February 20, 2013 1:50:44 PM
Have you heard the story of the fabled lost city, in the deepest darkest jungle? Of course you have, and you've seen the movies. Did you ever actually set out to find it? Well, no, that would be silly. And dangerous, and hot, and dirty, and painful. So hope that you are not overcome with the obsession Christopher S. Stewart caught in 2008 when he first heard of such a lost city. Stewart is a journalist who has covered organized crime, war, and the drug trade; in his travels reporting on the latter, he learned that there was a legendary city deep in the jungles of La Mosquitia in Honduras. He started reading up, and after a few months, he was flying to Central America to go hunting. He tells us about it in the fast-paced and alternately grim and rollicking Jungleland: A Mysterious Lost City, a WWII Spy, and a True Story of Deadly Adventure (Harper), something like an H. Rider Haggard novel turned real. For those of us who are certain not to catch the exploring bug, Jungleland will provide justification for our sedentary ways while also providing insight into how someone relatively normal might be drawn into the peril of the trackless rainforest.
Stewart was not the first one to heed the call to find a lost city in the New World. Columbus himself had written about rumors of gold nuggets or an island made of gold. When CortÚs came, his army explicitly searched for the legendary town of gold but found nothing. In 1544, a bishop of Honduras heard from an Indian princess about a fabulous civilization that used gold dinnerware. No one found any such thing, but the stories continued to be told. Lindbergh flew over the region in 1927 and saw "an amazing ancient metropolis," and various miners and gold prospectors came out of the jungle with the same sort of story, but verification never seemed to happen. Stewart learned all this, and had a sort of revelation when shopping at Ikea one Sunday morning with his wife and little daughter, whom he cares about very much. He imagined himself away from air conditioning, crowds, and aisle 7. "There I was, in the middle of the jungle, trying to find the lost city by myself. Driving home from the store, I couldn't shake the thought. I drove right past our street and then backed into a sign when I was parking the car. 'Sorry,' I said. 'Just got distracted for a minute.'"
The minute lengthened, especially when Stewart heard about Theodore Morde, a character right out of the adventure movies. Morde had already circled the globe five times, visited nearly a hundred countries, and reported on the Spanish Civil War when, in 1940 and only 23 years old, he made his own foray into the Mosquito jungle. And he found the city, the Ciudad Blanco, the fabulous White City that all the previous explorers had dreamed of. He was going to go back with an archeological expedition, but WWII got in the way. He became a spy for the OSS, and among other skullduggery was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was smitten by a model in New York, married, and had children. Settling down did not seem to suit him; he hanged himself, and never did get back to the Ciudad Blanco, and while he did write about his journey, he never told anyone exactly where the city was. Stewart, who doesn't even like to go camping locally, sets out to recreate Morde's trek, and his book is a skillful weaving of Morde's story and his own, intercalating chapters between one and the other, covering some of the same geography and trials.
Stewart signed on with archaeologist Chris Begley, the nearest this story has to an Indiana Jones figure. They set out amid reports of warfare set off by the coup that overthrew Honduran president Rosales in 2009. Worries about the war are nicely set off by the worries of Morde on his expedition, when he would crave any news about the conflicts in the beginning of WWII. Morde and Stewart do things differently, of course. Stewart has GPS, for instance. He has Clif Bars for sustenance, and a satellite phone which allows him to call home, though you can imagine the frustrations of getting a reliable signal in the jungle. He has Valium. What the two explorers shared was all the stresses of the jungle itself. There is lots of walking and cutting through the undergrowth. There is the real fear of jaguars (nicely paired with his wife's fear of the rampaging raccoon outside their house, which Stewart hears about on his phone but is powerless to do anything about). There is the fer-de-lance. "Chris can discuss poisonous snakes for hours, to the point of madness," Stewart says, but the worst is the fer-de-lance, whose bite prevents your blood from clotting and you bleed out from your pores and even your eyes. (Stewart buys soccer shin guards at a Honduran mall as protection.) There are bullet ants, so named for a bite that feels like a gunshot. Ticks were worse than the mosquitoes, and Morde wrote, "The ticks drop on to your skin from branches and quickly sink their claws into you. We average 30 to 40 a day. You have to scrape them out and once out, the procedure is to crush them." The local tribesmen tell Stewart of sinister ghostly forces, witches and evil spirits that guard forever the cities where no men must ever return, and tell legends of the monkey gods that protect them. Then there are the drug runners, bandits, and other criminals in a corrupt and murderous country. One of the local guides takes them to a small village he had helped to build and loved as his home; it is only jungle now, because armed thugs drove everyone away, yet another loss overcome by the jungle.
The slog through the jungle, though it presents real and dramatic dangers, is mostly just a slog. There are hunger and thirst, no matter how well the explorers try to prepare. There are blisters. There is chronic lack of sleep and physical exhaustion. They just keep walking; unlike the stories of Haggard, there are few heroics and no heroes, just an unceasing push. Overcoming mundane problems is what the expedition is about, and it is perfectly told within Stewart's tone of self-deprecation. "When I'd set out, I had imagined writing a book that might show my daughter what kind of man I was, how I had grappled with the big questions of life - getting older, leaving youth behind, commitments, the importance of experience and discovery, and even love. Instead I was fumbling through the jungle, falling apart, nearly dying. It was the opposite of strong."
But do they find the lost city? They do find something, but you won't get the spoiler in this review, although obviously if they had found golden palaces we would have seen the headlines at the time. There is plenty of self-discovery here, however, and it seems generous of Stewart to share it, especially when the discoveries are uncomplimentary. Morde was there for an urge of discovery he could not but act upon; Stewart is there, among other things, to overcome a creeping angst of one no longer youthful. In a way, they both found what they were seeking. If you are a reader seeking an account of danger, humor, history, despair, and mystery, you could not do better than intrepidly setting off on these pages.