Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham written in 1944…the year of my birth. The epitaph of the book: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” —Katha-Upanishad.
I read it in high school…along with “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse...and these two books were to influence me the rest of my life.
The Razor’s Edge tells the story of an American, Larry Darrell, who, after being traumatized by his experiences as a fighter pilot in World War I, goes to Europe and then India looking for the meaning of life. But instead of the book climaxing with Larry’s enlightenment, the novel’s literary innovation is to follow how others react to his subsequent changes and how he thrives while the more directionless and materialistic characters suffer reversals of fortune.
Maugham, like Hermann Hesse, was remarkably prescient in 1944 for anticipating an embrace of Eastern culture by Americans and Europeans almost a decade before the Beats were to popularize it. This is all the more remarkable when it is possible that he may have come up with the idea for it even earlier, having visited an ashram in India in 1938.
Though Americans might claim Larry as a proto-Beat, the book speaks more to the romanticism attached to expatriate and bohemian living in European capitals. Larry does odd jobs just to get by as he scribbles away on a scholarly tome, telling the narrator it doesn’t matter if few people read his finished work. Rather than wandering for “kicks” like Kerouac, Larry is driven by his quest for knowledge. When Isabel visits him in Paris and rejects his destitute lifestyle, Larry chooses café life and pursuit of wisdom over middle-class security. As his buddhist mentor tells him, there are three paths to enlightenment – knowledge, service and prayer. Larry chooses the path of knowledge to find enlightenment, and ultimately does find it within himself.
It is the very fact that we call personal differences “alternative lifestyles” in America that belies the intolerance. Alternative to what?
“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”
Essays and Arguments published as a book of non-fiction in 1997 by David Foster Wallace. The title essay is a hilarious but ultimately depressing description of his experience on a cruise. Not exactly as promised in the brochures!
“The Ugly American” A good reminder to read while traveling. “The Ugly American” is the title of a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. It became a bestseller, was influential at the time, and is still in print.
The novel describes how the United States is losing the struggle with Communism—what was later to be called the battle for hearts and minds—in Southeast Asia, because of arrogance and failure to understand the local culture…a lesson America has apparently forgotten.
The book takes place in a fictional nation known as Sarkhan. In the novel, a Burmese journalist says “For some reason, the people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious.” The phrase “ugly Americans” came to be applied to Americans behaving in this manner.
Ironically, the “ugly American” of the book title actually refers to one of the heroes, a plain-looking engineer named Homer Atkins, who lives with the local people, comes to understand their needs, and gives genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects.
The book was made into a 1963 film starring Marlon Brando as Harrison Carter MacWhite. The late Kukrit Pramoj, a Thai politician and scholar, played the role of Sarkhan’s Prime Minister Kwen Sai. Later in 1975 he became the 13th Prime Minister of Thailand.
Pico Iyer “A Global Soul” Iyer was born in Oxford, England, to Indian parents, who were both teachers of philosophy. When he was seven, his family moved to California, and for more than a decade he moved back and forth several times a year between schools and college in England and his parents’ home in California. He won academic scholarships to Eton, Oxford University and Harvard, graduating with a Congratulatory Double First at Oxford and teaching writing and literature at Harvard before joining Time in 1982 as a writer on world affairs. He bases himself in rural Japan, where he lives with his Japanese partner Hiroko, the “Lady” of his second book, (“The Lady And The Monk”) and her two children.
Having grown up a part of – and apart from – English, American and Indian cultures, he became the first so-called “travel writer” to take the international airport itself as his subject, and then jet lag, displacement and cultural minglings, and he writes often of his delight in living between the cracks and outside fixed categories. Most of his books have been about trying to see some society or way of life – revolutionary Cuba, Sufism, Buddhist Kyoto, even global disorientation – from within, but with the larger perspective an outsider can sometimes bring. “I am simply a fairly typical product of a movable sensibility,” he wrote in 1993 in Harper’s, “living and working in a world that is itself increasingly small and increasingly mongrel. I am a multinational soul on a multinational globe on which more and more countries are as polyglot and restless as airports. Taking planes seems as natural to me as picking up the phone or going to school; I fold up my self and carry it around as if it were an overnight bag.”
Iyer writes especially on the places where mysticism and globalism converge. His writing goes back and forth between the monastery and the airport - “Thomas Merton [one of my earliest spiritual mentors} on a frequent flier pass," as the Indian writer Pradeep Sebastian has written - and aims, perhaps, to bring new global energies and possibilities into non-fiction a little as Salman Rushdie has done with fiction. The Utne Reader named Iyer in 1995 as one of 100 Visionaries worldwide who could change your life, while the New Yorker observed that "As a guide to far-flung places, Pico Iyer can hardly be surpassed."
Pico Iyer can set my imagination afire like no other travel writer. One of his pieces reminds me of the fall of 2003 when I was traveling alone down the coast of Viet Nam. Imagine all the people sharing all the world: I was riding behind Mr. Binh, my kind motorcycle taxi driver, and after three days on the bike my rear-end was numb. He takes me to a small food stall by the side of the road leading out of a little town on the South China Sea, where we wave down a local kamazake minibus that will careen down Highway 1 to Hue. The bus is crammed full of Vietnamese one on top of the other so I sit on some rice sacks until someone gets off and I, the older one, am graciously allowed to have the emptied seat. A couple of giggling girls offer to share a small sweet tangerine with me.
The driver had very long hair-possibly in his 50’s-with a pocked and scarred face…signs of a life lived on the edge. This guy is feeling powerful and narrowly misses oncoming overloaded trucks leaning at odd angles. He is having a great time and I am breathless waiting for my life to end. Suddenly when he throws a dirty towel to the back of the van and it lands in my face he looks back with a grin to see if I am alright. Gasping, I return his thumbs up with a laugh.
As for me, the best kind of traveling for Pico is when he is searching for something he never finds. “The physical aspect of travel is for me,” he says “the least interesting…what really draws me is the prospect of stepping out of the daylight of everything I know, into the shadows of what I don’t know and may never will. We travel, some of us, to slip through the curtain of the ordinary, and into the presence of whatever lies just outside our apprehension…” he goes on to say. “I fall through the gratings of the conscious mind and into a place that observes a different kind of logic.” Transcendence… and pure Pico.
"Nobody told me there would be days like these. Strange Days Indeed", sing The Doors.
Anything by Paul Theraux but the best is "Riding The Iron Rooster" and then "The Great Railway Bazaar" about a train trip across China and then in the second book another trip six years later.
"Dark Star Safari...From Cairo To Cape Town" a trip through East Africa 40 years (2003) after he served there in the Peace Corps and later as a university professer. Theroux has a skeptic's instinct for deflating myths, bringing irony to an essentially romantic form. In ''The Great Railway Bazaar,'' for instance, we board the fabled Orient Express to the sound of Theroux's cabinmate filling the chamber pot at midnight. A genius of the witty insult, Theroux regales us with the humor of ill humor, maintaining a tricky balance of crankiness, curiosity and charm.
''Dark Star Safari,'' charts the author's arduous journey through Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, by truck, bus, ferry, train and bush taxi. Theroux sets out ''hoping for the picturesque,'' and at first finds plenty of it. The pyramids of Sudan leave him feeling humbled and uplifted. In the walled city of Harar, a Maltese nun cooks him a gourmet meal and beguiles him with tales of the lover she left for God. An Ethiopian, once a political prisoner, recounts how in his cell he translated ''Gone With the Wind'' on tiny sheets of cigarette-pack foil -- 3,000 in all -- and later published the translation.
Soon, however, the trip becomes a nightmare. Danger dogs Theroux at every turn, from armed Somali highwaymen in Kenya to land mines in Mozambique. Beggars importune, disease and squalor press in. A man with a runny nose sells oranges, ''handing the snot-smeared fruit to customers.'' Appalled by ''the filth, the dirt, the litter,'' beset by ''fungal infections, petty extortion, mocking lepers, dreary bedrooms, bad food, exploding bowels,'' Theroux narrates a Job-like ordeal during which he is ''abused, terrified, stranded, harassed, cheated, bitten, flooded, insulted, exhausted, robbed, lied to, browbeaten, poisoned, stunk up and starved.''
That's not exactly a journey readers will want to duplicate. Actually, Theroux himself seems mostly miserable...[as much of travel often is.] The tricky balance that has served him so well in the past eludes him here.
Throughout ”Dark Star Safari,” Theroux is particularly venomous on the subject of aid workers. There’s a respectable philosophical position in here somewhere: namely, that foreign aid sponsors corruption and saps local initiative. But Theroux’s critique of Africa seems more like anger in search of an argument. Aid workers are ”oafish self-dramatizing prigs” who ”turn African problems into permanent conditions.” Trains don’t run on time, or at all. Roads and buildings decay. The only thriving industry in Kenya is the coffin-building trade. Indeed, Kenya strikes him as ”a country that seemed terminally ill,” and Mozambique has ”the haunted look of a desperate distant future, an intimation of how the world would end.”
This is a gloomy book, obsessed with ruin and oblivion. Bit by bit, his oft-repeated dream of vanishing into Africa, at first seemingly just a reaction against his too-busy schedule at home, begins to feel like a symbolic testing of deeper waters…
As Emerson went on to say, a writer engages despair by writing about it; ”in calamity, he finds new materials.” With ”Dark Star Safari,” Theroux reports his first trip into the last leg of life’s voyage, [he turns 60 on this trip] and sends back a brooding and apocalyptic report.
(from a book review in The NY Times by Rand Richards Cooper)
Underneath the perverse humor by travel blog writers is the compassion we feel for the lives of less privileged people of the world. We are dragged kicking and screaming to a tolerance for what we regard as inefficiency and discomfort…more often than not, borne of a struggle for survival…something we are not in the habit of seeing in America and when we do we revile it.
An antidote to Theroux’s book is Ryszard Kapuściński’s “Shadow Of The Sun.” Kapuscinski is a Polish journalist who has been covering Africa since 1957. Africa does not exist, he says, except geographically. Time, Walking, Women, Waiting, Matatus and Plastic. In Africa, he says, these things work together in a synchronous whole. Rattle-trap matatus-minibuses that serve as public transportation-all seats and the space in between and the space full from floor to ceiling whiz by. What time does the bus leave for it’s destination? The answer is when it fills up. Time for on most of this continent only has meaning in relation to events. If you ask when does the bus leave it makes no sense. The bus will leave when it is full so one must wait…quietly with unseeing eyes…when people are waiting…for this is what they must do before something can happen…they do not react to anything around.
But people are happy to wait for the bus because for eons before this Africa walked-indeed they still walk in the rural areas which is most of African countries and they carry whatever has to be transported on their shoulders or heads. Entire cities and everything in them were carried into the interiors on the heads of the people in the 18th century when there were no roads-only paths.
On this ancient system of paths people walked silently and single file and they still do today even if they are traveling on one of today�s wide roads. And it is the women who do the transporting…they may have to walk several miles every day in one direction for wood and often in another direction for water.
Modern technology has made their lives easier because instead of heavy earthen urns for water they now have red, green and blue plastic buckets. A woman will squat down and place the bucket on her head. Then straightening up she will carefully balance herself. Stepping with an elegant, smooth even gait she walks silently and resolutely down a forest path leading to…a place we will never see. When we pass in the truck she may turn her body slightly and wave. I am immensely impressed. They learn early how to do this…we see a girl about 7 years old walking down a path with a huge heavy bucket of water held up on her head by her tiny neck. When the woman has collected the wood for a fire and the water then she can begin cooking the one meal of the day…
The women carry water, chop wood and work the fields; the armies of men for the most part are unemployed. But they could help the women carry water and wood and work in the fields, we say to each other! But this is Africa and it won’t happen!
The younger men trek from the rural areas to the city in search of work but they find neither jobs nor a roof. They should do something…But what? What should they do with their unutilized energy? With their hidden potential? What is their place in the world? They squat idly on all the larger streets and squares of cities we have been in. In less stable countries, with the promise of shoes or a meal they are recruited by local chieftains when they need to recruit armies, organize coups or foment a civil war.
“A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry depicts a Beggarmaster in India who protects (owns) any pavement dweller who will pay him 100 rupees per week. For this the “beggar” gets protection from the police, freedom from the sweeps that will send them to the gravel pits and ditches, clothes, begging space, food and special things like bandages or crutches…” Lonely Planet says stories like this are common but many have no basis in fact. So who knows…probably every beggar has a different story.
When Bob asked Asane, our taxi driver, if he gives to beggars, he says he gives to real beggars like the old man with no legs or no arms who cannot work and has no other way to support himself. When asked what we should do about beggars, Asane said that when it comes down to it, it is a matter of each particular situation and what your heart says to do at that moment…probably wise counsel.
Alain de Botton The Art of Travel, (2002)
Friends often ask why we want to travel independently and even alone and when they do, it sets off a flood of thoughts and images.
Being a wanderer, says Alain de Botton, crossing different lands among people who speak languages strange to one’s ear…meditating dreamily to the rhythm of train wheels, allowing the sounds of the world to be one’s mantra, enables one to grow…to transcend one’s known life. The silence of being alone (much like being on retreat in a monastery) without the ease of familiarity allows one to stand outside oneself… large sublime views and new smells revealing new thoughts and emotions…thrilling or disappointing aspects of oneself…heretofor hidden from one’s awareness.
If we find poetry in tattered old men weaving home on bicycles, a grateful charm in smiling young country girls… and a shared intimacy in the look of recognition in the eyes of kindred travelers we have found “an alternative to the ease, habits and confinement of the ordinary rooted world.”
introspective reflections revealed by large sublime views and new places may reveal thrilling or disappointing aspects of ourselves heretofore hidden from our awareness. Another travel writer says “it is not necessarily [only] at home that we encounter our true selves. “The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we [think] we are in ordinary life…who may not be who we essentially are,” says the author.
Traveling companions can keep us tethered to our predefined idea of ourselves. They may expect certain reactions from us that obligates us…underneath our awareness…forces us to accommodate in a way that feels unnatural. Or in our companion’s desire to have their own experiences, they may not have the patience to reciprocate and share. In traveling alone we are free to connect with what and whom comes our way, as a friend puts it…”chasing a new flicker in the water or diving under it just for the pleasure, not knowing why, but just responding” to the spirit that moves…like the koi in the pond at home.
If it is true that love is the pursuit in another of qualities we lack in ourselves, then in one’s attraction to people from another country, one’s underlying desire may be to acquire values missing from our own culture or in our own personalities. What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home. For me, “home” is anywhere my heart feels connected to heaven and earth…sometimes a lot to ask for anywhere.
Edward Said was a literary theorist and outspoken Palestinian activist. He was University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and is regarded as a founding figure in postcolonial theory.
As I read his memoirs “Out Of Place” I gaze out of the truck in Africa from time to time wondering…what to wonder…what to think…Edward was born a Christian in Palestine, had ancestors from Lebanon, grew up in Cairo but isolated from the muslim community, went to English schools which he hated, was educated in the United States and had become a spokesman for middle east affairs before his death in 2003. “Out of Place” is a good title; I have felt that way myself.
Have recently finished the acclaimed “The Looming Tower” by Lawrence Wright which is a history of Islamic radical fundamentalism beginning in the 1930’s and 40’s and ending with the bombing of the World Trade Center. Including the ridiculous and ultimately tragic machinations of the CIA and FBI, it reads like an unbelievable novel…and it left me drained and feeling hopeless.
What really frightened me recently was the sight of a young artist, on his knees in front of Santo Domingo Church in Oaxaca, working on a gigantic poster of Bin Laden. It was never put up because the next day the Federal Police routed and burned the planton (encampment) in the Santo Domingo Plaza.
The male fantasy of Saigon that was nurtured in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” written in the 1950’s is recreated superficially in bars in Saigon with names like Apocalypse Now and B4 75 where, to the pulse of 1960’s music like The Doors, Vietnamese women again run their hands over the backs of young and adventurous American males with a trust fund…love-you-long-time-you-be-my-big-honey…the twenty-something young guy at the next internet terminal says to his friend behind him…only god saved my life last night! “Nam,” says Lonely Planet guidebook, is a myth bound up with sex, drugs and a rock and roll soundtrack…with images of war, of the smell of napalm in the morning and hookers at night.
First of all, Vietnam is nothing like the mythical “Nam” that is portrayed in most of the post Vietnam literature and film which is that if Americans are caricatures of heavy handed bellicosity, then Vietnamese must be contemplative and peace loving. The jungle was no easier a habitat than it was for the Americans. Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnamese soldier who wrote “The Sorrow of War” (that every young boy in every city tries to sell you) described the forests of central Vietnam through which the many branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was carved, as alien: “Here when it is dark, trees and plants moan in awful harmony. When the ghostly music begins it unhinges the soul and the entire wood looks the same no matter where you are standing….living here one could go mad or be frightened to death.”
Western writings on Vietnam, according to Robert Templer in his “Shadows and Wind” published in 1998 in the UK, doesn’t take into account the diverse mix of religious and political beliefs that are evolving and changing. Vietnamese fighters were not all heroic martyrs as the propaganda in the museums of Hanoi would have you believe; many did not understand why they were fighting. But the creation of “Nam” and the concept of “Indochine,” French colonial nastalgia, was not possible without complicity on the part of powerful Vietnamese officials, according to Templer; creating a playground of colonial and war memories was a way for the government to mend broken ties and sell the country to tourists. It also had the side effect of isolating foreigners and distracting them from the widening ideological, economic and social issues that afflicted the country. Guilt and sadness that inflected the writing of American reporters who produced books on their returns to Vietnam in the 1990′s tended to offer only the most gentle criticisms of the government. As Templer puts it, “the government ensured that journalists and writers spent more time examining a past over which the government could exercise some control rather than a present that is slipping away from them.”
“Letters From Thailand” is a lovely novel wrtten in 1969 by “Botan”, a pseudonym of the Chinese-born Thai female writer, Supa Sirisingh, and recently translated into English by Susan Fulop Kepner, an academic on Southeast Asian studies from UCLA.
The book is written in the form of self-revealing letters to the beloved mother of a young man who leaves rural China to make his fortune in Thailand at the close of World War II. In Tan Suang U’s starkly honest account of his daily life in Bangkok’s bustling Chinatown, deeper themes emerge: his determination to succeed at business before all else; his hopes for his children in this strange new culture that sickens him by what he sees as it’s drunkeness, laziness, gambling and sexual depravity and his resentment at how easily his children embrace urban Thai culture that is becoming increasingly Westernized at the expense of their Chinese heritage that he holds dear.
Westerners will recognize the cross-cultural themes that emerge… the desire to hold on to cultural heritage in the midst of an alien land, the stereotypes that keep groups separated one from another and the struggle of oppressed women to transcend their own culture and live life on their own terms.
“Not to eat another man’s rice but to hate him” is something to be ashamed of, Suang U learns. “I was of the opinion that a good heart was not money in the bank,” Suang U says toward the end of the book. But he learns that “two baht worth of rice with love at the supper table is a feast.” Finally, a lonely old man, after he has passed his business on to the ungrateful son that he himself mentored, he discovers that “to be alone is terrible, but it is not so terrible as to be a guest in a son’s house.”
The strongest survival instinct is self deception. After a long sorrowful road to self-discovery he is astounded to learn two things: one is that money is not the most important thing in life; the other is that what we believe does not necessarily reflect what and who we are.
The recently published biography of Mao Tse Tung, simply titled “Mao” by Jung Chang who also some years ago wrote the respected three-generation epic “Wild Swans” was born in China, was a Red Guard for a time during the Cultural Revolution and witnessed first-hand the devastation wrought by Mao. She soon after fled to Britain where she was educated. She and her British husband spent 12 years researching the Russian archives and interviewing many of the principal actors of the Cultural Revolution who are still alive.
The book answers my question about why most mainland Chinese still revere Mao after all the devastation he wrought. Apparently, it is because in the absence of a free press he manufactured his persona and made up the whole myth about the Long March (which he fed to the American journalist Edgar Snow who disseminated Mao’s lies in his book “Red Star Over China” that most people in China still believe today!
Mao began with no official party status and conscripted local “bandits” that he called an “army.” Then he basically stole a small army from a military commander through blackmail, manipulation and by taking advantage of a technologically ineffective communication system between Shanghai and the rest of China and Moscow where Stalin was pulling the strings. It was by creating an army and by that he was then able to gain credibility and ascend to party leadership. All the while he was carried over snow-covered mountains on a litter by mostly barefoot carriers so he could comfortably read his books.
Meanwhile, Stalin’s top agenda was China’s defeat of the Japanese. Mao’s modus operandi was to lead Stalin into thinking he was following the Soviet line but all the while outmaneuvering Chiang Kai Khek and the Nationalist Army and all other Red factions who were competing for power…no small feat! Moscow bought into Mao’s deception and protected Mao.
Chiang Kai Khek’s nationalist forces had been “chasing” Mao from the south (his wife raised millions of dollars in the U.S. for this war) but let Mao and his “army” go because Stalin was holding Chiang’s son hostage in Moscow. Ironically, for Chiang, the Reds took over China and it took Chiang 11 years to get his son back. As we know, Chiang eventually fled to Taiwan.
When I was in Bangkok the summer of 2005, I gave the biography to a young Chinese woman in her early 20’s who was “visiting her boyfriend.” “He is very fat,” she said laughing, “but he is a very rich Texan!” She was by herself sitting next to me at a sushi bar. Her English was perfect and she was reading a Bangkok travel book in English! Since it is very unusual for mainland Chinese to get out of China alone, I suspect she was there to observe and report back. “Is it true, she asked, “that blacks have group sex?” Astounded, I answered that some may, but people are individuals and you can never say “all” people of an ethnic or racial group do anything! She looked puzzled. We talked for several hours the next morning in a busy coffee shop. I told her I thought Mao was worse than Hitler and she flew off the handle. “My mother (who is a university professor) loves Mao,” she yelled. She also embarrassed me to death in front of the Thais that were present: “I hate Buddah!” she yelled when I asked about Buddhism in China.
Meeting her reminded me of a young mainland Chinese “spy” in Australia who went public recently about a mainland Chinese spy network that apparently reports on overseas Chinese. He asked for asylum when he realized that he had been duped by the Party leadership. Australia, trying to get along with China hesitated but finally gave him temporary asylum (the US refused). He said that if he returned to China he would probably be killed or at least jailed and tortured, a claim that China has refuted of course.
Another eye-opening book is the biography of Mao “The Private Life of Chairman Mao” written by his personal physician of 25 years, Li Zhi-Sui. After Mao died, his physician moved to Chicago near his two sons who had been university educated there. The biography was published just before his death around 1995. The details in this book are shocking. It would have a profound consequence if these books became available to the mainland Chinese.
“Burmese Days” by British writer George Orwell, published in 1934, was based loosely on Orwell’s five years as a policeman in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma (now Myanmar), it is a caustic, fast-paced tale about the waning days of British imperialism before World War II. Publishers were reluctant to publish the book due to fear of libel suits. No retired British officers filed any libel suits, but the book was not available in India and Burma at the time of publication. The characters in the novel were based on real people and only on the insistence of the publishers were some of the places and names changed. It has been favourably compared with similar works by other between-the-wars British novelists such as Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham.
The story focuses on the life of John Flory in the fictional Upper Burma town of Kyauktada. Privately anti-English, he becomes the target of scheming by a corrupt local magistrate named U Po Kyin. Kyin’s chief ambition is to become the first native member of the local European Club, and he sees Flory’s friendship with the Indian Dr. Veraswami as a barrier to this. The attacks have potentially ruinous effects, as Flory harbors a strong desire to be accepted among the Europeans, especially by the lovely young Elizabeth, whom he hopes to marry.
It is easy to see why there are piles of this novel printed in English in the airports and other venues where Westerns can get their hands on it. Flory’s fate stands as a strong warning against outside interference in Burmese life.
Daniel Mason’s “The Piano Tuner,” is the mesmerizing story of Edgar Drake, commissioned by the British War Office in 1886 to travel to hostile Burma to repair a rare Erard grand piano vital to the Crown’s strategic interests. Eccentric Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll has brokered peace with local warlords primarily through music, a free medical clinic, and the “powers” of common scientific instruments, much to the dismay of warmongering officers suspect of such unorthodox methods. Drake is an introspective, well-mannered soul who, once there, falls in love with Burma and stays long past the piano-fixing to aid Carroll’s political agenda. Mason offers the townspersons’ view of Drake:
“It is only natural that a guest be treated with hospitality, the quiet man who has come to mend the singing elephant is shy, and walks with the posture of one who is unsure of the world, we too would keep him company to make him feel welcome, but we do not speak English…. They say he is one of the kind of men who has dreams, but tells no one.”
And then there is the indipensable “The World’s Most Dangerous Places” by the consummate journalist Robert Young Pelton. A regular columnist for National Geographic Adventure, Pelton produces and hosts a TV series for Discovery and the Travel Channel and appears frequently as an expert on current affairs and travel safety on CNN, FOX and other networks.
“The United States has a very comprehensive system of travel warnings,” says Pelton, “but conveniently overlooks the dangers within its own borders. Danger cannot be measured, only prepared against. The most dangerous thing in the world,” he says, “is ignorance.” Welcome to Dangerous Places…”no walls, no barriers, no bull” it says in the preface. “With all the talk about survival and fascination with danger, why is it that people never admit that life is like watching a great movie and–pooof–the power goes off before we see the ending? It’s no big deal. Death doesn’t really wear a smelly cloak and carry a scythe…it’s more likely the attractive girl who makes you forget to look right before you cross that busy intersection in London…
It helps to look at the big picture when understanding just what might kill you and what won’t. It is the baby boomers’ slow descent into gray hair, brand-name drugs, reading glasses, and a general sense of not quite being as fast as they used to be that drives the survival thing. Relax: You’re gonna die. Enjoy life, don’t fear it.
To some, life is the single most precious thing they are given and it’s only natural that they would invest every ounce of their being into making sure that every moment is glorious, productive, and safe. So does “living” mean sitting strapped into our Barca Lounger, medic at hand, 911 autodialer at the ready, carefully watching for low-flying planes? Or should you live like those folks who are into extreme, mean, ultimate adventure stuff…sorry that stuff may be fun to talk about at cocktail parties, but not really dangerous…not even half as dangerous as riding in a cab on the graveyard shift in Karachi.
Living is (partly) about adventure and adventure is about elegantly surfing the tenuous space between lobotomized serenity and splattered-bug terror and still being in enough pieces to share the lessons learned with your grandkids. Adventure is about using your brain, body and intellect to weave a few bright colors in the world’s dull, gray fabric…
The purpose of DP is to get your head screwed on straight, your sphincter unpuckered and your nose pointed in the right direction.”