It can seem, when sitting in a quiet room reading a book about a far away place and the people and things there, that what is in that book is all, that the picture painted is complete. Consider the work of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist who died last month. Kapuscinski's gritty book-length accounts from Africa, Asia and Latin America are more evocative and thorough than most. Yet even those come from a certain perspective: in Kapuscinski's case, a reporter seeing a place through its political and social upheavals.
A few days after I returned to reading "Shah of Shah's," Kapuscinski's compelling narrative about Iran and its 1979 revolution, I received a box in the mail from a friend in Wisconsin. It held two good cigars and a 1939 edition of "Wind, Sand and Stars," by Antoine de Saint Exupery, a pilot, poet and author more famous for another book, "The Little Prince." (My friend included a copy of that, for the kids; though, as he pointed out, it is likely to make a grown man cry.)
The mailed copy of "Wind, Sand and Stars" had once belonged, judging from the name written in studied cursive on the second page, to Peter M. Huiras. My friend bought it at a yard sale, read it more than once and passed it to me. For a traveler, or anyone interested in the many ways of looking at the wider world, it is worth reading carefully, for passages like this, about Saint Exupery learning to fly the Spanish coastal mail routes:
"But what a strange lesson in geography I was given! Guillaumet did not teach Spain to me, he made the country my friend. He did not talk about provinces, or peoples, or livestock. Instead of telling me about Guadix, he spoke of three orange-trees on the edge of the town: "Beware of those trees. Better mark them on the map." And those three orange-trees seemed to me thenceforth higher than the Sierra Nevada.
He did not talk about Lorca, but about a humble farm near Lorca, a living farm with its farmer and the farmer's wife. And this tiny, this remote couple, living a thousand miles from where we sat, took on a universal importance. Settled on the slope of a mountain, they watched like lighthouse-keepers beneath the stars, ever on the lookout to succor men.
The details that we drew up from oblivion, from their inconceivable remoteness, no geographer had been concerned to explore. Because it washed the banks of great cities, the Ebro River was of interest to mapmakers. But what had they to do with that brook running secretly through the water-weeds to the west of Motril, that brook nourishing a mere score or two of flowers?"