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.
Travel advice? This is the first such post for this blog. But I’ve been asked enough times how I travel in countries where I don’t speak the language — and keep in mind that I am only a middling linguist, not one of those people who speak six or seven languages fluently. I know such people; so annoying.
No, I speak only two languages fluently, and then I dabble in a few others to varying degrees of proficiency. But I have never had any serious problems in the course of my travels as a result of language barriers. Below are some tricks of the trade that have helped me get around.
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.”
A couple of weeks ago I went to Easter Island. The southeastern tentpole of the massive portion of the Pacific Ocean that is Polynesia, Easter Island is as removed from other landmasses as it looms large in the popular imagination. In fact it is over 2,000 miles away from the country of which it is legally a part, Chile. But the local language is similar to Maori in New Zealand, where I grew up, giving the island an unexpected feeling of familiarity.
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.
The most abundant sort of animal that one is likely to see on an Antarctic trip is the penguin.
But there are many species of penguins. Not all are equal in abundance, and neither are they equal in the esteem we accord them in our imagination. The emperor penguins, for example, with their imperial name, and to a lesser extent the king penguins with their regal one, hold pride of place in our minds when we think of penguins. Both, unfortunately, are difficult to see on these voyages. Not that it’s fair for us to love them more.
The other species the guides had told us that we might see were the chinstrap, the gentoo, the Adelie, the rockhopper, the Magellanic, and the macaroni. Looking at and for these penguins, even the commercial tourist becomes a passable amateur naturalist in no time, able to tell one species from the next.
Have you ever wondered what it might be like to have a leopard seal sink its teeth into the small inflatable boat you’re sitting in on the Antarctic sea amidst white and blue ice floes?
Well, neither did I. But now I know. But before I tell you this story, a word on what we talk about when we talk about going to Antarctica.
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."