The points of view and perspectives in The Best Travel Writing 2009 are global, and the themes encompass high adventure, spiritual growth, romance, hilarity, misadventure, service to humanity, and encounters with exotic cuisine. Reading these stories is like sitting in a cafe filled with fellow travelers swapping tales about past adventures and ideas on where to head next. This edition takes the reader on a harrowing raft ride off the coast of Panama, on a whirlwind tour from Florence to Santorini, into the wilds of Patagonia, and to a colorful village in Ghana.
Night, the Desert and a Car
I couldn’t really ever tell you why I left home. I’d come up with some superficial reasons, of course, but just so that we could avoid an awkward silence. The deeper truth probably lies somewhere in the inherited murkiness of the human psyche, a monkey’s inclination to wander, always, one has to assume, looking for larger bananas and taller trees.
Soon after I had arrived in Texas I read the book Bruce Chatwin wrote shortly before succumbing to AIDS: What Am I Doing Here? It did not necessarily answer that question for me, nor did it really help me in figuring out the reasons for my journey. But it did at least allow me to ask that question of myself, which before I had perceived but never really articulated: What the hell am I doing here? The particular question obviously had existential undertones which were exaggerated by the author’s untimely death, and seemed to refer both to a geographical place and to the human condition itself the ultimate existential query. Chatwin’s question, presented as the title to a collection of serious travel essays, cast a cloud of shadowy doubt over the whole enterprise of being a stranger, what it means to be away from our family, and to some extent from ourselves, and I found that useful.
Reading about those who had made similar journeys, sometimes in the distant past, clarified one thing: most people voyage with a sense of promise, with a belief or an inkling that there is gold under a distant rainbow, and the inclination often times is sustaining, because people seem to put up with a lot of pain and suffering which, you imagine, could be avoided by staying home. But I was no Cabeza de Vaca, let’s be clear on that. I mean that I did not consider myself intrepid because of this particular sojourn, although I often identified with this luckless sixteenth-century Spanish explorer, and sometimes, navigating my way across the Texas hinterland, I would catch glimpses of human figures on the horizon, reduced by the distance to shimmering stick-men, and I would be struck by their fragility in the maw of the elements. These figures always reminded me of de Vaca and his hopeless companions, lost on a wild and distant continent, and although I too felt somewhat lost, I was grateful that I had a varied diet, a roof over my head and a bank account guaranteeing escape should it become necessary. What in the end did I have in common with him? I could not even speak Spanish. But I did come from the landmass of Europe (or somewhere just off the coast) and I did see America as a New World.
I had been sent to the southwest by a publishing company; my mission was to sell high-quality university textbooks to professors. In the enormity of Texas I came across universities much like a parched desert nomad might happen upon Saharan Wadis, covering huge distances over the semi-arid terrain in my Texan camel, a pearl-white Ford Taurus. I grew to love that car even if at first I had looked at it with something bordering on disdain. After the fist couple of thousand miles I realized that when I beheld it, first thing in the morning, sitting sedately outside my motel room, I was overwhelmed by a sense of comfort, even love-the kind of feeling one might experience when looking at a benign dictator who shows you leniency after a crime, or a dentist who after drilling your teeth speaks soothingly and gives you refreshing liquid with which to gargle. This vehicle was my sanctuary, my fifteen square foot of sovereign space, and its graceful steel curves and its competent wheels guaranteed me a certain insulation from the threateningly foreign environment.
The land over which I guided the car was the same hard land over which Cabeza de Vaca had stumbled five hundred years ago. The ultimate objective of his expedition had been Florida and the riches that everyone believed lay there. After shipwrecks and desertions, most noticeably of the captain and expedition’s leader, de Vaca and a handful of companions were left helpless and adrift in a vast and unexplored territory without a map, without language and without even the vaguest hope of rescue. An isolation not unlike someone stranded on the moon with no space ship—a terrible existential imprisonment.
After the rest of his party had disappeared or been killed by local tribes, de Vaca was left with three others: Andres Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and a slave from Morocco called Estevanico. They spent months on end eating nothing but oysters (at this time they were not a delicacy and there was no horseradish or cocktail sauce), shucking them with rocks until their hands bled. And months again eating roots, and sometimes if they were lucky, extremities of dog. These were the good times. They survived off the morsels of flesh scraped from skins; they stayed with nomads who suckled their children until the age of twelve because food was so scarce that otherwise their offspring would stand no chance of surviving. America, as it came to be known, was then a vast amorphous wonderland full of boundless wildness, beauty and barbarism, a fluid world strewn with gaping portals into the afterlife. Those were the days when you really could not count on the recognition that another human being must owe to you-to you as a human being, that is-the recognition that prevents him from otherwise doing you harm, like the Spaniards were doing to the Mesoamericans: tearing them limb from limb, boiling them alive, feeding them to the dogs, hanging children from the legs of their dangling mothers. Most strange fruit. Still, the small group of lost Europeans wandered across the desert landscape of the southwest, sometimes in what would become Mexico, sometimes in the future United States, both sides of the future border equally harsh and unforgiving. Having been separated from his companions, da Vaca, alone in the desert wilderness, would think he had actually died, so profound was his sense of isolation.
Some of the colleges I visited were harboring professors from far-flung places and my arrival occasioned long talks about New England, Old England, and on one occasion a writing instructor in southern New Mexico asked me longingly where I bought my trousers. “Not in this state,” he guessed wistfully. A professor of forensic anthropology in Waco showed me her personal photos of the carnage at the Branch Davidian compound, which she had been in charge of analyzing after the FBI siege.
“See,” she said smilingly, “some shit happens down here too!”
My relative isolation made my identification with da Vaca grow, slowly. I was soon bored selling books to pompous professors; whenever I could I crept off campus early and found desolate rivers in which to bathe, or I walked in arid, dusty hills. Often I found myself far from the nearest habitation and able to contemplate these distant historical eras, without the meddlesome interruption of the present, able to tap in to the raw reality of the lost medieval Spaniards. But more often than not I found that isolation was hard to come by in Texas these days, and just as da Vaca had his fair share of interactions with locals, I had mine too.
On a July afternoon, when, thankfully, the endless American collegiate summer was in full session, I was sitting by a river. It was hot, the kind of heat that drugs you and slows down your metabolism. I had been perched on a rock for a few minutes when a truck drew up behind me. A pair of dogs jumped out of the back then plunged into the water next to me, having inspected me first by pushing their noses into my face. A boy of about ten or eleven soon followed them.
“Is it cold?” he asked me with an English accent. We had a brief conversation in which he didn’t seem to notice my accent maybe he hadn’t been here long enough to find another English accent strange. Soon an elderly couple came struggling down the bank hauling a large steel canoe, forcing me to move from my rock to avoid being driven into the river at the prow of their vessel. The man, who must have been in his sixties, wore a moustache which drooped on either side of his mouth in Sancho Panza style. His eyes were also characterized by a droopy effect which made him appear either sleepy or in an advanced state of meditation.
“Sorry ta interrupt your readin’,” he said in a sincerely apologetic way. The canoe found the water and bobbed obligingly on its surface. Meanwhile the boy had fitted a mask to his head and began examining the underwater life. The dogs were jumping in and out of the river a little too close to me, occasionally sliding onto my towel with their large mud-filled feet. The woman, overweight, with a ruddy complexion and an ill-fitting bathing suit, stood over me.
“What ya readin’?” she asked in a chummy tone, taking my book by its cover and turning it towards her. I felt myself stiffen instinctively. I told her it was a book about early American history, smiling weakly.
“Which chapter are ya gonna be tested on?” I told her I wasn’t actually reading it for a test, that I was too old for school, unfortunately. She handed it back to me, apparently disappointed. As if history, for its own sake, was an eccentric’s game. She was silent for a couple of beats.
“England or Australia?” she said, fixing me with a piercing stare, beaming now, as if delighted to find another way to extend our conversation.
“England,” I admitted, impressed that she had tumbled my game with so few words being exchanged and feeling all the more of an outsider for it.
“We’re from England too, ain’t that right, Jason?” Jason reared his head out of the water and gave an incomprehensible grunt from inside his mask.
“Yeah, that’s right,” she continued, drinking from a plastic cup which appeared to be brim full of bourbon.
“We’re just slumming it here in Texas!” She gave a gravelly laugh.
“Well we’re not English, exactly. But Jason’s dad is. Oh yes, his dad is over there in Dagenham. Do you know Miller Street, that’s where they live, down there by the river. You know what’s it called, Jack?” She appealed to her husband who was busily attempting to mount the canoe.
“What, honey?” He said.
She threw her cigarette butt into the river. “You know, Jack, that pub right there on Miller street, the Dead Duck, Royal Duck, whatjamacallit?” Jack was in the canoe and with his huge belly pointing to the bows he was engaged in extracting the paddles from under the seat.
“The Duck and Rabbit,” he said, causing her to explode with another hoot of laughter.
“The Fuck-like-Rabbits, whoops! Excuse my French! That’s right ain’t it Jack?” Jack gave me a long-suffering smile from his position of readiness in the canoe.
“C’mon honey, lets get this ship movin’ and leave this poor guy to his recreation,” he said, encouraging her to lift herself from the rock.
“You’re right. I’m sorry; we’ve just ripped up your nice peaceful afternoon here, lets go to sea—we’re here to have a good time, right Jason?” Jason was face down in the river, too absorbed to be listening. She staggered to her feet and walked gingerly into the water where the canoe awaited her. I was curious—apprehensive even—about how she was, in fact, going to get into the canoe, bearing in mind the characteristic instability of canoes. First of all she lifted her right leg onto the gunwale of the boat like a ballerina stretching on a bar (I was surprised to see that she could perform this maneuver at all without serious damage to ligaments). Then, when it was clear that no other part of her anatomy would cooperate from this position, she decided to start from scratch and with some effort removed her leg from the boat, letting it plop back into the water.
“Here,” Jack offered her his hand, and she suddenly lunged head-first into the canoe causing it to tip drastically towards her. As it did this Jack presciently steadied it by instinctively falling in the other direction, one hand still in hers. Now she was half in and half out, and she wriggled the rest of the way, like a matronly mermaid, to end up lying face-down on the bottom of the vessel. Soon she was seated on the bench and was cradling her cup of whiskey which Jack had been looking after and miraculously had not spilled.
“Hey Jason,” she yelled at the boy who was still engrossed under the surface. “You wanna come over to the other side with us? C’mon, we’re goin’ explorin’!” They were about to set off when one of the dogs reappeared on the bank, whining.
“Oh my baby! I can’t go without my baby!” The dog launched itself at the canoe from the riverbank, and Jack dragged it, bedraggled, into the rapidly-filling canoe. Once Jason was aboard they set off against the current waving to me and promising to return shortly.
With this advance warning I slipped off my rock and swam up-river against the current and found that I was just about moving forward, at a snail’s pace. My identity. Why was it so difficult to get beyond it, beyond the basic fact of difference? With barely any language being exchanged too! It was as if there was an aura around me screaming of foreignness. This had been de Vaca’s curse.
The medicine man who had captured him had recognized the vulnerability of his alien identity, which set him apart from others and made him a perfect candidate for life-long servitude (he escaped, of course, after several years). And slavery was no passing concern for de Vaca it was endemic in the southwest back then, human beings traded as eagerly beads, or skins, or edible meat. And it was not only the Indians who were doing it.
The first white men de Vaca saw after all his years of wandering, the first glimpse he had of his very salvation were mounted, Spanish, slave traders patrolling the planes for stray Indians. If he was enslaved, it was to his identity, and what seemed almost more painful than anything to him was the knowledge that he was one of them.
I soon reached a grassy area of river bank where I made landfall. The part of the river where I had alighted was populated by small groups of people who had parked their cars under drooping trees and were sitting on rocks drinking from beer cans and some of them were throwing fishing lines into the slow-moving current. Soon a jeep pulled up on the grass behind me, and two young boys and a man of about fifty stepped out. The boys raced for the water and hurled themselves in, whooping. The man walked over to me. He had a gray beard of medium length, and a face weathered by the sun. He walked with a slight roll, like a sailor, and notwithstanding a fairly muscular, squat build, he had a pronounced belly.
“Me and my boys like to swim here, with the rope and all,” he said. “It be alright if we share the space?” His voice was broad Texas, and deep. He reminded me of Stacy Keatcha mixture of the rough and ready and the civilized. I told him that there was plenty of space, to feel free. The boys ran back onto the bank and started playing with the rope. The younger one, around ten, said: “We were here before, you know.”
The father now had his shorts on and was gingerly entering the river. He immersed himself up to his waist and stood there, facing the sun and moving his hands around in front of him, in arcs in the water. He turned around to face me.
“Where’re you from, man?” His tone was almost challenging.
“I’m English,” I said after a pause. He scooped the water in his hands and let it run down his chest.
“Oh yeah? Scots Irish Comanche, myself.” He held his head high, and spoke with an air of pride. I wanted to tell him that if he wanted to play the origins game then I would have to start over; we can all identify with the underdog if we dig in our heritage a little. In reality he was American in the same way that I was English. Sure, I might have some Polish-Jewish-Celtic blood, but I don’t bother to pull all of the possible strands out every time I state my nationality. I hold a British passport, I speak English.
But it seemed that he wanted to connect with those who had suffered at the hands of the American colonials and those who resisted the English colonial administration. It was a pity and an irony that the Scotch and the Irish were no great improvement over the English, as far as the Comanches were concerned, making their lives nasty, brutish and short and almost wiping them out with their guns and their European diseases. But I got the message.
“So what’s your name, Limey?” He said, after a pause. It was a strange tone—challenging yet friendly. It was as if he had set up his perimeter, established a boundary, and now was exploring it a little.
“My name’s Richard,” he said, and then looked up at the sky, “Richard the Lion heart.” There was only the slightest hint of a grin on his face. Coeur De Leon, I thought to myself, now there’s a true infidel-killing Brit, if ever there was one. He immersed himself in the water and executed a few short strokes, and then came back to the beach and walked out of the river. The boys by this time were busy swinging off the rope.
“Dad, are you gonna swing or what!” The younger one pestered him until he stood on the bank and pulled the rope back, gripping tightly with his hands, and with a delicacy which belied his size but bespoke his age, he swung out over the water, released the rope and plopped the death-defying two feet into water up to his knees. His son was ecstatic and grabbed the rope, handing it back to him: “Again! Do it again!” Richard winced, “Ah, no Sammy, you’re old man’s too fragile for that, why don’t you give it a shot.” He stood on the bank next to where I was sitting and dried himself vaguely with a towel. He was a handsome man and had a knowing gentleness about him. He was old, I observed, to have such young kids and I wondered if he was divorced and this day, Saturday, was his “time.”
He threw down the towel and turned to me: “I ‘m gonna smoke some of Mexico’s finest. Care to join me?” He produced a reefer and ignited it with a Zippo lighter, inhaling sharply before handing me the joint. We passed a few moments enjoying a quiet smoke while the two boys swam, and soon Richard started reminiscing about his time on a war ship, and how he met some British sailors in Jamaica who knew how to drink. Then he talked about working as a roadie for Eric Clapton who, as he pointed out, was one of my compatriots. We passed the joint back and forth. On the bridge a truck had pulled up. Some men got out and started preparing to fish.
They left the doors of the truck open and its stereo filled the area around the bridge with the dolorous sounds of classic rock, heavy on the base, which came snaking over the surface of the water to where we sat in the hot sun. I was beginning to get the feeling of being pulled into something, inevitably. He had traveled with rock bands, and drunk with sailors and now here he was swimming with his kids on a hot Saturday afternoon in Texas. He looked out over the river, at the houses up on the opposite bank, perched with the best view in the Texas hill country. I felt the sense of our conversation drifting away from me. It was all I could do to ask the occasional question, hoping that I was vaguely connecting with his train of thought. We were both sitting on the grass now, Richard with his legs in the water and me leaning back on my elbows. My head was feeling increasingly as if it were boxed in with a three dimensional crystalline structure which shimmied every time I moved it. Sensation had all but fled most of my body; Richard’s eyes had taken on a vaporous quality.
“But things have all changed now,” said Richard. “I’ve changed, I dare say; not the crazy-headed son-of-a-bitch I used to be. Sometimes I can’t believe the things I did when I was young.” And for some reason as he spoke I wondered whether Cabeza de Vaca had remembered who he had been in his life as a Spanish nobleman, when slave traders had galloped up to him in his starving, filthy, crazed state. And did he ever really become that person again, once the dirt was washed off, the hair was cut and he was back in Castile? Did he remember those times when, walking naked, his identity had come to seem like an enigma?
Sammy came sploshing onto the bank, holding a crawfish claw.
“Look dad, I got a Crawdaddy.” Richard took the claw and examined it with interest. “That’s great, son. Yep. Ain’t much left of that poor sucker.” He snapped it at Sammy, who squealed with glee and ran back into the water. I got up and entered the water slowly, feeling its cooling affect rising over my legs, and I began to swim steadily up-river against the persistent current. With the sun ahead of me I had to squint into its rays, and its reflections off the water looked like a field of wheat in the evening light, or a night of bright stars in a clear sky, and I kept on swimming, holding level with the bank, keeping the current at bay. The glass cube which encapsulated my head was floating on the surface of the water, and shards of light refracted around it. On my right I perceived Richard on the bank holding up his fist, and yelling, “He’s gonna make it to the bridge, Goddammit! He’s gonna make it to the bridge, and climb up there like a pirate!” and I noticed after some time had passed that the vibrations coming over the water from the large black truck were in fact the familiar refrains of Pink Floyd sound intimately connected to my adolescence in England.
The music seemed to encapsulate something essential about me, was even largely responsible for who I was now, for better or for worse, and in that warm canyon, surrounded by Comanches and Mexicans and the ex-roadies, I hovered above the waving river weed captivated by noises produced twenty years before in a studio in London now being echoed around these Texan hills and washed down the river to Austin, and felt buoyed not so much by the water as by the sound, and the light and the heat: Nobody knows where you are. How near or how far: Shine on you crazy diamond.
I am sitting on an underground train leaving Wimbledon station. Rain is gently falling, and the streets of row houses grey under the cloud. I am wearing a pair of blue and white striped drainpipe trousers that I shoplifted three weeks ago, and a pair of black leather winkle-pickers. I have not showered for a number of days and I can feel the grime from the train already lifting itself off the seats and the floor and adhering to my skin, making me feel like the filthy character in Charlie Brown whose name I forget.
I open a new packet of cigarettes, enjoying the newness of the shiny silver foil, unmarked, before dropping it on the floor along with the plastic wrapper. I pull one out and light it, dully remembering how I never enjoy cigarettes on the Underground, where I always feel soiled. I blow the smoke against the window and through it I see wet school playing fields.
The train clatters through deserted sidings and empty urban spaces, scattered with used oilcans, rags and pieces of brick. In one old overgrown parking lot stands what seems to be an ancient water tower, rusting, twisted metal lying whale-like, belly-up in the middle of an open field, half tarmac half-feeble blades of grass. We move on at our steady forty miles per hour. The track is elevated now, affording a view of a housing estate below. In front of this is a bowling green surrounded by small sycamore trees, the houses are gray in the rain, semi-detached, Victorian. An industrial chimney belching smoke blocks the view; it has a waist line, like a huge headless woman rooted into the ground standing resolute in front of the houses. Past this there is a pub, standing in an island between two roads looking as if once it were attached to something, now standing like a rock when the tide has washed away the sand.
A small white dog sits outside the door and its mouth opens and shuts silently as it barks at the train. Suddenly we are in a station, pulling to a standstill; a number of human beings stand in the rain, randomly arranged on the concrete, some with umbrellas. They shuffle forward as the train stops. I look on as a young skinhead boy skulks away from the train, his Doc Martins splashing in the puddles.
The time between that rainy London weekend of my adolescence and now seemed like a fold in the fabric of the universe, a black hole of some kind. The place that had formed me so much diluted by the knowledge of so many other, distant places. The people I knew, gone from my life now, left only as fading recollections, and the person I had been was gone too, changed cell by cell, transformed by incomprehensible time into flotsam on a Texas river. By what process this had happened I do not know, the same process that made of de Vaca a wandering ghost on foreign soil.
After what seemed like hours I stopped swimming and let myself be washed back towards the bend in the river where Richard sat. I noticed that the music from the truck had turned into chat on some Austin radio station.
On arrival at the riverbank Richard’s kids were still jumping in and out of the water. I walked up the bank and sat down next to him. He was finishing a joint, looking for all the world like one of Cabeza de Vaca’s medicine-man acquaintances. One of his sons came running over holding what seemed to be the claw of a small lobster, “Dad, I found another one!” Richard took it from the boy and turned it around in his hands. “Well, I’d say that’s one dead crawdaddy.”
His son leapt back into the water and Richard took the pincer between his fingers and inserted the roach of his joint between the claws, using them as a vice to grip the burning joint as he sucked on it one last time. The whole scene—the father on the bank, the remnant of local fauna, the indigenous drug, the children in the water, splashing, and the hot, hot sun, looked so authentic, as if this was what was done in this place, here was the daily spectacle of life in this particular corner of the world, and the participants, the players, were so naturally a part of the environment, belonged in some organic and indisputable way that I began to think of Chatwin’s question again, began to think of it in terms of the hapless de Vaca first. But then I realized that here was the difference between him and me: He had no choice but to plunge in and take part in whatever form of life was around him.
As for me, I wondered whether the answer wasn’t after all obvious: I was a voyeur. I was skirting the perimeter of experience where I could observe the comings and goings of others from a safe distance, and avoid being drawn into close conflict with them; I was walking on the water, afraid to put my foot down in case it should get wet, in case it should sink, and take the rest of me, thrashing and kicking, to the bottom to sleep with the crustaceans, as de Vaca had done, afraid perhaps to see what I was when all else was stripped away. But there were similarities too. For both of us the promise at the end of the voyage had been a mirage—for him far more so than for me. For it only becomes clear who you really are when you leave and find yourself amongst strangers, and by then its too late to go back. You can never go back.
Richard grinned, holding the Crawdaddy’s pincer towards me with the joint still in it: Texaaas, he hissed, exhaling slowly.