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.
In 1738, George Washington’s older half-brother Lawrence returned from school in England to his family estate in Virginia. The following year, the curiously named War of Jenkins’ Ear broke out between Britain and Spain, and Lawrence went off to war in the Caribbean as a member of the Royal Navy.
Lawrence served onboard the British flagship, the HMS Princess Caroline, as a captain of the marines. This put him under the direct command of the leader of the British war effort in the Caribbean, Admiral Edward Vernon.
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.
Exile's Bazaar is taking a short break while I sail in the Caribbean. Back soon!
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.
How an Italian Jesuit in China Relates to a Portuguese King in Morocco Relates to the Spanish Empire Relates to Brazil Relates to the Dutch East India Company Relates to Indonesia
In 1582, a 30-year-old Italian friar arrived in Macau. Matteo Ricci had dedicated his life to spreading the Gospel as a member of the Society of Jesus. And now he was on a mission to enter mainland China from this Portuguese outpost. Chinese authorities at the time frowned upon the presence of foreign missionaries. But in time Ricci would become one of the most important missionaries ever to work in Asia. In fact today a bronze statue of him stands in the heart of Macau, and he remains a household name in China.
Well, his name in Chinese, Li Madou. He chose it for himself as a rendering of his Italian name. But the middle character, 瑪 (“ma”), had a story behind it. It consists of two parts, 王, meaning “king,” and 馬, meaning “horse.” Ricci chose it in commemoration of his patron, Sebastian the Desired, King of Portugal.
Let’s face it: There is, by now, no way to turn back the clock on climate change. There is now no way to wrest control of the green house gases that we put into the atmosphere to a sufficient degree so as to forestall significant, if not catastrophic, climate change.
Climate scientists were saying back in the 1990s that we had to do something right now if we were going to have enough time to fix the problem. Well, we didn’t, and twenty-odd years have gone by. And now it appears that the largest economy in the world, the United States, will spend at least another four years deliberately going backward, deliberately polluting the environment more just to be a dick. Indeed, the new U.S. administration denies that climate change is a thing, and EPA scientists are no longer even allowed to use the phrase “climate change” in their papers.
So, the bad news is, we’re screwed.
The good news is that maybe we’re not. It’s time to put on Budyko’s Blanket.
Last month I was on Easter Island. Legally a part of Chile, the island is really part of the great Polynesian triangle whose other two points are Hawaii and New Zealand, where I grew up.
Easter Island is of course famous for its Moai statues. At various “ahu” or shrines where the Moais stand, signs in English and the native Polynesian language, in an effort to stop visitors from climbing on top of sacred rocks, read, “STOP — TAPU.”
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.”
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."