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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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3 Responses to “Around the World & Into the Past”

  1. Raquelle says:

    My favorite place to visit through literature is the Dominican Republic (or the isle of Hispanola in general) and my favorite time period is 1940s-1960s during the reign of dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo de Molina. Good books for that journey include In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz and Farming of the Bones by Edwidge Danticat.

    I’m not familiar with the books & films you listed, so again I provide you with another self-centered comment! #commentfail

    • Mark says:

      Trujillo, huh? Tough times. . . Actually, I haven’t read any of the books you mentioned, so I’ll add them to my nightstand stack and look forward to reading them, especially In the Time of the Butterflies, which I’ve heard great things about already. The Caribbean books I’ve read are mainly Cuban, though I did read Jamaica Kincaid in college, and I’ve read a lot of seafaring stories dealing with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (A High Wind in Jamaica is still one of my favorite young adult books, and Dudley Pope’s The Black Ship, the true history of a West Indies British mutiny, is as gripping as a swashbuckling romance). Thanks for the suggestions!

      • Raquelle says:

        I was born on November 25th, on the 20th anniversary of the killings of the Mirabal sisters. I’m very lucky that my mother wasn’t aware of the connection otherwise my name would have been something like Patria or Minerva. In the Time of the Butterflies is a true gem in my opinion.

        Have you read Oscar Wao? If not, I have an extra HC which I would be glad to send to you! I’ll make sure that I put Flaubert’s Parrot in there too for you.

        I’m participating in the 25 Books Latinas should Read challenge and Dreaming in Cuban is on there. Have you read that one?