Saturday, July 27th, at 4 p.m. I’m thrilled that Strange Travel Suggestions will be a part of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s Oneg Shabbat celebrations! Every Saturday throughout the Summer, the venerable JCC — where I had my first job on the West Coast (as a camp counselor) in the Summer of 1974 (!!!) — hosts this casual and FREE opportunity to enjoy the “delightful pleasures of a leisurely Shabbat.” Come on down, the celebrations run from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m., with a slightly shortened version of my show (45 minutes) at 4 o’clock. Come and spin the Wheel of Fortune! Did I mention it is FREE?

Three terrific events are coming right up! Hope to see you at every single one of them…

Saturday, July 6th, 2013 @ 7 pm: The BustingOut Storytelling series continues as the heat wave lifts, at Oakland’s Layover Music Bar & Lounge, starting at 6:30pm. It’s a part of the Beast Crawl. (Why “Beast?” Say it in Pig Latin!)  As effervescent impresario Kay DeMartini asserts: “[The Layover] will not fit all of Oakland, so get there EARLY.” The evening will feature true stories of “Shit Creek.”  Joining me will be the scintillating Jake Arky, Doug Cordell, Josh Cereghino and the cowgirl herself, Kay “De” Martini

Saturday, July 13th, 2013 @ 7 pm: Join me at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Saturday, July 13th, where I’ll help the travel world’s most inspirational editor — the wonderful Don George — celebrate his first full astrological cycle! (No, he’s not turning twelve…) Come by 7 pm, as there will be a very cool (visual) surprise before the event.

Thursday August 8th > Sunday August 11th, 2013: Yes, it’s time for that punch bowl of amoebic delights: the 22nd Annual Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. A stellar line-up this year includes Tim Cahill, Phil Cousineau, David Farley, Amy Tan, and our ever-perky mascot, Linda Watanabe-McFerrin. Hosted by the inimitable Don George, it’s going to be another 108-hour literary salon from which you will emerge besotted, bedazzled and utterly inspired.

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

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

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

That’s all I got for now.

May 21st, 2013, 7 pm: For the past six months Megan McNealy, a finance guru with an artistic streak, has been hosting (in her words) “a monthly gathering of phenonemal men and women, much like the writer, Gertrude Stein, did in the 1920s at her home on the Left Bank of Paris.”  Except that (1) this is not on the Left Bank but in Moraga, about 20 minutes east of Oakland; (2) Megan is far less intimidating than Gertrude Stein; and (3) I am hardly phenomenal. Nonetheless, I will be the Featured Speaker at her upcoming Spiritual Salon on Tuesday, May 21st. More from Megan:

“Wine, beer and mojitos will be served, along with a hearty selection of hors d’oeuvres….  In the Buddhist tradition of dana or generosity, the attendees will offer a donation to the speaker.  There will be a sliding scale of between $20-80 minimum, whatever works best for your financial situation.”

So there you have it. I will talk on the theme of Spiritual Travel (once I figure out what it is), tell stories, answer questions, etc. The event is in Megan’s home and limited to 25 people. RSVPs are on a first come, first served basis..  Please email Megan directly (not me!) if you are interested: shimmerymegan (at) gmail.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it begins. Any good agents out there?

Untitled by Ang Tsherin Sherpa, 2010

An embarrassment of opportunities to see me embarrass myself!!

1) The final 2012 performance of Strange Travel Suggestions — It’s been a short run, it’s been a great run, and after only four (out of five)  packed-house performances it is coming to an end. The last show of this wonderful run will be at The Marsh San Francisco on Saturday October 13th, up in the Studio Theater at 5 pm. Last Saturday, my Mother was in the audience…. Who knows who will show up this time? Hope it’s you. Click here for details and tickets.

2) Meet, Plan, Go — Billed as an opportunity to liberate lost souls who really, Really, REALLY want to travel but continually find excuses not to, this will be an evening of quasi-inspirational sermons by quasi-famous travelers; in this case myself and legendary editor/living buddha Donald W. George.  I promise to liven up the evening by conducting a group meditation in which we visualize ourselves as William Shatner. It happens on Tuesday, October 16th, at 5:30 pm. in San Francisco.  Click here for location, details and tix. Beam yourself up.

3) Weekday Wanderlust — I really can’t get enough of this Don George guy. A day after the “Meet, Plan, Go” event above, Don and I will be taking the “stage” again (this time at San Francisco’s Rex Hotel) — along with the brilliant Chris Colin. The Wednesday 10/17 event is called “Weekday Wanderlust,” and it’s billed as a place for vagabonding spirits to meet, converse, swap travel tales, and listen to “established and up-and-coming Bay Area travel writers share their work with an appreciative audience.” It’s at The Rex from 6-8 pm. Free. Drinks. Just show up.

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

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

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

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

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

… it’s official. Really truly. Have just confirmed a September 2012 run of the show at The Marsh in San Francisco!

Strange Travel Suggestions will soon return to San Francisco for the first time since 2008! Note: There will be only four shows. The dates are all Saturdays: September 8th, 15th, 22nd and 29th, at 8:30 pm, on the fabulous main stage. We sold out almost the entire run at The Marsh Berkeley in 2011. Please get your tickets early — here is a link to the information and ordering page at The Marsh.

Jeff at the Marsh  (video)

And check out the video link! It’s short (less than four minutes) but sweet. Fundamentalist Christian advisory: This video contains agnostic material.

I’ve been busy here:

Cowbird (click it)

and here, too:

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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