In college, I asked a close friend and inspiration of mine about how often he read. At the time, I was internally lamenting that I was not reading more. After all, I had plenty of great stuff to read, but I wasn’t dedicating time to it. He responded in the natural and poetic way that is typical of his speech:

I steal reading time from life like it is water in a parched place.

This quote may strike one as pretentious, so you will just have to take my word for it that it is anything but, and that this individual is not only one of the most humble and admirable (in terms of character) people I know, but also that he just talks that way naturally.

Anyways, I was definitely more focused on the fact that I had a friend who just unthinkingly spoke in a dialect of poetry than I was on the actual meaning of his words. I was obsessed with the superficial beauty of these words. I can parse the quote at face value and understand what it means, but it wasn’t until (very) recently that I really understood what it is like to truly feel as though reading time is so scarce and valuable that it might be worthy of being compared to coming across “water in a parched place”.

All that to introduce the note that I have been reading somewhat more voraciously than usual, and that I have been in recent weeks much more willing to sacrifice in other areas so that I might “steal” a little more reading time. In the past month, I have been cycling through at least five different books, not including longform articles or blog posts I read online.

But last night, I began reading a book that was so particularly viscerally jarring to me that I have not been able to stop thinking about it, and it was the first thing I picked up after praying fajr and taking my cold shower (I was reading it in the shower while air-drying, lol). It is not so much the book as what the book triggered in me: Emotional and simultaneously distanced depictions of tragedy; Memories and experiences from childhood and adolescence that I had suppressed; Connections with various other readings and ideas that have been tumbling around in my head over the past month.

I’ll cut to the chase - the book is called The Ends of the Earth by Robert D. Kaplan, and I have only read 30 of 400+ pages so far. I also don’t know who Robert D. Kaplan is, what sort of ideologies he subscribes to, or what the overarching message (if any) of this book is. I do know that the book was published around when I was born (I was born in 1996 and the book was published in 1997), which is honestly pretty recent as far as books go. There look to be two subtitles - one is actually above the title (which I guess means it isn’t technically a “subtitle”), and says “from Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia”, and the “actual” subtitle says “a journey to the frontiers of anarchy”. It is clear that the author (or whoever wrote this subtitle) is not referring to “anarchy” in the political/philosophical sense, but I don’t really care to get into a debate with the author on that point, as it is not what compelled me to press buttons on my keyboard this morning.

Kaplan kicks off with the preface, which - in the context of reading depressing nonfiction - I like to imagine as a nice, relaxing full-body warmup that precedes a grueling 50 mile bike ride (in the context of a delightful fantasy novel, it would be like the nice, relaxing full-body warmup that preceds a nice, relaxing 50 mile bike ride).

Then, he begins chapter 1 - “An Unsentimental Journey”, and the only chapter I have read thus far. Much of this chapter takes place in various shantytowns and rural areas of the Ivory Coast, in sub-Saharan West Africa. Towards the end of the chapter, Kaplan makes his way westward towards Liberia, where the scenery of the chapter changes notably. We begin near the pseudo-urban districts of Abidjan (in Ivory Coast) of “Chicago” and “Washington” (no relation). Here, refugees of all sorts gather. Some have fled from brutal tribal warfare. Others are simply attempting to escape the poverty of rural areas to something better. Birth rates are high. Disease rates are high (pretty much everyone gets malaria at some point, and malaria is ever-evolving to adapt to existing treatments). Women, children, and the elderly suffer especially. Clothes are washed in mosquito-ridden waters. Our narrator discusses how he has spent several hundred dollars on vaccines. Hundreds of dollars which the typical person in these towns can certainly not afford. As a result, most of the people our narrator interacts with have yellow eyes, a symptom of hepatitis.

On a couple of occasions, Kaplan describes relative luxury. It is a luxury to have gates and armed guards protecting you (as is the case when Kaplan visits “important” officials). On the topic of luxury experienced by travelers from wealthy countries, our narrator has this to say (page 25):

In an air-conditioned four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser - the medium through which senior diplomats and top Western relief officials often encounter Africa - suspended high above the road and looking out through closed windows, your forehead and underarms comfortably dry, you may learn something about Africa. Traveling in a crowded public bus, flesh pressed upon wet, sour flesh, you learn more; and in a “bush taxi,” or “mammy wagon,” where there are not even windows, you learn more still. But it is on foot that you learn the most. You are on the ground, on the same level with Africans rather than looking down at them. You are no longer protected by speed or air-conditioning or thick glass. The sweat pours from you, and your shirt sticks to your body. This is how you learn.

I don’t want to dwell too long on the book. My point is that it depicts extreme poverty. Poverty that those in wealthy countries are isolated from. Kaplan brings up an analogy “propounded to me by Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, head of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program of the University of Toronto” (page 10 - this is Kaplan quoting Homer-Dixon):

Think of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned postiundustrial regions of North America, Europe, the Pacific Rim, parts of Latin America, and a few other spots, with their trade summitry and computer-information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction.

It wasn’t Kaplan’s descriptions that struck me most viscerally. It is what they triggered in me - my own lived experience and memory, which I have sugar-coated and at points attempted to push out of my mind. When I was 10 years old, I moved with my family to live in Dakar, Senegal in West Africa for a year. In the end, I think it was slightly less than a year because I ended up breaking my arm immediately in advance of our flights to Africa, which delayed our departure. Also, my dad was in America for much of the trip. Lots of people from America and Europe travel. In many (or most) cases, they travel to beautiful, extravagant locations, to escape the drudgery and monotony of privileged American life.

~~~ begin tangent ~~~

On the topic of Americans and Europeans going on beautiful vacations, I recently finished reading an article by David Foster Wallace from 1996 (again, coincidentally near when I was born) called “Shipping Out - On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise”. It is the epitome of a “first world problems” essay, but in a hilariously self-aware and relatable way. It depicts Foster Wallace’s experience aboard a week-long cruise, where the goal of the crew is to pamper you (to death, Foster Wallace notes). Here are a few excerpts. I am including them because I’ve been thinking about the themes in this article/essay a lot, and believe they provide relevant comparison/contrast to the experience Kaplan describes in his book, as well as the experience I hope to describe of my time in West Africa. Also I am deciding to quote rather than summarize for two main reasons:

  • It’s already 10 AM and I need to get about my day (in fact I will have to continue in a part 2)
  • DFW is a hilarious writer, and any summary I write would be inferior to the original text.

From page 43 in “Pampered To Death, Part II”:

I now confront the journalistic problem of not being sure how many examples I need to list in order to communicate the atmosphere of sybaritic and nearly insanity-producing pampering on board the m.v. Nadir. Take, as one example, the moment right after sailing when I want to go out to Deck 10’s port rail for some introductory vista-gazing and thus decide I need some zinc oxide for my peel-prone nose. My zinc oxide’s still in my big duffel bag, which at that point is piled with all of Deck 10’s other luggage in the little area between the 10-Fore elevator and the 10-Fore staircase while little guys in cadet-blue Celebrity jumpsuits, porters (entirely Lebanese, it seems), are cross-checking the luggage tags with the Nadir’s passenger list and lugging everything to people’s cabins.

So I come out and spot my duffel among the luggage, and I start to grab and haul it out of the towering pile of leather and nylon, thinking I’ll just whisk the bag back to Cabin 1009 myself and root through it and find my zinc oxide. One of the porters sees me starting to grab the bag, though, and he dumps all four of the massive pieces of luggage he’s staggering with and leaps to intercept me. At first I’m afraid he thinks I’m some kind of baggage thief and wants to see my claim check or something. But it turns out that what he wants is my duffel: he wants to carry it to 1009 for me. And I, who am about half again this poor little herniated guy’s size (as is the duffel bag itself), protest politely, trying to be-considerate, saying Don’t Fret, Not a Big Deal, Just Need My Good Old Zinc Oxide, I’ll Just Get the Big Old Heavy Weather-Stained Sucker Out of Here Myself.

And now a very strange argument ensues, me versus the Lebanese porter, because, I now understand, I am putting this guy, who barely speaks English, in a terrible kind of sedulous service double bind, a paradox of pampering: The Passenger’s Always Right versus Never Let a Passenger Carry His Own Bag. Clueless at the time about what this poor man is going through, I wave off both his high-pitched protests and his agonized expression as mere servile courtesy, and I extract the duffel and lug it up the hall to 1009 and slather the old beak with zinc oxide and go outside to watch Florida recede cinematically a la F. Conroy.

(the anecdote is not over but go to page 44 if you want to finish it - the porter ends up getting in trouble and DFW attempts - perhaps futilely - to get him not-in-trouble)

And from page 51, in “Port Call” (at this point in the story, a ship from another cruise line, the Dreamward, has parked alongside Foster Wallace’s ship which he has dubbed the Nadir):

Because the Dreamward is lined up right next to us, almost porthole to porthole, with its Deck 12’s port rail right up flush against our Deck 12’s starboard rail, the Dreamward’s shore-shunners and I can stand at the rails and check each other out like muscle cars lined up at a stoplight. I can see the Dreamward’s railleaners looking the Nadir up and down, their faces shiny with high-SPF sunblock. The Dreamward is blindingly white, white to a degree that seems somehow aggressive and makes the Nadir’s white look more like buff or cream. Its snout is a little more tapered and aerodynamic-looking than our snout, and its trim is a kind of fluorescent peach, and the beach umbrellas around its Deck 11 pools are also peach, whereas our beach umbrellas are salmon, which has always seemed odd, given the white-and-navy motif of the Nadir, and now seems to me ad hoc and shabby. The Dreamward has more pools on Deck 11 than we do, and what looks like a whole other additional pool behind clear glass on Deck 6; and its pools' blue is that distinctive chlorine-blue, whereas the Nadir’s two small pools are both seawater and kind of icky.

… more hilarious (to me) comparisons that I am omitting for the sake of space …

The point is that, standing here next to Captain Video, looking, I start to feel an almost prurient envy of the Dreamward. I imagine its interior to be cleaner than ours, larger, more lavishly appointed. I imagine the Dreamward’s food being even more varied and punctiliously prepared, its casino less depressing, its stage entertainment less cheesy, its toilets less menacing, its pillow mints bigger. The little private balconies outside the Dreamward’s cabins, in particular, seem far superior to a porthole of bank-teller glass, which now seems suddenly chintzy and sad.

I am suffering here from a delusion, and I know it’s a delusion, this envy of another ship, but still it’s painful. It’s also representative of a psychological syndrome that I notice has gotten steadily worse as my' Luxury Cruise wears on, a mental list of dissatisfactions that started off picayune but has quickly become despair-grade.

we’re maybe now in a position to appreciate the falsehood at the dark heart of Celebrity’s brochure. For this - the promise to sate the part of me that always and only WANTS - is the central fantasy the brochure is selling. The thing to notice is that the real fantasy here isn’t that this promise will be kept but that such a promise is keepable at all. This is a big one, this lie. And of course I want to believe it; I want to believe that maybe this ultimate fantasy vacation will be enough pampering, that this time the luxury and pleasure will be so completely and faultlessly administered that my infantile part will be sated at last. But the infantile part of me is, by its very nature and essence, insatiable. In fact, its whole raison consists of its insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the insatiable-infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction.

~~~ end tangent ~~~

To be continued, I guess. Next time I will try to make connections between these jumbled thoughts as well as detail aspects of my lived experience that might illustrate why I had such a strong reaction to reading the first chapter of The Ends of the Earth.