Okay, everyone, I’m back – And very happy to announce three wonderful opportunities to share some of my stories with me — and/or to write some of your own!

March 2018  – Himalayan Writers Workshop: This one-of-a-kind boudhanathworkshop will bring a dozen intrepid writers to the Kathmandu Valley, where we’ll dive into the culture and experiment with “story slices”: short, pithy, image-driven vignettes ideal for magazine or blog publication. I’ll be teaching with the gifted and effervescent Lavinia Spalding, along with Buddhist poet and impresario James Hopkins.  More information here!

October 13th-23rd, 2017 – Arts & Culture of Eastern Cuba: After taking a break in 2016, I’m back on the Cuba circuit, leading a small Ethical Traveler delegation trip to the eastern side of this unforgettable island nation—which is, as you know, deeply in the throes of transition.  We will bypass Havana entirely and explore Santiago, Camaguey, Baracoa, and some of the beautiful and still uncrowded town far from the packs of sightseers. Contact me via this website for more information, or visit this link for more trip info.

That’s it for now! Enjoy this strange (but beautiful) December … and the last few weeks-in-office of the best, funniest, coolest, most compassionate Presidential First Family we are ever likely to see.

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Jeff with the Camp Hope photographers

Oakland – 12/4/2016   More than a year and a half has passed since I opened this blog. I’ve turned mainly to Facebook and Mailchimp to make my activities known. But now that I’m about to launch a new website, which may be linked to this one, I’m remembering the importance of actually having a live, active page where people can check on my travels, events and current projects. People who relied exclusively on this blog for info about me would have totally missed so many cool stories—like my writings from post-earthquake Nepal, or my work with Kathmandu’s Camp Hope.

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Outside the Ghost Ship entrance

But what really turned me toward writing today’s entry was the incredibly tragic fire two days ago at Ghost Ship, an impossibly strange and beautiful Oakland venue for experimental art, dance and music. Some 40 young people appear to have perished in the blaze, making it one of the worst fire disasters in memory. The party was described as a “rave,” and the venue as a ramshackle warehouse that played havoc with codes.

But there was so much more to it than that. If you visit the link above, you’ll see how amazing the space really was. And this morning, my beloved friend Sharyl M. sent me this testimony, written by Kimya Dawson, one of the many artists who rely on such spaces for community, love and inspiration:

     “It’s hard to find words. I have played in so many spaces with precarious floors and beams and stairs and not enough exits and certainly no sprinklers. Warehouses, squats, basements, rooftops, barns. Playing music saves my life. People tell me listening to music saves their lives. People telling me that my music saved their life saves my life even more. And we take the risks. Playing and listening in unsafe spaces. Because when we feel like we are dying anyway the risks don’t seem as risky as the risks we already face every day. The risk of self destructing. There aren’t enough places for us to gather. Our favorite places get turned into parking lots. So many clubs with their overhead and their staffs and their contracts and their lack of inclusivity and lack of tolerance and their age restrictions and their bars and their bigots. Those spaces are also unsafe just in different ways. Those spaces break you if you don’t make em the money. Because it’s always about the money. The fucking money. They will make you feel like a failure. Like a piece of shit. But all we can do is art. So we meet underground. We lurk in the shadows. And there it isn’t about success or failure. We sing and scream and cry and laugh and dance and group hug like cinnamon rolls and tell each other to get home safe and stay safe and be careful because the world is scary and the world is risky. We know we have to take care of each other.
So we meet in warehouses. Where we can just love on each other and escape from all the scariness and sadness. We take care of each other in our unsafe spaces that can feel so much safer than your safest spaces.   
      “Imagine you were on a sinking ship. And there is only one lifeboat. And someone screams that there is a chance the lifeboat might tip over.
      “You’ll take that chance.
      “If I hadn’t had people inviting me to their unconventional venues over the years I would have been dead a long long time ago.
       “We’re not trying to put each other in danger. We are trying to save each other’s lives.     We love each other so much.
      “I love you all.
      #oaklandfire”

05oakland-jp3-sub-superjumboNothing more to say except to express my deepest sadness for all those who lost a child, a partner, a loved one in the fire. And to hope that this tragedy will not impede the flow of jubilant creativity that has made Oakland one of the Earth’s most edgy, exciting,  progressive places to live.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They don’t need it. Nobody does.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

November 21st, December 2nd & December 8th, 2013 – In my last couple of posts I chortled about upcoming storytelling nights at The Vent and Busting Out. Since I wasn’t pelted with organic tomatoes or carried out of town, dripping with tar, on a creosote bush, both series have invited me back for their November/December events.

Busting Out Storytelling returns to the fabulous Den at the Fox, Thursday November 21st. The theme is “Family Jewels,” and I’ll tell a story about my brother Jordan, who died in 1990 but lives on in the annals of “that story has got to be bullshit!!” oratory. It’s not bullshit; he was really one of a kind. If you think you’d like to be there, get your tickets early, as the last one was packed. Follow this link for the Busting Out Storytelling site.

Then comes Thanksgivakkuh, the eight nights of Hanukkah, and our collective slide into this great nation’s annual holiday madness. Don’t fight it; come party with me, as below.

On December 2nd, my non-profit Ethical Traveler celebrates its 10th anniversary with the 2014 World’s Best Ethical Destinations Awards at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. It will be a terrific evening with wine, food, fun and the opportunity to (a) meet ambassadors from the 10 winning countries, and (b) discover where you’ll be taking your next vacation. Use the code TRAVEL to get 50% off on your tickets. Here is the link to the event.

And finally, on Sunday December 8th, impresario Bruce Pachtman’s Vent storytelling series blows  the doors off of Stage Werx, at 446 Valencia near 16th Street, San Francisco. I’ll be joined on stage by gifted storytellers Chirstian Cagigal, Leslie Beam, Gina Gold and Sandy Stec. Use the code ventdec on this Brown Paper Tickets link to get tix for only $10!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

 

September 16th, 2013 – Monday seems a little early in the week to be baring one’s soul, but how could I turn down an invitation from The Vent? Bruce Pachtman’s fantastic storytelling series continues three days before the Harvest Moon at Stagewerx, 446 Valencia near 16th Street, San Francisco. Showtime is 8 pm. I’ll be telling one story (it may be the Iran eclipse tale), and will be joined by stellar raconteurs Micia Mosely, Joe Cole, Doug Cordell and Leslie Beam. Get your tickets here.   They’re only $15. But  if you’re a friend of mine (you are), use the code “Septvent” to  get in for 12 bucks.

 

 

 

 

 

August 15th, 2013 – The fabulous Kay DeMartini, impresario extraordinaire, has moved her electric storytelling series to a new venue: The Den at the Fox Theater, at 19th and Telegraph in Oakland’s Uptown. The theme for this Thursday night is “Travel Trippin’ – Pushing Boundaries.” and though I have a few stories on this subject I promise to tell only one. If you think you’d like to be there get your tickets  early, as all Kay’s past events have sold out and the Fire Marshall will not allow her to pack 583 people into a fox den. Follow this link for the Busting Out Storytelling site.

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