A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 206

Tulipmania in our living room.

Sunday, April 11

The ongoing COVID-19 restrictions arouse a desire for travel. I’ve been meeting that urge via various virtual outlets: Hulu’s German espionage series Deutschland 86, for instance, has its peripatetic hero attempting to make his way back to East Germany via South Africa, Angola, Libya, and Paris, offering TV viewers spectacular glimpses of Cape Town and the northeastern Sahara with no risk of infection or luggage loss. A very different escape series, My Octopus Teacher, looks at an exotic underwater landscape in a South African kelp forest. Similarly Netflix’ Magical Andes and Guatemala: Heart of the Mayan World dispense otherworldly views of these mountainous lands that make them seem almost uninhabited by humans.

Then there’s the escape to the past, also provided via Deutschland 86 with its reminders of such all-but-forgotten figures as Yuri Andropov (once termed a “sinister KGB biggie” in a New York Post headline), P.W. Botha, Muammar Gaddafi, Olof Palme, and Willy Brandt. The past wasn’t so great, we’re reminded with scenes of Gaddafi’s nihilistic terror campaign that in 1986 targeted a West Berlin nightclub and, later, an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. There’s also The United States vs. Billie Holiday, in which federal agents persecute the extraordinary jazz vocalist, seemingly because she won’t stop singing a song about lynchings in the South.

Like travel shows, cooking shows can offer exotic escape and fall into two categories. Some chefs resemble the guides who go to places you will never go, concocting elaborate desserts or entrees you will never attempt. Others, the food world equivalent of Rick Steves, prepare foods you actually could make (pulled pork, strawberry shortcake) if only you wanted. Of course there’s always the excuse that your kitchen equipment isn’t quite so cool. 

That could be an idea for a show: Rather than showing Julia Collin Davison make a layer cake using a KitchenAid Artisan Series stand mixer, they could have some dork faffing around with an antiquated device like the 1960’s Hamilton Beach mixer you inherited from your mom. He could even come to your retro, Formica-laden kitchen to make it.

But then, that wouldn’t be escape, would it?

Travel books can also substitute for the real thing. I’ve been giving a second read to Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, blurbed on the cover as “exciting, boisterous, and bizarre.” It’s all of those things, as well as being inscrutable at some points.

There’s lots of detail about the South American adventures of U.S. outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sometimes, Chatwin strives to tell us what really became of these two. At other points, he shows how their lives have been mythologized, as aging locals recount things the duo are alleged to have done. 

Chatwin describes making his way around Patagonia, from Bahia Blanca to Tierra del Fuego. He often walks for long distances (better him than me). He gets people to let him sleep somewhere on their property. But that doesn’t always pan out—once he makes do with sleeping behind a bush. He meets a range of peculiar folks: expat Scots and Germans, Fuegian Indians, oil engineers and kosher butchers, truck drivers who cultivate the Che Guevara look, even a Russian doctor. He describes stuff that he has read about the area—from Edgar Allen Poe to Charles Darwin to Primaleon of Greece, a book that may have influenced both Magellan and Shakespeare. He tells stories of anarchist uprisings and of the weird practices of a sect of male witches, the Brujeria.

He searches for evidence of dinosaurs like the brontosaurus, a patch of whose skin resided at his grandmother’s house. That, he comes to believe, was actually skin from a giant sloth, or Mylodon, unique to South America. Near the end of the book, Chatwin visits a cave where the Mylodon long ago dwelt.

“The inside was dry as the desert. The ceiling was shaggy with white stalactites and the sides glittered with salt encrustation. Animal tongues had licked the back wall smooth….poking out of a section, I saw some strands of the coarse reddish hair I knew so well.”

Dinner: barbecued pork chops, southern corn pudding, and an avocado and lettuce salad.

Entertainment: more episodes of Deutschland 86 and two episodes of British policier DCI Banks.

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