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.
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.
In my previous post I wrote about the legends of Antarctica, of Shackleton and Scott and Amundsen from the heroic age of exploration.
But Antarctica is such a forbidding place, a place unlike anywhere else on earth, not even the Arctic, that even today the men and women who go there are nearly as remarkable as their predecessors. Nowhere else on earth would the commercial traveler — there’s hardly any other kind, given the impossibility of reaching the seventh continent as a backpacker — find himself guided by such uncommon individuals.
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.
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."