Much of my travel these days takes me back to places I’ve already been. The past couple years I’ve made repeat visits to UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Singapore, Saudi, Germany, Austria, Chile, Mexico. There’s a certain confidence that springs from familiarity: you cross the immigration checkpoint and walk the foreign streets with a comforting foreknowledge.
The past couple years I’ve also had the singular experience of arriving in several countries for the first time: Uganda, Kenya, Seychelles, New Zealand, Finland, Bolivia. A country moves onto the “places I’ve visited” list only once, of course, and the physical act that allows for this designation is a small but memorable sequence — the final set of doors opening from the airport, stepping onto the curbside outside the international arrivals terminal, and ahhh…. breathing in fresh outdoor air after hours of indoor air only.
There’s actually quite a bit you learn about a country in the first 10 minutes. You notice the ethnicities of the local staff waiting in the jetway to wheelchair out of the plane those needing extra assistance: that ethnic group is usually the ethnic group that runs the hourly wage part of the economy. You notice the norms around how locals exit off an aircraft and queue in immigration lines — the orderliness or lack thereof, which predicts for rule-following norms writ large. You notice the degree to which local taxi drivers try to hustle and scam you, respecting tout laws or not. You notice how nice the airport bathrooms are — your first glimpse at the wealth of the country.
Recently, I arrived in Bolivia for the first time. It was actually an overland crossing, which is rare for me. When we drove from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile into Bolivia, the first person to greet us — before even having arrived at the immigration checkpoint — was a tour guide woman who was waiting for someone else. Nonetheless, she flashed a big smile and exclaimed: “Welcome to Bolivia!!!” It was such a personality contrast from the Chileans who guided us until that point. Chile is a country I adore and lived in for close to a year but no one would characterize Chileans as jovial. Bolivians, in direct contrast, bubble with energy and friendliness. (At least it’s true of those who work in the hospitality industry in Bolivia.)
The immigration crossing itself into Bolivia also provided instant insight. Our guide escorted us to the immigration checkpoint which was stationed in a tent which was stationed on a dusty unpaved road at 14,000 feet elevation. He then “suggested” we offer the border patrol officer an extra $20 USD, personally, as a thank you for processing our visa-on-arrival so quickly. We did so, with gratitude. Yay for old fashioned hospitality and generosity!
Bolivia is a uniquely beautiful place. To be sure, we didn’t see La Paz or anywhere outside of the area immediately across from northern Chile and the Uyuni salt flats. But the desert wilderness near the salt flats, and the salt flat itself, is truly spectacular. I’ve seen many incredible mountain ranges, beaches, churches, mosques, rivers, skyscrapers, waterfalls, deserts, open savannahs, etc. The truth is many of those can blur together in your mind — they are remarkable but not totally distinct from other remarkable insatiations of that same thing somewhere else in the world. But, I’ve never seen anything like the Uyuni salt flat.
Finally, who knew Bolivia is one of the world’s largest exporters of quinoa, arguably the second best grain after farro? Quinoa fields as far as the eye can see.
I could see Bolivia breaking out and becoming a top tourist destination in the coming decade. More luxury hotels will proliferate, and the salt flat — in all its Instagrammable glory — provides the ultimate draw.
Lawrence Wright, a writer I’ll read no matter the topic, has new piece in the New Yorker “The Elephant in the Courtroom” that explores whether an elephant in the Bronx zoo should be granted personhood legal rights. It’s a fascinating deep dive into the state of animal rights more generally. And it includes sentences like the following which will tug at the heart of anyone who has one:
Orcas have no natural predators, other than humans, and yet one population in the Pacific Northwest is critically endangered—at last count, it had only seventy-three residents. They are threatened by overfishing, pollution, and noise disturbance from boats that interferes with echolocation, which they use to forage. A new calf was born in 2018—thought to be the first in three years—but lived for less than a day. The grieving mother, surrounded by other females in her pod, carried the calf’s body with her for seventeen days, across a thousand miles of ocean. It would be going too far to say that the mother knew her loss was a step toward the extinction of her community, but it might also be going too far to say that she didn’t.
I’ve become a lot more interested in these topics over the years. As Wright points out, as pet ownership has boomed in America, our natural affinity towards animals has risen in turn. Having a dog myself (his name is Oreo and he is very good, as you can tell from the photo below) has certainly made me more attuned to the potential richness of the inner life of animals, more sympathetic to animal rights causes, more interested in learning more about endangered species around the world.
Social media has also magnified scenes of animals at their best and perhaps caused a greater attention to animal welfare. We can’t get enough of cute animal pics and videos which go viral on the regular on TikTok and Instagram and the like — especially if it’s two different species of animals who have become “friends”. I find myself frequently binging on Instagram reels of dogs.
But the most likely transformative event in one’s journey toward love of animals is visiting them in the wild. Recently, I was lucky to visit many endangered animals in the wild in some unforgettable places:
Arabian oryx in the deserts of UAE, which have an interesting conservation story. (By the way, the Al Maha hotel is pretty spectacular and an easy 60 minute Uber ride from downtown Dubai.)
Mountain gorillas in Uganda. Two days of trekking to visit with two different families of our closest cousins. Worth doing if you’re under ~50 years old — strenuous hikes, but unforgettable. And there are only 1000 mountain gorillas left in Uganda/Rwanda/Congo.
Various epic wildlife in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, including black rhinos. (If you haven’t already read Sam Anderson’s amazing piece about the last Northern White Rhino, you should.)
Dizzying array of fish and coral in the Seychelles islands
So many beautiful scenes. And also so many tragic stories of poaching and human-caused destruction of natural habitat. I hope to learn more in the years ahead and learn how to make a positive difference.
I’ve become quite taken with saunas recently — primarily dry, wood paneled saunas, but I’m not unhappy with steam rooms. I find myself more relaxed after a deep sweat; I also think it helps me sleep better. Taking a cold plunges after a hot sauna is especially effective at lifting my energy level in the hours following. Cold showers can serve a similar purpose. A friend once advised to “breathe” in the cold plunge if you feel like the cold is overwhelming. When the cold starts to feel too much, just keep breathing.
(For my interest in sauna, I must credit, in part, Bob Wright, for his encouragement here and for spreading the good gospel of sauna as spiritual practice over at BloggingHeads.TV.)
Over Christmas and New Year’s this year, I traveled through Munich, Zurich, Istanbul, and Ankara with friends and family. By some good luck, we ended up sampling a range of saunas that were just the thing for cold winter days in Europe.
In Germany, we went to the Therme Erding sauna complex just outside Munich, the second largest sauna complex in all of Europe. 4,000 visitors per day. 35 different saunas and steam baths. And dozens of different pools. It’s truly massive. You pull your car into a multi-level above ground parking garage that’s situated next to what appears to be an enormous mall and dome structure.
The adults-only sauna facility is in its own area within the compound. Unlike the kids waterslide area, teeming with children sprawling and splashing about, the sauna area is more quiet, more refined, and… completely nude. And co-ed. People wear towels and robes while walking around; inside each sauna or steam room, they sit on their towels. No bathing suits allowed. I saw more naked humans in a couple hours than at probably any other time in my life. Within a few minutes, the weirdness wears off, and truth be told it was kind of relaxing to be free of constraint or squeeze. The downstairs area, with its low ceilings and narrow, cave-like walls meant people were slinking past each other in the nude to get to their preferred destination. Through it all though, a remarkably wholesome atmosphere. No funny business in sight.
There was excellent variety across the 35+ different offerings. The traditional dry saunas varied in temperature, humidity, scent, and setup: some were in dungeon like underground caves, others were in huge glass paneled amphitheaters. The steam rooms offered the opportunity to scrub yourself in salts before entering. The outdoor thermal pools allowed you to float along with your head exposed in outdoor frigid winter air. An assortment of different jacuzzi-style jets were placed along the pool walls along with some built in “chairs” that you could lounge in with special jets propulsion. Nearby to all this was an outdoor cold plunge. Going from hot water to cold always revs the engines; especially so when the temperature in the air upon getting out of the cold plunge is also freezing.
In Zurich, we went to the Thermalbad. This is a chain of spa facilities throughout Switzerland; supposedly the Zurich location is the finest. It’s a beautiful, modern facility designed like Roman cisterns built inside of an old Zurich brewery building. As opposed to choose-your-own-adventure, this places encourages a sequential process whereby you start in Station 1 and end in Station 12, with signs suggesting the amount of time to spend in each station. It starts with a lightly warm steam, followed by a sequence of differently heated pools, then some hotter steam rooms and scrubs. My favorite pool was the “classic Roman pool” where the depth and temperature made it feel like I could almost float effortlessly, as in a sensory deprivation pod. Very relaxing. One station had me lie on my back on slightly warm stone floor, which I’ve never done before.
A TripAdvisor review of Thermalbad notes, “It’s a lot of money to spend to watch couples basically all but have sex.” That seems off. I didn’t witness anything X-rated, and this place, unlike the one in Germany, was all clothed. Even the locker room had curtained “changing areas” for changing into bathing suits. The Swiss: as buttoned up as ever.
Elsewhere in Zurich, we went to a neighborhood gym/community center that offered a large indoor pool for swimming, plus a medium size thermal pool that offered a range of jets and suggested a rhythm to the water massage. Every minute or so a light would flash (like one of those rotating lights on the top of a cop car but adhered to the side wall) to indicate it was time to move to the next set of jets. With each move in jet, the pressure moved up the body, from hitting your legs at first and ending with your upper shoulders. The propulsion of the jets — the forcefulness with which the water hit you — was intense. I’ve never felt jets pulse water so hard. Nor have I seen such precise instructions offered about when it’s time to switch to the next jacuzzi jet. The Swiss: as punctual as ever.
In Istanbul, we went to the Cagaloglu hamam — a 300 year old facility. Not quite as tourist-famous as the hamam next to the Blue Mosque where we went 5 years ago but just as ornate on the inside. The male and female experiences differ here. As I reported five years ago during my first trip to Istanbul, men receive quite a beating. Your therapist slaps you around, pulls your arms in every which way, attempts light weight chiropractiory, and with no warning, dumps buckets of hot water over your head. It’s fun and worth it but anyone with tender shoulders or backs should beware. I told my therapist at one point to be more careful of my back, and he replied, “Relax.” It turned out that that was the only word in English he spoke. Women, reportedly, experience a much gentler set of scrubs. Unlike the hamam in Morocco, the Cagaloglu hamam in Istanbul does less loofa scrubbing. There’s not the stunning pile of dead skin at the end of it. But you’re still relaxed and alert.
All in all, there’s great sauna culture in Europe. Lots of relaxing fun. And I haven’t even to Finland yet… that’s going to be its own trip!
I’ve been meaning to go back to Burning Man ever since my 24 hour stint four years ago. But each year since then, a few months before the event I’d start doing my research and quickly become overwhelmed by the complexity of it all: Finding a ticket, finding a camp, figuring out transport, etc.
This year, I was fortunate to find a last minute ticket and camp via a friend (under 10 days before the start!), so I pulled the trigger, spent more money than is probably rational, and managed to squeeze in three full days on the playa. It wasn’t the full week experience but it was enough time that I feel like I have a richer and more accurate understanding of the Burning Man project.
Here were my impressions from my first trip — about awe, hardship, and values.
Overall impression this year: A good time! A couple highlights followed by other smaller scale impressions:
Late night bike ride to the temple
At 10pm one night, the guys in my RV and I went to a dance party, which was fun and populated with people I knew, but after an hour I realized it was like any other dance party (except worse because it was only electronic dance music!). Yet the rest of the playa boasted only-in-Burning Man art and people and crazy costumes.
So I bailed on the party and went to find my bike to go explore.
To combat the nighttime gusts of wind and playa dust, I wore goggles over my eyeglasses. In general, dust-in-eyes challenged me more than dust-in-mouth, so I wore goggles more than my mask. A friend helped strewn flashing lights on my bike. On my body, I wore white basketball shoes, tall green teenage mutant ninja turtles socks, long white tights as underwear, cat shorts, a cheap fur vest over my open chest, an Arabic style scarf wrapped around my neck that I could pull up to cover my mouth when needed, and colorful flashing bracelets wrapped around my upper arm. Finally, a headlamp to guide my way. Don’t bike at night without a headlamp.
I proceeded to bike solo around the playa from 11pm – 2:30am. I passed art cars firing blames of fire out of pipes, I passed stationary sound camps blasting thumpin’ EDM for the enjoyment of revelers who were likely enjoying an LSD trip in turn, and hundreds of other cyclists randomly meandering the playa. As I went further out into the desert and away from the formal camps, I stumbled upon the temple, a regular structure on the playa (newly and differently built each year) where people write mini-obituaries onto the walls and tape photos of loved ones who died in the past year. Here’s more about the temple and a short 5 min video overview.
In the front of the temple this guy, a guy was playing on a full sized piano. He was hitting the keys, but it was silent to the naked ear. I took in the sight: a guy, caressing a piano, in front of a temple — enveloped in a desert at 1am. I routinely tried to remind myself that nothing I was seeing was in any way normal: recognize the absurdity and then let it give way to awe… Anyway, a woman in front of the temple was handing out wireless headphones. I put a pair over my ears, and in beamed the live sounds of the piano player in front of me. I walked through the temple, hearing the piano music in my ears, and started reading the obits. Some postings were quite moving. I was especially taken with the love letters that people posted to their now-deceased dogs. I spent an hour reading, absorbing, resting, and reflecting at this beautiful monument erected to honor past lives. Really touching.
On morning #3, I woke up at 4am and headed out on bike to deep playa, near the small fence that represents the outer border of Burning Man territory within the vast, identical desert that’s all federal land. It was about a 30 minute bike ride from my RV to the outermost fence of the playa.
By 4:45am or so, I noticed the “first light” as the sun ever-so-slightly woke up, and by 5:30/6am it was a full sunrise serenade, in which I saw the glowing ball rise up from the ground above the desert landscape, in a matter of minutes it transformed pitch darkness to perfect brightness. After another 30 minutes, that clear, crisp brightness settled into a shiny, blistering brightness that persisted for the remainder of the day.
Many people had assembled to watch the sunrise. You could tell who had stayed up all night versus the people who just woke up early, like me. People’s attire varied: Some were dressed for the chilly night, some were dressed more modestly knowing that by 8am it’d be hot as hell and you wouldn’t want to be lugging around a heavy jacket in the sun. And of course one couple near me was fully nude, both man and woman, the man sitting and hugging his partner from behind to stay warm.
Tycho, the electronic music artist (who I ended up meeting again in the airport flying home later in the day), DJ’d a set of “sunrise” music, and people danced. From there, we wandered over to the 747 — half of a real-life 747 airplane stationed in the desert — where there was more music being played, and being dancing and milling about outside the aircraft.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve been awake for and consciously attended to a sunrise. While it wasn’t a kind of spiritual experience for me in the way others have described it at Burning Man, I’m glad to have done it. Definitely memorable.
Some other scattered impressions:
Bike is a game changer. First time around, I had no bike. This time, I had a crappy, way-too-small-for-me bike, but it worked. Being able to do what 99% of people at Burning Man do — bike around the playa — unlocked all sorts of new experiences. Next time I’ll try to get an electric bike.
Scheduled workshops/sessions. I didn’t go to any scheduled workshops. There are a ton every day on all sorts of topics, from the G rated to the X rated. But I didn’t feel like I had time to do more than serendipitous drop-ins at a couple camps. I also lacked the confidence that I could actually reach specific destinations on time given my shoddy bike and uncertain geographic sense of the playa. But had I stayed a couple more days, my grasp of how the city was organized would have been better. I was feeling like I had picked up on the layout by my last day…
Picking up food on offer. Hot dogs, smoothie, tacos. All offered by different camps as I biked by. It’s hard to go hungry on the playa. I made friends by offering hand sanitizer to the people in front and behind me in line while waiting for food.
People are aware of the irony of Burning Man. No one I spoke to denied the highly capitalistic elements of Burning Man; the lack of racial diversity; the humor of the principle of “self-reliance” when people truck in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of technology to survive for a week. I probably haven’t spent time with true hardcore burners, but from my conversations, people don’t take themselves or the “mission” of Burning Man irrationally seriously.
It’s more fun with friends. You can only do so many hours outside in the heat; as a result, there’s plenty of downtime, chill time, etc. in the RV or camp area. When I go again, I’m going to try to organize several friends to go at the same time and coordinate being in the same camp. Makes a difference.
Surprisingly asexual. Sure, there’s a lot of nudity at Burning Man. Plenty of topless women and a fair number of guys letting it all hang out — especially in the gay neighborhood. But I found the nudity weirdly unerotic. Maybe because you’re in a constant state of feeling disgusting at Burning Man — sweat, dust, sleep deprived, etc. The nudity feels practical more than sexual. To be sure, I didn’t go in the orgy tent or attend the other adult-theme sessions (see earlier point about not being confident in my ability to get anywhere on time).
Money makes it all more comfortable. An RV with functional air conditioning is infinitely more enjoyable than an outdoor tent that’s exposed to the elements. Flying in or out to Black Rock City airport (the landing strip right on the playa) also shaves hours of time of the journey into the desert. Neither an RV nor a plane is cheap. Duh.
Back to reality…at the airport. My flight out of the playa from Black Rock City airport was delayed for 3 hours. There were several charter flights to Oakland scheduled back-to-back; all delayed. When the staff person announced that a flight scheduled for 1pm was going to depart before a flight originally scheduled for 12pm, people on the 12pm flight flipped out. It was amusing to see all the groovy community-love vibes of the playa revert almost immediately to mainstream airport customer service outrage. It reminded me of a meditation retreat I went to many years ago. A couple hours after the retreat ended, a heated argument that broke out in the parking lot between two meditators — one of whom accused the other of blocking his car and impeding his departure. It was as if all the loving-kindness mentions from the previous 3 days had evaporated instantly.
Roatan, Honduras has more Americans than Hondurans, it feels like, and the Hondurans who are there have stunningly good American accents on their English.
That is to say that Roatan is a super easy Caribbean getaway (2 hour flight from Houston) for Americans who want world-famous scuba diving and snorkling. Last year, we went to Cozumel, Mexico for July 4th scuba. This year, Roatan. Very similar destinations.
I preferred the scuba in Roatan. Both places are stunning, but Roatan’s current isn’t as strong so it’s not all drift diving. Either place is good for beginners like me. The food in Cozumel, Mexico is better, likely because it’s an overall more developed country and likely maintains higher standards for quality food sourcing and prep.
Scuba diving continues to enchant. It’s a whole ‘nother universe down there. I’m not yet committed to climbing the ladders of higher and higher dive certifications but being a casual amateur is fun and provides an obvious adventure outlet on trips to warm destinations. I continue to struggle with equalizing my ears; if I ever stop diving, it’ll be because of my ears.
July 4th week also continues to be a good week to travel out of the States. When the holiday lands in the middle of the week, tons of people seem to take the week off. I think getting out of town for a few days during the week of the 4th is a new tradition…
Finally, I read Blake Couch’s latest novel Recursion on the trip. It’s a page turner that reminded me of Stephen King’s time travel book. I preferred Crouch’s previous book Dark Matter but this one was still sci-fi provocative.