For years, I held on to the uncorrected proofs of the book Life and Death of Eva Peron which was published in 1979. (see photograph at left). I don’t remember how I acquired the uncorrected proofs, probably at one of the many book sales I go to and comb through piles of oddities from reviewers, publishers and disappointed readers. Recently I donated the book to the friends of the local library, so they can use it in a forthcoming book sale. And so the book will make the circuit of used book stores and sales, much like Eva’s corpse has traveled.
I wonder if anyone born after 1995 knows who Evita was? The broadway musical Evita! might help her live on, similar to the way Jesus Christ Superstar helps Jesus.
Carol Ann Bassett, the author of A Gathering of Stones and a professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, sure does get around. The book covers journeys to Ecuador, the Northwest Territories of Canada, the Mojave, the Kalahari Desert in Africa, and other outposts around the globe.
Bassett’s writing and subject matter appeals to the thoughtful traveler. In the first chapter, Calling Down the Moon, she offers a lucid explanation of the geologic evolution of the Sonora Desert, the birthing of the west, its plants, volcanoes and stones. Her writing is engaging, not always an easy task when explaining geology and botany.
A few of the journeys occurred a number of years ago and could have profited from factual updates. For example, in the compelling account of a 10-day shepherding trek across Arizona with immigrant Basque herders in 1986, Bassett skillfully captures the men’s wistful lonely life and their crusty exteriors. She reports that the men come from their Spanish Basque homelands to work a few years (or longer) on contract with the Western Ranger Association. It’s not revealed whether any of herders are working there now or whether other men are still arriving from Basque lands to herd in the American west.
Geoglyphs, which are rock alignments and giant figures created by indigenous peoples, are best seen from the air. Bassett describes some of these monuments in the Mojave located inside U.S. Army training compounds. Quite possibly the rock figures have been defaced by routine weapons firing. The rocks were sacred relics for first peoples of the lower Colorado River region, yet we don’t know the current condition of the rock alignments or whether scientists who want to study them are still forbidden entry to the military area. Such mindless institutional desecration is difficult to read about. Perhaps that is Bassett’s intent: to send the curious reader to the Internet to research the status of these cultural relics.
Bassett tackles the downside of nature tourism, which can deposit hundreds of visitors a day in fragile habitats such as the Galapagos Islands. She discusses the inveterate laxity of enforcement even though protective laws may be in place.
Though all of the chapters offer sleek writing about important subjects, the facts are sometimes left open ended. Perhaps this serves brevity, but the absence of fact grounding and updates reveals the previous incarnation of many of the chapters — as newspaper and magazine feature content for travel consumers hunting down fresh exotica. Collected in book format, the older journeys would be more meaningful for a contemporary reader if current conditions in these threatened regions had also been examined, at least as brief epilogues.
In the chapter Where Butterflies are Souls, Bassett paints a detailed portrait of the Tarahumara people and handily compares the Aztec Day of the Dead celebrations with a gloomy Catholic mass. This second largest (Navaho nation is larger) indigenous American population north of Mexico City experiences socio-cultural stress from clear-cutting of forests for lumber and abandonment of their traditional practices in favor of work in the lumber mills. Attentive readers will also get the message that the indigenous people are also affected by the intrusion of ethno-tourists who pack into eco-lodges to observe the Tarahumara ways.
In other chapters, Bassett bravely discusses the issue. Ethno tourism may provide survival revenue for tribal peoples near extinction, but at what cost? It is demeaning to the natives and tourists alike as the visiting westerners peer at household rituals of fire making, eating and washing. Are we to stop traveling, stop the momentum of progress?
Curious readers will want to do further research to investigate the outcomes of these threatened locations and peoples. The collection is a solemn drumbeat, a wake for vanishing people, regions and cultures.
Book review by L. Peat O’Neil was published in excellent book newspaper The Bloomsbury Review.
Peat O’Neil is a writing instructor and author of Travel Writing: See the World, Sell the Story published by Writer’s Digest Books.
A masochist, but a funny one, British adventurer Snow walked from the tip of South America through the continent northwards to cross the Panama Canal, his line of demarcation. His 2001 obituary explains some of the details of the aftermath of the long walk, not contained in the book.
Never accepting a ride, marching at a furious pace burdened by heavy gear and always low on water, Snow was lucky to survive. His mighty will drove him on. The photograph of his feet after months on the road is unforgettable.
My interest in the Atlantic Rim took me to Kenneth White’s book On the Atlantic Edge. White’s ideas about geopoetics are provocative. He’s a Scot who lives in France and writes in English and French. One of the most forward thinking writer’s I’ve encountered in a while.
Attracted by the remoteness of the Darién Gap on the Isthmus of Panama and motivated the possibility of collecting undiscovered orchid specimens, an English botanist named Tom Hart Dyke set off to cross this dangerous patch of jungle connecting Panama to Columbia at the top of South America. Along the way, in Mexico, he hooked up with an English backpacker, Paul Winder. Dyke was out to discover new orchid species, or at least see as many unusual orchids as he could find. Winder, who had traveled widely between money-earning stints London’s financial district, was keen to explore the famously dangerous Darién Gap.
They head off on foot into the jungle, somewhat haphazardly, occasionally engaging guides, telling people of their plans. Unprepared for the rigors of the terrain — it’s not clear whether they even had proper maps — the men were soon snagged by a group of guerrillas, an off-shoot of the FARC. The guerrillas saw them as bait for ransom and moved them from camp to camp. New guards would join and others would leave during the ensuing nine months.
The strangely compelling narrative is told from alternative points of view — Tom then Paul, or Paul then Tom. The authors, or an editor, have decently shaped what could have been repetitious scenes and each writer presents a different perspective on the events during captivity. At times, the story devolves to a portrait of idiocy, ignorance and machismo blunders on all sides. And machismo knows no gender; many of the guerrilla thugs were female.
The guerrillas fought amongst themselves and ultimately weren’t able to reach the men’s families, or anyone on the outside to relay the ransom request. As time passed, their families made inquiries through non-government organizations active in the region, which through the informal communications network must have exerted indirect pressure on the guerrillas to release the men. The Englishmen were a bit thick to have stumbled on purpose into the Darién in the first place, one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Surely they knew what they were getting into.
Still, the story moves along and I found myself wondering how I’d respond to similar hardship. These fellows were resourceful, keeping their spirits up through a variety of word games, garden making and calculated deceptions to test their captors’ attention. While camp routines repeat day in and day out, action picks up when the two decide to try an escape. With the end game in mind, they start stealing food and supplies, which they hide around the camp. Their machete blade is found, foiling plans. The escape logistics were further complicated because Dyke and Winder weren’t even sure where they were.
During the nine-month ordeal, they nicknamed their captors, the campsites and paths. The naming functioned as a diversion and also helped them exercise some control over the situation, however illusory. They called the last camp, where they were held two months, Inspirational Site because that’s where the idea of escape seemed an option for a while. In the last camp, there was time for Tom, the botanist, to plant a garden.
A few of their jailors demonstrate moments of kindness towards them, but most of the guerillas callously torture animals and humiliate their captives (the two Englishmen and two mestizos who are kept in a separate area of the camp). The women guerillas sometimes provoke the prisoners with sexual humiliation and one of the mestizos disappears, presumed dead.
My curiosity as to how their peril might resolve drove me to read faster towards the end. There are lessons in this book for other independent travelers who wander the antipodes of the earth.
Indeed their eventual release was also fraught with near slapstick ineptness. Their current set of captors releases them one December day, just sending them off into the forest and telling them never to come back. Dyke and Winder circle for nearly a week lost in a swamp, not able to find the path their captors had indicated was the way back to civilization. So the lads ended up returning to the guerilla camp for better directions, though they’d been warned they’d be killed if they returned. Eventually, they find a ranger barracks in a national park in Columbia and make their way home to England for Christmas.