|Travel Photography Atlantic Seaboard Lower Manhattan
By afternoon, we leave the Ramble and head out into the city, splitting apart to go our own way. I notice some newspaper headlines at a magazine stand, and for the first time, I realize the context of yesterday’s weather. “Eerie Green Sky”, “Possible Tornado Ravages New York City, One Dead”, “New York Battered by Fierce Storm.”
To be a travel writer is to see things for yourself, to develop your observations and opinions first-hand, at ground level. Many of my travel writing heroes had written their accounts of places as travelogues. But travel writers had something that journalists often didn’t - perspective based on personal experiences, and so travel literature, creaed to entertain and educate, often illuminates the world more clearly than could any newspaper. In 1993, Robert D. Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts had become one of the deciding factors in forming President Clinton ‘s position on Bosnia at the time. In undertaking our recent past, we are more willing to find answers through Mark Twain's travel than through the New York Times archives.
I believed that travel writing had a power of perspective that hard journalism often overlooked. And by reading a wide range of travel material, I could have a more encompassing view of the world than were I to simply read the newspaper.
Seeing these headlines takes me back to that time when I fell in love with travel writing - to experience that strange weather for myself is to see the news at ground level. There is something important in seeing real events for yourself, no matter how insignificant these street level views may seem.
When I first starting travel writing, one of the first stories that interested me was the threats the Taliban were making to blow up Buddhist statues in the Bamyan Valley in Afghanistan - maybe those statues were just symbols, just buildings, but often old buildings are powerful symbols in culture wars.
I could cover the story on my budget by following the cultural and art side of the story, much of which took place outside of Afghanistan, and in fact much of which was taking place in Los Angeles, where I was living. Soon, I was on the phone and emailing with experts on Afghanistan from around the world.
It didn't take long for me to come to the same conclusion that others interested in Afghanistan were making - all our contacts in the country were saying that they could see thousands of foreigners performing exercises out in the valleys. These were not Taliban, but their guests, al Qaeda,and they were marching in plain view. I could hear this news from primary sources.
By talking to real people, on my own terms, I could see something that I couldn't find in the media, and by May of 2001, convinced that the shelling of the Bamyan Buddhas and the open marching al Qaeda militia meant: a bigger version of the U.S.S. Cole bombing was inevitable. With an early belief that religious social conservatism and religious fundamentalism are the foundation of the most horrific conflicts, I took my arguments in public, which sometimes appeared as letters to the editor in American papers.
Before the airplanes hit New York, talk about Afghanistan was considered strange, and in one argument, I was asked to consider more relevant issues, like barring gays from marriage, which was quickly becoming the most pressing issue in domestic American politics - a social issue that was quickly gaining traction throughout the United States as a quickly growing cable network, Fox News, stoked its importance through frequent reporting on the subject.
As the pedestrian light turns on, I put the paper back and head across the street toward Central Park. Dozens of taxis and commercial trucks come zooming toward me. I freeze in panic - a bumpkin caught in the crosswalk, as all these cars and trucks race for the crosswalk, only to stop and wait for me to pass. It dawns on me how dumb all of this is - all these big cars driving around in circles in this small island. All these drivers, if they were peddling, should be funneling their aggression into speed, sport and exercise, rather than on their red-light taunts.
The next morning, Jane and I meet our friend Christine at a coffee shop. We decide to take a walk toward Union Square. Christine is a recent immigrant to New York, and so she sees the city with fresh eyes. As we walk, we pass a number of churches. Some are very old, and beautiful.