Thursday, January 20, 2011

Comings and Goings

People who take photos of their travels sometimes astonish me with their choice of subjects. For instance, instead of photographing a sign that explains what you are looking at, like "Bienvenu a Côte d'Ivoire," they will photograph a big fence or a road with no markings whatever and caption it with "Crossing the border into Ivory Coast." But it doesn't stop there.

Most tourist guide books will tell you to be sure to visit certain places where imaginary geographical lines meet, or where continents and bodies of water are joined. Like the point in Cape Town, South Africa frequented by tourists where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet. But when you get there, all you actually see is one big ocean, without so much as a shade of difference in the color of the waters.

Our fondness for naming things and places is a sometimes arbitrary and meaningless practice. The absolute best illustration of this seeing with one's own eyes something that isn't there was a photo that some sailor showed me that made me burst out laughing. It was a photo, so he assured me, of the point in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where the International Date Line crosses the Equator. It was a photo of water, with a patch of grey sky above. When I told him that it could just as well be a photo of Lake Erie, he insisted that it was the exact point where zero degrees latitude meets 180 degrees longitude and showed me his Golden Shellback certificate to prove it. He didn't see the point I was making, and I didn't press the issue.

Some places are so inhospitable, like mountain tops or the deepest oceans, that we can only visit them momentarily. Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to reach the summit of Mt. Everest was back in the news a few months ago because of a newscaster's blooper that is making the rounds on the internet.* I assume he did it, in 2001, to prove that blind people can do anything that people with sight can do - with considerable guidance, of course. But when I first heard of the stunt I had to wonder that he believed he had climbed Mount Everest only because he had taken everyone else's word for it. I don't really doubt that he accomplished the climb, but would it be too perverse to suggest that it would be relatively easy to fool him?

Believing in the evidence before our own eyes is one way to learn about the world we live in. The rest, which is considerable, we have to take on trust. But how much of what we actually see is actually there? "But he hasn't got anything on," said the child in Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes." If seeing is believing, how many of us too often take someone else's word for it? And how much of what we are told to believe is contrary to what we have seen with our own eyes?

* Here is the news clip.

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