During the winter of five years ago, I hopped on Boston’s
longitude of just over 70 degrees W and rode it south like a cowboy, crossing
over the Equator where the winter had magically turned to summer and I eventually
found myself in Chile. Months after that trip, I initiated my life’s most
successful romance with Pam. Although humble and bashful, this dynamic lady was
filled with wonderful surprises, one of them being a Magellan-like aptitude for
travel. I often bored her with my joyful reports of Chile to the point she
broke down and decided to return with me for two weeks. We arrived on Christmas
Our first stop was the town of San Pedro in the Atacama
Desert, known as the driest place on Earth although it did not earn this title
until five years ago. Before that point, before meeting Pam, my love life was
known as the driest place on Earth.
The journey was a 24-hour, three-flight trek so our first
day was like one long siesta. San Pedro survives on tourism so the town is kept
in a cute, charming state. Many of the structures are built using a mud-based
technology. The locals have an undoubtedly native look which is lovely
considering how poorly so many of the native tribes have fared in this part of
the world. Stray dogs loitered everywhere like meth heads and cats walked along
the tops of walls, staring down condescendingly at passersby. At our casual
rooftop restaurant, a little black cat with the most pathetic meow caused my
better judgement to evacuate and soon I found myself feeding him next to our
The next morning we visited Valle de la Luna which repeatedly slapped us in the face with surreal desert, lunar-like landscapes. I half-expected to see Roger Moore confidently drive by on a moon rover with a film crew in tow as they shot a scene for Moonraker 2.
After parking our car at one of the various stops in the park, we walked for about 30 minutes, absorbing an unforgiving desert sun. The path ended at a stunning narrow view point where one could take a dramatic photo. With an inspiring disregard for tourism etiquette, a couple sat in the perfect photo spot for several minutes, not allowing Pam and I to capture the bleak and beautiful landscape without human presence. It was bordering hysterical as they looked right at me as I attempted to gather a pristine image.
We drove south through San Pedro and to the Laguna Cejar situated in the massive salt flat of Salar de Atacama where, for $20, one could have the unique pleasure of swimming in a very salty little puddle. Once dry and out of the small laguna, everyone looked like a high-sodium potato chip. After being sunbaked for a few minutes, bathing suits became crustier than an old poor Republican.
The following day we drove southeast on Route 25 for an hour
and a half. With an elevation of almost 4000 meters (San Pedro is around 2400
meters), the air was cool and welcomed. The main attractions here are a salt
flat by the name of Salar de Talar and judging from the photo below, Pam’s
Clearly Chileans in these parts either don’t drink liquids
or have five-liter bladders as there was no toilet to be found in this bare but
special area, causing us to pee behind a boulder like a desert fox.
On our return, we visited Laguna Miscanti and Meñique
and lunched with a friendly Dutch-Slovenian couple in the small town of
Socaire. The Slovenian woman was kind enough to give us background information
on our current First Lady that I did not know proving once again that the
average European citizen knows more about the US than the average American. I
was just impressed with myself for knowing that Slovenia doesn’t border
On our way back to San Pedro, we stopped in the town of
Toconao for a visit of Valle de Jere where we viewed ancient rock drawings and
walked along a small canyon river. At one point, I managed to awkwardly bathe
in the river’s shallow waters. Ever the concerned scientist, Pam noticed the
laughable amount of animal droppings all along the river shore and immediately
grew concerned over the possible presence of parasites in the water. To make
her feel better, a deal was struck that I would keep my head above water.
At the hotel that night, we relaxed outside behind the
dining area. I smoked a fine cigar given to me by my thoughtful landlord. Pam
looked for the Milkyway as she did every night in Atacama. We then ended up
talking to a jovial couple from São
Paulo, Brazil, Bea and Denis. When the two spoke alone, Bea laughed to the
point I kept thinking I had a juggling mouse on my head that I did not know
The next day, we drove north to take in the handsome lands around Guatin and to Machuca where hundreds of flamingoes stood in the water of a laguna. We drove back into town along a dodgy, tire-destroying road and then northwest to Yerbas Buenas where we encountered more stone/cave drawings. Perhaps my drawings are not better than these 2500-year old renderings but mine are a hell of a lot funnier. I’m sorry but a picture of a stick figure standing next to a llama doesn’t bring the laughs.
On our last day in Atacama, we drove back to the airport at Calama and flew to Santiago and then on to Puerto Montt in the Lake District. On the second flight, I was able to easily pick out all of the places I visited in the Lagos area in 2015 in addition to what looked like a wild fire feeding on a large area of brush on the side of a small mountain. On the first flight down, an amiable Chilean man sat next to us in the window seat. Right before takeoff, he face-timed his male partner and arranged his phone so he could see his partner’s face and his partner could see out the window as the plane took off. It was so sweet but the partner’s expression spoke of no joy or interest in the event. He looked at his phone with no discernable expression while drably smoking a cigarette and drinking out of a water bottle. On the other end, in the plane with us, the man was giddy with the concept of this shared takeoff.
Being bold, risk-seeking American tourists, we spent our one
night in Puerto Montt at a Holiday Inn Express. That evening and the following
evening, I dealt with stupid travel logistics on the phone and email: ferry
questions, credit card limits, car rental insurance. I was tired so these pesky
items irritated me and a crust formed on my exterior. I felt like my dad. I
don’t know how my parents dealt with travel irritations (or any kind of
irritation) and six kids; they should be immortalized in some parenting hall of
fame for that feat alone. There were years that eight of us squashed ourselves
and our belongings into a station wagon and drove two to three days down to
Florida in the middle of the summer. Suicidal.
The next morning we ate on the 11th floor of the
hotel and enjoyed a larger version of our bedroom’s view. For a boring hotel
choice, the view of the bay area was full of flavor. An old Chilean man
approached Pam and asked if she was Chinese. Pam said no. The old man said his
wife is Chinese. He then filled the mildly awkward conversation gap by telling
us to try the fresh cherries.
We checked out and drove south to the small seaside town of Hornopiren which loosely translates to “horny pyro”. The main road we travelled, Ruta 7 known as the Carretera Austral was mainly paved but alternated with sections of gravel. Reaching points of interest would require some driving on rough roads. In a gas station, I saw a couple of white dudes driving some over-the-top extreme 4X4 vehicles. I chuckled to myself as I knew there would also be locals traversing the same rough roads at a faster pace in 20-year old sedan shitboxes.
After lunch and checking into our “cabaña”, we roamed around the town like one of the innumerable stray dogs. Most of the dogs were friendly but the ones that seemed to be associated with certain properties barked angrily at us. I was tempted to remind these dogs it was my and Pam’s third wedding anniversary and that they would do well to exercise some kindness.
Below is a video of me in Hornopiren using an outdoor elliptical machine while smoking a cigar and wearing a tiny 25-year old backpack:
The following morning we boarded a ferry bound for Caleta Gonzalo. It lasted four and a half hours and was always flanked on one or two sides by forest-covered mountains that seemed to rise out of the water, leaving no impressions of foothills. In the background of these green hairy mountains, their taller snow-covered siblings stood imposingly, giving the scenery the feel of a family photo.
On our way to the hotel, we hiked up a steep trail along a series of waterfalls. Closer to Chaiten, we began to notice huge areas of dead trees. Wondering what the cause of these enormous, intermittent patches of wooded death, I suddenly remembered that this was all due to the eruption of Chaiten Volcano after a 9000-year nap.
Other than some grey lifeless forests here and there,
everything else was green and pristine with only a small town or settlement
every so often. The amount of traffic on the roads was minimal. This preferably
low presence of humanity was most likely due to the difficulty of arriving
here. Long and/or multiple ferry rides were required which kept numbers down. I
did spot a grass airstrip where wealthy vacationers probably flew in on a
Cessna plane to stay at an all-inclusive luxury fishing lodge for $7000/week.
Our place, Cabañas Yelcho en la Patagonia, was not of this
caliber but it was nice enough. The hotel and cabins were on the shore of the
20-mile long Yelcho Lake. That night we were massaged by a decadent five-course,
New Year’s Eve meal special that was more refined than a French aristocrat.
The following day Pam and I entered the beautiful national park
known as Parque Pumalin. This park was initially purchased by one of the
founders and owners of both The North Face and Esprit clothing companies,
Douglas Tompkins. He and his wife at one time, with the help of other
investors, owned more than two million acres in Chile and Argentina, making the
Tompkins one the largest private landowners in the world. This land was
eventually given to the Chilean government which boosted their national park
holdings by 40%.
We embarked on a six-mile hike that took us up to a worthy
viewpoint and back down to one of the nicest, most glorious campsites I have
ever seen. On our walk, we saw a pair of Magellanic woodpeckers. They were
large boisterous creatures looking like a more powerful version of the Pileated
woodpecker. Further on, Pam pointed at a tree and yelled, “CAT!”. Eight feet
high in a tree was the cutest black animal that had the appearance of a stocky
black cat. It stared at us briefly, quickly descended the tree and ran off.
Thinking it may have been a cub of a dangerous, large, wild
cat, I armed myself with two rotting sticks before I found one that gave me at
least a snowball’s chance in late March of defending ourselves. Pam elected to
arm herself with a smaller stick and a rock. She looked ferocious.
We were not attacked and later discovered the creature we encountered was a small, endangered wild cat known as a kodkod or güiña. Locals and guides were surprised that we saw one since they are elusive and seldom seen. A guide we met a couple days later said he’s never seen one of these shy cats his entire life. I do love it when I’m awesome without even trying.
Back at the hotel, I jumped in the lake. The water was
absurdly fresh and pure, like I was swimming in a huge bowl of smartwater.
Strong winds blew in from the north. As I stood on shore, two girls left their
parent’s beach blanket and approached me while I stood on the shore. They
interrogated me about the two yellow kayaks nearby. I told them that they could
use them. They continued to grill me with questions but I had difficulty understanding
their rapid Spanish. Finally they felt comfortable that any potential liability
issues they could possibly take on through their vague kayak borrowing/theft
had been passed on to me.
They adorably dragged the little yellow boats to the water’s edge, boarded their craft and struggled to make if off the shore due to the wind, giving the appearance of paddling on a treadmill. I kept a quasi-vigilant eye on them due to the potentially dangerous conditions and the fact that their parents were incredibly busy not giving a shit about their children’s wellbeing. The youngest one gave up and brought the boat back to shore while the adolescent girl plowed her way into the water and around a rock jetty. Normally a safe maneuver, it was made dicey by the fierce wind. I continued to look at her and then her parents who seemed more at ease with this event than Don Draper would be after a few Old Fashioned’s. It dawned on me that these were 1970’s parents. As long as there were no adolescent-eating sharks in the water, they were quite fine leaving these mini ladies to their poor judgement.
The next morning we headed south and stopped at a path that lead us an hour’s walk to a glacier. As impressive as it was, we soon discovered that it had receded 200 meters or more in the past 20 years or the same pace as my hairline. I’m guessing part of this reduction was due to climate change but it was also possibly a result of tourists illegally climbing up to touch the glacier, thereby compromising the ground underneath it. A couple years ago, six or seven tourists were killed when they climbed up to the glacier and part of it cracked off and crushed them.
We returned to the car and carried on to the charming town of Futaleufu, six miles west of Argentina. On our way we passed through what could only be described as a valley of death. For several miles, along the banks of the Rio Burritos, a zone of dead trees and eroded soil stretched up to a half mile on either side. Further down, this natural disaster clipped the top of the village of Santa Lucia but seemed to spare most of it by then heading southwest.
Later in the day someone informed me of the cause of this. An enormous piece of glacier fell down into a lake below. Unfortunately, the banks of this lake had been compromised by heavy recent rains and soon the Rio Burritos River valley found itself in a full-on mudslide that devastated a massive section of land. Remembering how the northern part of Santa Lucia had been chewed to bits, I asked how bad the loss of life was. I was told that, by the grace of God, this disaster happened on an election day which meant that the school that was wiped out by the mudslide was empty that day. That said, about fifteen people did lose their lives in the disaster.
Of the small towns we had passed through in the past few days, Futaleufu was the nicest. Still not immune to the abandoned homeowner and municipal projects here and there, it seemed to have the greatest identity thus far. In fact, the style of the buildings reminded me more of the ones I saw five years ago on the other side of the Andes in Argentina. I assume this is explained by the close proximity of Argentina.
Our hotel, Hotel Barranco, was a nice place with a pool and
like most buildings in Chile, allowed you to hear almost everything transpiring
in adjoining rooms. The following day, Pam and I were accidental audience
members to a sex show happening below. It was as close (and pretty damn close)
as I will ever come to being in a foursome and it made me never want to stay in
a hotel again. I hoped these freaks at least had the decency to put some plastic
That night we ate at a restaurant called Martin Pescador. It
was commanded by a Chilean woman Tatiana and her husband Mitch who was from New
Mexico. The food was art. I lost count of how many courses we consumed. We were
so impressed that we returned the following night. When I asked Mitch what the
menu would be the next day, he said he had no idea; they had to wait to see
what fresh ingredients they could get their hands on and build from there. I
asked for one of their handwritten menus and Mitch had his wife sign it. I
promised it would be framed.
After two days, we retraced our steps and were soon again in
Chaiten. On our way, we stopped by a lodge owned and operated by my sister’s
college friend Lisa and her husband Franz. They in fact had three other lodges
like this one spread out in northern Patagonia. Franz is originally from
Holland and is an internationally renowned fly fisherman. Lisa is a top-shelf
chef and business lady so the two have been able to build a business that
attracts wealthy people from the US primarily for one week at a time.
I had not seen Lisa in probably 30 years and in that time
she changed little. Energetic, alert, armed with a knowing smile, good at
reading people, and a touch sassy; Lisa was as I remembered her when she stayed
at our house when I was young and fantastic. She reminded me of the funny story
of how when we all watched TV at night, my father and some of the rest of us
would do sit-ups during commercial breaks. It was wonderful to be reminded of
this glorious memory.
That night we stayed in a nice little guest house in the
very unremarkable town of Chaiten. That said, the people were nice and so were
the many stray dogs and cats that approached us in hopes we had a spare steak
in our pocket. We ate at a simple restaurant with an outdoor fireplace whose
hot coals were transferred into a nearby grill used to cook our food. The grill
man told me his firewood was from nearby trees felled by the 2008 volcanic
eruption. He pointed to the volcanic ash still found in the cracks and crevices
in the wood. We finished our simple but effective fare. I shook hands with the
stout owner/cook. Shaking his beefy hand was like trying to grab a muscular
butt (not that I know anything about that).
In the middle of the night, I heard the sound of a peeing human so distinctly I found myself anticipating being caught in a golden shower without an umbrella. Again, the poor construction of the building and walls allowed sound to pass from the common bathroom into our room as if there were no walls. In fact, I think Chilean builders have found a way to design walls that somehow amplify the sound of one room into the next.
The following day we took ourselves and our car on a
six-hour ferry to the island of Chiloe. Once on land we immediately headed
north and boarded a 25-minute ferry back to the mainland. Another hour and a
half took us to an unbelievably charming guest house just north of Puerto Octay
called Zapato Amarillo. I stayed here five years ago and it was one of my
favorite “hotel” experiences not just in Chile but in the world. The two or
three acre property was well planned but felt more than natural. Five buildings
that had a northern European look to them adorned the property in a
Three of the buildings had long grass growing on the roof
(on purpose) which I’m told is a Norwegian design and helped give the property
the vibe of a Hobbit village. But more than these elements, more than the
uncountable varieties of flowers and fruits growing or the curious birds that
have decided to call this yard their home or the simple but comforting
interiors or the Photoshop-perfect view of Osorno Volcano or anything else,
it’s the owners that give Zapato Amarillo a level of soul rarely found in the
Nadia is from Valparaiso, Chile and Armin hails from
Switzerland. They met decades ago in Chile and opened their guest house around
1998. With the help of friends and family, they built practically everything
found on the property themselves. Their story, their property, Nadia and Armin;
it was all something out of a fairy tale.
I told them their prices were too low but they simply smiled
and shrugged awkwardly. Although it was a lot of work, they relished in their
business and in their lives. It was as if this place was a heavenly laboratory
where they were allowed to experiment with their joyful, pure desires in any
way they saw fit.
A destination seems more special when the journey is more
strenuous. Getting to Nepal was not excruciating (nothing compared to barfing
your guts out on a wind-powered boat for months as was en vogue in old times)
but with an eleven-hour layover in Istanbul, it felt a bit layered getting
People are not meant to stay in an airport for 11 hours.
There’s only so many times you can go to the food court and think about what
you will eat when it’s time to eat. After hour four, you start to enter this
Andy Dufresne prisoner mode of thinking “maybe I’ll start tunneling through
this wall to see where it goes.” More accurately, you literally become Tom
Hank’s character Viktor Navorski in The
Terminal where he lands in JFK airport to discover his passport is no
longer valid since the tiny country he is from dissolved during his flight.
While immigration officials figure out what to do with him, he’s forced to
wander the airport terminal for several days. Soon he figures out the patterns
and rhythms of airport life and creates a funny micro life in the confines of
Similarly, by the end, I had a good feel of the Istanbul
international terminal. I knew where everything was. I knew where the good food
places were. I saw the level of anger a janitor shows when a complete idiot
tries to smoke a cigarette in a bathroom stall. I discovered if you find an
empty departure gate, you have roughly 45-70 minutes to fall asleep there
before it starts to get crowded with passengers waiting for their flight. This
last discovery led me to finding an empty gate, reading for a short while,
falling asleep for 15-45 minutes, waking up to lots of people around me, and
then leaving to find another empty gate. I can conservatively say that I took
naps in about 70% of Istanbul’s International Terminal gates. Other people
appeared to be doing the same thing which meant you may cross paths with the
same travelers every third gate or so. Hopefully this will be as close as I get
to being homeless.
For good measure, once up in the air, the Istanbul – Kathmandu
leg of my trip was lengthened a couple hours due to an unplanned extension of
the flight path followed by too much air traffic at Kathmandu. The latter
caused us to circle over Katmandu Valley for 40 minutes, granting us rich views
of the Himalayas and Everest multiple times. The reason the flight path was
extended was that we were forced to avoid Pakistani airspace. In February,
terrorists from Pakistan set off an attack in the Indian city of Pulwama which
led India to launch a strike on a terrorist camp in Pakistan which led to a
failed Pakistani retaliation. All of this escalation caused a closure of
Pakistani airspace, causing delays and longer flights.
When I exited the airport, I got a wonderful vibe from the
people. They seemed to have that easygoing, balanced, genuine nature I have
seen in Thailand and the Philippines…all countries that have no desire for
world domination or at least the domination of their neighbors. The staff at
Kathmandu Embassy Hotel was precious as was Nirmal, the owner who also ran the
travel/tour agency that arranged my entire trip. I believe he should feel
compelled to create an ab workout called Ab-Nirmal: “Ab-Nirmal…if you want abs
that are so toned, they’re ABnormal, then you need Ab-Nirmal!”
The following morning I ate breakfast on the hotel’s roof
top eating area. As I ate, I watched the morning’s fog slowly get replaced by a
haze of dust and pollution. After eating, Nirmal offered to give me a ride to
the neighborhood of Thamel on the back of his small motorbike, allowing me to
become the white American date he never had or wanted.
As we rode along, I felt like a blood cell flowing through a
series of veins, appreciating all the near misses that were not upgraded to
collisions. We crossed over a main road into Thamel and motored our way through
a network of tight shop-lined streets that gave an overall sensation of eating
your way through a Pac Man board. Thamel was the place to go before your trek.
It’s loaded with tour guides and shops that sell and rent hiking gear. I bought
a winter coat, pair of trekking poles, and water purification tablets for about
Upon the recommendation of many, I walked west and then up
to Swayambhunath, a temple home to Buddhists, Hindus, and monkeys. There were
monkeys climbing all over this site, probably feeding off the tourists. Less
cute and more irritating was another pest who also feeds off tourists. A young
man approached me at the base of the long stairway to the temple. He said he
worked at the temple and began to explain the place in detail. A couple minutes
in and about 100 steps up, I asked, “Who pays you to work here? The
“No,” he said, “people like you do. I asked him how much but he would not answer definitively. I didn’t like where this was headed so I gave him 200 rupees and thanked him for his time. He was upset by this, saying I was supposed to pay him more. I advised him in the future to communicate his system more clearly to people before initiating a guided tour and proceeded up the stairs.
I eventually walked back to Thamel and met Nirmal in his travel guide office. While we chatted, a Swiss man of about 50 named Andy walked in and greeted us. He had known Nirmal for over 20 years and was one of so many westerners that make annual and biannual pilgrimages to Nepal. I told Andy that I visited Zurich and Stein Am Rhein years ago. I commented how picturesque Stein Am Rhein was which caused Andy to reflect on how unfortunate it was that due to its close proximity to Germany, the US accidentally bombed it in WWII. I said I was sorry. He laughed.
As I looked around, I marveled at this robust tourist
business that slowly came to life after 1950, following the removal of the Rana
regime which essentially opened Nepal up to the world. Before 1950, electricity
was only to be found in Kathmandu Valley. Outside the valley, there was no
electricity, literacy rates of 2-5%, and a massive death rate. No exaggeration
is made when people say that before the 1950’s, most of Nepal was living in a
One of Nirmal’s employees became woeful when pointing to the
Chinese businesses moving in. He expressed the frustration of being a
landlocked country caught between the two larger, more powerful countries of
China and India, forcing his country to master a balancing act that would
maximize good will from each neighbor while minimizing their disdain.
The next morning I took a taxi to the airport and boarded a toy airplane that looked like it was old enough to be used in an Indiana Jones film. And I know this because there was an ashtray next to my seat. I think the last time you could smoke on a plane you could also unethically pat a woman’s behind or drink in front of your boss at the office and suffer no ill consequences. If you’re trying to frighten the feces out of your customers, having ashtrays in your plane is scarier than having an engine blow out over an area flooded with hostile terrorists.
On takeoff, the pilot did the usual propeller plane parlor
trick of applying the brakes, revving the engines, and then releasing the
brakes so the plane shot down the runway with a nice pop. The 25-minute flight
was flanked by the dry plains on the left and the snow-covered Himalayas on the
Down on the ground in Pokhara, I was picked up by a taxi and
driven to my hotel where I met my Sherpa guide Lakpa. This easygoing, smiley
chap of 43 has the distinction of successfully climbing Everest. I asked him if
he’d like to go back to this peak and he quickly said no. He no longer does
dicey mountain ascents and instead does trekking only. And I thought I was
tough for climbing onto a roof to fix a shingle one time but apparently not.
The two of us walked along the edge of Phewa Lake over to a small restaurant patronized predominantly by locals. After eating, a Tibetan craft lady showed me her wares (that was not meant to be filthy) so I purchased several items for my people. As a gift, she tied a friendship bracelet to my wrist and to Lakpa’s wrist. The trek had not even begun and it was already wrought with awkward dangers.
After waking at 5:30 AM, I got myself together and met Lakpa
in the lobby. Our intent was to head to the airport and board another tiny and
probably old plane and fly 25 minutes to Jomsom where our trek would begin.
Flying to Jomsom is a bit squirrelly due to its robust elevation in the
Himalayas. You can’t fly in or out of this mountain town after 10AM since after
this time, almost every day, high winds arrive. If it happens to be windy
before and up to 9AM, all flights will be cancelled. Today was such a day so we
were forced to remain in Pokhara at least one more day. This was not the worst
thing in the world since the weather in Jomsom was 32 degrees and snowing while
Pokhara was a sunny, dry 75 degrees.
After a large meal, we walked down to the shore of Lake Phewa and rented a colorful wooden boat that we paddled around the lake for a few hours. I even swam in these fresh waters purely for good measure. On the opposite shore, we parked our boat next to a restaurant that commanded a sterling view of the lake and small city. Lakpa and I shared a beer and I asked him more about his successful Everest climb. He told me it took a few weeks to get to the top due to acclimatization issues that forced the party to go up and back down when someone developed altitude sickness. Lakpa said if it was just him and another Sherpa, they could have climbed Everest much more quickly.
Lakpa then shared an amazing piece of information about his
ancestry with me: the brother of his grandfather is none other than Tenzing
Norgay. Along with Edmund Hillary, he was the first to officially climb Everest
in 1953. I’m sure Lakpa’s Great Uncle was rolling in his grave as his Sherpa
relative spent the day canoeing instead of trekking.
The next morning our flight to Jomson was again cancelled
due to impudent weather conditions. Tomorrow will be the third time we drive down
to the airport and attempt this flight. I tried to explain to Lakpa how this
repetitive airport/flight cancellation business was like the movie Groundhog Day but this accurate
reference fell upon deaf ears. In fact, Lakpa had no idea who Bill Murray was. Upon
reflection, perhaps I could have likened our experience to a rejected narrative
of HBO’s Westworld, a show where
android hosts exist in various repetitive story lines in a large-scale
amusement park for the enjoyment of the guests.
We have only been in Pokhara a couple days and have already
racked up a large number of taxi rides due to the back and forth from the
airport. I swear that each taxi we get in is smaller than the last.
Nothing to do with his lack of familiarity with Bill Murray,
I told Lakpa I would enjoy having separate rooms (we shared a room the previous
night and tentatively continued to do so going forward). I stressed the fact of
how great of a roommate he was but it was the fact I had trouble sleeping
through his snoring (he claimed to never snore which means his wife is
extremely deaf or is extremely patient or sleeps in another room). His snoring
at times had me thinking that someone was choking him to death. This was
followed by a sound that resembled Darth Vader’s crippled breathing after he
sustains heavy electrical damage from manhandling the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi. There may also have
been a few rogue sleep farts but who the hell is keeping score in such matters?
It would be monumentally hypocritical of me to complain about these nocturnal
In any event, given all this, it was clear to me that all
the friendship bracelets in the world could not keep us together as roommates.
With another pristine day in the mid 70’s, being in Pokhara
was not the worst thing in the world. This time we decided to rent a couple
bikes and cycle up 350 meters in elevation to the Shanti Stupa where we were
furnished with varsity views pf Lake Phewa, Pokhara and the jacked Himalayas
behind. Our ride took us through some mildly hectic, extremely non-touristy
roadways. The way back proved to be busier with all kinds of vehicles beeping
their way past us. My favorite was courageously entering a roundabout loaded
with motorbikes, scooters, cars, and trucks. For fun, there were even a few
cows walking against traffic in the middle of the roundabout.
Later on I saw a young cow lying in the middle of a very busy road with traffic buzzing by it in both directions. Cows seemed to walk aimlessly all over the country. Lakpa reminded me that due to the Nepalese belief that cows are sacred, they are rarely eaten here. Perhaps these dim animals are just bright enough to know this and feel empowered to the point of screwing with human transportation.
I would be remiss if I did not share two important
observations with you:
1) Two or three years ago while in the Philippines, I suffered a rare moment of profound enlightenment. After losing sleep and hope to the sounds of so many barking dogs, I suddenly realized that my travels have taught me something unnervingly accurate: the more “worlds” your country has, the more barking dogs per capita will be found (see graph below that I drew while in Philippines). Nepal has supported this theory so strongly that I now believe it must be an “Eighth World” country. I know this is impossible since I believe that anything over a Third World does not exist. This means perhaps there is another factor at play that has escaped me. Regardless, I struggle to convey just how many dogs are barking in this country. And what makes it even more special is that many of these dogs love to save up the majority of their barking power for human sleeping hours. The hotel we stayed at last night, the New United Hotel, was perhaps the first night’s sleep not betrayed by this irritating chorus.
2) People love spitting here. I know spitting happens all
over the world but here it nears being an institution. If spitting is sex, the
courtship that precedes it would certainly be the loud hocking noise present in
almost all spitting engagements here. You can hear the hocking start from far
away. It is so passionate you are convinced this is the last spit that this
person has been allowed to make. This may all sound a bit base but they somehow
do it in a way that does not give off an air of poor manners. What’s more, they make every effort to spit in
street gutters where no one will step.
The next morning I was up at 4AM. Today would be our third
attempt at flying to Jomsom. We arrived at the airport before it opened so we
waited outside the main gate. I foolishly set my bag down on top of a concrete
barrier that was one of two that bordered each side of a short concrete bridge
that spanned over a three-foot drainage gutter designed to divert a natural
tiny stream. Either one of us bumped into the bag or gravity had its way for I
soon found myself running down to the stream eight feet below where my bag was
bathing. I then straddled the little stream like an aging gymnast and pulled my
bag out. Fortunately I was able to get my clothes out and into Lakpa’s bag
before anything got wet and as it turned out, the water was not as smelly and
foul as I imagined. Feeling better about this mild annoyance, I went ahead and
assumed my backpack was not marinated in fecal matter and yak urine and
continued to use it.
The backpack gods may have been frowning on me this day but
the deadly mountain flight gods were most certainly smiling. Our flight was
finally clear to leave and 25 minutes after takeoff, we were gently landing in
Jomson. Twenty-five minutes. The bus ride would have taken over ten brutal
After eating breakfast at a charming restaurant, we walked three hours to Kagbeni where we stayed the night. Walking around this captivating little village, I noticed stacks of wood that lined the edges of the rooves on most of the houses. Lakpa confirmed that the wood was used as firewood but these piles served another purpose: they were also a sort of status symbol. A house with more wood on its roof is viewed as more prosperous.
Yet again there was an abominable little shit of a dog that
barked its way into my hate. The owners of our guest house lived across the
slim street/path and had a dog that liked to go onto the roof and bark at every
foreign organism that came within 60 feet of the house. Lucky for me, the
height of the roof matched the height of my window exactly, allowing for
maximum irritation when this little pube barked while I attempted to nap.
Before turning in, Lakpa came up with the good idea of
simply moving to one of the rooms across the hall since it appeared we had the
place to ourselves. Only one of the rooms was unlocked so I decided to make
sure it wasn’t occupied. I looked inside and saw no belongings but there were
lots of blankets spread out onto two small beds that had been pushed together.
I vacillated for a while, wondering what I should do, even revisiting the room
again around 8:30 PM to see if anything had changed. I looked again at all the
blankets and thought they were using this room to store extra blankets. In the
end, I decided to sleep in the Barking Dog Suite.
When I awoke the next morning and passed by the room in
question, I spotted two sets of slippers just outside the door, one belonging
to an adult and the other clearly to one of the small children. Basically, I
almost fell asleep in the bed that was being used by a mother and her tiny
daughter which is great when you consider the moment they would have opened the
door to the compact room to find me be bundled up in my sleeping bag, passed
out in their bed, most likely drooling a little bit.
On our way to Kagbeni yesterday, about two miles before, a
cute little dog decided that Lakpa and I were his new friends. I told this dog
he needed a friendship bracelet if he wanted to hang in our club. He followed
us anyways. When we started on our way today, the cute little turd was waiting
for us outside our guesthouse and continued to follow us on our way to Muktinath.
He traced our steps for another two or three miles until we came to a
suspension bridge. Although the pup probably could have made it over the
bridge, he would not follow us. It was as if a spell was placed on him by some
sort of municipal dog catcher wizard.
I felt bad for our little friend but shortly after crossing the bridge, we ran into about eight friendly Australian trekkers. I told them how we unwittingly abandoned our buddy and they instantly made sounds of sympathy. I was happy to see these lads show their canine affection once they crossed the bridge back to where we left little guy.
As we ascended, I could feel the altitude in the way I would
feel the one cigarette a year I used to smoke. Kagbeni was about 3300 meters
and now we topped out at about 4000 meters which is probably the highest land
elevation I have achieved in my mildly adventurous lifetime. As far as I know,
this will be the highest elevation realized on this trip.
Muktinath, with its dirty roads almost has the feel of a town
out of the old West, something like the town in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider. Now place this town in the
Himalayas, swap the horses for ponies and donkeys, string up some rudimentary
power lines, and allow the buildings to be adorned in a semi-planned Nepalese
As with our Kagbeni guesthouse, Lakpa knew the owner of Caravan Hotel in Muktinath. Like all the other guesthouses I’ve seen up here, this place had rough wooden floors, stucco walls and exposed wooden ceilings. The stairways in all of these houses are guaranteed to provide vertigo. Each house also seems to be furnished with a chief lady. She shouts orders and always maintains a volume higher than the rest.
The guest houses appear to be hundreds of years old but in fact are only a few decades old or less. Perhaps levels and tape measure are hard to come by in these parts but the concepts of “level”, “plumb”, and “square” are not to be savored here, giving the look of an extremely haunted structure. Most of the windows are so out of square that the wind joyfully continues its journey right into your bedroom as you try to sleep on a 20-degree Fahrenheit night.
I can’t stress enough just how insane the
clearing-of-the-throat-into-spitting is. It is quite literally a part of life
here so fundamental that it must be tied to their survival in some way. When I
am walking down the street, the greatest interval of time between one person
hock-spitting and the next has probably been around 52 seconds.
Also of note is that even though the temperature is below
freezing at night and not much above that during the day, the front door will
be left open for about 18 hours a day. Perhaps I mentioned that none of these
buildings have heat? This causes me to leave my winter coat and hat on while
inside and at night, I zip myself up in my -20-degree Fahrenheit sleeping bag
and pray for dawn.
This morning provides yet a third ingredient to my mountain
travels. Flying up here three days ago, I had no appreciation just how arduous the
10-hour bus ride from Pokhara to Jomsom is. My 25-minute flight completely
glossed over the primitive, bruising nature of ground transportation here. The
roads are so bad that I can’t tell if they are slowly being built or slowly
being destroyed. Landslides seem to be winning the battle for space on these
As we were following the river valley slowly down towards
Pokhara, the bus frequently drives on either side of the river. Being from the
US, I would envision a bridge to achieve the crossing of a wide rocky area of
multiple shallow rivers but no, there are no bridges; here the rugged looking
bus plows through the water. I assume and pray the driver is intimate enough
with these river depths. Progress is slow as the vehicle cautiously negotiates
exciting dips and impolite holes, bottoming out at times and rudely throwing
anyone in the back seats into the air.
As I write, the bus has had to pull over and wait a couple
hours or more as construction vehicles block off the road for four-hour shifts
so they can painstakingly clear and reshape the road after a major rockslide
(this writing session happens roadside since any attempt to write onboard
results in something similar to baby’s first drawing).
Yesterday, as Lakpa and I walked along a road to Jomsom,
there was a constant trickle of small stones and dirt that had formed a massive
pile that was in the process of slowly creeping out into the road. Lakpa said
there would probably be a landslide here during the monsoon season. This spot
was one of an innumerable amount along the road. Dangerous chunks of boulders,
dirt, and trees hung over us on much of our journey. It made me respect the
absurd amount of time and resources needed to not just build a mountain road
but to maintain it.
While not busy having my spinal discs sadistically crushed on this bumpy bus ride, I had a wonderful conversation with a pleasant Indian gentleman of 65 named Rajesh. Like so many Indians travelling in the area, he had made a pilgrimage to Muktinath, home of a sacred Hindu site and temple. Hindus come to Muktinath to pray for passed loved ones and to collect special black rocks at the confluence of two mountain rivers. Before explaining this, Rajesh spent the first 30 minutes of our conversation to explain the many relatives he has that have lived in the US since the 1960’s. The details of their professional successes and domestic minutiae represented a load of data impossible for me to pass on to you. Sorry. From what I have seen here, Indians take great pride and pleasure telling you of the great accomplishments of their relations. I have yet to hear about any Indian black sheep family members.
Rajesh was also pleased to report to me the total cost for a six-week European tour that he and his six relatives recently completed. The total sum of all travel expenses was $19,000. While this impressed me, I was equally impressed that Rajesh took the time to tally the final travel cost for his seven-person party.
Lakpa has just told me that this part of the road, from
Muktinath down to Beni (about 60 miles) is only ten years old. What this means
is that before this road, only ten years ago, all vehicles had to stop at Beni
and unload all supplies and people. From there, people had to walk 60 miles
through the mountains to get to Muktinath (unless they had money enough to fly
to Jomsom and then walk five to seven hours to Muktinath). Like all the
supplies, they could also hop on the thousands of donkeys making the trip up.
Although Jomsom could take in some supplies, this area still had depended
largely on donkeys and human porters to bring supplies to them.
The apocalyptic bus ride came to an end for us in Tatopani. After dropping my things at the hotel, I walked over to the hot springs and soaked my frightened figure into a burning stew for a while. When I rose from the water, I gathered my things off a rock wall by some older Nepalese ladies that were preparing to enter the spring. One of them was incredibly sassy and upon seeing my uncovered body, she smiled devilishly and shouted many Nepalese words my way. All I could do was point to myself and proudly say, “Yeti!”, hoping she had mistaken me for the mythological furry creature supposedly roaming the Himalayas.
Later that night, I visited a small craft shop right next to
our guest house. The tidy shop was piloted by a pleasant Tibetan lady. Having a
fine hold of the English language, Tsering and I were able to have a robust
conversation. Although Tibetan, Tsering has never seen Tibet. She was born in a
refugee camp in Pokhara where she still lives with her siblings and brother
when not in Tatopani. Her mother arrived to the camp at the age of one, trying
to escape the aggressive Chinese Communist regime. Although her life seems to
be simple and happy, Tsering informed me that growing up in a refugee camp was
no pleasure cruise. She did extend an offer of having one of her family members
show me the camp when I returned to Pokhara but with my short stopover, I did
not make it happen which a large part of me regrets.
The next day I gobbled a couple pills in effort to curb the
pain and inflammation of my right knee. Luckily, it was enough to allow me to
make the six-mile, 900 meter rise to Shikha. We passed through dozens of
terraced farm villages that were immersed in the ways of spring. I noticed
these lower mountains were more populated by both humans and plants than the
Mustang District we just came from.
Rhododendron trees were in full bloom, their brilliant red
colors only challenged by that of the colors of the ancient Hindu Holi festival
being celebrated in every village we passed through. Powders of all colors were
on the ground and faces of many of the villagers. The festival seems to have a
broad purpose but it does celebrate love in the general sense, the arrival of
spring, and a good spring harvest. Water fights also factor into this festival
for some reason. As I write, the local residents are screaming at the tops of
their lungs, throwing water balloons and dousing each other with water any way
they can. At an earlier village, a little boy stood crying because he got
soaked by someone. About eight other people stood around the boy laughing as he
cried, hopefully a good character-building experience for the young man.
Adding to the color was a 70-year old Chinese man who was a trekking beast. He claimed to have done a very challenging 5000 plus meter hike up a nearby mountain pass. It was easy to see he spent a lot of time outside in the sun trekking since it looked like he stuck his face into an oven every day for 20 minutes.
I have ordered dumplings eight or so times since coming to
Nepal and every time, there are exactly ten dumplings in an order. I am
fascinated how this dumpling code is adhered to no matter where I am in this
country. My fascination only grows when I then reflect on how the structures in
Nepal might look if they were as committed to a building code as they are to
their dumpling code.
This morning we woke in Ghorepani at 4:15 AM and hiked up
another 350 meters to the summit of Poon Hill, giving us an elevation of about
3200 meters. It was completely dark except for the near full moon and once on
top, there were eventually 150 or so other people who came to watch the
sunrise. People have been climbing up to this spot for years to watch the sun
rise due to the incredible and expansive mountain view that could only be
captured with the “pano” option on a camera.
It was below freezing so everyone was wearing warm clothing except one odd fellow with a shaved head that had no hat or gloves on. He wore only a thin shirt. As everyone else laughed, conversed, and took pictures; this slim chap that almost looked like a Buddhist monk was sitting cross legged on a stone wall doing Tai Chi or some similar discipline as the rising sun shone on him poetically. What makes this really special is that he smoked a cigarette while practicing this ancient art.
The past couple of days of trekking were not being polite on
my knees and the over 2000-meter descent today was not what the doctor ordered.
Over half of this descent was more or less one giant staircase down.
Since Tatopani, the trail was often a seven-foot wide stone
path that winded through villages, a path that was often filled with chickens,
horses, donkeys, and buffalo. Buffaloes are usually calm but Lakpa informed me
that he has been attacked by them a few times. But the story he told me that
really blew my mind was how many years ago, an ox attacked him and threw him
down a steep 100-meter hill. Badly banged up and furious, he dragged himself
back up to where the ox was, threw a large rock at the ox, stunning it and then
pushed the big beast over the edge of the same 100-meter hill, killing it. This
is my kind of Sherpa.
After many hours, we finally reached the small town of Hille. Our rustic digs for the night was Green View Hotel, a guest house riddled with poor craftsmanship but how can I even complain when they charge $4.50 a night for a room, a fascinating price for a room especially when you consider that the price of a beer at this guest house is $5.50.
Via two hours of walking and a comical two-hour cab ride in
a beat up old little Indian-made economy car along desperate, dusty roads, we
arrived back Pokhara. We visited our favorite little restaurant, Himalayan
Cuisine and then paddled through the lake again. Everyone in the boats and
along the shore was in a festive mood on this sunny, 80-degree day.
The next morning, Lakpa and I boarded a bus bound for
Kathmandu. Lakpa took the bus to the final destination while I got off about
halfway to embark on a river rafting tour and then on to a jungle safari in
Chitwan. The bus took us through the usual scenes of hectic third world life.
Old ladies swept, young nice punks looked at their phones, dogs slept, horns
honked, children played, and unattended trash fires burned. In the seat in
front of me a young American man and woman in their early 20’s spoke in young
fresh tones. They seemed to be part of a group whose purpose I was not able to
determine. The chatty young man seemed bent on winning the affections of the
quieter, more reserved kitty.
The exchange between them at first seemed sweet but with a
light shade of desperation. At first, he showered her with all of his knowledge
and experience of mountaineering. Later on he realized the wise move was to
choose a topic that she had more intimacy with. Once he introduced rock
climbing to the conversation, she opened up and her personality blossomed like
a spring flower. I was a whisker away from launching into a very calm, serene
David Attenborough narration of this young, tender mating scene taking place in
the back seat jungle of this Nepalese bus.
With no warning the bus pulled over to the side of the road
and people started shouting at me to get off. I guess this was my stop? I
hastily pulled my things off the shelf and scrambled down the aisle. I’m almost
certain I hit a couple people in the head with my trekking poles.
I made a quick sloppy goodbye to Lakpa and told him we should try to meet in Kathmandu later that week. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself floating on a raft down the Trishuli River, seated across from a more or less socially awkward 62-year old man that looked like Sean Connery after four months of a high carb diet. Victor was his name and he was from Latvia. He seemed unable to find conversational comfort with the other Nepalese and Indian tourists on the two rafts so I did my best to speak with him often. Something about Victor made me think he was a pickpocket’s dream no matter where he went. Although relatively well travelled, he had this slight mad scientist, math club champion, isolated way about him that made me wonder how he survived alone in such a foreign environment.
After rafting, one of the guides led us back up to the main road and told us to sit at a table while he waved down our buses. The tiny little area we waited at was perhaps some accidental rest stop combined with a micro village. The table we sat at was partially occupied by a young woman looking at her phone and conservatively speaking, about 100 flies. Underneath by my feet, a chicken loitered. At one end of the table, about a couple feet in the air, a sleeping baby in a semi-transparent red cloth hammock hung from the roof that covered the small area. Logic told me the baby belonged to the young woman but at one point, she got up and left so I have no idea who this sleeping baby belonged to.
In the middle of the open area that was surrounded by a sheep and several structures, was a man squatting over a power saw who was in the process of cutting up about 50 twenty-foot lengths of metal rods into shorter lengths. His work created a powerful performance of shrieking sound and sparks that somehow did not wake the sleeping baby only 20 feet away. But then again, this baby slept only 25 feet away from a non-stop parade of loud honking buses, trucks, cars, and motorbikes. The whole scene was wonderfully chaotic and made me feel like I was somehow temporarily trapped inside Victor’s mind.
At that moment, a small local bus pulled over and the rafting guide waved Victor over. In a mildly confused state, he awkwardly steered his large figure into a bus packed with Nepalese. The bus door closed and it was as if the bus and the crowd inside swallowed him whole. As the bus drove off, I couldn’t help but think, “…and that was the last that anyone heard or saw of Victor the Latvian.”
My bus was waved down soon after and I had to jog down the road to reach it while it waited on the side of the road and caused a low level of irritation to passing traffic. I took a seat in the sparsely populated bus and watched/listened to Nepalese music videos that were blasted from the vehicle’s sound system. Yet again the bus stopped abruptly and I was rushed off and into a private taxi that dropped me at my hotel near Chitwan National Park.
Employed by the hotel, our safari guide Suroz (I’m probably
spelling that wrong) was top notch. Before the government moved all houses and
hotels out of the official park area, Suroz grew up in a house in the park.
With his camouflage hat, binoculars, square jaw, sharp nose, and eyes that
would have made an eagle envious, he looked like an intense, taciturn,
confident Indian colonel in the midst of a military campaign. The way he
constantly scanned the horizon and identified animals no matter how distant was
He was always on, always alert. Before the safari started, I saw him standing on some steps that opened up to the 5000 square foot courtyard on the hotel grounds that contained some trees and flowers. Seeing something of interest in the small confines of this space, maybe 40 feet away, he decided that binoculars were necessary and meticulously raised them to his eyes, inadvertently giving birth to a humorous moment. One of the few times over the three days I saw his serious veneer compromised was when we spotted a sloth bear on a few separate occasions in the park. For a brief spell, he became childlike, unable to contain his joy.
From Chitwan, I took (by Western standards) a painfully slow bus ride back to Kathmandu. Per usual, the driver of the large coach had no reservations with making dicey passes by large trucks around blind corners on a road constantly flanked by dangerous cliffs on one side. Every small bridge we crossed over seemed to have a large section of railings torn open where a vehicle clearly plunged over the side. Peering down one such spot, I could see the crushed remains of a car far below on the bottom of the cliff. At another spot, a large truck had been in an accident, with most of the front cab dangling off the edge of a cliff. This journey of 100 miles that would have taken under two hours in many countries took seven hours here. But this is standard fare in a country with limited resources forced to build and maintain roads on such a challenging topography.
The following day I visited the incredibly old and unique World Heritage Site city of Bhaktapur and soon after was on a flight to Delhi. The Nepal leg of my trip had come to an end and now it was time to meet my wife Pam in southern Spain for a week. I had to lobby pretty hard to get three weeks in Nepal on my own so a romantic reconvening in Andalucía was a concession I was happy to make.
Due to the continuing closure of Pakistan airspace, my connecting flight in Delhi was forced to depart two hours earlier forcing me to arrive in Delhi 20 hours earlier. Without an Indian visa, I elected to stay in a transit hotel in the airport. It was like sleeping over in a mall; when I exited the hotel, I was free to wander around the food court, duty-free shops, and departure gates. In the morning, I luxuriously sipped coffee in the large private dining area while watching planes take off. From a distance, I must have looked like a boring but content human in an architect’s rendering of a potential future airport hotel. I love the people in those architectural drawings; no one is fat and everybody’s shirt is tucked in.
The Spain part of this journal will be somewhat brief. The trip was culturally vibrant but tame. This is a good thing. Since Pam and I would be reuniting for eight days, I was in the mood for a week of calm. I flew into Malaga a day before Pam and was able to walk around the city; I even managed to ascend the sobering number of meters to the Alcazaba only to find they did not accept credit cards as a form of payment of the entry fee. With no ATM’s or exchange services, I was forced to sulk my way down to city center.
When I did pick up Pam in the rental car, I was
unfashionably 40 minutes late which seriously watered down the joy of our
reunion after three weeks apart. I told her that Google erroneously told me
that her flight was delayed. Thankfully, it only took five minutes for Pam to
lose her gurl-none-too-pleased face.
On our way to our guest house, Perla Blanca near Ronda, I savored the absence of every bump and hole in the road. I too savored the absence of impending landslides, traffic, noise, pollution, and litter. Nepal is a lovely, one of a kind place (especially in the mountains) with some of the kindest people on the planet but the cleanliness and order of Spain (never thought I would say that) was a thing I wanted to hug.
After a few days in Ronda, we stayed at a nice guest house
near Rio Gordo. One day we made a day trip to Comares. Getting to and from this
little gem of village required some winding road driving. After several days of
such driving, Pam’s equilibrium had said “no more” and once returning to the
guest house, Pam promptly barfed her way to the top for the next couple of
The last destination of our Andalucía affair was the hyper
romantic and picturesque village of Frigliana. Like so many small villages in
the south, all the buildings were white and huddled together, producing narrow,
often maze-like corridors. Cats and flowers were to be found everywhere in this
To complete the pursuit of romance, Pam and I made plans to
watch a Flamenco show in nearby Velez-Malaga. That night we decided to arrive a
couple hours early to eat dinner and walk around. We parked our car near the
performance space and elected to walk by to make sure we had the right address.
Standing in front of the door was a man who could not have personified the
veteran Spanish artist any more than our soon to be friend, Pedro. At 49, his
hair was full of just the right amount of gray although it was mostly covered
by an obligatory beret. His beard was shorter on the sides but gradually faded to
a goatee area that was slightly longer and came to the perfect peak on his
chin. A thin scarf was wrapped around his neck and draped over a wool jacket
that, like his pants below whose pattern almost had a pinstripe look to them,
were gloriously second hand. After we realized we would be going to the same
show later, Pedro asked if he could join us for dinner. Pam was thrown off
balance by this bold invitation but I was not going to pass up this chance of
breaking bread and making chat with an authentic local.
He took us to a nearby restaurant with well-made cuisine and
when I offered to cover the bill, I met little resistance. Pedro was an artist
to the core and could not be bothered by the pursuit of financial stability.
I’m still unsure how he made money but I know that photography, Iyengar yoga,
and travel were among the many passions in his life. Pedro could talk to
anybody and made friends with alarming ease. When he discovered Pam was from
the Philippines, he excitedly called his one and only Filipina friend, Belen,
and gave the phone to Pam so the two could talk.
After dinner we walked back to the performance space. It
turned out we needed a reservation but unsurprisingly, Pedro talked to the
doorman and made quick work of this obstacle. I enjoyed watching Pedro in
action. He was a man not to be found in the US. His confidence was refined by
an older world and culture.
The show itself was easily the best flamenco I’ve ever seen.
In a small space in a basement, the performance felt less like a show and more
like an unplanned spectacle. A guitarist and singer did their part while a
female dancer in her early forties profoundly and mercilessly dominated the
consciousness of every single audience member. Although the entire performance
was little more than 70 minutes, I’m convinced those present could handle no
more. We said goodbye to Pedro and drove home. Pedro, true to form, lingered at
the club until four in the morning, socializing with the performers and other
artists he knew.
The following day we met Pedro and his Filipina friend Belen
who brought her Israeli Moroccan Spanish husband Gil along. We decided to meet
up at a flea market that happened every Saturday along the coast below
Velez-Malaga. As I shouldered my way through the tight corridor between the straight
quarter-mile of stalls selling crafts, clothing (much of it used), vegetables,
spices, food, and housewares, I could see that this market probably provided
the lion’s share of Pedro’s wardrobe.
On our way to a beach side restaurant, we encountered a fascinating artist friend of Pedro’s who lived in a small home right on the water. Although only 48, Javier looked closer to 70. Rail thin, his face was heavily populated by creases. His premature aging I assume was due in large part to his 23-year contest with Parkinson’s disease. Gil told me that Javier was having a “good day” and was able to move around better than normal. Gil and Belen had only known Javier for a year or two but made an admirable effort to include him on various outings and activities.
Before we walked the short distance along the boardwalk to the restaurant, Javier opened the door to a sort of storage shed and began to show me the incredible things he’s collected and filed away in this small structure for the past 38 years. There were incredible seashells, bones, dried up old sea turtles, and a six-inch sea fossil that was over 65 million years old. He closed the door to this special private little museum and walked with his uneven but determined gait into his adjoining house where he lived with his mother. A minute later, he returned with a small piece of white coral that had three small seashells glued to the bottom which acted as a stand. He handed it to me and said, “un regalo.”