Thursday, 24 September 2009


It’s Saturday afternoon, and I am lying in the hammock reading. The Ferrari basks in the sunshine outside the gate. Guinness The Dog chases lizards around the garden. Life is goodish. But then as it gets late, and the shadows start to lick over the trees and me and Guinness The Dog, I get the bug, the itch, to do something, be somewhere. So I get the bus downtown. And downtown Recife is as it always is, the hubadrub of thousands or millions of people milling around and buying rat poison or TV antennas or socks from the hawkers in the street, or small stuffed toys or jeans or underwear from the stores that belt out music/death-by-advertising-jingle every twenty metres or so. The sky is blue, the sun is golden, everything is right with the world. I mooch around the used book sellers at the far end of Avenida Dantas Barreto, and there I come across a treasure – Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels With Herodotus. I haggle a bit with the stall owner – he wants r$15, I offer r$16, we end up at r$10 and a can of Guarana. I rush home, clutching my find in excited, clammy hands.

Only – I don’t! Really a friend of mine asks me to recommend some books, and in the course of our correspondence he recommends a few too, and one of them is Kapuscinski (who I have never heard of), and he lends it to me. And there’s the first rule of reading travel writers, or writers or auto-biographers in general (and I include myself in this sorry list) – we lie. We don’t (or at least I don’t) lie a lot, though Robert Carver, author of Paradise With Serpents – a preposterous transforming of what seems to have been a pleasant enough soiree in Paraguay, where the author unfortunately (or some might say fortunately) nearly-but-not-quite gets mugged at the end, into a tour-of-duty-with-the-Vietcong-what-fresh-hell-is-this-you-can’t-even-drink-the-water-you-kn0w - deserves an honourable mention in the you won’t believe what I got up to on my hols Oscars. But we embellish, we exaggerate, we colour, we dramatise. We talk about going to funk bailles in the Alemão favela when really it was an evangelico church reading group in a perfectly safe though lower class neighbourhood (or worse – you really did go to a funk baille in the Alemão favela, but you went as part of an organised tour with the youth hostel you were staying in) and we talk about murderous football violence when it was a couple of kids throwing hot dogs at each other. We boast about our intrepidness, when really it’s often just a case of getting on the wrong bus, realising we’re in the wrong place, and getting the hell out of there as fast as possible. Because let’s face it, most of us don’t really do that much that’s very interesting, it’s just different because we’re in a different country and culture, and so we have to make it seem that much more interesting to please the folks back home and because we’ve spent a million bucks on the plane ticket.

Ol’ Ryszard adroitly avoids such perils by doing nothing very much at all that is interesting on his travels, at least in his early days*. In fact, Travels With Herodotus might be the only travel book in history that could well have been written without actually doing any travelling at all, apart from Xavier De Maistre’s Journey Around My Bedroom. Ryszard goes to India – he likes it a lot, but what with all the heat and everything, gets tired often, and so spends a lot of time in his room reading, well, Herodotus. He goes to China – he can’t speak the language, finds the Chinese people oppressive and impenetrable, and so spends all his time in his room reading, um, Herodotus. In Africa he wanders about a bit, but still manages to free up approximately 90% of his time to read, you guessed it, Herodotus. Anyway, it’s fantastic, though Peter Robb got the travelling while reading books balance a little bit better in Death In Brazil – more travel, more getting drunk in bars, a little less time reading books in hotel rooms.

Ryszard gets into a few scrapes, though. And in the midst of one of them (following a stranger up a mosque tower in a remote neighbourhood of Cairo in search of a promised fabulous view of the city – you guessed it, he gets mugged at Koranpoint) produces a very fine definition of what it is to do things you know might be stupid but you have to do them anyway because if you don’t then what’s the point of being here in the first place. I am by nature quite credulous, he says, to the point even of regarding suspicion not as a manifestation of reason but a character flaw. This is quite marvellous, I think, and very much sums up my own attitude towards such things – yes, I might get robbed or even killed, but nothing ventured nothing gained, and anyway people on the whole are generally good, somewhere at heart, aren’t they?

Though maybe there’s more to it. I don’t take that many risks in life, generally, but I do have something of a what’s the worst that could happen attitude to things. If someone stole the Ferrari, for example, what would I think? Would I be devastated and distraught? Would I rage against society and the government? Would I form a vigilante group and go out seeking justice? Probably not. I’d probably find it funny, after a while, though a bit frustrating, and after a bit of raging, enjoy the raconteur’s drama of retelling the saga over a sea of alcohol in bars from Rio Doce to Jaboatao (and reduced to taking the bus, I’d be able to drink as much as I liked). And I wonder why I think like this, sometimes. Is it from too many years of living alone? Becoming convinced that, well, if I met with a terrible end, who would really care? My mother, of course, and probably Guinness The Dog (once she noticed her dinner bowl was empty), and now The Fanautico Girlfriend, and a clutch of good and trusted friends around the globe (ok, Norn Iron, Manchester, London, Belo Horizonte, Joao Pessoa and Recife).

Other than that? Gulp.

Is it a product of being, well, a little above average at things generally, but not really good at anything? Meaning that I can get by, earn a crust, make my way in the world without a great deal of effort, and yet at the same time know that I will probably not ever amount to anything truly great, or become very rich or anything like that, so there is very little point in extending oneself overly to try and achieve something that’s probably not going to happen anyway. Meaning that I don’t care very much about how things go, because they’ll always pretty much be about 7/10, even though they sometimes dip down to 5 or 6 and sometimes get as high as 8. In other words, if The Ferrari gets nicked, in a few months I’ll be able to buy another equally aged jalopy. So where’s the loss?

Now there’s a life philosophy to pass on to the grandkids.

In short, I’ve had a good innings, I’ve been around, I have known love, I have read and (ha!) even been read by others (not many, admittedly). I’ve never engaged in carnal relations with a midget Thai prostitute, I’ve never seen the Taj Mahal, and it’s probably not all that much fun anyway, and I’ve never been to Australia, but all of those I can happily live without (particularly the last). So while I’m not about to dive into the middle of Jovem Sport wearing a t-shirt printed Welcome to Serie B, Losers, Beijos from the Inferno equally I’ve developed a healthy well why not? attitude to things that is pretty much essential if you’re going to have any kind of fun (and write about it) in places where the locals talk kind of funny.

And that’s a good thing (and not a suicide note, Ma, in case you’re wondering), isn’t it?

* This is obviously a preposterous thing to say, given that Rszyard Kapuscinski was one of the world´s foremost journalists writing on cultures other than one´s own and how things spin in the darker spots of the globe. But if you read the first part of Travels With Herodotus it really does seem like he has more than a little in common with those admirable monied Brazilian tourists who visit the paradaisical beaches along the Pernambuco coast and then spend their holidays, um, sitting by the hotel pool (though none of these people are much for the reading of books, and certainly not for reading Herodotus). It gets better later, though. All of the above (about Rszyard Kapuscinski) I learnt in a few seconds via internet search engines, which pretty much proves the idea that knowledge and learning are now entirely redundant and all you need to be able to do to pass yourself off as a clever dick is know how to type and read.

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