A Short Tale Of A Small Victory

On the SummitThere was no way someone could look at this picture and call it beautiful. They’d be hard pressed to know where it was either, except that wherever it was there was plenty of rain. Tropic of Cancer? Tropic of Capricorn? Or perhaps it was temperate? If you look close enough you can convince yourself that it’s on the subtropical slopes of the Caspian Sea.

Maybe there’s a giveaway?

Yes, the Exif data: January 13, 2009. So, you go back through Flickr and Google: Malaysia. Yes, it’s in the Highlands, the Cameron Highlands: tea plantations, faux-Tudor guest-houses, Nutmeg manikins and the best flower gardens East of Wales.

“No,” you think, “the photo is not beautiful. Not ugly, either. It’s an anodyne shot attempting to capture a sweeping view that in the moment was beautiful.” You are correct.

But what of the moment that defined it?

There are two moments actually. Halfway up the mountain Jeff, a red-headed nomad who, like yourself, is running away from who-knows-what, stops to smell some flowers.Nutmeg Mannikin (Lonchura punctulata)

He senses your impatience. The first quarter of the hike you’ve struggled for oxygen. Your out of shape body and lungs demanded surcease, but then your blood reaches oxygen saturation and stopping would send you back into dis-equilibrium.

“Come on man, let’s get up this bad boy,” you say.

“You really should stop and smell these flowers,” he smiles back.

“What a cliché,” you say.

“Just try it,” he says.

Like a petulant child you shrug your shoulders and relent. You even stomp your foot like a child a little bit. It’s instinctive.

You sniff the flower peremptorily and pull away. By the time your olfactory nerves send the quanta of info to your brain and your brain has processed it you are already smiling and leaning back in for another sniff.

But this time you linger and shout, like a child, “it’s, it’s, it’s like cinnamon and vanilla and strawberries!”

“I think we’ll call it strawberry shortcake,” he says. “You really should smell flowers more often.”

Jeff Takes Time Out To Smell The RosesYou pledge to do so, solemnly, like a Boyscout, except you never were one.

At the top of the small mountain you have another sensation: satisfaction. There is also a sensation missing you’ve grown comfortable with, an old friend of sorts. There is no pain. You explain it to Jeff.

“In Tibet I blew out three discs in my back coming down from the Everest base camp.”

“Did you climb it?” he asks, surprised.

“Hell no,” you say. “Was just there, taking in the view.”

“So what happened?”

“Jeep I was in crashed, rolled over. Six people were on top of me but in the rush to get out I was the first. Guess my football instincts kicked in.”

You shrug, humble-like, but shiver as well, remembering the fear, smelling the danger. You continue the story.

“A few minutes after I climbed out the pain hit me. Spent the next two weeks in Nepal and India whacked out on opiates. For two years I tried all kinds of remedies. Finally had surgery in late 2005. After that it was two years of putting my life and marriage back together. I failed,” you tell him with a smile.

“But I’ll tell you something,” you say.

“What’s that?”

“This may not be much of a climb to you! What’s a couple of thousand feet after rock climbing with your bare hands in Thailand, right? But it’s my first substantial hike since the wreck,” you say.

“Can’t tell you how important mountains are to me. Something to their solidity and simplicity, permanent and everlasting,” you say. Then you finish.

“Maybe I’m unusual but they move me. And I feel no pain. It’s been too long since and I forgot how good it feels.”

A Morning With A Coppersmith Barbet

Coppersmith Barbet (megalaima haemacephala)

So, I know not all of you will appreciate the bird photos, but hey, I like the birds. Call me a freak, I don’t mind. Thus far I have seen 24 new species of birds on this trip. Actually more, but I’ve only gotten decent photos of 24. If you are so inclined you can see the photos of birds from this trip beginning here and move forward. The big winner, thus far for me, has been the Coppersmith Barbet which I saw this morning. He’s the one pictured above. My full set of world birds can be found here, with birds from as far afield as Ethiopia and Texas.


What Day Is It?

View From My RoomThe inimitable rhythms of Toba have set in, father being infected this time. (I was infected back in 2008.)

Just like 2008 I keep repeating Yeats’ “Lake Isle Of Innisfree,” and the bee loud glade where lake water comes lapping low.

Today I casually mentioned when he thought we should leave.

“Never,” he replied.

I’ve done nothing today. I plan on beating my single day record for nothingness tomorrow. I am going to sit in the same chair for nine hours and just watch sun arc across the sky, the leaden clouds drift and the bleached white egrets fly by. I’ll watch the moods of Toba, from chocolate blue in the morning, to teal green in the afternoon, to gun-metal gray at dusk. I’ll eat. Drink fresh roasted Sumatran coffee and generally do one thing, the one thing any of us can really ever do right: exist.

And yes, I heard the whisper on the wind today. I know what it’s saying now, but I’m not telling you–you’ll have to come find out for yourself.

Crawling Time

Hello From Sumatra!From the travel diary, October 28, 2011:

After the Security Check, Penang Airport
It was a breeze, the airport. No worrying about shoes. Just a quick, clean exit from passport control, a short security check and many, many smiles. We sit and wait for the 45 minute flight across the Straits of Malacca to Medan, Indonesia on the island of Sumatra. Our goal: orangutans.

Midair, over the Straits of Malacca

It is to be regretted that one can longer catch a ferry from Penang to Medan. One can longer taste the salt on one’s lips or see the tropical clouds languishing over the gentle, gentian-blue of the Straits of Malacca. Some things are to be mourned in this hyper-fast world of ours and this is one. A man or woman cannot call him or herself truly free until they have done so.

Leaving Medan, Sumatra

The smells hideous, the traffic execrable, the air is thick with diesel fumes and cloves. Palm trees line streets chaotic with mopeds, trucks, taxis and tuk-tuks–a motorcycle with a covered side-car, the ubiquitous travel form unique to South East Asia. Buildings, new but dilapidated from thirty monsoons. Skies, mostly cloudy with a chance of Noah’s floods, this monsoon has been the wettest in decades. La Nina has her effect here too.

Not a single American car, or product to be found here, all Daihatsu, Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai. A platoon of crisp-dressed soldiers disembark from their truck to subdue an impromptu proteest forming outside of town. The devout attend Friday prayers, scuttering along towards the mosque on dusty streets to the sounds of the Azan.

And then it happens, town and city disappear into a vibrant green of rolling hills, palm oil plantations and clear rivers. The vegetation clings to everything. Traffic dies down. People walk from farm and field to village, kids in tow. Dark, Melanesian skin and multi-colored dresses, skull caps and smiles. Everywhere smiles.

We pour out of our car to a roadside feast of fish, vegetables and rice. A hundred different birds chatter in the trees.

Arriving in Bukit Lawang

We pull in to the hill and river side village of Bukit Lawang. Children play in the streets. Villagers bath in the river. A gibbon hoots from the forest.

Time slows to the old ways, the ancient rhythms. We have arrived.

Did Polo Really Go To China?

WallsAn article published in the Telegraph yesterday questions whether Marco Polo really went to China. This is one of those questions that can never be definitively answered. I certainly have my opinion on the matter, having read a great deal of the literature, including three versions of Marco Polo’s work.

In the past the major crux of the argument falls on Polo’s failure to mention the Great Wall, foot-binding, tea drinking and chop-sticks.

Let’s take these one by one: the Great Wall in Polo’s time quite possibly might have not been so great. You have to remember the Ming Dynasty, which came into power in 1368–long after Polo passed from the scene–built the wall that we see in movies and photos and legend today. Up until that point the great wall was better described as a series of long walls across the northern and western frontiers. But they were sorely neglected during the Yuan Dynasty. After all, why would Mongols, nomads par excellence, build walls?

As for foot binding. Let me be blunt and very politically incorrect: why would a European man of the 13th century notice a woman’s feet?

Tea drinking and chop-sticks? All I can say is that in my travel writing I have missed some very, very obvious things. Sometimes I missed them because I didn’t find them interesting to me. At others I missed them because I had been ‘in country’ so long that they no longer seemed important, or had become so commonplace to the experience as to be beyond notice. Kind of like having tea in the UK.

All that being said, I think there is some very real substance to the latest critique:

”When he describes Kublai Khan’s fleet he talks about the pitch that was used to make ships’ hulls watertight. He used the word chunam, which in Chinese and Mongol means nothing. In fact it is the Persian word for pitch. It’s also odd that instead of using, as he does in most instances, local names to describe places, he used Persian terms for Mongol and Chinese place names.”

If textual analysis bears out that many of the words Polo used were indeed Persian in origin, when there were very real Chinese or Mongol words for identical things, well, that’s problematic. Although, having a bit of experience with Mongolian (sounds like a cat trying to spit out a furball and eat peanut butter at the same time) and Chinese, which is tonal and quite difficult to transliterate, I sympathise if Polo found it easier to to transliterate an Indo-European tongue into Italian. (But this again raises the question of what role Rusticello played in the process. Remember, Polo didn’t write his memoirs, he dictated them to a French romance writer while in a Genoese prison.)

It’s a big if. I haven’t read the Italian archeologist’s full story of the account so I can’t say. But let’s suppose this is true and Polo ends up being known as a fraud like Mandeville. Who, you ask? Mandeville was for about 300 years, just as popular as Polo in the European imagination and in some cases, moreso. He humanized the other in a way no European had yet to do. Of course, Mandeville, it was later discovered, had cobbled together medieval accounts in a monastery in northern England. He never traveled at all. Regardless, Mandeville’s manuscript was included in Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic and influenced many other early-modern European explorers.

So, does it really matter in the end if Polo never made it past the Black Sea? If he ends up being a semi-fraud? No, I don’t think it matters. Polo expanded the European imagination at a critical point in European history. There is a direct line of influence from Marco Polo to Henry the Navigator, the great Portuguese prince who subsidized the expeditions around Africa and into Asia via the Indian Ocean. That influence is incontrovertible and really cannot ever be taken away from Polo. Polo didn’t begin the great age of European exploration, but he influenced in vast ways that reverberate to this day.

On Characters With Character

Books of the Chinese Silk RoadThe last few weeks have been tough. I’ve been battling a recurrent infection, one that seems to crop up once a year. It’s pretty dreadful. By the time it is in full swing I am lethargic, full of malaise and generally feeling sorry for myself. I told myself, last time it occurred, that I would go to the doctor immediately once the symptoms appeared. Due to America’s horrible health-care system I had to wait two weeks to see a specialist, which was more than enough time for the symptoms to worsen. I walked into the doctor’s office with a significant gait in my left leg. He looked at me and shook his head. “Why didn’t you come earlier,” he asked.

“Had to wait for approval from my HMO. Took a week. You were booked the next week,” I said.

The doctor looked at me kindly and said, “next time call me and I’ll prescribe you something before you come in, okay?”

He’s certainly one of the best doctors I’ve ever interacted with. He has an exceptional bedside manner, listens to everything I tell him, queries me fully, often time spending upwards of thirty minutes with me. For a doctor that’s priceless.

The prescription is for a heavy anti-biotic. The kind where you spend 10 minutes in the sun and it leaves you feeling like you’ve crossed the Taklamakan without water.

As a side note, I’ve read on several occasions that ‘Taklamakan’ means ‘goes in, doesn’t come out,’ in an ancient Chinese, or possible Tokharian dialect. Having flown over the Taklamakan several times and circumambulated its edges, I have to say that I agree.

One May when my father and I were in Dun Huang, the last great oasis before the Taklamakan, I got to thinking about Xuanzang, a 7th century Buddhist monk who sneaked his way past the T’ang guards at the Jade Gate, into the Taklamakan. He then proceeded to cross it, disproving its meaning as a toponym, but no matter. He then crossed the Tien Shan, chilled at a Buddhist monastery in Samarkand–just a few years before the Arabs irrupted into Central Asia, and then did a backwards dogleg into Afghanistan and India where he spent a decade plus collecting Buddhist manuscripts to take back to China.
Dun Huang Dune
Buddhism was not new to China, but it’s safe to say its roots were nothing compared to those which dug deep after Xuanzang’s return to Chang’an, the capital of the T’ang empire. What course might Chinese Buddhism taken were it not for Xuanzang’s efforts at travel, discovery and exploration? And what course might my life have taken had I not been exposed to Chan Buddhism in China in 1999?

This diminutive monk spent his remaining days translating the Buddhist corpus is a spartan monastery cell, eschewing all glory and worldly goods and his good works echo down the centuries to my own time and my own debt of gratitude to him.

Now that’s a character with character. Central Asia is littered with them, from the monstrous Timur–aka Tamerlane, who left a trail of human skulls from Damascus to India–to the poignant Omar Khayyam.

I tend to think about people like Xuanzang and Polo and ibn Battutah when I am feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes it works: I feel better, realizing my pedestrian concerns, minor ailments and the general discontent I feel with my post-modern life do get the better of me.

But sometimes it fails: I want to be Polo, or Rabban Sauma, Wilfred Thesiger, people who lived a full life so far away from home. People who made the world their home, citizens of this great and tragic blue ball spinning off into eternity.

And then I get a text message and the world comes roaring right back at me.

Alone And Small, Surrounded By The World

Lost in Gansu in HDR
We weren’t lost, but there were moments, out in the harsh glare of the Gobi that we felt it. In this part of Gansu nothing grows. The soil is a rough gravel–ten thousand miles of conglomerate and worn sandstone turning to dust, empty. More barren than any desert I’ve ever seen, except the Rub-al-Qali.

“Out here,” I wrote in my journal, “listening to sand whistle off the dunes one feels alone and small. Everything is so much bigger, in real time, than it is anywhere I’ve ever been.”

Like all good photos, this one was an accident. I was taking test shots of the mountains in the background. If you look closely you can see a jagged line, hanging on the horizon like low lying clouds in a luciferin haze. When I uploaded the photo later that evening it was this shot that caught my eye, and in the days to come I returned to it many times.

An epochal feeling pervades the scene, as the rough edge of the Kunlun Shan, that great rippling sheet of scraping rocks crumples into the Tarim Basin.  Uplift and subsidence before me as geology comes alive, the power of unfathomable forces in the silence of a cool April afternoon.

But more than that it has a feeling, and although all is still there is movement in the photo. Gao Xuan, our driver, runs fingers behind his neck, in consternation, looking backwards at the young Khazakh standing out in the middle of no where—what was he doing out there, dressed in a suit jacket, fifty miles from the nearest town and miles away from any water? Evocative of the entire day, from Dun Huang all the way to the Jade Gate, this curious meeting of Han Chinese, Kazakh and American not three miles from that great and ancient Eurasian entrepot, the Jade Gate. History repeating itself in an off-rhyme; Occident, Orient and Nomad. Modernity eye to eye with the past.

And the sign in the foreground? I have no idea what it says. Although in my imagination it says something like, “Welcome To The Last Outpost of the Great T’ang Empire.”

Alone and small, surrounded by the immensity of the world. There might be a word for that, but for now I will settle for a picture.

Nota bene: Other photos from Gansu and Xinjiang can be found here, here, here and here.

A Wednesday Whimsy

Parasols in the SunA little background on this photo. It was taken in early October of 2008 in Chiang Mai. As a matter of fact, I think it was the day of the Vice-Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Palin. I spoke with Cenk that night for an interview. It was a pretty amazing day. This was one of the first shots. I didn’t post any of the warm-ups to the photo on Flickr, but this shot was cropped slightly. But there is no other treatment to it.

Before I arrived at the parasol factory I’d visited the floor of a jewelry manufacturer, which was a fascinating experience in itself. It rained much of the morning. By noon I was ready to turn around and had told Thanakorn, my driver, that after the last stop we should head back. He disagreed. “Sun come soon. You watch.”

The sun did come. I took several proof shots of the parasol factory but none really caught my fancy. They were all lying their on the ground, in the sun, the smell of lacquer tickled my nose and made shooting more difficult than it should have been. I wonder how the women who make the parasols deal with the poisons they ingest every day, (scroll forward form the linked photo to see how the parasols are made) day in and day out. This photo looked uninspiring from the view finder on the camera and I almost deleted it. But then I uploaded it to the Mac. “Wow!” I muttered to myself that night when I uploaded my days work.

Tracy, my former editor at the San Antonio Express News put it on the front page of the travel section that weekend, with the story of the snakes and elephants after it. I’ve probably gotten more compliments on this photo than just about any other. And it was really an accident, as all good photos often are.

The Great Albuquerque

No, not the city in New Mexico, but the Portuguese conqueror of Goa and Malacca: Affonse da Alboquerque, to be precise.

Needless to say, I’ve been a bit pre-occupied the last several days, head buried in a bunch of 19th century accounts of travelers running amok–now there is a word with one hell of an etymology, but you’ll have to wait for the book for that story–up and down the Malay Peninsula. And then, there is this guy Alboquerque, or Albuquerque for you spelling Nazis out there.

He was a real piece of work.

In a nutshell, Alboquerque was ordered by the King of Portugal to capture Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea. The strategic rationale was pretty solid: cut off Moorish/Egyptian shipping of spices in the Red Sea and thus cut Venice–who shipped all the pepper and cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg from Alexandria, into the Mediterranean–out of the spice trade altogether. Trade was equally as cutthroat then as it is now.

Affonso was on his way to do his duty by the king when a report came in that the Sultan of Malacca had razed the Portuguese warehouse in Malacca and taken 20 Portuguese hostage, including Ruy de Araujo, it’s commander, or perhaps in modern parlance: the consul general.

It was late in the year and Alboquerque missed the monsoons blowing back towards Africa and Aden and thus decided to avenge Portuguese honor instead by attacking and capturing Malacca.

By an accident of weather, sometime in 1511, the great spice entrepot of Malacca was siezed by Alboquerque, 1,400 of his men and a bunch of German artillery.

The Portugeuse now maintained a chokehold on the single most strategic geographical locale of spice trade–the Straits of Malacca, that 250 mile long sliver of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The history of the Far East would never be the same.

The River Is The Road

View From The RiverSomewhere in Laos: October 29, 2008

It was a boat trip for the ages. The first day, as we all boarded the boat the excitement in the air was palpable and the young backpackers certainly got their party on. Amidst howls of “BeerLao!” in clipped English accents and young Irish brogues the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang pushed off from the pier and slowly made its way downriver. On the first day we made three stops at riverside vilages, straight out of a National Geographic special or an old movie about Swift Boats in Vietnam. There was ample room on the wide and even longer boat, my seat reasonably comfortable and the conversation with the Austrlaian couple and the American next to me was good. The hours passed by under a veil of emerald jungle-clad peaks, blue skies and the muddy brown Mekong. All the while, T.S. Eliot’s memorable verse kept running through my mind:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,/Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;/Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;/Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges./The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten/By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable./Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder/Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated

Here the river is the road. The sun is bright, with a few scattered and pregnant clouds dashing across the blue skies in a cool breeze. Farms come straight down to the banks of the river and pointy boats, as if they were carved out of a single teak log are everywhere. There are few conical bamboo hats, but thatched huts abound watching over rice paddies and cabbage fields.

We stopped in Pak Beng, a small village on the steep Eastern bank of the Mekong for the night. I had little energy but to eat and sleep. I awoke to a fried egg and baguette sandwich and a delightful banana pancake, walked down to the river and climbed aboard.

But this boat was smaller–and hence–more crowded. The revelers of yesterday, except for a hardcore group from Newcastle and Ireland who started drinking at 9am, were much more sedate. The seats were smaller, harder and much more uncomfortable. And yet, even as we stopped at more villages to gather more passengers for the journey south the day was wonderful. I saw two elephants, countless water buffaloes (one of my favorite animals), lots of goats, a few birds I was unable to identify and little else except the ever-present muddy Mekong. I sat with the American again and a wonderful couple from Rotterdam.

Swiftly, but slowly did the days pass, for river travel is on an altogether different clock–one that knows no seconds, no minutes or even hours, just the constant thrumming of the engines, the turning of the screw and the wide sweeps and timeless vistas around the rocky bends of the Mekong. This is not Western time, nor is it timeless: it exists only in itself, in the moment, the swirl of muddy brown water, that unpropitiated god, the delicate flight of herons, rice paddies and fields of bok choy, thatched huts and children waving from the banks at the falang (a Thai and Lao word for foreigners). And not least the silent but always present eyes of the water buffaloes just watching, always watching.