Monday, August 2, 2010

Blogging on Books 2 – More fiction for the traveler

My time in Bolivia has been busy and full, but in the evenings I find myself drawn to reading novels as a way to relax and to inspire interesting dreams. I’ve done my best to remain true to my usual intention, which is to read novels that serve to fuel my contemplation of what it is I am doing in my living abroad and working to enhance the potential development of the next generation.
I was “blessed” with a fairly nasty sinus infection, which laid me up for about a week, in which time I was able to complete a more than fair amount of reading (as my feverish brain was incapable of addressing the research tasks I had.) I must commend the existence of the internet and the free program “Kindle for PC,” which has allowed me to continue to access English language literature when I’d read everything I own in print here. I must also commend a lovely little bookshop I discovered in Cochabamba, not far off the Prado, called “the Spitting Llama.” Their wide selection of used books was a godsend.

THE ALCHEMIST by Paolo Coehlo

This is the beautiful story of a young Spanish shepherd who sets out to follow his heart and a magical dream of treasure. Along the way he meets with adventure and the true education that one gains through life experience (if one is open to learning from it.) Although at first I felt alienated by the fairy-tale style of Coehlo’s writing, I found myself sucked into the beauty of the story and truly moved by a number of the quotes, which I think will stay with me for the rest of my life.
“The secret of life is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”
“People need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want.”
“You will never be able to escape from your heart. So it’s better to listen to what it has to say.”
Coehlo’s Spanish shepherd often pops into my head when I am out in the rural areas. Part of his travels take him through the Sahara desert in North Africa, from which he is able to learn a great deal simply by remaining quiet and observing. I find that this is an important part of field work, and an important part of travelling, to remember to shut up and just watch and listen, to learn from all the information that is out there, the great majority of which is written in the non-verbal communication between people and the way the people interact with their envirotnment.

ACTS OF FAITH by Philip Caputo

This long volume went surprisingly fast, and as I read it quickly became obvious why it won the Pulitzer Prize. It is the story of aid workers in Sudan and Kenya, many of them operating under self-induced delusions of what their work really is. It follows both men and women as central characters, which makes it an inviting read for anyone.
This novel is especially apt reading for a “Westerner” just beginning a career in the development industry. You cannot come away from the book without knowing that it is important to question yourself constantly if you are to keep yourself honest and that you mustn’t automatically put too much faith in the goodness of your intentions and actions; we can all have unintended consequences for others and for ourselves.

Another reminder I took away from reading this novel was that one mustn’t leave home in order to run away from what one is. To do truly good work and to be a truly whole person, you want to do your best to leave a home and a past that is sound (or with which you have made your peace) so that you can share that strength with the world.


This novel was a surprise find in “The Spitting Llama” bookstore in Cochabamba. And inside its pages (and its story of a mixed-race woman trying to find her identity as a native of a South American nation closely based on Suriname) was an absolute treasure: a beautiful and haunting description of what might be the internal limits so often perceived by outsiders as an “intransigence to progress” in post-colonial developing countries. I recommend it for anyone travelling in the developing world, particularly the Caribbean. Several quotes moved me greatly.
“Cheated out of a self, the mob would not be cheated out of its anguish.” This quote made me wonder about the application of the grief process to national development in post-colonial and post-conflict regions. I’m sure it has already been done, applying those five steps that begin with denial and anger and finally end with acceptance and the ability to move on. And, following this idea through, this means that development is ultimately a culture’s recreation of its sense of self and purpose, perhaps an identity that has been stolen or that has withered internally due to lack of care. It is a constant cycle of ebbs and flows that takes place in all cultures, but these currents cannot be instigated from outside the source; they must be internally propelled. Colonialism and conflict are both realities under which these internal currents become stymied, creating eddies and whirlpools but lacking direction and flow.
At one point the main character, a woman who has realized that she is unhappy after passively floating along with the currents flowing through her life, expresses “a retrospective disgust for her innocence, her acquiescence.” It reminded me of the unhealthy intra-cultural disgust I’ve seen in Honduras, with people disparaging their own compatriots to their faces. In their desperate efforts to realize their potential, they have ultimately chosen to turn their backs on themselves and to alienate themselves from their own community.
A quote by another character in this novel also started me thinking. The main character’s father explains his seeming acquiescence to the apartheid of the past: “I wasn’t going to run after anybody begging to be admitted to the human race.” It is crucial to remember that those who aren’t openly fighting aren’t necessarily being weak; maybe they are being strong in a different way. We must value and allow space for all kinds of internal strengths, rather than make them out to be weaknesses. If we do that, we are only robbing others and ourselves.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The beautiful novel was an excellent read for a Latin American journey, and I would especially recommend it for anyone visiting the Caribbean. This story of two lovers who are separated for most of a life time is infused with a sense for the romantic atmosphere that permeates many parts of Latin American culture, as well explaining through story some of the strong influences of tradition and economic classism found throughout the region.

This is the simple, straight-forwardly written story about 1950s Peru and two police detectives’ search for justice in the murder of a poor young man. The story unfolds along with itself a sense of the divide that existed and continues to exist between indigenous and mestizo populations. The unexpected love triangle evokes a sense of the importance appearance has in many cultures here (I experienced it quite a bit in Honduras and to a lesser extent here in Bolivia) and the stress this fakeness causes when the sake of appearance runs against the honest desires of the heart. This same romantic plot theme also brought forth a sense of the cultural stress resulting from the gender divide, while the overall story helped remind me (as I often suffer from an overabundance of enthusiasm and fortitude) how impossible it can feel to fight the good fight amidst a culture of corruption and personal interests. I came away from this volume remembering that it is in empathizing with this sentiment that I am most likely to be able to help others overcome it.
MOTORCYCLE DIARIES by Ernesto Che Guevara

I know, regular readers will wonder if my visit to Cuba converted me (and in some ways it must have) but in truth my choice to read this book was far more based on location than anything else. Guevara travelled through South America in the early 1950s, first by motorcycle and then by hitchhiking, as well as on a raft he and his travelling companion built to travel on the Amazon. What I find most interesting is his description of life in places I have visited previously, especially Chile and Peru, and how accurate some of his descriptions continue to be. I look forward to reading his Bolivian diaries, written years later when he was trying to foment a Communist revolution here. Different perspectives, whether or not you might agree with them, will always help to open your own eyes to aspects of life you may not have noticed before.
Safe travels to you all, whether in real life or via the written word!

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