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Craig Nelson has experienced places most people only dream about. He has walked the Great Wall of China; taught New Guinea cannibals how to dance; communed with a sign-language-speaking orangutan in Borneo; gotten into an altercation with the People's Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square; and taken psychoactive pharmaceuticals with a male witch in the depths of the Amazon jungle. In this vastly entertaining, often hilarious, and sometimes poignant book, he shares his global jaunts and haunts with armchair ...
Craig Nelson has experienced places most people only dream about. He has walked the Great Wall of China; taught New Guinea cannibals how to dance; communed with a sign-language-speaking orangutan in Borneo; gotten into an altercation with the People's Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square; and taken psychoactive pharmaceuticals with a male witch in the depths of the Amazon jungle. In this vastly entertaining, often hilarious, and sometimes poignant book, he shares his global jaunts and haunts with armchair travelers everywhere.
|Why on Earth Would You Want to Go There?||xi|
|Into the Amazon with P.J. O'Rourke and a Headhunting Shaman (Retired)||45|
|When the Black Land Was the First World||75|
|Into the Liver of Borneo||103|
|Teaching the Cannibals to Dance||127|
|Cow Cults of the Sub-Sahara||205|
|When We Were Prey||230|
|The Last of the Bushmen||248|
|A Gorilla Named "Bob"||258|
|The South Pacific|
|Putting Your Father on a Slow Boat to Tonga||295|
"I don't know where the shame of being a tourist comes from. . . . I like to join those lightning tours in which the guides explain everything you see out the window."
--Gabriel García Márquez
When he turned fifty, my father ran away from home. He was a big Texan in a big Lincoln driving whichever way his mood turned, a man temporarily no longer responsible for a wife, a mother, a job, two kids and whatever else was on his mind. Like almost all runaways, he ended up going back after about a year of meandering, but I guess that wanderlust nestles in the blood. As a "grown-up," there's nothing I like more than lighting out for the territories and running as far away as possible . . . traveling to places where nobody knows my name, where the airport wind sock really is a sock. I have more than my share of foibles and faults, but when it comes to taking a vacation, baby, nobody does it better.
When people hear about my trips, they always assume I'm some Jon Krakauer Let's climb Mount Everest for fun! kind of guy. In fact, I'm a middle-class, suburban, pudgy white person who spent twenty-five years thinking cigarettes were one of life's greatest pleasures. Since I've never met a meal I didn't like, at plenty of times I've been the size not included in "one size fits all," and to this day I'm convinced that the best exercises to do are sit-ups because, in between, you get to lie down. If you're not a Mama Cass look-alike (and she's dead), you're easily in better physical shape than I am, and probably a lot braver, too.
On my travels, though, I've been threatened by an orangutan in Borneo . . . taught dance steps to Stone Age cannibals in New Guinea . . . climbed a mountain to get an aerial view of Machu Picchu . . . taken psychoactive pharmaceuticals with a Jivaro shaman in the middle of the Amazon . . . gone hunting with the last of the African Bushmen . . . had a run-in with the People's Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square . . . seen the total eclipse of the sun from the roof of an eighteenth-century Mughal fort . . . sailed the South Pacific in a nineteenth-century brigantine . . . and stalked gorillas through the montane forests of Uganda. Whenever I tell my family where I'm off to next, in fact, my mom always has one question: Why on earth would you want to go there?"
Before I went to Egypt, my friends and family said, "How can you go there, with all the Arab terrorism?" and before I went to Peru, they said, "How can you go there, with the Shining Path guerrillas?" and before I went to Indonesia, they said, "How can you go there, with all those jungle diseases?" I'll never forget the real answer to these questions. One night, I was walking through the small Nile river town of Esna, followed by a mob of every single Esnian under the age of fifteen. I started off down one particular street, when a young girl grabbed my elbow and pulled me in another direction, indicating that the way I was heading was dangerous. At that time I'd just moved to New York City, couldn't afford a decent apartment, and so lived in a slum. My apartment building was directly across the street from "the Rock," the Northeast's biggest distributor of crack, cocaine and heroin, the kind of business where the lower-level employees were only allowed to carry Uzis. In Esna, I walked in the direction the little girl wanted me to go, but all I could think was, "Compared to where I live, how dangerous could it be?"
A similar tale happened to my friend and traveling buddy Brenda, who was getting ready to meet me in Delhi. There'd just been news about a terrorist bomb exploding in the Paris Metro, and when Brenda called her mom to say, "Well, I'm getting on the plane to India now," her mom replied, "Thank God you're not going to Paris!"
Another reason I've always gone worry-free throughout the Third World is the travel bubble. When a Westerner travels through what Wall Street calls an "emerging market" we're protected by the fact that what we are there to see isn't really a part of day-to-day life, since locals don't live their lives inside of game parks or national monuments or tropical resorts. Even if you are bound and determined to know what, say, Kenya is like for Kenyans, this won't really happen, as Paul Theroux found out: In Africa, in the sixties, I had had the vague idea of going native and living in a mud hut, and to that end I left my Peace Corps house and moved to an African township and into a two-room hut. But it hadn't worked. My African students thought it was undignified and my neighbors were afraid of me. Foreigners who moved into huts were either crackpots or spies."
The travel bubble exists even for backpacking twenty-somethings, whose consumer demands have created a worldwide web of guest houses, cheap restaurants, Lonely Planet must-sees and authentic curio emporia selling tire sandals, knit bags and harem pants. In the Third World, you see these backpackers everywhere, and there's nothing quite as inspiring as watching a sincere, authentic English hippie bitch on her junior year abroad trying to get the last ten cents out of a bedraggled fruit-selling grandmother.
Sometimes, the travel bubble isn't all that strong. On the inaugural run of South Africa's Cape Town-Victoria Falls Blue Train luxury line, the waiting passengers snacked on cakes and champagne in the dining car while a horde of very young children, all barefoot and in rags, stared at them through the windows--until someone thoughtfully lowered the blinds.
I grew up in a Texas suburb where everyone had more or less the same clothes, haircuts, cars, houses, hobbies, attitudes, skin color and shoe sizes. It was a very safe, very predictable kind of life (the way most people around the world live, in fact), but it gave me a yen for the exotic. At the age of eight, I learned about Japan, and immediately wanted everyone to take off their shoes when they came inside the house, and eat lunch out of lacquer boxes. I insisted on having paper lamp shades in my room, and taught myself advanced origami, obsequious bowing, and how to use chopsticks--no small feat for someone whose level of coordination can be politely described as "oafish." I thought it was the very height of mature sophistication to eat, very fast, with a pair of sticks, and I always finished those meals with a Chinese touch. How could any child not love the fortune cookie, a dessert whose key ingredient is a slice of wit?
After too much relentlessly day-to-day, humdrum living, anybody needs a change, and maybe the answer is to start eating really fast with sticks . . . or maybe it's to run away from home. A good sojourn will immediately get you out of stale patterns and into a whole new frame of mind. Pick the right voyage, and you're guaranteed a bout of introspection, reflection and objective analysis about where you are and where you want to be. In fact, whenever you feel you should make a big change in your life, whether it's telling the boss "I quit!" or the spouse "I want a divorce!" or the kids "You're going to boarding school," it's not such a bad idea to go abroad before saying any of these things.
Traveling to the back-of-beyond shows you how most of the world makes do, and it gives you a tremendous perspective on your own life. The next time an American mentions how she's a "survivor" who "gets by," I'll offer to take her to visit a woman who lives in a refrigerator box with six diseased kids, two goats, three chickens and a husband who lives 250 kilometers away assembling videocassettes in a U.S. factory, just so she can see what the rest of the world considers "getting by." These are the people you'll meet on any trip to nowhere: people who help you remember that there's a world other than the one you know and that, in the bigger scheme of things, maybe you aren't so bad off after all . . .
It's experiences like these that confirm the travel motto I learned from Jacques Cousteau, the inventor of scuba and the creator of such memorable sentences as "Joos lyke humen chilren, ze seacow baybeez mus lairn about ze whirl from zair muthair." Jacques said, "Il faut aller voir"--"We must go and see for ourselves." Are you really willing to pass from this mortal coil without seeing, for yourself and in person, the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramid or the Forbidden City? Watching a moist Sigourney Weaver tousle her
conditioner-free hair through Gorillas in the Mist just does not compare in any way with trampling through the African jungle until, fifteen feet from your outstretched hand, one of the world's remaining mountain apes is forcefully giving you the eye. Did you know that their fur looks just like a mink's? That in many ways, they are far more human than your little sister? That they quite obviously think human beings are a pathetic, boring, loser bunch of gorillas?
Don't think it doesn't matter, that these things will always be there, waiting for you. At this moment, if you want to visit Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Rwanda or Congo (Zaire), to name just a few, you can't; they're all off the visitor map. China opened its doors to Western tourists in 1899 and then, in 1949, shut them all over again and threw away the key. "If you wanted to go to China, it was too late," adventurer Norman Lewis lamented. "You would have to content yourself with reading books about it, and that was as much of the old, unregenerate China as you would know." Even the vast majority of what I saw on a "Friendship Tour" of Beijing and Shanghai ten years ago has since been bulldozed away in the name of progress.
The wild places, too, are disappearing in the blink of an eye. Today, luxury tour ships cruise the Amazon, Mount Sinai is getting its own airport, and the New Guinea headhunters who ate Michael Rockefeller run a curio shoppe with river views. For around $30,000, anyone can climb to the top of Everest, or take a submarine to the Titanic at the bottom of the seas. As Redmond O'Hanlon pointed out, "Jungles are very, very sensual, with a warmth and loveliness that I associate with the feminine. Then there's the pleasure of seeing all these screeching, squawking, brilliantly plumed birds, or hearing gibbons whooping in the early morning. You know it's absolutely special when you're there. And you're thinking: Maybe this won't be around forever. That makes it all the more poignant. You feel like you may be one of the last people in paradise. So, you try to catch it while you can."
Unlike Redmond's typically horrifying adventure tales of man-eating reptiles and voracious pygmies, my own travels haven't yet involved last-minute escapes from New Guinea cannibals (though I did get to dance with some) or bloodcurdling adventures with savage maidens in the jungles of Africa (though one did tongue-click me) . . . they've been about contact.
I've held hands while walking with a Maasai through his Kenyan lands, as well as with a sign-language-adept orangutan and her nursing baby on a tour of the Borneo jungle. As one of the first American tourists in China, I had as many Chinese taking pictures of me as I took of them. It is one thing to gaze, in real life and in their own home, on the upturned face of a young orangutan, and it is quite a different and remarkable experience when they gaze back at you . . . which they will. When you make a connection with a being not at all like yourself, it is a different kind of adventure. You go as a sightseer, but you come home the sight seen.
To make contact, it's very important to open yourself up to whatever cultural idiosyncracies your destination has to offer. An old friend of mine and I were off to visit an alien race on one trip, and I found out that this particular tribe would get very offended if visitors didn't speak their language extremely well. Before going, I taught myself how to say, in the tribe's foreign and convoluted tongue, "Excuse me, but I am a stupid American who cannot speak French," which is exactly what I said to the waitress in a grand ice cream emporium on the Ile de la Cité, before asking, "So, could you just bring us whatever is the right thing to have?" The response was to send over a platter of half-teaspoon-sized scoops of every flavor in the store. My friend and I ate, barely keeping ourselves from licking the plate like cow-pigs when we were done, all the while being stared at by the other customers with that fervor of envy and bitterness that only pure Gauls can muster.
Do you remember learning to read? How all of a sudden you looked out the car window and understood that those strange geometric lines meant "Stop" and those storybook squiggles meant "cat" and everywhere you looked there were words, words and more words that now, finally, you could understand? I remember when it happened to me because something similar happens on almost every trip I take, where I have this moment of shocking realization, every time and all over again as if out of nowhere . . . that I can safely go anywhere in the world, and make real contact with people who are completely alien to me in their culture, in their language and in their civilization. That people living in other times and places are as different from us as if they were another species from another planet, but if you try, you really can have something of a relationship with them, you can even become a temporary member in good standing of their society. When that happens, you realize that it isn't just your neighborhood, or your city, or your state, or your country, but all of the earth, every last inch of it, that is home.
In order to have that extraordinary feeling today, though, you need to beat the clock. Let's say you've decided, right now, to take a vacation that gets you more than a nice tan and the chance to finish that new John Grisham. With the sound of "Born to Run" dancing in your head, you get on a plane and travel to the other side of the globe, arriving at one o'clock in the morning, China time, in Beijing. You're so excited you can barely sleep, so you wake up the next day at the crack of dawn (eating the hotel's "American" breakfast of scrambled eggs with tomatoes) to rush to the Forbidden City, the centuries-old Imperial capital, which is cheek-by-jowl with Tiananmen Square, the absolute center of modern China. There you are, you think, completely away from it all . . . but in fact, directly across the street from Tiananmen, exactly in the line of sight of the immense portrait of the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong himself, is . . . a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.
Let's say you tried a different trip, traveling almost halfway around the world in the opposite direction, this time entering into the very heart of Mother Russia herself, the Kremlin's Red Square. What could be more distinct from our culture than this centuries-old outpost of anti-Americanism? But just guess what would catch your eye amidst those wildly colored onion domes? Sitting directly across the street from the square is merely the ultimate symbol of American life . . . a McDonald's.
The West didn't just win the cold war; we won the Race for Complete and Total Global Cultural Domination. After making sure that every American city and suburb today looks almost exactly alike--with the same reflective-glass skyscrapers, tract homes, fast food franchises and national brand stores--now the giants of American business are making sure that every other place in the whole wide world looks just like us, too. You could be traveling through parts of Paris, Rome, Madrid, St. Petersburg or even Tokyo, and there'd be the same brown-mirror buildings, the same Planet Hollywood restaurants, the same Gap outlets--and you'd have absolutely no concrete evidence that you'd ever left Des Moines. Travel anywhere today and you'll learn that "Fall into the Gap" has become a worldwide philosophical creed. We are all wearing Levi's and T-shirts while listening to Celine Dion or watching CNN, and if we've escaped the bonds of poverty and are comfortably middle-class, we can be Japanese or Sudanese or Saudi or Chilean or Greek or Fijian . . . and we are all still wearing Levi's and Ts while listening to Celine Dion or watching CNN.
This global homogenization means "getting away from it all" requires a whole new level of thinking. If the only difference between where you live and London is a river, a tower, a cathedral and odd police uniforms (and the opportunity to purchase a snow dome with a river, a tower, a cathedral and odd police uniforms inside), then why go there? In fact, why go anywhere? Being near any major Western city today means you can easily get French clothes, German cars, Vietnamese food, Mexican handicrafts and Vermont antiques, and you can pretty easily meet any foreigner you can think of in the bargain. If you're an American and you'd like to travel to the world's largest Polish city, it's pretty easy, since it's Chicago; and if you ever find yourself in the L.A. suburb of Carson, you'll be able to meet more Samoans than there are in Samoa.
There's only one answer: to seriously run away from home. We'll take a trip from the heart of the Amazon to the tombs of Ancient Egypt . . . from the holy Ganges of India to the holy swine of New Guinea . . . from the lost city of Machu Picchu to the Forbidden City of Beijing. We'll be attacked by orangutans in Borneo and kissed by cannibals in Irian Jaya, go on safari through the key spots of Africa's Rift Valley, and crew a square-rigger through the tropical isles of the South Pacific.
If it sounds like heaven, well, it is. Close your eyes; let's get lost . . .
(c) 1999 by Craig Nelson"