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 Namche

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!

Bhutan Bhutan Bhutan : The Financial Bodhisattva

Yes my third trip here is coming to an end. For me Bhutan is a fascinating unique experience that I feel is very different for me than most.

There is the obvious benefit of traveling solo without a guide. It truly does feel like my own private travel destination. I get to pretty much do what I want and since almost everyone speaks English and the place is super safe, I can wander unmolested basically anywhere. And that privilege is not lost on me nor taken for granted.

But the big thing is really that I have friends here. I told my good friend Chhimi that it’s like being a “made man” in the mafia. People know me. I’ve been vetted. I’m not here short term. I have instant credibility.

This time I got to stay with Chhimi and Seday and their family. Their three kids, Seday’s folks and Pema (the gal that keeps the house rolling day by day) just let me drop into their lives for a month like it was no big deal. Between school and meals and just hanging out, it was constant entertainment being with a 5, 8 and 11 year old (all seemingly going on 25!) daily.

Watching them all jump back and forth between Dzongkha (the Bhutanese language), Hindi, Bengali, and English effortlessly is pretty amazing.

Nearly every meal is eaten together, on the floor, without distraction (Other than the 11 year old rap dancing and the girls dressing up) And you better like rice! Cuz it’s every meal. And I do!

Life is accelerated here so every time I visit, change is obvious. Bhutanese have more things and more visitors now (and truly tourism is an issue). So there is a natural cultural move towards having and wanting more. We are used to it in the west but seeing it in this tiny Himalayan country is just different. And certainly not a criticism. Just an observation that no western societies that want more more more are doing particularly well.

Yet the inherent nature of Buddhism has this Buddhist democracy willing to question itself as to its actions and intentions as it grows. And wedged between the two most populous countries in the world (there are only about 800,000 people here) makes it hard to ignore (as well as being smack dab in the crosshairs of climate change) the results of “too much”. It truly fascinates me.

This time on a work visa, my schedule was a bit up in the air. That’s not my strength to sit in limbo. But I practiced patience with myself and enjoyed Chhimi’s family as he figured out what to do with me. Thimphu is a city of 100,000 and I was not in my sweetest of spots to proactively use my time. But it was still great!

I did a little work with Seday on her female-owned and run tour company, edited their climate change adaptability plan (yes they have one) and I learned a lot more about Bhutanese daily life. I also got to visit my now good friend, the retired Kenpo at Nalanda monastery.

Spending four days there had me reconnect with the Kenpo and witness Buddhism in action and have deep philosophical discussions with him. Again. (I’m a Buddhist if you didn’t know). He calls me Bob Marley. It also got me to hang with my monk/student buddy Sikkim and play some music and hike a bit; in an area that now is becoming more familiar to me. I wish I could upload our version of Take Me Home Buddhist Roads. Destined to be a cult classic!

Being here for the first time in awhile had me witness the switching off of humidity as the season moved from wet to dry; seemingly overnight!

If you haven’t read about Bhutan’s commitment to Gross National Happiness, I suggest you Google it (or as my new friend today said Google Rinpoche). There is something about this place that just seems that you get what you get. Meaning disagreement, but no real bullshit, and certainly no duplicitousness of intentions. Ah. Buddhism.

With our busy, changing, last minute schedule stuff, we nearly forgot to schedule a meeting with Chhimi’s (of course) friends that have recently (last month or two) started a microfinance organization.

Well, you guys might know that’s been a part time interest/passion of mine. Mainly because I had my now non-existent “day job”. And it was my grad thesis. So I’ve been searching….Somewhat passively.

You can imagine my glee when I first had beers, then lunch, then delayed my departure to travel to meet the remote field person, Ugyen (yes a Chhimi friend). That guy gets around!

Visualize me having a conversation as to finance being a tool, profit is okay, but that it should be set up to empower and drive social and economic change and protect the little guy with financial programs. These guys are like “yup. We got karma man!”

Today when I sat with Ugyen for coffee, then rice and then whiskey (we talked for a long time) after both of us traveled rural Bhutanese roads for nearly three hours to meet, it was like meeting my finance guru.

A former banker, he moved back to his town to create change through “smart” and directed lending for projects that can change people’s lives and help them; not create a culture of indebtedness for disadvantaged rural families.

He farms and camps and is a vegetarian and is simply saying, “I’m good. How can I help?”

That’s when I coined the phrase Financial Bodhisattva .

For those that don’t know, a Bodhisattva is a spiritual being that when he/she achieves enlightenment, they choose to stay in this life and help others achieve enlightenment. The analogy is he/she sits on top of the spirituality wall, leaning over and lending a hand to help others to achieve enlightenment instead of himself/herself achieving nirvana and leaving. In this case, enlightenment is seeking financial peace. You always wondered what that Steely Dan song meant huh? Listen again.

I had already spent several hours working on a strategy document for these guys before I met Ugyen. Trying to figure out how to participate. Then I meet Ugyen. What a dude!

So I’ve informally committed to coming back in December for a few weeks after Nepal to spend time with him in his village and see how I can be useful with the group on a larger scale. Hopeful, yet scared that I potentially could participate in something I not only have a deep understanding with, but a deep emotional connection to. It’s what I want but when I thought I’ve had that in the past, it wasn’t what it seemed. If you guys remember my thesis/Mexico company/wanting to punch the American I worked with there moment, you know. Caution.

And I don’t mean with the people in this case. I mean, can I slowly step in here and be useful; knowing I’m not ready for a long term commitment nor am I sure as to how I would fit full time. We shall see.

It’s a long one. Sorry. But it’s been a month. I cross back into India tomorrow, gonna retrace trekking/travel steps from 21 years ago, then meet my Nepalese friend Sagar and my Basque boyfriend Txaber (remember him from Patagonia?) for my 4th trip to the Everest region. I’m older, not in the shape of two years ago, but get to trek with friends. Wow. Stay tuned.

Goodbye Bhutan! Kadrinche and see you soon!

Kolkata, Bhutan, and the Golden ticket

I arrived in Kolkata after an all night flight from London while changing planes in Abu Dhabi; receiving news that my Bhutan consultant work visa was denied during my one hour layover.

My friend Chhimi and I had discussed several projects to work on in Bhutan over the last 6-8 months that would make me feel more useful. This has been in the works.

Not having slept on the flight, arriving at 3:30 AM and Kolkata being a blistering 95 degrees, I opted for a hotel near the airport. With an early check-in and air conditioning, I slept and caught up on plans and strategizing with Chhimi on next steps.

After catching up on sleep and a nice workout, I jumped in a taxi to central Kolkata to get to my $5 a night hostel.

Stepping out of the cab near mid-day in Kolkata was as if someone had decided to wrap my entire body head to foot in one of those hot towels they put on your face before a shave.

Everything stuck to my now intensely sweating body as I dodged filth and feces and folks sleeping on the streets. Food stalls, traffic, temples, dogs, kids, sadhus and complete disorientation welcomed my re-entry to land I love. I was home.

A city of incredible history, clash of cultures, history and religion and some of the friendliest people on the planet.

In this ramshackle hostel tucked in the corner of a non-descript neighborhood, I was the only foreigner at first. And certainly the only westerner.

After weeks of “hanging out in Europe” and cleansing my liver from a solid year of travel and catching up in Bellingham, I needed a quiet and mellow place where I knew no one and could settle into obscurity and relative simplicity. And wait for my visa to Bhutan.

Since the AC in the hostel dorm rooms didn’t come on until 7 PM, and the temperature varied all if maybe 5 degrees during the 24 hour period, I planned my next two or three days to accomplish the tasks at hand and to take my mind off the heat that would hit me like a tidal wave the minute I left my room at 9 AM when the AC was cut.

I remember walking thru the neighborhood near the hostel taking in EVERYTHING that is, well, India. A place of beauty and contrasts that is so impossible to describe. Only to experience. The smile on my face was large as I jumped on the local bus at mid-day to giant Howrah train station to secure my 15 hour sleeper train ticket to the Bhutan border; hoping Chhimi would work his magic on the consultant work visa (he did).

As I dripped sweat on the 70s something women sitting next to where I was standing, I not only reveled in my ability to want to, and to be able to, still travel like this, I focused on each and every one of my decisions that day and their impacts on the people there and The planet. Buying a sleeper ticket in an AC car, taking a taxi home to the hostel instead of the bus, giving money to beggars, buying glass bottle Pepsi instead of plastic, ordering chicken with my rice and lentils I purchased on the street. I kept going back to what a luxury it was to travel rough and live in the margins when you don’t have to. Food, clothing, shelter. And A/C.

How I receive an incredible perspective on the world, albeit a somewhat false one since it’s a choice. I’m sure the people on the bus were like “Dude. What ARE you smiling about you sweaty bastard!?

Receiving news of my visa and purchasing my train ticket within hours of each other, my trip was set. The previous night, the boys running the hostel invited me for a beer, a smoke and some local street food as they celebrated their friend’s bday.

The five of them all grew up together and were celebrating the 25th bday of one of them.

They took me into their circle and took turns talking religion, politics and love like only Indians can. I was invited into that world as if by magic and luck and for over two hours talked music and travel and the far reaches of India we have all visited. Just wish I had my guitar this trip!

You may or may not know, that Bhutan is the land of Gross National Happiness and 100% renewable energy. Since they have only had TV since 1999 and a democracy since 2008, we are watching them grow up right before our eyes. And I get a front row seat through my good friend Chhimi and my third trip there since 2012.

They are cracking down on the visa process since it is being abused. Tourist visas are expensive if you go on a tour. My previous trips I came on a “friends and family” visa which is free. This time, I really wanted to work on something where I could useful. And of course see my friends. And I have a few there now! A consultant work visa is also free. I hope it’s not an indication of the value of any input I may give! Those are your only three options. Well, unless you’re Indian. I’ve begged Chhimi’s wive’s parents to adopt me!

Like Charlie in Willy Wonka, I had to lay in wait for Chhimi to get me the Golden Ticket to the land of the Thunder Dragon, Guru Rinpoche and penises drawn on buildings to ward off evil spirits. Emma Datse, momos and butter tea. Yaks, temples and prayer wheels!

I have it. I’m in. To be continued!

The (Argentine) Boys of Summer

As I make my way to the Himalayas to work and visit the places that make me smile, I have to reflect and share my amazing seven weeks at home in Bellingham.

Never before have I come back from an extended trip and turned around to leave for another so soon! It is like being on vacation in your home. From the time I landed, I got to enjoy and be present with my good friends for seven weeks.

It started with having to get around for nearly a month as I waited for the van to arrive. Biking, Uber, borrowing cars. I re-integrated into my ever-changing and growing town of Bellingham. We are growing way too fast and as I returned from living in my van in South America for over 5 months, even my small house and rural setting was like a slap in the face. Money, money, money. Growth. Building. Consumption. Mainstream America is squarely on the doorstep of Bellingham WA. My oasis and happy place is being invaded. Don’t take it the wrong way. You wanna live there? Great. But we are being invaded by the almighty dollar. In search of a return on investment. Ugh.

I got to kayak and crab and eat from my garden. Catch up on hiking, yoga and most importantly, my friends there. Knowing my time was short there, I got to be present and enjoy every moment and laugh with my friends. I felt the love.

The van arrived in Tacoma and I quickly shot south to see Joe and Jenny and the girls (and my nephew Andy) in Oregon for a few days. Music, hiking, camping and (to the best of my ability) godfather duties. Elena and Thea are such good little girls. Elena laughing while she says “Uncle Bob! You’re silly!” melts your heart.

From the moment I got the van, the summer (or what was left of it) accelerated at breakneck speed. Joe and Kimber (their dog) and I raced north back to Bellingham. Once Jenny arrived, I was delighted to know my buddy David from Argentina (remember him from the eclipse?) would be arriving with his buddy Sergio as they are traveling the US.

Well, within two hours of arrival they were whisked off with us to the annual folk fest in Bellingham, The Subdued Stringband Jamboree. Three days of camping, friends, kids, beer, music, and friends. They somehow pulled off a traditional Asado for all my friends (I mean these Argentinians can make an Asado ANYWHERE!) and stepped into small (ish) town life in ‘merica. By the end of the festival, I was not known as Bob, but as the dude with the Argentine boys staying with him.

Having them stay with me the rest of my time home was amazing. It was like having two nephews with you who want to do all the cool stuff you want to do and you get to practice Spanish! My friends adored them.

Sergio knows English and David is learning. So it was back and forth in both languages all day and night. They worked for some of my friends that needed help and joined in on all my outdoor stuff. Backpacking the North Cascades (twice), hiking and swimming in the Chuckanuts, crabbing and kayaking in my neighborhood, bioluminescence swimming, music at the local pubs. And pretty much bringing their all-around amazingly kind Argentine brotherhood to Bellingham.

Argentina has such a friendly sharing culture that is definitely different. On the way to the festival, I asked who wanted a beer. As David cracked ONE IPA out of the six pack and passed it around, Joe looked at me and took a sip and passed it on. Later he was like “THAT’S how they drink beer?” I said, “Yeah, they share everything. Great huh?”

They were awesome houseguests, first camping in the yard (and me in the van) while Joe and Jenny and the girls slept in my house. Then sleeping downstairs in my living room while I got a few weeks in my bed before I hit the road again.

They helped cook and clean and were just awesome to have around. Quite a soft landing from my time abroad. And as usual, I learned things about life and perspective from these 20 something “chicos” as I called them. Their kindness, positivity and going with the flow. Hanging out with younger folks is rarely about drinking and socializing yet that certainly occurs (and did). It’s more about connecting with youthful hopefulness and lack of jadedness. It’s about keeping an open mind and sharing in life. Not waiting or expecting negativity. And willing to go! And not stop.

By the same token, I got to connect with many of my friend’s children while home. And I, of course, adore them and enjoyed it all. And Uncle Bob gets to enjoy and connect. Then head out to return again soon. I’m spoiled in that way and it’s by choice. And it’s not lost on me.

It was hard saying goodbye, knowing I wanted to enjoy them even more. It was also hard saying goodbye to all my friends, even though I felt completely present with them most of my time. It kept me focused.

I really struggled coming home this time for all the shit that is going down in the US. Getting caught up in our shit can be painful. People I know are getting priced out of Bellingham. And it had me start to take an even deeper look at moving.

But as I left yesterday and valued all the time with my friends, I just realized how fortunate I was to have my health and to let the positive energy of my friends and family give me refuge from the shit storm that is the world today. And to allow me to just do my best to inject as much positivity into my life and relationships, while not turning a blind eye to the reality of the world today. And I try and force myself to feel it more deeply but I’m not sure it’s possible. I feel it deeply. And that why it means so much to me when I do. Leaving allows me to value it more. It’s my way of seeing and focusing. It doesn’t always work. But it did this time. And it’s hitting me big time as I leave. It meant a lot to me. I love my friends there.

And of course…

The Himalayas await (again)……

“Estoy como quiero, the Great South American Eclipse y el fin de mi viaje

The eclipse was meant to be the end of my trip. And it was. It seems I was waiting around for a bit; worried weather or mountains would be in the way. The wait was worth it as not only did I get to see the stunning silhouette of the moon with the diamond-like ring around it, suspended in front of the second largest mountain range in the world near sunset. I got to experience it with new friends. Yep. Pretty incredible. I also got to witness a celebration for many first time eclipse watchers. And it IS the most incredible thing I have ever witnessed. Disney World? Take your kids to see the next total eclipse in December of 2020 down here and enjoy the show.

In my last blog you met David, a friend of Txaber’s, as a new travel buddy. Since we instantly bonded, he invited me up to the old farm house of his “abuelo” to witness the Totality. The town of Tudcum was smack dab in the center of the path of totality, in the rain shadow of the towering Andes.

Nearby, in Bella Vista, was a big event to watch it. Since my Spanish always misses something during the conversation, I was not aware of the plan. Exactly.

After sending my van home, I went to visit the beautiful Iguazu Falls, sneaking into Brazil to view them from both sides. Quite the spectacle. I then flew to Cordoba to spend some city time. Since I am leaving today, on the 4th, via a mileage ticket, there was gonna have to be some creative traveling to take in the eclipse 700 miles from where my flight home was leaving two days later.

Renting a car in advance, I drove the 400 miles from Cordoba to San Juan (where David’s family lives), taking in the beautiful Sierras enroute and practicing Spanish with hitchhikers. I arrived around 9 PM, and after meeting his family, David took me out for a few beers with his old friends; some of whom would be joining us for the eclipse. Lots of laughs and bad Spanish. But I could hang.

Spending the next day buying meat for an Asado and other supplies, we finally rolled into tiny Tudcum, Argentina around 3 PM. It was just David and I and I was pretty wrecked at that point. Of course, we prepared the house for everyone and while preparing David asked me if I wanted to get high. I haven’t smoked pot much on this trip so what the heck? He then asked me if I wanted to have some wine. Over the next 5 hours we chatted with the local kids, cleaned the rooms, built a fire in the fireplace, and I played some guitar. In between guitar sessions, David turned me on to even more of the Argentine music I have come to love. It was such a nice chill time. David speaks almost no English and we just sat and laughed and played music and he taught me some expressions in Spanish.

At one point he said, “Bob, estoy como quiero.” The exact translation is I am how I want. But what it really means is I am in this moment. I am here. I see it. I’m conscious of it. I feel it. It is not lost on me. I WANT to be here and am happy I am. Nowhere else. As I pondered this expression, we talked at length about the significance of the present moment and how life is easier when living there. Philosophizing in bad Spanish we continued our preparation (and more smoking and drinking) til some of his friends arrived. At like 10 PM. Fire, asado, more drinking, more smoking. 2:30 AM was Bob’s bedtime. For others? Somewhere between 4 and 8 am.

We rose late, ate, cleaned the house and made our way to Bella Vista. We spent the afternoon having beers and wine and fernet (and yes, my umpteenth Asado. Or as I called it, mi Asado diario. My daily Asado. A strange name for a special occasion that does NOT happen daily) and waiting for the eclipse.

For those that don’t know or have never seen a total solar eclipse, the moon starts biting into the sun a little over an hour before totality. And the path of totality is only about 100 miles wide. Trust me. The difference between 99.9% and 100% is a massive .1%. Having seen many lunar eclipses (and one solar), it is easy to say “yeah, yeah no big deal.” In fact, until it gets to about 90%, you don’t see too much color change or temperature change. Then, the shadows get weird, the light plays with your mind and twilight appears along the horizon. Still, up to the last minute, people tease fate and look under their glasses thinking they must do that. But it is still too bright. I tell them to wait, exercising my authority as the only repeat viewer in the crowd.

I chose to video my new friends witnessing it as I remember my expression two years ago. “Are you f @$#! ng kidding me!?” As the gap between moon and sun closes, in what seems life forever, finally we hit totality. At that moment, the whole world changes. We are in nearly instant complete darkness, and you have a 360 degree sunset with the light spreading and touching each area equally based on distance. The moon hangs there. The sun hangs there. Illuminated only by the stunning diamond-like ring that encircles the moon and twinkles brightly. The now dark Andes in the background. There is this moment in time you know won’t last. Or will it? You must drink it up. Make decisions on watching or filming. Knowing you have a little more than two minutes. Do you watch people or the horizon or the eclipse? The hourlong foreplay brings you to this surreal ecstasy of our smallness and how nature continues to show it is the greatest show on earth. The view is truly not believable. It is indescribable, though I try. There is this pause, the yelling and heavy breathing stops, and there is this pause. A short breath. Will it last forever? I am sure in ancient times that question was asked.

Then, in a burst of light, the sun peaks out from behind the moon, exploding back into our lives as though it had never left. Light is restored, and that moment of magic (and it truly looks and feels like magic) is only a memory. You feel reborn, magical, hopeful. Did that just happen? And you realize we are all insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Breathtaking, exhausting, exhilarating. Wow. Tears are shed. By just about everyone. I won’t miss another if I can help it.

I’m leaving today. I love Argentina. I have enjoyed Bolivia and Chile. But I love Argentina. The people I have met here seem like family. My Spanish is a constant frustration but it has now rocketed to the top of my priorities. Never again will I travel to Latin America only proficient. Fluency is next.

I feel safe here. I feel human here. The people are regular folks that really seem to want to just live and enjoy life. And it seems that everyone I meet, if not immediately then a few minutes after, greets me as a brother. Like I am coming home and we haven’t chatted in a while. “Como estas or como estamos?” The government or the weather. And never once did someone give me shit about being from the US. They loved my effort. At Spanish. At seeing their country. At pausing to chat. And none of that was lost on me.

Argentina seems much more like a collective country. It feels as though everyone is connected in some way. Like they assume you will be a good person or not selfish, yet have an interest in everyone’s wellbeing. I don’t know. Maybe I have just romanticized it because I can’t understand the language well enough to see the sniping, sibling rivalry or jealous words.

My trip is over. It was just a bit more than nine months. It started with Jenny and Joe and Elena and Thea in Milwaukee and ends at a computer in the Buenos Aires airport. In between, I traveled Spain and Portugal with my brother Dave (which seems like forever ago) and good friends Derek and Laura. I wandered through the Iberian Peninsula searching for I don’t know what.

I got to finally see South Africa and experience some of the history and animals there while spending quality time with old friends Andy and Jo. Then I dropped into America del Sur. I spent time with old friends Chris and Michael. And of course, I now have new ones. Too many to count. Antarctica never was a dream of mine (because I thought it was not possible) yet was otherworldly in its beauty. Nice to be spontaneous and be surprised, huh? My two new favorite animals are elephants and penguins.

Patagonia is a vast and stunning area that was surprisingly accessible. Of course, the van was a gamechanger. And a funny conversational topic. And I want to return with it someday.

Pascalle was one my longest travel companions ever. She is an amazing gal that I will be close with forever. How she put up with “Bob the traveler knows all and it is HIS van and he kinda speaks Spanish and oh yeah the van might strand us not one but three times?!?!” Confined to a tiny mobile box for several weeks taught me things about myself and others that I didn’t realize. It also taught me that the mix of a van and a house (with a bed) is really the best option. Home for a shower once in awhile then back out into the wild. We had tons of laughs, a few tears and several “Holy shit are we gonna get out of this?” She is now battle tested. She was a champ. And I miss her.

I do have some regrets. Logistically, I would have liked to have the van earlier. But then I wouldn’t have met some of my friends in the hostels. I certainly would have liked to have had my tent earlier.

I wanted more time. But I know where I will go now when I return. I also wanted to be better at Spanish. No matter what anyone says, you can’t LEARN Spanish while traveling; especially in a van. You can improve and get more comfortable, but I think you need a really good base first. One must stay put for a bit. In my opinion.

My guitar got worse. I played, but rarely practiced. And the reality is that with few exceptions, Dylan, Young and Springsteen are not showstoppers here. Again, in a van, with people, hiking. Something has gotta give. And I certainly can’t play their traditional music. Although, there WERE moments….

I did finish my first draft of a book I am writing. The skeleton is built. Now more meat is needed.

I was really really sad today when I started writing this as i knew I was leaving a dreamland to go home to a country that in my opinion has completely lost its way. And it does not seem to be getting any better. Facts and reality are competing with whatever someone thinks they think. It is now okay to just say shit that isn’t true. And believe it.

But now I am feeling better. I get to see friends and family, I get to enjoy my awesome house and garden, do tons of yoga, kayak and crab, and get ready for Bhutan in September! And I just relived an amazing nine months.

To be continued…….