Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks

Before we went to Cuba, I had been intending to read Oliver Sacks' Oaxaca Journal. I had it sitting on my desk for an unreasonably long amount of time. I brought it with me with the vague idea that I might read it, and it turned out to be an excellent choice. It's not very long and it is, like anything I have ever read by Sacks, a very engaging read. The man is brilliant at both observation and at making his observations accessible to the masses in writing.

On the third page, this stuck out for me, as I was enjoying the rarefied atmosphere of an all-inclusive, five-star resort:

How crucial it is to see other cultures, to see how special, how local they are, how un-universal one's own is.

We stayed at a resort, but the last time I was in Cuba I didn't. And this time we did get out to see a [surprisingly] large portion of the countryside for a day. I always have this uncomfortable feeling about traveling as a tourist anywhere. Especially Cuba, because I frankly adore the ideal of the place (there is food, shelter, education and medical care for every single Cuban, and what a necessary thing) but I also recognize that there are significant major problems with the way the system actually works. I dislike what the American government has done to Cuba, but I'm not sure that as a Canadian tourist I'm all that much better, coming to gawk at the wonderful old buildings and romanticize Castro's Revolution. I don't know how to feel about a place where everyone has the basics for a good life but they don't have the freedom to travel the way I do, or read the way I do, or express their own views the way I do. I don't know the answers, and it does trouble me. Especially because I do love Cuba so much, and the time I spent there this time didn't lessen that (I have an acute case of wanting to be in Cuba all the time now). It adds tension to what would otherwise be a really lovely, relaxing vacation. But I'm glad I have that tension.

All of that said, Cuban culture is completely, completely different from Canadian culture and there's a lot to be said for it, and how is it my place to condemn a way of life that I have very limited understanding of? And that is what the quote above reminded me to be aware of, that obnoxious colonial tendency to try to evaluate and "fix" cultures that are different from our own.

Mexico has different problems, the main being the massive amounts of poverty and governmental corruption. Sacks doesn't dwell on this but he does give it a mention. And it's nice to see the same sort of ambiguity I have about traveling to places as a relatively wealthy tourist, just expressed from a different angle and much more eloquently than I could. It was somewhat comforting to read, not because it resolved any of my thoughts but because it did clarify them somewhat, and made me relax a little knowing that I'm not alone.

All right, that's probably enough angst. On to the book itself:

The things Sacks has to say about Oaxaca are fascinating, and now I would very much like to go to that area myself (tourist-guilt aside). We get glimpses of his travel companions, and the novelty of traveling with a group of naturalists. Make no mistake -- it's a novelty. I really enjoy it, myself. There is something great about being able to shout excitement about a bird to a bus full of people and have them scramble all over eachother to get to the windows to see for themselves. In any other case, your fellow passengers would stare at their books or their shoes in embarrassment for you and hope for your sake that you keep quiet next time. But Sacks captures the thrilled naturalist-tourists quite well.

The journal is, as I suppose I should have expected, even more personal than his memoir. There were points where I was occasionally even a little uncomfortable with how personal it was, because I don't like to pry into other living people's thoughts (despite what some of my readers might think). It's not that he says anything specifically -- it's just that put all together, and probably because I have also recently read Uncle Tungsten, one gets a much fuller picture of Sacks than I was expecting, and sometimes it make me wonder if he realized quite how much of himself he was exposing.

Overall, a highly recommended book, for anyone at all because it's so quick and easy to read. But especially for anyone who is traveling to Mexico or Latin America, or anyone interested in ferns, nature or culture. I'm curious now to see about some of the others in the National Geographic's literary writers on travel series, of which Oaxaca Journal is part.

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