Homebase: Armchair Adventure Part Two

Though COVID restrictions have begun to lift around the globe, incidents of new cases are on the rise in the U.S. and elsewhere. It seems wise to limit one’s movement to necessity only, leaving adventure best experienced from the comfort of your favorite armchair, lounge or hammock. This selection of recommendations will take you across the Outback, into Russia, around Sicily, down the Silk Road and out of our current situation.

Tracks by Robyn Davidson

Let’s face it – Robyn Davidson has chutzpah. Anyone, male or female, who’d set off across the Outback alone has to. Davidson’s walkabout began in 1977 when she left Alice Springs with just a small herd of camels, her trusty dog, Diggity, and her wits en tow. During her nine-month journey, heat and loneliness dogged her every step and the existential nature of her odyssey served to reduce Davidson to an elemental state. She began to walk naked, letting the politesse of civilization fall by the wayside, and to see herself as just a being  – no higher or lower than any other living thing.  A chance meeting with a National Geographic photographer early on in her journey inspired an article, then a book. Tracks was published to great acclaim, winning the inaugural Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1980. Since publication, it has been translated into twenty languages, never been out of print and even inspired a feature film in 2014. A hero to many, Davidson’s honest and straightforward account of her journey may inspire you to endeavor outside your own comfort zone.

Journey into Russia by Laurens Van Der Post

In Journey into Russia, master storyteller Laurens Van Der Post casts his eye to the Russian horizon – broad and complicated though it may be – elucidating along the way the psyche of a people yet to understand freedom. Published in the 1960s, as the Cold War still waged and the borders of the Soviet Union still held firm, Van Der Post, under the watchful eyes of his minders, met “Russians” of every ethnic, educational and occupational background. From the Baltic States to the countries of Central Asia, he met Uzbeks mourning a culture they were denied the opportunity to honor and Latvian barber-poets keen on listening to poetry being recited daily on the radio. By all accounts, an outsider would deduce that Russians are half Asiatic and half European, yet to their core they have always looked to the west, to Europe for their validation. Nowhere is their schizophrenic, multifaceted history, so full of folly, more evident than in the architecture of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. With its many influences (Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Tartar, Babylonian, Assyrian, Scythian), asymmetry, mismatched decoration and lack of a coherent color scheme, this architectural marvel commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century begins to make sense the more you contemplate it.

Van Der Post writes:

Though this building possesses no immediate symmetry it implies with a passion a profound and organic meaning. It has a firm, still centre round which all the colourful disorder spins. Despite the darkness, horror and the madness of the moment in which this church was conceived it nevertheless conveyed to me some awareness of the urgent necessity of making whole the many and varied fragments of the past, the boundless possibilities, conflicting trends, the paradoxes and tensions of this immense land and its people.

In Van Der Post’s time, the State was the fulcrum around which Russian life spun, limiting its citizens their freedoms, weighing them down. How lucky we are in the West to enjoy our democratic freedoms and we had best not turn the proverbial blind eye lest we lose them. I think Van Der Post would agree.

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

Creatives are conjurers and Bruce Chatwin was one of the best. Like the seemingly inscrutable Aborigines he ventures to profile in his bestselling book The Songlines, he takes his own ‘walkabout’ across the Australian landscape. His bouts of wandering, so to speak, may have been preordained coming as he did from a family of wanderers. And, with an Anglo Saxon surname meaning  ‘winding path’ – what can you expect?  His own path to wandering began when he was struck by a case of sudden blindness likely caused by his detailed work as a fine art expert with Sotheby’s in London.  His doctor prescribed ‘long horizons’ as an antidote and the die was cast – away he went wandering ‘lonely as a cloud.’

In The Songlines, Chatwin’s nimble, filing cabinet mind is on full display as he turns his insatiable curiosity on Australia, the people he encounters there and the concept of nomadism. Characters of every stripe stride across the pages – a sympathetic Russian cartographer, racist policemen, a mysterious shaman – and the Outback becomes a metaphysical realm where spirits move across the dry, red landscape – unseen guides to a past, present and future if one cares to see. In his magician hands, the Aboriginal Dreamtime comes to life – singing songs of simplicity and complexity. Chatwin makes you want to put your own soles on the road, whistling while you go.

On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal by Mary Taylor Simeti

Sicily is a siren call and, though a siren call by definition infers something that ends badly, Mary Taylor Simeti’s answer proved prosperous, inspiring her beguiling memoir – On Persephone’s Island. As a wide-eyed twenty-something, she went to Sicily to volunteer for a year and ended up staying for twenty. In Greek Mythology, Sicily was home to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, and her daughter, Persephone, and the site of Persephone’s unfortunate kidnapping. Snatched by her uncle, Hades, while innocently picking flowers, she was forced to become his wife and queen of the underworld. Her father, Zeus, attempted to rescue her, but because she had consumed pomegranate seeds while in Hades’ realm she was doomed to spend part of the year with her husband and the rest with her mother above ground. This arrangement marks the changing of the seasons – the birth-death-rebirth cycle that underlies all life.

Like Persephone, Simeti also marries; though of her own accord, and her life flourishes, like the many crops grown on this seemingly parched, yet very fertile island. She raises two children, helps restore and run her husband’s family’s farm and steeps herself in a multi-layered culture many millennia in the making. How apropos Simeti should choose to chronicle a year in the life of Sicily beginning in winter just as the land is going fallow, yet life above is so rich with festival and tradition. With her elegant prose, she provides a road map to the island’s incredible history – history that languishes in the faded and decaying palazzi and in the Phoenician, Greek, Arab, Norman, and Spanish ruins thousands of years old.  As winter shifts to spring and then to summer, we gain more insight into the Sicilian way of life, their traditions, and what grows on the island in wild abandon:

The selinon, the wild celery that gave this ancient city {Selinunte} its name, was submerged by the red of the sulla, the yellow of the mayflowers and mustard, the blue of the bugloss and borage, bobbing and trembling under the insistent and noisy prodding of thousands of bees.

We also learn that despite the beauty and fecundity an undercurrent of sadness runs through life here. This is due, no doubt, to the presence of Mafiosi that swarm the island extorting their due, robbing Sicilians their ability to truly gain a foothold economically. Extortion and violence are so part of the warp and weft of Sicilian life that a holiday treat so sickeningly sweet you might forget the Mafia’s constant threat is called “The Triumph of Greed.” An intoxicating blend of sight, smell, sound and taste, On Persephone’s Island is itself a triumph not of greed, but of celebration.

Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron

On the fabled Silk Road, all roads lead west from Xian, the famous capital of the Tang Dynasty, to the shores of the Mediterranean and back again. In Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road, we learn this legendary merchant route was in essence a ‘shifting fretwork of arteries and veins’ along which precious goods shifted east and west for centuries. Tracing the less-traveled route from Xian to Antioch, Thubron penetrates the sands of time and civilization to discover the once great Silk Road is all but gone – its networks and monuments destroyed much like the dreams of the people he profiles along the way. From the fluctuating borders of the ancient past to Soviet expansion to Chinese might in the present, he captures the melancholy of subjugation, exploitation and destruction. In haunting haiku-like sentences and passages, he also reveals the natural beauty of the land he passes through, as well as the beauty of decay.

In the dawn the land is empty. A causeway stretches across the lake on a bridge of silvery granite, and beyond it, pale on its reflection, a temple shines. The light falls pure and still. The noises of the town have faded away, and the silence intensifies the void – the artificial lake, the temple, the bridge – like the shapes for a ceremony which has been forgotten.

And of destroyed spirits and prospects, he learns the lack of hope and of opportunity are pervasive. The disintegration of the Soviet Union created a void into which opportunity evaporated as quickly as mist disappears in sunshine.  And worse, Chinese communism spreads a malaise of inertia, choking innovation, cultural identity and will in its grip. Slogging along with the march of time deigned to erase the loser and the threat of a SARS outbreak, he walks 7,000 miles across drifting sand, broken tarmac, rubbled-lanes, and hard-packed earth, discovering the detritus of civilization – bits of turquoise tile, pieces of green ceramic and ‘indecipherable bones’ – beneath his feet. He ventures into tombs, monuments, mosques and into the Valley of the Assassins, climbing the rock face atop which their hideout was said to exist.  Described as ‘classical studies meets exotic adventure’ by Richard Horan of the Christian Science Monitor, Shadow of the Silk Road chronicles a world in constant flux, fluttering in and out of view like the much-coveted, diaphanous silk once traded along its route. Join Thubron on his journey before all evidence of the Silk Road and its peoples entirely disappear into shifting sand, forgotten memories, mingled bloodlines, persecution and further decay.

Postscript:

The travel narrative genre is a favorite of mine – it takes you places you might not ever go and you get to live vicariously along the way. Through the journeys of others, you get to experience scenes of subtle and of breathtaking beauty and sometimes of ugliness. More importantly, you are provided the opportunity to discover the beauty and diversity of the human race and have the chance to celebrate it, learning to embrace the worth of all. And, of history, you learn so much.

I have written about ten of my favorite armchair adventures, but I truly have so many and I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend a few more. Like Colin Thubron, I too admire the work of Dame Freya Stark. How fortunate he was to have known her. Lawrence Durrell, another favorite of mine, also knew Freya. His time throughout the Mediterranean allowed him the opportunity to meet many inveterate travelers, writers and bon vivants – all truly unique individuals.

Durrell was a friend and pen pal with Henry Miller and through Durrell I discovered Miller’s book The Colossus of Maroussi – a thoroughly engaging portrait of late 1930’s Greece. At that time, life in Greece was still simple, sleepy, filled with light – sublime. While Miller is not a favorite of mine, I did enjoy this book – it is filled with stunning descriptions and wonderful passages, such as this one in which he describes the spell poet, intellectual and storyteller George Katsimbalis cast when he spoke:

Magic is never destroyed – the most we can do is to cut ourselves off, amputate the mysterious antennae which serve to connect us with forces beyond our power of understanding. Many a time, as Katsimbalis talked, I caught that look on the face of a listener which told me that the invisible wires had been connected, that something was being communicated which was over and above language, over and above personality, something magical which we recognize in dream and which makes the face of the sleeper relax and expand with a bloom as we rarely see in waking life.

And that is what travel writing does for me – it introduces me to the stories of the world and the inexorable spell they cast.

by Tammy L. Currier – who, when she isn’t reading, writing or dreaming about travel, is designing floral arrangements for an appreciative clientele.

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