Miles from Nowhere

Dear Senderos,

I began writing this particular Sendero on no less than five occasions. Each time life interfered, grabbing my attention and forcing it elsewhere.

Ergo the three-month delay between editions.

The result is that today's edition is a compendium of vignettes: including, in no particular order, an impromptu visit to the PC hotspot of Portland, a drive-by visit to Lima, Peru, an operation in a local hospital from which I am now recovering, and an epic five day ride into the Andes to celebrate my officially stepping over the line into old age.

In between all this charging about, life its-own-self has been going on, with some great strides made in the wine business, and a blow-out success in our new RiskHedge disruption project (our recent article on the topic of Netflix, now running on Forbes, just passed the 2.2 million reader mark).

You can read it by clicking the link here.

With no further ado, and with apologies if this edition is more scattered than usual, we set out on new trails accompanied by Youssou Ndour’s 7 Seconds, a song that suits my taste for the dramatic.

Sweeet Portland

Sweeeeet! Coool!” cooed the Apple store employee in response to my answering “fine” to his question "so, how’s your day going?”.

“Do you have any plans for the rest of the day?” he continued.

“No, not really. Just to buy an Iphone from you”.

“Sweeeeet! Cool!” he said while dithering with a piece of handheld electronics.

“And after that, any plans?” he persisted.

“Well, I might end up under arrest for slapping you upside the head if you keep asking me inane questions about my personal life, but other than that, no.”

(I didn’t actually say that, but I confess to thinking it. What I actually said is, “No”).

Which, of course, triggered another “Sweeet! Cool!”.

Perhaps it’s something in the water, but it seemed to me throughout my one week stay in Portland that the place is suffering from a cultural affliction. Maybe a social virus.

Everyone is, imo, excessively nice and polite. Except, I guess, the multitude of mad tramps staggering around downtown Portland like the zombies in some dystopian future.

While there’s no question that being nice is better than the being rude and impolite, I couldn’t help but feel the over-the-top civility was forced... culturally dictated? Or, at least strongly advised?

Almost as if Portland was serving as a beta for a Chinese-style social credit system.

Going along to get along, when the very next morning the host -- at least I think it was a ‘host’, these days it can be hard to tell -- led us to our breakfast table and chipperly inquired, “How is your day going so far?” I enthusiastically responded, “Great! And how is YOUR day going?”.

Which earned me a questioning, even snarky, look over the top of its glasses followed by a rather chilled “Just fine”.

I guess I need to learn what the protocol is for these interactions.

But, really, what do I think of Portland?

The downtown - at least in the sections I strayed, was fairly devoid of life, other than the aforementioned bums. Cement canyons without much character.

In fairness, I have since been told we missed the more gentrified parts of downtown, but a quick glance at the crime stats is not particularly encouraging.

The only places I’ll live are those where crimes number in the dozens, not the thousands.

For most of our stay we encamped in a suburb perched on the edge of the city proper. With few exceptions, the area felt carefully planned in the millennial vernacular: a repeating and largely sterile march of Starbucks, malls and chain restaurants.

While we tried to find an exceptional meal on our trip, as Portland has a reputation as being a destination for “foodies”, we were constantly confronted with mediocrity.

Good enough to earn the waiter a tip, but nothing to warrant a return visit.

The one exception was a family owned restaurant we stopped at on the way to the coast which served a plate-sized breakfast sausage patty that alone warranted a five-star review for the sheer audacity of the thing.

Then there’s the weather. While the weather was nice enough for the first few days -- pretty much everyone mentioned it as being exceptional -- the last two days saw a reversion to the norm: cold, dark, rainy.

Me to gas station attendant as we stood watching him fill my tank in a cold, sputtering rain:

“You from around here?

“Nope. Moved down from Seattle about ten years ago”.

“Move here for the weather did you?”

Blank stare from under the dripping hood of his raincoat.

If the weather wasn't enough to strike Portland off of the list of places I might live, I would add the poisonous politics exemplified by the Antifa morons who make Portland their headquarters, plus ridiculously high city taxes, and clear signs the place is grossly overbuilt.

Look, I’m probably the worst person to do a travel review of a city: I’m a country guy.

Why anyone would want to shoehorn themselves into a mass of humanity, anywhere, is beyond me.

To escape Portland's urbanity, we made our way to the Pacific Coast which, no question, is absolutely stunning… when it’s not overcast, cold and rainy. Our friends there said that it would be that way until well into May.

Yeah, no thanks.

WHAT’S TO LIKE ABOUT LIMA?

While Lima’s cuisine lived up to its reputation during my short visit, the city itself impressed largely in the negative.
It is not uniquely bad, but rather a paradigm of the large urban wastelands the hoi polloi gravitate to in much of the third world.

Which is to say loud, dirty and smelly with nothing but rough cementy edges and traffic-jammed roads woefully inadequate for the onslaught of cars brought on by the global rise in prosperity.

Of course, within the messy milieu are small outposts of civility, complete with amazing restaurants and first class hotels. But, in the case of Lima, these urbane oasis are few and far between. And in between is an untameable mess.

Lima is sited alongside a long and generally handsome beach. Yet, most of it seemed to be closed, with ugly billboards stating just that, positioned every few hundred yards. If that wasn’t enough to dissuade you from plopping down on the playa, there was also a multitude of armed policemen and soldiers here, there and everywhere. Odd.

Yet, per above, my stay was a short one -- just a day -- and I understand that the countryside, always my preferred habitat, has much to offer. In fact, a couple of friends just completed an extensive visit to the country and, while sympathetic to my opinion on Lima, raved about the rest of the country.

I intend to return, which is not something I would say about most large cities, but only to spend a couple of days enjoying the amazing cuisine before saddling up and heading into the countryside.

Miles from Nowhere

This October, I turned sixty-five.

Wow.

Even with the date fading in the rear-view mirror, I have a hard time believing I’ve been on earth for over sixty-five years.

Then I let my thoughts wander to the life I’ve lived, and much of it echos up from what seems at least one full lifetime ago.

But it is what it is, and here we are.

You are whatever age you are, and I am sixty-five, and there is nothing I or anyone else can do about it.

To mark the occasion I set up something of a “test” - a physical challenge to help me gauge what condition my condition is in at this traditionally seminal point in a life.

Specifically, I organized a 140 mile horseback ride - a *cabalgata * -- from our property here in the middle of nowhere Argentina, to a valley even more nowhere high in the Andes.

As accompaniment for the rest of this section, I will drop the proverbial needle on a song that for fairly obvious reasons always resonates with me when doing these long rides, Miles from Nowhere by the otherwise misguided musician formerly known as Cat Stevens.

The story of a Cabalgata is of placing a pin on a map, then marshalling the physical and mental resources to reach it by horseback, tackling the challenge in the company of friends who share a passion for such things.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty much how the known world was ultimately conquered?

"Hey, let’s go see what’s over that horizon!

Our cabalgatas are always a dirty, grinding business punctuated by periods of acting like teenagers. For example, by riding like bandidos of old into remote *depositos * - adobe-brick outposts that sell the basics to the natives and which invariably contain a small wooden table that serves as the communal gathering point… and drinking all the cold beer the proprietor has on hand before saddling up again.

Then it’s back to grinding across the landscape, with the plodding of horses regularly punctuated by daunting challenges and stunning natural sights: red river with pockets of quicksand needing to be crossed, a towering snow covered mountain, a fox scampering up a steep cliff as if it was nothing, a high soaring condor or a low flying flock of hundreds of parrots, an indigenous family living a subsistence existence off of a herd of goats, a dangerous trail with only a few feet separating you from the edge of a 1,000 foot cliff...

On two of the five days of the ride, I had to dig deep - almost as deep as I could - to fight through physical limitations.

The first instance, I am somewhat chagrined to report, was a the result of a hangover due to an epic piss up that took place the first night of the ride as the clock ticked down on the last moments of my 64th year.

Those of you whom remember the famous opening scene of Apocalypse Now may appreciate both the extent of said piss up, as well as the depths of my discomfort the next day. There’s a photo of me here taking a break from the following day’s ride while Pablo kindly offers me hair of the proverbial dog from an old canteen (I declined).
Fortunately, I don’t do hangovers well, especially when required to stay in a saddle for long hours in searing heat, and so generally avoid them.

In the second and more important instance, early on the last morning of the cabalgata, my back went out without warning, causing me sharp pain with each step of the horse for the remaining nine hours in the saddle.

On both of those days I wondered if I could make it, and, especially in the case of the latter, briefly pondered giving in. But with a bit of help from my friends, didn’t.

And so I achieved something special, at least in terms of my own life.

Yet, I recognize it matters to no one else, other perhaps than to my fellow horsemen, who can also look back on the trip and maybe chuckle at the memory of my pathetic hungover self, or Agustin cavorting around the campfire in an impromptu poncho dance, or the time when several of the horses ran away, requiring Pablo and Enrique to walk/ride over three hours to find and catch them…. Or… or…

Any useful takeaways from the cabalgata? At least for me, they might be...

  • It's important to periodically challenge yourself. It is the setting of goals outside of your ability, and attaining them, that keeps a person energized and makes life worth living. In the case of the cabalgata, I had to train for weeks, and actually plan the thing like a minor military operation to be sure all the many pieces came together at the right time, in the right place. So there was a mental, as well as physical component.

  • Age is just a number. Sure, maybe if the number was smaller, my back wouldn’t have gone out - but I’m pretty sure that had more to do with the fact I couldn’t do abdominal exercises in the weeks before the ride, due to the hernia I managed to give myself lugging heavy luggage around England in September.

Yes, I’m sixty-five, but I don’t feel more than maybe forty. And, per the whooping it up during the ride, sometimes am capable of acting a lot younger than that.

Our ancestors were really tough people. In the overall scheme of things, 140 miles over five days is a gnat’s track. The people in these parts used to have to do the equivalent of our cabalgata regularly, just to get to a decent-sized market for their produce.

And when I think of the pioneers who trekked hundreds and even thousands of miles across alien landscapes with little idea what they would encounter around every bend...well, it’s mind blowing. Get on a horse and ride for nine or ten hours, and you’ll more fully appreciate what I’m saying.

  • Even today, there are a lot of tough people in the world. Given the general lack of resources in the remote terrains we crossed, it's incredible anyone can eek out an existence. Yet, there they are, indigenous people scattered on the sides of valleys with no one and nothing closer than a five hour walk: families living in mud huts next to thin streams, possessed of only small plots of maize and a herd of goats. Push come to shove, we humans are a resilient lot.

  • Pick your companions well. Spending hour after hour, day after day, next to someone at a horse’s walking pace is only tolerable if you're in good company.

I am very fortunate to have a great group of fellow horsemen, including the taciturn and always reliable Pablo Gomez-Alzaga (that's him in the photo at the top of this article), his guru-like brother Enrique (who came to my rescue on several occasions), my business and long-time cabalgata partner Agustin Lanus, the always engaging Nico Cossio, and my ex-partner in EverBank, the perennially upbeat and all around stunning Frank Trotter who flew down for the occasion. That's Frank taking the selfie pasted here.

If you ever want to verify the advantages of hanging out with good, positive, people, share the experience of doing a long cabalgata, or maybe a multi-day hike, with someone.

You will quickly tire of the unpleasant, negative or borish... but never of the upbeat souls such as I am pleased to call my friends and fellow horsemen.

Medical Here vs There

Just above I mentioned a hernia.

Well, I finally got around to having the operation, at the local hospital here in Cafayate. It is about as basic a hospital as you can imagine.

Maybe something akin to a hospital in the Ozarks fifty years ago.

Even so, the medical staff is friendly and attentive, and they were sophisticated enough to do the operation laparoscopically.

For the record, I will briefly outline the process leading up to the operation. Compare it to what it would take for you to have the same procedure back in the more modern world.

  • Stage One: Finding a surgeon. On a Sunday I decided it was time to get the hernia fixed. I send a WhatsApp message to a doctor friend of mine asking who he would recommend. He quickly shares with me a WhatsApp contact for the local surgeon, who also happens to be the head of the hospital. I drop him a WhatsApp and explain in a couple of sentences what I’m looking for. Within ten minutes he has answered me, and agreed to see me the next day in his office.

Again, that all of this took place within probably a fifteen minute period on a Sunday. What are the odds of that happening in your hometown?

  • Stage Two: First Appointment. I go to the surgeon’s office at the appointed hour and wait in the waiting room for him to be available (I have a small Kindle as a constant companion, as waiting here is always to be expected). Within 30 minutes, I am shown in and he does a thorough exam, including with an ultrasound. He then writes me a script to take for blood tests, and to see a cardiologist and an anesthesiologist for pre-op tests.

As I leave, I stop by the secretary at the entrance and pay her 500 pesos in cash… that’s US$13.00. And that is not a typo.

  • Stage Three: Testing. Over the next little while, I dutifully present myself at the lab for the blood tests, which cost another 500 pesos, and for a thirty-minute consultation with the cardiologist, complete with cardiogram, which cost another 500 pesos.

My last stop is the anesthesiologist (who charges 800 pesos, about US$21) for a thirty minute consultation.

Sure, there’s some waiting involved (out comes the Kindle), and on a couple of occasions I have to reschedule with a doctor, costing another day or two, but within a couple of weeks I have completed the pre-op requirements of two consultations with the surgeon, a comprehensive blood test, an appointment with a cardiologist and an anesthesiologist. And all for a cost of about US$75.

At which point the surgeon gives me a couple of options for surgery dates, and I pick the following Monday.

  • Stage Four: Surgery. Once the date of the surgery is booked, I am given a written breakdown of what the operation will cost. It was 52,350 pesos, or about US$1,396 at the current exchange rate. All in.

We easily arrange a transfer, and bright and early on the appointed day I turn myself in at the local hospital and am promptly taken into Pre-Op.

Within two hours the operation is finished and I am returned to a hospital room to recover. By around 6 pm, I decide I have had enough time lazing about, so send a WhatsApp to the surgeon asking if he would be so kind as to release me.

Over the next few hours, both he and the anesthesiologist come to my room and examine me carefully and agree that I am indeed fit enough to check out and so, off I go, arriving home a bit after 9 pm.

That is not to say that there aren’t some negatives in the local health care.

For example, the hospital doesn’t provide bottled water, towels or even toilet paper. But the locals all know this and so bring the essentials with them at a cost of pennies, versus the hundreds the hospitals in the United States would charge.

Some of the equipment is worn and tired: the rolling surgery table squeaks, that kind of thing. But the nurses couldn’t be friendly, and the surgery, knock on wood, more competently completed.

So, how much time, and how much money, would that same operation required in the United States? I couldn’t even guess, but I have to think it would be many multiples of what it cost me here in the sunny Argentine outback.

Happy Trails... and Happy Holidays!

And with that melange of miscellany, I will sign off until next time.

I hope your trails lead you somewhere you want to be, in the company of someone you want to be with.

David Galland
La Estancia de Cafayate
Argentina

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