Robin on the Road in Trerice Cornwall, UK

Robin on the Road in Trerice Cornwall, UK
Robin on the Road in Trerice Cornwall, UK

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Recent Interview With A Local Public Library 


Saturday, August 22, 2020

What Prarie Dogs Might Teach US

What Prairie Dogs Might Teach Us

There is a colony of prairie dogs in the lot next to where I work. Sometimes when it’s slow in the office, I go outside and watch them from the night entrance of the building. It’s a door which is around the back of the complex. The prairie dogs’ antics are quite entertaining. As much fun as they are to watch they are also a vital feature in the landscape of the American South West. Much maligned by ranchers and developers alike, they serve a vital purpose. They forage and clip vegetation to maintain their habitats. This affects the plant species composition leading to more diversity of plant communities. The prairie dogs' constant excavations encourages penetration and retention of moisture.

They contribute to the mixing of subsoil and topsoil while redistributing minerals and nutrients. (NPS). 

I work at the local Detox unit. My work consists of monitoring clients who have been picked up by the police or are coming from the emergency room because they are intoxicated.  Some are detoxing from smoking or ingesting unhealthy amounts of illicit drugs.  We keep track of their vitals and wellbeing until they are healthy enough to return to wherever they came from. Many of them are chronically unhoused and addicted. Some are regulars here. It’s safe, secure, they can clean up (we often do their laundry or provide clean clothes). We provide food, water, juices, healthy snacks. Some of our clients show up after days or weeks on meth and have not eaten in days.  We can help with finding treatment programs if they are interested or refer to local Twelve Step meetings if they decide that they have had enough. Those who decide to seek treatment are the exception not the rule. Our unit shares the building with our local Acute Treatment Unit for those experiencing psychiatric or psychological emergencies. 

 My immediate supervisor is a friend of many years. We know each other from the recovery community. I am in recovery myself from years of alcohol abuse and drug addiction. We both think of ourselves as committed to service. 

Our conversations often turn to drug and alcohol treatment. In this neck of the woods there isn't much. 12 step meetings and ineffective outpatient programs is about it. "Bill" (not his real name), points out the window to the empty lot next to our building where the prairie dogs live and says, "That's where we are going to build our treatment facility". 

I smile and nod. A bulldozer and what I call, "other weapons of mass destruction" would wipe out my little colony in a matter of minutes.

In my years of working with addicts and alcoholics, there is often a common thread in all the stories I hear. It’s often a life of hopelessness and despair. People talk of feeling like they don’t belong, have no stake or ownership in the greater community in which they live. Outcasts, they exist in the margins. 

 When I had been clean and sober for about six years, I knew I wanted to find meaningful employment. Not that what I was doing wasn’t. I lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada of Central California. I worked as a landscape laborer and became an irrigation specialist. In my spare time, I drove my little truck up to the high country and cut firewood in the forest.  I sold it for extra cash. I also re-discovered my love for the outdoors. It only took a few hours to fill my little pick up with fire wood.  I spent the rest of the day wandering the woods with my dog, Buddy. 

After completing a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course in Alaska I went to work in Wilderness Therapy. I started as a guide working in remote parts of southern Utah.  Eventually, I went to graduate school and became a clinician. The “Students” as we call them, who attend these programs are mostly adolescents and young adults. Some research suggests that Wilderness is a more beneficial and effective form of treatment than in-patient clinical treatment for a host of behavioral and other mental health issues. 

Nature is both harsh at times and beautiful. Our students are pulled from their dysfunctional routines at home. They are separated from family, friends and their devices. Life becomes very simple and ordered by the rhythms of nature. Many of my students report that after spending 6-9 weeks out in the bush, they feel a sense of well-being they did not experience before coming to a program. They gain wisdom about how nature reveals and balances itself. They learn about self-efficacy and emotional regulation. They learn that nature is a perfect mirror for healthy and un-healthy behavior.  

When their time comes to leave the program, many express reluctance to return to “normal” life. Huge public schools and shopping malls.  They say that “normal” is stressful, overwhelming. Most of these kids come from large urban or sub-urban areas. Their only open space is the local ball field. Their access to nature consists of artificial lawns or athletic fields manicured and sprayed with enough toxic chemicals to drown a battle ship. Not a single prairie dog anywhere. My students often express anxiety with the thought of returning home. More stressed than they had when they first arrived in the bush. There is good reason for this. Research suggests that our disconnect from nature is taking a toll on the human psyche.

Here is what I wish my boss and his superiors would understand. Indeed, the western model of mental health treatment in totality needs to recognize that it would be counter productive to bulldoze my little colony of prairie dogs for a building. A structure that further separates people from wind and sky. How do I explain that? Sitting inside a room under fluorescent lights with windows that don’t open is part of the problem. Our detox unit is lit with artificial lighting. There is one large screen television, 210 DVDs and a few windows that don’t open. I work three –ten hour shifts and that’s about all I can stand. We call our office, “the fishbowl”. We have windows on three sides that look out in to the milieu and to the doorways leading to the dormitories and bathrooms. We have Closed Circuit TV that monitors the dorms, hallways, entry ways and parking area. I don’t see the sun when I am at work unless I leave my post and step outside for a few minutes. 

There is a whole health complex and hospital across the street from this building. It’s less than ten years old and considered, "state of the art". It’s a modern hospital with all the amenities. It stands on land that once belonged to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The building itself sits in the middle of what used to be prime elk winter calving grounds and later became pasture for grazing cattle. Now, these meadows and pastures are surrounded by miles of pavement and there is a subdivision with an array of residences. The remaining pasture is currently up for sale and will eventually become an ugly sub-division.  

The other day, I left the fishbowl and walked over to the backside of the hospital. There is a little contemplative garden and a “healing” labyrinth. Seems the labyrinth and garden design was “squeezed” in at the last minute. It's not easy to get to from the main part of the hospital. It's a long walk with no direct path or walkway. One has to navigate through a maze of various parking lots and zig zag the occasional sidewalk. Wouldn't be easy for someone in a wheelchair. The garden sits next to the ass end of the hospital where the generator, and heating and cooling units are. There is an artificial waterfall which is a nice touch. Research also suggests the calming effect of being near running water. The water fall is very difficult to hear over the din of whatever machinery is belching exhaust on the roof top.

I was there a day or two ago. It was a slow Sunday at the detox. I walked the labyrinth with the machinery as the background noise of my meditation. It's loud. I try to convince myself it's the sound of the river nearby. I did hear a little song bird above the din. I looked up into the canopy of the trees planted neatly in straight lines and saw a finch of some kind. And then it dawned on me. The hospital, the ATU, Detox, all of it!  Everything designed and built to keep us healthy is the very thing making and keeping us sick. Some might argue this is by design. But that is for another blog post.

The irony of sitting at a computer staring into a screen writing this is not lost on me. In my mind, there is a much deeper significance to the existence of a small colony of rodents. Aside from the importance for the ecology but more difficult to articulate is that their very presence right where they are is profound. Obviously, my experience of them is subjective and personal. The prairie dogs signify resilience and survival. Humanity is NOT the all important apex species it thinks it is. Destroying the colony for a building that is supposed to heal our damaged psyche perpetuates the problem. It only serves to illuminate our warped perspective on health. It magnifies our dependence on an artificial lifestyle and economy. 

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Covid 19 As Rite of Passage

Covid-19 and Social Isolation as Rite of Passage

Western Culture has become a casualty of consumerism. We prove and high lite our success as individuals and as a society in general by collecting “Stuff”. It makes us appear prosperous. We’ve made that a priority. Even the arts suffer in this way. Music, theater, literature. If someone isn’t making money from it, we don’t consider it worthy.
Let's look beyond the “science” of Covid-19 or at least what they want us to believe. It has cultural causes. We see species-ism at the root of this pandemic. The virus has made the leap from animals to humans. Species-ism is the assumption of human superiority leading to the exploitation of animals. It’s true. I don’t care if you don’t want to believe it. Really, I don’t! Do your own homework and find out for yourself.

As such, there are some who believe that western culture is stuck in a perpetual late adolescence. It's characterized by preoccupation with physical appearance, asserting independence, and feeling invincible. These in and of themselves are not harmful. But we have taken it to the extreme. Immediate gratification has become paramount. It’s “Me first and the rest of my community can go squat.” Bill Plotkin points this out in his book, Nature and the Human Soul. Plotkin goes on to say that in the cycle of life elders, teach and pass on ancestral wisdom. Many cultures consider this a sacred rite.
Children move from childhood and into full adults with guidance from grownups. But today even mature adults have fallen easy prey to the idea that “more stuff is better”.
Adolescence is also characterized by testing boundaries and pushing the envelope. This is how societies tend to move forward in their thinking. It allows us to move forward and evolve toward tolerance and acceptance. "And the children shall lead". Or something like that. But adults need to be present to offer guidance and pass on the "ceremony" of growing up.
There are some transitions that have survived. Mostly religious in nature. Bar Mitzvah, Baptism etc. A few secular ROP can be a bit hair raising such as Fraternity hazing. Some gangs have forced members into criminal activity. These exist because marking transition has always been important. They are a natural extension of any civilization. But we have lost touch with what is healthy, nurturing and fills the human desire for wholeness.
Rites of Passage can take many forms. Initiation, Ceremony and Vision Fast are important aspects of celebrating the transition from childhood.
Can the current pandemic serve as a “Rite of Passage” out and away from our perpetual adolescence? We are fasting from socializing. We’re staying home or otherwise isolating. The newLexusPorscheJeepGrandCherokeeFourrunnerSpecializedfullysuspendedcarbonmountainbike
is parked in the garage of the 12,000 square foot house you just built. You know. The one constructed on top of an ancientburialgroundelkcalvingareasimplybecauseyoucouldbuilditthere. And now, no-one can come see it or the new 80” wide screen T.Vs you put up in each of the four living rooms in said house.

There are generally three phases to a Rite of Passage. They follow in order as such. Separation. During this phase the individual is prepared through initiation into cultural norms for the experience itself. In more primitive cultures, children have already learned much about surviving on the land in preparation for adulthood. ROP initiation often includes ceremonies for purification and other spiritual practices. It may also be learning to endure the physical, emotional and psychological challenges of the solo fast. Participants are not only fasting from food. There is also refraining from all social contact. Contemporary western culture understands the “wilderness” as an absence of consumer goods, conveniences or being without cell service. The second phase is the fast itself spending time alone in isolation.  What the French Ethnologist Arnold van Gennep called, “The Betwixt and between”. Neither here nor there. It is a liminal space where one becomes ghost like, belongs to nowhere and no one. It could be described as walking the margins. This can last anywhere from 3 or 4 days to a year. This second phase might be the most difficult to manage for people, especially modern western society. The participant finds they have very little control of their surroundings. An individual begins to rely on their spiritual practice and relationship with whatever gods or spirits they may believe in. They hope and wait for a “vision” or if you will, for their inherent gift to be revealed.  The third phase is the return. When a seeker carries the knowledge of their gifts back to the community. All designed to help the society thrive.
In some ways we are all living this liminal space through our social isolation and doing without our conveniences. I personally know quite a few people who are relying on their spiritual practice to get them through this weird and wonderful shift. But this is making many people uncomfortable. And that is the point of a fast.
The Corona virus is bringing out the best in some circles and the worst in others. Profiteering, hoarding and price gouging to name a few of the worst. Charity, volunteerism, service to name a few of the best. But as the crisis fades into the dusk what's left? Will we learn anything? Will consumerism and bragging rights continue to be our motivation? Will it be business as usual? Will we wipe our brow and exclaim with a loud sigh, “Whew that was a close one. Glad I survived!” and go back to the business of sucking the planet dry to prove our worth? Will we find ways of making our addiction to consumerism look good? Maybe this time it will be different.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Staying Safe While Traveling Solo

Safety while traveling is often at the forefront of people’s minds. I believe that, generally speaking, it is pretty safe.  I mean shit happens all the time but the trick is learning how to mitigate the possibility of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Obsessing over the inherent dangers of travel is a waste of time and energy. Never the less staying safe gives us a much better appreciation for the places we go and people we meet. The all-inclusive cruise doesn’t pose too many safety concerns. It’s more dangerous to marine life.  Other than not drinking yourself into a coma or eating your-self sick, cruises are a safe bet. There is of course the family vacation. One or two adults and 2.3 kids drive to Disneyland over a ten day school holiday poses little risk. Except for being on the road with ten million other families or getting sick on the Tilt-A-Whirl, what can go wrong? That’s another post. 

An 18 year old on a gap year, a thirty something back packer, an adventure cyclist or a mountaineer all have at least a few things in common. One thing they may share whether they know it or not, is they want a transformative experience and to make it home alive and mostly unscathed.

I travel a lot. And I love telling stories. Sometimes people’s eyes  gloss over when I talk more about how quiet it is cycling across the Australian outback instead of the fabulous food I ate in Europe. Most folks cannot wrap their heads around why anyone would spend so much time, camping in the sand or the remote Cardon (huge cactus cousin of the Saguaro) forests of Baja Sur. 

But this is what I do. And I want to inspire others.
A common question often comes up. And a friend recently put it succinctly, “How are you NOT afraid to do that?” I used to shrug it off. But it’s a valid question, one worth addressing. It might sound trite to say, “I am a little scared but I just do it anyway.” And this is true. However, there is more to it than that. It is somewhat subjective. “Feeling” safe and “being” safe are two totally different things. In outdoor education we weigh the hazards vs. risk. Hazards are objective. The things we cannot control such as rock fall, lightening, and the pitch of a slope. Risk is how one perceives the hazard. We can even manipulate the “risk” in how we present a given activity. It might be the same part of my neurology that allowed me to become a street musician. That’s a little scary too. 

I am reminded of something a friend said many years ago. We hitchhiked around the country playing music on the streets. He said, “You have to learn to make yourself comfortable in the most uncomfortable of situations. You have to look confident that what you are doing is important and that you belong in that place at that time without question. That was easy. I grew up really awkward and socially retarded. I learned to compensate. Being a street musician was fun and lucrative.  But in the beginning I had to ask myself, “What if I suck?” The answer was that people will ignore me. Or throw money out of pity. But I didn’t suck and I don’t suck now! In fact, I’m really good at it. I can make a bucket load of money in a few hours at the right time and in the right place. It takes some strategy and can be hard work.  I had to learn to entertain not just play music “at people”. Engaging with your audience is the key to entertaining and making money. Because human behavior and attitude can be somewhat predictable, I learned to “read” my audience through keen observation and thus have more positive interactions.

The same is true when traveling. Engage with others, greet strangers, and let them know you “see” them. I believe people want to be seen and acknowledged. Westerners stand out in the rest of the world. No matter where we go or how we try to disguise ourselves, LOCALS KNOW. So you may as well behave as an honored guest in someone else’s home.

Travel gives us one of the most profound experiences life has to offer. For some folks that all-inclusive cruise is as adventurous as it gets. That’s fine. For them! I’d be bored out of my mind. For me, the travel IS the destination. Often just figuring out how to get from point “A” to “B” is the challenge, especially where you don’t speak the language.

I love the Spanish speaking world because my ability to speak Spanish is excellent. I once stayed with a family in a small village near the rural region of Petén Itza in northern Guatemala to attend a language school. It’s an area covered in dense jungle. Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll likely hit a Mayan pyramid or ancient stone structure. In fact, “Itza” is the name of the Mayan language in that area. The language school I attended taught both Spanish and “Itza”. I arrived on my bicycle having pedaled down through Yucatan and across Belize on my own.

Staying with the family connected us. I heard their stories, their struggles and joys. I learned the history of the place. (see blogpost)

In fact, not that long ago, there was a civil war in Guatemala and one could NOT simply travel to remote parts of the country. It’s helpful to understand the history and economics of a place in order to gauge the relative security. The industrialized nations of the world have created economic crises all over the developing world. There is much resentment toward the West. People are often desperate enough to rob maim or commit murder. That’s a sad state of affairs and staying safe becomes paramount. The locals are often in just as much danger or sometimes even more. The migrant crisis in Central America is a good example.  Honduras and El Salvador are ruled by violent gangs, drug lords and thugs. Governments are powerless and corrupt. The people of Honduras and El Salvador are terrified. I was warned against travel through these countries. I met other cyclists who went anyway and others that took busses from Guatemala straight to Costa Rica. It would have been a crap shoot for me. As a solo woman on a bike, I wasn’t leaving it to chance. That part of my ride ended in Guatemala City. I’m just not that invested sometimes in how many miles I can crank out. The level of anxiety I would have felt traveling through those countries just wasn’t worth it.
The civil war in Guatemala ended in 1996 and the country side is again peaceful. However, the current local government was totally corrupt. This is what makes it sketchy for travelers. The adage, “A hungry man is an angry man” is very true. And desperate people take extreme measures such as committing crimes in order to survive. Tourists often bear the brunt.

 This small community in Guatemala however, found another way. The folks in this village created their own way out of the financial disaster caused by the thieving mayor and town council. There were several language schools that provided economic opportunities. There was even a co-operative of local indigenous women that made soap and shampoos that they sold to the big hotels across the lake. By attending a language school I was contributing to the local economy. The residents of the area understand how important it is for students to be and feel safe because their economy depends on it. They don’t take kindly to tourists being robbed or roughed up. So, they keep alert. They know who we are and keep an eye out. I had heard about a popular tourist destination in the Western Highlands. Some creep was harassing, robbing and even assaulting tourists. The local police were not addressing the issue. The locals who depended on visitors became fed-up. They eventually caught the guy and simply killed him. When police are unresponsive, vigilante justice is the order of the day I’m not saying I condone such things but at the end of the day a community’s livelihood may depend on it.
Sign in the market in Antigua. Basically telling thieves that shop owners don't wait for the police to arrive.

I had time to explore the village during the day but I did not go out after dark. There was nowhere to go anyway, it was a small village and I spent the evenings with my host family practicing my Spanish. I was able to stay relatively safe.
Traveling in this manner forces us to push past pre-conceived prejudice, breaks down walls and opens the door for building global community.
 I wasn’t brave enough to camp in the remote Guatemalan or southern Mexican jungle alone however. Crazy shit happens all the time. The day before I crossed into Guatemala from Belize an American woman was found murdered near the river. The story we got was that she was on a yoga retreat in the jungle, had taken the morning off and went to the river alone. When she did not show up by dinner, they went looking. I’m not naïve and this was very unnerving. I stayed at the campground on the opposite side of the river that night with some other bicycle travelers. There were armed, private security guards walking the grounds all night. It makes it sound like this happens all the time and the “Developing world” is very dangerous. That people should never travel and death is lurking around every corner. It’s just not true. These days Americans are more likely to be shot to death in incidents of random gun violence on our own soil.
When I mention that I like to travel to Mexico, the first thing I hear from friends (who often have never been there) is about the “drug cartels”. The truth is killing tourists is bad for business. And unless you’re buying illicit drugs on the street or anywhere for that matter, there’s little likelihood of tangling with a cartel.
I camped alone all through Baja, Mexico. And during an entire 17 months in Australia and New Zealand, I paid for accommodation maybe 6 or 7 times. I love camping! And Australia has the best wild and bush camping I’ve ever encountered. I felt very safe. There just are not many people around. They don’t have the gun violence like we do. There was one mass shooting in Port Arthur, Australia in 1996. The government launched an immediate gun buy back and amnesty program. They took thousands of guns off the street and tightened up their gun laws. They do have their share of wackos for sure. When talking with locals and telling them what I was doing, I was often asked if I’d seen the film, “Wolf Creek”. I guess it’s about a serial killer. To be fair, there was an issue in the news about a real serial killer that was trying to get released from prison early. He had murdered several people and kept their bodies in fifty gallon drums out in the middle of nowhere. I heard other stories about hitchhikers gone missing too. But I wouldn’t be dissuaded. I believe in the basic goodness of human nature.
Not even the wildlife in Australia is not what it’s made out to be. Sure, 23 of the world’s 25 most venomous snakes; salt water crocs lurking in rivers, billabongs and ponds, deadly spiders etc.  Feral dogs in India and South America pose more of a threat as much as anything. A basic understanding of animal behavior is useful. See previous blog post, “That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes US Stronger.”
Travel has changed much in the years since the internet has become so prominent.  It is easy to connect with other travelers, hear their opinions, get perspectives and read reviews of hostels, hotels, beaches and even whole towns or neighborhoods. Cell phones have made things a bit safer. For example, I had to take a taxi late one evening from Dharamshala in northern India back to my farm stay. About a forty five minute drive. I didn’t actually have any phone service but my driver did not know that. I pretended to make a call to where I was going. Then I set my ringer. It rang and I pretended to answer. I gave a description of the car and driver. Next time I’ll pretend to photograph the license plate too. As much as we hear about corruption in some parts of the world, the disappearance or murder of tourists is bad for business. I heard a story or two about locals taking on thugs and socio-paths for fucking with tourists when the police would not respond. Some of the details were grizzly. All in all, travel is safe and I recommend it.
Tips for staying safe.
Travel with others if possible. I don’t most of the time. But that’s me.
Be aware of your surroundings
Know the address and location of your accommodation.
Let the staff know where you’re going. Sometimes they don’t really care but all the same.
The large outdoor markets are a big draw for tourists. They’re also popular with thieves and other dishonest folk. Leave your passport, credit cards and wads of cash in your room. Carry small denominations of bills and coins. Carry a copy of your passport.
Stay in busier areas of the market.
Stay alert for an increase in the normal chaos. Shady people may create a diversion to capture your attention while they’re helping themselves to your wallet.
Haggle with sellers. Not too much however. Bargaining is a big part of the culture in many parts of the world. Not to do so can be seen as an affront. But remember, you are mostly quibbling over pennies or a buck or two. However much of a low budget traveler you are, to the locals, you still have riches beyond measure just by the mere fact that you are there at all. Be generous, it builds good Karma.
Many years ago when traveling in western Sichuan Province in China, I came across a large market. They were mostly Tibetans but there was one gentleman from an eastern city selling handmade, wrought iron door handles. A friend back home was building an unusual home so I wanted to buy him a set. They were already incredibly inexpensive but I knew not to accept his first price. That would be offensive. We communicated by writing numbers on a piece of paper. We went back and forth several times. When he finally accepted my offer with a dramatic nod of his head, I suddenly heard applause. I turned around to see twenty or so Tibetans looking on. They must have found my gumption admirable. I also received some pats on the back as I walked away with my little paper wrapped bundle. In the end, we bargained over about seventy five cents. But that didn’t matter. What’s important is the relationship of the buyer to the seller. It is very important that both parties are satisfied with the sale.
Once, when I was in Delhi, I found myself haggling with a kid over the price of a rickshaw ride. When we arrived at my destination, I realized how hard that kid worked. I had been a boorish schmuck! I paid him twice what we agreed upon and bought him a plate of food from a nearby vendor. It was still under two dollars. He was very gracious about it and his face lit up with his good fortune.
Don’t be a boorish schmuck! Don’t draw negative attention to yourself.
Be polite, be kind, and be open. As novel and anonymous as all the chaos seems, these are still other human beings trying to make it home to feed their families.
Learn a few words or phrases. “Please, Thank you, hello and where is the bathroom” are all useful phrases no matter where you are.
If someone beckons from an alley or store front, be cautious.
Be Alert. Carry yourself like you know where you are going, keep your eyes and head up. Scan the area. Of course you don’t want to appear paranoid.
For women:
Dress modestly (could apply to the menfolk as well). For better or for worse if you can’t dress like the locals, try to mimic what they reveal and what they don’t. Especially when traveling in more traditional countries. Decorum is always good policy and is respectful regardless of your feminist tendencies. Besides, who wants that kind of attention? I don’t!
As an older woman traveling I experienced things differently than a 25 year old might. Age demands respect in many cultures. I am often called, “Aunty” or in India was called, “Mother”. That was weird but nevertheless, age has its merits. I was often treated with deference. That was kind of cool really. Younger folks wanted to give up a seat on a crowded bus for me. Sometimes I took it. Sometimes in the bigger more modern cities, I would be ignored. This at times could be reassuring. The adage “Out of sight, out of mind” could come in handy. But I suppose one might argue that it makes me an easy target, because I might be mistaken for a pushover.
If you must go to bars: Find others in your hostel to come with you. The more the merrier. Keep track of each other. Try not to get falling down drunk.
If you must attend a rave on the beach or Full Moon Mushroom party DON’T drink the “Kool aid”. Really, unless you make it yourself, know whoever made it or you open the beer or wine bottle yourself. Careful of what you smoke.
Don’t leave your drink unattended.
Keep your ear to the ground. That means talking to and listening to others who have been where you want to go.
Be back on time. Some hostels lock the door at a certain time and you CANNOT get in. It sucks but that is how they keep their guests safe.
Pay attention to Department of State warnings and advisories. I don’t always follow what they say. I’d never go anywhere if I did.  I read up anyway before I leave just to have a sense of what I’m getting myself into.
Follow your intuition: IF A SITUATION FEELS WEIRD OR UNSAFE IT PROBABLY IS!!! I quit my solo ride from Lima to Bogota because once I reached Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca I just could not shake the feeling of unease. I had cycled up the coast from Lima and met wonderful people. But in every little town I went through the locals told me that the last town or the next town was incredibly dangerous and full of murderers and bandits. I never experienced any trouble at all. I even left my phone on my unlocked bike a few times when entering crowded markets.
This leads to my last point. Sometimes you do need to trust that the universe will guide you. Despite your misgivings, fear, and anxiety just go! Maybe I’m naïve or just lucky to never had had serious problems. And perhaps someday my luck will run out. But until then, I will do all I can to keep traveling. I will meet remarkable people and weirdos alike. I’ll see and experience landscapes unlike any other. I’ll get to eat bizarre and curious food. I will travel through liminal space, transform and arrive at a new reality and consciousness. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

“That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Stronger…”

(photo taken from

I first heard this adage many years when I was an undergraduate. I was a work-study student and my work detail involved cutting a road through the woods on campus. I don’t quite remember why we were using hand tools. I was very strong back then and maybe a little dumb. My aim with an axe wasn’t very good either and I managed the break the heads off about three of them in as many days. I learned how to replace the handles quickly. This adage would play out again and again over the years. 
The Northwest corner of Australia is a very remote piece of arable real estate. In the English language it is a region known as the Kimberley. There are several Aboriginal languages in the area that have their own names. It is dry, hot and hard country. It seems to have two seasons: Hot and dry and hotter and wet.
During the wet season, torrential rains accompany monsoons that blow in from south East Asia across the Indian Ocean. Rain fall could be measured in feet. At times big chunks of the Kimberley are submerged. Rivers change course, new goose necks are formed and existing goose necks may become cut off. These are known as billabongs. These billabongs can be home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals and reptiles. The most notorious of these is the Estuarine Crocodile. Also known as the salt water crocodile or, “salty” in the local vernacular. The “salty’ is a Jurassic throwback. It is essentially a ferocious set of teeth attached to the world’s largest reptile. They are gifted hunters, often stalking their prey. Sometimes for days and relying on ambush. They mostly hang out in the sea and are well adapted to salt water. They can swim hundreds of kilometers often swimming and drifting at sea for weeks. They also inhabit brackish water where salt meets fresh. When the rains come to the Kimberley, “Salties” can be found following the water. When the rains end and the waters begin to recede, they may be found in billabongs cut off from the sea until the next rains come.

In late June of 2017, I happened to be cycling across a section of this vast expanse of Australia. What should have been a day and a half became a four day epic. I was on an old highway connecting two small towns. I’d gotten some information that although the road was mostly gravel it was in good condition. Yeah, that information was old. The surface went from bad to worse. Corrugations deep enough to swallow a Volkswagen, deep sand and something I’d never even seen before; bull dust. What looked like a hard packed ridge of mud turned out to be dust as fine as talcum powder as deep as my ankle and able to stop my wheels dead and send me flying off the bike.

So it was on the third night of this “short ride” when I found myself running out of water and seemingly not getting any closer to my destination. At dusk, I came across the miracle of a billabong. It was toward the end of the dry season so it was a bit murky, a little tepid and had clumps of algae floating around in it. At least I hope it was algae and not something more sinister. I’d only seen one or two other vehicles in the two and a half days on this road. I always travel with a water filter. I had plenty of fuel for my stove so purifying the water wasn’t a problem. It did taste a bit muddy.
Dusk was settling in. There was a small rise on one end of the pond. It was brushy but I figured it would be safe from any lurking Salties. I pushed my bike up the hill and as I usually do, I waited to see what the land had to say and to pick a good spot for my tent. It's an intuitive thing, "waiting for the land to tell me." I've always done this. Experience has taught me to wait a few minutes to see what emerges. Sometimes the spot I thought would be perfect turns out to be the entrance of a giant ant colony. Or any number of other things that could make life uncomfortable for the next 12 hours.

Along with the potentially deadly crocodiles, funnel-web spiders, box jellyfish, stonefish, blue octopus and cone snails Australia is home to a plethora of lethal snakes. Fortunately, not everything in Australia is out to kill you. Consider the kangaroo. But even the world's largest marsupial has one sharp claw in the middle of it's hind food designed to eviscerate. Never the less, three minutes into my wait on the hill, came a slithering a snake. It was quite beautiful actually. Shiny, dark gray with a lighter colored under belly. Not all snakes in Australia are venomous. But there seem to be an awful lot of them that are and not knowing which is which I treat them all with due respect and act as if they are ALL deadly. I don’t know what species that particular fellow was and I didn’t care to find out. I moved me and my bike a few yards away. Gently but with purpose. I waited again. I don’t know if it was the same snake or another of the same ilk, but here is another snake. I moved again. And again. Then I noticed some tall grass waving about ten yards away. There was no breeze nor wind. Sure enough, there were two snakes entwined standing up on their tails involved in some sort of ritual dance. I was surrounded. I gingerly made my way out of there and back to the road. 

Even though I hadn’t seen anyone in days, I prefer to hide my camps from the road. That left the edge of the billabong on which to set my camp. I had to decide which was riskier, the snakes or the possibility of crocs lurking in that murky water. The snakes I had seen for sure. But there were no telltale signs of crocodiles. They often leave wallows and very distinct tracks in the sand near the water. Some literature I’d read at the visitor center back in the last town of Kununurra said that twenty five meters from the edge of the water was relatively safe from crocs. I’m an American. I’m not sure what twenty five meters looks like. I translated it to yards. But that put me backed up to a rock wall. I decided in my mind that I was twenty SIX meters from the edge of the water. I set my camp, managed to cook and choke down some noodles and watched the stars come out. The sun had set but it was still hot and I left the fly off my tent. Australia hosts some of the darkest skies left on the planet. What an incredible sight! There was no moon and the stars seemed closer. The night was still and the deafening sound of no sound was profound. I drifted off to sleep with a hint of a breeze coming off the water.
When dawn came, there were a few tiny birds flitting around the edge of the water and it was already warmer. I didn’t see any signs of crocs. What I did see were kangaroo prints and the continuous s shaped print of snakes moving across the sand. With eyes in the back of my head, I ate a hasty breakfast, packed my camp and hit the road.