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 have a thing for mythical beasts as reflections of the human soul. Chimera, basilisk, huma, garuda. Now, if only I could see one. But a handful of real-life creatures so capture the human imagination that they may as well be mythical. The Komodo dragon must top that list. Even its name — the hard “k” like Kafka, the elemental “o” triply repeated like a chant, the way it contains the holy Sanskrit syllable “om” — evokes something primal in the brain.
Last year I found myself standing on a pebbly beach on the island of Komodo, engaged in a staring contest with the eponymous beast. It was not eight feet away. I looked straight into its cold eyes, hypnotized by its beige, forked, darting tongue. And it was coming toward me.
The Icelandic Volcano that Froze the Mississippi, Starved Egypt, and Helped Along the French Revolution
On June 8, 1783, the Laki or Lakagigar volcanic fissure in Iceland erupted. It wasn’t a giant explosion, but it kept going for the next eight months. In that time the Laki sent into the earth’s atmosphere 8 million tons of hydrogen fluoride and 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide.
The visitor to Iceland — as I was recently — commonly tours around Iceland’s many volcanic sights from the Geysir (whence the word “geyser”) to the Blue Lagoon and sees them as charming places. And even the earliest Norsemen to settle in Iceland immediately noticed its volcanic character — “Reykjavik,” meaning “smoky bay,” was so named because the Nordic sailors saw the area covered in geothermal steam. But in the course of history, Iceland’s volcanos often played cataclysmic roles. In 934 A.D., the Eldgja eruption may have led to severe weather conditions in China. In our own time, the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 grounded flights in and out of Europe; I distinctly remember my then colleagues in the U.S. for a conference being unable to return to Germany.
This is another belated travel tale.
“Should i go to Chernobyl?” I asked my friend Marina over Gchat. She was born in Ukraine before relocating to much sunnier California. I thought she might know something about it.
“What? No,” she replied. “Unlike the Taliban, radiation can’t be sweet talked.” She was referring to my foray into Afghanistan. It was true, and it was the logic I relied on in not going diving — you can’t negotiate with physics.
I didn’t blog on Thursday because I was back in New York City, where this all began. And I was preoccupied with personal matters (not all of them pleasant), catching up with old friends, and generally contemplating life.
The contemplation continues, so here are only some not altogether coherent thoughts.
T. S. Eliot once wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
July 1 marked the two-year anniversary of my life of nonstop round-the-world travel. In that time I have visited countries from Ukraine to Uruguay, Armenia to Argentina, Estonia to Ethiopia, the Netherlands to Nepal.
Also in that time, to my surprise, travel has become a political act.
Or perhaps, as we live in the age of the unending War on Terror, travel has long been a political act. Terrorists would have us be too afraid to travel; they would have us avoid airports and train stations; they would have us tremble with anxiety in our window seats, eyeing our bearded neighbor with suspicion.
After all the horror stories I’d heard in the last few months about people getting detained trying to enter the US or having their visas revoked on arrival, I worried that I might run into problems myself.
After all, I have some pretty colorful stamps in my passport: Iran, Afghanistan, and a whole lot of Arabic lettering. The US consulate in Rio de Janeiro had granted me a visa, after a moment of hesitation. But that didn’t mean that Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, a separate agency, had to honor the State Department’s decision.
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.
Hemingway lived in a hotel for seven years. That’s something that, now that I have been traveling nonstop for nearly two years, I can identify with.
Ernest Hemingway came to the Ambos Mundos (“Both Worlds”) Hotel in 1932 and moved into room 511 on the fifth floor, only one floor below the balcony bar — it’s no spoiler to say that following Hemingway’s footsteps means stopping in a number of bars. He continued to rent the room until 1939. And he only moved out because his soon-to-be third wife, Martha Gellhorn, declared that she could not live in a hotel room.
My plan as I wound up the eastern side of South America was to get to Colombia and then cross over into Panama. But there was one key thing I didn't realize until I was getting pretty close to Colombia: It’s nearly impossible and certainly very dangerous to cross the land border between Colombia and Panama. The Pan-American Highway stops there at the infamous Darien Gap, and for a hundred miles there are no roads there, only a jungle haven for drug lords.
But I also learned that I could sail from Cartagena, Colombia, to Panama. Better yet, the voyage would pass through the San Blas Islands. Among the best things that Panama has to offer, San Blas consisted of 365 islands, most of them uninhabited and too small to show up on Google Maps. I stopped by Blue Sailing, the agency in Cartagena’s Getsemani quarter run by two women, one from the U.S. and one from New Zealand, which was responsible for finding yachts for a majority of passengers.
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.
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."