White Waters and Black?

I don’t remember exactly when my dad first started talking about Gordon MacCreagh’s White Waters & Black, but his enthusiasm and the details he recounted always stuck with me and I made it a point to get a copy as soon as I could. It took until 1997 to finally read it and I’ve read it regularly since then. It’s one of the most amazing, amusing, and enjoyable books ever written and its a shame that it isn’t more well known.

It recounts an adventure in the truest sense of the word, as MacCreagh signs on as a guide of sorts for a troupe of “Eminent scholars”, academics with no experience and very few social skills who intend to spend 2 years exploring the Amazon’s uncharted territories in 1923, collecting biological specimens and exploring unknown lands. The book takes it name from the two legs of the trip, the first east over the Andes to the Amazon (the white water) and the second back to the west via the Rio Negro (the black). In and of itself that expedition alone has the makings of a classic, but what really distinguishes White Waters and Black is MacCreagh’s delightful perspective on how to deal with the challenges of the personalities and the expedition. It’s this perspective that is most inspiring to me as I embark on this new chapter of my life in the American diplomatic corps.

MacCreagh is funny, flexible, and apparently unflappable, whether dealing with assembling a huge mule train, befriending violent and xenophobic tribes, or accommodating a huge parasitic insect that sets up camp in a hole burrowed behind his knee, all the while juggling the egos and incompetence of the Eminent Scientists (an M.D., Botanist, Entymologist, Ichthyologist, and Statistician compose the bulk of the explorers. The Scribe didn’t make it out of the first camp.). The trials and tribulations endured astounded me yet throughout the debacles and setbacks, MacCreagh finds a way to make lemonade. He’s surrounded by a team of incompetent idiots wholly unsuited for the expedition but it never gets him down. He thrives in spite of everything; indeed he doesn’t even seem to blink at what most anyone would call a setback. He just rolls with it.

Part of the appeal of the foreign service is the challenges that it will pose. The job itself requires one to adapt and problem solve as does life itself. We’ll have to do without when posted overseas, making do instead of lamenting what’s missing. But we should have no problems if I can make half of it what MacCreagh did 90 years ago in the Amazon jungle. I can only hope to make him proud.

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