Posts Tagged ‘death’

Shrine in Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires

I love cemeteries. This shrine in Recoleta Cemetery is perfect in it’s haunting simplicity.


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I recently finished one of the most moving stories I have ever read – Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer. Always fascinating, often moving, the book is captivating from the first line to the last, and I frequently found myself weeping (occasionally even crying out right) as I read (this was pretty embarrassing at times as I often read out and about in the world). I wept for the emotion, beauty, and sadness of the story. But it’s certainly not all sad, many of my tears sprung from the love (of nature, of fellow man) expressed by the tale.

Self-portrait of Chris McCandless - he died of starvation in this bus within weeks of this photo being taken

Into The Wild chases 23 year old Chris McCandless through his last two years on the planet. In 1990 McCandless walked away from his money, family, life, and possessions and wandered off into the world, travelling and adventuring about, meeting amazing folk, until he finally made it to Alaska two years later where he walked into the wild to live off the land for a few months and, due to a handful of bad decisions and unfortunate luck, starved to death.

Interspersed throughout the narrative progression are interviews with people whose hearts were touched by McCandless in those years, stories of other young adventurers who challenged themselves thus (some met with success, others with death), and a harrowing and inspirational account of the author’s own psychological and physical battle in his attempt to summit a daunting Alaskan peak.

What I enjoyed most of all was the angle of exploring one’s own humanity and the possibility for peaceful coexistence between human nature and mother nature. “Into the wild” is McCandless’ echoing call. My own is similar but instead of searching the great out there I hope to branch out into the wild interior of my own nature.

As an aside, I recently included the Sean Penn’s cinematic adaptation of Into The Wild in a post about movies to ignite your wanderlust. The film is magnificent.

I would argue that the book is even better. I loved it because it made me feel. I didn’t agree with everything McCandless thought, felt, said, or did but I admire him because he believed something strongly and acted emphatically on his beliefs.

Book Diva loved it too, while Lisa from Books on the Brain had mixed emotions about it and found it hard to relate to McCandless. This seems to be a book (and a character and a lifestyle for that matter) that polarises – you either love it or hate it.

Even the way Krakauer presents the story and examines McCandless seems to be contentious. On the one hand Erin Berman questions Krakauer’s objectivity, while Terrence Cantarella defends the book and says that Krakauer “has crafted a non-fiction book as inspiring, moving, and artful as the best works of fiction. He has offered up a real-world story of physical and spiritual escape, a bold tale of adventure, and a quest for something unseen.”

Have you read it? If so, I would love to hear how it impacted you emotionally and what you thought of it.

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The old-world beauty of hundred year old gravestones, mossy and damp, sleeping below the motorway overpass. Walking through the cool shadows of the cemetary you can feel the eyes of the ages inspecting you as you pass.

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A beautiful abandoned schoolhouse in Tokomaru Bay, New Zealand

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I want to share with you the opening page of the book I am currently reading – Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer:

I am living in Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.
Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, towards the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.

Henry Miller

It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom.
I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.
This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse…
To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.

First of all, isn’t that a brilliant opening page? It sets the scene, the era, the character, and the mood so well. It seems to cover so much. It got me wondering – how important is a first line or an opening page for readers? I personally never read inside the book when deciding what to buy. I occasionally read the blurbs on the back but more often rely on recommendations from friends or references from other sources. For that reason, while the first page certainly makes an impression, I will usually read at least 30 pages before I decide if I will stick with it or not. What about you, how important are the opening lines of a book in your decision to buy/read it? And what are your favourite literary openings?

Secondly, I just love what Miller says about writing and being a writer – “six months ago, I thought I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am,” he writes. That is so powerful. I want to make a similarly strong proclamation…

I am a writer. (The essential thing is to want to write. I am writing.)

That felt good.

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It was the best of days, it was the worst of days…

After a painfully sleepless night (the La Paz street noise was so excrutiatingly ferocious that, at one point, I actually laughed out loud – surely this MUST be a joke!) I struggled out of my sleeping bag at 6am. I was greeted by the dull dawn, the icy cold, the endless ache of period pain, my nagging head cold, and (oh yay!) the runs!!
“Oh no,” my travelling companion sympathised, “What are you going to do?”
“She’ll be right.” My optimism may have been foolish but it was all I had.

Early morning in La Paz: a rare quiet moment

I arrived at the cafe meeting point after a brisk “just look confident” walk through the half-deserted 7am streets of La Paz (alleged to be one of the most dangerous cities on the planet) loaded like a pack mule with all my belongings.

Grateful to have arrived in one piece (and with all my gear) I ordered a coke – the magic, never-fail, stomach-trouble remedy that my friend picked up while in India.

It failed.

Four emergency evacuations later and all optimism had been flushed down the toilet.

I was seriously considering pulling the pin on this whole “world’s most dangerous road” thing. I mean who needs to risk public humiliation on top of life and limb? I had this oh so vivid picture of me shitting my pants in front of a pack of strangers while riding a mountain bike down a big-ass hill… I didn’t like that picture.

It was then that I met my guardian angel – a kind stranger who, on overhearing my predicament in the bathroom, offered me her “magic pills”. I thanked her profusely, popped two, and sped to the awaiting van with a “wish me luck!” and a frazzled smile.

On Yer Bike, Michelin Man!

By the time we reached our launch site, almost 5000m up in the heavens, the pills were working their synthesised magic. For the first time in my life I was all “go pharmaceuticals!!” The gurgling in my stomach had now been replaced with bubbling excitement. I got my kit on (looking remarkably akin to the michelin man owing to the thousand and one layers mandatory for a comfortable temperature at that altitude), got some instruction, and sat there bouncing (literally – my bike was dual suspension) with excitement. A few words of encouragement and some safety tips and we were off, racing down the first 25km of paved road at glorious speeds – a few times we hit a wind-roaring 50-60km/hr.

The views were spectacular – epic mountains, snow-crowned peaks, drug check points… at one time we even passed a small village which, although it was tiny, was famed for having 21 different fish restaurants. Bizarre!

After an hour or so on that road we reached the purpose of our jaunt. This was it, for the next 45kms: the world’s most dangerous road.

We were instructed the following:

The World's Most Dangerous Road, Bolivia

1. Contrary to all other road-rules in Bolivia, when you ride this road you MUST stay to the left, the outer edge, the cliff face. This has something to do with drivers on the way up being able to see you. It sounded like suicide to me.
2. When a vehicle passes you MUST dismount, you MUST keep your bike on the outside of you.
3. You MUST keep your eyes on the road and off of the glorious views and the wildlife.
To make sure we obeyed his musts or guide told us a few of the stories of how riders had died or maimed themselves on this road. The girl next to me was from La Paz; she told me this road was in the papers all the time, trucks and buses where constantly driving off the edge.

Remind me again, why was I doing this? That’s right, for a laugh. Dumb.

We set off. It was crazy. At times I honestly thought I might die, but I (somehow) made my peace with that and had a ball. For several hours we hooned down the rocky, windy, dusty, wet, blind-cornered, cliff-edged, magical road. Periodically a bus would drone past us, or a heavy truck swaying from side to side and brimming over with dozens of Bolivians with standing room only in the tray.

Dangerous Beauty

On our numerous stops I soaked up the view, the atmosphere. I don’t know how to describe it to you (it was beyond description) but, needless to say, it was pretty special. After a couple of classic water crossings (one with water half way up our calves, peddling like mad) and even a ride under a waterfall, we arrived at our ultimate destination – Coroico, about 1200m high. I didn’t know it at the time but Coroico would become my “home” for the next two weeks, and forever go down in history as the place in which I firmly re-prioritised my life and where my friend shat her pants. But those are other stories…

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On the road to nowhere, Southern Bolivia

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