Under the Weather

One of the heroines of my new book, Clear Eyes, is a fourteen-year-old Taino girl called Anda. She only appears at the start of Book 2—the novel is divided into three books: the outbound voyage, Columbus in the ‘Indies’, and the fractious return home.

It’s not unusual in the voyages of discovery that the journey home is particularly hideous. It happened to Vasco da Gama, who lost one third of his men in the homeward bound crossing of the Indian Ocean, to Columbus on his first voyage, and to Magellan, albeit somewhat earlier—but equally in a more radical fashion, since he lost his life in the Philippines.

Anda’s grandfather is a shaman, and rather fond of the hallucinogenic powder made from the beans of Piptadenia peregrina, the yopo tree. In the Caribbean, the tree can reach a height of sixty feet or more, and I imagine a few have been flattened over the past week.

When the shaman is tripping on DMT, he speaks with his ancestors from the mouth of the Orinoco—the Taino people came up to the Bahamas from Venezuela, fighting the Carib tribes along the way—the Caribs are responsible for the region’s name, but after five hundred years of colonial enthusiasm, they’re about as rare as the yeti.

As he smoked, the shaman told stories of the cemis, the Taino gods. There were several that looked after the cassava crop, including Baibrama, who cured people of the plant’s poisonous juice, and Guabancex, the goddess of juracan —the hurricane goddess had two assistants, Guatauba who created the winds, and Coatrisquie who made the floods.

The old man is smoking tabaco, which became a planetary hit after it was introduced to Europe. It is the last week of September, 1492, almost exactly five hundred and twenty-five years ago, at the very end of the pre-Columbian era in the New World.

The tender mercies of the Spanish conquistadors. Illustration from Theodor de Bry (1528–1598) inspired by the book Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias by Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas.

Guabancex has been on a roll this year—rather than the Islamic Haj, there’s been a spot of hij—Harvey, Irma, and Jose (nice to see that Latino touch in there). Her two assistants, Guatauba and Coatrisquie, obviously ran out of ritalin and have run amok with winds and floods.

The fact that the juracan had not one but three gods, suggests the locals were well-acquainted with the mayhem and destruction of these weather systems. The great debate now is whether climate change has increased the frequency of extreme events, of which hurricanes are an example.

Just as with earthquakes, science has no predictive capacity for hurricanes until they form. The key difference is in the speed of propagation—an earthquake happens very fast and we can forewarn only at the scale of a minute or so.

Hurricanes, on the other hand, can be tracked—since the ones that hit the Caribbean form off West Africa, there’s plenty of time for the US TV stations to wet their panties before the rain actually dampens anything.

CNN seemed completely impervious, if you excuse the pun, to the terrible destruction happening elsewhere, running Harvey like a Netflix serial-binger; testimony of tragedy was rife, with anchors waxing lyrical about mothers being separated from their babies, almost claiming this was a unique experience for mankind.

No one makes light of what happened in the southern US, but far worse violence to families is done regularly in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—on a daily basis. The destruction by Irma of ninety-five percent of Barbuda also puts things in perspective—downtown Houston is still standing, and so will downtown Miami after Irma does her bit.

And speaking of impervious, much of the natural ‘soft’ engineering that nature provides, including buffer zones of mangrove, permeable land, and forest cover has been destroyed by man. A good deal of the Houston flooding occurred in low-lying areas (duh) where good planning wouldn’t have allowed urban development. The destruction of Phuket by a tsunami in 2004 is another example of nature’s capacity to correct planning errors.

After typhoon Hato hit South China in late August, thousands of people were displaced—high winds, floods, and deaths, just like Harvey. Very little of this made the Western media, although the UK gave it some airtime because of Hong-Kong.

Macao was battered, although some of the gambling addicts probably only looked up once. A friend of mine in Guangzhou was six days without email because of destroyed infrastructure.

Since the Tainos and Caribs kept no written records, and there is certainly no oral tradition because the Spanish killed them all, not much is known about Atlantic hurricanes pre-1492. Even after that, there are only records when towns were badly hit, or occasionally if a vessel survived—in the big ones, I suspect no ships did.

On his second trip in 1494, Columbus witnessed his first hurricane on Hispaniola in late September. The following year in late October, Hispaniola was hit by another one—it whirled three galleons about their anchors, snapped the cables, and sank the lot, complete with crews.

Some evidence of earlier hurricanes is based on paleotempestology—I looked it up online, and even Google can’t think of an ad to associate with this mouthful—Oh Joy!

Sediment cores provide altered geological records during hurricane events, which can be dated. Cores from different Caribbean areas should provide a reasonable approach to reconstituting juracan tracks, and there must be other science tricks that would help. I doubt this is accurate to less than one year, and it may well be that the record ‘compresses’ multiple events.

Bottom-line, we go back to 1330 BC, and there are hurricanes identified as Cat 4-5, which will have caused major damage in their day.

One advantage the US has over Caribbean nations is strong federal support through FEMA and other agencies. Fareed Zacaria—every time I see his name I think of the Portuguese name Zacarias, and wonder if there’s a context pursuant to The India Road—wrote a nice op-ed this week in the Post, which highlights the nine words Reagan was most afraid off.

Zacaria tells us that these days, the words anyone from Texas or Florida will most want to hear are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

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