Thursday, April 14, 2011

Entry 33 4.8.11

Entry 33, March 8th, 2011, 7:57pm (ship time)

Today was Roatan (Honduras) again, except this time the weather was very different than my last visit. A month ago, Roatan was covered in rain and mist, but today there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the sun was out in full force. It was hot – Roatan is easily our most “tropical” stop, with high humidity and overflowing with wet plant life (in contrast to the Colombian ports, which are very dry, and the Antilles ports, which are more moderate). I was drenched in sweat after my short fifteen minute walk along the coastal road to the village of Coxen Hole. Luckily I'm pretty comfortable in hot weather; my family would be melting.

I've written about Roatan's architecture before, but there are a couple things worth adding. Taking the coastal road from the ship dock to the nearest village, the sea side of the road is lined with buildings entirely suspended on wooden pilings out over the water. I saw one bar that was literally a gang-plank set against the sidewalk leading out to a platform built on the water ($2 beers, too). A storm would likely demolish half of the town, although this was on the sheltered side of the island.

The island of Roatan, by the way, is about twenty miles long by one to two miles wide and stretches West to East in a line North of the mainland. It is part of Honduras and its inhabitants speak Spanish, although everywhere I went American dollars were common currency, undoubtedly due to the tourist trade that is the primary form of commerce. I can tell that there were British imperial interests here as well from the names of some locations (Pollitilly Bight, anyone?). The island is protected on the North side by an extensive line of reefs, which is why the ship docks on the South side, a few miles from most of the resorts (I was wondering about this a month ago). We docked at the Western end of the island, and a month ago when I took a taxi with the cast to the beach we were in a place called the West Bay (which is technically West of the West End, but hey, whatever).

Today, however, I opted to explore the nearby village of Coxen Hole, located about twenty minutes walk East along the seaside road. The village is very long and narrow, as it is squeezed between the mountainous jungle on one side and the ocean on the other, although after a bit it begins to open up a little. As it was a ship day, Coxen Hole was buzzing with activity, although the farther I got from the ship the more I began to feel that it would be busy even on off days. Cars, taxis, motorcycles, and small trucks zip back and forth unceasingly along the one road, making life precarious for those on bikes and on foot (including yours truly). The sidewalk is a haphazard, casual affair, often blocked by street vendors or barmen luring in tourists with cheap alcohol (who are still an order of magnitude less aggravating than the vendors and taxi drivers in Colombia . . . No Taxi! No Taxi! Comprendes?!? Dios mio!).

The village itself, though, clearly predates the ships, which means that it is actually interesting (unlike the “village” at the port). Most of the foot traffic was made up of local people doing their thing – when I was there, school had just gotten out, and so the streets were flooded with children of all ages in smart blue uniforms (light blue on top, dark on bottom, long skirts for the girls while the boys were in trousers). One enterprising young man had started his own school bus service, which consisted of a pickup truck with about twenty kids in the back. He'd slow down for someone's stop and they'd leap from the moving vehicle (if these government budget cuts result in enough privatizing of public services, maybe we should consider a similar service back home!), schoolbag in hand.

In general, though, the village was a riot of activity unlike anything we have back home. Most of the buildings are two stories tall, and of widely varying quality. One reminded me of the hostel that the band stayed in back in Kyoto a couple years ago; the only entrance was down a long gutter with boards raised on cinder blocks to keep one's feet dry. Others are quite solid and made of brick or cement, usually the churches or banks. Wires and clotheslines stretch overhead everywhere, and people on second story balconies look over the entire raucous scene from rocking chairs or hammocks, trying to keep cool in the heat. There are no crosswalks; instead, pedestrian activity operates on the principle of critical mass – once enough people gather on a street corner, they step out into the street to a chorus of tinny car horns and scurry across before the flow of traffic resumes.

The people themselves were quite friendly, giving me directions on a couple of occasions. Prices are usually negotiable, and renegotiable – the young woman at the internet cafe tried to tell me that my hour of internet was up about fifteen minutes early (diez y cinco minutos mas! I stuttered and had to repeat myself). Perhaps one in three speaks English, although there are a few words that everyone knows (chicken, internet, and taxi). My Spanish is beginning to improve and I can catch snippets of conversations, although I still hesitate to ask for directions (I can ask where something is in Spanish, but I may not understand the answer!). The Spanish on Roatan is spoken moderately fast – not as quickly as in Chile, but faster than I heard in California.

I got some good pictures, but I didn't take too many. It felt strange to be taking pictures of these peoples' homes and businesses, and I didn't want to be too intrusive (I was imagining how I would feel if someone wandered through my town and took a picture of my house because it was a curiosity). Luckily due to my skin tone it is literally impossible to be more obviously a tourist, and so I wasn't embarrassing myself as I got my phone out and started snapping some frames (my phone later took a pretty severe fall on the pier . . . no evidence of anything besides superficial damage so far, even though the impact was severe enough to shake the micro SD card lose . . . fingers crossed).

The rest of today's entry is brought to you by Mungo Park -- intrepid explorer, accomplished writer, and emotional enigma. Financed by the Royal Society, Mungo set out to explore Africa twice in his lifetime, and his end remains shrouded in mystery. He's the latest biographical sketch in the “Age of Wonder,” my other current literary pursuit, and his story reads so well that I'm going to summarize it here for you. Seriously, it's got everything – danger, intrigue, exotic locales, great personal courage, a love story, battles, delirium, social commentary, exploration, and above all, a classically tragic hero – humane, brave, tough, smart, and yet so fatally flawed!

Mungo Park was a Scot, named for the Saint Mungo and raised poor but happy on a farm. At fourteen, he went to live with his uncle in Edinburgh. His uncle was a surgeon, and Mungo subsequently studied to become a doctor at Edinburgh University. He also made what was perhaps his only friend in life, Alexander Anderson, here in Edinburgh, and undoubtedly met Alex's younger sister Allie. He was known for being extremely reserved, and even those closest to him rarely claimed to know what Mungo was thinking or feeling.

At twenty one he moved to London to seek “wider horizons,” and was introduced to Joseph Banks (then president of the Royal Society) by his own brother in law, a botanist. Banks was impressed with Mungo's combination of physical toughness, intellectual training, and steadfast demeanor, and (after a successful eighteen month stint as assistant surgeon on an expedition to Sumatra) Banks recommended to the Africa Association that Mungo be sent to explore the Niger river.

At this point, Europeans knew nearly nothing about the African interior. Various men had begun pursuing this goal (John Ledyard from Cairo in 1788, Daniel Houghton across the Sahara in 1791, and Friedrich Hornemann from Tripoli in 1799, to name a few), but none of the them had returned to Britain alive (None! Zero. Zip. Nada.) The great goal was the city of Timbuktu (spelled “Timbuctoo” at the time), rumored to be a city of gold that sat astride the Niger river at the confluence of the Arabic and African trade routes. The Niger river was then said to flow East across the continent, creating an immensely important trade route.

When Banks proposed this idea to Mungo, the Scot replied quietly that he had a passionate desire to explore Africa and was willing to risk his life in the doing. Banks was overjoyed, as the journey had overtones of his own exploration of Tahiti with Captain Cook's expedition, and as he was increasingly confined to a chair (due to gout) the only method of exploration left to him was to fund rising young stars like Park. Accordingly, Mungo was launched single-handedly in 1794 at the continent with two shotguns, two compasses, a sextant, a medicine chest, an umbrella, a salary of 11 pounds a month, and a ticket to the Gold Coast.

After a few months in transit and a few more spent laid up at the edge of civilization with malaria, Park set off across the continent with two guides, supplies, and gifts to barter safe transit through tribal lands. After two years, and every disaster imaginable (immediate enslavement of his guides, theft of vital supplies, imprisonment by hostile chiefs, torture by said chiefs' wives, bandits, starvation, yellow fever, dysentery, etc.), Park found the Niger river and determined that it flowed East, but was stopped short of Timbuktu. Several times during his journey was he saved by the charity of local farmers and shepherds, and Mungo Park' Travels reflect a gradual revelation: that he, at first the heroic white man on a mission to discover the unknown, is in fact a lonely, ignorant, pitiable, motherless and unloved outcast (this description was taken from a song that farm women sang him after finding Park collapsed by the side of the river). It is particularly poignant that Park had this realization just as the heavy wheels of European colonialism were beginning to turn in Africa.

Park eventually made it home, paying for his passage by writing bits of the Qu'ran on pieces of parchment as charms. He slipped into London unannounced in December 1797, where he had been widely considered dead for quite some time. His journals were published as Travels in the Interior of Africa, and earned enough money to allow him to marry his childhood sweetheart and best friend's sister, Allie Anderson (she'd waited for him even after his death). He settled down as a physician in Peebles and raised three children.

And lived happily ever after? Not quite. Mungo Park, ever the Romantic explorer, was restless. In 1803 he started studying Arabic. His second expedition was financed by the British government and included himself, his friend and brother in law Alexander Anderson, an Army captain, and forty handpicked soldiers. Instead of exploration, this expedition was concerned with Imperial matters, and instead of trading beads, Park was trading guns. It met with just as much disaster as the first – as with most such expeditions, disease was the main killer. The soldiers dropped one by one, and Park was desperately ill with dysentery, dosing himself at one point with mercury calomel to avoid death and subsequently being unable to sleep for six days due to pains “lancing like fire” through his abdomen. All through this his stoic exterior slipped not one bit, to the point that the soldiers thought he was in the best of health.

But the three letters written by Park at Sansanding begin to show even the indomitable Park taking some emotional wear. His closest friend, Alex, had just died from Malaria, and for the first time bravado begins to appear in Park' writing. No further record of the expedition exists – only the fact that the seven remaining Europeans made it 500 miles down the Niger, inexplicably refusing to pay tribute (an insult that Mungo had never been foolish enough to give before) before running aground at the rapids at Boussa, where they were ambushed by Tuareg tribesmen. The sole survivor, a local slave, told a story of a day-long battle in the shallows between a potentially delirious Park, Captain Martyn, and a small army of warriors. The last anyone saw of Park was when he flung himself, carrying Martyn, into the river. He was thirty four.

But the story doesn't end here. In 1827, obsessed with the idea that Park was alive and well somewhere in Africa (having “gone native”), his oldest son Thomas set out after him. He disappeared as well – the only thing ever found was a white undershirt labeled “T. Park” that was delivered to another explorer a month later in a basket of laundry.

What a story! You couldn't make this stuff up. Mungo Park is the archetypical Romantic explorer. He sets the standard. The influence of his writing can be seen in Coelridge, Keats, Shelley, and most obviously in Joseph Conrad (I mean, come on, Heart of Darkness? Practically the same story).

But damn, I gotta admit, my thirst for exploration is at least a little bit quenched, after reading about what happened to him (and his contemporaries).

I'm left asking – what were you looking for, Mungo? Why did you go back to Africa, leaving your beloved wife and children? Why did you go with a military expedition this time instead of coming peacefully? And why did you insult the tribes along the Niger? Did you survive the battle? Did you “go native” and become a great chieftain? What were you looking for, Mungo?

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