PHOTO: (Bookjacket) AROUND THE EDGE: A JOURNEY AMONG PIRATES, GUERRILLAS, FORMER CANNIBALS, AND TURTLE FISHERMEN ALONG THE MISKITO COAST By Peter Ford Viking, 349 pp., $19.95
IN the now classic "Tristes Tropiques" (1955), eminent anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss meditated on the deceptiveness of travel books. "They create an illusion of something which no longer exists but still should exist," he charged. Fulfilling the drenching sadness of the book's title, Levi-Strauss concluded that "mankind has opted for monoculture."From the standpoint of the 1950s, when the watchword was conformity, monoculture seemed not only inevitable but desirable. Western civilization was considered to be the strong tide that would lift all boats. The loss of the world's myriad, distinctive cultures and ecological regions was seldom counted in the cost of progress. In our time, the notion of a uniform global society has become as repugnant as the specter of a shrinking natural environment. Future generations may well judge the current era as the period in which diversity was esteemed, albeit more in thought than in action. The lengthy name Peter Ford bestows on his text is resonant with the contemporary respect for cultural difference. At the same time, it evokes earlier eras, when explorers packed their book titles with souvenir examples of exotic difference. The effect of blending these perspectives is persuasively post-modern: Ford is at once daunting adventurer and self-conscious intruder. During his stint as Central American correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, Ford became cognizant of the insularity of the area's Caribbean coast. He set out to traverse the shore on foot and by boat, taking on faith and logic the idea that people living in villages along an extensive beach front would have developed sea routes from place to place. In the main, his guess proved to be correct, and Ford was able to hitch a ride down the coast from Belize to Panama on all manner of vessel, from du g-out canoe to luxurious yacht. But it was not clear sailing. His trip became as tangled as the jungle undergrowth he occasionally was required to chop. Unable to stick to his plan to follow the coast, Ford was sometimes forced to hike through fetid swamps. Because of weather, civil unrest, or misinformation, he was repeatedly compelled to tarry in decaying and dangerous inland towns. Several times during the journey, he found himself ducking bullets. Simply obtaining travel visas and other documents became unnerving exercises in court ing civilian and military bureaucrats, as well as guerrilla officials. Ford was arrested twice, the first time by the Costa Rican Civil Guard. He likens that experience to being detained by the Muppets - a backhanded compliment to Costa Rica's enduring decision to uphold order with a few thousand guardsmen, rather than the large armies maintained by other Central American countries. His second arrest, in Panama, near the end of his trip, was an abrupt descent into powerlessness and terror. Risk and hazard punctuate "Around the Edge," yet its finest moments are those in which Ford contemplates the complexion of life and politics along the coast and deftly lures readers into the region's human and natural history. Time and again, he slips effortlessly from the present to the past, reciting the events and consequences of the coast's contact with the West. Nowhere is this more apparent than during his interval with the Miskito Indians in Honduras and Nicaragua. It is related in a style that br ews together contemporary politics and geography. If Ford dwells on the story of the little-known Garifuna peoples, it is because his admiration for their cultural independence grew as he found hospitality in their villages all along the Caribbean coast of Central America. The Garifuna are blacks who were captured in Africa during the 17th century, but escaped during a shipwreck. Never enslaved, they intermarried with Caribbean Indians. By the end of the book, Ford's apprehension that the traditions rooting Garifuna culture to the coast are eroding has become a resounding motif. Ironically, what makes this book so engaging is the portrait of the author that emerges through the depiction of a place. Every travel writer has the opportunity to perfect a self-image as ingenious protagonist and master of fate. No one need ever know of the times that Ford collapsed in tears of weary frustration or surrendered to fear or rage. While not excusing these few instances, through them Ford lets the reader fathom the fund of physical and spiritual energy required for such a journey. The rugged honesty of the book leads one to believe that "Around the Edge" is aptly titled. It tells a triple narrative about people living both at the margin of the sea and the edge of Western civilization from the point of view of an individual who has roamed to the outskirts of his own society.