I am just halfway through journalist Christopher S. Stewart’s account of messing about in the Honduran jungle, on his personal boys’ own quest to find a (probably mythical) lost city, Jungleland: A True Story of Adventure, Obsession, and the Deadly Search for the Lost White City (HarperCollins).
There is a satisfying amount of hot, humid, scary and almost impenetrable jungle infested with snakes, jaguars, drug runners, elusive tales of wondrous sights and things, fugitives, insects and the many, many fevered dreams of the men (and it is almost 100% men) who, since Columbus’ arrival in this brave new world, have been searching compulsively and unsuccessfully for one storied Lost City or another…
The particular city Stewart is on the trail of is fabled Ciudad Blanca: the White City. For centuries, it – or rather the stories of its possiblity made concrete – has lured explorers, including Spanish conquistador Herman Cortes, into the little Amazon, the jungles of Honduras’ “Mosquito Coast” – one of the largest, wildest, and most impenetrable stretches of tropical land in the world.
Some intrepid souls got lost within its dense canopy; some disappeared, fate unknown. Others died there, caught in a soggy, green-tinted whirl of dreams and mysteries. Then, in 1939, an American explorer and spy named Theodore Morde claimed that he had located this El Dorado-like city. Yet before he revealed its location, Morde died under strange circumstances, giving credence to those who believe that the spirits of the Ciudad Blanca killed him. Is this lost city real or only a tantalising, intriguing myth that gives men a chance to leave their families (Stewart is clear and honest about what his obsession means for his family) and be a ‘real’ explorer in an age where we appear to know almost everything about everywhere? What continues to draw explorers into the unknown jungleland at such terrific risk? In this absorbing true-life thriller, journalist Christopher S. Stewart sets out to find answers – a white-knuckle adventure that combines Morde’s wild, enigmatic tale with Stewart’s own epic journey to find the truth about the White City.
One of the interesting side-effects of all this myth-chasing exploring is how anthropologists and historians have had to re-assess their understanding of how pre-Columbian cultures lived in what was assumed to be an uninhabitable jungle, that could not support any sort of sophisticated culture (as everything, due to the rigours of the environment, simply rots away) or anything approximating a ‘city’. So far, I am finding this, as well as Stewart’s personal internal adventuring, just as interesting as the yearning search for the lost metropolis.
There is a slight possibility that something exists because nobody is able to say, definitively, that it doesn’t – so the myths grow, and European male explorer-hood has invested so much time, money and people since Cortes, that to admit defeat makes a nonsense of the wastage of these precious things, and a mockery of the fools who invested in mirages. The mirage is seductive: I have noticed that as the book goes on, I am slightly hoping/wondering whether just over that mountain, behind that bend in the river, by interpreting cryptic comments in an old explorer’s journal in just the right way, the lost city will become found.
I figure I am not spoiling the book too much to suggest that Stewart doesn’t find Ciudad Blanca – it would have been big news if he did – but, as so often in life, it is the joys, terrors, boredoms and bewilderments of the journey that make the most interesting reading.