Here are some of my favourite bits from some of my favourite books written by writers whom I like to think of as travel writers, even though some of them would obviously object to that thought. I hope they tempt you to buy the book and read the whole thing.
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968) Neil Ansell, Deep Country (2011) Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (1987) Philip Connors, Fire Season (2011) Robyn Davidson, Tracks (1980) Catrina Davies, Homesick (2019) Roger Deakin, Waterlog (1999) Charles Foster, Being a Beast (2016) Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard (1978) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Fearful Void (1974) Andrew X. Pham, Catfish and Mandala (1999) George Sibley, Part of a Winter (1978) Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express (1979) Colin Thubron, To a Mountain in Tibet (2011) Sara Wheeler, Travels in a Thin Country (1994)
Edward Abbey Desert Solitaire (1968)
The mountains are almost bare of snow except for patches within the couloirs on the northern slopes. Consoling nevertheless, those shrunken snowfields, despite the fact that they’re twenty miles away by line of sight and six to seven thousand feet higher than where I sit. They comfort me with the promise that if the heat down here becomes less endurable I can escape for at least two days each week to the refuge of the mountains – those islands in the sky surrounded by a sea of desert. The knowledge that refuge is available, when and if needed, makes the silent inferno of the desert more easily bearable. Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization.
A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.
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Hot and tired I stop in the shade of an overhanging ledge and take a drink from my canteen. Resting, I listen to the deep dead stillness of the canyon. No wind or breeze, no birds, no running water, no sound of any kind but the stir of my own breathing.
Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the ante-human, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse – its implacable indifference.
Neil Ansell Deep Country (2011)
Imagine being given the opportunity to take time out of your life, for five whole years. Free of social obligations, free of work commitments. Think how well you would get to know yourself, all that time to consider your past and the choices you had made, to focus on your personal development, to know yourself through and through, to work out your goals in life, your true ambitions.
None of this happened, not to me. Perhaps for someone else it would have been different. Any insight I have gained has been the result of later reflection. Solitude did not breed introspection, quite the reverse. My days were spent outside, immersed in nature, watching. I saw as much as I did because of two things: the first, quite simply, was time, the long hours spent out in the field; the second was alertness, a state of heightened attentiveness. My attention was constantly focused away from myself and on to the natural world around me. And my nights were spent sitting in front of the log fire, aimlessly turning a log from time to time and staring at the flickering flames. I would not be thinking of the day just gone; the day was done. And I would not be planning tomorrow; tomorrow would take care of itself. The silence outside was reflected by a growing silence within. Any interior monologue quietened to a whisper, then faded away entirely. I have never practised meditation, but there is a goal in Buddhist practice of achieving a condition of no-mind, a state of being free of thought, and I seemed to have found my way there by accident. I certainly learned to be at ease with myself in the years I spent at Penlan, but it was not by knowing myself better – it was by forgetting I was there. I had become a part of the landscape, a stone.
Bruce Chatwin The Songlines (1987)
I had a presentiment that the ‘travelling’ phase of my life might be passing. I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen those notebooks. I should set down on paper a résumé of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness.
Pascal, in one of his gloomier pensées, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room.
Why, he asked, must a man with sufficient to live on feel drawn to divert himself on long sea voyages? To dwell in another town? To go off in search of a peppercorn? Or go off to war and break skulls?
Later, on further reflection, having discovered the cause of our misfortunes, he wished to understand the reason for them. He found one very good reason: namely, the natural unhappiness of our weak mortal condition: so unhappy that when we gave to it all our attention, nothing could console us.
One thing alone could alleviate our despair, and that was ‘distraction’ (divertissement): yet this was the worst of our misfortunes, for in distraction we were prevented from thinking about ourselves and were gradually brought to ruin.
Could it be, I wondered, that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?
All the Great Teachers have preached that Man, originally, was a ‘wanderer in the scorching and barren wilderness of this world’ – the words are those of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – and that to rediscover his humanity, he must slough off attachments and take to the road.
My two most recent notebooks were crammed with jottings taken in South Africa, where I had examined, at first hand, certain evidence on the origin of our species. What I learned there – together with what I now knew about the Songlines – seemed to confirm the conjecture I had toyed with for so long: that Natural Selection has designed us – from the structure of our brain-cells to the structure of our big toe – for a career of seasonal journeys on foot through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert.
If this were so; if the desert were ‘home’; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigours of the desert – then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us, why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal’s imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings a prison.
Philip Connors Fire Season (2011)
Being here alone I may not be my best self, in the social sense of the phrase, but I am perhaps my truest self: lazy, goofy, happiest when taking a nap or staring at the shapes of mountains. My friends back in town often want from me a report on the nature of solitude, on what it does to the mind to spend so much time alone. In these early days, I’d have little to tell them. A few quiet words from Gary Snyder’s ‘Lookout Journal’ guide my days –
fewer the artifacts, less the words slowly the life of it a knack for nonattachment
My own insights are fragmentary, fleeting. I write something in my notebook and forget it an hour later. I do not so much seek anything as allow the world to come to me, allow the days to unfold as they will, the dramas of weather and wild creatures. I am most at peace not when I am thinking but when I am observing. There is so much to see, a pleasing diversity of landscapes, all of them always changing in new weather, new light, and all of them still and forever strange to a boy from the northern plains. I produce nothing but words; I consume nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself.
‘You ever get lonely up here?’ Kameron, the younger of the two, asks as he looks around the cabin.
‘Nope. Not really.’
‘You ever get, you know, sad or anything like that?’
This requires a thoughtful response. Sad is too small and mean a word for the feelings this place evokes in me, yet I’d be lying to say I live here in a state of perpetual ecstasy, like the blissed-out bodhisattva Kerouac dreamed of becoming. On the other hand I’m not about to tell two guys in leather chaps and cowboy hats about my very real and near-mystical hours of longing and nostalgia, alone in my little glass box, brooding over and exulting in my own mortality amid mountains silently magisterial in the late-day sun. Nor the hours of sitting and staring into the inscrutable heart of the desert, not thinking anything, not feeling anything – neither happy nor sad nor any quantifiable mixture thereof. Merely alive with a hungry retina and a taste for dry mountain country and a jones for the sight of that first twist of smoke.
‘The only time my heart sinks is when hikers show up. But it doesn’t happen often and they never stay long.’
They laugh and look at each other, wondering, perhaps, if I’m trying to tell them something. It’s no wonder our Forest Service brethren think of us lookouts as the freaks on the peaks. We have, in the words of our forebear Edward Abbey, ‘an indolent, melancholy nature’. Our walk home is always uphill. We live alone on the roof of the world, clinging to the rock like condors, fiercely territorial. We ply our trade inside a steel-and-glass room immaculately designed to attract lightning. Our purpose and our pleasure is to watch: study the horizon, ride out the storms, an eagle eye peeled for evidence of flame.
Kameron leans back and yawns, rubs his clean-shaven jaw. The clouds have begun to spit sleet, compact little crystals flying horizontally on the wind, even as the sun shines overhead. Though it’s just a little squall, unlikely to last long, it serves as their excuse to get moving down the trail. I stand in the meadow and watch them descend through the trees. Les turns, offers a wave of his hand, and then they are gone. If I’m lucky, they’ll be the last of my government colleagues to set foot on this mountain all year. From here on out the peak will be mine. The thought makes me smile, as does the knowledge that hidden in my boxes of books are three spare bottles of bourbon.
Robyn Davidson Tracks (1980)
The self did not seem to be an entity living somewhere inside the skull, but a reaction between mind and stimulus. And when the stimulus was non-social, the self had a hard time defining its essence and realizing its dimensions. The self in a desert becomes more and more like the desert. It has to, to survive. It becomes limitless, with its roots more in the subconscious than the conscious – it gets stripped of non-meaningful habits and becomes more concerned with realities related to survival. But as is its nature, it desperately wants to assimilate and make sense of the information it receives, which in a desert is almost always going to be translated into the language of mysticism.
What I’m trying to say is, when you walk on, sleep on, stand on, defecate on, wallow in, get covered in, and eat the dirt around you, and when there is no one to remind you what society’s rules are, and nothing to keep you linked to that society, you had better be prepared for some startling changes. And just as Aborigines seem to be in perfect rapport with themselves and their country, so the embryonic beginnings of that rapport were happening to me. I loved it.
And my fear had a different quality now too. It was direct and useful. It did not incapacitate me or interfere with my competence. It was the natural, healthy fear one needs for survival.
Although I talked constantly to myself, or Diggity or the country around me, I was not lonely – on the contrary, had I suddenly stumbled across another human being, I would have either hidden, or treated it as if it were just another bush or rock or lizard.
To this day, I think one of the major breakthroughs I made on that trip was learning the gentle art of farting. I had never farted before. Well, maybe once or twice, but then only pathetic little pfffttts. God knows what happened to all that air. Must have seeped through the pores of my skin at night I suppose. Ah, but now, now I could blart with the best of them – good solid base thrums which spooked the camels and scared flocks of spinifex pigeons into the air. Diggity and I had competitions: she always won for poisonousness, I for sonorousness.
Catrina Davies Homesick (2019)
Later, when I was alone, I stretched out in front of the fire like a cat, enjoying the warmth from the floorboards soaking into my bones. I went outside and watched the smoke curling out of the chimney – my chimney – then I went back inside and put more wood on the fire – my fire. I sat cross-legged in front of it, staring at the flames. I felt the heat burning the tension out of my body. The fire was still burning when I went to bed. I lay in bed, watching the flames from my own hearth flicker in the darkness.
But there is no fire without smoke, and a plume of smoke rising from a chimney says home like nothing else does. I had crossed an invisible line, had forgotten that even though it felt like home, more and more with every passing day, the shed was not a home. Even though I dwelt there, harming nobody, as far as I could tell, the shed was not a dwelling, and dwelling in it was not allowed.
The letter arrived on Tuesday.
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I didn’t travel very far, because I didn’t have money for diesel, but I had plenty of books, and what I lost in range, I gained in depth. I saw things that winter I’d never seen before, even though I had lived on the peninsula for most of my life. The world seemed to get smaller and bigger at the same time. On the one hand, there was the mundane repetition of the things I had to do to survive, and, on the other hand, there was the vast ocean and the empty cliffs and the great tent of a sky that filled up with stars on clear nights. The fact that the stars existed many hundreds of millions of light years away put the usual strain on my imagination. I struggled to hold both realities in my head at the same time: the reality of my daily life, and the reality of the vast and unknowable universe that was the backdrop to it. I stopped worrying about the reason for my existence. The longer I lived in such close proximity to the mysterious earth and the restless ocean and the storms that tore across the peninsula at night and tried to blow my house down, the more I felt that existence itself was significant, and the more I wanted to suck all the marrow out of it, as Thoreau wrote in Walden, and not, when I came to die, feel that I hadn’t lived.
Roger Deakin Waterlog (1999)
You see and experience things when you’re swimming in a way that is completely different from any other. You are in nature, part and parcel of it, in a far more complete and intense way than on dry land, and your sense of the present is overwhelming. In wild water you are on equal terms with the animal world around you: in every sense, on the same level. As a swimmer, I can go right up to a frog in the water and it will show more curiosity than fear. The damselflies and dragonflies that crowd the surface of the moat pointedly ignore me, just taking off for a moment to allow me to go by, then landing again in my wake.
I had climbed out of the river and was strolling back through the lovely water meadows still far away in my daydream, milkmaids plying me with laden bowls of fresh strawberries and cream, when a shout rudely intruded on my pink and brown study: ‘Do you realise this is private property?’ The horses looked up for a moment and resumed their grazing. I decided to ignore the two irate figures on the fenced footpath and pressed on with all dignity in my bathing trunks towards the hidden clothes in the nettle patch. It crossed my mind to make my escape across the water, but then I thought of Cobbett and what he would have done, and that settled it. I was going to stand up for my rights as a free swimmer.
I got changed as languidly as possible, then casually leap-frogged the fence and sauntered off along the path, whistling softly to myself, as an Englishman is entitled to do. ‘Excuse me,’ came a voice, ‘does that fence mean anything to you?’ This was unmistakable school talk, and I turned round to confront two figures straight out of Dickens; a short and portly porter with a beard and Alsatian, and a gangling figure on a bike with binoculars, strawberry-pink with ire, the College River Keeper. I introduced myself and enquired the cause of their disquiet. They said the river was the property of the college, and full of trout for the pleasure of the Old Wykehamists who sometimes fish there. It was definitely not for swimming in by hoi polloi.
‘But the ladies in the public library told me the whole of Winchester used to swim in the river here right up to the 1970s,’ I said.
‘That’s just the problem,’ they replied. ‘A few years ago we had six hundred people coming from the town, swimming in the river, eroding the banks and leaving litter behind.’
It sounded like paradise to me.
‘But surely,’ I said sweetly, ‘we should all have access to swim in our rivers just as we should be free to walk in our own countryside. Don’t they belong to all of us?’
The River Keeper practically fell off his bike. The porter flushed a deeper strawberry and allowed the Alsatian a little closer to my person. They both looked pityingly at me.
‘There’s plenty of coast and sea not far away if you want to swim,’ ventured the porter.
Charles Foster Being a Beast (2016)
The more respectably dressed you are, the harder it is to be a fox. No one has ever accused me of being respectably dressed, but even so I soon realised that I should be even more shabbily shambolic than usual. Someone in unstained trousers and an unripped jumper looks criminal if he’s raking through a herniated bin bag, but if you’re dirty, tired and slumped, no one minds. You’re translucent. People look through you. The grubbier you are, the more translucent you are. If you’re on all fours, sniffing at a sack, you’re invisible. Except to the authorities. And even there, sleeping is more offensive than doing.
I was shaken awake under the rhododendrons.
‘Can I help, at all, sir?’
‘No thanks. All’s fine.’
‘Can I ask what you’re doing, sir?’
‘Just having a little sleep, officer.’
‘I’m afraid you can’t sleep here, sir. You sure you’re OK, sir?’
‘Fine, thank you. And what’s the problem with sleeping here?’
‘It’s forbidden, as I’m sure you know. Trespassing. The owners can’t have people just sleeping.’
‘I can’t see that I’m interfering materially with the enjoyment of its title of a property management company registered in Panama.’
‘Are you trying to be clever, sir?’
I could think of no palatable answer to this. The policeman didn’t press me for one. He moved to another topic.
‘Why do you have to sleep here, may I ask?’
‘You may indeed ask, but I don’t suppose you’ll like the answer. I’m trying to be a fox, and’ – I rushed on, trying to avert my eyes from the torrential haemorrhage of the officer’s residual goodwill – ‘I want to know what it’s like to listen all day to traffic and to look at ankles and calves rather than at whole people.’
This last observation was a bad, bad mistake. I knew it as soon as it was out. For him, calves, ankles and concealment in an evergreen shrub meant perversion so deep that it should be measured in years inside. But I could see him struggling to identify the right pigeonhole for my depravity, and imagining the paperwork. Uncertainty and workload trumped his instincts, and he told me to ‘bugger off home, sir’ – the italics were powerful on his lips – ‘and get a life.’
‘That,’ I said, ‘is exactly what I’m trying to do.’
He looked paternalistically at me as I brushed the leaves off my jersey and walked home.
After that I cravenly slept under a groundsheet in my backyard.
Peter Matthiessen The Snow Leopard (1978)
The Lama of the Crystal Monastery appears to be a very happy man, and yet I wonder how he feels about his isolation in the silences of Tsakang, which he has not left in eight years now and, because of his legs, may never leave again. Since Jang-bu seems uncomfortable with the Lama or with himself or perhaps with us, I tell him not to inquire on this point if it seems to him impertinent, but after a moment Jang-bu does so. And this holy man of great directness and simplicity, big white teeth shining, laughs out loud in an infectious way at Jang-bu’s question. Indicating his twisted legs without a trace of self-pity or bitterness, as if they belonged to all of us, he casts his arms wide to the sky and the snow mountains, the high sun and dancing sheep, and cries, ‘Of course I am happy here! It’s wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!’
In its wholehearted acceptance of what is, this is just what Soen Roshi might have said: I feel as if he had struck me in the chest. I thank him, bow, go softly down the mountain: under my parka, the folded prayer flag glows. Butter tea and wind pictures, the Crystal Mountain, and blue sheep dancing on the snow – it’s quite enough!
Have you seen the snow leopard?
No! Isn’t that wonderful?
Geoffrey Moorhouse The Fearful Void (1974)
I sat for hours against the wall of the store, somewhere between a dazed lethargy and the old tension of wanting to be on my way before I lost the momentum of progress. A truck was being loaded ready to start the journey across the Tanezrouft into Algeria. Three young French students were waiting to go with it. They expected to be in Marseilles in four days, home in Paris within six. I much wanted to travel with them, but I knew that I wouldn’t. I had to go back into the desert on a camel, or my journey would have been a waste of everything I had so far done.
I now knew precisely what the most fearful thing consisted of; I had measured it, I had touched it, I had almost been destroyed by it. I had to go out to meet it anew, at once, or I would never dare look upon it again. If I turned my back upon it now, I would be pursued by it to the end of my life, always running away from the subject of my fear. And this would not be fear of death by thirst and dehydration, or fear of being lost in a wilderness of sand. It would be fear of encounter. Nothing more. Fear of encounter with a person, with a task, with anything at all intimidating that might cross my path. If I could go into the desert again to face another encounter with what I knew to be there, as exactly and clearly as if I had fashioned it myself, I could walk forwards for the rest of my life into all the deserts of my mind. And this, with love, would be the most precious gift in the world.
We walked through the trees and suddenly, as if some magician had waved his wand, I found myself leading two camels and a companion in torn and dusty desert clothes down a surfaced street. It was lined with trees, whitewashed halfway up their trunks. Inside the lines of trees were pavements. There were tables set out at intervals along these pavements and people were sitting at them, drinking coffee. They stared at me open-mouthed, as though I were a strange animal they had never seen before. I walked on, not daring to speak to any of them, not at all sure where I was going or what I was seeking. Towards the end of the street, I noticed a long low building with a courtyard and a crude sign which called it an hotel. In a reflex from a world apart from the one I had just crossed, I stopped and couched the camels. It was not the ending I had wished.
Andrew X. Pham Catfish and Mandala (1999)
In eight months of biking, I drink two or three cans of Coke a day, enough to carbonate my blood for the rest of my life. The caffeine picks me up and keeps me from succumbing to the midday low. The sugar gives me just enough energy to boost the heavy bike over the big hills. The carbonation burns the road grit off the back of my throat. The familiar flavor keeps me anchored in strange locales. The wavy red-and-white logo tells me America has been here.
Coke banners have displaced the Vietnamese flag. You can buy a Coke every five miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. It’s everywhere, sold by the case in markets as well as by the can in shacks with a six-pack inventory. At sixty cents a can, it is as dear as a third of a laborer’s daily wage. Coke – or Koh-ka as Vietnamese pronounce it – is a special refreshment, reserved for special events such as first dates and wedding banquets.
Somewhere along an arid, scrubby stretch of land, I spot a thatched hut with a faded Pepsi flag out front, and a case of Cokes displayed on the windowsill. The noon sun has licked me dry. My mouth is a dusty crack. I pull over, lean my bike against a post, and waddle into the hut.
On a packed-earth floor, three soldiers in olive uniforms with red stripes are crouching on footstools around a coffee table. Their conversation breaks and they look up at me with liquor-shot eyes, their chopsticks hovering above plates of boiled gizzards curly like cashews, pig hearts sliced like truffles, intestines chopped up like rigatoni. The centerpiece is a basket of herbs sided by a pile of ivory garlic cloves. One man who is eating from a bowl of raw, coagulated blood pudding glares at me, the blood dribbling from his scruffy mustache. The still tobacco air pulsates with the sweet bite of raw spices, boiled innards, and home-brewed rice wine the men have burped up over hours of drinking. Hands braced on the table, they sit with their knees up near their ribs, three hyenas tearing into the ruptured belly of a deer.
Instinctively I nod, showing respect for their uniforms. A man growls something unintelligible into his cup.
In the far corner, a woman squats on her haunches, slicing boiled cow tongue on a wooden plank. She stops, alert at the abrupt silence, and, seeing me, tenses. ‘What do you want?’ she asks by way of greeting.
‘Hello, Older Sister. How are you?’
‘Well. What do you want?’
‘May I have a cold Coca-Cola?’
‘We don’t have cold ones. I can give you ice.’
I couldn’t drink their ice. ‘Could you put a can in the ice cooler for me? I’ll rest a bit first, then I’ll drink it.’
She looks me over, pauses, then nods without a word. Relieved that she didn’t take my request as an insult, I beat a hasty retreat to a seat outside. One of the men mumbles that the fucker at the door is a Viet-kieu. Can’t drink our ice, says another, too dirty for him. I groan inwardly, wondering if this pit stop is such a good idea after all. They begin to grouse about Viet-kieu in general. Dread settles in my stomach as I remember the mob that nearly lynched me in Ham Tan.
While I debate with my thirst whether to leave, a dust devil kicks up across the street and scares a skinny dog. It whimpers and scoots inside the hut. A drinker flings it a piece of organ meat. The mutt noses the morsel then curls up at the other end of the room, leaving the scrap uneaten. A revelatory silence washes the hut. A humiliating moment. They see me witnessing their shame. The woman hurriedly resumes her chopping, contriving a screen for us all.
‘Goddamn dog!’ the man with the bloody mustache hisses at the dog, but looks at me.
Another man puts down his chopsticks and leans back away from the food, trying to hide his embarrassment. Glances shoot back and forth. Colors deepen on their faces. Having invaded their world and witnessed their disgrace, I avert my eyes as casually as I can. But, too late, I almost hear their minds shifting gear.
‘Three cans of Coca-Cola,’ Bloody-Mustache shouts to the woman. I feel sick. It has come down to this.
George Sibley Part of a Winter (1978)
So here we are, Henry: sojourners in civilized life again.
Unlike Henry, though, I didn’t bring back from the woods an exhortation to ‘Simplify, simplify!’ From me, it would be hypocritical. Henry went to the woods alone, and returned alone; it’s easy enough for Henry to talk about simplicity. I went to the woods with my wife and one child, and returned with another child; it was, and is, evident to me that simplicity is not to be my lot.
I only envy Henry the advertised simplicity of his life maybe fifty percent of the time. Maybe even less. I’m reasonably sure I would envy him a lot less if I actually enjoyed his options – I was, after all, a bachelor once myself. I had friends and lovers with whom I broke off relations because they interfered too much with the comparative simplicity of life alone: they brought out what I regarded as the ‘worst’ in me and occasionally they drove me into what I can only term a shamefully bestial rage, a wildness unworthy of a civilized person.
Wildness! What the hell did you know of wildness, Henry! Henry saw a woodchuck crossing his path one night, and ‘was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw … for that wildness which he represented.’ Suppose, instead, that had been a drunk and pissed-off Irishman crossing his path? You can bet that Henry would have had something to say; he always had something to say on the subject of Irishmen (whose shadows, he noted, had no ‘halo’ like his own did); but I doubt that he would have praised the man’s wildness. Not even if the man had seized and devoured a woodchuck raw.
Paul Theroux The Old Patagonian Express (1979)
Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be alone and unencumbered. Other people can mislead you; they crowd your meandering impressions with their own; if they are companionable they obstruct your view, and if they are boring they corrupt the silence with non-sequiturs, shattering your concentration with Oh, look, it’s raining and You see a lot of trees here.
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I saw a three-storey house, with a verandah on each storey. It was grey and wooden and toppling, and it reminded me of the Railway Hotel I had seen in Zacapa. But this one looked haunted. Every window was broken and an old steam locomotive was rusting in the weedy front yard. It might have been the house of a plantation owner – there were masses of banana trees near by. The house was rotting and uninhabited, but from the remainder of the broken fence and the yard, the verandahs and the barn, which could have been a coach-house, it was possible to see that long ago it had been a great place, the sort of dwelling lived in by tyrannical banana tycoons in the novels of Asturias. In the darkening jungle and the heat, the decayed house looked fantastic, like an old ragged spider’s web, with some of its symmetry still apparent.
Mr Thornberry said, ‘That house. Costa Rican gothic.’
I thought: I saw it first.
The fellow across the aisle was sleeping. I looked at him and the others, and I was struck by their resemblance to me. I had decided quite early in my trip that I was an implausible traveller – no credit cards, no rucksack, I was not well-dressed enough to be a tourist on a ten-day jaunt through ruins and cathedrals; nor was I dirty or frazzled enough to be a wanderer. People asked me what I did, and when I said I was a geography teacher (‘Easter vacation!’) they doubted me. I mentioned my wife and children: but why was I here and they there? I had no ready answer to that one. Tourists regarded me as a back-slider, wanderers seemed to think I was an intruder, and natives did not understand me. It was hard to convince anyone that I did not have an ulterior motive, that I wasn’t on the run, a con-artist, a man with a scheme. I had a scheme – that was the worst of it – but I did not wish to disclose it. If I had told Thornberry, or Wolfgang, or the lady in Veracruz, or Bert and Elvera Howie, that I was a writer they would have either bolted or, as Bert Howie phrased it, ‘put a couple of layers of shit in my ear’.
But on this train, the Old Patagonian Express, I looked like everyone else; slightly unshaven, fairly presentable, with a battered suitcase, vaguely European, moustache drooping, scuffed leakproof shoes. It was a relief. I was, at last, anonymous. But what a strange place to be anonymous in! I blended with the foreground. But what a background! Amazing: I belonged on this train.
Colin Thubron To A Mountain in Tibet (2011)
‘We live in an age of decline. I think before the Chinese invaded Tibet, and our Buddhist people were dispersed, that our faith was much purer. Now we’re exposed to Western ways, and of course to women. In our faith a senior monk – one who’s achieved a certain level of realisation – may sometimes marry. So she becomes an inspiration to him, and he a guru to her. But this is rare, and late. And now I hear of young monks going after girls, and some Western women complain that monks grab at them. The monks see women on television, of course …’
I asked with vague surprise: ‘They watch much television?’
‘Oh yes, a lot. The monks get very excited.’ He was starting to laugh. ‘Only last night all the monks got furious.’
‘Why was that?’ But I knew their calm could be deceptive. In Tibet they remained the spearhead of political protest, and centuries ago the monasteries had run amok in internecine war.
‘It was Manchester United. All the monks love football. They got very angry last night about the European Cup. Manchester United were beaten by Barcelona, and all the monks love Manchester United. You should see them from behind, watching television, how they argue. They thought the referee was biased … they were enraged how he gave out penalty tickets. They started shouting things.’
I shook my head. ‘I thought the monks prayed in the evening.’
‘Well, perhaps it’s a kind of meditation. They concentrate on the ball and the rest of the world goes away …’
Sara Wheeler Travels in a Thin Country (1994)
A book read on a journey usually sticks to the ribcage of memory. Such associations are closely formed. I got on a bus back to Santiago having just finished three novels by the Chilean writer Isabel Allende, each more overblown than the last, and I turned in gratitude to a copy of Heart of Darkness which was becoming dog-eared in the carpetbag.
In Santiago I was again looked after by Simon and Rowena, who behaved as if it were perfectly normal for strange British women to pitch up from the bush. Beatriz, their amiable maid, took Rowena aside.
Beatriz (conspiratorially): ‘I’ve put Miss Sara’s clothes in the machine on a pre-wash. They smelt.’
Rowena (breezily): ‘Well, I’m not surprised. She’s been living in the mountains and camping on the beach for almost two months.’
Beatriz (shocked): ‘She didn’t camp alone, did she?’
Rowena: ‘No, she met a Chilean man and camped with him.’
Beatriz (appalled): ‘I see.’
I had found, in Santiago, a picture postcard by a photographer called Paz Errázuriz. It showed two hugely fat people hunched over what was apparently their bar in Chonchi. It was an old-fashioned zinc bar, and a row of bottles stood behind their heads. They were obviously man and wife, and they were staring straight at the camera, expressionless except for what might have been a glimmer of amusement, even contempt. It was such a beguiling image that I dragged Chris off on a pilgrimage to find this couple. The card stated that the name of the bar was La Sirena, and although it had changed its name to Bongo, everyone in Chonchi knew it.
Plastic seats had replaced the wooden benches and melamine the shiny zinc, but I was sure it was the right place as the woman serving was an identical but younger version of the one on my postcard. When I showed this card, the old couple were produced.
‘I suppose you’ve seen a lot of changes in the village,’ I said to the old man. He thought for a while. ‘No tanto’ – not so many.
Chris took a photo of me posing with the man; I wanted to recreate the card, with me in the wife’s place. When I got home, months later, I stuck the photo in one of my albums of Chile, underneath the postcard. When I was writing about Chilóe I got the album out to look at it again. Someone – I never discovered who – had captioned my photo, ‘He subsequently remarried.’