Presently reading 'In Xanadu' by William Darymple, I am seized by a familiar feeling. It is the same emotion that swirls around when I'm reading Vikram Seth or Pico Iyer; awe. While their mastery over words and talent for evocative description is undisputed, I find myself revering their courage.
'From Heaven's Lake' details Seth's travels from Nanking to New Delhi, via Tibet. Iyer visits and writes about some truly secluded places in 'Falling off the map', including Bhutan and North Korea. The book I'm reading now follows Darymple tracing Marco Polo's steps from Jerusalem to Peking.
Yes, they write well. What separates them as the great writers from the rest (and in my book, making them courageous) is their incredible spirit of ethnography. Think about it; both Seth and Darymple could have been easily satisfied by wanting to just complete their degrees (both were at university when they went on travels that formed the source of the books). Iyer, already an acknowledged writer and teacher, could have continued writing about airports, about disconnect and the balance of his three cultural heritages. And yet, each of these men did so much more. In doing so, or rather choosing to do so, they took the first steps on the path to lives extraordinary.
Anyone seeking to emulate the above authors' journeys today, cannot. It is that simple and that stark. The world, already hostile when their callow feet and curious eyes swept through the melange of lands, is now a far more forbidding place. Even bureaucratic miracles would not suffice in order to obtain official permission to visit many of the countries on the list, never mind actually making one's way through them.
Therein lies the great pity, you see. If it were a question of convenience, one could perhaps be shamed into labouring harder to circumvent them. But, rather than convenience or lack thereof, it is an issue of probability. To realise, as one is immersed in vivid, exotic accounts of unfamiliar people and places, that the land under one's feet is becoming more xenophobic, divided and barricaded with every passing day...
It fatigues at a faraway spiritual level.
Song for the moment: The dangling conversation - Simon & Garfunkel