I have recently finished Paul Theroux’s latest book On the Plain of Snakes, which details his recent travels from his home on Cape Cod to the US/Mexico border and beyond. Mr. Theroux has published over a dozen travel books and the part of his brain that is supposed to tell him “danger/turn around” is less active than other peoples’. He ignored many warnings of unspeakably cruel cartel violence, and his readers happily benefit from his curiosity and questionable judgement.
His trip covered the entirety of the US/Mexico border, with frequent hops back and forth, and generated a lot of fascinating stories. He then proceeded down to Mexico City and then on to the state and city of Oaxaca (pronounced by English speakers as “wuh-HAH-kuh”).
Since one of the categories of this blog is “Global Change”, I thought this book – and how I experienced it – might be helpful to you as you seek to expand your own worldview. As I read the book, I rediscovered Google Street View.
As Mr. Theroux was recounting his travels, I had my phone on the arm of the chair. Occasionally I would put the book down, open up Google Maps and find the city or village he was describing. From there I would “walk around” the town, using my index finger to drag my way down the street – occasionally stopping to turn 360 degrees and look at someone or something.
We all know that this exists, but for me I had forgotten how fundamentally astounding this technology is. That is the way of most technology innovations, where we are overwhelmed by it’s magic, frequently use it after introduction, but our attention is diverted by something newer and we forget what we experienced.
I’m not suggesting poking at your phone to see a street in Oaxaca is the same thing as going there and meeting people, but it’s pretty awesome that you can virtually walk around an area you’re unlikely to ever see. I’ve not been to Oaxaca, although I once was on the top floor of a building in Mexico City when the whole room started rocking due to an earthquake that was centered somewhere in Oaxaca, so I feel a weird kinship with it as a result.
I suggest you choose a city or village that might be of interest to you and do your own “exploring”. I would pick a city, pinch to zoom in so I could see a layout of the streets, press my thumb on one randomly-chosen street, and if Google had a street view (as they often do), I would switch from the map view to the street view and start “walking”. As I toured many towns in Mexico while reading Mr. Theroux’s book, I noticed average people – invariably women – walking with plastic shopping bags from the nearby bodega and a child walking alongside.
I recommend, when you see someone (Google blurs out their faces) as you’re being a digital flâneur, stop to consider what they might be doing, or how their life is different from your own. You might even consider that the reason they are there, and you are where you are, is chiefly due to the accident of your respective birth locations. It can be both humbling and enlightening. See an example below.
If you’re interested, go here to see a great interview the author gave at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.