Our Ghosts: A History Drawn by Roger Clarke

As you might have guessed by now, I am a huge fan of anything ghost-related. I love ghost stories and scary movies, I have a deep curiosity for old buildings and family histories. But I often find myself disappointed by both books and cinema on the subject. Other than the classics —M.R. James, Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft— I no longer read ghost stories. I have instead turned to accounts of “real” hauntings and sightings of ghosts, and that is how I came to buy myself Ghosts: A Natural History by Roger Clarke.

I adored this book not only because it’s honest and well paced, but also because it succeeded in sending chills down my spine. It had been a while since I had felt that need to look behind me or that strange gut feeling while reading a book.

Clarke begins explaining his obsession with ghosts and tells us a story with which many of us are familiar, the family ghost, an eerie spot in an old house where you get the chills. He later recounts his reading on the subject and his initiation as a “ghost hunter” and the Society for Physical Research.

“In a basic sense, ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them. This is not a book about whether ghosts exist or not. This is a book about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories that we tell each other about them.”

As the title says, this book is better described as a natural history of ghosts though. Clarke tries to approach not ghosts but ghosts sightings across Britain as a scientist would approach any phenomenon. And doing so reveals many interesting facts about ghosts and societies: how ghosts have changed, how specters and poltergeists have appeared in ages of moral and political turmoil, even how ghosts have changed their “clothing” depending on the epoch.

To illustrate this natural history, Clarke divides the book into various famous ghost stories from different times, such as the ghost of Hinton Ampner, the Enfield Poltergeist, the spectres of the Tower of London, some renowned spiritist, and so on. Thus, the book is full of the charming mystery that surrounds old fashioned ghost stories.

Illustration by Edward Gorey

All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in ghosts, believers and non-believers, or anyone interested in history, for this book is as much about ghosts as about the people that has claimed to see them and the societies that shaped these people.

I am currently reading another ghostly and ghastly tale, The Hunt for the Skinwalker, about which I’ll be writing soon. What are you guys reading?

What I’ve Been Reading

The past weeks have been nothing but chaotic. Fortunately I have found time to read, perhaps the sole activity keeping me grounded. It’s not much, but I thought I’d share with you what I’ve read lately.

Ghosts: A Natural History by Roger Clarke

I love anything related to ghosts and I absolutely loved this book. Roger Clarke, once a ghost hunter, shares some very interesting ideas and anecdotes about ghosts and why we are so obsessed with them. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, this natural history of sightings will make you wonder about the tight bond between Western societies and ghosts. This is a very entertaining read that offers both anecdotes and theories, as well as a classification of ghosts.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A bizarre novel that follows the adventures of John and Owen, two kids from New England. Owen Meany is a very small boy with an eerie voice, he is John’s best friend but also the reason why his mother is dead. The novel revolves around many theological and religious issues as John begins to believe Owen is some kind of instrument of God, if not a new Messiah. I must say I did not love this book, it is quite dire and long, but I thought some parts were absolutely marvelous.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I declare myself an Ishiguro fan! This book a perfect novel. We follow Stevens, a very oldfashioned british butler on a road trip that will disentangle some of his memories from when he served an English aristocrat whose connection with the Nazies is suspicious. As always, Ishiguro’s writing is poignant and nostalgic, a reflection on memory and duty in the words of an endearing and reticent character. A must read!

The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende

I have had this book for years and finally read it a couple of weeks ago. I generally don’t enjoy “magic realism”, but I loved this book. The House of Spirits is the story of three generations of women, Clara, Blanca and Alba in a Southamerican country in which racism, clasism, poverty and politicians are terrible. Although the book explores many themes and its a family saga, I could say it is a story of womanhood, of love and an interesting critique of the military dictatorship that happened in Chile in the 80’s. A lovely book that I will not forget.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

As a fan of Steinbeck, it pains me to say I did not like this book. This short novel focuses on a family in Baja California Sur. The father, Kino, is a pearl hunter and is searching for a pearl big enough to pay a doctor for treating his baby son. And he finds one. The biggest pearl ever. And things just get worse. Steinbeck describes the systemic injustices that plague the poor, native people of Baja, a system in which they just can’t prevail and in which everybody else is constantly abusing them. Although Steinbeck’s intentions were surely good, I find the book lacks tact in approaching the subject without glorifying poverty.

I am also just beginning with The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. It’s too soon for me to say anything about it. Have you guys read it or any of these books? What are you reading?

Why Do We Remember?: Svetlana Alexievich’s History of the Soul

In 2015, the Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Back in the day, as a Literature undergraduate, I was very interested in a non-fiction writer, a historian and someone whose work could be labelled as journalism had won the award.

Svetlana Alexievich

The Swedish Academy remarked in their speech the “polyphonic” quality of Alexievich’s work and I, at the time reviewing that concept concerning Russian literature, was very intrigued, so I bought myself two books by Alexievich: War’s Unwomanly Face and Voices from Chernobyl. I read the first one in 2015, but it wasn’t until last month that I picked up the second one. It was not because I didn’t want to read more by the author, but because War’s Unwomanly Face proved to be a very intense and challenging read.

In War’s Unwomanly Face, Alexievich describes her work as a “history of the soul”. Although booth books are framed within historical events, Alexievich makes it clear that she’s more interested in the stories, feelings and sensations of those involved in the events.

War’s Unwomanly Face focuses on testimonies from women who participated in WWII under the URSS. These women were nurses, soldiers, pilots, bombers… and yet their names were forgotten, their stories silenced for decades. Interviewed by Alexievich, these women recall little incidents, vague feelings, vignettes that have nothing to do with the glorified portraits of war we often see in [especially male] literature and film. This is where the “polyphonic” nature of her work comes in: she does not unify and generalize these experiences under a single narrative voice, she does not homogenize all these voices under a label like “female perspective on war”, she instead gives each voice the space to tell her own story, without judgment or censure.

In Voices from Chernobyl, we have the same exercise: we are presented with testimonies from survivors of the nuclear catastrophe: bombers, soldiers, residents of the town of Pripyat, wives, daughters and sons of the deceased. In both books, Alexievich introduces us using her own voice, never disguised as an authority in history. We get an introduction and more essays or, as she calls them, monologues by the author in which she discusses her own experience interviewing these people, as well as some reflections on what it means to remember, on patriotism, pain, grief, nostalgia.

In Alexievich’s works, the very well constructed fantasy of a “history” crumbles. We are left with the raw memories and vague feelings of those who experience what we now call “historic events” first hand. We are left with pain, pride, sorrow and perhaps above all, love. What good are, then, the so-called facts we learn in school?

If I was left with a question after reading Voices form Chernobyl, it is this: What is history if we take feelings out of it? We pride ourselves now in “scientific” discourses and often forget they’re just that: a discourse, a specific use of language. Alexievich gets shakes us out of that delusion and confronts us with the hard questions.

It’s no surprise for me that those things that can’t be history by science are left to literature; it is in art we can both understand and feel understood in our fragility, it is in literature we can open the doors which science, politics and history dare not enter. For what good is remembering dates if we forget the stories of those who came before us? What good is to know the names of battles if erase the faces of those who fought? What good is remembering and why must we remember?

A feature in Roamer Magazine

Hello everybody!

I just wanted to share with you this new project, a magazine for backpackers with an eco-conscious mindset. An article I wrote about the town of Tortuguero in Costa Rica is featured in their first issue and I couldn’t be happier. Thank you to everybody at Roamer for making this happen 🙂

Staying at home is a great opportunity to plan new adventures and reflect on our ecological impact on the planet, so give it a read if you have a chance! Here it is:

Flickers of Light: The Goldfinch

I would have loved to live in a Charles Dickens novel. I would have because, in Charles Dickens’ universes, everything makes sense. The tiniest fact, knock on the door, face seen through a window in the dark, silhouette drawn in the distant fog, dream or vision, signifies something. You would get to the end of the novel and realise in every little detail from the very first page there was the ending, an unavoidable fate written in every line, a unique conclusion advertised in every omen; everything is a sign.

Perhaps in our everyday lives, it is harder to see the connections, to interpret the omens, to wade through the random and insignificant. Is everything random, coincidental, or do we just fail to see the connections? That’s something Donna Tartt’s third novel The Goldfinch had me asking myself regularly. Dickensian in its structure, marvellously paced and incredibly moving, The Goldfinch is one of those novels that not only rescue the genre but bring it to its full bloom, an incandescent explosion of meaning, beauty, tragedy and humanity.

What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civil responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?” 

The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker told by himself. An autobiography and a manifesto. For him, it all revolves around the tragic death of his mother at a bombing when he was thirteen. The incident irrevocably links Theo’s fate to a painting, Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch from 1664, and to an antique shop in New York, Hobart & Blackwell.

As Theo puts it, the death of his mother made a clear cut in the fabrics of his life, there was a before, where everything was happier yet illuminated by a dim light, almost blurry when looked at, and there’s an after. An after in which he is alone. The events take Theo to the Barbour’s house on Park Avenue, to Las Vegas with his father, to his calling as an antique’s dealer in New York, to unlikely friendships and drugs, to unrequited love and the underworld of illegal art dealing. And in the middle, connecting it all, is The Goldfinch.

“And I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a  barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.”

I cannot express how much I loved reading the novel. I can’t say I enjoyed all of it, for it is a sad book, but I read it obsessively, always scared that it might end. Like a painting, this novel is made of light. It is made of thousands of brushstrokes, some fast-paced, some slow-paced, some violent and some gentle, a million colours, shades, textures by, surprisingly, a single brush: Theo’s point of view.

The narrator is, by the way, one of the things I most enjoyed. Like Jane Eyre, Theo is a compelling storyteller that mingles his memories and his reflections in a delightful way. The pace of the novel is also remarkable, for the time in the novel is like the time of the mind, some periods pass by rapidly in a couple of paragraphs while some instants—golden summer afternoons, visions of The Goldfinch— remain for pages, as if lived in slow motion.

Ultimately, The Goldfinch‘s theme (as with another of Tartt’s novels, The Secret History) is beauty. Could beauty be the meaning itself, instead of an accessory to the meaning? In Theo’s life, it is, for there is beauty in the most tragic of circumstances—or, at least, the most tragic events of his life led him, through crooked paths and unorthodox methods, towards beauty. Is beauty an honourable thing to seek? Who cares, argues Theo, the heart wants what it wants.

And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful. 
Only what is that things? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about al the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? Or, to tip it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet—for me, anyway— all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?

In Tartt’s novel, and in this it is not Dickensian, beauty is found in the connections between things and not at the end of a chain of events. There’s no meaning in the destination, but in the light that shines out of the cracks in an otherwise evenly paved path. And this is also why Theo Decker is not a hero or a villain, perhaps a decadent hero, a troubled one, a mistaken one, an honest one. The Goldfinch is, then some sort of Dickensian novel for our times, one that does not offer happy endings or meaning, but one that creates meaning in its very composition, in its own beauty.

“Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. […] life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time—so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing.”

Back to blogging

The past week has proven everything can change in the blink of an eye. In less than five days I’ve had to close my coffee shop, cancel all traveling plans and postpone indefinitely a publishing workshop I’d been working on with several independent publishing houses. On the other hand, an academic article I wrote in university has been accepted for publication in an important American journal, and another piece of writing will be featured in an independent travel magazine. So it’s not all bad, really.

I figured, since I can’t really work from home, I might dedicate my time to things I had lately neglected: writing, reading and my blog. I am currently writing a review of The Goldfinch, which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I also recently finished Anne of Green Gables and started with John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I believe the quarantine can be an opportunity to rearrange our priorities, even if that sounds and is a quite privileged approach. As an introvert I can confess my social routine hasn’t been altered much.

Since I might be spending a lot of time online, I’d love to know what are you guys reading and which books and tv series you recommend (I’m currently watching Vikings). Much love to all, let’s make the best of these hard times.

Best Reads of 2019

February has not only arrived but almost left and yet this is my first post of 2020. 2019 was a difficult yet beautiful year. I got my degree and opened a coffee shop in my hometown, a project that began with my family’s support and has been getting bigger and bigger… so much that we now moved to a bigger space and, thanks to my boyfriend’s help, are organizing book clubs, live music nights and movie projections.

This is the reason I haven’t been reading and writing as much, but I wouldn’t dare to complain. I read just a few books last year but they were important and marked me in many different ways —this year seems to be following the same pattern, for I have read only two books and they’ve made a big impression on me—. All of this is just an excuse to post about the books I liked best in 2019. It is also some sort of reopening of my blog, for I’ll be back posting reviews and whatever I find myself musing about. Thank you for reading and for making me part of such a beautiful community as this.

Travels with Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck

“I was born lost and I take no pleasure in being found”

Mysteries of Winterthurn, Joyce Carol Oates

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

“All great and precious things are lonely”

Shirley, Charlotte Brontë

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

Romantic Outlaws, Charlotte Gordon

A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit

H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald

Among Clouds: Monteverde, Costa Rica

Monteverde was the fourth stop in our Costa Rican adventure. It was quite the odyssey to get there from Tortuguero: we took the boat to La Pacvona, from where we took a “colectivo” to Cariari, a bus to San José and finally another bus to Monteverde. It was all worth it though, Monteverde is one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever visited. Because of the altitude, you get the feeling of being among clouds, breathing the purest air. Everything there is green and the ground is covered in moss. Every tree, both in the village and in the parks, is crawling with animals and plants.

The town of Monteverde is picturesque to an extreme. Most buildings resemble chalets or cabins, and the streets are super inclined, which makes it hard to walk. There’s always fog and the weather is cold for Costa Rica. In Monteverde alone, we saw more wildlife than in any other location: howling monkeys, capuchin monkeys, agoutis, lizards, frogs and many different kinds of birds. It was one of the highlights of the trip, not to mention here we found the cheapest hostel of the trip, Sleepers, which was like $7 the night.

Santa Elena Cloud Forest

Clouds are one of the main appeals of Monteverde. A cloud forest is a rare ecosystem, they only exist in places where tropical weather, the mountainous topography and the atmospheric conditions conspire to allow a constant cover of clouds. The result is not only beautiful to behold but it allows thousands of different species of animals and plants to thrive in this humid and not too cold conditions. To visit the Cloud Forest Reserve of Monteverde you have three different options: Monteverde Cloud ForestSanta Elena Cloud Forest, and Bosque Eterno de los Niños. We visited Santa Elena, which is not that expensive and offers a nice view of the Arenal Volcano.

Being September, we prepared ourselves for rain and left early to start hiking at 10am. In Santa Elena we were surprised by a clear and sunny day. Santa Elena Cloud Forest is a magical place. It offers four well-kept hiking trails and a close encounter with nature. We spent the whole day there and barely saw any more people. We did see, however, all kinds of vegetation, cascades, giant birds, monkeys and the most spectacular ficus trees. It was an adventure and not even the rain that came later in the afternoon could ruin (and boy, did it rain).

Ficus trees

Another thing you can do in Monteverde is climbing a ficus tree. When we were in Puerto Viejo, a friend told us about a huge ficus tree we could climb. He explained where it was and showed us on the map, so we thought it would be easy to find it. We spent about an hour walking there from the village and, once we got there, saw a forest full of ficus trees. They all looked climbable, but none resembled the picture we’d seen. We gave up the search when it started to get dark, and on the way back we saw at least ten capuchin monkeys dancing and playing in the trees. We also heard a very loud howling monkey and saw a lovely agouti, so I would not call it an unfruitful adventure.

Monteverde is, to put it plainly, a wonderful place. It is one of my favourite places in Costa Rica and one I wish we had spent more time in.

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Stalking Turtles

The greatest appeal of Costa Rica has to be its natural diversity. The number of beautiful places and animals that live in this small country was the main reason I wanted to visit it. And it did not disappoint: monkeys and turtles, active volcanoes, beautiful beaches and national parks everywhere. Nevertheless, my least favourite part was one of its most famous and “protected” areas, the turtle sanctuary and ecological town of Tortuguero.

Tortuguero is located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and belongs to the province of Limón. The village is part of Tortuguero National Park and, because it’s on a sandbar, it’s a bit hard to access: you have to get to La Pavona by car or bus and then take a 1-hour boat ride to Tortuguero. The town is really small and its economy depends on tourism: thousands of people come here to see turtles, jaguars and other exotic species. There’s a Sea Turtle Conservancy research station which runs different guided tours and expeditions. These tours are very expensive and the money is supposed to go to conservancy jobs and research.

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Knowing all this, arriving in Tortuguero was a bit of a surprise for me. As soon as we stepped out of the boat, some guys from The Sea Turtle Conservancy approached us to help us find a hostel and sell us any of the various “eco” tours they offered. I thought that bore a considerable resemblance to how things are done in some protected areas in México, such as Yucatán and Quintana Roo, where there are not many regulations as to how many tourists are allowed in a certain area or how close people are supposed to get to wildlife. We thanked these guys, accepted some recommendations and finally settled for a cheap hostel called 7 Backpackers, where we were told there was nothing to do in Tortuguero other than the activities offered by The Sea Turtle Conservancy, nothing we could do on our own at least. That day we visited the beach and went back to the Visitor Centre to plan our next day in Tortuguero.

At the Visitor Centre, we were offered many different activities: night-walks to watch turtles, morning canoeing and kayaking wildlife-watching tours, turtle hatching expeditions, guided hikes in the rainforest, etc. We had to choose only the cheapest activities: a night-walk in search of turtles and a morning canoeing tour. We paid $60.00 US dollars for these activities and I must admit I did not know what I expected. From what we were told at the Centre, these tours were the only ways to spot turtles. When we added Tortuguero to our list, the turtles were the main reason. Three different species of turtles hatch in Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast: green turtles, leatherbacks and Carey turtles—, but something felt weird about paying 30 dollars for a secretive walk in a restricted area of the beach. I guess what I imagined we’d see was baby turtles making their way to the sea.

 

Stalking a Leatherback Turtle

Night came and we met at the Visitor Centre at 9.30 pm. We waited for other four people and made our way to the beach with two guides from the Sea Turtle Conservancy, who explained we might or might not see any turtles at all. If we were lucky, one of the guides said, there would be a female turtle laying eggs at the beach. “Laying eggs?”, I thought, “that sounds kind of private”. As soon as we arrived at the beach, another guide came and told us there was indeed a turtle making its way to the shore. Suddenly we were walking fast, our guide leading the way with a red flashlight, for that kind of light doesn’t bother the turtles, she said. We all were supposed to follow in complete darkness. And there she was, a giant turtle, black and heavy, making its way from the ocean to where the palm trees were. She was walking slowly, apparently not noticing the small crowd around her, and not hearing two loud guides name some facts about her species.

As mesmerising as it can be to see a leatherback turtle, I could not help feeling out of place. Is this eco-tourism? Stalking turtles in the middle of the night? Things just got worse when the turtle started digging a hole to lay her eggs. Another group of tourists had arrived and now we were taking turns to watch the turtle, who at least seemed unaware of the loud, bickering crowd about her, pointing at her private parts with a lantern. By this time my friend and I were a bit confused and fed up, and decided to stay back. There’s something unsettling about a group of tourists stalking a turtle while she performs one of the most beautiful acts in nature. At the time I thought it mightnot be that bad if the $30 we paid for the “tour” were destined to the conservation of the turtles, even if it meant contributing to the idea that the whole world, its wildlife, plants and rocks exist purely for human enjoyment. But the next day in Tortuguero made me realise my naiveté.

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Empty turtle nests

 

Further Fiascos

Confused and with a dark cloud of guilt hovering over our heads, my friend and I returned to the hostel and tried to sleep for the next day’s adventure: the canoeing tour. We got up at around 5.00 am and made our way to the decks, only to be further disappointed. We basically just sat in a canoe for an hour “searching” for wildlife in the rainforest: birds, sloths, crocodiles, of which we only saw a couple of birds and a small crocodile. The worst part was seeing a float of canoes and kayaks everywhere in the river, full of eager eyes searching for the animals that were no doubt hiding in purpose.

Later that afternoon we went on a hike in the Tortuguero National Park, on a trail that runs parallel to the beach and has many exists to it. The further you go on the trail, the more deserted it becomes, and there are plenty of signs warning about rip currents. Nearing the end of the public trail, we decided to walk on the beach to go back. This was the worst idea. On our way back, we saw hundreds of plastic bottles and other plastic items lying on the sand and floating in the sea.

We kept walking on the beach and suddenly saw a guy standing very still some 20 meters away from us. He signalled to us and I approached him. I could see something was wrong as soon as I had a clear look of his face. He looked on the verge of tears and was looking at the floor, so I looked too. Around us lied some fifty dead baby turtles, coal-black, the size of a pinecone. The guy explained to us he’d seen some these turtles alive and had tried to lead them to the ocean, but he was not fast enough and by now they all had died.

On the expedition of the night before they had told us that only about half of the turtles make it to the sea. Some of them get confused because of the lights and go inland, some of them hatch in the day and can’t stand the heat, some of them get eaten by natural predators or are impeded to join the sea by humans. However, the way turtles behave these days is not entirely “natural”, it can’t be because they’re so close to human settlements and research centres.

 

I still wonder today what would be the best thing to do in these cases? Should we blame the Sea Turtle Conservancy for these invasive tours, for not organising beach clean-ups, for not helping these baby turtles make it to the sea? Would helping them be worse, an invasive practice? Should we let nature follow its way even if we think it cruel? Can nature follow its path, undisturbed? Certainly not anymore. I’m only sure part of the blame lies on people who, like me that day, support this kind of tourism. It is, in fact, part of the same problem we see on Instagram every day, we do not care for protected areas anymore, we want to see it all, not only watch the sunsets and walk the trails, but become a witness of every act of nature, even those that are not meant for our eyes, for our lanterns and our chattering.

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Remains of a turtle, probably eaten by a jaguar

I had the feeling of interrupting something sacred that day. As much as I love animals, I have promised myself not to take part in any wildlife-related activities, unless I can be certain of not disturbing anybody. I have thought a lot about our experience with the turtles in Costa Rica—and about other “fashionable” activities such as swimming with dolphins and interacting with elephants—, and every time I come to the conclusion that the blame lies not on any individual or organisation alone, but in the way we as a society see the world that surrounds us. Fortunately, that has already begun to change for the better. I can only hope we can learn to coexist without harming and support wildlife organisations without wanting to involve ourselves in their tasks.

However saddening and insightful this experience was, I must say that is not the way the rest of the trip was. In almost every place in Costa Rica we met wonderful communities that are very well informed and concerned with climate change. It is a wonderful country that, for the most part, respects its wildlife and natural resources in a way I wish mine could. They indeed honour their motto, “pura vida”.

Embracing Uncertainty: Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost

“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

I’m lying on a cushioned sofa inside a wooden cabin in Montezuma, Costa Rica. A storm is raging and heavy drops of water that find their way inside reach my feet. Everything is quite wet: the wooden logs that form a roof let the water in, the cushions I lay on are damp and my hair, I feel, has not been completely dry in days. The book I’m holding with both hands has doubled its size and is now a container of sand and seawater. There is no phone signal or wifi here, there’s no one in sight, just me and my sadly damaged copy of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

I put the book down and look outside. “It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”, Solnit writes. I look around. Am I lost? I tried, I think, to lose myself on this trip. And I find myself short of money, stuck in some remote beach, reachable only by boat. I am alone, too. But I’m not lost. I have a plane ticket to go back home, I have let my mother and my boyfriend know where I am. Moreover, I am travelling with a friend, although I don’t know where she is at the moment.

“It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”. I don’t feel lost—that is, physically lost, lost somewhere—, but I feel open to being lost. I keep looking around and thinking of those words. Once I felt the need to travel every now and then to lose myself—on mountaintops and remote places, miles away from home—. Then I felt the need to travel to find myself. Now I know those things are the same, and I travel to let both happen to me. I think of something Emerson wrote, “The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.” I think of this and I think I understand, at least I begin to fathom, what Solnit says. I’m not lost here, but I’m open to being lost, I’m okay with uncertainty. Not here, but everywhere I go. I read again, “It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”, and I got a warm feeling inside me. 

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever its underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the furthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.”

When I came back from my trip to Costa Rica, I was still reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I spent about four weeks reading it, underlining paragraphs, rereading chapters, reading parts of it aloud to myself and to others. The book is not only an impressive piece of writing—part essay and part memoir—, but also a neverending invitation, a Chinese box containing a thousand references to visual arts, literature, music and architecture. The book begins with the physicality of being lost and the origins and meanings of the word, only to expand its meaning: to get lost in the world, to get lost inside oneself, to lose people, to lose things, to get lost from people. Loss, memory, distance, longing and absence are some of the themes of the book.

Solnit argues that “it is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophecies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signs the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own […], [while scientists] transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.” And that is exactly what she does; “invitation” is precisely the word I’d use to describe this book: an invitation for the unknown and the uncertain in our every day lives to take place, an invitation to abandonment, to embracing the various mysteries of the world. An invitation, too, to accept and reconsider all those qualities of being lost that we might think are “negative”, such as loss, nostalgia, wilderness, desire and distance. 

One of the things I most enjoyed about this book was how Solnit approaches and redefines words like longing, distance and desire. These are words that imply absence: we long for something that we don’t have, we measure distance between where we are and where we are not, and we desire things we do not possess. Solnit, on the other hand, gives these words a meaning of their own: “when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.” To be rich in loss, rich in absence, in longing and desire: not to be lacking but to be able to experience these emotions as inherent part of being human:

“I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective [desire] could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, nu acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.”

Only if we understand this can we truly begin to embrace abandonment and loss, and experience the joys of all those absences that surround us. In Solnit’s book it is easy to see loss and absence as enriching experiences rather than despairing ones: nature and wilderness, lonely tasks like writing, the risks of falling in love, the implications of ruins in a city, the colour blue in the distance, particles of light that get lost on their way from the sun to us; all of these allow us to lose ourselves, and losing ourselves means nothing more than being present and fully aware, if only temporarily, of our true place in the world. 

These definitions of getting lost are traced back to both Henry David Thoreau —“Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations”—and Walter Benjamin —“to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery”—. To be lost, then, means really to be found, and it is only through transformative experiences—art, love, loss, grief, travel— that we begin to find our place in the world, and in a mysterious world like ours, that is means to accept that our place in it is uncertain, yes, but never unimportant, everchanging but vital, connected to all. This world is full of mysteries, and to be lost is to accept the mystery, to accept “that the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger”, and the only way to do it is by abandonment

“Is it that the joy that comes from other people always risks sadness, because even when love doesn’t fail, morality enters in; is it that there is a place where sadness and joy are not distinct, where all emotion lies together, a sort of ocean into which the tributary streams of distinct emotions go, a faraway deep inside; is it that such sadness is only the side effect of art that describes the depths of our lives, and to see that described in all its potential for loneliness and pain is beautiful?”

To read Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost was indeed a transformative experience; it’s one of the books I have most enjoyed reading lately and perhaps the one I have underlined the most. Solnit knits together anecdotes, pieces of history, art criticism and even fiction in what I believe to be the best non-fiction book I’ve read in my life. This book is a dizzying ride around the word “lost” and its importance, its variations and its necessity in a world where it gets harder and harder to be lost. 

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Cycling Along the Caribbean Coast: Four Beaches in Costa Rica

My first couple of nights in Costa Rica were a total fiasco. My friend and I had been planning this trip since March and, as the date drew closer, we were increasingly excited to arrive in what every site on the internet promised would be heaven on Earth.

We arrived in San José and made our way to Stray Cat Hostel —which was, by the way, pretty and comfy and had the kindest staff—. We stayed there two nights and I think it’s accurate to say we spent most of the time at the hostel since there really isn’t much to see or do in San José and it’s dangerous to wander about after dark. Usually, when a trip starts on the wrong foot it means it can only get better, and this is exactly what happened here.

Puerto Viejo

On our second morning in Costa Rica, we took an early bus from San José to Puerto Viejo, a beach town located in the southeast, close to the border with Panamá, in the province of Talamanca. We booked two beds at Bikini Hostel and decided to stay in Puerto Viejo while exploring this region. Puerto Viejo is a wonderful town, busy and vibrant day and night, perfect for partying and meeting people. Although our hostel was not the cleanest and there was no AC, we met interesting people we later travelled with and got some very useful tips and recommendations from the staff. The town itself honours the “pura vida” motto with its chill/reggae atmosphere.

The easiest way to move around Puerto Viejo is by bike. There are a lot of places that will rent a bicycle for around $5 US a day, and that’s all you need to explore the beaches in Talamanca. Although Puerto Viejo doesn’t have the most beautiful beaches, it is the perfect place to stay at night, for there are plenty of restaurants, bars, handicrafts and an interesting array of internationals. Puerto Viejo became our base for four nights and we had the fortune to meet a wonderful set of people at our hostel with whom we usually dined and shared our adventures.

Manzanillo

Punta Manzanillo is one of the most beautiful places we visited in Costa Rica. It took us one hour and a half to cycle from Puerto Viejo to here, and the ride was so nice! I recommend you go in the morning since the sun can be a bit too strong in the afternoon. Since there’s not a path exclusively reserved for bicycles, you must be careful with the cars, but the road is paved decently and there’s little traffic; you’ll find many other cyclists.

The National Reserve Gandoca-Manzanillo is where you should go. Entrance is free—you’ll be asked to give a voluntary donation— and you can just leave your bike outside. The reserve is not very big but you’ll find good hiking trails and wonderful beach spots. You’ll probably get a glimpse at some monkeys, too; we had the fortune to see some howling monkeys and many different kinds of lizards.

Punta Uva

Punta Uva is closer to Puerto Viejo than Manzanillo, about 45 minutes by bike. Although the beach here is beautiful, too, it’s a bit busier than Manzanillo. There is a river in Punta Uva, too, and you can hire a kayak and go kayaking both in the river and the sea, where you’ll see many cave-like rock formations.

Cocles

Playa Cocles is pretty close to Puerto Viejo, only 20 minutes away by bike, and it’s a wonderful place to chill. Cocles also has a surfer atmosphere about it, there are surfboards everywhere, coconut water stands and many wooden signs with funny inscriptions.

The South Caribbean was one of my favourite regions of Costa Rica and I only wish we had spent more time there —we spent four days out of fifteen there—. Many people told us about seeing sloths in this region, but unfortunately, we didn’t see any. The good vibes and beautiful beach spots made up for that though. Have you been to the Talamanca region in Costa Rica?

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Rock and Sun: The Grand Canyon’s South Rim

I suppose the Grand Canyon is one of those places that haunt your imagination way before you visit them. I had seen it in movies and read about it countless times, I had imagined it while reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and seen it on Instagram time after time: drone pictures, helicopter videos, dangerous-looking selfies. I guess it is one of those places you know before you even see them, that is not rare. But it is also one of those places that still baffle you when you see them. I visited the Grand Canyon last month and can recall very vividly that scene of “rock and sun” before me.

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A family trip to Las Vegas was really the perfect excuse to visit the Grand Canyon, since the state of Arizona, where the Grand Canyon National Park is, neighbours the state of Nevada. It sounded pretty close to me, but it took about 6 hours by bus to get from Las Vegas to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I had the chance, though, to make some stops along Route 66 and eat some really good American pie. We also made a stop at In n’ Out on the way back, so no complaints about that.

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After 40ºC weather in Nevada, I was glad to find that the weather in Arizona was much milder, at around 30ºC at noon. There were few clouds in the sky and when I finally got off the bus at the National Park all I saw was a scorching red vastness of rock. It was infinite in its size, the kind of grandeur that makes you feel lonely and small but strangely comfortable. Walking along the rim all was vastness: upwards the infinite sky, downwards an ever stretching smoothness of rock, in front of me a dusty path that stretched further and further.

At the moment I recalled many things that Edward Abbey wrote about Monument Valley in Utah:

“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear— the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break… I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, a thought, an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”

—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Indeed rock and sun compose the greatness of this landscape, with the hardness and the assurance of those things that need no nurture, that don’t grow and don’t die, just remain. Rock and sun, dust. There is something reassuring, transcendental and even biblical— dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return”— in being surrounded by rocks. 

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Writing about it now, about a month afterwards, I think of a more recent read, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Do you ever read something and think how you’ve wanted to express that but hadn’t found the right words? There is a part where Solnit writes:

“Solitude in the city is about the lack of other people or rather their distance beyond a door or wall, but in remote places it isn’t an absence but the presence of something else, a kind of humming silence in which solitude seems as natural to your species as to any other, words strange rocks you may or may not turn over.”

—Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Not an absence but the “presence of something else”, the presence of perennial things, beings that transcend time as we perceive it, in watches and calendars, and give us a glimpse of that other time, time as movement and stillness, time as things that remain: rock and sun. Perhaps these things that remain allow us to touch, if only briefly, the things that remain within our contingent existences.

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