Libresca (adj.): Bookish

No photos of me reading in South America, so here's one of me reading "The Poisonwood Bible" while waiting for our flight to Kenya from Tanzania.

No photos of me reading in South America, so here’s one of me reading “The Poisonwood Bible” while waiting for our flight to Kenya from Tanzania.

As a little girl, it often happened that my parents would suddenly realize I wasn’t behind them and look anxiously around, only to watch bemusedly as I crossed a busy street with my face partially covered with a book. I hid my own books (which varied from Goosebumps to Roald Dahl to books of poetry) in textbooks or open under my desk at school, so that formal education wouldn’t interfere with my own literary one. As a teenager, one of the biggest beefs I had with my stepmother was our inability to see eye to eye on whether or not it was acceptable to read throughout dinner, regardless of whether we were at home or at a restaurant. As a freshman moving into my first dorm, I brought with me more books than clothes. As an adult, my friends consider me a lending library without late fees. From the day I wrenched Go, Dogs, Go! out of my father’s hands to read it myself till now, books have been one of my main connections to the world outside my little insulated piece of it. A look inside my head would reveal that I carry with me the characters of books I’m reading, the words of authors I’ve loved, the stories that have had some kind of impact on me. The words of others have always had the power to anchor me to the present, entice me back into the murkiness of my own memories, or vault me into a barely imagined future.

There are many, many things I love about reading but one of the most interesting is how someone else’s story, whether real or imagined, can help you understand your own personal experiences in rich and unexpected ways. Before I ever set foot on a plane or in a foreign country, books were my passage to worlds I had never imagined, lives I could not have related to beforehand, ways of thinking that pushed up against mine like an opposing magnet. Now that I’ve actually been to different parts of the world, certain books have allowed me to delve deeper into whatever country or culture I found myself observing and, hopefully, participating in. The first time I truly felt this was when I read Ngugi wa’ Thiongo’s novel Petals of Blood* whilst on safari in Kenya, which is where the book is set. On the same trip, I also read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and I felt my heart break as it opened itself up to a new and painful understanding of the White Man’s parasitic influence and history in Africa. Since I’ve been in South America, I’ve made a point of trying to read books that I felt would add some depth to my travels and I can’t believe the poignancy and absolute fucking perfection of some of the books I’ve read paired with the moments, places, and frames of mind in which I’ve read them.

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I think it is a good idea to know a little history about the country you’ll be visiting, to be an informed tourist. It gives you context, a frame of reference. It helps you understand the whys and hows and WTFs that so often accompany traveling to new places. For this reason I decided to read Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy, a history of the Americas that arcs from the creation myths of the ancient civilizations to the conquest (in Genesis) to independence (in Faces and Masks) to nationalization and the civil wars and military dictatorships of the 20th century (in Century of the Wind). It is written in a way that appeals to the fiction reader who does not usually pick history books off the shelf. Instead of the dry and lengthy texts one usually expects, Galeano tells this particular history in the form of short “stories” or anecdotes, usually no more than a page or two long. Each one concerns an event, idea, or person that makes up the patchwork of Latin American history.

His words and images came to me often: while visiting the Museo de Oro* in Bogotá, for example, or while picking my way through volcanic rocks to La Lobería on San Cristóbal, or most devastatingly in the Guayasamín* museum in Quito. It made each place I visited seem like more than just a static place in time, one place in one moment in which I (one person) was visiting. Suddenly it was like I was standing in one place, the present, while being given the gift of simultaneously looking behind me into the past. These were histories I had never heard of. Genocides and triumphs, violations and acts of heroism that were suppressed in the institutionalized practice of omission and hypocrisy that is grade school American History. Sometimes I would get so angry reading these accounts that I would have to close the book, feeling ashamed of the lengths to which my country has gone in order to secure its own success at the expense of others (mainly South and Central America). But that is exactly why I read. I want to know things that pain me so that I can better understand and empathize with the reality of the people I meet and the places I travel to. In this case, ignorance is not bliss, but blatant irresponsibility.


While reading this trilogy (which is wonderful and I recommend it, though it is not exactly a page-turner), I began to read other books that had been sitting on my reading lists for who knows how long. Possibly the most important of the whole trip was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. This is Strayed’s account of her own solo three-month hike on the Pacific Coast Trail, which stretches across the coastal United States, from Northern Mexico to Canada. I picked it up because I had read some essays of Cheryl’s, but I was not in any way prepared for how much it would resonate with me. Despite the fact that the impetus for her journey was to find some escape and relief from the traumas of death, divorce, and addiction while mine was only to escape ennui and days spent in a job I despised, it was the fact that we were both women traveling alone, searching for something we could not define, that spoke to me.

Sometimes I would be reading and it would be as if her words had torn themselves away from their embryonic siamese twin in my head. At other times her words of strength and resilience and power would come back to me in moments of anxiety, like some enchanted mantra designed to keep me from submitting to weakness.

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.

These words, Strayed’s words, forced themselves through a fog of worry as I sat at the back of a twenty-five cent colectivo full of rough-looking men which was supposedly heading to the Peruvian/Ecuadorean border. While having a minor panic attack 80 feet below the waves off the coast of the Galápagos island of San Cristóbal*, these words wrapped around me like a warm current (or like peeing in your wetsuit): “I only felt that in spite of all the things I’d done wrong, in getting myself here, I’d done right”, and my panic faded. When she spoke of how laughably ill-prepared she was for her trek, I could think only of my own lack of preparation when I started out on my hike through the Colombian jungle north of Santa Marta, in search of the Ciudad Perdida, with all the right gear and none of the necessary experience. Perhaps most importantly of all, it was in this book that I first read the poem* excerpt that I later tattooed on my shoulder in Cuenca:

When I had no roof, I made audacity my roof.

I have learned what Cheryl learned: while traveling alone, you find that you yourself are capable of so much more than you had ever imagined.


Into the Wild was a book I had been meaning to read for a very long time. I had seen the movie so I knew the gist of it: man v. wild; wild wins. But it was the main character, Christopher McCandless’, desire for freedom and the unknown that called me to read it while on my own travels. Although I admire much of what McCandless accomplished, I took this book as more of a warning than anything else. His story, though it also includes moments of the kind of transcendence and self-fulfillment that so many travel books do, is ultimately a reflection of the darker side of travel. So much of traveling is absolute wonder, but there are infinite opportunities for things to go wrong, sometimes fatally so.

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.

This book reminded me that though I may feel free, I am not invulnerable to accident, to malice. I have a responsibility to do everything within my power to deny the “siren song of the void” and come back to the people who are waiting for me.


Another old picture. Bringin’ booknerd sexy back.

Reading allows you to live the lives of other people who have had similar experiences to yours, to learn from their mistakes and successes. For me, reading these and other books during this time has augmented my travels in a way I don’t believe anything else could have. There have been moments while reading, on a bus from here to there, on a bench on the malecón in San Cristóbal, while lying in a hammock with a Pilsener within reach, where I have laughed out loud to read something that so closely mirrored, explained, or otherwise encapsulated my own experiences. I don’t expect everyone to understand this post, to be able to relate. There are people to whom reading is akin to breathing or eating, there would be no life without it. It is to those people that I am writing this blog, although I hope everyone else will take something from it as well. But there is one thing that I think anyone can understand: reading the stories of others who have led or are leading similar lives to yours… it helps you feel less alone when the sheer size and force of the world seems just a little too overwhelming.

*Click these links to see the blog entries where they are discussed more in depth.

Guayasamín and Galeano Tell the Story of the Indígenas

In exchange for the skins, the Indians get weapons to kill each other, or die in the wars between Englishmen and Frenchmen who dispute their lands. The Indians also get firewater, which turns the toughest warrior into skin and bone, and diseases more devastating than the worst snowstorms (Faces and Masks, Eduardo Galeano: 1717: Dupas Island, The Founders).

“Tears of Blood”

According to Le Jeune, they do not like working, but they delight in inventing lies. They know nothing of art, unless it be the art of scalping enemies. They are vengeful: for vengeance they eat lice and worms and every bug that enjoys human flesh. They are incapable, Biard shows, of understanding any abstract idea. According to Brébeuf, the Indians cannot grasp the idea of hell. They have never heard of eternal punishment. When Christians threaten them with hell, the savages ask: And will my friends be there in hell? (1717: Dupas Island, Portrait of the Indians)

Photo Credit: Raising Miro

[The Indians] recognize themselves in Jesus, who was condemned without proof, as they are; but they adore the cross not as a symbol of his immolation, but because the cross has the shape of the fruitful meeting of rain and soil (1774: San Andrés Itzapan, Dominus Vobiscum)

Photo Credit: El Proyecto Matriz

Absence is punished with eight lashes, but the Mass offends the Mayan gods and that has more power than fear of the thong. Fifty times a year, the Mass interrupts work in the fields, the daily ceremony of communion with the earth. For the Indians, accompanying step by step the corn’s cycle of death and resurrection is a way of praying; and the earth, that immense temple, is their day-to-day testimony to the miracle of life being reborn. For them all earth is a church, all woods a sanctuary (1775: Guatemala City, Sacraments).

Photo Credit: El Proyecto Matriz

Count Buffon says…that the Indians, cold as serpents, have no soul, nor fire for females. Voltaire, too, speaks of hairless lions and men, and Baron Montesquieu explains that warm countries produce despicable peoples. Abbé Guillaume Raynal is offended because in America mountain ranges extend from north to south instead of from east to west as they should, and his Prussian colleague Corneille de Pauw portrays the American Indian as a flabby, degenerate beast. According to de Prauw, the climate over there leaves animals sickly and without tails; the women are so ugly that they are confused with men; and the sugar has no taste, the coffee no aroma (1780: BolognaClavijero Defends the Accursed Lands).

Photo Credit: Final Portfolio

José Antonio de Areche, representative of the king of Spain (as he interrogates and torches Túpac Amaru): Deny it!… You have promised freedom … The heretics have taught you the evil arts of contraband. Wrapped in the flag of freedom, you brought the crudest of tyrannies. (Walks around the figure bound to the rack.) “They treat us like dogs,” you said. “They skin us alive,” you said. But did you by any chance even pay tribute, you and your fellows? You enjoyed the privilege of using arms and going on horseback. You were always treated as a Christian of pure-blooded lineage! We gave you the life of a white man and you preached race hatred. We, your hated Spaniards, have taught you to speak. And what did you say? “Revolution!” We taught you to write, and what did you write? “War!”…. You have laid Peru waste. Crimes, arson, robberies, sacrileges… You and your terrorist henchmen have brought hell to these provinces…. How many thousands of deaths have you caused, you sham emperor? How much pain have you inflicted on the invaded lands?…. The Incas… No one has treated the Indians worse (1781: CuzcoSacramental Ceremony in the Torture Chamber).

Photo Credit: Latin American Art

According to the bishops, pulque is to blame for laziness and poverty and brings idolatry and rebellion. Barbarous vice of a barbarous people, says one of the king’s officers. Under the effect of the maguey’s heavy wine, he says, the child denies the father and the vassal his lord (1785: Mexico City, Pulque).


The mulatto Ambrosio, who belongs to the commander Nieva y Castillo, was denounced to the authorities for having committed the crime of learning to read and write. They flayed his back with lashes as a lesson to those pen-pushing Indians and mulattos who wish to ape Spaniards (1804: CatamarcaAmbrosio’s Sin).


Great fortunes in a few hands, thought Mariano Moreno, are stagnant waters that do not bathe the earth (1811: Buenos AiresMoreno).


On the headlands of the Quequay, General Rivera’s cavalry have completed the civilizing operation with good marksmanship. Now, not an Indian remains alive in Uruguay. The government donates the four last Charrúa Indians to the Natural Sciences Academy in Paris…. The French public pay admission to see the savages…. From the shape of their skulls, they deduce their small intelligence and violent character (1834: Paris, Tacuabé).


For the southward and westward growth of the great estates of the pampas, repeating rifles empty out “empty spaces.” Clearing savages out of Patagonia, burning villages, using Indians and ostriches for target practice… (1879: Choele-Choel Island, The Remington Method).

I am not often moved by fine art. This is not to say that I don’t see the beauty in art, but seldom do I feel anything amounting to more than an aesthetic appreciation. But every once in a while, I look at an artwork and it moves me with an almost physical force. It happens so rarely that I can remember each time it happened, like the piece that will one day be tattooed on my body that I saw in the Petit Palais in Paris. But I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an artist whose entire body of work affected me, which is what happened when I walked into the Capilla del Hombre in Quito, Ecuador, the museum that houses much of the work of Oswaldo Guayasamín, the art you see in this post.

Painting is a form of speaking while also screaming. It is an almost physiological attitude and the highest consequence of love and of solitude. That is why I want that everything be clear, that the message be simple and direct. I do not want to leave anything to chance; each figure, each symbol, must be essential; because a work of art is the unceasing search for the self that is like the others but similar to none. (Oswaldo Guayasamín, my translation)

Looking at his portraits of indigenous men, women, and children made me an implicit but impotent audience to their screams and cries, a sympathetic but ultimately removed witness to the injustices committed against them. Looking at the brushstrokes that were their eyes, I thought of Eduardo Galeano’s words. Staring into their disjointed, pain-warped faces, I felt for a moment connected to the river of blood that continues to carry the histories of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and the histories of the rest of us, too.