Tuesday, February 9, 2010
"Enchanted Vagabonds," by Dana Lamb
SAN DIEGO – Enchanted Vagabondswritten by Dana Lamb is published by the Long Riders’ Guild Press, which has dedicated itself to reproducing books from something called the Equestrian Travel Classics. These are books that have fallen from mass distribution with the passing of time, but which the publishers feel “remain of global interest and importance."
“Enchanted Vagabonds,” a 414-page opus of dense reading and no plot to speak of, involves a journey made by Lamb and his wife Ginger in the thick of the great depression. Friends from childhood in then-agricultural Orange County (Southern California) Ginger and Dana had dreams of adventure. Having little to lose, they set out from San Diego in a canoe/sailboat of their own engineering, for the Panama Canal.
The sojourn took three years and it is a tale most engrossing, especially for those who hunger to know of an earlier world before crowding, pollution, modernization, and the mass endangerment of nature’s many species of plants and animals.
It is of special interest to Southern Californians of the surfing variety for its early chapters dealing with the Baja California peninsula, which today (and thanks to its ruggedness and inhospitality) remains a kind of last frontier for those seeking raw territory to discover and roam.
Revealing indeed is this portrait of a Mexico largely unsettled and a nation only in name. As they make their way down the Pacific coast of the great country, each stop into port represents a sampling of Indian/indigenous life almost unspoiled by the sullying hand of European culture.
More often than not these Indian villages welcome the sensitive and sensible travelers with open arms, grand fiestas, and kind treatment; treatment that on a few occasions represents the difference between life and death for the lusty and ingenuous adventurers.
Stricken with malaria in the jungle, mad with fever to the point of delirium, the couple awaken many weeks later in a village that has taken them in and assumed the difficult task of curing and nurturing them back to life. The difference between depression-era America and the pre-Columbian ways of the Indians marks the couple so that, as Lamb puts it, “we no longer fit in to the picture” (of modern life).
The Indians are not friendly at every turn, and particularly along a stretch of inland seas the couple must traverse to avoid death at the hands of powerful “norther” wind storms, they are hounded by a violent and malevolent tribe known as the Mareños.
The Mexican government had, at this point in time, tried to subjugate these scoundrels with an army that never made it back. And so you get an idea of the danger they faced.
So virgin is the country that the couple, on wayward ventures inland and on foot, discover lost and forbidden cities of pyramids and altars for human sacrifice. Throughout their trek, the couple is confronted with a, “strange throbbing rhythm. You felt it even more than you heard it. It was like a nerve beat. It seemed to permeate the air. We were never entirely able to dismiss the effect of this vibration upon our minds and bodies, for we were to hear it many, many times in months to come. We can offer no explanation as to what it was, where it came from, or who produced it. We called it drums for want of another name, but we do not know.”
The psychology of these two discoverers reveals much of what has changed in the human psyche and in the soul of nature in the 70 years. Their behavior is more akin to safari hunters than that of the modern day eco-tourist. When floating through the Sea of Cortez surrounded by hundreds of giant manta rays, Lamb gets it into his head to harpoon one. Later on, in a lagoon, he does the same to an alligator. In such instances, Mother Nature strikes back and the adventures become more akin to misadventures. Along the way they shoot tigers, ocelots, jaguars and anything else that gets in their way. On the Island of Cocos off Costa Rica, they clean their camp by leaving the refuse out in anticipation of the tides that will be carrying it away.
They are inhabiting a time and space where nature still rules, where man is far from indomitable, and “natural” resources are so abundant as to overwhelm and threaten human life.
Trouble with the Indians is met with the white man’s friend, the gun. Carefully planned ambushes of tribes that have it out for them are replete with powerful gun battles and although there is never once a body count, one gets the impression a few natives must have been felled along the way.
Kind and sensible when met with kindness or mild distrust, the couple are capable of matching violence with violence.
Many times they are in hell with endless strange insects that inflame and scar their skin and infect them with illnesses that threaten their very survival.
Other times, they are in paradise as this time when, after pulling themselves onto a beach to set up camp, Lamb goes for a little walk:
“I took both guns – Ginger’s automatic in case I should sight small game, and the Luger in the event of a tiger – and my new machete, and hacked my way towards a group of palms I had seen from the sea. Cutting through the last string of brush to the palm grove, I came upon a beautiful blue lagoon. I gazed in wonder. Tired and hungry as I was, I forgot everything else for the moment. This was the 'Promised Land.' A little fresh-water stream ran into the lagoon, and across it tall coco palms lined a white sand beach. Ducks floated in the water. Great blue herons, snowy egrets, sandpipers, and shorebirds were everywhere. Parrots, and other birds with gorgeous plumage whose names I did not know, flew overhead. Fish made rainbow arcs of color as they leapt and splashed. It was a scene whose beauty made me doubt the evidence of my own eyes.”
Here they meet a pair of “Azteco” Indians, relatives to the ancient Aztecs, who help them establish a hut and teach them how to live off the rich land surrounding. They stay for a number of months. The Indians tell them of a “Forbidden City” their tribe is sworn to protect.
Despite an old tale, pregnant with warning, of a Spanish army that entered the surrounding land never to return, the couple decide to search for the forbidden city and ultimately find it, replete with mounds hiding pyramids, protective walls and a limestone sacrificial altar upon which they set up camp and start a fire.
“The effect of such an experience is indescribable. We seemed to have brushed aside times’ limitations. The past and present were telescoped. The mind was able to recapture images as though it were not subject to the restrictions of space and matter. I do not tell you that what we saw with our physical eyes, or heard with our finite ears, these evocations of the past. It was rather an awareness not dependent upon either of these usual instruments of sense perception.
“We sat utterly still. The silence was broken only by the sharp staccato of the fire’s explosions; then, far off, insistent, vibrant, that rhythmic monotone.”
Lamb was an intelligent observer who renders the landscape of Mexico masterfully. The many descriptions of the troubles had at sea in their undersized “Vagabunda” can be a bit too detailed and lose those who don’t possess a command of boating terminology (the jib, stern, starboard, etc.) or a full vocabulary of the sea’s behavior (squalls, shoals, breakers, etc.). Were this a novel, one or two harrowing sequences upon the violent seas would have been sufficient, but Lamb is writing a travelogue and diary, so that these must be recorded, sometimes at the expense of a patient reader.