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.
It may seem strange that the first blog post I write on Antarctica is not about the cute penguins, or the lazy seals, or the majestic whales, or the impossibly desolate landscape with all its pale beauty. Instead I wish to write about its people.
No one lives in Antarctica save a handful of scientists in research stations. But Antarctica is a land rife with human legends. The early explorers were men cut from uncommon cloths. Men like Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, and Roald Amundsen, the contestants in the race to the South Pole in the heroic age of exploration, were remarkable individuals capable of the most romantic feats of courage, whether or not such courage was attended by wisdom.
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.
For now, while they were cloistered in this hotel, the newbies’ summer camp attitude seemed oddly more appropriate. Indeed the volunteers were hopelessly bored and trying to entertain themselves as best as they could. Card games went on in the lounge. As a group, the volunteers went out to Bole, the hip neighborhood near the airport, for salsa dancing. Parties were thrown, and on more than one night they migrated to one of the so-called “villas” outside of the hotel’s main building. Weed got passed around. “Never Have I Ever” was played, revolving around the themes of sex and drugs. “Never have I ever dropped acid.” “Never have I ever had a threesome.” “Never have I ever done meth.” “Never have I ever slept with my professor.”
Beer pong featured prominently, although with water in the cups instead of beer. “Don’t drink the water!” Someone admonished. “It’s sink water,” which in Ethiopia could make you very sick indeed. The volunteers had tried to get a keg in here, but the logistics proved too complicated. Indeed, for a party, there was a shortage of alcohol, and everyone nursed her drink as a precious commodity. They could’ve bought six packs, but the way things worked in Ethiopia they would’ve had to put down twice the money for bottle deposits. So these were relatively tame gatherings. At another hotel where the Peace Corps sometimes put up its volunteers, after one night of debauchery, the hotel had to replace the wall papers.
Liane and her friend Alana (along with as many as two million others) were at the Irreecha festival in Bishoftu where dozens had been killed. She was still visibly shaken by what she saw, which she would not describe. Yet she was delaying her departure from Ethiopia. “I don’t want to be home for Halloween with all the revelry,” she said. The contrast would have been too jarring.
Alana went so far as to describe the government’s policy toward the Hamar people of Ethiopia as “acts of genocide.” Reportedly, the government had been forcibly removing the Hamar people, a small and isolated tribe living in the Omo River valley in southern Ethiopia, from their homeland into villages. A clash in 2015 between soldiers and tribesmen allegedly killed dozens.
But her outspokenness was far from universal. Lana, a nurse from Maine, carefully circumvented every political discussion as long as she was in-country. John for his part endlessly quoted vague proverbs. “I like to talk in Ethiopian proverbs,” he explained, “to avoid taking a stance on politics.”
John had a much more personal reason for being here. The couple had talked about joining the Peace Corps but never got around to it. “We had this ad for the Peace Corps cut out from the New Yorker and pinned on our fridge.” Now that she was gone, he decided to get away from the States and do what they’d always talked about in her memory. “I made the good will gesture of giving everything I owned to Goodwill.”
Actually there were several young couples here, couples in their twenties, some of whom looking as though they got married on graduation day and promptly went off to Africa. There were Norma and Jason, Shawna and Cliff, Tessa and Barry. Others left boyfriends and girlfriends behind. Some, like Liam, managed to keep the flame going despite the odds. Others had long since broken up.
“It’s horrible” being so much older than most everyone else (the average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28), John admitted. Indeed, he wasn’t much loved among his fellows, not least because, in an overwhelmingly liberal group, he declared, “Trump is a buffoon, but Hillary is just as bad.”
“You don’t work for the Ethiopian government, do you?” John (all names have been changed) was asking me. He was less than half-joking. “Because I’ve realized that one fifth of the times when I go anywhere, there’s a government person tailing me. There was a guy here just the other day from the Ministry of Defense.”
It was the latter half of October at the landmark (if terrible) Ghion Hotel in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and John had good reason to be worried.
Nearly a year earlier major ethnic groups largely left out of the country’s governance began protesting the government dominated by the minority Tigray people, who represented only about six percent of the population. On October 2, a religious festival in Oromia, the region surrounding Addis, turned bloody when police confronted protestors. Official and local accounts of how over fifty individuals (and perhaps many more) died remained conflicting. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds more had already died in the preceding year.
In the old town of Lviv, the charming and very European center of western Ukraine, stands a bronze statue commemorating one of the city’s most famous, or infamous, sons, the novelist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
It’s not surprising that Lviv would be very European, as opposed to Eastern Slavic like cities in Russia or even Kiev, just a few hours away. After serving as the capital of the Slavic Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia in the Middle Ages, Lviv fell under Polish domination in 1349. When Russia, Austria, and Prussia partitioned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772, Lviv became a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was renamed by its German appellation, Lemberg. Not until the 20th century did Lviv rejoin the rest of Ukraine.
I was in Armenia in November and December, which afforded a chance to investigate my favorite mystery from Armenian history. The Mamikonian family arrived on the scene in the late-third or early-fourth century A.D., obscured by the fogs of antiquity. Edward Gibbon described a certain Mamgo who appeared “[a]mong the Armenian nobles [as] an ally” around 286 A.D., although the first Mamikonian lord of whom we have any definite knowledge was Vatche Mamikonian, active in the 330s.
Moses of Chorene, or Movses Khorenatsi, in his fifth century History of Armenia, claimed that back in the second century, two brothers named Mamik and Konak came to Armenia from China. They were half-brothers of “Chenbakir,” an emperor of the Han Dynasty. They had rebelled against their brother and, after defeat, fled to the protection of Parthia or Persia, which sent them to Armenia. The Mamikonians were descendants of Mamik.
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."