Cuba. The long story (and this one is really long). Sorry.

It always ends up (or starts) with this. “Amigo. Come here I have something to show you.” From all my travels (and of course grad school in Humboldt County), I am always expecting some sort of drug (usually marijuana) to be offered to me clandestinely.

Even though it’s happened many times here (meaning no drugs), I’m still surprised when it’s a cigar. “Best quality” “hand rolled by campesinos” “cheap”. It always comes to that. Irony. I don’t smoke cigars.

As I’m winding down my last days, I am chilling in a small town about 45 min outside of Viñales. Puerta Esparanza. Port Hope.

Staying at a Casa Particulares, the grandson and I have had a long conversation.

He’s manic depressive, has a young boy with his girlfriend and dammit wants to sell me cigars! Haha. I sat patiently and told him in a lengthy story I don’t smoke and don’t want to risk getting searched as I don’t know the policy of bringing Cuban cigars back in rolled up paper towels.

Since I left Trinidad, I did the long colectivo ride/switch to Viñales. A gorgeous gringo town that I stupidly almost avoided. I shared the colectivo with two young Dutch gals “on holiday” that spoke little Spanish and an English/Canadian from Vancouver about my age with a sad story who was going thru his mid life crisis. His Spanish was bad too. But he had been here before.

Ignoring my bad history with motorcycle rentals in foreign countries, I opted to be social and rent scooters with them after we arrived. Bad idea. So lucky it wasn’t worse!

We had one fun night on the town before they moved on and I snuck off to eco-groovy Las Terrazas for an amazing zip line canopy trip.

The bar/disco was closed that night as the country is in mourning over the plane crash. I stood outside and watched a large group of university students camping there amuse themselves with a game of “Ha-Hey-Ho”. I played once. Didn’t win.

I did start talking to this student that had spent two months in India. So you can imagine my giddiness at discussing Buddhism and quantum physics with him in English. Fascinating as he knew about quantum physics but little about Buddhism. We connected.

Back to Viñales. Dining solo. Watching the Cavs online. Feeling not really in Cuba. Maybe Thailand or Mexico.

As you’ve probably heard, the old cars here are amazing. Fun to ride in. Sometimes hard to open the door (and window) from the inside. Usually new non-American motors. It seems no one turns their cars off while waiting. For anything. For any amount of time. I know some have a hard time starting but geez.

Love the dogs.

They sell Wi-Fi cards for a $1 an hour so that creates a digital divide. Yet it creates another reason to congregate in the central parks. Normally the only place with a signal.

So I wouldn’t travel solo here again unless I was better at Spanish and maybe in January or February. It’s exhausting. And hot and buggy. Although me and the manic depressive dude had quite the long chat. I also talked at length with his aunt right when I arrived. She was suffering from unexplained body pain since her son was killed. I explained in Spanish how to meditate (after we discussed her diet) and she agreed to try 3 minutes of breathing in the morning. 🙏🏼

The reason to come here is to connect with the people. They are really cool and engaging. They speak Spanish like they do in Nicaragua. La gente come sus letras. They eat their letters. “Buen día” “un, do tre”. Basically dropping the s or really just the last letter of the word. Like us saying goin’ or comin’ or how ya doin’. Makes it harder for sure. I really only spoke English three times. A Dutch couple early on, the aforementioned colectivo crew, the one-off Cuban that could speak it and a 71 year old Canadian in Holguin that was traveling with his 22 yr hooker (who had his name tattooed, in cursive, on her Cuban back), a bag of viagra, and a plan to adopt a pregnant woman’s baby (well actually claim it as his) so he can live there full-time. True story. That will keep me from just asking “hey do you speak English?” when I’m sitting alone at a restaurant!

Food is way better than people say. Slightly bland. But I’m easy. I like the beer and rum.

I will say one thing, if they ever open up trade completely to the US, invest in nails. And I don’t mean the kind that builds houses.

For a country that is super poor, it’s seems as though the number one consumer good is fake fingernails on women. In fact, if you see one without them you are shocked. All kinds. All colors. Metal inserts of some kind. Long. Like really long. Every finger a different color. Toenails too. It’s really quite astonishing. It’s a big Latin American thing. But seriously. ALMOST EVERY WOMAN. Young. Old. I’m not sure what age they start. Or stop. But it’s ubiquitous. Haven’t heard that in awhile eh?

The dudes are pretty macho. Honking horns at every gal. Saying “you’re beautiful” or “want a ride?” Waving. It’s like “Happy Days” in Spanish! The cars add to the old timey aura. Not one hint of aggression though. And maybe the odd head shaking at bad driving.

It seems many don’t take marriage seriously as most talk of sex with other women. Like immediately without prompting. But the families together seem close and fun. And it could be just the dudes that interact with tourism.

As I said before, they all come in different shapes, sizes and colors. It seems the black folks are integrated with the whiter folks. Poverty has strange bedfellows eh?

As everywhere the kids are adorable and easy to connect with. They just want you to listen.

The homes are pretty dilapidated on the outside but the Casa Particulares are decent and sometimes nice inside. If only they had more paint delivery…

T hey don’t talk politics here and although they loved Obama, I actually found one guy that liked Trump. He was drunk.

Viñales is like a traveler’s ghetto. A smaller and nicer Khao San Road in Thailand or Thamel in Kathmandu. 15 bucks a night. Good food. Always a place for a beer. Stunning limestone mountains. Farms. Horses. Motos. Music. Doesn’t feel like Cuba as I said. But visit here and try and sneak into the margins. Or away from the chaos. You’ll love it. No one offers you drugs. It’s safe. My taxi driver told me today that if you mess with a tourist, they kill you. Whoa.

And of course it rains here.

Nice break from ‘merica.

This trip was shorter and of course way less emotional and less physically demanding than Asia. But certainly less predictable and I used my share of Gold Bond. I feel safe here. Of course I had my six hours of cultural interaction daily. Museums, churches, folk demonstrations. Coffee and tobacco farm tours.

No drugs anywhere. But man, don’t get caught (especially early in the day) in a conversation with a drunk here. Painful.

The life is slow here. Tranquilo. Folks would just invite me on their porch for coffee as I walk thru town. Chat in Spanish. Sometimes it takes til the end of your trip to get what you want. When you slow down.

I’m really not sure how the people interact socially. It seems it’s their choice to meet, have a family, and of course figure out a way to thrive and show SOME individualism. Whether it’s your car, your music, your hair (for the younger folks) or, of course, your nails.

And people rarely move away to the city like other developing countries.

But it’s only a small sample size for me.

Open trade and investment here will both help the place and wreck it. Can’t ship much here except thru the US. Its a big place. It’s cool. Take your time. Find the hidden gems.

But be careful on the motos!

On my way back to Havana today then the long slog home. Of course I saved the best for last. I’m just cruising thru the streets yesterday, avoiding the drunks that engage me. I came across a guy on his porch and rocking chair. “Que país?” He asks me.

I sit. He offers me coffee. Our talk turns into him asking me if I want to catch crab with his family when his boys get home from school. Sure!

The crabs have one big claw and live in holes (Cuevas). He said go get long pants and shirt. Why? Mosquitos. But it’s daytime!

Holy shit. Watching the boys catch crabs. Collecting mangoes. Carrying the youngest boy on my shoulders. 4 hours later and me lugging first 30 lbs of crab then 50-60 lbs of mangoes on my shoulders. Hard work. Carried them for over 90 min. Mosquito food I was. Good fun. Deep into the local life. It was his day off. The dogs came with us and would catch crab!

A quick shower then back to his house. Yummy crab extravanganza. Rum.

Guitar with his cousin

Rocking chair on the porch.

Epic sunset.

He gave me his favorite Che Guavera momento he’s had for ten years!!!

I gave him my second earring as he had a hole but nothing to put in it that was like mine.

We chatted til 9:30 on the porch with his wife and boys. Dogs sitting there.

Right out of a Steinbeck novel. There are trade offs for sure. Notice the youngest in the window pretending to play guitar.

MACA.

Make America Cuban Again

Yeah! Loved my last night en el campo. How the hell does that happen? You ever ask some random dude walking the streets to spend the whole day and dinner with your family? And he can’t really speak your language?

Exactly. My heart is warm. I gotta go home. It’s taken me some time to understand the culture here. But I do love it. It grows on you.

They’re poor. But they got it right!

And my ride from Viñales to Havana today. The driver was a cross between Michael Franti (sans dreads) and Ricky Ricardo. Hilarious.

Talking to the Spanish couple and this angry exchange on the phone with another taxi driver doesn’t do his personality justice. But you get the idea!

More stories in person!

Back in the same room from my first night in Havana. What the hell just happened!

Adios Cuba!

Thanks for the reality check!

So Cuba is fascinating. I will likely write one really long blog in the next few days describing many things.

The people here make between $20 US a month (for teachers) and $40 US ( for doctors). I’ve seen poverty in my travels of course. It’s always hard. I mean, I get to travel and eat and sleep in a room normally on my own. I’ve had people (especially in Baracoa) chat with me about giving them my extra shorts or shirt. You become hardened to it a bit. When do you give? Is their story real?

I also don’t know how you judge poverty. They don’t have AC? They don’t have a car? They don’t have a phone? For the most part, those aren’t needs. You can do without in Cuba and survive. But who is the judge?

Back to Mazlow’s hierarchy. Food, clothing and shelter. I’ve seen hunger in people’s eyes. I’ve seen it in the US. I’ve seen it many places. THAT hurts.

So I’ve made my way east. Spent two nights in gringo central. Trinidad. Cool town. Food. Music. Other travelers. The locals are pretty happy it seems. Tourist dollars eh?

So tonight I ventured to a coastal town 15 min outside Trinidad. La Boca.

I checked it out yesterday by bicycle ( had a flat. Walked my bike 10 km. Got a taxi. Met a cool dude that arranged colectivo for tomorrow.)

I met Manuel and his wife. Casa Particulares. On the water. 20 bucks. Yep. One month salary for a teacher.

Played guitar on the porch. They all ask me to play Guantanamera! Wtf? It’s Cuban!

So I went to the only locally owned restaurant tonight (the other choices are hotels owned by the govt). I sat down. I’m the only dude there. Okay. I’m gonna try the lobster. It’s illegal to sell here. Black market for locals. But it is on the menu. Salad and rice. 12 bucks. Two weeks for a teacher?

After I order I see this guy come by and he looks at me. He’s got a paper plate.

I’m like “man, I just ordered lobster and I’m gonna have this shoved in my face!” Okay. He’s struggling. What’s gonna happen here. Will he ask me for money? Will I give him the cucumbers I hate to eat? Ughh.

So he looks at me once. Pretty much leaves me alone. Sits on the steps across the street.

After a few minutes, he approaches the porch next to me (same owner) and chats. Gives them his plate. She comes back with a full plate of food. He leaves with it.

As I pay and leave, I leave a few bucks for tip. I normally don’t tip much when the owner serves me. But he had help there. He said in Spanish “hey you left money there”. I said it’s for everyone there. Then i told him I saw him give food to that dude. He said like it was no big deal “Yeah he was struggling. Sometimes people here get hungry and need something.”

I struggle with this continuously. But it’s one reason I travel and I travel to developing countries. It gives me a reality check to remind me how lucky I am to not have to struggle for food, clothing and shelter. And when i do give myself a little treat like lobster, I damn well better appreciate it!

Gracias!!!

Yeah. I’m an experienced traveler…

I left Havana to fly east. I needed to try to get super far away and work my way back to Havana. I knew I would likely find a place and stay for a bit. Really wanted to see Baracoa. Farthest east you can go. Only like 50 miles from Haiti. Humboldt National Park. Near the sea. Less people. Cultural uniqueness. Internet sketchy. You have to stand in line at the internet store to buy a card for a dollar. Then sit outside to use it. $1 an hour. Typically there is WiFi near any town plaza.

All flights were full everywhere so I jumped on the only flight I could find to Santiago de Cuba. 90 min.

The ticket guy says after the flight it’s only two hours by car to Baracoa. From Santiago.

I’m like, um, the book says 4.5.

I figure hey, I know what I’m doing. Let’s go! One way ticket. Taxi from airport to city center. Overcharged of course. Oh, there are no colectivos I’m told to Baracoa. Only to Guantanamo (Yes. THAT Guantanamo) then you can change. Okay. I mean, I speak Spanish right? But you gotta pay $20. That’s like a million dollars here. Fine. It’s 90 degrees and 200% humidity. Off I go. Two hours to Guantanamo. Change cars. What? Another 20 bucks! F me! Fine. Oh and the driver seems to be an amateur comedian. He of course said no one is going. So I had to pay for the whole car. Then it magically fills after I pay. 4 breakdowns (remember these cars are older than I am) and five hours later we roll into beautiful tranquilo Baracoa. Sleeping. Climbing El Yunque. Hiking Humboldt National Park (THAT dude was amazing. Thanks Joe Lamanna for book about him) Saw worlds smallest frog. Eating. Traditional Folk music. Churches. Museums. Guitar playing. Spanish practicing. I stayed a bit longer.

Trying to leave today my Casa Particulares family couldn’t score me a colectivo. Okay. I can handle it. I meet a guy in the plaza. He says 35 bucks to Holguin. 4 hours. Backroads. Well. That’s seems the rate unless I hitchhike. They show up and off we go. The full car stops at the remote mining town of Moa. Miles away from anywhere. The driver says okay you go with that guy to Holguin. Changing cars. Okay. I ask. You pay him? Yes. He said.

The new dude says wait until car is full. I’m like okay. The other guy left. What could I do? After an hour in the hot sun out comes the guitar. I shit you not this is what transpired next.

The dude says, “no one else is going (there were three people in the vehicle other than me. It holds eight or nine).We are gonna have to wait the rest of the day…..unless you pay me another 15 bucks.” I’m like go f yourself dude. I already paid. He’s says you got a room tonight in Holguin? Stupidly I say. “Well yeah. I do. ” He says “All these people are waiting gringo. Pay up or wait forever”. I think for a second. How about five bucks? Nope. 15.

I decided to make light of it and connect with the guy as he had me. Okay. Fine. 15 bucks more but you gotta buy me a beer when we are close. Haha. Okay he says. For everyone! He says put your guitar up top with your backpack (we are in an old Jeep Willy). I pay him. The girl in back asks if she can sit up front too. I get my music on. Sit back.

The driver door opens and a DIFFERENT dude jumps into drive and away we go.

I look at everyone in the car and they all gave me that look of “dude, you just got absolutely WORKED by that guy.” I just had to laugh. They rarely see gringos. But man, I was easy prey. Again.

Made it to my Air BNB and the English speaking 71 yr old host said “the house rules are that if you bring a woman back she has to sign in with us and be over 18. Or I’ll lose my house. ” Um, okay? I told him he could sleep soundly. Won’t happen. He said “whatever. Those are the rules.” Haha.

Cuba. The people are very beautiful. All shapes and sizes and colors and ethnicities. Their freedom is their overt sexuality and flirtation. With each other. And their music. And their laughter. They are stinking poor here. Remember I’ve only seen a few cities. But I’m not sure they are all unhappy. I think a few are as they now see the outside world. And WANT shit! Tough minded people. But I feel so safe so far. And man I’ve had a ton of laughs and special moments already.

Especially with the kids.

The first book I’m buying when I return is one on Cuban history. Fascinating.

Vive la revolución!

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But in the margins

I’ve been in Havana for 24 hours and money has flown out of my pocket. For those that don’t know, you must bring all your cash with you if you are from the US. You can get away with booking Casa Partículares (the local houses) thru Air BNB online. But they don’t take US credit cards or ATM cards in person no can you access your money from here. You can’t even book a return flight with a US airline.

Needed a nap after the red eye but after I grabbed my guitar to head down to the Malecón. Well after my six hours of required cultural interaction per day of course. I loved connecting with the locals and using my Spanish. This is the first time I’ve really traveled in Latin America since I lived in Guatemala. I’ve forgotten a lot. But I need less time just travel. Depending on the depth of conversation.

Playing a few songs (FYI the harmonica isn’t the best for Cuban music) I loved connecting with the street musicians. Then they are like “um, we live on our tips”. So with little change I had to give them either 5 or 10 CUC (the local currency and approx equal exchange to the dollar).I mean they were GOOD, but I wanted to explore.

Bought a beer and walked thru town. Everyone comes up to you when you are traveling solo. Very few solo travelers. Easy to pick out. “Hey man where you from?” “Need a taxi?” “What are you looking for?”

After two beers my Spanish seemed better and I let my guard down a bit.

One dude asked me if I needed a taxi. I said I was looking for a local restaurant to eat. He said go this way and I will show you. He seemed friendly and clean. Not sketchy. We bantered about in Spanish. Got to the restaurant. It seemed laid back but the prices seemed high. Short story. Epic conversation. All in Spanish. I bought him two Mojitos. Some friend out of nowhere shows up to sell me cigars “because today is last day before the prices go up” and I had an ex customer I wanted to buy them for of course. Fleeced. Dinner was 40 bucks. Geez.

Then the taxi driver asks me for cash because he has two kids. I mean, this guy was going to the US next month to meet his dad who left 35 years ago when he was three!! So I gave him 10 CUCs. I felt worked over.

As I limped home with empty pockets and a bruised ego I realized I just blew thru five days of my budget. Geez. What happened there?

Spent

I like to spend time with people that have struggled but have enough emotional intelligence or education to feel fortunate when they are not struggling. There are exceptions to that but even super poor folks in Nepal or India or Guatemala have that little twinkle in their eyes that shows they feel fortunate for their little freedoms. So on Mazlows hierarchy it’s nice to meet people teetering between “food, clothing and shelter” and “self-actualization”. Especially if they CRAVE self actualization. I’ve had to dig deep for the “food, clothing and shelter” once in awhile in my life and after I thought that struggle was good. It can be a deeepening experience IF you believe you can get to the other side.

I’m not sure all the Cubans think they can get to the other side of poverty. Yet their interaction with travelers is fascinating. And they are warm wonderful people for the most part.

Off to the east. Baracoa and some rural hijinx.

Cuba: A country with no expectations and an examination in hypocrisy

I haven’t found a job I want yet, so I am taking the opportunity (and using some miles I have) to slide down to Cuba for three weeks.

Strangely, I know little about the country.

Learning about Cuba, and having some food.

President Obama’s Cuba policy opened up greater opportunities to interact with the Cuban people and not rely on the constant propaganda we have been fed about the horrific “communist regime”.

The hypocrisy comes in where we rail against Fidel and his brother Raul, maintain economic embargoes and chastise them for Human Rights abuses.

Wow. Those bad Cuban communists jail people and stamp out political dissent.

But hey! Look over here at that wonderful Chinese government! They have systematically exterminated over 2 million Tibetans, are a communist government, and stamp out dissent. But they allow foreign investment and we can buy their cheap, poorly made shit at Walmart. Hmmm.

I understand the difference?

Exactly. Our Cuban policy is the most ridiculous in our modern history.

Now I am traveling on a visa and my main purpose is “Support of the Cuban people”. Señor Trump made a mild modification to Obama’s policy because…well because EVERYTHING Barack did was wrong. Including being born black. So let’s just change it a little.

The good news is that the rules under which I am traveling is right in my wheelhouse. An itinerary that has me focus fully on cultural activities and exchange. Requires me ( by OUR government) to not stay in government or military owned hotels or resorts. Umm. Okay. And not eat or patronize government or military owned stores or restaurants. Check.

Focus on locally owned Air BNB (Casa Particulares), local restaurants, and spread the money around. Hmmm. How simply…. um. What’s that word? Socialist? Wow. I agree with Donald Trump on something. Okay. I’ll follow the rules.

The US may ask upon my return. The Cubans don’t care.

I’ve spoken to a few friends that have been there and my new housemate’s mom is Cuban. Most of my friends have been to Havana and Trinidad. In the West.

I am flying into Havana mañana and have three nights there. I have a full itinerary (or maybe not).

What I do have is the desire to slide into the cracks of Cuban culture, use my Spanish, play my guitar a bit and sweat my ass off (the rains and heat are coming. I’ve packed my Gold Bond).

Flying to the Far East of the country and hitchhiking back to Havana is my desire. As long as it doesn’t screw up my required 6 hours a day of “cultural activity” which I have every intention of fulfilling.

I will say if anyone has a hidden place down there where I can disappear for a few days, pass it on.

It’s my first “new” country in 6 years. The first time I will be traveling and not trekking in some way. The first time I am not bringing a sleeping bag (a sleep sheet!) and the first time my backpack is not full. Chacos, t shirts, water purifier a few collared shirts, hat acquired in Nepal for sun guard, guitar.

What? No boots? I feel naked.

I am open to any ideas, have no preconceived notions except I hear the Cubans are wonderful, and am stoked to be taking my shortest trip in 25 years!!!

Cuba! Voy a visitarlo pronto!

How much is enough?: Epilogue from Asia

As I mentioned when I started my trip in September, I wanted to tease out the rhetorical question “how much is enough?” If you didn’t read my original post, this question has been gnawing at me since I first stopped living paycheck to paycheck at say, 26. What is our individual process or is there one for asking this question? What do we really need to be happy? I believe it is at the root of many of our problems as a society evolves.

Lots of my meanderings slipped into self absorption about my trip and the people and places I experienced. But the underlying question was always there.

I’ve worked in finance where growth and profitability is king. I’ve worked in sustainable development and clean energy where, to a lesser extent, the question of sustainability percolates in the background. In many cases it is tabled as programs are designed to improve lives economically. And how can you ask how much is enough when people have so little? Well in most societies, just wait. Because as they grow and the income gap expands (if it hasn’t already) these questions should be leveled on the newer rich, even though they likely won’t have the experience to address it.

In both India and China for example we are really seeing the first generation of new riches. And in my opinion there are not two more obscene examples of “I had nothing before and now I’m going crazy.” With no conscience at all.

I experienced having more than I needed and not understanding it briefly at 25 and again later in life. “You mean I don’t have to use my credit card and can buy what I want?” Wow. Freedom. It was short lived at 25 when a college buddy and roommate in Chicago asked me if I wanted to go to Michigan Avenue for “spending wars.” I did. It was stupid. And my $500 leather jacket ended up at goodwill. Never again.

My income has gone up and down over the years and has rarely been consistent. I’ve always said I don’t wanna be rich. I just don’t wanna be poor.

Now please understand. I am not using myself as an example NOR am I judging those that do not lift their heads and ask “do i really need this?”

I am simply examining the process, lack of process or self justification in ridiculous accumulation. “My kids need to go to college” “I’ve earned the money and can give it to my kids” “there are no jobs” “the second home is an investment” “The 70k SUV is for family safety” ” We gotta build a 4000 square foot home as our lot is so big and we won’t get our return”

My point is that we all make excuses. “I can live in my custom ford van off the grid” and “I rent my extra space for below market rent”. I do it too!

However, there are end points. One example is the AMERICAN that buys an acre of land in Guatemala and builds an abnormally sized house (for Guatemala) and lives there a few months of the year. With money made in the US.

That example, where you are choosing to have something that DIRECTLY impacts people that have little to nothing and you don’t AT LEAST educate yourself and ask yourself the hard question. “Do I need/want this, why, and whom am I impacting directly or indirectly?”

Just ask. Be honest. “I just want it.”

My point is that if you continually ask yourself that question, hopefully, eventually, you will use a different set of parameters during your decision process and understand the implications of your actions (and the interdependent nature of all things) AND might, just might, take the ever so slightest pause before you make the decision. Maybe not the first big paycheck. Maybe never. BUT ASK THE QUESTION! PLEASE!

The reality is that communities decay when too much is in the hands of too few. Our recent tax bill is the most cynical, mean spirited and right in your face example of this. If you support it, you’re either ignorant, or fucking greedy. Consider yourself judged. And to that end if you still support Donald Trump. Just un friend me. This is getting silly.

Having more more more is not a religious virtue. Nor is passing all your wealth to your kids. Was it Dale Carnegie that said “Give your kids enough to do anything. Just not enough to do nothing”. Exactly.

Economic disparity is a very nuanced and detailed topic. However, there are tried and true methods that work that can maintain a semblance of civil society. And we in the United States have dismantled nearly every one.

In essence, I’m not legislating morality. I’m legislating against greed. And when you come to that conclusion that you are being greedy, self-justification aside, don’t just donate money. Work to change the system (or at least don’t contribute to it) and take pause the next time you want to buy something you don’t need. Or invest in something that has negative effects on the world.

Or don’t.

I’m just asking questions.

Thanks Asia for the reality check i always seem to need. Knowing I could never live here full time does not have me love it any less. Watching the developing world make the same mistakes we westerners have made breaks my heart.

But it all doesn’t matter if you’re in the moment and watching the sun set over the Himalayas. Or the Arabian Sea….

Kē yō ghara hō?

Namaste, Tashidelek, Kuzudzongpola

Goodbye Nepal. Again. For now: Was it all a dream?

I stood at the airport, saying goodbye to my friend Sagar, similar to my goodbye about 11 years ago. This time his English is better. He now has a wife and a beautiful young daughter. He was in his late teens the last time I saw him. Now a grown man with responsibilities. The main one being working in Dubai to help support his family. He made the supreme effort to get emergency leave to at least get one night to connect with me.

It was surreal. Spending time wth him and his family seem so normal. Like I see them everyday. It did not help me avoid a tearful goodbye to his parents, yet I was slightly more stoic with Sagar and his wife and daughter. I can’t believe it will be eleven more years until I see him again. Some solace.

Nepal continues to give me more than I can imagine. Did i really retrace steps from 17 years ago and complete a grueling 20 day trek to visit Namche Bazaar and the highest mountains in the world? Did I really get to connect wth the Nepalese people in the carefree manner they connect with people? Did I really get to play music with Sherpas? Did I really get the most mind blowing epic sunset over Everest and the Gokyo valley? Did I really get to revisit temples and holy places? Some I remember. Some I forget?

Was i able to explore rural and wild Nepal, by myself, with a just a belief I could pull it off? Again?

Was I really able to spend five days with Sagar’s family, connecting wth them the best way I know how? Language gap and all?

Did i really walk through Thamel, reliving old memories, yet feeling detached with reality? So many hopes and desires for a Nepal that serves all? Not just a few?

Was I pensive knowing that no, you can’t step in the same river twice? But yes, you can be forced to re-learn that many times in your life.

Did I remember the value of living in the moment, staying present and valuing what I have? Of course.

If you can step away from your travel goals. Your photo goals. Your fun goals. Nepal continues to affect you in a deep way. Slowly seeping into your soul when you’re not paying attention. It could be the laugh and smile of the gold toothed Sherpa shop owner, or the gentle kiss from Sagar’s daughter to say goodbye.

Strip away changes and growth and earthquakes and tourism and mountains and pictures and pain and struggle and confusion and despair and wanting and hoping for a better life for all.

Strip all of that away and zero in on the amazing spirit of the Nepalese people and the deep love I have for this place and how it affects me. How Namche’s ashes will always be here and no matter what, a huge piece of my heart will always remain here. And THAT is not a dream. Goodbye Nepal. For now…..

The Everest Region: Then and now

As I ready to fly out of Lukla back to Kathmandu I remember an old adage “be careful flying in the clouds in Nepal. There are rocks in them!” The little airport that allows people to shorten their trip to the Khumbu by as much as two weeks looks newer.

The airport is paved now and no longer is a horn blown to shoo the cows off the runway. Sir Edmund Hillary lamented building it before he died because of the environmental and cultural impact it had on the Sherpa people.

They’ve done a nice job with Namche Bazaar. Not too much over growth. Mainly locally owned. Water and waste systems finally addressed. But the Sherpa people continue to be the richest in Nepal. Snagging tourist dollars as they venture to visit the worlds highest mountain.

The teahouses are better. The food? Well you’ll eat just about anything after schlepping your pack up a mountain all day.

Years ago the majority of people were solo or paired trekkers. Carrying their own pack. Winging it a bit. Seeing a guide was rare as, well, there is only one trail going up. Kinda hard to get lost. This is a Destination now so people don’t pick up a guide book. They book from the US and show up expecting a local guide to get them up high for their pictures. Gokyo at 15000 feet looks like a Mediterranean resort!

50,000 people a year means major impact. The trees are all gone in the upper Khumbu and have been for years. Teahouse kitchens where we eat are warmed by collecting and burning yak dung wth kerosene. Same as before but in some cases SUPER warm. Propane is carted up on yaks and mules for cooking at big villages. Still the incredible porters trek goods between villages with backbreaking loads.

Whereas it’s fine to have someone carry your pack if that is the only way up for you, at least be reasonable what you bring. The number of strapping young college students having a 5 foot 2, 120 pound Sherpa porter lug their multiple outfits and pairs of boots and large cameras up the mountain seems a tad absurd.

The people seem less into the spirituality of the place and more about climbing and hiking. I mean it might be in page 1 of the guide book that your circle ALL religious monuments (prayer wheels, temples, stupas, mani walls) clockwise.

It’s easy. It’s important to the people here. It’s seems 20 years of education STILL has people just buying plastic bottled water the whole trek. Wtf? They burn that shit! Yes I have a coke once in awhile. But I purify my water with a steripen.

Older crowd for sure. Humility in bunches. Other than being humbled by the assortment of high passes and viewpoints, there is the odd Octogenarian dragging her own pack to Everest Base Camp. True story.

The scenery is still incredible.

The kids are still adorable.

The place is still magical. But some of it is unfortunately lost on some people in their goal oriented approach to the mountain. The focus is more about tourism “bagged the peak. Bought the t shirt” than the rich cultural history here you can tap into if you just hang around a bit after the crowds scamper to their next destination. And you just sit and ask questions. And listen.

You still fall in love with the 50, 60, 70, and 80 year old men and women as their fingers slowly glide over their mala, chanting Om maní padme hum while doing their daily work. Always a smile or a laugh.

The first time I came here I spent a total of two days in Kathmandu during the first 8 weeks of trekking and rafting. You get a certain amount of satisfaction coming back here and feeling like you connected with that part of Nepal. Like you belong now. And I will relish that feeling for the next few days.

Something hits you AFTER you leave the mountains. You realize you can’t ft into the surreal lives of people there. The romanticism of it increases daily, as does the respect for the agrarian lifestyle most don’t choose to live, but live with abundance and what seems like happiness. The simplicity of their lifestyle is what brings me back, knowing full well I don’t see the backbreaking work, long days and constant stress to meet basic needs. But after a lifetime in the US and many visits here, I am still not sure which life is more desirable. You can’t have both. And it is hard to go back to a life like that (or for the first time) once you’ve experienced our creature comforts. But I’m damn certain our culture provides our own set of hardships that the people from here would likely not trade for if they really knew.

It’s taken a bit longer this time, but the strong feeling of not really wanting to say goodbye yet is here. One is almost always arms length here. Even when I taught. Maybe it’s the constant drum of impermanence reinforced once again? I wish I could say I wasn’t in my head a lot as I was counting my 50 steps up Gokyo Ri before each break. Constantly rolling life choices and options and hopes around my brain. I wish I was always in the moment as Pandora has helped me remember is the best spot. I wasn’t. But at certain times, when I was, it was magic.

Namche and I

For me Namche Bazaar has had multiple impacts on my life. I have the most incredible story of running into a Swiss buddy, Thomas, in Namche in 1995. I won’t bore you with all the details, but with no internet invented and him never getting any of my messages and letters, we ran into each other on the exact day in the exact town I had written him about. Coming from different directions in Nepal. We traveled together for three months after and became good friends.

In 1996 I continued my travels in the US after my dad died suddenly and ventured to Alaska to see my sis in an old jeep. On the first day of my life I could have a dog, a litter of puppies showed up at my hostel/campground in Haines, Alaska.

I grabbed one as I was leaving and named what I thought was a boy dog Jack. After my dad.

Well after a few hours of singing along to the Band’s “The Weight” bellowing the line “if you’ll take Jack my dog!” And being in love with my puppy, we stopped for a pee break and lo and behold the little squatter was a girl!

As we continued on, I pondered her name. Jack didn’t work. I wasn’t trading her in. Finally I landed on Namche. The center of the Sherpa culture that so deeply impacted me on my travels.

For those of you that don’t know, Namche was attached to me for 12 years. And we went EVERYWHERE. It’s been almost ten years since I had my heart broken to make the call to put her down. It’s not unique in the world. But the relationship certainly was for me.

So as I walked up the stairs to Namche Bazaar, having visited once since I had gotten her, so many feelings washed over me. A time in my life of great awakening and experience in Nepal. One that would put me on the path to Buddhism. One that would have me addicted to the outdoors as a necessary part of my life to survive a culture I reluctantly participate in. A longing for a simpler path I have been unable to sustain for long. A feeling or a wish that we all could be motivated by at least the thought that all sentient beings have value and it’s in all of our interests to always keep our eye on that ball. And not only play for ourselves. However you may do it.

And of course, the feelings came over me like a tidal wave remembering my best friend. Only a few of my friends and family really understood what it meant for me to have someone rely on me and for me to take seriously her health and wellbeing. Many people judge animal lovers and truly, some of us are crazy. But she was the closest thing to a child I’ve ever had and she, along with my study of Buddhism, reminded me daily how fleeting our lives are. I KNEW I would have to say goodbye to her. From Day 1. And thus i treated every single day as a gift and as though it would be her last. She was my living breathing loving reminder of impermanence. And it played out that way.

After she died, I couldn’t even go to the beach without sobbing for a year. Every time I went to a place we had visited, I brought some of her ashes. Even to places I WANTED to go with her. I only backpacked National Parks for years as she couldn’t go there when she was alive. So it made it easier. I put some of her ashes in a sealed locket I got in India that I wore. I NEEDED that. It helped me cope and still feel close to her. Too much? I didn’t care.

I spread her ashes in our backyard, in the Eel River where she loved to swim. In the Pacific Ocean. All over the Lost Coast where we wandered and had our last backpacking trip. Took them to India with me. Twice. I finally took some back to Haines, Alaska in 2013 and made a little memorial for her in the Pet Cemetery that was coincidentally behind the campground where I got her. In Bolivia the next year the locket melted open in a natural hot springs so her ashes are on the Altiplano. I thought it was a sign that it was time to let go, got a new pendant with a new significance, and felt I was done with that practice.

Though in the back of my mind, I never really thought I would get back to Namche Bazaar. Well…Not with my physical problems and certainly because I had already been there twice. I had always wanted to take her trekking with me here as crazy as that sounds. She would have gorged herself on yak shit and gotten her ass kicked by some mountain dog.

So I brought some of her ashes with me. Just in case. I mean you can’t just buzz up to Namche Bazaar.

Even while in Bhutan just a month ago I was unsure. Would I trek? Could I trek? What does this mean?

As I left Tumlingtar and again leaving Lukla I said “me and you Nammie, one last time.”

So as I climbed into town, I sobbed. For Namche the town and Namche my best friend.

I was told there was a place up above Namche Bazaar with views of Everest and the Khumbu. And some mani walls and prayer flags.

Yesterday, I took her ashes, a khata I got in Bhutan as well as a little prayer flag and hiked up to the top of the hill.

I tied the prayer flag and the khata to the stone mani wall and waited for the right wind to say goodbye and send her ashes into the Himalayas one final time.

This will be her final resting place. I can’t do it again and of course there is nowhere else.

Except in my heart.

Now you know why this was so important to me. And it didn’t disappoint.

Chronic pain and disease. Words of encouragement.

Some of my friends and family have suffered from chronic pain and disease. I wanted to offer some hope for those that are afflicted. My story. 2 1/2 years ago when I returned from volunteering in Guatemala I was hit with a very unusual and inexplicable head rushing. Major neck pain. Ulnar neuropathy. Knee pain as I’ve mentioned. Horrible fatigue. Arthritis in both thumbs. Depression. It all hit over 3 months. In October of 2015 I was diagnosed with Lyme disease (even though I had two negative tests) as I had been bitten many times by ticks and my symptoms presented themselves as classic Lyme. I was started on what ended up being a full year of heavy antibiotics (doxycycline) and other antibiotics, probiotics and supplements. I took north of 60 pills a day. I tried every practitioner imaginable. Acupuncture. Chinese medicine. CT scans. MRIs. Counseling. Body work. Rolfing. Meditation. Just sitting on my ass.

About August of last year I hurt my back so badly that I went to the ER and spent a week in bed and on painkillers. I was planning on quitting my job and traveling Italy with my best friends Joe and Jenny and my god daughter Elena. All was put on hold. I was really in crisis with no where to go.

I stayed positive with the support of friends and family. I examined auto immune clinics etc. Once I hurt my back I went radical and did 26 days (of a normally 12 day) elimination diet. Just to get a baseline.

I learned tons about my body, our food systems, and the lack of nutritional knowledge in mainstream medicine.

I got to see what it was like to be in our health care system. Spent over $40,000 out of pocket but felt lucky I had health insurance, a job, and no dependents. Not sure I would have survived.

When I went on the Elimination diet I (correctly) determined I didn’t have Lyme. I stopped the Antibiotics. Some of my friends are not as fortunate and still battling Lyme. It’s a very controversial diagnosis. Once you are diagnosed, it’s like a red letter on your charts. No one wants to see you.

The reason I’m writing all of this is to give folks in that space some hope. A year ago I had hand surgery, a PRP injection in my knee (another controversial procedure) and was basically told “over 50, your knees have no hope.” After the surgery and PRP, it was November, I could do nothing. Rock bottom. I canceled South America and again didn’t quit my job! Haha.

I went to Baja to repair. And did. I also met Pandora right before and, as I mentioned, she helped me figure the last nagging piece. My knee.

So as i continue on the second half of this incredible trip up to Everest Base Camp, just remember one thing. Do NOT think practitioners know it all. Seek help. Seek support from WHOMEVER you can. Reach out to me. Politic for a sane and fair health care system for all. And do not give up. Your body, with the right care and nutrition, has the ability to heal itself. And I am so grateful for every single person that has helped me. I attacked each affliction individually and won most of the battles. I’m living proof you can do it. Never in a million years, even as recently as four months ago, did I comprehend I could pull this off.

And the next two weeks will blow your mind if you haven’t been up here. Hope my pics do it justice!

Namaste!