Thursday, February 28, 2013

Voyages of Discovery

Happy New Year!

One could say that most of our ancestors were seafarers of a fashion, some sailing in canoes, vaka, drua; some sailing on naval vessel, merchant marine ships, and some sailing on coolie transport ships of the British indenture system.

Since I was a child, perhaps because of our being a south sea Island nation, I have always been fascinated with explorers and adventurers such as Columbus, Cook, Tasman, Bligh (explorer by accident), da Gama, Shackleton, and for some reason Thor Heyerdahl.

The late Thor Heyerdahl (1914 – 2002) was a Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer. He achieved world-wide fame when in 1947 he and his small crew sailed 8000 kilometres from Peru to Raroia atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago (in Maohi Nui / French Polynesia and the largest chain of coral atolls in the world), in an indigenous Peruvian balsa-wood raft. This 101-day voyage proved his theory that it was possible for ancient native South Americans to have travelled to Polynesia using the favourable currents.

In 1952 he led an expedition to the Galapagos  Islands (where the crew of the Uto Ni Yalo also visited early last year), rediscovering the guara, a traditional navigational tool used by ancient seafarers of Ecuador and Peru South American and proving that these voyagers of long ago had the means to navigate as well as travel great distances in the Pacific. The guara would be used by his grandson in 2006 when aboard a similar raft, the Tangaroa (Polynesian god of the sea) he and his crew sailed to Raiatea in Maohi Nui.

After leading an expedition to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in 1955-5, in 1969 and 1970, sailing under the United Nations flag with a crew of seven men from seven different countries, Heyerdahl made two attempts on boats made out of papyrus (Ra I, made from material from Lake Tana in Ethiopia and constructed by boat builders from Lake Chad) and totora or nga'atu (Ra II made from reeds from Peru and constructed by boat builders from Lake Titicaca) to sail across the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Barbados.

While the voyage of Ra I failed some distance from its objective, the voyage of Ra II was successful, crossing the widest part of the Atlantic 6100 km proving that modern science under-estimated long-forgotten aboriginal technologies. The theory that Mediterranean vessels built prior to Columbus could not have crossed the Atlantic was thrown on its head.

In 1978 Heyerdahl embarked on the Tigris, expedition which was intended to demonstrate that trade and migration could have linked Mesopotamia with the Indus Valley Civilization in what is now modern-day Pakistan. Constructed out of reed again, the Tigris was built in Iraq and sailed with its international crew through the Persian Gulf to Pakistan and made its way into the Red Sea.

After about 5 months at sea and still remaining seaworthy, the Tigris was deliberately burnt in Djibouti, on April 3, 1978, as a protest against the wars raging on every side in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa. In his Open Letter to the UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, he explained his reasons:

“Today we burn our proud ship... to protest against inhuman elements in the world of 1978... Now we are forced to stop at the entrance to the Red Sea. Surrounded by military airplanes and warships from the world's most civilized and developed nations, we have been denied permission by friendly governments, for reasons of security, to land anywhere, but in the tiny, and still neutral, Republic of Djibouti. Elsewhere around us, brothers and neighbours are engaged in homicide with means made available to them by those who lead humanity on our joint road into the third millennium. To the innocent masses in all industrialized countries, we direct our appeal. We must wake up to the insane reality of our time.... We are all irresponsible, unless we demand from the responsible decision makers that modern armaments must no longer be made available to people whose former battle axes and swords our ancestors condemned. Our planet is bigger than the reed bundles that have carried us across the seas, and yet small enough to run the same risks unless those of us still alive open our eyes and minds to the desperate need of intelligent collaboration to save ourselves and our common civilization from what we are about to convert into a sinking ship.”

Despite the criticisms Heyerdahl faced for his theories - that migration to Polynesia had followed the natural North Pacific conveyor, from east to west, rather than conventional theories of a west to east migration and settlement of the Pacific – he has always been my favourite adventurer/explorer.

His comment about the Pacific, made in 1947 as he explained his theory before the Kon-Tiki expedition, that “the ocean is not what separates these people but joins them,” is a deep statement  not just about migration patterns but about our unity as a people of the ocean.

I am sure that any of the sailors who have voyaged on the Uto Ni Yalo can vouch for this from their own experience.

In 1934, on the 35th anniversary of the Kon-Tiki expedition, Heyerdahl said:
“Some people believe in fate, others don't. I do and I don't. It may seem at times as if invisible fingers move us about -like puppets on strings. But for sure, we are not born to be dragged along. We can grab the strings ourselves and adjust our course at every crossroad, or take off at any little trail into the unknown."

Sometimes we are so connected to the fixed, rootedness of land and material possessions, that we often cannot let go in order to grab the opportunities that lie ahead of us like the our ocean. We refuse to let go of what we consider to be “mine” and miss the chance to hold hand with others so that “yours” and “mine” can become “ours”.

As we stand at the threshold of 2013, we must ask ourselves if we are willing to let go of what has become comfortable and safe, in order to venture into the unknown.

An amazing journey lies ahead for our nation over the next two years. It may end in disaster, but it could just be a successful endeavour.

Whichever direction this journey takes us, are we willing to travel together as we search for that island of hope on which we all wish to life?

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”


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