Hitting the (Silk) Road

Humidity suffocated Chongqing. Mosquitos infested Chongqing. Exhaust from charcoal-burning-buses choked Chongqing. At Chongqing parties flowing with roast duck, scallion pancakes and rice wine, Japanese rebels, German communists and American military attachés mingled with adventure-seekers, mercenaries and bohemians from the world's farthest corners. Outside these bacchanals, Chongqing's cacophonous streets crawled with beggars peddling broken tools and decrepit clothing and stinking of unwashed mothers trying to feed children defecating in the gutters. 

Even in the middle of the night the heat enveloped Chongqing. The city's stink hung across every inhabitant's skin, a blanket as sticky as the countless steps from the shore of the Yangtze were slimy. Noise was as ever-present as the leaden air. Silence was a concept so foreign in this pop-up capital that the word could be cut from dictionary pages and never missed. Clear days meant wailing sirens, and that distant drone that climbed into a roar, a brief, eerie, quiet, then a deceptively distant thud of blasts heard beneath hundreds of feet of stone, "like suction cups plopping against water."

Any other moment meant the noise of teeming masses, conversations and lovemaking unhidden by paper-thin walls, the chatter of work and the constant rattle of typewriters. Countless dialects pooled from China's four corners to this polyglot bastion, as Cantonese and Mandarin and Sichuanese swirled from storefront to storefront. Measured voices of news announcers read morning briefings in the headquarters of XGOY. 

Chongqing was hot. It was loud. It was squalid. It was crowded.

It was home. Chongqing was home.

"You get to like it,” Mel wrote.


Will I like it? Five weeks from today I will wake to my first morning in Beijing on the first leg of a trip through China and the Philippines. In the weeks to follow I hope to visit Guangzhou and Manila, to see Shanghai and Cebu, to ride trains through Guangxi, and to sail through the Visayas. Most importantly, perhaps, I hope to climb from the Yangtze through the exploding megalopolis of Chongqing and, I hope, to find this place Mel and Annalee and so many others once called home. 

But I'm nervous. As I mentioned in a postscript on New Year's Day, I've never been to either place. As I prepare, my excitement is beginning to overwhelm me. I feel awakened by the possibilities this trip will present, yet I know I will have hardly enough time to truly discover the place that Mel and Annalee came to love over many years.

And, might I find something else? A new perspective on Melville and Annalee Jacoby and the world that brought them together? Some understanding of two lands whose present selves would be as foreign to the China and the Philippines the Jacobys knew as they will be to my American eyes? Some unquantifiable understanding of myself? What will I find beneath the surface?

Whatever I might find and however limited my time to find it, I must go. How could I not? But I could use your help.

I've asked for money before, so instead I'm asking whether you have non-monetary support in any form you can offer (though I continue to welcome donations or purchases from my new Amazon wishlist if they're more your style). Do you have words of encouragement? Or might you offer something more concrete? Perhaps you have networks in Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Manila and Cebu or some of the other Chinese and Filipino cities I plan to visit. What about recommendations of places to stay, suggestions for meals, offers of couches, extra frequent flier miles or hotel credits, or thoughts on travel equipment or services? Maybe you can't help me in Asia, but you can on trips late this spring for last-minute archival research in the U.S. I'd certainly welcome any leads or help in New York, Washington, New Haven, Boston, and Columbia, South Carolina.

Again, maybe you just have a nice thing to say. I could really use a random hello or two and an update on your life. he effort I put into this book comes at the cost of a stable job with a predictable routine and consistent income, let alone the community that forms at workplaces. Jobs and schedules can be constrictive, but I'd be lying if I said I'm not nervous and I don't want to be ashamed for seeking some sense of comfort, security and camaraderie. It's not an understatement to say that I've ground my way just to even be here.  But I also know I'm incredibly fortunate to be able to travel when so many people don't. I have the flexibility to travel. I get to set my own hours. I have a book deal, and, most importantly, I know this book - and I - will succeed. 

Yes, working on this book is a suffocating, cacophonous and chaotic affair. It is vibrant and joyful. It is disgusting and frightful. It is thriving and it is the confluence of many threads and many thoughts. It is all of these things and it is also home. Now, as an identifiable form emerges from something that seemed so mercurial, I'm getting to like it. 

It's now late in the Portland night, almost exactly one a.m., and as I finish this letter I'm thinking about Mel during his own first trip to China, when he attended school in Canton, the city now known as Guangzhou. Sitting in a dorm room window late one night, he finished a letter to his mother and step-father, which he opened as follows:

"The clatter of wooden shoes and the high pitched jabber of foreign voices has finally ceased. Even the village drums have quit their mighty rattle -- in a word, it is now exactly one a.m. and the most glorious Oriental moon imaginable is rising. Its light makes visible the aged salt junks and square rigged whalers on the sluggish river. All this I can see from the window as I sit and write you tonight."
Mel Jacoby, December, 1936, Canton [Guangzhou]

I want to find that window -- or whatever has taken its place -- and write you words like this, telling you what I see and what I hear.


P.S. Do you have a treasured travel trip? Have you ever been to China or the Philippines? What would you want to see if you went there?