As usual, the latest National Geographic contained wonders – and as usual, many of those wonders were distinctly familiar to me! That’s one of the best things about the magazine, for those of its readers who’ve seen a bit of the world: the best photographers in the business work every month to bring it all back to you.
Of course, that has good and bad parts, since a great deal of the world is rather unpleasant. This month’s cover article, on benighted Libya, is an excellent if slightly obvious example: the piece is all about Libya’s people slowly emerging to rediscover their country in the wake of their tyrant’s downfall, but the place has been a hell-zone since the days of Septimius Severus, and the article can’t do much to hide that fact, though it tries mighty hard.
And if an article on Libya is an example of an obvious reminder of something unpleasant, how much more so must be an article on venom? (as the article itself helpfully reminds us, poison is ingested – venom is injected) The piece in question is by Jennifer Holland, and it’s called “The Bite That Heels” because its hook is that the deadliest venoms in the animal kingdom may hold vast untapped pharmaceutical treasures, chemical combinations that, properly refined, could work wonders in treating everything from hypertension to heart disease to cancer. The naturalists and scientists interviewed throughout the article all sound so purposeful and optimistic, but the great photos by Mattias Klum won’t make the retired world traveller dream of miracle medical cures, no – the gorgeous shots of green mambas and cobras and Cameroon’s hysterically savage rhino viper will only serve to remind such a traveller of one thing: how rotten it is to be on the receiving end of venom. Scorpions and snakes may be the unwitting factories of future vaccines, but their bites and stings kill well over 100,000 humans every year (and Gawd only knows how many other animals), and some world-travellers have had spectacularly bad luck in the whole getting-bit sweepstakes. Klum’s beautiful shot of a Jameson’s mamba, looking like a perfect thing chipped out of emerald, will no doubt elicit several rhapsodizing letters – but getting bit by a Jameson’s mamba can ruin your whole afternoon. And if there were anyone alive today who’s been bitten, stabbed, and stung by every single one of the noxious creatures mentioned in this article, well …
Slightly warmer memories were evoked by Michael Finkel’s fantastic article on the Kyrgyz nomads of Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor between Pakistan and Tajikistan – although ‘warmer’ only in the emotional sense, since the high plateaus that are the setting for Finkel’s piece (and for Matthieu Paley’s quietly magnificent photos) are some of the most relentlessly cold places in the world. The hardy people who live there can see the temperature plunge to dozens of degrees below zero virtually every day of the year, and the very rare visitor to the region must travel for almost a solid week of utter misery (trusting yaks not to slip and fall on snow- and ice-covered pathways no wider than the computer you’re using to read this, camping in glorified lean-to’s while the wind shrieks ‘outside,’ subsisting on snow melt and gloppy stews of gleaming half-melted fat, etc.) just to get there. And as Finkel makes clear, that visitor is travelling as much through time as through the Karakoram Range:
This intense isolation is the reason the Kyrgyz suffer from a catastrophic death rate. There’s no doctor, no health clinic, few medicines. In the harsh environment, even a minor ailment – a sniffle, a headache – can swiftly turn virulent. The death rate for children among the Afghan Kyrgyz may be the highest in the world. Less than half live to their fifth birthday. It is not unusual for parents to lose five children, or six, or seven. Women die at an alarming rate while giving birth.
There is beauty to the place – Paley’s photos capture it well – but it comes at such a preposterous cost to everything living that sees it. The retired world-traveller will likely remember it as a place of pure longing – not for plumbing or warmth but for an entirely different world: hunkered down in the Kyrgyz’s miserable world, you long for the warmth and comfort of a half-length sofa covered in sleeping dogs, where you can read about it all in complete peace. After first checking for kraits in the cushions, that is.