Monday, January 24, 2011

Exploring Panama with Todd Balf

The principle I’m going by here is that, when reading tales of exploring gone disastrously wrong, one should read the desert and jungle stories in the winter, and read about the polar explorers in the summer.  But perhaps I have it backwards.  Explore the poles wrapped up in a blanket in front of a fire, and wander the jungle with a drink in a coconut or pineapple?  I’m consumed by doubt.  But not by parasites, like the hapless members of the 1854 United States Darién Exploring Expedition.

The book is The Darkest Jungle (2003) by magazine writer Todd Balf, about an attempt to explore an especially difficult piece of the Panama isthmus in hopes of finding an easy route for a canal.  I suppose it would be an exaggeration to say that everything goes wrong.  After all, most of the explorers survive.  But it’s rough going.

Balf does a fine job with the story.  His prose is clean and efficient.  He skillfully blends current knowledge with the perspective of the explorers:

In the morning when the men awoke, some found themselves weak and disoriented, their night clothing saturated with blood. The culprit, a vampire bat, excised such a tiny piece of flesh, and bit so surgically, a sleeping man almost never stirred. An anticoagulant in the bat’s saliva produced a steady trickle of blood that flowed freely all night long. (138)

What did the explorers experience, why was it not quite what they thought it would be, that’s the pattern.  There’s a nice bit in Chapter 7 where I kept trying, futilely, to compare Balf’s account to the map at the front of the book.  Something was wrong.  Did Balf botch this passage?  Is the map no good?  But it’s a trick:  Balf has been writing entirely from the point of view of the explorers, who were completely confused about their location; he ends the chapter by showing how far off they were from where they thought they were.  The map snapped back into place, and I was left in a fine state of suspense – now things were going to get really bad!

I give Balf great credit for not claiming that the story he is telling is particularly important.  Academic and popular historians both suffer from this terrible disease, insisting that their study of body-building in Chicago from 1892-1901 informs us about all sorts crucial points of historical importance, when in fact it is a tiny project of minimal import that might someday help a scholar working on a genuinely important project write a footnote (I am describing, in disguise, my own dissertation).  Balf makes it clear that his book is not about a turning point in history, or an essential stage in the building of the Panama Canal, but is merely a great story.  Merely.

Recommended to anyone who likes this sort of thing, and not to anyone who does not. Why do we read these horrible stories of catastrophe?  Where else do we see such human ingenuity, such fortitude, such stubbornness?  I hope to never see it in my own life.  Other people can explore for me.


  1. I think you've summed up my master's thesis as well. I would be thrilled to be a footnote in a work of actual importance.

    But I had a blast writing it.

    I used to read lots of adventure travel like the book you describe here. The typical pattern was to retrace a Victorian journey and compare experiences. The amazing thing is always that people made these trips with the equipment and conditions of the mid-19th century.

    I'm not going to the jungle today, but I'm happy to read that other people do.

  2. Your comments were interesting, on several levels. I'm not certain I completely accept that you would not want to try some of these adventures based on some of your trips---but I am captured by the romance of these tales and do dream of being the first westerner to explore somewhere. Of course, the bugs, stomach problems, lack of food, harsh weather, and on and on, might begin to lessen the allure or the unknown.

  3. Hi A.R.

    I would not want to make such trip like the one in this story today but then I know now what they did not know then. They at least thought they were using the most modern equipment. That belief would tempt me to take such a trip today, if and only if, we got to use the best equipment. Even given this, I would probably still be just as deluded as the explorers in the past were. But, yes, I would be tempted to go.


  4. Balf actually retraces the expedition's steps, too, but he wisely puts all of that into an epilogue. Keeps the focus where it ought to be.

    The equipment \ tecnology is crucial. An 1870 expedition was the successful one - they had quinine. I may have gone on some relatively adventurous trips, but I always took my malaria medicine.

    Funny how we all see the appeal of the adventure. That's what I wan, too - the thrill if being first, of overcoming the preposterous difficulties, but without so much of the actual hardship.

    I'll take the jungle or desert over the poles, anyway.

  5. Oh, I love this kind of stuff! I started reading about exploration with the poles, and I always go back there when I need a good dose of looney people doing something horrible to themselves for no really good reason. (I just read Cherry-Garrard's memoir The Worst Journey in the World, and I truly believe it may have been.) But all kinds of other exploration has opened itself up to my view. This book sounds right up my alley. Lovely, lovely.

  6. I heartily agree with the last sentence/sentiment in your post. I also like your innovative idea to read adventure tales (real life or otherwise) whilst sipping drinks out of coconuts and pineapples. That might even liven up an account of body-building in turn of the century Chicago, who knows?

  7. Maybe I should mention that the history of body-building project was real, although I do not know is it ever made it past the proposal stage. It always reassured me. I thought, what I'm doing is not very important, but it is more important than this nonsense.

    I remember reading that Jenny, that you are keen on the polar expeditions, disastrous or otherwise. Maybe I'll read Nansen's book this summer. The Cherry-Garrard books sounds amazing. That expedition was worse than the one in Balf's book, oh yes.

  8. Amateur Reader, let me chime in with another word of praise for that Cherry-Garrard title that Jenny mentions: one of my favorite nonfiction works ever, and one of the most lovely written. Fascinating and haunting stuff.

  9. the thrill if being first, of overcoming the preposterous difficulties, but without so much of the actual hardship

    Sounds good to me! As for seasonality, the problem is that everything should be read in the winter. You don't want to read about people sweating in the tropics while you're sweating at home; it's much better to warm you up during a snowstorm. But then it's also nice to read about freezing people at the poles when you're cozied up in front of the fire.

  10. Speaking of freezing, I'm going to go make some hot cocoa.

    I think I'm going to submit this as my entry for the "Best Response to a Comment" award during Book Blogger Appreciation Week.

    Not that part - just the part about the cocoa. No, I guess I have botched it. Never mind.