NOTE: I read this classic American travel book for the first time recently for a friend's online book club but ultimately I was unable to attend the club's online discussion. So my friend asked me to send some comments which turned into a review that she then asked me to post. Here it is. -- @davidhunterbishop
Blue Highways is a book I put on my reading list when it was first published in 1982. It’s wandered off and on the list for many years.
You may have heard me exclaim: “Yeah, I always wanted to read that!”
But “that” was always sidelined by money, time, indifference, circumstance, happenstance, … whateverstance.
I never read the book.
Then recently a traveler friend @kristamuscarella posted her online book club pick, Blue Highways!
It’s a question of mental health and physical health.
What would you do?
I’m working on five months of isolation in Mexico. I’ve been careful, and so far safe. But Mexican officials, like their counterparts in the U.S.. have botched the pandemic response.
Cases and deaths are skyrocketing. The saddest part is that their foolish plans were a predictable failure.
So why should I continue to stay hunkered down here in this festering disease pool?
For one reason, there are real physical health risks to be encountered these days traveling through airports, boarding planes and sitting cooped up with strangers in a flying metal tube for hours.
On the other hand, I feel my mental health taking a beating while being cooped up in a room for months with no end in sight, watching my precious remaining years of travel life being swallowed up by the voracious gaping maw of the pandemic.
Since March I’ve stayed isolated in place in Merida, Mexico, hoping in vain that the reasons I’ve found travel so rewarding would show some signs of returning.
But they haven’t. Travel in these early stages of coronavirus has turned away from personal interaction toward a more inward venture, almost an insular pursuit. It’s become more than ever about where we go and what we see, and much less about who we meet and the friends we make along the way.
That’s so opposed to what I’ve found rewarding about travel since starting to explore the world in 2016.
When so much of the joy of pre-Covid travel was the free exchange of friendship and culture among people, these days travelers are wary of being too close to one another, while the people in places they visit are wary of the travelers themselves.
Most travelers now wear protective gear and keep a healthy distance from anyone they don’t know. It’s understood that you’ll stay over there with your trusted friends, while I stay over here with mine, if not by myself, at a well-distanced table, and never shall we meet.
The power of a barrier-busting smile has disappeared behind masks of many designs.
The term "social distancing" is such an oxymoron it ought to be abandoned. There is nothing “social” about it.
Veteran travelers are noticing and reporting on the recent dramatic changes they're seeing on the road.
"It is a different kind of travel," said Sherry Ott at ottsworld.com, where she’s been chronicling her journeys around the world since 2006.
"I normally love to meet new people when I travel,” she said, talking on her site about a recent road trip through several western states. “But in socially distanced travel, opportunities to dig more into the local culture and meet people is greatly reduced. That felt weird to me."
Traveling icon “Nomadic Matt” Kepnes, founder of The Nomadic Network and author of the recently published book, “Ten Years a Nomad,” also started venturing out slowly again recently with a meandering solo road trip from his business base in Texas to his parents’ home in New England.
“Traveling in the time of COVID really makes it hard to meet people,” said Kepnes, who has already suffered a bout with the virus. Surprisingly, though, after only a few months, he tests negative for antibodies, meaning he could get sick with the virus again.
“I don’t really want to meet strangers at the moment," he told a recent gathering of The Nomadic Network followers on Zoom. "It’s kinda hard to meet people right now.”
Learning about a local culture requires a certain intimacy with local people, but masks and social distancing erect formidable social barriers. And if the point of travel is meeting people and making new friends, simple sightseeing leaves much to be desired.
Will the good old days of unfettered social travel ever come back? Or will social distancing forever rob us of the best reasons to travel?
For travelers interested more in meeting people than where they go and which hotels they stay in, the want of a more authentic kind of experience is beginning to feel like just a sentimental longing for quaint times past.
Yet I find it difficult to imagine a travel scenario in the future that sacrifices the higher value of human interaction for the hollower pursuit of airline miles, guided tours, and cocktails by the pool at an appropriate distance.
With much of the world still struggling with control of the pandemic, we’re still a long way from any certainty about the future. Yet as much as I try to keep a positive attitude, I can't help feeling gloomy about it.
While the future of travel post-Covid has not yet even begun to play out, the early indicators paint a bleak picture for at least another year, if not longer.
This taken from today's online Mexico News Daily:
"Despite government reports claiming the situation is improving, Mexico has the fourth highest death toll of any country, with more than 40,000 new cases last week, and nearly 300,000 confirmed cases as of Sunday. Government health officials repeatedly warn that the numbers may actually be higher, and some states are considering shutting down again. Yet Mexico has opened for tourism and is promoting heavily."
Mexico's President Lopez Obrador is giving his friend Trump a good run for the title of World's Worst Covid-19 Manager.
Meanwhile, I've been hunkered down in Merida watching this unfold since March, and now that Americans are being held up as travel pariahs around the globe, there are few, if any, good places left where an American can go.
Ay yi yi!
Since I'm in Mexico, I’m reading "Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America," by Enrique Krauze, which mentions Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, who was president of Mexico in the late 19th Century.
A couple of years ago when I was living in Culiacan, in the Sinaloa District of Mexico, I met a man from Mexico City named Erick Lerdo de Tejada.
Erick and I are both great baseball fans who happened to stay in the same Airbnb during the two weeks that the Caribbean World Series of Baseball was being held in Culiacan that year.
Erick and I became good friends and have stayed in touch since then.
So when I noticed the former president’s name in the book, I messaged Erick asking if he was a descendant. He said Sebastian is his great-uncle (maybe great-great), but the former president had no offspring.
However Erick is a direct descendant of Sebastian’s brother Miguel, who also played a prominent role in Mexican history as an influential statesman and lawmaker and authored Lerdo Law, an important policy of land ownership in Mexico.
Since politics is all in the Lerdo de Tejada family, I suggested to Erick that he ought to run for election against the current president of Mexico, known as AMLO, who's as wacky as Trump on pandemic issues. AMLO believes, for example, that providing for Covid-19 tests is a waste of time and resources.
Erick agreed it would be good to get the family name back in the Presidential Office in Mexico. I’ll think about it,” he said.
So that’s a neat little connection with Mexican history for me in Merida, but not the only one.
The first ten days I lived in Merida were pre-lockdown, so I was able to do some exploring. I noted how prominent the name Felipe Carrillo Puerto was in this region. The district of Merida where my room was located was named for him, as were an important buildings and city features, and a city in the neighboring state of Quintana Roo was named for him.
I asked my host about Carillo Puerto and she just off-handedly mentioned that the man was her grandfather! Whoa!
I did some research and discovered that Carrillo Puerto was a social reformer and political revolutionary who was governor of the State of Yucatan until assassinated by political opponents in 1924. He was a supporter of rights for the Maya population, which in part led to his demise, and he remains popular today among the indigenous community.
I couldn’t find English language books about him before the lockdown gripped the city, but there was a good bit about him online that gave me enough of the story.
Part of it involved a tragic affair with an American newspaper reporter, Alma Reed, to whom he was to be wed four days before he was shot. Carrillo Puerto was buried just a few steps from where he and several of his supporters were assassinated in Merida’s Cementerio General, where his grave is at the center of an elaborate setting in the most prominent part of the cemetery. Many years later, Reed was also buried nearby. (See a page of Cementerio General photos)
The more I learned about Carrillo Puerto, and the more I spoke about him to my host, the better I understood her reluctance to become more excited about her connection with such a famous historical figure in her lineage. Her decidedly conservative bent toward politics, her staunch catholicism, and her fervent support for AMLO, were all antithetical to the radical liberal leanings of her late grandfather.
Here's another Latin American travel story tied to politics.
Unbeknownst to me before I went to Peru, I bear a strong resemblance to former Peru President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who was in office while I was there.
Kuczynski was popularly known as “PPK,” and when I first arrived people were reacting to me in a peculiar way in public. I didn’t understand why Peruvians were pointing at me shouting “peh-peh-kay, peh-peh-kay.”
I asked my Peruvian friend, who laughed out loud -- “you look like him, the president!” she said.
People thought I was PPK everywhere I went in the country -- on the street, in nightclubs, at local parties -- so I started to play the part. I‘d smile and wave, walking presidential-like through crowds as people parted the way in front of me. I even accepted drinks!
I’m sure many Peruvians still have selfies of themselves and their friends with "PPK," as I was often besieged with requests at parties, even after they heard me speak and the jig was up.
But after I left Peru, PPK fell out of favor like many Peruvian presidents who eventually get charged with corruption, and I think he was under house arrest for a while and may be in jail now.
When I return to Peru I may need a disguise.
But it was fun while it lasted!
Winds blow, trees grow,
Farmers’ seeds they always sow.
Yet change does come, our light does show,
Revolution comes, revolutions go.
In freedom’s search we overthrow,
And shadows of shame are cast below.
Freedom, equality, for all, we know,
Shall arise at last in freedom’s glow.
Three years ago today, on the second floor of a mausoleum, in a quiet section of the historic Cementerio de San Pedro in Medellin, Colombia, an old woman walked past me carrying a single yellow flower.
She spoke a few words in Spanish that I didn't understand. But when I saw her looking up forlornly at the wall of vaults, I realized what she had asked of me.
I dragged a nearby work bench over to stand on, took the flower from her hand, climbed up and managed to make it stay where she wanted it.
At that moment she started weeping uncontrollably, at first crying out with gratitude for the simple act I'd done, then she could not stop the heavy flow of tears and heaving sobs of grief.
I carefully climbed down off the rickety bench and embraced her, not knowing what else to do. Then long-repressed, painful thoughts of my own lost loved ones rushed to my memory’s fore, and I began sharing my own tears with hers.
After a few moments I used the few Spanish words I knew to express my sorrow, “Lo siento, mi amiga,” kissed her softly on the head and walked away to recompose myself.
I continued wandering around the cemetery but couldn't stop thinking about those few moments when two people who, until that moment were complete strangers, shared an expression of profound grief over the loss of loved ones that’s universally understood.
Before leaving the cemetery, I was drawn back toward where we’d met and from the ground looking up, I saw her shriveled figure still there in that outer corridor, arm draped wearily over the railing for support, her gaze still fixed on that single yellow flower.
I turned back and left the cemetery with the image indelibly etched in my mind, knowing what had happened there would be as memorable a travel moment as any I might ever have.
Since there's little new on the travel front, here's an amusing video blast from the past, November 2017, when my son Mackey joined me for a month in Peru. We booked this bus to take us from Cusco to Colca Canyon and we were the only passengers aboard for the entire 9-hour trip. What luxury! Can you tell we're having fun?
I try to be discreet and diplomatic when I visit the many remarkably beautiful and fascinating places throughout the world that I've been to, telling the people who take pride in showing me the wonderful locations they live in that I still haven't seen anything quite like the island where I spent most of my adult life.
I lived on the Big Island of Hawaii about 27 years before leaving to begin my travel adventures in 2016.
Kilauea Volcano, near where I lived, had been in a constant state of eruption since 1983, but had never threatened the more populous areas Puna District.
In 2018 that all changed. Lava began spewing in torrents from vents in the landscape for miles as it coursed toward the sea, destroying everything in its path, while at the same time laying the foundation for a rebirth of the land.
In February, I returned for the first time to an island dramatically changed by the 2018 lava flows.
Hundreds of homes, farms and businesses were destroyed, but not the resiliency and spirit of the people who call Puna home.
Everyone who lives on or near the volcano, knows that Pele, the Goddess of Kilauea Volcano, is the supreme ruler of the land and that, sooner or later, she will transform the landscape to something new and even more magnificent than it was before, and that there is nothing anyone can do about it but to get out of the way.
It is a time of suffering for many, but life goes on (in fact, no lives were lost); the people, the animals, the vegetation, come back; they rebuild, replant, and continue to live in awe of and respect for the incomparable power and sheer beauty of the natural and spiritual forces that shape and reshape this small part of the world endlessly over thousands of years.
One of my sons and many dear friends still live among the ancient and new lava flows, the luxurious tropical forests, and black sand beaches that give Puna its distinctive allure. They are the primary reasons I went back; but I also wanted to see for myself the changes that Pele brought to Puna while I was gone.
Just tap the gray "Read More" button below for the rest of this post, which consists of photos I took showing just a small part of this utterly fantastic piece of the universe.
Quotes For A Good Life On The Road
“A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”
-- Albert Einstein
See my complete collection of "Quotes For The Road" by clicking "More" in the dropdown menu above.
Who Am I?
I'm a retired journalist from Hawaii who tired quickly of retirement and hit the road as a slow, solo world traveler in August 2016. I've spent time in 20 countries on four continents. Currently I'm in sunny Merida, Mexico, waiting out developments in the coronavirus crisis before moving on. Meanwhile, learn more about me and my travels at Nomadic Matt, and Expat Focus, and in a great story by veteran Borneo newsman and prolific author James Ritchie, about our memorable meeting in Malaysia, A Confluence of Adventure Writers .
Also online ...
GARIFUNA SETTLEMENT DAY
Still the most authentic, lively and colorful local cultural festival I've seen on the road.
I found this Alternative Arts and Music Festival in the Amazon highlands of Peru. What a find!
Solas "Best Travel Writing" Awards
Saysha: What Happened?
13th Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing
(Read it here)