Letters To Strangers

This book looks like a must-read for multiple reasons. At least 65. That is the number of writers musing on a simple question: how can an “ephemeral encounter with a stranger leave such an eternal mark?” As someone whose life story hinges on a chance encounter in an airport, and so believes that strangers can make great co-adventurers, I am in. If you want a taste of what is in store, this essay by an author we have appreciated in these pages several times over the years, titled To My Lost Trishaw Driver, is excerpted from it:

Yangon, Myanmar, via Creative Commons.

Pico Iyer on decades of letters to a man he met, once, in Myanmar.

Travel is, deep down, an exercise in trust, and sometimes I think it was you who became my life’s most enduring teacher. I had every reason to be wary when, in 1985, I clambered out of the overnight train and stepped out into the October sunshine of Mandalay, blinking amidst the dust and bustle of the “City of Kings.” Continue reading

Collapsitarian, No


‘Wyrd goes ever as it must.’

After some weeks of letting the ideas in this essay settle in, and not reading (until now) any of the criticism of those ideas, it is more clear to me that I mistook Franzen’s position for something familiar, even close to home. Going back through my own postings on this platform, the mistake is understandable. We have been highlighting soft and gradual and mostly (but not all, by any means) comforting approaches to thinking about climate change.

I just revisited this post, thinking that Franzen’s position is like that word I heard 5+ years ago, but Franzen is not a collapsitarian. From my poking around, it is not clear that Paul Kingsnorth is one either. In that earlier post I linked to the About section on his website and it is still as funny ever, but now this:

Occasionally Asked Questions

Who are you?

I am 75% English, 25% Greek Cypriot, 100% European and 0% European Union. I share 96% of my genetic material with chimpanzees and 60% with bananas. I am descended from the Viking Earls of the Orkney Isles. I live with my English-Punjabi wife and our two children in the west of Ireland, where 85% of the men are descended from eastern Mediterranean farmers.

I’m a writer. I mainly write novels, poetry and essays.

Tell me about your writing

My non-fiction takes deep dives into big questions about how we might live in a world losing its cultural and ecological bearings at a rapid rate.

My fiction is mythological, otherworldly and multilayered, and is aimed at adults with at least one underworld journey under their belts…

It is worth reading in full, to see how his views may have changed in recent years, but mainly what caught my attention is the program of courses he has created, which look worthy of promotion, especially as captured in the photos (©Natasha Lythgoe) below and at the top:

The Wyrd School is a writing school unlike any other. Founded in 2018 by Paul Kingsnorth, an award-winning novelist, poet and essayist, with two decades of writing experience, we are home to unique writing courses, talks, and other events designed to bring the human and the non-human worlds back into contact, and to help you produce writing and art from the resulting sparks.

Wyrd is an old Anglo-Saxon word, often translated as fate or destiny. Continue reading

Raduan Nassar, Back To The Land

9780811226561On January 31st, 2017 New Directions Publishing is bringing this masterpiece, published originally in Brazil in 1984, to an English-reading audience for the first time:

For André, a young man growing up on a farm in Brazil, life consists of “the earth, the wheat, the bread, our table, and our family.” He loves the land, fears his austere, pious father, who preaches from the head of the table as if from a pulpit, and loathes himself as he begins to harbor shameful feelings for his sister Ana. Lyrical and sensual, written with biblical intensity, this classic Brazilian coming-of-age novel follows André’s tormented path. He falls into the comforting embrace of liquor as—in his psychological and sexual awakening—he must choose between body and soul, obligation and freedom.

I was completing a degree in literature the year this was first published, but Portuguese was not an option for my reading, nor was Brazil really on my map at that time. As a result, or for whatever other reasons, I never heard of this book before.

Work assignments took me to Brazil several times in the intervening decades, and Latin America has been home base for most of the last two decades. I know I must read this, and soon, so it has just moved to the top of my next-book list. But for a very different reason the author has my attention, thanks to this:


In 1984, at the height of his literary fame, Raduan Nassar announced his retirement, to become a farmer. Continue reading

Smart Reading, 20 Years On

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-10-09-24-amThere is a 5-10 minute read in the upcoming issue of the New Yorker that helps put two decades into a narrow but interesting perspective. 20 years ago I was in the process of moving my family to Costa Rica for a job I had accepted one year earlier. I remember the period described below, which could be considered the transition to life online, as we now know it. Odd to think it was happening just as we moved to a kind of Garden of Eden. Slate has been a part of “life online” ever since. I was mainly drawn to Kinsley, one of the sharpest of thinkers and communicators. He is long, long gone from Slate. But the experiment was fruitful; Slate is alive and well even as the media landscape is oversaturated with copies of copies of copies:


The digital magazine’s founding editor-in-chief and his successors got together to survey its history and its contributions to online journalism.

It’s been twenty years since Michael Kinsley, the former editor of The New Republic, undertook a novel adventure: the creation of a magazine, underwritten by Microsoft, that was to exist primarily in what was then known as “cyberspace.” “There will be efforts to update it, perhaps on a daily basis,” the Times noted, in a report that appeared below the fold on page D1 of its issue of Monday, April 29, 1996, two months before the launch of Slate.

Recently, Kinsley, who was the editor-in-chief of Slate from 1996 until 2002, and his three successors—Jacob Weisberg, David Plotz, and Julia Turner—gathered in Washington, D.C., to record a podcast: a five-way conversation with Josh Levin, the magazine’s executive editor. It was a nostalgic and forgivably self-regarding celebration of what Turner characterized as Slate’s “smarty-pants, curious journalism, opinion, and analysis.” The editors posed, grinning, for a group photo. Continue reading

The Sense Of A Place


What Annie Proulx says about places she has lived–through her fiction especially but also in this interview below–rings a bell for us, considering the number of places we have chosen to live to do what we do. What the interview echoes specifically for me is the inherent improbability of accomplishing one of our key objectives: we want travelers to become as attached to places as we are, so that they will care about the conservation mission of our initiatives in each location as much as we do. It occurs to me that our guests spend about as much time with us in any given location as a reader spends on any given book by Proulx; also, books and our locations share in common the fact that they can be revisited an indefinite number of times.

That said, we want our guests to care more about these locations than even the most devoted reader cares about a Proulx character; not because we think less of her characters but because our conservation mission is about places in need of constant support. Improbability in this context refers to the question: how can our guests become intensely attached–as happens when a reader is gripped by a compelling character in a deeply human situation in an exquisitely described location–in a limited amount of time and continue to care intensely after they depart? That is our challenge, and we are constantly finding new ways of answering that question.

Another echo from reading what Annie Proulx says about the places she has lived, about belonging, feels strongly relevant. If we are a fraction as good at what we do as she is at what she does, belonging becomes irrelevant. What matters is how much sense we make of the place, and how much sensibility we harness in showcasing it to our guests. If you have read any of her books, you know how evocative place can be–like an additional character–and if that captures your attention you should read the interview that follows the introductory section excerpted below.



Annie Proulx is 80 years old and still not sure where she belongs. Standing in the atrium of her home in the Snoqualmie Valley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist eyes a photograph of the cottage she once occupied in Newfoundland, the setting of her 1993 novel, The Shipping News. “I fell in love with that landscape,” Proulx says, speaking in the tone of a woman describing an ex-lover. Continue reading

Community, Collaboration & Conservation 2011-2016

As pop-ups go, this has been long-lived. We listened to the communities we came to Kerala to serve; we collaborated with them every day of the week, each month, year after year since arrival; and the conservation work will continue. We will be watching and commenting from our new site at lapazgroup.net, which will retain all our material from the past five years.

My personal thanks to all the individuals who are listed in the Contributors section above. It would be unfair to highlight any one or even just a few of them. By definition each one broke through the inertia sometimes described as the collective action problem–leaving it to someone else to do–and did the writing and illustration needed to make our work resonate with a broad audience. And if you look at the number of views, visitors and comments they left behind, our readers seemed to appreciate all that. We had employees, as well as interns, plus friends and family— even our main man on more than one occasion contributing–individually, collectively, collaboratively.

Thanks said, we hope you will continue to follow us after the name change in a couple days.

The Back Stories


Beach time with little Adoniya and her mother Sini, member of the Xandari family.

Ask me the most meaningful part of my job around here in recent time and I’d hold up the Xandari films without a doubt. To call them films or videos is an acknowledgement of their formats and the creative process that goes into them. But to embrace all of them together with the words labour of love is simply the truth. (Watch them here).That we loved making them, loved dissecting the resorts to take a closer look at their DNA, their dreams. Above all, loved the Xandari family a little bit more. I’ll tell you why.

Continue reading

Traveling by Water

Many are the memories created on the banks of rivers, in the middle of the sea, and along ocean tides. PHOTO: Abrachan Pudussery

Many are the memories created on the banks of rivers, in the middle of the sea, and along ocean tides. PHOTO: Abrachan Pudussery

At Xandari Riverscapes, water is everything. Sharing the Kerala backwaters with all those who choose to travel with us has always been about sharing stories of the waters. Of the paddy fields that hug the river banks, canoes that transport groceries and construction material to the hinterlands, women and children fishing and splashing around near their waterfront homes, fishing boats, and more. And so this soulful piece on water’s incredible power to flow by memories resonates with us all through:

Water is great. We tune ourselves to it, to its murmured song of ebb and flow, of wave and ripple, in seas, rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, ponds, snows. We drink it, we bathe in it, we stare at dark clouds praying for their sudden moment of release of it. “Take me somewhere magical,” my favorite cousin once said. So I did, to sail the sea. By the third day our ship was completely out of sight of land, nothing but water curving with the horizon.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh. That’s exactly what I needed.”

Below us, the swells rolled, allowing us to dance with them until our very steps were full of the lift of waves. In our own small way, our steps lifting with the waves, we were tuning the ocean as we sailed—and it, in turn, was tuning us.

Continue reading

What’s The Catch?

Golden hour at the line of fishing nets along Fort Kochi beach, Kerala, India. PHOTO: Rosanna

Golden hour at the line of fishing nets along Fort Kochi beach, Kerala, India. PHOTO: Rosanna

Are you a traveler or a tourist? Yes, both mean different things. A traveler – unhurried, lacks the “need” to see/do things, explores beyond the ‘must’ eat, visit lists. A tourist – one for order, one who settles for a “simplified ABC version of the globe“. Highly subjective definitions, yes. Disputable, too. But it easily makes you and I a traveler every single day, at every other place. It makes me a traveler in my own land, in my own time. Friend to tourists and wayfarers, a commonplace storyteller, a forever traveler.

Continue reading

When Stories Travel the World

Few books have been narrated, written, re-written, translated and adapted as much as Panchatantra, the collection of tales of wisdom. PHOTO: Scroll

Few books have been narrated, written, re-written, translated and adapted as much as Panchatantra, the collection of tales of wisdom. PHOTO: Scroll

For more than two and a half millennia, the Panchatantra tales have regaled children and adults alike with a moral at the end of every story. Some believe that they are as old as the Rig Veda. There is also another story about these fables. According to it, these are stories Shiva told his consort Parvati. The present series is based on the Sanskrit original.

A king, worried that his three sons are without the wisdom to live in a world of wile and guile, asks a learned man called Vishnu Sharman to teach them the ways of the world. Since his wards are dimwits, Vishnu Sharman decides to pass on wisdom to them in the form of stories. In these stories, he makes animals speak like human beings. Panchatantra is a collection of attractively told stories about the five ways that help the human being succeed in life. Pancha means five and tantra means ways or strategies or principles. Addressed to the king’s children, the stories are primarily about statecraft and are popular throughout the world. The five strategies are: First Strategy: The Loss of FriendsSecond Strategy: Gaining FriendsThird Strategy: Of Crows and OwlsFourth Strategy: Loss of Gains and Fifth Strategy: Imprudence.

Continue reading

The Internet of Philosophy

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy now contains nearly 1,500 entries, and changes are made daily. (Installation by Marcos Saboya and Gualter Pupo. Photo by Reuters/Olivia Harris)

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy now contains nearly 1,500 entries, and changes are made daily. (Installation by Marcos Saboya and Gualter Pupo. Photo by Reuters/Olivia Harris)

The Internet is a goldmine of information, yes. In a parallel dimension, it lags in providing authoritative, rigorously accurate knowledge, at no cost to readers. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has changed all that, beginning two decades ago.

The story of how the SEP is run, and how it came to be, shows that it is possible to create a less trashy internet—or at least a less trashy corner of it. A place where actual knowledge is sorted into a neat, separate pile instead of being thrown into the landfill. Where the world can go to learn everything that we know to be true. Something that would make humans a lot smarter than the internet we have today.

Continue reading

India and the Malay Literary Tradition

Caritra Rama, in romanised Malay with many Javanese elements, copied at Surabaya in February 1812. PHOTO: British Library, MSS Malay D 7, f. 5r (detail).

Caritra Rama, in romanised Malay with many Javanese elements, copied at Surabaya in February 1812. PHOTO: British Library, MSS Malay D 7, f. 5r (detail).

The epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata find their meaning and origin on Indian soil but their reach goes beyond the subcontinent. And the British Library’s archives find evidences of these in Malay literary traditions.

The great Indian epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata were known throughout Southeast Asia, but it was the Ramayana that most profoundly influenced Malay literary tradition. One of the oldest Malay manuscripts in a British collection is a copy of the Hikayat Seri Rama in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, which bears the ownership inscription of Archbishop Laud dated 1633. The British Library holds a manuscript of Caritra Rama, “The story of Ram”, in romanised Malay, which was copied in Surabaya in 1812.

Continue reading

The Post Office and World War

A completed field postcard, posted on 22 March 1916. PHOTO: BBC

A completed field postcard, posted on 22 March 1916. PHOTO: BBC

When was the last time you put paper to pen and saw your writing come to life? The last time you held a piece of card so small but held news and feelings from across seven seas? Writing and receiving mail is quite the experience, all the more now in the age of keypads and instant messages. It was important, too. Like in the time of the World War. When the mail was recognized as the biggest tool of maintaining morale.

BBC brings some interesting facets:

The most effective weapon used during World War One wasn’t the shell or the tank, it was morale. The British Army believed that it was crucial to an allied victory, and it looked to the Post Office for help.

The delivery of post was vital for two reasons. Firstly, receiving well wishes and gifts from home was one of the few comforts a soldier had on the Western Front. The majority of them spent more time fighting boredom than they did the enemy, and writing was one of the few hobbies available to them. For some, it was a welcome distraction from the horrors of the trenches.

Secondly, letters served a propaganda purpose as everything that soldiers sent back was subject to censorship. The British Army claimed this was to prevent the enemy finding out secret information, but really it was to prevent bad news from reaching the home front. Letters from serving soldiers had a powerful role, not just in keeping families informed of the well-being of their loved ones; they also helped to sustain popular support for the war across the home front. Nothing could be allowed to jeopardise that.

Continue reading

A Volcano That Fanned the Arts

The deep volcanic crater, top, was produced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815 - the most powerful volcanic blast in recorded history. PHOTO: Iwan Setiyawan/KOMPAS, via Associated Press

The deep volcanic crater, top, was produced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815 – the most powerful volcanic blast in recorded history. PHOTO: Iwan Setiyawan/KOMPAS, via Associated Press

That the volcanoes have power is plain, cemented truth. You hear of their trail of ravage – ash, rocks, lava, evacuation, barren lands. The volcano vocabulary is dreary, if you may say so. But not the eruption of Mount Tambora. For this be the reason for many a flood, famine, disease, civil unrest and economic decline.

“The year without a summer,” as 1816 came to be known, gave birth not only to paintings of fiery sunsets and tempestuous skies but two genres of gothic fiction. The freakish progeny were Frankenstein and the human vampire, which have loomed large in art and literature ever since.

“The paper trail,” said Dr. Wood, a University of Illinois professor of English, “goes back again and again to Tambora.”

Continue reading

A 750-year-old Legacy

This be the destination that Dante Alighieri envisioned then: A love that moves the sun and other stars. ILLUSTRATION: Gustave Dore

This be the destination that Dante Alighieri envisioned then: A love that moves the sun and other stars. ILLUSTRATION: Gustave Dore

A prophet of hope, herald of the possibility of redemption, liberation and the profound transformation of every man and woman, of all humanity

– Pope Francis on Dante

An epic poem running into 14,233 lines, an allegorical exploration of hell and purgatory to reach paradise and a quest to understand the authentic self and the transcendental meaning of existence – Dante Alighieri has given much to the world. With Italy and literary circles celebrating his 750th birth anniversary this month, all awe and criticism once again turn the Divine Comedy’s way. Wondering about a 700-year-old text’s relevance in this century? Well, we are talking Dante and to say his masterpiece is a timeless revolution wouldn’t be way off the mark. Over his oft-didactic narrative and theological inferences, Dante leaves readers with gruesome yet alluring imagery, the knack to examine status-quo and a careful look at the duality in life. Continue reading

Weather Small Talk, In Elegant Essayist Form



We operate in locations where there can be extreme weather (though not the white variety), so we are reminded of the value of good description of weather events.  One of our favored essayists, specifically, reminded us today with fabulous made up words and reminders of literature, all while making small talk about the weather:

The threatened Snowpocalypse missed New York, more or less, making Monday morning’s panic look slightly absurd on Tuesday afternoon, as panics do when they turn out to be unneeded. On Monday afternoon, with the storm on the way and the blizzard warnings screeching, the lines in a Manhattan supermarket stretched from the cash registers deep into the paper towels and bottled spaghetti sauces, with a sudden shortage of carts causing shoppers to clutch bottles of water and cold meats to their bosoms, as though the items were small children being kept warm from the Cossacks. Presumably, the immigrant nature of New York has given us a sort of collective unconscious of Old World flight and refugee instincts. The irrationality of the purchases might have been clear enough. Lady ahead in the line: How do you imagine that you’re going to cook all that raw meat if the power goes out; and, if it doesn’t go out, what will you really have to worry about? But you were thinking this even as you clutched your own raw meat and water to your own worried heart.

For a Canadian or two in New York—I name no names, though my wife comes to mind—it seemed a little absurd: we didn’t even call this kind of thing a snowstorm when we were kids in Canada. Continue reading

Good Writing, According To Steven Pinker

Thanks to Intelligence Squared for the last dozen years of excellent debate, Oxford style, and in particular for this recent conversation that picks up where this last post, and the one before that, left off in terms of making us want to hear more from Steven Pinker:


with Ian McEwan

Steven Pinker is one of the world’s leading authorities on language, mind and human nature. A professor of psychology at Harvard, he is the bestselling author of eight books and regularly appears in lists of the world’s top 100 thinkers.

On September 25th he returned to the Intelligence Squared stage to discuss his latest publication The Sense of Style, a short and entertaining writing guide for the 21st century. Pinker argued that bad writing can’t be blamed on the internet, or on “the kids today”. Continue reading

Giraffes Deserve Science As Much We Need Good Science Writers

Julian Fennessy. Giraffes are the “forgotten megafauna,” said the  executive director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.

Julian Fennessy. Giraffes are the “forgotten megafauna,” said the executive director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.

We have been highlighting science writers since our outset as a blog, following a longstanding respect from our contributors for their particular talent, which has made us richer by reaching fruit that is sometimes too high on a tree to reach and bringing it where we can reach it.

From the current New York Times weekly section highlighting and explaining scientific matters of interest to us with one of the greatest writers in the genre, we now turn our attention to giraffes for the first time in our several years sharing (and as pointed out in the article we can only wonder why we have not paid more attention to such a creature prior to now):


Our Understanding of Giraffes Does Not Measure Up


Giraffes may be popular — a staple of zoos, corporate logos and the plush toy industry — but until recently almost nobody studied giraffes in the field so there is much we don’t know about them.

Reflecting on the Summer at Xandari

The familiar sight of a path between villas snaking through Xandari’s gardened grounds

My internship in Costa Rica has officially come to an end. I was incredibly fortunate to spend eight weeks at Xandari, an environmentally-focused resort in Costa Rica’s Valle Central. As I sit back at home in the US, a world away (or a short 3 1/2 hours on an airplane, take your pick…), and try to assimilate the different experiences at Xandari, I am struck by some thoughts. Without being too verbose, I’d like to offer a few reflections on my time there this summer.

When I arrived June 10th, I’m not sure what I was expecting. As is probably the case for many tourists visiting Costa Rica, spectacular images of wildlife populated my imagination: monkeys, sloths, toucans, and macaws, meandering trails of army and leaf-cutter ants, poison dart frogs, and the infamous Fer-de-lance pit viper, to name a few. Never having visited a subtropical country or walked through a rainforest, the teeming jungles of Costa Rica stood for me as a kind of fabled land-before-time, a place where Continue reading

Creative Writing, Antidote To Entomophobia?

Jeffrey Lockwood, the director of the creative writing program at the University of Wyoming, has received the Pushcart Prize and a John Burroughs Award for his essays. His most recent book, to the right, was brought to our attention while reading his recent essay in one of our favorite online publications. The description of his book, provided by Oxford University Press:

The human reaction to insects is neither purely biological nor simply cultural. And no one reacts to insects with indifference. Insects frighten, disgust and fascinate us. Jeff Lockwood explores this phenomenon through evolutionary science, human history, and contemporary psychology, as well as  Continue reading