Unseen Text: Oaxaca Journal
Text Type: Diary – Travel Writing
Guiding Question: Comment on the ways this passage provides insights into the writer and his situation.
Travel writing is a rich and varied category of writing with fluid genre boundaries. Extracts could range from an informative guidebook entry, to an online review advising people whether or not to take a particular trip, to a descriptive passage helping you visualise a faraway place, or an advert persuading you to sign up to a tour… and these are just a few of the possibilities that spring to mind. The extract below is a piece of travel writing in the form of a journal or diary. One of the challenges of being given such a rich passage is deciding what to write about – remember, after you plan you’ll only have an hour or so to write your analysis. Before you read the sample response, first work with the text and guiding question. Plan a series of points that you would want to develop into your own answer. Then read the response that follows. Which points would you also have written about? If you chose to write about different aspects of the text, or if your interpretation of the narrator is different, you shouldn’t think you have the ‘wrong ideas.’ While examiners may have some notion of what to expect in a good response, they are encouraged to appreciate a wide variety of possible ideas; therefore, alternative approaches can be equally valid.
I am on my way to Oaxaca to meet up with some botanical friends for a fern foray, looking forward to a week away from New York’s icy winter. The plane itself—an AeroMexico flight—has an atmosphere quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We are scarcely off the ground before everyone gets up—chatting in the aisles, opening bags of food, breast-feeding babies—an instant social scene, like a Mexican café or market. One is already in Mexico as soon as one boards. The seat-belt signs are still on, but nobody pays any attention to them. I have had a little of this feeling on Spanish and Italian planes, but it is far more marked here: this instant fiesta, this sunny laughing atmosphere all round me. How crucial it is to see other cultures, to see how special, how local they are, how un-universal one’s own is. What a rigid, joyless atmosphere there is, in contrast, on most North American flights. I begin to think I will enjoy this visit. So little enjoyment, in a sense, is “permitted” these days—and yet, surely, life should be enjoyed?
My neighbor, a jolly businessman from Chiapas, wishes me “Bon appetit!” then the Spanish version of this, “¡Buen provecho!” when the meal comes. I cannot read anything on the menu, so I say yes to what I am first offered—a mistake, for it turns out to be an empanada whereas I wanted the chicken or fish. My shyness, my inability to speak other languages, alas, is a problem. I dislike the empanada, but eat some as part of my acculturation.
Observing that I said yes when asked about the empanada, obviously having no idea what it was, and then as obviously disliking it when it came, my neighbor has again lent me his guidebook, suggesting that I look at the bilingual glossary of Mexican foods and the illustrations that go with this. I should be careful, for example, to distinguish between atún and tuna, for the Spanish word tuna does not denote tuna fish, but the fruit of a prickly pear. Otherwise I will keep getting fruit when I want fish.
Finding a section in the guidebook on plants, I ask him about Mala mujer, bad woman, a dangerous-looking tree with nettlelike stinging hairs. He tells me that youths in small-town dancing halls throw branches of it around to get the girls, everyone, scratching. This is something between a joke and a crime.
“Welcome to Mexico!” my companion says as we touch down, adding, “You will find much that is unusual and of great interest.” As the plane draws to a halt he gives me his card. “Phone me,” he says, “if there is any way I can be of help while you are visiting our country.” I am very touched by the sweetness and courtesy of this man. Is this a characteristic Latin American courtesy? A personal one? Or just the sort of brief encounter which happens on trains and planes?
In the airport we meet up with a huge man, wearing a plaid shirt, a straw hat and suspenders, just in from Atlanta. He introduces himself—David Emory—and his wife, Sally. He was at college with John Mickel (our mutual friend, who has organized this trip), he tells me, back in ’52, at Oberlin. John was an undergrad then, David a grad student. He was the one who turned John onto ferns. I confess that, even more than ferns, my own preference is for the so-called fern allies: clubmosses (Lycopodium), horsetails (Equisetum), spike mosses (Selaginella), whisk ferns (Psilotum). There would be plenty of those: A new species of lycopodium was discovered on the last Oaxaca trip in 1990, and there are many species of selaginella; one, the “resurrection fern,” is to be seen in the market, a flattened, seemingly dead rosette of dull green which comes to startling life as soon as it rains. And there are three equisetums in Oaxaca, he adds, including one of the largest in the world. “But psilotum,” I say eagerly, “what about psilotum?” Psilotum, too, he says— two species, no less.
Even as a child, I loved the primitive horsetails and clubmosses, for they were the ancestors from which all higher plants had come. Outside the Natural History Museum (in London, where I grew up) there was a fossil garden, with the fossilized trunks and roots of giant clubmosses and horsetails, and inside were dioramas reconstructing what the ancient forests of the Paleozoic might have looked like, with giant horsetail trees a hundred feet high. One of my aunts had shown me modern horsetails (only two feet high) in the forests of Cheshire, with their stiff, jointed stems, their knobby little cones on top. She had shown me tiny clubmosses and selaginellas, too, but she could not show me the most primitive of all, for psilotum does not grow in England. Plants resembling it—psilophytes—were the pioneers, the first land plants to develop a vascular system for transporting water through their stems, enabling them to stake a claim to the solid earth 400 million years ago, and paving the way for everything else. Psilotum, though sometimes called whisk fern, was not really a fern at all, for it had no proper roots or fronds, just an undifferentiated forking green stem, little thicker than a pencil lead.
But despite its humble appearance, it was one of my favorites, and one day, I had promised myself, I would see it in the wild.
–Taken from Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks, published in 2012
The given text is a diary written by Oliver Sacks and published in 2012. The diary recounts the first stage of a journey taken by the writer to Oaxaca, a town in the south of Mexico, where he hopes to study particular varieties of ferns that he has previously learned about. He calls his trip a ‘fern foray’; the word ‘foray’ has connotations of doing something new in an unfamiliar territory. Therefore, his hope to see ferns in their natural habitat represents one of the main purposes of travel and travel writing: the desire to learn. The bulk of the passage is set at the beginning of his journey, on the plane, where he encounters aspects of Mexican culture and language for the first time. At first, he has some preconceived ideas about Mexican people, and he struggles to make himself understood. However, he is not dismissive of others and the reader is left with the impression that he enjoys the escapism of his trip to Oaxaca.
As in many travel stories, the narrator adopts the perspective of an outsider. He describes the atmosphere on the plane as ‘quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen.’ He lists these (‘chatting in aisles, opening bags of food, breast-feeding babies…’) in a way that makes the plane seem lively and chaotic. As an outsider, some of his ideas about the other people on the plane are a little stereotyped. For example, there is an emphasis on noise when it comes to describing Mexican people, conveyed through words like ‘chatting’ and ‘laughing’ and also through the alliteration of ‘breast-feeding babies.’ He twice uses figurative language to describe the scene: firstly ‘like a Mexican café or market place’ (evoking sensory images of chatter, clanking plates and cups, the bustle of movement, and the calls of vendors); then through the metaphor ‘this instant fiesta’, meaning a party. Ironically, the word ‘fiesta’ is a loanword from Spanish, implying that Spanish and Latino people party in a way that is recognisably different to the narrator, who is British. Initially, he comes across as a bit of a ‘fish out of water’, unused to and surprised by the people around him.
Before long, however, the narrator begins to get used to his surroundings and his feeling of discomfort is replaced by the realisation that he is enjoying this plane journey more than others he has taken in the past. He explicitly compares the warmth and vibrancy of the atmosphere on the Mexican plane with the sterility of his ordinary life. He calls the atmosphere on North American flights ‘rigid’ and ‘joyless.’ He places the word ‘permitted’ in inverted commas, to emphasise the way his normal life is guided by rules and regulations. He also states that he’s looking forward to ‘a week away from New York’s icy winter’: therefore, ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ become symbolic of the different attitudes of Americans and Mexicans towards life. For example, the word ‘sunny’ suggests that the laughter on the plane somewhat brightens his life. He ends the first paragraph with a question: ‘surely life should be enjoyed?’ which implies a newfound desire to escape his ordinary, dull routine.
In trying to adapt to his new environment, the narrator meets a character common to travel narratives: a ‘guide’ who helps him navigate an unfamiliar culture in a foreign language. Seeing his difficulty ordering food, a ‘businessman from Chiapas’ offers the narrator a guidebook with a ‘bilingual glossary’ to help him. Where the narrator is an ‘outsider,’ the guide is an ‘insider’ who has knowledge the traveller needs. Often, people from different cultures are presented as ‘Other’ and a text might describe the ways in which they are different. However, in this text, it is noticeable that – despite coming from different cultures – the two easily find common ground through their mutual interest in plants. The businessman tells him about a plant called ‘Mala mujer’ which ‘youths in small-town dancing halls throw… to get the girls, everyone, scratching.’ This anecdote suggests that some things cross cultural barriers; the bad behaviour of young boys who like to prank others is an example of something that might be universally recognisable.
The narrator’s willingness to overcome the language barrier also allows insight into his personality. When he tries to order chicken or fish he ends up receiving empanadas instead – but rather than blame the waiter or expect others to speak English, the writer examines his own role in the interaction. He realises ‘my shyness, my inability to speak other languages, alas, is a problem.’ His repetition of ‘my’ suggests he is taking responsibility for the problems he encounters. Through metonymy, the challenge of ordering food on the plane symbolises the challenge of learning about other aspects of Mexican culture. He sees all his mistakes as a process of ‘acculturation’ and the use of this word reveals that he sees himself on a journey of discovery. He also questions his own assumptions. For example, at the end of the fifth paragraph a series of questions examines the idea of stereotypes and whether the helpful businessman’s welcoming attitude is a ‘characteristic Latin American courtesy’, something ‘personal’, or simply something ‘which happens on trains and planes.’
After the plane lands, the focus of the passage changes to a discussion of plants and ferns; this section gives the reader the most obvious insight into the narrator’s interests. This part of the text features a noticeable change in language and register. Whereas before he was unconfident with precise names (he was unable to distinguish between tuna and atun), when writing about plants he is completely comfortable. His ability to provide both English and Latin names for a whole list of plants and ferns suggests he is highly knowledgeable about botany. The final two paragraphs of the text are peppered with precise names and specialist terminology such as ‘psilotum,’ ‘fern-allies’, ‘vascular system’, ‘Paleozoic’, and so on. Furthermore, he is able to subtly differentiate between types of plants (‘Psilotum… was not really a fern at all for it had no proper roots or fronds’) and he is able to describe specific species in painstaking detail; for example, one type of selaginella is described as a ‘flattened, seemingly dead rosette of dull green which comes to sparkling life as soon as it rains.’ This descriptive sentence implies his ability to easily visualise different types of plant and help the reader visualise them too. At one point he describes the ferns as ‘pioneers’, using personification to transfer the admiration one might have for brave travellers who venture into the unknown onto the plants themselves.
Finally, the non-chronological structure of the text reveals the narrator’s backstory and the reader realises that this journey is significant in several different ways. It is simultaneously geographic (London to Oaxaca), historic (from the ‘ancient forests of the Paleozoic’ to ‘modern horsetails’) and personal: ‘I had promised myself I would see it in the wild.’ In common with other pieces of travel writing, while it may have begun with a journey to a faraway place, the narrator also journeys back into his past, and discovers something new about himself as well.
Categories:Paper 1 Analysis