In Praise of Reading and Fiction

In Praise of Reading and Fiction

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“This one goes out to those who read of General Simon Bolivar last days, feel the intense smell of dampness of the Colombian jungle, and start sweating because of the humidity. Even if they are about to switch off the light, they are in their bed, and they live in Torino”

(Singapore, October 2021)

My mum has a kind of morning ritual. Every day she walks with my dad to a park close to her apartment in Paris and checks the content of her “passe-livre”. A passe-livre is one of the many “French exceptions”, like the legal obligation for radios to broadcast a given, and big, percentage of French songs. People go to their favorite passe-livre, which is often a kind of wooden birds house, and drop the books that they have read. Everyone can go and pick the books that someone else left, for free. Normally, people pick up and drop books, and this creates a balanced system where written thought circulates freely everywhere. Your freedom to read is granted, even if you are broke.

You may be asking yourself: “Why is he telling this story?”. I am telling this story because, when my mum walks home with the random book-catch of the day, she is happy. I have never seen anyone happy because of social media.

A few days ago, a whistleblower revealed something that we all already know: Facebook top management is well aware of the fact that the algorithms they use to build engagement have horrible effects on people, especially teenagers and girls. Hate speech propagates thanks to such algorithms design and children’s self-esteem is deeply harmed by a social media instigated culture of untouchable eternal fun and physical perfection. Facebook decision makers know but prefer to look somewhere else, as hate and depressed teenagers make for good money. Facebook spokespersons, and Mark Zuckerberg, denied all allegations, and again, I suppose we all know that they are lying. 

Books are old school and today many cultures and tribes replaced them with phones, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and what else, but a die-hard bunch still believes that written thought can make better human beings. One of them is my mum, and another one is Mario Vargas Llosa who, when awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010, delivered a memorable lecture.

I don’t know why, but I have the feeling that Mario Vargas Llosa does not have an Instagram account. My mum certainly does not.

Mr. Llosa full lecture can be found here.

In Praise of Reading and Fiction

I learned to read at the age of five, in Brother Justiniano’s class at the De la Salle Academy in Cochabamba, Bolivia. It is the most important thing that has ever happened to me. Almost seventy years later I remember clearly how the magic of translating the words in books into images enriched my life, breaking the barriers of time and space and allowing me to travel with Captain Nemo twenty thousand leagues under the sea, fight with d’Artagnan, Athos, Portos, and Aramis against the intrigues threatening the Queen in the days of the secretive Richelieu, or stumble through the sewers of Paris, transformed into Jean Valjean carrying Marius’s inert body on my back.

Reading changed dreams into life and life into dreams and placed the universe of literature within reach of the boy I once was. My mother told me the first things I wrote were continuations of the stories I read because it made me sad when they concluded or because I wanted to change their endings. And perhaps this is what I have spent my life doing without realizing it: prolonging in time, as I grew, matured, and aged, the stories that filled my childhood with exaltation and adventures.

I wish my mother were here, a woman who was moved to tears reading the poems of Amado Nervo and Pablo Neruda, and Grandfather Pedro too, with his large nose and gleaming bald head, who celebrated my verses, and Uncle Lucho, who urged me so energetically to throw myself body and soul into writing even though literature, in that time and place, compensated its devotees so badly. Throughout my life I have had people like that at my side, people who loved and encouraged me and infected me with their faith when I had doubts. Thanks to them, and certainly to my obstinacy and some luck, I have been able to devote most of my time to the passion, the vice, the marvel of writing, creating a parallel life where we can take refuge against adversity, one that makes the extraordinary natural and the natural extraordinary, that dissipates chaos, beautifies ugliness, eternalizes the moment, and turns death into a passing spectacle.

Writing stories was not easy. When they were turned into words, projects withered on the paper and ideas and images failed. How to reanimate them? Fortunately, the masters were there, teachers to learn from and examples to follow. Flaubert taught me that talent is unyielding discipline and long patience. Faulkner, that form – writing and structure – elevates or impoverishes subjects. Martorell, Cervantes, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad, Thomas Mann, that scope and ambition are as important in a novel as stylistic dexterity and narrative strategy. Sartre, that words are acts, that a novel, a play, or an essay, engaged with the present moment and better options, can change the course of history. Camus and Orwell, that a literature stripped of morality is inhuman, and Malraux that heroism and the epic are as possible in the present as is the time of the Argonauts, the Odyssey, and the Iliad.

If in this address I were to summon all the writers to whom I owe a few things or a great deal, their shadows would plunge us into darkness. They are innumerable. In addition to revealing the secrets of the storytelling craft, they obliged me to explore the bottomless depths of humanity, admire its heroic deeds, and feel horror at its savagery. They were my most obliging friends, the ones who vitalized my calling and in whose books I discovered that there is hope even in the worst of circumstances, that living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories.

At times I wondered whether writing was not a solipsistic luxury in countries like mine, where there were scant readers, so many people who were poor and illiterate, so much injustice, and where culture was a privilege of the few. These doubts, however, never stifled my calling, and I always kept writing even during those periods when earning a living absorbed most of my time. I believe I did the right thing, since if, for literature to flourish, it was first necessary for a society to achieve high culture, freedom, prosperity, and justice, it never would have existed. But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires, and our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.

Without fictions we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion. Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers. They do this because they know the risk of allowing the imagination to wander free in books, know how seditious fictions become when the reader compares the freedom that makes them possible and is exercised in them with the obscurantism and fear lying in wait in the real world. Whether they want it or not, know it or not, when they invent stories the writers of tales propagate dissatisfaction, demonstrating that the world is badly made and the life of fantasy richer than the life of our daily routine. This fact, if it takes root in their sensibility and consciousness, makes citizens more difficult to manipulate, less willing to accept the lies of the interrogators and jailers who would like to make them believe that behind bars they lead more secure and better lives.

Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs, and prejudices that separate us. When the great white whale buries Captain Ahab in the sea, the hearts of readers take fright in exactly the same way in Tokyo, Lima, or Timbuctu. When Emma Bovary swallows arsenic, Anna Karenina throws herself in front of the train, and Julien Sorel climbs to the scaffold, and when, in “El sur,” the urban doctor Juan Dahlmann walks out of that tavern on the pampa to face a thug’s knife, or we realize that all the residents of Comala, Pedro Páramo’s village, are dead, the shudder is the same in the reader who worships Buddha, Confucius, Christ, Allah, or is an agnostic, wears a jacket and tie, a jalaba, a kimono, or bombachas. Literature creates a fraternity within human diversity and eclipses the frontiers erected among men and women by ignorance, ideologies, religions, languages, and stupidity.

Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better, to orient ourselves in the labyrinth where we are born, pass by, and die. It compensates for the reverses and frustrations real life inflicts on us, and because of it we can decipher, at least partially, the hieroglyphic that existence tends to be for the great majority of human beings, principally those of us who generate more doubts than certainties and confess our perplexity before subjects like transcendence, individual and collective destiny, the soul, the sense or senselessness of history, the to and from of rational knowledge.

I have always been fascinated to imagine the uncertain circumstance in which our ancestors – still barely different from animals, the language that allowed them to communicate with one another just recently born – in caves, around fires, on nights seething with the menace of lightning bolts, thunder claps, and growling beasts, began to invent and tell stories. That was the crucial moment in our destiny, because in those circles of primitive beings held by the voice and fantasy of the storyteller, civilization began, the long passage that gradually would humanize us and lead us to invent the autonomous individual, then disengage him from the tribe, devise science, the arts, law, freedom, and to scrutinize the innermost recesses of nature, the human body, space, and travel to the stars. Those tales, fables, myths, legends that resounded for the first time like new music before listeners intimidated by the mysteries and perils of a world where everything was unknown and dangerous, must have been a cool bath, a quiet pool for those spirits always on the alert, for whom existing meant barely eating, taking shelter from the elements, killing, and fornicating. From the time they began to dream collectively, to share their dreams, instigated by storytellers, they ceased to be tied to the treadmill of survival, a vortex of brutalizing tasks, and their life became dream, pleasure, fantasy, and a revolutionary plan: to break out of confinement and change and improve, a struggle to appease the desires and ambitions that stirred imagined lives in them, and the curiosity to clear away the mysteries that filled their surroundings.

This never-interrupted process was enriched when writing was born and stories, in addition to being heard, could be read, achieving the permanence literature confers on them. That is why this must be repeated incessantly until new generations are convinced of it: fiction is more than an entertainment, more than an intellectual exercise that sharpens one’s sensibility and awakens a critical spirit. It is an absolute necessity so that civilization continues to exist, renewing and preserving in us the best of what is human. So that we do not retreat into the savagery of isolation and life is not reduced to the pragmatism of specialists who see things profoundly but ignore what surrounds, precedes, and continues those things. So that we do not move from having the machines we invent serve us to being their servants and slaves. And because a world without literature would be a world without desires or ideals or irreverence, a world of automatons deprived of what makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.

From the cave to the skyscraper, from the club to weapons of mass destruction, from the tautological life of the tribe to the era of globalization, the fictions of literature have multiplied human experiences, preventing us from succumbing to lethargy, self-absorption, resignation. Nothing has sown so much disquiet, so disturbed our imagination and our desires as the life of lies we add, thanks to literature, to the one we have, so we can be protagonists in the great adventures, the great passions real life will never give us. The lies of literature become truths through us, the readers transformed, infected with longings and, through the fault of fiction, permanently questioning a mediocre reality. Sorcery, when literature offers us the hope of having what we do not have, being what we are not, acceding to that impossible existence where like pagan gods we feel mortal and eternal at the same time, that introduces into our spirits nonconformity and rebellion, which are behind all the heroic deeds that have contributed to the reduction of violence in human relationships. Reducing violence, not ending it. Because ours will always be, fortunately, an unfinished story. That is why we have to continue dreaming, reading, and writing, the most effective way we have found to alleviate our mortal condition, to defeat the corrosion of time, and to transform the impossible into possibility.

The Swell Season

The Swell Season

This one goes out to my wonderful, loved wife. Baby, let’s paddle out and ride the next one together to the end
(Belfaux, December 2020)

Very interesting thoughts have been seeded in my mind during lonely training sessions at the gym. Maybe endorphins make my brain more receptive, so I like to listen to smart thinkers while training. The words I listen while I exercise hover at the surface of my mind for a while and often sink later, when I am in a more meditative mindset. One of the great things about humans is that thinkers come in all shapes and colors. We should always be humble: we never know who the person sitting next to us is. Despite being a legend of surfing, Gerry Lopez, also known as Mr. Pipeline, has an ordinary look. I recently listened to Gerry speaking at Wanderlust Speakeasy, on Youtube. In his talk, he takes the audience through the beauty of nature and life, seen through the lenses of Yoga and surf. Here follow the transcript of that talk and some of its many memorable quotes.

1. Quotes

Gerry Lopez quotes

“Life is for living. Life is a series of moments all strung together, moment to moment. While it may not be possible to live every single moment to its fullest potential, if we keep that intention in mind we will get more out of life than if we are too consumed, too anxious, too distracted, too oblivious, or simply not paying attention”

Message in a bottle (a.k.a. Chronicles of Coronavirus)

Message in a bottle (a.k.a. Chronicles of Coronavirus)

I send an S.O.S. to the world, I hope that someone gets my message in a bottle.

Sting – 1979

Friday 29 of January 2021

The State of World Travel

They say that one picture is worth a thousand words. I want to portrait the state of air travel at the beginning of the year 2021 through the pictures that I and my wife took in the airports we visited on our trip from Singapore to Switzerland in December 2020. There is still a long way to go before mankind will be able to experience mass travel again.



Diary


Chronicles of Coronavirus

As more and more countries implement social distancing policies to try to contain the Coronavirus epidemics, some news websites estimate that today, more than a billion people are at home. Since this unwanted guest made his way into our houses, we are forced to rediscover life in a confined space. Today I start my chronicles from confinement. It is a way to defy boredom, reach out to the outside world and share what happens in this part of the world. These are difficult days, but we will overcome difficulties and who knows, maybe learn something from all this.


Cari ragazzi

Cari ragazzi
Scrivo raramente in Italiano su questo blog e di solito evito  di parlare di attualita’ Italiana, perche’ poco mi interessa ed ancora meno mi manca. Ieri pero’ mi sono ritrovato a riflettere su quel che sta succedendo in Italia ed ho pensato di scrivere questa lettera immaginaria.

Cari ragazzi,
Ieri, mentre correvo in palestra, ho ascoltato un’intervista con Jim Simons, un tizio di cui non avevo mai sentito parlare. Per chi non ha ventitre minuti e sette secondi per guardare il video su YouTube, o magari non ne ha voglia, ecco un riassunto:
Jim Simons e’ Americano ed e’ un uomo di successo. Nel 1974, mise a punto miglioramenti rivoluzionari ad una complessa astrazione chiamata teoria delle stringhe e per questo e’ considerato uno dei grandi matematici viventi. E’ anche famoso per un’altra ragione: e’ ricco sfondato perche’ ha creato ed e’ stato a capo per decenni di uno dei fondi di investimento piu’ performanti al mondo. Nell’intervista condivide con chi ascolta la sua ricetta per il successo. In soldoni, dopo essere stato un accademico ed aver messo il suo talento matematico al servizio della difesa degli Stati Uniti, e’ stato uno dei primissimi a capire che la data science potesse rivoluzionare il mondo della finanza. Dopo questa illuminazione, lancio’ un fondo di investimento che operava in modo rivoluzionario:  i piu’ brillanti matematici e fisici Americani venivano reclutati nelle istituzioni accademiche e messi a lavorare alla creazione di modelli matematici da applicare alle decisioni legate al trading. Oggi lo fanno tutti. Dopo aver guadagnato centinaia di miliardi per se stesso ed i suoi clienti, si e’ ritirato dal suo ruolo esecutivo nel suo hedge fund ed ha creato una fondazione che ha l’obiettivo di promuovere l’insegnamento della matematica finanziando programmi scolastici e professori selezionati su criteri di eccellenza. La parte piu’ interessante dell’intervista e’ quando Jim Simons esalta l’eleganza della matematica e ricorda che il  suo successo all’apparenza folgorante e’ in realta’ passato attraverso numeri, studio, eccellenza. Con talento ed applicazione si possono creare modelli rivoluzionari che trascendono il problema per cui sono stati creati, ed il successo diventa accessibile.


Ironia della sorte, ieri ho anche letto che il mezzo primo ministro della Repubblica Italiana Giggino Di Maio ha nominato Lino Banfi ad un ruolo nella delegazione Italiana all’Unesco. Non potevano mancare i commenti dell’altro mezzo primo ministro, Matteo Salvini. Ecco qualche dichiarazione, a dir poco illuminante:
Giggino ‘o fenomeno: “Approfittiamo per dare una notizia all’Italia che a me riempie di orgoglio: come governo abbiamo individuato il Maestro Lino Banfi perché rappresenti il governo nella commissione italiana per l’Unesco. Abbiamo fatto Lino Banfi patrimonio dell’Unesco”
Lino Banfi: “Mi impegnero’ a rendere la figura del nonno patrimonio mondiale dell’Umanità”.
“Ieri sera ero a casa  quando mi è arrivata una chiamata in cui, dal ministero, mi anticipavano la possibilità di entrare in Commissione Unesco. Stamattina sono andato per incontrare il ministro, che ho trovato simpaticissimo. Ero lì solo per farmi spiegare bene di cosa si trattasse. Ho posto subito le mie due ‘conditio sine qua non’: niente inglese e niente laurea”.
Matteo il bullo: “Di Maio ha annunciato Lino Banfi ambasciatore dell’Italia all’Unesco. Va bene, e Jerry Calà, Renato Pozzetto e Umberto Smaila? apriamo questo dibattito. Scherzi a parte, l’Italia è così bella che chiunque può difenderla e valorizzarla”
Concetti profondi e complessi. Proviamo a riassumere semplificando:
1) Un rincoglionito ultra-ottantenne, nominato a rappresentare l’Italia  in un consesso dove si decide come proteggere e promuovere il nostro enorme patrimonio spesso in rovina, dichiara che si occupera’ di parlare di nonni alle riunioni dell Unesco, in Italiano anche se tutti intorno al tavolo parlano Inglese. A parte fare il nonno, molto di puo’ non potrebbe fare, non possedendo alcun titolo o esperienza a supporto dell’importante incarico. Se poi ad una riunione dovesse presentarsi, un laureato, Il Maestro preannuncia che se la dara’ a gambe. Vorrei avvisarlo: e’ probabile che accada.
2) Un mezzo primo ministro gioisce di avere offerto all’Unesco nientepopodimeno che il Maestro Lino Banfi, un patrimonio dell’umanita’ addirittura! Corbezzoli!
3) L’altro mezzo primo ministro enfatizza che  un rincoglionito ultra-ottantenne diventato famoso grazie alla sua scarsa dimistichezza con la lingua Italiana va benissimo per difendere il patrimonio dell’Italia, perche’ potrebbe farlo chiunque. Chissa’ perche’ gli altri paesi si ostinano a nominare in questi organismi gente qualificata?
Insomma, per le nostre due mezze figure, titoli, preparazione, istruzione sono orpelli  inutili e dannosi. La migliore strategia per difendere gli interessi Italiani e’ nominare gente impreparata ed ignorante per rappresentare l’Italia negli organismi internazionali,  tanto l’Italia e’ talmente avanti.

Pensandoci bene, e’ normale che la pensino cosi’: in effetti tutti  applichiamo alle nostre interazioni col mondo esteriore, gli insegnamenti del nostro passato.
Giggino e’ oggi indubbiamente un uomo di successo. Dopo aver fallito nel conseguimento della laurea in legge a Napoli, e’ diventato mezzo primo ministro senza mai aver lavorato un giorno in vita sua, se escludiamo vendere bibite al San Paolo, grazie a qualche decina di “like” su un social network di sfigati complottomani e no-vax. Fra gli incarichi di rilievo ricoperti in passato, ricorda spesso di essere stato capoclasse alle superiori ed altrettanto spesso dimentica di essere socio nell’azienda di famiglia, distintasi ultimamente per l’utilizzo ripetuto di lavoratori in nero.
Il curriculum di Matteo il bullo ricorda molto quello di Giggino. Anche lui e’ uomo di successo e non si e’ mai laureato, eppure una laurea alla facolta’ di Storia della Statale di Milano, a cui era iscritto, non sembra proprio proibitiva. Le uniche attivita’ lavorative di cui si ha notizia in passato si limitano alla consegna di pizze e qualche part-time al Burghy. Dopodiche’ ha svoltato: e’ entrato in politica assicurandosi cosi’ di non dover mai lavorare in vita. Oggi passa le sue giornate su Facebook a mangiare Nutella, fare la faccia triste dopo essere stato mollato dalla fidanzata, giocare con le ruspe.
Queste due mezze figure hanno in mano il destino dell’Italia. Chiedetegli che modelli hanno da proporre a voi ragazzi per costruire il vostro avvenire. Che politiche promuovono per le scuole, le palestre, le universita’, la ricerca, la competizione, l’innovazione? Un’idea di futuro si puo’ limitare ad insulto e derisione di altri paesi, istituzioni e chiunque non la pensi come loro?
E voi pensate davvero che becera ignoranza, egoentrismo, botte al negher, complottismo, bullismo, balle spaziali, protezionismo, scaricabarile, incompetenza siano gli strumenti giusti per raccogliere le sfide di questo millennio? Se la risposta e’ si, preparatevi a fare l’elemosina e vivere in una casa di cartone perche’ la realta’, a parte pochissime fortunate eccezioni come Giggino ‘o fenomeno e Matteo il bullo, tollera pochissimo  l’inutilita’.
Insomma, cari ragazzi Italiani, e’ arrivato il momento di diventare adulti e scegliere. State con Jim Simons o con Lino Banfi?

Post-scriptum

Se  qualcuno mi avesse predetto che un giorno avrei scritto di teoria delle stringhe e Lino Banfi nella stessa pagina, lo avrei preso per pazzo. Ho mandato una mail ad un amico con il testo qui sopra e lui mi ha risposto: “una delle conseguenze della teoria delle stringhe e’ l’holographic principle, che dice che l’universo e’ una finta proiezione in più dimensioni di quelle reali. Un’illusione insomma. Ecco direi che e’ l’unica spiegazione”. Forse ha ragione il mio amico, e’ solo un sogno e magari mi sto per svegliare.

Good Bye Tsukiji​

Good Bye Tsukiji​

On October 11, 2018, Tsukiji fish market in central Tokyo will close down and the area where the market is located will quickly be redeveloped to become a transport hub for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Tsukiji market started operations in 1935 and is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. It is also one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. The market was portrayed in many popular movies, including 2012 Jiro Dreams of Sushi, that revealed to the world the unlikely saga of Jiro Ono, the 93 years old chef that runs a three-Michelin-starred Japanese sushi restaurant in Ginza.

Tuna auctions are maybe what Tsukiji is most known for. Throughout the day, intermediate wholesalers assess hundreds of fresh and frozen tuna before they go up for auction. Following a ritual unchanged for decades, they check fattiness of tail cross-sections in the dim light of their torch lamp and scribble down the lot number of the best animals. After the auction, tunas are cut using hand-crafted traditional knives and dispatched to the next ring of the supply chain.



The fish market will move to a new location in Toyosu waterfront district and precious space will become available in the heart of Tokyo. Since the plans were first unveiled, the project has been delayed multiple times. The last delay was due to concerns about consumers health after important quantities of chemicals had been found in the new Toyosu site.

Paradoxically, the urbanists that layout plans for the capital of the most traditional country on Earth seem not to care about symbols and legacy of old times. Ancient buildings are a very rare sight in Tokyo: many have been destroyed by Second World War bombings or earthquakes. Those that survived will likely be wiped away by Japanese passion for progress and novelty.


More travel photography on this blog


Other media on Tsukiji fish market

The incredible hands: a documentary on Tsukiji fish market and tuna wholesalers

Big Jet Plane

Big Jet Plane

I like Angus & Julia Stone because they are chill and have beautiful voices. It is the kind of music I want to listen when I’m at home for the first weekend in a long time and I’m laying on the sofa, while the warm sun filters through my living room window shade and caresses my cheek.

I definitely took too many planes in the last weeks. Every time the same routine, it seems normal. But flying is a miracle and recently inspired me a collection of pictures named “Airliners”.

Last Sunday, while my stereo was playing that relaxing music and I was enjoying the warmth of the sun filtering through the window shade, I suddenly started feeling creative. So I thought of asking Angus & Julia to lend their voices to my pictures and the result was this video.


Big Jet Plane Video


Airliners

Airliners

A famous quote by Richard Branson goes: “If you want to be a Millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline”. There is almost no rationale behind accomplished businessmen obsession to invest into a high-risk business like civil aviation.

Unfortunately, unlike Sir Richard, I am not wealthy enough to bet on airlines. Instead, I have moral concerns working in an industry that accounts for a huge share of the world greenhouse gas emissions; I hope technology improvements and regulations will one day inverse the trend and make air transportation environmentally sustainable. Nevertheless, having rubbed shoulders for years with airlines people and dragged my ass on the most unlikely commercial routes, I cannot avoid feeling sincere sympathy and admiration for those who carry our life around the world with care,  every day and in every season.

No airline is perfect: glitches appear here and there when closely looking at the fusion between the technological prowess of a 180 tons aircraft floating in thin air and the work of hundreds of persons allowing it to detach from the ground.


 


Ignore the glitches and consider how in only a few decades, civil aviation made accessible to the majority of people two of our most innate dreams: defeat gravity and go discover remote places.

Please restrain from displaying contempt to the stewardess showing the way to your seat while boarding your next delayed flight. It takes an amazing resilience to sustain the stares of the 160 annoyed passengers fitting in an Airbus A320, a remarkable humanity to smile and say “welcome onboard” to each of them and many weeks of exhausting training to make it sound so heartfelt.

In the blink of an eye, you’ll be floating in the sky and that is incredible. Forget the delay, sit down and relax. We hope you’ll enjoy your flight.


More travel photography on this blog

 

 

Let’s get lost – episode three

Let’s get lost – episode three

What happened so far?

In episode one, when told that I was going to Mongolia to meet some airline executives for my job, I decided to lose myself in the silent wilderness of that country. Before leaving I did some research and chose as destination a place that even Google Maps fails to locate, named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.

In episode two, after arriving in Ulaanbataar, I meet mysterious Mr. Batar, who delivers me a rugged Toyota Land Cruiser. On an early Saturday morning, I and my British workmate Mark leave the town; throughout the whole day, we will explore a scarcely inhabited territory while trying not to lose our track. We also become familiar with the solid beauty of Mongolian horses, roaming free in the wildland.


Being right there

In the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller plays a middle-class man, trapped in a 9 to 5 job he does not like anymore. For a succession of unforeseen circumstances, one day he quits his office and embarks on an adventure on the tracks of Sean O’Connell, a legend photographer who disappeared while hunting the animal whose image no-one has ever captured, the snow leopard.

When finally Walter Mitty meets Sean O’Connell on a frozen Himalayan ridge, the snow leopard is there, in the middle of the zoom lens, just one click away. Oddly, Sean O’Connell, although mesmerized by the unique vision, is not shooting, and this dialog happens:

Walter Mitty: When are you going to take it [the snow leopard shot]?
Sean O’Connell: Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O’Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here. It’s gone [the snow leopard]

In the strange days we live, when was last time we were “right there”? How much “right there” experience we allow ourselves in one of our average weeks? Are those moments something we look forward to, or we prefer to escape them and comfortably choose the distraction, being it social networks, messengers, noise, other people opinions, scary news on TV, information overflow, a job that does not excite us…

And so we are, me and Mark, my British workmate, in a place named Gun-Galuut, in Mongolia. For a whole day, we have been breathing fresh air and wandering across the vast grassland. Since the moment we entered the Nature Reserve, every trace of human presence has vanished. We continue venturing deeper into this unknown territory, using the profile of the hills or the clouds in the sky to locate ourselves and hoping we will be able to find our way back. All around us, Mongolian horses roam peaceful and free.


 

 


The track becomes rougher and now insinuates at the feet of low promontories, covered with sharp rock fragments. Afternoon sun is going down and the lights around us change, giving the landscape a more dramatic pitch. I decide to look for a viewpoint and see on our left a steep path leading to the edge of a higher hill, possibly accessible to our Toyota. The full power of our four-wheel drive is barely sufficient to climb our way to the top. The car pants and progresses slowly as we gain altitude and approach the end of the ascent. Finally, we get there; I stop the car, turn off the engine,  pull the handbrake and get off, followed by Mark. We are on level ground now: in front of us, the upwards path that took us there finishes into a vertical rocky wall. On the right, at a distance of about fifty meters, we see a natural terrace ending on a cliff top and I start walking in that direction, instinctively attracted by the panoramic opening.

As I get closer, my point of view changes and a chain of mountains starts to appear at a great distance. I am maybe twenty meters away when I see the horse and, at first, I do not understand. He lays on the ground, on a side, you would tell that he sleeps but he is dead. It had to happen not long before, as the hair is still shiny and the body is in a perfect state, except for a little scar on the head, probably caused by a scavenger bird.

Now I am just next to the dead horse and appreciate the harmony of his figure. While I walk around him, the first thing that awakens irrational thoughts is the position of the body. It lies exactly at the middle of the half-circle shaped terrace; his head looks at the view opening from the height of the cliff on hundreds of kilometers of emptiness.

I look at Mark, who has not made it to the terrace and is standing a dozen meters away, staring in my direction.

The second thing is the ascent and how hard I had to push the Land Cruiser in order to get there. For a dying animal, that had to be a hell of an effort.

The wind blows and the sun has gone down; the air is chilled now.

The third thing is the dead horse position, the effort to get there, the absolute majesty of the landscape.

I keep turning slowly around him, observing the scene from many angles, immersed in my thoughts. The view in front of me is the most beautiful I have ever seen. Far ahead, hundreds of identical peaks, crowned by bright white clouds rise up to the sky. The physical space between the dead horse and the mountains is an immense empty prairie where the animal lived in freedom from the very moment he first stood on the ground to his last day when he decided to climb there and look at all that again from a height.

As I continue standing right there, in front of that mystical scene, lights and composition remind me the most accomplished Caravaggio paintings. I have my camera with me, in my backpack and I am looking at award-winning photography material but there is something bigger around me on that cliff and I just want to stay in it.

I look at the horse for the last time, then I look at the far away mountains, turn around and walk away. When I pass by Mark, he follows me and asks: “What do we do?”. I can only tell: “We go home, man. We go home now”.

Let’s get lost – episode two

Let’s get lost – episode two

What happened so far?

In episode one, when told that I was going to Mongolia to meet some airline executives for my job, I decided to lose myself in the silent wilderness of that country. Before leaving I did some rough research and chose as destination a place that even Google Maps fails to locate, named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.


Wild Horses

I have an appointment with Mr. Batar, from Drive Mongolia, the car rental company, at Shangri-La hotel in Ulaanbataar. When I arrive there from dinner, I notice the Land Cruiser and my man, waiting for me on the door. Batar is a cool dude, his fancy hat and turtle round glasses give him the looks of a Mongolian dandy. After a vigorous handshake, he proposes me to inspect the car, so we walk to the rugged four-wheeler. At a first glance, the Toyota had a fairly good life, one full of adventure but not too harsh. Mr. Batar shows me how to start the engine and that’s it; he seems happy and ready to leave. When I tell him that I am going to Gun-Galuut, he understands that the Land Cruiser is going for an hard-core day and gives me the second chapter of explanation: he shows me how to operate the electric winch on the front bumper, the spare tire, the hydraulic jack and all I needed in case of trouble. Then he looks at me, shakes my hand again and says: “Anyway, I know you can drive”.

I ask Batar how to reach my destination; he takes a map out of the Toyota gloves compartment and points to a spot in the middle of nowhere: “Follow the road, East direction – he says – when you get to the river, turn right. When you see the mountains on your left, go there”. I thank him and ask if there is something I should be aware of driving in Mongolia. Mr. Batar looks at me again and says: “do not drive over a goat. If you kill a goat you’ll have to pay for it”, then he hands me the car keys, wishes me a good trip, turns around and disappears into the fresh night. At no point, he has bothered to check my identity or driving license.

Comes Saturday and after an early breakfast, I meet my co-pilot, in the hotel lobby. Mark is a British workmate, he lives in Bangkok. The night before, he enthusiastically accepted to join in the adventure. When we get in the car I ask him if he knows how to drive an off-road car; he tells me that he has driven once or twice in the past ten years. I start the engine and here we are, cruising through a sleepy Ulaanbataar, direction East. It is seven o’clock in the morning, streets are empty and the sun shines. As the kilometers go by, tall concrete buildings become sparser and are gradually replaced by single-storey constructions. A little later, Mongolian Gers, the local dwellings, start becoming more and more frequent.

The paved road in the direction of Baganuur is comfortable. I relax at the drive of the Land Cruiser and observe the changing landscape passing slowly by. After an hour, we arrive at the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue. The 40 meters tall shining complex is a monument to exaggeration but serves the purpose of reminding whoever passes by that the fusion between the war chief and the horse, allowed Genghis Khan to federate the biggest empire in the history of humanity.

We start a slow ascent towards a mountain pass, now the road and the lineup of electric posts that flank it are the only visible signs of human presence. While we keep driving East we become acquainted with the sight of wild horses. They have compact bodies, long tail and mane and most often brown and shiny hair; Mongolian horses are known for their strength and at every winter can lose up to 30% of their weight due to intense cold. Beautiful and admirable animals.

The few signs along the road, all written in Cyrillic, do not provide us any workable information but, according to the map, we have approximately reached the point where we are supposed to leave the main road. We just take a 90-degrees turn and start driving straight in a vast grassland. A huge mineral mine on our right-hand side is the only landmark we use to navigate the otherwise completely empty space. As time passes, the sense of freedom is gradually replaced by doubts on our direction but there is no-one around to help us find our way. Finally, I see in the rear-view mirror a guy wearing traditional Mongolian attire on a motorbike. I stop the car, get off and he comes to meet me: I show him our destination on my mobile phone, only to realize that he can not read Latin characters or understand English. I keep saying “Gun-Galuut”, trying to pronounce the way I imagine a Mongolian would do and finally, our man understands and points in direction South-East. I exchange a dubitative look with Mark, then look at the guy smiling. He smiles back to me and makes a vague gesture spinning his forefinger around. I go back in the car and turn the key while the guy kick-starts his motorbike. My coworker asks me what is happening and I explain to him that we will follow our friend; he seems puzzled by the non-verbal communication that just happened.

Our Mongolian guide drives fast ahead of us.  From time to time he steers his motorbike right into a bump and enjoys a jump. After some time he stops and so we do. I get out of the car and go close to him. He gives a look at South, makes a sign with his hand as if he was putting a glass close to his lips, then looks at the high rocky hills at South East and smiles. I smile, put my hands together and slightly bow my head to thank him for his help. He starts his bike and goes away, headed West. When I get in the car, Mark seems more puzzled than ever as he asks me what we’re doing next. I look at him and say: “the guy told me to keep going until we find a Ger where we could be offered fermented horse milk, then we have to take a left turn and climb the mountains”. My coworker now clearly believes that I lost my mind but after a few minutes driving, we find one lonely Ger; a shy girl hears the noise of our engine, comes out and confirms, non-verbally of course, that the high hills we see on our left are the entry gate of Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.


 


As we make our way into it, we realize that the notion of Nature Reserve in Mongolia is different from what we have seen elsewhere: this is not yet another man-made attraction park. There is no dedicated structure,  ranger, patrol car, no entrance gate or fee, not a single road. No-one explains what you will see. There is nothing to explain and the situation could not be clearer: nature owns the place and man is a very rare species.

The travel becomes adventurous: we test the power of Toyota engine to climb a low ridge and look at the panoramic landscape. Snow just finished melting and the yellow ground reverberates against the pristine blue of the sky. Then, we descend and drive close to one of the affluents of the Kherlen, where a herd of Mongolian horses is peacefully watering. The animals let us come close and observe us with curiosity. They seem familiar with human presence and show no visible stress.  I take some pictures and get back in the car.

We abandon the river bank to continue driving in East direction, following a track that softly ascends a hill. As we start sloping down, we see a more prominent trace of human presence: an agglomeration of eight Mongolian Gers, ordered in two lines of four, too neatly organized to be a nomad thing, enclosed by a wooden fence. As we park the car at the front gate, a tall man with a bright red sweater comes to meet us, smiling; he is the owner of the Ger camp and surprisingly speaks a very good English. Mr. Batbold is a biologist, a conservationist and a very busy man: during the winter, the temperature in Mongolian steppe can drop well below -40 degrees Celsius. The camp is open all year and when the snow finally melts, our host has very few days to repair all the scars that ice caused to the infrastructures. Also, he needs to install eight more Gers on their round concrete slabs, to double the camp capacity and revenues during the summer season.

While we have lunch at the ger camp, Mr. Batbold tells about the species of birds and other animals that populate the reserve, then he advises us to continue our exploration towards the mountains. We thank him for the hospitality and get in the Toyota again.

The camp disappears from our views, driving becomes challenging when the path crosses very bumpy sections and I do my best to reduce the discomfort. The landscape around us changes but remains magnificent: lowlands around the Kherlen river gradually morph into hills covered with bright green grass, where goats peacefully graze. Another spring has arrived and the cycle of life perpetuates: all creatures have a few months to recover and build up sufficient energies to survive next winter.

As we glide slowly through this eternal countryside scene, shepherds go up and down the hills, riding their horses with mastery. From time to time, falcons float in the air above our heads. In the total absence of distraction, my thoughts slow down, crystallize, melt with the environment, capture slight changes in the air. Time has stopped here: our Land Cruiser is the only visible sign of modern civilization, the rest would have looked exactly the same if we passed by five hundred years ago.


What happens next?

In episode three we will reach the end of the adventure. We will also have an intimate conversation with a legendary photographer who will tell us what it means to be “right there”.

 

Let’s get lost – episode one

Let’s get lost – episode one

This is, among other things, a travel story. It is about two trips to Mongolia that I did in January and April 2017. As the story is long, I decided to break it into three parts, for an easier reading. I will publish the following two parts on Mondays, at an interval of two weeks.


Where I am coming from

I do not always feel comfortable in modern times because today society and lifestyle tear us continuously apart from what really counts. I feel that we invest a lot of time, money, energy, striving to achieve objectives that do not make us happy. Finding joy in a world that surrounds us with noise and buries us in clutter is not a simple exercise.

In the past, these feelings materialized in a sense of frustration. With time, I learned to focus on what makes a difference for me. I am happy when my dear ones have what they need to live the life they want. I am good when I am surrounded by positive people, when someone cares about me. I like when the wind blows freely, waves crash on a sandbank, the sun sets on the sea. This is all I believe in, the rest does not count.

Combining my personal beliefs with a sustainable job is easier said than done. I would like to do something that inspires people and transform the world into a better place; Today, I am falling short on these objectives but no-one is perfect.

Instead, I work in a company that provides Information Technology solutions to airlines; in my day to day working life, I speak to very different people sharing a common mission: flying aircrafts around the globe. I travel and learn a lot and one day maybe I will find a way to make good use of these experiences. Recently, I heard a quote in the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“, that seemed a nice way to reconcile my job and my quest for happiness. It says: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life”. I would argue that life does not need another purpose than being lived every day at the best of our possibilities. Still, the quote sounds overall right.

So as I said, this is, among other things, a travel story.

In January 2017, my work brought me to spend two days in Ulaanbaatar to meet local airline executives. In my imaginary map of the world, before that short trip, Mongolia occupied an unreachable corner: I read many stories and had seen countless images of its open spaces, where horses roamed free and nomadic populations continued migrating on ancestral routes. The day I flew there, I remember hearing the call of the wild as the Boeing 737 approached the landing strip: I was stuck at the plane window looking at the land below. It was white, endless, breath-taking. One day I ventured out for a short walk outside with my workmates; the sun was shining in a wonderful blue sky and the temperature was -36 degrees Celsius. A memorable moment.

When three months later I was sent back to Mongolia, the call resonated again and I decided to listen. Instead of preparing the business meetings, I spent the days before my departure dreaming of a day trip into the wild: at least for a short while, I wanted to get modern life distractions out of my way.

As I started thinking of logistics, one thing appeared sure: if  I wanted to explore Mongolia outback, I needed a reliable car; I remembered the advice of a French friend, who crossed the Sahara desert many times and sailed all oceans; he owns four Toyota Land Cruiser and always told me he would trust his “Toys”, as he called them, under all circumstances. Alcohol addiction shrank his horizons that today are constrained in the slim volume of a “verre a Pastis”, but this is another story and I prefer to think of him as the brave captain he used to be.

 

 

After a quick search, I got in touch with a woman named Deegi, who promised to rent me a Land Cruiser 76 in Ulaanbataar.

To pick a destination, I ruled out places recommended by all websites when searching for “day trip Ulaanbataar”. My attention was caught instead by Wikipedia very succinct description of a place named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve:

“130 km (81 miles) southeast of Ulaanbaatar, has a great diversity of ecosystems even though it has a comparatively small area. The complex of high mountains, steppes, rivers, lakes and wetlands are kept in their original condition. Visitors to Gun-Galuut see vast steppes seeming to meet the sky, the imposing mountains of Baits and Berkh, the homeland of rare creatures, Ikh-Gun and Ayaga lakes, a paradise of birds, Kherlen, the longest river of Mongolia and the Tsengiin Burd wetland, where water and wetland birds lay their eggs.”

The call of the wild resonated more distinctly; when Google Maps failed to locate it, I knew that was the place I had been looking for.

A Toyota Land Cruiser 76 waiting for me in Ulaanbataar, I was headed to Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. The dice were ready to roll.


What happens next?

In episode two, we will finally arrive in Ulaanbataar, meet a mysterious man and embark on an adventurous trip to the outback.