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.
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.
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.
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."