For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way – 13 time zones to be exact – from my original hometown of Rolla in south-central Missouri, on the Little Dry Fork creek. Depending on how loosely you define “city”, one could argue that CQ is the world’s largest city. In my quest for a simple life, I write these observations and admonitions from my 18th-Floor homestead.
Mind Fleet Update:
My new company, Mind Fleet, is getting closer and closer to opening its digital doors for business. At this writing, web pages are being designed to describe the products (initially, Postcards From Space and its sister series), make ordering easy, and offer free resources to enhance the reading experience for young students of space, science, and English. Stand by for an announcement of the Grand Opening. Inquiring minds want to know: Will Mind Fleet open in June? Possible, just barely possible, says Project Manager extraordinaire Alice. Feel free to send questions through the comments box at the end of this article or to my personal email: email@example.com.
We’re Sinking… But Not Tonight
Most of us live pretty quiet and unexciting lives. Even expats – who are frequently considered brave and daring because they are living in a different country from the land of their birth – are usually pretty quiet and unexciting after you get past their personal history, superficial differences in appearance, and culture-based food preferences. There are a few individuals, however, who are genuine adventurers, the type of person whom we envy and admire because they truly do live a life that is different and far – sometimes, very far indeed – from the mainstream currents of life most of us occupy.
One such person was the Norweigian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl. He first became famous after organizing the 1947 Kon-Tiki scientific expedition. Six men traveled to South America to build a balsawood raft exactly as ancient people had. Then they lived on it for 101 days during a drift voyage across the Pacific Ocean to land on a tiny Polynesian island. A drift voyage means the raft had no motor; the Kon-Tiki used only the trade winds and ocean currents to propel the raft. After the Kon-Tiki expedition, Heyerdahl went on to organize and lead other fascinating explorations and voyages that formed the basis for subsequent thrilling adventures.
Another such person is also a Norweigian, Torgeir Higraff. 60 years after the Kon-Tiki voyage, Torgeir led another group of six adventurers to duplicate the experience and the route of the Kon-Tiki. In 2006, he also went to South America and built a balsawood raft, the Tangaroa. Then, they also made a drift voyage that took the Tangaroa to the same South Sea islands as the Kon-Tiki. But the Tangaroa was not as primitive as the Kon-Tiki; the Tangaroa expedition featured internet communications. That is how I first became friends with Torgeir; we began communicating by email across the gap of different timezones and different lifestyles and vastly different views when we looked out our windows in the morning. The Tangaroa was later featured in the movie Kon-Tiki which was released in 2012. Torgeir was involved with the widely publicized Tangaroa cruise around Europe to promote the movie.
Yet another similarity between Thor Heyerdahl and Torgeir Higraff is that they are both writers and lecturers. Heyerdahl wrote a number of books about his adventures. My friend Torgeir is also an author. He is currently writing a book about another drift voyage he led. This time, it was a round trip in the Pacific from South America to Polynesia and back to South America. This voyage, in 2015, nearly ended in disaster as they encountered weather conditions that were literally tearing their raft apart.
Courtesy of Torgeir Higraff
Torgeir has graciously granted me permission to publish a short excerpt from his manuscript of that trip. (Hint, hint: I hope the book will be released soon.) So, come with me now, to a small wooden raft in the stormy South Pacific and read a true adventure story set in modern times.
First, a passage that shows the danger they found themselves in. They were on the second leg of their voyage, returning to South America, but were encountering extreme weather conditions in the “Roaring Forties” (forty degrees south of the equator, in a region of the Pacific known for its strong, cold winds from Antartica) :
To get out of the cabin I had to crawl over a box that was strapped in front of the entrance to prevent the seas from entering. I crawled on my stomach with my legs first through the small opening, fumbling with my feet before I could stand on a table foil that Andrey had fastened like a kind of path on the slippery logs. The water that flooded regularly into the vessel barely reached my feet. The crossbar was flooded every time a wave washed in, no matter which direction the seas came from. A few weeks earlier, this had only happened once in a while, so the crossbars could dry off during good weather. I had studied the fibers in the balsa. They were waterlogged. The water was drawn into the log in hundreds of thin spores. The same properties that make the balsa tree one of the lightest woods in the world when it is dry, now made the same wood very heavy. Probably the crossbars weighed six tons more now than when we launched the raft. It was as if a passing ship had hoisted three large cars down on the deck. The raft with crew was pushed deeper and deeper down into the sea. Heavier crossbeams made more seawater flush over them, making them even more waterlogged.
Slowly we sank.
“We’re sinking, but not tonight,” I thought again, noticing that the wind was increasing in strength. From the rig I heard howls and beeps, high-frequency sounds that mingled with the heavy bass from the sea, interspersed with the squeaking of bamboo and several thousand meters of rope that tightened the logs that twisted all around us. All parts of the raft rubbed against another part, creating a symphony that does not resemble anything you can download from Spotify.
In front of the cabin, the raft fortunately floated half a meter higher in the sea. The night watchman stayed there for the two hours before he was relieved. As soon as I rounded the corner of the cabin I felt how the wind got hold of me, I had to bend towards the wind and hold on to something all the time. The sight waiting in the light from our headlamps was worse than I had anticipated. “Problem with the galley” Andrey had said with his somewhat deficient English vocabulary. The galley was gone! What had been a home-made two-meter-wide kitchen at the front of the cottage, was now completely shattered. The bamboo was broken or bent in several places and the kitchen counter was gone. But the small gas stove I had bought at the market in Callao for 40 dollars still looked quite usable. Such small ovens are popular in Peru among all the millions of people who do not even dare to dream of an Ikea kitchen.
‘We have to get it into the cabin. From now on, we are cooking in there “, said Ola, in a tone as if nothing dramatic had happened.
Courtesy of Torgeir Higraff
Then, a more introspective passage:
When you sail a raft you get very close to the sea. If you do it two or three times and in total as many days and nights as in a whole year, you and the sea may become best friends. This is due to the raft’s special characteristics. But also the life you become a part of. The sea is always just below you, and around you, everywhere. You can’t escape from it. So perhaps it is man’s natural instinct to surrender to the sea on a raft? Over your head the sun rises during the day, and at night you are surrounded by a dome of stars and seemingly endless amounts of sea. It is this life that really reflects human reality best. You find your place on the ocean world in the universe, and settle down.
My ideal raft consists of 11 thick logs with some thinner crossbeams, all tied tightly together with natural fiber ropes as the old raft builders did in prehistoric times. There we sleep in a bamboo hut, and in front of the hut we take turns being the helmsman, behind the rectangular sail that is attached to a seventeen meter high mast. During daytime we repair everything that has been destroyed at night, in addition to providing food to survive the next day or two. The rafts have been used for human migration and trade for thousands of years, and was crucial for the first contact between the continents.
The first time I sailed a raft across the Pacific Ocean, I noticed how I had changed as a person. I was one type when I boarded in Peru – and a completely different one when I landed on the atoll Raroia in the Pacific Ocean, the same place where Thor Heyerdahl and his crew landed with Kon-Tiki almost 75 years ago at the time of writing. Before, I had been confident, fearless and destined. Now I had become more careful and introverted. Dedication had become resignation. But somewhere inside me I knew I had to go back. For a long time I thought about how to make it happen again. While I was pushing the baby carriage, hiking mountaintops with one of the kids in the backpack, biking them to the nursery, living the comfortable family life in the State of Happiness, Norway. How to get back to what I’m most interested in doing? Away from the civilization for a while.
Now can you see why I have been encouraging Torgeir to complete his manuscript? But we will have to wait a little longer. This restless man is currently busy with another “summer project”. He and a friend are outfitting a 32-foot sailboat… and preparing it to sail across the North Atlantic! His boat is named Nanoq, which means Polar Bear. Maybe next year, we will follow the Nanoq from Norway to Qaanaaq, Greenland. (Wikipedia says: Qaanaaq (pronounced Kanack), formerly known as Thule or New Thule, is the main town in the northern part of the Avannaata municipality in northwestern Greenland. It is one of the northernmost towns in the world. The town has a population of 646 as of 2020.)
It’s never dull around Torgeir. I have encouraged him to get a tiny digital voice recorder and keep an audio journal on his adventures, including the outfitting of the Nanoq. After this Norweigian sea version of the Australian walkabout, if we can keep him on dry land long enough, there may be yet another book. I believe people will be interested in reading about sailing a tiny boat across the North Atlantic and inside the Artic Circle. For the immediate future, I am just hoping he will soon finish writing his tale of the South Pacific adventure, the Kon-Tiki 2 expedition.
Hmm. I wonder if Mind Fleet might be able to sell Torgeir’s books…
Photo by DariuszSankowski