French Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands in the Pacific Ocean. An island group so small, in relation to the bigger picture, that when you zoom in to see the islands, their relation to the rest of the world disappears, and they sit surrounded by a screen of blue…
This delightful image reminds me of this excerpt from Lewis Carrol’s The Hunting of The Snark (a poem that every sailor should read and possess a copy of, on board):
He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.
“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!
“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best–
A perfect and absolute blank!”
On a bigger map, these islands of myth and legend, beloved of sailors, dreamers, and an ailing, suffering Paul Gauguin, apparently sit—wonderfully, unimaginably—isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. At this scale, they disappear—words, shapes, everything—from the map, completely, and we have to rely on Google’s red balloon to determine their existence.
In the poetic imagination, The Marquesas are so remote from the rest of the world, that when Paul Gauguin—plagued by all sorts of illnesses, going blind, abandoned by his vahines, and dependent on laudanum and morphine to ease his suffering—told his art-collector friend (and, later, biographer), George Daniel de Monfreid, that he wished to return to Europe, Monfreid dissuaded him:
In returning you will risk damaging that process of incubation which is taking place in the public’s appreciation of you. At present you are a unique and legendary artist, sending to us from the remote South Seas disconcerting and inimitable works which are the definitive creations of a great man who, in a way, has already gone from this world. Your enemies – and like all who upset the mediocrities you have many enemies – are silent; but they dare not attack you, do not even think of it. You are so far away. You should not return… You are already as unassailable as all the great dead; you already belong to the history of art.
— George Daniel Monfreid, Letter to Paul Gauguin circa October 1902
Kris finally got through the Panama Canal on the 17th of September, after countless leads, agents, options, fly-by-night freight carriers and whatnot… and he did not even spend a whole day on the other side…
Eager to finally make his way back home, he weighed anchor the same evening. His first stop, The Marquesas…
As remote as they are, The Marquesas signify, happily for me, the slow but dogged approach of my Beloved.
“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”
—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
I spent last payday’s wages on books…I went a little crazy, online.
I ordered back issues of the literary journal Granta, collected works by Graham Greene and a novel by William Faulkner. I snapped up some short story collections of Latin American writers, in Spanish. I took out two literary magazine subscriptions: Overland, and The Lifted Brow. I impulsively put Taschen’s massive full-colour art books of Egon Schiele and of Peter Beard, in my shopping cart, and paid for them with my eyes half-shut, and without looking at what the total came to. Then I ordered Dan Eldon’s The Journey Is The Destination, because he was influenced by Peter Beard.
Finally, and already made extremely uncomfortable by this binge of book-buying, I threw the last of my sensibility (and money) to the wind and bought the out-of-print, hard-to-find monograph produced in Germany of the works of Expressionist artist Jeanne Mammen. She was an amazing painter, and so little is known of her…apart from this one monograph of her work, there are no books, illustrated or otherwise, about her.
I know what you’re thinking: did I rob a bank…or am I printing the money at home? This sounds like the online shopping spree of a person with lots of disposable income, but I’m actually just a salesgirl in a shop, I work three days a week, and I send a third of my income to help an elderly parent.
The decision to enrich my life with books means that I give up other things. For the last four days I have lived on pots of coffee and boiled spaghetti with salt and garlic—which is the only thing that I have on my boat— because I can’t afford to go grocery shopping for a week or two.
Do I care? Not really. I love elaborate cooking, and among my friends I am known as a bit of a foodie. Just a bit. But I love books. I love them first. I love them more. If I were to be completely practical and honest about things, food is ultimately just fuel for the body to run on. (My foodie friends will have heart attacks when they read this blasphemy). I could have a whole Instagram account dedicated to what I eat, but can I tell the difference between a five dollar meat pie and a 70 dollar three-course dinner, in the…um…at the…end? LOL
Besides, we all eat too much, these days, so that a few days off food won’t hurt. I don’t mind eating salted chickpeas out of the can with a spoon as my one meal of the day, if it’s because I have just bought some fabulous books on art, or literature.
I found that I didn’t really want to eat, these past four days, anyway. I was lost between the pages of my books—some of which have started to arrive from the booksellers—and wasn’t hungry for anything but beautiful prose and inspiration.
The bookstores here have a very limited range of titles. Importing books would cost too much, and local publishers can only afford to print titles chosen for the moral or educational instruction and improvement of the nation. Still, we found Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, both of whom we always enjoy reading, and then a couple of authors we don’t know at all, but seemed promising. (N.B. Romulo Gallegos, who wrote Doña Barbara, was once President of Venezuela)
Bookstores here don’t have open shelves that you can browse. The books are under glass, or on shelves behind the sales counters, so you sort of have to know what you want, and the attendant will bring the book over to you. Still, they were very helpful, suggesting other writers and giving us a basic idea of what each book was about. Most of these titles were under a dollar, new.
We were told there is a flea market around the corner from the marina where we stay, and that locals sell their second hand books there. Definitely going to look into that…hoping people’s old, personal libraries will yield a more eclectic range of books.
But if you’re new to the experience, feel an attraction to the idea of incorporating travel into your life as something intrinsically part of that life, and not just spending a load of money to go for a short, predictable, industry-designed tour, then this book will show you where, and, more importantly, how to start.
Most people think that traveling for extended periods of time is only for the extremely rich, or the extremely irresponsible and feral. But travel as a way of life is an ancient and honourable way of discovering how to become fully human, and discovering oneself as well. And it’s really not as difficult as you’d think. The same measures that a vagabonder takes in order to SAVE money are the very things that also provide that traveler with the most amazing experiences and a more in-depth, satisfying, life-changing encounter with that country. A willingness to eat where the locals do, travel side by side with them in buses or on ferries, stay in locals’ homes, accept invitations to local events, and learn the language of your host country, will give you something that a 10-day holiday by the pool of a hotel catering to foreigners and hanging out with tourists from your own country, can never provide.
Kris and I saved money for just two years…he, working as a boat carpenter for the local fishing industry, I as a salesgirl in an art shop. Okay, we have the boat, which is probably the ultimate way to vagabond because the biggest expenses you will encounter on your travels will always be 1) transportation and 2) accommodation. With our home-built, no-engine, no-electronics, super-basic sailboat, we have cut both those expenses to a fraction of what it would cost to fly around countries, stay in hostels (which, even though cheaper than hotels, can vary greatly from country to country in price, and will eventually take up a lot of your budget), or buy gallons of fuel for a more conventional sailboat.
We don’t have a lot of money, but that’s okay because when we are running low we can look for work, or just decide to head home. There are no iron-clad schedules to follow…we like a country, we stay as long as we can. We don’t like the country, we leave the next week. That said, you’d be amazed at how cheaply you can live in other countries, if you live almost like the locals. In Brazil, we were spending an average of US$2,000 a month. For two people. In Guyana, that’s gone down to an amazing US$600 per month. Either way, both places cost much less than it costs us to live back in Australia, AND we are getting the experiences of a different culture, learning new languages, making friends, and tucking away inspiration for a whole new body of art and creativity for when we return home.
So if traveling and experiencing a new culture at the grassroots level—their food, home life, environs, people, language—gives you a little buzz and thrill of excitement, know that it’s MUCH easier than you think. There’s no need to commit to a period of time, and two months is as legitimate a vagabonding stint as two years. I RECOMMEND this book! It’s inspiring, it’s practical, it’s a better book to have than any Lonely Planet guide, which only leads you down the well-trodden paths, to boringly safe and touristy places, to have uniform experiences like everyone else.
Cycling along the very touristy Tambau Beach on his way to the money changer on Avenida Nego, Kris stopped to check out a camelô (street vendor with a rolling/moveable cart) selling cheap little pocketbooks on the esplanade. With ugly paper covers and dark grey paper inside, the tiny books are just something for people to read as they lie on their towels in the sun, and then throw away before leaving the beach. Just seeing books for sale on the beach was weird: to think that people would choose to read! Kris assumed they would be nasty little romance, crime, or espionage novelettes— bite-sized disposable pulp fiction for the masses, but when he browsed the covers he was amazed to find authors he knew well: Julio Cortazar. Mario Vargas Llosa. Dostoevsky. Joseph Conrad. Dickens. Chekhov, of all people. It was astounding. To occupy themselves while sunbathing, Brasileiros read the classics. God almighty.
I found the same thing when I went to check out the bookstores in João Pessoa’s shopping malls; what strikes us is the high quality of the books available.
I mean two things by “quality”. First, the selection of titles/ authors is delightful. Charles Bukowski’s poetry, for instance, is conspicuous. I saw the complete essays of Virginia Woolf, in a gorgeous edition, with a jacket covered in velvet-flocked scarlet leaves and flowers; a massive tome of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, with all the fantastic illustrations Harry Clarke did for them. The Complete Odes of Pablo Neruda (this one had me sorely tempted.) Just hundreds of the best literature, art, philosophy books, all beautifully presented and prominently displayed at the front of the bookstores, not just relegated to a small shelf in the back.
I also mean the physical forms of the books themselves, the books as objects. Fine publishing seems to be alive and well in Brazil; there were so many really beautifully produced books: embossed jackets, stamped foil titles, gilt or coloured page edges, ribbon bookmarks, sometimes a mix of different papers in one book, coloured printing on thick, soft ivory paper like cloth. Sometimes the text was printed in colour, too. Some of the books had deluxe finishing touches, like embroidered fabric bellybands, or clamshell boxes with leather straps and buckles. Some of the art books were oversized, nearly two feet long and a foot wide, with black & white photographs printed in silver halide.
A bookstore here is like a church for people who worship good design and beautifully made things. I spent hours in every one, looking at everything, though I could hardly buy these books (and I really longed to be able to buy these books in English. Some titles, like Neruda’s Complete Odes, are out of print in English. Very sad, as they are poems rich enough to eat…)
Once or twice I found a pretty book and was pleasantly surprised to find that it cost the same as a cheap hole-in-the-wall lunch, so I skipped lunch, bought the book, and snuck it home.
Po de Lua (Moondust) by Clarice Freire
Ivory pages with blue edges, this pretty book looks like someone’s Moleskine sktchbook, with all the text written by hand, and little drawings in coloured pencil. Not sure if it’s a poem, but the subtitle is “To lighten the seriousness of things”; I think it’s light, inspirational philosophy.
Freire is a young Pernambucana, from Recife (just two hours away from here). She plays with the way words are made up, connecting different parts to each other like Lego, coining new ideas and meanings.
Por Que Oxala Usa Ekodide by Descóredes M Dos Santos, with illsutrations by Lenio Braga, 1966.
Ekodide is a feather from an Amazon parrot, used in the initiation rituals of Orixa (Orisha) and Candomblé. This beautiful book, with its quirky handwritten text and powerful drawings by Lenio Braga, tells the story of how the ekodide came to be used in the rituals.
Fantasias by Flávio de Carvalho, with poems by Katia Canton
These gouache paintings were done by Carvalho, an architect and designer, as costumes for the ballet performance A Cangaceira, in 1953. Contemporary poems by American Katia Canton accompany each of the 15 designs.
Buying brand new books is A Big No-No on this trip. Our budget can’t handle such extravagance and the rule is self-imposed. We are supposed to stick to second-hand bookstores, or (better yet) swap the books we’ve finished reading for different ones on the yacht club’s shelves (usually a dismal, ragtag selection of pulp novels), but I simply couldn’t resist these three art books, and bought them as my souvenirs of Brazil, as well as for the inspiration.