonizing those that want to enter our “shithole” country at times for reasons beyond their control does no one any good. And quite honestly i don’t want to live in a country that wouldn’t even consider a woman for a simple visitor visa that is more educated and worldly than 80% of the US population. Just because the president thinks that way. That makes us weak and self centered.

So back to my 120 days of torture. We spent days and nights apart on ZOOM cooking together, doing yoga and watching movies. I tried to stay active between back injuries and catching up on my life. Mountains and kayaking. Garden and house repairs and roommate swaps. All the while stressing out that come September, Colombia may still be closed.

After September 1, several flight cancellations had me flying to Florida to visit my aunt and uncle, and sitting in Miami waiting for that first flight to Colombia. I had addressed my house and health issues, shipped my van to Chile, and prepared myself to be with Camila without a plan.

Landing in Cartegena on the very first non humanitarian Colombian international flight in nearly 6 months (the Colombian president met the flight!), tears welled up in my eyes. We made it. Now it’s all good.

A week on a semi-deserted island to reconnect and plan our escape was bookended by a few nights in beautiful (and deserted) Colonial Cartegena.

We made it back to Bogota to get Camila out of her apartment and help her finish quitting her job (both things planned before she met me). Leaving her job required 11 signatures including the Minister of Defense. Leaving her apartment one month early required 6 trips back and forth from her parents house to Bogota to deal with moving, painting the place and the difficult management companies. To make things a little more interesting, I was slowly approaching my six month annual visa limit in Colombia. AND my van was on the slow boat to Chile. And guess what? They aren’t open for foreigners yet!

Fortunately, Panama opened for foreigners last Monday so these COVID refugees have a plan. We are going to visit a group in the jungle of Panama called http://www.Geoversity.org with whom we connected thru my friend Myrna back in April. It’s a potential work spot for us both. And we can chill and help out until Chile opens. Hopefully.

So why the whining Bob? Well it would have been nice to simply have Camila come to the US. Yeah I know COVID has changed things, but these ridiculous policies were in place before. And your republican politician friends have stood by and said okay to every dickish policy move made by a man, while clever and rich, has a room temperature IQ and the heart of a Tin man.

But Bob you’re an American! Yeah but I’m a human being first. And that man is inhuman. Climb onto any justification you want. You’re a lifelong republican. You like some of his policies. He’s right about China. So what? He’s an ass and no one can disagree with him or his pathetically useless family without being labeled dangerous or stupid.

You heard it here first. I’ve voted. He wins re-election? I’m out. Selling my house and living elsewhere. And it’s not because I can’t deal with that asshole. It’s because I don’t want to live in a country that has decided decency doesn’t matter and 35% of the population is okay with that. That disagreement with someone means war.

I’ve checked myself closely when i disagree. You’ll see my tone doesn’t attack those that disagree. Except for him of course. It attacks the idea.

I didn’t say his people are bad just because they voted for him. Sometimes twice. I’m just saying we have different values and I’m a spoiled white American who can make these choices. I’m fortunate enough to get to choose my life. And certainly you can argue as an American, that luxury was foisted upon me. Likely. But it’s not written in the Constitution, or the Bible or whatever book you choose as your gospel for living, that your allegiance to your country is unconditional. Or that you must stay there. Just because I happened to be born here. It’s a choice.

Make it better, people shout! Easy to say except when you can’t agree on simple decency. There was a day when I could disagree on policy with my republican friends. But most would denounce the KKK.

Joe Biden has flaws. Yet he knows it. And he will seek consensus and at least attempt to find common ground. He’s not radical enough for me, actually. But at least I’m not afraid if my 10 year old nephew sees his speech. And his policies don’t go far enough to offset dramatic economic divide, a broken healthcare system and environmental devastation. All those policies along with common decency are more important than money to me. Well actually nearly everything is more important than money to me.

I won’t renounce my citizenship. I’ll visit my family and friends. But I won’t even attempt to smooth over the massive rift I will have with a country that won’t even give Camila and I chance together. Even if we were married, the wait time for a visitor visa is well over a year. Just to visit! Yeah. That’s the country I wanna live in. Nope.

So vote. Not for me. Vote for the ability to disagree based on fact and logic. Vote for decency. Vote for honest discourse. Vote for the ability of all to have a voice and a vote. Vote for humility. Vote for strength through compassion. Vote for fairness. Vote for truth. Vote for democracy. And I hope we see you next year!!

A country now built on duplicity

Saying you’re doing something for one reason and doing it for another. We are all guilty of that at some point in our lives. It’s called duplicity.

As a Buddhist, I have spent most of my adult life trying to have my thoughts, intentions and actions in line with each other. To avoid duplicity. I fail a lot. When I’m called out on it I will usually agree and try and do better. And try not to be duplicitous.

As a country, the United States is now firmly entrenched as the country of duplicity. And we reward it. From invading Iraq for “weapons of mass destruction” to Apple giving you a more efficient operating system even though it makes your currently useful iphone, well, not useful. Because Apple wants it that way.

Our politicians have always talked out of both sides of their mouths with few exceptions. Hypocrisy is the norm.

But now we are in full-fledged “I can say whatever I want and then just say I changed my mind or thats not what i meant to suit the politics” mode. And the WORDS ARE RIGHT IN FRONT OF US!!

Anyone that suffered through the Clinton Impeachment and Iraq War (and was forced to debate the topic with me) can easily find sound bites with current politicians and lawyers simply saying the exact opposite of what they said with respect to impeachment to suit their needs.

That’s hypocrisy point blank. I see it everyday. But the duplicitous nature of “we don’t need witnesses because” or “the president believes it in the best interests of” and “I said THAT because” is simply the result of our country being built on capitalism and the ability to bait and switch life in general. Money talks. That bullshit meter went off the charts when the king of bullshit was elected president in 2016. And we got what we deserved.

But now, it’s moved into the “I can do what I want just by making up a reason that seems plausible, but is in no way defensible except by creating an alternate reality and set of facts and reasons”. And it makes me sick to my stomach. No reasonably minded person can sit there and say Trump didn’t extort Ukraine.

However, a reasonable mind may question whether he should be removed from office for that. Personally, I think he should have been censured (the same position I had with Clinton). However, AFTER the phone call with Ukraine what he and the administration has done to basically say F you to the whole country is unconscionable. And if you support it, you’re full of shit. Just as he is.

Wait, no witnesses? Clinton has to testify about a blowjob. I didn’t feel my security was at risk. But you’re not gonna call the one guy (or more) that gives us clarity? That’s an insult to me and makes me ashamed to be an American. Ashamed. Our full on bullshit that we spew around the world about Human Rights, the environment, economic development. That’s one thing and we’ve always done it. But the curtain has been pulled back in plain site to show our government does this domestically too. And are good at marketing the bullshit. To the people of our country.

America. You’ve been openly lied to and gamed. If this was Obama he’d be impeached. And I’d support it.

Quit lying to yourselves republicans. You will let ANYTHING happen to get what you want. Anything!Be it higher stock prices, lower taxes, or eliminating a women’s right to choose (which by the way is the worst way to reduce abortion).

But in duplicitous fashion, you will create some other fake reason to justify it. And THAT my friends, is Donald Trumps specialty. And Bill Barr’s and Lindsey Graham’s and Alan Dershowitz and Mick Mulvaneys. To be clear Lamar Alexander, we didn’t necessarily want him removed, we wanted the truth. And that is now a completely scarce commodity in our country.

Nepal and Bhutan: The backstory

I am never really sure who reads this. Nor if anyone finds it interesting or amusing. And certainly my last month was pretty incredible. It still seems surreal when I look at the pictures. It is a dreamland for me up there. However, there is so much more to this place than trekking. It is my spiritual homeland (meaning the Himalayan region) and I just feel at home here. Even though I know it is not a place I will ever call a permanent home.

Maybe that is the gift it always gives me. Impermanence and the appreciation of the impermanent nature of our existence. We are all gonna die. So live your life the best you can.

If you have heard the story of Sagar and his family here in Nepal, indulge me, it is a nice one.

Gary Chantrell, an old friend of mine from Canada, was a kayaker working the rivers back in 1995 when I first set foot in the country that stole my heart. We became friends and linked up again in 1998; planning to travel to Tibet. He had to cancel, but still met me in Kathmandu. He asked me if I wanted to go to a tea shop he frequented that was across from the hotel he used between river trips. It was then I met Sagar and his family.

Sagar and his family and I started a relationship over the next 20 years that continues to get stronger. But my main relationship and friendship has been with Sagar. I think he was 12 back then.

We corresponded over the years. He got to see me go thru life changes and losses. I got to see him try to deal with life growing up in Nepal. I returned several times and always sent friends visiting Kathmandu to see the family. Always sending a bit of love along the way.

Between 2000 and 2019 I saw Sagar a total of three days; including 1 day two years ago. Yet somehow we have maintained this strong, surreal bond. He now is married with a child and is living with his family after many years of working in Dubai and sending his earnings home to help survive in Nepal.

I stayed with the family, even though Sagar was gone, in 2017 for nearly a week; getting to know his wife and daughter and re-connecting with his parents. He arrived home for his twice yearly leave the day before I left Nepal to come home. One night.

This year I got to stay with them for a week and enjoy their lives and struggles and laughs and re-connect. Settling into daily Nepali life before my trek. It truly is a luxury to get close to people here when you started out just as a dirty backpacker. It is also sad as you have to say goodbye after you get close and glimpse their lives firsthand. Good and bad. But it is the nature of travel for me. And I feel lucky to drop back into my friend’s lives and drink up the closeness and connection; knowing I must leave. Impermanence again. Enjoy it while you can. And I do. I will miss them til next time.

Bhutan is a different story. Chhimi and I became friends in Grad School at Humboldt in 2009. He knew my love for the Himalayan region immediately and as a Buddhist, I had a lot to learn. We have stayed friends of course and this most recent 11 day stay before I come home was my 4th.

In September, I came here attempting to use my background to be more useful to the land I know and love. It took awhile. My whole month here before Nepal was spent living with Chhimi and his family. I mean, I have adopted families all over. And since everyone but his wife’s parents speak English, I was in full Uncle Bob mode with his three kids. And they are all tons of fun. And i got to get close with his wife Seday and strategize with her on her travel company. I adore them all. And I am sad to leave.

I came back these last 11 days to try my hand at “formal” consulting. As you may have read in one of my previous blogs, there is a new microfinance firm here and after meeting them in October, we agreed I would help them develop a strategy in exchange for them covering my costs; mainly flights and hotels.

Well. IT. WAS. AWESOME. Having caught a cold my last day in Kathmandu, I connected with the main microfinance firm in Kathmandu (referred by a fellow trekker i met up near Everest) to bounce some regional ideas off of him before I hopped a flight from Kathmandu to Paro to pass right in front of the incredible mountains where I just spent nearly a month.

I landed in Paro, Bhutan, grabbed a shuttle bus, and returned to the capital Thimphu; 6 weeks later and many degrees colder than when I was here last! My cold intensified. Two nights in Thimphu for meetings then, as my cold shifted into an upper respiratory shit show, I grabbed my five hour bus to Phoensholing; my all-time favorite border town near India.

Getting denied by the Bhutan banks (again) had me walking the streets of Jaigon, India late at night, looking for a damn ATM that had both money AND would take my ATM card. Denied! But at least its warm as P ling is only at about 1200 feet in elevation. Nice.

My six hour bus to Tendu (that was where I was going to meet with the microfinance guy I met before, Ugyen) left late enough in the morning for me to grab some rupees at an ATM (wandering the streets with a nice local guy looking for the same) and avoid a bus problem or something that would require more than 5 dollars in rupees. Which is about all I had left. And I am glad I did. Because the bus broke down and me and my now wheezing body had to figure out a way to get to Ugyen’s town. But not before I played some music with my fellow stranded passengers.

Getting picked up by a local and his family we pressed on to the remote town of Tendu, right near the edge of the “chicken neck”; a strategic stretch of land near Sikkim that both the Indian and Chinese militaries find important.

It is a really beautiful valley that is green and mountainous at about 3000 feet. Still nice weather and a mix of Indian, Nepali, Sikkimese, and Bhutanese cultures. As we pulled in right around sunset, Ugyen met my sick, travel-weary body and ushered me into his home.

He wife and adorable 2 year old met me with friendly smiles and served me up my favorite dish (well really only dish) Emma Datse. Rice and chilis!

I lamented my cold was on day 5 now and I was concerned the cough was getting worse. Ugyen suggested a home remedy of whiskey and ginger tea. Why, of course!

The next two days was spent with me and my new friend strategizing, me sleeping when tired and just enjoying his cool little farming town.

Ugyen and I see eye to eye on many things in life. And he was gracious enough to connect with me intellectually and emotionally when I wasn’t coughing up my lungs between naps. Somehow, I was able to get what I needed to perform my services.

Finally starting antibiotics on Day 8, the ride back was easier and i settled into recording my ideas for my presentation to their management team.

In short (as I did in my thesis), I advocated for the microfinance company to work with fewer communities, but to make a commitment to those communities and to go deeper. To use finance as a tool to solve community problems and to reside in the community as Ugyen does. To develop such a strong bond of trust within the community that you can act as an advisor and, since the person would know the community so well, become the point person for all NGOs and government liaisons that want to work there. The community wins and you win. They loved it. And they are going to implement it.

So finally, with all of my “informal” work I have done both in grad school and Mexico and Guatemala and my community, I got to sink my teeth into something “formal”. And it felt great.

My love for this area (and the desire to work with indigenous populations) was a big motivation for grad school. Many of my ideas are lost on climate change folks or they are disinterested. But the ideas work in many communities. Relationships. Small markets. Win-Win. And man, Buddhist economics.

Bhutan is truly a unique country. As I get to know the folks there better, the deep richness (and the closed feeling) of their culture becomes more and more understandable. It is hard to “break into” the culture as every day there is some sort of ritual it seems and it is a family-centric place. Yet, I felt incredibly welcomed there. It seems everyone in this 800,000 person nation is related!

Somehow, this place felt super familiar to me once I was leaving. Again, it is hard for me. I love it there. I connect with the people. I have friends. I understand how things are done. But I know I can’t live there. It wouldn’t work. But I can continue to return and now feel super useful. And celebrate my impermanence. And the impermanence of everything. Enjoy!

I have had people ask me, “are you gonna go back to work?” Well, I AM working in my own way. Or “how do you DO this? Are you made of money?” Well, no. I have no kids (and no ex-wives) and simply saved my money and spent less than I made. And I have no investments in the market. While in Nepal, we trekked for about $8-15 a day. I use air miles to travel when I can. My place in Bellingham is financially self-sufficient and I rent to friends at below market rates while I travel. I am healthy. And feel empowered. It seems simplistic and normal for me. I live pretty light but can splurge once in awhile. I feel fortunate.

The people of this region have given me so much. And I am finally giving back. Finally. And my next move is Colombia for Spanish in my quest for fluency. In a perfect world, I can consult in both the Himalayan region and Latin America. A dream.

Kuzudgonpola. Tashidelek. Namaste. And now, Buenos dias!

I love you all.

The Everest 3 Passes Trek Part 2: Namche, up, over and back to Namchef

I was staring at a nearly 350 meter (1200 foot) straight up climb to get to our first pass: the Renjo La. I’d been over this 5360 meter (17.585 foot) pass the opposite way two years before. I remembered the descent. The whole climb from the town where we slept was 1200 meters (nearly 4000 feet).

I had puked my breakfast (and seemingly the previous night’s dinner) up for some reason right before we left. I didn’t feel horrible, was acclimatized, and really had no option. Let’s go!

After the first 350 m of the climb, it was obvious I had no gas in the tank. No matter what tactic I took, every step lacked energy. And man, I knew how far we had to go that day. There was no way I was turning back. Txaber tried pacing me to no avail. I was gassed. My pack was lighter than 30 lbs. What was going on?

The last 200 meters of straight up, stair-like climbing nearly killed me. But, the pass in clear weather is stunning with Everest right in your face as you cross. I somehow made it. But I was not happy. Even standing among the clouds with a million dollar view, there was no jubilation. We quickly snapped photos and took off for the valley.

I knew I was not right as the normal ten minute recovery basically took several hours after we finally descended to beautiful Gokyo. I had no idea what the problem was since we had been trekking now for two plus weeks.

We had decided to try the 3 passes trek and do it clockwise. It’s the Buddhist way (they go around all sacred places clockwise) and a French trekker told us that, while substantially more difficult in the clockwise fashion, the views are better and after the first pass we would be acclimatized. Fearless (and apparently ageless in my mind) for some unknown reason, we opted for that direction.

After resting the next morning and storming up Gokyo Ri (5357 meters. You do the math!) without my pack for another incredible sunset hike (tough to top the one from there two years ago) I figured, eh, I was just out of shape, the pass is high, blah, blah. But it was incredible again!

Setting out for Pass #2, the Cho La, we opted to go direct from Gokyo in the morning, crossing the challenging Ngozumpa glacier for two hours of up and down before we arrived at Dragnag at the base of the climb.

I had crossed Cho La in 1995 in the opposite direction. I remembered it was challenging but unfortunately, we climbed in cloudy weather so I was denied the views that awaited me.

The first step up the trail as it started to climb from the valley I felt it. WTF? No energy again? I can’t be out of shape. I’ve been hiking two weeks! I’m acclimatized. I don’t have the shits. What’s wrong? You go ahead Txaber. I’ll make it.

The Cho La is a double dip pass. As I crossed the first dip, I could see the daunting scree-like face of the real pass about 2 km in the distance; it’s 350 m climb seemingly beating me down before I even got there. Txaber knew. I knew. I was done. How the hell am i gonna get over that? We aren’t turning back. Looking back, I don’t know how I climbed it.

Having already ingested my “emergency” candy bar, I dropped into an even deeper sense of purpose and focus than the Renjo La demanded.

Working on my breathing and a rhythm, we weaved our way through the boulder-strewn path to the base of the massively steep final climb; now secured with braces and wire to help people climb.

Slowly I dragged my energy deprived body and my 30 lb pack over each boulder and chain; counting steps as I went to create the little micro-goals that would allow me to catch my breath and give me hope. Okay, 30 more steps. Okay, only 20 this time. Rest. Breathe.

As we hit the pass, even the incredible beauty of Cho La and the next valley could not make a dent in my suffering, frustration and concern. What the hell is wrong with me? THIS. IS. NOT. FUN!

As we skirted down along the next glacier (thankful for the mini-crampons that a couple gave us coming the other way), the valley below opened in all it’s glory. Wow! It sucks I missed this 24 years ago! It was awe-inspiring; allowing us to see the village of Dzongla 3 km in the distance and perhaps 600 m lower. The towering peaks all around us, it was stunning. Even in my exhaustion.

I was in my head. And it wasn’t a fun place.

I dragged my ass into Dzongla not knowing what was going on. What’s wrong with me? Me no-likey.

We decided on a rest day of only two or three hours the next day. There is an Italian research pyramid up at 4800 meters that has rooms and a kitchen. Slightly more expensive than normal tea houses, but a tad warmer (as outside temps were well below freezing) and a nice break.

I had noticed stomach issues over the last few days and a feeling of sickness. But since I had not puked again and wasn’t shitting, I had stayed the course. However, my gut (no pun intended) told me something was wrong. I started the anti-biotic cipro that night; cramming two doses in overnight.

I slept in an extra hour while Txaber went up to Everest Base Camp. I was recovering and still have a bit of an issue with the mountaineer scene. He wanted to see the Khumbu icefall. I decided against it.

Meeting him at noon in Gorak Shep, I felt renewed and ready to tackle the famed Kala Pattar; the 5643 meter lookout by Everest that I climbed in 1995. Also in cloudcover; thus seeing nothing.

Again without my pack for the day hike, I felt awesome til the last 100 meters but powered through it. We were rewarded with a magical night of the highest peaks in the world, little wind, and a crescent moon. It was simple otherworldly. I was giddy with delight.

Scampering down in the dark to eat and sleep at 5164 meters, I felt like I was back. Bring on the last and (was told) hardest pass; the Kangma La.

The Kangma La is about as high as Kala Pattar at 5535 meters, steeper in most sections, and a straight up climb after, you guessed it, another glacier crossing. This one the Khumbu glacier.

Having missed the correct entrance to the glacier, we boulder hopped and scrambled for 90 minutes before we started to climb. Great. Last time that happened I felt dead.

We attacked the pass full on and I felt strong. Confident the Cipro killed the bug that was making me feel weak.

Little did I know the beauty and wonder and majesty that was awaiting in the next valley.

Crossing that pass into a valley I’ve never seen or experienced was like an out-of-body experience. And as we slowly descended the pass to the Chukhung Valley, with the glaciers and peaks and yaks, the enormity of this good fortune struck me like an avalanche.

I stood, hands on my head, tears in my eyes, absolutely stunned at the beauty of this valley. Me feeling better. Me knowing I’m fortunate to do this. And just trying to drink every last drop of the magnitude and surreal beauty of this place. Right there. I wanted to hold it, save it, and figure out a way to communicate it. It blew me away. It was at that moment all the pain became worth it. I didn’t want it to end. I couldn’t continue walking. I just wanted to see. And to feel. And I did. Txaber caught this moment also. And trust me, tears were shed. Of all sorts and types.

With the valley fog rolling in and it getting cold, we slowly walked down the valley to get to Chukhung at 4730 meters.

The next day, we opted for the morning hike to the Chukhung Ri lookout instead of sunset. A gal we met hiking said it was only 90 minutes up. Bob made several crucial errors. One was forgetting I had no real rest after the pass. The other is I continued my ritual of a small breakfast. Finally, I brought no water or snacks with me; feeling a tad over-confident from my previous day’s pass.

I crashed. Hard. The climb to 5550 meters took me a full hour longer than Txaber; by farour biggest gap. I would have turned back if Txaber wasn’t there or if it wasn’t our last goal. I pressed on in the windy cold weather. Done. Again.

My travel buddy, Txaber, waited in the cold and wind with the dog that followed us so we could snap our last pic together up high. What a champ!

We descended to town for lunch, me knowing that I crushed three of the big hikes up high but was massively humbled by the other three.

It reinforced to me that it’s the journey not the destination, but you really need goals sometimes to get you over the rough spots. Indeed.

Our remaining days were spent descending the never-ending drops to Namche Bazaar to gather some things; enjoying smaller villages and bask in the Sherpa way.

Walking into Namche the last day alone (Txaber and I were just going at our own pace) was just incredible with sun and little wind and beautiful peaks all around. I just love that town; for so many reasons I’ve explained before. Again, just hiking and smiling and a bursting heart.

There is really no way to truly explain my relationship with this place. As much as I try. It is really several relationships. There are if course my close friends in Kathmandu. There are the lower elevation towns with their deep Hindu roots. Very similar to India. There is an anticipation when you start very low, just knowing the dramatic scenery and completely different way of life the people high-up live.

When you hit the Sherpa culture as you get higher, things shift. The deities and artwork and food and culture all shift towards a more Tibetan feel. Txaber was patient in my desire to explain the differences and to point out subtle changes as the two types of religions do have some overlap.

As you finally get into the high mountains and are literally smacked in the face with stunning, breathtaking beauty, the culture fades a bit. It becomes more tourist-based. But if you know what you’re looking for, you can still glimpse the culture. Ask for Shuja (butter tea) up high and you get quite the smile. Say Tashidelek or toochay (thank you in sherpa and Tibetan) and the energy you receive back is worth it all. Walk clockwise at those mani walls. Give and you get. Always, it seems. And in this place, you get even when you don’t give. And that’s why I love it here. And keep returning. And keep being sad to leave. It’s just…..different.

In Namche, we grabbed the few things we had left and crashed out, exhausted. Ready to hike out the rest of the way.

After spending 25 days in the Himalayas and hiking over 280k, mostly with a backpack, it’s normal for the whole journey to take awhile to sink in. And truly I blog to allow me to process what I just experienced.

We basically climbed enough to have scaled Everest 2.5 times. Up and back. The demand on my body was incredible. But not really. Soreness but no real pain. And that’s truly amazing knowing, until a few years ago, I had chronic knee issues, when I left the US my foot was still bad from a fall in Patagonia (thanks Ed Deboo! The best PT in the world and my good friend) and I had hurt my back pretty bad just about two weeks before the trek (thanks again Ed for your cyber therapy!) I ain’t young and had only hiked about 15 days with a pack in the last four months. Yet my body responded. And so did my mind. And I have to be honest with you. Three of those hikes were the worst I’ve felt in my life trekking. I wasn’t loving it and I had to use every ounce of mental strength to get over the passes and up to the lookout.

I joke that it’s all mental….til it’s physical. But in this case, my mental seasoning on tough climbs (and having a great trekking friend that kept me going) was all I had. Really. On two or three of these, I was physically (and maybe emotionally) done 2-3 hours before the top yet I somehow grinded my way over. And it certainly is a metaphor for life. You don’t always choose those hard paths. And sometimes, if you do choose them, unknown challenges pop up. Yet ya gotta persevere. And that’s where the mental part comes in. Bite off one step, then another. And if you are fortunate to only have to do that for an hour, a day, or a year? Consider yourself lucky. Or convert to Buddhism. Because for me, acceptance of my current moment while trying to evolve is where I find my happy place. Both during and after. Maybe that’s why I come?

Trekking here is a gift. I’ve now done maybe 17 Himalayan treks over 24 years? And I can truly say because of the pain and the cold I was not present enough in my mind. I had no life shit grinding on me. Just the challenge. And if every time I leave here I become 1% more present in my life, its all worth it. I’m very grateful.

The mountains, the dogs, the daal baht, the Sherpas, the glaciers, the squat toilets, the cold, the ice, the smiles, the kids. Just the way it is here. I can’t decide. It warms my heart.

My buddy Txaber left for Spain today. I couldn’t have asked for a better trekking friend. I hope he got as much out of our time together as I did. It is a lot to ask of anybody to share 25 days in the mountains together. He is a rock star. And I miss him already.

The Everest 3 Passes Trek Part 1: Tumlingtar to Namche Bazaar (the long version)

It has been awhile since I posted so pull up a chair, spend more time on the toilet or take a nap halfway thru this to read the whole thing.

After I arrived in Nepal (or maybe the day before), my back slowly started feeling better. Having planned a massive trek with my Basque friend Txaber, I was hopeful that stretching and exercises would slowly get me back into pain free life. But I was not in top shape. I spent about a week with my good friend Sagar and his Nepalese family at their house. Catching up and enjoying Nepali food. More on Sagar in a later blog.

Txaber showed up after having spent basically hiking and traveling for the last year in South America (where I met him and traveled with him). We had planned on working together in Bhutan but the visas fell through. Yet we continued with our plan to reconnect in the highest mountains in the world.

For those of you just joining us, I did much of this trek two years ago nearly to the day. However, that trek was completely different. It was a spiritual and emotional trek for me to reconnect with my now pain free body, visit places I trekked 17 years before, and re-visit Namche Bazaar to finally lay to rest my dog Namche that had died nearly 10 years prior; spreading her ashes above her namesake town, Namche Bazaar.

It was solo. It was powerful for me. And I loved it.

But I told myself I wasn’t going to do another 20 day trek solo. Certainly not the same one. Knowing you can’t step in the same river twice, I wanted to take my new buddy up with me and (perhaps) push the envelope a bit for my aging body. And get to see Nepal through the eyes of a newbie.

Flying to Tumlingtar in eastern Nepal, we were able to view the mighty Himalayan mountains we would soon start our approach towards. Being with a very fit man 21 years my junior can be intimidating. But I have done this trek. I know its hard. And lots of it is mental. Until its physical.

Starting out at around 285 meters (935 feet), we began what would be stage one. A 120 km journey through remote Nepal to heart of the Solu Khumbu; Namche Bazaar.

Nepal is subtropical with a latitude somewhere like mid Florida. When not in the mountains, its hot. Even in November. For those of you Climate Change deniers, I suggest you find a local farmer (or someone that works close to the earth) that isn’t a scientist. Ask them what they think. They all know because they live it.

It was the same for us. Discussing the weather (mosquitos in November?) was common when we spoke to anyone that could speak English in Nepal. Mountains are affected more dramatically. Middle hills that cultivate food and need predictable water? They are seemingly always on the edge. And the glaciers? Heartbreaking.

We slogged along the first few days, enjoying maybe six hours of relatively flat walking. We hiked 65 hours in total to Namche and other than maybe 8 hours, were either on our toes propelling ourselves up ancient stone stairways, or suffering knee crunching descents that defied logic.

Txaber and I both have about 14 kg (30 lb) packs, without water. Add two pounds per liter your carrying and you will see water management and when you fill and refill can make or break your day.

As we slowly approached the first (and highest pass) on this route, it was obvious they had started to build the road farther and farther into the hills. Two years ago when I blogged about this trek, I marveled at time standing still in this region; save a few growing families. Now, the road actually was cut OVER the trail so not only was it confusing, it was dusty.

Yet, we still were able to drop into rural Nepali life. Namaste. Dal Baht. Chia. And cheap rundown trekkers lodges. At about $2 a bed and maybe about $4 for tea, dinner and breakfast, we meandered our way up the Arun valley. For the most part, Txaber didn’t need to wait for me much and I didn’t have much soreness nor back pain. Then the Salpa La arrived.

Starting at the base of the mountain, Salpa Phedi is at 1680 m (5511 feet). After we dined on a lifesaving meal of rice, potatoes and lentils for lunch (same place as two years ago), we jumped into one of the steepest sections of the trek after hiking all day. A stiff few hours and a 600 m (2000 feet) climb had me nearing collapse (especially after we passed the first guest house to climb another hour to the next) and physically spent in the afternoon heat. I had decided to let Txaber make decisions on staying places and we tried to not stay in the same places I did two years ago. So at least I would be able to have something other than my hair style to distinguish between trips.

Salivating at the prospect of momos and tea, we settled in our teahouse in Jobari. Sherpa country. Being able to stay and converse with these families is a joy. The mother, cook, gardener, housekeeper is alone with her two kids while her husband is working in Qatar and sending money home. This particular phenomena is not uncommon and has all sorts of repercussions economically if not socially. It is sad to see. But a reality more and more. And of course, they were kind and friendly and beautiful.

Every bit of consumption by us did not go unnoticed by me. For everything that was not grown there had to be carried up in someone’s back; reminding me that nearly all of western cultures desires have been brought to us in the backs of exploited indigenous people. Nearly all since that first Silver mine in Potosí Bolivia. And our consumption provides a livelihood at times, but normally it’s an exploitative beat down. I cringed when I drank the coke to get me energy. Or the cookies to satiate my hunger.

Settling into time with these people makes my heart burst. I am not sure why I wasn’t more appreciative of it this time or more focused. Likely it was my obsession with my wheezing body. I knew what lay ahead; three of the most crushing passes I have ever climbed. And I had done them three times previously. And suffered the knee exploding downhills. And there is no way out of there on many of the days. Not even on horseback. I had done it twice solo. This time, a blown out ankle or knee would saddle Txaber with the responsibility of saving me or leaving me for Yeti food.

The Salpa La or Salpa pass lies at 3349 meters (11000 feet) and the trail continues up from Jobari, completing the ~1700 m (5600 feet) climb from Salpa Phedi. I had done the whole thing from Salpa Phedi in a day twice. No fun. Nor was this.

Txaber wisely suggested we stay at the pass. I remembered there was yet another life-saving tea hut there two years ago but couldn’t remember if they let bedraggled trekkers sleep in their smoky rooms. They did. We did.

Now normally I would have just blown thru the pass, and continued onto the descent to pound my knees down to Sanam, 800 m (2500 feet) below the pass. Ouch.

Instead, the drunk, engaging, late 50s sherpa man with his infectious laugh had us decide to break stride, make the day short and attempt the Silichori lookout at 4100 m (13,500 ft) the next morning. This lookout I never considered attempting for many reasons. Normally weather or time. But we had both on our side this time.

We laughed and danced a bit with the many porters that were carrying the gear for two 80, yes, 80 year old Japanese guys that wanted to attempt the high lookout. Arriving a different way than we did, they camped above the teahouse. So the boys came down to share some local booze and laughs as the sherpa lady commandeered my harmonica and danced around the tiny blackened shack.

Rising early and leaving our packs in the dirty dorm rooms, we brought water and biscuits and raced up to the peak, climbing a total of ~700 m (2200 ft) to view the stunning array of unobstructed Himalaya. Txaber exclaimed “ooh la la! Sexy” when he first witnessed the panorama from Katchenjunga (the world’s 3rd highest mountain) in the east to Everest in the west. Nice.

The bad news was we now had to descend from 4100 meters to 2500 meters. Half with a full back. That’s about 5300 feet for you Americans keeping score at home. I paid the price. But we had a wonderful sherpa family take us in, let us sleep in the dining room and gorge ourselves on unlimited, well-deserved Dal Baht. They spoke decent English and it felt like we were visiting family; even when a group of locals piled in to sleep in the dining room with us at midnight and decide to make food.

The general theme of the development in this area is pushing the control to the local govt for decisions as to how to do it. I like the energy around it but the expertise is lacking. We talked about it at length with a few folks. The general theme being sharing and developing together. Not being the richest dude. Ahhh. Buddhism.

Our next few days were filled with three more passes; two of them nearly as crushing as the last.

On our day 7 we were joined by a dog that limped the entire way with us, slept outside our door and followed us half the next day before disappearing. He was obsessed with Txaber even though i was giving him love. I had to accept not all dogs think I’m the best!

After day 9, I was still sore. Hmmm. Bobby was a little out of shape. But I kept up; rarely more than 5 minutes behind Txaber if not more drenched in sweat.

As we rolled into the Lukla region and the masses of trekkers on tours and flying in became more numerous, I had my moment. Crossing one of the bridges on the way to Namche, feeling energized by my $2.50 Mars bar, listening to Warren Zevon’s “Splendid Isolation” over and over again. No one else on the trail at that moment. Txaber hanging behind me. It hit me unexpectedly. Everything from Namche to the wonderful Nepalese people to my good fortune to get to do what I love. Again. I had my moment. Deep satisfying happy and pensive tears. Valuing my return to this place and still wishing I could figure a way to stay longer. But alas, I can’t. But I CAN return. It is special. To me. Txaber unknowingly caught the moment.

Always a learning experience here, I try to stay out of my head and in my heart here. I practice and fail with patience and acceptance and non-judgement. And Txaber is a great travel companion for all of that. In fact, I couldn’t ask for a better traveler companion to tackle these mountains and this adventure.

He has rocketed past my brother Dave, my Norwegian friend Anne, and old girlfriends Becky and Andrea on the list of “time traveling with Bob”. Next up on the list is Pascalle which he will pass on this trip and far down the line is John from Australia and Thomas from Switzerland many moons ago. That will likely require another trip or two to get to #1! Well, actually Namche is #1 time-wise and will never be surpassed. It was many many months and years of traveling with her. I still miss her and she’s in my dreams here. Rolling into Namche Bazaar certainly didn’t have the same effect on me as last time. But amazing nonetheless. And i got to sit for awhile where I spread Namche’s ashes two years ago.

Over ten days we hiked 120 km from Tumlingtar to Namche. It took 65 hours including breaks. Our total climbing was 10,941 meters (35,900 ft) and total descent was 7,882 meters (25,800 feet). So we have already more than climbed sea level to the summit of Mt Everest. With more to come.

The plan for the next two weeks is to acclimatize here in Namche, then attempt not only the 3 passes trek (Renjo La, Cho La, Kongma La) clockwise with all three over 5200 meters (17000 feet) AND hit all three lookouts (Gokyo Ri, Kala Pattar, Chukung Ri) also all over 5200 meters. Are you freaking kidding me? Whoa. We will see.

Namaste to all my friends and family. Thanks for listening to my distracted missive. Wish me luck on the hardest trek of my life.

Tashidelek!

Monks for Donald Trump: Namaste Nepal!

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A three hour plus shared taxi brought me out of the Himalayas to Siliguri, India; a place I’ve dreamed of visiting since I stayed on a tea plantation 21 years ago. I’ve lost Rana’s contact info. But damn I wish I could see him again.

Struggling with a bad back I opted for a nice hotel; for there would be ice for my back. White man’s world. Sort of.

Wandering the streets last night I came across an Indian guy, Donavin, I met in Darjeeling. How we saw each other again in this big city I have no idea. He bought me a beer. Ahhh. India.

Jumping on the local bus to the Nepal border this morning, my back was feeling better. But I had already booked an internal flight from Eastern Nepal to Kathmandu; saving my back from the 10 plus hour night bus ride. A small concession to make as the views will be spectacular.

Jumping off the bus at the border I was met by many people but one guy started chatting with me. “Where are you from? Where are you going? Do you have Facebook?” After I accepted his FB friend request, he saw that I was friends with Chhimi in Bhutan! Wtf? So is he!

We chatted and he said he would meet me at the border after immigration. I love crossing borders by land.

We somehow met (his English was not great) and he shuttled me off to a hotel as he was heading back to his monastery. Settling into my room he asked me if i liked beer. “Why yes” I replied.

The beers arrived and we waded into a discussion. He asked me if I liked our President. Señor Trump. I said no way. He said he liked him. He also said the Dalai Lama was the most important person in his life. Huh?

Now you all know i dislike Trump. I’ve never given a complete answer why. Here it is.

Donald Trump is everything I despise about my country. Everything. He leaves nothing out. A man born into wealth that made it his mission to want more wealth and more self promotion. Real estate, television, hotels. A man that has a strategy of business that is bullying but when he says yes, he means maybe. Or I didn’t say that and I will constantly renegotiate. A man that only sees transactional value in humans and how that transaction will help him. A man that only has “conditional” relationships. Period. As long as the deal is still good, we are still friends. But at any time I might change the rules. To be clear, he’s never done anything in his life OTHER than that. And I disliked him before he was president. THAT guy? Really? You think he cares about anything but himself? Has he ever? Oh but Bob only he can fix our shit because he can’t be bought. Right. That all changed once he was president. Mmmmkay.

Strangely, I don’t see him as a racist but as color blind except for green. If you’re black and rich, that’s cool. As long as you’re not richer than him. In his mind. Because money is his god and his measurement. Notice how he has few if any friends richer than him? Or outside of business? Because he can control the wannabes. Greed is predictable.

I agree with him about a few things. Like the Middle East and our immigration policy. I just don’t agree with his fixes. Or his process.

What is incredibly obvious to me (and not to many of my friends) is that the man knows one mantra. Make Donald Great Again.

Every single one of his policies is set up to foment anger or adulation amongst his base; people that have bought his bullshit. Or aren’t paying attention. And that base is those that have a lot of money, want a lot of money or think that money is the measuring stick. Go ahead, ask yourself. Really.

I’ve worked with men like him. It’s the culture of HIM ! Period! And HIM (well HE) has nothing without money. Zero.

So I’m a Buddhist and Buddhism is very much about your intentions. Not your goals or results.

Donald thinks having a charity makes him good. Even though he was using that charity (wait, not any more! It’s illegal) to enrich himself. His INTENTIONS are always about him, him, him! Follow those intentions!

We’ve heard him say it’s about money. Saudi Arabia can kill a journalist in cold blood because they are buying arms and pay cash. We paid the Kurds so we can screw them over. Your 401 (k), if you’re lucky to have one, is higher so it justifies everything he does. Throwing kids in jail, destroying the environment, holding other govts hostage for his political desires.

So what i have seen is not only has Donald Trump made it incredibly obvious that money and power are his priorities, he has shown me what I’ve always feared, that there are good people in the US that will give up their moral compass for more money. And NOT to just survive. And it’s never enough.

So as I sat back to finish my beer with my monk friend, I knew I could not explain all of that well enough for his English to understand. But the massive contradiction between Trump and the Dalai Lama was not lost on me. It blew me away. Never surprised when traveling.

As I try to bridge the gap with many of my lifelong friends that somehow support this president and his heinous actions and words; because they are lifelong republicans or believe since he has money he’s right or they are afraid to admit a mistake, I have to ask them one question (and this doesn’t apply to my monk friend). Aside from your 401 (k) and maybe a short term job, is the world better off after 3 years of Trump? Are the poor better, is the environment better, is your health better? Is our national rhetoric better? Are your schools better? Are your relationships better? Are your kids better? Are we as a collective society putting the right amount of positive energy into the world? Did Obama call you scum? Fine. You didn’t like Hillary. Admit you were wrong about him! Please!

Or are we buying into the BS of more more more. And that more makes us great? And overshadows compassion. And my Christian friends think that? THAT’S your measuring stick?

It’s not my monk friend’s beliefs. I won’t discount his beliefs. And I don’t wanna discount yours. But he can’t speak or read English.

You can.

Kanchenjunga, supreme disappointment, then acceptance

A trek I did 21 years ago. Dreaming of the stunning sunrise with Katchenjunga (the worlds third highest mountain) squarely in my sites.

I waited for five days in Darjeeling; a beautiful hill station where I’ve had myself a few travel snafus in the past. This time there was a 3 hour bus from Bhutan. Then a shared taxi to Teesta (There are no buses to Darjeeling and this taxi was going to Sikkim and had to drop me at the crossroads to Darjeeling. Only 20 miles and roughly 4000 feet) away from Darjeeling, I thought I’d take my chances.

Full taxi after full taxi passed me by as the mid day heat started to wear on me. The local guys would yell when a car went by in case there was room in the packed-to-the-gills Toyota Landcruisers; the only way for the Darjeeling-bound West Bengalis to make their way to the mountains to celebrate Diwali.

One small car stopped. It seemed like there was no room and out popped Joy; a friendly young Indian man traveling with his parents. When I told him i was going to Darjeeling, he smiled and said “no problem” and crammed me and my backpack into the back seat with him and his mom.

They kindly drove me up the mountain, letting me stop along the way with them to see various sites and engaged in long conversations about many things.

A normally 40 minute trip took over three hours but it was nice to connect with this friendly 21 year- old Physics student. Imagine my glee as him and I hiked to a small lake and engaged in a conversation about Religion, Physics, science, the caste system, marriage and Indian life. Quite the random beautiful day.

As I arrived in Darjeeling at about 7000 feet, the cool air and mist precluded what was predicted to be a strange several days of rain and clouds; delaying my departure for the trek.

Getting a short glimpse of the Himalayas at sunrise the first morning in Darjeeling had me settle into to my wait for clearer weather; knowing i had to squeeze the trek in then somehow get to Kathmandu to meet Sagar and Txaber for the Everest Trek.

I wrote and did yoga, went to the gym, enjoyed Indian food and mixed with other travelers at the hostel.

I met with Subash, who guided Andrea and I up near Katchenjunga on a different trek over 7 years ago.

We laughed and reconnected and waited out the weather. Since he knew me, he arranged for a guide to go with me without charging me for a tour. This trek requires guides now and oh by the way there is a road now. My trekking snob self was triggered!

After i met my guide and started the trek, I was ecstatic with my first glimpse of the mighty Himalaya after nearly 3 hours of hiking. My body felt good and strong. It was worth the over seven weeks of “non-trekking” I had experienced. The usual fears of being out of shape or some pain in my body were slowly falling away.

A stunning sunset over the valley had me ready to attack the likely 8 hour next day hike. Dreaming of the sunset and sunrise the next day over Mt Everest; currently obscured by other mountains. I was remembering my birthday 21 years ago in this region where i saw sunset over Everest and a full moon rise over Katchenjunga; hoping to relive it partly because I lost all the pictures from that part of my trip. I mailed them home from Kathmandu. They never made it.

I was embarking on my 17th trek in the Himalayas and marveling at my good fortune and how much I love it here.

I went bed early; sleeping between dogs barking, loud Indians arriving late by Jeep, and my drunk guide stumbling into the room late and crashing to the ground. Then snoring!

It was all good as I was going to be in the mountains for five more days. The lightening sky woke me at five am before my alarm went off and i slowly sat up in bed; ready for a short sunrise walk before breakfast.

As i sat on the bed, feet on the floor, I reached across my body for my phone and camera. I felt a small tug in my lower back then a sharp, intense shooting pain I’ve experienced several times in my life unfortunately; yet not for three years. As I leaned back in pain, I thought “are you kidding me?” “Did that just happen?”

As I contained my anger and frustration in the early morning light, I stretched and thought “it’s not so bad, maybe it will be okay?” I struggled to put my sandals on and walked out into the beautiful morning air after swallowing four ibuprofen. “Cmon” I thought “you’ve been through this before. It’s loosen up.” The sunrise was incredible.

Afterwards, I spent 30 minutes more of stretching and lying in bed, running through my brain the options in front of me. Two weeks until the Everest trek. But this trek was still on my mind. Those mountains…

My guide asked me if I wanted tea and when he returned, I told him “I’m done. I need a car back.”

His look said it all as he knew how excited I was to get going yesterday.

As I settled into the acceptance of having to cancel the first trek of my life (i DID turn back in Tibet because of blisters year ago), I was super angry and frustrated. Riding in the back of the Jeep lying down. Really? My back? No problems for three years then bam!?!?

Acceptance in Buddhism means accepting your current condition but not giving up. I’ve gotten to do 16 amazing treks; a few after thinking I’d never be able to trek again. I was able to pay for a ride back and am staying in a hotel in Darjeeling to feel better. I’m not broke. My belly is full and I’m where I love to be.

If anything the waiting around for the weather is what I hated the most.

I’ve accepted the moment and it reinforces for me all the times I’ve done this and enjoyed every minute. And the many times I’ve hurt my back and bounced back.

Fingers crossed the healing happens again!