Where Paradise Dwells; Wood's Journey of Discovery

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Wood, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Until I was 17, I traveled only in the mind. Dreams of distant lands came from the pages of books or the grainy black-and-white films we were shown in the school hall.

It's hard to imagine now, when we all go jetting across the globe at the drop of a hat, but back then, in drab '50s Britain - before the age of tourism - our horizons stopped at North Wales or the Lancashire coast. It was from books that we learned about other cultures and discovered that there were places in the world where living links still existed with the deep past.

My father, who was a pharmacist in a corner drugstore, had spent some time in Sri Lanka at the end of World War II and had gotten interested in Buddhism. He had books about the East and even knew about the sacred Mount Kailash, but back then, that was beyond the outer limits of travel, and it would be a lifetime before I would get there.

So it was only in my teens that I began to travel, a late '60s student hitching around Europe. The first goal was Greece - impoverished in those days, still recovering from occupation and civil war. I'll never forget the first arrival: trundling in the dawn on the slow train from Salonika past Thermopylae, opening the window to feel the hot gusts from herb-scented hillsides and to see that transforming light (memorably described by Henry Miller in his book "Colossus of Maroussi").

Visiting Mycenae, Knossos or Olympia for my generation was like stepping onto sacred ground. Say what you will about us, but the generation of 1968 was not jaded or cynical: The world was not a dangerous place to us, but a house of wonders, and we were open to it all. I hitched to Greece a few times over the next few years: island hopping, sleeping out on hillsides and beaches.

In my rucksack I carried that great C.P. Cavafy poem in which the journey to Ithaca is a metaphor for life. Just "hope the journey is long and full of instruction," he says, and if in the end you find Ithaca poor, don't be deceived - the journey was the point.

The most memorable times were often the most down-to-earth: sitting in a cafe with the old sailors waiting for the wind to change; joining in an outdoor feast at a Greek country wedding; standing at the deathbed of an old lady who spoke the archaic Greek of the Mani; eating Persephone's pomegranate seeds with the kolyva prepared for her funeral.

It all impressed me in ways I have never forgotten: the growing realization that history is not dead, but here in the present in what one might call the "giveness" of the past, in what the ancestors have handed down to us. You can read books, but the real residue of history lies in the living (in us).

That lesson stayed with me after university, when I started making films. We had some thrilling journeys in southern Africa during the liberation wars of the late '70s. In the early '80s, I twice went up the River Congo on local transportation, a journey I'm not sure I would risk now, and certainly not as a lone traveler.

One night, camped on the riverbank somewhere between Ubundu and Kindu, we were held up at gunpoint, and as I stood there, stark naked, with cool gunmetal prodding my very white skin, I remember thinking that no one at home knew where we were to within a couple of hundred miles.

Over that time, our films were evolving gradually into what I call history-travel-adventure: no actors or costumes, but journeys in real places, real cultures. The films were about history, but their key element was travel: making the connection between people, their landscape and their past.

EXPLORER ENVY

Of course, we were lucky to travel then. The pace of change has accelerated dramatically in the past 30 years, and for good or ill, the global culture is everywhere. Still, I often found myself wishing I had been able to see it earlier. I envied such real explorers as Wilfred Thesiger, whom I met doing a film on what, even then, was the Iraq tragedy. …