When my wife and I travel we organize everything in a thorough and sensible way. We know where we're going and what we are planning to do in some detail before we ever reach the airport. We don't like surprises. But travel didn't used to be like this. Before it became an industry travel was always an adventure. Surprises came thick and fast, and your journey was never guaranteed to end where and when you had planned, or indeed to end without some kind of catastrophe. That's why most people stayed close to home.
This naturally brings us to Christopher Columbus, whose life and achievements we celebrate today. He found it hard to plan his voyages because he didn't know where he was going. In fact he didn't even know where he arrived. His assignment was to find a westward passage to India, a semi-mythical land of fabulous wealth. In this he totally failed. The map makers of his time forgot to show that there was a whopping great continent blocking the way between Europe and Asia, and Columbus ran right into it. On his various voyages he landed in Watling Island, Cuba, Haiti, Honduras and Panama, but never on the North American mainland or even on Long Island. To his dying day he believed that he had in fact discovered a passage to India, although how he could have mistaken the Bahamas for India, given their very different tastes in food and music, remains a mystery.
The great explorers of the past like Captain Cook, David Livingstone, Marco Polo, Lewis and Clarke, ventured into the unknown. As modern tourists we venture only into the known. That doesn't mean there are no surprises at all, even in a well-discovered country like France. French food is a surprise, if you've only tasted the American version. French driving is always a surprise, not to say a trauma. But, in general, today's traveler knows what to expect, or can easily find out. Our local library has shelves of guidebooks on France, Spain and Italy, but also guides to Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Iceland, Himalayas, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Guides to Baghdad, Kabul, and Somalia are readily available, in case you feel the urge to go there for your next vacation.
Not so long ago the interior of Namibia, for example, was terra incognita for white westerners. Now it has its own glossy tourist guide in our suburban library. What this means is that the history of exploration on this planet is, literally, history. There may be scientific discoveries to be made in the depths of jungles or oceans but, essentially, we have the complete map. Ancient maps had great blank spaces labeled "Here be monsters." Now there are no blanks apart from some odd corners of Brooklyn.
This lack of unknowns in the geographical world is strangely deflating. No wonder we look for artificial excitement simulated 'mysteries,' and no wonder we still stand in awe of the great explorers of the past, like Señor Columbus who dreamed of new worlds, and went looking for them regardless of the risks. We may also wonder, as the future stretches infinitely ahead on the same old familiar planet with no place left to discover, where on earth we are going to find the next big adventure.
Copyright: David Bouchier