Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Wishes for Honduran Food
The Paris to Dakar is the world’s most grueling automotive rally. 3,500 miles from central France to the rusty, post-colonial capital of Senegal in the Cape Verde Peninsula of Africa, driven in stages and by all manner of motorized beasts and all for the singular pride of just having finished. It should be noted that many people don’t finish, and by that it is meant that they die.
I have never been one for what today goes by the name, extreme sports. Leave me in a country where I know not a soul, grasp nothing of the language and then let it be the middle of the night and there I am at my ease. But, the thought of stepping out of an open airplane door when it is buzzing high about the Earth or trusting an arrested descent from a high spot to something with the preposterous name, Bungee Cord, is just out. To borrow from Cole Porter, “it would bore me tremendously too.” Not that there isn’t a certain laudable bravado in five-point harnessing yourself to a cannon ball or taking a weighted sledge to the bottom of the sea but, I prefer a different sort of thrill.
So, it is a wonder that I have always wanted to race the Paris to Dakar. I remember the pages of an Alpine Stereo magazine I received in the mail in high school. There were adoring shots of the cherry-red fender of some Lamborghini off-road gargantuan favored by Saudi princelings and available with a machine-gun turret option. The thing also sported the finest car-stereo of the day but what grabbed my attention was the previous years Italian team’s showing in the Paris to Dakar. The article was an ode to this neglected and obscure rally that wedded men and machines and pulverized them in the infernal press of the Saharan Desert.
It suited my taste perfectly; what better way to cover yourself in glory than to go barreling toward a checkered flag in some race no American cared much about and in a part of the world they would likely be happy to forget? I wanted to go vaulting in some glorified dune buggy over great mounds of ochre sand, knobby tires firing fan-tails of grit behind me, as zebras, Hottentots and the other terrified denizens of the dark continent dashed to the side of my screaming machine. The cracking of dry acacia branches under the high-sprung chassis of a roll-barred ATV strapped with jerry cans of high-octane gasoline must be an individual kind of rush. All this is, of course, hopelessly absurd but that has not stopped me from checking the standings each morning (I am pulling for you Christophe Declerck, you magnificent French bastard).
They are running the Paris to Dakar in South America this year, the furthest point being Valparaiso, Chile, because of security worries about an unstable Africa. If we leave aside the obvious irony of worrying about the safety of a troop of volunteer mad men then we can still imagine the race in all its teeth-loosening splendor. There may be no scurrying African beast or expansive oceans of sand but I imagine that crisscrossing the Andes by single-lane road and at embarrassingly high speed is a fair substitute in the thrill department. I have had the special joy of driving those roads in a decent sized bus. Collapsed shoulders falling away into vine-throttled chasms, impromptu water falls brought on by sudden rain and the wild micro-climate rollercoaster of it all must be an amazing adventure. Everything changes quickly on those roads, you rise and fall so fast that one minute you are wrapping yourself in a heavy wool scarf and the next, peeling down to a sweat-laden t-shirt. Doing this in a helmet and fire-retardant, Kevlar body suit has got to be a challenge, more so when you consider that it might have to be done at over 100 miles-per-hour.
I idled in city traffic in my very prosaic, grey truck, lost in a Dakar Rally fantasy when someone on the radio started talking about neurological mapping of the subcortal part of the human brain. She explained that all mammals shared a primitive brain structure, an antique of the fin-walking fish and primordial air-sniffing days. Rats, orangutans, basset hound puppies and cross-country rallying humans all have the same subcortal complex of tissue and within it is the grey-wet cells responsible for the primal emotions. The tissue tucked bellow all of our fancy, higher brain functions is where rage, fear, separation anxiety and seeking hide. Stimulate the subcortal zones in a human or house cat and they will fly in to a wild fury, cower in the corner, fret over mom or start off on the long walk for food, shelter and something to swap DNA with.
All this was interesting in itself and took me away from my dreams of popping champagne at the end of a long, off-road race. But, it occurred to me, as I inched toward a stoplight and was cut off by some flapping-jaw on their cell phone that these four emotions did not leave much room for pleasure. Where was joy or ecstasy or love? How could the only thing we all held in common be the brain material that made everything with hair and a spinal column miserable? And then there it was. Happiness is the absence of rage, fear, anxiety or desire. That may seem to give a bum draw to humanities’ favorite part of existence, but there is something to it.
And that is what drew me to the Paris to Dakar Rally. With a face full of transmission case grease and pebbles it would be impossible to be angry. With your crash chair dropping out from under you and helmet crunching against a roll bar there is nothing left to be afraid of. With the whole magnificent, dirty blur of the world cascading past, then you are truly at one with everything. And with the gleaming water of the Pacific Ocean ahead, then you can truly know what it is to have exactly what you want.
I won’t be racing the Paris to Dakar this year or any other year but the thought of it and the thought of a shared little sliver of our mammalian brain helps me to think about what real happiness is. Put yourself there or in whatever place it is that scratches at your soul, slide your goggles down over your eyes and, gentlemen, start your engines.