My friend Logan Phillips, who spent a few years living in Mexico and has traveled extensively in Latin America, generally shuns guidebooks. We traveled together in Spain a few years ago, and I’m sure I made myself into a right pain in the ass with my finger eternally stuck in a book, peeking up and following the city map while he calmly asked people for directions. “People make the best maps,” he told me then. And he’s right.
That said, they can also make the worst ones, especially when you don’t speak the language.
With the trip only two days away, I’m punching my through a few guidebooks, not because I think Logan is wrong, or that my old way of traveling with my nose in a book is the worst way to travel (though it’s not a good one), but because I’m trying to find a middle ground. Having the books gives me a starting point. A few suggestions for the road, a loose idea of what bus and boat schedules will be like, what I can expect to pay for food and lodging, and so on. The books are incomplete primers on a place (though I think Moon Handbooks’ “Nicaragua” guidebooks is remarkably well researched and close to the ground), but that’s about all we usually need before we go somewhere. A primer. It’s like talking to friend who has been to all the places you are going and has a remarkably good memory. So I lay out the advice and I start sifting through it.
That’s one part of my research. Another is to get a good idea for history. Central America in general and Nicaragua in particular. I’m working on a novel that is set partly in Nicaragua, and this will be my first visit to said country. Of all the places we are visiting, this one is the most important to me, and getting an idea of the nation’s history will, I hope, allow me to start working backwards from what I see on the ground while I’m there. It’s a form of reverse engineering. Look at the country as it is, read about what it was, and try to find the connections.
I’ve always been fascinated with history, memory, and mythology. They have much in common, and can all be equally reliable and equally unreliable. I like to think that the strengths of each one make up for the weaknesses of the others. Mythology is more collective, and tends to frame the emotional truth of a people. History is based on a closer perspective, or maybe just more perspectives, whittling the edges into what we know for sure. It is concerned with the things you can set in stone more than the stone itself. Memory attempts to sift what it all means. It is very personal, highly unreliable, and completely essential to the story of Who We Are.
“A loss of memory by a nation is also a loss of its conscience.”
The other part of my research, and the one that is going the slowest, is the language. As I hinted at the start of this post, I do not speak Spanish. I bought a program a few weeks ago and have been working my through it. Slowly.
“Donde esta el baño con queso?”
I’m taking the Spanish program with me on the trip. My hope is that working my way through this thing while traveling through a purely Spanish speaking regions will be the kind of immersion course I’ve always wanted to take. Perhaps I’ll come back to the States speaking decent Spanish. I’d like that. It’s something I’ve always said I want to learn, so this trip will be put up or shut up time on that.
That’s three pieces of research, and I’m behind on all of them. Then again, all research is abstract until you do something with it. Write the book. Take the trip. The knowledge is fine. The experience is what makes it a part of you.
I’ll keep reading for the next two days. And once I get there, I’ll try to remember to look up from the book and go with the experience.