Tag Archives: travel

To the Ends of the Earth

by John V.H. Dippel

Sometimes the idea that seems like the last thing anyone would want to do actually ends up with a rather zealous, albeit meager, band of followers. Such as the case with polar exploration. The early years of polar expeditions, around the mid-1800s,¬†started with grand enthusiasm, ample financial backing, and a hearty spirit of adventure. Enthusiasm and financial support waned, though, as expeditions failed to achieve their goals of discovering the fabled “Open Polar Sea” (which turned out to be a massive sheet of ice in the Arctic), finding the Northwest Passage, or marking a new farthest North or farthest South record. Sometimes the hardships of these adventures could be spun into gripping tales, and many explorers earned financing by writing stories and articles about their journeys. Sometimes the hardships could not be glossed over, and tales of enduring months without sunlight in dug-out ice caves too small to stand in contributed to the disillusionment about the potential victories to be gained in polar environments. However the public opinion shifted, the devoted band of adventurers never swayed in pursuing their life goals of polar exploration, leaving a history of remarkable journeys that occasionally seemed too good to be true but always left an impression on those who followed their travails¬† and travels.

“To the Ends of the Earth: The Truth Behind the Glory of Polar Exploration” by John V.H. Dippel discusses various themes in the early ages of concerted polar exploration, through the race to the North Pole (supposedly reached in 1908) and the South Pole (reached in 1911). Dippel covers the broader societal impact on polar exploration, from the early eagerness of colonizing countries to stake further claims, to the later hesitation to put so much money toward such small efforts with even smaller results. He also discusses the unique aspects of renowned explorers who led multiple expeditions, citing journals and letters to share insights into the personality, motives, and leadership styles that contributed to either their success or downfall. Of course, Dippel also shares almost excessive details about the conditions of polar exploration, from the impact of the limited diet of crews stranded in ice for years longer than their rations were meant to last, to the physical impact of extended time in frozen environments without sunlight (skin turns green without sun??). This book addresses multiple aspects of polar exploration, giving a comprehensive picture of what elements – natural and manmade – the crews were up against.

I found this book to be both fascinating and slightly horrifying – perhaps it was fascinating because it was horrifying. The conditions of life in polar environments sounds terrible, and yet I couldn’t put the book down. While Dippel clearly distinguishes the themes in his book, I felt confused at times because he wrote according to theme rather than chronology. He frequently referenced the same expedition in multiple chapters, but I couldn’t remember who did what because it didn’t follow a chronological order. Overall, very engaging. Maybe skip chapter 6 if you have a weak stomach.

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Samoa, A Hundred Years Ago and Long Before

By George Turner

Something of a history book, George Turner offers his observations of the traditions, beliefs, behaviors, and routines of Samoan people sometime around 1880-90 (ish). He describes everything from the geography of the island chain (including American Samoa which was, at the time of publication, part of the country of Samoa instead of a U.S. territory) and the political and decision-making systems of village and district chiefs down to common foods (and how to prepare them) and attire for day-to-day use as well as special events. He even delves into the creation myths from indigenous gods and belief systems, and also the stories behind the names of various islands and villages. If it can be observed and written about by a white guy, Turner documents it.

“Samoa, A Hundred Years Ago and Long Before” is organized in a straightforward fashion without any preamble, probably similar to other writing at the time of publication (I haven’t read many documents from 1880-90, so it’s hard for me to compare). Each chapter is titled with an entirely self-explanatory heading, and subheadings indicate the specific topic to be addressed in the following paragraph. Chapters are fairly short, which makes it easier to put down and pick up the book for bite-sized reading.¬†Differences in grammar and sentence length sometimes make it difficult to follow the topic of a sentence, which can make it hard to find flow when reading (but certainly make for interesting meta-analysis of the writing and content!).

I read this book mainly because I am an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) from Samoa and wanted to know more about the pre-missionary history of Samoa, and partly because the recently released “Moana” movie addresses myths and gods with which I was unfamiliar from my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Clearly, my knowledge of Samoa has gaping holes. I found answers to some of my questions, and was particularly fascinated by the chapters detailing the histories of island and village names (to the point of feeling giddy and making exclamations out loud while reading the origin stories). Much of the book I read with a grain of salt because Turner writes with a colonial attitude toward the Samoan natives, frequently referring to their “heathen” behavior. If your interests fall within the very specific range of material addressed in this book, then it is worth the read. For the general public, probably not.

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