Wednesday, November 19, 2008
A Far Away Gaze
One of the reasons I travel a lot is because in my idle moments, I day-dream of being a reckless 19th century explorer and disappearing off the edge of the map, only to be heard from in terse, sporadic missives sent back with packages of obscure maps hand-drawn on pale hide and bags of arcane artefacts. It's a somewhat old-fashioned idea, influenced maybe by my readings of biographies of the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, and Sir Richard Francis Burton, the English explorer, soldier, spy, sensualist, linguist (29 languages!), writer, translator , poet, expert swordsman (in every sense) and diplomat, who, among various achievements, led an expedition to discover the source of the Nile and translated the Kama Sutra.Like Burton, I could imagine myself holed up in a shady ryad in the backstreets of Marrakech and consorting with unsavoury types from the casbah. I'd have exotic pets and unconventional sexual liaisons and be bound by no set of codes or rules: someone like Isabelle Eberhardt who lived – again, in the late 1800s – completely on her own terms. Maybe I'd keep a teak-floored room in an old Saigon brothel, the faint whiff of opium hanging in the humid air, and gamble for drinks at the bar with the slender, chattering girls. Recently, I tried to rent a dllapidated apartment in an old Arab slave-trader's palace in Stone Town, near the port on Zanzibar. Built of mud bricks with cool mosaic tiled floors, from its arched windows, I could watch sailing dhows arrive from the Gulf of Aden and glide across the grey-blue waters just beyond the rooftops.What else? I'd like to travel with the Tuareg in a trans-Saharan caravanserai and learn some of the secrets of their artisanship with silver and steel. En route, I'd stop for a while in Mali, in cities like Bamako and Timbuktu, to hear music I listen to every day in the places in which was first made.Afterwards, I'd retreat to an ancient Celtic island off the west coast of Ireland. Treeless, windswept, with steep, dangerous cliffs besieged by huge Atlantic swells, I'd seek refuge in the convent of some contemplative order to read, draw and meditate alone with only the whispered rushing of the wind and sea to distract me. Of course, I'd always be drawn back to the exotic: a slow boat journey against the currents up the Mekong River, a journey to the heart of both light and darkness, or a communion with a voodoo mambo in Port Au Prince in Haiti. Witnessing her rituals, amid the acrid scent of blood, incense and alcohol, I'd want to be overcome by the crude intensity of belief and in a trance, experience direct connection to the ancient loas. Imagine the art that might flow from any or all of these. But if you were me, what would you dream into reality?