WASHINGTON -- In 1992, when some madness suddenly came over me to go where others would not go, I took a long trip across Central Asia. It was perhaps the least known part of the globe, and besides, the Soviet Union had just collapsed around it in a great pile of hammers and sickles.
One day out in Kyrgyzstan, a small and pleasant country where many German political exiles had been sent under Stalin, my excellent guide, a young man then studying philosophy (certainly something you need to know in the Hindu Kush), suddenly looked very mature and wise. "Did you know," he asked, "that we were the real Europeans?"
I looked around me. Everyone had dark skin, beautiful slanted eyes that are appreciatively called "Kyrgyz eyes," and Russian fur hats. I knew that there was a city or small region somewhere "out there" where all the children had red hair; that was explained by the fact that Alexander the Great swept through there on some sensuous night. But that was unusual, small and far away.
The other night, all these years later, I was watching a TV show on Central Asia. It was quite engrossing until one of the anthropologists, a famous European, said, "And, of course, the European form of mankind originated here and walked from here to Europe." I was glad I hadn't written how dumb my guide was back then!
Recently I picked up a book in one of those fading bookstores. "The Lost City of Z," the cover proclaimed. Wow! The subtitle was even better: "A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon," by David Grann. Wow again!
I know well -- and from exhausting personal experience -- the stories of ancient cities in the Andes. They were usually called "golden." We certainly know that the Spanish raped the New World -- taking the riches of Mexico's Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza, riding up the Andes on 28 horses to conquer glorious Cuzco, where the Incas' gold was formed into life-sized flowers.
But Grann is writing about the Amazon, that vast viper's nest of eternal rain and rot, of snakes and animals you have never seen before. There were no cities in the Amazon, period. Try it; you can walk your feet off across all that immense basin of green and find nothing more than a wild pig or a spider as big as a cat. But this expedition was going to find "Z," which the author had read about.
Strangely enough, when I got home from the bookstore, I was looking over some of my early Latin America articles and reread a long one about my wanderings around the Amazon. There -- in print! -- I had written that "many of the old-timers on the river were certain that there were great cities hidden in the jungle and there is evidence there, too."
Me! I had written that. Bless me.
One of the most gloriously uninhabited places of the world is the Great Empty Quarter, which is the magnificent desert that crosses and defines Saudi Arabia. I am one of those odd westerners, to quote and misquote one of Lawrence of Arabia's Arab friends, "who find solace in empty places." They give me peace.
About 15 years ago in the Sultanate of Oman, just to the south of Saudi Arabia, I was able to do research on some ancient cities, such as Ubar, along the coast in Yemen, which had been dazzling stops along the way to Alexandria. It was said that the Three Wise Men even stopped through there with frankincense and myrrh from Oman en route to the Christ Child's manger.
Now, the Smithsonian Institution, in league with the Saudi Arabian government and Exxon, just staged a magnificent show here, "Saudi Sands." It tells yet another story of how the past reveals itself in surprising ways. For archeologists have been finding wondrous ancient things under those sands: evidence of inviting cities, green oases, ports of call and places of study.
Under THOSE sands? Bless them.
You may wonder why these stories, which have obviously been perking around in my head for some time, have come out now. It is because we are in such an unholy mess in our own country that I have begun to wonder what future humans will make of us when they dig us up. "Hey, Ahmed, look at this one, mouth filled with gold!" Selfish, greedy, foolish, ugly, churlish ...
But it worries me that they might get us confused with the Mafia. After all, the Mafia holds people hostage and then kills them, if so inspired. We are being held hostage as a nation by a few nutter Republicans who refuse a law that has been passed -- and passed all the way to the Supreme Court -- that would give medical care to people. Like a Mafia, these politicians use the government's closing as a means to force the government to undo a program that is already being carried through and that the people want.
I mention those examples, too, because I think it behooves us as a great nation to think of ourselves in the future, for we certainly will not stay great if we keep acting upon inferior impulses. And don't think for a moment that we won't be found out.