From the 20th century’s graceful ocean liners to the flashy behemoths of today, what happened to the romance of ships? From Pan American’s ‘Round The World Flight 101 to the flying sardine cans of today, what happened to the romance of flight? When the realism of motion picture film dissolved into soulless digital, whatever happened to the romance of cinema-the great Italian directors, the idyllic Merchant-Ivory productions? As I look back on my generation, the past has a clarity I can no longer see or hear in the present.
Iran-Contra Affair – Contra-indicated
Though my journey to the Honduras/Nicaragua border in 1983 was for humanitarian reasons, it was the best of intentions at the worst of times. Once again I found myself at the epicenter of history. My government was involved in a public relations disaster known as Iran-Contra. Long since forgotten, few paid it much attention back then.
Legislative amendments to our Constitution were specifically aimed at preventing U.S. government assistance to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua who wanted to overthrow the Sandinista government. Although prohibited by these amendments, the U.S. sold arms to Iran to obtain the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. Then we illegally diverted the profits from those sales to the Contra rebels who were fighting to overthrow the communist Cuban-backed Sandinistas. If your eyes glaze over, so did those of most Americans, including our former President.
Notwithstanding instability in the area, my State Department bosses sent me and my two-man camera crew to a remote location in the mountains near the Honduras/Nicaragua border. We were to document the delivery of massive American food aid to women and children, the inevitable casualties of conflict. We checked in to Tegucigalpa’s Intercontinental Hotel at the very time hundreds of photojournalists were there to cover the Contra-Sandinista revolution. Like Saigon in the sixties, the hotel buzzed with booze and press corps, the two usually synonymous. Due to high humidity we spent less time at the bar, and most of the night cleaning lenses and equipment with my hair dryer.
Horseman Of The Apocalypse
I love horses, but I’m afraid of falling so I resist riding. On this trip I had no choice. In a small village outside the capitol, my crew and I met the American who was to be our guide. Bilingual in multiple languages, he said his name was Jake, our covert contact who dropped out of the sky in a parachute (really). Along with several of his gun-toting Honduran compadres, we rode into the mountains on horseback, mules hauling our equipment, to rendezvous at the food distribution point.
One of our Honduran guides had a vindictive streak and maniacal giggle. Each time I tried slowing my horse crossing rivers and streams, señor sicko rode up behind me and slapped the horse to speed him up. I vowed I’d get even, but at the end of our journey he slipped into the mountains before I could vent.
Indiana jones And The Romance of Travel
While the Contra rebels were making life miserable for the Sandinistas, Jake led us through a series of tiny villages, exchanging cigarettes and white rum for safe passage and hot plantains with beans. Under a bright sun and stark blue sky we avoided rebel fighters and reached the refugee site where thousands of women and children were camped. Peace Corps volunteers were already unloading supplies from helicopters. Jake made everything run smoothly, and the children loved him, especially the candy he miraculously conjured. I got good interviews and great footage; moms and kids received clothing and food. Should be end of story, but the entire Copán valley is one enormous archaeology site; many tombs are being discovered even today. I wanted to see the pre-Columbian Mayan Ruins so I asked Jake if he could take me there before nightfall.
Having been in and out of Middle East and African conflicts, Jake was Indiana Jones incarnate. He ditched the horses, commandeered a Land Rover and the race was on to beat sunset. Soon I wished I was back on my horse. When we reached the paved road it was crawling with snakes warming themselves on the hot asphalt. If we accidentally bumped one it could swing onto the undercarriage and get inside. Jake managed to avoid the snakes while I sat white-knuckled with both legs on the dashboard.
Ghosts of Copán – “You Are Not Welcome Here”
By the time we reached Copán the sun was sinking fast, draping the ruins in mossy-green. The groundskeeper had closed the gates. Jake produced a tiny transistor radio and a carton of American cigarettes. Hola! The man’s wizened face lit up and the gates of hell swung open.
An icy chill had settled over that silent dead place-light fading on the pyramids and sacrificial altars. Though we were the only humans around, a palpable presence hovered over the grotesque sculptures and mystifying hieroglyphics. Across millennia disembodied entities seemed to whisper down the wind, “you are not welcome here.” Unnerved yet riveted, we were bewitched by the unearthly power of these Mesoamerican warrior kings until Jake whispered, “time to get the hell out.”
After our spooky encounter with the past, Jake knew where to find a hot meal in a safe place with a clean bed-along with guitars, marimbas and crackling fire. He had dropped into my life 36 hours ago. Come morning, he’d be air-lifted out. When I asked how he knew the area so well, he related months of solitary living off the land in jungle, mountain and desert. He was the clandestine archetype of novels. He didn’t worry about what anyone thought or said, he didn’t wrestle with his soul. “This is not who I am,” he said. “It’s what I do,” and I got it-which was the inevitable attraction. I never knew his real name, but what more could one ask of a little romance? Life is an ephemeral dream, a fleeting odyssey of people, places and things that briefly coalesce then disappear into the vast emptiness of space.
“Let me be the space for that.” —Eckhart Tolle