This Costa Rican boy was on a Pacific beach, not the Mississippi River, but still he reminded me of Huckleberry Finn. And so he also reminded me of one of my dreams: to float down the world’s major rivers—the Nile, Amazon, Mekong, and Yangtze in particular—and invite one or two members of the local broken humanity onto my raft. We’d fish and chat and cuss, and I’d jot down notes as we rounded a thousand bends (and bypass several dams).
Mark Twain, at the beginning of his book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, warns, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Well, since I’ve always thought some things are worth suffering and dying for, back in 2003 I sat on the Great Wall of China and wrote the following:
Few stories illustrate the wall-breaching value of travel as well as Mark Twain’s account of Huckleberry Finn and Jim’s journey down the Mississippi. Through adventure and conversation, a white boy and a runaway slave came to develop a sort of friendship, something that wouldn’t have been possible had they stayed put in their normal situations in life. Like Huckleberry Finn and Jim’s nineteenth-century drifting down the Mississippi, backpacking through distant lands in the twenty-first century is to journey into a complicated world of divisions and prejudices. Both journeys hold the possibility of getting lost and being found. Both are ways of living on the edge of society, of escaping it as a means to discover what it is missing and what it could be—or maybe even what it has possessed all along that for some reason you couldn’t see before. Both are movements beyond black and white and into a shared humanity. Both take you not only to scenic viewpoints; they carry you beyond the horizon itself, where transformation awaits and where you may even discover why you left home.
If interested in reading the full chapter from which this excerpt is drawn, click on A Journey Begins.
Not many years ago (in the grand scheme of things), most of us were in diapers, not yet knowing what country we were from or even what a country was. We didn't yet know we were Christian, Muslim, Atheist, or whatever. We didn't know we were Republican or Democrat, male or female, or that we needed to fear and maybe hate one another, or that this might lead us to one day kill and die. As babies we looked out at the world with wide eyes, reaching out for anything we could grab, wanting to feel and understand it. We were open to learning and we trusted, even when it wasn't wise to trust. And then we became adults.
It is not bad being adult, but sometimes I wish we were all in diapers, or at least had something of the spirit of those babies who are.
On Christmas Day 2008, about three minutes before two stern-faced policemen approached to inform me that I would be robbed if I didn’t leave the park for a safer part of town, I took this picture of a man reading about Lance Armstrong. As the man held up his paper (“Miracle” is the headline), and as a man on an adjacent bench made sure I knew Lance had only one testicle, I appreciated how even in a place like Panama City, Panama, people are interested in Armstrong’s phenomenal story.
This week, as Armstrong and others are zigzagging their way through the Tour de France, I suspect the guys I met in December are keeping tabs on their miracle rider. There was a time, however, when instead of Panama reading about France everyone in France would have been reading about Panama. And the subject, instead of bicycling, would have been about an undertaking much more expensive, deadly, and even grand—the construction of the Panama Canal.
Armstrong’s coverage tends to be positive thanks to the sheer feat of his victories. In the late 1800s, however, coverage of the canal's construction, which was a French undertaking, was positive because the construction company had bought off all the French papers. “No less than 2,575 different French newspapers and periodicals had shared in the company’s beneficence,” writes David McCullough in The Path Between the Seas. “Some little fly-by-night publications had even been founded for the sole purpose of getting in on the take. In addition to such giants as Le Temps and Le Petit Journal (which received the largest sums), the full list included such publications as Wines and Alcohols Bulletin, Bee-keeper’s Journal and the Choral Societies Echo.”
France would spend more than ten years sweating and dying on the canal, during which time the French public—many of whom had invested their life savings in canal stocks—was left completely uninformed about the tremendous setbacks plaguing the endeavor. When construction finally had to be abandoned in 1889 (the U.S. would pick it up again several years later) and after an estimated 20,000 workers had lost their lives, French newspapers, embarrassed and no longer in dubious partnership with the canal company, continued to print many a bold headline as newspapers tend to do. “Miracle,” however, surely wouldn't have been one.
So here's to the independence of the press. And, I suppose, to not being robbed in public parks, to retired men sitting on park benches, and to a 21st-century news culture which allows a Panamanian to enthusiastically expound on the testicular status of an American bound for France.
On the road, one of the most common questions the traveler is asked is “Where are you from?” It is a fair question, but if you hear it daily for months in a row you may begin to wonder what it really means, just as you wonder what it really means when you answer “the United States.” Your reply helps someone place you on a map, but it tells them nothing about what you believe, what you’d die for, why you’re at this very moment sitting at a table so far from your answer. It simply tells them what culture you’re most familiar with, which usually is also the place where your parents brought you into the world and raised you (something in which you exercised no choice). That is, though your reply locates you in the world, it says nothing about what you are choosing to do in the world.
Encounters that don’t progress beyond this question are transitory and quickly forgotten. Ones that probe deeper—asking not just where fate delivered you onto the map but what you are trying to there—are the ones you most remember. These encounters are part of what make a mountainside in Vietnam, an old city wall in Colombia, or a living room in Palestine a kind of “holy ground,” for here encounters happened that affirmed, challenged, or strengthened you. Here encounters transcended the map and issues of nationality were absolutely peripheral.
Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk and writer who enjoyed getting to know people such as the Dalai Lama and Vietnam’s Thich Nhat Hanh, met an untimely death in a Bangkok bathroom in 1968. While he didn’t have the chance to flesh out his Asia travel experiences in a book, we do learn through his journal how enriching were his encounters with the men and women he met. The accounts are sometimes captivating. And I suppose they're not all that surprising, given that Merton once wrote the following:
If you want to identify me, ask not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I’m living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.
Photo note: This picture was taken while walking in Nicaragua's Masaya Volcano National Park
Today I finished reading David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914. I first laid eyes on the book on December 23, 2008, while anchored in Gatun Lake on the Panama Canal. I was aboard the Matarua, a Canadian yacht whose skipper had offered me free passage through the Canal in exchange for helping to handle ropes in the Canal’s three sets of locks. We had left the Atlantic port of Colón late that afternoon and passed through the first set of locks that evening. After a night's sleep, we would resume our passage at dawn, reaching the Pacific about 2:00 p.m.
I was excited to find that the Canadian couple had a copy of The Path Between the Seas in their library. I had wanted to read the book while visiting Panama, and had almost ordered it before coming. But I decided against it on account of the extra weight it would’ve added to my pack. Now, however, as it was set on the table as Joyce, the skipper’s wife, fixed us gin and tonics after dinner, I had the chance to glance through it. The next day I would borrow it again for the above photo, taken as we passed through the Miraflores Locks. The photograph was meant to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between a book and place in travel, which I’ve written about elsewhere.
I’ll be sharing a few excerpts from the book in the year ahead. For now, since it’s nearing my bedtime, I’ll just pluck a quick tidbit from near the end of the book:
Construction of the canal would consume more than 61,000,000 pounds of dynamite, a greater amount of explosive energy than had been expended in all [of the United States'] wars until that time. A single dynamite ship arriving at Colón carried as much as 1,000,000 pounds—20,000 fifty-pound boxes of dynamite in one shipload—all of which had to be unloaded by hand, put aboard special trains, and moved to large concrete magazines built at various points back from the congested areas.
My thanks to David McCullough for putting together such a readable history, and especially to Peter and Joyce for inviting me onto their yacht. The Matarua was among the last of 14,702 vessels to transit the Canal in 2008.
If you visit Costa Rica’s Marino Ballena National Park at sunset and see a couple walking into the blazing light, you might take a picture. Later, in looking at the picture, you might decide you like how it could lead one to ask, “Is this couple on a remote beach and all alone, or are they part of a long line of others who are traveling the same road (as evidenced by the footprints)?” What you really like about the photograph, however, is the way it illustrates the problem of extremism.
When I looked toward the violent light of the setting sun, it was absolutely blinding. It made balanced seeing impossible, for it obliterated part of the sky and sand. My eyes cowered before it, and my mind tried to make sense of how a fair chunk of the landscape was simply blown out, gone. When I turned away from the scene and opened my eyes fully again, everything appeared spotted and discolored. Several minutes passed before my vision fully recovered.
There is something attractive about extremes, inlcuding the extreme light of a setting sun. Extremes are definitive and bold. They push out nuance and complexity. They burn with awesome simplicity and confidence. But through this act of marked over (or sometimes under) exposure, they also—and here’s my point—declare that parts of a landscape are not worth seeing. And so while I love a strong sunset, I’m glad that the sun isn’t always setting, because I don’t want to see just part of a landscape. I want to be where light, because it is spread across the spectrum rather than slammed to one end, elucidates rather than obscures. And I want this not just at the beach but also in Pakistani politics, in American churches, in Israeli and Palestinian ways of thinking about history and each other. I want it in Congress and on Wall Street, and when I’m talking with my friends. I want it in literature, in my writing, and in what I see on the news.
In Milan Kundera’s book The Unbearable Lightness of Being, there is a scene in which two characters, Franz and Sabina, are making love. A lamp is on near the bed, but Franz prefers to keep his eyes closed, especially as the pleasure builds, because doing so allows him to dissolve “into the infinity of his darkness, himself becoming infinite.” Sabina, however, is repulsed by this, and finding the sight of a closed-eyes Franz distasteful, she closes her own. Instead of infinity, darkness for her meant “a disagreement with what she saw, the negation of what was seen, the refusal to see.” Kundera also writes:
Living for Sabina meant seeing. Seeing is limited by two borders: strong light, which blinds, and total darkness. Perhaps that was what motivated Sabina’s distaste for all extremism. Extremes mean borders beyond which life ends, and a passion for extremism, in art and in politics, is a veiled longing for death.
In November, on the steps of a church, I came across a man who reminded me more of Forrest Gump than a beggar. When I asked if I could take his picture he was gracious in his reply and never once expressed interest in me giving him money. Picture complete, we sat together a while.Our sitting was mostly done in silence since within seconds I had run through the limits of my Spanish, but every so often he would sincerely say something I didn't understand. He was gentle in both speech and movement, a simple man in the best sense of the word, the sort who reminds you that you wish to be a tender person. I've always liked the line in As Good as it Gets where a gravelly Jack Nicholson says to Helen Hunt, "You make me want to be a better man," but it is a sentiment not confined to romantic relationships.One can experience it in the most unexpected settings, even with a down-and-out stranger on the steps of a cathedral in Leon, Nicaragua.
It was while sitting with this man that I thought, as I sometimes do, of Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran bishop who regularly irritated Right and Left alike. Gunned down in 1980, his homilies still circulate in books such as the Violence of Love, reminding the reader of that terrible period in El Salvador’s history as well as challenging us with timeless, sometimes deceptively simple, themes. It was 30 years ago this week, on Easter Sunday in a country wracked by poverty and oppression, that he spoke the following:
You that have so much social sensitivity, you that cannot stand this unjust situation in our land: fine – God has given you that sensitivity, and if you have a call to political activism, God be blessed. Develop it.
But look: don’t waste that call; don’t waste that political and social sensitivity on earthly hatred, vengeance, and violence.
Lift up your hearts. Look at the things above.
(If interested in more images from Leon, Nicaragua, I've posted a few black and white shots HERE.)
I saw this horse on two different visits to Isla Bastimentos, in Panama’s Bocas del Toro archipelago. Drawn to the salty taste of the surf, it would wade into the water and then mostly stand still, letting the occasional wave slap its face. After maybe half an hour it would then return to the beach and slip silently back into the jungle.
It was a captivating scene: the clear and vibrantly colored water, the jungle-green backdrop, the horse maintaining such solid focus on its salty bath. Its life didn’t seem that bad. Certainly it was less stressful than many of its ancestors would have known, given that for much of human history horses have been instruments of war. Since before 3000 BC they've been ridden in battle, and a training manual for chariot horses was in existence as early as 1350 BC. It wasn’t until after the time of Christ, however, that the paired stirrup came onto the scene, revolutionizing yet again the tactics of war. The English travel writer Colin Thubron, in his book Shadow of the Silk Road, explains its spread and significance:
The heavy stirrup was a Chinese brainchild as early as the fourth century AD, it seems, and as it travelled westward, stabilising its rider in battle, it made possible the heavily armoured and expensively mounted knight. To this simple invention some have attributed the onset of the whole feudal age in Europe; and seven centuries later the same era came to an end as its castles were pounded into submission by the Chinese invention of gunpowder. The birth and death of Europe’s Middle Ages, you might fancy, came along the Silk Road from the east.
Yes, this beach-loving Panamanian horse had it pretty good, as did the rest of us on the island. We had put our shirts and stirrups aside, and the history of war felt rather remote.
In Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, there is the following description of Rose of Sharon, the Joad’s pregnant daughter:
Her round soft face, which had been voluptuous and inviting a few months ago, had already put on the barrier of pregnancy, the self-sufficient smile, the knowing perfection-look; and her plump body – full soft breasts and stomach, hard hips and buttocks that had swung so freely and provocatively as to invite slapping and stroking – her whole body had become demure and serious. Her whole thought and action were directed inward on the baby. She balanced on her toes now, for the baby’s sake. And the world was pregnant to her; she thought only in terms of reproduction and of motherhood.
Since at least kindergarten, when I would sometimes see one of the second grade teachers, Mrs. Remillard, leading her class down the hall toward the lunchroom, herself being led by a protruding belly, I’ve been captivated by pregnant women. It was—and is—the curves and expectation, the bodily transformation and the mystery of new life. While I never thought of slapping and stroking Mrs. Remillard (at any point in her life), I do remember keenly wishing I could touch her belly, to trace its curve and see if I could feel the baby kick, as some of her students had been invited to do.
Angela, a 26-year-old Nicaraguan, is the woman in this photograph. She works at a pharmacy in the town of Granada and was seven months pregnant with her second child when I took the photo in November. Recently I received an email from her coworker saying she had delivered a healthy baby (the email didn’t say if it was a boy or girl). One day, if I return to Nicaragua, I will take Angela up on her invitation to visit her home for a fish lunch, and to photograph her entire family. If interested in more pictures from the pharmacy, including Angela’s face, as well as a brief story of how we met, click on “A Pregnant Plea in Nicaragua.”
Half an hour from Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, sits Masaya Volcano National Park. The vultures love it here, catching the warm sulfur-scented air that billows out of its crater. A sixteenth-century Spanish friar once called the place "La Boca del Infierno” (The Mouth of Hell). The birds, however, if they spoke Spanish or English, would probably just call it a fun ride.
Or, if the birds knew Russian, they would perhaps sit in trees and read Dostoyevsky, conversing with one another about the wisdom latent in passages such as the following, from The Brothers Karamazov:
My brother, a dying youth, asked the birds to forgive him. That may sound absurd, but when you think of it, it makes sense. For everything is like the ocean, all things flow and are indirectly linked together, and if you push here, something will move at the other end of the world. It may be madness to beg the birds for forgiveness, but things would be easier for the birds, for the child, and for every animal if you were nobler than you are—yes, they would be easier, even if only by a little. Understand that everything is like the ocean. Then, consumed by eternal love, you will pray to the birds, too. In a state of fervor you will pray them to forgive you your sins. And you must treasure that fervor, absurd though it may seem to others.