I scan the vast ocean through squinting eyes, a teardrop forming in reaction to the warm salty breeze. Lengthy bangs swirl against my cheeks like little brown whips which I brush aside without a thought. Astride the death-defying cliffs of Sagres at the southwestern tip of Portugal, fishermen sit on sheer cliffs below me, balancing upon narrow ledges. In such an Old World country it’s easy to imagine each generation passing this tradition along. Do families have squatters rights to particular ledges, I wonder? That would make sense, like the lobstermen off the coast of Maine who establish “buoy rights” that pass down the family line. Has anyone ever fallen? Perhaps that is the purpose of the colorful little boat anchored below, with its pristine white hull topped with a rich turquoise interior punctuated by bright pink and blue stripes. The matching turquoise and pink oars are a nice touch.
How magnificent to be standing upon a site that Henry the Navigator himself once occupied. Speculation has it that here he built a school for navigators and map-makers. Standing within the confines of the old fortress, I see what is described as a massive compass rose, a circular formation of pebbles and markers alongside what appears to be a stone sundial.
Across the narrow neck of the peninsula stands Nossa Senhora da Graça, a whitewashed chapel dating back to 1579, and in fact is a replacement for a previous church built in 1459.
Further out, across a rocky field near the tip of the peninsula is a solitary lighthouse. Walking along the pavement toward the beacon we are almost completely encircled by water but for the small strip of land leading back to the fort. Reaching the very end, no land is visible in my field of vision, as even my peripheral fields are filled with endless azure waves and sky. I step back as the surreal blues blend together, lest I allow the intoxicating sense of free-fall overcome my sensibilities.
My mind ponders the world of the 1400’s, when an individuals’ universe equaled the reality they could see and touch coupled with the concept of an otherwordly heaven or hell. Contemporary ideas of our universe are vast and endless. Did the ocean seem as vast and endless to Henry the Navigator as the stars, planets and solar systems seem to us today? Aside from incentives and favors from the throne, what motivated such men to venture beyond the known universe of the times? Was it an inexplicable wanderlust? A desire to flee known circumstances that seemed more hostile than the treachery of unknown destinations?
Wanderlust can lead to many adventures and tragedies in our world today. The euphemism “itchy feet” describes the discomfort perfectly, demanding immediate attention and remedy with an urgency that can not be ignored. Accepting and taming this urge without squelching it entirely is the balance we strive to attain. Our society is on an ever increasingly fragmented journey where opportunities bombard and entice us. How do we maintain our values and sense of meaning and balance, how do we hold on to a solid foundation while nurturing our very potent “need to nomad” in a world of ever expanding possibilities?
-Originally published 30 November 2012