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.
The Icelandic Volcano that Froze the Mississippi, Starved Egypt, and Helped Along the French Revolution
On June 8, 1783, the Laki or Lakagigar volcanic fissure in Iceland erupted. It wasn’t a giant explosion, but it kept going for the next eight months. In that time the Laki sent into the earth’s atmosphere 8 million tons of hydrogen fluoride and 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide.
The visitor to Iceland — as I was recently — commonly tours around Iceland’s many volcanic sights from the Geysir (whence the word “geyser”) to the Blue Lagoon and sees them as charming places. And even the earliest Norsemen to settle in Iceland immediately noticed its volcanic character — “Reykjavik,” meaning “smoky bay,” was so named because the Nordic sailors saw the area covered in geothermal steam. But in the course of history, Iceland’s volcanos often played cataclysmic roles. In 934 A.D., the Eldgja eruption may have led to severe weather conditions in China. In our own time, the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 grounded flights in and out of Europe; I distinctly remember my then colleagues in the U.S. for a conference being unable to return to Germany.
This is another belated travel tale.
“Should i go to Chernobyl?” I asked my friend Marina over Gchat. She was born in Ukraine before relocating to much sunnier California. I thought she might know something about it.
“What? No,” she replied. “Unlike the Taliban, radiation can’t be sweet talked.” She was referring to my foray into Afghanistan. It was true, and it was the logic I relied on in not going diving — you can’t negotiate with physics.
I didn’t blog on Thursday because I was back in New York City, where this all began. And I was preoccupied with personal matters (not all of them pleasant), catching up with old friends, and generally contemplating life.
The contemplation continues, so here are only some not altogether coherent thoughts.
T. S. Eliot once wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Liu Xiaobo died last Thursday in prison in China.
Liu was a political activist who spent his adult life campaigning for democracy in China. Having already been in and out of prison for his activities since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Liu published the so-called “Charter ’08” in 2008, a document modeled on Vaclav Havel’s “Charter ’77,” calling on the Chinese government to allow multi-party democracy. The government responded by sentencing him to 11 years in prison for “subverting” the state.
In 2010 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing refused him permission to go to Norway to receive the award. An empty chair symbolized his absence in Oslo.
A bronze statue of Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville looks over the harbor of Havana, the city where he died in 1706 while preparing for an expedition against the English colonies of the Carolinas.
His was a life that illustrated the interconnectedness of the histories of the countries of North America. Born in Montreal in 1661, d’Iberville made his name as a young man in the French struggle against English encroachment in the Hudson Bay area. In 1686 he joined an expedition to James Bay and captured three forts, over which he was made commander. In 1690 he distinguished himself in a battle fought in today’s Schenectady, New York. And the Hudson Bay campaign of 1697 made him the greatest hero of New France.
Facts are stranger than fiction.
The last couple of weeks I was in “California,” or rather “the Californias,” moving from the Mexican state of Baja California (Lower California) to the modern U.S. state of California. Originally the name applied to both of these as well as Baja California Sur (South Lower California) and parts of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.
Spanish conquistadors affixed the name to this vast territory in the early 16th century, when they knew hardly anything about it. In fact they thought it was an island and drew early maps accordingly.
July 1 marked the two-year anniversary of my life of nonstop round-the-world travel. In that time I have visited countries from Ukraine to Uruguay, Armenia to Argentina, Estonia to Ethiopia, the Netherlands to Nepal.
Also in that time, to my surprise, travel has become a political act.
Or perhaps, as we live in the age of the unending War on Terror, travel has long been a political act. Terrorists would have us be too afraid to travel; they would have us avoid airports and train stations; they would have us tremble with anxiety in our window seats, eyeing our bearded neighbor with suspicion.
First of all, spoiler alert, I’m fine.
My Uber driver picked me up in Mission Valley to go up to La Jolla for my friend Marina’s wedding. His name was Sohrab, an immigrant from Iran who arrived in the US only a year earlier.
I said I’d been to Iran, and we exchanged a few words in Farsi, which made him perk up. Not that he needed to perk up — the man, 40 or so, his eyes behind shades, was all smiles and with a spirit so high that one might have wondered what he was on. He was originally from the southeastern desert city of Kerman before moving to Tehran, where he worked as an engineer for 17 years. He was still learning English, he said, although we had little trouble communicating. His cousin and brother-in-law had come to Southern California before him, and now he had brought his wife and nine-year-old son. The car was new, one week since he drove it off the lot. Indeed I had noticed that new car smell when I first got in. And this was his first time driving a passenger as an Uber driver.
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.
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."