Ever since I started my Spanish classes I have taken an insane interest in the language and the Spanish-speaking world. And since I knew I wouldn’t be travelling to any of these countries in the near future, I decided to bring this world closer to me. And so started my crazy research on the topic that led me to pick up at least twenty-five books during the course of three months. Insane, right? I’m not even calculating all the money I spent for fear I would make myself feel guiltier than I already am.
To begin this journey I picked up Andres Neuman’s How to Travel without Seeing. Its psychedelic cover and quirky title no doubt caught my eye. Neuman, a prolific writer, had won the prestigious Premio Alfaguara award for his first novel Traveler of the Century, and who embarked on a book tour across nineteen countries at a breakneck speed.
With an exhaustive itinerary spanning the length and breadth of South and Central America, and southern part of the US, Neuman has penned a book much like a daily journal, writing snippets about the places, the people, the culture and their quirks, along with the thoughts and emotions.
I may not have read an envious number of titles under the travel genre, but I certainly haven’t heard of many with such a concept. Neuman refers to his work like dispatches from the new Latin America referencing authors, political figures, works of art and even places of much disinterest like airports and insipid hotels. His wide knowledge on related subjects, especially on literature and art is astounding, and it made me think – did I bite off more than I could chew?
The book’s nineteen segments are sandwiched between the author’s introduction as a Welcome Aboard note and a Goodbye. Having to flit from city to city, country to country, Neuman focused on the fleeting moments between places, the fragments that make a journey wholesome without presenting it in its entirety. His writing style intended to capture certain snapshots in time, a moment frozen forever, with no information of its background than readily available, and no information of what follows.
When faced with so many aspects of a journey, I like how Neuman focused on airports, its blandness, its ground staff, customs forms and hotels as a form of comparison.
While at the check-in counter for his flight to Caracas, Venezuela, he learns it is mandatory to show a return ticket. Otherwise, boarding will not be allowed. One must prove that he/she/ they will leave Venezuela before even entering Venezuela, he says.
Authors & linguistics
For a person who has a degree in Spanish philology, Neuman dwells more on literature, authors both old and new, and shares his perception of them with ease. From Mariana Enriquez to Golzalo Garces, Cesar Aira to Roberto Bolano and Mario Vargas Llosa, it would be impossible for me to ever read as many books, poems, or even watch the numerous films that he refers to. I find this intoxicating and staggering at the same time. While I wish I could attack it one at a time, but the sheer impossibility of the feat gets to me.
He mentions how the younger flock of writers is trying to “stop being symbolic property of their countries”. Roberto Bolano, a Chilean author, most famous for his work 2666 and The Savage Detectives, was known to be a pan-American. Neuman says, “He found a way to be Mexican, couldn’t help being Chilean, and was often amused by the idea of disguising himself as an Argentinean.” However, the upcoming writers now tried to not be from other countries, but to not be from any.
He also highlights the conspicuous differences in dialects – how a good morning would be a firm ‘Buenos dias’ in Spain but a slippery Argentine “Buen diiiaaa”, while many Argentineans don’t say yes, but say obviously. These were small facts that were definitely nice to read. It takes one to know one, and only a person like Neuman, who is well acquainted with the Spanish-speaking world would be able to brings these bits to the fore.
He also mentions the difficulties the people of Venezuela face when reading books. Importing books becomes a task for publishers and editors as the navigating the country’s laws, taxes and customs are very tricky. And if books do land up on Venezuelan soil, certain regulations keep them from seeing the light of day. So people turn to the black market. Fake copies are made from books bought with top American dollars, making them expensive for the general public. Even domestic publishing houses cannot take much advantage of the situation as importing paper is a whole different issue altogether.
One aspect I wish Neuman had focused more on was politics. Considering how intricate its political landscape is, he shares very little with his readers. Latin America’s political sphere is a labyrinth of sorts. It is not an easy plane to navigate, and is most certainly overwhelming for me.
He does touch base on some points, like when he made an entry on his hotel in San Salvador, a Holiday Inn, which was built on archaeological ruins, an ancient indigenous Pipil settlement that had to make way for the steel and concrete. The indigenous people have suffered much injustice. With the advent of the Europeans, they have either been displaced or killed, their lands appropriated and turned to farms. Few natives were discriminated against, constantly looked down upon. Each country in the region has numerous indigenous groups such as Aymara, Mapuche, Quechua, Guarani, and many more.
“That it was the Bolivian oligarchy, and not Columbus, that monopolized the resources and screwed the indigenous people for two hundred years. And that that’s why, in all fairness, Evo Morales won.” Morales, president of Bolivia since 2006.
Neuman writes: “When God created Venezuela,” someone says, “he was totally high.”
Fabric of society
Most countries in Latin America have a stark difference between the rich and the poor, and culture seems to be a sign of the divide. “In certain countries culture is almost a luxury item, and those who have it, therefore, are almost princes. One of them, without thinking that he’s saying something dreadful, tells me, “Literature flows into us with our mother’s milk.” In Panama, Neuman learns how phones are a key target for thieves. An acquaintance of the writer explains how phones get stolen all the time, and the thieves even have the nerve to pick up the calls. In Santo Domingo, at the Pantheon, there are a number of plaques put up in the memory of poets, historians and intellectuals. But many were still blank, nameless, and Neuman’s guide, on being questioned, said, “We don’t have enough heroes”.
Why it doesn’t work for me
I am not sure if this is the best book for me to begin with, mostly because of its disjointed narrative. While it does seem interesting at first, especially since it is peppered with numerous references, it tries to grasp at various threads that can never quite be stitched together in any form. Even though it wasn’t the intention of the author to present the region or his journey as a whole, my mind still wants to fill in the blanks.
“One observation for each situation. One paragraph for each observation. There would never be a change of topic within a single entry. We no longer travel like that. We no longer see that way.”
Another reason why I feel it didn’t work for me was because it is impossible to present the narratives of so many nations with just snippets, especially for a person who has very little knowledge on the topic. I got overwhelmed with all the details and nuances of the various countries, its people and cultures, the slight differences in tonalities and the ever changing fabric of politics and art. I could never understand a place truly but kept grasping at straws. And it left me in a bit of confusion. Tell me more about Nicara
While I did begin the book by diligently looking up the many authors, and political and historical figures, after a point, it started to feel like quite a cumbersome task. This is definitely a book I will have to go through slowly, maybe focus on it chapter-wise, and hence a country at a time and expand my reading accordingly.
Given the vibrant culture of these nations, I wish he had mentioned more about food and beverages. I was interested to know about tamales or ceviche, or cerveza or even the plethora of fresh produce that grows there. At one point he tries llama meat and wine from the Altura vineyards and it left me wanting to know more. But we quickly moved on to another sketch, another snapshot of the journey. My research on this aspect shall continue.
Writing causes travel, or is it vice versa?
In this afterword, Neuman sums up his entire journey, truly feeling overwhelmed with everything he could do and see. He feels pangs of nostalgia especially as he takes his flight for Spain. The sense of having left something behind, the feeling of taking something with him. Do journeys ever end, he wonders.
When Neuman had visited a place he had been to before–Quito–he said he would pretend he’s never been here. “Maybe that’s what traveling is: pretending we’ve never seen anything before.” Not really. While I would want to see some things with a fresh set of eyes, I would also want to search out places I did not see on my first trip, hoping the places I did see haven’t changed much so I wouldn’t lose out on those experiences. Even in one’s hometown, it would be impossible to claim to have seen everything, to have seen it all. Hence, there is always something new around the corner. Always something left behind. And always something left to be restructured in the brief snapshots we take with us.