Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Background information...

Some travelers want to curl up on the plane, go to sleep, arrive in a new world with no preconceived notions, and burst naively from the customs gate to encounter whatever comes their way. I don't have a problem with sleeping on the plane (I can't ever manage to do that, contorting one way or another--though I might get the whole summer's reading done high over the Atlantic), but I suspect that travel becomes more meaningful if we start with some basic information...

For instance, here's a bit from the journal of good old Columbus, first arriving at San Salvador, Oct. 21, 1492:

This island even exceeds the others in beauty and fertility. Groves of lofty and flourishing trees are abundant, as also large lakes, surrounded and overhung by the foliage, in a most enchanting manner. Everything looked as green as April in Andalusia. The melody of the birds was so exquisite that one was never willing to part from the spot....A thousand different sorts of trees, with their fruit were to be met with, and of a wonderfully delicious odour. It was a great affliction to me to be ignorant of their natures, for I am very certain they are all valuable...I saw a snake, which we killed, and I have kept the skin for your Highnesses....While we were in search of some good water, we came upon a village of the natives...
Well, this is a historic moment, but Columbus won't win any awards for nature writing--he can only see things in terms of what he already knows, and he doesn't offer us any vivid detail--"trees," "green," "wonderful." At least nothing vivid until he gets to know the natives and begins his unrelenting search for gold, and that, well, that's not a happy tale.

On a less grand scale, I have the same limitations wandering up and down the road walking the dogs, or trying to manage the weeds in my grassless yard. How do I write a poem or even a decent journal note about 'that big green weed with the leaves I'm a little allergic to that we used to make spears out of when I was 10"? Or, "those really pretty flowers that smell so good in May on the big trees over by the railroad tracks"? Jim Metscher told me, from my sad description, that the weed, if the same as in Oklahoma, he used to call "horseweed"--though it doesn't look like the images I find; Pam McClure has told me the trees are "honey locust." In any case, those are words to build a poem around.

In my Travel Writing class [ENGL 377], one pre-trip assignment I made was for my students to become an expert on something in Spain or Portugal. An expert, really, on anything we might see or encounter. Perhaps they will share some of their focused knowledge with all of us [Christina? Hyun-Ji?]. I'm urging the instructors to do the same--Amy might tell us about Spanish movies; we might learn about the environment of Spain, or human trafificking, or the history of science. Ann even claims that there's something about math going on in Spain, but I'm not sure I believe it.

But let me urge everyone on the trip to become an expert, on one or two things. Maybe the Basque people. Or the Spanish Civil War. On Picasso. On flamenco dance, the days of the Grand Armada, the Spanish soccer team, how to order/eat tapas, the best wines, some of those trees or flowers, recent politics/economics, Granada or Lisbon, or a castle...

Be an expert--and be delighted when the real country exceeds your knowledge!


[Hey, you can post some of what you find out attached below...]
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