Making the Desert Bloom

“Making the desert bloom” is as great a misnomer as the Bureau of Reclamation. The desert blooms without civilized help when ample rains bring out its considerable diversity and abundance of native wildflowers. It is not the desert that blooms in the cotton and melon fields of the Imperial Valley or the Gardens of Palm Springs. The desert no longer exists in such places; it has been replaced.’

– David Rains Wallace, The Wilder Shore

The Waterworks of Merv

The ancient city of Merv in modern day Turkmenistan.One of the largest, most advanced, and today least known cities in antiquity was the oasis centre of Merv, located in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road, near today’s Mary in Turkmenistan. According to some estimates, Merv was the largest urban area in the world in 1200 A.D., with a population of more than half a million people.

Merv’s magnificence, unfortunately, must be left to the imagination as it was pulverized by the armies of Genghis Khan; its entire population put to the sword. Only a few dusty, sun-baked remains still stand.

Of its many reported qualities – including its colossal wealth and architecture – it is the city’s hydraulic system and waterworks that perhaps give the best indication of its astounding degree of advancement.

Because Merv was located on a desert plain, water was extraordinarily scarce. The inhabitants managed to divert and channel any and all water sources, both near and far, into the city and surrounding countryside via a series of dams, catch-basins, canals, pipes and underground tunnels with access shafts – all built with complex changes of gradients. Even the morning dew was collected and used.

The entire system was an engineering marvel. Not just in terms of its construction, but also its maintenance.

To appreciate how complex and expansive the operation was, consider that Merv’s waterworks staff numbered 12,000 to maintain and repair the hydraulic system. Among them were 300 divers!

It may very well be that the need to cooperate on water issues helped to unite and gel Central Asian society, creating a kind of harmony of purpose that allowed them to succeed at so many other endeavours.

Like its neighbouring cities of Balkh, Bokhara and Samarkand, Merv was a node of high learning whose residents included savants and geniuses. It was also part of the wider Islamic renaissance that reached from China to Spain, and whose contributions, we now know, made possible much of the knowledge and advancements we enjoy in the West today.

Review: Is Travel Writing Dead?

is travel writing dead?This is a question that’s bantered about a lot these days.

It’s not just political correctness, identity politics and the growing intolerance to colonialism, that are causing some to charge – and others to fear – the inappropriateness of non-fiction travel narratives. In this digital age everything seems to have been photographed, written about, or blogged to death. Humanity appears to have visited every conceivable niche. After all, what could be left to describe? And how many of us truly, seriously, want to read another account of someone crossing the steppes of Central Asia on a segue with fifty bucks in their pocket as they search for the lost goat stew recipe of Genghis Khan?

The Winter 2017 issue of Granta, entitled “Journeys,” includes short essays by a dozen well-known writers that tackle the above question.

The consensus among them is that travel writing is not dead – and in a sense could never die as all our journeys through life are a form of travel, each unique, and each filtered through the writer’s individual personality and perspective. Most of them acknowledge that travel literature is changing, and should change, to encompass a wider variety of voices, perspectives and experiences to become more original and democratic – and no longer western-centric.

Below are a few quotes from the essays. If you’re interested, pick up the back-issue and read the complete essays which are seriously thought provoking.

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“Travel writing isn’t dead; it can no more die than curiosity or humanity or the strangeness of the world can die. If anything, it’s broken out of its self-created shell, as more and more women give us half their world, and Paris is ever more crowded with visitors from Chengdu.”

– Pico Iyer

“Some of the most important kinds of travel writing now are stories of flight, written by people who belong to the millions of asylum seekers in the world. These are the stories that are almost too hard to tell, but which, once read, will never be forgotten.”

– Alexis Wright

“It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world, by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironized, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way. Travel writing isn’t dead. It just isn’t what it was.”

– Ian Jack

“The literature of travel describes the world as it is – but only as it is in its instant, as it appears to the particular sensibility of the passing witness. For that is the other aspect of travel writing that has begun frequently to be overlooked – that it has much to do with the beholder as the beheld. The writer filters her surroundings through her temperament, distilling something richer and more meaningful in the process… As long as there are writers, and as long as they stir occasionally out of their houses, there will be travel writing worth reading.”

– Samanth Subramanian

“There is a supposition, too, that travel writing is a postcolonial presumption: a notion that reduces all contact between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ cultures to a patronizing act of acquisition. No mention here of travel as an avenue of understanding, of self-education or of empathy. Any meeting between unequal worlds is seen in terms of dominance – a notion that threatens to turn all human contact into paranoia… Whatever the current state of travel writing (which reached its popular peak in the 1980s) its continuance over the centuries belies its death sentence.”

– Colin Thubron

“Instead of finding a Western angle of experience in countries like Vietnam – motorbiking from Hanoi to Saigon, boating in the southern delta, snapping up fabric arts from the Hmong, eating their way down the Mekong, seeking redemption from war experiences or war protests, romanticizing French colonialism, or tracing the ghost of writer Marguerite Duras – maybe writers should stick closer to home. What would it look like to travel to a mall, a local wood, a suburban tract – to deeply study and visit one’s own locale?”

– Hoa Nguyen

“Travel literature will always be with us. But the centre of experience also shifts in the world. Stupendous traditions end accordingly, and spring up again from new, improbably sources.”

– Rana Dasgupta

Going in Circles

A yellow fidget spinner turning in cirlcesIn 2009, researcher Jan Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany conducted a series of experiments using volunteers wearing GPS tracking devices who were told to walk in a straight line over long distances in wilderness environments.

The tests determined that people who are lost in the wilderness and think they are walking in a straight line, and have no landmarks to rely upon, tend to travel in squiggly, circular trajectories. In other words, they walk in circles.

Later experiments led Souman to conclude that most people, when lost without navigational cues (thus lacking a deeper contextual perspective), will not travel more than 100 metres beyond their embarkation point – regardless of how long they walk.

That’s a sobering thought. A yet more sobering question is whether that same tendency may be at work where trajectories in our own lives are concerned?

Reframe

A friend recently remarked to me about how, by slightly reframing certain situations we can sometimes hugely alter their meaning, often for the better.

“We have a career housekeeper named Gloria who comes in once a week to help us clean our home,” he said. “One day Gloria stopped being herself. For weeks after she was always poutting. When I asked how she was doing, she’d reply morosely, ‘Same as last week.’

“Over time I realized she was not happy about her work and position in life.

“One day, I said to her, ‘Gloria, I’ve been thinking a lot about you and your work.’ At once she perked up.  ‘Oh,’ she said. Her frown dissolved into a little smile.

“I said, ‘You’re so very lucky to be doing what you do for a living. You get to go into people’s homes and make them a better place for their owners. You make people happier when you finish your job. You improve the world, bit by bit, by bringing order to it. You’re making the world a better place every day. Very few people have jobs like that, you know.’

“After that her mood changed completely. Her pouting stopped. And every time she came into work she’d do it with a bounce in her step, and a smile on her face.”

Chasing Alaska

Chasing Alaska by C.B. Bernard“Alaska makes everything ordinary impossible to bear.”

This is another outstanding travelogue.

Author C.B. Bernard chronicles his travels across ‘The Last Frontier’ while gathering and piecing together clues about the life of a distant relative, who, like him – but decades earlier – travelled to Alaska from the East Coast and became a bona fide Arctic explorer.

Bernard’s writing is sharp, insightful and leisurely paced. The book isn’t exceedingly long, but it covers a lot of spatial and temporal ground, giving it an epic quality. It’s a journey of self-discovery book – in my opinion the best kind – with lots of grit and character.

It’s redirected my attention to a part of the world that I’ve put off visiting for way too long. I seriously recommend it.

The Butcher of Polis

I was rummaging through some old items the other day and dug up this postcard I bought while travelling through Cyprus in the summer of 2001.

It’s one of my favourites.

The inscription on the back of the card reads: “Moustachio’d Simos, the butcher of Polis.”

The epithet has a kind of war criminal ring to it. But soon after buying the card, I ran into Simos in a back-alley in the village of Polis (a seaside community on the border of Northern Cyprus). He was as gentle and disarming as he is in this photo.

Icelandic Manners

A cover of the books, Names for the Sea, by Sarah Moss, a book about IcelandI’ve just finished reading Names for the Sea, a travelogue by writer Sarah Moss. The book chronicles her difficulties living and working as a teacher in Iceland, with her husband and kids in tow.

Although it’s less action-packed than I like my travel lit to be, the book contains more than a few brilliant gems of cross-cultural observation. Moss, who’s a Brit, has a very hard time assimilating into Icelandic culture, which, as it turns out, is sometimes hugely at odds with her own – but in extraordinarily subtle ways.

I’ve already written here that one of the great boons of travel to places far removed from one’s own is that it can provide deep insight into other ways of being, other mental sets – in contrast to one’s own, and thus, ultimately, providing insight into one’s own. Struggling to move through other cultures challenges our assumptions, which become mechanized and set according to our more predictable norms. Moss, explores this dynamic more than a few times in her book:

“Iceland has complexities so subtle that their existence is invisible to the inattentive foreigner. One of the Icelandic clichés about Icelanders is that, by foreign standards (as if ‘foreigners’ had one standard), they are rude. There is no word for ‘please’ in Icelandic. ‘Thank you’ and ‘sorry’ are used much less than in British and American English. Nevertheless, it has been clear to me from the beginning that Iceland is a place where the most intricate and important things are unarticulated, partly because intricacy doesn’t need to be spelt out in a place where everyone has always known how things are done, and partly because it is unIcelandic to explain yourself. Self-explanation suggests some entitlement on the part of your audience to know your interior life. Icelandic drivers don’t indicate, Pétur once old me, because they don’t see why anyone else needs to know where they’re going.”

Sarah’s friend Pétur, who, decades earlier, moved to Iceland from the U.K., goes on to tell her:

“There were manners of course, but the manners were sometimes not to say anything. So I’d say, ‘Excuse me, but please would you pass the potatoes.’ They’d pass them and I’d say, ‘Thank you.’ And they’d look at me, because you don’t say thank you when someone gives you a potato. That’s why you’re there, and why the potatoes are there, so you can eat them, and you know that and they know that you know that so why would you say thank you? There’s not very much of that kind of thing in Icelandic, it’s at a lower level in the same way that the flowers in the fields and the trees on the hills are at a lower level. They’re smaller and more subtle and they make more sense.”