How To Pronounce Izaguirre

Once, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, I for the first and only time met two Basques. They spoke both Basque and Spanish. Izaguirre is a Basque name. It was my chance to find out what it means.

“What does Izaguirre mean in Basque?” I asked in Spanish.

“Ah, Izaguirre,” one nodded knowingly. “It’s a last name.”

There are great benefits to having a rare and unusual last name. First is the fame.

“I’m the most famous Frank Izaguirre,” I recently said at the dinner table. I was referring to how the first Frank Izaguirre hit on Google is actually me, Frank Izaguirre. Even though we were in the middle of a meal, my sister immediately got up, went to her room, and brought back her laptop. I enjoyed watching her humiliation when it turned out I actually am the top hit. In the Images search you can see several pictures of me trying to look like a traveler or a writer.

A strange last name is renewable source of entertainment. One of my best friends, someone I’ve known since freshman year of college, still doesn’t know how to spell Izaguirre. Every time I’ve seen him try it’s been wrong. Izzaguirre. Izaguire. Izaguirie. I keep his name misspelled in my phone too.

I also remember submitting a very clear phonetic pronunciation to be read during my college commencement, but the lady calling the names still said something like, “Iza-meh-meh-meh.”

And I know there’s still more fun to come. One of my great motivators for breaking into the travel writing market is meeting other travel writers with a complete ineptitude for pronouncing Izaguirre. Travel writers almost by definition pride themselves on being worldly. Meeting such people and listening to them stumble is a major professional ambition.

To avoid such embarrasment, they could journey to the Basque country on a quest to find out how to pronounce Izaguirre. For late-career travel writers scrambling to come up with an idea for their next well-compensated travelogue, maybe that’s not a bad idea.

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There He Is Again! It’s VS Naipaul!

Last weekend I invited an old friend and his fiance to have lunch at my parents’ house. I’m still recovering from my colon cancer and they wanted to see me and hear about my health. Before eating, they both stood by my Dad’s library, a collection of nicely bound history books about antiquity, Europe, and the Middle East. I called my Dad over since I know he takes a lot of pride in his library. He showed off a bunch of his stuff, especially a few from his latest kick, Napoleon.

My Dad opened up a drawer to find one of his other Napoleon books. And then I recognized a name just to the right of the Napoleon book. “Hey! Dad! You have a VS Naipaul!” I later wondered if Dad had arranged the books by ascending egoism.

The book was Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, one of Naipaul’s most famous travelogues. Dad reads a lot, but he’s not really into either fiction or creative nonfiction. He likes history books and periodicals. How’d he wind up with a VS Naipaul?

Apparently, his best friend, who died about six years ago in a car accident, gave it to him right when it came out. His friend’s name was Manolo, a man he’d known since he was in Cuba – Manolo was from Cienfuegos I believe – and I am named after him. My name is my Dad’s name, Francisco Izaguirre, with Manolo jammed in between it, then translated to English. Frank Manuel Izaguirre. I thought it was really cool that Manolo had given him this book.

See I’ve been reading a lot of Paul Theroux lately, choo-chooing my way across the planet as I familiarized myself with one of travel writing’s most beloved and yet unlovable heroes. The whole time I’ve been thinking how the next author I dive into must be the other half of the epic literary friendship. It’ll be good for my own writing, and I’m eager to get my own taste of Naipaul’s legendary crankiness. I think I’ll find him quite endearing.

I also recently stumbled upon an article from The Guardian about the two men. Apparently, they’ve made up; they bumped into each other at a literary conference and decided not to be so angry anymore. I made the piece’s accompanying picture, with the two old buddies shaking hands and each emotionally looking at the other, my laptop background.

So by popping up in my Dad’s book drawer to the right of Napoleon, the man who’s been loitering on the periperhy of my attention has finally succeeded in grabbing it. OK, OK, Mr. Naipaul. I’ll read your books.

The next day I took Among the Believers out back with me to my Mother’s garden, put on some shades, and read in the sun. The book chronicles his travels through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, four countries I’d like to know more about. It starts in Iran. I was excited. Mom was working in the side yard, and suddenly came around back and saw me.

“Well if it isn’t the Prince of Persia,” she said.

To which I responded, “I’m there right now!”

2506 and the Forgotten Man Still Alive

I think this happens to most people: an obscure or forgotten historical moment seizes their interest at a formative time in their lives and stays with them forever. The moment embeds itself into their developing character and permanently alters their worldview. For me, it was the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

The Bay of Pigs was important when it happened, sure, but 50 years later it is essentially forgotten. Its legacy is completely overshadowed by the sequel episode in the Cuba-USA-USSR drama, the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is also sort of forgotten.

But about six years ago, when I was 20, I became fascinated by the Bay of Pigs. As the son of two Cuban exiles, I wondered how different my life would’ve turned out if things had gone differently that day, the logical conclusion of course being that I wouldn’t even exist because my parents would’ve never met in Miami. But I also wondered how different things would’ve been for all the exiles. What if the invasion’s promised air support hadn’t been grounded, if they hadn’t run out of ammunition at the most critical moments in the battle, if the location of the beach landing hadn’t been changed from a more favorable location to a swamp, if they hadn’t already been forsaken? Just writing about it gives me goosebumps.

The exiles are one of the America’s great immigrant success stories. They’re prosperous, they’re an integral part of one of America’s largest cities, there are several high-profile Cuban-Americans in American pop-culture (from Gloria Estefan to Marco Rubio to Pitbull), and the exiles have an exceptionally powerful lobbying presence on Capitol Hill. The argument can be made that political backing from the exiles determines the next president, since they tip the scales in the most crucial purple state. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Kennedy severely damaged the political future of the Democratic Party by disenfranchising the Cubans, although I also don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Republicans have been exploiting the exiles for decades with their cries of “Next year in Havana!” every four years.

Yet despite their success in America, the majority of exiles, even today, more than 50 years later, still dream of returning to Cuba. For some of them, it’s practically all they talk about, even now. I’ve met older exiles who justify their unhealthy habits by the fact that they won’t get back to Cuba before they die anyway, so they might as well keep drinking their cafecito even though their doctor gave them explicit orders not to. Learning about the Bay of Pigs helped me better understand the agony of the exile’s loss, their drive to succeed in America, and their permanent connection to Cuba. Even so, my interest in the Bay of Pigs eventually faded. I keep up with the story of the exiles, and I always will, but mostly I’ve just gone on living my life in America.

And then can you imagine how shocking it was when one of the forgotten pages of a history text was for an instant still a man alive here in the world? He was small and hunched over and walked crooked because of a limp in his right leg. I spoke to him only because someone else at the party I was at told me he was there on that day.

“Tell me about what happened to you. I want to know.”

We walked away from the speakers blaring salsa, merengue and other music that sounded even sillier than usual, and he told me of the things I’d read about, how they ran out of bullets, how they could see an American cruiser offshore that didn’t help them, how they were captured and held in camps and how Fidel had random groups of them publicly executed to keep them scared. He told me with tears lining his eyes. I hated myself for being taller than him and bent down to listen. He spoke until he didn’t feel like it anymore and then limped away. “2506,” he said, turning his head back towards me for a moment, “but that number means nothing to you.” “It was the number of your brigade,” I yelled after him, but he couldn’t hear me over the music. He folded back into the crowd like a random page in a book and that was it.

More Annoyance at the Hands of Eco-illiteracy

Yesterday I went to Fairchild, a botanical garden in Miami. This weekend they had an orchid festival which my parents planned on going to, and they invited me to join them. It was good for me to go get some sunshine, and I happen to be in one of the few places drenched in it while the rest of the country has spent months trying to remember what it’s like. The three of us walked around the grounds for awhile, but eventually I veered off, since I’m not much of an orchid enthusiast anyway.

I sat on a table by one of the garden’s small lagoons. A mother with her daughter, who was probably around 12, came and sat at the next one.

“Ooooohhh, Erica, look at the anhinga!”

There was a double-crested cormorant sunning itself across the lagoon.

“That’s an anhinga, Erica.”

Erica stared at the bird, possibly memorizing the features of double-crested cormorants so she can one day tell her own daughter they’re anhingas.

Then the dad showed up. He sat next to his wife. Erica walked up to the edge of the lagoon. I watched from behind the shield of my dark glasses.

“Oh my God, Mommy! There’s a turtle here!”

Dad got up to have a look.

In a surprisingly nasal voice for an older man, he said, “Oh, Erica, that’s an alligator snapping turtle.”

It was a Florida softshell turtle. There are many of them in Fairchild. They look absolutely nothing like alligator snapping turtles, which to my understanding remain completely hidden at the bottom of muddy waterbodies anyway. The softshell swam over to the edge of the lagoon, just a few feet away from Erica. She studied its features, memorizing them so she could one day pass on the information. Dad continued dropping the knowledge bomb.

“Erica, the alligator snapping turtle is the only turtle, eh, eh, that can, eh, you know, snap its mouth.”

Erica nodded as her father spoke to her.

“They are super, super dangerous.”

It almost seemed like he didn’t actually believe it was an alligator snapping turtle, because why else would he let his daughter stand right next to an animal that was so super, super dangerous? Softshells are completely harmless. Somewhere deep down inside, he must somehow know how much of an idiot he is.

I am of course also ignorant of what many, many animals are, including in my native South Florida. But when I claim to know the identity of an animal – bird, turtle, or anything else – I make sure I’m one hundred percent positive. If I’m not sure, then I say, “I think it’s a such and such. We’ll have to look it up later.”

If we believe ecoliteracy is important, as I assume even these folks do, since they were trying to teach their daughter the names of different animals, we have to treat it like it’s important and not claim to know something unless we are completely sure. There’s no shame in saying you think an animal is something, but are not absolutely positive. Checking the guidebook back home or in the field is gratifying in its own way, not to mention a nice bonding experience between parent and child.

Of course, if I was a true champion of ecoliteracy, I would’ve spoken up.

“Erica, don’t listen to your parents. That’s a cormorant and that’s a softshell. Seems mom and dad are wrong about everything.”

Maybe that would’ve gotten her ready to be a teenager.

So I’ve Decided I’m A Huge LeBron Fan

Sports? On a travel writing blog? Yes, because half the reason I started a blog was so I could rant about whatever topic has most recently moved my spirit. Besides, just wait for the end of the post, when I sneakingly (absurdly?) link my LeBron James opinion back to travel writing. Don’t skip ahead and spoil the surprise.

First, I need to disclose I’m from Miami, but since James joined the Heat, which I should also disclose have always been my favorite sports team (I grew up in the glory days of Alonzo and Timmy Hardaway), I’ve been reluctant to get behind him. Of course I was excited when he came to Miami, but I cringed at how he did it. When they fell apart in the finals last year, I was sad, but somehow a little relieved. Losing a championship meant they burned off their bad karma, and they didn’t deserve to win anyway based on how they played in the most important games of their lives.

This season I’ve been watching much more of their games. They’ve had a little time to come together as a team, and I love the additions they made, especially Shane Battier. Pretty much everyone’s playing great.

Somehow though, I’ve still been a little reluctant with James. Obviously, he’s an absolute joy to watch, and my Dad and I have had tons of fun together catching practically all the games this season. Despite that, I can’t help wonder if he’ll leave Miami the same way he left Cleveland. And as much as it seems he’s matured, why does he still say absurd things about possibly returning to Cleveland (even if he were secretly planning that), among other things? Can’t he see how badly he damages his recovering image and how much needless distress he causes people when he talks like that? Can’t he be just a little more careful with what he says?

But I see James differently now, and it’s largely because of the insight of an old high school friend of mine I recently met with for lunch. He told me how he considers ESPN the worst journalistic institution in the US because they essentially make and then report on their own stories. Example #1 is of course “The Decision,” which was something they totally set up, and then mercilessly used as an opportunity to trash him.

And by trashing him, they were also cashing in on him. Ratings soared. Everyone profitted from his missteps. It’s in every sports journalist’s best interest for LeBron to continue saying outrageous things and then not winning a title. They have more to comment on, more opportunity to make money for themselves by bad-mouthing him. The closer he comes without sealing it, the better.

Frankly, the whole thing kind of disgusts me. It disgusts me much more, in fact, than the naive arrogance of a young man who became very famous very quickly. Those people owe so much of their livelihoods to James. If sports journalism were the world, James would be Atlas.

So, in my view, by being the overdog, the absolute best player in the world today, and possibly ever, James has become in at least some sense the underdog. Nearly everyone wants him to fail, and to keep failing. Realizing that has made me respect him more. I want him to overcome and quiet the critics, who were all too quick to turn on him when it suited them. So when I begin my travels again, I look forward to proclaiming myself a huge LeBron fan.

Besides, a big part of the success of many of the most popular travel writers is having unpopular opinions. Just think of VS Naipaul and the absurd things he said last year about female writers.

So I’m definitely a huge LeBron fan. We’ll start with that.

A Nice Exchange with Eva Holland

One of my favorite sites is World Hum, a page dedicated to publishing all kinds of insightful and interesting stories, profiles,  links, and lists about travel and travel writing. Possibly my favorite thing about the site is that I’m able to easily post contrarian viewpoints on the nature of travel writing and be in dialogue with some of the industry’s top voices. Open forums make that possible.

Recently, Eva Holland, the senior editor, posted an excerpt taken from a recent Harper’s piece written by Robert MacFarlane which she really liked.

Here’s the excerpt in question:

He saved travel writing by changing its mandate: After Chatwin, the challenge was to find not originality of destination but originality of form.

Among those who have followed Chatwin, the most interesting have forged new forms specific to their chosen subjects: thus Pico Iyer’s sparkily hyperconnective studies of globalized culture and William Least Heat-Moon’s “deep maps” of America’s lost regions. Perhaps most important were W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic “prose fictions”—particularly “Rings Of Saturn”—that likewise hover between genres, make play with unreliability, and fold in on other forms: traveler’s tale, antiquarian digression, and memoir. What Sebald, like so many of us, learned from Chatwin was that the travelogue could voyage deeply in time rather than widely in space, and that the interior it explored need not be the heart of a place but the mind of the traveler.

I disagree with the implications of what MacFarlane’s saying, and I said as much in the forum. In my reading, MarFarlane’s postulating that because essentially every destination had already been written about in Chatwin’s day, Chatwin shifted the dynamic by creating new forms and making that the emphasis of the genre.

What bothers me about this is that people and places aren’t static, so it’s not like every place on earth had or has been written about. Once even a little time has passed, the destination will be different, especially in our rapidly changing world, which means that it is in effect a new place and worth writing about for that reason alone. New forms can be great, but I don’t believe they’re inherently necessary because the fact that people and places are always changing means that there’s always new places to write about.

In fact, I believe an emphasis on constantly creating new forms puts travel writing on a dangerous uphill trajectory, where it becomes increasingly difficult to come up with these new forms. The result may be a race to gimmickry. Check out the rest of the conversation and Eva Holland’s response here.

About That Title

Welcome to my website, Curious Traveler, which I hope will be just as run-of-the-mill and forgettable as every other homepage designed by a travel writer who thinks he can somehow carve out a niche for himself in an absurdly bloated market. The idea behind Curious Traveler is that travel writers must be curious; that the world is interesting and therefore worth exploring must be a core belief. But almost by definition travel writers end up being just plain curious, by which I mean weird. That’s part of their glory.

I’ve got five basic categories:

“Diatribes” is my rants and raves section, a cocktail of intellectual inquiry, humor, and pretension.

“Mental Mastications” is for ruminations, meditations, contemplations, and stuff like that. The thing is I wanted to use a less commonly seen -tion word, hence mastications. I also like the image it gives me: a travel writer crouching in a pasture like a cow, endlessly chewing grass.

“Perils Averted” is for adventures and other outings. That’s what most travel writing is, I think: just another dangerous situation the writer inserts himself in, like the plucky protagonist he is, only to narrowly escape, totally unscathed.

“Profiles of Interest” is stuff about people whose stories are more interesting to write about than my own. There will be many.

And lastly, “The Catharsis of Wilderness and Corresponding Nonsense” is, of course, nature writing.

I’ll be updating the site a lot. Check back often, or, better yet, subscribe in the lower right corner.