Friday, September 22, 2000

Lowell, Massachusetts

Written in 2000 for National Geographic Traveler magazine

I’ve always had trouble with New England mythologizing—the cookie-box history of tea overboard, revolutionary battles, moonlight rides. That frock-coat past usually seems as remote and romantic as a children’s storybook. Lowell, Massachusetts has another history entirely, of labor struggles amid the birth pangs of the industrial era. This was Jack Kerouac’s town, a riverside cluster of relentless textile mills “built in brick, primly towered, solid” that ate wave after wave of workers, prospered in the 19th century, and sank early in the 20th. Yet the city has recovered in the last twenty years, realizing its industrial role was something to be proud of, and facing its gritty labor history head-on.

Water helped make Lowell rich in the early 1800s. The original town was built on a crisscross of canals which—originally intended as a quicker route to the sea, and thence Boston—instead ended up harnessing vast water power.

Today’s Lowell didn’t at first strike me as particularly alluring, though I’ve never seen a city with so much preserved Americana in a compact space: luncheonettes with soda fountains straight out of my childhood, shoe-repair or optometrist shops that might as well have Eisenhower’s photo in the window. Then I began to notice how the downtown’s brick edifices have unexpectedly ornate flourishes, the detailed workmanship that comes from wealth building confidently in a boom time.


I didn’t have to walk far to find what had paid for it all: the long, red, many-windowed mills that straddle and overshadow the canals. Historic, industrial-era Lowell is a national park, and a park ranger named Alex Demas, in what was once the Boott Mill complex—now an extraordinary museum—taught me about a period I’d taken for granted.

Alex was in his fifties, a sturdy man with a gray beard and mustache, and a gentle sarcasm. He was also a natural explainer and performer. “I started as a countertenor in New York. I eventually became a bluegrass banjo picker, ended up in Boston’s coffeehouse scene, then moved to the Merrimack River Valley in 1974. I’ve been a ranger here since the park’s inception in ’78.” His performing life dovetailed nicely with his day job, since he could perform, say, a protest song composed by a Lowell “mill girl” in 1830 (I Am A Slave Girl) as part of a museum program. And he was a passionate explainer of that history.

According to Alex, “Lowell was the country’s first successful, planned industrial city.” In the early 19th century the American demand for British textiles was huge; one young Massachusetts gentleman managed a spying coup on England’s “dark satanic mills” and copied from memory their advanced machinery. He died before he saw Lowell (named for him) built as a factory metropolis by entrepreneurs who realized that its flowing canals could power thousands of looms.

The first workers were the so-called mill girls, age fifteen to thirty, off nearby New England farms, and as Alex pointed out, glad of the job. “They were away from their families, they were in an unimaginably big, clean city, they had hundreds of friends just like them, they were earning money. They would come work for a couple of years to earn their dowry, then go back to the farm and let their younger sister replace them.”

In 1826 Lowell had 2,500 inhabitants; by 1850 the number was up to 33,000. “The El Dorado on the Merrimack” seemed a bright vision of the country’s future, turning out two million yards of cloth each week in a fully integrated plan. Under one roof for the first time, raw cotton came in and eventually emerged as finished textiles—a brilliant, original American system. At first, Lowell appeared a model workers’ community, that didn’t resemble an England where enslaved children were sucked into machines. These mill girls (now seen as early feminists) even put out their own magazines, increasingly full of protest.

When competition arose elsewhere in the States, conditions here became hellish—lower pay and increased hours amid the din of crashing looms, in stifling rooms with windows nailed shut to keep the cotton from drying out—and major strikes as early as the 1830s. The mill girls were replaced with Greek, Italian, Polish, and French-Canadian immigrants, but the strikes continued. What eventually did Lowell in was radically cheaper competition that arose in the south, where the cotton was grown.

For much of the 20th century the city went downhill, but nearby biotech industries, as well as tourism, have saved it. As Bob Fish (a jazz guitarist who works in the computer industry nearby) put it, “What I love is how proud, global-minded, and artistic a place Lowell is. We have a huge folk music festival every summer when the city lets its hair down. That’s when you see why locals who never travel anywhere still feel worldly. If you’re living alongside a dozen other nationalities and languages, you don’t have to go anywhere to be cosmopolitan.”

You could stand, in fact, on a downtown corner in mid-afternoon and hear Khmer, Spanish, and Greek—today’s Lowell, with only 100,000 people, has fifty-seven ethnic communities. I saw this in the Latino what-not dollar shops, in the Italian grocery, in the Greek milkshake parlor. Schoolkids walking past, chatting in a heavy Massachusetts accent, were among the city’s 30,000 Cambodians, the second-largest such community in the country.

“And not only do they have what you’d expect,” Bob added, “like their own food stores, but they have their own lawyers and video stores and beauty parlors. So the Lowell immigrant community tradition is as vibrant as ever.”


Apart from Bette Davis, Ed McMahon, and Senator Paul Tsongas (much responsible for the federal millions that gave Lowell a new life), the city also produced the painter James McNeill Whistler. The house where Whistler first met his mother is a small museum with a revolving collection of his etchings and sketches and a large array of local seascapes. Other museums are devoted to quilts, textiles, and New England sports, but Lowell’s unity of focus made coming here feel like a frank dose of reality.

Jack Kerouac (1922-69), despite the deafening fame of On the Road, was foremost a novelist, and the Lowell of his upbringing recurs in his fiction. The Lowell he wrote about is architecturally everywhere, and still brings what locals call “Kerou-wackos” for an annual festival in his honor. (The city has wisely created a tiny memorial park, with excerpts from his books on stone slabs.) The Working People Museum, in a mill-girl boardinghouse, displays Kerouac’s portable Underwood typewriter, his backpack, and road gear from poncho to goggles to aspirin. “You’re the first person to ask to see it in ages,” said the woman who guided me to its glass case. “Funny thing. His typewriter’s the only obsolete item in there.”

One spot Kerouac often evoked is the Grotto, which should be seen by night. It has, I bet, the world’s only drive-through Stations of the Cross, its plaster statues alive under exotic yellow, blue, pink, and green spotlights, its rocky man-made grotto inset with a statue of the Virgin wearing a halo of blue neon.


It is all too easy to forget the industrial labor that enriched this country—seventy-hour work weeks in horrific conditions—but even a brief visit to Lowell is a sobering, illuminating reminder. And who knows? A century from now we may have our own version of Lowell—perhaps as distant, in every sense, as Silicon Valley.

Friday, September 15, 2000

The Golden Isles of Georgia

Written in 2000 for Islands magazine

Back in the 1970s, my mother and I made regular pilgrimages to the Georgia coast during my spring vacations. From the port of Brunswick, we’d cross a causeway to an island that seemed to me, at age fifteen or twenty, a quietly funky heaven of sand, sea, spartina grass, and motley year-rounders. The idea of an island linked to the mainland seemed perfect: all the usual advantages, and few of the customary difficulties. It was easy to imagine coming back when I was older, maybe settling in for several months to write.

But I never did. My life took me to New York, and overseas for many years, then finally to New England. Yet fantasies have a way of coming up in casual conversation, and after I moved up north, I was always surprised at how few snowbirds, migrating annually, had heard of the barrier islands that hug virtually the entire 150 miles of Georgia coast. Recently I decided to find out if the decades had been kind to them.

Eight are large enough to be named on maps. Ossabaw, St. Catherines, and Blackbeard are state nature preserves, with only a few researchers and no visitors. Continuing south, Sapelo, Sea Island, St. Simons, Jekyll, and Cumberland were still names I at least recognized from years ago—though I knew I’d never visited all of them, and (even worse) couldn’t be sure which technicolor fragment of teenage memory belonged where.

Part of my beginnings as a writer were on those isles; my second novel, never published, was set along that coast. I had an acute memory of how the islands were a unique, unusual incarnation of the south—surrounded by salt marshes, with an otherworldly poetry all their own. So I flew to Savannah, drove south to Brunswick, and crossed the first bridge.


St. Simons was where my mother and I always stayed, the only island with a significant population (about 25,000) and plenty of motels. Here once again was the dense scent of pines I remembered, the same coastal breeze. The road through the island looked far more commercial than before—swank new malls and gated “communities” alongside the much more satisfying anarchy of the Georgia woods. I headed for the Village, the island’s compact hub, with its fishing pier, its clustered vacation shops, its lackadaisical bygone air, and its elegant 19th century lighthouse. I was glad to see that so little had changed; you couldn’t get a designer coffee, though you could find 1950s-style flip-flops.

No Butchering of Large Fish On Pier said the sign. Fat kids in swimsuits were leaping in, and a few regulars were busy with a spigot for cleaning fish on the wood-railed pier. To walk along it was still a promenade worth doing a few times each day; for my mother and me it had always rounded off a fish dinner. I saw now that for her, being English, this spot would’ve held faint echoes of a small-scale British seaside resort. This had never occurred to me before.

Here too was our changeless motel, the Queen’s Court, with its serene gardens around a modest pool, where I wrote a chunk of my first novel at age eighteen and solidified a lifelong work pattern (black pen, yellow legal pad) on instinct alone. I remembered scribbling in the drowsy heat, a few kids splashing away and paradoxically helping my concentration, nursing the vague sensation that there were many more books in me and wondering what they might be.

In a used bookstore a block away I fell into conversation about those old days with Bill Baxter, a hefty man who helped run the shop. He said, “You bet St. Simons has changed a lot in two decades. Now we’re busy year round.”

“I suppose the shopkeepers like that.”

“Well, some do. Personally, I don’t like all the money here now—lot of folks who work here have to live over in Brunswick, on the mainland. It’s hard to find a reasonable place to rent unless you’ve been on St. Simons a long time. And I wish they wouldn’t keep cutting trees down for all the new shopping centers. It makes me mad when they do that.”

I could only agree: it seemed a betrayal of those beloved Georgia woods.

I had one more pilgrimage to make. Just up the road, at Fort Frederica, I realized I’d forgotten how little there was to see of Georgia’s original military town, which held back and ultimately defeated a Spanish force moving out of Florida—a barracks tower, the odd house foundation, the stone remains of the fort’s magazine. But the site is superb, with a view across the marsh. A few cannon (range: one mile) make it evident why Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia in 1733, chose this spot for his settlement of 1500, which survived barely twenty years. Once the Spanish were gone, it had outlived its usefulness.


I was staying on Sea Island, smallest of the isles, linked to St. Simons by a bridge even I could throw a stone across. House by house, it has some of the most expensive residences in the country, and grew up around a classic hotel resort called the Cloister (1928), designed by the master architect of Florida’s grand villas, Addison Mizner. Unfortunately, too little of Mizner’s detailed design has been preserved in the original tawny stucco building, and the new parts of the resort bear no connection to his serene Italianate vision. The Cloister remains a honeymoon of choice among Southern families with money, and thrives off golf courses over on St. Simons, a faithful staff, and the aura of a private island. Although the beach is still legally public, it looked more awkward for interlopers like my mother and me to come enjoy it for the day.

Apart from St. Simons, most of these islands were privately owned by millionaires for much of the 20th century; their present undeveloped condition is the result. Sea Island is the only one still in private hands—a family called Jones, who also control much of the unbuilt land on St. Simons. On both isles local chat oscillates between blame on the Jones family for the developments taking place, gratitude for so much that hasn’t, or a grudging it-could-be-worse.

And there isn’t much to narrow Sea Island: the resort and a systematic avenue of houses, with brief streets leading away either to the marsh or the Atlantic beach. At high noon I went for a walk in stupefying June heat and, pouring sweat and swatting bugs, I ran into a gardener who set me straight on prices, since—the literary life being uncertain—I am always in the market for prime real estate.

“You want something on the beach? Five to ten million. You don’t have to be on the beach, you can get away with four million.”

I said I absolutely had to be on the beach, but perhaps I might rent for a while first.

“You’re looking at six, seven thousand a week. There’s so much money now that people are lined up to try to buy. And all these new houses going up.”

More new houses? It looks impossible to build more on Sea Island. I had memories of plenty of open space, but most empty lots have now been built on, right to the end of the island. People were paying a great deal to be part of a community whose appeal was based on a quaintness that was no longer the case; and I could count on my fingers how many of the new houses had any aesthetic to them.

One beautiful exception—at first I thought I was hallucinating—was the house of architect John Portman, on 26th Street by the beach. It is almost beyond belief in context, for amid the low ordinary houses rises a playful white concrete and glass fantasy ten times their size, partly hidden by an ivied wall, with a sculpted nude dancer just visible. It could be the modern art museum of some major city, with a gigantic white arbor, immense windows, squiggles and commas and stacked cubes, walkways and audacious white beams running across, a helipad on the roof and a living room that revolves.

A writer who’d had the right idea long before me was Eugene O’Neill, who built a house here with his wife, Carlotta, in 1931—the Casa Genotta. Though closed to the public, I could just see the house, apparently of woven brick, from the beach at 19th Street. O’Neill’s second floor study was designed to resemble a captain’s quarters at the stern of a ship, with tilted windows and a view of the beach. There he wrote Day Without End, a religious play, and Ah, Wilderness, his lightest, and tried out his version of my fantasy. Apparently the O’Neills were very reclusive: she only went out once a week, to pay the bills, and he rarely went out at all. Imagining the view from his study, this was easy to understand, since the sea would’ve filled the horizon above his typewriter.


An hour’s drive north, at the sleepy, well-preserved mainland port of Darien, I barely made a punctual ferry that runs thrice daily to Sapelo. As we crossed the calm waters of an immense salt marsh, my fellow passengers, all surrounded by boxes of food, made clear this was another world. Sapelo is the sole island with a predominantly black population, descendants of ex- slaves who have owned their own land, called Hog Hammock, since the Civil War. With only ninety residents total, the situation on Sapelo, otherwise owned mostly by the state and formerly by millionaires, is of Byzantine complexity.

The island is managed (using federal funds) by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which provides free water, road repairs, and a ferry pass at a nominal fee for Hog Hammock residents. The state doesn’t offer private docking facilities; they manage a reservations-only campground, but you can’t bring over a bicycle. Sapelo—twelve miles long, three to five miles wide, with seven miles of beaches—is less developed now than a hundred years ago.

This meant you could camp out, or stay overnight with a resident (say, at a guest house in Hog Hammock, like me) or else with the University of Georgia Marine Institute, whose research facility has been here since 1953 and which some locals consider part of the island, some not. Most visitors, ten thousand annually, come over by the day for a three-hour DNR tour: the mansion, a beach, the old lighthouse, and Hog Hammock, where a few residents sell their dolls, quilts, grapevine wreaths. and baskets. But the day-trippers are usually gone around lunchtime, so they get little idea of the island’s life.

Ceaser Banks, a grizzled gentleman of great warmth, met me at the dock. With his wife Nancy, he runs The Weekender guest house. In his van we rattled over the only road (which Sapelonians called the “autobahn”) to Hog Hammock—400-plus acres of neat houses, trailer homes, and planted fields among pines, palmetto, and live oak. “At this very moment,” he announced, “we have sixty-seven residents, two bars, and two churches that swap from week to week. Seventeen kids go to school on the mainland by morning ferry.”

“So what are you missing, Ceaser?”

“Well, we have no McDonald’s. And no crime.”

There are other limitations. Gas can be only bought for one hour on Tuesday, one hour on Friday. Grocery orders come over by ferry twice a week. The alternative, in the heart of Hog Hammock, is the BJ Confectionary, open daily. Inside, besides the shelves of staples, were framed pictures of FDR, a tv, sofas, family sports trophies, and a photo of B.J. with Jimmy Carter, who liked visiting Sapelo. The store is run by B.J.’s grandson, Tracy Alexander, a soft-spoken man in his forties, with gentle eyes and a tolerant smile.

I bought a couple of cold drinks and got Tracy to reminisce about his trucking days in California before coming back to Sapelo. I said, “It must seem pretty quiet here after living on the West Coast.”

He murmured genially, “Well, we’ve never had anybody sue anybody else. The biggest crime around here is gossip and slander.”

“That makes it unique.”

“Not really. You can look through America and find plenty of rural communities like this one. The Mayberries and the Hootervilles. What makes Sapelo special is water—the ordeal of water. The water we have to go across to get here or to get off here. It makes neighborliness different, it makes race relations different, because we don’t have a choice. When we know we’re all in this together, I don’t take advantage of you and you don’t take advantage of me.”

Another longtime resident, Cornelia Bailey—who has just published a Sapelo memoir, God, Doctor Buzzard, and the Bolito Man—told me, “A lot of times people come over to Hog Hammock expecting to see old folk speaking Gullah or Geechee. Once there were five communities; now there’s just this one. In 1974 there were three schools, now there’s no school. If we don’t make a decisive plan we’re in trouble.” She shook her head. “Success don’t always come in the form of a dollar sign. As children here we lived by the signs of nature; the old folks still do. I could tell the tides from how the marsh hens laughed. That’s my station in life—to remember these things.”

Late one Hog Hammock afternoon I went to visit Yvonne Grovner, who works days as a DNR guide—she’d shown me around the Reynolds mansion. Yvonne learned basket weaving eight years ago in a small class given by Allen Greene, the acknowledged local master whose baskets are in the Smithsonian. “Allen passed away a couple of years ago, at ninety-three,” Yvonne recalled. “He told me he started making baskets around 1918, having learned from his great- grandfather. From an African design and tradition. Now I have a grant from the Reynolds Foundation to teach a class here myself.” While we talked, Yvonne was making a “sweet grass” basket, using a sawtooth palmetto stem as the thread to hold the basket together, and a nail as the needle.

As day settled down with dogs barking, the blue-gray smoke from tree stumps being burned in a field rose over the road winding among the wooden houses and meticulous gardens and pine woods, the glow faded in an immense sky, and Hog Hammock at twilight became a mystical place, fully alive.

That night Ceaser promised to wake me at dawn for an early walk. “Say something to me in Geechee,” I asked him—like Gullah, a mix of English and African syntax and vocabulary, with various southernisms added.

He smiled broadly. “I’ll see you when day clean,” he said.


Much of the other half of the Sapelo story was contained in a single building. The Reynolds mansion turned out to be graceful and elegant; its lines are curved, and low, shaded by palms and live oaks. Originally built by the planter who owned Sapelo and kept a thousand slaves until the Civil War, it was revived in the 1920s by a man named Coffin, who also owned much of the island and received guests like Coolidge, Hoover, and Lindbergh before selling to R. J. Reynolds, the cigarette millionaire. In 1969 Reynolds’ widow sold the mansion, and (once again) most of Sapelo, this time to the state. It was no wonder Hog Hammock kept feeling like an island within an island.

Nowadays the Marine Institute appropriately occupies the out-buildings adjoining the mansion grounds, with resident ecologists, biologists, chemists, technicians, grad students, and interns. There I met with geologist Jon Garbisch, who made time to walk with me beside the marsh before meeting his wife and kids off the last ferry. I wondered aloud if many scientists stayed here long with their families and he grinned. “Some faculty have lived here for over twenty years. There’s plenty to study—close to 900 papers have been written about Sapelo in all the various sciences. The lab is the whole island.”

Standing at sunset looking over a shimmer of green spartina grass, the Marine Institute seemed a good life, assuming you got along well with your neighbors and your colleagues. I told Jon I’d read how Sapelo’s marsh was as pristine as a coastal marsh could be—four to five miles of spartina that was “hardly impacted.” It didn’t seem possible, I said; surely the mainland was too close.

“Not at all. The last major development in the area was Darien, as a timber port back in the 1880s. We get two extremely high tides here daily that wash out the entire marsh with fresh oxygen and new nutrients. The result is that things grow twice as fast as in the Carolinas. See, nothing is static here. Everything is changing, but everything is adapted to change.”

The next day I took a long walk on Nanny Goat, which Jon had called “as pristine a beach as we have on this coast.” It was a wide expanse, with a stiff breeze sending wisps of sand scurrying in jet-trails. There was mild surf, which I didn’t see on other islands, and a wind-agitated sea farther out; the horizon was dotted with shrimp boats with wings extended. But they kept their distance, and after an hour I decided it was as majestic and peaceful a beach as this country has to offer, with absolutely no one else on it. It was irrelevant that I’d never seen it as a child, since it wouldn’t have been any different.


I’d visited Jekyll back then, though I had no memory of it. The island is a mere few minutes’ ride over a marsh causeway from Brunswick, right near St. Simons; its beach, longer than the island itself, runs for ten miles, with little surf. What I recalled instead were those schoolmates in Macon, where I grew up, whose families had rented houses on Jekyll for the entire summer; thus I imagined it an exclusive place. In early photographs the millionaires pose here on horseback, with satisfied grins at “roughing it,” for a century ago Jekyll was a club, a private island owned by a few industrialists who bought it in 1886 from the original French planters. For six decades you didn’t get on or off the island without a pass, and guests needed the approval of a club committee.

Today it feels remarkably innocent, the houses set spaciously apart, no hotels taller than any tree and no sense of exploitation. I came expecting a stodgy nostalgia for a privileged yesteryear, but instead found a quiet island of no pretensions, an odd mix of the relaxed year-rounder, campers here to go fishing, and tourists enjoying the preserved honor-guard of mansions or biking on trails amid live oak, trumpet vine, jasmine and wisteria. Only eight miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide, Jekyll is a state park: only 35% may ever be developed.

The epicenter of it all, a recently-restored hotel, was once the Jekyll Island Club—completed in 1887, with dining room, reading room, billiards room, ladies’ parlor, and card room, with a circular tower and wraparound porches. Nearby lots were planned so no “cottage” would be more than a quarter mile away. Jekyll had a three-month winter season; the mansions were mostly shingle style, built through the Twenties for Pulitzers, Vanderbilts, J.P. Morgan with his own indoor tennis courts and yacht. I particularly liked Mrs. Rockefeller’s house—not for sale, unfortunately—and her insistence on a dumb waiter in her bedroom, so servants could pull her up and down.

“It was a Who’s Who of the industrial world of the late 19th century,” June McCash said to me one afternoon on the restored hotel’s porch, where we sat in rocking chairs sipping lemonade. A medieval professor in Tennessee, since buying a home here fifteen years ago (though her intention was to find time to write in her field) McCash has authored several books of local history.

I told her how hard it was to imagine this place empty and abandoned, after so much money had gone into setting it up in the first place.

She shrugged. “Many of those affluent and powerful went through a difficult Depression. Jekyll Club membership kept falling, and the last original member died in ’38. Their kids found this a Victorian, musty place. People just wanted something more jet-set. So the club closed in ’42 and planned to reopen a year later, but a German sub was found in Brunswick harbor, and that was that. The war was a coup de grace.” In 1947 the state bought Jekyll and those mansions for $675,000; many had reverted to the club for non-payment of dues.

Now there are about a thousand residents, with plenty of part-timers from out-of-state who turn into Jekyll Islanders as soon as they open the shutters. I asked the maitre d’ at the hotel dining room, Joseph Ferrari, about them. A white-haired Italian gentleman with a courtly manner, a veteran of the Plaza in New York for nearly thirty years, he laughed. “The residents come sit around the pool like Roman senators, you know. They gossip and decide whom to like and whom to kill. The thumbs up or the thumbs down.”

Yet even on Memorial Day weekend Jekyll still felt uncrowded, and the beach was so long and wide there was no need for the joggers, shellers, kids, and honeymooners to avoid each other. It was all protected, and huge tracts were kept wild, yet you could buy the New York Times every morning. In the end Jekyll was the only island where my youthful fantasy still felt fully viable, where—with an adjusted income—I could actually imagine settling.


Cumberland is a third larger than Manhattan, roughly the same shape, but otherwise its antithesis: a nature island which mostly belongs to the nation. Barely in Georgia, it’s reached by ferry across a strait from north Florida. You can stay for the day, or hike to a campsite if you’re willing to lug everything you need. Or else, as I did, stay at an inn by turns lavish and rustic called Greyfield, built as a mansion by the Carnegie family at the turn of the century and run by descendants. In 1900, 90% of the island was in Carnegie hands; in 1972 the Park Service made 90% of Cumberland a “national seashore.”

Cumberland is the largest Georgia island, with the greatest diversity of plant and animal life. More than any other, it seems a conspiracy of nature to make up for the fact that man was here in force once; and much federal effort is being expended to help. The island has a furious profusion, an explosive sense of dynamic life growing and braiding everywhere—from feral horses wandering a beach, to the armadillo patiently going around a few unexpected humans, to squadrons of butterflies flicking through a mimosa tree at dusk.

The couple I met on the porch at the Greyfield Inn were rewarding themselves after camping out a few miles away. Kelly, a law student, and her husband Andy, a chemical engineer, had been under siege by mosquitos for five days, and they were glad to be at this turn-of-the-century house of informal grandeur on a large scale, with its wood-paneled libraries, a generous porch with rocking chairs, the first-rate dining room. They’d enjoyed both extremes of the island, and as Kelly said, “Once we realized it was all right, we’d hike from our campsite and spend every afternoon reading in a swing on the porch of Plum Orchard, this abandoned old Carnegie mansion. Every now and then someone would stop by to look around, stare at us, then move on.”

One morning with Fred Whitehead, a former park ranger now with Greyfield, I raced in a Land Rover down the 17½-mile beach on the Atlantic side, with low grassy dunes on our left and a few shrimp boats to sea on our right. At the water’s edge were pelicans and smaller royal terns assembled around them, a support system mildly watching for danger. Many animals here—like the horses that roam the island—are unexpectedly tame, and perceive people not as a threat but rather a petty annoyance to slowly walk away from.

This is recent history only, for after the usual pattern of Indian tribes, Spanish missionaries, and British conquest, under slave labor the island’s vast forests of live oak had been entirely, surgically pillaged for ships’ frames—timbers for the USS Constitution came from Cumberland.

Miles down the beach, turning inland, we reached Halfmoon Bluff, a settlement bought after the Civil War by several families of ex-slaves. Now only a few ramshackle houses, its core is the African Baptist Church—worn white planks with painted-over windows to keep it cool against the heat ticking away. It was no longer used, though J.F.K. Jr. and Carolyn had married here. I pushed open the church door; inside were only a threadbare rug, a broom stood upside-down in a corner, and a small cross of rough branches.

Farther on we came to Plum Orchard, a flaking, rotting white colossus framed by royal palms and shut tight. I peered through grimy windows at a tiled swimming pool, fine floors, dark furniture. Later that day I visited its predecessor, Dungeness, at the other end of the island—a mansion that once included forty out-buildings, served by a staff of 300. Having burned down in the ’50s, Dungeness is an overgrown stone ruin, with feral horses grazing the circular drive. On Cumberland it felt unbelievable, at a remove of a century, that millionaires had once owned these islands and built sumptuous mansions against their wildness. Nature, on this hot June day, looked highly efficient.

It struck me repeatedly, in my two weeks on Georgia’s isles, how very few places in the world you can go back to a quarter-century later and not feel dislocated by, much less cheated. By and large these islands were actually even improving, and in a curious way, the ones I’d never visited before began to feel as familiar as the ones I’d thought about all these years. I hadn’t realized their natural beauty had left such a strong imprint on me; I’d have said it was my sense of how people lived here. Now I realized I liked them better empty.

It was soothing to bike along a road of sand and crushed oyster shells beneath the arcade of live oaks that runs the length of Cumberland, to take a path through dense woods whiskered with Spanish moss and engulfed by the fierce humming of cicadas in the heat, to see the path eventually open onto mile after mile of beach. I’d remembered right for all these years; I’d remember again.

Friday, June 30, 2000

Kerala

Written in 2000 for National Geographic Traveler

I’d have almost preferred not to go back to India. Over the last twenty years I’d made numerous journeys there, culminating in an exhausting odyssey along one of the most dangerous roads in the world. The book that resulted felt like an entire career; I’d seen most of what I wanted to see; and as much as I loved being among Indians, and the daily pleasures of the culture, I felt done with the place. Despite its perennial problems, India used to be an enchanting country to travel in. Amid the catastrophe of its billion people entering the 21st century, I did not find it so anymore.

The one part I still wanted to see was Kerala, the state at India’s southwestern tip. It is one of the country’s great paradoxes, with a dazed green light that only belongs to Southeast Asia. Its lush “backwaters” are an exalted universe unto themselves: a labyrinth of villages linked by lagoons, lakes, and natural canals whose web extends to a 350-mile coast of sunstruck beaches.

For years I’d heard Indians with all the facts at their fingertips describe Kerala in tones of wonder as a success story—the country’s highest literacy and life expectancy by far, a birth rate even lower than ours, its lowest income yet arguably its highest standard of living—plus a splendor not yet marred by huge, badly ventilated hotels. Skeptical as ever, I wanted to see Kerala for myself. I also hoped it might prove a promising first experience of the country for my wife, KylĂ©e; a yoga teacher, she was already deep in the culture, but had never visited.

At least it would be calm. I knew Kerala held few of India’s usual religious tensions, with Hindus, Muslims, and Christians living amicably together for centuries. Most of the subcontinent had been exposed to the outside world and outside ideas through invaders; along the so-called Spice or Malabar Coast, on the sea route between West and East, the exposure had happened through trade, which tends to be more persuasive.

I put this all together and found myself secretly hoping that Kerala might remind me of the India I first saw decades ago—a quiet, humane countryside full of sustained natural beauty, breathable air, amid a visible architectural past—that I’ve watched rapidly disappear from the rest of the subcontinent. The one guarantee I trusted was the people, who are a constant joy of travel here; for outsiders, the doors to the Indian house are always open.

My first morning in Kerala I awoke to the realization that, unwittingly, I’d saved the best of India for last. I was roused at dawn by devotional music from the Hindu temple just across the lagoon. The day before, we’d drifted to our small hotel—a few bungalows perched by the water—in a carved skiff poled by boatmen, past coconut groves with village houses somewhere among them, following a tropical river. The temple, hidden by palms, lay on a beach which faced both the lagoon and the Arabian Sea. I watched a morning haze lift on a horizon of figures gathering fishing nets as surf unfurled along the outer belt of sand. Nearer, men were doing improbable stretching exercises in time to the music. (“You see?” said my wife. “Their clean diet, amid all this heat, makes for an incredibly flexible body.”)

Those songs, broadcast at all hours, signalled the festival which started that night and lasted several more: ceremonial elephants arrayed on the sands, hot-coal walkers, a cadre of urgent drummers, devotees spinning into a frenzy by torchlight as a golden mask of the god was carried in a palanquin up the beach. When it finally ended, and the lagoon was peaceful once more, I felt stunned and sleep-deprived; but this was the India I’d hoped to see again.

People come to Kerala for different reasons. Some do two monumental weeks in the rest of the country and, exhausted by the guidebook sights, take a few days here to recover, usually on a beach or the backwaters. Others visit Kerala’s prolific spice and rubber plantations, and its wildlife preserves farther inland. Or, like one returning Indian I met who was an electronics executive in Atlanta (“My name’s Hasmukh—just call me Harry!”), you could come here not for the waters, but for an annual ayurvedic tune-up.

“This is like nowhere else in India,” he told me. “You can relax. You can get cured. I’m doing five days of ayurvedic treatment starting tomorrow. Traditional medicine. Herbs, medicated oils, massage, the works. A real Kerala specialty, going back not a few centuries but a few millennia. A friend of mine with a bad back is coming for a whole month of treatment.”

This struck me as a truly strange idea: to leave India healthier than when you arrived. I always expect to fly out with bronchitis. But since the air here seemed clear, what intrigued me more was Kerala’s unmatched, longstanding reputation for several performing arts, especially the epic, gaudy rituals of Kathakali theater. (Unlike most first-rate Indian culture, Kathakali rarely reaches the West.) So I decided on a coastal route south to north, from the area around the state’s capital, Trivandrum, to its most historic trading port, Cochin, with as much time in watery beauty as possible, and plenty of live music and theater along the way.


Much of Kerala lives by fishing. Early one morning I left my bungalow at Lagoona Davina (a resort named for its creator, an adaptable English ex-model) and got poled across the lagoon. I walked beside the Arabian Sea, in gathering sunlight, to a village where boats in yellow, green, white, and blue stripes were pulled up. More were arriving, with weighted nets finer than dental floss, full of glinting fish. It often took twenty men, their heads wound with cloth, to haul a large vessel up the sand. Some boats bore names like St. Thomas, whose purported 1st century visit is spoken of like an eyewitness account. A chaotic wholesale fish market was dominated by women fluttering their hands and bargaining hard, ululating at the male prices. It was seven-thirty, and already very hot. On this beach, at least, despite Kerala’s growing tourism, I was the only foreigner.

This was well outside Trivandrum, a hectic city which most visitors sensibly hurry through to get to its nearby beaches, the alternative to my lagoon. I had a look one day at the most popular of those, Kovallam, which must’ve been gorgeous twenty years ago; it’s now a tourist ghetto of handicraft shops, snack bars, concrete hotels, and saried Indians wading modestly among the daring European bikinis. With luck it will remind the rest of Kerala what should not be allowed to happen.

Trivandrum itself was worth an afternoon. Its art museum was a huge mansion in classic Keralan style: high airy interior, cartoony colors, ornate crossbeams and stained glass. The city had several architectural marvels—a huge temple, a spiralling coffee house like a saffron-stained Guggenheim—and linguistic marvels as well. For years I’ve collected Indian commercial names, and Trivandrum gave me Brilliance College, Hotel Hilten, and Oriental Manures Ltd. This is the India I can never get enough of.

Better yet was a forty-mile side trip to the Padmanabhapuram Palace of Travancore, historically linked to Kerala, now in a neighboring state. This rosewood-and-teak treasure, probably the finest wooden building in the subcontinent, was a royal capital for 400 years. Its sleek white walls, crisscross geometries, and sloping pagoda roofs evoked centuries of happy trading ties with the Chinese; its masterpiece was a dance hall with an insanely polished black floor and sculpted stone pillars crowded with tigers, snakes, lotus blooms, dragons, and barefoot busty maidens cupping oil lamps. I saw in this one site both the Keralan appreciation for foreign ideas, and the natural elegance of its people—both unusual qualities in the subcontinent.


I was trying to learn a few useful phrases of Malayalam, Kerala’s palindrome of a mother tongue, through a typically politicized language book (“Who can live by literacy alone? By reading can anyone fill his mouth and belly? ”). This is the only part of India I know where you can get innocently sandwiched in a teahouse argument about, say, contemporary international fiction, as I was, and find everybody around you passionately taking sides.

“Listen to me. Kundera’s last novel was his best.”

“What do you mean? It was pretentious rubbish. Tell me—yes, you, sir—what is your opinion, please?”

I said, “I’m afraid I haven’t read it yet.”

“Can we be serious for a moment? You are both wrong. The man of the decade is Garcia Marquez. Dispute me if you like.”

“How did you read it? In Malayalam? You cannot get to know a book in translation, my friend, and judge it at all.”

“On the contrary, you avoid the trap of style. As everyone agrees—”

I wasn’t surprised to learn that the principal Malayalam newspaper is the second most widely read in the country, with a circulation of 8 million. Up in Delhi the children beg for rupees; in Kerala they plead for a pen.

And it made perfect sense that this state of avid, argumentative readers was so enthusiastic about other arts. Several evenings at my resort, I’d already been surprised by the high quality of the live music, an experience repeated throughout my journey. Usually it was a violinist, male singer, and mridingam drummer, often accompanying a Mohiniattam dancer of languorous classical gestures, clad in gold and white. This was what Indians themselves loved about Kerala: good art was simply everywhere.

But the eminent magician Professor Muthukad, who started his own Academy of Magical Sciences in order to keep a rich Indian tradition of illusionists alive, surprised me even more.

I saw him perform to a packed house in Trivandrum. With his dark mustache and tough-guy walk he resembled a hero from the melodramatic Bombay cinema, his every move accentuated by glycerine Hindi pop music, but beneath the kitsch he was a fine magician. A Keralite, he performed all over India; he’d soon dazzle New York with his two-hour show of imprisoned maidens galore. He made goddesses appear under a mirrored pyramid; in exotic tableaux he set fire to one slave girl and dismembered another, who talked gaily throughout. He tore India’s biggest film weekly, Screen, into tiny bits and reassembled them—an act of social criticism. My favorite trick was his simplest, when without fuss he made full whiskey bottles multiply like mad from two yellow tubes. He kept vanishing and instantly popping up elsewhere, and he talked more rapidly than anyone on earth.


I was wondering if the backwaters could live up to their promise. Our entry point would be the town of Kottayam. No Indian pleasure is more reliable than its trains, so we made the northward journey there from Trivandrum by rail. For two hours we rattled beside verdant canals, rice fields, and coconut palms—although Kerala is the most densely populated state, it often feels the sparsest, without India’s usual bleak crashing cities.

My wife and I were sharing a compartment with a local railways superintendent who pointed out at every stop that we were “absolutely, rigorously on time, sir.” Though predominantly Hindu, 20% of Kerala’s people are Christian, and when a pastel church flashed past mid-jungle, no village in sight, I mentioned that unusual figure and said, “But from all the churches everywhere you’d guess it was the other way round.”

He smiled proudly. “Back when there were no Christians in ancient Rome, twenty centuries ago, there were already Christians in Kerala.” Like many here, he traced his family faith all the way to Saint Thomas.

Kottayam is a town that thrives on the written word. Its many publishers are inundated by manuscripts from Malayalam novelists, and one house claims to put out a book every day. I was heartily in search of gentle countryside, but first I wanted to visit St. Mary’s, a 16th century church with a rare treasure on its arched ceiling: 99 recessed squares of flowers, birds, and angels’ heads—early, naive Portuguese paintings in vegetable hues, from the era when that country was a power on the subcontinent.

Once inside, I found myself the unexpected guest at a wedding. As fans whirred patiently, the fluorescent lights burned and the dark-frocked priests and video cameramen and the entire congregation chanted along. Two more Indian strangers (in this case, Christians) got hitched, sweaty in their finery, having met only once. Today they wore the shell-shock of a customary arranged marriage, but having seen Indian weddings before and come back to visit later, I knew that next year would probably find them a cozy, expectant pair. “Will they be happy?” the bridegroom’s cousin said to me. “Of course they will be happy. When they get to know each other.”

We were staying a few miles from Kottayam at Coconut Lagoon, a resort entirely of 19th century houses of white stucco and dark teak, “imported” from elsewhere in the state, set in palm groves beside the Vembanad Lake by a long-established local family. (This architecturally faithful and ecologically sound tourism is, in India, the norm only in Kerala, unfortunately.) From here we could make daily expeditions into the backwaters, which are Kerala’s glory.

Soon after dawn the next day we set out on a chugging boat, an updated African Queen, through the misty backwaters. The waterways, 100 feet across, were supported by meticulous stone walls and bordered with trees—hanging creepers, banyan, mango, jackfruit, banana, but mostly palms leaning out to seek sunlight. Men and women were busy in their soapy first ablutions. Butterflies, herons, eagles, ducks, mynahs, cormorants, and snake birds—darters with serpentine necks—patrolled everywhere. Paths led along both sides: a fish vendor on a bicycle, a paper boy striding swiftly to keep up with us, grinning, waving.

The boat chugged beneath plank bridges. At times the backwater became choked with the hyacinth pads that proliferate like beautiful weeds, clogging traffic—a fisherman, paddling home after a night’s work, followed gratefully in the larger boat’s cleared wake. I liked getting around Kerala this way rather than by car; for one thing, other boats are never plowing straight at you. These so-called backwaters may follow a main road and divide a village or town with its bakery, primary school, fabric and jewelry shops, market, temples, churches, pharmacy, YMCA, “typewriting institute” (five cents per page, no mistakes, no waiting), occasionally even a satellite dish. The house architecture was often grand: curved arches, starry lattice-work, and always sloping tile roofs.

Here, too, were bars with hammer-and-sickle posters on the faded walls—Kerala had the world’s first elected Communist government, in 1957—and the elaborate remains of stone gates guarded by sculpted lions or a silver statue of Jesus shaded by a sun-umbrella. The canal kept opening to lesser canals, with locks for controlling the water level, sacred cows asleep like bookends, children paddling a tiny skiff to school, men immersing themselves then surfacing with armfuls of dark silt to use as fertilizer. Vast ricefields stretched away in Mondrian blocks. It was all in reverse, a puzzle-world of water irrigated by orderly fingers of land.

The ultimate way to enjoy the backwaters, I found, was to stay a night or two on a converted kettuvallam, a gliding Kerala cargo boat traditionally used for transporting, say, thirty tons of rice. It looks awkward—a giant eggshell of coir-rope (made from local coconuts) knotted on a web of bamboo and covered with closely-woven thatch. Flaps lift like wings on each side, letting in light but not heat. In recent years the dormant trade of constructing them has bounced back, due to visitors. My wife and I boarded right at Coconut Lagoon, and were surprised how comfortable and spacious the kettuvallam was: two suites with enormous beds, modern bathrooms, and a salon near the bow open to breezes.

The point is not to get anywhere, but to drift languidly through ethereal beauty. It was astonishingly romantic to watch sunset from one kettuvallam among several, while the three boatmen set out hanging lanterns and a pearly glow faded behind the scrim of palms. Dinner was an abundant eleven platters of Keralan cuisine, built around subtly spiced fresh fish. As the coconut islands darkened, the shimmering water doubled the infinite heaventree of stars. Waking at dawn we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of fishermen’s skiffs on immense Lake Vembanad. It was like time travel, into a quiet morning of another century which I was reluctant to leave.


An oil lamp is lit, and two vocalists begin chanting a verse above the hammer-and-tongs of percussionists. The arrival of actors is unearthly: when a god appears, the audience may prostrate themselves. There are bursts of argument, brandished swords, leaping, to-and-froing with the hands in dispute, harsh imprecations and threats of disembowelling. The actors’ faces, hands, and bodies are elastic, alive to every gesture in the chanted text as the warlike percussion batters on.

Kathakali (“story/movement”) is a unique Keralan performance art that developed in recent centuries out of ancient Sanskrit theater, though it has as much dance as acting in it. Performances are often free and may last all night, usually presented in the open air by Hindu temples that hire a Kathakali troupe. The plays’ texts come from the two Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

The effect is hypnotic, powerful, and even terrifying, because the performers loom overhead and at times leave the stage to cut a swathe through the rapt, swaying crowd, who part for the swordplay—the figures now storming at each other, now elegantly dancing, now brooding, now bathing in an enemy’s blood. The actors themselves do not speak any lines. It’s like watching performers act out The Iliad while Homer’s verse is proclaimed in ancient Greek; naturally, a great deal of the experience gets missed if you have no grasp of the language.

I saw the greatest Kathakali troupe perform at the impressive open-sided theater of the state Kalamandalam School in Cheruthuruthy, north of Cochin, having spent an afternoon watching master classes in theater, dance, and music. Students (from age thirteen) live at the school; the rigorous classes begin before dawn. Because Kathakali is hard on the body, and can take ten years to master—every actor learns all the roles—it’s traditionally been an all-male art, though there’s now a female troupe performing throughout Kerala.

All that practice, all those exercises, are designed to transmit the nuances of character through the extraordinary costumes and makeup which announce the broader outlines. The elaborate masklike makeup is applied by specialists, and involves geometric paper cutouts, fringed and folded and pasted-on. The costumes are gigantic encasements. These preparations take about five hours, as the performers gradually become mythical characters.

Tourists usually see a highly abbreviated performance, which makes sense, as so much is inevitably lost on a foreign audience. It can still be a powerful, primal experience, and because Kathakali is done in an intimate space, the kings and gods are only a few feet away. To see one victoriously pulling out cotton strips of an enemy’s entrails, and laughing in triumph while covering a maiden (played by a man) with them, is to realize that the scope of theater is far wider than you ever thought. At the end, there was a delightful moment of healing calm when Krishna renounced the savage blood-frenzy—the god bringing humanity back to man after the madness of war—and it was as eloquently expressed in Kathakali, with all the forgiveness, the amused, rueful benevolence of the god, as I have ever seen it.


Long this coast’s busiest port, Cochin—Kerala’s northern hub and most important city—has three parts, linked by bridges and frequent ferryboats: mainland Ernakulam, British-era Willingdon Island, and the earlier, evocative Fort Cochin, where we stayed. There a pink and yellow architectural past of hopeful colonizers survives in grand Dutch and Portuguese townhouses and stately churches (Vasco da Gama was buried in one), and in the airy British layout of private club, solemn residences, and cricket pitch.

The loveliest part of Fort Cochin was Jew Town, a traditional quarter of shuttered houses in ghost-shades of once-audacious blues, greens, and ochres, often with a Star of David worked into the grillwork of a window. Jew Town’s 16th century synagogue was the earliest in the British Commonwealth, but Jews were already long settled in Cochin. Many old houses are now antique shops aimed cannily at foreign tourists, and the quarter remains the nerve center of Kerala’s spice commerce.

The Jewish Synagogue was, oddly, both simple and lavish, with a white plank ceiling and plain walls, ornate hanging lamps, and 1100 Chinese blue and white floor tiles. Services are still held on Fridays and Saturdays for a dwindling community, but I was there early in the week, so on the advice of the Indian synagogue-guide I waited around one afternoon with a few other visitors to meet an elderly, small-boned man of pale complexion who sometimes stopped by. At first he was hesitant to talk (“We are not animals in a zoo!”) and when I asked his name he said only, “Nameless,” with a faint smile.

“The Nameless Jew,” I said. “My relatives, too. In the war.”

At this he thawed. “There are fifteen of us left here. Only three are young, like you. What will be the future? I don’t know. Whoever is left will decide. There are five thousand Jews in India—lots up in Bombay. This is the oldest location, but eventually it will be over here. And the truth is, we have never been persecuted. Not in two thousand years. This is the only country in the world where that is so. Not once—only by the Portuguese. But never by Indians.”

With the few other visitors standing around, he opened ornate doors to reveal a silver-clad Torah, containing the five books of Moses, and a gold crown, a gift of the local maharajah back in 1805. “You see?” he said. “We were always welcome here.”

That tolerance made Kerala special in India—the worldly tolerance of traders who’d seen the value of their spices rise and fall across many generations. Around the corner, in an old house filled with mountains of fragrant ginger, a dapper man told me with a shrug, “The classical importance of Cochin in spices has gone. You don’t need to actually come here to trade now, because of telephones and roads. The best cardamom in the world comes from Kerala, but the South American price is half ours, so we can’t compete—we sell it only locally.”

“Does spice run in your family?”

“So far, yes. My great-grandfather started this business fifty years ago. I’ve been at it twenty-seven years. Some Jews sold this building to a coir-merchant, then I bought it from him.” Behind him a painting of Christ hung on the lustrous blue walls. “Years ago there were sixty spice merchants like me in Jew Town. Now, about ten. We sell ginger, betel nuts, turmeric, and black pepper especially, mostly to Europe and the Arabian Gulf.”

I saw his speculating colleagues in action upstairs in the venerable Indian Pepper & Spice Trade Association Building. In an air-conditioned room with a polished floor, two dozen booths—each with a fan and several phones—were manned by forty brokers in pepper futures. They cursed, they napped, they gesticulated theatrically and shouted like wrestlers at close range. (All were barefoot, a rule I shall suggest to the New York Stock Exchange the next time I get invited.) Volcanic eruptions of energy linking buyer to seller via these amiable middlemen would subside just as quickly, while a woman in a red sari came and went, talking of Kerala’s condiment.

Here, I thought, were past and present reconciled, in a room of spice traders bickering on cell phones while those lush backwaters were a mere hour and a century away. I’d been right to come back. I hoped Kerala’s genius for subsistence, which in India looks almost like prosperity, would survive—and that its coconut palms would multiply faster than its hotels.

Sunday, March 5, 2000

Antigua & Chichicastenango

Written in 2000 for the New York Times Magazine

So much of travel is an experience of time. We rely on certain places to give us a portrait of the past, and on our imaginations to summon up what’s missing and shut out what doesn’t belong. This is why a Venice is rare: a place seemingly so well-preserved, so complete, that we can enjoy the illusion of walking around in another century.

And why, for a decade, I’d wanted to go back to Antigua, the colonial city rimmed by volcanos in Guatemala’s highlands. Once one of three Spanish capitals of the New World, Antigua was so repeatedly shattered by earthquakes that during the late 18th century it got evacuated and abandoned by government edict. Throughout the last century it has crawled back to life. Many ruins were repaired and rebuilt; writers like Aldous Huxley, visiting before World War II on the heels of a small expatriate community, recounted in impassioned tones (“one of the most romantic cities in the world”) its baroque splendor and half-devastated beauty.

During Guatemala’s recently ended 36-year civil war, the most brutal in the hemisphere, Antigua retained a magnificence and relative calm that still attracted visitors. Rather like a Guatemalan Krakow, Antigua held out as the heart of the country’s intellectual and cultural life, with plenty of museums, concerts, galleries, bookstores, and language schools. (It’s also within easy reach of Chichicastenango, the highlands town with a huge, age-old biweekly Mayan market.) I visited in 1990 for a few days and, like many foreigners, considered staying for months to rent a room inexpensively and study Spanish. But I moved on.

Now, having recently returned, I can think of no other city, not even Venice, where the architectural past is so enveloping and the present so easily held at bay. Antigua was as graceful as I remembered: a stately, walkable Spanish dream of lavish 18th century houses—block after dignified block of red or yellow, gray or green or blue stucco walls like rinds of seared fruit, with modest balconies and formal white moldings and tiled roofs. As if confirming the propriety of the secluded life within, their wooden doors are massive, bigger than horse-carriages, with knockers shaped like lions’ heads, pointed shields, arcing fish, or hands. Cars are forced to roll slowly along the uneven, immaculate cobblestoned streets, and no billboards or shop signs are allowed. One day in Antigua made me realize how much a modern fatigue that we take for granted is simply visual overload.

At the end of every street rose the slopes of volcanos, now plumed in mists, now glittering green in broad sunlight, looming like a false threat when for centuries the true danger has relentlessly come from below—from the uncertain, tremor-prone ground. It could be an allegory of Guatemala’s tragic politics, that the very earth might swallow up anyone’s life without warning.

But that danger seemed in the past. As a French travel agent who has lived in Antigua for over a decade pointed out to me, there’s now even a Guatemalan middle class. “And for people in the capital, Antigua has become the chic weekend spot. It’s driven the house rentals crazy. To buy a large old house is now a million dollars, because there’s nowhere like Antigua, and it’s only a square mile. Then after you buy the house it’s impossible to change it. You want to put a new doorway in an old wall? Forget it.”


As Friday afternoon waned, I sat in the Plaza Mayorbeneath purple jacaranda trees and watched the gentle promenade of the town, infinitely more relaxed than on my first visit. A band of brass, clarinets, and drums took their time between numbers; later they were replaced by a marimba orchestra who kept fizzing well after dark. Indians (the women in striped dresses and baggy blouses) stood in line outside the banks, whose tellers must be among the most sluggish in the world.

Guatemalans are a beautiful people—the Mayans more than the ladinos of primarily Spanish blood. Built low to the ground, they trot along at top speed with no effort, often with a pot or a load of blankets balanced impossibly on their heads, walking faster than everyone else, awkward in their posture but with stolid purpose. Their faces are open, with much inward delight and the struggle well masked. It seemed evident that the two peoples have always moved at two different tempi.

Everyone met on equal footing in Antigua’s hub, that plaza with its columned arcades, cathedral, cafes, and municipal nerve center. In recent years all the street lights have become 19th century-style lampposts, faithfully copied, like the lanterns hung from hotels, restaurants, and private homes. The result, as night fell, was that the shadows belonged to another age; the lamps came alive, as if upon a classic novel into which modern people and their ghostlike motorcars trespassed.

I saw the original lamps in the Colonial Museum, right on the square, along with a collection of cannons, pistols, and the busty stone mermaids lopped off the central fountain in the last century and later replaced. There were also crossbows, drums, rifles, spears, and arrows—pride in violence, and pride in the history of Guatemala (independent since 1821, over a dozen revolutions in the 20th century alone).

Next door a Museum of the Book contained an early edition of Don Quixote and volumes made here on the first printing press in the New World (1660), whose replica resembles a fiendish torture device. Many were treatises or grammars of indigenous languages, like the Maya, whose books the Spanish conquistadores had systematically destroyed. (To paraphrase Huxley: I can appreciate irony on my own, I do not need to have it underlined for me.)

Beyond the printed story there was anecdote. Many families have been here for many generations, and tales from before the 1773 earthquake and Antigua’s abandonment still circulate.

“Oh, there are a lot of stories,” an amateur historian named Hector told me. “Centuries ago there was a count in Antigua. Very important, always coming and going, because back in those days Guatemala wasn’t what it is today, no sir, it went from Chiapas in Mexico all the way through El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua to Costa Rica. Anyway, the count had a wife of considerable beauty. And whenever he was away he left her in the care of a servant—not another woman, but a butler. Eventually, you know, there was an understanding between the lady of the house and the butler. One day the count came back from his adventures and surprised them in the middle of, well, their own adventures. So the count got his men to open one wall as if for a cupboard, and he had the butler walled in. Alive.” He paused to savor this solution. “This was in a house right on the square, that’s now the Cafe Condesa, in the back. We always used to hear the story, just like many ghost stories Antigua is full of. Very dubious history, of course. So some of us were surprised a few years ago when the owners were doing repairs on the cafe. They had to open up a wall, and what did they find? A skeleton, my friend, buried in the wall. Standing up.”

The 18th century Antigua that survives is on a smaller scale than the 16th century original, for the early massive earthquakes made clear that those grand, Madrid structures were untenable. A typical story was the Church of El Merced, my favorite—a gigantic yellow wedding cake decorated in white icing, with children playing soccer among tortilla-women on its square. Its history summarizes Antigua. Construction begun in 1548; ruined by a huge earthquake in 1717. After years of restoration, another massive quake in 1773. Then centuries of neglect. Now mostly rebuilt, in the still-shattered arcade of its convent stands the biggest fountain in Central America—nude angels containing the waters—with bougainvillaea grown cunningly into the broken walls above.

Those earthquakes had never halted the appeal of the many-domed Church of San Francisco, one of the largest in Antigua, similarly destroyed and rebuilt but with one chapel which never closed. It is devoted to a beatified 17th century Franciscan monk named Pedro, buried within awaiting sainthood, who still attracts pilgrims praying for his aid. On display are his tattered clothes, the skull he used “for meditating on death,” and a pile of wooden crutches no longer needed by those “who received favors.”


These days most foreigners came to stay for weeks on end, studying Spanish; Antigua was full of young Europeans getting, say, thirty hours of private language studies a week for around sixty bucks. Some were from the USA, but unfortunately a lot of visitors from the States were still fighting a war.

This was for the religious loyalties of the Guatemalans, who have (depending on their background) a vast array of surviving Indian beliefs and also their own peculiar version of Catholicism, which incorporates an elaborate set of Mayan images. You’d think the centuries-old confluence of these two rivers would be enough, but a relentless North American stream of evangelists and “bridge-builders” from the Christian right were determined to divert and convert wherever possible. As on my last visit, I kept running into hordes of these self-satisfied do-gooders in sensible shoes, wielding their pamphlets and maps—a United Fruit Company of the soul. In the phone book for this part of Guatemala alone I counted six columns of such organizations; the result was a sign you might see in Antigua windows, saying in Spanish:

WE DO NOT ACCEPT HOUSE CALLS AND PROPAGANDA

One expatriate I could admire left his house open to the public. This was the Casa Popenoe, dating from 1632, the result of a love affair with Guatemala by an agronomist, Wilson Popenoe, and his wife Dorothy, an archaeologist who authored the first guidebook to Antigua and died young. (Their daughters occupy the house.) Louis Adamic wrote a happy 1937 memoir of an extended sojourn there that details how the house, one of the oldest in Antigua, was carefully restored by the Popenoes after they bought it as a ruin in 1929.

It is built typically around an inner patio whose calm garden is ruled by a great tree and bowl-like fountain and linked to smaller courtyards, their white walls lined with a superb collection of old bowls and tiles. The austere bedrooms, the library and salons, are full of colonial portraits and grave carved furniture. I clambered up spiral stairs to Popenoe’s study, a remnant of the colonial-era mail service—formerly a carrier-pigeon coop, with 115 bird nooks. Then onto the roof, with an all-embracing view of Antigua and its brooding volcanos swathed in mists and green forest. No wonder Adamic had felt he was in a writer’s heaven.


Chichicastenango is a highlands town of 5,000, clinging to its hills a couple of hours’ drive northwest of Antigua. I went, like so many foreigners, for its monumental Thursday and Sunday market, which takes over the small main square between two churches and becomes a dense metropolis of stalls shaded by plastic tarps on rough wood poles. The market is sometimes sniffily described as touristic, but this is a peripheral view, for only the outer stalls are for foreigners—weavings, statues, pottery, and masks. (The specialty of each strolling Mayan girl was tiny prayer dolls for children to tell their worries to, crowded into a box the size of her palm.) One morning delight was to see visitors turning themselves into porters, lopsiding through the market muttering "Permeso," with sacks of newly-bought blankets cradled on their backs.

It is best to attack a market like this with a purpose. To decide you cannot live, say, without a jaguar mask allows you to disregard the lion, devil, quetzal, deer, monkey, dog, crocodile, cock, horse, wolf, conquistadore, parrot, bull, Moor, and cow masks. Certainly the quality has gone down with more visitors; virtually none of those masks had ever seen ceremonial use, and there was a better selection in Antigua, which wasn’t the case a decade ago.

But most of the Chichi market, as always, is aimed at locals. I penetrated it by one lane of stalls and immediately there were no more woven bedspreads but rather the thread to make them with, and multitudes of household items: oranges, batteries in all sizes, coffee, live chickens, rope, watermelon slices, cassettes blaring competitively, a crowded restaurant with no white faces.

Men were always pushing their way through the throng, mostly Indians as small as a child (or even, dauntingly, children) doubled over, staggering resolutely forward with an organized mountain of clay pots in a nylon net on their backs. Many Guatemalan men, carrying nothing, still walk in a forward slump, as if a weight has been lifted but they can’t enjoy or even feel its absence. You come away from this country with a renewed admiration for what a determined back can bear.

Every now and then the steady market chatter was punctuated by a barrage of firecrackers; the trick was that if you suddenly saw children nearby running away, it was best to run with them.

I took a brief walk from the market square to the cemetery. It was visible from much of Chichi and made a kind of rainbow town unto itself, packed onto a ridge. Some large graves were stucco versions of churches but in bright colors; among them were simpler Mayan graves, mounds of earth surmounted by a cross with a name; others were cairns of fire-blackened rocks. Before a few graves, fires were lit among freshly-laid flowers, and women and men swung censers, spewing fumes. Rites were intoned by the professional worshippers and repeated by family members. Behind the cemetery the hillsides of pines fanned out above the town.

The larger of the square’s two churches, Santo Tomas, was immensely touching. Past women selling bunches of flowers, up a series of Mayan steps—for the church was created around 1540 on the site of an ancient temple—through a side door, as was proper, I entered a sanctuary full of people. The air was dense with incense, the scent of burnt offerings, the souls of the dead, and the weight of deeply felt prayers. Small stone slabs covered with burning candles received flower petals and ash under the ministrations of chuchkajaues, Quiche Maya prayer men, while a cofrade (an elder, not a priest) led the Catholic service at the back, where the white-walled church ended in muscular carved altars of dark wood inset with old statues and intense paintings.

The force of this strange alliance, between the rituals of the Mayan past and Catholicism with its passionate sense of blood suffering, was overwhelming. At this church a Spanish friar around 1702 at the last minute discovered the extraordinary manuscript, now lost, of the Popol Vuh, the Quiche creation myth, secretly written down in the 1550s in the Roman alphabet. Fortunately the friar translated it into Spanish, and saved it for the world.


Back in Antigua, I decided to get my horoscope mapped by a Mayan priestess named Rosa Maria Cabrera, a “bundle-gatherer,” one of about two hundred such worldwide, designated by elders. I found her when I stepped into a Spanish language school near the plaza to investigate prices; she had a kind of apartment-office off the courtyard. It was impossible even for a skeptic like myself not to take her seriously—a striking, dark-haired woman in her late forties with enormous energy, who spoke very eloquently about the mystic tradition she was part of. Indeed, she was rarely here, but usually off in the countryside.

Rosa Maria kept a replica of a Mayan altar, a room of masks, crosses, and statues, as a way of explaining to people the tradition in what she does—“so there’s no confusion between witchcraft, which is what the Catholics accused us of, and the reality, which is to venerate the four elements of earth, air, fire, water. These are equally represented in the Mayan cross, which unlike the Christian cross, is evenly balanced.” A day later she produced my astral chart in terms of the Mayan calendar; it included an accounting of the nawales (protective spirits) with me since birth and, alas, an accurate description of my character.

Not a day has gone by since I first visited Antigua when, at home, I have not thought of the place—largely because of the old masks I brought back in 1990. I purchased many of them from a Guatemalan of German background, Gwendolyn Ritz, who ran a shop in Antigua called the Casa de Artes which has been the best such for many decades. I learned, sadly, that she had drowned a few years ago; her granddaughter Karla runs the shop now, and keeps up the family practice of giving lectures on traditional arts and crafts in the schools.

Karla had mixed feelings about Antigua’s newfound chic. “We’ve become a fashionable city. So anyone from the capital with money wants to rent a house here. And they don’t necessarily see it the way we locals do—as a cultural patrimony that we have to look after with great care.”

The pall of violence was off Guatemala now, but Antigua remained much as I remembered, full of glorious ruins awaiting repair. The town’s restoration will probably never be finished, and its poignant magic comes from this. Everywhere you walk, in virtually every block (the Mayans hurrying past), you are reminded how vulnerable are the works of man, that nothing can ultimately withstand the whims of the earth—certainly not the architecture of empires.