Sunday, June 05, 2011

Voyages of Discovery

Sometimes it feels a bit ironic that I live in Madagascar. I am not the most intrepid of explorers among my friends and aquaintances. Ok, sure, I’ve lived in a four countries and travelled to their various neighbours so that's got to make me somewhat credible, particularly if you were the type of person that considers a trip to Bellingham a perilous journey (and depending on border traffic, it may well be). Then sure, I’m a regular Christopher Columbus (actually I’d prefer to be Juan Ponce de Leon because I’d get to discover the Caribbean but on the other hand, people might call me “Poncey” for short so I suppose that has its drawbacks, but this is all neither here nor there). But throughout my travels I have met these real “explorer” types, and trust me, I’m not them. They are the people that roll out of their mosquito net/tent in the morning and don’t have the foggiest clue where they’ll pitch it that night. I on the other hand, generally like to have a room with a bed and a bathroom lined up well in advance. I’m perfectly willing to try going somewhere new, but I’d prefer to be home by 11, because, you know I just don't enjoy pulling all-nighters and I never have. This is perhaps why I prefer to move into a place and make myself at home and explore from within. But the people that run, jump and dive into the complete unknown - that's ballsy if you ask me.

Just thinking about being on the opposite side of the globe is a bit awesome. Well first, in the interest of full disclosure, I should honestly state that the polar opposite of Vancouver is actually just to the south east of Madagascar, but since there are no inhabited land masses between Madagascar and Antarctica in the southern Indian Ocean, the former will simply have to satisfy.

Secondly, I am fascinated with explorers, particularly the historical sort who have become, in my mind, a bit of the stuff of legends rather than real people who lived and breathed. It boggles my mind that people would sail off for a year or forever. Can you imagine not really knowing how big the world is and just going out “to see what we see”? I am reading Brown’s A History of Madagascar, which covers everything up to the 1990’s. So far I am at 1664, which was just the time when the Europeans started showing up around here and there and all over the map, if you will. Brown recounts stories of how trading and exploration ships would land on Madagascar’s shores and sometimes would have a friendly trade of goats for beads and sometimes would get massacred by the locals.

In a way, this is so far out of my experience, but in another sense, it is very close to our world today. It is so totally alien in the sense that in order to come to Madagascar it takes 40-odd hours, instead of 40 weeks. I can google Madagascar before coming here and I can use street view to see where I will stay before I touch down. I can watch the Madagascar episode of Departures to get a sense of the culture looks like to the travelling Canadian. I can call ahead to see what type of visa I should acquire or if there is any significant chance that I will be harpooned upon arrival at Ivato International. Imagine though, for a moment, being a 2nd or 3rd century Indonesian, getting in your canoe and shoving off of Bali thinking 'Well, here we go,' and then somehow crossing the Indian Ocean (ok, realistically, they hopped from land to land around the edge of it, but I still maintain that such a feat is nothing to sneeze at). Or even being a 10th century Mozambican and deciding that sailing out into the middle of the big blue just to see what the horizon looked like up close was a good idea. Or imagine being a Portuguese sailor in the late 16th century and putting up with scurvy on the off chance that you find some incredible pile of gold and rare spices sitting on an abandoned dock somewhere. That’s why these people baffle me.

Yet there are points that I have in common with the crazy intrepids. Early explorers had only a mythical concept of the limits of the earth, or if they did have something more concrete, they assumed that they would not be the ones to finally find it and have to deal with it. Here is where we are one in the same, Poncey and me. I today have but a cerebral notion of the limits of humanity. I know that there are some 6.922 billion of us, but that number doesn’t really make sense and I can’t get to know all of them, so the limits of the world remain far beyond anything I’d have to tackle.

I wonder though what the motivation was – if it was really the sense of fearless curiosity. Brown tells a story of a 17th century ship that limped home to Britain after sickness and storms destroyed the fleet that was with them and much of the crew. They carried home a paltry cargo of pepper as their prize for years on the seas.

On the other hand, if I didn’t have pepper – or any of the array of condiments now widely available to me largely thanks to the invention of high fructose corn syrup and red food dye no. 40 – maybe the arrival of pepper would be a pretty big deal. Without these and the wide array of amenities, such as strawberries in February in Canada, I wonder if my senses would be heightened (would meat taste meatier?) or would a small taste of pepper drive me mad enough with delight to get on a boat and sail off into the wild blue yonder like a nautical don Quixote? Today… we’ve got the Planet Earth DVDs to answer what those remote places look like and Whole Foods can provide even the silliest of exotic sundries for our cravings.

So why get on the boat? I find the idea of 10 months at sea and 10 hours in a plane equally terrifying, and yet, here I am, at 18°55’ S, 47°31’ E, which is pretty far from 49°15’N, 123°6W. I’ve been thinking and mulling this over with some friends this week. Some of you know how tough the first 6 months have been here, and I’m not going to get into that too much, but one of the themes of my rants to those close to me for the last six month has been an impatient stomping of the foot and the demand to know just what the big idea is here, God.

I am coming to the place where I think perhaps there isn’t a big idea. Perhaps, there are a few smaller ones: maybe like the average Portuguese sailor, I needed a job, and getting on the boat meant a job that would change every other job that would come. Maybe also, a little bit, like Poncey and the Indonesian canoer, I wanted to see what we could see. Call be a naive idealist if you must, but I think I understood that this place would have people and things worth investing in - that it would give me something in return for that investment that I couldn't produce back home. I don’t have to be the intrepid explorer, who bushwhacks her way into the middle of things and finds the climactic answer to all this and riches to boot. I can just come and be and, hopefully, barter some good and uplifting things, in return for enough good and uplifting things to see me home.