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Voyage of Discovery Began Here

AT San Jorge Church in this Andalucian village above the Rio Tinto Valley, the north-side doorway - framed by weathered brick arranged in the decorative, Arab-influenced style called Mudejar - carries the name "Puerta de los Novios," or door of the young lovers.

Yet it is not the memory of the couples who have left their weddings through these doors for nearly 600 years that makes the modest doorway historic. On Aug. 3, 1492, some 90 sailors passed through it to reach three ships docked below - the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria. These ships would take them farther west than anyone in their world had gone before, to a land of whose existence their world was as yet unaware.

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For an American - North, South, or Central - it can be astonishing to stand outside the Puerta de los Novios and imagine those reluctant sailors, unknowingly on their way to a place we call home. Just 500 years ago, a speck of sand on the beach of time, these bricks heard voices that doubted the Earth's roundness, and knew nothing - because it had yet to be invented - of a place called America.

For me, the descendant of Italian-Swiss immigrants to America, the journey to Palos - a place whose existence I had disregarded until quite recently - felt like the completion of a circle.

I cannot claim a common bloodline with any Morales, Lorenzo, or Diego Garcia who made that historic voyage. Still, I contemplate those 90 men who took up the challenge of a Genovese sailor who left Palos on three ships and I think that they are ancestors of all of us.

My trip to Palos began in a grimy Sevillan bus terminal, its air blue and thick with exhaust.

"The bus station is not too inviting, but we're building a new one," one Sevillan assured me when I inquired about getting to Palos. In fact, much of Seville is either being rebuilt, refurbished, or popping up brand new, it seems. The pretext is next year's exposition, set to open April 20 and celebrating five centuries of discovery beginning with the voyage of Christopher Columbus.

Once out of the cramped bus station, one is quickly reminded that billions of dollars have been invested in the region in recent years through a government attempt to push Andalucia into the Europe of 1993. The bus passes by the Expo '92 site, whose broad avenues, modern buildings, green spaces, and construction cranes are an abrupt departure from the antique, compact, cathedral-dominated old town just across the Guadalquivir River. Then we swing onto the new "Autopista del Quintocentenario," or Quincent enary Freeway.

NOT much farther west, the bus climbs to a plateau, leaving Seville behind in the haze of economic expansion, and soon it is crossing the fields of oranges and olives that remain an essential part of the region's economy. The agricultural harmony is marred, however, by frequent mounds of household garbage and the detritus of hectic construction.

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Suddenly, a strip-commercial "Hipermercado de Piel," a fur and leather hypermarket, emerges incongruously on the edge of a field being plowed by an old man, himself harnessed to a rusted implement pulled by two mules. It is a striking juxtaposition in a region on the divide between rural poverty - Andalucia is Spain's second-poorest region, while Spain's per-capita income is three-quarters that of the European Community - and European-style mass consumption.

In spite of the four lanes of fresh-black modernity laid like a ribbon before us, the orange trees heavy with slowly ripening fruit, and an occasional imposing farm dwelling or tract-style housing development, the land begins to divulge why people here have turned for so long to the sea to better their lives or just to survive. One is left with an impression of barrenness and unsatisfied labor. This becomes even clearer when the bus descends into the Niebla - a dry, rocky region that furnished most of th e sailors who accompanied Columbus on his voyage.

Famine was a frequent visitor to the Niebla in Columbus's time, and when it came, it sometimes pushed men to acts of piracy to feed their families. When the Spanish monarchy directed Palos in May of 1492 to provide the ships and the men needed to make Columbus's voyage possible, the village was told this "royal will" was a sanction against the pirating acts of Palos's widely known sailors.

Today the white-washed village of Palos is home to nearly 7,000 people, most of whom make their living in agriculture or at the port in Huelva. All is clean, tidy, quiet. A Quintocentenario project is restoring the Rabida monastery, just outside the village proper, whose prior in 1492 was a Columbus confidant and mediator for him with the Spanish monarchy.

When Columbus came here looking for sailors for his voyage, the population of Palos was about 2,500, according to Julio Izquierdo, the village historian and director of the town's Martin Alonso Pinzon Museum.

"After the discoveries," he says, "the population fell, and it did not regain its pre-voyage level until 1955." According to Mr. Izquierdo, only a relatively modest 230 people left Palos for the New World between 1492 and 1550, "but they were the most industrious, most entrepreneurial, most ambitious men of the village," he says. "They were a very important 10 percent" of the population - the sea captains, the boat owners.

Palos is no longer a river port, the Tinto having silted in the site below the village where ships once docked. The village has done a valiant job of accenting its role in history.

Streets have been renamed to highlight local players in the discovery, while numerous historic plaques adorn the sun-baked walls outside San Jorge's Church, and the small central plaza is dominated by a statue - not of the foreigner Columbus, but of native son Martin Alonso Pinzon, captain of the Pinta.

The honor is fitting: Without Pinzon's persuasion, it is doubtful Columbus could have recruited many Palenos for his voyage, save perhaps the local criminals, who were offered an amnesty by the monarchy in exchange for making the trip. But Martin Alonso and younger brother Vincente Pinzon were wealthy and respected, so word of their participation - they put up one-third of the voyage's cost - gave the dubious enterprise a critical respectability. If ordinary sailors signed on, it was quite likely becaus e they longed to be like the Pinzons. "It was frightening, this idea of going west, but the promise of the Indies was irresistible," says Izquierdo. "It allowed dreams of the money needed to live comfortably and of a social level promising freedom."

Izquierdo is certain that if the old bricks of San Jorge Church could be coaxed to give up their secrets, they would tell of sailors excited as well, that August night in 1492, by the prospect of adventure. "It was very important," he says. "Even the few who realized their dreams of wealth and comfort seem to have continued their sailing and exploring."

But the Puerta de los Novios is silent, and little else about Palos de la Frontera suggests a sense of adventure. Even the Pinzons are nearly gone, the very last being a 90-year-old descendant the locals call La Pinzona, who graciously moved out of the family house so it could become a museum.

As usual, however, looks can deceive. Waiting in the shade of Martin Alonso Pinzon for the trip back to Seville, I strike up a conversation with Manuel, a young unemployed Paleno in his age group's uniform of washed-out blue jeans, white T-shirt, and work boots. He is intrigued by my job - especially when he discovers it allows me an annual trip to America. But he also figures it would mean covering a war if one came up, and that he wouldn't like.

"Wait a minute," I respond, "you're from Palos, you're supposed to have a sense of adventure." Manuel notes that war is not an adventure, and I stand corrected.

"But what if another Christopher Columbus came here today," I go on, "looking for participants for an adventure equaling for our time the voyage of 1492?"

"I'd go today," says Manuel with a broad smile.

"I'm ready."

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