Tio Juan is a Chilean fisherman who looks like a Greek fisherman. Oily coils of hair frame the exhibition of distressed leather and bushy brown mustache that is his face. A prominent nose announces his presence. Light green eyes. And that mustache: east and west it spreads before turning southward toward the bottom of the world, twitching in time with his smile and the machine gun fire of his pueblo patois.
Across the street, a huckster peddles Bolivian trinkets; a town gossip eyes the scene, hunting fodder; and a shopkeeper throws open her corrugated metal door to reveal a forest of woolen sweaters, gloves, and beanies. On the adjacent dirt road, a pack of mutts forms an orgiastic bubble around a bitch in heat. The air smells of fish and French fries and freshly baked bread, of dust and diesel.
Here in el centro on this fog-shrouded morning in mid-April, 2012, autumn in the southern hemisphere, I don’t feel particularly far from home. Yes, the seasons are reversed. The night sky is different too. Yet I see the faces of California characters and the daily routines of my Ventura County neighbors in these people.
Travel is frequently discussed in terms of the exotic—of striking differences and cultural oddities. Them and us. But hombre please, do you really think there’s a world of difference between that papas fritas stand over there and a Ventura Avenue donut shop?
To be sure, this dusty Chilean pueblo—like everywhere I’ve been, from the back alleys of Beijing to Java and Johannesburg—is a microcosm of the world at large; anywhere you travel, human similarities outweigh cultural distinctions by a ton.
Acclaimed photojournalist Michael Robinson Chávez, an old friend of mine, has been to Chile several times, twice to visit me during my expatriate years, and, more recently, to cover the devastation of an 8.8-magnitude earthquake that buckled the ocean floor a little south of this very corner—my present workspace, an appropriate spot to write the lead into our annual Travel Issue.
A Ventura County native currently living in Moorpark, Michael has covered assignments in more than 45 countries. His work has been exhibited the world over. But his heart lies in Peru. Our photo essay (page 38) offers only a small taste of the imagery he’s made there over the years. For more, log on to robinsonchavez.com, which includes a link to his recently published book of black-and-white photographs from his mother’s homeland, entitled “Awaiting the Rain.”
Ventura-based writer Ken McAlpine creates images of a different kind. While the superb photography of his traveling partner, Norbert Wu (norbertwu.com), certainly helps float his story about rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon (page 14), I saw this article as something of a word-driven, domestic counterpoint to the Robinson Chávez photo essay.
So we present a sampling of the world, its people and its geography, national and international—with a local spin—in color and in black-and-white. On page 25 there’s an interview with Lyn Hebenstreit, an Ojai philanthropist who has embraced Africa and dedicated himself and his family to the “culture of peace.” Record producer Michael Cord (page 31) opens his doors to share the travel-inspired home he and his wife, Maryann, built as part of a musical bridge connecting Ventura and the Pacific Rim.
And now, back at my own home—my first home—in western Ventura County, with a spring rain beating down and the musty smell of decay and life anew coming through my window, that dusty corner of el centro 6,000 miles away doesn’t seem terribly distant.
“It’s a great big world out there,” they say. But I’m not so sure. Really, how grand is the canyon between Old World and New, between the people of Africa and the people of Ojai, between a South American fishing village and its Mediterranean doppelganger? The way I see it: for every tio Juan, there’s an uncle John.