On explorers and exploring
In May I went back to Kosovo, with a couple of days in England en route. This gave me a chance to see the wonderful Captain Cook exhibition at the British Library, an experience of which any traveller would have been proud.
Captain James Cook was, of course, the pre-eminent traveller of his day. One might argue perhaps of any day, but then the fans of D’Entrecasteaux and Magellan, Tasman and Shackleton, Hearne and Scott, Erik the Red and Xuanzang, Ibn Battuta and Franklin, Livingstone and Pisarro, would each stake a claim. Perhaps even supporters of Thesiger and Hilary. After all each of them, like Picard, boldly went where no-one had gone before.
Well, not exactly. They all went somewhere that others had been, but it was somewhere they personally hadn’t been and nobody they knew had been, so to them it was all terra ignota. So, in the way of men and yes, I recognize the gendered nature of the list above, they reported wherever they got to as being a new world. They also usually reported it in terms of “their” travels. Other than Tensing, who shared the limelight on top of Everest, and Banks whose botanical collections formed the basis for Kew Gardens, how many assistants and planners and financial supporters and second officers and expedition members and family members and intimate companions and so forth do we know by name? Magellan sailed through the Strait which now bears his name, but there was a whole crew of people on the Trinidad, and even more officers and men on the other four ships of the fleet.
Now I have a particular fascination for Cook and have managed to get to many of the places where he once walked. From his birthplace at Marton-in-Cleveland near Great Ayton in Yorkshire to Cape Tribulation in the Daintree forest of northern Queensland, where the H.M.B. Endeavour was berthed on the beach to repair a hull gashed open on the Great Barrier Reef. From Poverty Bay in New Zealand to Botany Bay in Australia to the British Columbia coast to Newfoundland to Quebec City, where he played a vital role in the battle for that city. Sorry my Quebec friends, but that’s what happened! I’ve not been stalking him through history, not really, but my grandparents came from that same general area of north Yorkshire and I like to think that, in the way of Goose Fairs and May Day dances, enough genes got shared that there might be a family connection. So Cousin Jimmy it is!
I was therefore delighted to discover that the British Library was producing a major exhibit of his three major expeditions to the Pacific, ostensibly to observe the transit of Venus but also to check out the area, map it, and claim what might be claimable. Which he did with distinction, providing the Eurocentric world with its first clear view of the southern parts of our planet. The exhibit is comprehensive and tries to present the voyages not only in the context of the time but also from the perspective of those whom he met, the Maori and the Aborigine and the Tahitian.
This approach brings voices not always heard in the conversation about the travellers of the past – a huge gap in our knowledge. I know it took living with the Dene in northern Saskatchewan for me to even know that Matonabbee existed in Samuel Hearne’s world, and of course the Inuit knew all along where Franklin foundered, but nobody ever asked them until recently. So it was here, with the voices of those who watched the Endeavour arrive giving their own versions of those stories.
Although they are different, both types of stories are true, and are recounted as remembered. Whether the oral history of the Kuku Yalangi people of the Daintree or the written notes of Sir. Joseph Banks, these are accurate reports of what was important to the people who were there. Each version included some thoughts and excluded others, incorporated some explanations and ignored others, and presented remembered memory as the ‘truth’. It is this acceptance of multiple truths, I think, which drives the current U.S. President to distraction, for he (and/or his various associates and assistants) wants a single truth which applies to everyone and everything, and this is simply not possible.
Indeed, as a place to recount my own experiences, this blog offers some form of truth. But it is always my interpretation of experience, there is no absolute truth to anything. Others who were there may have noticed different things, drawn other conclusions.
On my last weekend in Kosovo I went with my friend down to Prizren, the beautiful southern city about which I have often waxed poetic. In the soft spring sunshine it was perfect – the river full with snowmelt, the streets busy but not yet full of tourists, the castle lying like a crown high above the red tiled roofs. On Saturday evening my friend, Sherif, said, “I’m going for a couple of beers with my friends from Bosnia, who I only see every month or so. Would you like to come?” Well!
We drove into the old part of the city, where there are still empty houses remaining from the war, their burned or shell-shocked walls leaning and gaping in myriad ways, pigeons lined up on shattered windowsills. We pulled up in a gravel car park next to a couple of older buildings, both of which were in some disrepair. It must have been about 8 pm, there was a bit of natural light left in the sky which was good as there were no street lights. On the wall across the street was a sort of metal panel with a door in it. There were no windows at eye level but a vent a bit further up the wall. The door opened and a young guy came out, nodded at us, then held the door while we entered. I noticed a hand-lettered sign nailed to the jamb, “Open 17.00-00.00”. Inside was a narrow corridor, with a couple of toilet cubicles to the left and a small desk to the right, then past those a flight of three or four steps to the left and a wall fridge to the right. At the end of the corridor another door. I opened it.
The space opened into a room with about 20 tables, all packed with men drawn from central casting for “Interior. Country bar in Balkans full of men who look like farmers, smugglers, and collected riff-raff.” A lot were in black t-shirts and scuffed leather jackets. The tables were piled high with beer bottles and plates of food, the air just thick with smoke. Sherif had ushered me in first so there was a bit of a sudden silence as I walked through the door, then Sherif came in and showed me to this table where a couple of his friends were sitting, and things slowly started to get noisy again. I noticed a few pretty heavy stares, though, especially from the table next to us – I was looking at Sherif as he translated but it must have looked like I was staring at them. Anyway, things got better when Amer arrived. He’s Bosnian, about 6 feet high and the same across, and he’s such a big guy that when he gave me a bear hug and slammed a beer down on the table in front of me, everyone seemed to figure I was OK and stopped looking at me.
I used the disinterest as cover to look around. In addition to the tables on the main floor, behind us were three steps up to what was possibly a stage in a different life. Here there were a few more tables, all populated by the same tough looking men – and one fellow in a suit. He was a bit older, and as well as his suit wore a button down shirt and a purple and yellow striped tie. In a different city it could have been his regimental one. He did not stop looking at me, even as people came up and shook his hand, then slowly drifted away. I decided it was better not to even appear to be looking at him, or in his general direction, and turned my attention to cutting up a piece of liver (I think) from the plate of meat.
As my friend said later, I was probably the first international to ever go to this bar. It certainly wasn’t somewhere you’d find on the tourist maps! We ate plates of some kind of mystery meat, apparently the owner of the bar used to be a butcher, and drank lots of Skopje beer, and I was even more confused than usual as rather than shouting at each other in Albanian (as had happened at an event in Prishtina on the Friday night, and of which I know a few words), they were yelling at each other in Bosnian, of which I know one word (“fala” = thank you). I used that a lot as the beer kept flowing. Apparently the Bosnian rule is that they just keep taking your empty bottle and bringing another one, until you say “stop”, and even then you have to drink the last one they just brought. Around 1130 or so the lights were dimmed. Sherif uttered the immortal lie, “one more then we’re done”, and just after midnight we left – there were still a couple of other fellows, leaning on a table near the back, but I am proud to say that I came close to being ‘last man standing’ at the secret Bosnian bar in Prizren!
At least, that’s the truth as I remember it.