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The Forgotten Peninsula: Baja California

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 @ 11:10 PM  posted by Mark

Baja California, Mexico, a thousand-mile desert peninsula pointing southeast from California like a withered finger, boasts a political past as rich and strange as its interior territory is desolate. Despite its formidable terrain, harsh climate, and nearly barren soil, Baja has been conquered and re-conquered by the Spanish, Americans, and Mexicans, claimed by corporate-sponsored guerrilla privateers from the United States, and annexed by anarchist revolutionaries from Mexico’s mainland. All of its conquerers eventually gave it up for lost except the Mexicans, who, like inattentive dinner guests stuck with the check, got saddled with Baja when everybody else excused themselves and never came back.

Though the Mexican government recently completed the paved two-lane Benito-Juarez Highway, linking the northern and southern sections of the peninsula, Baja remains in large measure an isolated outpost, a struggling desert frontier, a less fortunate stepsister to Northern California’s Cinderella.

“Of poor shrubs, useless thorn bushes and bare rocks, of piles of stone and sand without water or wood, of a handful of people who, besides their physical shape and ability to think, have nothing to distinguish them from animals, what shall or what can I report?” —Father Johann Jakob Baegert, Priest of the Society of Jesus, in a 1772 report about Baja.

With Father Baegert’s admonition in mind, I set out for Baja California. Early one January morning, I rode south out of Los Angeles on Interstate-5 to San Diego.

The San Diego-Tijuana border crossing, even though it’s the most popular one, should be avoided at all costs, unless you want to participate in one of Tijuana’s tourist or “sin” industries. Driving in Tijuana is like materializing into a 1975 driver’s education film that keeps jumping off the school projector’s sprockets. The often-unmarked streets are difficult to navigate, and, around the border crossing, the streets are usually too congested to navigate at all.

As a vastly better alternative, take California Highway 94 east, about forty miles, to the Mexican town of Tecate. Beyond being an easier crossing, the road itself is a thousand times more interesting than the jammed parking lot-thoroughfares of San Diego and Tijuana. California 94 is a rural route made for cycling: it loops and dives through the northwestern foothills of the Sierra de Juarez Mountains, where horse ranches nestle into deep mesquite groves and the road finds and follows one black mossy stream after another. Every few hundred feet you encounter an unexpected switchback or an oblique S-curve hidden behind the overhanging branches of a manzanita or an oak tree, and the sheer suppleness and surprise of the curves makes for a magnificent ride. The profuse gray-green chaparral vegetation and the thoroughbred horses trotting to and fro behind white board fences contrast so starkly with the endless pavement of San Diego that you feel as if you’ve entered an entirely different world.

After forty miles of bobbing, banking and weaving along 94, I turned off onto Highway 188 into Tecate, pleasantly exhausted from the abundant twists and turns. The border was practically deserted when I crossed, and the crossing itself was merely a formality (neither the Mexican nor the American border patrols bother themselves much with motorcyclists). Be advised that you’ll need Mexican auto insurance and tourist cards if you’re going to travel south of Ensenada, or if you plan to stay longer than 48 hours, but these documents can usually be acquired at the border with little difficulty. Note also that motorcycle permits are different for Baja than for the mainland Mexican states, so it’s important to call a Mexican consulate ahead of time if you have any concerns (though Baja’s requirements tend to be lax compared to the mainland’s).

“The Spaniards thought they would find rich gold and silver veins in [Baja] California, as well as rich and productive soil.  Since they found neither and were forced to live off the provisions they had brought along on their ships, all of them soon lost courage and turned back.” — Father Baegert

I crossed into Tecate at just after noon and decided to stop at a cafe for some lunch and a bottle of the town’s namesake beer. Tecate produces both Carta Blanca and Tecate beers, at the encouraging rate of 1200 cans per minute from the Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc-Moctezuma, the town’s biggest building. This brewery flourished as a whiskey mill during American prohibition and then was converted to beer production when prohibition was repealed, after which it promptly went bankrupt and had to be rescued by the Mexican government.

The brewery offers daily tours (with complimentary beer tastings) starting at 10 am, but you need a group of at least 10 people before the brewery officials will open their doors. If you’re determined to go but can’t afford an entourage of 9 other people, you can just show up in the morning and try to look like you belong to a group that already has reservations (people in Baja tend not to be sticklers). Failing that, you could get drunk, punch the SAP function on your tv, and watch the opening credit sequence to “Laverne and Shirley” fifteen times in a row, and you’d get the general idea.

I sat down to lunch in Tecate at La Escondida Restaurant, just a block off of the town’s central plaza, Parque Hidalgo.  Parque Hidalgo, a town square in the old Spanish colonial tradition, was once the site of an anarchist revolution. In 1911, during the general upheaval in Mexico that deposed the despotic government of Porfirio Diaz, an anarchist named Ricardo Flores Magon directed a small band of foreign mercenaries and armed Mexican intellectuals to march on Tecate (notably, Flores Magon himself didn’t participate, but simply engineered the proceedings from the United States). The “Magonistas,” as the anarchists were called, took the town without a fight and raised the red Liberal Party flag over Parque Hidalgo. The Magonistas then pushed west to Tijuana, where they took over that city, again without a fight, and declared it the capital of the independent “Republic of Baja California Sur,” while curious American spectators looked on from the San Diego side of the border. Flores Magon arrived in Tijuana in person shortly after the victory and began setting up a provisional government for his new country. Unfortunately for him, most of his troops then left, as they were foreign mercenaries who had no interest in Mexican politics as such. When the Mexican Army got wind of this insurrection six weeks later, they marched north to combat it, but found no Magonistas other than Flores Magon himself and a few of his bohemian friends. Flores Magon fled and the anarchist government folded, thus ending the world’s shortest-lived revolution outside of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

After a few carne asada tacos and a Tecate beer at La Escondida, I was ready to hit the rode again. I suppose I should mention that my eventual destination was the fishing village of San Quentin, about 120 miles south of Ensenada, although my selection of that goal contained about as much forethought as Ricardo Flores Magon’s anarchist revolution had. Mostly, I just liked the sound of the name:  San Quentin.

Say it out loud. San Quentin. See? That’s how decisions are made in Baja.

From Tecate, the only highway south is Mexican Highway 3, which links up with the Benito-Juarez Highway (Mexican 1) at the village of El Sauzal, just above Ensenada. The distance from Tecate to Ensenada is about eighty miles, which I figured to cover fairly easily in the afternoon. This turned out to be wishful thinking.

The Sierra de Jaurez Mountains around Tecate reach a height of 4500 feet, and Mexican Highway 3 traces a torturous graded route through this range down to the Pacific Ocean. Conceivably, this road could be as fun as its sister road to the north; instead, Mexican 3 is California 94’s doppelganger, its murderous twin: Mexican 3 is barely wide enough to accommodate two cars side by side, much less the caravans of freight trucks and buses that barrel around its curves at precarious speeds. There has been no grading of the mountainsides at all except beneath the asphalt itself, so that the lip of the road is also frequently the edge of a canyon or the beginning of a steep slope into a desert valley below. And even this wouldn’t be so bad if the road weren’t strewn with rocks and pocked with helmet-sized potholes. Although the views of the rugged mountains and, toward El Sauzal, the panoramic vistas of the Pacific Ocean are breathtaking, it’s nearly impossible to enjoy them since you’re constantly preoccupied with the oncoming transport trucks taking up half your lane, the craters in the asphalt right at the edge of the canyon you’re about to daredevil into, and the snakiness of the route itself, which, unlike its benign and entertaining northern counterpart, here seems plainly malevolent. To make matters worse, on the afternoon that I happened to be tooling down Mexican 3, a bank of deep black clouds had formed over the Pacific and had started moving inland to meet me, which it did just outside of the village of Sordo Muda.

The rain fell in spits and splutters, a cold winter rain whose frosty accompanying wind found its way under the sleeves of my jacket and down my neck and beneath my helmet. Combined with the truck traffic and my general fatigue from the day’s ride, the rain tempted me to stop, but I simply couldn’t find any lodging around Sordo Muda, so I pressed on. The rain continued just long enough to slick up the oil in the road, but even as the brief shower relented, the black clouds continued to press lower overhead, and the sun hid behind them. It was growing colder by the minute, and by the time I reached Guadalupe, about fifty miles south of Tecate, it was time to stop, dry out somewhat, and get a second wind for the remaining thirty miles into Ensenada.

Guadalupe is a tiny farming village which contains the ruins of the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe mission church. Almost nothing is left of the mission, which is notable for being the last Spanish mission church built in the new world, in 1834. The mission was destroyed in an indian uprising just six years after it was built.  Guadalupe is also distinguished by its population of Russians. In 1906, Pofirio Diaz granted permission to a group of about 350 people from what is now eastern Turkey to live in Guadalupe. These Russians, who had fled the repression of the Czar and hoped to improve their lot in Baja, established a poor farming community and gradually intermarried with the locals. Their history is commemorated in the Museo Comunitario de Guadalupe, where you’ll find artifacts like samovars, clothing, and old photographs, along with turn-of-the-century farm implements.

After wandering around town long enough to regain my composure, I was ready once again for the carnival stunt driving of the Mexican 3. It was almost four o’clock, and I realized that I’d have to punch up my dawdling pace if I expected to make Ensenada by nightfall.

The wind was kicking up and storm clouds still loomed above the road, and the inclimate weather had slowed traffic. Just outside of El Sauzal, Highway 3 begins plunging rather steeply toward the sea, through deep mountain gorges whose walls completely block out the sun. Between the gulchy terrain and the storm clouds and the rapidly approaching evening, I soon found myself riding in near-darkness, and it became increasingly clear that not only was I not going to make it to Ensenada that evening, but I might not even reach Highway 1. A rutted, pock-marked canyon highway, slicked by rain, with no banks or guard rails, dominated by massive trucks whose drivers would sooner submit to police questioning than stay in their own lane, is not a road you want to risk after dark. I started looking for likely stopovers.

There were none. Every couple of miles or so along Highway 3, you’ll find a strip of rickety buildings masquerading as a village, usually containing a poorly-stocked market and a couple of shacks, but almost never a gas station or lodging. As the sun sank, I felt as if I’d entered a worm hole of accelerating time: the sixty miles from Tecate had taken longer than any two hundred miles I’d ever ridden.  I was utterly exhausted from the ride, and I finally decided to throw in the towel.

I pulled off of the highway onto an unpaved road, bumped and slithered and fish-tailed half a mile away from traffic, and pitched my tent in a fallow field. Luckily, I managed to heat and eat my Ramen noodles before the rains came.

“On one occasion, I had to spend three consecutive nights in the field.  Because of a particularly bad stretch of way that I did not care to traverse in the dark, I had not been able to reach my house…”— Father Baegert

* * *

The night passed uneventfully (unless you consider sleep deprivation an event), and in the morning, I finished my trek out of the mountains to El Sauzal, the Pacific Ocean and the Benito-Juarez Highway (Transpeninsular 1).

The most important thing you should know about the Benito-Juarez Highway is that, around population centers (about every ten miles or so), you’ll encounter a series of completely unmarked speed bumps about half again as high as the speed bumps in your local supermarket parking lot. Realize: you’re cruising along at highway speed and suddenly, there in the road in front of you, is an unpainted hump of asphalt. You only have to get airborne by surprise once to learn to moderate your speed and adjust your Dick Tracy Ultra-Vision Goggles toward the road’s surface.

North of Ensenada, Highway 1 clings precariously to the coastal mountains, sometimes seeming to dip almost into the ocean itself, but as you enter Ensenada, the road widens and moves inland toward the city center. Ensenada is a smaller, grayer version of Tijuana with a population of about 250,000 and the largest ratio of mariachis to pedestrians in the western world. It is Baja’s third-largest city, a seaport that provides commercial shipping for the huge ranches and farms to the south and east, and it’s also a major tourist destination for gringos from Southern California. From 1882 to 1915 Ensenada served as Baja California’s territorial capital, and it played a part in two of the futile revolutions that have regularly visited the peninsula.

After the Mexican-American War concluded in 1850, a contingent of American industrialists argued that the United States settled for too little in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, that we should have annexed Baja California along with Alta California and the rest of Mexico’s northernmost possessions. In 1853, William Walker, a pro-slavery adventurer, led an army of mercenaries into Baja in order to claim it as an independent state and open it up to exploitation by American business interests. Walker sailed south with his army to La Paz, which he overran; he then declared himself head of the new “Republic of Sonora and Lower California.” When the Mexican Army appeared, he fled with his troops to Ensenada and then declared that the new capital, before attempting to fight his way across the peninsula to Sonora. Failing that, he then escaped overland to the United States. Sixty years later, Ensenada would again be taken by revolutionaries, this time the Magonistas, who would repeat Walker’s spectacular failure.

Today, the most popular attraction in Ensenada, a giant ocean blowhole called La Bufadora, gives you an idea of the character of the region as a whole. Out on a craggy point, off of a road marked by glaring signs from the Benito-Juarez Highway, La Bufadora is a v-shaped rock crevice through which the incoming tide forces minor explosions of ocean water and foam. This is a slightly more violent version of the “tidal waves” you made by scooting back and forth in the bathtub when you were six. La Bufadora is surrounded by taco stands and touristy souvenir booths, in case you’d like to commemorate your visit to this heroic hole with a t-shirt.

“Of all places we have touched since our departure from England, [Baja] California is least capable of supporting its inhabitants.” — Woodes Rogers, English sea captain, 1710

South of Ensenada, the Benito-Juarez Highway peels a little inland and runs through mile after mile of farmland, mostly tomatoes grown for winter sale to the frostbitten northern cities of America. The farms survive solely on irrigation and pesticides, since the lack of sufficient rainwater prevents sustained natural cultivation in Baja: the unnatural, irrigated lushness of the vegetation here attracts desert critters in swarms.

The 120 miles from Ensenada south to San Quentin are largely uneventful, which I took as a great relief. Traffic fluctuates maddeningly between open throttle and school-zone speeds, and the pattern of small towns with speed bumps every ten miles continues, but compared to the disquietingly adventurous slowness of Mexican Highway 3, the oscillating pace seems almost agreeable. Whereas it had taken me all afternoon to travel the sixty miles from Tecate to an empty field the day before, it took just under three hours to make it from Ensenada to San Quentin.

San Quintin is primarily a fishing port, but it has gained increasing prominence recently as the center of the agricultural region of the Plain of San Quentin. Its official population is 20,000, though this figure includes a variable population of migrant workers, and there were nowhere near that many people in town when I passed through. It’s more than a village, however, with several adobe hotels, a fair selection of restaurants, pristine beaches and prime clamming spots. Notable among the hotels is a bed and breakfast called Rancho Sereno, which offers a free pitcher of margaritas on check-in.

The center of local night-life is a restaurant called Molino Viejo, which has good views of both the bay and the huge flocks of geese that winter on the beaches here. Molino Viejo is built among the ruins of a failed 19th century English settlement, whose colonists could not coax the barren soil to produce sufficient quantities of wheat to support them (even now, with high-tech irrigation systems, the land bucks at cultivation, and parts of the aquifer around San Quentin have been sucked so dry that sea water has trickled in from the ocean).

I arrived in San Quentin late in the afternoon, poked around for a while, and then, on the advice of a palatero (a vender of fruit-ice from a hand-pushed cart), I headed a couple of miles north to find a suitable seaside campground. Outside of San Quentin, the highway darts away from the ocean, so that half a mile of dunes separates the Transpeninsular from the beach proper. There are dozens of sandy unfixed roads in this area, criss-crossing one another without apparent plan or direction, taking odd turns and following paths that are completely counter-intuitive: as far as I could tell, there wasn’t a single road that led directly from the highway to the beach, and I spent more than half an hour spinning out in the silty sand, galumphing over crabby patches of fountain grass, and fighting to stay upright, without ever spying the Pacific. I dumped my bike once, dodged two snakes that I didn’t pause long enough to identify, and accumulated eight pounds of sand in each shoe. Finally, as the light was beginning to fail, I crested a dune and found myself staring at a beautiful creamy brown beach, as the bottom rim of an enormous burnt-orange sun just met the sea.

I found a little wind-swept knoll behind which to pitch my tent, and I parked my bike and set up camp. For the remainder of the weekend, I strolled hither and yon enjoying the pounding of the surf, cruised for miles in both directions along the wet-packed beach at low tide, and watched dozens of local clammers in black wetsuits troll the surf and harvest mollusks into old yellow buckets and wooden crates.

Mostly, though, I sat staring at the sea, drinking occasional cans of Tecate, thinking about William Walker and Ricardo Flores Magon, the blundering revolutionaries. After failing to take over Baja in 1853, Walker recruited another army of mercenaries. In an attempt to curry favor with the American South, he declared himself pro-slavery and then led his army in an invasion of Central America. He conquered and proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua and then invaded Honduras, which was then a British possession. The British Army, not known to suffer fools, captured and executed Walker in 1860.

In 1912, Ricardo Flores Magon was arrested for violating the United States’ neutrality laws and was sentenced to two years in prison. He got out and was arrested again for sedition in 1916, and after serving that sentence, he was arrested in 1918 for violating the U.S. Espionage Act. He died under mysterious circumstances in Leavenworth in 1921 while serving his final prison sentence. Ironically, in 1945, the Mexican government interred Flores Magon’s body in its Rotunda of Illustrious Men in Mexico City, and the man who had spent his entire life cursing the existence of the Mexican state now lies in Mexico’s political Hall of Fame.

I wondered what it was about this peninsula that had inspired such diametrically opposed and equally incompetent ambitions: Walker had wanted to establish an ultra-capitalist slave state in Baja, and Flores Magon had wanted to found a radically egalitarian anarchist state here. In theory, Baja must have seemed equally adaptable to either ambition; in practice, it accommodated only much more modest ones: some unsustainable agriculture, subsistence fishing, and the production of 1200 cans of Tecate beer per minute, to help ameliorate the misfortunes of the other industries.

“All reports which deal favorably with [Baja] California, her wealth, fertility, or other things necessary to make life comfortable, belong to the category of false reports, regardless of who their authors are.” — Father Baegert

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Herman Melville vs. the Melville Family viz. the Whale

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 @ 01:08 AM  posted by Mark

At the site Melville’s Marginalia Online, which chronicles the books known to have been read or owned by Herman Melville and all of his family members, a search reveals that Herman owned and marked up at least a dozen books on whales and whaling. None of his family members was known to have owned or read even one.

Could anything be lonelier than an unshared interest in whaling?

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Castaway in Paradise

Thursday, April 8, 2010 @ 12:04 PM  posted by Mark

Castaway in Paradise, James C. Simmons’ compendium of South Seas adventures involving deserters, runaways, pirates and mutineers, has a breezy tone that belies the often horrifying nature of its hand-to-my-heart true stories. The tales of Europeans and Americans on South Seas expeditions that go terribly wrong, Castaway never romanticizes the idea of being abandoned to your own devices with no friends, yet somehow each adventure shimmers with romantic allure.  Even when Simmons is describing cannibalism, starvation, desperation and shipwreck, the siren song of the South Seas calls.

Alexander Selkirk‘s adventures on Mar a Tierra Island kick off the book in grand style. Selkirk (the real life adventurer on whom Defoe based Robinson Crusoe) chooses to be left on an out-of-the-way island rather than continue a voyage on an English privateer captained by a lunatic, but his voluntary isolation soon leads him to despair. He mopes on the beach, barely eating, waiting in vain for another ship’s sails to appear on the horizon, but what actually appears is a better cure for his loneliness than he ever could have imagined: sea lions! Mar a Tierra Island turns out to be the mating ground for a colony of sea lions, who arrive in such numbers that Selkirk is forced to flee his beach. Wandering inland, he discovers a paradise abundant in goats, clear streams, wild root vegetables and house cats that had been stranded on the island during previous shipwrecks. He finds a cave to live in, tames some cats and goats, and spends the next four years in isolated bliss, teaching his domesticated animals to dance to sea shanteys, until Captain Woods Rogers accidentally lands on the island in 1709 and “saves” him. When he returns to England, Selkirk’s story becomes a sensation, and we all now know him in fictional guise as Daniel Defoe’s unlikely hero.

Other castaway adventures did not end so well. Simmons tells the horrifying story of the whaleship Essex, which was battered to bits by an angry whale in 1821 (Melville based Moby-Dick on this episode). The crew of the Essex take to their lifeboats, but, fearing that cannibals inhabit a nearby island downwind from them, they set a course against the currents and tradewinds for South America. That nearby island was Tahiti and was actually inhabited by tribes friendly to Europeans, but because of the slow communications of the early 19th century, this discovery was not yet widely known. Had they steered toward Tahiti, they would have been saved; as it was, they exhausted their resources fighting the currents and began to die of hunger and thirst, and the survivors were forced to eat their starved shipmates for nourishment. By fleeing supposed cannibals, the crew of the Essex were forced to become cannibals themselves, and only five of the 21 crew members survived.

Simmons covers a wide span of time, from the early 17th to the mid-20th century, at an incredibly fast and entertaining clip. Herman Melville’s sojourn in the Marquesas gets a full treatment (Melville would base his first two books, Typee and Omoo, on his desertion from a whaleship), and Simmons recounts with loving, colorful detail every manner of shipwreck, armed conflict, desertion and melancholy that led men (and women) to the solitude of uninhabited islands, far from human companionship. The tales fall into two distinct camps: happy stories of paradise on earth and relentlessly horrifying nightmares, both of which become equally engaging to the reader.

By the end of the book, you’ll either want to drop everything and begin your own South Seas adventure immediately or you’ll curl deeper into your comfortable armchair and think twice about ever leaving the house again. These stories, of lives on the very edge of the existential abyss, cast your own day-to-day struggles in a new light and will make your daily cares either seem tedious by comparison or joyfully light and easy (or both).

Avast, ye lubbers!

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Beyond Rangoon

Saturday, March 27, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

The only film in our series of journeys Around the World & Into the Past, Beyond Rangoon features Patricia Arquette as American doctor Laura Bowman, who is traveling through Southeast Asia in 1988 when she gets caught up in the Burmese democratic struggle led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Far from a vacation, the voyage is designed to help Bowman forget about the brutal murders of her husband and son, and Arquette plays Bowman as a blank, a woman with no affect and little connection to the world around her. As she tours the temples of Rangoon with her sister, she feels as dead as the great stone statutes of Buddha, and rather than soothing her grief, the exotic sights and sounds merely concentrate it.

One night, Bowman awakes to a racket of chants outside her window, and she steals out of her hotel room and into the streets, where she encounters a student protest against the repressive Burmese military dictatorship. She joins the protest, half in a dream, and witnesses Aung San Suu Kyi—the petite woman who would eventually win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to Burma—as Suu Kyi stares down the guns of the Burmese military, sweeps them aside seemingly with the force of her will, and speaks to the masses of students gathered to hear her.

Bowman finds something to cling to in this rally, and she returns to her hotel room energized. Unfortunately, she has broken curfew, and the police are waiting for her when she returns; though they decide to allow Bowman to continue with her tour group to Thailand the next day, she discovers that she has lost her passport at the rally and is forced to stay behind while the American embassy issues replacement documents. Her sister travels ahead to Bangkok with her tour group, and Bowman is left to fend for herself as the Burmese government declares martial law and violently squelches the student uprising.

Left on her own for a day in Rangoon, with explicit instructions not to leave the embassy, Arquette’s character decides not only to go into the streets but to leave the city limits, which is strictly forbidden to foreigners. From there, the adventure really begins: grief-stricken and with nothing to lose, Arquette takes every dangerous opportunity that comes her way, and she eventually ends up among a group of student revolutionaries in hiding from the military. Now she has no papers, no way back into the city of Rangoon, and no clear idea what to do next, other than swim with the current of fate.

Partly a primer in Burmese politics, partly a taut thriller with an unlikely heroine, Beyond Rangoon grounds its tale in the struggle of Patricia Arquette’s character to feel anything at all after the loss of her loved ones, drawing frequent parallels between her personal tragedy and the sufferings of the Burmese protestors. At times heavy-handed and simple, the film’s politics can hit you like a sledgehammer, but the winning, warm performance of U Aung Ko—the central force in the movie’s little coalition of rebels—humanizes these politics, which, after all, champion democracy in the face of violent oppression.

Watch the Trailer

Arquette’s blank affect often acts as a cipher that allows each audience member to react individually to the action, and her transformation at the end of the film is convincing; but there are also many times during the course of the narrative when her blankness alienates the viewer, giving her dialogue a hollow, perfunctory ring. At these times, the extraordinary Malaysian locations and director John Boorman’s deft handling of both small interiors and massive crowds save the film from wallowing in its own pathos—Boorman knows when to ratchet up the thrills and when to linger on a poignant sunset.

Beyond Rangoon exemplifies the Euro-American tourist at the end of the colonial era, stumbling blithely into political turmoil partially of our own creation; and the film offers yet another example of complex local politics simplified through white Western eyes; but Beyond Rangoon also shows us the benefits of reaching out across borders, and it becomes a rare cinematic vehicle: a political thriller that thinks friendship is a transformative force.

You can find it on DVD or YouTube.

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A World Unto Itself: Riding the Iron Rooster through China

Friday, March 26, 2010 @ 07:03 PM  posted by Mark

Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster begins like the first book in our Around the World and Into the Past series, Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads, with a long train journey to the author’s eventual destination. In Greene’s case, the journey began in Austin, Texas, and wound circuitously down to Chiapas; in Theroux’s case, his year-long journey around the interior of China in 1988 starts in London. Vowing not to fly on his journey, in order to understand the true distance and foreignness of China, Theroux takes rail jaunts across France and Central Europe to the Trans-Siberian Express to the Trans-Mongolian, eventually finding his way to the Shanxi Province of Northern China. There, he begins twelve months of vagabonding, taking in major cities and rural backwaters, unwittingly at a critical moment in modern Chinese history: just before the Tiananmen Square Protests.

Theroux finds a paradoxical China, ill at ease with its own internal contradictions but nevertheless unified by an Orwellian bureaucracy that rules with an iron fist. Nearly everywhere Theroux goes, authorities force him to play their favorite game, whose name translates roughly as “making up new rules on the spot.” Theroux finds that Mao and his successors have wrapped the country in red tape like a Gang of Christos turning China into a communist art installation; yet, he also sees clear evidence of the liberalizing free market reforms that would eventually turn China into the industrial powerhouse that currently owns 25% of U.S. debt. Theroux writes that “the Chinese are the last people in the world still manufacturing spittoons, chamber pots, treadle sewing machines, bed warmers, quill pens, wooden yokes for oxen, iron plows, sit-up-and-beg bicycles, steam engines and the 1948 Packard car.” A mere twenty years later, though, they would be making cutting edge technological gadgets for export to the West, entering into manufacturing partnerships with European and American companies such as Beijing Benz-DaimlerChrysler.

Everywhere Theroux goes, he finds paradoxes: tiny local free markets operating parallel to the central command economy; local cultures and languages thriving alongside the dominant, homogenizing Mandarin and Cantonese cultures; and a simultaneous veneration and contempt for authority among the everyday people he encounters.

Theroux is a charming guide, by turns gruff, worldly-wise, perplexed, and arrogant, and he’s game to try almost anything but the black carrots in Mongolia. He escorts us around a local bazaar in the Uighur town of Turshan, listens to complaints about the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai’s People’s Park, and ascends to the vast plateau of Tibet, where he sympathizes with the Tibetan independence movement. Along the way, he gives us lessons in Chinese etiquette, agronomy and traditional folk beliefs, and he even reads a smuggled copy of a medieval pornographic novel banned by the government but not, after all, very pornographic by Western standards.

Theroux’s journey itself is interesting, and the author is an engaging storyteller; but what makes Riding the Iron Rooster so interesting today is the snapshot it captures of a remote culture still mired in post-colonial politics, but poised for its starring appearance on the world economic stage.

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King Leopold’s Ghost; or Why There’s No Club Med in the Congo

Friday, March 19, 2010 @ 03:03 PM  posted by Mark

The only non-travelogue in this series of books taking us Around the World and Into the Past, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost is a history of Europe’s last major slave colony in Central Africa, where the devastating legacy of colonial exploitation continues even now. I have included it in the series because each of the books deals directly or indirectly with the European conquest of the globe, which colors American ideas of travel and shapes our experiences of foreign lands. Because it chronicles a slave empire so recently disbanded, and because the states that have followed in the colony’s wake in Central Africa continue to be war zones, King Leopold’s Ghost reminds us vividly of our own colonial and colonizing past, of the generations of exploration and violence that made today’s leisure travel possible, and of the ultimate sources of our disposable travel income.

King Leopold’s Ghost reads like a novel, with feats of derring-do, unlikely meetings and partings, and shocking revelations. The story of how King Leopold II of Belgium turned the Congo into his own private colony, this carefully researched book begins with the exploration of the Congo River by explorer Henry Morton Stanley (of “Livingstone, I presume” fame). It traces the subsequent employment of Stanley by Leopold as the king’s personal colonial emissary to Central Africa, explains the rise of the slave empire, and details the protest movement against Leopold led by E.D. Morel, whose coalition successfully brought international sanctions against Belgium and ended the king’s African fiefdom.

Briskly paced, Hochschild’s story includes the personal backstory of Leopold II’s early life, which led to the rapacious greed and corruption of his adulthood, explaining his lust for colonial wealth in context of his whoring, philandering and contempt for the Belgian state. Hochschild provides compelling evidence of the secret machinations of Leopold’s shady Congo dealings clearly and engagingly—no small accomplishment, given the millions of documents Leopold’s henchmen destroyed upon the king’s death—and he traces the very beginnings of Leopold’s idea of empire in the 1870s to its most gruesome success at the turn of the century and its final collapse with Leopold’s death in 1910.

Leopold’s network of dummy associations and foundations gave him sole private ownership of a territory as large as the United States east of the Mississippi—Belgium technically didn’t even have a Central African colony while Leopold was alive, because the king personally owned all of the Congo and personally kept all of its wealth.  Ultimately, this personalization of empire also makes him directly responsible for the 8 to 10 million Africans enslaved and murdered to fatten his bank account, a genocide that has largely been ignored in American school textbooks.

King Leopold’s Ghost hinges on the international protest movement against Leopold founded by E.D. Morel. Morel began his career as a shipping clerk for Leopold in the office of Elder Dempster, the bureaucrat largely responsible for cooking the books on Congolese exploitation. Dempster was responsible for making sure that the public accounts of Belgian trade with the Congo looked benign and that the profits were skimmed directly into Leopold’s pockets, and Morel simply couldn’t believe the truth when he saw it—of genocide, enslavement and corruption. He blew the whistle and his indefatigable efforts for over a decade around the turn of the twentieth century eventually drew President Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and a host of world leaders and internationally renowned authors to his cause. The pressure Morel brought to bear against Leopold made Leopold himself a pariah and caused no end of trouble for tiny Belgium, though in the end the King paid no real penalty for his abuses. Upon his death, the Congo became officially a Belgian colony and the worst of his abuses ended, though Belgian possession of the territory continued until 1960.

Morel’s movement was the first international human rights protest and laid the groundwork for subsequent organizations. It also helped shift public consciousness finally against violent colonial exploitation of the “Third World,” an important achievement just a generation after the end of slavery in the United States. But it did little real good for the people of the Congo.

Today, the hot and cold war that started in 1998 in Congo continues. It has claimed more than 5 million lives and directly involved eight African nations and 25 militia groups. The war has raged over a territory the size of Western Europe and troops have savagely butchered and raped civilians throughout the Congo, yet in America the conflict receives almost no attention. It is an inconvenient remnant of a failed colony and of a colonial past that the world would rather forget, and it seems to have little to do with America on its surface.

King Leopold’s Ghost appears in this series of travel books because it reveals a dark side of global adventurism that American and European travelers must always bear in mind when jetting off to “exotic” locations for pleasure. It reminds us that our forbears did not always have pleasure in mind when they set off to foreign lands and that, in many parts of the world, our faces still represent the face of death.

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An Antique Utopia

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is Jan Morris‘s melancholy love letter to a city that, one hundred years ago, was one of the most bustling ports in Europe but is now largely forgotten. Though Trieste is the capital of the Italian province also named Trieste, 70 percent of Italians polled in 1999 didn’t even know it was in Italy! So what happened? And why write a travel book about a fading outpost of the long dead Austro-Hungarian Empire? For Morris, the transience of Trieste’s glory is a metaphor for the impermanence of life itself.

Morris has a long, complicated relationship with the city. She first landed in Trieste during World War II, as a soldier in the British Army, when she was a man (she had a sex change operation in 1972). She returned periodically throughout the second half of the twentieth century, always finding there a terrestrial limbo, a place of indefinable hiatus between more substantial destinations and activities.

The city is simultaneously cosmopolitan and solitary. Cradled in a crook of land that borders Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia, Trieste is an easy drive from Austria and within steamboat distance of Greece, yet Morris finds that the very concept of nationality seems alien to the city. Formed by a dozen different civilizations over the course of four thousand years, Trieste’s character is shaped more by the cultural mementos of those past eras than by any present distinction.

Trieste sits on a plateau of karst (flinty limestone) above the Adriatic Sea, and the plateau is so formidable that, before modern roads and railways, the only people who ventured into the surrounding countryside were bandits and beggars. The land is essentially unarable, so large-scale agriculture is impossible, and hidden caverns and underground streams pock-mark the landscape: Trieste has therefore always been a port city that relies on trade. The Indo-Europeans known as Illyrians founded the city, then the Romans took it, the city-state of Venice colonized it, the Habsburgs occupied it, and finally the modern state of Italy got it after World War I. They gave it up briefly after the Axis defeat in World War II, but it returned to Italian control in 1954 and remains nominally Italian to the present day.

In each incarnation, Trieste’s role as a trading port was most prominent, and the Austro-Hungarians, by connecting railroads across central Europe to the terminus of Trieste, built the city into a commercial powerhouse. However, the ease of transport that made goods from Trieste so valuable continued only as long as the Austro-Hungarians controlled their vast territory, connecting Russia to France and Italy to Poland. When the Empire broke up after the First World War and dozens of international borders cut Trieste off from Central Europe, the city reverted to its older and more natural status as an out-of-the-way port disconnected from its neighbors by geological barriers, with no characteristic products of its own.

Jan Morris in 2008 and in the 1960s, when she was James Morris.

Today, with a population of just over 200,000, Trieste retains some commercial importance. It’s the headquarters of Italian coffee giant Illy, and its shipbuilding industry is still strong. And it still has a whiff of romance about it, at least for Morris: James Joyce wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man there, and its architecture reflects its cosmopolitan past. But Morris is interested in Trieste mainly as a utopia: she conceives of it as the capital city of a people who form a secret worldwide diaspora, a people who don’t feel at home in the countries of their birth and are always longing for something at the edge of definition.

“They share with each other, across all nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them, you will not be mocked or resented. . . They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste.”

The desire for a place to call home remains after imperial glories fade. For Morris, Trieste is the eternal center of that nation of people whose unfulfilled longings are as important to them as their grandest accomplishments.

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Journey to the Alcarria

Saturday, March 13, 2010 @ 08:03 PM  posted by Mark

Camilo Jose Cela’s Journey to the Alcarria captured a glimpse backward into Old World Spain just before it vanished and provided a peek forward at the coming struggles of everyday people under Franco‘s fascist regime. The record of a walking tour through the central Spanish countryside in 1948, Journey to the Alcarria is a sharply observed picaresque, a portrait of a moment in time between Spain’s agrarian antiquity and its slowly emerging—and troubling—modernity.

Cela undertakes the journey (one in a series of vagabundajes that he would write about) in order to escape the stifling despair of city life under Franco’s new regime. His goal was to observe the changes wrought by long years of armed conflict in the Spanish countryside and find out how people were living in the freshly forged peace. The Spanish Civil War, and then the economic privations of the Second World War, had wreaked havoc on everyday life throughout the country, and no one was sure whom to trust or what exactly to believe in now that the wars were over—republicans distrusted fascists, fascists distrusted royalists, royalists dreamed of a new aristocracy—and everyone was still nursing the literal wounds of war and the figurative injuries of betrayal. As Cela walks from one village to another toward the Alcarria, he finds that the psychological tensions of conflict remain, but so do the age-old virtues of community, family and civility.

The rural villagers Cela encounters— farmers, beggars, shopkeepers, and shepherds—have no model of behavior to rely on in Franco’s new order. Cela himself was of mixed allegiances—in the civil war, he fought for Franco, and, after he was wounded, he worked as a government censor, yet his sympathies lie with average people who are simply trying to make a living, without regard to politics. His idiosyncrasies make him both querulous and generous: he shares his scant resources with vagabonds he meets along the way, and he often relies on the kindness of strangers for food, lodging, information and companionship. Poverty creates its own community along the road and in the rural towns through which Cela passes, and the picture that emerges is almost medieval in its lack of wealth and prospects.

Cela’s journey becomes comic and tragic by turns. His battles with a stubborn mule, his conflicts with thieves and naifs, and his warmth toward fellow travelers are all colored by extremely romantic sensibilities. Cela seems completely at home with his own mixed emotions, and he assumes that everyone else has internal lives as complex as his own, which makes his narrative rich in detail and emotion. Though the people Cela meets are poor in worldy goods, they’re rich in spirit and have complicated lives that come through the page with humor and vitality.

In Cela’s post-war Spain, alliances and politics still matter, and everyone is still quick to judge everyone else; but the people Cela encounters also sense intuitively that they cannot maintain their old ways of life and that they must rely on each other to create something new, beyond the politics that are now out of their control. The fact that a whole generation would be born and live half their lives under Franco’s repressive dictatorship was not yet clear, but in Cela’s walk to the Alcarria, it is clear that the Old Spain has passed from the face of the earth, and it won’t be coming back.

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The Lawless Roads of Southern Mexico

Thursday, March 11, 2010 @ 04:03 PM  posted by Mark

The British publishing company Longman commissioned Graham Greene to travel to the southern Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas in 1938, to investigate the anti-Catholic purges of President Plutarco Elias Calles. Greene’s assignment, more specifically, was to write a report about the reactions of the Catholic people there to the assassination of some 40 priests and the destruction of hundreds of churches, and to determine the state of the faith under the repressive regime. Greene had written eight novels, a book of poetry and an African travel book by this time, and he was a practicing Catholic himself, so he must have seemed an ideal candidate to take the lay of the land, but it’s hard to imagine that he completely grasped the difficulties he would encounter when he took the assignment. Granted, no one goes to a violent anti-clerical purge expecting a party, but Greene found the chaos in southern Mexico issuing from both the government and private organizations, and from right-wing and left-wing factions alike.

A more dour, grim, contemptuous travelogue than The Lawless Roads is difficult to imagine. The political instability puts Greene in many uncomfortable if not outright dangerous situations: the Calles government was pro-labor, and the United States called him a Bolshevik, yet the governors of Tabasco and Chiapas employed fascist paramilitary groups to enforce their own private orders, and Greene encounters more than one private citizen who identifies with Hitler and/or Franco. Corrupt generals in Mexico’s army also kept private armed forces to confiscate resources as they saw fit. While Greene is traveling south, Calles nationalizes the foreign oil companies exploiting Mexico’s new petroleum wealth, causing an international uproar and threats of war. The ordinary people Greene meets along the way seem resigned to their powerlessness in this atmosphere of unpredictable violence. However, Greene’s narrative concentrates as much on the strangeness of everyday life as it does on the revolutionary political events sweeping Mexico.

Greene spends much of his time waiting—waiting for a boat to take him by sea from Veracruz to Tabasco, waiting for a barge to convey him upriver to Villahermosa, waiting for a plane to carry him to Salto, waiting for a mule to ride to Las Casas, and he waits most of the time in torrential rains and stifling heat. When his waiting pays off, the travel is treacherous: the boat to Tabasco is barely seaworthy, overloaded and foul, and Greene spends the overnight journey vomiting; the barge to Villahermosa is incompetently piloted and runs aground three times; the plane has a faulty engine and is forced to fly between mountains instead of over them. Greene waits nearly a week for another plane to Las Casas, but it never arrives, so he is forced to hire an inexperienced mule guide to escort him on a four-day ride through the mountains, where he constantly encounters armed men of uncertain politics and where rains routinely wash out the trail. Oddly, factoring in the unreliable air traffic schedule, a mule ride from Salto to Las Casas costs more and takes less time than the plane trip would have.

Everywhere along the way, Greene meets hapless Americans, cynical Mexicans, a surprising number of Germans and Norwegians, and Catholics of all nationalities who have been driven to underground Masses by the religious persecution. Only in Las Casas, Chiapas, during Easter Week, do people worship openly—and most of the worshipers who defy the ban on celebrating Mass are Indians, who seem unaware of the ban in the first place. These Indians practice a hybrid of Catholicism and native religions that Greene finds both frightening and alluring.

Greene is openly reviled as a Gringo in Las Casas, yet he finds enough friends among the underground priests to escape serious confrontations. Despite Greene’s stature as an established author, it’s difficult to imagine that his fame had spread as far as southern Mexico by 1938, yet bishops and generals routinely grant his requests for interviews, and he seems to travel under a kind of magic protection, bestowed on him as much by his irrelevance as his journalistic credentials.

The Lawless Roads is witty and sour, and Greene involves you intimately and sympathetically with the everyday people he meets. He occasionally falls into colonial smugness, but most of his observations are keen and commiserative, and the portrait he paints—of people resigned to endure the whims of powerful tyrants that they have no hope of defying—is engaging. The Catholics, like everyone else in southern Mexico at that time (and now), carry on despite the oppressions and corruption of local government leaders.

When he left Mexico and returned to England, Greene found that the Mass in his home church felt curiously fictitious compared to the furtive, secret Masses he had celebrated in Chiapas. Later, he would describe this trip as the real beginning of his conversion to Catholicism, which he thought of ever afterward as a sustaining faith to people who have no other worldly place to turn for consolation.

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Around the World & Into the Past

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

For the last couple of centuries, our changing attitudes about travel have mirrored the effects of globalization: starting with the Industrial Revolution, as cultures worldwide became more technological, travel for average Western Europeans and Americans came to mean enrichment rather than danger. Travel once meant only hardship and adventure, the prospect of unpredictable and possibly life-threatening difficulties from which you might never return—normal people did not travel long distances in the seventeenth century, for example, and explorers and other world travelers were likely to be mad as hatters. As more of the globe became known and modern conveniences (like disposable income, internal combustion and industrial agriculture) spread, the idea of travel became associated with pleasure rather than risk, and it became a mark of cultivation to travel great distances to other cultures and return to tell the tale.

With the framework of the increasing ease of travel in mind, I’ve selected a series of six travel books and one film that will take us both around the world and into the past—a past recent enough to contain most of the elements of daily life that we all recognize, yet just distant enough to involve real dangers that the modern traveler can generally avoid these days (or at least avoid personal contact with): dangers of disease, life-threatening poverty and incomprehensible local political squabbles into which the traveler may stumble accidentally. Encounters in these narratives are just as commonly friendly and curious as they are suspicious, mistrustful or terrifying.

We’ll begin tomorrow with Graham Greene‘s The Lawless Roads, the narrative of a 1938 journey to the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas, where the Calles government was systematically killing Catholic priests, destroying churches and suppressing religion. Then we’ll take a walking tour through central Spain just after World War II with Nobel Prize winner Camilo Jose Cela, in his Journey to the Alcarria. Next, we’ll jump to Italy as Jan Morris takes us on a kaleidoscopic tour of the long past and strange present of a cultural crossroads in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Making a hard right turn at the Balkans, we’ll head down to the Democratic Republic of Congo to explore a pure and horrifying example of modern colonialism in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, after which we’ll journey by train through China with Paul Theroux in Riding the Iron Rooster, the tale of a trip Theroux took in 1989 but which feels a hundred years older because of the vast economic changes that have happened recently in China. Our one film in the series is next, with the John Boorman true-life adventure Beyond Rangoon, starring Patricia Arquette as an American Doctor in Myanmar whose life changes radically when she encounters the democratic political movement of Aung San Suu Kyi. Finally, we’ll jump and skip through the islands of Polynesia, as James C. Simmons tells us about early European and American explorers who lost their way in the South Pacific, finding sometimes heaven and sometimes hell, in Castaways in Paradise.

If you know the books and movie already, I’d love to hear your thoughts about them; if you don’t, I hope you’ll be inspired to take some of these journeys with me from the comfort of your favorite easy chair. The train leaves from this platform tomorrow, for Mexico.

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