Here’s a link to my most recent article at 3 Quarks Daily, which posted yesterday. Have a look at it over there now, and I’ll put up the whole article here later in the week.
Here’s a link to my most recent article at 3 Quarks Daily, which posted yesterday. Have a look at it over there now, and I’ll put up the whole article here later in the week.
My new column for 3 Quarks Daily is live this morning. It’s a story about Iceland with a link at the end to my constantly updated Twitter list, a useful way to keep up the #UkraineWar.
Here is my most recent travel column, as published (here) a couple weeks ago at 3 Quarks Daily. These columns appear once a month at 3QD, with the next one scheduled for Monday 5 December. This one is titled New Discoveries in the New World:
Consider the medieval mariner, slighted and sequestered, hard-pressed and abused, gaunt, prey to the caprice of wind and wave, confined below decks on a sailing ship. If the captain doesn’t get the respect he demands, he will impose it. So will the sea.
The sailor found solace in ritual. You get the idea he rather enjoyed taboo things. If the ship’s bell rings of its own accord the ship is doomed. Flowers are for funerals, not welcome aboard ship. Don’t bring bananas on board, or you won’t catch any fish. Don’t set sail on Fridays (In Norse myth that was the day evil witches gathered).
Helge Ingstad, an explorer we are about to meet, wrote that “Norsemen firmly believed in terrible sea trolls …. And those who sailed far out on the high seas might be confronted with the greatest danger of all: they risked sailing over the edge of the world, only to plunge into the great abyss.”
If they fell short of the abyss, what did they find? Fortunate men like Eirik the Red found safe harbors and hospitable enough terrain in Greenland to scratch out a life beyond the reach of Norwegian kings. Freedom.
No men found untold riches. More likely came calamity, hardship, deprivation. Life on an ancient sailing ship was a slippery log over a raging torrent. Yet medieval sailors pressed on, and the boundary of the world pushed ever farther west.
Fifty years ago Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne-Stein discovered remnants of a settlement in Newfoundland they suspected was the site known from Viking sagas as Vinland. The state of radiocarbon dating art a half century ago suggested the settlement was active between 990 and 1050.
We already knew certain artifacts around the Vinland site were cut down by metallic tools. This suggested the woodsmen were European, since indigenous people were not known to have metal tools. Then three years ago scientists established the “globally coherent signature” of a sunstorm in 993 CE by comparing tree rings. They compared forty four samples from five continents. This sunstorm (of a magnitude that has happened only twice in 2000 years) caused a readily detectable radioactive “spike.”
Finally, last month scientists applied their new tree ring knowledge to some of those same samples, from fir and juniper trees. Some even retained their bark, making it easy for researchers to count tree rings from the 993 “spike” outward. They conclude that an exploratory Norse mission to L’anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, chopped down those trees in precisely 1021 CE.
Helge Marcus Ingstad’s big life spanned three centuries, 1899 to 2000. A wunderkind Norwegian lawyer at twenty-three, he chucked it all to live with an indigenous Canadian tribe for three years as a trapper, returned to Norway, became a governor in east Greenland, then governor of Svalbard, where he met his wife Anne-Stine.
For successive summers Helge and Anne-Stine sailed up and down Newfoundland’s west coast searching for evidence of Vinland. Year after year, it was mind-numbing, repetitive, wearying, wet work.
Everywhere they sailed they asked the same tired and practiced question. Did anyone know of any “strange, rectangular turf ridges?”
In the summer of 1960 the Ingstads called at a village on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. They arrived by ship because there were no roads. Just thirteen families. And here, it turned out, someone did know of such ridges. On a sodden shoreline like endless others, they met George Decker, “the most prominent man in the village.”
Ingstad: “Decker took me west of the village to a beautiful place with lots of grass and a small creek and some mounds in the tall grass. It was very clear that this was a very, very old site. There were remains of sod walls. Fishermen assumed it was an old Indian site. But Indians didn’t use that kind of buildings, sod houses.”
The name of this windblown spot almost 400 miles north of St. John’s is L’Anse aux Meadows. Farley Mowat, the grand old man of Canadian adventure writing, calls this a distortion of the French L’Anse aux Méduses, or Jellyfish Bay.
The Ingstads spent that winter arranging an excavation to be led by Anne-Stine, by that time an archaeologist at the University of Oslo. It started the next summer and continued seven years.
Experts from Toronto and Trondheim collaborated to fix charcoal from the L’Anse blacksmith’s furnace, with the state of the tech at the time, as dating from 975 to 1020. The excavation revealed three stone and sod halls, five workshops, iron nails and decorative baubles consistent with the period. By 1961 they had authentic archaeological evidence that the Ingstads had found Vinland.
The team unearthed sod-and-timber halls built to sleep an entire expedition. The encampment lay tight against itself suggesting foreboding, a garrison mentality, uneasy disquiet in an alien land.
They built three halls between two bogs at the back of the beach near what they call today Black Duck Brook. Each had room for storage of turf, for what wood they found, for drying fish. A smaller area centered on an open-ended hut with a furnace for iron working, near a kiln to produce charcoal needed for ironworks.
Parks Canada has assembled replica buildings alongside the ruins, with detail down to spare blocks of peat for roof repair, turf squares stacked fifteen high like bags of potting soil on pallets at the garden center.
On a Wednesday in June, before summer has taken hold, smoke rises from a chimney in the main hall. There are four fireplaces the length of the building, fires for illumination and cooking, iron kettles for boiling stews.
The scent of wood smoke makes me eager to step inside, toward well-insulated, welcome warmth. You may shed your winter wear inside and you will be surprised how roomy is the interior space, much taller than a man.
An elaborate lattice weaves across the ceiling. The walls are extravagantly hung with ropes – coils and coils of line – a sailor’s colony. Against the back wall the length of the building run benches wide enough for sleeping, everything lined with skins.
It took twelve Parks Canada workers six months to craft that outdoor museum. Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, author of Westward Vikings, reckons that is comparable to sixty explorers working for two months of summer, or six weeks for ninety men. Surely these buildings were meant to withstand winter.
Maybe the Vinland voyages explored further south in summer. Maybe, as colder weather returned, so the men returned to L’Anse to winter, tell and embellish tales of their exploits and mainly, to stay warm. Excavations unearthed a soapstone spindle whorl that suggests spinning, possibly weaving. Perhaps the explorers brought bags of unspun wool, a worthwhile way to keep hands busy over the tedious winter.
In time the party encountered “skrælings,” local people unlike the Inuit they knew in Greenland. These were Native Americans, “short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads.” The word skrælings is translated as “small people” by scholars, “screeching wretches” by the more flamboyant.
That first group of explorers, who built their settlement in tight formation, had been right to do so. The Greenlanders’ first encounter with other people did not go well.
One day the men came upon nine strangers sheltered under upside-down skin boats and the Norse killed all but one. The escapee returned next day primed for vengeance. The men saw countless canoes advancing from the sea, and the expedition’s leader, Thorvald Eiriksson, exclaimed: “We will put out the battle-skreen, and defend ourselves as well as we can.”
Battened down, the men withstood the skrælings’ attack unharmed except, calamitously, for Thorvald: As the skrælings fled he wailed, “I have gotten a wound under the arm, for an arrow fled between the edge of the ship and the shield, in under my arm, and here is the arrow, and it will prove a mortal wound to me.”
Thorvald Eiriksson became the first European buried in the New World and, dispirited, the Greenlanders soon departed for home. According to Linderoth Wallace, “the next expedition to Vinland is said to have been mounted for the explicit purpose of bringing his body back to Greenland.”
A clash on a subsequent expedition killed two more would be settlers. The Sagas tell us that the explorers realized “despite everything the land had to offer there, they would be under constant threat of attack from its prior inhabitants.” The Vinland settlement effort stalled.
Perhaps the explorers recognized all along they didn’t have the numbers for permanent colonization. Maybe the realistic among them never planned more than temporary missions to this continent-sized storehouse of supplies. Had they intended a sustained occupation there would have been a church and a cemetery, but there were none. The explorers never farmed the fields. Neither barn nor byre for cattle, no fold or corral for sheep.
Archaeologists found three butternuts, a tree never known to grow in Newfoundland, its range from southern Quebec to northern Arkansas. Their presence suggests the explorers traveled at least as far as New Brunswick, more than 400 miles to the southwest. Down there food may have grown wild, for “that unsown crops also abound … we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relations of the Danes,” wrote a German scribe in the 1070s.
Nowadays most everyone agrees the Vinland of the Sagas was a land and not a single, specific site like L’Anse aux Meadows. Vinland perhaps comprised an area from L’Anse along the Newfoundland coast south to Nova Scotia, down the St. Lawrence to present-day Quebec City where the river narrows, then up the opposite coast in a grand arc along Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Quebec and Labrador back to L’Anse.
Today is as fine a day as we have seen in northern Newfoundland, no sun but no rain and a fresh, steady, penetrating wind. Hardscrabble ground, uneven, firm enough if you are deft, but step off the rocks and you will sink to your boot tops in the bog.
Helge Ingstad wrote of a Norse “will of iron and a character able to endure privation and pain without a murmur,” and he must surely be right. Standing out by Black Duck Brook dressed in snug twenty-first century down clothing, I can not summon to mind the impossible hardship of men dressed in skins and bad footwear who sailed from Greenland in the cold and the wet, dodging icebergs, serrating wind and jostling seas.
A foot bridge crosses the brook leading toward the ruins. We modest few visitors pick our way up and down the paths. The original shelters, slumped back to Earth, now present as mounds, the effect a gently dimpled plain. Plaques identify the dimples: Huts and halls, the boat shed, the forge, the carpentry shop, the smithy.
Twenty people make a ring around the Parks Canada man in ranger-wear, who is fit to the place, wild and outdoorsy maybe like a pirate. He spins tales with a performer’s twinkle; his audience is all in. Sometimes he must raise his voice if the wind kicks up, bearing down across the Gulf of St. Lawrence from Labrador.
But walk away, find your own place, stand still, and the sounds slide away. Trifling waves come to shore too far away to hear. The cinematic clash of icebergs proceeds in acoustic stealth, distant enough not to disturb the quiet. Seabirds’ calls soar away on the wind and we are left only with the benign rustling of the tall grass.
We stand by the brook. Helge Ingstad wrote in the 1960s, that “There is salmon in Black Duck Brook, we caught them with our bare hands.” George Decker’s grandfather told him there was considerable forest here in his younger days, but from the brook to the shoreline to Labrador this morning I am hard pressed to find a single tree.
The fog clears across the strait and Labrador emerges, brooding. Wisps of fog play up its cliff sides, snowy patches running up onshore. A peculiar lopsided iceberg, too heavy to bob, has shadowed us through the day.
In the course of an hour the fog recedes, pulling with it more character and definition from the icebergs, moving their surfaces from amorphous gray through bland white, in the end striking out toward the flamboyance of blue, even aqua.
The original European explorers stared hard into this view, wind burning their faces and blowing their beards as they ended their era of discovery one thousand years ago. Five hundred years before the European voyages that got all the good press, here at the end of their long road stood a mottled and murderous clan of northmen.
I imagine the view today is much as it was then. Expansive but spare, open to possibilities and full of challenge, but also full of promise. Two virgin continents awaiting the hand of European man. The original scruffy explorers left that promise for others to fulfill, but these rough-hewn men, standing here astride this earth wild and untamed, they had found the future.
Here is my latest monthly column, as it ran recently at 3 Quarks Daily:
If you’d like to start at the beginning, read Part One here.
On a piercing-bright, dripping-humid Irrawaddy delta morning in the 1990s, wild, screeching fowl wheeled over trucks full of boys in Chinese dragonheads banging on the side panels, driving in circles, celebrating the new year. The year of the pig had just begun.
The Yangon – Thalyin bridge was three two-and-a-half kilometer, Chinese-built lanes, one in each direction with a rail track separating them in the middle. Having just one lane on a bridge doesn’t keep anybody from passing, of course.
From China all the way around southeast Asia to here, the technique for driving is the same: If you get out around the car in front of you fast enough, you present the oncoming drivers with a fait accompli: I am tying up the entire highway in front of you, so you have no choice but to brake and let me merge in front of the guy beside me.
Naturally the oncoming traffic plots to do the same, and tranquility seldom reigns. Yet in the middle of it all, whole Burmese families plodded by on ox carts or old blue Ford or Dodge “buscars” with men and boys stuffed everywhere inside, standing hanging on the back and a dozen more piled on top. Invariably they all broke into wide smiles and waved madly as they wheezed past.
A grizzled brown paddy man walked muddy out of a yellow field to trade some greens (“grass for soup”) and two watermelons for a Lucky Strike. Here our guide, a young man named Chan, showed us “brick factory,” “rice factory” and “vegetable factory.”
While Myanmar was relatively open in the 1990s, it was nevertheless a place that really didn’t work too well. Neglected by its rulers and everybody else, Myanmar was a backwater – a bustling little backwater, true enough, but just where was it bustling off to? For starters, the opposite side of the road.
You drove on the left side of the road, always had, until on 6 December, 1970, they changed driving to the right. Why? Even now, no one is sure. Just about all cars had steering wheels on the right side. Suddenly the driver’s seat had better views of the curb than of oncoming traffic. Now, one day to the next, buses dumped their passengers directly into the middle of the road.
Could it be the leadership woke up insecure one day, was it no more than that? General Ne Win ruled Burma back then, and he, like lots of Burmese, was a keen numerologist. Might Ne Win have found something auspicious in the date 6 December for the driving-side change? Listen, don’t rule it out. Between 1985 and 1987 the Union of Burma Bank issued 15, 35, 45, 75 and 90 kyat notes. About those 45s and 90s: Ne Win’s favorite number was nine.
Or maybe they swapped driving sides because “(a)fter visiting a number of foreign countries, the general observed that most nations drive on the right and proposed that Myanmar follow suit because the country would have to connect to international road networks in the future.”
Indeed, Ne Win traveled a lot. He visited the United States, in 1966. The way I read it, President Johnson sort of stared at him blankly at an initial meeting, and then Ne Win spent the rest of his state visit playing golf in Maui.
He saw a therapist in Vienna. Back home he banned beauty pageants and horse racing. Ne Win resigned abruptly in 1988, admitting his socialist revolution was a failure and spawning democracy demonstrations that led to a crackdown that led in turn to hundreds of deaths.
Putting down what became known as the 8.8.88 student uprising gave birth to the State Law and Order Restoration Council, called the SLORC, a junta that sounded more like a swamp creature too ghastly ever to have been born. Pity its Marketing Director. (While alive, the SLORC, not so good at naming things, also changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar.)
We saw in part one how the 8.8.88 uprising birthed the National League for Democracy, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s role as its mediagenic front person. Long run by gray military men presiding over years of stagnant isolation (similar to but without quite the autarkic malevolence of North Korea’s Kims) Burma badly needed a fresh breeze.
Aung San Suu Kyi burst onto that scene. She was fresh. There was also the suggestion that surely, had it not been for her father Aung San’s martyrdom, the intervening forty years of military governments and Ne Win’s dreary “Burmese Way to Socialism” could have been very different.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s 76th birthday was this past weekend. After incarceration since February and pending the conclusion of her trial now underway, she is liable to spend the rest of her life in jail. She will be thinking hard on whether it was all worth it. Worth it to spend 15 years under house arrest. Worth it to miss a great deal of her sons’ lives and the death of her husband in England. Worth it not to manage to follow in her father’s footsteps after all.
Which is not to say her father Aung San lived the dream. His efforts, after all, left him dead. And when Aung San, the father of independent Burma, was shot dead in 1947 the country fell back into the civil war that continues today.
Leading Burma to independence demanded from Aung San a moral adaptability that yielded a colorful life. He started out smuggling himself onto a Norwegian cargo ship in 1940 bound for China. He trained in Tokyo with the Imperial Japanese Army to help snatch away Britain’s empire in the east. He learned Japanese; he went full Fascist.
He would countenance “no nonsense of individualism. He resolved that “everyone must submit to the state….” He wore a kimono, took a Japanese name, trained on Japanese-controlled Hainan island, saluted the Japanese flag and learned Japanese patriotic songs (along with his comrade Ne Win). He strode through mighty crooked insurrectionist timbers. Which is not a moral judgment. Maybe there’s no other kind of insurrectionist.
When his shock troops moved to Bangkok his Japanese Colonel exhorted them to “move ahead of the emperor’s forces” and “lead the fight for Burmese independence.” He was to foment internal rebellion. The Burmese Independence Army fought their way in from the east and “started daily executions of (ethnic) Karens suspected of disloyalty” in which perhaps hundreds of his countrymen were murdered.
The Japanese anointed another soldier, Ba Maw, as figurehead and Aung San became Minister for War. Not getting the top job was a huge break for Aung San’s short career, because soon enough, opinion of the occupying Japanese soured as summary trials, sex slaves, torture, everything bad endured. Ba Maw stayed loyal to the Japanese while Aung San, Ne Win and others tacked back toward Burmese independence. Another ideological pirouette.
By the time the Japanese were defeated Aung San stood for the sovereignty of a new nation. When his interim Executive Council met on the morning of 19 July, 1947, three armed men in military fatigues stormed the chamber killing many, including Aung San. Before long, with a featureless bureaucratic leadership in dire lack of Aung San’s charisma, Burma fell back into today’s continuing civil war. No government has controlled all of Burma since the Brits in 1941.
Television was introduced in 1979, on one channel, for a few hours a day. In 1995 Myanmar TV still comprised just one station, nothing else on the dial. It broadcast a few hours in the evening, a few in the morning, too, and on weekends. Here’s the schedule for Friday, 10 February, 1995, from the daily paper:
1. Martial music
2. Disco Rally
3. Songs of National Races
4. Traditional Food of National Races
(Domestic Training School)
5. Songs of Yester Year
6. Children’s programme
7. Programme honouring the 48th Anniversary of the Union Day
8. Agricultural Force – Country’s Development
9. Programme honouring the 48th Anniversary of the Union Day 7:45 pm
10. Beauty of the State, Dances of the State
11. Songs in honour of the National Convention
13. (something in Burmese – ?)
14. International news
15. National news
16. Weather report
17. Programme honouring the 48th Anniversary of the Union Day
18. The next day’s programme
Hotel TV had cable. In the morning the BBC reported that Burma had released 20 NLD political prisoners. Our new friend Kyaw said it wasn’t on Myanmar TV, but that wasn’t surprising, since SLORC denied holding political prisoners at all.
This was the Strand Hotel, bought and renovated by international investors in a tentative liberalizing after the 1988 uprising, and it was a fine hotel. Lunch for example was served in a sort of chaperoned separation from the hardscrabble of the street, amidst wicker, ceiling fans, 20 foot wood beam ceilings, warmed nuts and Heinekens, accompanied by a badala, the traditional Burmese xylophone made of wood tiles strung along a frame of polished wood. In this case, played by a gap-toothed and grinning older gentleman.
At Kyauk Tan village you hopped a little wooden dinghy over to a floating pagoda that they said had never flooded, proof of an auspicious Buddha. People made pilgrimages here for their “economy,” or financial health.
There were these three rocks on stools, see, and if you picked up the green one on the right and it felt light, that was auspicious for your economy. It felt pretty light to me, which was good, because we were going to need some auspicious economy when we got home.
A vivid belief in spirits thrives in Myanmar. Kyaw gave a go at explaining the curious mix of animism and Buddhism. Banyan trees, for example, are known to have spirits. Wherever you find a banyan tree, chances are you’ll find a spirit house underneath it, a little wood box for bananas or pomilons or some other spirit offering.
So what happens if there’s a banyan tree at a pagoda? No problem. You get a spirit house in the middle of Buddha’s house. No conflict. Both belief systems are intertwined.
The other day we stopped to see a particular banyan tree on the Bago road, just before the British cemetery. The shamans under this tree blessed cars. New car owners moved their cars forward and back three times to bow to the car spirit in the banyan tree. Some stopped to get a little insurance blessing each time they drove by. And who knows? Remember, in part one, we hadn’t stopped and not an hour later we didn’t have a windshield.
What a panoply of theologies, beliefs, myths in Burma! Indigenous people called the Wa live in northern Shan state up along the Chinese border, an animist group whose creation story is, they have been in the Wa hills since the beginning of time and evolved from tadpoles. Early British explorers, many of them missionaries, described them as headhunters with a proper headhunting season stretching from March through the last week of April. Their dress in warm weather, wrote James George Scott in Gazeteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States, was nothing at all.
Down at the water’s edge beside the Floating Pagoda, lazy catfish jostled one another for food the kids threw into the water. We took a spin out around the river, then a walk around Kyauk Tan village.
Someone sold atrocious dried fish from a table. At the end of the street, a house served as the town theatre, screening Burmese videos twice a day, five kyats. The people out here in the country liked Burmese tear jerkers, Kyaw said. In the big city smuggled videos from Thailand were currently the rage. Kyaw reckoned they came over concealed amid legal goods in trucks. They were strictly illegal. The government sanctioned only good ol’ Burmese entertainment.
On videotapes smuggled into Burma you didn’t get subtitles. That’s why Chuck Norris and Rambo were big. It has to be action when you don’t understand the words.
A guy made tin pots by an ancient method involving spinning a wheel that entirely eluded me. One girl just stopped dead in her tracks and stared at us, holding a watermelon slice from the tray on her head. Machines ground sugar cane into a sugary drink.
We drove over to the dock. Chan bought some betel in a ferry waiting room. The betel leaf in Burma is green, wide and round. They slathered it with paste and sprinkled a few betel nut pieces on top. The paste and nuts are bitter. They provide calcium. The leaf is a mild amphetamine.
You could buy branches too, inside of which nestled some kind of larvae. Yep, you bought the branch, plucked the thing out and popped it in your mouth. Tasted like butter, Kyaw said, except crunchy. This was more of a Chinese practice than a Burmese one, he assured us, and he’d only tried it once.
In 1995, in the main hall of the international airport assembly area were five wall clocks. It was a quarter of six in Hong Kong, a quarter of six in Singapore, a quarter of five in Bangkok, a quarter of ten GMT – and four fifteen in Burma.
Jammed thick onto the viewing platform, families craned and waved at kin walking up the Silk Air ramp, Singapore bound, probably on the first flight of their lives, craning and waving madly back.
Poignant. You couldn’t really afford to fly if you were common folk and we couldn’t help but think they had saved and saved for those tickets, and maybe the fervent waves were because some of those folks weren’t coming back.
Here’s my newest travel column at the excellent website 3 Quarks Daily, as published on 29 March:
by Bill Murray
Larger than life writers always have that one extra experience, the one that puts your trip to shame. Lawrence Ferlinghetti did when, having achieved the Russian east coast via the Trans-Siberian railroad, he was ordered clear back across the continent because of paperwork. His calamity leaves most of us with nothing to say about our own, more ordinary trips.
If you want to write about the world, you still have to do the trips. You have to see for yourself what better writers were describing. You have to go, so you see how they say what they say.
Doing trips yourself is a way to stretch a little, to stand in the great explorer’s footsteps. You need to go to a few ends of the earth. Throw rocks in the Straits of Magellan. Stand and consider how odd it is that the nearly Antarctic tip of South America came to be known as Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire. Imagine being as far from home as Ferdinand Magellan and his crew, sailing to a place no European had ever seen and spotting huge bonfires onshore, where tribes called Yaghan and Ona kept fires constantly stoked for warmth.
The Yaghan wore only the scantest clothing. They smeared seal fat over their bodies to fend off the wind and rain and cold. Canoeists adept at navigating the straits’ channels and tributaries, they hunted the sea. Three centuries after Magellan, Charles Darwin wrote of the same people “going about naked and barefoot on the snow.”
The Ona lived across the strait. The books call them fierce warriors who adorned themselves with necklaces of bone, shell and tendon, and who, wearing heavy furs and leather shoes, intimidated the bare-skinned Yaghan. Darwin called them “wretched lords of this wretched land.”
An early European settler described life down there as 65 unpleasant days per year complimented by 300 days of rain and storms. If I’d written a quote so succinct, I might just put down my pen right now.
At the hemisphere’s other extremity, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, you can stand on the spot where Leif Erickson’s group established a European toehold in North America. You look around, you pull up your parka and you confound yourself wondering how they possibly did it, half a millennium earlier even than Magellan.
Leif’s brother Thorvald led ashore a crew of thirty using Leif’s ship (Leif having stayed back in Greenland upon his father’s death). They found the camp Leif had established the year before and soon after they found the “skrælings,” local people unlike the Inuit in Greenland. Native Americans, “short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads.”
One day Thorvald’s men came upon nine skrælings sheltering under upside-down skin boats and killed all but one. The next morning an armada of canoes advanced from the sea, and Thorvald cried: “We will put out the battle-skreen and defend ourselves as well as we can.”
The explorer’s men withstood the skrælings’ attack unharmed except, calamitously, for Thorvald: in the legend, he wailed, “I have gotten a wound under the arm, for an arrow fled between the edge of the ship and the shield, in under my arm, and here is the arrow, and it will prove a mortal wound to me.”
The next time you’re bleeding out, imagine yourself exclaiming “it will prove a mortal wound to me.” The most erudite Thorvald Eiriksson became the first European buried in the New World and, dispirited, the Greenlanders soon departed for home.
Since few writers are among the world’s great explorers, we look for shortcuts. Here are four:
– Go places that are frightening, places that hold the narrative promise of a horror movie. This is the daily work of war correspondents, but short of that, you can plant yourself somewhere that scares you and tell its story. It was Ryszard Kapusinski’s entire career.
Tim Butcher’s book following Graham Greene through Liberia scared me. So did my own trip to Port Moresby, the Papua New Guinean capital, a city riven, debilitated then and now by crime, despair and pointless violence. Port Moresby is the only capital city in the world not connected to anywhere else in particular by road. Port Moresby swelters alone.
The Germans, Dutch and Australians colonized the coasts of PNG, but they all assumed there was negligible value inland, over the hills, until the 1930s, when a group of Aussies disappeared over the rim and emerged with eyes wide as saucers and incredible stories of cannibalism and fantastic wildlife.
We flew from Port Moresby into the highlands to see about that for ourselves, and that story is told elsewhere on 3QD.
– Visit borders. These can be rich with material, places where central rule frays, or even invites disdain, areas in a cultural stew with neighboring lands, places where multiple traditions and overlapping sets of rules apply.
The Soviets drew borders specifically to splinter ethnic groups’ power. Contemporary China’s Tibetan and Uyghur regions and the rich tribal mix on Yunnan’s southern frontier illustrate the Chinese proverb: shan gao huangdi yuan, the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, where Kinshasa’s rule doesn’t extent much beyond, well, Kinshasa, has hinterlands full of stories. See Conrad and Naipaul from the colonial era, of course, and from the last few years read Michela Wrong, Helen Winternitz, and Mike Martin, Chloe Baker and Charlie Hatch-Barnwell’s approximately impossible sorth-nouth crossing of the Congo River Basin, from Kinshasa to South Sudan.
– Go places people don’t understand. These offer no prospect of merit in themselves, but at least they haven’t been over-described. A burst of early twentieth century exploration of the Balkans yielded a rich vein of literature from the likes of Rebecca West, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Olivia Manning. The region went quiet under Tito, until there came a full-on invasion of young writers who narrowly missed the Soviet collapse and determined not to miss the Yugoslav one.
Such was the wealth of post-Tito Balkan literature that I came to feel I knew Mostar and its bridge, Srebrenica and its atrocity, and Sarajevo’s airport tunnel before I arrived in Sarajevo in 1997, a few years after the war. This came in strong contrast to a 1993 visit to Albania. Nobody knew anything about Albania. It was Europe’s own little North Korea.
Time blurs our memory of what an isolated, eccentric, apostate state Albania was, a place where “Everything had to be ‘revolutionary,’” our Albanian guides said. “So when we were at school we had to go through what they called the revolutionary triangle. That was learning, literary training and physical labor.”
We asked about the physical labor part.
“Anything. We could go help build a building, we could do farming. Once they were building the martyrs’ cemetery. We had to carry some marble blocks and it was January and February. It was cold on top of the hill. It was terrible.” A rueful chuckle. “Also I have taken part in so many railway construction sites.”
We lingered that night over dinner in downtown Tiranë, told stories, laughed and drank raki, the Balkan brandy distilled from grapes and anise. Our friends knew the Albanian soccer coach at the next table, who’d brought the referee for tomorrow’s game with the Danes. Not a bad idea.
When it came time to leave Albania we turned up at the sea terminal in the decrepit town of Durres, where dozens and dozens of diminutive concrete slab bunkers, installed under the dictator-for-life Enver Hoxha, rose like mushrooms, right down onto the beach.
Guards outside a chain link fence admonished “Watch your things in there.” Nothing indicated what we might do but walk with the flow, dodging Bulgarian heavy trucks that threw muck up from potholes.
I held a brochure from the Adriatica Line. When the top of a ship with the brochure’s color scheme came into view, we stood in a queue. Twenty minutes and no one moved, so we made for uniformed men at a car and truck gate. They spoke Italian and German and we didn’t, but some random Albanian who didn’t speak any of it mediated, the gate wheeled back and we marched proudly forward to a bureaucrat’s table. Here, heads shook. It was not possible. Something about a slip of paper we should have gotten at Tiranë airport.
I like to think that in the end our non-retreat wore ‘em down. We had nowhere to go, we couldn’t even plead our case, so we just stood there. Eventually we got the requisite stamps and a nod to move nearer the ship. Ahead was a final queue up the ramp into the M/v Expresso Grecia.
We shuffled fitfully. The last line of Italian defense examined Albanian papers. By now it was sailing time. An imperious fellow at the top of the ramp declared our papers not in order. We would have to go back to Albania. Adriatica, it seems, kept the passenger manifest in a building we didn’t know about.
I found the building and went inside. A monster thundered at me to march right back out and come around to the window. Where she typed our names on the passenger manifest, glared, and thrust at me two long pink strips of paper. I scowled back, snatched them, and did a gleeful little scamper back to the ship. Finally, as darkness closed around the unlit harbor, we eased away in the direction of the war-racked Dalmatian coast of former Yugoslavia.
– Visit places where few others turn up. If no one has been where you’re going, no one expects what you’ll see. Few travel by cargo ship for example, about which Gregory Jaynes wrote an entertaining book, the whole point of which was that nothing happened. Xavier de Maistre wrote a pandemic-perfect travel journal of sorts, an account of being confined to one room for six weeks titled A Journey Around My Room.
I’m thinking of the time we set out for Asuncion, Paraguay from Argentina, starting at the Triple Borders, where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. A man named Walter drove us over to the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls, across the River Parana. On the strength of Walter vouching that we’d be back in Argentina today, that didn’t require a border stop.
But really, we were driving straight through a tiny snip of Brazil for Paraguay. Walter warned we might lose our cameras if we took pictures at the Paraguayan border, but just-delivered boxed chicken dinners interested the border police more than we did. It only took about three minutes.
Disappointing, exhausted Cuidad del Este, Paraguay’s East City, squatted in the sun before us, poor and dusty and ramshackle, low buildings crumbling into lumps along the highway, traffic lights out, money changers in leather money belts glowering from the side of the road. Walter stopped, didn’t like the rate, then stopped again and did a deal at the Esso for fifty Argentina pesos worth of Guarani. Gas money.
In Cuidad del Este you long to be in the country again. A John Deere heavy equipment store, red dirt, no landscape, litter. You’d think there was a competition to see how foul they could make the roadside. Men with guns sat on stools. On the other side of town they’d torn up the road and didn’t appear to have plans to fix it.
The caballeros barracks was the nicest building in Cuidad del Este. If you were a young man such a place, with its crisp-pressed, uniformed soldiers, must have had its enticements.
We and others double-passed some of the slower cars on the two lane westbound highway which, if nothing else superlative can be said, was in tolerably good shape all the way to Asuncion. Pavement good enough to speed.
Somewhere a road wandered off to the left. A sign with an arrow read “Novotel 247K.”
Here is my latest monthly travel column as it ran recently at 3 Quarks Daily:
In this column I write about international travel, especially travel to less understood parts of the world. This month, with such travel still a wee bit constrained, we start a two-part look back at Sri Lanka, April/May 1999:
There are certain things a guidebook ought to level with you about right up front, before gushing about the exotic culture, pristine sandy beaches and friendly people. Number one, page one, straight flat out:
YOU ARE FLYING INTO A COUNTRY THAT CAN’T KEEP THE ROAD TO ITS ONE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT PAVED, AND LINES THE ROAD IN AND OUT WITH BOYS WITH NO FACIAL HAIR HOLDING MACHINE GUNS.
Lurching into and out of potholes on the road from the airport to the beach, dim yellow headlights illuminated scrawny street dogs sneering from the road, teeth in road kill. Mirja and I took the diplomatic approach and decided, let’s see what it looks like in the morning.
The fishing fleet already trolled off the Negombo shore in the gray before dawn. The last tardy catamaran, sail full-billowed, flew out to join the rest.
Sheldon had already been out and back. A slight fellow, just chest high, with a broad smile under a tight-clipped mustache, Sheldon showed me his catch, in a crate, a few gross of five or six inch mackerels.
He took me to meet all the other guys and see their catches, too, stepping over nets they were busy untangling and setting right for the afternoon. He led me to his house, just alongside and between a couple of beach hotels, shoreside from the road, among a sprawl of a dozen thatch huts.
Sheldon built it himself. It was before the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and I don’t know if it, or Sheldon and his family, are there anymore. He took me inside, immensely proud, to show me how he had arranged two hundred woven palm-frond panels on top of one another to build the roof. He told me “two hundred” over and over.
A thatch wall divided Sheldon’s house into two rooms. The only furniture was a rough wooden bed with no linens.
Sheldon’s wife, a very young woman dressed in a long blue and white smock with her hair pulled back, rose with a smile to greet me, and their precocious four and six year old daughters danced around us all. Sheldon took his son, just one year old, into his lap as we talked.
We sat together near a crack in the wall where sunlight came through so they could look at postcards of where I was from. They served sweet tea. I drank it fearing I’d pay for drinking the water later that day.
Sheldon walked me back toward Hotel Royal Oceanic, two hundred meters and several worlds apart. On the way, he explained to me that he was 31, his brother was “41, 42 sometimes. Lives nearby, Mama too. Papa no.”
I’d plotted a Sri Lanka itinerary twice too ambitious. The roads were fine, really. There were just too many people trying to use them. The two lanes couldn’t cope with the mass of people and machines vying for them.
If you weren’t on a highway, or were at a sharp bend in one, you’d have to stop to let bigger vehicles squeeze by. And since there were no bypass roads for heavy trucks, and since most folks didn’t have private cars but instead rode big, fat inter-city buses, you were forever stopping and starting and squeezing between milk trucks and cement mixers and buses, and in Sri Lanka there were also tuk-tuks, those three-wheeled two-stroke vehicles used from Bombay to Bangkok to Borneo.
So we stopped for every bus. Our driver Tyrone joked about having to stop for women drivers, too. Our air conditioner “work very good, sir.” That was a damn good thing on the coastal plain where, as we passed a cricket match at 10:15 in the morning, I thought them all positively fools, running around in long pants.
Provincial elections were to be held the next day. Election posters covered the buildings. Tyrone claimed 99% literacy in Sri Lanka (other sources suggested 90 per cent), but even so they used a system like in much less literate Nepal. Each party was represented by a symbol, so that the illiterate could recognize their party and vote, in this case, for “chair” or “elephant” or “table” or “bell.”
The main parties were the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, in power for the last five years and advertised by posters of the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, holding her hand high in the air, and the opposition United National Party, which had held power the prior seventeen years.
Plastic flags flew over the road like over a used car lot. Blue marked the incumbent party’s territory, green the challengers’. By the plastic flag test, it would be the Freedom Party in a romp.
In a tradition of pre-election violence, a couple of weeks ago a woman blew herself up in Colombo. And a few years ago, days before a visit by Prince Charles, eight were killed near the Buddha’s tooth shrine in Kandy, the second city and seat of power under the ancient kings.
Tyrone offered that, “I will be gathering information,” about potential trouble. This morning’s news was that a candidate in the east had been shot overnight. Yesterday was the last day of electioneering, with no rallies allowed from then.
That kind of violence baffled him, Tyrone said, and anyway it doesn’t matter which party rules – they both promise the world until elected and then they don’t do anything.
Some things are the same the world over.
He was puzzled why people took it all so seriously, he told us, when the leaders themselves don’t; At the end of the day, he said, they sit down and “they have a drink together.”
The wealthier houses presented whitewashed concrete walls to the road. Those funny-looking pointy-nosed one-cylinder “rototiller” tractors like they use in rural China were here, too.
Coconut plantations dominated the road to the main Colombo-Kandy highway. Bicycle carts pedaled by, some with wooden baskets built on back and scales cradled inside. Rolling, mobile merchants. Tyrone showed us a motorcycle with a box of little fish and said the guy goes door to door. Banana trees along the road, underneath tall coconut palms.
Everything grew here, I guessed. Mangoes were in season now, and avocados. Durians were out of season but they grew here, too. Tyrone called them the fruit that tastes like heaven but smells like hell.
Tyrone had fifteen years in the business and looked for all the world like a wiry, Sri Lankan Jeff Goldblum. He was good. He wasn’t a young, adventurous boy-driver. He was comfortable in himself. He told us not too many Americans came here and we could see that.
Germans, Italians, Japanese and British came, but really it was mostly the Germans, with their big charter airline LTU discharging a crew at the hotel as we left, and copies of Bild, Bild Frau magazines and cheap German novels and crossword books lying around the lobby coffee tables.
We got the Kandy road and suddenly Tyrone got politics. He liked the Freedom party because they were pro-privatization. They one hundred percent privatized the tea plantations, for example. He couldn’t cite a lot of other differences except the opposition was more socialist.
He guided us through a tangled story of ruling families and power politics that left me way behind. Sometimes he lapsed into tour-guidism (“Excluding inland waters, area of Sri Lanka is 65,000 square kilometers.”).
The Kandy road was wide enough for two cars to pass side by side. As we began to bite off a little elevation en route to Kegalle, Tyrone returned to practical matters surrounding the elections. There would be a curfew, he thought, tomorrow night as the election results came in, and it would most likely last for 24 hours.
That suggested possible violence, I thought, but it seemed normal to Tyrone, and it came with a benefit. We could get a “special travel permit,” and with the road less busy, “we can go ninety hundred,” he laughed.
Kegalle was stifling hot and gridlocked with buses and tuk-tuks in both directions. Traffic police stood surrounded by the chaos and did no good that I could tell. It reminded me of the garrison town of Wangdi Phodrang in Bhutan, about which Barbara Crossette wrote, “welcoming, but exceptionally unappealing.”
Four kilometers past Kegalle, a road sign: “A home for domesticated, disabled and elderly elephants.” We swung left into the elephant orphanage at Pinnawala.
All these elephants had become separated from their families in the national parks or in the wild; Maybe their families were shot for their tusks, for example. One had his right front foot blown off by a land mine.
Each elephant had his own individual trainer (there being no shortage of labor) and the trainers worked with their elephants all their lives. Asian elephants are trainable (we rode elephants in southern Nepal who would pick up logs, even trash, on their mahout’s command), but that doesn’t mean a trainer isn’t occasionally killed, especially during mating season.
You could get in quite close and mingle with the elephants. Kids petted a little one. It was humane that they cared for the elephants but, scruffy and indolent as all of the herd was, the whole scene was a little downbeat.
Seamlessly, spice country turned to tea country. Looking around, you could believe that Sri Lanka supplied the whole world. Boys played cricket in the road and they had to, because there were tea bushes utterly everywhere else.
Over the front seat, Tyrone was explaining how buffalo milk mixed with honey is the local equivalent of yogurt, when up came two signs, one explaining we’d achieved an elevation of 6187 feet, the other reading “Welcome to the Salubrious Climes of Nuwara Eliya.”
Straight through the scramble, at the far side of town stood the old British Grand Hotel. Nuwara Eliya (pronounced “Noo-relia”) is an old British hill station, full of well-tended proper English gardens and lingering British-built structures like the Grand Hotel – dark, wooden, rambling, musty and old.
It’s said that the Sinhalese preceded the Tamils to Ceylon and when the British arrived, the Sinhalese were unwilling to work for the slave wages the Brits wanted to pay. So the Brits recruited the Tamils and brought them up here to pick tea.
The good Tamils, as Tyrone called them, (not the trouble-causing Tamils agitating for independence) got housing, a stipend, a garden and a quota. After reaching quota they got a premium for the tea they picked, per kilo.
Six o’clock on election morning. Two loudspeakers chanted the call to prayer alongside a glass-enclosed Buddha statue just by the traffic circle. The sun hadn’t cleared the hills but it was set to be a glorious morning, with birds and dew run riot.
At this hour, Nuwara Eliya served mostly as a staging area for the bus station. People queued and a few stores lumbered open. At a milk bar (that’s a name for convenience stores, here to New Zealand) I bought toothpaste and remarked how it would be a nice day.
Dazzling smile: “It is election day, sir!”
END PART ONE (More in a month)
See a few more photos from this Sri Lanka trip here at EarthPhotos.com, and read all my columns at 3 Quarks Daily here.
In my 3 Quarks Daily column I write about international travel, especially travel to less understood parts of the world. This month, with such travel still a wee bit constrained, my new column, published today, starts a two-part look back at Sri Lanka, April/May 1999. Read it now at 3QD, and I’ll post it here on CSW later in the week.
Check out my monthly column at 3 Quarks Daily. With physical travel still constrained, it’s political tourism from here at home, about the Georgia runoffs. Read it here now, and I’ll post it here on CS&W in a few days.
My monthly column at 3 Quarks Daily is live now. Read On the Road in Pandemic America at 3QD now, and I’ll post it here on CS&W in a couple of days.
Oops. Meant to post this last week. It’s column #25 of the On the Road series published monthly at 3 Quarks Daily. This column was published there last Monday. Here is a link to all 25 columns.
News from the leisure travel world is worse than grim. More than half of the 16 million travel industry jobs in the United States have been lost. On 14 April last year the TSA processed 2,208,688 air travelers. This year that number was 87,534.
It’s the same everywhere. Da Nang saw a 98.5 percent year on year drop in visitors over Vietnam’s four day Reunification Day holiday. Ninety nine point nine percent fewer foreign visitors entered Japan in April than a year earlier. Planes are parked and ships are docked.
They outfit the American cruise ship industry in a low key shipbuilding town on the Bay of Bothnia in Finland. Turku shipyards built the world’s biggest floating petri dishes, the 360 meter long ships Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, for Royal Caribbean International.
Seventy seven thousand employees, Royal Caribbean had, until a virus as unfriendly to people as plastic to the sea torpedoed its heart, soul and balance sheet in three months flat. Maybe Turku can save its shipyard jobs by building hospital ships; Royal Caribbean may tread choppy water forevermore.
If not by sea, what if by air? Qatar Airways, purveyors of dreamy Qsuites, offers a ticket changeable for anywhere they fly within 5000 miles – at the price of the original booking. You could in theory book a business class flight from Philadelphia to Kyiv for $1600 and change it to Hong Kong. They seem to mean it.
Lest your enthusiasm take flight, Forbes stands ready with a harsh de-icing, predicting “no cabin bags, no lounges, no automatic upgrades, face masks, surgical gloves, self-check-in, self-bag-drop-off, immunity passports, on-the-spot blood tests and sanitation disinfection tunnels” and a four hour check-in process.
I don’t buy it. That’s just too grim, if only because airlines and governments alike are committed to maintaining a viable airline industry. Plus, airlines need you way more than you need them for a change. How about that.
Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Phuket, Thailand’s biggest tourist island, reported no new cases on Monday and Tuesday 11 & 12 May, so on Wednesday 13 May the tourist board petitioned national authorities to reopen right then and there.
Not so fast, the government replied, as they work on a plan for “high-spending visitors from Asian countries to select areas … to avoid 14-day quarantines.” They will “have to provide a health certificate, buy health insurance, and undergo a rapid coronavirus test on arrival.” Nothing like a carefree week at the beach.
Schemes for survival in the travel industry have veered into wishful thinking. AirNorth, Yukon’s airline, with service (in normal times) to Old Crow, Mayo, Watson Lake and beyond, found itself with a largely idle catering facility. For those fortunate to live near Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, it began offering pick up and delivery of airplane food from its Flight Kitchen.
JetBlue thought nostalgia for airplane food might be a thing, too, and in early May began offering delivery of cheese and snack trays, $2.99 for three ounces of mixed cheeses, dried cherries and crackers through Imperfect Foods. Pardon the … delicious irony.
Everything about the road (and flight paths and shipping lanes) ahead is uncertain. The airline trade association IATA, which offers a comprehensive country-by-country map of travel restrictions, argues against countries imposing quarantines, and forecasts, with wistful tear and jutted jaw, that international travel will return to 2019 levels by 2023. Continue reading