I have always been a reader. It’s one of life’s greatest gifts, for if you enjoy reading you can never be bored. You can transport yourself to other worlds while sitting at a laundromat waiting for your clothes to dry. There are certain genres of writing that I tend to gravitate to, of course. Naturally I love stories about the sea as well as trashy mysteries and detective stories.
I also tend to read authors. What I mean is, if I come across someone who has written a book I enjoy, I will often spend the next few weeks or months devouring everything of theirs I can get my hands on. I read everything John Steinbeck wrote before I graduated from high school after reading Cannery Row (I’ve read it at least three times). The same with Joseph Conrad who I believe is one of the greatest masters of the English language and astonishingly so since English was his third language after Polish and French. I have no favorite author but Paul Theroux ranks high on my list of people I like to read. I’ve read his novels (The Mosquito Coast, Hotel Honolulu, and My Secret History) but it’s his travel writing I really love.
Theroux spends a lot of time riding on trains. His first such adventure was detailed in The Old Patagonian Express which came about when, while living in Boston, Mass., he discovered that he could get on the streetcar near his house and travel all the way to the southern tip of the western hemisphere by rail. It was on this adventure this line (A French traveler with a sore throat is a wonderful thing to behold, but it takes more than tonsillitis to prevent a Frenchman from boasting.) hooked me into reading everyone of his travel books.
Not too long ago I downloaded his The Great Railway Bazaar recounting his four-month rail journey through Asia in 1975, from Audible.com to listen to while riding the buses into David or to La Concepcion to do my shopping. Last month I downloaded Ghost Train to the Eastern Star in which he retraces some of the trip described in The Great Railway Bazaar and I started listening to it this past Thursday. It has a different narrator than the first book. That one was read by a young-sounding voice while the latest is by someone obviously older. But then, Theroux, on this journey, is 33 years older than when he made the first trip.
What grabbed me in the opening chapter brings me to the theme of this post. Riding out of London Theroux reflects on Ford Madox Ford’s thoughts about riding on trains.
“Ford Madox Ford wrote in his book The Soul of London that riding on a train speaks of how the relative silence of sitting on a train and looking into the busy muted world outside invites melancholy. ‘One is behind glass as if one were gazing into the hush of a museum; one hears no street cries, hears no children’s calls…one sees, too, so many little bits of uncompleted lives.’
“He noted a bus near a church, a ragged child, a blue policeman. A man on a bike, a woman alighting from a bus, school children kicking a ball, a young mother pushing a pram. And, as this was a panorama of London back gardens, a man digging, a woman hanging laundry, a workman-or was he a burglar?-setting a ladder against a window. And the constant succession of much smaller happenings that one sees, and that one never sees completed give to looking out of train windows a touch of pathos and dissatisfaction. It is akin to the sentiment ingrained in humanity of liking a story to have an end.’”
Short, quick glimpses of the passing scene. I see them through the windows of the buses here in Panama: A volleyball net set up in a field of knee-high weeds, Christmas lights still on a house in May, a man leading a horse in a field followed by five other horses, a woman doing laundry on the rocks of a river, uniformed school children huddled against the rain in a bus shelter. You see these little vignettes of uncompleted lives, too, every time you leave your house. Do they register? Are they tucked away to be remembered at some later date?
Theroux also writes of his own thought that: “Luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing. Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world. That is its purpose, the reason why luxury hotels and great hotels are full of fatheads who, when expressing an opinion, seem as though they are from another planet. It was also my experience that one of the worst aspects of traveling with wealthy people, apart from the fact that the rich never listen, is that they constantly groused about the high cost of living-indeed the rich usually complained of being poor.”
It’s not just these glimpses into people’s lives that we observe. Sometimes it’s just the things around us. Things that don’t register immediately and then wham! They’re there.
This year in Panama the rainy season has been a long time coming. Rivers are so low that hydro-electric generating stations are in desperate shape. President Martinelli has ordered drastic measures to conserve electricity. Thursday when I went shopping at Plaza Terronal in David the air conditioning was off at El Rey supermarket, at Panafoto where I went to buy a new set of ear buds for my iPod, at the Subway Sandwich shop to get my “gringo fix” for the week. All by presidential decree.
The last couple of days, though, it seems that we might be getting back into our usual weather pattern. Glorious sunny morning. Blue sky and cotton ball clouds followed by intense rain in the afternoon. Gully washers. Frog choking rain. I can hear the nearby river tumbling across the rocks for the first time in months. A few days ago people who live on the other side of the river could cross it without getting their feet wet. Now they take off their shoes and roll up their pant legs. The grass in my yard has gone from Cheerio brown to jungle green and I have to get out the weed whacker and attack it in the next day or two.
And then I noticed this tree in the field next door. A week ago it didn’t have a leaf on it. It seemed dead. But yesterday I noticed that its suddenly turned green.
You can observe a lot just by looking.