Friday, December 23, 2011

on the Learning of Languages

My enthusiasm for foreign languages far exceeds any talent I have for them, but I always try to arrive at a new place with at least a running jump at the language.  When planning a trip I lay in language books, though most of them I do not look at, and learn most of what I will use from a Berlitz phrasebook, which turns out to have the basic forms that I need to get around as a traveler. Beyond that, I learn from studying newspaper headlines and signs in shop windows and listening to people around me after I get there.
    This informal approach can, of course, have amusing results, as when in Zürich a friend, noticing that I was able to order breakfast in German, asked me to negotiate on his behalf with a streetwalker.  It turned out that a word that I had picked up from conversation did not mean exactly what I thought it did and hilarity ensued.  At least I thought it was hilarious; he did not think so.  A word that I thought meant “horsing around” turned out to mean “violence”, which I had told her my friend was looking for.  But I guess that’s how one learns a language. 

I have never cared about being fluent in a language, but have always been content to know enough to be able to travel on my own.  This requires a fairly small vocabulary  --  a few hundred words, at most  --  and a handful of constructions.  “Please”  “Thank you”  “What is it called?” “Where is the . . .”  “I am . . .”  “What time . . . arrives, departs . . .”  “What does it cost?”  “I need a room.”  Not much more than that and the basic numbers and days of the week and I seem to be able to get around.  You’ll need more if you intend to strike up a social relation, but this will give you a foot in the door. 

I have, of course, been in awe of the great travelers who seem to be at home in whatever exotic language they encounter.  Richard Francis Burton, the disorderly Victorian explorer, was said to speak twenty-nine languages (thirty, he said, when you count pornography) and he has left us with a description of how he did it:

“My system of learning a language in two months was purely my own invention, and thoroughly suited myself.
    “I got a simple grammar and vocabulary, marked out the forms and words which I knew were absolutely necessary, and learnt them by heart by carrying them in my pocket and looking over them at spare moments during the day.  I never worked for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the brain lost its freshness.  After learning some three hundred words, easily done in a week, I stumbled through some easy bookwork and underlined every word that I wished to recollect . . .. Having finished my volume, I then carefully worked up the grammar minutiae, and I then chose some other book whose subject most interested me.  The neck of the language was now broken, and progress was rapid.
    “If I came across a new sound, like the Arabic Ghayn, I trained my tongue to it by repeating it so many thousand times a day. When I read, I invariably read out loud, so that the ear might aid memory. . . .  whenever I conversed with anybody in a language that I was learning, I took the trouble to repeat their words inaudibly after them, and so to learn the trick of pronunciation and emphasis.”

Burton’s method appeals to me, as most of it is something that can be done before I reach the country.

In the square in Chichicastenango the most beautiful woman I had seen in all Central America passed by and smiled and said something to me.  I have absolutely no idea what she said.  We mustn’t let that sort of thing happen, must we?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Coffee Hour at the Temple of Doom

Travelers turn up in odd places.  One Sunday at coffee hour after church I was talking to an older lady whom I knew in the way that you know other people in the congregation and mentioned that I had recently been to the Yucatán.  She smiled wistfully, as older ladies do, and asked if I had been to Uxmal.  Then she told me how, when she was a young girl in college, she and her roommate had gone to Mexico one summer and at Uxmal she had climbed to the top of the pyramid and spent the night there, in order to see the sunrise.
    By her age, that would have put her there sometime in the ‘forties, long before any development or tourist facilities, when Uxmal had scarcely been scraped out of the dry jungle and so much that I had seen when I was there I knew from old photographs were then still rubble scattered in the brush.
    But here was this perfectly normal-looking church lady who as a young girl had gone with her college roommate into that remote and ill-policed Treasure of Sierra Madre country and slept on the top of a pyramid in order to see the sunrise.  I could picture her, a slim-waisted young woman standing on top of the Pyramid of the Magician, perhaps in high-topped boots and riding breeches, hands on her hips as she watches the sun break over the flat scrub of the eastern horizon.
    She finished college and went on to some sort of career, marrying a nice fellow, a scientist; they traveled as appropriate to business and for pleasure; they raised a couple of normal, successful children and she now was quite content to reminisce over coffee about an adventure she once went on when she was a young girl in college.

A nice little story to remember, should I ever be feeling too full of myself.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Queen of the East and her feral Cats

Let us remember the elegant and intrepid Lady Hester Stanhope, granddaughter of Pitt the Elder and “Queen of the East.”

    “In the end, with her pension cut off, and overcome by debt, she became increasingly reclusive.  Her servants left, stripping the house as they went, and in 1839 she walled herself up alone in her decaying mansion [in the Syrian hills] where her decomposing remains were found a month later surrounded by feral cats.” Times Literary Supplement, 7/15/05.

The cats are essential to the account, as Lady Hester would undoubtedly have understood.  Otherwise, it’s just an elderly recluse dying alone.  The feral cats make all the difference.

It’s a shame that stories can’t be entirely atmosphere and exotica: a remote, decaying mansion in the Syrian hills, liveried servants and villainous cats (or vice-versa).  No plots or characters, only shadows and empty corridors and dust floating in the sunlight of an empty room, a closed door without a handle, leatherbound books stacked in a corner, the creak of a floor board, an overgrown garden, a feral cat watching from atop a wall  . . ..  Put me in a world like that and I am content and have no need for character or plot, though I suppose it might be more appropriate to poetry than to prose.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

a travel book by its cover

In conjunction with a list of a hundred "most celebrated travel books", the travel writing site World Hum included a slide show of “Five Great Travel Book Covers”.

They are all nice covers, but none of them have the dramatic or evocative impact that we are accustomed to on the dust jacket of a novel.

Looking through my own bookcase, I find a similar situation.  The covers are much too earnest, much too concrete to the traveler and his journey.  Too many are based on photographs taken on the spot and carry the suggestion that what is important in the book is the place visited and not the writing or perhaps not even the travel in getting there.  And if the writer is not someone I know and want to read  --  or he didn’t go someplace that I am currently interested in  --  I am unlikely to pick up the book.

Better is the approach of the Oxford cover for Abroad: British Literary traveling between the wars, by Paul Fussell, with its massive looming black bulk of an ocean liner seen from water level, like one of those 1930s posters.  Or Little, Brown’s cover for Evelyn Waugh’s When the Going Was Good, showing Waugh, tweedy, with a pipe and glass of porter in an armchair, staring out impishly, as if he were thinking of something fiendishly clever and is obviously the sort of person whose stories you would like to hear, wherever he had gone.

Perhaps the cover of a travel book presents some peculiar difficulty, some restraint on the imagination not present in the cover art of a novel.  Some writers, it is said, think about the design of their cover before they even write anything, much as they imagine themselves being interviewed fawningly on NPR, but I confess that I have no idea what a dust jacket for my own writing might look like, though I don't think my subject matter gives itself much to photography.  That's what publishers used to get paid for.

[The link above apparently doesn't work anymore, but you won't miss much by not seeing it, which was pretty much the point I was making.   But look at <worldhum> anyway; it's a nice site.]

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Winter Journey

Snow has come late this year to the valley of Lake Champlain and reminds me of another year when I left on a trip and there was snow in the forecast.

For years we drove from Chicago to Cleveland to spend Christmas with my wife's family, a long but not difficult day’s drive across the Interstate.  Not difficult if the weather were clear, but storms blew in off the prairie and Arctic air came down from Canada across the Lakes and over the big snow mitten of Michigan, and one year our departure coincided with a forecast blizzard, so we decided that that year we would play it safe and take the train.

We had traveled by train before and  --  this being the route of the Twentieth Century Limited  --  we imagined ourselves Nick and Nora Charles at cocktails in an Art Deco club car, and dressed with a casual elegance appropriate to the occasion, though we also brought warm coats as we would be moving around Chicago beforehand and who knew what might await us on the frozen tundra of Cleveland.  This turned out to be a fortunate precaution.

Our train did not look like the Twentieth Century Limited.  It looked rather more like the old passenger cars that I had ridden as a little boy in southern Illinois.  Very much like them; so much so that, had it not been so cold, I suspected they might also have smelled like them.  But fortunately it was cold.

We asked about the club car, but received no satisfactory response.

But we were sure that once the train got moving things would sort themselves out and we pictured ourselves sipping a cocktail in the warmth of the club car as our train glided through woods and snowy fields beneath a wintry moon.

But our scheduled departure time came and went, and we did not.  But we had a comfortable seat and it was pleasant to watch the bustle of the terminal outside our window.  Snow was blowing about and the warmly-dressed travelers bustling along the platform with gaily wrapped packages made a merry Christmas scene, and we did not mind the delay.

Eventually, we began to mind the delay, but then the train pulled out of the station and we were on our way, over the hills and through the woods and across the prosperous farm country of Indiana and Ohio to an old-fashioned family Christmas.

To the south of the great rail hub of Chicago, big-shouldered hog-butcher for the world, are the rail yards, a vast expanse of parallel tracks, stretching as far in either direction as the eye could see that dark, snowy night, a sea of black and silver and industrial gray.  And that is where we stopped.  Our late afternoon departure had been delayed into the evening and it was now quite dark and the only light outside our window were the dirty yellow bulbs under metal shades on iron poles spaced at such intervals along the tracks as they seemed intended more to orient than to illuminate, back-lighting falling clumps of snow that seemed to pick up speed as we watched.

But inside the train there were the reassuring sound of engines and motors, with their promise of warmth and locomotion.

And then we noticed that the sounds had stopped.

A passenger making his way back from the front of the train reported that we had no engine and apparently no crew.  I chose to think of this as a good sign: that they were all off busy getting us a better engine for our trip.

Of course, without an engine we were not getting any heat in the coach, but as long as we kept the doors closed I was sure this would be no problem, and I was sure that at any moment we would feel the comforting jolt of a new engine being coupled to our train.

But why go on?  You know where this is going.

We were stranded in the darkness in a blizzard on a cold train in the frozen wastes of the Chicago rail yard with no engine and no crew and no indication that anyone knew we were there.  For all we knew, there were wolves prowling outside.  And there was no damn club car.

We sat there for hours as the temperature inside the coach converged with that outside.  We wrapped ourselves in everything in our luggage.  We found a package of crackers and discussed which of the other passengers we should eat first when it came time for breakfast.

Eventually, someone noticed we were there  --  or perhaps they found they had to move us to make way for another train  --  and a bit before dawn we were underway and had a quite pleasant trip on a bright, sunny morning across the snowy fields of northern Indiana and Ohio.

After Christmas, we flew back.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

I meet the Condessa

After we had recovered from our long drive down, I went with El Patrón to visit the Countess at her small villa in a nearby village.  An elegant lady, of graying blond hair, dressed in a loose cotton shift, her only companion a monstrous Great Dane the size of a small horse, who lies at her side on the couch, his great head, mournful-eyed, resting on her lap.

El Patrón had come to consult about servants, as he has fired the staff at his house, accusing them of having planted scorpions in his bed and a viper in his bath.  The Condessa clearly knows of such things.  She is plainly an aristocrat, despite the unpromising appearance of her present estate.

On the wall of the next room is a large oil painting which I guess to be of the Condessa, it being sufficiently modern in style that such identification must be guessed at.  Yes, says the Condessa, it was painted when she was a dancer.  Did I know of Martha Graham?  She had danced with her.  The film “Black Orpheus”?  Yes, the Brasilan film.  The Condessa did the choreography in that film and was herself responsible for introducing the Bossa Nova into the United States.

Which led to a story.  One of many.  Of how she brought the first Brasilian Bossa Nova dance troop to New York, children she had found in the slums of Rio, and how the ungrateful rascals, despite her many and explicit warnings, had smuggled in twenty kilos of marijuana hidden in their instruments, for which she had vouched in customs.  When she found out she let them do their performance and then, three hours after they had finished, she had them on a plane back to Rio, smarting under her curses and tongue-lashing, for her father and grandfather had been admirals and she knew how to speak with the voice of command.

Then more stories.  Of a local magnate who for his malefactions had been expelled from Europe by his family and sent, with scarcely a million to his name, to the most distant place they could think of, which was of course here, where the fellow had grown rich by dint of hard work, lies and ill-doing.  The Condessa admired his piratical skills, but condemned him as ungenerous.  One may forgive all sorts of villainy, she explained, if accompanied by a generous nature.  But this pirate was a tightwad, for whom she had nothing but contempt.

Cold beer was brought and the Condessa took time to admonish the two young men who were working on her house and the young woman who was listlessly sweeping the floor.  The house was small, under construction as Mexican houses seem always to be, with building litter in the yard, piles of tile and bags of cement scattered about.  The Condessa was planning a water tank and  --  when funds permitted  --  a swimming pool.

Money, one gathered, was a problem at the moment, but one so formidable a woman would solve as she had solved other such problems in the past.  An American admirer, whose name is a household word, had recently given her the automobile of his former wife, which the Condessa’s son was driving down from the States, along with twenty cartons of the Condessa’s favorite cigarette, a brand unfortunately unavailable in the Republic.  Twenty cartons, said the Condessa, he is a fool, as are all twenty-year-olds.  They will think he is a smuggler.  It is always for the innocent offenses we are caught.

Our conversation then turns to the chronic misbehavior of Latin men.  Mexican men are awful, said the Condessa.  They cheat on their wives and if they are caught they arrogantly say ‘so what?’.  Not at all like an Italian man.  He will cheat just as much, but will lie about it and claim to be ashamed of himself.  Whereupon the Condessa launched into a long and amusing story of the time she caught her Italian lover in flagrante delicto, and of the preposterous and operatic exertions he made to redeem himself, by sleeping five nights beneath her window, with gifts arriving hourly  --  jewels, candy and flowers  --  accompanied by florid and abject protestations of his love and remorse.  After five days of course, she relented.  Who could not?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On the Road to Mexico, Part 4

We assist a child in defrauding the government

By the second day, everyone but the driver dozed.  Beyond the closed windows of our air-conditioned car Mexico unrolled, with her heat and dust and sun and churches and shacks and cactus and fields and cattle and flashes of preternaturally purple and scarlet flowers growing out of hard, dusty ground flickering dream-like between snatches of sleep. 

    At one point, on a hypnotizingly straight highway, I fell asleep while driving and went off the road, but it was one of those places where you could run off the road for quite a distance and not hit anything important.

Late in the evening of the second day we stopped at Tepic, south of Mazatlan.  As we sat in the restaurant a little Mexican boy, maybe ten years old, watched us and tried to get our attention.  When we left he came to our car and asked for our toll road receipts.  In Mexico, toll roads appear to me indistinguishable from any other sort of road, except for the presence of toll booths, where is collected some arbitrary amount bearing no discernible relation to the length or quality of the road.  It would appear, in fact, that these are just ordinary highways on which the government has erected toll stations.  And unlike traffic offenses, tolls are not negotiable.

    I gave the boy a handful of our toll receipts, thinking to myself how the poor lad must be collecting receipts in lieu of stamps or baseball cards or some more expensive boyish hobby.

    He sells them, explained Roger, to other motorists.  A driver need only pay a particular toll once a day and then may go back and forth as many times as he wishes, merely by showing a toll receipt for the day.  So, my little muchacho was defrauding the government.  Admirable initiative for a lad so young.

Then south again, Mexico seeping through the cracks of our car.  Cattle on the road, bats flitting through the beam of our headlights.  At one point frogs hopping across the road, at another, small snakes slither.  A red glow in the night sky from a burning cane field.  Mexican music on the radio to keep the driver company while his companions sleep.

It was sometime past midnight when we entered Puerto Vallarta, the car bouncing on the cobbles.  Colonial buildings and shop fronts of the restored town, artificially constricted by the bright overhead street lights, looking like a scene from a dream.  Then across an arched bridge and south again, the road through a tunnel of trees with scarcely-seen shapes fluttering out of the darkness.  We start counting the kilometer markers.  No elation: just tiredness.

At 5:30 on our third morning, forty-nine hours after leaving home, we arrive.  Even El Patrón, for all his enthusiasm for his new house, just wanted to go to bed.  I shake out the bedclothes, for El Patrón has told us that on his last visit the staff, who are soon to be let go, had put a scorpion in his bed to discourage him from buying the house.  There was a spider, large and brown but unaggressive, and I chased him off the bed.  I was dirty and my feet were swollen, but I could worry about that later.  I slept all through that day and following night and through the morning of the day that came after.  I would sleep for thirty hours.  We were in no hurry and there would be time enough to deal with Mexico.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

On the Road to Mexico, Part 3

Don't worry: this is Mexico.

If Mexican traffic enforcement is warm and personal, the same cannot be said for PEMEX, the state petroleum monopoly.  Coming from a free market country where there often seems to be a filling station on every corner, it is an unpleasant change to come to a country where stations seem to be a hundred miles apart, stations that open late and close early.  And at one point the rascals even tried to overcharge us, but as they claimed to have sold us more gasoline than our car would hold they got nowhere with their villainy.

    Late at night I found myself nervously watching the gas gauge as we passed closed stations with signs advising that the next station, which might also be closed, was 40 or 80 km away.  But I was thinking like a gringo, for Roger explained that if things got bad we had only to stop at some village and ask around to find someone who had gasoline to sell.  Don’t worry: this is Mexico. 

    And indeed, that was how we found gasoline that night.  We had found no station open and it had gotten dark and there was a little village off to the west of the highway that looked as if it scarcely had electricity, but Roger walked up to some people sitting outside a house in the cool of the evening, who directed him to another house where we bought a few litres of gasoline, that took care of our concerns until we could find an open PEMEX station.  See, said Roger, I told you not to worry: this is Mexico.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On the Road to Mexico, Part 2

Mexican traffic law, explained

Driving south through the Central Valley of California we came upon Mexico in bits and pieces.  A rack of Mexican comic books in a convenience store.  At a truck stop the only music tapes are Mexican.  More Spanish-language radio as we scan the dial.  Advertising signs in English and Spanish, then later only in Spanish.  And finally, advertisements for Mexican auto insurance.  But still only pieces of Mexico.  Latin embolisms in a northern matrix.

We crossed the frontier at Calixico.  It looks very much like a border town, but still an American border town.  For all the dark faces and Spanish signs, the visual clues confirm that we are still in gringoland.

    And then we cross a few yards of border and we are in El Norte no more.  With the abruptness of walking onto a stage set we are in Mexico, and all the clues of sound and color and proportion and surface  --  all signs of spirit visible and invisible  --  have changed and we are gone from the protestant North into the Latin South.

    We cross into Mexico in the late evening and turn east on Route 2, to drive through the desert at the mouth of the Colorado River.  To our right, far out of sight, the river empties into the Gulf of California, the Sea of Cortéz.  

    The pattern of Mexican traffic begins: few cars but many trucks, wide and ponderous, and huge buses, also wide, all hurtling themselves down the highway as if pursued by devils, their draft in passing almost knocking us off the road, itself a long, straight, two-lane blacktop stretching off into the eastern darkness.  Behind us, a desert sunset, beautiful of course, but it’s late and it is too much trouble to turn around and look.  And what’s ahead of us is more interesting: Mexico.

    For several hours we travel parallel to the border and then, at Sonoyta, we turn south and east and begin our descent into the Republic.

The map is non-committal on the condition of our route, which is in places fine and modern, and in others rough and broken and shared with cattle.  El Patrón and I are dozing as Roger drives.  It is quite dark outside.  We are on a rough stretch of road, but the bouncing of the car, now familiar, goes unnoticed.  Then lights flash and Roger says “Oh, oh,” and pulls to the side, this being one of those stretches where there seems to be no actual road to pull off of.  A Chevrolet pickup with a great deal of optional chrome stops ahead of us and two men dressed like parking garage attendants climb out and come back to our car.  La Policia.

    Papers are examined and there is much serious talk as Roger and the police stand back from the car.  At length, Roger sticks his head through the window and announces that he needs 15,000 pesos (approx. US$5) to settle an illegal passing offense.  They had originally wanted 50,000 pesos, but Roger had chatted them down.  And he had passed a bus illegally, so the whole thing was quite fair.  And there would be no concern over a bad mark on his driving record, as this was a cash transaction.

At Hermosillo we stop to eat at about four in the morning at a very North American-looking truck stop.  Sunrise comes near Ciudad Obregón.  The land changes from desert to irrigated fields.  Children walk along the road to school.  There are men on horseback and men on rusty bicycles.  There are poor little villages with grand and beautiful names.

    Outside the window of our car is Mexico, but inside is still the air-conditioned order and comfort of the United States.  Soon enough the heat and dust of Mexico would wash away the residuum of our gringoism, but for now we are tired and content to take Mexico in small doses.

At Los Mochis a policeman waves us over.  This time I am driving.  I smile and Roger does the talking.  This, it turns out, is pure fraud.  The fellow is just supplementing his income.  He and Roger talk long and philosophically, and at length the policeman comes back and shakes my hand and wishes us a good journey.  Roger has convinced him that we aren’t going to pay.  As I drove away I saw him pull over another car, apparently at random, to try his luck again.

    This is how Mexican traffic law works, explained Roger.  The police are paid a pittance and must do this in order to make ends meet.  It is a sad thing, but necessary.  The fellow is embarrassed to have to do it, but that is how things are.  It is no more than an informal tax assessment to pay police salaries.  And besides, this way you know your money is going to someone who needs it, and not being paid to the government where it will be wasted or stolen by some politician.

    Warming to his subject, Roger continued: Mexican justice is not a cold, bloodless affair as it is in the protestant North.  Here it it is warm and personal  --  one might say it is Catholic.  A policeman stops you, claiming that you have done something which at that particular moment you may or may not have done, but almost certainly have done sometime in the past, and announces that you must pay some exorbitant fine.  You protest and for a while argue facts and legalisms, but this is just an opportunity to size each other up.  Then talk may turn to where you are from or such like, and at length the policeman will mention his great concern for, say, the Sinaloa Police Youth Slow-Pitch Softball League, a most deserving movement to help poor orphans, but, alas, sadly in need of funds to buy gloves and shoes for the impoverished muchachos.

   Formidable, you exclaim, for only that very morning you had remarked to your wife that you had been wanting to find some way to assist the poor orphans of the district to engage in wholesome sport, but, alas, you knew of no way to do this.  Would it be possible for the officer to convey for you a small donation to this worthy organization?

    Well, now, of course.  How it pleases the heart to find a gentleman such as yourself so generous to these poor children.  It would be a great honor to convey your contribution in small, unmarked bills to the cause of these worthy youth.  And as for that trifling infraction, please think no more of it.  Have a good journey.

(to be continued . . .)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

On the Road to Mexico, Part 1

Ever since I was a little boy and first looked at a road map, I have been fascinated by the notion that you could get into your car and pull out of your driveway and, by turning at the right places and driving far enough, you could get to Mexico.  And then you could just keep going.
    For a long time I never got around to doing that.  Then one day I did.

Part 1.  A quite manageable plan.

My friend had bought a house in Mexico.  Not some modest vacation bungalow  --  for he was not a modest person  --  but a luxurious compound perched on a cliff overlooking an unspoilt and unpopulated stretch of sandy Pacific beach.  A great house with servants’ quarters and guest houses.  Three pools and a tennis court and a landing strip  --  though as a result of some misunderstanding with the authorities there was at the moment a line of palm trees planted down the center of the runway. 

He insisted that we watch over and over the realtor’s video of the property as he each time pointed out more amazing features of his new home.  As befitted the owner of such an estate, my friend had shed his former persona and now wished to be referred to simply as “El Patrón”.

When word came up from the South that the papers had been signed and seals affixed he would of course waste no time in assuming his new estate and insisted that we should immediately depart for Mexico.  As there were three of us, we could drive straight through.  Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggested it would be about a 48-hour drive from San Francisco to his new property south of Puerto Vallarta.  Divided three ways, that would be two eight-hour stretches apiece.  Quite manageable.

Besides El Patrón and myself there would be Roger, a nice young Mexican fellow whom El Patrón had recently met and who, in a moment of rashness, had lent El Patrón $50,000 of his family’s money.  I was unclear what the purpose of this had been and thus far all that had come of it was that El Patrón, in one of those bursts of enthusiasm so typical of him, had purchased with some exorbitant amount of Roger’s money an elderly Renault amphibious automobile, whose leaks, he was sure, would be easy to fix.  The Amphi-Car was probably the first of a number of small incidents that had caused Roger to fear that his business with El Patrón was not going to go as he had expected and so he had arranged to be constantly at El Patrón’s elbow and would of course be going with us to Mexico.

We left early in the morning, hours before sunrise: Three Caballeros in a Jeep Cherokee.  We took turns driving, though it soon became clear that El Patrón  --  despite his claims to the contrary  --  did not see well in the darkness, and duties were divided accordingly.  He also mentioned to us in passing that the police were “holding his driver’s license for him,” but soon we would be in Mexico where such Anglo legalisms will be no problem.  It was my impression that “Anglo legalisms” were no small part of his reason for wanting to spend more time in Mexico in the first place.

(to be continued . . . )

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Doña Catalina de Erazu, the ensign-nun

My favorite book about Mexico is Leslie Byrd Simpson’s Many Mexicos, first published in 1941 and gone through many editions since.  In addition to what you might expect, there are stories of interesting characters who have been part of Mexican history but of whom we in the North have never heard, such as Doña Catalina de Erazu, the ensign-nun, who drove mules.

Catalina was born in Spain at the beginning of the Seventeenth Century into a pious and respectable family  Her parents passed away when she was very young and her aunt forced her into a convent.   Bored and finding herself with no talent for the religious life, Catalina escaped from the convent in men’s clothing and made her way to the New World where, in Simpson’s words, “she swashbuckled her way from Spain to Peru and Chile. She became famous as a swordfighter.  Sometimes she worked as an arriero (muleteer), sometimes a soldier.”  In one hard-fought battle against Indians in northern Chile she recaptured their flag and for this piece of derring-do was made a junior officer.  No one thought this unusual for a member of the fair sex, as no one was aware that she was a woman.

As this was her immediate course of action upon leaving the convent, one may infer that her aunt probably had some cause for committing her there in the first place.

The thing about being a famous swordfighter is that you tend to kill a lot of people and even in the rowdy world of colonial muledrivers this attracted the Law’s attention and finally led to her being about to be condemned to death, whereupon she revealed that she was a woman and a virgin and, by the way, also a nun, which would put her under the jurisdiction of the Church.
    The authorities in Peru decided that this was above their paygrade, so they sent her to Spain to have her case resolved there. The Spanish authorities, similarly baffled, sent her case to the Pope.  While hindsight is said to be a great aid to discernment, infallibility is even better, and the Pope was so intrigued by her story that he gave her dispensation to wear male clothing the rest of her life. Once the Pontiff had cleared the air, King Philip IV, also taken by her story, granted her a pension of 500 pesos, the magnanimity of which was somewhat qualified by the bankruptcy of his government and its consequent inability to pay any of that.
    In about 1640, Catalina returned to New Spain and to muledriving, and, Simpson tells us, “became the terror of the Mexico City-Veracruz road”.
    At this point, love entered her life and she fell madly for the wife of a young hidalgo. When he proved unsophisticated about the arrangement she challenged him to a duel which was, fortunately or not, prevented, and Doña Catalina died a few years later, in about the year 1650.  Were this a novel she might have died of a broken heart, but I somehow suspect Doña Catalina was not that sort of person.
    She was, by the way, the subject of the first novel published in the New World, but that is another story.

But what a charming tale.  (There are, by the way, other versions of it.)  In the North, for various reasons we have the impression that nothing much happened in the vasty realms below of the Rio Grande in those long centuries of Spanish rule.  And from the point of view of Whig history, perhaps not; but of human history and adventure there was a fine amount, and I was delighted to catch some glimmer of this in Simpson’s wonderful book.

If you want to know about a place, it could help to know some of the stories that the people who live there know.  Stories that are part of their mental and spiritual landscape.

For example, if you are an American, the Mexican you are talking to knows the story of the Heroes of Chapultepec because he was taught it in school, and you, very likely, do not.  As he is looking at you, it is some part of what he is seeing.  This is unfortunate, as the version he has heard may be unnecessarily anti-American, and should the matter ever come up it could avoid awkwardness and perhaps be helpful to our mutual understanding if you could give an American view of the incident.

No one said going to another country was going to be easy.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Innocents Abroad

Once upon a time, the distinction between tourist and traveler seemed mightily important to me, though it does not much any more, as oafs and boors and sensitive folk can be found in either camp, and we all ought be the sort upon whom nothing  --  even tourism  --  is wasted.  And in any event, I once went a’touristing myself, in the long-ago year of 1964, when my wife and I went to Spain:

It seemed like all the Beautiful People were going to Spain that year, or had been there the year before.  We had just been married that autumn and this would be our first summer.  I would finish my first year of law school at Northwestern and she would be on summer break from teaching at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, and we read the New Yorker and Holiday and who knows what other glossy, upscale magazines and were aspiring Yuppies, avant la lettre.
    We bought guidebooks.  In Frommer’s $5-a-Day guide to Spain we were delighted to read in the introduction that he thought you could do Spain quite well on $3 a day.  
    And of course we had both read Hemingway.

The story continues in similar open-faced innocence by clicking on “Spain, 1964,” somewhere in the upper righthand corner of this page.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Village Life

In Guatemala, in the beautiful old colonial town of Antigua, I met an elderly Swiss couple.  Now  retired, they were traveling around the world through the husband's network of contacts built up over many years as a journalist and diplomat.  They told me that the purpose of their travel was to see traditional village life before it vanished under the impact of modern communication and culture.  They said that the greatest threat of the modern world (aside from nuclear war) was the disruption of traditional values by western education and culture.

They said that in the Third World the great mass of humanity, though they lived in poverty, were content, because they compared their situation to those around them in their village.  Those who were better off were not that much better off, and there were always some people who were worse off.  And  there was no reason to think things should be different, because things had always been this way.

But all this is changing.  Today, Third World governments are pressing education into remote villages.  Even more disruptive is television, with its vast load of incidental information about life in the outer world  --  what they seen in the background in a telenovela, for example  --  so that today villagers are be able to compare their life with life in the capital or in the West.  When they see what life could be, their poverty will become unbearable.  De Tocqueville once observed that people do not rebel because they are oppressed, but because they see that their oppression is not inevitable.  When the village people of the Third World see their poverty in comparison to life in the West, then, said my Swiss gentleman, all hell will break loose.

I have no idea how prescient the gentleman was.  The process has been on-going for many years and all hell has not yet broken loose, at least in Latin America, and my knowledge of traditional African and Islamic and Eastern societies is too sparse to comment there.  And should all hell ever break loose, there is no reason even for persons involved to realize that they are revolting because their life isn’t as good as the people they have been watching in the telenovelas.

What does this have to do with travel?  Not much, which I think is a worthwhile point to make, for we travelers do not seem to be much part of the problem.  We may be dumb and ill-mannered and otherwise not influences for good, but we’re not one of the big players.

And to save the virtues and stability of traditional life are we to get rid of education and television in traditional societies  --  and perhaps demographically-disruptive life-extending western medicine while we are at it  --  or do we accept that global values are going to reach into every corner of the world?  That young people will be no longer content with the well-stocked larder of the forest, but now want money to buy motor scooters and sneakers?  That they will tire of the elder's story about how the crocodile ate the moon and want instead to go to the city where they have clubs and music?  Do we call for internal passports in Third World countries to control interchange between the city and the countryside to prevent the spread of destabilizing ideas?   Or do we accept that the entire weight of the modern world bears down on traditional life, and travelers like ourselves, however sensitive and well-intentioned, are irrelevant to what is going to happen.  That we might as well go now  --  however we travel  --  to see what is left of what once was before it is gone forever. 

Or before all hell breaks loose; whichever comes first.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

good travel writing

What does good travel writing look like?  I think it looks very much like this:

    “I come suddenly into a foreign city, just as the lamps take light along the water, with some notes in my head . . . I try out the language with the taxi driver, to see if it’s still there; and later, I walk to a restaurant which is lurking around a corner in my memory.  Nothing, of course, has changed; but cities flow on like water, and, like water, they close behind any departure.”
                                                                  -- Alastair Reid, Passwords (1964)

Reid is a poet and I think the best writing is poetic prose.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

Rolf Potts recently posted on vagablogging  --  my favorite travel site on the web  --  this quote from Paul Theroux:

“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.”

My own experience conforms, but I worry about it as a general advice, as Theroux and I are both gentlemen of a particular age and sort, and what is true for us may not be so for others.  I think neither Paul nor I need be concerned that we might be carried off by white slavers.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain we are now learning that it was also holding in a lot of bad sorts who, having learned their trade under the bare-knuckled police regimes of the old Soviet Bloc are now delighted to find themselves in lush pastures policed by well-meaning liberals.  European regimes that can hardly deal with gypsy children now find themselves confronted by ruthless and well-financed Eastern European gangsters.

In most foreign countries that I would go to in the first place I would trust the natives more than my fellow travelers, for while the latter may be more familiar, they are not, as are the people who live there, subject to the same constraint of concern for their reputation. 

Years ago in an antique shop in Athens the proprietor saw that I was wearing a money belt and seemed to take offense at it: “You don’t need that in Greece,” he said.  I answered that I was not worried about the Greeks, but about my fellow travelers, which he found a more reasonable concern.

And I remember, of course, that horrible little person who stole Patrick Fermor’s notebook at a hostel in Munich and could have cost us one of the most wonderful travel books ever written.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 8.

I read and wrote in my journal and sometimes wandered around the village.  I met only two foreigners, a young couple passing through.  Every so often I check the Lista de Correos for mail at the Post Office and a couple of times find a letter, which I take to an outdoor table and order a cold bottle of Cerveza Negra Leon  --  my then current favorite  --  and perhaps even a bite to eat, and in general make a great production of reading it.  I am not a frenetic traveler and a letter from home waiting for me at the Post Office in a quiet little town is a satisfying amount of excitement for me.

If I have a book that I particularly enjoy, I like to read it slowly.  It has always seemed wrong to consume in a few hours what an author may have spent months or years to produce.  So for many days I was content to idle around the house, leisurely making my way through John Lloyd Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatán, in two volumes, with drawings taken on the spot by Mr. Catherwood.  Stephens had come to the Yucatán in 1841, when little was known of the country and essentially nothing was known of the high Mayan culture that had flourished there and had gone into decline hundreds of years before the coming of the Spanish.

Stephens, with Catherwood and a few servants, traveled around the country and by the simple device of asking the Indians if there were any “old walls” about he was led to discover and describe forty-four Mayan sites.  His book is a steady narrative of ruins and haciendas and Indians and fevers and wildlife and every other marvel that passed before him, and Mr. Catherwood’s careful drawings show us extravagant gods and mysterious artifacts and monumental temples locked in writhing coils of jungle growth.  Even if paradise is boring, books about paradise don’t have to be.

Movie night in Chicxulub Puerto

I saw from signs around town that there would be a movie, though it was unclear where.  Apparently since everyone knew where the movies were, there was no reason to say.  So that evening I fell in with some children who led me to a large building with a crowd of people.  Alberto, the principal of the school, was taking tickets and waved me in, refusing my money.  People standing in line smiled and seemed to think it was just fine, though I was embarrassed by the special treatment.
    The auditorium was a large room with folding chairs and some old theater seats and large fans on either side that little boys threw things into.  It was a Kung-Fu double feature.  The predominately young crowd talked and argued and had a fine time.  Afterward, I walked home along the beach under a bright moon.  I got in about midnight.  I was always a little surprised that I was able to find my way home so easily coming back along the beach since none of the houses out there were occupied and there were never any lights.

The place I have been describing isn’t there anymore.  Reading about the village online, it seems to have been discovered  --  rentals are quite a bit more than the pittance I paid, and life there is now very exciting, at least if the tourist literature is to be believed  --  opinion seems to differ as to whether sharks are a problem  --  and foreigners are buying houses and there is an ex-pat community.  They wouldn’t have re-staged the flag day celebration for me or waved me into the movie if they had been used to foreign visitors.  I am pretty sure they don’t do that nowadays as we are no longer the rare birds in Chicxulub Puerto that we once may have been.

[The eight posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 7.

Out on a walk around the village I saw Alberto, who reminded me that he had invited me to visit his school.  He said today was Flag Day and I promised I would come by to visit the next day.  I wanted to come when nothing in particular was going on, in order to be less of an inconvenience to my host.  So when I came the next day I was surprised to find the Flag Day celebration in progress, which Alberto explained was being re-staged for my benefit.

It was delightful.  It was a grade school and the children were as wonderful as little children always are.  They marched around and ran up the flag and sang songs, to all of which I was appropriately appreciative, then they handed me the microphone to say a few words.

On this trip I had been remiss at practicing my Spanish, but fortunately at that moment I received the Gift of Tongues and delivered myself of a long and enthusiastic speech on the glory of Mexico and the great affection we in the North felt for their country.  I reviewed their illustrious history from the Aztecs through Cortéz and Benito Juárez and I have no idea what else.  The children were enrapt.  I had never spoken the language so fluently.  I have no doubt that the enthusiasm of the moment caused me to invent my Spanish as I spoke, the words tumbling out in such a torrential flow as to sweep my listeners along and communicate with them directly the emotional sense of my meaning, unmediated by grammar or recognizable vocabulary.  Sort of like opera.

The whole experience left us all exhausted and happy.

Alberto said we must do this again sometime.

[The eight posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 6.

To settle into the life of a place, at least to the limited extent possible, I go to the barbershop.  There was one of these in Chicxulub Puerto and it was straight out of the 1880s.  Had you seen a Clint Eastwood character sitting in the old-fashioned oak barber’s chair with its horsehair-stuffed cushion and shiny nickel-plated fixtures you would have thought nothing amiss amid the worn, white marble counter tops; tall, cracked mirrors (no bullet holes, but if there had been you would have understood), strops and straight razors, fancy tonic bottles, shaving mugs and the whole tonsorial paraphernalia.  I would have paid admission just to sit there.
    As I had hoped, locals drifted in while I was there and we chatted, at least to the extent of our mutual language abilities.  One fellow, after the usual my-home-is-your-home business, asked me what my camera had cost.  I had bought it used for $450 but thought that might seem a bit much, as I had no doubt that what was unremarkable in Palo Alto might appear unseemly hereabouts, so I said $100 and immediately decided I had made a mistake as the poor fellow acted as if I had pole axed him and I, who had never had the slightest concern for my security as I walked around the village at any hour of the day or evening, suddenly worried it might come to the ear of the wrong sort of person that I was carrying around in my shoulder bag the most valuable piece of movable property in Chicxulub Puerto.
    What a bother.  For the next few days I didn’t carry my camera, but eventually decided it was safe to do so, as it turned out to be.
    It was a nice haircut.  The scented tonic was a bit much to my taste, but I considered it all part of the experience.  I was around town for a few more weeks and when I would go by the shop I would stick my head in and say ‘hello’ to the barber, who greeted me like I was one of his regular patrons, which was the point of the whole thing in the first place.  I let him know when I was leaving and he said come back any time.

[The eight posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 5.

I had just taken what looked on the map to be a short walk in the bush and arrived suitably exhausted in a little town.  I bought a cold drink and was slumped on a bench in the shade on the dusty little square facing the massive, featureless side wall of a 18th Century church.  Some old Mexican men were sitting around on the other benches, lazing away the late afternoon.  The sun was setting behind the church and its shadow was reaching across the street to where we were sitting.
    A late model American stationwagon drove up to the square and stopped and an American lady got out, looked around, pointed a small camera at the church, apparently took a picture, then got back into the stationwagon and their party drove off.
    I thought it was silly because she was photographing directly into the sun and all she was going to get was the black mass of the church and a blinding glare of sunlight.  While I suspect the old Mexican gentlemen around me might not have picked up on these photographic nuances, they still thought it was the funniest thing they had seen all day.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the American tourist were a stock character in Mexican humor.

On my walk that day I had noticed carved stones, apparently from some ancient structure, built into an unmortared wall beside a cornfield.  I doubt that the stones would have been carried far from where they had been found, and likely had been removed from the field to make room to plant the corn.  They had come from something, probably a Mayan structure abandoned long before the Spaniards arrived, but looking around I saw only cornfields and forest.  There are still ancient buildings out there, overgrown by jungle or hiding under a cornfield, and no one know they are there.

[The eight posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]   

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 4.

Late one afternoon in Mérida I wandered into a large old church.  Inside, it had that beautiful and lived-in feel of old churches that every day for hundreds of years have been open to the life of the world around it.  There was no service going on and only a few people  --  a family, I think  --  up near the front, lost in prayer, and a flicker of candles at a side altar.  I heard a flutter of wings high up near the dark ceiling of the nave: birds, surrogate for angels, who had made their nests in the inaccessible rafters and interior cornices of the old structure.  I was tired and sat down in a worn pew and let my mind relax and wander among the familiar images and associations of the sanctuary and drifted off into peace as one does when you are in a comfortable, familiar place, even if, as here, it is one that you have never actually been before.  I pondered nothing earthly-minded and time became unimportant.

A bit later I became aware of motion at the rear of the church and glanced back to see that a small party of tourists, apparently Americans, had entered and were hesitantly looking around at the furnishings of the sanctuary.  Noticing others apparently in prayer or at some pious observation, they were speaking in whisper and trying not to disturb and it seemed to me being a bit awkward and uncomfortable to find themselves there.

This seemed strange to me.  Elaborated as its decoration might be, this wasn’t some obscure East Asian temple where hashish-crazed natives danced and sacrificed before a pagan idol with a jeweled eye and a taste for virgin’s blood: it was just a church.  A Roman Catholic church just like the ones I am sure these people had passed by most every day of their life.  However protestant one might have been  --  and scornful of the pomps and presumptions of the Pope in Rome  --  how odd that a visiting American would be uncomfortable in a Christian church.  I would have thought that in a foreign city the church should be the most familiar place, the most comfortable and reassuring and homelike.  But perhaps they were unaccustomed to being in a church even when at home and I suppose that when you travel you also learn about your own kind, though I still think it unfortunate.  A part of the country they have come to visit that is invisible to them.

For the birds fluttering around the ceiling, it was their home, too, though for them it was just another cave.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 3.

There was one other incident in Mérida that might be worth mentioning.

Early one evening I was sitting by myself at a table reading the menu in a little open-fronted restaurant facing the park in the center of town.  I was puzzling over the local Yucatecan dishes when I became aware that the fellow at the next table had started a conversation with me.
    Pointing to the restaurant’s name on the menu, Nicté-Há, he asked if I knew what it meant.  Something to do with a flower, I said knowingly, making use of the fact that there was a picture of a flower on the cover.
    Ah, you have some knowledge of the Mayan tongue, he said, introducing himself as a teacher of that language.

We talked of this and that.  Or rather, he talked and I nodded, mostly keeping up with what he was saying.  He quoted some Mayan poetry and in general made the point that any educated person ought to know this ancient and still widely-spoken the language, to all of which I smiled and nodded assent.
    He asked for my journal and said he would write down some common Mayan words that would be useful for me to know if I were to be spending time in the Yucatán.

He wrote in my journal for a few minutes and then handed it back.  On the left side of the page he had written a phrase in Mayan and across from it the same phrase in Spanish.  I was relieved to find that he had written the Mayan in Roman letters, as I might have had trouble with glyphs.

Bix a bel? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ¿Cómo está?
Tux ca bin? . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  .  ¿A dónde va?
Max a kabáh? . . .  .  . . . ¿Como es tu nombre?
Jaipé jab yantech? . . . . . . . ¿Que edad tienes?

He had written ten phrases and went through them, pronouncing them for me.  The “x” was pronounced “sh”, as it was in 16th-Century Spanish when Indian names and words were transliterated into the Roman alphabet.  He told me I could also find some language books at Libreria Burrel, the big bookstore near my hotel.
    Later, I looked over the list of phrases he had given me:  How are you?  What is your name?  How old are you?  Would you like to go for a walk?  Would you like to dance?  Would you like to go to bed? and of course, Thank you.
    My, my.  I suddenly saw a pattern.  How practical.  What a handy list of phrases to give a lone gentleman in an unfamiliar town where Mayan might be spoken.  How considerate of my teacher.

On the way back to Chicxulub Puerto on a slow local bus, an old Indian got on board and saw a friend.  Bix a bel?, he said.  Tux ca bin?  I was delighted, though of course that was all of their conversation that I was able to follow.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 2.

Some days I walk along the beach.  The sand is clean and white and the line of the surf runs straight and unbroken.   Save for the occasional fisherman coming ashore in a small, bright-painted wooden boat, the beach is empty.  To my left, ten or fifteen kilometers distant, is the long iron pier stretching out into the Gulf at the town of Progreso.  To my right, the line of white sand and the edge of the sea and the shoulder of palms all come to an indistinct point where the world stops.  Somehow, I always knew paradise would be boring.

I took a bus to the old colonial town of Mérida to spend a few days and found small, nice hotel with white walls and tile floors and large potted plants.  It was in an old building being worked on at the moment and there were unprotected holes in the floor where you could look down through into its nicely appointed lobby, but as I did not think I would be roaming about in the dark, I was sure this would be no problem.  At the hotel I learned that the following morning someone was driving out to the ruins at Uxmal, so I arranged to ride with him.

Plato & Aristotle in the Yucatán

He was a young, well-educated Mayan fellow who had been to the University and spoke good English.  As we drove across the flat scrub country toward Uxmal he mentioned that his home was in a nearby village.  I asked if it were true, as I had heard, that in the villages they still made sacrifices to Chac, the old rain god.

    “Yes,” he said, a bit shamefacedly.  “I suppose you would say that they were still pagans.”
    “Oh, well,” I said, “so were Plato and Aristotle.”

    He broke into a big smile.

When we say “Mayan” we can mean either the high civilization that flourished and passed away before the Spanish arrived, or we can mean their descendants who still live in that same area and speak their same language today.  The high civilization with its priestly and political superstructure is long gone, collapsed of its own weight.  The Mayan themselves are still here, speaking the same language that their ancestors a millennium ago carved into the glyphs of monuments that we have been for the last century extracting from the jungle. 
    The gods who demanded blood to maintain the cosmic order and whose ways and intentions could only be divined by priests have passed away, along with the haughty lords and puffed-up warriors who had been part and parcel of that old elaborate and expensive regime, and Chac, the old god whom the people knew before and who brings life-giving rain and may be approached directly, is, it would appear, still with his people.

I almost hate to mention this, but how often do you get the chance to tell a charming story about a Meso-American deity?
    When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were visiting Mexico in 1975, they were guests at a light and sound show at the ruins of Uxmal.  At the high point of the presentation  --  and I can only imagine that it must have been a spectacular show because they are spectacular ruins  -- the audio played an ancient prayer to Chac.  Whereupon, the skies opened and a furious rain poured down from heaven.
    This happened in late February, at the mid-point the dry season.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 1.

Why am I not there?

At Peet’s Coffee Shop in Menlo Park, California, a fellow describes how he rented a house every year in a little village in the Yucatán, where he and his family go barefoot all day and buy their fish fresh from the fishermen who pull their boats up onto the beach and drinks his beer with lime and salt at the cantina and no one speaks English and they are the only gringos in the village.  And outside the coffee shop it was late January, bleak and cold, and I ask myself why I am here and not in the Yucatán.  So I obtained a phone number and called the Señora in Mérida who owns the house they rented and between my proto-Spanish and her Hispano-English we decide that for some pittance I can have the house for the following month.  And so, with less deliberation than I might spend in choosing a movie, I was on an airplane bound for the Yucatán.

In a matter of minutes I went from the comfort of my plane seat, with its first world amenities and the quiet, reassuring hum of familiar machinery, into the preternatural brightness of a florescent-lit cement block building filled with a disorienting babble of foreign voices and strange sounds.  My companions of the last six hours all at once begin speaking a foreign language and disappear into the darkness with strangers, abandoning me in an empty baggage room where I am eyed suspiciously by men with guns.

Outside, it got worse. 

It was dark when I arrived at Mérida.  It is always dark when I arrive in the Third World.  It may only be the adverse selection of memory, but it seems that the more unfamiliar the place, the later in the evening is my arrival.  It is always morning or midday when I get off the plane in Europe, and it is always between eleven at night and two in the morning when I reach Belo Horizonte or Chichicastenango.

Outside, at the cab stand, I go mano-a-mano with the Third World.  One of my problems in travel is that I am suspicious of people in third world countries who speak English.  It is my theory that it is harder to defraud people if you don’t speak their language, and if a person speaks English he may have made a career of preying upon tourists.  Jet-lag-induced paranoia, perhaps, but it is a rule I live by.   This means, of course, that I wind up with drivers who don’t have a very clear idea of where I want to go, but such are the trade-offs.

And so it was when I arrived late that tropical night at Mérida, chief town of the Yucatán.  My driver, reassuringly unlearned of English, hurled his cab into the Mexican darkness in search of the Señora from whom I would be renting my house.  It was an exciting ride, falling in behind a police car going code-three.  For a while we dealt with the realization that neither of us knew where we were going, but in the fullness of time we found the Señora, who loaded me into the family Honda and we headed off for the village of Chicxulub Puerto, where I would be staying.

After a long, disorienting ride we reached the village where we stopped at a cantina to find Tiberio, the handyman who took care of the house.  I asked the Señora about sheets for the bed and she seemed to say that there were no beds, but it was late and I assumed my Spanish was not yet fully operational and I might as well see how things were when we got there, as I knew no one would rent a furnished house without beds.

But it turned out that I had understood her correctly.

There were no beds

The Señora expressed surprise that I had not brought my hammock, for everyone in the Yucatán sleeps in a hammock.  In each of the bedrooms  --  i.e., the rooms in which there were no beds  --  there were hooks in the walls to hang your hammock.  Did not everyone know this?

Tiberio said that he would be by at three the next afternoon to connect the hot water and attend to other needful things, and then he and the Señora departed and I was too tired to care whether I had a bed or not.  In a storeroom I found a mattress and tried to sleep on it.  But the mattress was uncomfortable and there were mosquitos in the room and it was cold and I had no cover but a very thin beach towel and outside the wind and the surf were churning and howling.

Some people find the surf restful.  I do not.  And that night it was even worse, a disorienting roar of unfamiliar noise, sounding like a radio playing loudly in the distance, but just below the threshold of intelligibility.  It was Mexican radio, with that distinctive rhythm of hoom-boom-boom, where every commercial sounds like the proclamation of a revolution and the tinny music blurs and dissolves into the undifferentiated roar of the wind and the surf.

We had traveled through darkness to reach the house, and from the windows I could see other houses, but there were no lights or any sign of human presence.  But as I lay on the mattress on the floor I could hear what seemed to be indistinct voices mixed with the churning jumble of noises of wind in the trees and surf rolling on the beach and wood and metal striking together in the wind, or perhaps kicked by the foot of an unseen figure who quietly in the darkness approaches the house, a long knife grasped in his hand while in his mind ferments the memory of some ancient wrong.

I did not sleep well that first night.

The next morning I awaken, unmurdered.

Morning, with sunlight and birds singing and a fresh wind in the palm trees outside the windows of my bedroom.  The house, seen in daylight, is large and airy.  A two-story, cement block affair, with tile floors and furnishings from the 1950s.  In the kitchen are dishes marked “Made in Occupied Japan”.

And outside the front door, a clean white sand beach running straight east and west, and the flat blue expanse of the Gulf of Mexico losing itself on the horizon under huge, towering white cumulus clouds that fill the sky and arch over me and lose themselves in the palm trees behind the house.

Wanting breakfast, I walk toward the town and see that the house I am staying in, and those nearby on the beach  --  now boarded up  --  are part of a line of comfortable and well-built homes that stretch along the beach, standing between the ocean and a disordered cluster of poorer homes with plank doors and unglazed windows that comprise the village of Chicxulub Puerto.

At a little store I bought beer and coffee, bananas, bread and cocoa, and walked back to my house for breakfast.  On the way I met Alberto, who is principal of the grade school and invites me to come visit his class.

I sat alone at the long dining room table over breakfast of coffee and bananas and sweet bread, and thought how strange it was to find myself, just one day from my blustery northern home, here in this large house, with a tropical paradise outside my front door and third world poverty at my back fence.

Exploring the house I found in the downstairs bath a spider the size of a Japanese automobile.  I decide the downstairs bath can be his.  In the kitchen I found a large and diffident cockroach who, when I discover him, pretends that he isn’t there.  I call him “Charlie” and we will have amusing, if one-sided, conversations in the days that follow when we run into each other in the kitchen.  Somehow it seems that sharing the house with an insect and an arachnid is better than being here all by myself.

As Tiberio said he would be by at three to connect the hot water, I wait around the house.

But Tiberio did not come at three, nor at four nor at all that day.  Nor the next day.  After all, this is Mexico.  In the days that follow I see him around town and he waves and speaks and is quite cheerful, but does not stop by the house to connect the hot water or attend to the other needful things.  I figure out the gas by myself.  The water heater is a peculiarly incomprehensible piece of equipment, but if I shower in the heat of the day I have no problem, and am probably more comfortable for doing so.  On the sixth day he appears, as cheerful as ever, and turns on the hot water.  I give him a beer to ease the strain of his labor.

Toward the end of my time there I would write what I remember as an hilarious letter describing my dealings with Charlie the Cockroach.  Despite his gringo name he was authentic Mexican and we had many humorous encounters, some positively Feydeauesque.  We exchanged a great deal of playful banter  --  I supplying both sides of the conversation  --  full of stage-Mexican dialogue and affectations  --  in those days we all understood that ethnic humor was meant affectionately.
    This was before I had met the love of my life and, as a consequence, cast my pearls heedlessly, and all this went into a letter to an acquaintance now long removed from my life and I kept no copy and my happy times with Charlie the Cockroach who lived in my kitchen in Chixulub Puerto are now probably lost forever.

I realize that if I actually had the text before me it might not be as hilarious as I recall, but this is how I choose to remember it.

(to be continued . . .)

[The eight posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]   

Monday, October 10, 2011

Paul Theroux does not like travel blogs

Paul Theroux, probably the best-known travel writer working today, is a famous grouch and he does not like travel blogs.  He told an interviewer in last May’s Atlantic  --  who had suggested there might be a certain bloggish quality about his recent book  --  that he loathes travel blogs.  He finds them hasty, chatty and particular.  “Blogs look to me illiterate . . ., like someone babbling. To me, writing is a considered act . . . something which is a great labor of thought and consideration. A blog doesn't seem to have any literary merit at all.”  Not surprisingly, he does not write a blog.

In all fairness, one must admit the man has something there, plain-spoken as he may present it.  And I know it can be answered that a blog isn’t literature: it’s blogging.  But in which case one needs to have some reason that anyone else would want to read it.  If you have just found a lost city or been raised up as a god by an undiscovered tribe, then the raw data feed could be interesting, but for most of us we need some art to make our more quotidian adventures of interest to others.

It takes effort to make something worth reading.  It is not enough just to have taken the same train. 

And if you want to know what Theroux thinks good travel writing looks like, see his new book, The Tao of Travel, a commonplace book of the great travel writing.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

On first looking into Strabo’s Geography

At a Christmas party a few years ago in one of those large old homes in Cambridge I found myself seated next to a professor of Obscure Learning at Harvard and, as I knew he had an interest in that part of the world, I told him about a story I was working on.
    My story was set in the years immediately following the First War and involved a road that emerged from the mountains in southeastern Turkey, a road of obvious great age but no one knew where it led, and a few foot-loose young fellows with nothing better to do who thought it would be interesting to find out.  Today, of course, a few key strokes on Google Earth and you would know, but in those days there were still blank spaces on the map and finding out that sort of thing was rather more of a production.

The professor listened intently to my presentation and then said that I might want to take a look at Book XI of Strabo.  I cannot tell you how delighted I was in his reply, both for the helpfulness of his suggestion and because I have always yearned to lead the sort of life where people might give me that sort of advice.  People who actually knew what they were talking about, of course.

As an enthusiastic reader of footnotes, I had long known that there was an ancient work called Strabo’s Geography.  I had never seen a copy, but on this advice I went looking for it.  And found it: all eight volumes of the Loeb Harvard Classics, with facing Greek and English text, through our county interlibrary loan.  The librarian was delighted and said I could keep it as long as I wanted, as I was the first person to check it out since it had been acquired almost forty years earlier.   (What can I say?  I do not dwell amongst a bookish people.)
    Strabo summarizes the history, geography and best guesses about the known and almost-known world of an educated, First Century Greek.  Of all the wonders he lays before us, the ones that caught my attention were his references to ancient histories since lost, or in a number of cases to works lost even in his own time and surviving only as fragments or quotations in the works of other authors.  As the Loeb’s 9-point agate text gave me a headache when I read more than a few lines, I studied instead its wonderful 300+ page index, looking for lost authors and miscellaneous wonders and found, in addition to a talley of missing works, a parade of slayings, enslavements, conquests, subjugations, destruction and a good deal of what we now call gratuitous violence,  suggesting the ancient world, for all its sculpture and architecture and lax morals, was not a safe place to live.

But what a wonderful, lost world is laid out in Strabo, as in this little passage regarding the environs of Lake Stephanê: “On its shores lies a strong fortress, Icizari, now deserted; and nearby, a royal palace, now in ruins.”  Strabo wrote that 2000 years ago, and I am sure that even then it must have been utterly romantic.  The sort of place that T. E. Lawrence or Indiana jones or any of their adventurous ilk would want to go, and certainly that I would want to go, even if it’s not there anymore.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

this may appear to be a travel blog

I intended this to be primarily a blog about writing.  It may appear to be a travel blog, but only because I am writing primarily about travel, albeit travel broadly understood.

I have several cartons of travel journals accumulated from my trips and I am using this opportunity to see if there is anything of value buried away in their pages.   And since I suspect that some of it may be amusing without being publishable, I am using this blog to share these.  As Evelyn Waugh said, we do not value our friends because they amuse us, but because we are able to amuse them.  I think this a better reason than that given by Lytton Strachey for writing letters: that their fundamental purpose was to express the personality of the writer, though there is certainly some of that, too.

And the absence of illustration on this site does not reflect any stern doctrinal position on the superiority of word over image, but only that my scanner blinks and smiles foolishly at me, as if it had no idea what I was asking it to do.  I suppose I really ought get a new one if I intend to be amusing.

Monday, October 3, 2011

what we bring with us

I am writing these stories from old travel journals and do not attempt to be timely or even particularly helpful, as I think the trick of travel is not where you go or what you see or how thriftily you do these things, but the attitude you bring with you.  This is why one of my fondest-remembered trips could be a week spent in late February in southeastern Iowa, where I wandered through the villages of the Amana and visited the site of the Skunk River War and the Great Wapallo County Gold Rush and found wonders at every hand.

I do now and then look something up on line, to check a spelling or see if a place is still there, or how it may have changed.  This is why I give so few names: there’s no sense in having people go off looking for a wonderful little place that isn’t there anymore.  The point of my stories is what I did with what I found: your story will be what you do with what you find.  None of us will have been there and done that, as “there” and “that” are constantly changing, and each of us bring our own baggage and so for every one of us it will be different.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Hotel Gran Imperial

I was crossing the border by bus, from one of those countries that you needed permission to leave.  We had gotten off the bus when we reached the border post and were now standing in line to get back on.  Our papers were being checked by a soldier.  Everything went smoothly until he asked where I would be staying that night.  I said, quite truthfully, that I didn’t know.
    This was not an acceptable answer.  He repeated the question.
    Why in the world should they care where I would be staying in another country?  Did they think I might slip up and say I would of course be staying at the CIA safe house?
    Attempting to appear both foot-loose and responsible at the same time, I explained that I planned to find a hotel when I arrived at my destination.
    The form he was filling out required a name or address.  He repeated the question.
    I was holding up the line.  Someone in the back called out “Hotel Gran Imperial”.
    I tried to explain that I usually traveled without a fixed itinerary.  I employed tenses and grammatical forms that I was not particularly familiar with.  Whoever it was in the back of the line called out “Hotel Gran Imperial”.  The soldier repeated the question, adding a note of irritation to his voice.  Soldiers nearby began to wander over.  The fellow in the back of the line, also possibly getting irritated, called out “Hotel Gran Imperial”.
    “Hotel Gran Imperial,” I finally said, having no idea if there actually was such a place.
    The soldier, plainly relieved to be done with my foolishness, wrote the name in the appropriate space on his form and I was permitted to reboard the bus and continue on my way.

The country was Nicaragua and it was back in the heady days of Sandinismo.  There was actually a great deal more nonsense involved than I suggest, but I am sure that is all a thing of the past.  As we drove away into Costa Rica an English fellow on the bus remarked that it was easier to get out of East Germany.

Monday, September 26, 2011

postcards from Elsewhere

I am told that postcards are now obsolete.  That they are used only by white-haired grandmothers, sent from their cruise ship to their white-haired, granmatronly friends from the bridge club at their retirement home.  So be it.

But I shall continue to send them.  My reasons are numerous as the leaves of the forest or the vermin of the fifteen-cent-a-night Guatemalan hotel I once stayed in when I was ill from an authentic dining experience.  (The two young lads I was traveling with had assured me it was a nice place; heaven knows where we would have found ourselves had they felt at liberty to put us up in someplace cheap.  But then they had been similarly positive about the place they had earlier taken me to eat.)

But, returning to postcards:

They are, unlike any electronic communication, a tangible thing.  They sat with me at a table on the square, in the shadow of the great church near where various dark/bloody/glorious events had once gone down.  They bear the digressive stain of a coffee cup or aperitif glass, or the tooth mark of a reptile. They bear a postage stamp commemorating some glorious deed or meritorious individual whom neither I nor my addressee have likely heard of, but every schoolchild playing nearby most probably has.

They are, in other words, a thing of wonder.  A gift from far away to my recipient.  A little thing from Elsewhere delivered into their hands.  Words I have pressed on paper in partibus infidelii and sent to them and them alone.  Not just words, but a thing.  More than an announcement or a message: a gift.

Once received, a postcard makes a handy bookmark, to be found years later by your recipient as they are thumbing through their old book and recall that you were once in that wonderful place and thought of them when you were there.

Will your Love keep your e-mails in a scented box, tied with a lavender bow? 

I did not think so.

If you have a few centavos you can buy a postcard and a stamp  --  and you can borrow a pen if you have to  --  and you are in touch.  If you carry a laptop or iPhone, you are worth robbing.  If there is a cybercafe where you are, you might want to think about going a little farther on, but that’s just my opinion.

I sometimes find unused old postcards in secondhand shops or used book stores.  They are relics of an earlier age, now slipping away; a sentimental reminder of the world that once was there, that you in your mind's eye can see and all those tourists on their buses and cruise ships are unaware of.

In Rome one evening, passing over the river from the Trastevere, in a little square I had never seem before I found a lone cart selling antique postcards.  In the fading red sun in the deserted square and the tiredness of a day on foot in the city, I quite lost my head and spent an unconscionable amount: I bought fifty dollars’ worth.  But, oh, they were beautiful little things: Art Nouveau and Art Deco and World War I and biplanes and advertising and museum cards and Fascist propaganda and the war in Abyssinia and Papal Rome and watercolor scenes of the old city and the Tiber in flood and warships long-since disappeared beneath the waves.  Picture postcards from that lost world I so longed to visit.
Of course I never used any of them, as I could not imagine anyone else thinking them as wonderful as I did.  I found them the other day in a box and am of the same opinion, still.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

locomotives, in hot pursuit

I brought a history book with me and read about the Mexican Revolution of 1910.  It seems more like a several-sided civil war, with generals and armies popping up around the country, and all distressingly bloody.

One part I liked about it, though: there were at least two locomotive chases.
Forced out of office in 1911, old don Porfirio Díaz, the closest thing Mexico ever had to a president-for-life, fled over the mountains to Vera Cruz with a train-full of loot, pursued by a train-full of Rebels.  He made it to a waiting French warship and ended his days drinking champagne and bouncing chorus girls on his knee in Paris.
    A few months later, Pancho Villa, having overstayed his welcome in the capital, fled north, pulling up tracks behind him, hotly pursued by Obregón, laying tracks as he came.
I like locomotive chases.  There was a brief window of time when they were practical; now, alas, gone.

Monday, September 19, 2011

being the right sort of person

Several years ago, in the waiting room of the airport at Tuxtla Guiterrez, a handsome young woman, 30-something, struck up a conversation with me and plainly found me quite interesting.  Her obvious enthusiasm for me grew as we spoke until at last she could restrain herself no more and told me that I was the sort of man who would be just right for her widowed mother.  We were the right age and everything.   As this has happened to me on several occasions I have come to take consolation in being the sort of person who appeals to handsome young women who care about their mother’s happiness.


Post Script: At the time this happened there had been recent fighting with guerrillas and the young lady and I were sitting in a building ringed by soldiers in sandbagged machinegun positions.  But colorful as those details might be, they weren’t really part of the story and the art of story-telling lies in part in knowing what to leave out.

Friday, September 16, 2011

bandits in the forest

This story was told me by a long-time French resident of Mexico:

A party of French tourists arrived in Mexico City and rented a car, intending to drive to the top of Popocatapetl, one of the two great volcanoes overlooking the city.  They did this even though they had heard reports of bandit activity in the forest that skirted the mountain.  And knowing this, they were not surprised to encounter a police roadblock.
    The police officer was cordial and business-like as he checked their passports and inquired of their purpose.  He then asked if they had any firearms, to which they said they didn’t.
    The officer’s expression registered amazement and concern.  Did they not know that there were bandits operating in the forest?  To travel unarmed was quite out of the question.  He could not permit them to so place themselves in such danger.  Without a weapon they could go no farther.
    The French were taken aback by this turn of events, and protested that they were strangers to the country and there was no way for them to obtain arms.
    The police officer considered their dilemma and said how much he appreciated their desire to see the famous Popocatepetl, but he could not see them endanger themselves.  Another officer came to the car and there was much discussion between them in Spanish and the second officer looked at them with sympathetic concern.  Then, as if an idea had occurred to them, the tone of their conversation changed to a happy good humor and the first officer announced that their problem could be solved.  By good fortune they had an extra revolver and for only $100 U.S. the officer would sell them the pistol and they could continue on their way. 
    Needless to say, the French had not expected such a resolution, but one knew that in other countries things were done differently, so they gave the officer a hundred dollars for the revolver and, amid warm wishes of safe travel and good voyage from the smiling and waving officers, they drove away from the check point.
    Several miles up the road they came to another police check point, whose officer, cordial and business-like, made the same inquiries as the first officer had done.  When he asked if they had any weapons the French proudly responded that they did, and showed the revolver they had just purchased.  The officer was aghast.  Possessing a weapon was so illegal that he could scarcely think of words to describe it.  He confiscated the weapon and sent them on their way.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

things brought back

Frederic Church, the 19th-Century Hudson River artist, and his wife Isabel filled their home  --  itself inspired by an ancient Persian fortress-treasure house  --  with things brought back from their travels, which they assembled not according to scientific or ethnographic categories, but according to sensual and artistic considerations.  Mrs. Church, for example, was an avid collector of ferns, which she beautifully pressed, but rarely labeled.  This was consistent “with the way the Churches lived and collected all their lives: of the thousands of artifacts they returned with from the Near East, few had much actual monetary value.  Rather, ... Mrs. Church contrived to make the whole collection of curiosities look like the natural part of a comfortable, living house.”  Or so we are told in the Times Literary Supplement of Oct., 8, 2010.

Their house, Olana, sits on a hilltop off Route 9G, on the east shore of the Hudson, near the town of Catskill, and can be visited today.  A relic of a more gracious time and of life itself seen as art.

Monday, September 12, 2011

the sufficiency of memory

In Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury’s sweet, nostalgic tale of a summer in a small Midwestern town many years ago, there is the old Colonel, now frail and housebound, remembering the world he had once seen, who calls an old friend in Mexico City and asks him just to hold his phone out the window so that he can hear again the sounds of a Mexican street.  A bit over-wrought, I think, though we understand what he means.  The sad part to me was that the old Colonel’s memories weren’t enough for him.  That after a lifetime of experience he still needed to hear again the actual sounds. It was as if he were still at sea; his memories still at risk.  His children, learning of what he was doing, had his long distance service cut off, to keep the old man from wasting his money so foolishly.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

the Spanish Dollar

My last post ended, for the time being, my Oaxacan stories and I am going to start something different now, another facet of Elsewhere & Elsewhen.  I am going to open my Wunderkammer and bring out a few little things I have picked up along the way because, like someone you meet when you are traveling, they have been someplace interesting and have an interesting story to tell.

The Spanish Dollar

“In Japan a broken pot mended with gold lacquer had more value because it had lived.  Stories and objects have complex lives.”
                                      --  Edmund de Waal,  The Hare with Amber Eyes.

A thing ought have more value because it has lived.  They are comfortable and relaxed and when you have the time they can tell you a story.  I have one beside me at the moment at my desk: a Spanish Dollar, a large silver 8-Real of Carlos IIII, struck in 1792 at the mint at Mexico City, well-worn and tattooed with merchants chop marks, evidence of its long circulation in the Orient.
    The coin tells a wonderful story.  Struck at the Spanish mint at Mexico City, it would have been transported in bulk by pack train over primitive trails across the mountains to Acapulco to be put on board a Manila Galleon to cross the Pacific along the route discovered in 1565 by Andrés de Urdaneta, the Iron Friar.  (Getting to the Far East from Mexico was no problem, for the winds and currents went that way, though they also made it a one-way trip; it was fray Andrés’ cleverness to figure how to get back.) 
    At Manila or some silver-hungry trading port in China the coin was used to buy porcelain or silk or lacquerware or some other exotic oriental good.  Once in China, the coin passed from hand to hand, each merchant applying his distinctive chop to indicate that he guaranteed the coin.  From the wear on the piece and the number of chops, I would suppose it had circulated perhaps a hundred years until, sometime in the late 19th or early 20th Century, it came into the hand of a merchant seaman or sailor or some such person who brought it back in his pocket or packed in his sea chest with odds and ends of jade and ivory knick-knacks and exotic seashells and maybe something carved by a Fijiman whose grandfather might have been a cannibal, and by one or two removes it found its way into the box of a coin dealer in the port of Halifax, where I found it.
    As collectors foolishly prefer their coin without the least hint of circulation, I was able to buy the piece for not much more than its value as scrap silver.
    I like it.  It has been places.  I enjoy its company.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

precautionary magic

I think it is time to end the Oaxacan stories  --  I have a bunch more and will likely come back to them someday, but for the moment I would like to move on to other things.  But first, a bit of business.

I had been very comfortable in my apartment in the old thick-walled stables with the French doors looking down on the gardens, and had hung my clothes in the closet and spread out my books and things that now had to be packed for the return home and the place took on that sad, disordered, end-of-trip look.  Of course Poosey Gato, the cat, immediately took it all in and saw that I was just one more unreliable foreigner, and did not hide her contempt.
    My hostess, the Countess, was also, for her own reasons, preparing to return to Mexico City, or perhaps to France; her affairs were at the moment unsettled.

We were both concerned about Poosey Gato.  I left an endowment that would keep her in canned cat food for several months but the Countess was concerned that when she left the Mexican help would abuse the cat and chase it off, as they did not like cats, so she described a campaign she had been subtly pursuing.  For a number of weeks, when chatting with the Mexicans who worked around the hacienda, she had been mentioning the interesting fact that the reason Americans had so much money is that they kept cats and cats were very good luck.  Everyone knew that Americans were unreasonably fond of cats, and also seemed to have more money than they deserved, so it all made perfect sense.

And this is probably a good place to end my stories about Oaxaca.

At least for now.