Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Chicken Bus Fever Part I: Pacific Blues

Note: This is the first in a 9 part series of essays about a bus/collectivo trip around Guatemala in the Summer of 2016. The links to all the essays are at the bottom of each essay. Mark Twain once wrote, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness." I tried to prove him wrong, but the man was wise. You be the judge...

I have some time to kill and that is probably the main motivation for travel writing, also travel reading. The process of remembering details or taking notes as one travels actually corrupts the experience, and the act of reading about travel dilutes future experience. I totally oppose identifying travel photos on the Internet and my reasons are simply that the human brain can barely differentiate between a photo and real life, so seeing enough photos of a Mayan temple is mentally not much different than visiting the site itself, but the experience is completely different. I took a panga boat taxi to a rural peninsula in search of a rarely visited Mayan site in northern Guatemala and stumbled on the overgrown ruins of some kind of Mayan plaza and a plaque that said Hernan Cortez had visited that specific location. There were no trails or guides or admission fees and rain was pelting me and dogs were barking in the low fog. My shoes were squeaking. I was lost. It was an experience. So, someone may look at a photo of Yosemite Valley, which I urge you NOT to do, and think they want to visit Yosemite Valley. But the surprise of seeing Yosemite Valley for the first time, something early pioneers certainly felt, will be slightly ruined by the past experience of seeing the photo. It is like watching a movie trailer that includes every plot point and good joke. I applied to many National Parks Concession services in 1990, and when I received an offer of employment from Yosemite I had no idea where I was going. 1990 was before the Internet and I had never visited California and the employment application was a generic form with no photos and I applied to so many national parks that I could not research them all in library encyclopedias. Thus, I left Fairbanks, Alaska in March 1990 with a backpack and an axe and hitchhiked in the direction of Yosemite Valley with no idea what to expect except a valley of some kind. I arrived at night in the back of a lurching pickup truck driven by some restaurant workers taking a trip to Merced and back. The journey itself is another epic saga I won´t go into right now, but by the time I reached Yosemite in April I was a physical and mental mess, delirious, starving. I could hear water and figured there was a river nearby. I actually camped illegally in the forest because I had run completely out of money at the time and could not afford a real campsite. I woke up the next morning and saw Yosemite Valley and the many cliff Waterfalls in full Spring explosion for the first time, which will drop anyone´s jaw. That experience was only possible because I never researched my destination and never saw a million photos of the valley first. So, aside from one video, I will not include photos of my travels because I must identify where I went and the photos would dilute your experience if you ever follow my footsteps. Also, a writer is supposed to write. However, I am not opposed to taking photos because writing and photography are two different mediums. Taking photos is a slight distraction, but if I'm trying to develop the literary ideas of an experience then the photo will be a distraction to the reader. There is no short cut to experience and I'm not writing this as a surrogate travel experience for the readers. No, the writing is an essay or 'assaying' of the landscape of my own experience the same way a surveyor traces the contours of the hills and maps out boundaries. Photos are photos and essays are essays and the two don't have much to do with one another in my mind but posting photos to the internet tends to diminish the excitement and mystery of the locations that I visited and I don't want to do that. I don't even want to risk doing that so I will post few photos. I read some silly essay by a writer who argues that not taking photos makes him a traveler, while a photographer is a tourist. I think that's a simplistic and vague distinction. Taking photographs doesn't mean you are trying to 'capture' the moment because you don't appreciate it; photography is another art form just like writing doesn't mean you are trying to describe an experience so others don't have to attempt it. The suggestion that reading Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck means you don't have to look at Dorothea Lange's dust bowl photos is as ridiculous as suggesting either Lange or Steinbeck were travelers or tourists in 1933 California. They were journalists employing different mediums and my final thoughts on this subtopic is this: a writer and a photojournalist have a responsibility to their subject; a photo or an essay should communicate truth and not misrepresent. Let this, at least, be the goal.

A wise man once said, ¨Don´t take a map, make a map.¨ This is my map.

My objective in returning to Guatemala was to explore the regions (I'd already lived there, left, returned and then left and now returned again) that I knew would destroy my van if I tried to drive there.
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.