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Posts Tagged ‘Around the World’

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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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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