New this month, bbc.co.uk has a really nice exploration of the Faroe Islands by author/photographer Christian Petersen, premised on the far-flung islands’ postmen. Check it out. I think you’ll enjoy it.
“There were as many ways of dancing the high-life as there were people on the floor. But, broadly speaking, three main patterns could be discerned. There were four or five Europeans whose dancing reminded one of the early motion pictures. They moved like triangles in an alien dance that was ordained for circles. There were others who made very little real movement. … The last group were the ecstatic ones. They danced apart, spinning, swaying or doing intricate syncopations with their feet and waist.”
– Chinua Achebe in No Longer at Ease, originally published in 1960
Here is a chapter from my first travel book, Common Sense and Whiskey, about climbing the highest summit is southeast Asia, Mt. Kinabalu, in Malaysian Borneo.
A fine young man with a Yesus Kristus medallion bouncing around beneath his mirror drove us the seven or so kilometers into Mt. Kinabalu park, through the sleeping village of Kundasang. Farmers congregated at a warren of tin-roofed stalls along the main road. It looked like a good day for green tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage.
They hauled us all in bas minis from the ranger station to the trailhead. From there, a six-kilometer trail led up to our destination, the Laban Ratah guest house, at 11,000 feet. At 13,432 feet, Mt. Kinabalu’s summit, in Malaysian Borneo, is the highest point in Southeast Asia.
The first kilometer (the trail was marked at each 1/2 kilometer) popped by in 23 minutes. We were flyin’, and all that stuff about how hard this would be was just talk. The first kilometer, we only stopped long enough to shed our wraps.
Just at first the trail led downhill, charming, to a cool, wet place called Carson’s Falls. On the way down the mountain, conversely, having to climb at the end was just one last kick in the butt on the way out the door.
Still before 8:00 a.m. no sunlight had fought its way to the forest floor. The air was downright chilly once our shirts turned sweaty. And they did — at the first K marker they weren’t soaked through, but a breeze blew down the rise and chilled our damp skin.
We were cocky, jaunty, making tracks, and unappreciative of the flora, except the little violet flower of the Kinabalu Balsam, which was shaped more like it had a beard than lower petals.
The Summit of Mt. Kinabalu, 13,435 feet.
Our guide Erik was a volcano of phlegm at first, hacking, spitting, coughing, exercising all facial cavities. He was a little guy, as these highland people were, but with the strong, imposing legs you’d imagine.
He guided once a week, reckoned he’d done the climb fifty times. His personal record to the top — a place called Low’s Peak — was about three hours.
The rest of the week he helped his parents haul their produce to the Kundasang market, where you cain’t make no money. Erik said a kilo of cabbage brought fourteen U.S. cents.
Grim realization set in during kilometer two. I felt my pack with every step, even though all it held was a camera, a towel, a dry t-shirt, bread, cheese and water.
We appreciated the moss, ferns and banana trees and searched for these particular birds who sang in two notes, but a little more grimly, a little less buoyant, quieter. Still, we made two kilometers in 58 minutes, and there were only six, total. We fed the squirrels some of the tiny peanuts Mirja had bought. Still cool and still, the entire third kilometer. Dark, thick, jungly, even almost cold, and about an hour and a half after we’d set out, at two minutes to nine, we marked halfway.
In the fourth kilometer, blazing red running shorts caught my gaze. I looked up from the path and it was a Japanese fellow, smiling. He made the summit, turned, and passed us on his way back down before we’d made four and a half K. I just couldn’t believe that.
They do this run as competition. The winner last year, Ian Holmes of the U.K., did 21 K up to the peak and back in 2:43:20, trailed by fellow Brit Simon Booth at 2:43:22. Poor Simon Booth.
I thought of Beck Weathers on that famous ill-fated Everest expedition, who was left for dead, but stumbled, frostbitten, back to camp. He said mountain climbing, really, was simple. All you had to do was be in shape and then not let your mind defeat your body. One foot in front of the other, he said, it’s all just endurance.
But by now I was grim, unhappy, soaked-through wet. I used Weathers’ advice and eventually thought I’d achieved a sort of runner’s high. I had a little bounce back, but I was hiking sloppy — lurching, and, when there was something to grab on to, I hauled myself up by it. Still, I was sure for the first time since Carson’s Falls that we would make it. I turned cocky.
We stopped to enjoy Mirja’s chocolates and tiny peanuts, like they sell in Nuwara Eliya, back in Sri Lanka. We sat there steaming. Our own personal dew points produced our own, individual, self-generated clouds of steam, our shirts purely drenched through.
Porters made good money — six ringgits per kilo — but that work’s just too hard, Erik thought, and I was sure he was right. A typical load was ten to twelve kilos (twenty max) and that’d bring you twenty bucks — then you had to haul the trash back down from the top.
Erik liked guiding.
U.S. twenty was real money. The park required we have a guide and took a fee for him, so that Erik made about eight bucks for his day, probably as good as a porter if he got a right-tipping foreigner — and no taking out the trash.
The porters plied the path up and back, right alongside us, low to the ground and bent, exchanging local-language intelligence with Erik on the way, usually hauling rice bags full of supplies for the restaurant and guest houses up above, held by straps across their foreheads. Or sometimes they’d be laden with daypacks and duffels of tourists.
Twice we passed Japanese girls in flip-flops, and the last one was really hobbling, on her boyfriend’s arm. Mountain climbing may involve stepping over rocks. Apparently they were not told.
Erik commanded pretty good English.
Had he ever been to K. L. (Kuala Lumpur, the capital)? I asked.
“No, but when I get money I take my baby.”
It’s a big city, you know, tallest building in the world (at the time)….
“Oh, no!” Scornful reply. He was aiming high. “Maybe one day I get 10,000 ringgits I go around the world!”
I spent long minutes anticipating the sun, by which to energize. We were still deep within the forest at the two- hour mark, and again I had begun to flag. It was damp, I was wet, and the path stretched only straight up.
Twenty or thirty meters of steep steps would lead to a bend, and you’d yearn for a stretch that didn’t lead straight up, but time after time after time after time after time, you’d reach the bend and see even crueler steps beyond. And then you’d do it again. And then again.
At first the sun would hit the forest floor in this odd spot or that, then as we rose (so slowly) up the hill you’d see sun more often than not, and by 10:00 in the morning we stood at the Layang Layang staff hut, on a little plateau flooded by sunlight. I drenched my head under a water pipe.
Up to now there were few on the mountain with us except the runner and a couple of porters. Now groups of overnight campers passed us bound for the bottom, but no one but Malay boys climbed (in fact, we were the first to set out, and first to arrive at Laban Rata).
Eric was constant. Mirja and I waxed and waned at intervals, and kept one another going. At the four K mark, I hit my stride one last time. It was 10:08, only two K to go. I fairly strode ahead. The sun was out now, but we’d ever be ducking into a crook in the trail that led through shaded forest.
Here was a sign, “NEPENTHES VILLOSA areas 9000-10,300 ft.” by which they meant those curious pitcher plants were about, and we spied several in the woods, the biggest the size of two fists.
The curious pitcher plant.
A big Chinese contingent slid downward, all chatty. Along about here my recently found vigor ran out and I resented their being able to breathe. Like Mirja said, on the way up it’s your heart and lungs, on the way down it’s your legs, and I began to get an ugly payback for my cocky “hitting my stride” bit, as I could hear my heart pounding in my head.
We stopped (it was an excuse to stop) to watch a green bird, the “Mt. Kinabalu Blackeye.”
Now this was terrible. Stretching above us we had to begin some scrambling. It was just damned hard. Mud. I saw myself closed off now, thinking only of where my next foot would go (except I had this vague “What the hell were you thinking!?” notion bouncing around my head, too).
I seized upon a mantra. I said to myself, over and over, “Mt. Kinabalu blackeye.” Over and over. Now, whenever we’d spy anyone above us on the trail, we’d (“graciously”) stop to let them slide by.
One fifty-something Japanese fellow laughed at himself how he’d taken eight and a half hours to the summit. Hell, we weren’t even going to the summit and we weren’t laughing. Yeah, but anybody can laugh and climb down, I thought.
Now came a section where you had to haul yourself up by rope. Now the trees were small, dwarfed and gnarled by the wind, cold and thin air. They were small, but Erik said some were hundreds of years old.
At 10:58 we stood on the five K marker. Someone coming down asked if this was our first time and Mirja peremptorily replied, “And the last.”
We could see the South China Sea from here, 52 kilometers to the north. And our hotel, the Perkassa, high on its hill overlooking Kundasang town, was an insignificant little speck below. We stopped every third or fourth step for the last kilometer, which took 50 minutes.
At 11:48 we reached the top.
Which wasn’t the top. The Laban Rata guesthouse was built 15 years ago to support summit seekers. At 11,000 feet, it has 20 tables, bunks and a grocery with Milo, old batteries, candy bars, Carlsbergs and a kitchen serving up fried rice, sweet corn soup and coffee. The bulletin board admonished, though, that today we had no: cream of chicken soup, Maggi chicken, chicken, lemon or chicken curry. Cursed porters.
So we had lunch – fried rice – and climbed down. Four hours twenty minutes up, 3:10 down. On the way to the bottom we passed a mere boy carrying a 40 kg coil of rope. Impossible. Weak as I was by now, I couldn’t even lift it, but he hoisted it through two loops onto his back and it would take a day and a half to haul it up there — for 63 dollars in ringgits.
We were both thoroughly hobbled by the last two K down, Mirja and me, our brakes having given out, both of us gripping the handrails when there were any, noticing all too clearly that Eric just ambled on down the hill ahead of us the way he had ambled up. We went home, ate a table full of dagingredang and papadums with a side of fiery red chopped chillis, and slept hard by eight o’clock.
Common Sense and Whiskey is a series of short stories about travel around Lake Baikal, Greenland, Papua New Guinea, Bhutan, The Trans-Siberian Railroad, Burma, Chilean Patagonia, Guangxi Province, China, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Tibet, Paraguay, Borneo, Malawi and the Southern Caucasus. It’s available here or on your country’s Amazon, and the audiobook is available here.
A nice selection of historical and literary topics for this week’s reading. Bonbons for your mind:
Floating in the Air, The world that made Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment by Jennifer Wilson in the Nation. How St. Petersburg felt in Dostoyevsky’s time.
New jeans, new schools, new worries: North Korean family settles into South Korea by Anna Fifield in the Washington Post. A family adapts.
After The Strongman by Karan Mahajan in the New Republic. Can Zimbabweans hope for a free and open future?
Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? by Mark Binelli in the New York Times magazine. Study of an author/bartender from Goroke, Victoria, a former stagecoach stop in southeastern Australia, pop. 200.
When the Heavens Stopped Being Perfect – The advent of the telescope punctured our ideals about the nighttime sky, an excerpt from the book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by physicist Alan Lightman
Now I’ll grant you this next one sounds stupefyingly dull. No way I’d read it. But click on through. It’s really interesting. Really. New Ecological Economics: Superorganism and Ultrasociality How the agricultural revolution changed the trajectory of our social and economic evolution Interview by Della Duncan with Economist Lisi Krall in Evonomics
And a couple of new articles about the early history of our species:
In to Asia, New evidence about the ancient humans who occupied Asia is cascading in: the story of our species needs rewriting again by Christopher Bae at Aeon.com, and Raised by Wolves by Tim Flannery, a survey of the latest evidence about when wolves became our dog companions, in the NYRB.
Have a nice weekend.
In a recent article I posted a couple of photos taken along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, where the North American and Eurasian Plates are moving apart. The Þingvellir plain was home to Iceland’s parliament a thousand years ago. In this excerpt from my most recent book, Out in the Cold, we visit the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the site of the parliament.
An hour’s drive east of Reykjavik family sedans fill a parking lot. Sven seems to think our Super Jeep needs more room, for he scoffs at that lot and aims for an empty one that looms ahead. We spin to a stop and scatter some rock and the monster asserts our arrival.
We set out along a footpath over one of the more remarkable bits of land on earth, the boundary between two tectonic plates. The bulk of the mid-Atlantic ridge lies beneath the ocean, so along almost all of its reach, standing in witness to its downright remarkableness is impossible.
It is the longest mountain range in the world, here separating the diverging Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. As manifest in Iceland, to the east rides a raised lava ridge, the Eurasian plate, from which the North American plate, to the west, pulls up from the Earth and apart.
Its width varies. Just here it presents as a three foot deep grass covered crevasse just wider than your arms can reach. You can jump inside and stand on the spot where the Earth is coming apart.
Elsewhere the crevasse deepens to twice the height of a man and fills with icy, transparent-as-the-ether water.
We stop along the path.
“Now we are on the Eurasian plate.”
With a hop, “Now the North American.”
Hop. Europe. Hop. North America. You can change continents in Istanbul too, but you have to drive across a bridge.
Here is the earth pulling itself apart
Most places, a morning walk along a fault line would make your day right there at breakfast. Here in Iceland, two for the price of one, you get epic geography and epic history too, for on this spot lies the heart and soul of the Icelandic nation.
Sven stops farther along the path. Just … HERE, he thinks, this may be the spot where was held the world’s original Parliamentary meeting in 930.
A WORD ABOUT WORDS, AND TALKING ABOUT TALKING
“Parliament” derives from the eleventh century Old French “parlement,” and every schoolchild knows “parlez-vous Français” means “do you speak French?” so quite literally, a Parliament is a talking shop.
Turns out, even before they worked out a word for it in French, way up here the real thing existed. “Thing” in Old Norse and Icelandic translates as “assembly,” and it is spelled “Þing” in Faroese and Icelandic. Resist the natural inclination to pronounce the letter (called “thorn”), written “Þ,” as “p.” Rather it is pronounced as an unvoiced “th.”
In modern Scandinavian tongues “thing” has become “ting.” The Faroes’ assembly began life as the Althing, a “general assembly of all free men,” and was later renamed the Løgting, “law assembly”. It began on the Tinganes peninsula in Torshavn, still the seat of Parliament and the city’s pride.
The Faroese Løgting and Iceland’s Althing carry on a rivalry to the claim of “world’s oldest Parliament.” The Faroese might logically claim the crown since expansion from the Norse mainland reached the Faroes before Iceland, but memory gets hazy when you gaze so far into the past.
Iceland claims its Althing was the world’s first, established here where we stand on the Þhingvellur plain in the specific year of 930. There are other “oldest” claims. The Tynwald on the Isle of Man claims to be the oldest “continuous” Parliament at over age one thousand, but without a great deal of evidence. And the Jamtamót, the Parliamentary assembly of a Swedish province claims, like the Althing, to have been created in the first half of the tenth century.
Whoever convened first, we know that each year at the summer solstice, leaders, village chiefs from around Iceland, convened on this spot to discuss common interests, and make policy. Though this plain was a more or less central spot, those from farthest east Iceland traveled as long as seventeen days around mountain and glacier.
The base of a cliff served as a natural amplifier for a speaker’s voice, allowing him to address the assembled. Each year, for two weeks in high summer laws were made, disputes settled, foreign VIPs petitioned.
Site of the Þingvellir
History played out for centuries at this place they called Þingvellir, the “Parliament Plain.” After that first meeting in 930 the Goði, or chieftains, convened on the same spot each year until 1798.
At one particularly fateful meeting in 1000, 39 Goði met under pressure, for Olaf, the king of Norway, had issued a threat. The wrath of his kingdom, and the most fearsome fleet of war-fighting longboats in the Atlantic hung poised to hammer the island if the Goði failed to accept Christianity. This was the king’s demand.
Iceland’s founding some seven decades before came about in flight from the tyranny – and taxes – of Harald Fairhair of Norway. The Goði meant for their new country to be a land of laws and not kings. That was why they were here, assembled at Þingvellir to make their own laws in the absence of a king.
Now, these elders were reasonably confident the king wouldn’t risk his fleet in a peril-fraught adventure to Iceland. As Frans G. Bengtsson wrote in The Long Ships, “… in the border country, few men’s authority extended beyond the limit of their right arm.”
Their grandfathers hadn’t been wrong fleeing Harald for the island (in fact, Icelanders specifically and knowingly benefitted from the lack of taxation needed for defense). Still, the Norwegian fleet could block Iceland’s tenuous European lifeline. King Olaf held the sons of some Goði hostage even as they met.
Legend tells us that as the men debated, a messenger arrived with word that an eruption had sent lava toward the farm of one of the attendees. That put a little bit of the fear of (Norse) gods into the assembly. Message: The gods won’t stand for this changing religion nonsense.
Christianity had come to Norway after most of these pagan Icelanders left. Some learned of Jesus while passing through the British Isles, many absconding with wives. Synecretism led some to worship both the Christian and pagan gods, but in hard times Thor was still the go-to god.
What to do?
Heads turned to a wise man called Snorri Þhorgrímsson, a chieftain from the west of the island. The Sagas reckoned him “… a very shrewd man with unusual foresight,” and “… the wisest man in Iceland not counting those who were prescient.”
Snorri asked, “What angered the gods when the lava burnt which we are standing on now?” He meant that eruptions were just part of life on their blasted isle, gods or no gods. The attendees saw his point. A vote was held and the Þing adopted Christianity as Iceland’s religion.
Besides, in accepting Christianity the most powerful men in Iceland surmised – correctly – that an appreciative hierarchy of Christian bishops and officials from Norway would look favorably on the Goðis’ power and rule.
In the event, the Þing had opted for the best of both worlds. Hoping to hold Harald at bay, the Goði proclaimed “one faith and one law” – the faith would be Christianity, but anyone wishing to worship the pagan gods were free to do so in private. Snorri had a church built at Helgafell, his farmstead on the western Snæfellsnes peninsula.
Everyone with power and influence attended the Þing. Crimes would be adjudicated, laws recorded, marriage alliances arranged. But besides the chance to forge and strengthen ties among the Goði, beyond their heavy responsibilities, most marvelous of all, the Þing was a flourishing Nordic medieval bazaar.
I try to conjure the spectacle of a Þing in progress a millennium ago; a governing experiment, societal pageant, a kind of grand plenum and Icelandic Burning Man, all tossed together and served on the volcanic plain:
Having come from far and wide, the villages chiefs have brought an entourage of family, competitive athletes and horsemen, traders and cattle. Over the years they have built structures of boulders and turf (ruins exist today) and each year they cover them with temporary roofs of wood and turf.
The Þingvellir is utterly unlike the attendees’ home villages. Just a few months ago back home, the silence was unrelenting (save for the howl when the wind got going, and the raking sleet across the roof; the nights went on and on, with stimulation scarcely more potent than the strength of a candle.
Now, in high summer, headmen are free from home affairs, laborers from the dismal croft, to a man exhilarated in the runaway intoxication of it all. News of the welfare of kin. Gossip from the farthest ends of the island. Intrigue at time-worn lies told over mead. Barely mediated chaos.
Every kind of merchant, sword-sharpeners and brewers, coopers and tanners and peat-cutters, clowns and tale-tellers, holding forth while itinerant farmhands seek seasonal work and traders probe for deals, some coming from abroad in search of exotic exports.
Villagers delight at the smell of grilling meat until they encounter the pungent atrocity of the tannery. Everywhere, in every direction, for days, Icelanders august and modest share in the spectacle.
Athletes astound. Ropes are tugged, cabers heaved, sheaves hurled, dice tossed and fortunes lost, challenges taken and gauntlets thrown, blood feuds resolved and new ones begun, all in a mad fervor to drink in life and all of it, here in high summer, on this lovely spot, softened by greenery and painted by wildflowers with waterfalls and cascading rapids in the river Öxará swaying across the plain.
Stories are humans’ most enduring possessions. Since the campfire and the cave we are a narrative species, and the tales we tell shape the people we become. The tales of this country’s founding were told and retold year after year at the Parliament Plain, the hardships of the earliest settlers, the privation, the fights for survival.
Stories told at the Þing traveled home to every corner of the land, and over the years and through the retelling, a common heritage was born and the people’s allegiance was bound to the nation, which duly bound itself back to Þingvellir. By a 1928 law Þingvellir, by the river Öxará, shall remain the protected property of the Icelandic nation.
The river Öxará on the Parliament Plain.
Get Out in the Cold via Amazon here in the U.S., or at your country-specific Amazon site in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, India, Canada, Brazil, Mexico or Australia. And have a look at the photos in the Iceland Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.
“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”
A few intelligent ways to spend the next couple of days:
The Miracle at 14,000 Feet by Ronnie Shuker in Roads and Kingdoms. Ice Hockey in Ladakh.
On the big cosmological news of the week, Dark Matter and the Earliest Stars from Sean Carroll’s blog.
Freedom, Private Property, and Public Access by Emrys Westacott at 3QuarksDaily explores an idea that was new to me before researching Out in the Cold – the Nordic notion of allemansrätten, or “Everyman’s rights,” the freedom to walk wherever one pleases.
Algorithms and the Meaning of Explanation by Daniel Ranard, also at 3Quarks Daily. A primer on machine learning that’s more interesting than it sounds.
“You’re Fake News” The Unfortunate Reality of the Ad Hominem by Elio Martino in Quillette. Depressing quote:
“Lazy and abusive rhetoric is an effective means of silencing of healthy debate. As a result, polarization in Western Society is likely to get far worse before it gets better.”
Hitler Looks Eastward by Henry C. Wolfe in the Atlantic magazine in 1937. A prediction of the Reich’s expansion written two tears before the invasion of Poland.
Sacrifice Revisited by Audrey Borowski in the LARB’s Marginalia. The quote:
“… ethical self-awareness makes it quite clear that there are situations— tragic situations—in which it is impossible to act without burdening oneself with guilt [the famous “trolley dilemma“]. But at the same time it teaches us that, even faced with the choice of two ways of incurring guilt, we should still find that there is a standard attaching to correct and incorrect action. This standard we call sacrifice.”
You can’t read everything. So instead of reading the book Adults in the Room, here are two reviews of the memoir of former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis about his trials negotiating on behalf of Greece in the Eurozone crisis: Modern Greek Tragedy by Adam Tooze in the NYRB and Austerity by Design by J.W. Mason in the Boston Review (which is itself the length of a small book).
Summary, from Tooze:
“In order to avoid a comprehensive restructuring of their banks, the governments of Northern Europe … funneled funds to Athens, most of which then flowed back out to Greece’s creditor banks in Northern Europe…. It was neither sustainable for Greece nor did it deliver stability for the eurozone. Its ultimate rationale … was to give Northern Europe a roundabout bank bailout.”
Enough for now. Happy reading, and a good weekend to you.