October 2007

The Essential Guidebooks

Beach in Trinidad

In late summer 2001, while I was living in South Beach, a young French couple rented a room in my house for a month. One day Adrian was looking over my bookshelves, particularly my large collection of travel books, when he said to Melanie, “Jeff must travel a lot.”

At that point, I felt that I had to speak up and tell the truth. “No, I don’t travel much at all. I just buy a lot of guidebooks.”

Guidebooks have been my first purchase when thinking about traveling somewhere. Since there’s hardly anywhere I don’t want to go, I buy guidebooks even in anticipation of a trip decades away. Paging through a travel guide is a form of entertainment, an attempt to satisfy that curiosity about the world.

I think my very first guidebook purchase was sometime around the age of 12. I remember being at Walden Books at Rivergate mall just north of Nashville and getting that slim, green Michelin Guide to Paris. I didn’t make it to Paris until I was 18 but I vividly recall tracing the walks along the maps and learning about the Musée de Cluny; I was a strange boy.

What I enjoy about guidebooks are the descriptions of places, the contextual info. I skip all those pages about transport, lodging, and food. Sometimes, that means I’m skipping three-fourths of the book. Those are practicalities that arise in a different phase of travel planning. Yet, those details – updated by diligent, poorly paid souls slogging from hostel to hotel – are the essence of the guidebook. So, I’ve found myself seeking out other sources to prepare me for my travels or my fantasies of setting foot someday on a distant soil.

I like to learn. I like to learn about the world. Is that a passion?

Old Delhi

As a librarian, I had easy access to a large research collection. For a trip to India, I read William Dalyrmple’s City of Djinns and Bamber Gascoigne’s The Great Moghuls. I even found an enchanting book, Sadhus: Holy Men of India by Dolf Hartsuiker, that I obtained through interlibrary loan. That combination, along with a few other resources, really enhanced my experience riding on the back of a rickshaw along the jammed, narrow streets of Old Delhi. Rather than thinking about the pain in my backside from sitting on a bouncing narrow bench, mental images from my readings of India’s astonishing history mixed with the living culture moving all around me.

But most people don’t have access to research collections or would even known which books to read if they did. Guidebooks often do a very good job of referring readers to other books and that’s one of my favorite features of guidebooks. But who has time to read the best 40 books on Malaysia or even the best three?

The Internet offers lots of sources but, again, it’s time-consuming to filter through all the travel sites that are simply fronts for booking reservations. For each good blog such as Travelvice or Life on the Tibetan Plateau, there is a deluge of travel blogs with photos of Uncle Joe smiling over his steak at Cabaña Las Lilas.

There surely will be the emergence of even more Net-based resources that will help people prepare for a more enriching experience during their travels. But, the question is how will those resources be structured? How will they differ from and enhance existing resources available to travelers? How will they go beyond the limited coverage that can fit into a guidebook but also not be overwhelming?

Barraca Peña, the old train station in La Boca

Tucked down along the smelly river in La Boca is one of the oldest (or, dating from 1865, is it the oldest?) train stations in Buenos Aires, Barraca Peña. If you’re in the tourist center of La Boca, you’ll need to walk a ways along the river before you find it. Alternatively, you might be able to just walk down the railroad tracks but that may be more of an adventure than many of you want. Several sections of the tracks in La Boca are now remodeled with pedestrian walkways but I don’t think it extends as far as the station yet.

That fancy rail car is fitted for a cinema, hence the painting on the side.

Train station in La Boca

The original wood structure (and I just reminded of how unusual it is to see a building in Buenos Aires made from wood) has been painted bright colors in keeping with the La Boca theme. Workmen still are fixing up parts of the interior. And, it seems, that a family is still living in part of the station? (That girl with the kid in the photo was another visitor to the station, not part of the family I heard watching TV in the back room).

Train station in La Boca

That tent off to the side of the tracks is an exhibition of photos of the area from the late 1800s. Prototypes and drawings of plans to develop the area around the station are on display. I must say, however, that the quality of the exhibition is rather disappointing. Basically, it looks like a student project. I applaud the effort but it makes me wonder if the project is ever going to really materialize. Anyway, best of luck to this project. It’s worth keeping an eye on.

The desire to travel

Bolivian festival in Buenos Aires

Why do we travel? Why do we have that desire, that yearning, to visit far away places?

What is it about our lives that we seek to fulfill elsewhere? Perhaps, it’s as simple as a curiosity about the world.

We’re faced with the appealing belief that there is more to life than the everyday encounters in our hometown, no matter how large. Tourists view Buenos Aires as an exotic destination, though porteños may twitch their noses, wondering why so many foreigners come here. Likewise, the curious porteño fills pulled elsewhere, possibly the very humdrum towns that we’ve gladly left behind. We all want to go somewhere else.

If travel is not about curiosity, experiencing a different culture, learning more about the world (and possibly ourselves), then is it nothing more than checking off a list of accomplishments – been there, done that?

For some, (many, most?), travel may manifest itself in that competitive breed of list checkers. But I would like to think that we have a deeper sense of purpose, even if our actions don’t always reveal that core. Yet, why do most travelers learn so little about the places they visit? Are they just not that curious? Do they not know what questions to ask, how to learn?

International travel costs thousands of dollars. If we pay that much for an experience, should it not damn well be life enhancing?

How should we prepare ourselves for encountering a distant part of the globe? How do we learn about a culture, a society, a place that is not ours?

In our travels how do we best engage our curiosity about the world?

“Borges and I” & the philosophy of self and language

John Perry, a professor in the philosophy department at Stanford, recently gave a lecture at Amherst College titled ” ”˜Borges and I’ and ”˜I’ ”. (via Perlocutionary).

Since the lecture is by a philosopher and it’s about Borges, you can be certain that it talks about the philosophy of language and “self”. If you’re not into epistemological discussions then you might think that it will be rather tedious listening, but it’s aimed towards an undergraduate audience and Perry wades into the topic rather slowly. Much of the talk is on the simple ways that we use language everyday, such as how we introduce ourselves at a party or how we ask for salt at the dinner table, the usage that we give to proper names and pronouns.

If you’ve not read “Borges and I” then it’s worth a reading or even a re-reading. It’s a short piece, less than 1 page. While “Borges and I” is usually included in The Collected Fictions, it’s really more of an essay, a contemplation about the public persona of Borges the writer.

The Borges work and Perry’s lecture made me think of the nature of celebrity and the impressions, beliefs we form about people in the news. But even on a more ordinary level, what we think we know about others, the people we know, even our friends, our family, our lovers. We probably know less about their motivations than we think we know, yet we often, usually, perhaps always, make assumptions about their behavior based on what we think we know about them.

In his lecture, John Perry said,

I think selves are basically just people, seen as playing the role of being the same person as the subject of some verb, the agent of some activity, the thinker of some thought, the possessor of some emotion, and so forth. My neighbor is just a person, thought of as playing the role of one who lives next to, relative to me. My father is just the person who plays the role of being the male parent of, relative to me. “Neighbor” and “father” are role-words, and so is “self.” On this conception of selves, there is only one self per person, the person himself or herself.

Still, we often use phrases like “the true self” or “the authentic self.”

Perry goes on to describe how “cognitive structures, though no longer my true beliefs, or even really beliefs at all, live a shadowy half-life in the darker regions” of our psyches.

The last line of “Borges and I” famously ends with the sentence, “I do not know which of us has written this page.”

It hadn’t occurred to me before but by the time that Borges composed that line he had already gone blind. So, in the physical sense of writing, he actually did not write that line. It was written by someone else, the person listening to him.

Topless in La Boca

Away from the tourist circuit in La Boca stands this abandoned building, which is missing most of its roof.

In La Boca

Along the side street, a small opening in the wall presents a glance inside.

In La Boca

The obligatory post-election post

Not much to say about today’s presidential election in Argentina, certainly no surprises. I don’t have a problem with a Cristina presidency. Indeed, all the top three candidates – Cristina, Lavagna, Carrió – seemed okay to me. I do have this theory that Cristina might give a further boost for tourism to Argentina just through the inevitable appearances she is likely to make on the E! channel based on her fashion sense.

Fogwill & Malvinas Requiem

The good folks at Three Percent have a couple of mentions about Argentine writer Rodolfo Fogwill whose novel Los Pichiciegos has just been released in English (translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson): Malvinas Requiem: Visions of an Underground War

Three Percent points to a piece in the Guardian which describes Fogwill’s book as “the definitive fictionalised account of the Falklands conflict“.

Rather interesting is a comparison of marketing material written for the U.S. and U.K. markets. Along the way are mentioned Bioy Casares and the TV show Lost. Now, I’m interested in digging up the ways that Los Pichiciegos was marketed here in Argentina.

Corner of Yerbal & Paysandu

I was looking through my photos from this month and it took me a minute to realize where this corner was located. In my “walking tours” around Buenos Aires I see so many enchanting corners and often fail to note the exact location. Then I remembered that this was taken one Sunday afternoon after taking the subte to Caballito and walking down Yerbal towards Flores.

Yerbal & Paysandu

Paysandu is a charming little street. More photos from this walk to follow.

Casa Fernández Blanco

Earlier this month on la Noche de los Museos I had the chance to go inside the Casa Fernández Blanco (not to be confused with the building that is the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano Isaac Fernández Blanco, which is in an entirely different place that also is well worth visiting). The Casa is located at Hipólito Yrigoyen 1420, just behind the wonderful La Inmobiliaria building on Av de Mayo.

From the exterior the casa Fernández Blanco doesn’t look much different than most of the other buildings on the street. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that this street, formerly named Victoria, was for a time one of the major streets in the city. That was before Av de Mayo was constructed. Now, it’s very easy to forget about this street nestled behind the beautiful buildings of Av de Mayo.

Casa Fernández Blanco

In 1880 Isaac Fernández Blanco brought this house, which was adjacent to the home of his parents. The old house originally had a colonial structure but after Fernández Blanco returned from Paris in 1901 he decide to renovate his home along the lines of everything else that was happening in Buenos Aires. Since he had quite a bit of money, Fernández Blanco hired Alejandro Christophersen who was one of the city’s outstanding architects.

Casa Fernández Blanco

The original Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano was established in this house before it was later moved to its current location in Palacio Noel on Suipacha.

Casa Fernández Blanco

Throughout the twentieth century Casa Fernández Blanco served various purposes, businesses and administrative uses. Only a few years ago was the house acquired by the city. Restoration is still underway. It was quite remarkable to see some of the rooms that had not yet been restored in contrast to the splendid rooms that are finished.

Casa Fernández Blanco

Women and Power in Argentine Literature

I’ve never been much interested in reading literature from the perspective of how characters either exercise or are subjected to power in a story’s context. It’s just a little too intense literary study for me but it is an accepted form of scholarship. Yet, the theme of struggle is a key element in life and society. Earlier this year the University of Texas Press issued a book on Women and Power in Argentine Literature: Stories, Interviews, and Critical Essays.

I’ve not actually seen the book and I assume it’s the that type of thing one mostly will find in university libraries but the introduction is available online and provides an overview that is worth reading. Interviews with authors always have the potential for revealing fascinating insights.

The topic of women and power is as complex and diverse as it is fascinating, particularly in a society like Argentina’s, where women are expected to be strong and intelligent, to pursue a career and at the same time be feminine, domestic, and maternal. My observation, after years of research and reflection, is that the women writers of Argentina have excelled in mirroring the many faces of women vis-à-vis power because they have been driven by the desire to understand themselves and their place within the family, the workplace, and society, much like women writers anywhere else. Yet, what makes the case of Argentine women writers unique is a certain ethos of being Argentine that generates a paradoxical self-questioning.

At some point, whenever I get a chance to actually find a copy of this book, I’ll get around to reading it.

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