Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Liu Xiaobo died last Thursday in prison in China.
Liu was a political activist who spent his adult life campaigning for democracy in China. Having already been in and out of prison for his activities since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Liu published the so-called “Charter ’08” in 2008, a document modeled on Vaclav Havel’s “Charter ’77,” calling on the Chinese government to allow multi-party democracy. The government responded by sentencing him to 11 years in prison for “subverting” the state.
In 2010 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing refused him permission to go to Norway to receive the award. An empty chair symbolized his absence in Oslo.
A bronze statue of Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville looks over the harbor of Havana, the city where he died in 1706 while preparing for an expedition against the English colonies of the Carolinas.
His was a life that illustrated the interconnectedness of the histories of the countries of North America. Born in Montreal in 1661, d’Iberville made his name as a young man in the French struggle against English encroachment in the Hudson Bay area. In 1686 he joined an expedition to James Bay and captured three forts, over which he was made commander. In 1690 he distinguished himself in a battle fought in today’s Schenectady, New York. And the Hudson Bay campaign of 1697 made him the greatest hero of New France.
Facts are stranger than fiction.
The last couple of weeks I was in “California,” or rather “the Californias,” moving from the Mexican state of Baja California (Lower California) to the modern U.S. state of California. Originally the name applied to both of these as well as Baja California Sur (South Lower California) and parts of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.
Spanish conquistadors affixed the name to this vast territory in the early 16th century, when they knew hardly anything about it. In fact they thought it was an island and drew early maps accordingly.
There was a tank outside Havana’s Museum of the Revolution with a bilingual sign next to it that said, “from [this tank] Commander in Chief Fidel Castro shot US vessel Houston during the mercenary invasion at Bay of Pigs in April 1961.”
Wow, I thought. Really? Fidel Castro, commander in chief of all Cuban forces, personally operated a tank at the Bay of Pigs, and personally fired on, and hit, a US ship. I was skeptical.
A bit later, a stone’s throw away and still on the museum grounds, I found another tank. It had a nearly identical sign next to it. Apparently Fidel also personally operated this tank and personally fired on and hit the Houston.
Continuing the previous post’s theme of Indiana Jones and tales I should have told when I visited the relevant scenes, here is the story of how the Ark of the Covenant — yes, the one with the Ten Commandments inside — may or may not really be in northern Ethiopia.
According to Exodus and Deuteronomy, Moses built the Ark with wood with gold covering. The Israelites then carried it with them during their 40 years in the desert before Joshua led them, with the Ark at the head of the column, across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.
This is a tale familiar to my fellow Yale graduates, which is why I neglected to tell it when I visited Machu Picchu some months ago. But it’s worth telling, nonetheless. It is the story of the real-life inspiration for Indiana Jones.
In 1907, Yale University sought a replacement for its resident expert on Latin American history, Edward Gaylord Bourne, who would soon die an early death in his 40s. Yale wound up appointing one Hiram Bingham III. Bingham was the son of missionaries and had grown up in Hawaii, where his grandfather Hiram I founded the Punahou School, which he attended and from which both Barack Obama and Sun Yatsen, the father of modern China, also graduated.
There is something timid about Costa Rica.
Costa Ricans never fought for their independence from Spain nor even declared it. The Mexicans did the former for them, defeating Spain in the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, and the Guatemalans did the latter when they declared independence for all of Central America. Costa Rica was tentative about independence even after that until its northern neighbor Nicaragua embraced the new state of affairs.
Like other Central American states, Costa Rica had its period of violence. Except civil war in Costa Rica in 1948 lasted all of 44 days. When the war ended, the country abolished its military. To this day Costa Rica remains demilitarized.
I am often asked about traveling alone. But the questions are invariably directed at the possibility of loneliness, and I already wrote a post about that. When women travelers are asked about solo travel, the emphasis tends to be on safety instead. As a man, it’s not up to me to say how safe women should feel about solo travel, and many female travel bloggers have weighed in on the subject.
Instead I want to highlight a few great female travelers and travel writers whose examples seem to me to demonstrate that women, as long as they have the ovaries for it, can be every bit as intrepid as any man.
In 1738, George Washington’s older half-brother Lawrence returned from school in England to his family estate in Virginia. The following year, the curiously named War of Jenkins’ Ear broke out between Britain and Spain, and Lawrence went off to war in the Caribbean as a member of the Royal Navy.
Lawrence served onboard the British flagship, the HMS Princess Caroline, as a captain of the marines. This put him under the direct command of the leader of the British war effort in the Caribbean, Admiral Edward Vernon.
It was in El Calafate in Argentine Patagonia when a woman asked me whether I spoke “Castellano.” It took me a second to rifle through the clutters of my brain to recall that in Argentina, Spanish is often not called “Español” but “Castellano,” or Castilian.
Obliquely, this exchange was a forewarning of the frustrations I would have a couple of months later in Portuguese-speaking Brazil. Portuguese, the language where everything is close enough to Spanish to be confusing, but different enough that no one understands you if you simply speak Spanish.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."