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Joseph Conrad

By Joseph Conrad, writer and traveler par excellence

Graffiti, Quito Ecuador

 

Art … may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect…

 

[My task is] by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see!

Escribiendo El Viaje

 

If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand; and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

 

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The Rains of Quito

Las Lluvias de Quito

Quito sits in the middle of the world on the equator – Ciudad Mitad del Mundo. The climate is changeable. If you don’t like it, wait five minutes, Quitoans say.

A new Ecuadorian friend recommended I visit La Capilla Del Hombre (The Chapel of Man). The museum sits in the Bellavista section overlooking Quito. I walked from my hotel near the Diego de Almagro. People warned me it was a hike, but despite being at a birthday party1 till 2 AM I wanted a little more urban adventuring. Ecuadorians know how to throw a fiesta, by the way.

Google maps shows routes by foot, taxi or bus. It does not show elevation. The museum sits high over the city. A little urban adventuring turned into a considerable urban ascent.

I saw some nice graffiti.

Urban steps like back home.

 And an urban cow.

 Entrance to the museum is eight dollars USD. Ecuador switched to U.S. dollars Several years ago to stabilize its economy. After some initial pain Ecuadorians I’ve met say it has generally worked.

The Capilla Del Hombre museum is a tribute to the work of Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín and the Ecuadorian people. The museum features his work and the work of other artists as well. There is a separate building aside from the capilla (chapel) itself. The docent at the entrance asked whether I wanted a tour en Inglis or in another language. I found myself on the ass-end of a group being regaled ad infinitum with the details of every object on display.

The guide was doing his job. But I’ve gotten a little tired of words lately. I use more than enough of them myself, both written and spoken, personally and professionally, to try and find a narrative to our sometimes crazy lives.2 Maybe we think if we talk (or write) long enough it will all make sense. What I desired was to soak up a little tranquility and appreciate the art and the space. Isn’t that what I hiked up the hill and paid for?

I saw an open door. There was no rope or sign indicating it was restricted. I left the group and went in. I found myself alone in Guayasamín’s studio. I immediately found the tranquility I was looking for. Canvases, tubes of paint and works in progress surrounded me. The docent came in and said for security reasons I had to go back and stay with the group. I explained In bad Spanish that no one had told me this. I said I knew visual and other artists back home and enjoyed the creative process. I said my wife had died in the past year and I wanted some quiet. I said this with a smile. She said there would be another tour in English in ten minutes.

While other visitors filed in and waited, I sat and watched a video in the lobby. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts – or with no thoughts at all. Solitude is an increasingly subversive act of modern life whether in Estados Unidos or in Ecuador. Our crowdsourced society cajoles, pokes and inveigles us to share (or submerge) our innermost ideas and precious attention in the constant media stream, turning our lives and experiences into commodities for sales and marketing.

I decided I’d had enough of the group experience. I left the museum and walked outside. Among the greenery and outdoor sculptures, I felt better. In the distance mist wreathed the Pichincha Mountains that rise above Quito and that Guayasamin depicted in his paintings.

I followed the path and entered the chapel itself, a vast space with Picaso-esque sculptures and paintings by Guayasamín and other artists.

 

Any human being who has a heart and isn’t overly-medicated knows the feeling before tears erupt. One of the most stupid and compassionate questions to ask someone is ‘Why are you crying?’ Half the time we’re not aware ourselves, at least to start. Pressure built up in my chest and behind my eyes. As I wandered through the chapel, tears started to flow – what in our family my father called waterworks .

I liked the view and the graffiti on the way to the museum. I liked the unexpected cow. I liked Guayasamín’s work. I went to the museum because a friend suggested it. I didn’t expect to see reminders of my dead wife’s face in the paintings on the walls.

‘Please don’t cry,’ my new friends tell me. ‘Don’t be sad and dwell on the past with us in this new place in this new year. They tell me this because they care about me and enjoy seeing me happy. But my tears were not pathological but cleansing.

Our society increasingly denies and medicates sadness and insists on normalization and conformity of our feelings to the mean3. Art retains the power to evoke our unruly emotions and memories, joy and pain, that do not conform to its rules.

I emerged from the museum to the mists of Quito around the Pichincha mountains. Nowadays this includes smog from the herds of cars in Quito’s streets. A fine rain started to fall. I was starving and felt lightheaded. I’d bought water but knew I had to eat. I stopped for lunch at a small place. For 2.50 USD I had meatballs with rice and yucca, along with ubiquitous and wonderful Ecuadorian salsa picante. I came out feeling much better .

I descended the steep streets back to the traffic and bustle of the city.

The rain turned heavier, temporarily washing the grit and fumes from the air. It left the atmosphere clear and fresh.

Feliz Año Nuevo. Happy New Year. – CDL

1Fiesta de cumpleaños

2And yet here we are again.

3The statistical mean, as well as in the sense of low and unkind.

Urban Expeditions

Hola Snake

Hola, Gringo. You look tired

I shopped for clothes in Quito. It exhausted me worse than my jungle trip.

An urban expedition can be dangerous. Did you see any wild animals?

Taxis and cars that don’t stop and herds of shoppers stampeding for sales.

There are benefits to living in your own skin. If I get tired of a style, I shed it and grow another.

Like some people shed their personalities.

Humans are a remarkably transitory species.

Like the weather is Quito.

Whether or not I shed my skin, a snake is a snake. It is my nature.

Like some people.

You insult me. I have a friend in Quito. A lounge lizard.

I danced salsa at a club the other night. Sixty dollars for one mojito each for me and the lady I was with. But she was muy bonita, and there was live music and the salsa muy caliente. Maybe he was there.

He sings numbers like Snakey Breaky Heart, Don’t Come Slithering Around My Door and Reptile Love, among others.

Muy picante. Totally worth it.

Humans have strange habits. I’ve heard of this Tinder. Why would you want to set yourselves on fire before mating?

It’s an expression.

Si. I forgot Humans are hot blooded. Like your chica dancing queen?

She is a beautiful middle-aged lady – the energizer bunny of salsa.

Horizontal or vertical?

A gentleman does not tell.

But you are a gringo, not a gentleman.

I am trying to set a good example.

Better than trying to set someone on fire to show them you care.

Human love can be an incendiary.

So roast a marshmallow or an agouti. All that drama.

Si. Like an Ecuadorian telenovela: all those tears and mascara running. It makes the women look like lemurs.

And the men with heaving nostrils. Snakes are much more sensible.

Well, you are cold blooded.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have feelings. We’re just more straightforward when we entwine.

If you don’t mind my saying, you are sentimental for a reptile.

Mama Anaconda asked about you. She would like to wrap her coils around you.

Everybody needs a hug.

What a way to go.

I think Mama Anaconda needs to find someone her own species.

I will give her your suggestion.

Maybe she can try Tinder. I can help her write her profile: ‘Mujer serpiente seeks gentleman snake in the grass. Bring a fire extinguisher.’ – CDL

 

Hola from Ecuador

Image: Fer-de-lance

Hola, Gringo.

Hola, Snake. I see you have a friend.

This is my cousin the Anaconda.

Hola, Señor Anaconda. Como esta?

I am well. But I am a lady anaconda.

I’m sorry. I could not tell.

It’s okay. I only care as long as another anaconda can tell.

So you have finished your time in Pilchi?

Si. I am back in Quito and then will leave Ecuador.

How did you you find your stay in the jungle?

Mi gusta. The people in Pilchi were very friendly and welcoming. They respected and appreciated me.

My friend and colleague Pauli and her team are doing a great job building a settlement for the medical brigade coming to the village in February and for subsequent volunteers.

Didn’t you miss Facebook and Snapchat and constant news of every little tiny thing?

I felt peaceful and happy living basic life in the jungle. I played my harmonica, shared chicha with Maxi the community leader and its members.

I canoed in the lagoon with Pauli and our guide Raul. I joked in bad Spanish with Selso, Julio and their sons.

Did you see any wildlife? – Assuming that playing your harmonica, drinking chicha and joking with your compadres in a language you barely know is not wild enough.

In the lagoon we saw river otters, turtles and many birds.

You did not fall in I hope?

 

I stayed entirely in the canoe. No scuba diving. I heard there are piranha and anaconda – no offense Mama Anaconda.

None taken, lindo gringo.

Hmm. I think Mama Anaconda likes you.

I hope not for lunch.

I’ve just eaten, thank you.

Pirhaha are little fish with an overbite and a big opinion of themselves. They think they scare everyone. They scare themselves looking in a mirror because they are so ugly. You should be much more scared of the caiman.

I did not know there were caiman here. What is a caiman?

A relative of the alligator. Their eyes glow red at night. Definitely not a sailor’s delight.

Yes. Pauli said they lurk beneath the path on the way to the villiage from the Rio Napa in the swamp where Mama Anaconda lives. She and Mama Anaconda are friends.

I thought you said su amiga Pauli the witch does not like snakes.

There are exceptions to everything.

Si. Señora bruja brings me agouti and capybera to the swamp. She has a salad. We have lunch and gossip about Rumpiado Serpiente Corazon de Amazonas — a telenovela of cold-blooded jungle love. We also talk about our children and share advice and sympathy. She is a good friend.

Buen provencha. Perhaps the snake charmed the witch.

It’s good to have a friend.

The rest of the world should get along so well.

What about the compadres who work for Pauli on the Volunteer Village project. Do they get along?

There is a lot of respect and humor among them. There are always problems in projects, but they listen to her and get the job done.

Here is a picture of Julio at the work site, a skilled carpenter, mechanic and all around cool guy.

He looks okay for a human being.

Selso, the crew leader, el maestro, has a beard like the dense, dark Ecuadorian rain forest. He trims it with a machete. The government of Ecuador is thinking of making it a protected national park. His son has tattoos.

Nice ink. Though mine are better. Where did he get them done?

Quito.

The other muchacho on the crew has dark, luxurious hair which he combs often in case a linda chica shows up in the jungle.

Es lindo chico!

Okay, Mama Anaconda. I went to a tattoo conference in Quito once. I ate at a fast food restaurant and got a bad case of the runs. You can imagine what that does to a snake. You can keep your civilization. I’ll stick to agouti and capaberra in the jungle

How can a snake who does not have feet get the runs?

Ha. The gringo is a comedian.

Si. My two weeks in Ecuador have been well-spent. I can now tell a bad joke in Spanish.

Better than being one.

And la serpienta is a standup comedian even without legs. I’m sure I’ve provided entertainment to some people. If I return to Pilchi, fifty hectares of land and a wife are  possibly waiting for me. I can have many children and all the yucca I can grow.

The gringo made an impression teaching the village kids, eating yucca and roasted worms and drinking chicha. So what are you waiting for? Go. They will call you ‘professor yucca’.

My friends and colleagues at home would think I’m crazy.

People where you live spend their time arguing on Facebook, talking into their handheld devices and typing on little tiny keys. Here Mama Anaconda talks to your friend the witch in the swamp who loves the jungle and names her car Vladimiro. What is crazy?

It’s good to have friends who understand and appreciate you wherever they are. Chevre. Chao.

— CDL

 

A Star to Steer By

In lieu of being in Pittsburgh for the December holiday in the wake of my wife’s suicide in June, I am traveling to Ecuador.

The week after I arrive in Quito, I will join a trip to the jungle to a local community in preparation for a medical relief group. In return for a place in a canoe, food and place to sleep, I will take photos and write up the trip for their web site and teach community members some English. Then we will drive back to Quito.

Compass to Steer By

The Tool for the Job

After that the trip is open-ended. For several weeks I will travel and sight -see. I have no idea what I will do and who I will meet. I may visit Machu Picchu. I may go to the Galapagos. I may do something else entirely. I’m creating a new script, navigating without a map. I’m bringing a waterproof journal, my folding compass, my laptop and my harmonica — and the ubiquitous smartphone with camera. (I don’t plan to be constantly taking a lot of selfies, but who knows? You may hear from me.) It’s about being present for the journey, as someone I was close with recently reminded me.

Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes . . . Nay, be a Columbus1 to whole new continents and worlds within you… HDT, Walden

Or, since the Galapagos2 may be on my itinerary:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by… – John Masefield, Sea Fever

Our local Engineers Without Borders chapter has a water project in Curingue Ecuador, and a new one scheduled that I’m the education lead on. Our EWB contact in Quito has been tremendously helpful. I’m grateful for her and others in Pittsburgh who have encouraged me. A number of people have warned me to be careful​. Well, yes. Life is not risk-free. It’s also not a spectator sport. I got a full complement of immunizations this past week, including yellow fever and typhoid. I trust those I’m meeting. I am looking forward to , dare I say, fun after being in a long, dark tunnel. Namaste: Seek the light.– CDL

Sunset in Utah

Sunset in Utah (Photo credit: Cherie Byars, Ph.D.)

1Not the most popular explorer now in South American or anywhere else, but Thoreau was creating a metaphor.

Entertainment for the Journey

I’m preparing for an upcoming trip to Ecuador in December. I tend to overthink, and am learning there are some serious snakes and spiders in the jungle there, including the Fer-de-lance and black widow. But if we can’t entertain ourselves during the journey, never mind others, what’s the point?

Image: Fer-de-lance

Hola, Señor Fer-de-lance! (Courtesy BBC Nature)

 

Interview With an Ecuadoran Snake

Hola, Señor Snake.

Hola, Gringo .

Como estas ?

Muy bien. Y tú ?

Okay. Thanks for asking .

Are you on a holiday. ?

Yes. A friend invited me to accompany her.

Be careful where you step.

Gracias. You are a courteous snake .

De nada . We try to make guests feel welcome in the jungle . Did you get all your vaccines? I could administer any you’re missing with my built-needles.

Thanks. I’m good. Some people are afraid of snakes.

Some people are afraid of their own shadow.

Yes, there seem so many things to be afraid of these days. My friend says she hates snakes.

Strong words. But that’s nothing to me. I just exist here, doing snake-like things.

Do you bite?

Only a little,  if someone steps on my head.

But you are very venomous.

Lo siento. It is my nature. I use my venom to catch and eat small rodents like agouti — preferably accompanied by a glass of Syrah.

Not fava beans and a nice chianti ?

No! What do you think I am? I generally don’t much like people either .

I hope you’ll make an exception for me.

We’ll see.

My friend said some folks here call her a witch .

Then she should be okay. She can cast a spell to keep me away. Is she a good witch or a bad witch?

She says she can be very bad: muy malo.

Make sure she does not cast a spell on you and turn you into an agouti .

Too late. The spell is cast. Here I am thousands of miles away in the jungle bringing medical care to local people. At least it’s for a good cause.

Did your friend bewitch you to lure you into her lair ? Like a spider.

No, I think she likes me. I call her querida bruja* for fun .

She is like a lady witch doctor , perhaps.

Kind of . Though she is a very interesting witch — she leads eco tours and runs a farm.  She goes rafting .

Sounds like she has a real pair of ovaries. Does she intimidate you?

Not too much. And who wants boring?  And If she turned me into an agouti, we couldn’t have interesting conversations.

Yes. Conversation is important.

You have some some serious spiders here by the way, including black widows, tarántulas and very unhygienic spitting spiders. But no. I came because I wanted to.

You are from the States ?

Si. Pennsylvania .

The keystone state . Two main cities: Philadelphia , city of brotherly love , and Pittsburgh , city of three rivers .

You are an educated snake.

Gracias. I have my degree in herpetology.

I know other snakes where I come from, like timber rattlesnakes.  I come across them when I hike.

I know a nice family of timber rattlesnakes el Norte, in the central part of  Pennsylvania. We stay in touch by Facebook and WhatsApp.

Being a snake, you have no opposable thumbs. How do you dial your phone?

Google voice activation works well enough . So when are you leaving Ecuador?

A few weeks.

What a pity . Back to all that cold . Away from your friend .

That’s the way the world works now: everyone is connected but apart.

Yes. Strange. If I may be personal, you seem not always positive.

It’s my nature sometimes. And it’s based on experience.

But you entertain me. Will you visit again?

I’m here to show up and enjoy the journey now.  I’m not thinking about the future . Sure. Maybe.

If you visit again please look me up. I’ll keep the light on for you.

Will you put a mint on my pillow?

No. An agouti .

Gracias .

Just watch where you step and lay your head. You never know what you might encounter in in the jungle. See you later.

Not if I see you first. Ha ha.

Hasta la proxima.

Chao.

# # #

*Dear Witch

Image: Agouti & Syrah Wine

Better Together (Photo credits: Agouti: brian.gratwicke, Syrah: Ricardo Bernardo | ricardobernardo.net)

 

Winners

 

If you are dismayed and wringing your hands over the recent demonstration of democracy in America on November 8th, it might be good to keep in mind a quote by Benjamin Franklin. When Franklin exited the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, a lady in a group of citizens asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy , which BBC Radio broadcast in the late 1970s/80s, provides this additional helpful insight:

From Fit the Seventh

Narrator: There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory mentioned, which states that this has already happened.

Adams’ advice in HGG is something that DeTocqueville and Franklin, themselves fellow travelers in this existential universe, might subscribe to:  Don’t panic, and carry a towel.

— DA

Old Soldiers And Young

With no apologies to General MacArthur, old soldiers do die. So do young ones. They are still doing so, whether or not we decide their cause is just.

20160529_165133I came across a marker for Jacob Blough in a cemetery near Johnstown PA  — before thunder and lightning made me leave before I ended up there too.

Blough fought in the American war for independence with the Pennsylvania militia. He lived until 1810. Seeing his gravestone made me ponder the following:

  • Did he see action? If so where?
  • How did he feel about fighting against his former countrymen on the British side; perhaps killing them and watching his own comrades die for the sake of freedom?
  • Did he ever question the cause of American independence? Or did he believe in it wholeheartedly and without doubt?
  • What kind of life did he have after his service? Did he find a job and family and happiness?

I also wondered what we would think of Blough if he fought for independence today. Would we consider him a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Or both? Could I fight and die for the cause beside him? Or would I reveal myself as a coward? Or a fanatic? Which is worse? — DA

Tendency of the Times

From THE INTERNATIONAL RAILWAY JOURNAL
(A MAGAZINE DEVOTED TO THE INTERESTS OF RAILROADS, STEAMSHIP LINES AND THE TRAVELING PUBLIC)

May, 1903

‘What is the tendency of the times? It is to cease less effort. It is to over-work, over-application, under-enjoyment, under-thinking. The tendency is to make ourselves the machines of business and trade, to always, subordinate our higher capacities and talents to the main purpose of living.

‘A great deal could be said along this line of thought. Every man knows he is a slave — a slave of circumstances, a slave of environments, a slave to ambition, and a slave to the highest inspiration within him. Everywhere is effort unremitting, ceaseless, unsatisfactory. We work every day in the year in a sense, we work while we rest, we work at rest.  Our rest is a mere form of work; it is a delusion; we imagine we are resting when we are simply deceiving ourselves; we make a toil of rest. Our whole civilization is built on one strain to accomplish, to do, to progress, to make the most.

‘But, after all, are we not losing sight of any chance? Our railroad trains run every day in the year, our ticket offices are open from morning to night, our mills, shops and factories run from early Monday morning until Saturday, and merely rest long enough to permit the heat of friction to evaporate. Our stores are crowded, our business offices are open early and late, telephonic and telegraphic wires are kept hot with the babel and gabble of trade, our streets are crowded with rushing pedestrians, our street cars are crowded to suffocation with anxious travelers, our theatres are jammed and packed with excited spectators, who imagine they are enjoying a relaxation. Excursion trains are flying, Sundays and Satur days, to afford people an opportunity to take their eyes away from desks, counters, kitchens, ceilings and floors and from trade and commerce, and from all the pesky and demoralizing influences that go to fill lip our lives.

‘Everything is strenuous. We are tearing our lives to pieces, straining our bodies, thinking of nothing but what pertains to the immediate present, grasping and struggling like idiots, and complimenting ourselves that we live in the greatest country in the world and in the greatest age. We imagine we are scientific, progressive, enlightened, and are doing everything just right. We are tearing through life as though death was something to be reached as soon as possible. Fortunately, however, religion and custom and necessity have made it necessary to slow down once in seven days. But that slowing down is hypocriti cal. We slow down in order that we may start up again with renewed energy, and we tear through each successive week as though life was made up of struggle, and as if there was no room for anything else. We work and we worry and we strain and stretch and imagine that by taking one day of rest we are doing our whole duty to ourselves.

‘Perhaps we are right, but it does seem to the quiet observer that a great deal of this strenuous life is strenuous nonsense. We are forgetting humanity and the purpose of living; we are putting too much ammunition in our gun. In some respects the tramp has more sense. While this example cannot be com mended, yet we might learn a valuable lesson from him. From his standpoint, he gets more out of life than a good many of the rest of us. Where is it to end? For what purpose all this rush ? Why this ceaseless struggle ? These are hard questions to answer.

‘We are told that machinery is increasing the production of things in general; but the more machinery, mills and factories that we build the harder we seem to have to work to get our pound of butter, our loaf of bread, our coat and hat and our street-car fare. When the register of wills makes note of our purse, the amount he finds does not seem to warrant the 30, 40 or 50 years’ struggle to leave it. What we need to learn is to learn how to live, without sacrificing all that is noble and great within us. It is a truth that we subordinate our higher selves to our lower selves. We subordinate the end to the means. We think more of the going than the getting there. We forget that the real purpose of life is development and not dollars.’ — DA (Courtesy of Google Books)

 

Fellow Travelers and Other Strangers

You’d think experiencing hardship and prejudice due to your ethnic identity or nationality would make you more tolerant or sympathetic to a group of people in your midst encountering these. Especially if the differences between you are slight — so that the world sees you as sharing more similarities than differences.

The Irish have had more than their share of hardship and tragedy — from invasion by Cromwell in the 18th Century to rebellion and the more recent Troubles. As Yeats wrote:

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.1

Ironically, now the Irish themselves – some of them, anyway — lack sympathy with a group among them who call themselves the Travelers.

The Travelers are not Gypsies, or Roma. They are a distinct group that has existed for hundreds of years throughout Ireland and Great Britain. (One group made its way to South Carolina.) They have strong family connections, and have made their their living traditionally as itinerant tinkers, traveling from town to town repairing small items. Sometimes by stealing. They are a small group, ethnically distinct by one definition; maybe not so much by another. They use their own language, Cant, which at times their hosts proposed to outlaw, as was tried with Welsh and Gaelic. Given their small numbers, the Travelers seem not worthy of much attention by international groups and individuals (government officials, reporters, ‘advocates’). One thing’s clear: no one in Ireland seems to want them in their backyard.

Bridget O'Donnel and her starving children, 1849, Illustrated London News

Bridget O’Donnel and her starving children, 1849, Illustrated London News

In October the New York Times reported a fire that killed ten people in a Travelers’ encampment in Carrickmines, Ireland, near Dublin. The dead included five children and a pregnant woman. The town – with a name redolent of Irish labor and suffering – contains a fragment of an ancient castle built to protect the invading English from marauding Irish tribes. (It was subsequently used as a piggery.) Encampment, summons up associations ancient and more recent — from Celtic nomads, to the Irish monks setting sail to the Shetland Islands and Scandinavia and (possibly to America) in curraghs, to Famine ships carrying human cargo, and now Syrian refugees fleeing to Hungary and Germany.

Following the destruction of the fire in Carrickmines and shock of their fellow Travelers’ deaths, the survivors sought a new location to settle. Those in the surrounding community who at first expressed sympathy refused to extend that sympathy to allowing Travelers a place to live. Local residents in Dublin  blocked access to a temporary location being prepared for them.

No doubt the situation is complex. How do you create a inclusive community with those who stubbornly refuse to assimilate – who are in fact perceived as a threat? But this has always been the case. In America the dance of assimilation bred as much intolerance as tolerance as each group of immigrants made its way. The Irish showed little sympathy to Italian and Slovak immigrants. Neither group sympathized much with African Americans’ struggle for freedom and equality. 19th-century illustrations by Thomas Nast depicted Irish immigrants as violent, apelike savages.

Political cartoons during the Red Scare of the 1920s characterized Eastern European and other immigrants as bomb-wielding radicals and Bolshies. In the 1950s McCarthy-era rhetoric charged ‘fellow travelers’ as consorting with communists bent on the destruction of American democracy – which some were. It’s a short leap to the terrorists of today.

My own family, illiterate coal miners who ranged between Edinburgh and Belfast, arrived in the U.S. before the First World War. They traveled to Indiana to mine coal and then to Pittsburgh, where my grandmother was born in 1909. She was the first in her family to attend college and became an elementary school teacher – a vocation my own daughter follows.

The Irish have always been travelers, great fighters, and great laborers, willing to take the dirty, dangerous work that others would not, and live in dirty, dangerous places. I have seen their handiwork and witnessed their graves on my own travels cycling and canoeing the Erie and C&O Canals.

In 1844 I arrived upon the fateful shore.
I left the land that was no more
To work upon the railway2

Erie Canal Graves

Cemetery at Adams Basin on the Erie Canal (Photo by the Author)

The truth is we are all travelers, making our way existentially and physically through the world, seeking a home. It’s clear from recent events that some pursue their journey less benignly than others.

Articles in the Irish Times have highlighted entrenched attitudes about the Travelers: among these that they are antisocial criminals, that they are uneducated. Money allocated to create settlements for Travelers remains unspent to opposition from their fellow Irish. One resident near Dublin said, “They just don’t live the same way we do….That’s not a slant on them. It’s just a fact.” “We just don’t want them here,” and, “No one in the country would accept this.”

These 21st-Century words echo those heard and published during the 19th Century. The Great Famine of the 1840s and ’50s, The Great Hunger – An Gorta Mor — killed thousands and sent millions fleeing to American, Canada, New Zealand and other countries. In Great Britain the general attitude was good riddance to their strange ways and tragic lives – contributed to by Britain’s own poor laws and policies of discrimination dating from Cromwell’s day.

inbusinessAs Cecil Woodham-Smith writes in The Great Hunger:

The wretched, ragged crowds provoked irritation, heightened by the traditional English antipathy toward the native Irish. … “No attempt was made to explain the catastrophe to the people; on the contrary, government officials and relief committee members treated the destitute with impatience and contempt.”

No doubt my ancestors and their acquaintances were among those discriminated against. In America they were met with political cartoons and rhetoric emphasizing their antisocial behavior, their ignorance, profligacy, religion, language, criminality and otherness.

Now we witness refugees fleeing Syria and the Travelers in Ireland seeking a home. Questions of Illustrated London Newsimmigration policy arise once again in the long-winded rhetoric surrounding the windup to the U.S. Presidential election, fanned by the horrific scenes perpetrated on Friday November 13th in Paris.

Nevertheless, I am struck by the minute degrees separation that alienate rather than bind us as human beings. In the 1840s The Illustrated London News published accounts uncharacteristically sympathetic to the Irish. One article quoted an eyewitness to their suffering who declared Everything has been tried but a little sympathy and kindness. But how do you maintain sympathy for someone you’re afraid, rightly or wrongly, is trying to kill you? — CDL

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