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. Those of you reading this are welcome to come along for the ride. If you find this invitation intriguing, become a subscriber to my free weekly newsletter at http:/theexpatlife.substack.com. 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!
We’re Sinking, But Not Tonight.
Although it is not strictly about the Expat Life, the following excerpt from the upcoming book, Kon-Tiki2, is definitely relevant. Why relevant? Well, it is certainly about a lifestyle not likely to be seen when most people look out their window first thing in the morning. For many people around the world, the concept of a complete change, reverting to a simpler life in different surroundings in a different time zone, spells relief. Can you say “Expat”?
Likewise, is it okay for me to daydream about KT2 becoming popular and a commercial success? Maybe it could even become a classic to be read by future generations – like the original Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl.
I received email from an old friend this week with an article about Pat Frank, the author of Alas, Babylon. Written and set in the 1950s, that novel is still an excellent story, filled with memorable and relatable characters. All these years later, it remains on the required reading lists for many high schools and for aspiring writers; it’s that good. How satisfying it would be to write something that would endure across generations of readers. As Derek Sivers said, writing is a form of telepathy, reaching across the years and the distances, to communicate our thoughts.
Since the response to the earlier excerpt from this work-in-progress, KT2, was so positive, here is the prologue. Your comments to me, the invisible collaborator huddled over my trusty keyboard in my cluttered, landlocked den/office, or to Torgeir, the narrator and protagonist now back in Norway, are invited.
February 2016. On a balsawood raft in the South Pacific. 1,900 miles (3,000 KM) off the coast of Chile.
“We’re sinking, but not tonight.”
To get out of the cabin, I had to crawl over a box that was strapped in front of the entrance to prevent the waves 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 on the slippery logs. This was an adaptation of the very practical solution to the problem of dining while the sea is rough, causing the dishes and cups to slide around on the table. A rough surface kept them in place while people were eating. Now, Andrey had used some of that foil to create a non-slip pathway. The water that flooded regularly onto the deck washed over my feet. The crossbar was submerged 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 being drawn into the log in hundreds of thin tubes. 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 its crew was pushed deeper and deeper down into the sea. Heavier crossbeams meant more seawater splashed 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 raft, I heard howls and beeps, high-frequency sounds that mingled with the heavy bass from the sea. These were interspersed with the squeaking of bamboo and several thousand meters of rope that held together 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.
Fortunately, forward of the cabin, the raft floated half a meter higher in the sea. The night watch 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 toward the wind and hold on to something all the time. The sight waiting in the light from my headlamp was worse than I had anticipated. “Problem with the galley” Andrey had said with his somewhat limited English vocabulary. Problem? The galley was gone! What had been a two-meter-wide kitchen in front of the cabin was now completely shattered. The bamboo was broken or bent in several places and the kitchen counter was gone. Even worse, part of our food supply had also been washed overboard.
When you sail on a raft, you develop a very close relationship with the sea. If you make several drift voyages for a total of a year at sea, you may become best friends. This is partly due to the raft’s unique characteristics. But it is also because of the sea life you became a part of. The sea is always just below you, around you, everywhere. You can’t escape from it. So perhaps it is man’s natural instinct on a primitive raft to surrender to the sea. Over your head, the sun rises during the day. At night, you are surrounded by a dome of stars and a seemingly endless sea. It is this sea life that really reflects human reality best. You find your place in the universe and settle down. For me, that place was on the ocean.
My ideal raft consists of 11 huge balsa logs with some thinner crossbeams, all bound tightly together with natural fiber ropes as the old raft builders did in prehistoric times. On the raft, you sleep in a bamboo hut. In front of the hut, we take turns being the helmsman, behind the rectangular sail that is attached to a seventeen-meter-high mast made of hardwood. During the daytime, we repair everything that has been damaged at night, in addition to preparing food for the next day or two. Such rafts have been used for human migration and trade for thousands of years, and were crucial for the first contact between the continents, long before their technologies were sophisticated enough to build ships as we think of them.
The first time I sailed a raft across the Pacific Ocean was on the Tangaroa Expedition in 2006. Afterward, 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 Raroia, an atoll in French Polynesia, located 740 km northeast of Tahiti in the South Pacific Ocean. Raroia was the same place where Thor Heyerdahl and his crew landed their raft, the Kon-Tiki, almost 75 years before the time of the Tangaroa voyage. Before setting out on my first raft expedition, I had been confident, fearless, and destined. During those many weeks at sea, 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 my backpack, biking them to the nursery, and living the comfortable family life in the Land of Happiness, Norway, always the thought was of how to get back to what I’m most interested in doing. How could I get away from civilization for a while?
After several years of regular work, I had adapted to modern commercial society enough to come up with a new idea: Everything had to be doubled over the Tangaroa! The investments, the scientific tasks, the number of days at sea, sailing distance, crew, and even the number of rafts. The bigger your project is, the more attractive for others to join the team. But most important of all – we should achieve what no one has done before: To sail both ways. First west as Kon-Tiki and Tangaroa did, then back east on the same raft. The round-trip expedition was to be called Kon-Tiki2.
One problem I did not foresee was that I would be creating a new type of civilization, a new type of complex society.
In 2006, I had completed the Tangaroa expedition (named after the Polynesian God of the Seas). Even the most maritime people on Earth, the Polynesians, thought this was a feat, so they baptized me in a traditional ceremony on Moorea and gave me the name Rahiti Tane, or in English the swollen and pompous “The Master of the Sunrise”.
Together with five others – the world’s best raft sailing team consisting of Bjarne, Øyvin, Olav, Anders, and Roberto – we sailed faster than any other raft in modern history. Tangaroa was launched in Callao harbor in Peru on the same day that the Kon-Tiki had been, April 28. But we reached our first destination on July 7, which was 30 days faster than Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, which had taken 101 days for the voyage. Tangaroa‘s speed was credited to the proper use of the guaras, or centerboards, in navigation. Heyerdahl had not known how to use them correctly; but, 75 years later, I knew. We continued from Raroia and sailed zigzag through the razor-sharp reefs in the dangerous Tuamotu Archipelago, the largest chain of atolls in the world. It stretches over an area roughly the size of Western Europe.
Tangaroa was my childhood dream come to life. It was the simple life of a miniature society – a perfect social system – the most rational structure of role and status that can be formed only in a small, stable group – and we created it ourselves. Now I wanted to develop a new project that challenged the raft’s capability and the sea from every conceivable perspective. It was about everything that interested me. The plan grew bigger and bigger.
At the same time, I took on several ambitious tasks such as adapting the Tangaroa for the feature film Kon-Tiki which was released in 2012, then using the raft in a giant marketing event for the film, both in the Oslofjord in Norway and later in New York. During these jobs, I met many great and exciting people who were interested in my new plan, and who came up with ideas for how the seemingly impossible could be realized.
I will never forget that spring day in 2013 in a hotel room by the Hudson River, where I looked out the window and saw the raft from the Oscar-nominated feature film moored at the pier and surrounded by hundreds of spectators. In my notebook, I then set myself some lofty goals that I promised myself to achieve “in two years from now”. I divided the expedition into four parts:
1. The construction of two rafts, using ancient traditional methods. Location: Ecuador and Peru. Time: Summer 2015.
2. Equip the rafts as modern research vessels. Location: Callao in Peru. Time: October 2015.
3. Sailing and scientific cruise to Easter Island. Location: Pacific Ocean. Time: November and December 2015.
4. Sail the rafts back. Location: The Pacific Ocean at southern latitudes via The Roaring Forties, eastward toward South America. Time: January to March 2016.
The seasonal timing of the expedition turned out to be fateful. I was well aware that, for those latitudes, prevailing winds and weather were in no way favorable at that time of year. From the Tangaroa voyage, I already knew about the weather and the climate in that region. But I had such great faith in the rafts, I wanted to show that we could do it no matter the season. Headwinds could not stop us. Besides, survival and a little stormy weather are exciting, I thought.
As before, the idea was about an unprecedented voyage combining survival, science, and historical exploration. This round-trip concept was a challenge that no one had achieved in modern times. I wanted everything to be included in this feat.
It was bound to fail… or the reader can judge for himself.