Man Overboard!

For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived as an expat in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing is a megacity of 30 million people. Often abbreviated as CQ, and pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring, Chongqing is located in south-central China on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way from my small hometown located in (pause for effect) … south-central Missouri on the Little Dry Fork Creek. How long? How about 14 time zones-long? CQ is one of the world’s largest cities but I am on a quest for a simple life. I want to “simplify, simplify”, as Hank Thoreau beautifully stated it. Thus, even in the middle of a huge metropolis, I publish these observations and admonitions from my 18th Floor Homestead.

I am currently working on a new book, The Expat Life. It will deal with expat experiences, lifestyle, and mindset. Welcome to come along for the ride. If you find this invitation intriguing, become a subscriber to my free weekly newsletter at http:/ Yes, it’s free and yes, it’s in the form of a weekly email sent directly to your Inbox. Substack also provides an opportunity to leave your comments if you wish. Welcome!

Man Overboard!

As I write these words, I am enjoying an early morning expat solace – time to think and reflect over a couple of cups of hot, soothing, leisurely coffee.

A recent message from TEL subscriber Anton Eine in Kyiv, Ukraine reminded me that our perspective and our expectations are more of a microcosm of life than a true picture of reality. I recalled my own words describing this phenomenon in China Bound:

All my life, as I traveled or when I saw photographs of different cities and regions, I played a mental game with myself.  Looking at the various places, I always thought, “If I lived in this city or in this area, and this was the view outside my window each day, how would I feel about the world?  What would I think if, looking out my window, this was the first thing I saw every morning?  What kind of person would I be?”  Now, I was preparing to play that same game in Kaifeng.  What would it feel like to see an ancient city, with a history going back thousands of years, when you first looked out your window every morning?

Exhibit A: According to Anton, some Ukrainian farmers are still raising and shipping their produce, somehow getting it to the markets in regions where the war is a more immediate danger. Here’s to those farmers in that war-torn country shipping springtime asparagus and blueberries for food but also for making plans to restock other agricultural regions when the end of the war allows such rebuilding. Life is what our brain allows us to see of it. Usually, our brain prefers to see only what is directly in front of us this day.

Now, let me offer Exhibit B…

As many subscribers know, I have been collaborating with Torgeir Higraff to tell the story about his drift voyage adventure in the South Pacific in 2016. It is a fine story of his balsawood raft’s recreation of the best elements from the famous Kon-Tiki expedition and it certainly tells of a different place and time, a very different microcosm.

Making the choice to become an expat offers a plethora of opportunities for examining such varied perspectives. (Perhaps, also, that is one of the biggest reasons why I romanticize returning to the simpler and familiar life I knew “down at the creek” when I was young.)

For your literary pleasure this week, here is another excerpt from Kon-Tiki2, showing how varied our daily life can be – and how different our perspectives can be – on the planet we all share.

Chapter 11 Man Overboard!

On the night of February 16, forty-two days after we left Easter Island, I wrote “sailing southeast on the 39th latitude” in the logbook. A big milestone was within reach. The waves and wind pushed our logs; the raft shook, lifting on the guaras. I was full of optimism, while the seas whipped me in the face and left a salty taste in my mouth.

“A little more, a little more,” I thought, as if I had become religious and prayed to the Polynesian God of the Seas, Tangaroa.

On my watch, while mixing a kind of bread dough that did not require an oven, I looked up at the moon and continued my reflections. But then, like many times before in these latitudes, the wind suddenly disappeared. My shift ended and I was replaced. Everything was normal – if you can consider starving and freezing and living on a raft in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean to be normal. Inside the crowded, damp cabin, I lay down on my box, pulled the alpaca blanket over me, and let the waves lift me up and down until I fell asleep.

In the morning, the waves hit us from all sides again. Back in the washing machine. I was starving; I cooked the bread dough in a frying pan until it became a loaf with an armored crust that was almost impossible to chew. But I comforted myself with the thought that we also had it for lunch later that day for a change from the usual popcorn and biscuits.

The sky was dark. The clouds were almost black with accumulated moisture. Everyone, except Sergey the helmsman, was doing various things inside the cabin just to pass the time.

“Erik, are you looking forward to lunch? We do have tuna leftovers, don’t we?” I was afraid Erik would store away the fish we cooked the day before.

“We can eat an extra mouthful, yes,” Erik replied.

Then Erik asked Ola, who had his head down in the ship’s chest, “Is it safe to climb the ladder? I still haven’t seen the view from the mast.”

“It is safe enough for Andrey, but not sure if it can withstand a hundred kilograms.”

By now, however, Erik had lost a lot of weight. At home, he had weighed 105 kg. Now, a couple of months later, this two-meter-tall man was barely over 80. He was a role model for the rest of us. No one could claim he snuck from the food box. He strictly adhered to our diet of two small meals a day. When he put on the XXL dry suit, it seemed very baggy on him, even though he was wearing a thick wool sweater underneath.

I could not help but comment, “You’re not exactly having trouble zipping up the suit, Erik!”

“No. But I will probably never be as fit as I am now,” he replied with a smile. In fact, he was actually quite satisfied.

“Are you ready, Ola?”

Ola closed his box, laughing, “Yes, and I found some hidden soap!” .

“Can I have some?” I asked, trying to imagine how we would smell after a proper wash.

“Can I smell it?” Now it was Roberto who had woke up after a few hours of sleep.

“Ooooh, I regret it,” he exclaimed after sniffing the soap.

“Do we smell that awful?”

The helmsman, Sergey, shouted from outside, “Rain! It’s coming this way!”

Reluctantly, I took off my wool underwear and went out with the guys, feeling the cold wind while I was balancing on the slippery logs. This was not like those tropical waters the Tangaroa had sailed in. There, the hot wind felt like it was coming from a hair dryer for giants.

“I pay one Escudo for a handful of shampoo,” I shouted into the cabin. Someone reached out a hand that held the bottle upside down and squeezed. Several hands gathered in turn under the shampoo.

“This round is on me!”, I laughed, as we soaped ourselves while we waited for the rain to reach us.

The rain shower was icy cold. It felt as if it came straight from the ice pack of Antarctica, only 1500 km to the south. My drying towel was still wet from the last use. In the mist and spray, things took forever to dry completely.

“It’s a bad sign when you can smell that someone has just washed themselves,” Erik joked.

It felt like a fresh start, although I did not get to completely wash off the oily layer that covered me, a layer that had gradually become quite thick. After the shower, I tried to comb my hair for the first time in weeks. Then, I went to the “aft bathtub”. The previous storms had removed the bamboo deck for us, so now I sat in the one-foot-deep pool between the crossbars and let the waves wash over me.

For a few minutes, I sat alone behind the cabin. But the sense of peace and quiet instantly disappeared when a large wave broke over me without warning. In a single moment, I was picked up and washed out to sea. This was a hazard we lived with every day but suddenly it had become very real.

In 1947, Heyerdahl described Herman Watzinger falling into the sea after a misstep while trying to catch a sleeping bag about to be blown overboard during an approaching storm.

In Heyerdahl’s words, “And, right enough, after a few violent gusts from east and west and south, the wind freshened up to a breeze from southward, where black, threatening clouds had again rushed up over the horizon. Herman was out with his anemometer all the time, measuring already fifty feet and more per second, when suddenly Torstein’s sleeping bag went overboard. And what happened in the next few seconds took a much shorter time than it takes to tell it.

“Herman tried to catch the bag as it went, took a rash step, and fell overboard. We heard a faint cry for help amid the noise of the waves, and saw Herman’s head and a waving arm as well as some vague green object twirling about in the water near him. He was struggling for life to get back to the raft through the high seas which had lifted him out from the port side.”  

Herman was saved by the action of a brave crewmate, Knut Haugland, who jumped into the tossing sea and swam to him while holding onto a life belt tied to a safety rope which allowed both men to be pulled back to the raft.

Instantly, I was repeating that dangerous experience. Fortunately, the Tupac had a safety precaution for exactly this situation. I was able to grab the lifeline rope which extended behind the raft and held on, pulling myself back to the raft with the help of a surge of adrenaline. I gasped some air, then got back on the deck and up on my knees.

“Damn, that was close,” I thought.

Then I discovered that the rope I was still holding was more like a ponytail. When I held on to all the fibers, it supported my weight. But when I grabbed only a few of the fibers and pulled, the rope broke apart. I was starkly reminded of the truth. The ropes that held the raft together were rotting.

“I have to admit that a shower and a bath was ok,” I later told Roberto inside the cabin, dressing up again in my dirty woolen long underwear. I did not mention the ropes. Maybe only a few ropes were too rotten. He has enough to worry about, I thought.

I had assigned Roberto the role of the executive officer on Tupac, second-in-command just as Liv was the executive officer on Rahiti. An XO is responsible to the captain for all ship’s work duties, drills, exercises, personnel organization, and the policing and inspection of the ship. He also was an extra pair of eyes on the welfare of the crew – and certainly not least, safety precautions!

So, if I or anyone else on Tupac discovered something damaged on the raft – or a potential danger – we were to report this to Roberto or Ola.

Roberto, as the XO, was to ensure that the raft was in seaworthy condition. Well, it was not. The condition of the raft was close to a total disaster. But it wasn’t Roberto’s fault. Or Ola’s. Blame the storms which could not have been controlled. Or blame me, the expedition’s organizer. Or just be stoic and say, “It is what it is.”

At sea, you do the best you can do with what you have… and with what you have left. Blaming or creating an alarm doesn’t solve problems. Maybe I should have told him about the rope. Instead, I only talked about the good feeling of having a shower with rain water and shampoo. What could he do about the rotting ropes, though?

“Me, too, my friend!”, he responded, laughing. “We should do that more often!”.

Roberto was reading messages from home in Peru on a tablet. Ola and Jimmy played music and threw dice. Erik stuck his head into the opening of the cabin. He offered us a taste of the heart of the tuna that he saved from the day before. I passed, but Andrey joined “The New Ritual” as they called it, a part of our raft society.

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