“The farther one travels, the less one knows” – George Harrison, “The Inner Light”
The armchair journey began simply enough as I sat in my small home office in the countryside near Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, enjoying the pleasant view of my suburban backyard with its garden, fruit trees, pine grove, scrambling family of squirrels and soft luxuriant green grass that affords easy barefoot walking, particularly enjoyable on summer mornings before the dew has evaporated.
Let me say up front that I’m not wealthy by a long shot, but I know that I’m privileged in more ways than not, even if my used Ford Taurus is showing signs of rust and my front porch is cracking in places. These are minor complaints, for I recognize that I live in a neighborhood that millions of desperate people around the world would give anything to be a part of. Never the less, at least in my case, there is always something missing and I find myself constantly wanting to explore new places, always looking beyond the top of the fence, trying to catch a glimpse of that small piece of sky visible between the uppermost branches of several century-old oaks a few hundred yards away in the nearby park. The world within the confines of my backyard, enclosed not with walls topped with shards of glass, or hideous chain-link fence or even worse, white plastic fencing that’s supposed to look like wood, but rather enclosed with a quaint, weathered wood fence, just never seems good enough I guess. And that’s wrong of course. But for people like myself who are constantly shifting their attention to places beyond the visible horizon, or around the next curve, to the clearing up ahead, or just over the next hill, there is the new way of transporting yourself instantly to anywhere on the face of the Earth, and even to other planets, all from the comfort of wherever you are able to turn on a computer and have an internet connection.
So I opened up Google Earth street level view and randomly decided to check out a small village somewhere in the south of France and came upon the medieval town of Tarascon-Sur-Ariege. I was fascinated by the narrow streets, the window boxes with small flowers, the ancient intimacy of a town where people have practically lived on top of one another for generations really amazed me. I would love to go there sometime, but it’s only one of a myriad of places that intrigued me this morning.
Then a random thought crossed my mind, I thought of the ailing British bard, Robert Louis Stevenson; of his final years when he sailed the ocean blue all the way to the Society islands in the South Pacific. I’ve always liked his essay, “Pulvis Et Umbra”, “Dust and Darkness”, his melancholy but ultimately uplifting commentary on the human condition. With the stroke of the keypad I zoomed in on a tiny island surrounded by deep blue waters. A few blue boxes dotted this small speck, Google symbols for photos, and they revealed a cluster of modest, palm-thatched bungalows tucked into a steep hillside. Nothing to write home about except for one photo by itself on the far south shoreline that was true paradise, a white sand beach rimmed with leaning palms. The quintessential tropical paradise, if you can afford it of course, or don’t mind roughing it and wiping your ass with banana leaves and eating burnt yucca everyday. Such daydreaming was easily put in perspective when I pulled back to view all of French Polynesia from 50,000 feet and quickly saw to the west and northwest a few memorable places like Tarawa, Guadalcanal, Midway, and the Coral Sea. Somewhere in that ocean vastness brave young American, Australian and New Zealand soldiers sacrificed their lives over half a century ago. Again I clicked on some small blue square boxes and saw photos that travelers or maybe local residents have posted, of famous battle sites, the rusted remains of a tank in the jungle, or a half submerged ship offshore, and a concrete bunker once occupied by sadistic Japanese soldiers who transmitted radio messages from here back to Tokyo, but now covered in lianas and other tropical vegetation.
My explorations around the western Pacific didn’t last long, minutes in fact,and I suddenly decided to fly over the Outer Hebrides and Scapa Flow, but landed instead on a remote stretch of highway in eastern Finland near the Russian border. I had some idea of what it would look like, I figured there would be small evergreens and shrubs, typical of the taiga and places too far north for vegetation to ever reach a large size. Like most of Europe, the roadsides were free of any trash and the few buildings I passed were clean and well-maintained. I came up to the border crossing and decided to join a small convoy of trucks passing into Mother Russia. I can only imagine what a frozen world this area must be for nine months of the year, but for now I could enjoy the pleasant summer conditions knowing that the Google camera car never drives to the Arctic Circle in winter, for obvious reasons.
After driving a few hundred miles in seconds I skipped over to the Urals and into the vastness of Siberia and the shoreline beside Lake Baikal. Even in summer it looked too cold, too desolate for me. I pulled back and decided to haul ass to the south, way south, to Zulu Land in the mountains just north of Cape Town, South Africa. Here there was sunshine and although semi-arid, there was plenty of shade trees close to the road as I passed a small settlement of ramshackle wood and metal dwellings, several were spray-painted with gang graffiti. A few black kids were playing in a dirt yard bordered by a cluster of beat up trucks and piles of rubble. One house was so close to the road you can see right into their house, a few cheap plastic chairs lined the small hallway and family pictures adorned one wall. I felt bad invading their privacy so I quickly departed…
….and decided to return to my side of the world, to the favelas of Rio. Not exactly home, in fact Ive been to Brasil but only along its remote and sparsely-populated Bolivian border, never to Rio or Copacabana Beach. Never the less its still Latin America and seeing the ramshackle array of open stalls, occasional palm trees, endless rows of multicolored buildings and shops all make me feel very much at home. Driving along a narrow street at the base of Christ The Redeemer Statue made me homesick for a place Ive always wanted to visit, but haven’t been able to. Guess you could say that life got in my way. I drove around downtown Rio for awhile, along Ipanema Beach, past office buildings, apartments, bank lobbies, sidewalk vendors, and streets teeming with taxis, scooters and people.
As the morning went on I jumped all over South America; from the salt flats of Uyuni, Bolivia, near the high elevation city of Oruro, my father’s birthplace, to the lush Central Valley of Chile, to a narrow street on Isla Negra beside the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s house (now a museum), to a wide plaza in the colonial city of Arequipa, Peru. Before long I’d crossed the Amazonian Basin, into the Guyana Highlands and across the Isthmus of Panama, passed coffee plantations in the countryside of Costa Rica, and was now walking along the Avenue of the Dead in the Meso-American World Heritage Site of Teotihuacan. From the summit of the Pyramid of The Sun I gazed across the Valley of Mexico and wondered just why or how I’d ended up here. Before I could answer my own question I was momentarily distracted by the gleeful sound of children playing soccer in the park nearby, also heard my neighbor calling his dog, and then the phone rang, it was a bullshit call from some telemarketer. Back to the real world. Before shutting down I took one last voyage, leaving Planet Earth altogether I entered the Martian atmosphere with ease and got to the base of a 40,000 feet high canyon wall near Olympus Mons. The 3-D simulation of this landscape might not be real, but it is amazing to think how accurate it is in terms of scale and depth. After spinning around a few boulder-strewn craters I returned home safely. It’ll have to be left to future generations to walk on this lifeless surface, if ever.
For now, I, and we, the human family, must content ourselves with the known world within our immediate sphere of vision. We dont’ have too much choice in the matter, its all we got. And its precious beyond measure. As are the lavender iris’s that bloom triumphant, year after year…. in my backyard universe.