My Adventures with Don Quixote: Part One
If you’ve stumbled upon this essay without having read last week’s introduction to “My Adventures with Don Quixote”, you can read it now by clicking the above link. Otherwise onward ho …
I’m presently on Chapter 12 of Don Quixote, halfway through Part Two of the four-part novel published in 1605. By 1615, Cervantes had also written a sequel, now known as Part Two, which is typically published alongside Part One. To be clear, though, I’m only on Part Two of the first novel — that is, scarcely into my adventures with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Yet already there are considerations calling forth to be written down, like excitable children thrusting and waving their right hands into the air, bursting to share their thoughts with their young, good and fair teacher, who by dint of having inflected her voice before the slightest of pauses has, almost unawares, called upon all children to come forth as metaphysicians, to tell their version of how the world came into being, how it is that things are as they are, or, at least, what they did over the weekend just past.
Don Quixote is said to be a mirror of sorts in which the reader sees himself or whatever else he might wish to read into the story. And perhaps that’s the case with my own reading. But already Cervantes’ good-humored criticism of the numskull adventures of Don Quixote, in particular, and of foolish romanticism, generally, has the somewhat disconcerting effect of causing me to consider afresh how quixotic, indeed, have been Mufidah’s and my slow travels to date, by and large skint of all but a shared headiness to sally forth regardless of the perils arrayed before us.
We’ve not, as far as I recall, come to any virtuous damsel’s rescue, yet there’s little doubt that we left our provincial La Mancha as writers errant, wide-eyed in anticipation of adventures ahead, and so bade farewell without even the good sense, or taste, to have had the first person we came upon put sword, or pen, to our shoulders and knight us as such. Instead, with little more than bravado and a short-lived wind in our sails, we headed for distant shores in the foolhardy hope that all (or at least some!) would recognize us as good and glorious wayfarers on an almost divine expedition and that suitable victuals, campsite fees and petrol funds — if not the riches of the world — would fall like manna from the skies of continental Europe.
Well, not exactly. There is, as with Cervantes’ work, a liberal dose of artistic license assumed throughout my writings herein and elsewhere. Additionally, there’s that ever-present niggling realization that in stating virtually anything, including the most trivial of positive statements, that that’s not even close to half the story, that there’s always much more that could be said. However, one must at some point let go and rest in the recognition that a good reader — one, that is, who’s doing their part to meet a writer halfway as a means for a spark of communication to fire from one to another — will understand the gist of what’s being said without the writer having to obsessively heap qualification upon qualification in an ill-fated attempt to get asymptotically closer to the unattainable goal of a perfectly articulated, received and wholly understood communiqué.
But it’s not an exaggeration to say that many things which didn’t necessarily go well during our initial slow-traveling sallies could, at least as easily, have done so.
Instead, it sometimes seemed we’d crossed paths with a perfect storm of mishaps, most of which were largely out of our control — the only car insurance company we could find offering year-long continental coverage required full payment for the twelve months ahead; my freshly “Made in the U.S.A.” passport arrived at the American embassy in London, direct from the manufacturer, in a reportedly unacceptable state; a new laptop adapter suddenly went on the blink leaving us struggling to keep the computer charged; the wifi connection at the campsite in which we lived for two months was constantly going down, all the while we were trying to earn our living largely through our respective online services; and personal belongings we’d left with a friend to sell on our behalf weren’t able to be sold nearly as easily as she, and we, had hoped, for various reasons beyond even our friend’s control. Etc., etc.
All to say, we ended up pinching pennies to keep ourselves in groceries sufficient for sustaining life, and spent farcical amounts of time and energy strategizing how best to part with, say, 20 to 30 euros to cover our food for the week to come — not to mention a 15-euro-a-day campsite fee, plus a minimum amount of petrol to keep our car running, or to have fuel with which to cook our meals. Eventually we made the difficult decision to send out a plea for help to our respective mailing lists, composed of long-time students, clients and friends, a sufficient number of whom came to our aid such that we could pay off our Vichy campsite fee as a means to move on to other realms.
But despite many an unforeseen challenge, it must be emphasized that a near-infinite number of things went and continue to go beautifully. Indeed, as noted at the end of my introduction to this series, it is the unexpected which is both the staple and the spice (if sometimes, too, the very bane) of all worthwhile travels.
Yet it’s an interesting human phenomenon that these moments of difficulty present an almost-irresistible temptation for many a naysayer to harp on about, to take the occasion, apparently long held in check, to issue forth self-gratifying I told you so’s, and, thereby, to miss the forest for the naturally broken branches strewn upon the pine-needled floor.
Poppycock. One doesn’t go adventuring without a keen awareness of all that could go wrong. Rather, sallying forth despite this awareness calls upon and deepens one’s reverence for, and trust in, something larger than one’s self when the vicissitudes come, as they’re sure to do.
It’s this capacity or quality, perhaps more than any other, which separates the traveler from the armchair critic. The ability, that is, to know fear, to feel it deeply, but to continue on one’s way in the very face of it. And readers of Don Quixote might keep this in mind. Quixote’s adventures might go awry, or spring from evil deeds, in fact, unsprung, but let’s give the old boy credit for having finally decided to leave behind the safety of his books to embark upon his own, rather than someone else’s, heroic journey. And, too, Sancho Panza, who left his home, his children and his wife to accompany his more literate if less grounded neighbor on adventures that nearly half a millennium later we’re still reading about.
No matter how daunting have been the difficulties Mufidah and I have faced since embarking upon our nomadic existence nine months ago, not for a moment have either of us regretted having gone a-traveling. On the contrary, we have every intention, God willing, to continue our slow travels without any end in sight.
And we daily count our blessings for having made a thousand and one decisions which continue to serve us — deciding, for instance, what to pack and what to leave behind, replacing our tent before leaving England, buying a Cobb with which to prepare our meals while camping and even now while living in an inner-city flat, registering with CouchSurfing, doing loads of research and planning with regard to our laptops and other technological concerns, servicing our ’98 Fiat Punto which hasn’t once let us down, buying the particular make and model of roof box which has been invaluable to us, and countless other such decisions which support our travels, whether camping, CouchSurfing or settling down for a spell as we have in Spain since last September.
However, there’s a passage at the beginning of Don Quixote that describes uncannily well even our comparatively high-living situation here in Burgos: “An occasional stew, beef more often than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometimes squab as a treat on Sundays — these consumed three-fourths of [Quixote’s] income.”
Apart from Mufidah’s and my not yet having had to eat fledgling pigeon as a Sunday treat, the major difference between the fictional Quixote’s financial situation and ours is that the illustrious knight errant owned the arable land upon which he lived, while we’re paying (an admittedly nominal) rent, yet one which combined with our carefully managed grocery expenditures comes, in fact, to three-fourths of the combined income earned from teaching English to our students here. Fortunately, though, the cost of living in Burgos is much lower than either France or England, with food being far more affordable, a situation for which we’re likewise continuously grateful. And we both love to cook, so healthy, scrumptious meals abound regardless of our tight budget, as they did even while relatively down and out in Vichy last summer.
So, in short, parallels come easily to mind, including the fact that I’m fast-approaching Don Quixote’s age, said in Chapter 1 to be “approximately fifty years old”. Perhaps to my detriment, however, a great number of scales over the years have been torn from my eyes, scales which seem, still, to cloud Quixote’s vision. Though perhaps not, for as Quixote sees giants where the rest of society sees windmills, so, too, do I at times. (As, thankfully, do a growing number of others — those, that is, who inquire into things for themselves rather than to rely on what’s broadcast into their minds without the slightest amount of fact-checking against available evidence, their own empirical knowledge and common sense, or the laws of physics.)
As Miguel de Cervantes would have his early seventeenth-century readers do — to unplug from the madness-inducing chivalric romances of his day — we, for reasons far more ominous, need to unplug ourselves from the Hydra-headed sources of unspeakable fictions which, spread like a barrage of viruses, are engineering us, en masse, to live fictional lives, as men and women whose very madness certifies us as being sane while the, at first, seemingly mad amongst us (think Socrates, Frances Farmer or Brian Haw, for example) might well shine as our last beacons of hope to inspire us to finally cast off the yoke of true madness which in slow-drip, media-induced fashion achieves the same end as frontal lobotomies performed in just seconds — that is, to keep us as fearful, malleable and, thus, controllable as a flock of sheep, devoid of memory and the capacity for rational thought.
Czech novelist Milan Kundera warns that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. In other words, without memory and a factual understanding of events, there can be no history. And without history — including, on the one hand, the recollection of past promises, stated justifications and legal precedents and, on the other hand, their subsequent obliteration — there can be no struggle against abusive power, period.
Consider the following passage from a New York Times article published in 2004, and the willingness — indeed, the official policy — to create multiple (false) realities to deliberately undermine any semblance of a factual history, or authentic existence:
The [White House] aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
I suggest you stop reading this essay, and let the full impact of that statement settle in, and then take whatever time you need to consider its world-shattering implications.
To end on a slightly more upbeat note, or perhaps not, this past week a writer (not errant but) erotica saw fit to include my introduction to “My Adventures with Don Quixote” in her daily digest of lewd tales which sink far lower than the lowest forms of romantic literature of Cervantes’ day. A dubious honor, but one which gives further credence to my above conclusion concerning the slow-drip normalization of all that rots us from within that we’d better, for our own, our loved ones’ and all of humanity’s sake, learn to resist.
And, by this, I mean far beyond the confines of erotic literature — which I noticed during our first visit to the Burgos public library, in the wholly embraced post-Franco “progressive” Spain, has its own legitimizing color-coded category (hot pink, of course) — to include all aspects of a culture which doesn’t so much emerge, as in times past, from individuals coming together to create meaning but from a relative very few who use every medium and psychological means at their disposal to entrap us within their snare, dictating, by and large, what we blindly assume are our own desires, our own societal norms, and, indeed, our very own thoughts.
If you’d like to receive Part Two of “My Adventures with Don Quixote”, coming soon, I’d suggest following this new website of mine (you’ll find my other website here). You’re also welcome to leave comments below.
Sean M. Madden is a writer-educator, photographer and slow traveler. A digital nomad, he’s also co-founder of Creative Thunder, helping creative individuals and small businesses to fire up their online presence and prowess. To get a free copy of the inspiring Creative Thunder Manifesto, click here.