Travel Without Leaving Home

Vicuñas Seen on the Road to Puno, Peru

Why should I care that you become an armchair traveler rather than an actual traveler? Curmudgeon that I am, if I ran into you on my travels, all eager to talk about your lovely home town of East Jesus, Arkansas, you would be met with a torrent of Hungarian and not a word of English. I would be perfectly happy to see you indulge your desire for travel by reading a book rather than obtruding with your actual presence.

As for myself, I not only like to travel, but I like to read about travel. Here is a list of an even dozen travel classics. Curiously, they are all written by English or American travelers. Not that other peoples have not written travel classics: Only, they tend to be more obscure in the Anglo-American world of publishing. And besides, the English are so damned good at it!

The following are presented in alphabetical order by author:

  • Robert Byron: The Road to Oxiana (1937). Driving through Persia to reach Afghanistan at a time when roads were few and hairy.
  • Bruce Chatwin: In Patagonia (1977). Not everything Chatwin says is 100% true, but it always is 100% fascinating.
  • Lawrence Durrell: Prospero’s Cell, A Guide to the Landscape and manners of Corcyra (1945). All Durrell’s travel books are worth reading.
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time to Keep Silence (1957). About the first part of a walking tour from Holland to Istanbul, just as the Second World War is about to break out.
  • John Gimlette: At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig (2003). A fascinating book about Paraguay, its history and people.
  • Graham Greene: The Lawless Roads (1939). Greene’s research for his novel The Power and the Glory, about a trip to Mexico during a persecution of the Catholic Church.
  • Eric Newby: Slowly Down the Ganges (1966). About an attempt to navigate the sacred river of India all the way to the Indian Ocean.
  • Freya Stark: The Valley of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (1934). By a woman traveling alone in the Middle East!
  • John Steinbeck: The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). Travels in the Gulf of California doing oceanographic research.
  • John Lloyd Stephens: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán (1841). Travels in Maya land in the middle of a civil war.
  • Paul Theroux: The Old Patagonian Express (1979). The book that inspired my own travels to South America.
  • Colin Thubron: To a Mountain in Tibet (2011). A religious pilgrimage to Mount Meru, a magnet for three religions.

I could have added another twelve without too much further thought. Hell, I could have added another hundred.

Born in Cleveland, we were too poor to afford travel far beyond Northeastern Ohio. That resulted in my case with an insatuiable desire to see the world, which I started to do in 1975. God, how I wish I could live long enough to continue in the same vein.



Fifty Years in Hollywood

A Film Director for 50 Years, His Work Shows Signs of High Quality Throughout His Career

There were undoubtedly Hollywood directors who worked in the industry longer than Allan Dwan, but few of them were as consistently good for the entire half century while at the same time being so little-known. I know about him because he is one of the discoveries of the politique des auteurs to which I subscribed for many years. According to the auteur theory, as it is also known, there were within the Hollywood studio system some directors whose work was almost a guarantee of quality, almost irrespective of genre, studio, or stars.

Consider the following highly shortened list. How many films in it do you recognize?

  • Robin Hood (1922)
  • East Side, West Side (1927)
  • The Iron Mask (1929)
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938)
  • The Three Musketeers (1939)
  • Up in Mabel’s Room (1944)
  • Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945)
  • Brewster’s Millions (1945)
  • Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
  • Silver Lode (1954)
  • Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)
  • Slightly Scarlet (1956)

Most of these look and sound like typical studio products which Hollywood turned out by the hundreds each year. But even toward the end of his career (he retired in 1961), Dwan was doing amazing things. In Silver Lode, a B Western starring John Payne, Lizbeth Scott, and Dan Duryea, there is a tracking shot through a Western town of which even Orson Welles would be proud—some two years before Welles’s amazing opening credits shot in Touch of Evil.

Lobby Card for Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)

Today, I saw Cattle Queen of Montana for the second time. The role of Barbara Stanwyck as Sierra Nevada Jones was a natural for this great star. Even Ronald Reagan managed to shine as a Federal agent investigating suspicious sales of guns to the Blackfeet Indians. There weren’t any directorial fireworks as in Silver Lode, and perhaps there were too many coincidences in the plot, but the aging Dwan showed he still knew how to cut the mustard.



There Is Just So Much to Remember

Last Monday, I was privileged to see a demonstration of Indian temple dancing at the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The young woman who runs Soorya Performing Arts in Woodland Hills casually mentioned in her introduction that there are a million gods in the Hindu religion. It is possible she wasn’t exaggerating. According to the Huffington Post, there are upwards of 33 million gods in the Hindu pantheon. Another source says there are 330 million. That is approximately one god for each person currently living in the United States. Your own personal deity, so to speak.

Doesn’t that make things complicated? Now India is a very Hindu country—so Hindu in fact that Buddhism, which was born there, is more or less eradicated from the entire subcontinent. The ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is virulently Hindu. And yet there are 22 different languages spoken in different parts of India. With all that wild multiplicity, I have a difficult time focusing on what is essential and distinguishing it from what is relatively unimportant. If you pray to one particular god, say Vishnu, does not another god, say Prajapati, get envious and turn your earnest pleas into a curse on your family for 27 generations?

It just so happens that I am going through a period of my life which is heavily influenced by Indian vegetarian cuisine. For the last three weeks, Martine has been going through some intestinal ailment which does not allow her to eat my cooking, and what she can eat barely counts as cooking at all in my book. So I have been making some authentic spicy vegetarian curries and bhajis. Also, I am reading Eric Newby’s travel classic Slowly Down the Ganges.

Now if I become interested in the Hindu religion as well, do I risk fragmenting myself into 330 million pieces?


The Next Stage of Human Evolution

You Can Bet a Lot of Gamers and Smartphone Junkies Are Looking Forward to This

I am not looking forward to this, but the younger generation is, I firmly believe. I am referring to the merging of human beings with implanted electronics to create a new supposedly super race of human beings. You can see it in the mass acceptance of such dorky millenialia as e-scooters and Uber. This generation is so wedded to the smartphone that I believe it is inevitable that what today is a device carried in the hand will eventually be an implant. Then one will not have to worry about dropping your invaluable device in the toilet or gutter, leaving one completely at a loss on what to do and how to communicate with one’s fellow beings.

There is an old computer joke about people who die being escorted by Satan to Hell and finding it to be a refreshing place with green trees, splashing fountains, and unending sex. Naturally, they agree with enthusiasm to be admitted. Imagine their dismay when, instead of all the promised perquisites, they find fire, sulfurous fumes, and brimstone—not to mention fierce demons armed with spears and pitchforks.

“Why is this so different from what you showed us at first?” one of them asks with dismay.

“Oh, well,” winks Satan. “That was the demo.”

As one who has been involved in computing for over half a century, I can foresee with crystalline clarity what will happen. Naturally, there will be bugs. And you will wait endlessly to speak to a tech rep named Chip with a thick Gujarati accent when the software has malfunctioned. And it will. Why? Because we are not perfect. Ever since the beginning, technology gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

Looking for the advancement of the human race? No, but welcome to Malfunction Junction.

Incidentally, the illustration above comes from an interesting article from GizmoSnack entitled “Human Cyborgs—The Fusion of Organic Beings with Machines.”



The Parthian Shot

The Parthian Shot Illustrated on a Hephthalite Bowl

Listening to the Current Occupant bluster in an all-caps tweet against Iran, I thought back o how, in the past, the Persians managed to flummox their enemies. And the Orange Baboon was not even in the top ten. As great as the extent of the Roman Empire was, it could never count Parthia (Persia) as one of its victims. According to Wikipedia,

Lasting over 680 years, the Roman–Persian Wars, if taken together, form the longest conflict in human history. Despite this, the frontier remained largely stable. A game of tug of war ensued: towns, fortifications, and provinces were continually sacked, captured, destroyed, and traded. Neither side had the logistical strength or manpower to maintain such lengthy campaigns far from their borders, and thus neither could advance too far without risking stretching its frontiers too thin. Both sides did make conquests beyond the border, but in time the balance was almost always restored. The line of stalemate shifted in the 2nd century AD: it had run along the northern Euphrates; the new line ran east, or later northeast, across Mesopotamia to the northern Tigris. There were several substantial shifts further north, in Armenia and the Caucasus. Although initially different in military tactics, the armies of both sides gradually adopted from each other and by the second half of the 6th century they were similar and evenly matched.

The first Roman-Persian/Parthian conflict began in 66 BC, in the time of the Roman Republic. The Romans and Persians did not call it quits until the Islamic conquests put an end to the Sasanian Empire and deprived the Byzantine Empire of much of its southern territories.

You Can Bet the Iranian Generals Know Their Country’s History of Conflict with the West

Perhaps the one symbol these conflicts have left with the oft-defeated Roman legionaries is a tactic known as the Parthian Shot. While appearing to retreat, Parthian light horsemen turned around in their saddles while appearing to retreat and shooting down the advancing Romans and shooting them down with arrows. This requires considerable skill, as the Parthian light horse did not have stirrups and had to guide their mounts strictly by the pressure of their legs.

So rage as the Twitterati will, I suggest that they be wary of the “retreating” enemy. I keep thinking of the advice the Delphic Oracle gave to King Croesus: “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed,” And so it was—but it was his own empire. I believe the winning side were the Persians.


The Game of the Goose

The Map of Paris Around Which the Plot of Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord (1981) Revolves

Sometimes one sees a great film, but it doesn’t seem so at first. Sometimes it has to rattle around in your head for a while before you realize that what you have just seen is a seminal work of art. Such is the case with the films of Jacques Rivette I have seen, particularly Le Pont du Nord (“North Bridge”).

In that film, we have two main characters, played by the mother/daughter team of Bulle and Pascale Ogier. Bulle (Marie Lafée) has just been released from prison and is too wracked with claustrophobia to enter a building or a car without freaking out. Pascale (called by the boy’s name of Baptiste) runs across Bulle three times, making her conclude that they are destined to be together. Pascale is the ultimate paranoiac, mutilating the eyes of models and actors shown on large posters.

Bulle hooks up with her old boyfriend Julien, who seems to be on some strange quest. Pascale pulls a switch on his portfolio, allowing her and Bulle to see its contents, which consists mostly of newspaper clippings and a map of Paris (above) which acts as a kind of game board. Bulle and Pascal decide to follow it, noticing that it seems to be a version of the European Game of the Goose, similar to the English Snakes and Ladders and the American Chutes and Ladders.

Bulle and Julien meet with death at the square containing the Pont du Nord, but Pascale ends up getting a martial arts lesson from “Max,” one of the mysterious characters who is also playing the game.

Pascale Ogier as Baptiste

I was strongly impressed by Pascale Ogier as the paranoid gamine. Three years later, she was to die at the age of twenty-five of a heart attack aggravated by her use of recreational drugs. She is one of those actresses whose eyes are expressive and who use their glances to attract the viewer’s attention (and, admit it, admiration). I was appalled to find, when checking out her career, that her life was cut so short.

Jacques Rivette is one of the lesser-known directors of the French New Wave. I have seen in all three of his films, set at the beginning—Paris Belongs to Us (1961)—the middle—the film we are discussing—and the end—La Belle Noiseuse (1991)—of his career. All of his films left me hungering for more.


Two Poems

Liu Xiaobo and His Widow Liu Xia

On July 13 of last year, Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died in Shenyang after years of persecution by the monolithic Communist Party he dared to oppose. Here are two poems, first by his widow Liu Xia dedicated to her husband:

Road to Darkness

For Xiaobo

Sooner or later you will leave
me, one day
and take the road to darkness

I pray for the moment to reappear
so I can see it better,
as if from memory.
I wish that I, astonished, would glow, my body
in full bloom of light for you.

But I can’t make it except
clenching my fists, not letting
the strength,
not even a little bit of it, slip
through my fingers.

The following is a poem by Liu Xiaobo dedicated to his wife:


For Xia

Between the gray walls
and a burst of chopping sounds,
morning comes, bundled and sliced,
and vanishes with the paralyzed souls
of the chopped vegetables.

Light and darkness pass through my pupils.
How do I know the difference?
Sitting in the rust, I can’t tell
if it’s the shine on the shackles in the jail
or the natural light of Nature
from outside the walls.
Daylight betrays everything, the splendid sun

Morning stretches and stretches in vain.
You are far away—
but not too far to collect the love
of my night.

Both poems appeared in the September 28, 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books.



A Bolivian Passenger Train Between Santa Cruz and Quijarro

As I sit here in L.A. in the middle of a heat wave—and getting no younger in the process—a new vacation trip emerges from the depths of my mind. I have already written about the 17th and 18th century Jesuit missions in South America. The anti-clerical Voltaire in his Candide appeared to be impressed by the enlightened rule of the Jesuits who controlled Paraguay.

You can find out even more by reading the forgotten classic history by R. B. Cunninghame Graham entitled A Vanished Arcadia: Being Some Account of the Jesuits in Paraguay 1607 to 1767.

Back then, before the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) and the Chaco War (1932-1935), Paraguay included territory which now belongs to Argentina (Misiones Province) and Bolivia (Santa Cruz Province). There are ruins of Jesuit communities in all three countries.

This set my mind to thinking. There is a famous train route called the Trans-Chiquitano—still in existence as of a year or two ago—between Santa Cruz, Bolivia and Quijarro, just before the border with Brazil. Midway between the two termini and somewhat to the north are the ruins of Jesuit missions. I was thinking of touring the missions in Bolivia, then busing from Corumbá, Brazil (just across the border from Quijarro, Bolivia) to Asunción, Paraguay. There I could hook up with a tour to the Jesuit missions east of Asunción (if such a tour exists). Thereafter, it is a short up across the border to Argentina, where there are well-organized tours of the Jesuit missions such as San Ignacio Mini. From there, it is an easy bus ride to Buenos Aires, from which I can return to the States.

It would be a wild trip, with a long, comfortable train ride and easy stays in Santa Cruz and Buenos Aires. Asunción is a different story, but still quite doable.


Favorite Films: Some Came Running

Opening Scene from Some Came Running

We are so conditioned to thinking of the years after the Second World War as some kind of golden age that it is refreshing to see how American films dealt with the era. Some prominent examples include William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Vincente Minnelli’s film adaptation of James Jones’s Some Came Running (1958). In both pictures, the GIs come home to find that the guys with flat feet who stayed behind had all the jobs, money, and women.

From the opening credit sequence with its urban jazz music track as we see Frank Sinatra asleep on a Greyhound bus as the Indiana landscape rolls past, we feel we are in for something different. On the same bus is Shirley MacLaine as a good-time girl Frank had met in Chicago. Both had been drunk and were put on the bus by friends who specified Parkman, Indiana as the destination.

We see Frank at the beginning in his army uniform, though he has also written two books and spent time on a tramp steamer and as an oil rig worker. In Parkman, he is pursued by Shirley while he falls in love with Martha Hyer, a college writing instructor who is impressed with his writing ability but appalled by his lifestyle. Every time he is repulsed by Martha, Frank draws closer to Shirley MacLaine with her ridiculous doggie purse and showy bad-taste clothing, with an intellect to match.

Frank at Smitty’s Bar with Dean Martin

After his first encounter with Martha Hyer, Sinatra runs into Dean Martin as a southern gambler who uses Parkman as a base as he travels around playing poker in the surrounding Indiana cities. The initial scene at Smitty’s with its loud jazz track is my favorite in the film: It shows the bar with its lowlifes right in the middle of the ultra-respectable small town. It even appears that the bar is next door to Sinatra’s brother’s jewelry shop. (The role of the brother, played by Arthur Kennedy, is his smarmiest and most hypocritical role in a long career of playing villains.)

There are a number of significant divergences between the James Jones novel and the Minnelli film. As I have not yet read James Jones, I cannot say which I prefer. But one thing I can say is that Minnelli’s film is even better than The Best Years of Our Lives at portraying the sick soul of America coterminous with its postwar glory, even though the two films are more than ten years apart.




Serendipity: Paul Theroux in Guatemala

The Rail Line Between Tecun Uman and Guatemala City

I have read Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas several times. It got me interested in visiting South and Central America in the first place; and I keep tryi9ng to relive the experience of reading it the first time. Back in the 1970s, there was still passenger rail service in Guatemala. Now there are only railroad museums with rusting locomotives. The following is the author’s take on recent Guatemalan history—which is still largely true.

I had a political reverie on that train [the one between Tecun Uman and Guatemala City]. It was this: the government held elections, encouraged people to vote, and appeared to be democratic. The army appeared to be impartial, the newspapers disinterested. And it remained a peasant society, basically underfed and unfree. It must perplex any peasant to be told he is living in a free country, when the facts of life contradict this. It might be that this does not perplex him; he has every reason to believe, in accordance with the evidence, that democracy is feudal, a bureaucracy run by crooks and trigger-happy vigilantes. When one sees a government of the Guatemalan sort professing such high-mindedness in its social aims and producing such mediocre results, one cannot be surprised if the peasant concludes that communism might be an improvement. It was a Latin American sickness: inferior government gave democracy an evil name and left people with no option but to seek an alternative.