KonTiki, Son of the Sun

KonTiki, by Thor Heyerdahl has always been in my family’s library.

This is the story of the guy who sailed on a raft from Peru to the Pacific Islands in order to prove that it can be done–on a raft, I mean.

I’ve never read it, but have intended to; talk about being on the TBR for a long time, no? The photos are familiar to me, having, as a child, looked at these images of bearded dudes in their underpants on a raft, catching fish.

Now, thirty years (or so) later, I’m reading it. (This one is for the Travel category, as the Ibn Battuta book turned out to be more of a history treatise than a travel journal.)

***

Not only is the book a record of a sea voyage, of an anthropological experiment, but serves as a snapshot of a time and cultures lost to the recent past.

Heyerdahl was (I’m guessing) about 30 when he undertook this voyage. He was a zoologist studying in the Polynesian Islands when WWII took him back home to Norway, there to serve as a radio operator. While studying critters, it occurred to him that the cultures of the islands he visited were awfully similar, and, to his eye, the stone art, likewise, was awfully similar to that of the Incas.

How did these peoples get out to these remote islands without, you know, dying before they got there?  A sunken continent? A washed away land bridge? Aliens? Heyerdahl took Occam’s Razor without really stating that’s what he was doing; these people must have very simply floated there from South America. The Islands are all zoologically and geologically distinct from one another, and the tribesmen (at that time) could recite their ancestry to the equivalent of 500 C.E. He has made friends with these wrinkled old tribesmen, has been inspired and fired up by their legends and tales of KonTiki, the son of the sun, who brought people to these islands and then left again on his journey further east.

We gazed at the driving clouds and the heaving moonlit sea, and we listened to an old man who squatted half-naked before us and stared down into the dying glow from a little smoldering fire.

“Tiki,” the old man said quietly, “he was both god and chief. It was Tiki who brought my ancestors to these islands where we live now. Before that we lived in a big country beyond the sea.”

So, that sets us up for why he was doing this.

Next, we read about how he went about collecting the chutzpah and money and resources to take this voyage. This is immediately after WWII, ok?

He is in NYC, a very different NYC than I visited last year. His NYC is quaint and familiar. He knows people who know people. He can walk safely from one part of the city to another. He bunks up in a sailors’ hostel because it’s cheap and clean and they make good Norwegian food, and he notes being able to see the stars from his rented window. The Army and the Navy both want to give him survival gear to test in the field. He is given brand-new equipment from the British Embassy in exchange for updating their (paper) maps of the areas he will travel.

He telegrams his war buds in Norway and invite them to come along. They telegram back: “COMING.”

Heyerdahl is a member of a club of a type that I thought was only the fruit of so much daydreaming by accountants stuck in  stuffy offices. His description of The Explorer’s Club is as fantastical and far-off as his descriptions of a past and gone NYC.

On West Seventy-Second Street, near Central Park, is one of the most exclusive clubs in New York. There is nothing more than a brightly polished little brass plate with “Explorer’s Club” on it to tell passers-by that there is anything out of the ordinary inside the doors. But, once inside, one might have made a parachute jump into a strange world, thousands of miles from New York’s lines of motorcars flanked by skyscrapers. When the door to New York is shut behind one, one is swallowed up in an atmosphere of lion-hunting, mountaineering, and polar life. Trophies of hippopotamus and deer, big-game rifles, tusks, war drums and spears, Indian carpets, idols and model ships, flags, photographs and maps, surround the members of the club when they assemble for a dinner or to hear lectures from distant countries.

Interesting to read about this now, not so many years later, in a world which is so populated and documented and interconnected that there is not much left, really, to explore.

Next: he goes to Peru to build his raft.

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