“In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” was a refrain chanted by thousands of 20th Century school children in the United States, memorizing the launching of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria from Spain’s shores — and the “discovery” of America.
Except, the Americas were already here, hardly needing discovery.
Nonetheless, the captain of the sailing vessels was attributed with finding America — assumed to include North America by children in US classrooms and communities for decades — and Columbus Day remains a federal holiday still recognized in our country.
Even Columbus was confused as to where he went ashore as that first voyage made land, suspecting he was in East Asia, when his ships anchored off of an island in what we now know as the Caribbean islands. While his future expeditions did realize explorations of South and Central Americas, envisioning the sailor on the shores of North America was always just imaginations allowed to run wild.
We have a better perspective on the geography of the world today than Columbus and his sailors had to work with. When we explore the world, we have a pretty good idea where we will end up.
Six hundred years since Columbus sailed the ocean blue, we continue to travel and learn about cultures far from our own. We still carry with us, though, as did the 15th Century sailors, preconceived notions of who and what we will encounter. And just like early explorers, we often carry with us the beliefs that those in other places ought to cater to our own culture’s needs and desires. We have ample opportunity to prepare for a new experience in a new environment when we travel; but longing for familiarity in a strange land, it is possible to forget that we are guests of another nation.
Travel is valuable. It brings us understanding of those in other parts of the world who may not look, eat, learn, believe, or speak as we do. It broadens our ability for empathy and give us the chance to gain new wisdom that may not be available on our own shores.
Going to countries across the oceans, we are ambassadors for America, whether we like it or not. What we say and do is a reflection on our fellow country people; the messages we bring home are ones that can build or break down walls.
We learn through travel the foibles and strengths of humanity, and those of our own.
In “Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two,” Columbus had no idea what he was getting into. His charge, carried out to his best ability, was to conquer those he encountered and bring back riches to Spain.
We do not need, in this day and age, to conquer others. When we set sail for other lands, we need only to conquer our own insecurities and misconceptions, so that what we discover is what is obvious: we are more similar than we are different, no matter our face, our language, or our countryside.
With travel, we can take a voyage of true discovery.