Better Than Ezra

MuralI’m reading another book on post-modernism.

I know, I know, why am I torturing myself like this?

Well, I think it’s critically important to understand the philosophical underpinnings of our age, even if most of us (me included) walk around accepting them and seeing them and acting in accordance to them without really understanding them.

Plus, post-modernism has an element of fundamental weirdness to it: just ask any philosopher or literary or art critic what it is and you’ll get different definitions. Even worse, in order to understand just what post-modernism is, you have to understand what modernism was, which poses its own challenges. One of those challenges being the complicated place Ezra Pound holds in the pantheon of modernism.

When Ezra Pound said, “Make it new,” most writers and critics nowadays, in the present, meaning circa 2014, interpret it as a battle cry to turn the old order over, and start new. In a sense, most people see Pound’s call as a cry for destruction, like Shiva the Destroyer, and then Brahma the creator to rebuild the temple of civilization with literature and art and architecture. A perpetual revolution of the arts.

But this is not what Pound meant. Not remotely. Pound, when he said, “make it new,” meant to take the old verities, truths, stories, fables, myths, buildings and paintings and make them new—not destroy them but mold the stories into a modern context.

For example, take the Canadian author Margaret Atwood. She does this extremely well in “The Penelopiad,” the Odyssey told from a woman’s point of view, but not just any woman. She tells it from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife.
Found Poetry
Or read Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which tell the tale from many new angles, characters silenced in the original.

There is also the fine poet Patricia Smith who retells the story of Medusa.

Yes, all these are literary examples, but how about pop-culture? Easy enough: “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?” the Coen brothers Depression Era take on the Odyssey. These are the true inheritors of Pound’s great battle cry, ‘make it new.’

In his great olive branch of a poem Pound came to Whitman as a contrite grown child:

It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -
Let there be commerce between us.

Even Louis Menand agrees, as he writes in the New Yorker: “The “It” in “Make It New” is the Old—what is valuable in the culture of the past.”

I personally like it when old stories are told anew, but I’m weird that way.

What’s even more bizarre is that not only am I beginning to understand and intuit post-modernism, I actually kind of like it. That’s certainly not something I thought I would ever say or write.

Field School Update #3

Monday begins the fourth and final week of the Belize archeology field school. It has been three weeks of backbreaking manual labor. Hard work, much harder than I expected. On Monday my digging technically ended. I am now in the lab analyzing the hoard of ceramics we excavated.

As I know nothing of Mayan ceramics it’s been a crash course in black, red or orange slips, polychrome, rim diameters and paste and firing. I can now distinguish between Mt. Maloney Late Classic I, II, and Terminal. Add to that a lot of Belize Red Ash Ware, a boatload of Cayo Unslipped (huge elegantly curved jars) the occasional Alexander’s Unslipped, Meditation Black, Dolphin Head Red, Garbutt Creek and a few others and I’m actually learning.

On the last active day of digging our efforts were interrupted by a troupe of Howler Monkey’s who came in to inspect what we were doing. Eight monkeys just swinging from the trees right above our excavated units, tossing poop into them and peeing where ever they wanted to. One almost pissed on my dig partner. He’s a douchecanoe and would have deserved it. (I don’t make it a habit to slag on people and being that he is not here to defend himself I will leave my comments at that.)

Random thoughts: having spent the better part of three weeks digging around the innards of a Mayan pyramid I am not terribly impressed with their architectural prowess. (And aliens were most certainly never involved.) It’s very rudimentary and ad hoc architecture. We excavated part of the south side medial terrace. We were looking for and found what they call ‘construction pins,’ which serve as a kind of support pier to keep the downward thrust of the pyramid from imploding. There are two critical aspects to architecture: form and function. As to function: they do what they are supposed to do and have held up well, but as the form of architecture goes they’re ugly and asymmetrical.

Another weird thing about Mayan pyramids, or “city groups” in general: they are accretive and never symmetrical. Few were built in just one building spree like contemporaneous works, take the Samanid mausoleum for example. Elegant, symmetrical and nothing ad hoc about it.

One thing I am aware of every time I dig here in Belize is that the Mayan’s had no metal weapons, nor did they have beasts of burden like the horse. This had a lot to do with the construction techniques they employed. There are no large dressed stones like the pyramids in Egypt. Every stone in this pyramid could have been carried by one man. And the labor that went into their construction?

The heat is abominable. I am going to sleep in a refrigerator when I return home. The humidity is terrible too.

It’s been an interesting experience, alas, what little curiosity I had in the Maya has been fully satisfied. I’m a desert guy. Jungles are too hot, have too many bugs and are way too loud. There is never any silence in the jungle. Nothing like the silence you find in the desert for sure.

You can find the photos and videos of the Howler Monkey invasion here.


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.

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?
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.

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.
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 . . .

Up The Isthmus on a Promise

Woke up yesterday and immediately jumped into an ice cold shower: penance for my lack of vigilance the night before. You see, it’s been, what, four years since I’ve been on the road like this? A long time to lose critical skills like remembering to ask the hotelier (more like a roach motel, but hey) if they have hot water. It was late, it’d been a long haul from the Canal Zone to the border and on into Costa Rica. I was exhausted and I slipped.
The Road Goes on Forever . . .
Honestly, there was a bit of the old frisson as I counted to five and jumped into the ice cold water, quickly sucked in air, and breathed rapidly under the deluge. It’s called earning your stripes. After that I dried off quickly, grabbed my bags and walked into the brightness peridot-like hills, pregnant tropical clouds and blue skies. Just another typical Costa Rican morning.

Got breakfast. Post breakfast negotiated with a driver for passage to Penas Blancas, the border with Nicaragua.

“Look, son, I don’t give a flying two handed monkey fuck how much it costs, but I am not taking the chicken bus today. I am seventy-one years old and have earned a little bit of luxury. Especially after galavanting with you across Central Asia and God knows where else we’ve been together,” Dad said.

So I negotiated hard, finally settled on a price with a young man named Juan Carlos—handsome in that Latin American way—grabbed our bags and off we went down the road, chasing hope, the possibility that we’d sleep in Granada.

And what a road it was!
Jungle Mountains
The first portion of the morning we traveled the Pan-American Highway—IH 35 for you gringos and gringas—that runs from Chicago to the Tierra del Fuego with only one 53 mile break amidst the impenetrable jungles of Darien between Panama and Columbia. Our heading was vaguely northwest towards Nicaragua. Most of the morning we ran parallel the Pacific with the water popping into and out of view. The urge to halt the car, grab a board and abjure all responsibility was strong with me that morning. Were Dad not with me I might have, alas we pressed on.

On my left the endless quicksilver blue of the Pacific. To my right the timeless procession of jungle clad hills, mountains and countless rivers draining the high plateau of water. An infinity of greens. A riot of floral colors and one “soda” (small restaurants in Costa Rica) after another.

My Spanish grew rapidly as the day progressed but father’s grew exponentially.

Me on the BeachA digression: truth be told here, father’s linguistic abilities have always been somewhere between abysmal and non-existent. His ear for Chinese, Turkish, Russian, French, Italian, Farsi and Uzbek totally laughable, much like the yip and yap a coyote drowning in a vat of melted cellophane would make. But this? This was remarkable. And then it all came back to me, as a boy growing up on a farm north of San Antonio—how, as we fed the horse he named them in Spanish, as we grabbed eggs from the chickens he made me say “huevos” and how he’d point at the goats and say, “cabrito” forcing me to roll my “Rs.” Thus he gave me the gift of a passable natural accent. By the end of the day he and Juan Carlos were just talking. My father is my best friend and I fancy I know all about him, but he surprised me. And after forty three years of knowing one’s father that’s a good thing.

On we drove, the minutes rolling over with the miles on the odometer, little change in scenery: always skirting the ocean and hugging the jungle. Aside from pitstops every hour or so the day was uniform, the persistent squeak of the rear shock absorber, droning engine and Father and Juan Carlos speaking in Spanish in the front seat. I listened but mostly did my favorite thing in the whole world, the best life has to offer: I simply watched country roll by.
Yellow-crowned Euphonia
“And where is your family from,” Dad asked Juan Carlos.

“Mi madre in San Jose, mi padre no se,” replied Juan Carlos in a well rehearsed rhyme on the misfortune of being fatherless.

“You don’t know your father?” my father asked, surprised.

“Si,” Juan Carlos replied in that languid, oneiric way.

“Neither did I,” confessed my father by way of reply. The bond between them grows stronger, even though both know they will never see each other again. Two fatherless men, out in the world alone.

Most Costan Rican geology is igneous, dark brown to black basaltic volcanic rock. The beaches too are a dark brown to black sand. Fine and pretty but hot as hell in the sun. We stopped at an unnamed beach somewhere before the Nicoya Peninsula turns the tall Pacific swells into the smooth, harmless agua de bahia. Dad bought some ceviche and for the next two hours the smell of onions, lemon and fish hung in the air. We pulled away from the beach and rolled on.

Most mountain streams, be they rivers (rios) or creeks (quebradas) along the way ran cold, narrow and clear, but one river was muddy and wide. The Rio Tarcoles was also full of crocodiles. Big, nasty looking river gargoyles that would chew your face over without thinking twice. They had ill looking skin anywhere from a sickly tan, fleshy color, better to blend into the muddy waters, to green with black spots and tan nictitating reptilian eyes. I obligingly took photos and walked back to the car. In a tall ‘Brilliant’ (stress on the iant portion of the word) tree a small flock of Yellow-crowned Euphonias sang and ate and flickered about brining the sound of joy to slow lapping sounds of river water.
We motored on. The Pacific turned into the Gulf of Nicoya, a peninsula, which on a map looks like an upside down boot spur. The dirt here had changed from a tropical red to an almost Post Oak Prairie black. A road cut explained why: there lay dun-colored multi-layered beds of limestone with a thick black igneous dyke sliced diagonally through it. Clearly this rock sat for eons on the bottom of a shallow sea, much as the bed rock of the Gulf of Nicoya does now. Just as geology changed so too did the topography. We were now up on a slightly elevated plateau that slopes slowly down towards the bowl containing the Lago de Nicaragua. Here in Costa Rica it is punctuated dramatically by two lumbering volcanoes on the horizon.

Magnificent rancheros circled us. Brahman bulls and cows, like little grey cotton balls on a blanket of green, were covered by a ceiling awash in the finest ceramic blue possible. A volcano smoldered, smoked. Then the wind picked up. Blades of tall grass bent horizontally across the road. Then we passed an 18 wheeler blown off the road. Juan Carlos gave the wind a name, “Alicious,” which comes off the volcanoes cool and furious, pulled down by the languid humidity of the Nicoyan Gulf. Dusts devils blew across the road at 30-40 mile per hour blasts. We stopped the car to feel the full effect. Dust flung about by the winds stung my bare arms and face, rain mixed into my hair creating an intolerable clay-like mess.
We covered our eyes and got back into the car. It was getting late. And when it gets dark in the tropics, the darkness comes on fast. The sun began its nightly rainbow brigade. The scirocco coming off the mountains created a madness of color: from God’s own golden start to the mandarin middle and the crimson finale this sunset whispered a promise: you’ll sleep in Granada tonight.

We drove now into the dark but the closer to the border we got the more tense I grew. The Costa Rican side of this border crossing is easy, but the Nicaraguan side beggars description.

I lectured Dad on safety.

We arrived. We said our goodbyes, then plunged into the fray like it was a mosh pit.

I lectured Dad on safety, again.

Three times more times for good measure, including a string of f-bomb adjectives unfit for a family publication.

We stamped out of Costa Rica and began the kilometer walk in the jungle night to the Nicaraguan side. Countless rigs passed us in a roar we had to scream over to communicate. There were easily a hundred on wait and more coming every minute. This is free trade in the Americas now. Big rigs, diesel smells and insanely crowded border posts.

In a quiet moment father asked, “son, are we in no-man’s land?”

The ring of tension tightened a bit more about my neck. We were, indeed, technically out of Costa Rica but not in Nicaragua.

“Yes, father, we are,” I said somberly.

We reached the first police post.

Then passed through a second.

There was a third, but with the noise total, it was perfunctory. Then the darkness crowded back in upon us, the smell and sense of bodies nearby menacing.

The immigration post was barely discernible amidst the mad darkness. I found it somehow. A hundred migrants waiting for their papers while we breezed through, paid our entry fee, got our stamps and walked towards the fourth and final police checkpoint. In an uncommon bout of good sense I asked the immigration officer what was the most realistic price of a taxi to Granada?

“$60-70,” he said. I thank him and walked away towards the final checkpoint, preparing for the mayhem that would erupt when we walked out into the press and jumble of taxi drivers, bus riders and touts.

A hundred meters before we got there a young man approached me.

“You go to Rivas? San Juan? Granada?”

Apprehensively, worries of taxi kidnappings, left in the middle of nowhere, all our things stolen, disturbed my internal dialogue, but I asked, “how much to Granada?”


“Vamos con tigo,” I said. This turned out to be an excellent choice.

We passed through the final checkpoint without a second glance and were quickly guided into our taxi. A fight threatened to break out over us, so our taxi driver hurried us along.

Digression: once in a town between Samarkand, Uzbekistan and Bukhara a fight broke out between three taxi drivers, slugging it out, bloody noses and all, over me, a lone traveler trying to get to Bukhara. This was a serious moment in Nicaragua and I was happy to see it pass without violence.)

We drove.

All of the sudden Granada felt possible.

Rivas was a blur of light—the baseball stadium lit up the humid jungle night. Rivas versus Chinandega. An American was playing for Rivas, Ty Williams, which is all I understood from the radio blasting out beisbol in Spanish.

The wind farm on the Lago de Nicaragua whirled and whirred in the deep tropical night, providing precious low cost, eternal energy to a very poor country. The moon hung over the lake—the island of Ometepe’s dueling volcanoes crouching with fierce potential power in the shadowy night. We turned off the main highway. East into more darkness. And then even more, as the Mombacho volcano blotted out the moon and stars. I nodded off, sleepy and exhausted.

A bump.

A horse in the road.


A city.

And then the Plaza Colones.

Tonight I would sleep in Granada.

Nota Bene: As always, the most recent photos can be found in the full set, here. The most recent upload start here and moves forward. Enjoy!

(Consider a tip if the mood strikes you.)

Across The Isthmus At The Speed of Light

The Panamanian accent is a rapid fire Caribbean and if you think that Mexican Spanish is fast—holy shit!—Panamanian Spanish is super fast, quite possibly speed of light rapidity. Words come out of their mouths so fast that five have already passed me by and I’m still trying to untangle the first one. The city, Panama City, that is, clings to a narrow ribbon of cultivable land between the water and the mountains—the Cordillera of hard, black, sharp volcanic rocks. When the tide is out you can see the land just below the water is igneous and the mountains are green and misty.Miraflores Locks

The old town, Casco Antiguo, is tipico Spanish colonial. Looks colonial. Feels colonial. Reminds me of Singapore a bit, except more hills in PC—Panama City. Not many hills in Singapore, a place that will sadly drown, mostly, once the ice caps and Greenland melts. But PC has a touch of the decadent, French Quarter, iron railing, long communal balconies, curved buildings with rounded corners, few hard angles. Easy on the eyes. Whereas new Panama City is just another global agglomeration of rebar, concrete and blue glass.

True to Mann’s “1493” thesis there is a Chinatown in Casco Antiguo. This surprises me more than it should. It’s a confirmation of Mann’s entire “1493” work—especially in the creation of the world’s first truly global trading matrix. The silver was shipped up the South American coast to Panama from Lima. In Panama it either crossed to the Caribbean or was shipped East, bound for the China trade and the China fleet based in the Philippines. Hence, Chinatown in Casco Antiguo.

The people—the people are a mix. They run from white as day Spaniards, hardy from the Estremadura to black Africans from the the Ivory or Gold Coast. The big bulge in a common distribution curve would lean heavily towards African however. It’s the most Africanized place in Central America I’ve yet seen. My guess is the income distribution would be in inverse proportion to skin color, as it pretty much is everywhere, sadly.

Few American cars on the road. This, for all intents and purposes, a former American colony, with no American cars on the road. Let that sink in for a moment.

There are lots of feral cats in the old town. Why do I always notice cats? Trolley tracks from the late nineteenth century or early twentieth run in front of the Ministerio de Gobierno, and they’re building a subway here. Why can’t we get subways in Texas? Panama can do it but America can’t? Christ.

Clearly an enormous amount of money flooded into Panama—the entire country as I would find out later on the drive across it—during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Lots of it from Columbia. Some from America.

I saw the canal. It’s fascinating, but I’ve sailed a container ship from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Chennai, India and ships and ports and canal-type engineering marvels, while fascinating, I don’t find terribly compelling. I’m glad I saw it. I can see why Teddy Roosevelt made such a big whoop-de-doo about it. Big stick, soft voice and all. Too bad he got followed up by Woodrow Wilson, pretty much the first loud mouth American.

Anyhow, strange digression there. Our driver from the canal was an interesting man. A large, powerful man of African descent who had lived in Jersey for many years with the last name of MacKenzie took us to the canal and answered all our questions. He was kind and patient and what is always wonderful in a driver: he didn’t talk too much. Nothing worse than being cooped up in a car with someone and your don’t want to talk, just want to let the road roll by and see country.
Homero y mi Papa en la frontera de Panama y Costa Rica

We got lucky in David, where the bus dropped us too, with Homero, a kind father of two and part time photographer, who drove us to La Frontera: the border with Costa Rica.

The country side was beautiful and moderately prosperous. The golden arches of globalization were everywhere. Mostly new cars on the roads and a seemingly abundant source of energy from the vocal chords of the entire country moving at the speed of light until we hit the border at ten at night and crossed into Costa Rica. Things slowed down very quickly then.

Nota bene: The full set of photos can be found here. Newest photos start here and move forward. 

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On The Road Again

For far too long this blog has been without any kind of real adventure. The last one ended abruptly with a shattered collar-bone in the jungles of Sumatra and a grueling six day return trip to America and surgery.

There were a few excursions here and there: out to West Texas a few times, a magnificent road trip from Tahoe to Yosemite and then Yosemite to San Francisco. But those places have been tame, calm, where one can sip fine wines and sleep on posh beds. It has been a long time since I strung a back pack on, landed in an airport and wondered, “where the hell am I going now and what language are they speaking?”
Descent on Yavin IV
That day has almost arrived.

No one is holding me back any more.

On Tuesday December 10th I will fly into Panama City, Panama and over the next two weeks make my way up the Isthmus to Guatemala City to fly home on the 23rd of December. This is all mostly terra incognita to me. I won’t spend any time in Costa Rica, but I do plan to revisit a day in a canoe in the Lago de Nicaragua and maybe catch a baseball game in Granada. After that: who knows? Maybe an eco-resort in El Salvador, maybe a trip up to Honduras to see family friends. But one thing you can be assured of, I am going to watch the Millennium Falcon land at Tikal during the Winter Solstice, December 21st!

Now, on to a bit of logistics: I’ll be doing some writing for Centro y Sur, a magazine dedicated to Latin American travel. So be sure and subscribe online, as it’s free.

But that hardly pays the bills. Therefore, I will not hesitate to ask (now that I am no longer in sales, but still a former salesman) for you to pitch into the tip jar only if you liked the blog post, or the story as it develops. Grad school is expensive and this travel, while I stay in $5 a night rat and roach infested places and the flight is covered by old accumulated air-miles, still isn’t cheap.

You will also get a daily dose of large amounts of photographs at Flickr. 

And as always, if YOU have suggestions, tell them to me and I will see if I can accommodate you, as you are the reader and an equal partner in this endeavor of ours.

So, y’all, how does it feel to be back on the road with me? It’s been far, far too long, hasn’t it?