Saturday, October 29, 2005

Sailing to Mars:

The voyage to Paracas was fantastic, fraught, exhausting; 19 hours onboard galloping and bucking just a little east of straight into the wind and waves. Never so clumsy in my life, hanging on with every muscle and operating on sheer excitement while the three other hands scampered the deck like lizards, sometimes like cats skewing for traction on a slippery floor. Didn't have charts for the usual route way out to sea and then southeast, so we paralleled the coast 10 miles out. At midnight we cleared the edge of the fogbank and Mars, historically close, was already high between the almost-full moon and the mast. I saw Mars again in Paracas, but at sea it was impressivly bigger and brighter red. At apogee Mars was directly over the mast, with the mast rocking and reeling and whirling circles around it, like being drunker than I've ever been. Just before dawn we passed the guano islands off Paracas and their sudden land-ho stink in the dark. We left Callao, Lima's port, at 12:30 Thursday afternoon and anchored off Paracas at 7:30 Friday morning.

The house in Paracas is at the less populated southern end of the bay. Turn left in front of the house and you can walk toward the Reserva into nothing but beach and birds and seashells, along the water's edge or trekking the dunes toward where flamingos stand in a long line just offshore. Farther on, the Reserva with its desert and wild beaches is like the moon with an ocean, like the beginning and the end of the world. Turning right from the house takes you along the bayfront houses to civilization at the nice old Hotel Paracas with its gardens of huge ancient bougainvillea and an outdoor bar for a pisco sour, the Peruvian national snort, while swifts and swallows whirl around dipping into the pool. With the long winter neblina, Lima never sees stars or sunrise and sunsets are rare, but in Paracas you can watch the sun up and down most every day. The dark nights in Paracas are fabulous with stars and the Milky Way.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Leaving Africa, from my book ZARAFA:

At Alexandria the sea is ever changing -- turquoise shallows and purple depths and vast outer blue that turns dark green when the wind roughens it too choppy to reflect the sky, silver gray under clouds and patched with golden columns of sunlight -- constant only in its immensity and, after the snaking current of the Nile, violently alive. Incoming swells explode into rainbows against the limestone fortress of the Mamelukes at the entrance to the harbor. The light, too, is mercurial, moody without the solid heat of the desert. Arabic sounds different here, and faces change as Egypt turns Greek.

After the overwhelming fact of the Nile -- where the heat and the landscape and fifty centuries of history confirm the irrelevance of any particular life -- Alexandria is a physical and emotional relief, a beautiful and confusing letdown. Body and eyes no longer suffer, and the mind no longer searches in awe for the shelter of a detail -- momentary shade, a drink, some small living touch like the green monkey climbing that other Zarafa's neck [painted in a tomb at Luxor] 3,500 years ago.

The magnificent ordeal of a journey down the Nile is over, but Alexandria is strangely melancholy. Time passes here on the human scale, fleeting and never exactly recurring. Depending on the light, the foursquare Mameluke fortress between mild harbor and wild ocean changes from tawny to glaring white, a sand castle only five centuries old. Instead of the desert mirage that taunts with its vision of Muslim paradise, rainbows disappear here with the breathing rhythm of the sea. The traveler from the south is reluctant to proceed, homesick for immortal things.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A postcard from Peru:

Lima sucks, truly, with its sunless winter neblina and Second-World colonial bourgeoisie who freed their slaves into poverty. The air is filled with the chill humidity of the garua, an acid mist that eats metal and never falls, gathering the particulates of the city´s pollution into your lungs. Winter in Lima is the vengeance of the Incas. But outside the capital Peru is fascinating and beautiful, amazing in its three distinct geographies: coastal desert, like a beach 50-100 miles wide that climbs seemingly forever into the high Andes, which then drop down through cloud forest and the "eyebrow of the jungle" into eastern jungle proper. At the end of August, austral mid-winter, we drove to Tarma -- "the pearl of the Andes" -- a small town way up over 9,000', situated in a narrow valley patched with hundreds of little flower farms that supply the florists of Lima. It was cold, with the first rain we've seen since Spain, and I drank whisky by the fireplace in the hotel. Next day we drove down into the sun of the selva, doffing layers of fleece and wool, and had an outdoor lunch at a restaurant in an orange grove after a jungle trek where butterflies surrounded us like tropical fish deep in a green sea of vegetation, one species with electric-blue wings as big as my hands. After lunch we left the sun and the glorious sticky heat and meandered back up through the cloud forest, and I was back at the fireplace at whiskytime. The Tarmeños truck their flowers six hours every night from Tarma to the wholesale market here in Lima, grab breakfast at dawn and some rest before making the return I know where to hitch an anonymous ride out of this Goddamn town.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

An exchange with Christopher Dickey:

MA: I have suddenly today synthesized and crystallized an American duality: guys like you go out interested in the rest of the world, fascinated by and respectful of multiculturalism at its various sources and in all its shifting, kaleidoscopic implications; others -- let's, between us, call them proud C-students -- go out to develop those other cultures, motivated by a genuinely missionary or profitable but ultimately practical impulse to raise standards of living. When other cultures don't see the light, however, and refuse to change their "backward" ways, the second type of American dismisses them as benighted. And isn't that exactly what the Taliban did to the Buddhas of Bamiyan? It would be inflammatory, unto losing the point, to draw the parallel with what you so deftly term the current Republican theology...but they sure as hell are American fundamentalists.

CD: It's a duality that goes back at least to the time of
"The White Man's Burden" and the Anti-Imperialist League of 100-plus years ago.

MA: The WM's Burden isn't quite what I meant, which was more about a contradictory tension in the American personality...

CD: All Kipling's biographers agree he meant it seriously as an exhortation to take up the burden. I read it as deeply ironic and an appreciation of the kind of duality you're talking about. Kipling was, after all, the ultimate Orientalist. Even Edward Said, in his introduction to Kim, grudgingly admires him for that. But Americans are not Orientalists, they're missionaries, at best, or "Quiet Americans," and at worst they're just blundering tourists. They're not interested in the actual culture where they're trying to sow their message of religious or political or economic salvation. It's not a problem to be understood, it's just a problem to be solved. Which is what I took you to be saying about those C- students.

MA: You say it exactly: "Problem solved, but not understood." And what I meant by the American fundamentalism is how fast that salvationist practicality turns into dismayed resentment of the ungrateful frogwog. It goes back psychologically through our own Manifest Destiny and the Indians we didn't bother to colonize, despite Jefferson's British-model plan that began with the peace-through-trade overtures of Lewis & Clark. As a national trait, it's a deep distrust of confusion and the curiosity that kills the cat, an impatience with abstraction and anything else that keeps the job from getting done. In God we trust, and the cheese-eating surrender monkeys can keep all that cultural hoity toity and free sex. And doesn't that also describe the Taliban?
From a magnificent speech by Robert Kennedy, Jr.:

...We don't know Michelangelo by reading his biography. We know him by looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And we know our creator best by immersing ourselves in creation. And particularly wilderness, which is the undiluted work of the Creator.

And you know if you look at every one of the great religious traditions throughout the history of mankind, the central epiphany always occurs in the wilderness. Buddha had to go to the wilderness to experience self realization and nirvana. Mohammad had to go to a cave in the wilderness. Moses had to go to the wilderness of Mt. Sinai for 40 days alone to get the Commandments. The Jews had to spend 40 years wandering the wilderness to purge themselves of 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Christ had to go into the wilderness for 40 days to discover his divinity for the first time...

Read the entire speech: