Favorite passages from
Travels with Herodotus
by Ryszard Kapuściński
Knopf, New York, 2007
I noticed, too, the relationship between naming and being, because I realized upon my return to the hotel that in town I had seen only that which I was able to name: for example, I remembered the acacia tree, but not the tree standing next to it, whose name I did not know. I understood, in short, that the more words I knew, the richer, fuller, and more variegated would be the world that opened before me, and which I could capture.
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The worst aspect of the wall is to turn so many people into its defenders and produce a mental attitude that sees a wall running through everything, imagines a world as being divided into an evil and inferior part, on the outside, and a good and superior part, on the inside. A keeper of the wall need not be in physical proximity to it; he can be far away and it is enough that he carry within himself its image and pledge allegiance to the logical principles that the wall dictates.
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The goal of Herodotus's journeys? To collect new information about a country, its people, and their customs, or to test the reliability of data already gathered. Herodotus is not content with what someone else has told him—he tries to verify each thing, to compare and contrast the various versions he has heard, and then to formulate his own.
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There is among the Thracians, writes Herodotus, a tribe called the Trausians. Trausian customs are basically identical with those found elsewhere in Thrace, except for what they do at birth and death. Whenever a baby is born, its relatives gather around and grieve for the troubles it is going to have to endure now that it has been born, and they recount all the suffering of human life. When anyone dies, however, they bury him in high spirits and with jubilation, on the grounds that he has been released from so many ills and is now in a perfectly happy state.
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Here I am walking down the street in the small town of Lisali.
It is sunny, empty, and quiet.
Suddenly, I spot two policemen approaching from the opposite direction. I freeze. But running away makes no sense—there is no place to run to, and, furthermore, it is dreadfully hot and I can barely drag one foot after the other. The gendarmes are in fatigues, with deep helmets which cover half their faces, and bristling with armaments, each carrying an automatic rifle, grenades, knife, flare pistol, truncheon, and a metal implement combining spoon and fork—a portable arsenal. Why do they need it all? I wonder. And there is more. Their imposing silhouettes are also encircled with all kinds of belts and detachable linings, to which are sewn garlands of metal circles, pins, hooks, buckles.
Dressed in shorts and shirts, perhaps they would have seemed pleasant young men, the sort who would greet you politely and pleasantly offer directions if asked. But the uniform and the weaponry altered their nature and stance, and also performed yet another function: rendering difficult, even impossible, any normal human contact The men walking toward me were not ordinary people to be casually encountered, but dehumanized creatures, extraterrestrials. A new species.
They were drawing nearer and I was dripping with sweat, my legs leaden and getting heavier by the second. The key to the entire situation was that they knew as well as I did that to whatever sentence they might impose there was no appeal. No higher authority, no tribunal. If they wanted to beat me, they would beat me; if they wanted to kill me, they would kill me. I have only ever felt true loneliness in circumstances such as these—when I have stood alone face-to-face with absolute violent power. The world grows empty, silent, depopulated, and finally recedes.
Furthermore, it is not merely two gendarmes and a reporter who are participating in this street scene in a small Congolese town. Also present is a huge swath of world history, which already set us against one another many centuries ago. Here between us stand generations of slave traders; the myrmidons of King Leopold, who cut off the hands and ears of the grandfathers of these policemen; the overseers of cotton and sugar plantations, whips in their hands. The memory of those torments was passed down for years in tribal stories, and the men whom I am about to encounter would have been reared on those tales, on legends ending with a promise of a day of retribution. And today is that day—both they and I know it.
What will happen? We are close already, and getting closer and closer. Finally, they stop. I too stop. And then, from under that mountain of gear and scrap iron, emerges a voice that I will never forget, its tone humble, even pleading:
"Monsieur, avez-vous une cigarette, s'il vous piaît?"
What a sight it must have been, the zeal and the haste, the politeness, the servility even, with which I reached into my pocket for a pack of cigarettes, my last, but what does it matter, take it, my dear boys, take them all, sit and smoke the entire pack, right away, until not a puff of smoke is left!
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A cool breeze wafts constantly through the room, and I have the sensation of living on a ship. The island is motionless and in a sense the continuously clam sea is also motionless, whereas the colors are always changing—the colors of the water, of the sky, of day and night. Of everything, really—of walls and rooftops, of the neighboring village, of the sails of fishermen's boats, of the sand on the beach, of the palm and mango trees, of the wings of the seagulls and terns that always circle here. This sleepy, even lifeless place can render anyone sensitive to color dizzy, can enthrall, stun, and after a time numb and exhaust him.
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I will cover minor and major human settlements equally, because most of those which were important in the past have diminished in significance by now, and those which were great in my own time were small in times past. I will mention both equally because I know that human happiness never remains long in the same place. – Herodotus
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There aren't many such enthusiasts born. The average person is not especially curious about the world. He is alive, and being somehow obliged to deal with this condition, feels the less effort it requires, the better. Whereas learning about the world is labor, and a great, all-consuming one at that. Most people develop quite antithetical talents, in fact—to look without seeing, to listen without hearing, mainly to preserve oneself within oneself. So when someone like Herodotus comes along—a man possessed by a craving, a bug, a mania for knowledge, and endowed, furthermore, with intellect and powers of written expression—it's not so surprising that his rare existence should outlive him.
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