Hic Sunt Dracones

I often entertain conversations with colleagues one or two generations older than I about past adventures. Hitchhiking from Johannesburg to Cairo, bussing through northern Uganda and Southern Sudan and to Juba catching a boat to Khartoum and upward downriver. St. Petersburg in the spring, strolling through the Hermitage; a taxi from Yerevan to Teheran and on eastwards. My grandfather once drove from Phoenix to San Jose, Costa Rica. I myself once drove 16 hours across the Sahara, from Ndjamena to Abeche in Chad. I lived in Eastern Congo during the start of the civil war that never seems to end.

None of these things can one do today. Hic sunt dracones.

I read lots of books about Eurasia in history, the middle ages full of bandits, caravanserai protected by the king’s men, equidistant one from the other for the hurried day traveler but be careful lest night catch you out in the perilous beyond. Or earlier, boats sailing through the Pillars of Hercules and hugging the coasts of Africa fearing one stray into the deep water hic sunt dracones.

For a brief time, the time of my parents or perhaps grandparents when Wilson had made the world safe for democracy (or was it trade?) the dracones had at last been slain. Those were glorious days of exploration when we were at last filling in the empty corners of the maps as we wandered through Palmyra or ancient Timbuktu.

Our world is getting smaller again, our maps are being reduced to the ring roads around Lagos and Abuja. Islamabad’s expats thinking longingly of the cool Edwardian resorts of Murray. San Pedro Sula, don’t miss the bus says my chauffer from the armored car, handgun nestled snugly in his belt. Paris beyond the ring, south Chicago or the infamous favelas of Rio. Whole countries now closed to us. Nicaragua, where I once slept in a room under a bar for $1 by night and carried out relief projects during the day now perilous crawling with Russians guarding the torture chambers of the regime. Venezuela in the Gran Sabana or the Amazon jungle where I jogged in the humid morning mists a drug state with no law. Mexico, gunfights along the Riviera Maya. Or the places I have never been and am losing hope at visiting, Iran and Cuba and North Korea joined now by Russia and China and Yemen and Lebanon. Closed, or without the basic protections which a traveler would demand for the ease and mental comfort of passage. Hic sunt dracones.

The remarkable thing is that it has happened slowly, almost imperceptibly; one place gets added to the “no-go” list, along with another and another. Cities isolated as possible tourist destinations, expensive and boring and safe. It’s the world of Elysium in the post-apocalyptic movies, a world that my little boy takes at face value, not knowing it was not always thus. That there was a brief, brilliant moment when the Asian tigers were growing and the African wars were ending after the mayhem of the middle ages gave way to a Pax Britanica then a Pax Americana. Eventually even communism itself failed – world government like a red giant that burned too brightly only to collapse in upon itself after going supernova, charring everything in its path.

Makes me wonder about the future, as diminishing returns sets in to our ability to solve problems – the singularity some scientists call it – at which point problems multiply exponentially and our solutions cannot keep pace in a nouveau Malthusianism of sclerotic government and constipated bureaucracy. The return of history, more accurately I guess. And we should not be surprised, though civilizations often are as their own ‘Paxes’ end and they realize that a return to disorder is the most natural thing in the world.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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