Sunday, October 24, 2010

We interrupt this trip to bring you this breaking story...

Four years ago, while I was in India, I got an e-mail from my Mom that her mother, my grandmother, had died. It was my birthday, I was on my own in the Himalayas, and I really loved my Grams, who was 96. Looking back and connecting points in space, (that I don't think are connected) it seems like that was a starting point in a long line of unfortunate events.

Two months later I came home and planned a trip with my Mom and brother Mike to see Mom's brother, my Uncle Bob, who was dying of cancer. By the time we arrived in Utah Bob had already slipped into a non-responsive state, and it was an amazing, full-bodied and full-emotioned experience to be there with our Aunt Charlene, their seven grown kids and other family members, as we held vigil and saw Bob slip away. He died October 8, a few days later.  Four months after that, in February 2007, my brother started a medical journey when he found out that he had a non-cancerous brain tumor. He had an amazing 8-hour surgery and recovered without major complications. On New Year's Eve of that year we found out that my Mom had pancreatic cancer, and the doctors guessed, accurately, that she might have six months to live. That led to the most amazing, painful and love-soaked travels I've ever been on, which I chronicled on a blog I created for my Mom, still available at My Mom died July 3, 2008. Later that month I had eye surgery to get a microscopic spigot implanted in my left eye to reduced the pressure from glaucoma. Three months later Mike and I visited our father, and he died suddenly three days after we left, on October 14, 2008.

Last year, Mike's tumor started growing again, and he had a non-invasive "gamma knife" surgery to stop the growth. In February Mike discovered, by a medical fluke, that he has a slow-growing cancer in his intestines, and had surgery that removed 25% of his lower intestine. And if the poor guy hasn't gone through enough already, he just found out last week that he needs another full-blown, open-cranium, brain tumor surgery. 

Five days ago I was in southern Croatia with my van pointed south-ish towards Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria, and other mysterious-to-me destinations between there and Turkey. Today I'm writing this from the Dusseldorf airport, transit point on my flight from Munich to San Francisco. After getting the news from Mike I pondered what to do, and decided to fly home. I drove 700 miles (1,200 km) back to Munich over three days, without getting on a single highway, in dramatic weather and through some of the most spectacular scenery I've ever seen. In spite of the latest medical drama, I wasn't exactly choosing to be happy - I couldn't help it. If I had a choice, it might sound responsible and reasonable to be miserable and angst-ridden as I drove back. But who would benefit from that? Would anyone? (And who's choosing, anyway?)

Is there an underlying message in this tale of woe and misfortune? (Cut to the chase, Davemo!) I think there is: this sweet, beautiful and sacred life is temporary; and this very moment should be, and can be, bathed in and celebrated, in all its unsatisfactory glory. It's all we have, and if we spend our energy wishing it was different or anticipating some future event that may or may not come - we're missing the whole show. Now is the time:  do what you can to appreciate and enjoy this precious and fleeting life. Dig deeply. Question your assumptions. Clarify your values and be clear about what's important to you - not the inherited values of society or the media or your neighbors - but for YOU. Align your time and energy with your values and what's important. And act out of that deep place. Wash, rinse, repeat...

Much love to all of you,

p.s. I finished writing this on the flight home, but I'm sending it from my brother's house. Hanging out with Mike and Mary and their two beautiful daughters, Brooke and Courtney. Nice!

This is an example of rocks that have been stacked, not for walls or property lines, but to get them off the ground so it can be planted. These look to be lavender plants and olive trees. (Hvar island.)
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This mortar-free stacked-stone shelter is called a "trim." They're of ancient origin and used all over the island of Hvar for temporary shelter or for animals. Standing inside one you feel like it's amazing that it doesn't collapse on your head. The oldest village in Croatia, by the way, is Faros, established  by the Greeks in 384 B.C. It's just down the hill from here.
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This is the inside of the trim, looking up at the center point of the ceiling. 
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The town of Hvar, on the island of Hvar. (Pronounced with a breathy K, like "khhwar".)
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The village of Sucuraj on Hvar, where the ferry is taking me and the van back to the mainland. My trip of "two or three days" is over, 12 days later.
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A lighthouse on the tip of Hvar.
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Before I headed north to Munich, I drove south, close to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Parts of it were kind of an industrial and spooky, and parts were beautiful.
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The rains had come, and it was a mostly grey day.
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An industrial looking port.
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Sunset is behind me, lighting up the clouds.
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This is a natural arch, the only one I saw in Croatia, just off the coastal road.
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This is a composite image like the one I described in the other letter. It combines two photos, and the colors are enhanced and tweaked, which is why is looks kind of fake. It's a bridge on the coastal road in Croatia.
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There was a howling wind on this day, the first day driving north towards Munich.
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In yet another brilliant international border crossing move, I followed the GPS when it suggested I go down a small road from Croatia into Slovenia. The paved road narrowed, then turned into a dirt road, and I thought, oh, there will be a locked gate, I'll just check it out. But there was no gate - so I kept going. Great adventure! Hang on, Dumb Ass says to himself, you don't have a stamp in your passport. When the dirt road connected to a paved road, I headed to the border to get a stamp. I started thinking, that wasn't the smartest idea, about the same time that I saw a police car tailing me - all the way to the border. I thought the border crossing would be one lonely guy in a hut, but as I approached it looked like the San Francisco Bay Bridge toll plaza - many lanes, towers, lights - and men with guns. Dude, you are so screwed. I've noticed that not everyone takes borders very seriously, but among those who do are border guards. He looked at me incredulously, and as he had me make a U-turn and go through the right way, he said, "Next time, use your head, not just your GPS!" I'm gonna have some 'splaining to do next time I go to Croatia, since I didn't go through their border. Brilliant. Even the airport passport control asked me about it today. The blue line below is my route, coming from the lower-right, then crossing to the proper border where it says 026.
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Even though I was trying to get to Munich, I took so many little dead-end roads. The forests in Slovenia were amazing.
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I was swimming in the sea just a few days before, but fall was evident in Slovenia.
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Snow? Crikey!
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Dang, it got cold. This is in Slovenia, just before a long tunnel pops you out in Austria. I slept not too far below where this photo was taken, and when I woke up it was 3 degrees Celsius, or 37 "real" degrees, inside the van.
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That's an amazing variety of colors in one forest.
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I did turn on my headlights, like the sign says, but I also glared, just to see what would happen. Cuz that's how I roll.
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The start of a walking path.
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This river runs under the bridge above.
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I love these colors.
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I'm looking down from a bridge,and you can see a walking platform that goes for several kilometers. I'd love to take that hike.
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A river in Austria. OK, maybe it's Germany.
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Beautiful Noah, my favorite baby in Munich. Noah's parents are good friends with Brigitte, who is good friends with me, and they welcomed me into their not-so-big house with open arms - all three times I visited Munich. Very nice! I have a lot of photos of Noah smiling and playing drums, but I like this photo. This kid's got 100 different expressions.
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(The End)

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Photos from the island of Hvar, Croatia

I haven't had a guidebook for a long time (I just can't find one in English) but when I came to the isle of Hvar I didn't even have a map and my GPS didn't show any roads. So I was really just pointing my car (or my Tevas) and seeing what happens. Every photo here was taken of things I didn't know were there until I stumbled upon them. 

Love to you!

This was taken in an ancient village, about half in ruins. This is the base of a wine press, along with one of the two wooden threaded screws for pressing the grapes. The juice runs into this stone vat, now in pieces.
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I'm obsessed with stone: walls, houses - you name it.
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I haven't found an open campground on the island, so I've been wild camping for the week that I'm here (and counting.) This was one of my camping spots. I had driven for miles on this gravel road without knowing where it goes.
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I turned off to see a church, then spotted a big cave to walk to. On the way up through vineyards, I was amazed by how steep these fields are.
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This is the cave, which has a very old church, mostly in ruins, at the mouth.
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Looking out from the back of the cave.
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I couldn't figure out why so many rock walls exist all over Croatia, and decided that many of them aren't walls at all - they're a way of reclaiming the land by moving the rocks into piles. Then they can plant olive trees, lavender or grapes. These look to be a combination of walls and stacked rocks.
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A trail led further up the mountain, and I came across this old ruin, in a spectacular setting.
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Grapes in a completely rocky soil.
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I followed a trail along the coast just down from the cave. It reminds me of Big Sur in California.
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At the end of the trail, I came to this (I gather) famous climbing wall. A guy lives in this house and charges people to climb. You can see a climber just to the right of the house.
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I love the contrast of colors.
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This beautiful cove is just in front of the climbing wall.
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Back at the other end of the trail, if you look up you can see the cave just above the trees. And the stone walls were on top of the mountains just to the left of the cave.
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This view is featured in a postcard or two, I bet. The water between the rocks is DEEP.
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How can the water be so blue?
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Sometimes I even cook decent food for myself. Who'd a thought. My new trick: saute onions and peppers, add garlic and add beans and/or corn to make a hearty stew. So good. (This is inside the van if you can't tell.)
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The little village and protected harbor of Jelsa. Such a cute little place.
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A dramatic morning from my second night in the hills. By the way, there are 1,000 islands in Croatia!
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The city of Hvar. Beautiful, and the pizza costs 50% more than everywhere else. I'm just saying. (I'm just saying skip it for the more low-key and equally beautiful harbor villages!)
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(The End)

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Beauty, and beasts

In Auschwitz I bought two books (packaged as one) by Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who survived a year at Auschwitz. "If This Is A Man" details his time in Auschwitz, and "The Truce" recounts his long journey home. The books are heartbreaking, of course, but they're so much more - they're a subtle and probing look into the human heart in the context of maybe the blackest period in human history. Here's a passage that's relevant for me right now, as I try to understand the Yugoslavian wars:

The scars of the outrage would remain within us for ever, and in the memories of those who saw it, and in the places where it occurred and in the stories that we should tell of it. Because, and this is the awful privilege of our generation and of my people, no one better than us has ever been able to grasp the incurable nature of the offence, that spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think that human justice can eradicate it. It is an inexhaustible fount of evil; it breaks the body and the spirit of the submerged, it stifles them and renders them abject; it returns as ignominy upon the opressors, it perpetuates itself as hatred among the survivors, and swarms around in a thousand ways, against the very will of all, as a thirst for revenge, as a moral capitulation, as denial, as weariness, as renunciation.

I am barely scraping the surface of how Yugoslavia ended up being Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, and Kosovo (did I forget any?) - some disputed, some not, all confusing to me. It's safe to say, though, that emotions runs deep in certain circles. Look at this section of (foul) comments I saw on YouTube, from a clip about the Bosnian War, where 100,000 people were killed (mostly civilians?), and documented atrocities and war crimes were widespread.

SeRbDeLiJe:  albanians r poor/dirty/animal raping/cousin marrying/sell their own mother for money/steal other peoples land cuz their own is shit/inbreds.
51hhh:  Suck my dick you fuckin chetnik!!! You serbs sell your own mother for money and kill babys for politiks!! And bllade55 bosnian,albanian and turks for ever fuck orthodox!!!!
telepatik200:  if some on hear u they will be have such a good smile to be serbian u will be shy in this world and do not never say to some on what ur because every on they know's so serbian people are shit and peadophile and go shut up and fuck offf
U574:  during Turkish live nobody cant touch bosnia, and none strength cant stop us Bosnia, macedonia, ablania are brothers foreva
vu4u2:  fuck serbs! bunch of goat raping nazis!

Wow. Sorry for that. But I think they're saying, less eloquently but more forcefully, that Primo Levi nailed it on the head.

Love, love, confused love,

p.s. A park ranger and former "professional soldier," as he put it, in the Croatian army told me, "When there is war, there are war crimes. War means war crimes." I thought of his comment this week as I read the news about the sport killings of Iraqi's by American soldiers.

This is another photo from inside the former emperor's palace in Split.
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An intense game of bocce in the town of Omis, Croatia. (Pronounced Oh-mish.)
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This is the same guy (I think) launching the ball far down the court, and smacking the opponent's ball out of the way, as planned. It's amazing the accuracy they have, whether rolling the ball slowly or throwing it the length of the court.
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I love this guy's pose.
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One of the beautiful old squares in Omis.
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The full moon from the wharf in Omis.
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I camped just south of Omis, and a spectacular sunset was preparing itself. These two fisherman were chatting to each other.
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Cameras aren't nearly as good at seeing different light sources as our eyes are. So if a bright sky is exposed correctly, the dark trees will appear almost black. If the trees are exposed correctly, the sky will just be white. This photo is a compilation of three differently-exposed photos, which software combines into one photo, and looks more like you see with your eyes. 
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A fisherman putting out his nets.
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This is part of my clutch, which I had replaced in Omis. The clutch started making a whining noise, and a Czech mechanic who spoke no English said in German that I needed a new clutch. He was right. A mechanic was recommended to me, and I liked him. Big bastard, no-nonsense, but friendly and spoke just enough English for me to say yes. He finished the work in one day, and it's a big improvement, $440 later. I thought it might be dramatic and painful and make a good story, but alas, it wasn't to be.
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Omis sits at the mouth of the Cetina River, which has cut a big gorge through the substantial mountains. I'm standing on the ruins of an old pirate's fortess high on the sheer cliffs.
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Another view of Omis. Directly across the river is where my van was being worked on.
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The fortess.
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Walking down from the fortess into the old town.
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I'm thinking one owner is very unhappy with the other owner. I'm just guessing.
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The view from one of two restaurants that are open here in Zaostrag, an hour south of Omis. Great pizza! On Monday this restaurant is closing for the season. Time to go! In mid-summer this town has 2,000 people in it, and there are maybe 100 tourists here now. 
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What the heck?! How did this photo get here? Oh, I remember now. As a prudish American, I love being incensed by the depraved moral values of the French, as displayed so bountifully (gloriously?!) in this large bus-stand poster. Isn't it awful? I keep coming back to this to remember how terrible it is. Over and over and over...  (If an American company put a poster up like this, it would make national news. U-S-A! U-S-A!)
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(The End)