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.
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.
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.
From Bogota I went down to the Amazon Basin, where three countries — Colombia, Brazil, and Peru — meet in what’s called the “Tres Fronteras,” the Three Borders.
The Colombian border town, Leticia, is directly connected by its main street to Tabatinga in Brazil. Indeed, it’s almost more accurate to describe Leticia and Tabatinga as a single town with a border dissecting it, one side speaking Spanish and the other Portuguese. From either town it is just a short ride by boat to the more significant Brazilian town of Benjamin Constant, to Peru on the far bank, or farther upriver in Colombia toward the settlement of Puerto Nariño. Boats travel freely among the countries, and no one ever asks to see your passport.
I’ve previously written on this site about Alexander von Humboldt. But the man is the gift that keeps on giving. So here goes again.
In case you haven’t read my earlier post or otherwise know about Humboldt, here is his story in brief: Humboldt was one of the most influential scientists who ever lived, whom hardly anyone today remembers. In large part he invented our modern notion of nature as an interconnected whole — the environment, as it were. Indeed he was one of the first individuals to spearhead the cause of environmentalism and to point out that human activity had a significant impact on the natural world. Even two centuries ago, he recognized and demonstrated the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change, something that the U.S. government of today refuses to acknowledge.
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.
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.
One of the most fascinating things I learned about Inca culture traveling through the former heart of their empire, Peru, has to do with their astronomy.
Every ancient civilization looked to the night sky and the glimmering fires in it for inspiration and for guidance. Indeed, a serious argument has been made that post-industrial humans, unable to discern most of the stars in the sky from most of the places where we live due to light pollution, are fundamentally losing the cosmic perspective that our ancestors had for millennia. We moderns are liable to forget our place in the universe. But that story will have to wait for a later date.
The constellations that Western peoples saw when they looked up are familiar to us as a matter of popular culture: Aquarius, Leo, Virgo, Pisces, Gemini, Scorpio, Orion, etc. Even today many of us obsessively (and entirely irrationally) check our horoscopes on the basis of that view of the stars. Other cultures — India, Babylon, Persia, China — looked up and connected different dots and named different constellations. But usually they were at least connecting the bright dots as well.
The Inca, on the other hand, looked up and focused on the dark spaces in between.
The Inca Empire, more properly called Tawantinsuyu, had today’s Cusco, Peru as its capital. Designed in the shape of a puma, it stood at the center of the ancient road system known as Qhapaq Nan that connected the whole empire from Chile to Ecuador. After the Conquistadors came, Cusco became the first center in the Americas that taught European painting techniques to native and mestizo artists. In the end it gave birth to a new school of remarkable hybrid religious art that sought to combine, or code-switch between, the Catholic teachings of the missionaries and traditional Incan beliefs.
The missionaries wanted these paintings for didactic purposes, to express Christian doctrines to a native population that mostly could not understand sermons. To make these images acceptable to the native Quechuas, the artists incorporated many ideas already familiar to them.
The figures of warrior angels, for example, became extremely popular because they recalled winged deities in traditional Incan religion. Walking around Cusco even today, you can immediately see this artistic legacy. Seemingly every other storefront has a painting of a Michael or a Gabriel or some other angel on the wall. And they are often depicted in a manner distinct to Cusco, for example as Spanish gentlemen bearing muskets, like in this depiction of Uriel, the guardian of the sun (the sun, Inti, being incidentally a chief god of the Incas).
I didn’t climb Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador, where I was traveling recently.
At 6,263 meters (20,548 ft), Chimborazo is proudly featured on Ecuador’s coat of arms. Besides being the highest mountain in the country, it is also the farthest point on the surface of the earth from its center. Yes, Everest is taller when measured from sea level. But Chimborazo is located on the equatorial bulge (where the centripetal force of the earth’s spinning distorts the planet into an oblate spheroid instead of a sphere), so that its summit is 2.1 kilometers farther from the center of the earth than the summit of Everest.
I didn't climb Chimborazo because I’m no serious mountaineer, not even close, and you have to be one to attempt it.
But Alexander von Humboldt tried climbing it in June 1802.
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."