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.
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.
How an Italian Jesuit in China Relates to a Portuguese King in Morocco Relates to the Spanish Empire Relates to Brazil Relates to the Dutch East India Company Relates to Indonesia
In 1582, a 30-year-old Italian friar arrived in Macau. Matteo Ricci had dedicated his life to spreading the Gospel as a member of the Society of Jesus. And now he was on a mission to enter mainland China from this Portuguese outpost. Chinese authorities at the time frowned upon the presence of foreign missionaries. But in time Ricci would become one of the most important missionaries ever to work in Asia. In fact today a bronze statue of him stands in the heart of Macau, and he remains a household name in China.
Well, his name in Chinese, Li Madou. He chose it for himself as a rendering of his Italian name. But the middle character, 瑪 (“ma”), had a story behind it. It consists of two parts, 王, meaning “king,” and 馬, meaning “horse.” Ricci chose it in commemoration of his patron, Sebastian the Desired, King of Portugal.
A few weeks ago I was in Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina. Fin del Mundo, they call it, the End of the World. Ushuaia’s geographical location meant that it was, and still is, an Argentine naval base. As such it played a suitably significant role in the Falklands War of 1982, or Guerra de las Malvinas to the Argentines. So much so that a memorial to the Argentine war dead stands in the middle of the city.
And the Falklands War remains one of the purest and most obvious examples of wagging the dog—the term from the 1997 comedy has by now entered common English usage—of a government bumbling into war against a foreign “enemy” for no better reason than to distract its own citizens from problems at home.
The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had an even better epithet for the pointless war: It was “a fight between two bald men over a comb.”
The visitor to Chile’s capital, Santiago, can be forgiven for doing a double take upon noticing the name of one of the city’s main arteries: Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins.
O’Higgins? That sounds Irish!
And indeed it is. The O’Higgins clan was, and still is, Gaelic nobility from Sligo. For their loyalty to Ireland, the O’Higgins family lost much of their wealth under English domination in the 17th and 18th centuries. So much so that one of its scions, Ambrose, left Ireland for Spain in 1751 and eventually for Spanish America. Initially he did business in Peru and New Granada, today’s Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. Then he moved to La Plata, a stone’s throw away from Buenos Aires in today’s Argentina, to get away from the Inquisition.
It may seem strange that the first blog post I write on Antarctica is not about the cute penguins, or the lazy seals, or the majestic whales, or the impossibly desolate landscape with all its pale beauty. Instead I wish to write about its people.
No one lives in Antarctica save a handful of scientists in research stations. But Antarctica is a land rife with human legends. The early explorers were men cut from uncommon cloths. Men like Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, and Roald Amundsen, the contestants in the race to the South Pole in the heroic age of exploration, were remarkable individuals capable of the most romantic feats of courage, whether or not such courage was attended by wisdom.
In 1893, a 32-year-old historian, later of Harvard, presented a paper at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. His name was Frederick Jackson Turner, and the paper was called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The essay turned out to be a seminal one. The “Frontier Thesis,” in which American society is thought to have been shaped by the existence of, and its confrontation with, the frontier became a key concept in the study of American history.
In 2017, the Frontier Thesis is once again full of implications.
On the one hand, Turner’s formulation of the concept of the American frontier is nothing short of racist: “the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” The crude dichotomy of US and THEM no doubt captured the thinking of many 19th settlers uneasy about native nations just beyond the frontier. And today it seems to capture the thinking of just as high a proportion of Americans with respect to the outside world.
Now Trump has proclaimed America’s institutional press “enemy of the American people,” using that Bolshevik term that Lenin had used. He ought to say it in Russian, vrag naroda, so that his boss Vladimir can hear him clearly.
But freedom of the press is as American as apple pie. It predates even the founding of the Republic. Indeed, Mar-a-Lago’s war on the media reminds me of the first major test case of press freedom in the Thirteen Colonies, that of John Peter Zenger.
Like Donald’s grandfather Friedrich, Zenger was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States at a young age. Friedrich was 16; John Peter was 13 in 1710 when his family arrived in New York. The government of the colony of New York, in a time more welcoming to immigrants, arranged apprenticeships for all the immigrant children. So it was that teenaged Zenger found himself apprenticed to William Bradford, the first of New York’s printers. Eventually Zenger followed Bradford’s footsteps and became a printer in his own right.
The most interesting thing about The Lord of the Rings is that its chief hero, more than the great Gandalf, more than the dashing one-and-future-king Aragorn, is the diminutive hobbit Frodo, because he can hold the ring of power without being corrupted by it.
At the time of my birth, the country of my birth was a dictatorship. Martial law was in effect. Opposition political parties were illegal. And the sitting president had had the position handed to him by his generalissimo father.
So imagine how I felt hearing the news that this year’s Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report adjudged Taiwan to be freer than the United States. Taiwan, officially still the Republic of China and barely recognized by anyone internationally, scored 91/100 according to Freedom House’s methodology, while the U.S. scored 89.
We owe it in large part to one man.
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."