Friday, December 26, 2014

Michael Rockefeller, Cannibals, and a Christmas Surprise

Tibor Sekelj in Brazil.
On Christmas morning, my husband asked me—in all innocence—what I was reading. An article, I told him, about a new documentary that sheds light on the mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in Papua New Guinea in 1961. The son of governor Nelson Rockefeller was 23, I explained, and on an art-collecting expedition when he jumped over the side of a broken-down boat, began swimming to shore to get help, and was never seen again.
    "He was eaten by cannibals," Patrick replied. Thus began one of the more surprising conversations of our married life.
    "How do you know?" I asked.
    "A friend of my parents who had been in Papua New Guinea said he thought that was probably what happened."
    Here, some sixth sense told me to continue this line of questioning. "What friend?"
   "A guy from Yugoslavia. He used to come to dinner once in a while."
   "What was his name?"
   "His name was Tibor Sekelj."
   Here is what Wikipedia says Tibor Sekelj—an ethnologist, linguist, anthropologist, mountaineer, and explorer with a long and fascinating resume—was doing nine years after Rockefeller's disappearance:
"In 1970, Yugoslav television sent Sekelj to Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea. During his six-month stay he climbed Mount Kosciuszko. In New Guinea he met with natives whose lack of previous contact with the civilized world led to tense situations. But among Sekelj's many skills—and perhaps luck was just another one—was an uncanny ability to escape imminent danger time and again. Certainly he adapted easily to odd customs (including bizarre food), but if there was a single thing in particular that helped in this regard, it was his communication skills, which transcended even his facility with language."
Now, bear in mind that I have spent countless hours trying to figure out what my husband was thinking when he, as a young man, improvised a solo trek through the Brazilian rain forest (where Sekelj and his wife, Mary Reznik, first encountered cannibalism) and in short acted very much like his parents' Yugoslav dinner guest—one of the great travelers of the twentieth century. I tried to write about this trek in some detail in Our House in Arusha. The episode included a mutiny, several murders, and a number of very lucky encounters with rain-forest people who, despite certain meat-eating tendencies, saw to it that this particular white visitor survived his Brazilian jungle experience.
    "Do you suppose this guy Sekelj might have influenced you in one way or another?" I asked.
    "Oh, definitely."
    "So . . . how come you never mentioned him before?"
    "I forgot."
     Maybe the Brazil trek will make it into a book someday. When I set it aside, I thought, "No one is going to believe this." Just like nobody believed that the son of one of America's most influential families might have been killed and eaten by forest people when he ran into misfortune on an art expedition.
   My husband's Christmas revelation ended with this tidbit: "Indira Ghandi came to dinner once."
   "And?"
   "I found her very cute."

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