By Khevin Barnes

In recent days, as the Covid travel bans have been cautiously lifted, many of my neighbors here in Vail have eagerly booked vacations, cruises and other travel plans. A few of my friends are aware of the fact that I have been fortunate to visit 50 or so countries on our planet, and I’m sometimes asked what my favorite places were. What stood out in my travels, and why?

Interestingly, it wasn’t the Taj Mahal in India, the Fjords of Norway, Red Square in Russia, or the prehistoric caves in France. It wasn’t the Acropolis in Greece, the jungles in the Amazon or the Great Wall in China. All of these wonders of the world were beautiful sights of course, but my greatest memories will always be of some amazing people I met along the way.

Back in 1989 I was a 39 year old working magician. I had my own business and owned my first home. My car was paid off. Life was good.
But then I had a nutty idea.

I was married at the time but we had no children. I would soon be 40 years old and with each passing year, I knew it would be more difficult to find the time and the freedom to backpack across the planet, to sleep in youth hostels, to go without a shower for days, to walk the trails that led to magical places and to be without future commitments that might prevent any of that from happening. I figured that I had but one chance to circumnavigate our planet and to see firsthand how the rest of the world lived.
We had read a book called “Camping Europe” that captured our imaginations. Walk-in camp sites are hugely popular in many countries, and for less than ten dollars a night back then, we could spend months exploring the world, if only we were willing to give up the comforts of an ocean-view cruise ship cabin or a soft bed in some swanky hotel along the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

We were.

I sold the business and the house and together with my wife, began to plan our 8 month expedition. My magic programs have always had a theme of natural history and environmental science and I wondered if somebody might sponsor the show if we agreed to perform free of charge for anyone, anywhere. It wasn’t long before Reebok shoes and an outdoor company called Adventure 16 agreed to help out. After a month of planning, thanks to our sponsors, we had all of our equipment, backpacks, tent, hiking boots etc. donated. We purchased two “around the world” airline tickets that allowed us to take as many flights as we wanted, on any airline for a year—provided we only went in one direction from country to country. We purchased a first class, three month unlimited “Eurail Pass” to travel anywhere in Europe; packed up our 60 minute magic show and were off and running. I carried a 45 pound backpack with all of our magic props, sleeping bags, cooking utensils and other essentials and my wife carried 35 pounds as well.

We spent those first three months camping in Europe. The beauty of the “Eurail Pass” was that we could get on and off any train we liked. Often we would see something interesting from the train window and simply debark at the next stop. Sometimes we would sleep on the trains. Once as we were heading into Finland we took an “overnighter”. I woke up as the sun was rising and was alarmed to see water in every direction. As it turned out, our train car had been loaded onto a small ferry boat to cross one of the stunning blue fjords.
The most remarkable part of our journey was in meeting the people.

At every campground we stayed in we offered the management one of our free shows and as you might imagine, the word spread quickly and we had a ready-made, enthusiastic, international audience. Inevitably, after our programs, people would tell us what country they lived in and offer to host us for a few days when we arrived. Those invitations were the best part of our adventure as it was thrilling to meet up, have a traditional meal and see how folks in their own countries lived outside of the tourist circles.
My personal favorite place was Nepal. Katmandu in 1997 was still an exotic, wild and unhurried place. We decided to hike the “Annapurna Circuit”, a 100 mile trail that traverses through the highest peaks of the Himalaya’s. We could have easily hired a couple of Sherpa’s to carry our equipment for the 30 days that we were on the trail, but decided to carry it all ourselves.

After obtaining our travel permits and being transported by jeep on a hair-raising drive through the steep mountain roads, many with sheer drop-offs, we arrived in the village of Pokhara. Then we set off on foot, and for the next month it would seem as though we were trekking on another planet, since Nepal was very different from the world we knew. The tour was challenging, gratifying, grueling and most of all, life changing.

We met wonderful people and presented magic shows in every village we visited; saw some breathtaking scenery and hiked over some soaring mountain peaks. The highlight of the month-long expedition was a crossing of the Thorong-la pass. At 18,000 feet and not far from the border of Tibet, it’s officially the highest walkable mountain pass in the world. My 45 pound backpack felt much heavier suddenly. A young man died on the pass that day from altitude sickness and another hiker from Germany insisted on carrying my wife’s backpack on top of his own for the last 500 meters, as he could see her struggling for breath.

Often we would walk all day and arrive in a small village with a hundred or so people sitting in a semi-circle, waiting for the show to begin. The Sherpa’s who carried supplies from village to village, also carried news that two magicians would be arriving soon. No matter how many hours we walked or how tired we were, we were always happily compelled to present our program to the Nepali people the moment we entered their village. Needless to say, they treated us kindly.
But as our journey unfolded we were confronted with some disturbing physical symptoms. Both of us had contracted a dreaded traveler’s ailment called Giardia. It’s a microscopic parasite that lives in untreated water.
In the Nepal of 1989, outhouses were often built on small bridges directly over a river. This made for instant plumbing, but for any unlucky inhabitants downstream it meant trouble. We carried water purifiers naturally, but a piece of fruit or meal of rice and lentils could easily have given us the bug.

The symptoms are great muscle weakness and loss of appetite. It was cleared up in me with some medication that we had brought along with us, having done the research on possible bugs that we might encounter. My wife however experienced a lingering illness. Our trip continued for another few months through India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Hawaii; still circling the Earth in the same direction.

After returning home we were increasingly aware of my wife’s discomfort. We visited a gastro internist who collected a sample of the fluid that seemed to be causing the swelling in her abdomen. Within 24 hours the diagnosis was received: Stage 3 Ovarian cancer. This was the beginning of a long battle with her disease. She insisted that we carry on with our performances and we were even able to present a month-long magic tour in Japan with the approval and assistance of her oncologist who ordered all of her chemotherapy medications, drip lines and medical gear so that we could take it along with us.

This was to be our last opportunity to perform together. She died at the age of 47. During her illness we often talked about how fortunate we were to have been able to travel the world while we were still young and healthy enough to do so.

I often think back on the beauty of the countries and the inhabitants as we saw them more than 25 years ago. But of all those destinations around the planet that we were lucky to visit, Nepal has always held the number one spot in my mind. There is a majesty and breathtaking awareness of life on Earth that surrounds those who visit, and our time there, along with the memory of my magical partner, remains forever alive and effervescent in my heart.

Khevin Barnes and his wife Gaga, celebrating 17 years together, live in the Del Webb community in Vail. Although retired from magic, he continues to donate shows for “Kids with Cancer Camps” wherever he can.

About author View all posts

Guest Author