A Delicate Dance

Rolling into Flores as late as we did I stressed finding a decent hotel. Not to worry: La Casona de la Isla, a little boutique hotel (a term I use very loosely for Guatemala) came complete with hot showers, an air conditioner, two beds, a pool, wifi (for father’s epic iPhone addiction) and a lovely breakfast balcony view of Lago Peten Itza.

SPK FTW! (For you oldtimers out there, that means “Sean Paul Kelley For The Win!”)

Day-glow canoesOver breakfast, as day-glow dugout canoes with outboard motors slid across the lake and docked just below us, father and I decide to make for Tikal today instead of tomorrow, which in hindsight was an excellent call. Had we gone Saturday we’d have been fucked trying to return our rental car, not to mention that Saturday proved to be a gray, gloomy and overcast day, one not at all conducive to jungle photography, especially at Tikal. Instead, it was a “necessary day” (a day when father and I do our own thing, alone) on which I relaxed and walked around the island and did a little bit of Christmas shopping, but more about that later. Maybe.

We ate our breakfast, mine was a lovely pair of huevos divorciados, one egg covered in green salsa and the other covered in red—both divine—refried beans, fried bananas and as many of those little maize tortillas they make in Guatemala as I could eat. All washed down with carafes of fresh coffee right off the mountains.
Huevos Divorciados a la Gautematelco
The first thirty kilometers of the drive to Tikal was little but rolling and treeless grassy hillsides. I passed through them feeling ill at ease. Whole fields are depressions of black water and cattails, attracting all measure of birds but for some reason no mosquitos. Perhaps it’s the wrong time of year? Or we just got lucky? But I was not bitten by a single mosquito the entire time I was in the Peten.

This mostly treeless landscape—the jungle is not supposed to be open or have a horizon—had been cleared within the last three or four decades by rancheros. For you norteños that means cattle ranches. Here’s how it works: the pristine jungle is torn to shreds, or euphemistically speaking “the land is cleared.” Then cattle graze on it for three or four years until the grasses have sucked all the nutrients out of the soil. The cattle are then sold up north for ground beef to McDonald’s, Burger King and their ilk. We’re not talking about Kobe beef here. Then the rancheros move on to the next twenty miles of jungle they can clear cut and start the whole process over just so we can Super Size It!

The rancheros, all of them, have a bleak, worn out feeling. And though this is a deeply tropical landscape, one I am culturally conditioned to assume to be ever growing, inexhaustible, regenerative and forever waiting to re-devour civilization like some pathetic palimpsest of an Indiana Jones movie, that assumption is wrong. The exhaustion of the land here—although it is still green, and crazy with vines, succulents and other parasitical plants—reminds me of what happened to the exhausted land back home: our hills, once covered by a lush golden carpet of gramma, buffalo and other great grasses are now covered with the invasive Juniper we call Cedar, or other opportunistic species, which leach out what little nourishment remains and every January or February reproduce, causing an orgy of Cedar Fever from San Antonio through Austin clear up to the middle Brazos Country. Just as at home, here too the land has been gang-raped, and left to die. Will the rancheros here have the same good fortune of moving into the cities to build airplanes and cars like they did in mid-twentieth century America? Doubtful. And what of the eroded treeless hillsides, decaying rusted hulks of Toyotas, corrugated iron roofed shacks and plastic bags? Will the land be given another thousand years to regenerate like it was after the Maya collapse?

Ill kept fences, half up, half down line the road.

“To keep what in?” I ask father aloud, breaking the silence.

“To keep what out?” He replies.
Cleared Land
Unbranded cattle wander across roads as freely as chickens and dogs and pigs. Allspice and asphalt mingle in the humid air. The further in the Peten we drive the more lush the vegetation grows. On occasion half a hillside is bereft of any cover except grass. The other half, however, is a thick, deep pile carpet of flora sometimes olive at others a twinkling emerald under a leaden sky. The jungle is overtaking mankind’s scars now. The road is almost covered by trees. Bromeliads bloom, what specific species I know not, but the pinkish flowers add a wistful touch to the drive. The sun is high now and just beginning to burn off the morning gray.

Fewer lands and even fewer people have endured more surreal and hideous scars than what the Mayan’s have endured (and in many places still continue to endure) since the Spanish first arrived. This region of the Mayan world wasn’t completely conquered until 1697, and even then it was held only tenuously until after the great Caste War in the Yucatan during the 1840s. Even so, an independent city-state existed in Quintana Roo until the 1920s. That’s the Mayan model: city-states. Scholars have pointed out that the Mayan were to the Aztecs at Tenochitlan what the Greeks were to the Romans. It makes sense, even to this day, the way the Maya remain fragmented in the high cordillera of Guatemala, speaking several different languages, having endured genocide at the hands of the whites and Mestizos who rule Guatemala even now.

I recall myself as a callow youth (there goeth a man?) during the late Eighties piously reciting anti-communist bromides about dominoes and Castros and Ortegas. Such blasphemies I spoke, utterly oblivious to an unimagined suffering occurring at the very moment: families ripped apart, fathers frog-marched into the jungle to dig shallow graves and then executed, daughters raped, sons killed or those even more unlucky, pressed into the army to commit similar atrocities against “subversivos” in Guatemala.
All Gunned Up
No wonder I am ill at ease: a deep sadness permeates this place. It is a sadness I have not known since I visited Cambodia (I got stinking drunk the night I saw the killing fields. And you would have too, had you seen what I saw). Could it be the depth of historical loss? Profound silences echo across the Peten. One such echo is that of a single conscientious 17th century Spanish friar, Andres de Avendaño, who translated the Mayan glyphs into Spanish and how that single copy of his life’s work disappeared.

But it’s not just history’s loss. The hint of liminal brutality is present even now, for everyone, everywhere has an armed guard and all of them carry sawed-off pump action .12 gauges. Not only is the land exhausted, but so are its people.

Roadside HawkA largish bird in the middle of the road plucks me from my grim reveries. I grab my camera, focus and start shooting. Digital photography is fantastic. I can take as many shots as I wish and delete what I don’t like.

“What is he?” Dad asks.

“Here, hold the wheel,” I reply. “I’m trying to figure it out. He’s a raptor, for sure, but I’ve never seen one with his coloring.”

“And that is?”

“Kinda grayish, with darker stripes underneath, with a touch of reddish, but a kind of dirt red. He’s got yellow feet, yellow beak with a blue tip. Big yellow eyes, too!” I say and put the car in first, better to creep up on it while the camera is shooting. I get closer, snap more shots.
Roadside Hawk
“Strange. He knows I’m here and getting closer but he’s just hanging out. He seems quite comfortable in the middle of the road. He’s eating something but I can’t quite tell what. He’s a beauty,” I tell Dad. “Grab your binoculars, take a look.”

“He is a little on the gray side, but his breast feathers are lined, striped, definitely a hawk. And you’re right he’s got lovely yellow feet, a prominent yellow beak that ends in an almost blue gray curved tip,” says Dad.

The hawk watches me with a wide open gorgeous yellow eye as I get out of the car to snap more photos. I get too close and he flies.

But not too far, only twenty or thirty feet away and then he squawks, clearly irritated that I interrupted his feeding. I smile, knowing I have some nice photos, and my inner-Buddhist thanks the bird for his cooperation.

We drive on (short video of drive through jungle at link).

Several plain Chachalacas fly across the road and around a long curve I see a dozen Oropendola nests hanging like yarn covered tennis-balls from a Ceiba Tree, the tree Mayans believe connects this world with that of the underworld, Xibalba. Then we see a Bat Falcon. Why in the middle of the day, I don’t know, but still, there he was, orange and blue and white atop an empty tree.
Bat Falcon
The area around Flores and the Lago Peten Itza is a shallow limestone depression, the lake the deepest part of it. Peten Itza is an odd shaped lake: long and narrow, running from west to east and then cutting south, then even more narrowly cutting back east. It is in this smaller, southerly aspect of the lake that the Island of Flores sits. But we are now on the far eastern end of the lake, having driven all the way around it, at a small town, actually a village, called El Remate.
Map of Lake Peten Itza
The view along the lake is irresistible so we stop for lunch. We sit in an apsidal thatched-roof Mayan hut where hammocks hang from the piers. We order a simple meal of chicken, jungle vegetables and rice. I ask a local, sitting in a hammock, what kind of hawk it was we saw on the road in. I described it and then showed him a photo on my camera.

“This is what we call a Roadside Hawk,” he says in perfect English. I was disappointed with the name, but it certainly fit.

My surprise at his English registered.

“I lived in Nevada for a few years building houses,” he said. “Saved my money, came back, got married, built this restaurant and now I live in paradise.” He smiles and slides back into the hammock.
Lago Peten Itza
“It is lovely,” I return the smile and then walk towards the lake.

I bend down to see strange vegetal growth apparent in the limpid waters. Tempted to drink it, I know better, and yet I don’t get the sense the lake is overflowing with industrial effluents. If there were any pollution at all it seemed it should be simple runoff from a handful of small towns (more like large villages) along the lake and at worst, the lake serves as the sewer for Flores and Santa Elena. That hunch turns out to be true. The most recent study done in 2011 by the University of San Carlos and a handful of NGOs notes drily that most of the pollution in the lake is within acceptable levels but that the local communities need to be better educated in sanitation practices. Plus, the government in Guatemala City needs to invest in water treatment for the area as a whole to protect one of the country’s most important tourist resources. Good luck with that, I think to myself.

Coincident to my pondering of filth and its disposal a pig begins frolicking and wallowing in the lilly-pads, muck and mud lining the lake. He is as pink as pigs come and I wished, silently, to be around, when he was butchered for fatback. Organic bacon is hard to beat.Wild Bacon!

There were also half a dozen shores birds, sandpipers and plover-types poking, digging, snatching up whatever kind of bug life they could find with their long bills. The pig snorted at me, came within a few feet and probably caught my bacon vibe and trotted off.

I was unable to identify most of the birds for the pigs curiosity scared them off before I could get any decent photos. Regardless, shore birds aren’t my strong suit. One bird, however, was singing behind some growth about ten to fifteen yards out in the lake. He sang a high pitched, accelerating rattle and dumb old me is looking around trying to find out from which direction the noise is emanating.

I’m looking around to see just who is making this sound and then it gets faster, a jik-jik-jik-jik. Then it stops.

Then the whole thing starts again. Then I see him.

“Oh,” I say aloud, “it’s that ugly little brown bird out there in the mud flats,” pointing towards it for the benefit of my father.

Just as the thought clears my synapses and the words pass my lips that plain ugly brown bird jumps five feet straight up into the air, wings spread open.

My jaw hit the ground. The Northern Jacana (jacana spinosa) is, first and foremost a bird with the largest toes I’ve ever seen, each six inches long if not longer. The outside half of his wings are a delicate butterfly yellow—and to the Mayans butterflies are the souls of their dead loved ones—that blend into a thick, chocolate brown. At each main joint in the wing bones there was a gold medallion that made it look as if his eyes were in the middle of his wings. An unsurprising, but lovely, evolutionarily defensive adaptation making the animal appear to have a larger face than it apparently does. From where the breast meets the neck is a darker brown, merging to black all the way to the eyes, above which is a strange formation, like a medieval shield but sideways across the Jacana’s head. This gave him an oddly large yellow brow. When the bird looked directly at me, once he landed from his dance, he was decidedly neanderthalish.
Northern Jacana (jacana spinosa)
While I stood dumbfounded on the lakeshore, begging the bird to dance again so I could get photos this time, melodious blackbirds chanted from a power line behind me, and I fancied they were saying, “go ahead, dance for the stupid human one more time. At least he’s not trying to eat us.”

I was lucky. The moment was forever in his simple dance: rattle, rattle, jump. Wings open, glide, land, wings close.

Repeat.

And then he sprung up twice as high, did a three-sixty, as if to bow, and flew away.

——–

The full sequence of the Northern Jacana’s dance can be seen starting here and moving forward.

The most recent photos can be seen starting here and moving forward.

The full set can be seen here. Enjoy!

Mayan Roads, Mayan Fog, Mayan Whispers

Quirigia StelaeUp at 530. Cold shower. Teeth a-chattering. Clothed. Grab bags. On way to airport. Arrived. Ticketed. Take shoes off. Security. On the jetway.

Then we wait inside the plane—almost a full hour—for clearance to take off from the brand new tarmac of El Salvador’s national airport.

“I’m not impressed with the airline,” said my Dad.

I think silently to myself, “you’re not impressed? What did you expect? Swissair? Singapore Airlines? This is Central America for fuck’s sake, old man.”

I browse through Avianca’s in-flight magazine while my father restlessly clicks and unclicks his seatbelt. I routinely flip to the back pages where they list their fleet. Avianca has a decent sized fleet for an airline that services all of Central America, Columbia and a handful of connections in the US. But not one of its eighty-one aircraft is an American-made passenger plane. There are no Boeings, only Airbus, Fokker and Embraer, a Brazilian-made regional jet. Then I think back to the drive from the border to El Tunco and realized, like Panama, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica before there were no American-made cars on the roads in El Salvador. So, what was once “our hemisphere” is no longer. This is not a political statement. You can take it or leave it, but the future has already been written and it doesn’t include the American dream.

We take off. Little El Salvador passes in a quick green blur. Mountains and volcanoes rise. And then more of both climb on top of the others. I have seen more volcanoes on this one trip than I have seen my entire life. The plane is flying not quite through the mountains, but only just over their tops. Twenty-minutes into the flight we begin our descent, which was much like landing in Kathmandu, turning and turning and turning and turning all the while slowly descending down towards a tiny little strip of concrete awaiting our plane. It was hair raising. The pilot, however, landed perfectly, I could barely discern the difference. Disembarking in shorts and a t-shirt I noticed the 58* morning cool quickly.

It took a while to rent a car but we managed. Now, I have an absolutely exquisite sense of direction—I’m also (pay attention here ladies) not afraid to ask for directions. But I was not about to drive in Guatemala without a GPS. So, in another strange bout of common sense I requested one.

“It’ll be $40 extra,” said the rental-car employee in a languid put out way.

“That’s fine. It’ll be worth every penny.”

And it was.

We hit the road. It took about forty minutes to get out of Guatemala City, which I would never, ever have been able to do without the GPS. Dad bought baby-bananas from a street-side vendor. (Why don’t we get the baby bananas that are almost pinkish inside in America? They taste the best, although they don’t look the best. Nevermind, I just answered my own question.) He paid the vendor with a US ten dollar bill—we’d not had a chance to hit an ATM or change money at the airport.

Best Bananas Ever“No change,” said the vendor.

Dad said, “feliz navidad,” and gave him the ten anyway.

The vendor, sincere in his good-luck-moment, replied, “feliz navidad mis amigos, vaya con dios.”

“Merry Christmas my friends and go with God.” Now, that was a blessing fit for the road we were about to turn onto.

The Atlantic Coast Highway cuts northeast across Guatemala, linking Puerto Barrios, Guatemala’s Caribbean port with Guatemala City, the capital. The first forty miles it’s a new, well paved dual-carriageway road through and down the mountains. Then it turns into two lanes, and often times both lanes are filled with big rigs coming right at you. You slow down. Sometimes you even pull over. They have the right of way by size alone. And when I drove around blind curves I was also extra-careful, ready for that one crazy bus-driver overtaking a slower car blindly. Good thing too because it happened on the way to Flores, more than once.
Driving
Soon we were out of the city, however, and the air was clear and the tension of driving eased a bit. The skies were impossibly blue and the light, white clouds were so close I could pick at them like cotton candy. In the road cuts was a traumatized geology, stories much older than any I could decipher, try as I might. The mostly igneous rock was faulted, cracked, crunched, uplifted and then turned back over on itself and folded once again for good measure. To top it off, literally, hundreds of meters of volcanic ash force the soft volcanic rock further down and compressed it further still. The wind ripped across the faces of the cliffside roads cut out of ash blowing a fine, chalky dust into my teeth. Further down came limestone as white as the cliffs of Dover. After that were several hundred meters of conglomerate, little stones of varied colors, shapes and sizes that had tumbled down ancient mountains, washed down ancient rivers and settled at the bottom of a shallow sea only to find themselves right back at the top of a mountain beginning the process all over again.

We passed into the semi-arid valley of the Rio Motagua. There in the roads I spied a green rock (I’ve covered this story here). I had to pull over, I think to my father’s annoyance. There it was, as I suspected: serpentinite. It all made sense. Gold precipitates into and through rocks like these, settling in the gaps and creating veins, some large, some small, that miners all over the world chase.
Driving
I then recalled a conversation I’d had in Nicaragua when Hernan mentioned a new goldmine opening, which I found odd, as I assumed most of the easy gold had been tapped out of Central America centuries ago. Apparently not. What’s it they say about assumptions?

We motored down the mountain, the phat baseline of Jane’s Addiction pounding in my cranium, followed by the harsh opening chords and Perry Farrell’s raspy voice, “Coming down the mountain/One of many children/Everyone has their own opinion/Everyone has their own opinion/holding it back/hurts so bad.”

I looked at Dad, tried to get him to sing along. He shook his head. Then for good measure, shouted out over the radio, “Jumping jack flash, it’s a gas, gas gas!”

“You’re nuts old man,” I said.

“Who’s driving whom down the mountain in a foreign country he knows nothing about?” he asked.

“Touche.”

———-

DadAfter winding through the semi-arid landscape of the Motagua Valley for a an hour or so I noticed a blue sign with a white symbol resembling Tikal on it, which clearly denoted ruins.

“We’re not going to make Flores by sunset,” I told Dad, “so, why not stop now at this place, stretch, take some pictures and see some Mayan ruins that are definitely off the tourist trail?”

“Sounds like a plan,” he said yawning. I’d waken him from his beauty sleep.

I took a right off the main highway into a what is clearly a modern, industrial and exploitative scene. If you didn’t know what you were looking at you’d probably find a contemporary banana plantation quaint—but under it all lies an ecological and human disaster.
Banana Republic
Banana trees lined the road on both sides. And these were tall, healthy specimens too, not like those I’d seen in Belize. Each of the banana pods (for lack of a more precise term) was bundled up in a blue plastic bag to protect it from insects or probably small mammals. Nothing but agricultural row after row after row of moderately tall green trees. Over it hung thick, luxuriant tropical clouds with enough blue in the sky to know we’d not be doused by water any time soon. We vaulted over a speed bump, slid to a halt at the gate filled with armed men and turned into the site: Quirigua, the place of the stelae.
American Redstart
The moment I got out of the car it was like an all out bird avian faunal assault. Quirigua occupies roughly 3 square kilometers of mostly jungle-lowland forest. The landscape had changed from semi-arid rain shadow of a hundred miles back to Caribbean lowland tropical forests. Amidst miles and miles and miles of banana plantations it’s a small green jewel of jungle such as it was a thousand years ago when the Mayan mysteriously abandoned the site, as they did much of their civilization. Now, with the jungle returned and most of the site preserved for future generations to excavate it’s the perfect migrant trap, a place where migratory birds congregate in a semi-natural environment, as opposed to foraging throughout a plain filled with banana plantation oozing pesticides. (This is a key reason many of our lovely warblers are dying off, it’s not the north American habitat that’s being removed so much as their Central American wintering grounds being destroyed wholesale.) It was with a rueful, sad sense of luck that I noted at least ten American Redstarts, dozens of Yellow Warblers, Hooded Warblers, Painted Buntings, Prothonotary Warblers, Blue-winged Warblers, Ruddy Ground Dove, Clay-colored Thrushes, Kiskadees, Kingbirds, two unidentified woodpeckers and the emperor bird of the day, the Blue-crowned Motmot.

Then there were the ruins. Exceptionally well preserved stelae, about a dozen that I know absolutely nothing about and looked on with a bewildered sense of awe. All of the loss here was unimaginable. As a historian I could sense it. I could smell the carefully decorated Mayan codices and calendars thrown atop fires by the conquering Spaniards. What better way to defeat a people than to take away their history.
Blue-crowned Motmot
“What kind of man burns books?” I thought to myself. “What kind of man steals such knowledge from the future?”

I continued my walk, growing angrier, unaware that the ground was wet from a recent tropical shower, that I could slip at any moment. I began climbing up the steps of the well-preserved main plaza, or acropolis as they call them here, and slipped on the first one. Grateful it happened here, instead of near the top, I took better care to live in the moment and let the anger at long dead Spaniards drift off with the mist of the jungle.Quirigia

The view at the top washed away any lingering sense of dismay. Big, bold magnificent rocks, set without masonry, perfectly aligned. What math such a people must have possessed? (My gut instinct was correct, as the Mayan’s I would subsequently learn, possessed some math more in advance of anything the West produced until the 19th century.) It was like an inverted pyramid going downwards into the ground, but then it’s sides rising up out of the jungle in a square formation. The solid whitish stone contrasting against the jungle green whispered a perfect rhyming couplet to the afternoon.
Quirigia
After wandering around and birding a bit we hit the road, losing daylight fast now. We crossed Lake Izabal, which drains the Motagua into the Caribbean. El Cruce, a small town growing up on the eastern shore of Izabal, was full of gringo tourists, fried chicken stores, bodegas and lavanderias. Adjacent to the mercado we saw a big Anglo-Santa Claus that would make Fox News’ Megyn Kelly proud.

Now our direction was northwest into the Peten. The shadows lengthened behind us and around sunset we passed through a narrow mountain pass, or gap (link to a short video). To our left Guatemala and the Peten. To our right, Belize, which Guatemala still claims sovereignty over, pissed off that they never got a road built from Puerto Barrios to Guatemala City by the British. We went through a police checkpoint and sped on into dusk, darkening and soon night, black tropical night. An hour on down the road and we were famished—having eaten no food that day at all except crap pastries from the airport in San Salvador. Civilized and organized little El Salvador was a world away from where we were now. In a small town we stopped at the Guatemalan equivalent of KFC, “Pollo Campero” or “Pollolandia” for fried chicken.

Best Fried Chicken EverFried chicken never tasted better. Did it matter that the floors were filthy? That the sink had only a trickle of running water? That a pair of dogs watched us while we ate? Was it a product of our hunger? Or was it the real, un-industrial, free-range poultry we were eating? I don’t know. I don’t care. I demolished the chicken, gristle and all.

Dinner promptly inhaled we drove on through the night. The road began twisting and climbing from 18 meters—the GPS told me this—to an altitude of 550 meters at the highest point. A chill was in the air and then a fog rolled in.

Fuck me.

Fuck me again twice for being so stupid.

Fog. Dogs. Chickens. Potholes. Speedbumps, called tumulos in Guatemalan Spanish, that were the size of the Matterhorn. There were Mayan Indians on bicycles and mopeds with shitty or no lights zig-zagging drunkenly along the road, in fog with absolutely no order or traffic lights or nothing. Add in insane Guatemalan bus drivers who will overtake you on a blind turn in the fog with their brights on and you can imagine the seriously white-knuckle drive I was enduring. All I could think of was some little Guatemalan boy darting out of the jungle to fetch a soccer ball and smash, he’s dead and I’ve just killed a kid in a foreign country and fuck me my life is now officially over.

I slowed down to about 20 kilometers an hour. Dad had no problem with my speed. Slowly, agonizingly we climbed back down the mountains into intermittent fog and then no fog but total darkness: there was no sign of people anywhere but at least the road was straight. An hour later and the jungle gave way to light: Santa Helena and the Isla de Flores, last redoubt of the Itza Maya and our home for the next three nights.

Now, would I be able to find a hotel at one in the morning?

Surfing, Theoretical Mathematics And Jesus

Me and the Queen MaryFirst morning in El Salvador. Got the drop on three waves, didn’t ride them long. Out of shape and out of practice. Surfing is decidedly not like riding a bike. You lose skills when you don’t use them. But it was fun. As a buddy I met at Popoyo in 2009 says, “El Tunco’s a nice easy right off the point.” And that’s exactly what it was: as it breaks off the point it’s then a long slow roller even novices like me can ride. They call it Sunzal or El Tunco (the name seems to be interchangeable by both the surfers and the locals). El Tunco refers a large lump of rocks on the beach that used to look like a pig before a hurricane came in and rearranged them. Sunzal seems to be a local word of indeterminate origin, but most likely Spanish and English that refers to the sunset. And this beach has some of the best I’ve ever seen.

If it’s an easy right off the point at low tide at high tide it’s a different animal. Then the swells get bigger and on occasion a nice tube forms, “but don’t count on it,” Alejandro, a Brazilian Spanish teacher from Los Angeles would tell me later. I paid my respects to the wave and paddled ashore.

During the midday hours I sat with Alejandro and had a few beers. He gave me the run down of every wave and break within fifty miles and then gave me the low down on the locals: who’s who and the local rules.

“I’ve been coming to Sunzal for seven years now. I know all these guys,” he said.

“See him,” he points, “the super skinny guy with the bleached orange-blonde-blackish mess on his head?”

I nodded.

El Tunco Rocks, Once Resembled a Pig, Since Then Rearranged By a Hurricane“Boris is the local big-talker. He’s always catching the biggest waves, out on some cove south of here or north of here, but no one ever sees him surf Sunzal. Everyone knows he’s full of shit, but everyone loves him because he’s fun to party with and he’s a good friend. When guys get kicked out of the house by their girls for surfing too much, he always lets them crash at his place.”

“You see that guy over there, with the hammer, carrying the lumber up the roof?”

“Sure do.”

“He’s Hugo. Watch out for him. He’s the local asshole, and bad-ass surfer, who’ll cut you off a wave in a heartbeat just to prove that it’s his wave and his country. Last year he crashed into a tourist surfer and broke his board in half, bloodied the guy up too. If you even see him near your wave, go somewhere else.”

Our waiter came by and asked me if I wanted another beer. I waved him off, “another beer and my day would be ruined. I’m hoping to surf this evening.”

He smiled and left me an Alejandro to talk.

“Our waiter, that guy, you know he’s real quiet, soft-spoken-like. His name is Jesus. That guy shreds everyone, he can practically spin a board 360* and land on it and surf the rest of the wave.”

“Not possible, Alejandro. You’re starting to sound like Boris.”

“No, Juan Pablo, listen to me. He’s that good. He won the local championship last year here at Sunzal and some people are trying to get him to go pro.”

——-

It’s December and the tides are variable. The big swells come between March and October. Current high tides seem to be arriving at around four-ish in the afternoon. By that time the shadows lay long towards the east. The waves, water and sky in the west, however, are suffused with an ur-orange that I believe is the Platonic form from which all other oranges derive their orangeness.

What a Ride!The wave at Sunzal is long, 350-400 meters at its best. It’s smooth, good for pros and beginners alike. This time of year, December, it’s not a huge wave or even a big one—it certainly doesn’t have much of a tube, that part of the wave a surfer rides when he or she is totally covered by water and then shoots out of it. It’ll curl a little bit on occasion but not every set or even ever five to seven sets.

Fun fact: waves usually come in sets of three waves or five waves. And sets usually come in swells of five and seven. First: they are prime numbers. Second, apparently there is science behind this. It’s called a Mandelbrot set, named after Benoit Mandelbrot the father of fractal geometry and math. Brian Rothman recently called the Mandelbrot set, “the most complex mathematical object in existence. [It’s] a two-dimensional figure whose coils, sea-horse shapes and blobs rimmed by jewel-like clusters of islands defy any coherent description. It is made up of infinitely many resemblances of itself, no two exactly alike, which appear from its depths when one zooms in and magnifies any part . . . and it serves as a sublime tech mandala.” One philosopher even claimed the algorithm behind the Mandelbrot Set might actually be one of Plato’s eternal forms.
Mandelbrot Set
Bet you didn’t think you’d get higher math and philosophy while reading about a guy surfing in El Salvador?

Life is paradox and there is order in randomness, as fractals demonstrate.

Speaking of fractals, the high tide was in, the sun was a gorgeous gold, and bikinis pranced up and down the beach. (Oh, you didn’t think I wasn’t looking? How wrong you are! I may be recently divorced and uninterested, but I ain’t fucking dead.) It was time to surf.

I put on my board shorts, rash guard, grabbed the Queen Mary, walked half a mile down the beach and paddled out.

After an extensive paddle—hey, you try paddling a twelve foot board three hundred yards out into heavy surf—I sat on my board and surveyed the scene. There were about 15-20 other surfers spread out over two hundred meters, two within fifteen to twenty feet of me. I stood a good chance of a.) catching a wave and b.) not killing anyone with my ginormous surfboard due to inexperience. After a few minutes the first set came in. I paddled hard, but missed the first wave. Got my board back, on it, paddling, caught the wave but couldn’t stand—wiped out. Board shooting straight into the air and me thrashed and twirled by the waves.

Panting like an overheated dog I grabbed my board, climbed on and lay there for a moment catching my breath.

Playa El TuncoDigression: ever wondered why surfers have perfectly sculpted bodies? Upper bodies and lower bodies in perfect proportion for men as well as women? Well, it is the perfect workout. You swim with your arms and legs. You do core abdominal work when you are up on the board maneuvering. Yoga, too. Don’t believe me? See just how flexible you are when you get thrashed and tumbled by a wave like clothes in a clothes dryer.

While panting on the board awaiting the next set I began mentally composing an angry email to my ex-wife. Then I got angry at myself.

“What a stupid fucking thing to do on a wave,” I muttered. “Idiot.”

While berating myself someone paddled up to me.

“Como las olas Juan Pablo?” asked Jesus, “how’re the waves?”

“Great,” I managed to say without sound too exhausted.

Jesus, I’d come to find out, talking to him earlier while we waxed our boards, had lived in the United States for about a year. He’d been a dishwasher first and then a cook in South Carolina. Having earned enough money to buy a house and set up a surf school in El Salvador he grabbed a bus to Mexico and then home to El Salvador, only to return to a girlfriend who’d had left him. Unbeknownst to Jesus, his father had died when he was on the bus from Charleston to the Mexican border. He worked as a waiter now and spent all his free time surfing.

“The waves,” he told me that afternoon, “they’ll never lie and they never cheat.”

Playa El TuncoHe pointed towards the water. Another wave was coming, this one picture perfect, streamers coming off the top in a fine mist just like a snow banner blowing off Mt. Everest. I shook my head, not quite ready, still panting a bit.

Jesus smiled and then attacked the wave. He paddled hard then cut right so effortlessly it made me envious. On his smaller board he rode, cutting up and back, then left and right all the way inshore for twenty or thirty seconds. It was an elegant, beautiful performance. How anyone could call what Jesus did that afternoon “shredding” as if it were a violent act, like putting an end to a sheaf of top-secret documents and not call it a ballet on water is beyond me.

Speaking of, I had finally caught my breath.

I was ready.

The next wave rolled in and up. I paddled furiously, the futility of maneuvering my container-ship sized surfboard clear in my determined grimace. I barely caught the wave, stood up, but got on the board too far back. Unbalanced, I slipped backwards into the worst of the backwash there to twirl and roll underwater, salt water invading my sinuses until chaos abated. Have I mentioned having long hair in the surf sucks, too? Too often I come out of a wave with hair covering my face, salt in my eyes and another back-wave crashes into my face, which is what happened in this case too.

I shook it off. Literally.

Would number three be my wave?

No. I couldn’t get ready in time so another surfer made the drop, riding smoothly all the way in. It looked so easy, why couldn’t I?

Then I missed number four out of sheer incompetence.

Gentle reader, are you sensing a theme yet? Let me spell it out for you if you haven’t: I’m not a terribly good surfer. In fact, I suck. But I love being in the big water, feeling its power, respecting it, honoring it.

Alas, my breath was all caught up again and there I sat on my ginormous board when wave five swelled up, fat-like and pretty big too.

Looked to be a possible seven footer. Taller than me by far.

I paddled hard, furiously determined to get the drop on this one. And then it happened.

There is no thought, only pure action, I’m one with the tidal forces of the wave, which I am allowed to momentarily harness. I stand up on the board, just ahead of the curl, the wave’s crest. Moving my right foot slightly, much as a bird will move a single feather to turn left or right, I make the cut back for the first time and stay ahead of the break for an unfathomable ten to fifteen seconds. Just me, on the board, completely of the present, no past, no future. The eternal now.

SunsetI took the wave as far as I could, dropped into the water and walked out with pride.

I rested on the fine black volcanic sand of Playa Sunzal. Time passed as it inevitably does. Shadows grew longer across the beach and the shift from late afternoon gold to early evening orange happened at the fine line between subconsciously unaware and overt.

I got up and grabbed my board just as Jesus walked by. He smiled and said, “that was a good ride, Juan Pablo, like a pro.” And then we walked silently into the setting sun.

When A Blue Jay Isn’t Just Blue

Here is a photographic collection, so far, of all the “jays” I’ve seen in the world. Seven of the eight come from the Western Hemisphere, but one is from India and is called the Indian Tree Pie. We’ll start with him:

Indian Tree Pie (dendrocitta vagabunda)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next we have the common Blue Jay that most people in the eastern half of the United States have in their yards at some point:

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For those of you in the Western half of the United States you are probably used to this character, the Western Scrub Jay:

Western Scrub Jay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also to be found in the west, but at high altitudes are two other jays, first Clark’s Nutcracker:

Clark's Nutcracker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And second, the Steller’s Jay, one of which I saw in the Davis Mountains in Texas last week, which is a rare occurence, to say the least:

Steller's Jay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In South Texas two species of jays are to be found, one very common, and one very rare. The commoner bird is the Green Jay and he is spectacular:

Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The less common bird is the Brown Jay and while he looks brown and boring, he’s three times the size of the Blue Jay or the Scrub Jay and has three times the character:

Brown Jay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lastly, is the fantastic bird I saw in Nicaragua, the White-throated Magpie Jay:

White-throated Magpie Jay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are many more species of jays and hope someday to see them all.

The Year 2013 In Books

TruthI’m trying something different this year with my book list. I’m going to make a short comment after listing each book.

But first, the usual questions: are there any themes from this year? Any intellectual currents present in my reading list that I didn’t realize at the time but see now that it’s complete?

First, I read a great deal of Late Classical history, including late Rome, Byzantine, and the early years of the Arab/Muslim Empire. My reading in this area got very granular and specialized. I seemed to know, subconsciously, that I would be studying this stuff in grad school in the near future, although at the time that decision was a long way off.

Second, I read a lot of fiction this year. More so than I do most years. Going forward I am trying to keep the ratio at 3 non-fiction for every 1 fiction. I found fiction to be refreshing and also helped me to make better connections between the non-fiction works I was reading because my mind was fresh and cleared out. There is a place for reading popular fiction.

Third, I read a lot of poetry this year as well. And when I say read a lot of poetry, I mean, I bought a book of poetry and read the entire book. Not straight through, but I’d read a chapter at a time, read something else and then come back to it. This is another habit I hope sticks around. Poetry is good for the soul. It connects us to the longings and shortfalls and loves and desires of others. This remains essential to being human.

Fourth, I read a fair amount of theory and philosophy. This is something I hope to do more of as well. I’ll probably regret this comment when I buy my books for grad school this semester.

Finally, I stayed off the internet for the most part. I didn’t read any blogs, except a select few, mostly because they are all corporately owned media crap blogs now. The blogosphere of 2002-2006 is long dead or assimilated into the power structures that be. This is a shame, but a reality no one can now change. And it will affect the way people read, including books, moving forward. I also watched very little TV, except for a few series, like Justified, Grimm, The Bridge, The Walking Dead (zombies!) and The Borgias.

My target is to read a book a week, which comes out to around 52 books, more or less, for the full year. (This does not include my subscriptions to the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and the Texas Observer. I won’t read Texas Monthly any more, but that’s a whole ‘nother story, as we say around here.)

In sum, for 2013 I completed 75 books. By far my best year ever and one I seriously doubt I’ll ever match or exceed.

The commentary format below is as follows: title, author, genre, plus date completed and then my personal comments (and any book with an asterisk* next to it is a book you really should buy and read):

Re-Boot!1. Big Machine by Victor Lavalle: fiction: completed January 5, 2013.

So, this guy Victor Lavalle writes a book. I read it. I like it. A lot. I start looking for what else he’s read and find another of his books. I put it in my Amazon Wish List and save it for later in the year.

2. Patient Zero by Jonathan Mayberry: fiction; completed January 12, 2013

A zombie book. ‘Nuff said.

3. Lost to the West by Lars Bronworth: non-fiction; completed January 20, 2012

A enjoyable account of the main episodes in Byzantine history. Good for beginners.

4. Pym by Mat Johnson: fiction, completed January 23, 2013

An ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reinterpret Edgar Allen Poe’s sole novel from the perspective of an African-American. Just not enjoyable. The reinterpretation felt forced and heavy handed.

*5. The Odyssey by Homer: epic poetry, completed January 30, 2013

Of all the epics I have read, including Aeneid, Iliad, Divine Comedy, Beowulf and Digenes Akritas the Odyssey is the best. As a matter of fact, it is one of the ten best reads ever. Period.

6. Marco Polo, Discovery by John Larner: history, completed February 5, 2013

A somewhat specialized history of the era in which Polo traveled.

7. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd: non-fiction, completed February 8, 2013

Lame. No center, no reason for this book to exist and little color. This surprised me because one of my favorite writers, Robert MacFarlane recommends it.

8. The Oresteia by Aeschylus: classic drama, completed February 8, 2013

Good stuff, but backstory and context are essential to the enjoyment of classical Greek drama.

Second Volume of Six9. Decline & Fall v. 1 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed February 15, 2013

The six volumes of this book deserve a post of their own and maybe someday they will get one. The first two volumes are some of the most well written narrative history of the collapse of Western Rome anyone is ever liable to encounter. Gibbon will remain the standard of excellence for a very long time to come.

That being said, it’s important to recall that Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is first and foremost an Enlightenment document, like our Constitution, John Locke, Rousseau and Voltaire. It’s filled to the brim with Enlightenment preconceptions and preoccupations. There is no textual context here. There are no examinations of how certain events of the past have been passed down to Gibbon and how their historical ‘reception’ remains unexamined by Gibbon. But that’s placing my own burdens and expectations and assumptions and preconceptions on Gibbon, which isn’t terribly fair, is it?

To this day Gibbon’s thesis on the Decline and Fall of Rome is misinterpreted by everyone and their mother, as well. Gibbon’s magnum opus covers a thousand years. And we still hear American pundits and academics who should know better talk about how America is “declining and falling like the Roman Empire!”

“Oh dear! I see chicken little!”

If they are correct then American power will be paramount for a long, long, long time.

I doubt that is the case, however, but I digress.

The final three volumes are excellent, but it’s clear Gibbon wasn’t interested in the Byzantines at all, nor did he think they had anything important to add to the Enlightenment project. Thankfully, contemporary Byzantine scholars, especially those at Dumbarton Oaks, see it differently.

10. Buddha by Karen Armstrong: biography, completed February 23, 2013

Oddly unenjoyable, which is saying something because Armstrong is a damned good writer.

11. Oedipus the King by Sophocles: classic drama, completed February 27, 2013

Good stuff, but backstory and context are so critical in the enjoyment of classical Greek drama. Yes, I said that already.

12. Fragments by Heraclitus: philosophy, completed March 4, 2013

You know who Heraclitus reminds me of? Lao Tzu. Seriously, had Heraclitus had a larger following with his short, gnomic utterances that are almost dualistic in nature, Western philosophy could have gone in a very different direction than it did. Pick up a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching and compare it with Heraclitus’ Fragments, translated by Brooks Haxton and you’ll see what I mean.

13. Jason and the Golden Fleece by Apollonius: epic poetry, completed March 9, 2013

Glad I read it, but it was clearly written by a third century BC academic for a third century BC academic audience. Way, way too many allusions and asides. Tried too hard to be Homer and instead, if it weren’t necessary to understand the subsequent tragedy of Medea, I doubt this would still be read.

*14. To Save Everything by Evgeny Morozov: criticism, completed March 10, 2013

Everyone should be compelled to read both of Morozov’s books. In 50 years people will be citing him, wondering why people didn’t listen to him. People will be citing him when they are desperately trying to unravel the totalitarian disasters they have sleepwalked into. Morozov single-handedly brings the word “ethics” back into our political discourse.

15. Decline & Fall v. 2 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed March 15, 2013

See #9

16. Decline & Fall v. 3 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed April 4, 2013

See #9

17. Great War For Civilization by Robert Fisk: history, completed April 7, 2013

The single best revisionist history of the Middle East over the last 40 years.

Greek18. On Politics v. 1 by Alan Ryan: history, completed April 10, 2013

I devoured this first volume but 100 pages into the second volume (which is, as yet, unfinished) I realized that a lot was being left out of Ryan’s history of political philosophy on purpose. There is an air of tired conventional wisdom about this book and I doubt I will complete volume two. Why? It is as if he writes about the inevitability of liberal-democratic capitalism. Apparently Fukuyama’s thesis is alive and well. Aren’t there any competing political philosophies out there? Or are we just stuck here, like Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” wallowing in the commodified consumer soullessness of post-modernity?

19. Decline & Fall v. 4 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed April 20, 2013

See #9

20. Eminence by Jean-Vincent Blanchard: history, completed April 25, 2013

A brief, and ultimately uninspired, biography of Cardinal Richelieu. Devoid of realpolitik or anything useful.

*21. Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov: non-fiction, completed May 6, 2013

Everyone should be compelled to read both of Morozov’s books. In 50 years people will be citing him, wondering why people didn’t listen to him. People will be citing him when they are desperately trying to unravel the totalitarian disasters they have sleepwalked into. Morozov single-handedly brings back the word “ethics” into political discourse. Yes, I said this all before. It needs repeating.

22. Empires in Collision by GW Bowersock: history, completed May 8, 2013

Bowersock writes about the collision of Byzantium, Axum, the Arabian proto-state and the Jews of Yemen during the 5th-6th centuries. Fascinating and easy to read, but not for the beginner.

23. Decline & Fall v. 5 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed May 9, 2013

See #9

24. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse: fiction, completed May 11, 2013

I did not like this book. I cannot explain why, but it was visceral, which means I need to read it again and explore my feelings towards it more.

25. Throne of Adulis by GW Bowersock: history, completed May 15, 2013

Bowersock writes about the collision of Byzantium, Axum, the Arabian proto-state and the Jews of Yemen during the 5th-6th centuries. Fascinating and easy to read, but not for the beginner. Yes, I wrote this above. Bowersock goes into more detail and explores the role of one specific massacre of Christians in Yemen by a Jewish kingdom and how it created a mess for the Byzantines and possibly got the ball rolling for religious reform in the Hejaz area. This is a good book for beginners interested in the religious ferment in the southern Arabian Peninsula in the century before the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) emerged.

26. Heraclius by Walter Kaegi: history, completed May 22, 2013

Damned good book on the life and history of Heraclius, one of the greatest of men to ever sit on the Romano-Byzantine throne. And also one of history’s most tragic figures. Someone really, really, really, needs to write a readable account of Heraclius’ life, especially in this age of Muslim-Christian tension and outright war at times.

27. Edessa, the Blessed City by JB Segal: history, completed May 25, 2013

A specialists study on the first Christian Kingdom. I got a great deal from it, especially since I have been to Edessa, now known as Sanliurfa.

28. Decline & Fall v. 6 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed June 2, 2013

See #9. Except to say this: I completed what few other people ever do, the entire text of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was a huge task and took an enormous amount of time. It is something I am proud to say I have done.

29. Rome’s Wars in Parthia by Rose Mary Sheldon: history, completed June 5, 2013

A decent account of the conflicts between Parthia and Rome before the rise of the Sassanids.

30. Timarion by Unknown: drama, completed June 7, 2013

A very strange high-medieval Byzantine drama, not for beginners.

*31. The Devil in Silver by Victor Lavalle: fiction, completed June 8, 2013

I go to my Amazon Wish List and this book is at the top of the list. I buy it. I read it. This is Lavalle’s best book. I reviewed the book here, so go read that. I stand by it all. My favorite fiction book of the year.

32. The Crusades, vol 1 by Marshall W. Baldwin: history, completed June 19, 2013

Excellent supplemental material regarding the Crusades, which I specifically read for the Seljuk Turkish angle and the Zengids.

*33. Return of a King by William Dalrymple: history, completed June 24, 2013

Go buy the book and read it. The best history and the best readable account of the Anglo-Afghan war of 1839. Go buy the book. You will not regret it.

34. How to Write History by Lucian: classics, completed June 26, 2013

A shortish book written in early imperial Rome on the art of politically correct writing. Somethings are just timeless.

Bookshelf Porn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*35. The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark: history, completed July 6, 2013

Forget the “Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman.

“The Sleepwalkers” is the history of the origins of World War One for our age. For any age. If you have any interest in how World War One began and why, this is the book to read.

Excellent in every possible way. My favorite non-fiction book of the year. 

*36. Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams: fiction, completed on July 12, 2013

A fun story about an angel who is also a private detective living in the Bay Area. I think they call this genre Urban Fantasy. If so, I’m a fan and looking forward to the follow up book.

37. Sandman Slim by Robert Kadrey: fiction, completed on July 23, 2013

Another book in the emerging Urban Fantasy genre. Fun and bloody and violent. Looking forward to the next installment.

38. Post Office by Charles Bukowski: fiction, completed July 24, 2013

“It began as a mistake.” That happens to be one of the best opening lines in any novel ever written. And Bukowski’s debut novel doesn’t disappoint.

39. In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland: history, completed July 30, 2013

This book is Holland’s attempt (not quite successful, but not quite a failure) to unite all of Bowersock’s themes into one large book. Just how did Islam form? What role did Christianity play? Judaism? The Christian empire of Axum (Ethiopia) and the Jewish Kingdom of Yemen? And the Zoroastrian Persians? All played a part in the emergence of Islam and Holland tries to weave them all into one magnificent carpet. A slow read at times, but worth it for the many thought provoking passages it contains.

40. Later Travels by Cyriac of Ancona: belles lettres, completed August 2, 2013

One of the many i Tatti Library renaissance Latin translations. This one is of Cyriac as he wanders through the vestiges of the Byzantine Aegean in the last days of the empire. I reviewed it here.

*41. The Son by Phillip Meyer: fiction, completed August 5, 2013

The single greatest fictional treatment of Texas ever written, complete with an honest portrayal of the nasty race-war perpetrated by the Texas Rangers in the Nueces Strip during the early part of the 20th century.

42. The Long Earth by Baxter and Pratchett: fiction, completed August 9, 2013

A strange sci-fi book by one of my favorite science fiction writers (Baxter) teaming up with one of the greats of fantasy writing (Pratchett). It was a good book and I will read the sequel.

43. Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua by Pseudo-Joshua: history, completed August 14, 2013

Terribly boring, poorly translated history of Edessa, also known as Sanliurfa. But good for my own research.

*44. Goodbye to a River by John Graves: non-fiction, completed August 15, 2013

The single greatest book about Texas ever written. I seem to read this book once a year now. Graves, the author, died on July 31, 2013: the same day I left my ex-wife. Some day I will write on the connection between this book and the dissolution of my relationship with The Brunette.

45. The Sun King by Nancy Mitford: history, completed August 21, 2013

I didn’t enjoy the book. Too gossipy and centered around court intrigue, not enough ‘big picture’ history to my liking.

46. Illusions of Postmodernism by Terry Eagleton: philosophy, completed August 25, 2013

A fairly dense and difficult read on post-modernism versus Eagleton’s own Marxism. As an intro to post-modernism it was terrible. But I persevered and read another book on it later in the year. I will probably return to Eagleton’s book in the next year.

47. The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore: non-fiction, completed September 5, 2013

A kind of sappy, self-helpy, feel good about being a writer kind of book. It’s angle being for the Buddhist writer: mindfulness in all things. I needed a pep-talk, what can I say? I’d just left my ex-wife and was filled with self-doubt.

48. The Iliad by Homer: epic poetry, completed September 7, 2013

Gory. Long. Boring.

49. The History by Michael Attaleiates: history, completed September 9, 2013

If you are looking to read a first person account of the 1071 Battle of Manzikert this is the book. I’ve been to the battlefield, or at least what they believe is the place of battle. This book would have helped better picture what happened. I will probably cite this book when I get around to writing about Turkey in grad school.

Books50. 10 Billion by Stephen Emmott: non-fiction, completed September 14, 2013

Emmott is an imminent scientist and mathematician. This book discussed what will happen to the planet when we reach the population of ten billion. The last sentence of the book is this: “I think we’re fucked.”

51. Postmodernism by Jim Powell: philosophy, completed September 15, 2013

Need a non-biased intro explaining exactly what Post-Modernism is? Jim Powell’s book is the one to read.

52. Julian the Apostate by G.W. Bowersock: history, completed September 25, 2013

A brief history of Julian, the Roman emperor who tried to reverse Constantine’s decision to make the empire Christian. Gore Vidal in his novel romanticizes Julian. But Bowersock sticks to the facts. The character that emerges is a thin-skinned ass, who happens to be a pretty darn good general.

*53. The Whispering Muse by Sjon: fiction, completed October 5, 2013

Just go buy this short novel. One of the most delectable, tricky books I’ve read in a long time. It’s lovely. Trust me.

54. Complete Poems by C.P. Cavafy: poetry, completed October 6, 2013

Cavafy’s poetry is slipping into a cool river on a hot summer day and just floating under a clear blue sky.

55. Connemara, Last Pool by Tim Robinson: non-fiction, completed October 8, 2013

The deep, complete history of one small place. This is what Robinson does. This is volume two of a trilogy on Connemara. I’ve read volume one and also volume one of his history of the Aran Islands. If you like travel writing and history that stays in one place Robinson is for you. He covers it all: geology, botany, history, astronomy, politics and his prose is lovely.

Simulacra56. The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell: fiction, completed October 11, 2013

Novel number four in a series about Alfred the Great of England. Historical fiction, blood, swords, vikings, pretty mindless but fun stuff.

57. Beowulf by Seamus Heaney: epic poetry, completed October 12, 2013

This was a fascinating poem, translated by a true world class pro. Worth reading twice.

58. Samarkand & Beyond by James Wellard: non-fiction, completed October 14, 2013

A strange book about desert caravans that I will probably cite in my graduate work.

*59. Season of Migration North by Tayeb Salih: fiction, completed October 16, 2013

One of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time. A Sudanese writer’s answer to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which includes a long, frank discussion of female genital mutilation at a time when such a conversation in Arabic literature was taboo.

White Goddess60. Memory Palace by Lyndon & Moore: non-fiction, completed October 19, 2013

Great book on architecture, its purpose in the modern world, its influence and its practice.

61. Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars: fiction, completed October 20, 2013

Bizarre. The title literally means “Death by Vagina.”

*62. Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich: non-fiction, completed October 20, 2013

An essential counter-point to the bullshit American tendency to think positive about everything. Ehrenreich digs deep to show just how complicit corporate America is in this messaging and how it keeps people from forming unions and taking up other collective solutions, because after all, “how could it be someone else’s fault? I just wasn’t positive enough.” It’s about time someone called bullshit on the loathsome “power of positive thinking” and “prosperity gospel” industry. We need collective action in America, not individual’s pretending to be positive while they get laid off so their CEO can collect an extra five million bonus.

*63. The Blue Fox by Sjon: fiction, completed October 22, 2013

Another book by the Icelandic Sjon you must buy and read.

64. Mountain and Fathers by Joe Wilkins: non-fiction, completed October 24, 2013

A memoir about growing up in Montana’s “The Big Dry” without a father, a tough, loving mother and a grandfather much like Steinbeck’s Samuel Hamilton. Poetic and poignant, and well worth reading. But it will make you cry.

65. Dante’s Inferno by Mary Jo Bang: epic poetry, completed October 25, 2013

A contemporary translation of Dante’s Inferno that everyone should read in the next ten years because it’ll lose it’s charm pretty quickly due to the language she uses in the translation. But for 2013 it was delightful and very true to the spirit of Dante’s great work.

66. Lost Enlightenment by S. Frederick Starr: history, completed November 10, 2013

If you know anything at all about the intellectual climate of Medieval Islam then this is a book you must read. It’s a show-stopper. It’s revisionist in the best possible sense of the word. The years 800-1200AD in Central Asia made so very much of our modern math and science possible. Without the geniuses who inhabited places like Bukhara, Nishapur, Urgench, Samarkand and Merv we would not have the civilization we do. It’s really that simple.

The Bible and Bukowski67. Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy: fiction, completed November 12, 2013

Imagine a woman with Sarah Palin’s flair for self-promotion, as horny as Linda Lovelace and as greedy as Jamie Dimon running a bank in small-town Massachusetts in 1985? Chaos ensues.

68. Mountains of Mind by R. MacFarlane: non-fiction, completed November 20, 2013

A book about how the human perception of mountains has changed over the centuries. Really well done, elegant writing and worth a read.

69. Ethics by Simon Blackburn: philosophy, completed November 24, 2013

Terrible book. It’s not even about ethics, but about morals. Doesn’t anyone understand the difference anymore? Or is that why our society is so fucked?

70. The Stalin Front by Gert Ledig: fiction, completed November 27, 2013

Gruesome depiction of two days in the life of two front-line soldiers: one German and one Soviet. The “All Quiet on the Western Front” of World War Two.

71. Postmodernism by Christopher Butler: philosophy, completed November 29, 2013

A decent book of criticism against post-modernism, although it’s labeled as an introduction to it. Again, I would start with Jim Powell’s book first.

*72. Winds West by Ray Lynn Saunders: fiction, completed December 3, 2013

A lovely coming of age story about a late 19th century woman living in the west on her terms. Worth reading.

73. The Gift by Hafiz: poetry, completed December 8, 2013

Sufi love poetry. That is all.

74. How to Live, Montaigne by S. Bakewell: history, completed December 8, 2013

Not such a good book. Why? It did not make me want to read Montaigne. It got great reviews, but for me, while interesting to learn about this era of French history and the Catholic-Protestant violence, there was some essence of Montaigne she must not have captured, because what little I have read by him is utterly absorbing.

*75. Tristes Tropiques by C. Levi-Strauss: anthropology, completed December 26, 2013

Had I read this book when I was 17 or 18 and trying to decide what to do with my life I would have become an anthropologist. It is that great of a book.

———–

Now, what did you read this year?

From 56 to 58: Vaqueros, Volcanoes and the Voice of the Road

Nicaraguan LifeDecember 17, 2013: Pelicans glide inches above the cresting waves. The rising sun glistens pinkish and oblique across the Pacific Ocean and carries me back to yesterday, where we left Granada about nine thirty in the morning—Hernán was with us—and the driver was a big, giant of a man whose hands never left the ten and two o’clock position on the steering wheel the entire trip, through Nicaragua, Honduras and to the bridge at El Salvador.

We passed Masaya, the town, and then passed the volcano of the same name, a low and not terribly active lava-maker that looks more like a shield volcano than stratovolcano, what with part of its side seemingly blown off.

Hernán inspects the pottery I bought the day before approvingly.

(Side note: Hernán, whom I’ve not yet introduced, is the most interesting man in the world and utterly unlike the Dos Equis clown. He’s the same age as me and his life could have been mine, just as mine could have been his. In due time I’ll tell his story. It’s worth telling.)

“It’s Chorotega,” he says, “designs from the indigenous people of Nicaragua before the Spanish arrived.” An Indian chases what appears to be a frog with horns, although I know it’s some kind of deer. The colors on the cup are earthy, soft fleshy orange, jungle green and clay brown.

We ride through the middle part of Nicaragua now—the most heavily populated, along the shores of the Lago de Managua. The hills are deforested, in the naked reddish dirt grow green stalks of corn against an ever present but moody sky. Cloudless now, but later?
Vocano
Managua, the capital city and former den of the great communist plot to take over all of America, was modern, filled with new buildings, new cars (none American-made), surprisingly clean, but security was everywhere. That’s Central America for you.

Hernán points out a ‘Matapalo’ tree, “the biggest one in Nicaragua,” he says, “grows like a parasite over the roots of an older, hardwood tree, smothers it and takes it over.”

We passed from Managua straight into a landscape right out of South Texas, fertile but brushy, good dirt, not so many trees, cattle country and prickly pear cacti. The only difference was the tropical edge hanging over us, a sky now molten gray just waiting to unload.

“That,” points Hernán to a beautiful, wide, white-flowering tree, “is the national tree of Nicaragua: the Madroño.” I look closely at it and the subsequent madroños along the road. It’s clearly related to the Madrone tree found in the desert southwest, including my beloved Hill Country. It has paper thin bark that peels to reveal a red trunk, but the leaves are bigger, the bark peels less and it looks more natural in the tropics.

We pass Leon in a blur, “next time I will spend time in Leon, home of the revolution,” I promise.

After Leon we turned the car firmly northwest into one dramatic view after another. To my left sugar plantations lined the road, most in one form of harvest or another. In the distance the Flor de Caña distillery, in a feat of regal alchemy, turns sugarcane into the finest rum in the world.
Sugar Cane Harvest
Buses run down the Pan-American Highway, old Bluebird buses, known colloquially as “el Diablo Rojo,” red devils. Another odd thing I’ve learned about Spanish, their term for idioms, or figures of speech, is literally translated as ‘false friends.’ The strange things you learn on the road.

Campesinos (peasants) walked, rode bicycles and horses. One vaquero was even texting while riding his steed. Several species of dove lined the electric wires, kingbirds chased bugs, vultures kettled and the occasional Smooth-billed Ani flitted across a skyline of grain elevators.

But to my right the passage was much less pastoral, more like violently volcanic. The potential kinetic energy was palpable looking at cones of such perfection, built upwards, up towards the sky in a series of  identical eruptions. One had erupted recently (within one or two hundred years). The peak was grassy, and only the hardiest of trees grew on the lower slopes.
Nicaraguan Cowboys
A hedge of Herrisillo trees blocks the view. The dirt grows redder, fields of cane rise and fall depending on the harvest, many topped by the cottony white pyramid of the cane flower. A single line of white clouds scud across the blue until another volcano blocks out the sky with its lumbering, clumsy weight. Another perfect cone, this one smaller but with a perfect trail of gray smoke trailing the peak.

The vaqueros proliferate. The horses, clad in long leather saddles with noticeably absent horns from the pommel. No lariats in Nicaragua? Regardless, northwest Nicaragua is cattle country, where the rivers run muddy, wide and full of crocodiles. I count forty different shades of green—from the multi-hued slopes of San Cristobal, biggest of all Nicaragua’s volcanoes—to the Mesquite-like Jicaroro tree.

A billboard of Daniel Ortega, el presidente, waves goodbye as we pass into Honduras.

“Con Todos y por bien de todos,” it says. Adios Ortega!

Nicaragua is now but a reflection in our rearview mirror as we submit our paperwork and then drive on. I silently count the fifty-seven countries I’ve now visited. Fifty-seven countries in forty-three years isn’t too bad.

Between Honduras and El Salvador the continents and plates bend to create a bay of Pacific water without any measurable surf. It’s an awkward semi-circle ringed by rough hills of traumatized and fractured limestone, sliced and diced by volcanic intrusions: a white canvas slashed with red-black lines, like Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat in reverse. A large tree grows in a soft field of green grass, but in its shade the grass has flowered white, a strange otherworldly sight of an hitherto unknown symbiosis.

The sugarcane dissipates, morphing into corn and bananas. The relative prosperity of socialist Nicaragua—where all the houses are made of brick—turns into the dire capitalist poverty of thatched huts, mud floors, straw beds and pigs and chickens wandering in and out of the house. The pink flowers of Tropical Oaks explode on the roadsides. A malnourished horse crosses the road towards an Ocellated Turkey pecking into dust blown down from deforested hills, looking for sustenance where none is to be found. We pass a truck with a large sleeping bed in its bed. Several campesinos wave. Cornfields grow at 45* angles or more on hillsides.
Honduras Life
There is little conversation today as we mostly absorb. That’s the way seeing country should be, alone in the moment, mindful that this is the only eternity that matters. But I lose the moment and silently curse my ex-wife—if only she’d given me a little freedom to wander around alone and not grasped so tight. Then I am mindful again, aware that “if only” is no way to live.

I turn back to the road, the giver of all things good: color, life, interludes, experience, and the hard comfort of being alone.

If the difference in wealth between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is significant that which exists between Nicaragua and Honduras is unfathomable. And yet I see a Little Caesar’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and the Golden Arches of Globalization in the southern Honduran town of Choluteca. Apparently Honduras has been made safe for American-style freedom, which must be a wonderfully comforting consolation to all those murdered for control of the drug trade to Estados Unidos.
Tropical Oak
Such ruminations, dark as they are, are interrupted by Hernán.

“We are at the Salvadoran border, Juan Pablo,” he says.

We say our good-byes. For they are long, complete with a genuine hug. I have grown fond of Hernán, my Nicaraguan doppelgänger.

Father and I plow through immigration and start the search for onward transport again. Luis, a former illegal dry-waller in Maryland approaches us. I negotiate a price and we are whisked away into dusk and then the dark. We pause for gas at a Puma. I haven’t eaten all day and order a “tamale con mystery-meat” and inhale it under a tree full of grackles making an ungodly racket. A grackle shits on me, “welcome to El Salvador,” it ca-caws, “country 58, you silly gringo.”

El Salvador passes in the dark—all I recall are three smells: burning plastic, diesel fumes and the musty-sweet smell of just harvested sugarcane.

At last I feel the humidity of the sea and the tang of salt on my lips.

We find a hotel room on the beach and I collapse, exhausted.

Flinging Boogers During History Class

StudyI’m reading a book of historical criticism by Gordon S. Wood presently. I am enjoying it. He’s a cantankerous old fart who doesn’t approve of anyone’s version of history, not even his own. That’s the best type of historian if you ask me. Humility like that takes you a long way. But I digress.

I’m reading his book and came across this sentence about Turner’s “frontier thesis” on American history. You all know it—at least you should—how the frontier being open for so long was one thing that allowed America the space to create institutions of democracy and liberty. (I know, I know, just bear with me, okay?)

So I get to this sentence, “Although Turner’s particular “frontier thesis” has long since been modified or discredited, the general assumption of his interpretation—that American society can best be understood as a response to the circumstances of the New World—have remained very much alive through the twentieth century.”

And for some reason the rotund and orotund voice of Winston Churchill began a replay loop in my head, until I was reminded of a famous quip by him.

WinstonSo, he meets the then socialist prime minister in the men’s room of Parliament and backs way away at the other end of the long urinal and the PM says, “why so standoffish today Winston?”

Winston replies, “well, every time you see something big you want to nationalize it.”

Oh, wait, wrong anecdote. Sorry, I was thinking about the one (most likely apocryphal) when he is lambasted by an opponent of Jackie Fisher’s reforms to the Royal Navy.

Churchill’s opponent screeches his imprecation at Churchill across the hallowed chamber of the House of Commons in Parliament, “why, you’ll destroy the customs of the Royal Navy!”

“And what are those customs,” bellows Churchill in return, “I shall tell you in three words: rum, sodomy and the lash.”
Royal Navy
Indeed, I have always held the particular belief that America’s peculiar greatness came from three things: slavery, genocide and the Royal Navy.

Am I wrong?

First, African slaves built the New World, not Anglo-Saxons. Anglo-Saxons owned the Africans what built it. I don’t giving a flying single-horned white pony that farts rainbows what you think. I am right about this.

Second, Africans built the New World on land that was stolen from First Nations who were (in most cases knowingly) obliterated by disease that they had no defense against. This was done in the first case. Bartolome de Las Casas was writing about how the Spaniards were already doing this in 1542. That’s only fifty years after the “discovery.” And it was done in the last cases, too.

Now, to label this genocide is to commit an historical sin called anachronism, as the term didn’t exist until the early 1950s when Ralph Lemkin coined it. But so what: that’s what happened. Our ancestors—yes, yours and mine (unless you’re African American or of Native American ancestry) engaged in one of the, if not the, greatest genocidal run ever committed in history by killing off all the First Nations. Chief Pontiac, Purposefully Infected With Smallpox By American Settlers and British SoldiersTo add insult to injury the only ones left over were shuffled off on to the worst land in the entire nation imaginable: Oklahoma. After the Indians were gone white settlers brought their chattel slaves to do the heavy lifting of farming and such.

Finally, what protected this 125-50 year recurring cycle of events?

The British navy.

America was made great by slavery, genocide, rum, sodomy and the lash.

Glorious, ain’t it?

Slavery

Annual Big Bend Country Pilgrimage

Every year for as long as I can remember, and insofar as I was living in the United States, I have made an annual pilgrimage to the Big Bend Country. My expectations earlier this year were to go with the same company I’d been with the last four years. Alas, life doesn’t quite work out as we expect, does it? The Window
So, this year I decided to take my favorite person in the whole world: I am taking my Mom.

It’s her first time. As a matter of fact, it’s the first time her and I have traveled together since we took my little sister to college in Princeton, New Jersey in 1990. The drive up there was tense, as my sister was ready to get away from us. But on the drive back, Mom and I meandered across America and American history, stopping in Monticello, Gettysburg and a couple of other interesting places, the highlight of which was the Blue Ridge Mountains Trace, a road that follows the peaks of the mountains. Just lovely. But that was a long time ago. Pronghorn Antelope

Mom’s a war horse and damn good traveler. She’s got 15-20 different countries under her belt and she’s going to Cuba in January, so she knows the rules of the road. I’m also looking forward to spending some quality time with her and learning more about her side of the family, mostly aristocratic Italians who fled Italy in the 1870s for Mexico. Classy folks, much unlike the heathen, drunken Irish on my father’s side. Santa Elena Canyon

I’m super excited to share my knowledge of West Texas with her: geology, Indian lore, birds, mammals, stories of cattle rustlers, cowboys and old Judge Roy Bean all make so good bullshit. And we all know I have an absolute profusion of that.

Guatemala: A Microcontinent All Of Its Own

Vulcan de AguaGuatemala occupies a strange place on the map of the world. Take a look at it. The best way to understand Guatemala geographically and geologically speaking is this: picture a very fat reversed capital “L.”

Across the bottom, horizontal, line is the Cordillera, a very high mountain range created by the subduction of the Cocos plate under the Caribbean plate, for good measure the North American plate pushes down on Guatemala. Most of the rocks in this range are igneous, usually volcanic but there are some places in Guatemala where one can find mantle rocks. Mantle rocks are rocks created when the plates separate in the deep mid-oceanic ridges and eons later, after moving across the bottom of the ocean, are thrust high up into the skies by continents colliding. This is why you find fossilized seashells in the Dolomitic Alps, which once were a great coral reef. Mantle rocks are found, exclusively in mountains where they have been uplifted, like Cyprus, California and other places. California’s serpentinite is a good example, as seen in two photos attached, one close-up and the other an outcrop near Yosemite National Park.

Like most “highlands,” languages proliferate, such as in the Caucasus and Papua New Guinea, which both have hundreds of languages. In Guatemala there are roughly 20 languages up in the mountains, which is one good reason to return: just to see and experience so many different cultural groups crammed into one small area. I do not know the native dialect the Mayans of the Peten region; I’ve been told it’s Yucatecan, but I’ve also heard of at least two more Mayan languages, both of which I could never pronounce, even if I tried. I will discuss the languages of Guatemala, later, in a separate post.

More dramatically, along the east-west axis of the bottom line of our “L” volcanoes are very common. In fact, I am looking at one right now.

SerpentiniteThe vertical line of our imaginary capital “L” is karstic, limestone, hilly, eroded, uneven and covered in a blanket of deep pile, luxuriant green jungle. The vertical “L” is also mostly one geological unit: the North American plate’s margin, a vast limestone plateau and former seabed of soft, malleable rock. In some places Karst topographies can take wild shapes, like the area around Guilin, China and Ha Long Bay near Hanoi, Vietnam. I’ve also seen some strange karst in Belize, but have no photos. This kind of geological unit is also prone to sink holes and caverns, hence the perpetual fascination with sinkholes that just “appear” in Guatemala. (Side note: sinkholes, or cenotes, also serve as great places for archeology, as the Classical Maya used them as garbage dumps.) Peten Itza, the lake we stayed on in Flores, is a shallow depression in this geological feature that has filled up with water. This limestone is not, as the geologist would say, a competent rock. A product of uneven, unsteady erosion the lake is proof of the incompetent rock.

Now, run a diagonal line at 45* between the vertical line and the horizontal: this northeast to southwest running line roughly corresponds to the Rio Motagua valley, the main river that drains this massive rain shadow valley. The valley is semi-arid, complete with cacti, other succulents and sandy soils that are perfect for growing the tasty cantaloupes and honeydew melons. As I mentioned earlier this valley is smashed between three mighty geological units: the Cocos Plate, the Caribbean Plate and the North American Plate.

I mentioned all of this mostly for your edification, but also for two separate but fascinating reasons.
Serpentinite
First, as we were driving down the valley, literally down, but bearing northeast, I spied what looked to be like green rocks to me. A clear hint of the trauma the rocks in the hills have undergone were the shattered roadcuts, outcroppings and multiple faults visible in the roadside. Imagine what the underlying rock looks like? This little country is the earthquake hotel and its own microcontinent all rolled into one.

Some of the stone was hard igneous, some was sandstone, some metamorphic and other plain limestone. But here and there about halfway down the mountains green rocks proliferated. I simply had to stop and look at the rock. Indeed, it was serpentinite.

“Now,” you ask, “why do I give fig about a green rock?”

Answer: there is a very special element that precipitates through serpentinite. Its abbreviation in the Periodic Table is “Au,” and the Spanish had a sickness for it that destroyed two great empires and countless smaller societies. Over time gold will, indeed, given enough pressure, rain through serpentinite. It’s one of the chief reasons so many people went to California in the 1840s. Further, I have a hunch, although my geological knowledge is only basic, that this serpentinite I was looking at was probably a proto-jadite stone, which would make sense because jade was more valuable to the Mayans and Aztecs and Zapotecs than was gold, or silver.Crustal Collision Zone

The second reason is this photo  (also pictured in the post) I took on the flight from Flores to Guatemala City this morning. Take a look at it. It’s a collision zone, where the soft margins of the North American plate are running into the harder rock of the Caribbean and Cocos. The mountains look like you’ve shoved a carpet against the wall. One narrow valley is even more interesting. I suspect what’s happened to it, the one that looks kind of like a ladder, is that the rock was pushed together and then pulled apart briefly creating stretch marks, and then pushed back. (This feature can be seen in the Appalachians, as well, which are extremely ancient mountains compared to these in Guatemala.)

The next question, which I am unqualified to pretty much even speculate on, is how the geology and geography effects politics. I reckon I’ll be needing to call a buddy of mine in Austin who is a Guatemalteco and ask him.

More soon . . .

First Day Guatemala Photo Dump

We drove from Guatemala City to the Island of Flores deep in the Peten of Northern Guatemala. It was a hair raising drive, crazy mountains and even crazier truck drivers. Hardest driving I, personally, have ever done. And tense.

Quirigia StelaeThen we stopped at Quirigia, a Mayan city dating to the Classic Period around 700 AD. It was once a dependency of Copan nearby across the border in Honduras, but gained independence and the flourished.

About a dozen massive stelae stand at the site, which I will write about more later.

We hopped back into the car, drove through a banana plantation and then crossed the lake in the middle of Guatemala near the Caribbean. It soon turned dark and we climbed into the some hills about 1800 feet in altitude. Here a deep fog rolled in. I confess, it was a bit scary, even for me and I’ve done some crazy shit. Eleven hour drive in total, which doesn’t include the cold shower at 530 AM in El Salvador and the flight to Guatemala City!

But we survived, came down from the hills and hit the straight road through the jungle to Flores. We drove on the causeway out to the island and found a place where I promptly collapsed from exhaustion.

Here are the photos from the day, start here with a short video and then click forward.

As always, the full Central America set can be seen here.

Enjoy!