World Travelers – 1927- Present by Carl Coon

Jane and I were born curious, both of us. We both wanted to travel, we both reveled in getting off the beaten track where you could actually see and hear and even taste and smell foreign cultures without western culture getting in the way any more than was absolutely necessary. Not for us the travel agency that wrapped its clients in cocoons, we wanted the real thing.


I came by it naturally, from the day I was born and perhaps even earlier. It’s a bit of a stretch to say I got the wanderlust while I was still inside my mother riding around the Rif mountains on a donkey, but I’d have gotten the flavor of foreign parts at an early age even if I’d never left home, what with housemates like Limnibhi the Riffian, and Pat Putnam, fresh from the Congo with a pet chimpanzee. But I didn’t just stay at home, for between my parents’ travels and the US Army. I crossed the Atlantic by ship five times before I grew all the way up, joined the diplomatic service, and started doing trips on my own.


Limnibhi with young Carl Coon

Jannie, who I married the week we graduated from college, and a month before I joined the Foreign Service, had been born curious too. My diplomatic career gave us opportunities we exploited whenever we could. Then Jannie died and I married Jane who, as it turns out, was also badly bitten with the wanderlust. Between the three of us we’ve covered a lot of the world fairly intensively, much of the rest of it less intensively, and as for what’s left, well, life’s too short. Big places like Brazil and Ethiopia will have to stay on our to-do list, which at our age means we’ll miss them. It’s a big planet with a lot of variety in lands and peoples.


Most of our travels have been by road. As long as a road is available, driving in your own car, or one you rent, gets you where you want to go with a minimum of diversion and fuss. Even when the roads are primitive or nonexistent you can usually do what you want by car, especially in the desert. Jannie and I drove all over the desert parts of eastern Syria, using a good map, a compass, and dead reckoning, and had a ball. Jane and I were better equipped for our more ambitious drive across the Sahara, Rabat to Tamanrasset to Niger, and we had the rudiments of a road network, but it was pretty spotty in places.


Jane and I did get completely off-road in central Bhutan and in some of the hill treks we took in Nepal, and it was a different kind of experience. If you grow up in a place where you have to walk for at least a couple of days before you get to the nearest road head you are likely to be a very different person from someone who can access modern transportation. Mr. Sawyer and Mr. Pitman got their names from ancestors who had no access to machine-cut lumber. We have come a long way in a short time, speaking in terms of our cultural evolution, and it’s hard to remember what it used to be like when almost everything that mattered was local.


When I first started walking around the hills of Nepal I classified villages by how much exposure they’d had to westernizing influences. In the most western-exposed, kids would run out yelling “bakshish” and importune me in a patois of what they thought was English. In the less frequented areas they might ask for bakshish but less brashly and in Nepali. When I was in virgin territory they wouldn’t ask me for anything, they would shriek in terror and hide behind their mothers.

It was hard to find virgin villages in those days and it must be nearly impossible by now. Unless you are a dedicated ornithologist or speleologist or some such specialist, it’s no easy task finding a virgin anything anymore. The Japanese mountaineers, who aspired to conquer virgin peaks in Nepal during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, were pretty disappointed when they got to the top to find some Peace Corps Volunteer had gotten there first and written “Kilroy was here” on a rock. The planet has gotten crowded and there are people poking around everywhere.

Would-be explorers would be advised to lower their sights, and give up hopes for a “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” experience. It is not going to happen…but other good things will, if you let them.


First photo is porter in the hills.   Second photo is porter in the Kathmandu Valley

Jane and I were lucky in that we arrived in Nepal in the early ‘70’s when most of the country could not be accessed by modern transportation. We trekked around the whole country and were able to see how people lived without modern transportation. We actually saw Mr. Sawyer and Mr. Pitman cutting boards for houses by hand, and Mr. Potter fashioning household utensils. One thing we didn’t see was Mr. Wright fashioning wheels, since they didn’t use wheels in the hills. Instead, we saw a multitude of Mr. Porters carrying incredible loads around mountain footpaths. By the ‘80’s there were a few roads, but still Mr. Porter and his ilk were lugging stuff around on mountain trails. Increasingly, the ‘stuff’ included typewriters and even a TV set or two. The tentacles of modern times were reaching ever farther into the guts of what had been a balanced, evolved pre-modern society. 

Jane and I both wrote up our experiences during this fascinating period when Nepal was transiting pell-mell from a medieval society to a modern one. I had two three year tours there, in the early ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, enough to cover a critical slice of the transition. Jane was in Dhaka for my second tour but visited me fairly often and we had some good treks together. She reported regularly to the family back home, with her famous “Aunt Myra” letters, which were addressed to a courtesy aunt to avoid protocol problems but copied to all concerned in both our families.

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Nepal gave us a marvelous opportunity to observe a settled pre-modern society go through some of the earlier growing pains of modernization before modern roads and cars and trucks came along and changed everything. It didn’t last. Even in our later years there we could drive to many places we earlier had to walk to. And after we left Nepal, if we wanted to travel, the choice was usually either drive or take a prefabricated tour. That kind of tour was out by mutual consent. When it came to traveling, we were the goats not the sheep. We slipped only once, and got roped into a couple of days on the Nile on a fancy tour boat. It was horrible and we resolved, never again. (Our last trip, Galapagos, was with a tour group but it was ok, as it was education not entertainment.)

If you are driving a car, you can learn a lot using the bed and breakfast approach. You plan your itinerary around the availability of people who have let some central authority know they are interested in providing shelter and food to tourists who can pay for it. Most likely the people who volunteer for this are curious and are as interested in talking to you as you foreigners are to talk to them. So, you not only see the country as you drive around it, you absorb local lore and concerns as well.

This works well when the native language is English and you can get reasonably acquainted with your host. We tried it out in New Zealand in January, 1991 and it worked so well that we tried it again in South Africa a year later, where it succeeded spectacularly. In New Zealand, we had tea with Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Everest, whom we knew from our Nepal days. Wherever we stopped after that, once our hosts learned we had met their national hero, it was like having lunched with the Pope, and we were treated with something approaching reverence. In South Africa, we were lucky in that we arrived on the eve of a crucial election, the one that ended apartheid. Just talking to fellow diplomats and leaders of the black factions was interesting enough, but driving all over the country talking to Boers and coloreds and Indians and other factions brought the whole mosaic into view. Yes, we visited Kruger National Park and saw lions and elephants and hippos and rhinos and so forth, but the human panoply was by far the more interesting…if you only read one of our trip reports, read this one.

If you can’t do it all by car, maybe you can mix and match, as Jane and I did to some extent in South Africa and again in our longest and most ambitious trip, the one we took during the summer of 1993 to Kyrgyzstan, China and Tibet. We started in Almaty, Kazakhstan with the Soviet empire crumbling before our eyes, drove around Kyrgyzstan where national authority had all but vanished, and crossed down into Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan, where national authority was very much in evidence.

Flashback: Chini Bagh:

We’d researched the history of the ancient trade center of Kashgar, which used to have a British Consul in a residence called Chini Bagh. The Chinese now rule the local Uighur population with a heavy hand, and our Chinese guardians were keeping a wary eye on us. We explained we wanted to dine at the restaurant at the old British Consulate. Our number one ‘guide’ arranged a horse and carriage to get us there, but had trouble telling the driver, in Chinese, where to go. I butted in, said ‘Chini Bagh’ and the driver gave a big smile and we trotted off, getting there directly, to the obvious mortification of our Chinese companion.

Our Chinese guides drove us from Kashgar to Urumchi where we were flown to new Chinese handlers at Chengdu. From there we flew to Lhasa and finally, after years of frustration sitting in Nepal while gazing north at the forbidden land, we were tourists in Tibet. Another Chinese handler drove us here and there, and finally down to Nepal, where we were unhandled and with friends.

If I had to limit myself to one country for all my travels, it would have to be China in 1982 when we were ambassadors in our own right and good friends with our ambassador in Beijing. It was just after the end of the Mao era and the whole nation was reeling from Mao’s efforts to uproot human nature and replace it with something more congenial to his tastes. Tourists were still housed in Soviet-era barns and fed abominable chow. The guides/handlers/custodians who met us wherever we stopped and led us around were intelligent young men for whom Mao had denied college, and they were bitter, though too disciplined to complain very explicitly. The economy was in a state of uncertainty, with nobody quite knowing what was coming next. What a wringer that huge country had gone through! Ten years later when we passed through China on the way to Tibet, the country was back on its feet and pulsing with new energy. Since then it has taken off like a rocket and is now challenging us for global leadership. How do we parse that out and what conclusions can we draw that are relevant to our own uncertain steps into an obscure future? I don’t know, but having been there helps.


I guess India would be my second choice if I had to specialize. Unlike China, which we have only visited, Jane and I have lived in and around India and have experiences that would fill a book all by themselves. Many will be recorded in other chapters, but you should also look at our South India report, on a trip we took in early 1996, with our friend Julie Portman and others. It was hot and crowded and I had to stay up all night several times, but the kathakali dance form and related ritual events that unfolded before our eyes went beyond entertainment, they opened our eyes to a different cultural universe.

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What is civilization anyway? How do you define it, differentiate between different stages, identify the factors that make it either grow or disintegrate? I have come to the conclusion that civilization is the tangible result of cultural evolution, which is itself a branch of biological evolution, something that emerged when humans became sapient, with powers to imagine things that hadn’t yet happened and take steps to make them happen or perhaps make them not happen. That perception, rendered explicit in my latest book, Short History of Evolution, is a direct outgrowth of certain events and processes I witnessed in my travels.

Of course, I grew up with a simplified understanding of biological evolution, as described by Darwin and developed by Mendel, Dawkins and others. Given my father’s interests I also was fascinated by human origins, when and why we branched out from other apes and became sapient. But it was my travels that rounded out my understanding of evolution with tangible examples that made me understand life as process and see the world around me as a marvelously interconnected web. There was that trip to Poland in late 1996 when I walked around the last European primeval forest, Bialowiecza, with an excellent local guide, and absorbed the beautiful rhythms and inner complexities of how varied life forms adapted to each other as well as to a changing external environment. That trip, though focused on the few surviving specimens of the European bison, was a revelation in a broader sense.


Other trips had similar effects for enlarging my understanding not only for biological life but for that special offshoot, humanity. I stood around my father’s digs in Tangier in 1947 and Palmyra in 1955, and visited an archaeology site with Bill Eagleton on the Euphrates in 1987, and speculated about that fateful transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer. I watched Dorothy Kenyon’s excavation of an ancient mound outside Jericho as her workers uncovered a flint spear head embedded in some ancient farmer’s ribs, and wondered about war in the Neolithic period. I goggled like any other tourist at ruins in Syria and Iraq, and India and Cambodia and elsewhere, and thought about ancient civilizations and how and why our ancestors built them. I watched the Ahor in Bihar dance around for my father and Dr. Guha, saw very ancient rituals in a Tamang village in Nepal, participated in joyful festivals in Kulu Valley in India and Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, and sensed the joy and pain and vitality with which countless ancestors cooperated or fought to build all the myriad stepping stones that brought us to our present comfortable state. And of course, I read a lot of books by other people trying to explain the same things. But when push came to shove, and there was some conflict between what I’d seen and what I read, it was what I’d seen that counted most.


Our travels illuminated more than the evolutionary stages that brought our species from ape-hood to civilization. I saw the physical roots of raw tribalism, how differences arose between groups adapting to different environments, why and how the ubiquitous sense of “us” versus “them” arose and the many different forms it took. I saw these things in the here and now, I didn’t need to rely on books. I lived vicariously through the attacks on my father, wrongly accused of being a racist by good people who had been burned by antisemitism in Europe and anti-black feelings at home. I had to sort out for myself how his science-based interest in racial differences differed from the misinterpretations of race that they were attacking. Over and over again I discovered how broad and deep the “us” versus “them” sense is in all of us, and how resistant we are to coping with it rationally. Time after time, I discovered and rediscovered how well-intentioned people can exhibit the most callous inhumanity to other groups. It didn’t hurt that my first non-Western post was Damascus, in the Middle East, the epicenter of arguably the most vicious and enduring plague of inter-group strife to be found anywhere in modern times.

We saw plenty of instances when the “us vs. them” syndrome made people act toward outsiders with a callousness or even cruelty they would never have shown toward fellow insiders. Rarely, we saw the reverse, examples of insiders taking the plunge and acting, against the habits of their fellows, to break down the barriers that kept them apart.

Going through my South African trip report again I found a great example. We had arrived in Cape Town a day or so earlier and were staying with our friend Chris Westphal, the Canadian ambassador:

That night the local Community Chest was staging a big fundraiser dinner/dance at a big hall down at dockside. Chris had been conned into buying seats at the table of the Mayor of Cape Town, an eminent Afrikaner with a relatively liberal background, so we had a chance to meet some of the cream of the haute monde of Cape Town, including the Mayor and his wife, and the Ambassadors of Spain and Finland. Nevertheless, it proved to be an extraordinary evening. A couple of hundred whites and a few blacks constituted the paying guests. Up front, next to a dance floor, was a large stage, with synthesizers and mixers and other sound paraphernalia. A black MC who must have been a TV star or something, anyway a personality kid, conducted the proceedings. There were four groups of performers: six big Zulus in war paint who stomped around in an energetic tribal dance; a large chorus of rather dumpy black females in Mother Hubbards; six nice-looking pre-adolescent girls in their school uniforms; and a group of musicians who synthesized and drummed and sang and et cetera. They each put on their act, and on the whole they weren’t as bad as it must sound here, and then we were all treated to a large buffet of African food, which on the whole I found to be Godawful. Fortunately, we were all getting tanked up on beer and wine to the point we didn’t have much room for food anyway. Then each of the four groups put on another act. By the time that was over the whites in the audience were feeling little if any pain, some of them were even acting well lubricated. Whereas at the beginning the general mood had been one of mild curiosity, by this time it had shifted to one much more emotional, an odd mix of release and enthusiasm. The mayor made a short and moving speech and a white lady at another table took the plunge, grabbed a startled black man, and started to jitterbug with him in a most energetic fashion. Perhaps I was imagining, but I sensed that many of the whites in the audience were experiencing a kind of catharsis, where after all these long years of apartheid, it was now, suddenly, ok to commingle with all those black wraiths they had been sharing their country with, without communication. Like the Berlin Wall falling, a bit at least. Hard to describe, but almost tangible.

The black reaction seemed to me to be one of total surprise and puzzlement. The black ladies in the Mother Hubbards took in the mayor’s speech and the lady jitterbug with their mouths open and their eyes goggling. Several blacks in the audience held up clenched fists. I guess they could have been jugged for that, had they done it much earlier. One clutched his private parts, whether as a political gesture, or because of something more personal I do not know. The blacks were receiving the warm sentiments the whites were directing at them, all right, but they didn’t seem to have the foggiest idea how to respond. A paradigm for the larger situation?

Do you see what I mean? Breakthrough moments like this are rare, but this kind of breakthrough is what elevates our species, or at least a part of it, up a notch, over some invisible but critical threshold, to a new level of civilization. I consider myself lucky to have seen this one, and treasure it.

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You probably already have surmised that the interests Jane and I had developed as professional diplomats were still there after we retired, and if there was an issue afoot we’d try to sniff it out. But that was for our own amusement, and the possible interest of relatives and friends. We never sent any of our reports to officials on active duty and they never asked.

On the other hand, I have begun to sense that these reports will prove useful in another sense. A traditional scholar justifies his arguments by appending a long list of sources, suggesting (though not proving) he has read them all and they support what he is saying or help explain it. I am not a traditional scholar. I have spent a lifetime accumulating impressions about a wide variety of environments and the people who live in them, and that is the soil from which my theories have grown. The travels cited or listed in this narrative, future chapters and their appendages will be my bibliography.

Perhaps there is some point after all in my living to an overripe old age. I see patterns in my trip reports that are congruent in interesting ways to patterns I also sense in my diplomatic experiences, and in my family travails, and even in the music I have carried around in my head and occasionally composed. There may be a kind of unity in all this diversity. What is taking shape in my mind is a more rounded and detailed appreciation of the life that exists on this extraordinary planet of ours, and humanity as an exceptional part of it, and humanism as an emergent world view whose time has come.

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Carl Coon – 11.10.17 – More to come…

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1 Response to World Travelers – 1927- Present by Carl Coon

  1. Lyndon Comstock says:

    Are you, by chance, related to the William Putnam “Bill” Coon, born in 1950, who died in Rappahannock County in 1996?

    I’m a classmate of his from Andover, Class of ’68, and we’re trying to collect remembrances of our departed classmates for the 50th reunion.

    Thank you.

    Lyndon Comstock–I’ve posted my email address in your form.

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