Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Panama: looking forward and backwards

from Pirates on the West Coast of New Spain 1575-1742

The isthmus of Panama was of great interest to the early Spanish settlers. They found the "Darien Jungle Route" a good way to move silver from the mines on the west coast of South America to ships in the Caribbean and onward to Spain. Cities now at either end of the Panama Canal were founded early in the sixteenth century.

Pirates and buccaneers quickly began to try to take the gold, as described in the book Pirates on the West Coast of New Spain 1575-1742 by Peter Gerhard. Sir Francis Drake raided Nombre de Dios, on the Caribbean side of Panama, in 1572. The next year he crossed the isthmus and raided a mule train carrying Peruvian silver. 

In 1575, Drake and his partner John Oxenham, along with their sailors, hid a ship on the Caribbean (north) side of Panama and recruited a group of runaway slaves who lived in the jungle there. With this local help, the pirates were able to cross to the Pacific side and build a new ship to use in raiding the Spanish. The Spanish had thought shipping on the Pacific side was safe, so their ships were unarmed. Thus Drake and his men quickly took a small ship carrying gold and food (a commodity that was very much needed by all the pirates who ever worked the west coast of New Spain), and then took a huge ship, capturing silver bars and prisoners. Oxenham also fell in love with a Spanish woman, saved her, and somehow arranged for the prisoners' escape, so his expedition did not end well. Drake's many later exploits and explorations in the Golden Hind are much more famous than these early events in Panama. (p. 57-60)

A century later, Henry Morgan, "probably the most unsavory pirate to reach the shores of the Pacific" crossed the isthmus with 1400 men in order to attack the very rich city of Panama, which then had a population of 15,000 to 20,000. Though the Spanish tried to stop them as they came through the jungle in January of 1671, Morgan and his men battled the Spanish defense army, killed 400, and sacked the city of Panama. The pirates tortured the inhabitants, burned buildings, and took prisoners and  large quantities of loot. Morgan betrayed his men but went on to be a pirate-fighting governor of Jamaica. (p. 138-140)

I'm also reading a history of the Panama Canal: The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 by David McCullough. The canal opened almost exactly a century ago.

Panama now, from google maps ... where we plan to be on a Lindblad ship, starting next Saturday

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Public Accomodations

From Facebook

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Panama Canal

Photo from my copy of Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels


In a week, if all goes as we've planned it, we'll be cruising through the Panama Canal with Lindblad/National Geographic Expeditions, and then on to Costa Rica where we hope to see lots of wildlife. Our ship goes through the canal at night, as the big freighters have daytime priority, but I think it's going to be very exciting. Though not as exciting as swimming through the canal, which has been done exactly once, in 1928, by adventurer Richard Halliburton. He paid 36¢ for his toll, and was accompanied by a rowboat.

My longing to travel began when I was around 12 years old, when a neighbor introduced me to the books of Halliburton, a travel writer who had been active from 1920 until his disappearance in the Pacific Ocean in 1939. She loaned me all of them, beginning with the Book of Marvels, a compendium of his adventures. The swim in the Panama Canal was described in the book New Worlds to Conquer, in which I also recall the descriptions of the fortress in Haiti and the story of the rebellion there in the early 19th century.

One of the copies she let me read was even autographed -- years earlier, when she was in high school, she had gone to a book signing at a bookstore near her home (I think she was from Connecticut). She had been an avid fan, and described what a handsome man he had been, saying how she hung around the bookstore all afternoon just looking at him.

Halliburton still appeals to a surprising number of readers, despite or maybe because his books describe a world that's no longer the same, and describe a sort of adventure-seeking that way too many people have attempted to copy. An article in the Guardian just last year called him "the greatest adventurer in history" -- see "Seven League Boots by Richard Halliburton – review" by David Shariatmadari, published February1, 2013. This reviewer writes that according to Halliburton, "Traditional societies, black ones in particular, are 'primitive'. His retelling of the astonishing story of Henri Christophe, King of Haiti, is polluted with racist condescension and stereotype. But curiosity and a love of the unfamiliar also leap from the pages." I didn't have that kind of sophistication when I was reading the books. I just loved the idea of those adventures.

If you can't resist saying to me "A man, a plan, a canal, Panama," I'll answer "Rats live on no evil star."

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"The Famous Five"

I have (finally) read Enid Blyton's book The Famous Five: Five on a Treasure Island. Alice recommended it highly -- she has read around 10 of the series, of which this is the first. 

"I really like it because it's like an adventure, it's for kids more than other adventures, and they don't freak me out like other adventures. They are easier to read," she says. "It is very interesting because I've never read anything quite like that. They are from a while back and nobody knows about them much so they are fun to read."

I like the character George, first seen through the eyes of her cousin Anne, who wakes up on her first morning in George's house and sees her "curled up under the bed clothes." Anne says "I say, are you Georgina?"
"The child in the opposite bed sat up and looked across at Anne. She had very short curly hair, almost as short as a boy's Her face was brown from the sun, and her very blue eyes looked as bright as forget-me-nots in her face. But her mouth was rather sulky, and she had a frown like her father's." 
"'No,' she said. 'I'm not Georgina…. I'm George… I shall only answer if you call me George. I hate being a girl. I won't be. I don't like doing the things that girls do. I like doing the things that boys do. I can climb better than any boy, and swim faster too. I can sail a boat as well as any fisher-boy on this coast. You are to call me George. Then I'll speak to you. But I shan't if you don't." (p. 19)
Anne and her two brothers quickly become friends with George, who leads them on a hunt for hidden treasure, taking them in her rowboat to the treasure island: she knows exactly how to avoid the dangerous rocks and enter an inlet on the small island where a ruined castle stands. A perfect setting for adventure!

George's dog Tim makes the fifth member of the Famous Five -- Tim and each of the others each make an important contribution to solving a mystery and defeating the evil thieves who want their treasure. As Alice says, it's fun to read even for a grandmother like me. I wish I had known about the books when I was her age.

I think I remember other boyish girls who had great adventures in books from my childhood. Though I was more like Anne, who loved dolls and other girlish things (inspiring George to make fun of her) I think I was quite taken by the idea that anyone could have an adventure.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Flappers" by Judith Mackrell

A young aristocratic woman with no experience of life of the lower classes (except servants) volunteers as a nurse in a public clinic during World War II. Her mother converts their palatial country home to a hospital for returning officers, and she also volunteers there. Other adventures in the 1920s: life in London clubs, an affair with a black Jazz musician, relationships with high-profile newspaper owners. And more. Sounds like Downton Abbey, doesn't it?

No. Not made-for-TV fiction, but incidents from the real stories of two aristocratic trend setters, Lady Diana Manners (later Diana Cooper) and Nancy Cunard. Author Judith Mackrell in Flappers describes how these and four very different other women of their era, through their personal searches for success, fame, and adventure, contributed to the image of the flapper -- icon of the Jazz Age and the 1920s.

The stories of these women are in fact pretty well-known, but this book offers much that's new to me. In addition to the aristocratic heiresses Diana Cooper and Nancy Cunard, she tells the history of Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Tamara de Lempicka.

Each one experienced World War I and the 1920s in a different way, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, and living or working variously in New York, London, Paris, St. Louis, Alabama, Hollywood, and more. The book has a few illustrations, but the visual appeal of these women was and still is enormous, so I've looked for photos that seem to reflect the spirit of Flappers.

Privileged Diana Manners, after being a nurse during World War I,
acted on the stage among other things,
becoming famous enough to make the cover of Time Magazine in 1926.
Later in her life she and her husband Duff Cooper were diplomats.
Heiress Nancy Cunard developed an original style
that was loved by photographers (this by Man Ray)
and thus influential in setting visuals for the 20s.
She was a poet, had many famous lovers (including a Jazz musician),
and became an advocate for equal rights for minorities. 
Josephine Baker was born and raised in the poorest black area of St.Louis.
Her force of personality and ability to sing and dance made her a sensation on the stage in
New York and especially, later, in Jazz-Age Paris, where her race put her
in a special position. She was among other black ex-pats who enjoyed
the openness of the French towards other races, in contrast to American attitudes.
Actress Talullah Bankhead's family were  upper-class members of Alabama society.
Her rebellion was to become a stage actress, film star, and
personality in New York, London, and later Hollywood.
The role of Zelda and F.Scott Fitzgerald in creating the myth of the 1920s
is very well known, but Flappers effectively puts it in the context of these other women.
Zelda was in fact from the same Alabama community as Talullah Bankhead.
Painter Tamara de Lempicka belonged to the Polish and Russian aristocracy.
Thrown into poverty by the Russian Revolution, she applied herself to
becoming a successful artist and portrait painter in Paris.
This self-portrait shows the Art Deco style of her work, a style she helped to define.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

I live in a black and white world

My backyard from the window today: another night and morning of snow.
The front of my house. The street is still deep in snow.
Note the garden bench ...
Closer look at the garden bench.
The snow is up to the level of the seat, or higher.

April, 2012. Approximately the same viewpoint.
Back yard: statue of the Buddha, almost totally out of sight.
What the Buddha's face looked like a couple months ago.

Wordless Wednesday: Our Kitchen Ceiling

Note the new pipes. Note the ANCIENT knob-and-tube wiring! And yes, it's getting covered with drywall now.