Uncharted Waters

I finally finished reading Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe. It’s impressive that anyone made it back (albeit only 18 of the original 260 crew members, and one of the original five boats), considering their spotty information about most of the world and the many real (monster storms, natives who didn’t know what to make of them) and imagined (monsters of the deep) threats they encountered or expected to encounter. Depending on which accounts you read (all of which the author references), Magellan is portrayed as a brave explorer, a hero, a traitor, a control freak, a religious zealot, or worse. The book is well written and I learned a lot about that period of exploration and life on-ship in the 1500s. It was particularly interesting to read about the armada’s experiences along the coast of South America and navigating the now-named Strait of Magellan, which I stood overlooking from a point near Punta Arenas, Chile, a few years ago.

This also intersects nicely with parts of the only (ahem) other book I’ve read this year, A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (recommended by another Rebecca): “No one will ever be lost like those early conquistadors again, wandering a continent about which they knew nothing… [Cabeza de Vaca] had learned several languages, he had become a healer, he had come to admire and identify with the Native nations among whom he lived; he was not who he had been. The language of his report to the king is terse, impersonal; his declarative sentences describe only the tangibles of places, foods, encounters, and even these are given in the starkest terms, with little description, little detail. The terms in which to describe the extraordinary metamorphosis of his soul did not exist, at least for him. [Is this why I feel so ill-equipped to describe the places I encounter in my travels?] He was among the first, and the first to come back and tell the tale, of Europeans lost in the Americas, and like many of them he ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.” Solnit also writes about “the art of being at home in the unknown.”

I didn’t love all of Solnit’s book, but I find the parallels between these books interesting, and this all seems fitting material to ponder as I prepare for my own exploration—I have a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires, leaving May 20! Although I have maps and books and blogs to inform me, and I won’t have to create my own dictionary of the local language like Antonio Pigafetta (Magellan’s chronicler) did in Patagonia, and I know if I drink plenty of orange juice I won’t get scurvy, it doesn’t feel any less adventurous.

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3 Responses to “Uncharted Waters”

  1. bekka Says:

    those sailors and explorers were so brave. but i think you can have that feel in certain parts of the world, still, at least, lost in the depths of a jungle.

    i was ambivalent about the solnit book, too. parts i so loved, and raved about, and then others were odious to plow through.

    may 20? wow. that’s so soon. will you stay in BA the whole time/use it as a base for exploration? and you plan to stay there for years and years….

  2. Sarah B Says:

    I loved Over the Edge of the World! So glad you read and enjoyed it. Makes me very glad that I don’t have to worry about getting scurvy…that sounded awful.

  3. missmobtown Says:

    Pigafetta in Patagonia — I hope somewhere out there is a memoir with this title.

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