Pulling up in front of our last hotel in Tours France, we’re both thinking “We made it! Finally!”

Neither Karen nor I thought we’d actually do two months riding a bike through Europe this  summer.  KR was frankly dreading it, but said “yes” early in the idea stage and didn’t want to disappoint Her Man as we got closer.  I didn’t think KR would be up for it for a lot of reasons, but her health was No 1.  For the month or so before we left, Karen was not feeling well prompting the most comprehensive round of doctors visits and tests we’d ever under-taken.  Diagnosis:  probably African stomach virus.

So, we decided to take it one day at a time.  And then another.  And a couple of days turned into a week and … soon a mini-miracle happened.  We were both feeling great and enjoying it. We kept on.

I’m not going to recap our 59 days, that’s what the six reports are for.  Rather, here’s what I’m taking away from this trip.

  • The fact that two people our age can make this trip physically was a huge, pleasant surprise.  Riding a bike every day, lugging five bags into and out of hotels for two months, and always being on the move takes a bit of effort.  KR was a Stud-ett!  She’s a miracle maker!  The bottom line is that we were both “up” for the challenge.
  • The week before we took off I wrote “Pay Attention!” on my computer keyboard and in post-it-notes throughout my bags.  Riding a motorcycle is dangerous.  Period.  And the very last thing I wanted to do was to get Karen injured.  The best way of avoiding that is to be On Your Game 100% of the time.  I believe it’s this attitude that made the difference.  I made a couple of dumb mistakes (aren’t they all?), but recovered quick enough to suffer no consequences as a result.
  • The biggest difference in traveling now is that I’m grumpier and have less patience with people as I get older.  I have less tolerance for bad service and bad attitudes, which we encountered more than ever (or is it me?)
  • With a large number of notable exceptions, “service” and “lodging” folks were a whole order of magnitude less friendly or helpful.  My interpretation of the reaction we received is this:  they were a whole lot more concerned with their own needs/requirements than ours.  Most things remotely off the usual, were rapidly turned down with a lame excuse.  Why?
  • Despite the strength on the dollar, this was an expensive trip.  Cheap hotels and meals don’t exist when you’re constantly moving, tired and want to reward yourself.  The cheapest hotel was $88 and the most expensive was $260.  Both occurred during the first week:)
  • As the risk of generating a whole lot of disagreement, here are my top-of-the mind impressions of the 11 countries (and 19 border crossings) we experienced:
    • France:  Oh my god, can they cook!  And live!  And the countryside is beautiful. Could care less about the non-French, e.g. us.
    • Switzerland:. What would you think?  Sound of Music green hills and enough cutesy chalets to last a life time.  Precise.
    • Italy:  Oh my god can they cook!  And live!  And Tuscany and Florence were gorgeous.  Consistently tied as the friendliest.  Don’t travel in August.
    • Croatia:. Talk about a great beach vibe along the Adriatic Coast!  Wow.  I wish we’d found a little place along its miles and miles of coast and stayed a while.  People not so much.  Food not so much.  Don’t travel in August
    • Slovenia/Bosnia:  A peak behind the facade reveals a Soviet like feel
    • Austria:. The most beautiful Alps of the trip, the dullest city (Strasburg) and people.  (I know, totally unfair)
    • Germany:  Fast, aggressive drivers.  Lots and lots of forests in the South. Food pretty horrible, only surpassed in horribleness by the English.  Don’t travel in August.
    • Belgium:  A few of the nicest people and most beautiful forests and country of the trip, offset by some of the least. And the Spa F1 race, what can be better?   Lots of asshole drivers on their main highways
    • Netherlands:. Amsterdam was the best of the best.  Very cosmopolitan.  Most diverse city of the bunch.  Made me want to (try)party:)
    • England:. How can the people be so nice and the food so bad?  The southern coast is beautiful.  In fact, much of the English countryside was gorgeous.

OK, that’s it for now.  We’re going to catch the train to CDG tomorrow AM, then a flight to O’hare, overnight, then fly to DFW and PV.  We’ll be home on Wednesday if all goes according to plan.  Did I really just say that: ) ?

Running through Le Mans territory on the way to Tours. Last riding leg of the trip was spectacular. We even got to ride down the Mulsanne Straight section of the famous circuit.

Two-up always

 

 

Queen Elizabeth the Second died the day we arrived in the UK. It’s been All-Queen, all-the-time on UK television ever since. This TV is in the bar of the White Horse Hotel in Brighton on the south coast of England

Sam, Cindy, Karen and I were camping in Malibu some 25+ years ago when Princess Diana died.  We remember clearly where we were on that sad day.  Now,  Karen and I will always remember that we’d just rode into England when the Queen died at 96, throwing the entire country into a prolonged state of mourning.   The outpouring of grief among the British is truly stunning.  King Charles has very large slippers to fill.

Since our last report, we meandered down the Dutch, Belgium and French coasts to Calais.  Next morning we took the Chunnel to the UK and spent the next couple of days riding across the south coast of England, then northwest to Bath, which is where I write from now.

Thirty nine years ago to the month Karen and I took our first trip together to…. Bath!  She was working at Bankers Trust as an analyst and I was working at Saatchi & Saactchi, both in NYC.  We’d met a couple of months earlier and were dating pretty heavily.  If I remember correctly,  she was visiting a friend who lived in Bath and she asked me to tag along.  A couple of decades-long trends started then:

  • We travel well together
  • Our trips are often spare-of-the-moment
  • I rented a car and for most of the time we wandered the English countryside, driving on the wrong side of the road

The pace of this trip is slowing, softening. We’re going shorter distances when we’re on the road and taking more time in each location.   We like our comfort, staying in much better hotels than ever.   There are few better feelings than crawling into fresh sheets after a hard day on the road for a late-afternoon nap.  Then we get up and hit the town (until 9 of course).

While we’ve remained rubber-side down ever since our first tip-over on day two, (knock on wood  or carbon fiber) I’ve made a couple of riding mistakes in recent segments.  The combo of riding on wrong side, figuring out the reverse roundabouts,  navigating with two often-conflicting GPS devices, dealing with traffic and the rain have resulted in some unforced-errors.  None resulted in serious consequences, but it reminds me that not everything is as good as it was talent wise. I make sure I read the note I taped in my glass cases with renewed dedication every day: “Pay Attention.”

It’s good to be in a place where everyone speaks some version of English: ).  Makes everything a lot easier, especially during times of need (when we’re lost).  We’ve met a bunch of nice people, including five Westie owners!  We love talking about our dogs. Everyone uses the same adjectives:  “independent,” “adventurous and “stubborn.”  We couldn’t be describing ourselves could we?

Here’s what the past couple of days have looked like:

 

On the Chunnel train from Calais to the UK. Just finding the “right” entrance was a challenge, especially since it was raining hard. Ride took 35 minutes and cost $160.  We spent the rest of the day riding through the rainy English countryside.  Eventually made it to Brighton on the coast.

Typical English weather, here at Brighton. If it isn’t raining, its threatening to do so.

On Brighton’s pier. Nippy would be a good adjective

White cliffs, but not of Dover

We took an afternoon to visit the Arundel Castle. Like most castles these days, they have to let the commoners pay for access to keep the lights burning

Just your everyday Great Hall. Used for larger dining events.

This is what goes for a cozy living room in a castel

Your basic stairway to the “Living Quarters,” which are lined with paintings of the non-living.

Happy place. The town of Arundel gets our prize of being the friendliest place we’ve visited. Everyone wanted to talk with us. Go figure.  In this photo, Karen is packing up in front of our “Manor House” Avisford Park Hotel.

39 years later and we are still traveling and still talking to each other. Not sure which is more remarkable.

“Afternoon Tea.” There’s an FW behind this mammoth display of extravegance

One of Bath’s most famous architectural masterpieces, the “Great Crescent” appears in numerous movies

Next stop is the Goodwood Festival of Speed.  Report to follow:)

Amsterdam was uplifting, reaffirming, and almost spiritual for me. This picture, in a church converted to a boutique hotel, is striking and deceiving.  Meant to pay homage to the hotel’s past, it just says indulge to your heart’s delight to me!  Religion has played a seminal role in Amsterdam, of course, with the Catholics conquering, the Protestant Reformation, and the purging of the Jews in WWII. Today, despite its many churches, Amsterdam strikes me as a city where anything goes — which goes with my way of thinking, but doesn’t seem to fit its past.

We left Spa Belgium and meandered northwest, then northeast, then west and then southwest along the Netherlands/Belgium/French coasts of the North Sea.   It’s been a lazy, hazy time in which our schedule was loose and our destinations blurry.   We rolled through the country sides of Belgium, a bit of Germany, the Netherlands and eventually France.  We took in the rolling hills and farms of northern Belgium, the unexpected dense forests of the Netherlands, the sand dunes along the  North Sea, and the juxtaposition of wind mills with oil tankers in Rotterdam.  Along the way we got gobbled up in the crush of Dutch freeway traffic, got lost in one of the world’s largest ports, Rotterdam, and spent time in out-of-the-way Dutch beach towns.

Karen and I disagree on Amsterdam.  She didn’t like its almost chaotic, certainly frenetic, maze of bicyclists, pedestrians, trains and cars.  Stepping carefully is Rule #1 for new comers to this city so as to not crash into a biker or scooter.  It’s emblematic that most bicycles don’t have brakes.  Why use brakes when you can bounce off a pedestrian to stop?

All of this is true, of course, as Amsterdam is a chaotic, frenzied kind of place in which everyone and everything is moving, which is exactly why I like it.  At a different time, and certainly different age, I could live in there,  At least during the 60 days it’s not raining.  It’s a smaller, more charming version of NYC with canals.

Canals and water play a major role in Amsterdam.   The city is ringed and intersected with canals of all shapes and sizes.  Amsterdam is an international city primarily as a result of the city controlling 50% OF THE WORLD’S TRADE in the 1500/1600’s.  Like NY or LA, one can tell its an international place by just looking at the different kinds/shades of people.

House boats of one kind or another line every canal.  Some are large, others are tiny and barely afloat.  I fantasized about living in one until I heard the price:  $300K Euros for a permit and $400-1,500K for the boat.  Aside from the house boats, Amsterdam is a 1%’r kind of city with town houses costing tens of millions of dollars.  Puerto Vallarta and Sandia Park here I come!

I’ve liked a number of places we’ve stayed on this trip.  Thonon-les-Bains, France. Verona and Florence Italy.  Bad Ass & Wild (look it up), Monschau, and even Breda NL.  Amsterdam is the only place where I could see living.

Here’s what the last week or so has looked like.

Forty-five minutes north of our Monschau hotel is the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery honoring thousands of US WWII heroes who died in the fields, forests and hills of this part of Belgium. On this occasion, we visited the grave of Samson Hershfield, Sam Hershfield’s namesake, who was killed in action on Christmas night 1944. Looking out over the thousands of crosses, I wonder if American’s today value what these heroes gave their lives for?

I found my Valhalla in Breda, Netherlands. The biggest motorcycle store I’ve seen in years. Made good use of this stop to gear-up for the Second Half. It was heaven.

Our first hotel in Amsterdam was down this street in Old Town. While looking narrow to this American’s eyes, it’s a busy thoroughfare with bikes, people, scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks and skate boards.

I immediately wanted to get to Amsterdam’s Red Light district. The District is having a hard time since it was legalized. Many predict it won’t be around in five years.

Empty windows. What, the Ladies of the Night don’t work at 4PM? What’s with that?

We stayed at a gorgeous Art Nouveau era hotel built in 2012.

Luxury does not beget happiness. Many of our fellow travelers didn’t seem like they were happy campers.

Row of oldest homes in Amsterdam. Townhouses in heart of the city go for multi-millions.

House boats of all kinds line every canal. There are only 2500 house boat permits in all of Amsterdam, thus the cost of living in a house boat is astronomical.  The canals were historically critical to this city of seafarers.  Most of the buildings now houses were warehouses way back when.  Most have sturdy hooks at the top to hoist spices and other cargo up.  Now a days these hooks are used to get furniture and appliances up and down.  One night after a couple of drinks I thought I was hallucinating as many of the building seemed to be leaning forward.  After another glass of Rose, I was relieved to find out that many of the buildings do lean forward to avoid damaging the merchandise as its hauled up to the top floors.

We took a wine and cheese tour boat ride. The tour was great, the wine and cheese not so much

On the water

This famous house boat is called the “Kim Kardashian” for obvious reasons

City of bicycles and bicycles and bicycles. Most people have more than one bike: a throw-away for night time partying, an everyday commuter, and a racer for long rides. Not surprisingly, there are companies that lease bikes including repairs and replacement if needed.

One way of finding your bike — and love–  are flower bikes. This one has “I love Michelle.” Practice started when a husband decorated a wife’s bike and she never lost it again

Lots and lots of partying on boats, cafes and just about everyplace in between. Summer nights in Amsterdam are special.

We’re told this is the most photographed cafe in Amsterdam. Looks like all the rest to this un-trained eye.

We had our own Walti-Style party in a bar over-looking a canal. Above Karen’s head is one of the oldest pictures of Amsterdam, circa 1300s. Here KR and I look at map, Google, Booking and assorted other sources of ideas (including of course Sammy H’s) to determine our next step route-wise. Our decision is to go west to the sea, then follow the coast southwest.

We finish a walking tour of the city.

Unique houses are around every corner.

My kind of city where the mechanic and rolling tool chest comes to your rescue. Why hasn’t this caught on in the US?

Beginning of trouble. We find ourselves needing to cross a mini-ferry somewhere close to the Rotterdam harbor. For the second time in this trip, we become utterly lost. No Garmin, no Google, no Apple. Road closures in every direction. We were finally rescued by two bicyclists and we raced away from the harbor.

Belgium beach along the North Sea coast.

We came across this little guy and immediately thought of Bogart

Beach town in Colijnsplaat NL.

KR walks along the sand for the first time this trip.  BTW, this beach is about 30 minutes from Dunkirk where the Allies barely escaped in WWII.

 

Big Boy Pants Required. This piece of race track is the reason we traveled thousands of miles. Ask any F1 race fan what the most challenging, the fastest, most dangerous corner in all of racing is and this is likely to be the answer: Eau Rouge at the Circuit de SPA-Franchorchanps. Flat out, uphill, and blind, it used to separate the men from the boys before cars had ground-effects and race track pavement got stickier.  It’s still captivating to see/listen when Lewis, Max, Lando, Charles and the rest come rushing over its crest, neither lifting the throttle or making any abrupt movement of the steering wheel.

Three thousand odd miles and four weeks later and we are here; the secret reason I wanted to come to Europe.  The SPA-Franchorchamps Formula 1 race in Belgium.  There are almost two-dozen F1 races around the world, but this pucker-up circuit is known among race fans as one of the original Real Men circuits (Nurburgring, IOM, Silverstone. and Monza when it still had banking are the others).   I’ve come here to sit at only one corner among its 20:  Eau Rouge.

Tucked away in the Arden forest in Belgium, close to the German border, SPA is close to nothing other than hills, forest and small farms.   No big towns, heck there aren’t even any mid-size towns close by, yet some 300,000 people will crawl over hill and dale to get here this weekend.   I know as we’ve all been on the same one lane road for three hours either getting here, or leaving.  Getting here is painful, and I’m not talking about the plane, train, and motorcycle rides to get here.  No, it’s the last 20 kilometers that will kill you.

Even Karen admits that my selection of the Horchem Hotel in Monschau, Germany was a master stroke on my part.  Apart from the three hour journey to the race track, this place is PICTURESQUE.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.  The most important thing about our Hotel is its location (in the center of town right on the river) and the fact it has the only kitchen that’s open late… all the way to 10PM!  It is chocked full of people morning till night.

Here’s what our stay at SPA and surrounds looked like.

 

NoName rests in front of the Horchem Hotel.

Party central. We ate every meal at the hotel, either here on the terrace on inside close to the bar.

Lots of old, quaint houses in a compact area

The hills are… full of cars, tents, campers and buses

View of the to/from of the track. Miles and miles of cars on one-lane country roads.

Fun was had by all. This guy is laughing because his favorite driver, Max Verstappen, just qualified an unheard of 1.5 seconds faster than the rest.

View of the pit and hospitality areas of the track.

This guy was amazing. He flew around the track. Brave, very brave.

This picture says it all about getting out of the track. It was about a mile UPHILL walk. Here, Simon a member of the South African FIA contingent, follows up the hill.

Alls well that ends well. We found a bar half way back to the hotel to recuperate.

As we slide into the second month of our European Motorcycle Summer we look north to the Netherlands and eventually crossing the Channel via the Chunnel.

More as it happens.

 

“No Name” BMW 750GS after being “outfitted” for the trip.

Here’s the headline for this report:  We’re eight days in and we’ve driven east through France, then into the Swiss Alps and we’re now about to enter northern Italy.   No big disasters (we fell over once on Day 2:) and given everything leading up to this; all’s well as we figure out what/how/where to do this trip.   We only touched the Alps as a 6-day storm is just about to happen, so we decided to skip the rest of the Alps and head to Italy ahead of the rain.  Maybe.

Here’s what it looked like.

Getting Started

A Walti/Rutherford travel tradition: a before shot of Karen with luggage standing in front of our place. For the last 11 years that place was the Arts District in LA. This is El Centro, Puerto Vallarta.  Before you start thinking that’s a lot of luggage, remember it holds ALL of our motorcycle gear and enough clothes for two people for two months.

Just getting to the motorcycle in France required an Uber, 2 flights lasting 14ish hours, two 4 hour layovers, a train ride, and two more Ubers. Trains in Europe are fast, comfortable hooked up to Wi Fi

A public-use piano in the Charles de Gaulle airport and train station. Piano bench not included.

Hotel in Tours, France. Welcome sight after the trip “over.”

First dinner in France and the best so far. This type of walk street is scattered throughout France/Switzerland/Italy

Next morning picking up the m/c at Ride in Tour rental. At this point, KR realizes that we have find a place to go since we’re leaving in a couple of hours. This is late trip planning in the extreme

“No Name” wasn’t well fitted out for a two month, two-up trip. We spent the afternoon of the first day at the nearest BMW store getting it ready. Changes made all the difference.

The Loire Valley

Just another beautiful  country road, this one lined with trees. The next couple of days were spectacular as we rode down tiny back roads through the French countryside. Big difference in Garmin routes between “fastest” and “curvy road” settings”:)

Hotel in first on the road stop in Chenonceau. Disadvantage of rolling into town with no reservations is that your own hotel won’t sit you for dinner without a dinner reservation. We encountered this attitude a lot, probably because we looked like motorcyclists

How not to make a hotel reservation. We’re out in the middle of nowhere Loire Valley version and KR says stop so I can find a hotel. This is not optimal for lots of reasons, spotty internet reception top of the list. Miles and miles of small country road through endless sunflower growing fields (on the right).

The sunflower field hotel search yielded this tiny street in Sancerre. Took about 30 minutes to find the hotel, once we were close.

Dinner than night in Sancerre.

Breakfast the following morning ALMOST made the place worth the big bucks. There have been no more breakfasts like this.

Another charming French town somewhere in the Loire Valley

Lake Geneva/ Thonon-les-Bains

We finally made it to Lake Geneva in the foot of the Alps. Geneva, Lake Geneva and Thonon are quite pretty. We spent three nights in Thonon — a record — just chilling out and doing some work/errands

Overlooking the lake in Thonon

Sunset in the Park

A Touch of the Swiss Alps

We went north east into the French/Swiss Alps. We really only got to the foothills of the Alps at this stage.

Swiss chalets were everywhere, even at weird angles

Lunch in the Alps. As soon as we entered Switzerland, the attitudes we encountered changed 180 degrees. Our waitress even said, “drive carefully!”

More Alps

More Alps

Lots of Sound of Music green

Bern is a very beautiful, larger Swiss town

Easily the worst hotel so far, the Ibis Budget Bern Expo. I think our RV was bigger and certainly more comfortable.

Lugano on Lake Lugano, in southern Switzerland. KR takes a rest.

Travel to communities around the lake is by boat.

 

I’m finishing this post in Verona, Italy.  Tomorrow, if all goes to plan — and what does? – we will continue to head south toward Croatia.

 

 

Sunset over the African bush. Every afternoon’s game drive ended with cocktails in the bush, watching these magnificent sunsets.

After 12 days of always being cold, Karen and I took a 35-minute plane ride back to Kruger National Park in search of warmth and a game lodge named Hoyo Hoyo.  From the beginning Hoyo Hoyo was different.  We flew into one of the smallest – and definitely the most charming – airports we’ve ever been to – the Skukuza airport.  We see  the “Walti” sign and quickly learn its a two hour ride to Hoyo Hoyo. Well, LAX can be two hours from Hollywood on some days, so this shouldn’t be too bad.

Thirty-five minutes into the trip we leave the pavement for a dirt road stretching off into the bush as far as one can see.  For the next hour and a half our dirt road goes from pretty nice, to much narrower, to getting bumpy to being an animal trail twisting and turning through the bush.  Where is this place?!

Answer:  in the middle of nowhere, inside the Kruger National Park, which is South Africa’s largest game reserve.   Eventually little huts with thatched roofs appear through the trees and we finally get to Hoyo Hoyo.  Stepping out of the van we learn the Golden Rule of Hoyo Hoyo:  It’s OK to go back and forth to our bedroom hut during the day, but we need to be escorted during the night. Unlike all the other game lodges we’ve stayed in, Hoyo Hoyo has no electric fences to keep the animals out and the tourists in.  Oh boy…

Ten minutes later and we scramble into our Safari Jeep for the afternoon game ride.  Twenty minutes in and we come across a small herd of big elephants next to the road. The biggest one, that would be the one with the big tusks, takes one look at us and begins flapping his ears vigorously and making grunting noises.  I don’t need a hunting guide to know this isn’t good news.  Before I can say “he’s coming” he charges the Jeep.  Our guide puts it in reverse with a Formula One quick move, Karen screams and I freeze.  The guide slams his hands on the side of the vehicle, yells, and The Big Guy stops in his tracks, looks startled, turns 180 degrees and hauls back into the bush.  This is going to be some kind of jungle stay!

Two hours later and I want to die.  The sun has gone down, we’ve already stopped for our mid-ride sip of frozen wine, and it’s so cold I’m thinking just shoot me and get the misery over.  The two light weight blankets aren’t enough to keep one warm on a fall afternoon, let alone in this arctic night. This is probably our sixth game ride, each one ending in frozen misery, and I’m wondering, why?  Are the Big Five worth it?   We vow to layer up for the next one with SIX top layers, three bottom ones, a hat and balaclava, and two blankets.  We learn to fight the cold to a standstill.

Hoyo Hoyo serves just twelve guests.  The main “building” has a living room, dining room, two outside palapas, a pool and fire pit.  It sits on a riverbank overlooking the gently sloping bush.  It’s small, lovely, authentic and immaculately decorated with African art.  The best times are when everyone else is either on a drive or napping so that we have the place to ourselves.  Across the river is a small watering hole attracting elephants and lions, among others. I’m writing this early one morning, in front of a fire, overlooking the bush, and hearing only the crackling of the fire and the squawking of a couple of birds.  For the first time, I feel that we are in, not next to or close to but in the African bush.

The staff, “Give and Take,” “Easy,” “Herald” and “Just Fine” are always on call for a morning coffee, an evening sip, and whatever meal you’re in the mood for.   All meals are “custom” and made when you’re ready.

A daily ritual easily unfolds.  Up at 7 am for coffee to see if there’s any animal activity on the riverbank.  Around 9:30 we get a 20-minute ride to the next nearest lodge that has wi-fi (the Hoyo Hoyo has no cell phone nor wi-fi).  Answer emails, download movies, have a late breakfast or early lunch, then back to Hoyo Hoyo for a mid afternoon nap.  At 3:30 we clammer on the Safari Jeep for the three-hour afternoon arctic game drive.  Back at 6:30-7pm, totally frozen, we huddle by the fireplaces, have a glass of sherry, eventually have dinner and chat among our fellow explorers.  We then get escorted back to our cottage and immediately turn up the heat.   We’re out like a light by 9:30pm.  .

Animals and the Hoyo Hoyo coexist, each without noticing the other.  Lions, elephants, herds of impalas, monkeys and lots of birds all pass by without a glance.  The Hoyo Hoyo staff go about their business despite a lion being a dozen yards away, or elephants bathing themselves right there.  In this place, the world seems in balance, in harmony.  There’s no “Breaking News” or foreign invasion or congressional committees to worry about.   No place seems farther removed than here.  Who needs CNN or Fox?  Nothing seems less important to this world.

We make very temporary friends among the other guests that cycle in and out during our stay.  The young Canadian woman taking four months to see South Africa who tries to give us hints on how to stay warm.  The German family of 8 that swarm the dining room each night, cheeks all red from the evening’s game drive, and talking excitedly about whatever they saw.   The single Australian woman who looks like she’s lost all her friends (and probably doesn’t care) wouldn’t crack a smile even if it was warm enough to allow for one.  The father and son duo from Munich visiting South Africa for maybe the tenth time.  Dad is German handsome, hale and hearty, and walks around in one lightweight layer of clothing as KR and I have three layers of fleece and a hat – and we’re sitting by the fire!  Like the wind blowing, guests keep flowing in and out.  We’ll be just like them in another day or so.

Kruger is different from Pilanesberg and the Black Rhino.  It’s much much larger and it seems rougher, wilder. The roads aren’t laid out in a nice grid, rather they meander, sometimes roughly and rarely smoothly.  The bush is taller, with a greater number of trees.  It’s difficult to see far; our imagination sees wild beasts behind every bush or crouched in the grass.  It’s just our imagination of course.  Then we almost run over a pride of lions laying in the grass just beside the road. There are animals behind every tree!  We cross two or three rivers on each of our game drives.  They’re dry this time of year but serve as superhighways with lots of tracks – some of them huge – crisscrossing the sand.  The dry riverbed in front of the Hoyo Hoyo is frequented by a herd of elephants on most mornings and late afternoons.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like a hundred years ago, when the park was formally set aside, or decades before that as first the Dutch, then English, then Portuguese and English again tried to traverse what is now known as Kruger.  For hundreds of years there were few successful treks through the bush, most perishing from the beasts or various diseases carried by flies and mosquitos.  Even now there is just no way I would trek through this area without an army of riflemen.  Reading about those times in books scattered on the coffee tables tells of expeditions that learned the hard way that you don’t make camp without fortifying its perimeter with thorn branches to keep the lions out.  And yet, here I sit just a few feet away from these beasts now, completely at ease visiting their home.  Yesterday morning we awoke to a crew of elephants just outside our window munching on the trees.  Last night on the escort back to our cabin we crossed paths with two hyenas scampering off into the trees.

Over these past four days we’ve seen great and small animals in their daily lives.  A pride of lions sleeping in the grass all day.  An elephant taking a shower.  A water buffalo getting an early morning sip of water.   Impalas, zebras, blue wildebeests, kudus and water buck casually grazing.  Baboons, monkeys and birds bursting into screams and frantic jumping and climbing trees as some enemy has been spotted.  Driving down one of the paths at sunset we follow a hyena as it trots down the road, head down, oblivious to the gaggle of tourists in the jeep behind clicking on their iPhones.  Vultures and eagles sitting way atop their nests surveying their domain.  Off in the distance we see a herd of giraffes as they saunter along, stopping by each tree to have a late afternoon salad.

There is of course violence here as well, but it is the natural way of life.  No gun shots ring out in the distance. Predators hunt for their next meal, or two males fight to be The Boss of their crew.  Lions don’t mess with elephants, cheetahs don’t mess with lions, and no one messes with rhinos. Baboons, hyenas, jackals and vultures await their turn at the dinner table. We’re told one zebra will last a lion for two days before getting hungry again.  The weak and small need to be fleet of foot and always on the outlook for trouble in order to avoid being the main course.

Few places we’ve been to feel less connected to — or affected by –the modern world.   This is a world unto itself, with its own rhythms and rules and inhabitants.  I feel extraordinary lucky to have visited.

On the road to Hoyo Hoyo. This is the beginning of the trip as the road is pretty wide and smooth

Hoyo Hoyo in the afternoon. Looking at the main dining room from the outside deck.

View from main Hoyo Hoyo deck.

Hoyo Hoyo Living Room

Early morning animal viewing from the deck of Hoyo Hoyo

FW reading, writing and eating

Our guide decides to go off the road…

And comes across this pride of lions taking an afternoon nap. This photo is maybe 10 feet away

The King yawns

Mother stretches. Lions, and most of the predators, hunt at night. She’s starting to wake up

There’s a leopard in this picture

Scariest animals for me were the baboons. We came across a pack 20+ who were agitated by the leopard. They were running around, hissing, growling and generally making a lot of noise.

Driving down one of the roads and this guy sees us and

Charges the Safari Jeep. He got a lot closer than this but I froze

What do you think these two giraffes are doing? Courting? No. Talking with each other? No. They’re fighting! They use their horns to pound the other guy.

Mid game drive evening cocktails on the road. As soon as the sun drops down, the temperature plummets too

Driving back to the lodge at night. We don’t see a lot of animals during this hour drive

After each drive, we run for a fire

KR in the tub getting warm for the first time

Undated painting

1923 “Bush Lunch for King George”

The departure lounge at the Skukuza airport. There’s no question when the aircraft arrive as the trees and bushes bend to its engines

Love in the Jungle. Two elephants getting it on across from the Hoyo Hoyo: )

 

 

 

 

 

Big Blue is my new best friend. He’s 2019 GS1250 HP. He’s a bit taller, heavier and faster than Now Voyager II., but he has a way better dashboard. After the first day of getting to know each other, we became fast friends.

Karen and I had opposite views of our Africa trip.  She could endure the motorcycle part in order to go on the animal safaris.  I could endure the animals in order to get to the motorcycle part.  This post is all about my turn.  Getting on the m/c was our first chance to see a bit of Africa, aside from the to/from the game lodges of the first or last legs.  Even though we were most often whizzing past the sights, we did get a feel for SA.  More on that in a bit.

Here’s the tour basics:  12 days through three countries on a GS 1250 with two other bikes, a tour leader, and a chase vehicle.  Our first day was June 3rd  and our last day was June 15th.  Here’s the map from our tour company,  SAMA used.

The Tour started in Pretoria and made a clockwise circle, starting northeast to Kruger National Park, then south through Swaziland, to St. Lucia and the Indian Ocean and then further southeast to Lesotho.  We turned almost directly north and finished the loop at Pretoria.

 The Pros and Cons of a Tour

We debated long and hard whether to take a tour or not.  As you would expect, we’re not real good at going along with a group on almost anything, let alone motorcycling.  After experiencing our first tour, here’s the pros and cons (most of these would be true for any tour, not just motorcycling).

The Pros

  •  They take care of EVERYTHING from bikes to routes to accommodations.  It’s pretty nice having someone do all the stuff that we normally do.
  • No shipping of m/c required.  My GS1250 was a 2019 HP model that was in excellent condition and hauled butt.  We showed up, adjusted a few things, and off we went.
  • We saw things and stayed at places that only someone experienced in the area would know about.  This was especially true of hotels in the middle of nowhere.
  • Having a chase vehicle is a big deal.  Unfortunately, KR rode in it most of the time because she contracted a virus, which is one of the reasons I wanted a chase vehicle. It was a great luxury to not have to cram things into two small bags and to have the chase vehicle carry all of your stuff (including loading and unloading).  Our vehicle had room for 8 passengers, a spare m/c and all of our stuff.
  • All of the above eliminates most of the drama of a trip.  By drama, I mean breakdowns, getting lost, worrying about whether we were going to find a place to sleep that night — all the things that a non tour rider faces.
  • You meet and travel with other people.  We spent 12 days with Darrell (the tour leader), Clayton (chase driver), Allan (retired Brit) and Duncan (Florida construction mgmt.).  Fortunately, we all got along well and had some interesting conversations.  And, most importantly, we were all talking to each other on the 12th.

The Cons

  •  Well, it’s not really an adventure anymore, with all the  fear and excitement that discovery that entails.
  • There’s very little flexibility as to timing, route, start/finish times, where to eat & drink, etc.
  • Riding in a group with other riders is mostly a bore.  Our group was saved as the Tour Leader, Darrell (who is also the owner of SAMA) was a very good rider and upped the pace often enough to make it interesting.  Darrell and I set a faster pace and Allan/Duncan set a slower one.
  • The people.  If you’re not lucky to have people you like or at least can live with, then it could be a long trip.
  • Price.  It’s obviously more expensive to pay someone to do all the work.  SAMA is an excellent tour company and they were thousands of dollars less than the big name global companies.

The Do Overs

  • We would definitely read the details of the tour more carefully, paying special attention to accommodations.  Once again, we were lucky as we had only two semi-duds in 12 nights.  This is a habitual problem of ours as we very rarely pay close attention to anything regarding a trip much before we go on it.
  • Paying close(er) attention to weather is a must.  We basically got colds and didn’t feel well most of the trip because it was really cold — on or off the bike.  It would have been much better if we’d brought along the right clothes (no bathing suits, shorts, flip flops or t-shirts as suggested).
  • 12 days was the right amount of time for us this trip, but now I wish we’d signed up for one a bit longer as I was just getting into the swing of things and it was over:)

We’re glad we went this direction.  We can’t say enough good things about the SAMA team:  Nicole, Darrell and Clayton.  They took care of us and everything we needed including going way out of their way to find Karen a doctor and getting me tons of cold meds.  If you’re going to SA, give them a call.

South Africa Impressions

Like so many countries we visit for a short time, we only come away with impressions rather than a deeper understanding and appreciation.  Same goes for South Africa (and Swaziland and Lesotho) we’ve driven hundreds and hundreds of miles down its roads, seen or rode through dozens of small towns and villages, seen thousands and thousands of South Africans on its roads waiting for taxis, growing corn, eating sugar cane, washing the laundry, and seeing their children playing.  Yet, we only have a very shallow understanding of the country and its people. Bottom line, we like the country and wish we could see more of it (especially Cape Town).  Here’s some impressions

  • Much of the countryside looked like countryside anywhere.  It’s only when you get to the bush and tall grass of the game reserves do you get a sense of Africa. We saw gorgeous pine-covered green mountains that could be in the American West.  And rocks, canyons, and cliffs that made us wonder if we were in Arizona or Utah.  To me, the real Africa were the grasslands in the southeastern part of SA and Lesotho.  Dotted with round huts with straw roofs and the assorted stuff of homes, it was breathtaking in its expanse and beauty.  The game reserves were in the brush, which is brush, except there might be a lion or elephant behind any bush!
  • Everyone we met was incredibly nice to us and had the brightest smiles.  Of course most were service folks, but they all made us feel comfortable.  In a country that is 80% black, we never felt uncomfortable as the minority population(we didn’t even notice it). We felt the warmth of South African people.  We met a lot of South Africans in the lodges and hotels we stayed in and once again, they were always smiling and offering help.
  • Like most other countries  the top live very very well.  Huge houses out in what I would call the bush, lots of land and very high fences (are they to keep the animals away or their neighbors?).  All of the businesses we patronized were owned/managed by white people. Of the thousands and thousands of people we saw along the roads, at bus or taxi stops, and in small towns or farms, they were 100% black.  This is going to sound terrible– that no matter where one goes, poor people are poor people — they may look different, live in a different kind of squalor, survive doing different kinds of work.  In SA, they live in tin shacks or small huts.  In India, they live in shacks down narrow, filthy streets.  In Mexico, they live adobe huts.  And in America, they live on the streets.  My heart goes out to all these people while at the same time thinking that I could be one of them except I was born in America, my parents had jobs and provided us with a good upbringing.  The more we travel, the more we realize that the majority of the world lives in much much worse conditions than we.
  • Crime is  a problem in SA. Our guides told us of car jackings and other violent crimes happening every day.  While I always felt safe, we were in our guided little cocoon. We saw absolutely no violence or robbery on this trip.  Yet, while Karen was in a local clinic, a white woman was ushered in by her husband.  She had just barely escaped a car jacking/kidnapping that left her with a broken nose and a slashed throat.  She barely made it away.  Most of the middle to upper middle class residential neighborhoods are fenced and gated with security.
  • Once we got off the main roads, especially in the mountains, we started to see the Africa of picture books.  Small round huts made of brick, grouped together in a family unit or village, with children playing in the yard and women doing the laundry.  Crops were carried to market via an ox-pulled two-wheel wagon.  Crops seemed to be sugar cane, corn, bananas and wheat.  Most houses looked like they had electricity running to them with many having TV antennas sticking out from the roof or window.  Yet, just like Morocco or Ethiopia, there seemed to be one well in each village that was visited each day.
  • Aside from the occasional horse or donkey, the main transportation for regular Africans were either mini-vans serving as buses and small cars serving as taxis.  There were a fair amount of cars on the major highways, always hauling butt and impatient to get around.  Drivers in SA are somewhere between Mexicans and Indians.  They drive really fast, use only signals occasionally, but don’t seem to have the kamikaze attitude of Indians.
  • Of course the most lasting impression will be of the animals.  We saw dozens of them, from the exotic (leopards, cheetahs
  • elephants) to the mundane (Impalas and Blue Wildebeest, but pictures just can’t convey the size of a rhino or elephant, the beauty of a zebra, the gracefulness of a giraffe or the shoulder muscles of a cheetah. If any of you readers are thinking about going, you must go if only for the animals.
  • Country roads and highways were sometimes a problem for bikers.  None- OK a few kilometers- were dirt or gravel or any way non-drivable.  But surfaces were uneven and there were tank-sized potholes.  We used a buddy system to spot and mark potholes for the riders following.  It worked as no one disappeared down a hole.

The Ride

I’ve already written about how rejuvenated I felt on this ride (see “Is there a use-by date for motorcyclists).  It was exactly what I needed as there is no way not to have a great time on a m/c.  Darrel and I kept a brisk enough pace to make it interesting.  Any experience level would be good to go on this trip, but expect a couple of kilometers of dirt and gravel every once in a while.  My GS 1250 was exactly the right bike for this kind of trip, excepting its still too tall for yours truly,  Speeds ranged from 30 to (very occasionally) 200KPH with most settling in at 60ish.   Gas stations were a plenty with plenty of roadside restaurants to check out.  The “Panoramic Ride” near Hazyville (right on the border of Kruger in the east) and the mountain road in Lesotho were the most memorable.  Twisty with great scenery.

Here’s what the ride looked like in pictures.

The Beginning. This would be the only day KR rode the bike.

Lunch stop along the way served African dancers with food. I grew to like African music alot.

Dinners were always a time for recapping the day or delving into important world issues (not). Duncan in foreground with Darrell and Clayton in background. This was one of the first game reserves we stayed in

For most of this trip, its been very very cold. This is on Day 2, in the mountains. Karen wisely stayed…

in the chase vehicle. The chase vehicle would serve many purposes: Karen’s limo, luggage transport, transport to dinners, tool chest, spare bike carrier and medical transport to a local clinic.

Allan on the left and Duncan on the right. We visited a lot of battle sites in this trip. Most of the battles were between colonialists and locals. Guess who won and built all the monuments?

The Man. Darrell set the pace that was perfect for yours truly. It was fast enough to make me work (75-120mph), yet pretty safe as Darrell knew all the road sand signaled the potholes ahead. I came away from this ride feeling pretty damn good about riding a motorcycle.

Allan and Duncan at a site seeing vista called the Pothole. Allan is a retired nurse from Liverpool (that’s where he was born, never could get the name of the town where he lived). Duncan is a recent transplant from Chicago to Tampa. Both were terrific riding mates for very different reasons. Made for some interesting dinner conversations. I think we got lucky with this crew.

One of our days was spent on a 300km loop in the mountains next to Kruger National Park. I call this the Green Grand Canyon.

More Green Grand Canyon

Lunch stops were always needed and welcomed. This is a little mountain village called Pilgrims Rest.

Useful windshield reminder.

We took part in an “Elephant Interaction” and it lived up to its name! No picture will do a giant like this justice. Just touching his “skin’ or feeding him was an other worldly experience.

We stayed two nights in a beach town called St. Lucia. St. Lucia is famous for its hippos. Lots and lots of hippos that walk the streets at night. Despite going on a couple of late night hippo sighting runs, we only saw them in the river. Earlier the same day a woman was killed by a hippo near the water’s edge. Seems like it was a regular occurrence.

Big Blue’s only problem was one morning he wouldn’t start. It was an electrical problem that was “solved” by jump staring him via another bike. Man, its nice to have a crew along who can fix it when it breaks:))

One of dozens of happy camper motorcyclist pictures

Stopping at a famous British/Zulu battle museum. This time the Brit’s lost.

If you write down one name, let it be this: Isandlwana Inn. This is one of the most unique, best mini hotels/lodges that we’ve ever seen. No words or pictures will do it justice. Go there.

Looking out over the Isandlwana Battle scene.

Great conversations occurred around the bar. Allan is making an important point that Clayton doesn’t appear to get.

Dogs are dogs, no matter the size. These two giants liked their couches and chairs no matter the size

Team pic at what looks like the Arizona or Utah mountains. It’s called the Golden Gate.

Unfortunately, this is the closest KR got to the bike for most of the trip. She was a trooper though.

We spent a day riding through the mini country of Lesotho. Much or the countryside was small villages/houses that looked like we were in the 1800s.

We rode up and down a 4000 meter mountain . And no, we didn’t pay any attention to the sign

Adventure man shot. Top of the mountain and top of the spirits. Hair and makeup didn’t show up for this shot: )

Now THIS is a motorcycle road

Women and children carrying wood and food on their heads.

While 90% of the roads were paved, there were occasional dirt and gravel stretches

The after shot. Everyone was happy getting through it all

I’m proud to say that Big Blue made it through without a new scratch — a first!

Last supper and we’re all still talking to each other. From left, Clayton (the all time best Chase Vehicle Driver and all around good guy), Allan (Brits U have a sense of humor), Nicole (the best “adventure” logistics planner ever), Darrell (the Man) Duncan (grew in stature and m/c riding abilities during the trip) and Karen (one tough cookie)

What trip would be complete without Karen finding a plant she wanted to take home. We’re bringing a lot more than just flowers home.

 

 

 

 

ANIMALS, LOTS OF ANIMALS

We’ve been trying to do a motorcycle trip into Africa since before COVID began.  Our concept started out manly (let’s ship NVII to South Africa and just wander the continent) to less manly (let’s do a month guided m/c tour in seven countries) to full wimp (12-day guided m/c tour in three countries bookended by visits to two safari lodges).  It’s pure coincidence that the concept softened as we’ve gotten older.  But hey, we’re here!

I’ve broken this trip into five parts:

  1. Preparation: This trip required more than our usual amount of preparation (focusing on a trip the day the day before) because it was far away, there was a bunch of medical stuff we needed to get done, and we were living in Mexico and all of our m/c stuff was in New Mexico.  Most of the tough stuff revolved around medical prep:  COVID tests, getting four months’ worth of medications for FW/KR, travel/medical/bike insurance, etc. Two weeks before shoving off we made a blitzkrieg run to New Mexico and back, getting all of m/c stuff and making sure Laguna had made it through the winter (it had)
  2. Getting to/from: We booked the flights (seven legs) five months in advance and, if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to go.  We used miles and tried to get as upfront as possible.  Its taken four flights and 53 hours to get to Johannesburg.
  3. The Black Rhino Safari Lodge in Pilanesberg National Park: Who comes to Africa without going on a safari?  We will have spent four days driving around the African countryside looking for animals.  This is what Part 1 covers.
  4. The M/C Tour. The reason we’re here in the first place. We used SAMA Motorcycle Tours and they’ve taken care of everything since we stepped off the plane.   People here at the Lodge keep asking us where we’re going on our tour and we say…we don’t really know: )
  5. The Hoyo Hoyo Safari Lodge in the Kruger National Park: Can a guy get too many safaris in one trip?  We’re about to find out.

My idea of what to expect of Africa came from watching Out of Africa with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep:). Perfect casting for an FW/KR documentary, don’t you think? Surprise Surprise! Our visit to Johannesburg, Pretoria and Pilanesberg is nothing like Out of Africa.

So far, South Africa is pretty much like any other place we’ve visited.  Big, modern cities, four lane highways, small towns and houses scattered along the side of back roads with all your normal conveniences, including a KFC and Mug & Bean roadside shops.  Poor people here, just like Mexico or most other countries we’ve visited,  live in run-down houses/shacks that would be at home anywhere except for the materials they’re built from.

Everything pretty much changes once you enter the Black Rhino private park, a 55,000 square mile nature preserve.  Dirt roads of various widths go off in every direction to the 35 lodges in the Black Rhino concession.  Our lodge is the main one and is comprised of a main building with 25+ individual cabins scattered in the bush.  We’re in cabin #25 and are issued a flashlight for getting to/from our cabin.  I wonder if they’re ever lost any guests at night…

Twice a day, before god gets up and when he’s about to have an afternoon cocktail, we pile into a Safari Mobile and drive down said miles and miles of dirt roads on what is called a “Game Drive.”   All looks normal as African brush is pretty much like most brush we’ve been in.  Then, our guide slams on the breaks and right there – I mean right there! — is a White Rhino.  Five more minutes and there are a couple of hippos chilling in a water hole.  Wait!  Look over there!  A gaggle of giraffes are strutting by.  After a couple of hours of doing this, it dawns on me that driving around and casually seeing all the animals that one sees in the movies/books feels normal here.  And that’s what starts to sink in…this place is very different.

Surprisingly, a few people actually live out here.  All of these houses, indeed all human structures, are surrounded by 8-foot-high electrified fences.  No one walks down these roads, in fact no one gets out of their vehicles for fear of becoming some beast’s lunch.   When we stop during our game drive to have a glass of wine or cup of coffee, we stop in a fenced in area complete with bomb-shelter like watering hole viewing bunkers.  The maintenance man that greets us ventures only a few feet outside the fence… (this reminds me of a hotel in Glacier National Park that Sam/Cindy and us rode our motorcycles to.  We were in this wonderful hotel in the woods, and one of the staff casually said, “Yah, we lose a bookkeeper every winter…”  I bet they lose some park maintenance guys here too: ).

Typically, less than twelve hours into a four day excursion, KR asks, “Do we have to stay here the whole time?”   Two things color her question:  It’s cold in the Safari Mobile.  Greeting the sun happily as it rises or sets is difficult to experience with one’s teeth chattering.  KR does not do well in cold.  We look at animals and admire their fur coats: )   Second, beyond looking for/at animals and our two meals a day, there is absolutely nothing to do here.  There’s even no wifi in our cabin.  This is OK with me as I have plenty to do on the keyboards.  Not so for KR.  My prediction is that we don’t make it through two days: ))

11:30PM at JFK waiting to see if we’d lost a piece of luggage. Lots of luggage is needed because we’re carrying all of our m/c stuff with us

Lots of time spent in airport lounges. Quickest and most expensive way to fly is to go directly from A to B. We went from A to B to C to D which meant two 12 hour stints in airport lounges`. Good news is that we used miles and flew up front on the way

A glass of champagne before heading out over the Atlantic. This is business class on British Airways: )

Our first African sunrise as we fly into Johannesburg.

 

Lobby of the Black Rhino Lodge in the Black Rhino park.

Our room

This is what a Rhino looks like at 5 in the morning

This is what they look like up close and personal. This is a White Rhino.

Our guide, Marion, driving down a typical road in the park.  Behind him there are bench seats for six

Two hippos taking a break. Hippos apparently kill more people than any other animal because they can submerge for 5+ minutes, thus surprising boaters, swimmers, etc.

KR and the Safari Mobile, at an African Sunset.

We were at DEF CON 5 with regards to clothing. Four layers up top, two on the bottom, boots, gloves, and two ponchos and we still froze during the morning trips. Here, our guide mercifully stopped and we made coffee. We’re standing inside one of the few picnic areas in the part which is surrounded by 8 ft. high electrified fence.

Who says sustainable energy isn’t flexible. This is how they power all that electrified fence.

How can you not love zebras?

This is a Blue Wild Beast, which often travel with Zebras. Don’t know why they’re called Blue, but they are definitely ugly beasts.

Viewing bunker next to our lodge

Here’s what KR was looking at: a male Great Kudu

Heard of Cape Buffalo, said to be the most aggressive of the animals in the park.

KR is praying for warmth

 

By far my favorite animal is the giraffe. They are truly weird, they’re huge, and they are amazingly graceful

Outside the lodge recovering from the afternoon drive

They’re not kidding:

 

This is what I mean: I’ve been wanting to get back to Palm Cove in Brisbane, Australia for four years. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. So, this trip to Australia KR and I allocated five whole days to Palm Cove. Mistake, big mistake, as you can see most of PC in an hour. It has four restaurants and two bars — all of which are crowded, offer really bad food and warm beer. And, it took us five flights to get there and back. As I said, be careful what you wish for: )

I ended our last post with this hope:  that we’d travel more in the immediate future.  Well, we’ve been on 23 flights in the last month to India, LA, Australia, India, LA and back to PV!  I want to take that wish back and insert another –  I want to stop moving for a bit and figure out how to do this easier.

This is what the last 30 days have looked like (flights):

India Trip No 1

Kartikeya Singh was among our group in West Bengal. We went to 5-6 universities and gave speeches, did panel discussions, and then held photo sessions. This was a typical crowd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • PV to Houston
  • Houston to DC
  • DC to London
  • London to New Delhi
  • New Delhi to Kolkata
  • Kolkata to Newark
  • Newark to LA
  • LA to PV

PAUSE

Trip to Australia

I was a speaker at the first “National Clean Tech Conference and Expo” in Brisbane.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • PV to LA
  • LA to Sydney
  • Sydney to Brisbane
  • Brisbane to Cairns
  • Cairns to Brisbane
  • Brisbane to LA
  • LA to PV

PAUSE

India Trip No. 2

We officially launched the West Bengal Innovation Network at the Bengal Global Business Summit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • PV to Houston
  • Houston to Frankfurt
  • Frankfurt to Delhi
  • Delhi to Kolkata
  • Kolkata to Singapore
  • Singapore to Tokyo
  • Tokyo to LA
  • LA to PV

PAUSE…

It’s tough for me to admit, but I’m getting older.  It’s harder and harder to walk the mile between gates at the Frankfurt airport.  Or to bench press my 40+ pound carry-on to the overhead bin for each of these flights.  It’s getting harder to go take meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting when I’m on the road for NGIN – all while feeling jet lagged.

Twice in the last month people have asked me, “Well, how long are you going to work?”  I know they’re think’n that Walti is 70+ and how much longer can he last?  And here’s the gods-honest-truth:  until someone asked me that question, I’d never even thought about it.  But, you can’t put the spilled milk back in the bottle so I’ve been thinking about the question.

My answer is I don’t f___ing know; I don’t really care to know, and I’ll know it when the time is right.  The way I’m feeling today, I’m done right now.  But then I think about how inspiring it is to meet all these young entrepreneurs all over the globe.  How much I like speaking about how entrepreneurs can and must stop climate change.  How I like pushing the ball uphill, thinking that I can change city’s actions on climate and entrepreneurship.

And here’s the rub, I don’t want to take a break ’cause I’m afraid if I take a break the downhill slide will just get steeper.

All my friends have long ago hung up their spurs and they seem to be having a lot of fun.  I’m jealous as I want to have fun too.  But, I don’t want to have fun enough to let go, or as Michael Corleone said, “Whenever I try to leave, they keep pulling me back in!”  Or something like that.

Air travel is tougher today than ever before.  Consider:

  • The airports are more crowded than I’ve ever seen them.  People are done with COVID lockdowns.
  • Getting a visa  is harder and harder because of health and security concerns.  I filled out a 17 page application to get into Australia and I applied three times to get into India. Often, the process at the airport is show passport/boarding pass at the airport entrance, check-in at the counter (I have not been able to check in digitally for any of my trips), go through immigration, go through security, and go through security again at the gate.  If you’re unlucky, they’ll open your bag at each opportunity just because they can. This is after you’ve gotten a visa, taken a RAT  test, filled out the form that they can use to track your movements in country.
  • You need to take lots of COVID RAT tests to/from a lot of places
  • It’s getting much more expensive.  The airlines are charging for everything.  Want an electrical socket at your seat?  You’ll have to upgrade to the special seats-just-in-front-of-the-cattle-car.
  • The most expensive way to fly is to fly non-stop.  This is especially true when you’re flying to far away places.  Going non stop can cost $5K (coach) vs $2K for the three-hoppers I take.
  • There are no travel agents anymore who can help you. No, one has to get good using Google Flights and the various other travel platforms.  If you make a mistake or want a refund, good luck with that.
  • And now that there’s war in Ukraine, two of my international flights were cancelled because the route came too close to Russian airspace.  But, hey flying over Iran and Afghanistan is fine…

To combat the above, here’s Fred’s rules of the road:

  • Book far out
  • Use Google Flights to ID potential carriers, schedules and prices, then go to each carrier to see if you can get it cheaper direct.  Join every airline’s frequent flyer program that you use.  Same for hotels, etc.
  • Join any airline lounge you can (most only let you in if you’ve reached a certain level of frequent flyer status and/or if you’re traveling on business class or above).  Credit cards — especially AMEX — sometime come with lounge access.  Being comfortable and getting free food during long layovers is worth it.
  • Never check a bag, especially on international trips where there is a stopover as you have to go thru immigration, get your bag, go through customs, re-check your bags, and then go through security.
  • Only use luggage with four wheels (called spinners) and make sure they’re sturdy enough to hold your backpack, etc.
  • Download lots of entertainment as a backup to airline movies
  • If you’re renting a car, don’t go by the $/day quote as rental companies add on different kinds of fees.  So a $50/day car may cost you a lot more than the one listed for $75/day.  Bring proof of insurance so you don’t have to purchase their insurance.
  • Don’t save your airline miles too long as they expire sooner than you think

Here’s what the past month or so looks like in pictures.

INDIA NO.1

Sunrise over a rice field about 200kms north of Kolkata. Days began early and ended lated

Kartikeya, Vinay and Fred about to address an auditorium full of engineering students

An organic farm company’s team retreat in West Bengal. About 70 members of the company attended the retreat.  Pretty cool to see how organic rice is made (hint: not easily)

A sign that says it all

West Bengal has excellent universities and colleges. While their facilities may not be as nice as the US, I found the professors and administrators to be very very innovative. This is how one engineering college teaches.

Lots and lots of selfies. I almost felt like a rock star…until I looked in the mirror.

AUSTRALIA

The “National Clean Tech Conference and Expo” in Brisbane was the first in-person conference I’ve attended in 2+ years. It was a bit early as maybe 200 people were physically there.

The only thing to do at night was eat as it was pouring rain in Brisbane the entire time we were there. This is a Thai restaurant in which robots delivered the order which turned out to be one of the more personable waiters we had in Australia

We rented a car in Cairns (about two hour flight north east of Brisbane) and drove up the coast. This was a pretty amazing scene on the beach with hundreds of cairns.

I came across another huge man-eating turkey in downtown Brisbane. Long story short, KR and I have had some health challenges recently and this shot is in front of a hospital in Brisbane. All turned out well.

INDIA #2

The purpose of my second trip to India was to launch the program we’ve been working on for the past 1 1/2 years: West Bengal Innovation Network. Here the team signs an MOU with the government at the annual Bengal Global Business Summit

Lots of speeches. This one is at the Earth Day Festival on Saturday afternoon on the last day of the trip

We even made it in one of India’s largest newspapers

 

 

This was one of my favorite meetings; a work session with the Director of a Kolkata university designing a curriculum to focus on entrepreneurship.

This is how I got around in West Bengal — in the back of a car/cab. While I don’t think it’s the best way, it is the easiest and safest. You have to practice keeping your eyes open as near crashes with everything from buses to cows happen every minute

Workshops along a street

The everyman’s taxi — tuk tuks.

I tried to do some tourist things during the afternoon of the last day, but couldn’t quite pull it off. The Victoria Memorial only takes cash and I was out. It was nice looking at it through the fence, though. Temperatures hit 103F.

On the way home I stopped in LA, rented a car, and drove to Borrego Springs to attend an annual Boys in the Desert event that’s been going on for x30+ years. This is CB and LJ

New beginnings — LowBuck’s new (rebuilt) engine ready to be inserted. My mechanic in Sandia Park has been working on LowBuck since November…

 

BREAKING NEWS

We made it back to NoHo! After five months away and countless number of winter storms, all seems well at Laguna.

 

First stop is always the Lucky Lizard 

 

Successful heart transplant. Surgeon stands next to LowBuck after resuscitation

 

We go back to PV in five days and then off to Africa at the end of this month.

 

fw

The Corner of Calle Corona & Miramar

Aren’t you afraid to live in Mexico?  Is it safe? What’s it like to live there?  Do you speak Spanish?”   One gets a bit tired of answering the same questions after telling someone that we live in Mexico, but everyone seems curious about life here.  Here’s the short answer: No, Yes, Very Good, and No.  A more descriptive answer requires getting a sense of what day-to-day life is like.  How do I do that?

Hmm.

Watching YouTube videos only gets you the tourist-eye view.  For us, day-to-day life in the El Cerro neighborhood of Puerto Vallarta takes place within steps of the intersection of Calle Corona and Miramar.   It’s just one corner in one neighborhood, so it can’t possibly be representative of life in Mexico.  Or can it?

I guess we need to start with the basics – where and what is Puerto Vallarta? Puerto Vallarta lies on a half-moon shaped bay just beneath the Sierra Madre mountains, in the center of the Bay of Banderas on the Pacific shore of Mexico.  Once a mining town, then a fishing village, and now a major tourist destination, Vallarta attracts Canadian snow birds, gringos, Europeans, inland Mexicans seeking an ocean vacation, cartel members, billionaires in huge yachts, and on-the-run Americans.

Like many Mexican towns, Vallarta is bright and cheery on the outside, but dimly lit below the surface.  It’s essentially lawless on the important stuff. Oh sure, petty crimes are pursued vigorously, taxes are collected, late night parties are sometimes quieted, and speeding tickets are given to many. Yet, for some, laws don’t govern what happens. Condos go up past the height limit with no fuss, people “disappear” with no trace or mention, mayors and governors own monopolies without restrictions (think taxis), and gangsters kill each other in broad daylight with no worry of being caught, let alone punished.  The best way to stay on the bright and cheery side is to make sure you don’t walk on the wild side.

The El Cerro neighborhood of Vallarta clings to the hills above El Centro.  Made up of tiny streets, walkways, alleys, a funicular or two, and an endless number of stairs, it’s the oldest barrio in Vallarta.  Most of the houses – everything from shacks to multimillion dollar villas — are open to the city’s prying eyes.  It’s too hot in Vallarta to live inside, so most of us live in indoor/outdoor houses so close together that one can knows what programs Grandma across the street is watching.

We live in the older, less prosperous section of El Cerro.  Entire generations of Mexican families live in the same adobe house that their ancestors have occupied since the early 1900s.  We know our neighbors and they know us, even though we speak little to no Spanish and they speak little to no English.  We live totally different lives, yet, somehow, we figure things out and take care of one another.

Sprinkled throughout the hood are a few expats like us full-timing it.  While most seem to be retired, there’s a bunch of us working from home. Most expats are not the well-off retirees of Gringo Gulch or Conches Chinas (the equivalent of PV’s Beverly Hills or Brentwood), but rather working class folks who’ve found their place in the sun and a way to make living here sustainable.  Others look to be escaping from something, someone, or some life, keeping a very low profile.  Airbnb has turned this residential neighborhood into an off-the-beaten path vacation destination like almost everywhere else. This gives us a supply of fresh faces walking down the street to check out.

El Cerro contrasts sharply with the neighborhoods either to the north or south.  South across the Rio Quale river is the Romantic Zone, Vallarta’s main tourist playground.  Known as one of the best gay cities in the world, its usually party time any time on its beach, restaurants, bars, and cabarets.  It’s good for a night out as Vallarta has some of the best restaurants we’ve ever been to.

Immediately north of us is 5th of December, named for Mexico’s revolution.  Mostly working class Mexicans sprinkled with working class gringos, it’s the place for hardware, appliances, auto parts, two funeral parlors, and the city’s best street food.

The corner of Calle Corona and Miramar, with its uneven cobblestones below and gordian knot of wires overhead, is the heartbeat of our part of El Cerro.  Accessible from the north only by a street so perilously steep that most neighborhood residents avoid driving up it.   To the south, Miramar’s uneven cobblestones undulate for five or so blocks (is anything level in Mexico?) between its mishmash of houses, apartments, villas, a five-star hotel and our bodega. Despite its narrowness and potholes that require a snail’s pace to not break a wheel, it’s one of the busiest streets in all El Centro as it’s one of only two southbound streets through downtown.

Calle Corona, also a main artery of this hillside enclave, runs uphill from the ocean in the West to the top of the peaks behind our house.  Like most of the streets and alleyways in El Cerro, it converts from street to stairs without much of a warning.  Streets here are so narrow that any wrong turn usually requires backing down as there is no room to turnaround.

All manner of vehicles pass below our living room windows overlooking this corner.  Cars, pickups, SUVs, motorcycles, trash trucks, gas trucks, taxis, police vehicles, ATVs and cement trucks rattle, bark, growl, and squeak by us at all hours of the day and night.  Since our second floor overhangs Corona a bit, neighbors often help larger trucks navigate so they don’t’ take another chunk of the house or one of four telephone poles on the corner.  Our neighborhood is tight.

I’m not sure why, but most buildings in El Cerro are painted white, usually with some color or tile work as trim.  I used to hate it as it seemed so bland, but now I’ve come to like it as all the buildings and streets glow from the ever present sun.  You can’t help but be in a better mood when everything sparkles.  Upon closer inspection, while most houses are white, they are very different because of trim colors, window shapes, tile work, wrought iron railings, etc.   Construction and size also differentiate.  Small brick and adobe houses still squeeze in between newer, larger structures.  A few are continuously “improved” as fast as money allows with new floors, walls and windows slowly popping up.

Our house, “Corona Adobe,” is one of the outliers in the neighborhood.  It’s hard to miss as it sits on the corner, is one of the bigger single family units, and is painted a pale yellow with patches of old abode brick still exposed. Its either a sore thumb or a gem depending on your taste.  It started out as a low, one story adobe home and stable built around 1900.  It became the seventh house on the electrical grid shortly thereafter and pictures of it in the 60s show little change. Around 2000 it was modernized on the inside, retaining its adobe hut look on the outside.

We tripled its size in 2012 adding two floors, a pool and observation deck.  At first, our neighbors viewed us as sinners for demolishing a large part of the original house.  Over time it began to blend in with the neighborhood as did we.  Now, it’s a regular stop on tourist walks through the neighborhood.

Our neighbors immediately to the west are Carmen and Eduardo and their extended family.  By extended, I mean Carmen/Eduardo, their two daughters, their six kids, their grandmother, two tea-cup Chihuahuas and frequent visits from other members of the family.  Their house is two stories not much wider than a one-car garage, crunched in between our house and the behemoth condo next door.  Tight, very tight.

All social activity in the barrio takes place on the street, usually on the steps or sidewalk in front of each house.   It’s also where Eduardo fixes everything from refrigerators, TVs, BBQs, various pieces of furniture and anything that needs to be repaired on his maroon Subaru station wagon.  He has the fullest set of tools in the neighborhood.  The man can fix anything and is a constant source of amazing ingenuity.

Eduardo, Carmen, my wife Karen, and I have shared many tequilas on the stoop in front of their house at all hours of the night.  We speak almost no Spanish and they speak almost no English, but it doesn’t seem to matter, especially after a tequila or two.

Like almost every family we’ve met in Mexico, they’ve been touched by drugs.  Our neighbor’s son was a low level dealer who didn’t come home one night.  Ever. Another son struggles with addiction and no longer lives at home.  Whether it’s a brother, son, uncle, or sister, most everyone in Mexico knows someone who is/was in the drug business.  Gringos think of El Chapo and other horrific cartels when thinking of drug dealers.  That’s not what it looks like at ground level here in El Cerro.

At the next intersection up from our house, which is maybe 50 feet away, dozens of tied together sneakers are thrown over the telephone wires announcing to those in the know that this is a drug dealer’s corner.  Transactions are so subtle that I’ve only seen a couple in the ten years we’ve lived here.  While the transactions may be subtle, the dealers’ presence is not.  Three or four guys are always standing on the corner, either just standing there, or playing their boom boxes, or having one of their frequent parties, or just making noise.

Selling drugs is both subtle and obvious.  A motorcycle will pull up, someone steps off the curb, greets the rider, shakes hands, and then said motorcyclist drives off.  This happens day and night, with cars, pickups, taxis, and police vehicles taking their turn.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the father of one of the dealers is a policeman, hence there isn’t much worry about law enforcement.  This has been happening for ten years.

The Main Man periodically sits on the curb or walks about, sometimes coming down the street to the local look-out point, making sure his presence is known.  He’s not big, he’s pretty good looking, and wears an expressionless look on his face.  I get the vibe that when he gets serious, things get serious.  Now that we’ve known each other for a couple of years his face lights up in a smile and we exchange “Buenos Dias, Amigo” whenever I walk the dogs or drive by.  It’s taken a while, but it’s always good to be “friends” with the Main Man.

Last night I was standing on our 2nd floor balcony looking up and down the street at around 10PM. More than a dozen kids under the age of twelve were running about, with the girls playing with their doll house and the boys either kicking a soccer ball or laughing on the corner below our house.

Just around the corner Elvira was starting up her street cart offering late night tacos to go with cold Coronas.  Elvira’s brother died last week, so a nine-day wake was taking place next to her taco cart, in front of his house.  Literally, families live and die in their houses.   Friends and relatives were milling about for hours, as the sound of prayers and songs were escaping from the house

Music was coming from all directions.  The neighbor’s roosters were crowing in the distance even though it’s night.  We have perhaps a half-dozen or so roosters within shouting distance, who seem to have around-the-clock cock-a-doodle dooling schedules.  Our dealers were entertaining guests, with what looked like a party on the second floor of their place.  Lots of people laughing and moving to the music under the streetlights. The normal assortment of traffic was driving by listening to their radio turned up loud enough to sing along.  This kind of night happens two or three times a week.  Sometimes it ends early, say 11 o’clock or midnight, and sometimes it goes to 7 in the morning.  After a while, it just becomes a background hum.

Life inside the walls of Corona feels like a world apart.  We hear, smell, and see the outside, but it rarely affects our cocoon.

I spend most of my time in my “office” on the third floor.  Most days are spent on Zoom calls with LA, DC, Logan (Australia), West Bengal (India) and several of our 30 members in 14+ countries.   Outside the balcony door to my right is our pool and the hills of El Cerro.  Straight ahead is a window to the Hotel Zone a mile or so away.  There’s a couch in the office too, where the dogs and I take naps.  There are days when I don’t come out except for lunch and dinner.  It’s at once insular to what’s happening in the world and totally connected to the neighborhood.  Sounds and smells remind one where we are.

Little things we take for granted in the States are missing here.   There is no mail delivery.  The phone company and other utilities send messengers into neighborhoods to deliver their bills.  Everyone else calls or texts instead.  The only way to send something to/from the U.S. is FedEx or one of their competitors.

The propane truck comes regularly with a speaker announcing its availability.  Trash pickup happens a couple times a week, but this isn’t your U.S. style trash system.  There are several corners that have been designated as the neighborhood’s trash collection points.  I have no idea why these points were chosen.  There are no trash cans, so we all just drop our trash bags in said area. Then a larger than normal pickup truck comes by and three guys work the trash:  driver, recycling separator and on the trash gatherer.  Its messy, but it happens without a hitch several times a week.  Each corner is spotless after each stop.

Every morning I take Bogart and Squirt for a walk.  All three of us walk carefully on the cobblestones, as we all suffer from tender feet and a lack of coordination.   It’s slow going, much like Mexico.  It gives one the time to ponder, to enjoy, to take in all the sights, sounds and smells of life.  Here’s what I think about on these mornings; its very very good here.  We’re very lucky to be here, to have a style of life that moves and grooves as we do.

So, let’s revisit those four questions.

Aren’t you afraid to live in Mexico?  I never think about it.  We wouldn’t live here if we felt unsafe.

Is it safe?  Yes, just don’t walk on the Wild Side.

What’s it like to live there?   Strangely enough, it feels like family.

Do you speak Spanish?  ¿Puedo tomar otra cerveza Corona, por favor?

The real purpose of this trip was to see if KR and I could get on our m/c horse again after a couple of years away. Our unstated goal was to make it to Catavina, about 400 miles south of the border, to see the extraordinary cacti and rocks in the Baja mountains. We found this horse wandering in the desert though I didn’t try to ride him.  But we did get on our m/c horse again and found our groove.

My strategy for this trip was to recreate our first motorcycle trip to Mexico thirty years ago.  Back then, Karen had never been on a motorcycle, so we didn’t take any freeways south to avoid going over 50mph.  It’s been a while since we were both on the bike so I wanted to ease us into it.  Karen had been giving me the “I don’t really want to go, but I’m not letting you go by yourself” vibes for the prior two weeks.   She didn’t start packing for this trip until the morning we left.  As she pulled on her helmet, she wasn’t a happy camper.

It was probably a blessing that it took me three full days to figure out how to operate our helmet intercoms, hence there was no f___ you’s”coming through the speakers.  Technology hasn’t always been my friend, but in this case silence was golden.

I’ll cut to the chase:  twelve days and 1,700 miles down Baja to Loreto (about 2/3rds of the way down) and then back.  It didn’t take us long to find our groove, both good and bad.  On Day Two we took our obligatory low speed spill, this time in soft gravel as we entered a Pemex station.  Neither one of us felt anything.  NVII just got a few more scratches and we were off.

The road (Mex Hwy 1) has pretty much been transformed into a smooth, Two-Laner snaking  through the desert and mountains, with only a few car-eating pot holes.  Even a Prius could make it: )   I used an incredible amount of restraint in our pace, not going over 80 (OK 85) but once.  Most of the time, I let everyone pass us as we sauntered down the road.  Not too long down the road and I heard my all time favorite sound — Karen “chirping” in the intercom and having a great time talking while seeing the sights. We had found our Rhythm of the Road.  Perhaps it was a bit slower and the days were shorter, but everything else felt exactly the same.

One of the great things when traveling by m/c is the daily routine.  Get up early, have a cup of coffee while packing up, carry all the stuff to the bike and strap it on, and shove off for the day’s sights.  Breakfast is about two hours out and lunch is later.  We typically rolled into our last stop and revered the process.  Unpack the bike, unpack our stuff, get cleaned up, and head out to see the sights and find a Corona.  Rinse and repeat.

Both times we crossed the Border at Tijuana, which is usually the THE border crossing to avoid.  No papers or Temporary Tourist Visa necessary, but I did buy a week’s worth of m/c insurance.  Going down we went through the border and never stopped, probably not going slower than 20 mph as the border to TJ was empty.  Coming north, border traffic was pretty normal, which is to say daunting.  Various Apps were predicting 2-3 hour crossing times.  We did it in 20 minutes from start to finish by splitting lanes and dodging hawkers, cutting back into the line right before the guard stations.  The most difficult thing was not tipping over as the road was greasy and tough to get a grip with my “compact” stems.

We made it to Loreto which is 700+ish miles below the border, after a fairly grueling ride.  No chirping in the helmet on this leg as KR was Done going south:)  We stayed at a very nice hotel, Posada de Las Flores, in the center of town. We decided to spend a second night here as its so nice and I have a bunch of work to get done.  It’s very expensive at…. $103/night US.

The next day we made a U-Turn and headed back up.  We had some really great nights, a few not so great riding segments, and perfect weather for the entire twelve days.  This would be classified as a short trip for us, but I think we’ll look back on it with fondness with the realization we’re still young enough to be doing this kind of stuff: )

Here’s what things looked like so far.

 

There’s not a lot of love beneath the smile as KR suits up before shoving off

Believe it or not, we’d never been to downtown San Diego. It was a happening place this Saturday night and we were very happy to jump in.

Many hotels and AirBnB’s have eliminated human check-ins as a result of COVID. Here KR stands in front of a hotel in Coronado while texting to see if there’s any availability.

Typical small restaurant. This one in San Vincente, which is in Baja Norte’s wine country.

One of my favorite place ever, the Mision Santa Maria Hotel in San Quintin. We first found it 30 odd years ago, and while the name has changed, its pretty much unchanged

View from our room

The beach. See any people?

The beach stretches as far as you can in the other direction as well.

 

Motorcycle Dude needs a Corona at the bar.  I thought it was a look, KR not so much: )

We had a near-death experience, but it wasn’t on the bike, it was in a Mexican cab on the way to this famous old restaurant in San Quintin. The taxi driver was looking at his phone, playing with his kid, and talking with his wife on the 25 minute drive at night down a two-lane road. No one had seat belts.  I couldn’t stop thinking about  f___ing ironic if we got killed in a taxi crash on a m/c trip: )  I finally crawled over the front seat and shouted at him to shut up keep his eyes out front.

One of the coolest places on earth, mountains of Catavina with rocks and cactus

We took a walk down this dirt road/path behind our hotel. The Catavina Desert Inn is a great hotel with pretty shitty staff and an outrageous $30pesos/hr/128MB charge.

The 150miles between Catavina and Guerro Negro going south is pretty desolate with no “real” gas stations in between. Here, we stop at an abandoned Pemex station that is now manned by guys selling gas out of 1 gallon jugs.  A mechanical breakdown out here would not be a good thing.  Of course, NVII does not breakdown unlike his predecessor NVI.

On the other end of the scale, we stay at the Posada de Las Flores Hotel in Loreto for a couple of days. One of the great things about traveling by m/c is the extreme contrasts in surroundings and accommodations one can seek out.

While Loreto is small, its a pretty happening place. This is the town square on a Wednesday night. Bars, restaurants, music and dancing. Like I said, contrasts.

My Loreto office was on the pool deck of the Posada de Las Flores. And people ask me why I use a small computer: )

The next night all the beach hotels in Santa Rosalia were booked (we didn’t know it was Spring Break) so we stayed at this hotel in El Centro. Plastic table worked just fine as my office. Cost per night: $30US

The more mundane part of m/c travel: KR’s one pair of shoes broke, so we went shopping in a zapateria.

Motorcycle Stud. All systems worked well. Karen and I decided that our next m/c trip will be to South Africa this fall.

 

13 days through the west on a motorcycle shows me what Left Coaster Life will be like for the foreseeable future.

KR suited up for battle at Ralphs. I think this was our first excursion to a store. Because we were so young looking, we were shuffled to the front of the line.

Karen and I can’t remember the last time we spent four months together in one place.  Reason — I don’t think we ever have.  For the most recent five years we’ve taken at least 20 trips each and every year.  To almost every continent, by plane, train, ship, motorcycle, RV, car, Tuk-Tuk or any other means available (remember the camels in Egypt and Mongolia?)

It’s been a bit of cold turkey on the travel front.  I tell Karen that we were better together when we were on the road.  Better moods, a chirpiness in her voice, something new every day, meeting strangers that became good, if temporary friends, not having to worry about the mundane things of life and — of course — we’re both addicted to the “What’s around the corner?” disease.

We’ve learn to be “better” together in one place  in a 600 square foot loft in downtown Los Angeles, which we used to refer to fondly as “Factory Place”.   The fondness started to wear off in Month Two.  We were forced, literally, to adapt.  Karen likes to have the TV on all day, which doesn’t really work when I’m on a zoom call six feet away.   Answer:  ear phone plugged into the TV.  I didn’t really have a home office.  Answer:  carve out space in the closet (literally).  I needed a “Zoom Studio,” since I was doing Zoom calls all day, and no one wants to look at a closet as a backdrop (although I’ve seen worse, a lot worse:)  Answer:  Get a bookcase, a rack and some mounted posters to hang in front of the clothes.  Voila: a studio.  Not surprisingly, KR and I are on different biorhythms:  I’m early to bed and early to rise; KR is the opposite.  Answer:  lots of ear plugs and rubber soled shoes.

Corner Office view its not. Instead, its the view of an alley from my Man Closet Office.

NGIN’s business has picked up.  We’re zooming with our members more often (we have 30 members in 14 countries) and we’re getting more calls from cities to help them build out their innovation ecosystems.  All of this is done in front of a Zoom screen, looking out on the alley between Factory Place buildings.  I’m writing more business articles and doing more videos.  I’m starting to watch my social media audience of all things.  These are strange times, indeed.

Evening cocktail sitting in the patio of a closed neighborhood restaurant

A lot of good things happened during our four month stay in our shoebox of an apartment. First, I’ve never eaten better in my life as KR had little else to focus on and we had great meal after great meal.  I shattered my belief that you have to go to the gym to workout.  I started running on our empty streets in place of the treadmill.  Much better. I used the stairs to our second floor as a built in StairMaster. Record: 55 times up 15 steps.  Weights were easy — there are thousands of videos on YouTube to choose from.

We got to know our neighborhood much better as we took Bogart and Squirt for long walks around the Arts District’s warehouses, historic buildings, closed restaurants/bars, and cold storage units.  We barely needed masks as there were few people in a part of the city  that is pretty busy during “normal”  times, but few people actually live here.  We got in the habit of having an eventing cocktail sitting in the patio of one of said closed restaurants.  It was good.

For about two months, and then things …

It rapidly went downhill for KR first.  She’s a passionate, knowledgable, extremely curious gardener.   A couple of pots in front of our door didn’t cut it, no matter how many times I offered to build a garden bench (don’t laugh, I wouldn’t have built it, of course, I would have bought one).   Her day job, that as InnKeeper of our BNB in Puerto Vallarta came to a screeching stop.  Since we weren’t there, it was hard to supervise decorating or repair projects from afar.

Formal dress for a Zoom business meeting

It went downhill for me as well.  We had to cancel our long-planned motorcycle trip to Africa.  We couldn’t even go on shorter trips.  All my races from Formula One to MotoGP were cancelled.  Bars closed.  Restaurants closed.  It got boring wearing shorts and flip flops to work every day.

We needed to do something.  We’d been wanting to get south to PV since early April, but could we get across the border,  could we gas, could we get all the vehicle permits required, is it safe to go anywhere?  We hesitated for about two and a half months.

On June 25th, all four of us climbed into Thor and started the drive south.  We took four days rather than our usual three.  We “camped” in a parking lot in Yuma and on the street in downtown Mazatlan on the way.  Result?   No problems at the border, in fact it was probably the easiest crossing we’ve had. They’d completed a long stretch of the main highway,15D, that has been under repair for the last several years, so the highway was better than ever.  It’s now been a couple of years since they eliminated Pemex’s monopoly, so we could find Shell and Chevon stations all the way down and for once we could use credit cards.  We rolled into PV on a Sunday night, parked the RV in a storage lot outside of town, and by 9PM that night we were having cocktails on the observation deck.

We’ve been in Puerto Vallarta for four weeks now and its a whole new ball game.  As in Wow!

It’s impossible to describe the bliss in going from 600 sq. ft. to 5,400 sf. ft.  For instance, more often than not, I have to yell “Karen, where are you, up or down?” from my office on the third floor.  Each direction offers gardens and all sorts of projects that KR is working on. Simultaneously of course:)

This time at our home is different from all the others.  This isn’t a vacation.  And there are no guests coming, forcing us to migrate to Thor to wait their stay out.   Since we are in middle of three NGIN projects (Riverside, Australia and India),  I couldn’t afford to miss a step during the relocation.  .  Finding reliable, high(er) speed in the El Centro part of Vallarta required getting two 5G lines in the house; one for the first two floors, one specifically to my office on the third.  Since its hot and muggy (87 with 60-ish humidity)in Vallarta, I had to close off and then air condition my office.  Result is that I have a fully functional office for the first time south of the border.   It’s good, very good.

Is it safe in Mexico?  Normally, people ask us this because of the drug cartels.  Now it’s COVID.  Here’s a comparison of relevant data:

Someone once said, “There are three types of lies:  lies, damn lies and statistics!” So, you can make your own conclusions about where its safest.

But the real question is:  “Is it safe anywhere?”  Not any place I can afford.  California is on the verge of a roll back of openness and are some of the other states with significant spikes.  When will this end?  Answer:  we don’t know.

We’re here for the duration.

Here’s what the Lock Down looked like north and south of the border.

 

We were off the coast of Phuket, Thailand right before we flew into the COVID crisis in LA.

Dulling the boredom. KR stocks up on every form of dope before we head south. “Sweet Flower” pot store was pretty sweet and only two blocks from our apartment.

Zoom session on a Sunday with Peter and Cindy.  Corona and tequila shots.  Good times.

Fake News reported the Corona Beer  company was shutting down their plant. 7:00AM next morning I filled the Jag with the best beer with the worst name.

We bought so much stuff at our first Ralphs shopping trip  that we had to put the top down in order to fit it all in: )

Even the Dos Diablos were going stir crazy. A romp around the parking lot had to be a substitute for the beach

 

 

 

 

 

Peter, Cindy, Karen and I dressed for dinner in a pop up burger place in the Arts District

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We went on a picnic with Teri, Steve, Jenny, Bogart, and Squirt.

Bogart helps with the drive as we start south. I’m taking a meeting on the phone.  The larger than normal stomach is an optical illusion caused by the seat belt: )

Thor in the parking lot for a stay over in Yuma. Calm on the outside…

while on the inside, KR is looking where we put the dope on the trip south: )

This is KR the next day: ) Bogart is always there in case Karen needs some help.

My office. A lot better than a desk in a closet, overlooking an alley.

Construction begins almost immediately

We put a sign on the door that was pretty effective. Don’t come into the house without a mask or you’ll end up like the guy in the picture: )

Just an everyday dinner on the top deck: ) The large piece of glass leaning on the side is the only one of four to survive a BIG storm. More on that in a minute.

The neighborhood is pretty much the same except there seems to be a lot more young kids. Homework is done most afternoons on the sidewalk across from our house.

This is what a typical summer PV storm looks like as it gathers late afternoon.

This is what it looks like from the bedroom when it gets going. Winds are so strong that roofs are blown off, furniture gets blown to the street below, and the dogs stay under the bed.

Normal, everyday sunset. It never gets boring.

Local artist painted a portrait of the Dos Diablos over the winter

Bill and Maryann kept us company for the first couple of weeks, then deserted us for the North.

The summer is off season in Vallarta as its hot and humid. Yet, that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. Notice beach is closed.

Walking the dogs around the neighborhood a slightly different experience now.

All things considered, we’re happy campers.  We’ll be here for a while.

fw

From Kazakhstan to Paris, with Mexico, DC, Sacramento and Los Angeles in between.

 

Mongolian Ger on the edge of the Gobi desert was the best “hotel” we stayed in.

 

We’ve been on lots of trips, but this has been like no other.  We flew the equivalent of 1 ½ times around the world, from the warmth of the Coral Sea to the howling winds of Mongolia.  From the sweet sophistication and beauty of Sydney, to the stark grandeur of Kazakhstan’s new capital city, Nur-Sultan.  We’ve walked the streets of the almost tiny Ulaan Baatar’s 1 ½ million people to Beijings’s 20+ million people and everything in between.  We dived on the Great Barrier Reef, 75kms off the Australian Coast, and ridden camels in the Gobi desert eight plus hours from “civilization.” We’ve conducted an “intimate” workshop among 50 people and spoke at global events with thousands of attendees in Central Asia and China.  We’ve talked Big Data, big vision, the impact of the One Road, One Belt initiative on Central Asia and the nuts and bolts of how to build companies. 

We’ve had to buy extra shorts because it was too hot and parkas because it was too cold.  We’ve sipped lattes watching the sun rise over Australia and gulped hot coffee shivering on a stool outside a ger on the Mongolian Steppes.  We’ve slept in cozy boutique hotels, in gigantic conference palaces, on a cot in a ger and in a flea-bag hotel down an alley next to Beijing’s airport.  Along the way Karen fell in love with all-things-Koala (as in the little furry animals); I saw my first giraffe up close and personal; we were just feet away from the most feared animal in the Daintree Rain Forest – the guerilla-sized Cassowary bird; and in China Karen was warned not to make eye contact with the monkeys because they can become vicious.

If you have a bit of time, grab a glass of wine, settle in, and come along on this trip.   It’s five in the morning, I have plenty of time, we’re in Row 59 of 60 conveniently located next door to the head, and just about to cross over the most eastern tip of Russia to Alaska.

Where to begin?

We didn’t know where we were going when we started. It just kind of unfolded as we went along.  I know this sounds crazy for a 13 flight, 35-day, two business conference trip, but it’s the truth. When we got on our first flight to Sydney, we didn’t realize we would have twelve more flights to catch, none of which were booked yet.  Things changed and morphed so often that we almost never knew where we would be staying more than two days out.  I took care of the flights and business stuff, Karen took care of lodgings, eateries and entertainment. 

Our “Itinerary” eventually unfolded to this:

  • Fly to San Francisco, then catch a flight To Sydney
  • Spend a couple of days in Sydney, then
  • Fly to Brisbane for a week of business workshops
  • Fly north to Cairns, gateway to the coast along the Great Barrier Reef
  • Rent a car, drive further north to Port Arthur for a couple of days. Swim on the reef, trek through a rain forest
  • Drive to Palm Cove and just hang in one of the most beautiful beach towns we’ve ever come by
  • Drive back to Cairns, fly back to Brisbane, catch a flight to Abu Dahbi, and another to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan (all in one day)
  • Speak at the Astana Economic Forum and see a bit of Nur-Sultan.
  • Jump a plane to Beijing, miss our flight, spend a night in Beijing, then fly to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia the next day
  • Hop in a Russian knock-off of a VW van and drive 8 hours west into the Mongolian steppes.
  • Spend two nights staying with two different families in Mongolian yurts (called gers)
  • Drive back another 8 hours, spend the night in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaan Baatar.
  • Next day, catch a flight back to Beijing, then meet up with the “Silicon Valley Talks to Big Data Valley” business delegation I’m joining, and all of us fly to Guiyang, China. After  2/12 hours on one of the worst flights we’ve been on, we get to our Guiyang hotel at 2AM.
  • Next morning we’re off to the Big Data Expo and do a panel discussion, some interviews and various other events.
  • Have one free night to explore Guiyang and to my utter disbelief, I actually loved this Tier 4 City of 5M people.
  • At 4:30 this morning we begin the 24+hour sojourn home
  • 35 days, 37,000 miles, 13 flights, 10 airports, four countries, and nine cities.
  • Modes of transportation: plane, subway, catamaran, bus, car, camper van, ferry, camel and a horse

No matter what type of government or place, the rich and powerful live differently than you and me. There can be a pretty stark difference when traveling. One gets a flavor of what it’s like when you’re treated like a VIP in Kazakhstan or China.  In China, we went to an entire “VIP Wing” of the airport where we lounged in a comfortable room (there were about a dozen of these rooms) while visas, boarding passes, luggage, etc. were handled.   In Kazakhstan, we had similar treatment, never having to worry about transportation or travel arrangements of any kind.

KR at the first of ten airports. Red is a good color as its easier to spot her in the stampede to get off the airplane or rushing to immigration.

This pampering contrasted sharply with the more normal brutal experience of long distance travel.  In Beijing’s airport it took us THREE HOURS just to check in and get through all the various immigration, security check(s), customs, etc.  We were lucky to have five hours between connecting flights as we needed most of it.  In a previous flight to Beijing, we missed our connection out of Beijing to Ulaan Baatar. We had to stay in a dirty, stained-carpet, brown-water-out-of the-tap kind of hotel down a back alley close to the airport.  I think we had three 24hr+ travel days that were so long  we couldn’t remember where we had started that morning.  We also broke a record of more than a dozen “fasten your seat belt” notifications on a single flight that was constantly rocking and rolling from Beijing to Los Angeles.

But, as they say, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.  Good, bad, ugly and horrible coincide with the great, breathtakingly beautiful, and the wondrous that is long distance travel.  We had no major mishaps, we lost nothing important, we made all of our meetings, and walked away from every flight.

We’ll be ready to go again, soon.

Australia

 The Cliff Notes Version:  Go. Beautiful, clean, friendly, the most “like us” place we went, high standard of living and quality of life.  It’s all about the outdoors, whether “the bush,” the beaches or the Great Barrier Reef.  Sydney is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to (physically reminds me of SF). Write this down:  Palm Cove, north of Cairns.  It’s just a great little beach town.

What We Did:  Sydney Zoo, traipse around Sydney, toured the Sydney Opera House, watched a Memorial Day parade, went to the Great Barrier Reef, took a tour in the Daintree Rainforest, went to a immaculately preserved mining town from the 1800s, various animal sanctuaries, swam in the ocean, a rain forest river and a pool.  Goes without saying we hit lots of bars and restaurants

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR). The GBR is north of Brisbane along hundreds of miles of coast and is THE place to go.  We took a catamaran from Port Douglas 75 kilometers to a part of the reef where this company had a giant pontoon boat anchored.  Think beautiful ocean, snorkeling, bars and food.  Spent an entire day along with 300 of our closest friends snorkeling and “ocean walking.”  No question though, the GBR is in trouble.  Rather than a cascade of underwater colors we all see in pictures, it is gradually turning brown, then bleached white as it slowly dies.  Yes, its all about the water temperature and climate change.  Yet, snorkeling over the GBR for a couple of hours is my most vivid memory of the trip.  It was an out of body experience that I will never forget. 

Animals: Seeing lots of animals has never been on my list of great things to do; seeing lots of animals is one of Karen’s favorite things to do.  Guess what happened?  Within 24 hours of landing in Sydney, we had hit its world-renowned zoo.  Karen fell head over heals for the fuzzy little Koala bears.  It was my first time seeing a giraffe up close and personal.  The tigers just kind of looked at you wondering which one of us was for dinner.  Kangaroos. Wallabies.  Tasmanian Devils, and on and on and on.  A couple of days later we were gliding down a river in the Daintree Rain Forest looking for crocodiles, which we found plenty of (KR even went to a Croc ranch).  I’ve never been to so many animal sanctuaries in my life:  butterflies, said Koalas, rain forest animals, etc., etc.  By the time we left Australia, I was thinking of starting an Animal Picture Book.

Cairns, Port Douglas and Palm Cove. These are all beach towns along the north Queensland coast.  All can get you to the GBR.  I hated our one day and two nights in Cairns.  Couldn’t find a decent bar or restaurant.  Tourist Trap.  Port Douglas is a wonderful little village that is probably the main jumping off point for the GBR.  Very charming.  Maybe a dozen or so of restaurants.  Served as our headquarters while seeing everything.  Palm Cove.  Literally, the minute I stepped out of our car I knew I loved this place.  Tiny. Right on the beach. Palms blowing in the wind.  Swimming.  IF we ever get back to Australia, I’m going back to Palm Cove.  I wanted to stay two weeks, not two days.

Big love. KR finds her favorite animal. I think she visited 3 or 4 parks/zoos that had Koala bears.

My first giraffe. Bigger in real life and pretty neat to see them start trotting.

“Hmm, whats for lunch? That guy in the bright shorts looks good. Can you please pass the salt?”

Karen went to a Croc Ranch. I passed on this exciting event. I like my crocs further away

Sydney Darling Harbor. Sydney probably has a dozen or so harbors

Sydney is a city of ferries. We’re on one underneath Sydney Harbor bridge.

Inside the Sydney Opera House, which was pretty spectacular from any angle.

View of same from a ferry

Man ready to challenge the elements. About to jump in and snorkel around the Great Barrier Reef.

Picture does not do it justice. One of the most iconic images I’ll remember from the trip. We’re about 50 miles off the coast of Australia, just 20 or so feet above the Great Barrier Reef. Cool, very cool.

We were all alone on the reef. Not. A couple of hundred people took a two hour ride on a catamaran to get to this pontoon boat. Among other things, this floating barge had a bar, restaurant, “divers lounge,” etc. Despite all the people, this was a great experience.

Glass bottom boats are a good way to see what’s underneath the surface while staying dry. Provided you can get over the claustrophobia feeling and the lack of seaworthiness of the boat. KR and I also “walked on the ocean floor” using air-filled helmets.

This is what I do. The workshop at Logan City.

This is work also. Dinner with some of the folks from Logan City’s innovation group at a restaurant in Brisbane.

No worries. Various friendly warnings about anything that moves on land or water.

Sure, I’m going to just stroll along this beach, knowing that a croc could jump out from the left or crawl out from the right. Australia is a very relaxing place in May

This is my preferred distance to the beach.  I can see the crocs as they come on shore.  It does not get any better than this when it comes to offices. My office in Palm Cove.

Running on the beach at sunrise in Palm Cove. I figured the crocs couldn’t catch me ’cause I’m too fast

I don’t get it. What’s the problem? KR was embarrassed to be seen with me in this outfit.

 

Kazakhstan

Why/Where/What is it. It’s in the part of the world called Central Asia.  Think all of the countries between Russia and China and you’ll get the general idea.  Kazakhstan was a Soviet controlled country until the collapse of the USSR in ’90.  Now it’s an independent country with strong cultural and business ties to Russia.  Nur-Sultan is the capital created just 20 years ago in the northern part of Kazakhstan.  Recently changed its name from Astana to Nur-Sultan, after the “First President” who is still the only President.  I was invited to speak on a panel at the Astana Economic Forum about “Building Innovation Ecosystems.  The AEF takes place at the 2017 Expo park built in 2017 to house a world expo that attracted more than 100 countries.   It’s a truly spectacular place, built on a grand scale with some of the most stunning architecture I’ve ever seen.  Unfortunately, it’s on the outskirts of Nur-Sultan with nothing in walking distance but a US-style mall.  Nur-Sultan is one of the two coldest capital cities on earth.  Temperatures get down to -30F with 50 mph winds in the winter.  BTW, the other coldest capital city is Ulaan Baatar, our next stop: )

The People/Culture:   Aside from looking different from Karen and I, most everything else was relatable.  People in every city (towns are another story) dress pretty much the same, they buy the same (American) branded merchandise, and do the same things.  Babies cry. Girls giggle.  Boys run around. Boyfriend and girlfriend hold hands.  Families take selfies.  While many of the restaurants looked the same, the food was something other-worldly as I had my first piece of Horse Meat and sipped some Camel’s milk.  It’s reassuring to know that one can get a Corona almost everywhere: )

The Physical Place:  We only saw parts of the 20-year new capital in the northern part of Kazakhstan, which is in the middle of the Kazakhstan steppes.  Weather changed pretty rapidly from 35ish to 65ish in 24 hours.  It’s the wind however that makes the biggest impression.  Even in the summer, the plane was rocking and rolling on our approach to Nur-Sultan. 

There is a “grand vision” nature to all the  architecture we saw.  Buildings are built for scale, huge in size and shape.  Style is hard to describe, something between over-the-top Vegas and Eurasian.   Even in early summer, there isn’t much green yet around.  The one exception to all of this is…  a shopping mall which looks and feels like a shopping mall anywhere.

View of Nur-Sultan from the 2017 Expo Sphere

It rained for 30 minutes while we were in Nur-Sultan.

View from the Astana Opera House.

View from our hotel window, the 2017 Expo Sphere. The entire campus is architecturally brilliant. There are eight floors in the sphere, each one an expo of a specific type of renewable energy.

The opening ceremony of the Astana Economic Forum

The Astana Economic Forum opening session. The AEF is the largest, most important conference in Central Asia.

Just another TV interview in another city…: ). I’m told we made it on the major news channel in Nur-Sultan.

This is the indoor campus of the main university in Nur-Sultan. Everything is connected with inside courtyards, passage ways, etc. It gets cold, real cold.

Karen tries a hookah in a Kazakhstan night club. One of our hosts, Zahssulan, gives Karen pointers. Smoking hookahs is one of the things KR liked about Kazakhstan.

Drinking camel’s milk less so. Camel’s milk is a delicacy, but a taste that is acquired over time.

Saule, our host, and KR in the lobby of the Astana Opera House. We went to a piano concert which was very entertaining. Afterwards, we went to dinner and Karen had the above camel’s milk and I had to have more Horse Meat: )

AEF Gala Dinner included local entertainment. These guys were very good.

Immediately after this picture I went across the street to the mall and bought a coat. Temperature was one thing, wind is what really gets you.

 

 

Mongolia

Since we had three days between the end of Kazakhstan and the beginning of the Chinese leg,  we thought we’d see what Mongolia’s like.  After all, it was half way…

Not exactly on the way:). We needed to get from Kazakhstan to Guiyang, China (lower western part of China), so we thought Mongolia was on the way (not). We ended up flying from Kazakhstan to Beijing to Mongolia to Beijing to Guiyang and back to Beijing for the flight home.

The Cliff Notes Version: We flew into Mongolia’s capital, Ulaan Baatar in the upper eastern part of the country, hired a guide and driver, and then proceeded to spend the next two and a half days going west into the Mongolian steppes and Gobi desert.  We spent two nights with two different families sleeping in Mongolian gers.  We rode camels, horses, and had a cocktail sitting next to a goat.  We watched a real Mongolian BBQ get cooked and huddled around a cup of coffee sitting out side in the “brisk” Mongolian morning.  We learned about Genghis Khan and how Mongolia dominated the world around 1200 BC.  We spent our last night in Ulaan Baatar doing what tourists do — shopping.

The Nomads and Herders of Mongolia: By far and away the most amazing thing was to experience/see how most Mongolians outside the city live.  They are called nomads for a reason.  The easiest way to describe them is to understand that they aren’t farmers or ranchers in our sense of the word, but rather “herders.”  Most have up to five different herds of animals — goats, cows, horses, sheep, camels for example — and no fenced in land to graze.  Instead, they “herd” each type of animal throughout each day, moving from one pasture to another.  They do this on horseback and (the younger generation) on motorcycles with the help of a dog.  It starts at sunrise and goes on past sunset. 

They’re nomadic because they literally move their gers each season.  They plan these moves very carefully, relocating to particular pastures for specific reasons.  They usually have a winter place that has a more permanent structure for the family and animals, still primitive. 

A typical family (BTW, that means the extended family of mom, dad, grandparents, brothers, grandkids) might have 2-3 gers, a small Russian truck, a motorcycle, and all the things that might go in them.  They can put up a ger and fully furnish it in one hour, which seems impossible when you see how they’re constructed and what’s inside one.   Each ger has a couple of hard cots, a stove in the center, a couple of wooden dressers to store stuff, plastic table and chairs to eat and sit at, and…. a flat screen TV which is powered by a couple of solar panels stuck in the ground with a couple of wires running to a car battery inside.

There is no running water, no indoor plumbing, no “trash collection,” etc.   Everything is carried in, grown, harvested or carried out.   Usually in the truck, motorcycle or horse.

As you would expect, mom takes care of the food and house, dad, grand dad and son take care of the animals.  If they have breakfast, its very very early in the morning before starting to move the herds.  Dinner takes place around 6 or 7, after which they prepare the animals for night.  During the night one can hear lots of conversation and laughing.  Vodka is the preferred drink.

While the herder life wouldn’t be characterized as civilized by those of us living in cities, especially cities in the West, I’m not so sure it is not civilized in the usual meaning.  These folks have a close relationship with each other, the land and their animals.  They eat what they grow or can find.   There isn’t a lot of time for things that aren’t work related, but once again, they seem to be a happy bunch.  No one punches a clock, no one take orders, no one has the stress of a deadline.

 

Without a doubt the highlight of the trip was staying a couple of nights with herder families in gers. This is before dinner cocktails, on a couple of stools, watching the kid play.  Dog is at our feet.  Her uncle is in the background.

Our ger is on the left. This family moves four times a year. They had just set up their summer camp before we arrived. It took them an hour to set these up.

Inside. Grandma watches grandchild play at the “dining room” table. The mother’s brother plays with the youngest child in the background.

Even Mongolian Nomads need some basics: solar panels, battery, inverter, satellite dish and flat screen TV. These are apparently more important than running water and indoor plumbing.

Ever since the idea of going to Mongolia came up, KR has been dreaming of staying with a family in a Mongolian yurt. Here she sits at the dining room table of our abode.

Taking a sip of Mongolian Fire Water.

This is what a Mongolian hangover looks like. It seemed like a good idea at the time…

This is Grand Dad just before sunset. Hes riding out to move his herd of cows.  He’ll move them again at 5:30AM

Mom and oldest child. Dad was nowhere to be found, but she has the support of her extended family. All in all, Mongolian herders seem to be a happy lot.

Little did I know they were waiting for me: ). Mongolian camels are shorter than Egyptian camels with much longer hair.

And into the Gobi desert we go!

We drove EIGHT HOURS west into the Mongolian steppes from the capital. This is an example of the very occasional tiny town we came upon.

Basically, its 8 hours of this

We arrive at the second family’s “house,” On the left is our 4WD Russian knock-off of a VW van. Not very fast. Not very comfortable. But it took us everywhere.

This family’s summer camp is overlooking a valley in the steppes. Structure on the right is a permanent shelter for animals when it gets cold.  Look hard enough and you’ll see a river than runs through the valley.

Mongolian BBQ before our eyes. This was about a two hour process not counting killing, skinning and chopping up the lamb.  She’s putting hot coals directly on the meat before letting it simmer for a while.

This is dad waiting for dinner. This is about 6PM. After dinner, the son gets on a small m/c and rides over the hills and brings the sheep/goat herd home. Then everyone herds the sheep/goats into the corral to separate the mothers from the children. That way, the mothers will produce milk for the farmers. Only after all of this is done do they settle in for the night. Repeat the next day at 5:30.

Dinner is served. Only utensil used are knives.

After dinner round up.

All the animals were pretty friendly. This goat reminds me of Bogart, our Westie.

Trying to remain warm, awaiting dinner. I bought the jacket in Nur-Sultan, but would have frozen you know what off if I didn’t have it in Mongolia.

This is a Mongolian outhouse.  This particular model comes up to one’s chest.  Notice the missing plank in the floor?  There will be no reading a magazine while doing #2 here.  I count my blessings that I didn’t fall in, drop anything, or miss the target.  The idea of using a Mongolian outhouse several times a day is daunting, perhaps even frightening.  In summer, it’s a doable but carefully planned endeavor.  I can’t imagine using one in the winter: ))

We spent one night in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia’s capital city of 1.5M people (there’s only 2.5M in all of Mongolia). It strikes me that even in the furthest city I can think of, everyone is much the same. Here a young lady crosses the street and you wouldn’t know where she lives without this caption.

The Prius Capital of the World. I’ve never seen so many Prius’ in one place. It seemed that 1/2 of all cars were Prius’! This is a good thing as Ulaan Baatar is one of the most polluted cities in the world. During the winter, they burn anything/everything to keep warm.

 

China

The Cliff Notes Version. I was asked to speak on a panel at China’s largest Big Data conference on the future of work and cities, all of which I know little or nothing about.  Who was it that said, “Often wrong, but never in doubt”?  That’s my motto in these situations: )  Anyway, I was a part of the “Silicon Valley in Dialog with Data Valley” delegation to this conference in Guiyang, China, which is a rather small (5M) 3rd or 4th Tier City in Southwest China.  It was a hit and run kind of event since we literally flew in at 2AM on Saturday and flew out at 7AM on Monday.

Boaz making a presentation on the future impact of technology on city governments.

The group included entrepreneurs, futurists and forward-thinking folks from government and business.  It turned out to be a really good group, we did a couple of really interesting panel discussions and had a fun time exploring Guiyang on the last night.  Even though they were from Germany,  SF and LA, we all kind of clicked.

Guiyang and China:. I have very conflicted feelings about China and the Chinese folks I’ve met. I’ve been to China 2-3 times previously, but only to the Tier 1 cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. While Hong Kong is pretty and interesting, I’m not too enamored with Beijing and Shanghai, mostly because of the depressing pollution and the always-present oversight of the Chinese government.  Everything about China’s government is pretty antithetical to us Americans.  But, that’s probably MY problem as most of the Chinese people I see and interact with seem pretty happy.  This is a much longer discussion for a different time, so let’s just say that much of China’s way of governing isn’t for me.

So it was pretty surprising when I fell in love with the city of Guiyang!   It’s mountainous, green, has at least one river running through it, and is pretty interesting architecture wise.  Its the first night out that I’ve had in China that I wasn’t totally aware that we were in China.  It seemed like just another city in some part of the world where the language and visual sightings were different, but the rest felt comfortable.   I tried more “real” Chinese food this trip than in all my previous trips combined and liked most of it.  I even saw KR try a piece or two:)

This report wouldn’t be complete without at least one picture of the 10 airports we visited. This is Beijing’s airport, which we visited four times.

Big Data conference was….big.

Just like an airplane, you want to be in the leather. The closer to the front, the more VIP you are. We were relative VIPs, sitting a couple of rows back with our own name plates, etc.

Remember the dining room table in Mongolia? This was the table setting for the Big Data Gala Dinner a couple of nights later: ). Once again, we didn’t make the main table as we sat off to the side in the kiddies table.  But it was interesting to see.

More typical setting: “Lazy Susan.” The good news is that you can wait for the dishes you like to come around again. The bad news is that just keep coming around. Great food the entire visit.

Quick shot out the back of a building into the yards of nearby apartments. This shot does not do Guiyang justice, but I’ve never seen a shot like this is Beijing or Shanghai with so much green.

This isn’t typical either, but real none the less. Our last night was spent exploring the night life of Guiyang.

The Big Data crew. Karen, Chris, Boaz, Zak, Catherine, Dave and yours truly. This is a bar off a back alley that we happened on while looking for a taxi.

I will leave you with this picture of some children in front of a statue of Mongolia’s #1 Dude: Genghis Khan.  Around 1200 BC, Genghis ruled much of the known world. Now, Mongolia is just a blip on the geographical map. Same for the Roman Empire.  It strikes me that we’re all very temporary. The US has been dominant for the past 100 or so years. Maybe China will be in the next hundred or so?  Nations have always been fighting and conquering each other. Yet, the more we travel far and wide, the more I’m convinced that we’re more alike than we are different. Most of us live with governments that rarely touch our day-to-day lives, work day to night to eat and prosper, and raise our families.  City dwellers in Ulaan Baatar have more in common with city folk in Brisbane than those living on the steppes of Mongolia.  As a famous Los Angeleno once said, “Can’t we all just get along?”  I hope so.

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far!   You’re probably as tired as we were.

Until the next time.

fred