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Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Golden Rings

Saturday, December 10, 2011 @ 11:12 AM  posted by Mark

File Under Socialist Wedding Gifts

I recently got a new wedding ring (someone else’s), by accident, in the Jardin des Tuileries. I was walking along, minding my own business, when a little old woman, tottering toward me, suddenly bent down to the ground and scooped something up. She approached me and said, “Excuse me, sir, you dropped your ring,” and she held up a shiny golden band. This is a fairly common scam in the tourist areas of Paris: somebody “finds” something you dropped, you say “no, that’s not mine,” they say, “well, you should keep it anyway as a souvenir, and by the way I don’t have enough money to eat, and you just got this stroke of luck, maybe you could share your luck with me and give me some money.”

That’s more or less the way this encounter went, except that the little old woman didn’t ask for money. I said,” No, it’s not mine,” she said “well, it’s a man’s wedding ring, much too big for me, what am I going to do with it, just keep it.” I put the ring on and it fit like a charm! “Really?” I said. “Sure,” she said. “Have a nice day.”

I looked around to see if someone was coming up to pick my pocket, but it was just me and the old woman. “Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”

As I was walking away, however, the woman came running up behind me and said, “You know, come to think of it, I don’t have a place to stay tonight.” I rolled my eyes, took the ring off and tried to hand it back to her. “Forget it,” I said. “Take the ring back.” And now, instead of begging some more, the woman became intensely angry. She refused to take the ring back and instead started cursing me and then gave an impassioned speech about the injustice of the world and how unfair it was that some people have vast riches and some people starve on the street, and there was no logic or merit in the distribution of wealth and so on. I’d met a socialist revolutionary old woman street gypsy.

Most people, I think, would simply have walked away, but the longer she talked, the more I found that I agreed with the woman. The world is unjust! So I told her I would give her all the change in my pocket. Sometimes, this can be as much as eight or ten euros, as one often collects one- and two-euro coins throughout the day in Paris. Unfortunately, on this particular occasion, I had only a measly sixty centimes, which I offered to the woman.

She took the money, counted it, and spat. “What am I going to do with sixty centimes?!” she yelled. She had a point. It was quite bad luck, but I wasn’t about to take my wallet out in a tourist area while being harangued by a gypsy, and anyway, she was getting on my nerves. So I offered her the ring back, and she refused and kept yelling!

I turned to walk away, at which time a very dapper Parisian man wearing a sleek gray suit and expensive overcoat came up and started explaining quite forcefully to the woman how interested the cops would be if they found someone in the Jardin des Tuileries yelling at people, and the two got into a huge fight. I sauntered away and crossed the pedestrian bridge in front of the Orsay Museum, holding my hand up to the sun, admiring my new quasi-golden band/quasi-shower curtain ring. Whatever else you might say about it, it fits perfectly!

The Jardin des Tuileries

Scene of the Crime, the Jardin des Tuileries

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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