Backpacking with a Book
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Oliver Sacks: The Island of the Colorblind

Backpacking with a Book

But the Eden of lost childhood, childhood imagined, became transformed by some legerdemain of the unconscious to an Eden of the remote past, a magical “once,” rendered wholly benign by the omission, the editing out, of all change, all movement. For there was a peculiar static, pictorial quality in these dreams, with at most a slight wind rustling the trees or rippling the water. They neither evolved nor changed, nothing ever happened in them; they were encapsulated as in amber. Nor was I myself, I think, ever present in these scenes, but gazed on them as one gazes at a diorama. I longed to enter them, to touch the trees, to be part of their world—but they allowed no access, were as shut off as the past.

I often conceived science as complicated as the origin of life, and so does its language. Oliver Sacks’s treatment of science, however, is personal, thus necessitates no weighty  knowledge on neurology and anthropology; rather it appeals to me as a diary recounting, reconstructing the memories of a travel on islands isolated in terms of geography and the rarity of their respective diseases: achromatopsia (colorblindedness) in Micronesia and lytico-bodig in Guam.

And since memory, as Edelman reminds us, is never a simple recording or reproduction, but an active process of recategorization—or reconstruction, of imagination, determined by our own values and perspectives—so remembering has caused me to reinvent these visits, in a sense, constructing a very personal, idiosyntric, perhaps eccentric views of these islands, informed by a lifelong romance with islands and island botany.

Above is part of the preface, which admittedly I normally skip since I find prefaces a little bias—the writer instructing the reader on how to read the book. That being said, yes, I read the preface last. It is satisfying though knowing that I read the book the way the writer intended me to be. Months ago, I wrote a travel essay, and there was a line “A long travel―though physically draining―is a mind exercise. It allows the mind to remember, revisit, reconstruct, reaffirm memories.” Gerald Edelman’s articulation is way, way better, but it simply delighted me that science could explain the complications and varied faces of Memory.

I hope I can chance upon Edelman’s A Biological Theory of Consciousness. Yes, memories. And memories.

Sacks is a voracious reader. He recalled book passages from the everyday objects he saw on the island: Melville, Joyce, Theroux are constant names throughout the first half. Sacks introduced new names in nonfiction,  which I have plans to delve further.

What I love about reading: it reminds me of the simple facts  I often overlook. I had no idea what a breadfruit was but realized we called it kulo at home. Knowing that the unique, isolated Pingelap—a Micronesian atoll in the Pacific Ocean—has kulo made me proud of my Nanay Kading’s two kulo trees, which fruit is best in binignit during Holy Week.

Travel Quotes

An hour and a quarter has passed, and we are steadily flying, at 27,000 feet, over the trackless vastness of the Pacific. No ships, no planes, no land, no boundaries, nothing—only the limitless blue of sky and ocean, fusing at times into a single blue bowl. This featureless, cloudless, vastness is a great relief, and reverie-inducing—but, like sensory deprivation, somewhat terrifying, too. The Vast thrills as well as terrifies—it was well called by Kant “the terrifying Sublime.”

Looking at Pingelap, thinking of the lofty volcano it once was, sinking infinitesimally slowly for tens of millions of years, I felt an almost tangible sense of the vastness of time, and that our expedition to the South Seas was not only a journey in space, but a journey in time as well.

Going to St. Dominic’s does not mean a removal from all that is dear and familiar, but rather a translocation of all this.

But here [Pohnpei] their powers had been molded by a different tradition—more concrete, less theoretical than ours, so that their knowledge was intimately bound up with the bodily and mental and spiritual balance of their people, with magic and myth, the sense that man and his environment were not separable, were one.

For islands were, so to speak, experiments of nature, places blessed or cursed by geographic singularity to harbor unique forms of life.


No wonder, Oliver Sacks comes with high recommendation from Resil Mojares. 😉

Jona of Backpacking with a Book

Hi there, I’m Jona! I’m in my early 30s and is currently based in Ha Noi, Vietnam.I primarily write poetry and short stories in Cebuano and lengthy travel essays in English. Blogging has become an outlet to think out loud. I live the life I set for myself. I try to live an unapologetic life. For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at Find me somewhere else!

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1 Comment

  1. […] islands. I often equate them with their glossy-magazinish existence. And it was because of Oliver Sacks that I realized tourism is not a place, it is an act; that although one is foreign to an island, one […]

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