24 July 2016, Laguna Beach, California, USA
Delivered for 'Books and Brunch' event at Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts. Steve Hely has written for The Office, 30 Rock, American Dad and Veep. His first novel won the Thurber Prize for American Humour. His current book is The Wonder Trail.
Guys, I have to tell you that although I’m really happy to be here, and delighted you invited me, I’m living out one of my biggest fears.
I’m not afraid of public speaking, I’ve done it quite a few times, I even enjoy it. But all the talks or speeches I’ve ever given have been inside. I’ve never given one outside.
It’s really hard to give a speech outside. Inside, you’re kinda boxed in. You’re a captive audience. There’s nothing to stop you from wandering off into the hills or down to the beach. Plus, I’m competing for your attention with nature. Which, in a place as beautiful as Laguna is just not a good idea.
Now, there have been a bunch of great speeches given outside. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was given outside. JFK’s inauguration speech. Ronald Reagan’s Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall, that was an outdoor speech. But guys, I have to confess to you: as a speaker I am not at a level with Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
But I will promise you I will do my best.
Laguna Beach is such a special place. Let me tell you a story about Laguna Beach, because it has a place in my own family history.
My grandfather was a doctor in the Navy during World War II. Some of you probably know this but the Navy supplies the doctors for the Marine Corps., and my grandfather was assigned to the Marine Corps. Sometime in 1944 they sent him to Camp Pendleton to train for amphibious landings. He was engaged, and he sent for my grandmother. She took a train across the country from Philadelphia by herself, probably her first trip away from home, and they got married in June.
A lot of the doctors got married that summer, because they knew they were going to ship out. And when they shipped out, they believed they weren’t coming back until they’d invaded Japan. And they knew how hard that was going to be.
But before they left all the doctors and their new wives got a one month honeymoon here in Laguna Beach.
I think about that every time I come down here, and how intense that month must of felt, wonderful and terrifying at the same time, because when they shipped out they didn’t know when they’d come back or how they’d come back or if they’d come back.
My grandfather did come back, though. Which is lucky for me. So I get to be here today with you on this beautiful Sunday.
Life is wild, is I guess the point of my story. It’s full of chances and miracles and disasters and ups and downs and things that are completely out of our control. Who can say what we’re put here for? We all have to look around and search ourselves and search the world and come up with answers to that for ourselves.
One answer I’ve come up with for myself is that we’re put here to explore. To experience the Earth and the places on it, to travel, to have adventures, to learn about other people, to share what we learn with other people, to learn what they have to share with us, and to communicate with each other.
That’s what I wanted to do, I want to live life and explore and see as much of the world as I can. I’m curious, I want to have a look, and if I find something that gets me excited, that fires up my interest, then I want to share that with you.
One question I had that was bugging me was what’s the world south of us like. If you go south, from here, not very far as all of you know, you come to the border with Mexico. Well, what’s Mexico like? How did it get that way? And what’s beyond that? South of Mexico there’s Central America. I knew Central America had waterfalls and ruins and jungles and sloths and coffee plantations and coastlines that pirates had sailed along, and fruits I’d never tried, and volcanoes, and the Panama Canal, and hidden surf spots, and a million other things worth seeing. I also knew they’ve had all kinds of problems there, civil wars and guerrilla movements and dictators and disasters.
What’s it like there? How’d it get that way?
And beyond that there’s all of South America! What’s going on down there?
Well that’s what I wanted to find out.
I work as a TV writer on comedy shows, and by a fluke of luck I ended up with three months off, between two jobs. And I thought ok, well great. I’m gonna go south, and see as many places as I possibly can, and come back and tell you about them.
So that’s what I did, I traveled south from here, and I went through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, down to Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of South America.
Then I came back, and I devoured a shelf full of books about these places, and I put what I learned into this book.
Let me tell you three things about this trip, and what I learned, things that amazed me and still fascinate me.
What’s now Mexico City was once called Tenochtitlan, and in the year 1519 it might have been the biggest city in the world. It was for sure the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere. The city sat on an island in the middle of a lake that was fifty miles long.
Bernal Diaz was a Spaniard who saw this city in that year. He says that men who’d seen Rome and Constantinople and every city in Spain were stunned by how enormous it was.
He says there were weavers and seamstresses, and craftsmen who worked with gold and silver, and garment makers who made robes out of feathers. There were painters and carvers and whole neighborhoods of clowns and acrobats and stilt-walkers. There were gardens and ponds and “tanks of fresh water into which a stream flowed at one end and out of the other… [and] baths and walks and closets and rooms like summerhouses where they danced and sang.” And there were people who sold human feces for use in tanning hides.
Diaz was taken to the top of an enormous temple, and he could see out agross the city and the lake, he could see aqueducts and canoes coming and going and other cities and towns that you reached by drawbridge, and shrines that had gleaming white towers and castles and fortresses.
Well about a year later almost everyone in the city was dead, and the place had been destroyed.
On the very site where there’d stood the biggest temple in Tenochtitlan, the Spanish started building a church. And they kept building and building and working on it for over five hundred years. Sometimes it would get knocked down in an earthquake or destroyed in a fire but that’s the spot, to this day, where you can see the cathedral of Mexico City.
Greater Mexico City, all the land that was once that enormous lake, now has something like twenty million people in it. In the book I try to describe the tiny fraction of it that I could see and experience.
How about Costa Rica? I bet there’re people here who’ve been to Costa Rica. Costa Rica is a paradise! There are rainforests and hot springs and beaches, and the people have a national philosophy of being chill. In Costa Rica they don’t have an army. They dissolved their army in the 1940s. Now, Costa Rica is not perfect, but it’s neighbored by countries - Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua - that’re some of the most violent places in the world. In El Salvador the murder rate is seventeen times the world average.
Why do things work out so much better for one country than for another? That’s something that interests me when I travel, and in the book I try and tell you what I found when I went looking for answers.
But most of all when I set out on this adventure, I wanted to see wonders. I wanted to drink the best cup of coffee. I wanted to see the Amazon jungle. I wanted to see Macchu Piccu, I wanted to see the Galapagos, I wanted to see the Andes mountains and the Atacama desert. I know I’m not alone, I know there are people out there who want to see these too. And some of you have seen them, and some of you will some day. And some of you can’t really be bothered, and that’s ok, too. For all of you, I wanted to share what I saw, and what I experienced, what excited my curiosity, and I hope it’ll excite yours too.
So thanks so much for having me, it’s a real honor to be a part of this event. You’re the best looking audience I’ve ever spoken to and I’m not just saying that.