Other people’s diaries are often more interesting than our own. I drew this conclusion recently after reading a summary by my friend Walter, professor emeritus, expert on Ottoman poetry and speaker of many languages, based on diaries he recently obtained and is attempting to translate. These consist of the writings of a young man named Alexander, who traveled from Baghad to Paris and London in 1897 via Mesopotamia, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Italy. The diaries also talk about his family history and “life in parts of the Middle East and Europe in the last decade of the nineteenth century.”
Walter says, “As Alexander traveled, he was fascinated by the unfamiliar trappings of modernity he observed in more fortunate cities and towns, such as colleges, public gardens, museums, trains and railway stations, omnibuses, restaurants, shop windows, and richly decorated houses open to visitors. His bitterness at the backwardness of his home town and its environs grew in concert with his astonishment at the progress visible in the places he visited after traveling through the deprived villages of Mesopotamia… Crossing the Mediterranean to Italy and proceeding to Paris, Alexander’s astonishment rose to a peak. All of Europe seems to be in a frenzy of invention and technological progress, emblematized by Paris, gleaming in the dawn of a modernity that reflected the light of architectural splendor, social finesse, and joie de vivre onto Parisian life.”
After experiencing these wonders, Alexander returned to Baghdad with his new French wife, somewhat disillusioned about going back to his now poorer and more backward-seeming homeland. At some point his wife left him to return to France.
This morsel from Alexander’s longer story reminded me of a brief history I read about a distant relative of mine named Lula. Lula’s story, written by her daughter Elizabeth, started with her marrying, at the age of 28, a Baptist minister named Charles in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1897. Three months after the wedding, she and Charles headed for Peru where he intended to carry out missionary work on his own, that is, without any official church support.
Note that Alexander and Lula both began their travels in 1897, though their destinations were continents apart.
After years of living in the Peruvian coastal cities of Callao and Lima where Charles taught school, studied Spanish and seemed to have forgotten the missionary purpose of his journey, he and a seven-months pregnant Lula undertook a dangerous trek into the Andes on horseback, taking with them the two children who had been born since they had come to Peru. Lula gave birth in the town of Huaraz, which Wikipedia says is about 50 miles north of Lima at an altitude of 10,013 ft, and which Elizabeth says had no doctors and no English speakers. She also said that her parents traveled 100 miles to reach Huaraz, which is possible, since Lima’s current population may have pushed the city closer to the mountains. Whatever the real distance, we can all probably agree that in the early 1900’s to get anywhere in the Andes from Lima by horse with two young children and a mule in tow was one very long and grueling trip.
Elizabeth goes on to say, “The seven years which Lula spent in Peru aged and embittered her and ruined her health…If the earlier years in Peru had been hard for Mother, that period in Huaraz was an ordeal. Sickness aggravated by the high altitude plagued the entire family.” Homesickness and isolation also took their toll. After a year and a half, Lula finally reached her limit and returned to the coast on horseback, now pregnant with her fourth child. She took a ship back to the U.S., while her husband returned to the Andes, no doubt to face continuing failure in his missionary work, since the people he was trying to convert did not speak English or Spanish, but Quechua, a language he had not studied.
Both these diaries expose us to personal stories of people who lived in places and times we only learn about through history books, and then only if they were considered important enough to be included. Reading them helps us see that despite the distance in years between their stories and ours, some things haven’t really changed. Who today wouldn’t leave a spouse who sold them a dream of helping innocent souls get to heaven, only to trade this for a series of near-death experiences while traveling pregnant up and down treacherous mountain passes with first two and then three small children?
It amazes me that Lulu lasted as long as she did before deciding to leave. It also makes me aware – again – of the extreme difficulty some of our ancestors went through – can’t imagine a woman giving birth and that both the mother and child survived in such dire circumstances!
One of the most moving articles I ever read appeared in the old Spokane Magazine (which expired, alas, in 1981). The editor found the diary of one of Spokane’s founders in the dusty bins of the Spokane Historical Society. This particular founder was somewhat obscure but had served on the early city council and had a somewhat disreputable reputation among history afficianados. So the article was a sort of “back story” on this very minor historical figure. Like many of the founders, the man and his family had traveled by covered wagon, with all the dangers and excitements that entailed, until they reached the Spokane area, where they homesteaded. His diary detailed the hard work it took to establish their farm, his early forays into the politics of the day, and his love for his wife and children. Thus, the heartbreak as we learn that one of those children died quite suddenly of of an unknown disease, a death that the man describes in his diary with quiet eloquence. It was a good reminder of the daunting challenges that faced those early pioneers, even the “disreputable” ones, and how vulnerable children were without miracle drugs like penicillin, or universal vaccination.
So . . . looking for an interesting diary? The local historical society might be a very good place to start.