By Kerry Tinga
The winding streets of Lisbon go up and down, up and down, up and down, atop the seven hills the city is built on. The building facades are adorned with colorful tiles, the city is filled with breathtakingly beautiful old churches (the most stunning probably is Jeronimos Monastery in Belem), along the Portuguese coast facing the Atlantic Ocean. I had the pleasure of getting lost in the city over the weekend. There is no better way to explore a new place than to get lost in it.
The very definition of exploration involves studying the unknown and unfamiliar, and when you have no idea where you are and how you got there then there is no doubt that you are in the territory of the unknown and unfamiliar! This is especially true with Portugal. Some of this nation’s greatest moments in the history of Western civilization are marked by travel, exploration, and discovery.
About a half an hour drive out of the city center of Lisbon, in the municipality of Sintra, a lighthouse on Cabo da Roca (Cape Roca) overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. It is the westernmost point of continental Europe, facing America somewhere on the other end of the vast body of water. It is a wonderful spot to have lunch at an hour or so past noon. There are no buildings crowding the coast, which means that you can eat the freshest seafood Portugal has to offer while watching the waves and gazing off into the horizon.
Hundreds of years ago, way back in the 15th century, modern Western civilization called the cape the “end of the world” since they had no way of knowing what was beyond that horizon. To the east of Europe was the “Far East,” connected by land through the Silk Road and short sea routes along the coast of the continent. There was ancient Chinese civilization and there was the Arab Peninsula, long time traders with the West, all chronicled in detail in the writings of Marco Polo. But what was to the west where one only saw water and no land? Nobody knew, not yet at least.
The average person at the time probably thought that if someone foolish kept on sailing straight ahead they would just fall off the face of the Earth into space, or something. There were theories, of course, by the greatest scientists, that the world was spherical. But no concrete proof or practical evidence of the fact, only suspicions and speculations made by looking at the stars.
The sailors of Europe feared going past the northern coasts of Africa, unsure of what lay ahead and whether it would ever be possible to return from it. This set the stage for what would later be known as the Age of Discovery, when the fearless sailed beyond the world as they knew it—not in spite of the unknown but because of it—in search of the unchartered and untraveled. One of the most famous of the Portuguese explorers, Vasco da Gama, known for sailing around the African continent, discovering the Cape of Good Hope, and eventually marking a sea route to India, once said, “I am not afraid of the darkness. Real death is preferable to a life without living.”
It was not until a Portuguese explorer’s crew circumnavigated the Earth that Western civilization had practical evidence that the world was round. His name was Ferdinand Magellan and he was commissioned by the King of Spain to keep sailing west, past the newly discovered Indies and into what he named the Pacific Ocean, to find a sea route to India the Spanish could use after the Treaty of Tordesillas reserved the eastern routes to Portugal. The beginning of our colonial history as Filipinos, so entangled with the majority of our contemporary culture and national identity (whether that is a positive or negative thing I am not here to discuss), began by a Portuguese taking that fearless step into the unknown in search for the unfamiliar.
It is a shame that we have passed the “Age of Discovery.” Nowadays, explorers go as far into space as they possibly can, or as deep into the oceans as they possibly can. Either way, I probably won’t be discovering any new places, and naming them after myself, any time soon. At 20 years old, however, I feel like I have entered a personal “age of discovery,” having the opportunity to go to places I have never been before and experiencing new things. While I may have few to no chances to “boldly go where no man has gone before,” I often get to boldly go where I personally have never gone before. This may be new countries (it was my first time in Portugal), or new places in the city I live in.
In the spirit of discovery, and in search for a pastry shop to try pasteis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts), I took dozens of side stops into interesting shops and street corners that caught my eye in Lisbon, getting lost in the language and the kindness of the people.
In your 20s, if you can, I would say save up your money and your time for experiences, and not things, that will help mold you into the person you will eventually become. I often hear people say that life is the greatest teacher, but like all teachers the best way to learn is to pay attention, and I believe the best way to pay attention to life is to go out and live it. We should all look toward the horizon of what is our personal unknown with curiosity and not fear, to venture out and discover something amazing, and experience diverse cultures and perspectives in order to broaden our minds and find out who we are in this big, big world.