Friday, July 27, 2012

The Romance of Travel

I once read an essay that argued that those familiar references in travel literature to the "romance of travel" were simply code words for sex.  Flirtations on the promenade deck and hanky-pank in the staterooms, as you cruise the languid waters off Martinique.  "Luana like white friend very much.  Luana want him stay with her."
Modern travel adventure writers, at least the ones I read, being products of a more permissive age, no longer resort to code words, but discuss sex openly, though subject apparently to a certain curious constraint.
These writers gleefully report how they were surrounded by prostitutes or witnessed debaucheries, but always as an observer and never as a participant.  Often this observer status was maintained only by heroic exertion of the will.  In an account of a many-month trek through northern Amazonia, a young English writer describes how he resisted the blandishments of teenage rivertown prostitutes and the entreaties of amorous and attractive Indian maidens.  Though in these hard and lonely circumstances for almost a year, he remained as chaste as a knight on a quest.
Now what are we to make of all this?  Are travel writers made of sterner stuff than we mere readers?  Is it that the writer, as a proper scientific observer, eschews involvement so as to preserve his objectivity?  This cannot be the reason, for these same writers never hesitate to describe how they joined in killing a wild pig or were inducted into some tribal society.
No, most likely it is the simple and venerable explanation that travelers lie.  This has been part of the social contract with travelers since the beginning.  In return for undertaking the bother of going someplace, they are permitted to tell lies about it when they get back.
Travel writers are not fools and they realize that it's one thing to tell a racy anecdote after dinner at a friend's house, and quite another thing to write something in a book that people can still read twenty years later, when attitudes may have changed or when our 25-year-old adventurer now finds himself up for confirmation as a federal judge. And we should remember that even our intrepid travel writer, however heroic he may pose in the bush, has to come home to a wife or girlfriend who may be wondering who that Luana was that he mentioned in his letter.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

a world preposterously cheap

Evelyn Waugh, writing of that golden age of travel in the early part of the last century, said that the sole requisites of universal travel were only "money, leisure and energy, and no great superabundance even of these".  And even during the Great Depression the comparatively extravagantly-valued Pound and Dollar, and depressed prices overseas, enabled someone who might have had to skimp at home to progress like a pasha through foreign lands. This happy circumstance continued even after the war and into the era of mass tourism and came to flower in Arthur Frommer's Europe on $5-a-Day.
Living abroad on $5 was not the amazing part, as the world in those days was still full of people living in colorful surroundings on pennies a day, albeit in flimsy huts and dank hovels, but Frommer showed how middle class Americans could travel in acceptable comfort and safety.  How they could see Europe without going hungry or sleeping under bridges.
My first trip to Europe was in 1964, to Spain, encouraged by Frommer’s Spain on $5-a-Day, particularly a comment in the introduction in which he said that he actually thought you could do Spain comfortably on $3-a-day.  
Five-Dollar-a-Day Europe, first published in 1957, was, of course, too good to last, and in 1972 Frommer published his revised guide as Europe on $5 and $10-a-Day, but the thrifty traveler’s foot was on a slippery slope and in 1979 it went up to $15, and $20/day in 1981.  It hit $50/day in 1996 and continued upward until, in 2007, the series was discontinued after reaching $95-a-Day.
Some of that represented the Dollar’s loss in value to inflation, though most of it does not.  Ninety-five Dollars in 2007 was equal to $36.89 in constant 1957 Dollars, so there has been a significant real increase in cost.
Not long ago, Doug Mack discovered the $5-a-Day guide that his mother had used when she had gone to Europe as a young girl and wondered what would happen if he tried to replicate such a trip today.  He recounts his trip in Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day.  He made the trip on something like $120/day, which is pretty much in line with the cost progression we see in the Frommer guides.
While I don’t remember what I spent on my trip to Spain I did recently find a pamphlet from Banco Exterior de España, printed in 1962 and telling the visitor what he could expect a Dollar to buy in those days.
If you have tears, prepare to shed them.
For a Dollar you could purchase one of these: 
a bottle of Spanish champagne, 
six bottles of red wine, 
two cinema tickets or one theatre ticket, 
  a seat at a bull fight, 
a pair of sneakers . . .
For five Dollars you could purchase one of these:
  a summer coat,
  a pair of men’s shoes, 
  a bottle of the very best brandy,
pay a bill for two at a nightclub, 
  pay your bill at a good hotel for a day . . .
For ten Dollars you could purchase one of these:
  a man’s summer suit, 
     a lady's dress,
  hire a car for a day,
  pay for a weekend at a summer resort . . .
No backpacker grunge there, no hostel dorms, no dubious street food.  The Dollar-bearing traveler in those days swilled champagne in nightclubs and basked at summer resorts while his hired car awaited.  At the twenty-Dollar level our thrifty traveler could doubtless be playing chemin-de-fer in evening clothes at the casino.
This world that now seems so preposterous to us was once there for Waugh’s ordinary traveler, who needed only a little time, money and energy, and no great superabundance of those.  It was an accessible world that had room for bookish wanderers like Patrick Fermor and Robert Byron and Bruce Chatwin and hundreds or thousands of other young men without resources who just wanted to see the world and never wrote about where they went or what they saw.  Remember that Fermor left on his walk across Europe because he couldn't afford to live in England on his four-Pounds-a-month income.  In those days young men sometimes went abroad not because they could afford to travel, but because they couldn't afford to stay home.  A time when travel, like college, was not absurdly expensive but within the reach of any bright lad who had the spirit to go.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Corto Maltese

Corto Maltese was born on the 10th of July, in 1887, the son of an English sailor from Cornwall and Andalusian gypsy who practiced sorcery and prostitution.  He went to sea and became a merchant captain and sailed the adventurous world of the early 20th Century.  His life and travels were much more interesting than our own, though this might be expected, as he is a fictitious character.

Corto Maltese was abroad in the best of times.  When the world was still full of wonders and the foreign was truly foreign.  In the long high afternoon of the imperial age, darkness and disorder were pushed back to the fringes, but order had not yet fully filled the vacuum and there were forests and jungles and desert places where the law's writ did not run.  And there was adventure to be had for those who sought it, and sometimes for those who didn't seek it.  And there were amazing characters wandering the world: heroes in their time but who today might some of them be in jail.

The golden age of travel was not some distant time when Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta trudged across the sands, but within living memory, or near so for those long of tooth.  From about the beginning of the 20th Century up to the time of the Second War  --  a window of about forty years  --  the world was open in a way it had not been before.  There were many parts of it that were far from safe: there were pirates and brigands and dangerous people with guns; there were wars and revolutions, warlords and secret societies and assassins and people in remote places who made their own law.  But the world was open and a sailor could go where he list, albeit sometimes at his peril.  And into this world the artist and graphic novelist Hugo Pratt with realistic detail placed his creation: the roguish and adventurous Corto Maltese.

Corto Maltese first appeared in 1967 in a graphic adventure series "The Ballad of the Salt Sea", set in the Pacific at the beginning of the First War, which later appeared as a graphic novel.  (These stories first appeared under Italian or French titles, but I will use their English title for convenience.)  His next full length story appeared in 1974, set in the Far East during the Russian Civil War, when Corto goes in search of the train carrying the Tsar's gold to Vladivostok.  Here we begin to meet some of the amazing historical characters that were running around in those days, much as we later do in the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

In this story, "Corto Maltese in Siberia," Corto at one point falls into the hands of the White Baron, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a minor Baltic noble who had found his way to Mongolia and raised an army to resist the Reds.  Historians agree that he was apparently quite mad, but also a general of some talent who kept the Reds at bay for a time, and is one of those amazing characters that the early 20th Century had in such abundance and in our own poor modern world we have so few.  As a young Tsarist officer with a Cossack regiment in WWI, he had been awarded the Order of St. George for valor; when at last captured by the Bolsheviks he ate the medal to keep it out of Red hands: as we might say, admirably mad.   In later adventures, Corto meets Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Butch Cassidy, Enver Pasha, Joseph Conrad and others: persons whom, regardless of the verdict of history, we are the richer for remembering.

The first published of the Corto Maltese adventures, "The Ballad of the Salt Sea," will be be offered by an American publisher this year, which I mention in warning as I think it ought be taken with a grain of salt, as the art is inferior to later, clean-line illustration and I do not find Corto as attractive a character in this story as he is in the second of the full-length adventures, "Corto Maltese in Siberia".  As it happens, both stories are available as an animated feature on You Tube with much better art and make a far better introduction to Corto Maltese and his interesting world.

The Siberian adventure begins here:

Or, for those with mild attention-deficit disorder, here:

In the end, I suspect that I like Corto's world, so finely realized in Pratt's drawings, more than I like Corto himself.  Corto's world was a real world in whose pale, lingering shadow we may imagine ourselves still to move, while Corto himself seems to carry a bit of his creator's baggage.  This may not bother some, but it does me.  There are also animated versions of his other adventures, some of which are well done and others much less so.  Though I would never suggest that anyone ought forego at least these two of Corto's excellent adventures set in that Elsewhen world where the going was very good indeed.

So Happy Birthday, Corto.  And many more.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

an evening, with goats

The light softens as the sun drops behind the hills and the heat of the day begins to relent, pushed back by shadows, and mauves and purples creep up the hillside and animals who had hidden in cool places come out to graze and colors bleached out in the beating sun take on a gauzy imprecision, as if oils were giving way to gray-washed watercolor and it seems that if this is not how it will be when evening comes to paradise, that for the moment it is close enough for me.

Why describe something like that?  It doesn't mean anything.  The sun's going down in the evening is even less remarkable than its rising in the morning.  And it was not beheld from a craggy promontory, a god taking his exit wrapped in his robes of celestial state.  I was looking at an ordinary pasture with ordinary goats.  The field was not Elysian nor were the goats gold-plated.  There was nothing to amaze, save that something so ordinary should be so beautiful.