Years On and Other Travel Essays
Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02; Madagascar 2002–03)
AFTER READING LARRY LIHOSIT’S COLLECTION, Years On and Other Travel Essays, I find myself scratching my head as to why the author subtitled his book “travel essays,” for it was certainly the wrong phrase to use. While these twelve well-crafted and engaging essays — spanning some thirty years of his adventures and work in such places as Mexico, Honduras, and Bolivia — do take us to many foreign locales, to label Lihosit’s experiences as”travel” would be to denigrate what he’s accomplished. Let Theroux claim the word “travel,” for that’s what he does: sips coffee on trains while scrimshawing cribbed and crotchety notes. Lihosit, on the other hand, should have used something like Essays of Reckless Immersion, Essays of Fomenting Revolution, Essays of Giving Your Life to Work Among the Foreign Poor. All would have been more illuminative of what’s recorded in these pages.
As an urban planning Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras in the late ’70s, then an activist urban planning graduate student in Mexico City, and finally a professional urban planner in a range of countries south of the border — plus remotest Alaska — Lihosit chronicles a Moritz Thomsen-like “path less traveled,” a Pete Hessler-esque possession of language and culture. We learn that Lihosit lived and worked in Central and South America not because he had to, but because it made him happy; that he preferred serving “the people,” that he didn’t mind occasional death threats from regime thugs when his meddling went too far. What I most enjoyed about these essays were the finely detailed portraits of Lihosit’s indigenous comrades in arms: a wide range of rural Indian and mestizo doctors, musicians, and intellectuals, all of whom — like Lihosit himself — seem to have modeled themselves on the best ideals of a pre-violence Che Guevara.
The book opens with a couple of funny essays about a young Lihosit hitchhiking with hippies through Arizona, including hiding under a bridge from the Highway Patrol, and crossing the border with a drugged out fellow American. Though his companion quickly turns tail for home when Mexico proves to be less a counter-culture Xanadu and more just Mexico: hot, poor, corrupt, and gringo-menacing, Lihosit stays and finds himself awakened. Soon, he’s in Honduras as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small town mayor’s office, with little to do but make cultural missteps. A futile and embarrassing attempt to improve local drinking water opens his eyes to his own northern arrogance, and he begins his transformation into that best and rarest of ex-pats: the Yankee gone native. Soon he has a new name and somewhat cringe-worthy alternative identity: “Lorenzo el Licenciado.”
Lihosit writes, “Licenciado is a courteous title for anyone with a college degree. Loosely translated it means ‘licensed one.’ In a country where college graduates were very much like a needle in a haystack, they were revered.”
Unfortunately, reverence is not what he goes south looking for, and we wince along with him in hilarious passages where locals insist on referring to him by that cumbersome appellation, “Si, Licenciado…No, Licenciado.”
Cultural lessons and years pass, and Lihosit marries a Mexican woman and begins graduate work at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, in Mexico City. Soon enough, he finds himself involved in what proves to be the most interesting event in the book — a grassroots attempt by residents of the lower class Santa Anita neighborhood to save their homes from demolition in the face of a redevelopment project. When Lihosit discovers that the city is determined to raze Santa Anita even though rerouting the project would be more cost effective, the activist in him comes out. This essay — “Roads & Light-Rail” — the longest of the book, details Central American-style suppression, intimidation, and clandestine community organizing that could have easilyn— and probably should have been — expanded into a book of its own. Fully aware that his work with the Santa Anita residents could lead to arrest, deportation, or worse, Lihosit goes to such extremes for the cause that he eventually puts his life in danger. In this harrowing passage, he writes of a near escape from government heavies:
[O]ne evening after a meeting in Santa Anita, my wife picked me up in her car. A white imported car was parked one house down from ours. Their door was ajar and the overhead dome light illuminated someone in a suit and tie behind the wheel, uncommon in my working class neighborhood. The back doors opened as we got out. Behind me I heard a voice, “Senor Francis?” Anyone who did not know my last name was not a friend. I quickly opened the metal side door…Our block fence was only four feet high but was topped by three foot high metal spikes. We talked to two young thugs through the fence spikes. One of the young men told me I was wanted for vehicular manslaughter. He said that I must accompany them . . . [he] opened his jacket to show me a forty-five caliber pistol stuffed into his belt. I turned and walked to my open door, locking it behind me, then armed myself with a long knife.
As Lihosit coaches the frightened Santa Anitans in preparation for their day in court, the threats become so grave that he goes into hiding, sleeping on a drafting table in a “dumpy” secret office, completely cut off from even his own wife. Finally, it gets so dangerous that he dons a disguise and flees Mexico altogether. Through the course of “Roads & Light-Rail,” we are treated to a political battle from beginning to end. Lihosit documents all the infighting, clashing personalities, set backs, sell outs, and minor victories that any community-oriented struggle against oppressive authority entails. It’s truly amazing how far the uneducated Santa Anitans manage to take their movement in the face of a government-sanctioned opposition that’s willing to kill them. In the end, of course, the neighborhood is demolished anyway.
A quirky and somewhat somber essay about trying to save a sewer system in a remote fishing town in Alaska is another highlight of the book. Here, Lihosit reiterates his well-defined moral code: “Dillingham was not a rich town. Just about everything was run by volunteers . . .”
Volunteers set up music recitals, manned the radio station, wrote articles for the newspaper, led search and rescue and fought fires. It seemed as if everyone had some interest and some group they were involved in, just as De Tocqueville had commented on. He called voluntary associations “a cornerstone for American society.”
A final essay in which Libosit returns to Mexico with his teenage sons is moving — in it the author gently admits mortality as he watches his boys fall in love with Latin America as he had done so many years before.
Tony D’Souza’s new novel Mule, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September.
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