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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.

I’m not sure why, but the outpouring of grief and nostalgia surrounding the passing of Steve Jobs has moved me quite deeply. To the point where I visited the New York Times interactive site, and posted a picture taken during my first trip to Cuba (this past June). The photo — see if you can find it here (it was in the far left column last time I looked) — shows the lovely Cristina Benitez (a member of our small and wonderful group) showing her iPhone to a little girl somewhere near the town of Vinales.  The caption reads as follows:

“On a recent trip to Cuba, a member of our delegation handed a local girl her iPhone. There was no mystification, no hesitation; the girl started playing with it as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Which it somehow, inexplicably, is. Thank you, Steve Jobs, for the wonderful tools — and the irresistible toys.”

Friends have lately been giving me flak for not letting them know when I’ve published new stories. So I’d also like to mention that, since February, I’ve been a doing a lot of writing for Smithsonian. This has turned into one of the more enjoyable relationships in my long freelance career. So far there are five features, with a sixth to appear around October 12th. You can see the list by clicking here. Note: The Beach Plastic tale is one of my favorites…

Let’s close up this tedious vanity post by mentioning another recent story for OnEarth, this one about ocean researcher and sea turtle advocate Wallace “J” Nichols. Nichols recently started the “Blue Mind” conferences at the California Academy of Science, where he poses the quasi-obvious but seldom-asked question: “Why (neuroscientifically speaking) do we love the ocean?” His thoughts are well-reasoned and –  if I dare employ the word in the context of a blog that mentions Cuba — revolutionary.

Speaking of which, or where, I trust you all read my Ethical Traveler blogs from Cuba! What a place, and what a trip. Stay tuned for the next Ethical Journeys Cuba trip, being cobbled together right now by our wonderful travel coordinator.

 

Now that the latest run of Strange Travel Suggestions has ended — and what a marvelous run it was — people have been asking me what comes next. It’s a reasonable question, but one that currently fills me with trepidation. Like The Fool in the intro to my show, I am preparing to take a leap of faith into the world, and begin a project that (if it succeeds) will be perhaps the most important work I’ve ever attempted. At the moment, it’s top secret. But by mid-Spring I should know if this crazy inspiration is going to be my job for the next couple of years, or if I’ll still be sitting by the phone, waiting for Christopher Nolan to decide that Snake Lake is going to be his follow-up project to Inception.

In the meantime, I’m writing up my recent trip to Guyana for the Los Angeles Times. Guyana is a country about the size of Iowa, with a population smaller than San Francisco. Seen from the air, the landscape resembles the sort of thick loop carpet you might find in a state college dorm room. 

It’s a nearly unbroken expanse of green. There are some tannin-laced rivers, and a few spectacular waterfalls, but very few signs of industry. Guyana is a country just finding its place on the adventurers’  map, and it was fascinating to travel deep into rainforest and meet the Amerindian tribes that have decided that eco-lodges and birding expeditions are a better bet than mining and logging. I’ll post a link to the story when it’s in print.

In other news, a couple of terrific interviews aired recently. The insightful Dave Iverson invited me to be his guest on the January 28th broadcast of KQED Forum. We discussed my solo show, my books, and the work of Ethical Traveler. Also on the airwaves is a penetrating conversation with the sagacious Rick Steves, during which we spoke about Nepal’s current political situation and the serpentine plot lines of Snake Lake. Rick is a skillful interviewer and a wonderful human being, and our discussion was far-ranging. I hope you’ll check it out!

In early January, I told my tale about rescuing a baby snow leopard (while traveling in Tibet in 1994) during an  evening of Strange Travel Suggestions at The Marsh Berkeley. People loved the story, and asked me to post photos of the cub. All I had were stills, but I finally got  down to the local copy store and had them scanned. Here are three of them, taken in my friend’s room at the Yak Hotel in Lhasa. Unfortunately, the ice-blue eyes don’t show up very well!

We named our new friend Ghang Sik Dondrup: “The snow lion whose every wish is fulfilled.” (There’s a picture of a mythical snow lion in the blog post below.) I hope you enjoy the photos!

Remember, Strange Travel has been extended through February 19th!

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