Serendipity: At El-Kharga

The Oasis of El Kharga in Egypt

I am currently reading Jan Morris’s Contact! (2009), which is a whole book full of serendipity type encounters which travel writer Jan Morris (formerly James Morris when she was a male) had all around the world. This is only the first of what will probably prove to be more postings along this line.

El Kharga is one of the five isolated oases which lie well to the west of the Nile in the Egyptian desert, and it always has been a place of exile. Nestorius was banished there, and Athanasius too, it is said. In our time political prisoners are immured in a detention camp at the oasis, and I once encountered some of them. They were patients in the local hospital, lying on straw palliasses on the floor of a bare ward. A murderous lot they looked, all the more sinister because bandages and plasters covered their eyes and supported their limbs—one and all were enemies of the state, and their interrogations had not been easy. I talked to them warily of this and that, the conditions of their detention and their hopes of release, and they told me that every morning they were given a lecture of indoctrination by a representative of the regime. Something in their eyes, though, told me they were far from brainwashed, and now and then a particularly savage old dissident lying in a corner intervened with a caustic witticism, delivered in the most cultured of English accents and with the bite of an incisive mind. Thus Nestorius might have spoken, I thought, during his exile at El Kharga.

 

Trans-Chiquitano

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.

 

Silent Cal

Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States

Before the word Republican became a term of opprobrium, there was a quiet man who served as President of the United States and who became something of a joke for his silences, but who said the right things when he spoke up.

In 2005, Martine and I visited his birthplace, Plymouth Notch, Vermont. It was a modest place near Woodstock and rather fun to visit. Coolidge was born in a white clapboard house on the premises (see photo below); and he is buried a few steps away under an unassuming tombstone in the local cemetery (see second photo below).

The House in Which Coolidge Was Born

As president, Coolidge dared to take on the Ku Klux Klan, which was a major political force in the America of the 1920s. Addressing an American Legion convention in Omaha, Nebraska, in October 1925, Coolidge said:

If we are to have … that union of spirit which is the foundation of real national genius and national progress, we must all realize that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language. If we are to create on this continent a free Republic and an enlightened civilization that will be capable of reflecting the true greatness and glory of mankind, it will be necessary to regard these differences as accidental and unessential. We shall have to look beyond the outward manifestations of race and creed. Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character.

And that is more profound than any subsequent president has ever tweeted.

Calvin Coolidge’s Unassuming Grave Site in the Local Cemetery

I would like to close with two things Silent Cal said that I have always remembered.

The first is a kind of joke, but not far from what actually occurred:

President Calvin Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” because of his extraordinarily laconic speech. A famous anecdote tells of a dinner party during which the person sitting adjacent to the Coolidge said: “Mr. President I’ve made a large bet that I would be able to make you say more than two words.” Coolidge considered this proposition carefully and then replied slowly and emphatically, “You lose.”

The other is a quote I often use whenever I begin to feel fearful that circumstances are conspiring against me: “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Matsuo Bashō by Hokusai

Several times over the last thirty years, I have returned to the 17th century haiku and commentaries by Matsuo Bashō on the subject of travel:

Amid mountains of high summer,
I bowed respectfully before
The tall clogs of a statue,
Asking a blessing on my journey.

There is a quality to Bashō’s writing that makes me want to hit the road. As he wends his way through Shogunate Japan, stopping at temples along the way, I see him as the ideal traveling companion.

This grassy hermitage,
Hardly any more
Than five feet square,
I would gladly quit
But for the rain.

I think of his poem about a ruined castle:

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.

Bashō’s prose, too, has a certain quality that is worth remembering:

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one—when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural—if the object and yourself are separate—then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.

How marvelous! This is what I seek from my travels—not that I write poetry—a “hidden glimmering” that makes itself manifest when I confront it with my entire being.

The name of this post, and of Bashō’s poetic journal, was also used by Australian novelist Thomas Kavanagh in his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which tells of its physician hero’s imprisonment in World War Two Burma building the bridge on the River Kwai made famous by David Lean’s movie.

 

Just Across the River Plate

Street Sign in Colonia del Sacramento

Buenos Aires is one of the most exciting cities in the world. What makes it more bearable is that, if you need to relax a bit, you’re just a short hop across the River Plate to Colonia del Sacramento in adjacent Uruguay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Colonia, as it is known to Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires), is a small city of some 27,000 souls and 17th century walls to protect the inhabitants from incursions by the Argentinians or the Brazilians. Until 1828, Uruguay was a football kicked around between Spain and Portugal.

In our 2006 trip to Colonia via a Colonia Express ferry, Martine found the place to be one of the highlights of our vacation. The town is eminently walkable, with old cobblestones being the rule rather than the exception. The town has a handful of small museums that are fun to visit in the Barrio Historico. M favorite was the tile museum with its small collection of ceramic tiles.

The Lighhouse Is a Museum Which One Can Explore

Now that I have seen Colonia and read W. H Hudson’s idyllic The Purple Land (1885), I would like to spend some more time in Uruguay. In Colonia, we met a British couple that traveled to Fray Bentos because of memories of the canned meat that originated there and was exported to Europe. Also, I would very much like to see the capital, Montevideo.

 

The Turtle Brings Rain

Glimpse of a Turtle at Descanso Garden’s Mulberry Pond

To the American Indian, the turtle was a means by which rain can come in a dry season. Although Southern California had some rain this year, it wasn’t much; and it looks like it’s over until much later this year or early the next. Fortunately, the mountains to the north, from which we get most of our drinking water, had a fairly wet rainy season.

Here is one such ceremony for rainmaking using the image of a turtle that was documented by a surveyor who swears by it:

A Rain Turtle is a combined piece of American History from Indians & the Old West.

This is what I have been taught about them.

When I was a young man, & was taking an apprenticship in surveying, one of my teachers was a thin, OLD man that had been surveying since he was able to hold both ends of the rod off the ground. The old gent ALWAYS wore a white shirt, tie, kahaki pants, packer boots, and Fedora hat. He was in his 80’s when I met him….

He taught me that when the surveyors would survey boundaries & railroads across the old West, they often stayed with Indians, or had Indians accompany them on their long traverses across the American West.

The story goes on to say that when an area needed rain, the Indians would make the outline of a turtle in the sand, generally facing West, as that is the direction the Rain God came from…. Once the Turtle was drawn, the Indian would drive a stake of wood through the center of the Turtle. Often times, it rained instantly. The Indians took it for granted that the process worked & wondered why the “Dumb Ol’ White Eyes” would not use it when they needed the Rain God to appear!

Word of this phenominan [sic] quickly spread throughout the tight knit group of surveyors in the Old West. They quickly picked up on the trick & became apt at performing the simple cerimony [sic].

As they traveled through the West, they came across towns that severely needed rain for their crops & livestock. The surveyors were readily there to make a rain turtle & bring relief to the community…..

The communities, grateful to get the rainfall often offered to pay the surveyors for their precious gift….(which was promptly refused by the surveyors)

When the Survey Party proceeded to move on from the town, often, there had been a collection of baked goods, some money, chickens, things brought to the wagons the surveyors used, by the townspeople in appreciation for the rain.

Today, most surveyors know of the Rain Turtle…. Most of them use it to get a well deserved break in work, caused by the rain…

In my crowded little apartment, I have numerous turtles, most of which were fashioned by Indians. In the weeks to come, I will photograph them and present them in these pages. It will be my own ceremony for rain-making. Maybe it’ll work; maybe it won’t. Doesn’t matter.

 

Favorite Films: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid and James Coburn as Pat Garrett

Film is an art form that involves the work of teams of people: producers, directors, writers, crew, and actors. As a result, virtually no film is perfect. That is particularly the case when directors like Sam Peckinpah are at odds with studio heads like MGM’s James Aubrey. Aubrey didn’t give Peckinpah anywhere near the resources he requested, partly because his attention was turned to completing the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

And yet Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (PG&BK) is a wonderful film. It is certainly a violent one: Martine left the theater at the Autry Center about a half hour into the film. There is a lot of swearing, a number of characters die bloody deaths; and yet … there are scenes of such beauty that one rarely encounters. I am thinking particularly when Slim Pickens as Sheriff Baker is gut-shot, and his wife, played by the splendid Katy Jurado, throws away her rifle and follows him to the side of a pond where he has gone to die. In the background, the lovely song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is playing.

The sound track is by none other than Bob Dylan, who wrote and performed all the music—and who also had a minor part in the cast, playing the part of Alias. (It is quite evident that Dylan never acted before, but the film is great enough to encompass a host of minor flaws.)

PG&BK plays with the whole Billy the Kid legend. James Coburn as Pat Garrett is the unwitting tool of the Santa Fe politicians, led by General Lew Wallace, author of the novel Ben Hur. In the past, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) had been a lawman, and Pat Garrett the outlaw. Now the roles have been reversed.

Martine Going Down the Stairs at the Lincoln County, NM Courthouse Which Billy the Kid Used to Escape

In June, Martine and I visited the town of Lincoln, New Mexico. Pat Garrett was the sheriff of Lincoln County. Peckinpah did a wonderful job of recreating the courthouse room where Billy was held prisoner and guarded by deputies J. W. Bell and Bob Olinger, both of whom were shot during his escape. In the photo above, Martine is obscuring with her left shoulder a bullet hole which Billy may have created when he shot his way out of captivity.

There is a strange quality to PG&BK. It seems as if Billy and Pat spend most of the film avoiding each other. Only at the end does Pat seem to feel pushed to catch up with his old pal Billy at Fort Sumner and kill him. Even there, there is a certain delicacy on his part as he waits for Billy to finish making love to Maria (played by Kristofferson’s wife, Rita Coolidge) before making his presence known and killing him.