Donate to Africa trip via Paypal here

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Grumps don't win

The Venetians built a church specially-designed for Vivaldi. A pair of 14 year old twins can increase my hope for the future. And the reason cows wear bells is because their horns don’t work. Three of the many things I learned during this year of guiding tours of Europe for Rick Steves.
Not Vivaldi's church. This one's in Paris.

When I look back at the year I feel an overarching gratitude and admiration for the people I got to meet and share a trip with. The feeling glows and warms. And then snags. Because this year had something else too. For the first time in my (admittedly less-than-ancient) guide career, I had a tour member who...I don’t even know how to say it. I would not want them on another of my tours.

Rick Steves offers a tour experience far above the sort of shambling boredom I see on other buses and in clusters of clueless curmudgeons blocking the sidewalks and galleries of Europe. Largely, we just draw a fantastic clientele (thank you, PBS!) but part of the magic is our “No Grumps Policy.” The logic of it always made sense to me; negativity is contagious, and if someone’s not happy, they don’t need to be there bringing everyone else down.
In the Forum you can focus on the sun, or that you're standing in history. Your choice.

But it wasn’t until this year that I witnessed how subtle it can be. No overt tirades, nothing tangible enough to justify removal from the group, but as time went by nothing was ever good enough or worth appreciating, and I never once saw a smile. Several local guides recognized it immediately, but I just chalked it up to botox. But when the evaluations came in, I realized it was much worse than that. People who I know had a fantastic time were complaining about the size of the showers etc. It feels clear to me that if this person hadn’t been in there radiating negativity, those people would have brought home another positive memory instead of gripes about shower stalls.

Negative energy is problematically powerful. I sat with the person for one meal and was considering quitting my job by the time dessert came. At the very least, I was ready to sign off the tour as a loss.

Sure the view, whatever. Ugh, do there have to be so many people?

Then something happened. Perhaps inevitable and undoubtedly wonderful. I talked to other tour members. And was restored. I remember one lady in particular that night, enjoying the unexpected fireworks display the town put on, taking unmitigated pleasure in the light and sound and moment shared with the small beach community. The words are forgotten but I remember the healing power in hearing how much fun she was having, what the tour meant to her, and how grateful she was to be on it. I walked away from that chat ready to sign up for 100 tours on the spot.

It's all about how you....frame it.

Her positivity is reflected in the hundreds of tour members I’ve had, with just the one who bummed me out. That’s magnificent. And beyond that, it’s important. Because in a moment where the worst of us is degrading the Oval Office and contaminating the headlines, it’s good to remember that the vast majority of us are beautiful people. I can expand out to all the innumerable niches of Europe, rock climbing walls of San Francisco, classrooms of the IRC, streets of New Delhi and prayer-soaked hallways of Dharamshala, I can expand to embrace all the environments and moments I found this year and in the cast of thousands I see an incredible panoply of human goodness.

So, though the grumps are out there, the lovers and delighters outnumber them by a degree of magnitude that gives me hope. And I didn’t even tell you about the twins. Humanity is beautiful. And I can’t wait to go back to work.
I think that guy's going to need his own post...

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

I wasn't prepared for this

You love your friends and what matters to them matters to you, so of course you say yes when they invite you to come see their newborn baby. Of course. Over to the hospital you go. I am privileged to not be so familiar with these places but I recognize the elevator, the doors that open at the push of a button, the hallways that project medical ability, biological stability, hope’s reliability. Then into the room. Into her room.

And there she is. In her artificial womb of plexiglass and portals, wires and cables to monitors and screens, heartbeat over respiration over oxygen saturation and there is no normal but this one as you listen to the beep of alarm and watch it come back down to green before you breathe again.

Truth be told, promise not to tell? I generally think babies are kinda ugly. Amphibian creatures barely sapiens, born from a woman they promise but I’m tempted to look around for the spaceship retreating.

But this? This tiny person, swimming through the unfamiliar space of her newborn body, premature and perfect, this little girl is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And I scorn the scorn that whispers at the cliche because bugger me but it’s true.

And I don’t know what to say. She’s magnificent.

I’ve felt this way before, witnessing the small ones of kith and kin. Stood abashed before the splendor of creation. And I well remember the transcendent majesty of looking at my lady love’s son and feeling the gods’ gift of realizing “Yes, yes, for this I would die to protect.” And he wasn’t even mine.

And suddenly, on a normal Saturday night I’m feeling it again, the awe, the sheer dumbfounded reverence for what it is to bring a child into this world. Tomorrow I’ll rage at the idiocy that brings violence to remove them, as everyone is a child in someone’s heart, but for now I exist in little besides awe.

I am accustomed to seeing the Divine in Nature, the pulse of the universe in ocean waves, sand dune shifts, and sunlight through the leaves, but here I am in a concrete cave made by men and everywhere I look I see godliness. In the purpose of the space, the quiet skill and sleepless devotion of the staff, the faceless researchers who devise the tests and cures, and above all else: her, and the indomitability of her will to continue. What is god if not this newest person? Why would it be anywhere else?

Outside it’s a normal night. Cars each going to their own someplace, sports fans ribbing at each others laundry, friends talking too loudly on the lamplit street with words about nothing that manifest their love anyway. And it is a normal night. Another in the endless line of nights where somewhere nearby a miracle is breathing. And the awe overtakes me. I was ready to meet their child, but I was not prepared for this.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

So long, blogspot. It's not you, it's we.

Updating another blog, especially while abroad, just doesn't seem to happen much anymore. But I still try to post regularly on or my medium page (which courteously informs me that my posts generally range from 2 to 3 minute reads).

Posting about India again tonight...

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Living the dream

I had a dream when I was a kid. A literal, “I’m asleep” kind of dream, that is. This isn’t an inspirational post. In it, I’m swimming along the bottom of the pool, my favorite place in all of Childhood’s Kingdom, when I realize I can breathe down there. Not fully, not well, but if I calm down and do it just right, modestly, I can breathe. I remember an infusion of calm and an understanding that everything could be fantastic. Could be better than I’d known to hope for. (It wasn’t until later that I suspected I’d just rolled over and was breathing through my pillow.)

Amsterdam welcomed me my first day
This morning I’m coming up for air. After 21 days of Best of Europe tour-guiding, I’m waking up to a day without appointments, no reservations to confirm or information to convey. Not even a city to depart.

The street is polite vespas and well-dressed Parisians, nothing on my plate but baguette crumbs and the promise of more good food to come, perhaps after a stroll by the Seine? And I remember that dream. Its epiphany that I can do something I really enjoy and get the air I need while doing it. And I realize that’s what I’ve been doing for 21 days.

Swiss Alpine calm
I’ve been swimming, diving into Amsterdam’s historic harbor before turning up the Rhine to reach Austrian Alpine passes, waterfalling down Roman roads to muse about Venetian canals before making my way through old Florence to reach older Rome, just to smile and drift up into Swiss glaciers, a liquid core of calm that persists when I slide down through the vineyards of Burgundy to wash up fully rational on Seine shores.

And I’ve been breathing.

Water was an element of my boyhood joy, and travel is essential for my adult satisfaction. Sharks and me, stop moving and we suffocate. But it’s not a compulsion, not addiction, neither distraction nor delusion. It’s adoration. Adulation. Celebration of our worldwide nation and the strokes that pull us all together.

Islam is supposed to be scary? Me and
the little girl don't buy it. You?
For years I traveled. Helpless before my vagabond urges. It was right for a time, but wrong in the end. Insufficient for the long term, serving nothing but my whims. Now there’s a purpose to my travel. In a world of multimedia capitalists who profit from our fear, who compete for the spectacles that widen our eyes and shrink our horizons, I find something more worthy than mere movement when I take others with me, show them these faces of beauty left here by centuries of human struggle and millennia of natural process.

For twenty one days spread across half a dozen countries we delight in the reality of the places, rooms in our global house, and I watch the tension of the first day dissolve into the ease of the last. Day One I see apprehension when I show them the train track that will reliably bring them home, Day Twenty I drop them off in Paris’s elegant metro maze and say “See you tomorrow” and they’re off without a pause.

And in the calm, when they don’t need me at all, I can imagine them going home, feeling merely tired, to be greeted by the anxious homebound with their pinched brows who desperately inquire “You were in Europe? But weren’t you worried? Didn’t you feel unsafe?”

And in my daydream I see their calm smile, perhaps wearing the appropriate regret for the incidents of the moment, but underneath is the deep understanding that the world is something other than the misconception made up by those make-up talking heads. And my traveling companions ease back to a full library of happy moments, warm welcomes, beautiful humanity and they can shrug off the constipated clench of petty terror. Stories they know better than to buy, now.

Think they wish they'd spent more time fearful and divided?
No, they didn’t feel unsafe. They felt free. If I did my job right. And the memory of every one of their smiles resonates within me, and I feel that dream’s sense of delighted astonishment, astonished delight, and can pull in deep lungfuls of fresh air.

Maybe it’s an inspiration post after all. For me, anyway.

Europe's normalcy and hospitality are waiting, on every boulevard and back street.

Thursday, May 4, 2017


Tall and dark, their food was spiced differently and they spoke of a place called Yugoslavia that sounded exotic and sad. But it was all just texture for the aunt, uncle, and two cousins I grew up with. And it didn’t matter at all that instead of a genetic link of ancestry, we shared a history of morning drives towards afternoon picnics before evening dinners and piling into the streetlit car worn out and over-ready for bed. I referred to them as my “parallel family.”

Castle Rock with friends
We’d been family since before I was born. Back when our moms were college roommates. So I showed up for university with eyes wide for the first glimpse of the people who would someday be uncles and aunts to my own kids. No pressure. But impossible expectation is a supplementary explanation for why I am not in touch with anyone from my college years.

Within weeks of school starting, I was in a relationship that devoured most of my hours. Waking and sleeping. I basically lived in her apartment. (Is 15 years too late to send an apologetic fruit basket?) They were seven good years, but when they were over, they were gone with the girlfriend.

That was always my way. My romantic relationship had absolute primacy. Where I spent my time. If my She was unavailable, then I’d call up a friend. Familiar story, tragic mistake, but comfortable in the meantime.

So as I entered this phase of my life (single for the first time since...elementary school?) I resolved to do it differently. I just didn’t know what that would look like.

My turn
It looks like Mondays on rock climbing walls with East Bay friends. Tuesday Lebanese burrito in Dolores Park with my brother and his crew. Wednesday climbing with an amplified set of San Franciscans, before Thursday with my old roommate and his fiance. Friday’s Happy Hour will be well named for the company of friends from middle school, and Saturday we’ll socialize in the farmer’s market sunshine.

And the weekends? Driving to Point Reyes for green hillsides and ocean vistas before watching the sun set into my beloved Pacific Ocean, whose eternal beauty complements mortal friendships, whatever their scale.

Or drive down to Castle Rock to rappel down a granite slab then climb back up, sticking fingers in arachnid crevices and unknowable mammalian dens.

Or up to Tahoe, maybe snowshoeing, or a social maelstrom of mullet wigs, karaoke, and the conviction that no matter how weird the conversation gets, that’s cool.
Tahoe. Made sense at the time.

None of this is a shocking revelation. That friends are good. But that doesn’t lessen their importance. In our Social Media Age, murky medium of social isolation, I want to shout my gratitude for real human contact out into this inhuman ether, knowing it will reach the eyes of friends I’ve never met (yet?), and maybe even stir an additional gathering of friends or two.

Because whether we share genes or not, met in college or on the wall, with smiles or fonts, our lives are made richer by our Parallel Family.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Feeling fine and Florentine

“The Tuscan Frying Pan,” Florence was earning its title that day, certified in sweat dripping down the backs and sides of tourists squinting in the Piazza della Signoria, and my hair felt, again, like one of those Russian fur hats. Time for a haircut. And wouldn’t you know it, Florence is the home of my favorite barber.

I went straight for the small shop, undistracted by the Basilica di San Lorenzo where one of my favorite Italians holds wishes on his tomb, not stopping at the old friend of a hotel (taken by a different Rick Steves group, the lucky buggers), and swerving around the periodic bulges of visitors whose shoulders relaxed bit by bit with every lick of their slowly melting gelato. Visciola e fragola? Va bene.

Old Town Florence is a tourism city for sure, and the crowds used to irritate me, but working as a guide has helped me see the ways they’re doing it right (improved traffic laws, cleaning the duomo, and coordinating the many marvelous sites) and given me an increased appreciation of the place and its importance in our collective past. So now they’re not the addled brains of people in my way, they’re international minds growing in appreciation and understanding of the birthplace of the Renaissance rebirth.

But yes, at the moment, I wanted them to move. I needed that haircut. Kindly get the inferno out of my way, signore. Before I get Borgia on your ass.

I made it. The slightly cooler confines of a barbieri who’s been cutting hair here since the 1970s and his colleague with a coif like Grace Jones on an ambitious day. They greeted me with their usual dignified and affable buon giorno.

Scissors snipped, buzzer buzzed, and when the razor had scraped the edges clean I felt like a renewed man, renaissance of the scalp. ready to stand on a pedestal if I must, sling in hand, and face the future with concentration and confidence and just a hint of gel.

Back into that Tuscan sun of fame and infamy, punishing and beautiful, try to escape it but don’t forget you traveled here to see it. Down the canyons of Medici streets, past Strozzi home and Brunelleschi dome, a little slower now, a bit more strut, something lyrical in between the paces. Feeling a tad more Italian.

Florence is a pilgrimage, and I wanted to pay homage to the great ones. Architects, poets, and the family of men who led nations, and they’re just the audience for the names we know. Galileo, Ghiberti, Machiavelli, and Dante, men whose deeds echo and dance and scheme and enlighten down through the centuries.

Then over to stand in front of the tomb of perhaps the greatest artist in human history. It was just me, the cooler air, dust motes painted by stained glass light slanting down through basilica space, and the tomb of Michelangelo Buonarotti.

He looked good. I looked good. Florence looked good. Travel, now that is good. Buon viaggio a tutti.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Shoes. OMG, shoes

Snowshoeing in Tahoe really did this pair in
No one had ever complimented me on my shoes. Why would they? They’re just, y’know, shoes. But that last pair I had, people loved those ones. Friends, colleagues, and at least one shopkeeper all dug my footwear. I appreciated it, but it was weird for people to have opinions about my possessions.

But I kinda loved them. As I usually do, by the end. Not for their style or materials, not the eyelets and sole stitching of their physical form, but for the time we trod together, the moments and their memories that we walked through. My shoes usually last about half a year. That is, an off-season and a tour season. By the end of the latter, they’re generally pretty ripe with Roman kilometers and their sweat, Parisian avenues and their petite piles of l’puppy poopoo, then perhaps a retirement on the pedals of my bicycle, hospice on the easy floors of my apartment.

These shoes were made for walking,
and not one time did they crash,
but after all these sweaty miles
they're going in the trash.

I walked from one part of my life
into another in this pair.
When the time comes to set them aside, it usually takes me awhile. “These have pretty much had it” I’ll think over the course of a week or four. “Time to get a new pair.” Then somehow I’m still wearing them.

I’m not a very good customer. Not skilled at consumerism, nor devout in my materialism. I feel satisfaction at wearing something out instead of throwing away a still serviceable item. I don’t get a rush when I buy something new, no pleasure when it’s time to purchase. Connection to things only comes at the end, for me. When I set them on the garbage can in Amsterdam, seeing it as a museum pedestal when I walk away to catch the airport tram. And I wanted to salute when I put this last pair, worn well beyond the norm, into the bin.

No, it’s not that I love shoes. They’re just useful for protecting my feet. But when their job is done, they remind me to say thank you for the miles. To give gratitude for every pace of living.
I wonder where the next pair will take me