At the moment, I am a travel writer who cannot travel. Imagine a poet lacking empathy, or an actor on a darkened stage: that is how I feel. And yet, at this imposed time of minimalist living, I am grateful to be of that profession because it means I don't have to leave my home. I have already seen much of the world and it has revealed many of its secrets to me.
Friends accuse me of living in a museum and I take that as a compliment because it is true that I have brought home a little bit of everywhere from where I have been. The stories fill my office, with masks on the wall, statues on pillars, framed photos and relics under glass, Some are true artifacts, others simple tourist kitsch whose only value is personal, but each awaits their turn with a memory to be recorded.
I have traveled further than most but not as far as some, usually in pursuit of remote societies that lack written language. I seek out nomads who travel on the wind or live in mud huts while hunting with bows, people whose lives are guided by tradition, costume, and ceremony, people for whom there is no horizon between the material and spiritual worlds and who travel between both at will. These are people who created their own gods when none appeared to them, and whom the world forgot long ago if they ever knew of them at all.
Each piece, each photograph, each statue, and fetish, whispers in my ear as I enter the room because I am their conduit. All I have to do is remember, and record the words as the stories have already been told. I can sit at my desk, and feel the back and forth swaying as my camel lumbers across the southern Sahara. A two-stringed Cambodian violin on my wall recalls the blind virtuoso who serenaded the dead in a mine field near Beng Melea.
A tiny clay bull on my desk returns me to the Niger River of Mali where a mute boy fashioned the creature out of river mud as a gift to this complete stranger. A mask on my wall returns me to a small village in Benin where I was touched by the living dead, necessitating that I undergo a voodoo exorcism, and a tiny etched stone takes me back to the summit of Masada in Israel. My framed photo of a witch doctor's business card always brings a smile, and a set of prayer beads recalls a Shan monk in Laos who wanted a selfie with me so he could put it on his Facebook page.
I have met more than a few African kings and sat with tribal leaders in barren deserts. I have explored remote caves and traveled lost rivers and I have debated karma in marathons with Buddhist monks. Mine has not been an idle life, but one filled with awe, learning, and gratefulness, and with that comes responsibility. Sometimes my office walls loudly demand that I tell their stories while reminding me to be grateful to live in such a wonderfully diverse world. Now, while an invisible death stalks the unwary, the world needs to know just how fragile most of our home planet is. Life has made me a storyteller and this is a tale about innocent people who have no voice.
The people on my walls are my brothers and sisters, most of whom live in societies as fragile as wildflowers in a wind, societies that can vanish in a heartbeat. In remote Africa, a virus is like setting a fire in a paper warehouse. In Southeast Asia, floating cities house four and five generations on a small boat. In such places a pandemic spreads like a morning fog. The slums of the third world sit helpless as that fog creeps their way without their knowledge, a silent and invisible grim reaper.
I have been blessed with knowing people so far off the grid that it just might shelter them from this peril, and at the same time I am cursed with worry about what will happen if and when it does find them. These are people who visit shamans, healers, and witch doctors for their ills. They are people who believe that sickness is caused by evil spirits or a spell that has been cast by an enemy. They can no more understand an invisible virus than a dog can talk, and social distancing is an impossibility when every member of a tribe or clan must contribute daily just to survive.
When a person gets sick in a mud hut a hundred miles from a doctor, they die, and no one questions why. This is not to discount indigenous medicine; quite the opposite. Most of our modern pharmaceuticals originated in the world's rainforests, first revealed to us by people dressed in loin cloths and wearing feathers. The secrets still held there may be the salvation of mankind one day, but until then, it is a long way from the jungle to a medicine bottle in a city, and chants and burning sage will not stop coronavirus. When the final speaker of a language dies an entire culture passes with that person. In these oral societies, that is like a library burning.
I worry that this pandemic, that will eventually be defeated by modern medicine and science, might decide to take with it in its dying breath, ancient cultures that thrived while my own people were still living in caves. If that happens, it is because the outside world has brought it to them and I am as guilty as anyone for doing so. It is human curiosity and the need for knowledge that has exposed these cultures to the modern world and most are ignorant of, and helpless before, this disease. That is why the world must know about them and do all in its power to prevent it from reaching them. An infected victim in New York can be treated in a modern hospital, but a person they unknowingly touched weeks prior might infect an entire tribe in Nigeria. A cough on an airliner could incubate in multiple countries, rippling out like a stone cast onto water, and the mere presence of a well-meaning trekker in a mountain village could decimate a unique way of life.
Like it or not, the world is one society and sheltering in place in America and wearing a mask to a grocery store just might keep someone in an Asian jungle from dying needlessly. Isolation in industrial nations is the only hope of saving developing nations. Perhaps that is why their deities have located them so far away from us.
It is for these people that I sit in my office, returning to places visited long ago and far away to record their stories. I will tell my readers about the people I met and how they lived. I will relate their lives because each has importance and no matter if our home is a mud hut or a Manhattan high rise, we all have the same hopes, dreams, aspirations, and valleys of despair. The family of man must know that these people exist and though we may never meet, we are all connected. My job is to remind people of that, because, since early mankind first stood and walked out of the African savannas, it has been travel that has connected us as people.
We are social animals temporarily forced to live in isolation. Life as we knew it before this virus may never return, but either way, I will continue to wander the world in my mind, and hope that my stories will bring friends along to show them how the world once was.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in forty-some countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
Getting Schooled on the Consequences of Cultural Interference - James Michael Dorsey
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Last of the Bushmen in Tanzania - James Michael Dorsey
The Life of a Backpacker in Asia in the 1970s - Kevin Kelly
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