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.
Thanksgiving was not a good day for me.
I crossed the border from The Gambia into Senegal. And I just had one of those days when somehow I was doing everything wrong. I have been traveling nonstop for nearly three-and-half years, besides many other solo trips taken before that. I have been to some of the most difficult or remote corners of the world. But on this day, I behaved like a rube. A sucker. An amateur. A college sophomore on his first trip abroad, flustered because he can’t find a Burger King within two miles.
I have crossed numerous borders, both in Africa and elsewhere, even in unsavory or dangerous places. I knew all about corrupt border officials. They’re a dime a dozen in Africa. On this day, as I tried to exit the Gambia, the border official demanded a bribe from me, dressing it up as a “departure fee.” What I should have done, what any seasoned traveler worth his salt should have done, was to stand my ground and tell him no, and nein, and nyet, and fuhgeddaboudit. But somehow, on this day, maybe because I’d gotten up at five, maybe because I had a headache, after a few minutes of resistance, I sighed and handed over the money.
For no particular reason, certainly not because of the politics of our day and the new UN environment report saying that we have twenty good years left, #sarcasm, I have had the end times on my mind.
It was in this frame of mind that I visited ancient Mycenae the other day. I first saw pictures of the Lion Gate and Cyclopean Walls when I was in high school and read the mythology surrounding this place. Many of you know the story. The three major “tholos” or beehive-shaped tombs here are ascribed to three major characters from that tale: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus.
Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, was the wife of Menelaus, whose brother Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae. When Helen ran off with Paris, the prince of Troy, Menelaus and his big brother demanded satisfaction. So Agamemnon rallied the Greek states for a join assault on Troy. But the goddess Artemis commanded unfavorable winds so that the Greeks could not set sail; for the winds to change Agamemnon was required to sacrifice his own daughter. He did so, killing his daughter Iphigenia. The Greeks attacked Troy and finally destroyed it after ten long years. During Agamemnon’s absence, his wife Clytemnestra took Aegisthus as a lover. And upon his return, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered him. His son Orestes then killed his own mother and Aegisthus to avenge his father.
By the time the sun set, again, over the dusty western horizon, I was beginning to question my decision to try to come here in the first place.
Tsingy de Bemaraha is one of Madagascar’s most famous national parks. In the northwestern part of the country, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its remarkable karst formations. The word “tsingy” in the local language Malagasy means “where one cannot walk barefoot.” Lonely Planet describes it as the thing to see in western Madagascar if you see only one thing.
Unfortunately, Madagascar’s roads are also some of the worst I have ever traveled on anywhere in the world. To reach the gateway to Tsingy, the seaside town of Morondava, I rode a bus from the capital Antananarivo for fifteen hours. And by now that the sun was setting, I had been riding in a four-wheel-drive truck with five other foreign travelers for another eleven spine-scattering hours. I was pleased now that I didn’t decide to head to Tsingy right away after getting to Morondava but went first to the nearby Kirindy forest to see the fossa, the big cat species that is Madagascar’s apex predator.
Divana, my guide, picked up a branch with a generous grove of green leaves on it and began waving it. Halfway up the tree, the indri lemur in his furry black and white suit like a climbing panda looked down skeptically, weighing the human’s proposition.
A minute later, he appeared to make up his mind and began climbing down. In short order he was only a meter in front of me, still on the tree but only at eye-level, and staring at us with those round yellow gemstone eyes of perpetual surprise. Divana handed him some of the leaves; he took them with neither apology nor urgency and began to chew them.
I had worked my way to Madagascar from Mauritius and the French island of La Reunion. After a brief stay in the capital city, Antananarivo, I had come east to Andasibe, the site of perhaps the country’s most accessible national park. Or rather, parks. Right off the road east to the port city of Toamasina, Andasibe has on its right the national forest reserve of Analamazaotra, and on its left the state park that is in fact the same eco-system, arbitrarily divided from it by a road. Another 15 kilometers north by four-wheel-drive and you would find the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park with its alluring primary forest but difficult trails.
Was I planning to come to Mauritius? I was not. I thought I’d go to Mauritania. And no, I didn’t simply confuse the two countries and buy the wrong ticket. But I had seen lovely photos that my friend Haley posted on Facebook a few weeks earlier. And then I realized that it’s “winter” in Mauritius right now, which means that it’s not high season and yet each day is perfect with a high of 25 degrees celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), dry, and sunny day. Coming from a muggy summer in Southeast Asia, that sounded to me like heaven.
Except I didn’t realize that each perfect day often starts with an early morning downpour. And so the other morning when I went outside at 6am to meet the driver, the heavy rain surprised me and convinced me that the tour was surely canceled. He looked at me funny when I asked: of course it wasn’t. He had a dozen French people in the van all going to the same place. He knew, I didn’t, that in an hour’s time there would not be a cloud in the sky.
As a would-be writer, I am often filled with self-loathing. It’s okay; it’s an occupational hazard. But today, a very specific failure weighs on me, the failure so far to keep a promise.
Three years ago, I traveled through Xinjiang, China’s massive northwestern “autonomous region” (of course it’s not actually autonomous) that is the historical homeland of the Uyghur minority, a Muslim Turkic population that prefers to call the area “East Turkestan.”
I traveled there to research the book I was trying to write. While there, in the old center of traditional Uyghur life, Kashgar, a kindly man whom I call “Yusup” in the manuscript asked me to make him a promise. “Tell our story,” he said. “Write about us. Let the outside world know what is happening in Xinjiang.”
And so far, as I have failed as yet to publish the book, I have failed to keep my promise.
Regular readers of this blog, if any exist, should not be surprised by now that sometimes I nerd out about one thing or another.
Last week I was in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, and it quickly climbed the chart of my favorite cities in the world. I won’t suggest that it was solely because of what Edinburgh represents in the annals of human achievement, but I won’t say that it didn’t play a role either.
Yesterday, July 1, marked for me three years on the road.
Three years. That’s as long as Jesus spent preaching.
It so happens that I was reading Bruce Chatwin’s strange 1987 masterpiece of travel writing, The Songlines. The book begins and ends with Chatwin’s investigations in Australia into the Aboriginal practice of “the walkabout,” in which one would go walk and sing along paths or “songlines” that totemic ancestors once followed, sometimes for months at a stretch or even years. But halfway in, the book turns ruminative and begins to reflect on the meaning of travel itself and what it says about human nature. “Our nature lies in movement,” Chatwin quotes Pascal’s Pensées, “complete calm is death.”
There was tension in the cold, crisp air. Drama, climax.
The sun shone brightly on the ice all around us. Our latitude then was 81°50’1”N, about as close to the North Pole as we would ever come on this voyage, deep into the loose pack ice that had formed over the sea north of Svalbard. The ice was hunting grounds for polar bears. And right now, a female polar bear was slowly but assuredly approaching a ringed seal resting on his belly.
“But where is it?” Silly me, never very skilled at spotting wildlife at a distance, asked my fellow passengers. Chris, a tall young NHS worker from England, pointed me in the right direction.
On a promontory in Oslofjord, a short ferry ride away from Oslo’s city hall, two parallel edifices encase two famous boats and commemorate their respective creators.
On one side is the Fram, the world’s first polar exploration ship, custom-ordered by Fridtjof Nansen specifically to withstand the pressure of ice that would crush any other ship at the time. On the other is the Kon-Tiki, the balsa raft that Thor Heyerdahl built in 1947 according to traditional Native American methods for him to attempt to sail from Peru to Polynesia.
The contrast as well as the parallels between the two men are presumably why the Norwegians have chosen to commemorate them side by side.
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."