Articles

Man’s Last Chance: Impressions of Central America

Tierra del Fuego by Jan Reurink

By Klas Lundström

Think about isolated zones, and you’ll end up in Latin America’s most gridlocked valleys: the Mosquito Coast, in the heart of Central America, and “Fireland”, or Tierra del Fuego, at the end of the world, only a strait from Antarctica. Your company: Charles Darwin, Bruce Chatwin and a fictional American family.

In common, both the Mosquito Coast and Patagonia depend much on their own seperate exposure, their own peculiar ways to choke the visitor (and perhaps even their own inhabitants). From time to time, the grip eases; only to allow some strange and colorful events to take place in front of your own footsteps.

The American writer and constant traveler, Paul Theroux, published his book The Mosquito Coast back in 1981, a novel he wrote after a breathtaking voyage to the exotic and complex region in the heart of Central America’s largest remaining tropical rainforest. Theroux encountered human evolution and an imploding political atmosphere; everything is caught between the book pages, in a story about American goodwill exported, perhaps with the friendliest of intentions, to a vulnerable Third World region.

The story’s protagonist is Allie Fox, an eccentric inventor who takes his whole family along and breaks out of the American way of life, to reach Ground Zero along unkown rivers of Honduras. (That is, shores the white colonialists never found interesting enough to explore further.) Mr. Fox purchases the rights of a whole society—Jeromino—one which provides a democratic and utopian alternative not only for the family, but also for the people already living there.

Habits, patterns and human behavior catch up with them even at the heart of Mother Earth—and Theroux’s characters find themselves trapped in a corrupt system with no choice but to search for a better life in the unknown, the wild, the unpredictable.

The Mosquito Coast can be read as a case study in political evolution as well as a cultural contribution to the false picture of the world’s hidden pockets. Who took that picture? The impression, despite Paul Theroux’s many questions for the reader and unlikely visitor of “the real Mosquito Coast”, remains intact: the region is likely to continue to play the part as nothing but an extra in the larger piece that global politics has turned into. Theroux’s characters repeat the mistakes they thought they’d left behind in the U.S. Could it be a system-error impossible to run away from?

So where does one find the Mosqutio Coast Paul Theroux depicted? Traveling along the hidden rivers and roads in Central America’s largest rainforest, you start to believe there are pieces of the Mosquito Coast inside all of us.

A Lost Eden, the civilization’s “Last Chance,” as Allie Fox saw it, erases the line between fiction and non-fiction—reality becomes the victim. The power of symbolism is the cornerstone in Theroux’s story of an American family who doesn’t fit in (or doesn’t want to fit in) anywhere, no matter the environment or circumstances.

And what about the inhabitants of the Mosquito Coast, the fishermen and farmers who accept Mr. Fox as their new benevolent heir? They live in the background, dutiful as shadows, while the Westerner looks for a Gold Mine in U.S. Cold War backwaters. This is a conscious way of telling a story, like a modern Robinson Crusoe. Twenty years after its first publication date, the shadows and the background remain the same—no comfortable pictures for the backpacker to immortalize in on Facebook.

Paul Theroux’s criticism on the surplus society makes Mosquito Coast the perfect travel partner for those who want to see the Mosquito Coast region with their own eyes. Urban neighbors of the Mosquito Coast, in both Honduras and Nicaragua, look upon the region—like Allie Fox—as “Man’s Last Chance.” As one urban woman put it, “To put things right and get back on the right track.”

In the jungle, deforestation, illegal fishing, drug and human trafficking and poverty crush the myth of the “Untouched Paradise.” “There isn’t such a thing”, a fisherman reflects during a dinner conversation. “Not even in the Bible.”

Not only the Mosquito Coast—even Patagonia provides the image of Mother Earth’s Disneyland for tourists to lose themselves before returning to their homes, without necessarily learning about the real, economic and humanitarian situation of the place. The romance between the traveler and myth seems internal; are we addicted to the notion that gridlocked regions provide us with a taste of the wild, of desperation and “the Real People?”

And if so, is there a way out of this method of thinking?

“Documentaries and anonymous guide books also contribute to devastate the less explored places on Earth”, the Swedish author, Per Wästberg, wrote in the preface of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. Tierra del Fuego’s long history is founded on captivity—slaves became the region’s first inhabitants. Slave labor laid the very railroad that made commerce and trade flourish, helping the region become a major tourist attraction.

But what of humankind’s wanderlust? The train, called “The End of the World,” crawls like a snake along the track, and autumn has transformed the green valleys and forests into a sad, red fog, like a cushion over the National Park.

Germans, Argentineans, and Asian tourists compete over the best photo spots along the way, trying to capture the beauty and sorrow of Patagonia’s southernmost forest.

Further into the National Park, in a brightly painted restaurant with huge windows and majestic views of colored forests and icy rivers, an exhibition shows how Charles Darwin found his way here thanks to the European shipping industry. We learn how—not what—the young biologist chose to depict Tierra del Fuego’s population and ecology.

Darwin named the people of Tierra del Fuego “humanity’s lowest class”, and the label still lays like a flu under Patagonia’s surface. Darwin’s ideology has given generations of scientists the pretext they need to place nature, people and animals into categories.

Adventure tourism—sixty per cent of Tierra del Fuego’s economy—take Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” clause seriously, turning it into flesh and blood. In the wilderness, where you are abandoned in a paradoxical state of confinement, you learn that only the strongest survive. It’s a kind of urban Darwinism that characterizes the world’s southernmost city, its s social codes, and especially, the visitors of the National Park.

It’s all about the metaphorical walls between background, social status and gender. Darwin and our colonial worldview and dominant politics remain the landlord in large parts of the world, and certainly in places such as Tierra del Fuego, Darwin’s thoughts and conclusions have lingered—like a political compass.

Darwin invented a view on humanity that still characterizes the modern community and upholds the pillars of some Western democracies. It was in the autonomous indigenous peoples that Darwin saw what man should not be—he helped elicit cultural preference, the ultimate excuse to practice apartheid.

Many questions arise in the harsh environment of Patagonia, one of them regarding obedience. Nature, mankind and animals—what do they obey? Are we certain parts in a nameless process controlled by God, man or Mother Earth?

Darwin’s theories have managed to maintain a place in modern education; many, including the theory of evolution, are considered the closest humankind has come to the truth about our biological existence.

Jeromino, therefore, can only survive in the pulp of these forests. The impressions of the Mosquito Coast and Patagonia leave many traces, scattered and nameless. One of them is no man’s land, a place where the traveler and the domestic population alike become aware of cultural and environmental limitations. A place like this cannot be black or white, it only is.

Sources and inspiration:

The Mosquito Coast, Paul Theroux (1981)

In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin (1989)

Preface (In Patagonia), Per Wästberg (1989)

Geology of the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin (1842—1846)

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For more information on The Mosquito Coast, Tierra del Fuego and traveling to Central America, read our interview with the author, Klas Lundstrom, and join us as we take a look “Behind the Article.”