Wednesday, April 01, 2009

"You have no right to be tired!" or, why I'm not an intrepid explorer

{Photos by rocketlass.}

As will not surprise regular readers of this blog, I'm about as much of a quiet, stay-at-home person as you're likely to find. Given a choice between, on one hand, fame and adventure, and on the other, a quiet chair with a martini and a Barbara Pym novel in easy reach, and I'll soon be happily chuckling at the vicissitudes of English spinsters.

That said, a passage like this does go a long way towards reviving the twelve-year-old boy in me:
We, the undersigned, forming an expedition about to explore the interior of _________, under Mr. A., consent to place ourselves (horses and equipment) entirely and unreservedly under his orders for the above purpose, from the date hereof until our return to _______, or, on failure in this respect, to abide all consequences that may result.
It's taken from a sample agreement that the Royal Geographic Society, back in its Victorian and Edwardian heyday, recommended every expedition leader use; I love the "entirely and unreservedly," and the myriad possible horrible fates that "all consequences" might cover.

And while it doesn't convince me that I want to leave my house, it does remind me of why I'm still such a sucker for explorers' tales: my mind positively boggles at the thought that real people actually subjected themselves to the dangers and deprivations of these expeditions--willingly, and, in some cases, repeatedly. Reading the best of these books--such as Apsley Cherry-Garard's account of the Scott expedition, The Worst Journey in the World (1922)--I find myself veering from astonishment to admiration to horror, all of which eventually give way to a simply gratitude that I'm here and not there.

The book in which I found that Royal Geographic Society agreement, David Gann's The Lost City of Z (2008), is an honorable entrant in that genre, telling of Percy Fawcett's early twentieth-century Amazon explorations, from the last of which, in 1925, Fawcett never returned. In the ensuing decades, Fawcett's disappearance led countless explorers of all levels of experience to plunge into the jungle in an attempt to find him--including Peter Fleming, whose wonderfully wry Brazilian Adventure (1933) tells of his failed (and, to be fair, somewhat desultory) search. Gann himself even eventually felt compelled to enter the jungle; his trek, though aided by all that modern technology can offer, from high-clearance off-road vehicles to satellite phones, only confirmed me in my preference for the couch.

But what if you've never read Brazilian Adventure or The Lost City of Z, and therefore you're not convinced? What if you're still thinking of curing that winter-long case of cabin fever with a little adventure? Methinks a look at the realities of jungle medicine might do the trick. Here's the Royal Geographical Society again, courtesy of Gann:
Disease and injury could devastate a party, and Fawcett received some basic medical tips. He learned, for instance, how to remove a decaying tooth by "constantly pushing and pulling." If he ingested poison, he was taught to immediately make himself throw up: "Use soap-suds or gunpowder if proper emetics are not at hand." Fo a venomous snakebite, Fawcett would have to ignite gunpowder in the wound or cut away the infected flesh with a knife. "Afterwards burn out [the area around the bite] with the end of your iron ramrod, heated as near a white heat as you can readily get," Galton advised. "The arteries lie deep, and as much flesh may, without danger, be cut or burnt into, as the fingers can pinch up." . . . The treatment for hemorrhaging wound--say, from an arrow--was equally "barbarous": "Pour boiling grease into the wound."
I thought that would do it. I recommend you trade your pith helmet for a copy of The Lost City of Z and settle in on the couch here with the cats. Me, I'll be making the drinks and anxiously awaiting the first Gabriel Hunt novel. That should be enough adventure for me for the foreseeable future.

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