My Trip to Costa Rica, April 3-10, 2017: Pura Vida

Journal, mine  by Kitty Kroger

(Note: more pictures of this trip can be found on

After I returned from Southeast Asia in February, I was smitten by travel fever. Within a few weeks three friends and I made a rapid-fire decision to sign up for an eight-day Costa Rican nature adventure with Caravan Tours.

We four ladies.Silouette

We flew on a direct flight with Alaska Air. The plane tickets were quite inexpensive—about $500 round trip.

Map of Tour

Monday 4/3. Day 1. San Jose

When we arrived on Air Alaska at the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica, a van was waiting to transport us from the airport to the hotel. As the driver led us to the van, there was an enormous clap of thunder. I was delighted; it reminded me of my childhood summers on Flathead Lake in Montana. What a way to start this trip. Surprisingly, though, there wasn’t much rain that evening. Nevertheless, Caravan advised us to always have rain gear on hand.

The van ride to the hotel took over an hour because of the notorious traffic in San Jose. The Hotel Club Intercontinental was quite lush. There were two pools and a spa at the hotel, plus numerous rooms for business conferences. In the huge lobby a pianist entertained us with jazzy renditions of popular songs. We sat on comfortable seats around small circular tables with glasses of wine and put in requests to him. He told us that he was a classically trained German pianist.

Colon.2  Colon.1

After the buffet dinner, consisting of a wealth of options, including vegetarian ones, and the requisite rice and black beans, with crème Brule for dessert, we had an orientation to the country and an introduction to our 15 or 20-member tour companions  by our tour guide Lauren. Lauren is 37 years old, a single mom with an 11-year-old son.

Our tour bus


Here is our tour bus. The bus was big; our group was small. Much of the time I sat in the back of the bus and took pictures out the window, a difficult task because of the swaying and bumping.


(From time to time I’ll include in bullets some general facts about Costa Rica that I learned along the way.)

  • It’s called a “green country.”
  • Strict laws exist against smoking. Infractions bring about a warning, then a fine of over $1000.
  • If caught drunk driving, your car will be taken away.
  • Wild animals are protected.
  • Mail is not sent out by the post office because the country wants to eliminate junk mail. To pay bills you have to call the bank and find out the amount, then wait in line at the bank to pay. If you want to mail a personal letter, you don’t write an address but instead a description of where the house is located: for example, near Los Zapatos market three houses from the corner of the Pajaro School.
  • Gay marriage is not allowed but there are still demonstrations in favor. There is an attitude of “Pura Vida” by the populace, which in this context means something like “whatever.”
  • Everyone says “Pura vida.” It is used as a response to “How are you?” as well as meanings more generally such as “It’s all good,” or “That’s just the way things are.”

Tuesday April 4. Day 2. Poas Volcano, Escalonia Cloud Forest

We had to have our suitcases outside our doors by 6:15, then go to the breakfast buffet, and check in at the lobby by 7:20 am. These times were similar most mornings. Throughout this tour we spent a lot of time on the bus, getting to all our locations, since we were traveling a long way and hitting many different sites. Some people complained about being on the bus for so long, but I figure that’s the trade-off for seeing a lot versus staying longer somewhere but seeing fewer sites.

We headed off to Poas Volcano, having been told there was only a 30% chance of seeing into the crater because of overcast weather. However, we managed to get a splendid view! There was a cloud of ash rising from the volcano. Only a picture can capture the splendor of this volcano. See below.

Poas Volcano.2

More information: “Part of the Pacific Ring Fire Circle, Costa Rica has over 200 identifiable volcanic formations dating back over 65 million years. Today, however, only 100 or so show any signs of volcanic activity, while just five are classified as active volcanoes.” (Source:

After viewing Poas, we walked along a trail in the Escalonia Cloud Forest. [Note: Unlike a rain forest, a cloud forest is almost completely covered by fog. It has less rain but more humidity.] It was lush—my first experience in a tropical forest.

We proceeded by bus to a coffee plantation tour. The altitude here and the rich volcanic soil create an excellent environment for growing coffee beans. Our guide went through the coffee-making process, step by step. I will try to roughly repeat it.

Coffee tour. SignCoffee Tour. Process.sign

First, coffee beans in the ground produce only after four years. The coffee flowers smell like jasmine. The trees produce good beans for 30 years, after which they are replanted. The beans are picked and placed into plastic baskets. Workers, many of them Nicaraguan, receive $2 a basket. It takes one-to-two hours to pick a basket. The beans are put into containers that hold the equivalent of twenty baskets. The container is filled with water. The low-quality beans float to the top and are skimmed off.

A chancadora is a grinder that removes the red skin without removing the seeds.

Station 3 ferments the beans to remove sugar. The they are laid in the field to dry for five days. Then the dried beans are roasted. Below is a picture of me raking the beans by cutting across them.

Coffee tour. Raking the beans.Kitty

To make decaf, you can either use acetone or steam. Our guide’s favorite coffee was French roast. I bought a small bottle of coffee liqueur for a friend.

Coffee tour. Ssign

On the way back we stopped at the Church of San Rafael in  Zarcero in Alajuela, Central Highlands, known as the pink and white church. Truly lovely.

Church of San Rafael in Zarcero in Alajuela, Central Highlands, known as the pink and white church

We continued on to Fortuna, where we stayed at the Magic Mountain Hotel overnight.

Wednesday, April 5. Day 3. Fortuna, Rio Frio cruise, volcanic hot springs

We headed north, driving two hours, passing through sugar cane, teak, bananas, plantains, pineapple and orange plantations. Oranges are harvested by hand and they aren’t sweet. We saw iguanas in trees. Farmers burn crops to prepare the fields for new ones, but there is a pending law to prohibit this in an effort to mitigate pollution.

Countryside. Crops

We drove past rural houses and little villages. Some houses had satellite dishes on their roofs. We were told that the satellite companies offer free satellites for three months, but then people can’t get rid of them. 200-300 channels are available, but it’s expensive.

Countryside. House with Satellite dish

Somewhere on the trip I saw a Walmart, a McDonald’s, and several other fast food places, signs of the encroachment of the United States and other wealthy countries.

Realty. Costa Rica for sale

More scenes of the countryside and the small villages:




Next we took a cruise on the Rio Frio, which runs through the world-famous Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge. We saw various species of birds including anjingas (long-necked, long-tailed swimmers). We also saw various species of iguanas, and howler monkeys.

Monkey. Howler.2

The boat was large enough to seat about 50 people; it was covered, with decks on the front and back. Our guide was named Gary and spoke excellent English. I talked to him and learned that he came to the U.S. when only three-years old, and returned to Costa Rica after primary school. He had lived in New Jersey and Orange County, California. We talked about immigrants and refugees. Nicaraguans are the main immigrants in Costa Rica. There are also African refugees who get stuck at the Costa Rican border into Nicaragua because Nicaragua won’t let them through to the U.S.

At a certain point we came to a sign that said “Welcome to Nicaragua.” We had reached the northern border of Costa Rica, at which point we turned back. It’s a porous border.

Nicaraguan Border from river

Nicaraguans receive free medical care at hospitals in case of an emergency. About 6% of Costa Rican medical care goes to Nicaraguans. No one can be charged by the hospital if they get sick. Their children also have the right to an education. It is easy for Nicaraguans to pass through the porous border. At times when there are more laborers than needed, the country tries to deport them but it is easy for them to return. according to our guide, they can earn as much in one week as in one month in Nicaragua.

In the afternoon we returned to Fortuna and visited a volcanic hot springs. There were 25 pools. They were supposed to get hotter as one ascended, but we only entered four or five. Many of them had circular bars in the hot springs for one’s drinking pleasure.

Hotsprings bar and guide Lauren


  • Intel and Microsoft do telemarketing.
  • The population of Costa Rica is 4,895,000 people. 60% of them live in San Jose, the capital. The traffic there is similar to Los Angeles traffic—horrible! Everyone talks about it. There are driving restrictions. Different labeled license plates have to not drive on certain days.
  • There are many motorcycle accidents.
  • Gasoline is $6 a gallon and comes from Venezuela. Costa Rica is trying to buy more oil from the United States and Mexico.
  • The average salary is $600 per month. After the U.S. recession in 2008, the economy plummeted. No welfare is allowed without a doctor’s statement that one is unable to work.
  • There are two seasons: “rainy” and “more rainy.”
  • In mid-May it rains constantly. People hang their wet clothes inside their houses behind their refrigerators.
  • Highway 1 goes from Alaska to Argentina.
  • Presidents serve four years, then take a mandatory break, after which they can run again if they want to.
  • Very few homes have air conditioning because it is expensive. People get used to the heat.
  • Crop production is not widely mechanized except for rice production. Rice and beans are eaten at least once daily.
  • Lots of fish are available for eating.
  • Schools serve breakfast and lunch, and very natural foods are provided.
  • School children must wear uniforms. The colors vary from grade to grade. Our guide Lauren’s 11-year-old son wears a tie to school.
  • There is no transportation to school.
  • Students must learn English and French in high school.
  • The literacy rate is 98%,
  • College is cheap. Students graduate debt-free. Tuition may be around $600 for four months, for example.
  • The average wage is $1000 per month. Without a diploma it’s hard to find a job.
  • There are many bicycle races in Costa Rica.

Thursday, April 6. Day 4. Hanging Bridges, Lake Arenal, Pacific Coast and Leatherback Turtle National Park

On this day we headed west towards the Pacific coast.

Hanging bridge. Kitty

On the way we visited the Hanging Bridges. These are suspension bridges over the jungle floor, some very high. There are 6 or 7 of them. Several of us hiked and traversed the bridges. They rocked from side to side and it was difficult to balance. Below is a picture of me crossing one of them. I held onto the sides for dear life. (Just kidding.)

Walking through the forest canopy was a wondrous experience, especially since I had never before been in a rainforest. Water drizzled on us from the wet leaves but sheltered us from the rain. Most rainforest activity goes on in the canopy, not on the ground. We saw frogs, a spider with the strongest web on earth, wild hogs, cicadas, mating ants.

We made a loop and returned to the beginning of the trail. On our way to our next adventure, we passed a huge lake, 30 x 30 miles. This was Lake Arenal, the largest lake in Costa Rica.

Lake Arenal

More information: “The town of Arenal was relocated to higher ground when the lake was expanded with the construction of the Arenal dam in 1979. The old towns of Arenal and Tronadora now lie abandoned at the bottom of the lake, with the new town of Arenal existing to the northeast on the lake. This hydroelectric project is hugely important to Costa Rica, initially generating 70% of the country’s electricity, now closer to 17%, and was also a driving force behind Costa Rica’s green energy policy.”[2]  (


  • 97% of energy in Nicaragua comes from alternatives—mainly hydro-electric and thermal, but also wind and solar (only 1%).
  • Century 21 sells property on this lake. Condominiums and hotels are being erected throughout Costa Rica.
  • Bamboo is used a lot. It grows fast—up to 11 cm per day.
  • ICE = Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (English: Costa Rican Institute of Electricity). This is the government electric company; it provides all the electricity for the country.

We finally arrived at the Pacific coast and to the Leatherback Turtle National Park in Guanacaste. We took a walk out onto the beach and Lauren showed us where the turtles come to nest between November and February. The turtles fear the lights of the large hotels and are driven off, so people are asked to turn down or turn off their night lighting and use only red lights, which don’t affect the turtles. The Marriott Hotel has cooperated with the use of red lights. When observers come, they are also given red lights.

Leatherback Turtle or Tortuga Baula

Next we went into a viewing room and saw an excellent movie in English called “Peace, Love, and Sea Turtles: Leatherback Turtles of Costa Rica.” Leatherback turtles have been around for over 100 million years, but they are now an endangered species. Hotels and poachers are some of the reasons. They are the largest marine reptile in the world and weigh over 1000 pounds. They grow to six and a half feet long. They are key to the eco-balance. There are seven living species of sea turtles in the world, and four of them are found in Costa Rica (the olive ridley, the green, the hawksbill, and the leatherback).

According to Earthwatch Institute, “The leatherback sea turtle population in the Pacific, once the stronghold of the species, has declined by over 90% since 1980.

“Many of the remaining Pacific leatherbacks nest in the sands of Playa Grande, Playa Ventanas, and Playa Langosta on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Female leatherbacks dig holes with their flippers and lay about 80 round eggs, a process they’ll repeat up to 12 times during the breeding season. In about two months, the fragile hatchlings will emerge.

“The world is a dangerous place for these tiny turtles and their parents. They’re threatened by climate change, boat traffic, fishing gear, and humans harvesting their eggs.” (

We arrived at the Marriot Hotel in Guanacaste on the hot Pacific coast for a two-night R&R. The rooms were, needless to say, beautiful.

Friday, April 7. Day 5. At the Marriott Resort in Guanacaste on the Pacific.

In the morning we went on a walk with guide Andres and saw wildlife, but sadly I didn’t take notes. Later in the evening we took a beach walk with a different guide, Randall, to see lobster, hermit crabs, sea urchins, anemones, termite nests, termites to eat, piscinas de rocas (tide pools), wild almonds, and oregano. (I took notes. And pictures: Langostina shell,  hermit crab, and our guide Randall smashing an almond pod and giving us a taste.

I also took a Latino dance class, just for fun and exercise. (No pictures.)

More factoids (are there ever enough?):

  • There are water restrictions on the west side of the Continental Divide, where it is hot and dry.
  • Some rain forests receive 80 to 260 inches of rain a year.
  • Water is brought in to the hot western areas from the rain forests for cattle and horses.

Saturday, April 8. Day 6. Bird- and crocodile-watching cruise on the Tarcoles River

We left and drove a long way past many cattle ranches to the Tarcoles River, where we had a cruise along a mangrove forest. It was very hot and muggy. Below is our guide Lauren, in red.

Tarcoles River Cruise

On this cruise we saw crocodiles and birds. Below is a Great Egret and some crocodiles.

That night we stayed at the San Bada Hotel on the border of the national park. It was probably the only third class hotel—there were roaches and it wasn’t well kept up. But the patio had a beautiful view of rain forest trees. There were flying insects so we had to keep the balcony doors closed.

Our group was given a free happy hour by Caravan Tours. We took the elevator to the sixth floor and sat overlooking the ocean, watching the sundown. Spectacular! I had a daiquiri and a couple of beers.Below is a view from the roof.

Sunset during Happy Hour top floor of hotel

Sunday, April 9. Day 7. Manuel Antonio National Park. Aerial Tram

This was our last full day, and one of the best. We started out with a two or three mile hike in Manuel Antonio National Park. Up and down steps and trail. At one point a howler monkey let out such a loud boom it startled us all. We couldn’t see it, however. We saw a sloth, white-faced monkeys playing, termite nests, and an agouti.


“The agouti (ah GOO tee) is a rodent from Central and South America rain forests that looks a bit like a really large guinea pig….”




White-faced monkey. (Picture by Maya Conn)

White face monkey. Pic by Louise Ghandi

Then Martha and I waded in the ocean.




Aerial tram and guide Sergio










After lunch our tour group took an aerial tram ride though “dry” LOL rain forest, where it poured in on us from all sides. We got soaked so I didn’t get many pictures.



Then we entered a small butterfly garden, where there were some beautiful red flowers. We saw a few butterflies.  See below.

That night we stayed at a comfortable hotel in San Jose not too far from the airport. We left our hotel about 10 a.m. for the airport, where we departed on Air Alaska at about three. On the plane ride home, I sat next to two Nicaraguan sisters, Priscilla and Jacqueline, who were on their way to visit their brother in central California. We talked books. Jacqueline is an addicted reader and had lots of recommendations. I can’t remember Jacqueline’s job, but Priscilla is a psychologist with a Spanish firm, Mspfre Insurance Company.

They also told me that healthcare is free but very slow; people turn to insurance policies to get faster results. As mentioned above, the government also pays for Nicaraguan immigrants who need healthcare. This causes some conflict in the society. Education is free in public schools—but there are stringent tests to get in. Private colleges charge tuition, but there are few or no entrance tests. So the rich often send their children to private schools.

Sometimes great experiences occur on the plane or at the least expected times.

We arrived home about 11 p.m. Great trip!

Where to go next?


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My Trip to Southeast Asia, February 2017

January 28, 2017. Los Angeles to Siem Riep, Cambodia

At LAX. As I arrived at Los Angeles airport (LAX) for my flight on China Southern to Cambodia, I heard a noisy demonstration outside the Tom Bradley international terminal. Protesters were calling for an end to Trump’s ban on Muslims and others from entering the U.S., just announced that day.  I joined the militant and spirited rally. Apparently JFK Airport in New York City was partially shut down by protests.


On the flight. As is my habit, I set my cellphone clock app for Cambodian time, and therefore was only one of a few on the entire plane who remained awake about eight hours, watching from a generous menu of movies like “Bridget Jones’ Child.” Then at the appropriate Cambodian hour, I tried to sleep but found myself no longer sleepy.

At some point we crossed the dateline and lost a day, so when we arrived it was already January 30. I guess I’ll never see January 29.


January 30, 2017. Day 1. Siem Riep, Cambodia

We had a three-hour layover at the airport in Xieng Khouang, China, then flew on into Siem Riep, Cambodia, and were met there by our tour guide, Som, from Saigon Tourist travel agency. Our entire trip was facilitated by Jane Hollinger, a friend of mine, and managed and guided by Saigon Tourist. We drove to the hotel in a van to check in. About half of our buses on this trip would have no seat belts; this was one of them. The hotel was elegant, as most of our hotels (four-star) would turn out to be. Most had a dining room for breakfast, a spacious lobby, and sometimes a gift shop.

My room was on the third floor, very comfortable, all the amenities. Wood floors and doors. (The hardest mattress I’ve ever slept on—I even did some pushups on it.) [Note: all the mattresses at the hotels we stayed in were extremely hard in Southeast Asia.] I experienced no jet lag.

Siem Riep is a tourist town. According to our guide, the most prevalent travelers there are South Koreans. The city looks very wealthy and lively with night life and markets. Of course, the non-tourist parts probably look quite different. Along the main road were lots of kiosks, but we didn’t visit the housing areas. After checking in, our guide Som and the bus driver, drove us to the ultra-modern and new Angkor Museum to see the “1000 Buddhas” gallery with many stone and metal sculptures of Hindu gods. Here we learned about the Naga. According to Wikileaks: “Naga is the Sanskrit and Pali word for a deity or being taking the form of a very great snake, specifically the king cobra, found in the Indian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.” The ones we saw in the sculptures were gigantic cobras that stood behind the Buddha to protect him. Nagas were ubiquitous throughout Southeast Asia.

The absolute best part of that day was the cruise down the Siem Riep River to see the houses on stilts lining the beach. The inhabitants were mainly fishermen and their families. We passed a Catholic Church and a school, also on stilts in the water. The river overflows in the rainy season—from about March through October. We ended up at an ample lake, which we were told looks like the ocean, during the rainy season.


We went into a large floating marketplace on the edge of the lake. I bought some long cotton pants with elephant print and elastic around the ankles. Very comfortable and light-weight.[In Buddhism the elephant is a symbol of mental strength. At the beginning of one’s practice the uncontrolled mind is symbolized by a gray elephant who can run wild any moment and destroy everything on his way. After practicing dharma and taming one’s mind, the mind which is now brought under control is symbolized by a white elephant strong and powerful, who can be directed wherever one wishes and destroy all the obstacles on his way. Source:

We went to bed early, and I slept deeply. The hotel has Wi-Fi but, nevertheless, I wasn’t able to email or text. Intermittently it seemed to work, so I did finally succeed in texting some pictures to my son and friends.

January 1, 2017.  Day 2.  Siem Riep

Breakfast at the hotel. We set out for Angkor Thom, then Angkor Wat. Very impressive. [According to Wikipedia: “Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world, with the site measuring… 402 acres).  It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple of god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.”]


Later, we lunched on the second floor of a restaurant under a roof with open walls. I had a delicious coconut shake.IMG_6757

Then we visited the temple I liked the most, the so far unrestored Ta Prohm. The jungle has been pushed back to make a wide path for tourists. The Ta Prohm temple consists of ruins caused to some extent by huge trees called “spung trees,” that have wrapped themselves around the stones and statues like a protector—or a monster. The tree trunks stretch outward from the ground in narrow strips, attaching to the rocks. This is a picture of a spung tree.

I enjoyed the six others on the trip. We (except one woman, a friend of mine) are all friends of our trip facilitator Jane, whom I met in my writing group. The group is congenial. We are all progressives so we have much in common, especially around our views of President Trump’s policies. To the right is a photo of the women on the trip. There were five women and two men.



We drove back to the hotel for a few hours’ rest. On the way we stopped at an upscale art gallery with some lovely teak statues, jewelry,  knickknacks. I would have loved to purchase one of the teak statues. Just a passing fancy. (It was $950 including shipping.)

At the hotel I showered and repacked, which I had to do every evening for about five days until I finally got myself organized.




Dinner was provided at a huge restaurant with rows of tables and a stage, where we saw some Cambodian performers dancing“Apsara,” an ancient dance going back to the 12th century. According to  Khmer mythology, Apsara is performed by nymphs in heaven.






Back at the hotel I asked at the front desk for someone to  get my TV remote to work. A young clerk came back to the room with me and he was eager to talk so we conversed for a few minutes. According to the clerk, he’s a freshman college student, studying English literature, law, and public administration. When he was young, his parents were taken away by the Khmer Rouge and put to work in the fields and later killed by bombs of the Khmer Rouge, he said. His brothers are also gone—one killed by the Khmer Rouge, the other disappeared.

He said the government is corrupt, and he would like to get in there and change things. He makes $90 a month working at our hotel—not enough to live on. So he works another job part-time. He maintained that you have to pay the corrupt government a lot of money to get your legal license so he may not be able to become a lawyer.

After the clerk left, I watched television in English. I switched between BBC, Al Jazeera, CBS, CNN, Deutsche Welle (DW),  and RT. At this and most of our hotels, there were quite a few channels in English and others with English subtitles.

February 1, 2017. Day 3. Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

We took the bus to the airport in Siem Riep and flew to Phnom Penh. I sat next to a man who is a lawyer for the government. He told me that he earns quite a bit of money—for example, for a lecture he can earn $30. And if he gives three lectures a day, he does very well. I was telling him what our guide had told us about a teacher making $300 or $400 a month. He said that if the wife also works, it comes to a lot more money. He said that a lot of people make money by buying property and building on it, and renting the houses they build. He admitted that he himself did that. I can’t remember what he said about corruption in the government, but our two guides told us there was a lot of corruption. Working for the government, the man on the airplane probably has a different point of view.

Our two guides here in Cambodia have made negative comments about the Vietnamese–for one thing because the Vietnamese occupied Cambodia over the years. I believe the guides said that other countries, such as Japan and China, had concessions to mine and develop in Cambodia, in exchange for helping build infrastructure. But one guide showed us how after only several years, the road we were on had deteriorated. They both implied that bribes were given to the government, which kept the money in exchange for these concessions. The president of Cambodia has been in office for many years and will probably be there for life. The guides said that the elections were rigged, despite their monitoring by the United Nations and other countries.

[According to Wikipedia: “Hun Sen is the Prime Minister of Cambodia. He has served as Prime Minister since 1985, making him the longest serving head of government of Cambodia, and one of the longest serving leaders in the world. Born Hun Bunal, he changed his name to Hun Sen in 1972 two years after joining the Khmer Rouge.

“Hun Sen was 32 years old when he became prime minister, making him at that time the world’s youngest head of government. He has been described as a ‘wily operator who destroys his political opponents’, or as a dictator who has assumed authoritarian power in Cambodia using violence, intimidation and corruption to maintain his power base. Hun Sen has accumulated highly centralized power in Cambodia, including a personal guard said to have capabilities rivalling those of the country’s regular army. The former Khmer Rouge commander has consolidated his grip on power through a web of patronage and military force’.”]

After lunch at the hotel, we visited the Khmer Rouge museum. We walked from room to room through the school that had been converted into the prison. We saw the cells and some of the torture implements. On the walls were hundreds of individual small photos of the shackled victims, who had been interrogated, tortured, put to work in the fields, and/or assassinated. There were children, girls, women, and mostly men. I took lots of pictures, and these will tell the story better than this journal can. There was also a place for meditating after seeing all this, called the Lotus room.




This museum was so tragic and moving, especially the pictures of the children. Everyone should see their faces.

We had to drive a long way through the streets to get to this museum, almost colliding with hundreds of scooters. There is no consideration for pedestrians, no crosswalks, no traffic lights or stop signs. Colorful buildings, a lot of construction, masses of electrical and phone wire tangles above the streets from building to building. Rush hour. Scooters or bicycles everywhere. One evening we were crossing the street and I crossed a little later than the others. About ten scooters and cars and tuk tuks  came towards me and around me like waves. You have to keep walking. One second pause and they drive right around you, within inches. In fact, you can touch them. They brush your clothes, they are so close.





Dinner was at a lovely restaurant. We were entertained by a man on a xylophone-like instrument. The music was atonal. There were two Ansara dancers—excellent! Hand and finger movement so flexible.

The pumpkin soup was the best I had yet. I also drank a Cambodian beer and a raspberry shake, and had a mozzarella and tomato salad. (The latter Western fare I just couldn’t resist.)


We returned to the hotel and watched a little news in English in our rooms. All about Trump. The acting attorney general refused to accept his ban on people entering from the seven countries, so he fired her. California declared it wouldn’t comply with attacks on immigrants. A California federal judge declared the ban illegal. On the trip we were preoccupied with Trump.

The hotel lobby was beautiful, but my room, although attractive, had some plumbing problems. I slept well, however.

[Notes on hotels: Some differences from American hotels: Tissues are small and thin. There is a digital door card, which you place in a slot when you enter; this turns on the electricity. There are no washcloths. Usually there is good lighting. The beds were all hard, but I got used to them. Probably better for the back.]

February 2. Day 4. Phnom Penh to Chau Doc to Can Tho

We took a boat down the Mekong River and visited a silk farm in Koh Dach, Cambodia. Silk worms are farmed. We saw the procedure from beginning to end. We saw the worms, which were then hung from trees to build cocoons.  The worms were fed by mulberry tree leaves. Apparently, a cocoon can make a string of silk 100 metes long!  Then we saw women weavers at wooden looms. At the gift store, I bought a lovely silk shawl with an elephant pattern.

IMG_6940     IMG_6944     IMG_6945   IMG_6948IMG_6941IMG_6958IMG_6954




 We continued on the boat to Can Tho from Phnom Penh. It was a long day but especially the last stretch was moving to me. I sat outside in the open breeze and thought about how I could never have imagined myself being here on this boat on the Mekong.


February 3, 2017. Day 5.  CanTho to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as many Vietnamese still say)

Currency = dong. $1 = about 20,000 dong

Today we drove many miles to get to Ho Chi Minh City. It is interesting driving through the towns. One town runs into another, with no break – evidence of the urbanization of the villages and countrysides, occurring all over the world as people flee the countryside to seek work in the overcrowded cities. Traffic jams are caused by the hundreds of scooters carrying kids and their parents. There are one to four people on each scooter. Often there are babies and small toddlers. Many faces were masked to protect them from fumes. Adults are required to wear helmets, but children apparently aren’t. Our guide said that they don’t make helmets that small, hard to believe.

The motorcycles weaved in and out around our bus. It’s amazing that we didn’t see any accidents. On this bus in Vietnam, we had seat belts. On the sides of the roads were many kiosks and some buildings. Some of the farms had graves with headstones of the relatives on the property, making it difficult for their children to ever sell it. Which is what their parents want, apparently.

February 4, 2017. Day 6. Saturday. Ho Chi Minh City

On this excursion we found out a lot about the incredible resourcefulness and cleverness of the NLF (or Vietcong, as the Vietnamese called them, at least to us). We visited the tunnels used by the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong during the war. The creativity of these resistance fighters is remarkable. They dug holes to hide and live in during the war. The tunnels had kitchens, and the Vietcong had devised clever ways to get the smoke to go sideways instead of up. We got to go down through one narrow entrance and walk through the tunnel into the kitchen. I had to duck my head. The tunnels sometimes had three levels.







They also devised, and now displayed,  traps for GIs trying to enter. The traps used metal stakes and prongs, designed to maim or kill.          






We have “over 100,000 vets,” our guide Tran told us. There were landmines on the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. Tran had a loud voice, was authoritative and knowledgeable. We had a discussion with him on the bus about Cambodia and Vietnam, as the Cambodians had expressed dislike of the Vietnamese due to colonization, etc.

We visited the War Remnants Museum, which had pictures of the torture implements and victims at a torture center by the French, I believe. Outside there was a display of the actual large vehicles used by the American such as jeeps, tanks, bulldozers, helicopters, and planes.

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Then we went upstairs to a beautiful exhibit about international photographers during the war. Pictures of them and their war photographs were displayed, enlarged, up on the wall. Then smaller prints with captions and other information in Vietnamese and English sat on a counter below. The brief information on each gave a good overview of various aspects of the war.

On the drive home we visited the “Notre Dame” Cathedral, built by the French, and the Municipal Post Office, which looked like Union Station in Los Angeles.

Here in Ho Chi Minh City, we are staying in the most expensive district, according to our guide. We ate dinner at the Rex Hotel, which had been used by foreign correspondents during the Vietnam War, or American War, as the Vietnamese call it. The waiter showed us photos on his smart phone of the hotel the way it was back in those days. Now it is very elegant and pricey. We sat on the roof and bought drinks, which cost about $10 each–a lot of money for Vietnam. We had cocktails, wine, and beer. We didn’t eat much—that was our supper. (Sic of the people in my group like to drink a lot. I do too but had trouble keeping up with them.)

I have ordered a watermelon milkshake and a coconut milk shake so far. They are delicious!

There were some sprinkles and a lot of overcast sky today. The first two days it was very warm and humid. [Note: The rest of the trip consisted of comfortable weather. Some days we were even cold. We lucked out with the weather!]

February 5, 2017. Day 7. Ho Chi Minh City to Hue.

Breakfast at the hotels is ample. It involves soups, pho, yogurt, bread, all kinds of snacks with meat and without. There is fresh fruit, such as watermelon. There is an area where they cook eggs to order. Another counter has coffee and tea. (No decaf anywhere, though.)

Arrived in Hue by plane from Ho Chi Minh City. We met our new guide named Tuong. He’s very young, personable, speaks good English but doesn’t understand a lot.

At a supermarket I bought a watch for seven dollars—which is 140,000 dong (20,000 Vietnamese dong = $1)—because the hotel rooms don’t have clocks, and I don’t want to have to look at my cell phone all the time to see the time. Cambodia accepted American money to pay for everything, but Vietnam only accepts dongs, except in the most expensive tourist hotels or restaurants.

Crossing the street was a harrowing experience. Cars here don’t stop for pedestrians, either. They just drive around them. Or they come at them as though they’re going to hit them.

We had lunch at a lovely place that served beautiful food sculptures of ducks and peacocks, I believe. I ordered egg rolls that came on toothpicks stuffed into a pineapple shell with incense burning inside the shell.

February 6, 2017. Monday. Day 8. Hue.

So far the gut bugs have left me alone.

Took a ride in the boat down the so-called “Perfume” River (Huong River) today. Saw beautiful mountains in the distance. We visited the mausoleum of one of the emperors, and another temple.

Jan and I had a foot massage in the hotel for half an hour, and after that I ran for half an hour on the treadmill in the hotel gym.

February 7, 2017, Tuesday. Day 9. Hue to Ha Noi.

We transferred to the airport for the flight to Hanoi. We visited the Museum of Ethnology.

Some statistics on Vietnam:

  • 90 million people live in Vietnam.
  • 90% of them are Buddhist, at least in north Vietnam.
  • Their form of Buddhism comes from India and Japan.
  • After the American War, there were 30 million people.
  • About 4 1/2 million people lost their lives in the American War.
  • 7 million people live in Hanoi.
  • There are 5 million scooters in Hanoi.
  • There are 48 million scooters in Vietnam.
  • In the entire world there are 200 million scooters.
  • The biggest investors in Vietnam our first Japan second South Korea third China.
  • The Red River runs from southwestern China to the Gulf of Tonkin. It is winding and has freighters and surrounds Hanoi.
  • Thank you is “cam ure.”
  • Hello is “xin chao.”
  • There are 53 minorities in Vietnam.
  • In Indochina there were three countries. The capital was Hanoi. Indochina was divided up by the French.
  • There are 2 million Hmong. They are also to be found in the United States, France, Myanmar, etc. They originally came from China.
  • Some of the other minorities are Thai or Tay (no relationship to Thailand), Tho, Mon-Khmers, Viet (King) majority.
  • Before the 1990s, 90% of Vietnamese were farmers. Today only 68%.
  • We saw videos of the mother gods, who are Buddhist,–the sky, the mountains, the earth and water.
  • The museum had many displays behind glass and videos of the different nationalities and the dances of the mother gods or mediums and their veneration by the people.

We had lunch next to the museum, where I had a delicious banana shake.

In the afternoon we visited the so-called Hanoi Hilton, the prison in Hanoi where Americans were held. Most of them were pilots whose planes were shot down. John McCain was imprisoned here during the war. Kerry also stayed here in 1968 for three months. When he returned he protested the prison.

In 1995 Clinton imposed an embargo against Vietnam. When Obama came into office, he finally ended the embargo(after 20 years!). The Vietnamese can now buy weapons from all over, said our guide proudly. Great!

In the war 58,000 American GIs and 4 million Vietnamese died. In 1968 there were 500,000 GIs in Vietnam. Hanoi was the capital of French Indochina. From 1858 to 1945 the French were in Vietnam. They left as a result of the Geneva Convention but returned in 1954.

In the Hanoi Hilton according to the photos and captions, 65 to 72 U.S. pilots were held. According to the museum, they were well-treated within the prison. Pictures were displayed of GIs playing pool, ping-pong, etc., although they were probably posed. In 1973 there was a prisoner exchange.IMG_7449

February 8, 2017. Day 10. Hanoi

Today we visited the Women’s Museum. Many women were imprisoned and died during the American War, even those under 18. They are called Heroic Women, and there are many portraits and a mosaic on the walls. One survivor today makes organic tea. Women had to carry 30 kg of rice on their shoulders and to give birth in tunnels. There were also pictures of women goddesses and mediums dancing.

After lunch we rode down the river in rowboats, propelled by our oarsman using his feet on the oars.

We went through large limestone caves. It was beautiful. Two people to a boat. It was a two-hour drive to the boat, past many rice fields and palaces (so-called) of richer people. We passed cows and steers one of which walked slowly across the street in front of our van.


February 9, 2017. Day 11. Hanoi to Halong Bay

This morning we left the hotel at 7:45 to travel two hours to Ha Long Bay. We transferred to a junk and checked into our rooms. We have outside rooms, very comfortable and elegant, as all our hotels have been. Lunch was served on board the boat, which drifted between the limestone “islands” which make up the bay. I sat up on deck, so peaceful and quiet. Then we took a boat to a rowboat, which took us to Fisherman’s Village, then to a beach, and finally back to the junk, where I sat on deck and watched the islands, then had happy hour with Pat and Preston.  We stayed overnight on the junk.

February 10, 2017. Day 12. Halong Bay back to Hanoi.

After tea and pastries on the boat (they even offered Tai Chi at 7:30, which was too early for me), we cruised to a beautiful bay. The limestone formations are absolutely spectacular. We had lunch on the boat before checking out late morning. We motored back to the harbor and climbed into the bus back to Hanoi. We arrived about 5pm in Hanoi.


Money:  8000 Kip = $1.00

February 11, 2017. Day 13. Hanoi to Vientiane, Laos.

The next morning we flew to Vientiane in Laos and saw still more temples, statues of Buddha, and stupas (dome-shaped structures erected as Buddhist shrines).

February 12, 2017. Day 14. Vientiane to Xiengkhuang (Plain of Jars)

Before our departure, Maya and Jan and I walked through a large interesting native market; i.e., not catering to tourists so more authentic. We saw live tiny frogs in a big basket and live chickens tied by the neck onto a bicycle.

Live chickens hanging from scooter at market

About noon we took a 30-minute flight from a small, easy-to-access plane terminal, with just one gate. We arrived in a place called Xieng Khuang. At every terminal upon our arrival, we meet our new guide, who is standing at the exit with a sign that says “Jane Hallinger group.”

From here we drove to the Plain of Jars, an archaeological site heavily bombed during the war. We entered a museum with pictures of the area and of the craters and of some of the injured people. There still remain  thousands of unexploded ordinance (UXO) in the ground that causes severe risk of injury or death. The Laotians call them “bombies.” We went into one of the large caves used by the people for shelter during the bombing of Laos. People lived here. There was a hole at the top of the cave for ventilation. This cave was finally bombed and people lost their shelter there.


We also saw some of the craters. Then we walked out onto the plain and say the huge jars, many of them broken, probably through the bombing. The bombies have been cleared in the areas that the tourists walk in (thank Buddha).


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Afterwards we sat in the basement of the museum and watched a very powerful film in English about the bombing of Laos by the United States and about the way that outsiders, especially one woman from Scandinavia, and the Laotian people are working together to solve this problem. A program of childhood education, utilizing puppets, has been established about the dangers of the ordinance. It was suggested that the United States, who is responsible, should provide a type of Marshall plan for Laos, the poorest country in Indochina.

The movie explained some of the reasons for the bombing of Laos. More tons of bombs were dropped there than in the entire World War II. First, the Ho Chi Minh Trail passed along the border of Laos. Second, the U.S. wanted to attack the Laotian Communists.  And third, if the pilots hadn’t dropped all their load onto Vietnam, they would fly over Laos and randomly drop ordinance because it was dangerous to land their planes back in Thailand or wherever while carrying these bombs.


It seems that Laos was treated with disdain in general by many countries for years. It was seen as a backwater, and humans were discounted. To see what the United States did to that country by secretly bombing them more than any other country including those in World War II, and then to see the United States paying only a pittance towards defusing the bombies or helping the country recover economically, is enraging.

February 13, 2017. Day 15. Xieng Khaung, Laos to Luang Prabang, Laos

We spent the night in Xieng Khaung, Laos, and then took a 265 km and 7-hour drive from XK to Luang Prabang. On the way we drove up a mountain past forests and communities of native villagers. We exited the van at a Hmong village and took pictures of the villagers and listened to our guide tell us about them. The people were very agreeable to our taking pictures of them. Even the women bathing at a waterfall said it was OK. (Of course, they had shorts and tops on.)

Hmong children    Girl and baby

According to our guide, people in the village do not go to school because there is no school nearby. They start work when they are about seven years old. It is an agricultural society, there is one rice harvest a year because the area doesn’t have as much rain as other areas. The houses here are mainly thatched huts, some stone or wood, built precariously on the sides of steep hills. The scenery was spectacular.

The house we entered had only one room with a fire pit on the floor for cooking, and one bed where a baby and a woman were sleeping. There was a long bench against a wall. I saw no running water, no stove, no fridge. I can’t imagine living like that, but I’m not clear that this was their only living space because my pictures seem to show more extensive rooms.

Corn hanging from ceiling Hmong home     CACCA843-7C27-4E31-9F39-165B30B64478


The guide said that the Hmong people are polygamists and are allowed to have up to seven wives. But that makes no sense—how could there possibly be enough women for each man to have two or more each? Also, where would they all sleep? Where would all their kids sleep? When I asked the guide about it, he said that the Hmong have many more girls than boys. Well, I sure don’t believe that. The ratio worldwide is about the same, as far as I know, with 51% girls to 49% boys. It was hard to take the guide seriously sometimes.

The guide was joking around with the owner of the house about the polygamy. They said Laotian women didn’t make as much noise during sex, compared to American women (at which point he briefly imitated an “American woman” having an orgasm). It was funny but also kind of disgusting, and totally unbelievable.

The people are mainly rice growers and rice eaters, along with game they catch. They have hunting dogs. They don’t eat many veggies, the guide said, but I am guessing that they grow fruit and veggies in their yards or in vacant areas between houses.

We drove past a lot of villages. Some of the houses were made out of cement, or had cement foundations, some were made out of wood, and some out of thatch.

The day was slightly overcast. Driving down the mountain we saw a beautiful sunset.

I enjoyed this drive, despite its length, because I was immersed in the mountains and could see the homes of the native peoples. Some of the villages had children with backpacks and school uniforms.

(Maya a few days later met two male Hmong students and had a conversation with them. They were studying English in Luang Prabang and preparing to be tour guides. One was named “Year” (spelled differently, of course) and has family in Fresno.)

We arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos around 7:30, a nine-hour trip when you factor in meals and stops. We were exhausted. The rest had dinner and went right up to bed. I didn’t have dinner because my cold is so bad, but later I got so hungry that I went downstairs. Unfortunately, the dining room was closed and there were no vending machines. With much difficulty,  the front-desk clerk figured out what “snack” meant, after having me write it down and then looking it up in his dictionary. Then he asked me, “Like papaya?” I nodded yes and a little while later a large plate of all kinds of fruit was brought to my door. Jackfruit, papaya, apples, pineapple, and banana.

February 14, 2017. Day 16. Luang Prabang, Laos

After breakfast I decided not to go on the tour of various temples and the national Museum with artifacts from the Lao culture. My cold was so bad that I just wanted to stay in and sleep. Also, I was satiated with temples. After sleeping most of the morning and part of the afternoon, I went out for a walk by myself. I told myself that wherever I turned left, I would turn right on the way back, and vice versa. I wandered into a large market, catering only to tourists. I asked the young saleswoman for a banana. She passed two of them over the counter and with a charming smile said, “For you it costs nothing.” I protested but she insisted. I’m not sure what that was about, but I felt honored.

Of course I got lost anyway. I kept telling myself that it was an adventure, even though anxiety persisted in asserting herself. But I was right, it did become an adventure: I saw a Social Security office and poked my head in. There was a large room with several desks. The one in the middle was staffed by a Laotian man in his 30s, maybe. I poked my head in, and he said to enter, but I saw flip-flops and other footwear lined up on the steps. So I asked if I should take my shoes off, too, but he said no.

He spoke passable English and he spent time drawing me a map of how to return to my hotel. I was confused but set out anyway.

Me on scooter with Laotian friend

 Just then the Laotian clerk came up to me on his scooter and asked me if I’d like a ride to my hotel!  So I climbed on, held on to his waist, and away we rode.

I am moved to tears by how nice Laotians are. Laos, one of the poorest countries in the world, was welcoming and kind to Americans, even though we bombed them to hell and left them with a deadly legacy of unexploded ordinance.

Many of the hotels have had CNN, DW (deutsche Welle), Al Jazeera, RT, and others in English. So most of us have enjoyed watching these channels and finding out what president Trump is up to now. I also enjoy finding out about what’s going on in the rest of the world through these channels.

February 15, 2017. Day 17. Luang Prabang to Bangkok, Thailand.

We flew into Bangkok, after going through security and customs. I had googled the night before about hospitals in Bangkok because I wanted to see if I had an infection and needed antibiotics. I found one hospital that seemed outstanding. It was called Bumrungrad International Hospital. I called them before leaving the hotel in Luang Prabang and made an appointment for 5 pm.

Maya offered to accompany me and I didn’t protest. Upon arrival in Bangkok, we went to the gate where the free! shuttle bus leaves the airport for the hospital, which is about an hour ride away, depending on traffic. We rode through the city and its snarly traffic, past skyscrapers. It was reminiscent of downtown Los Angeles, except for the many scooters.

We finally entered the huge modern hospital and went to register on the second floor, before proceeding up to the third floor. There I had to wait about fifteen minutes before Dr. Nut could see me. (I’m relieved his name wasn’t Dr. Quack.) He was young and very professional. After examining me, he diagnosed an infection and prescribed antibiotics.

I asked Dr. Nut where to go to pick up the meds, and he said it’s not done like in the U.S.  No, they bring them to you, he said. So we sat for a few minutes in the waiting room until they called me to the desk to dispense them–antibiotics and a number of over-the-counter drugs for relief of symptoms. The nurse explained the use of each one. Then I paid the fee: only $120 for everything—the exam and all those meds. I thought that was pretty inexpensive.

Maya and I had dinner at the hospital and then got a taxi back to the hotel.

February 16, 2017. Day 18. Bangkok to Los Angeles.

At the airport the next day, after a wait-over at Xieng Khouang, China again, we boarded our China Southern airplane. I wanted to stay awake to avoid jet lag. Maya sat next to me. I didn’t want to talk much because I didn’t want to give her my infection. I wore a cloth mask much of the time by now; I felt like a native. So Maya and I watched five movies in a row. Every one of them was good! They were:

“The Whole Truth” (American) about an American defense lawyer.
“Ki and Ka” (Indian) about gender roles in marriage. Musical.
“Fortune Favors the Brave” (German) about two Vietnamese immigrant kids and a German kid who gets to know them.
“Macho Man” (German) about a social misfit who falls for a Turkish woman.
“C.R.A.Z.Y.” (French/Canadian) about an estranged gay man who returns home to his family to tell them he’s dying.

It was a wonderful trip—fun and educational and moving. I’m so glad I went to Southeast Asia. It has enriched my life so much, and now I have the travel bug. Can’t wait for my next trip. Actually, I’m not waiting. I’m off to Costa Rica in April!

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My Experience with Cooperatives

by Jabari Jones

Jabari Jones is a worker-owner of the Arizmendi Bakery & Pizzeria, a worker owned and run cooperative in the Bay Area of California. He can be reached at:

I have been a member of a worker cooperative called Arizmendi Bakery & Pizzeria, located in Emeryville, CA, for over four years.  During my time at Arizmendi, I have evolved as a worker-owner and taken a keen interest in the local, national and international cooperative movement.  This seminar was an informative and eye-opening experience.

I went to Mondragόn in September of 2012  with a goal of learning more about how the co-op movement developed in the Basque country, how it has adapted to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and to learn more about the internal business culture and key institutions that support the co-ops.  I hope to use what I’ve learned to help the Bay Area co-op movement grow and thrive, particularly in communities that are predominantly poor/unemployed/underemployed and people of color.  I believe that economic security is a precondition of social justice and political power, and that by increasing and socializing economic security through worker-cooperatives we can transform our society into a system that benefits all, not just the top 1% of the economic ladder.

Prior to the seminar, I had read several articles about the Mondragόn Cooperative Corporation (MCC) that gave rosy, glowing reviews of the complex, and very few that were more critical and probing.  Seeing the MCC in its context (social, political, geographical, etc.), and having the opportunity to dig beneath surface appearances answered many questions and raised new questions.  I was the only seminar participant that was a member of a worker co-op, so I had a basic familiarity with the dynamics of democratic ownership.  However, I relished the chance to get out of my ‘fish bowl,” stepping outside of my limited experience and challenging my assumptions about co-ops in general and MCC in particular.  In addition, the seminar brought together a diverse group of participants that engaged in robust dialogue and networking that has resulted in working groups of cooperative activists and leaders with an array of expertise and interests.

One of the aspects of the seminar that made an impression on me was the intentional development of corporate management, leadership, and cultural evaluation and management that is facilitated by Otalora, Mondragόn’s management training center.  In my cooperative experience, I have witnessed a resistance to hierarchical management, leadership, consistency, and enforcing standards and policies.  I think that these typical attributes of business organization and management are identified as ‘authoritarian’ and are rejected as such.  In other words, there’s a contradiction between the desire to be ‘our own bosses’ and a rejection of the administrative responsibilities of the ‘boss’ role where they may impose on personal autonomy.  There is a reactionary, libertarian spirit that resists authority, for valid reasons, but has the tendency to overreact sometimes in the name of preserving personal autonomy at the expense of collective unity and success.  The cooperative model offers people a space to learn how to relate to one another without an authority figure, so anti-authoritarianism is an essential aspect of coops.  In my view, problems arise when an individualistic attitude positions itself in opposition to the need for strong organization and production standards, a balance between autonomy and teamwork, and a balance of entitlements and responsibilities.  The leader-as-facilitator can be confused with leader-as-dictator.  There need not be this binary relationship between liberty and organization, but years of pro-neoliberal capitalist, anti-communist/socialist propaganda has reinforced this false consciousness of individualist freedom vs. collectivist slavery.  Work needs to be done to deconstruct the myths that support this reaction against forms of management, and move towards a theory and practice of non-authoritarian cooperative leadership in a business environment.  In this way, we can address concerns about economies of scale, and how to retain cooperative values in large organizations such as the MCC.  From what I saw, Otalora seems like a key institution, and I hope something like it emerges in the Bay Area to cultivate cooperative business leaders.  However, there nevertheless seem to be conflicts between workers and managers within the MCC, and I regret we did not have the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Social Councils which represent the interests of the workers.  We learned that only 28% of managers in the MCC are women, which reveals the patriarchal nature of Basque society.  I think that the Bay Area coop movement can do better to promote diversity in all roles.

There are certainly other tendencies that attract people to join worker coops, such as the belief in egalitarianism and social justice through economic development, but I think this anti-authoritarian attitude plays a negative role that draws momentum away (and drives potential leaders and specialists away) from growing the business.  In my co-op, I’ve seen several members leave out of frustration or demoralization, take their knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit with them, and start their own businesses.  At the same time, there is a tendency to shy away from taking on the responsibilities of a leader or manager for fear of being perceived as ‘bossy’.  To be fair, I believe this attitude towards leadership is a natural and valid reaction when we consider how people are affected by, and internalize, the authoritarian, competitive, coercive, hierarchical behaviors and structure of most workplaces, and our society in general.  Cooperation, it seems to me, is an action and a relationship that is manifested through a set of learned social skills.  The existence of the training program at Otalora has convinced me that cooperation can be learned and deployed in the field of management to effectively help businesses succeed.

I foresee that the pressures of the current economic crisis and the opportunity that it presents to the coop movement will force us to re-evaluate our internal cultures, and how we define leadership and power in a democratic workplace.  I believe we need leaders and teamwork to grow the coop movement by facilitating a rooting of conventional business management skills in cooperative values.  I was intrigued by how the MCC deliberately invested in developing business management training and structures because of their usefulness, though they acknowledge the challenges to democratic participation posed by hierarchical organization in large-scale corporations.  In addition, the ways in which the MCC has adapted to remain profitable in a highly competitive and rapidly changing, globalized capitalist system have presented a major challenge to the cooperative principles of the MCC, and strained the meaning of ‘cooperation’ when it comes to worker/manager relations.

Besides leadership training, cultural evaluation and management, I learned that other keys to the success and resiliency of the MCC include their focus on strategic job growth and intercooperativity.  In my co-op, we are currently engaged in a discussion of interrelated issues including hiring practices, workflow efficiency, not meeting demand, and the challenges of growing our business in a troubled economy.  The seminar exposed me to conventional business practices such as strategic planning and total quality control.  I was impressed with how the MCC tracks trends, shifts human resources from industries in mature markets to growing markets, and invests in the Mondragόn University as an entrepreneurial and start-up incubator.  Most importantly, I want to impress upon my fellow worker-owners the importance of always putting people first and investing in education and innovation.  This is important in order to remain competitive, profitable, and employing as many people as possible.  I feel that many worker-owners, myself included, lack ongoing professional business training.  As a result, worker-owners can become shortsighted by appreciating the short-term gains (a paycheck, benefits, etc.) and losing sight of the long-term mission (socializing knowledge and wealth, full employment, and so on).  I believe we need to put successful, conventional business practices to work for us, and invest in ongoing professional development.

The principle of intercooperativity is not new to me, but it was very educational to see it in practice in the MCC.  Mondragόn has designed their cooperative complex so that no one cooperative is directly competing against another, and also grounded themselves in sound business practices to shape mutually beneficial coop interrelations.  For example, one coop might buy products or services from another coop, but only if the product or service is of good quality, competitively priced, and comes with good support services.  If the coop cannot meet all of these criteria, the buyer will search elsewhere.  I think this is very sensible, and ensures that all of the coops are buying and selling the most competitive and best quality product, which ultimately promotes profitability, growth, and job security.

In addition to the individualist, anti-authoritarian attitude I described above, I sense there is also a latent anti-corporate sentiment in the coop community.  There are valid reasons for rejecting the corporation as we know it- systematic wealth inequality, irresponsible behavior, imposing the sovereignty of capital over labor, corrupting the political process with money, unaccountable power, waste and fraud- and there are reasons to utilize dynamic aspects of the corporate business form that can be grounded in cooperative principles.  Cooperativists in the Bay Area should constantly reevaluate the implicit and explicit values held within each coop, and the efficacy of their values and business strategies to yield the best possible result.  This follows the example set by the Mondragόn cooperativists who consider the importance of practical steps toward results as paramount to ideals.  As business co-owners, we need to be honest and aware of values, attitudes and practices that are empowering or self-defeating, and equip ourselves with the best business management tools, and nurture a constructive culture.  We must also become more interconnected to pool resources, share data and best practices, and provide support services to improve the lives of worker-owners and reduce business failure and job loss.  Furthermore, we should think beyond the monetary bottom line and consider how our businesses can be a resource in our surrounding neighborhoods by providing support for community-sustaining activities.

Father Arizmendiarrieta understood the importance of building social institutions, including schools, which would support the communities in which the worker-owners lived and raised families.  A strong and invested community is the basis of any successful social movement.  We must build these institutions wherever they are missing, and form partnerships with existing institutions.  For example, I am currently in a dialogue with two local non-profits to create proposals for internship programs in my coop bakery.  If these pilot programs are successful, I hope to build an advanced program to incubate new cooperatives that are focused on community service while providing employment.

In conclusion, I want to balance my critique of cooperative culture by saying that I have never been more satisfied, felt more empowered or respected, and been more fairly compensated at any other job, and I’m proud to be a worker-owner at Arizmendi.  I’ve also never worked with such a diverse group of people who bring with them special skills, egalitarian values, and a lot of heart.  We put love into our work, we struggle with personal demons, and we strive to overcome obstacles to cooperation and connection.  I feel that the Bay Area has a special opportunity to create successful models of anti-authoritarian, anti-oppressive, feminist, robustly democratic, multicultural, socially conscious and responsible cooperative businesses.  We can accomplish this by building support institutions like those that exist in Mondragόn, and build a cooperative business complex in a manner that is sustainable, practical, liberating and has an uplifting effect on the whole society.  This movement will require communication, courage, honesty, transparency, trust, and an understanding that cooperation is an ongoing process.  Because the Bay Area is so diverse, we have the opportunity to fully express the beauty of our multicultural community, to find unity within diversity, and exploit the current systemic crisis of capitalism as an opportunity to open up the economy for the benefit of all.

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Mondragón: One Step Beyond Capitalism

By Gus diZerega

Gus diZerega holds a Ph.D. in political science has taught in universities. He is an active Praxis member, writes two blogs online, and is a major contributor to the Praxis book, “Uncivil Liberties: Exposing Libertarianism.” His two blogs are:

From September 8 to 14, 2012 I joined Praxis Peace Institute’s study-tour of the worker owned Mondragon Cooperatives in the Basque Country of northern Spain. The purpose was to expose Americans to the reality of what an economy of worker owned and operated businesses actually looks like. It was an eye opener and this is the first of several posts I will do on my experience.

Much of the Basque region is a land of heavily forested mountains laced with narrow valleys, and the town of Mondragon (Arrasate in Basque) is nestled within one of them. The region is extraordinarily beautiful. The valley in which Mondragon lies is filled with factories, apartments, and a string of small towns that runs on for miles. I was amazed at the density of development along the valley floor.

As many know, Spain is in the midst of a major economic crisis, brought about by the same financial interests that have done so much damage to our own country. The country’s unemployment level is around 24-25%. One reason I wanted to go this year was to see how the Mondragon co-operatives were handling this crisis.

The Basque Country overall is in better shape. The region exports to Europe as a whole rather then focusing mostly on the Spanish market, and so is suffering much less. Their unemployment, I was told, was around 12%. And in the Mondragon co-operatives?

0%. That is ZERO. There are no unemployed cooperative members. This region is now the most prosperous in Spain, but before the cooperatives were created it was the poorest. It is hard to farm beautiful mountain scenery.

The Achievement
The transformation began in 1941 when Father Jose Arizmendiarrieta (usually called Father Arizmendi) was assigned to serve in the poverty stricken town of Mondragón. Franco was securely in power as a right wing dictator friendly with neighboring fascist regimes. Two years later Fr. Arizmendi started a small technical school (there were only 7000 people in Mondragon at the time). He used it to combine technical training with Catholic social teachings emphasizing the human side of production and our ethical immersion in society. The school was the incubator for all that happened afterwards.

Some years later, with five graduates from this school, Fr. Arizmendi established a small cooperative to make kerosene stoves. The enterprise prospered and gradually new cooperatives were formed. Father Arizmendi also established Caja Laboral, a credit union that served as the financial enabler for the expansion of Mondragon cooperatives as well as organizing its social welfare programs for members. The credit union was also a cooperative and now has over 390 branches throughout Spain. It has grown to become one of the country’s largest and most viable banks.

With the crucial support of Caja Laboral, the Mondragon cooperatives have grown to include over 80,000 worker owners of over 250 cooperatives. They include Eroski, a very large country wide retail and grocery chain, and the technical school, which has grown into Mondragon University.

All this has occurred in worker owned enterprises where top pay for managers and other skilled workers is never more than 6 times that of the lowest paid worker. (At one time it was 8 times at the bank, but I understand that it is now in keeping with the cooperatives as a whole.) Today Mondragon’s cooperatives are arranged in four areas: industry, finance, retail and knowledge. Each cooperative’s members own and direct the enterprise and choose and employ a managing director. Members have ultimate power over all basic decisions, including what to do with the profits.

The uniqueness of their economic organizations is reflected in their communities. While in Mondragon and neighboring towns I saw no gated communities, no mansions, and no slums. I never saw beggars, even during this time of crisis, whereas I have often heard about the frequency of beggars in Madrid and they are not unknown here in West Sonoma County. Instead, I saw some homes of usually modest size as well as many apartment blocks rarely more than five or six stories and factories and businesses seemingly on either end of the valley. The region seems solidly middle class.

Beyond Capitalism
Mondragon helps us distinguish capitalism from the market, which is an essential step to thinking clearly about the challenges and dangers facing our society here in America where the ruling elite has a powerful vested interest in making such a distinction invisible.

Capitalism is an economic system rooted in the market, but where capital rather than people are in charge. A person’s value to a capitalist business is entirely based on how they contribute to its maximizing its profit. In Mondragon’s cooperatives it is the other way around. Consider this capitalist example.

In Freeport, Illinois Mitt Romney’s vulture capitalist company, Bain, is currently closing a company that is profitable, competitive globally, and provides a decent living to 170 employees. Bain figures it can make even more money by moving the company’s activities to China. As a part of the process it is forcing its current employees to train their Chinese replacements, whom it flies in. As part of its operating strategy Bain was able to reduce severance pay for its American workers from 48 weeks to 26. The American workers will be laid off permanently by the end of the year. Merry Christmas, capitalist style.

At Mondragon the dynamic is completely different. As the cooperative enters into hard economic times companies having trouble have adopted three strategies. First, members work shorter hours, so that everyone keeps their job. Second, those nearing retirement are encouraged to take early retirement. The cooperative’s retirement and health packages are considerably better than those of Spain, and generous by any measure. Third, if a company must eventually close or radically downsize, workers are given positions in other cooperatives that are doing well, for the region is so diversified that some are growing even as others are failing. They are also given free training for new positions.

Times are hard in Mondragon today, but so far the cooperatives are proving more resilient and vastly more humane than capitalist companies that are quick to ruin lives and destroy towns in order to grab a few more bucks for their owners, who then prance around as “job creators.”

Let me be very clear here. Mondragon is a market economy. It encourages entrepreneurial innovation, indeed the cooperatives reportedly have the largest R&D centers in Europe, and there are no laws against people going into business for themselves. Some do. Other cooperatives are free to join or leave the Mondragon group. To be a member certain principles must be followed, such as the requiring no more than a 6X spread in worker incomes whereas in equivalent capitalist businesses managers pay themselves in the neighborhood of 400 times. So far as I can tell, there is nothing a ‘free market’ economist could object to and if Milton Friedman is correct and managers are trustees for investors’ money, here is serious evidence many are parasites and thieves.

Mondragon exists in a country with at least 24% unemployment and in a region with 12% unemployment, yet has an unemployment rate of 0%. Bain is forcing workers in a profitable enterprise to train their Chinese replacements and then go on unemployment with reduced benefits. At a time when sociopathy seems the guiding principle of most of America’s business elite the Mondragon example deserves to become widely known throughout this country.

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Worker-owned coops made in the U.S.A.

A new book compiled by Enrico Massetti entitled Cooperative: Made in USA: Worker-owned and consumer cooperatives in the USA may be of interest to you. You can read a long excerpt from it, see some videos, gain access to an extensive bibliography, and order it here. It includes information about both worker and consumer cooperatives. As a footnote, for all of you who read Italian, nine pages are also available online in that language as a PDF file. I haven’t ordered it yet but I plan to because it looks like an awesome job of compilation.

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California Co-op Conference 2013

The California Co-op Conference on April 5 & 6 on Wilshire Blvd.  in Los Angeles will celebrate cooperatives by sharing successes and providing the most effective ways to help strengthen and expand the cooperative movement.

Workshops will reveal how cooperatives revitalize and fortify local economies by creating jobs, housing, and locally owned businesses.  Attendees will learn how to start a new cooperative and how to develop and to strengthen their own cooperatives.  The conference offers an opportunity to engage with other cooperators and discuss ideas, experiences, and strategies. More information about the workshops including schedules can be found here.

The cost is around $200, depending on how soon you register. Check it out.

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Part V: Notes on a visit to the Mondragon worker-owner cooperative, Sept. 2012

By David and Lila Tresemer ( and

Now for some observations outside of the congratulations for their successful economic model. We would like to speak about spiritual forces. David asked one of the managers, “As your movement was begun by a Catholic priest (Arizmendiarriete), did the success of this movement bring people to the Church?” Answer: “Yes, though many belonged to the Church already. But that has ended. Now only the elderly attend Church, except for funerals, when other people come. Now half of the weddings are in the Church, and half are ‘social.’” “Social” meant outside the Church in a public setting, where the focus is on …#2 in our list at the beginning of these notes. Mondragon has changed the old Biblical polarity “you can’t serve two masters, and must choose between God (spirit) and Mammon (money).” That comes from Gospel of Matthew Chapter 6, verse 24. The polarity has become Labor (humanity) versus Money.

After this visit to Mondragon and this conversation, I view this now as a three-some:

1. LABOR – Humanity – what we do with our time, our energy, our work, and our attention. The highest value here is freedom of expression. Work is meant to benefit and enhance a sane world.

2.MONEY– as capital. If you watch money closely, you realize that it functions as an a-moral force. It simply seeks places to grow, no matter what the method – organic food and weapons are only differentiated by their ability to make more money. The characterization in the Bible of money as expressing a negative spirit – Mammon – becomes clearer when you spend time at gatherings of investors, as David occasionally does. The values there are on clearing away all regulations that have been put into place in order to protect Humanity, in order for Money to grow more freely. You can understand these conferences as servants of money. The hyper-rich think that they control money, and occasionally realize that they are the servants to money. Mondragon realizes this and insists that “money is not the master – it is the tool.” The way they do this is through cooperatives, that is, the Labor factor above.

3. SPIRIT. When you begin to understand that there is a spirit of humanity and that there is a spirit of money, you look for the greater spiritual force behind the context for all of this. Call it Gaia, or call it Mother Mary, or call it The Virgin, or call it Jesus, or call it any number of things – and then ask what are the values of that Greater Picture, that includes the earth (#4 in our original list). Don’t settle for claims of spiritual prominence by holy wars, which are demonic spirits working with money to suppress Humanity.

We realized the importance of spirit near the end of our visit when we suddenly “woke up,” so to speak, from participation in the tour – hearing speakers, taking tours of buildings and factories, talking with people, etc. – to seeing our surroundings. A key piece came from one of the translators, who said, “People from Mondragon can easily work in China or Brazil for three months or more, if they see it as temporary. However, if you ask them to move their home from one Basque valley across the hills into another Basque valley, it is quite difficult for them to do.” Aha – we looked around us and could easily sense what we had missed before – the power of an angelic presence, what some people recognize as Spirit of Place, or the archangel who acts as the Folk Soul – and especially powerful here. When you see that the cooperative movement arises to ensure the connection of people with their community and PLACE, and you realize that the angel (or archangel) or that PLACE assists in the cooperative initiatives, you get a very different sense of how exportable this idea might be. For creating a successful cooperative is not just about applying a step-wise installation manual. It requires great clarity about the support you’re getting from your community, your geographical place, and your archangel.

Even if you can’t “see” archangels, you can sense these presences. We tested the waters with our group for conversation about this sort of thing and found soon that this was not territory in which others had much experience. Or they were shy, an unfortunate by-product of the monopoly that extreme religion has created on talk about Spirit.

I also wondered about congruency. Here are people working for years, building up a good retirement fund, and then there’s that last day that they leave the factory. Several people mentioned that they don’t look back. But if they were building or creating something congruent to their culture that they’re protecting, then you would find the elders hanging around the centers of production, just because they had a passion for it. It seems that the elders don’t come back to visit the factories for washing machines. Then I wondered, “Are washing machines congruent with any culture? In fact, aren’t they actually congruent with every culture – in that everyone in a ‘developed country’ uses washing machines? Or… is there a way that they could become more congruent?” These are outstanding questions at the end of our journey.

Rudolf Steiner recommended a three-fold social organization that included:

THINKING – the sphere of culture and ideas, where the key word is freedom of expression, and the currency streams from ideas.

FEELING – the social or middle sphere of political rights, what Mondragon has cultivated in the ownership by workers of their production, and their rights in voting in their cooperatives. The key word here is equality, and the currency streams from the heart.

WILLING – the economic sphere where the key word is brotherhood/sisterhood, working together for the common good. The currency can be money, though more truthfully the currency is human energy employed in work towards a goal.

Mondragon has been very successful, though imperfectly as they admit, in realizing a balance of these three.

As we watch the imbalances in the several models that we presented, in the primacy of OWNERS in Part I and the primacy of MONEY in this Part V, we see that this experiment in human organization has much to recommend it, and we wish it great success – both in the valleys of the Basque country and the other places in the world where it’s being tried.

End of notes from our trip of September 2012

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