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. SeƱor 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…….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHILE HER MALE COUNTERPART WAS STANDING RIGHT THERE!

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

And I want to do it all over again.

Bolivia, the breakdown, and the amazing Altiplano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Chile: The Atacama Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patagonia: The Final Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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