Kids from the Santiago Ballet Company celebrating on Havana's Malecon at midnight, after winning the 2015 dance competition. Photo by Barbara Wein, a member of our group.

Kids from the Santiago Ballet Company celebrating on Havana’s Malecon at midnight, after winning the 2015 dance competition. Photo by Barbara Wein, a member of our group.

    April 17th, 2015 - The writing is on the wall, and it may be good news all around. A few days ago, Obama announced his intention to remove Cuba from the list of countries that support terrorism. There will have to be a 45-day waiting period and congressional approval; good luck with that. Already some Republicans are foaming at the mouth. What an astonishing bunch of ignorant, self-serving hypocrites. Many times during this trip, overwhelmed by the passion, creativity, humanity and kindness of the Cubans, we have shaken our heads at the surreal posture of the past half-century. It defies all reason.

Dystopian Cuba art by Roberto Rodrigues, In El Figero Restaurant, Old Havana.

Dystopian Cuban photography by artist Roberto Rodriguez, In El Figero Restaurant, Old Havana.

 By now, a week into our trip, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen Cubans from various walks of life. They share a tremendous wish to see the embargo lifted. They also share the sense that things won’t change terribly quickly—but that when it does, Cuba will decide who does business here and when. Some members of my Ethical Traveler delegation feel differently; there’s a fair amount of cynicism, and many of them believe that when the switch is flipped it will be like opening Pandora’s Box. That nothing will stop the tide of garish American businesses, iPhone billboards, cruise ships and University of Florida students on Spring break from pouring in.

I don’t know. Nobody knows. I hope they’re wrong. They Dance-2may be wrong in the short run but right in the long run, it’s impossible to say. Despite my well-deserved reputation for catastrophising I’m weirdly optimistic in this regard. For better and for worse, what Cuba has done with and since 1959 is truly unique in the world. When I see the propaganda billboards – La Puebla Es La Revolucion! – what strikes me the most is that Fidel’s revolution is still spoken about in the present tense. It is not something that happened; it’s a process. It’s an ongoing experiment.

Maybe Cuba can remain unique. Maybe the island can find a way to combine prosperity and socialism, commercial temperance and artistic freedom, community building and individual incentive. It’s possible that something new can occur here. They lack the tribal self-interest of the failing Africans states, the naiveté and childish dependency of the Nepalese, the pious hypocrisy of the Middle Eastern kingdoms and the brutality and misogyny of Egypt and Pakistan. What they have now is sort of close to what the newly independent American colonies had in the late 1700s: a knowledge of how hard it was to got where they got, and a willingness to try something that hadn’t been tried before. And they have some advantages as well. There is not an entrenched classism, a slave economy or a war with indigenous people. Free health care and free education are guaranteed in their Constitution; though they may lack the “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” abstraction.

Trinidadian 2015  I love the Cubans and, Lord knows, I want them to succeed, but on their own terms. I don’t wish them to collapse under the weight of their own freedoms, saddled with everything that we have: a feeling of superiority, a sense of entitlement and consumerism to excess.

They don’t need it. Nobody does.


"The Conversation," in Havana's Assisi Square.

“The Conversation,” in Havana’s Assisi Square.

Havana, Cuba – 4/12/2015 - I imagine that people living in places like these – people living under dictatorships, treated alternately as fellow revolutionaries and as children – hear a lot of promises. Things will be glorious, or they will be difficult, but they will always change for the better. So I reckon it’s not surprising that the Cubans we’re seeing and meeting are not falling out of their chairs with delight at the promise of renewed US-Cuba ties, or that they are even really reacting at all yet. Polite smiles when we bring up the handshake between Barack and Raul, but the Cubans have seen a lot of handshakes. And so have we all.

It’s more crowded here, for sure, but of course that could mean anything. The swell in tourists might represent mainly Latin Americans and Canadians and Germans, it’s not as if the groups wandering along Obispo or crowding the bar of the La Bodeguita del Medio are waving American flags. There’s no doubt the tourism economy is surging, and that there are more shops and boutiques than I remember from last time. But the Cubans we’re talking to—from people on the street to guides to artists—definitely seem cautious about the prospect of normalized relations. No doubt this week’s visit by Obama to Panama, and the pending announcement of Cuba’s removal from the terrorist list (and they damned well better remove it), will make it feel like the wheels are in motion.


One thing I am noticing is  the increased number of smart phones. The young people sitting along the sea wall of the Malecon are as engaged with each other as ever—almost. But I’d say that in many of the little social groups, as many as one out of every five, there is one person sitting apart, head  down, face lit by the pastel glow of a device. Seeing that has given me my first uncomfortable sense of where things might be going. Everyone focuses on the potential proliferation of McDonalds and Starbucks, the invasion of WalMart, the cynically inevitable capitalization of Cuba. But what I saw last night was a more likely vision of the city in three or four years: hundreds of young Cubans sitting together but separately, necks bent  and heads canted slightly away from each other, as a thousand tiny screens dancing against the dark Gulf like fireflies.

Cuba-car I hope not. But after just three days here, it is very clear that the real celebrations will start taking place when two things happen. First, the Internet has got to be made reliable, efficient and cheap. Second, the long embargo must be lifted so that the free flow of goods—the kinds of goods that will help Cuba join the modern world —can begin. That’s when the handshakes will mean something, and fifty years of hand-wringing can end.

April 9th 2015 - Heading to Cuba tomorrow, my fifth trip in five years. But this one promises to be different. Not since reporting on Nepal’s revolution in 1990 have I visited a country poised so hopefully and uncertainly on the cusp of major changes — changes that will conceivable alter all our preconceptions.

Cuba is not yet online in any meaningful or truly useful sense of the word (one of the most eagerly anticipated changes, for sure). But I’ll try to do some writing and photography while I’m there, and revive this long-dormant blog from whatever port I can find. This will be Ethical Traveler’s busiest trip for sure — with 16 participants — but even if I can only post a few times during the next 10 days it will be worthwhile. Stay tuned, and wish me luck!



I’ll have a lot to say soon enough, but I don’t have a lot to say right now.

I’m doing three events in  Nov/Dec, all  posted on my Events page; please check them out.

I also want to let all of you know that I’m tweeting now, @strangetravel  …   You might as well follow me, because I know where all the good candy is.

With my brother Jordan at the Day of the Dead procession, SF. Photo by Zena Kruzic


As I walk along the beach at the Point Reyes National Seashore, a sleek black head pops out of the sea: Not 50 feet away, a harbor seal – an adolescent male, probably – studies me from just beyond the swell. By the time I pull out my binoculars, he’s gone.

This beach has been part of my life for 37 years. Nearby Coast Camp, just around the bend, is the first place I ever slept outside overnight. As with all first-time campers, my experience was a combination of rapture and terror. The quail, deer, and raccoons that awakened me that distant weekend are here still, several generations removed from the fauna that inhabited this park when I was a teen. Even then, back in 1975, one or two seals always appeared soon after I’d found a spot on the beach, spread out my blanket and cracked open whatever sci-fi book I was reading. They’d emerge from the surf and study me, seeming to wonder what I’d do next—or why I was doing anything at all.

   In my life apart from Point Reyes I’ve watched plenty of kids grow up, seen plenty of people grow old, and helped some people die. Many of the creatures I’ve known for years – my godson, my goddaughters, some colleagues and friends – didn’t even exist when I first visited this beach. My brother Jordan, on the other hand—as well as my father, and my grandparents —were alive back then. I remember writing my brother and telling him about waking up in the middle of the night to find a huge fallow deer standing outside the door of my tent, framed by the constellation Cassiopeia. My brother studied ancient Greek, and the moment had seemed like something right out of a myth.

The bluffs and rocks and dunes of this coastline have aged and crumbled during those years, shaped by  erosion and earthquakes. Point Reyes is often called an “Island in Time”; its geological origins lie more than 300 miles south, in the matching strata of the Tehachapi Mountains. The entire peninsula,  which lies just over the San Andreas Fault, has been migrating northward for millions of years.  It’s a lively place, where the ragged edges of the North American and Pacific plates scrape and shift in a perpetual renewal of the planet’s crust. Sometimes, standing on the rocks above Sculptured Beach, it occurs to me that I’m at the continent’s razor edge, a slice of real estate as ephemeral as a Tibetan sand mandala.

Though I love this seashore—and have marked its changes in a dozen journals—I don’t measure time on a geologic scale. I measure by the people who have come and gone in my life, during four decades of beach fires, day hikes, wildflowers and bobcat-sightings.

The  seal surfaces again, keeping pace with my stroll along the shore. Ready with my binoculars, I catch a glimpse of his face. The pinniped tilts his head, genuinely curious.

“Do I know you?” I call out, because alone on the beach we often speak without expecting an answer. “Did I know your father? Your aunt? Have we met before?”

  The seal disappears, exquisitely adapted to an ocean that has already numbed my feet. I didn’t recognize him, of course. But it is not unreasonable to think that, when I first visited this coastline, one of his kin watched me spread out a blanket, just as I’ll do today. For all I know, the seals themselves have kept track of me: that tall guy with thin ankles and a large beak, who used to have black hair.

 Each life on this planet is a continual coming-of-age, performed with a cast of characters engaged in similar activities. We grow up and share the world with everyone, and everything, around us. For that reason I’m willing to consider these seals and bobcats, these pelicans and elk, as part of my circle of friends (or at least my network of acquaintances). Even a fleeting moment of non-verbal contact with a  seal feels strangely comforting – like spotting a former classmate, or her daughter, from atop the Ferris wheel at a crowded county fair.

They may not hear us, or see us wave, but it hardly matters. The sentiment is what counts. We’re still around, you and I. The world’s still spinning. I wish you well.

*  *  *


  Three stories. And they were easier to miss than asteroid 2012 DA14 which, arriving  stealthily from sunward, barely grazed the Earth’s magnetic field before careening back into space….

  I think some of you saw my colorful story about “The Wave” in the SF Chronicle in December. On May 12th, the Los Angeles Times published a story about a Utah canyoneering adventure that was part of the same trip — a little more harrowing, if a bit less (geologically) photogenic. If any of you find yourself near Zion, it’s a real adrenaline rush.

The LA Times Sunday Travel section actually published two of my travel stories this month. I’m quite happy with the one that ran on May 5th, about a remarkable 30-year-old woman — a New Yorker named Alexa Pham — who has set up a resort in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to help rescue women threatened with sex slavery.

That’s all I got for now.

  Life is remarkable. Two years ago, I’d never been to Cuba. Last week, I returned from my third trip to the socialist nation – leading a delegation of 16 remarkable people, many of them artists, across the length of the island – from Havana to Santiago.

 Those who followed my first Cuba dispatches, in June of 2011, might be surprised that I didn’t write any blogs during my last two visits. On my recent trips I served as group leader, and had little time to myself. Back in 2011, I’d spent a week traveling the country on my own – an experience I recommend to any visitor, whether you speak Spanish or not!

 I find myself ever more enraptured with our southern neighbor, despite its persistent shortcomings and outright failures. The warmth of the people, the sensuality and music, are an antidote to the anxieties of North American life. As a visitor, though, it’s easy to gloss over the lack of press freedom, the limited access to fresh food, or the shabby conditions in which so many people live. And the recent news about Cuban editor Roberto Zurbano, who lost his job after publishing a New York Times Op-Ed critical of the nation’s progress against racism, is deeply disturbing.

During this trip I also had a first-hand look at Cuba’s much-touted medical system, when my own mother – one of the visiting artists – took a fall and cut her hand. The doctor at the community clinic in Viñales (a 25-year-old woman, assisted by a male nurse) stitched her up beautifully (according to her Florida physician, who examined her on our return), but the clinic had neither tetanus vaccine nor antibiotics in stock; we had to wait until the next day, and drive to the nearest city for these. (I should add that in every city and town, every morning from the day of her injury until we left Cuba, a physician came to my mother’s hotel room to clean and redress her wound. There was never a charge—though she gave one nurse her tennis shoes.)

  In the balance, I feel a growing sense of optimism for Cuba. But its progress depends in large part on the courage and vision of Barack Obama, and the infamous self-interest of the U.S. Congress. The more one frets over the half century-long U.S. trade embargo – which has served as a stumbling block and propaganda tool to both Fidel and Raul Castro — the more it seems an utterly worthless relic of the Cold War, as outdated as Liquid Paper. And while we continue to “punish” Cuba, China is busily trading with their government, and building LNG factories (and God knows what else) along the island’s north coast. America is biting off its nose to spite its face. The embargo must be lifted as quickly as possible, and Cuba’s socialist experiment allowed to succeed or fail on its own terms.

But what happens when it is lifted? Will Cuba become another vanilla Children in Viñales, Cubaoutpost of American commercial hegemony, peppered with Pizza Huts and Radio Shacks? Somehow, I don’t think so… I sense they will limit this kind of vacant foreign influence… but I’m not placing any bets. Cuba’s infrastructure is growing steadily, and tourism is a huge source of foreign exchange. The country  is changing so fast, in so many ways, that even locals are sometimes discombobulated. “I don’t remember that statue from my last visit…” I said to my local guide in 2012, as we walked past a modernistic bronze sculpture in San Francisco de Asis Plaza. He shook his head. “I don’t, either.”

Whatever the future brings, it’s likely to be bittersweet. That’s the way the future is.

For about 17 years, a quiet rumor has been circulating that I was the world’s first international travel blogger—back in early 1994, before the verb “blog” had even entered the vulgate.

After several decades, peripatetic travel scribe Gary Arndt has found reason to substantiate this claim. When we met at the annual Book Passage Travel Writer & Photographers’ Conference last August, Arndt asked me to tell the story of how this came to be.  He has just published my account on his widely followed website, EverythingEverywhere. I’ve spiced up the narrative with some colorful photos from that round-the-world journey, the first of which makes a very good case for hair coloring.

  Seeing this story in print, and remembering the often excruciating   excitement of that harrowing, seemingly endless expedition, I have only one thought: I want to do it again. And I will. This December, I plan to write the proposal for a sequel: a second around-the-world overland journey, this time by a different route. I’ll write about how the world, travel, social networking—and myself—have changed. And (if possible, in this accelerating cyberverse) I’ll find a way to file my dispatches (okay, blogs) using a technology that will seem as groundbreaking in 2014 as the Global Network Navigator’s “Travelers’ Center” did in 1993.

And so it begins. Any good agents out there?

  When people ask what inspired me to become a travel writer, they’re often surprised to hear that much of my pull toward exotic, alien worlds came from reading and watching Science Fiction. So I was totally thrilled when, in June, Smithsonian sent me on a mission to interview my childhood hero: William Shatner. Even today, I have a vivid memory of sitting on our living room sofa with my Dad and brother, opening a box of Mister Salty pretzels, and watching the first Star Trek episode. “To boldly go where no one has gone before…” Talk about Strange Travel Suggestions! No one got more of them than the Starship Enterprise—and no one handled them better than Captain James T. Kirk.

But that was 46 years ago. William Shatner (“call me Bill”) is now 81—but the afternoon I spent with the fit and feisty performer was a high point in my journalistic career. During our 90 minutes together Bill ranted and raved; he sang, preached and cursed; he expounded about Zen archery and the Taj Mahal, and figured out what he wanted to put on his tombstone. You can read a very polished version of the interview here on Smithsonian — or the rambling, unexpurgated version that was courageously published by The Rumpus.

By the time it ended I was exhilarated, and exhausted.  But what neither interview talks about is what happened on the drive home afterward—when I remembered something that made the blood drain from my face. Before parting, I’d given Bill a copy of my 1999 book, Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth. Back when I was putting the book together, he’d refused to grant me an interview. “I didn’t want anything to do with Star Trek back then,” he explained in June. Lacking any insight, I made a brutal observation about Shatner’s singing in one of my footnotes. This sentiment, I realized, was now in his hands. It would easily undo all the bonhomie we had built in our little rendezvous.

Finally, a month later, I wrote to Bill and apologized for my (relatively) youthful insensitivity to his strange but undeniable spoken-word talent. A few days later, I received his reply:  “Love you too. Everything’s good.”  Which I’ll figure means I’m forgiven.

There are lots of other wonderful tidbits from the encounter. In fact, I’ll make you deal: If at any point between  stories (not during, please!) at one of the upcoming shows of Strange Travel Suggestions (click link or see my Events page), someone in the audience calls out “Denny Crane!” — I’ll tell a Shatner story.

I’ve been busy here:

Cowbird (click it)

and here, too:

Smithsonian Magazine

In Curaçao, too, for a little while. But I’ll be back here (on this blog) soon. I promise. I think.

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