Ten countries from becoming the first in history to reach them all without flying (Marshall Islands)
Day 2,283 since October 10th 2013: 193 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
My mood has improved - it had to ;)
The past two entries may have been a little dark. Some of you appreciate it and want to see the real side of things. Some of you don’t want that at all. Some of you want short blogs. Some of you want longer ones!! The Saga’s online community keeps growing and I will never be able to make everyone happy. And I don’t need to.
In last week’s entry I explained how the gentle nature of the Marshallese saved my heart. My heart needed some saving. I am feeling much better. I’m perhaps down to being 10% angry at this point which leaves a lot of room for more positive emotions. Anger can be turned into something useful. I can be quite productive when angry. Remember the time we had to do a 12,000 km (7,500 mi) detour from Mongolia to Pakistan? I was upset for the first 4-5 days of that before I calmed down. Anger however rarely fuels this project. Sometimes I am motivated by all of you. You have been so generous in so many ways. While I am by no means swimming in money I can honestly say that the many donations and contributions have made the Saga a lot easier. Thank you! And furthermore I (finally) managed to get the US visa this week!! What a bureaucratic battle when you’ve been to Yemen, North Korea, Afghanistan etc. However the US embassy made it easy for me and were super kind and supportive. I poke a lot of fun about the USA. It is only jokes and I think most people understand that. It is the nature of the game: protect the weak and poke fun of the strong. Me oh my I have applied for many visas over the years!! I sometimes choose not to inform that I am visiting every country without flying and have an online presence along with interviews in more than a hundred countries. I figure that kind of information can complicate matters. So often I simply apply for a tourist visa and pretend that I am a tourist. There is no “historical journey” checkbox to be filled in anyway ;) In some cases I also avoid to mention which countries I have been to as visiting some countries can be the reason why a visa is denied in another. However there are two countries where I have given full disclosure: USA and Israel. There are two reasons for that: 1) I believe those countries have the ability to tell me more about myself than I know!!! In other words I don’t believe I can hide anything from them. 2) I trust those countries to be fair and understand what I am trying to do, even though my travel profile looks highly suspicious, as long as I am honest. As such I offered the USA full disclosure and they gave me a B1/B2 multiple entry visa valid for ten years. As of this moment I am however being told by another source that immigration might want me to have a C1/D visa so here we go again :)
Thank you 'Murica ;)
I am in awe over the past in this country. The Marshall Islands has stories, upon stories, upon stories… These people used to be kings of the sea!! Not unlike many of the other Pacific island nations but today the focus is on Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands comprise of 33 atolls spread out over a relatively large area. If you are in a low lying boat like a canoe then it is hard to see land from a distance as the islands are rather flat. By the way…what the heck is an atoll? An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef including a coral rim that encircles a lagoon partially or completely. So now you know that. Furthermore an atoll is created as a ring of coral surrounds an undersea volcano that has risen above the water's surface. Long after the volcano has receded into the ocean, the atoll remains. Fascinating stuff as the depths of the ocean surrounding these atolls are once again impossibly deep!
They did this stuff 2,000 years ahead of the Viking Age!
At least 2,000 years BCE these brave seamen were building quite large canoes, fitted them with sails and stabilized them with a parallel hull much like how a catamaran appears. And then they crossed unbelievable distances across the ocean navigating by wave and current patterns, the position of the sun and the stars at night. In the Marshall Islands they developed a stick chart navigational system called “Meto”. So as we today use maps/charts they used these intricate webs of sticks and shells which they used for teaching the islands locations, the currents and presumably many other things. Meto was however never brought to sea. It was all memorized!! Do you remember the age before the mobile phone when you could remember ten telephone number or a lot more? Well our brains are certainly capable although I fear we might be heading in the wrong direction. Back in “the good old days” the Marshallese were not even called Marshallese. Because Captain John Marshall didn’t show up until 1788. Family, fishing, religion and warfare would have been key elements of life. Food came from the ocean and water came from the rain or from coconuts. There are no fresh water sources in the Marshall Islands which is fine as long as the population is small. However it is much more of a problem today. They were smart back then. They knew exactly how much wood was needed for a canoe and made sure to plant and maintain the vegetation so there was a harmony with nature. Theories on the doom of the advanced civilizations of Easter Island (Chile) state that those people destroyed themselves when they cut the last tree.
Throughout Micronesia, and presumably much more of the Pacific, the Marshallese are known for their high quality handicrafts, quality of workmanship and originality for their use of local products (woven baskets, fans, hats, wall hangings, purses, mats, coasters etc.) And tattoos used to be a massive part of culture until the Europeans arrived and condemned it as pagan. Back before that everyone used to be tattooed which would be an easy way to tell where people were from, their status in society, which family they belonged too and likely much more. Tattoos have definitely come back to the Marshallese now in the modern age but it is rarely the traditional tattoos but the more fashionable ones which people wear.
Outside influence has had a devastating effect on these 33 atolls. It is likely a fallacy to believe that all was good and life was pure heaven until the Europeans arrived. However the effects of European influence are clear today. As per everything I wrote here above, I visited the museum in Majuro and enjoyed looking at the pictures and reading the information provided. There was little which I did not already know having done research before arriving to the Marshall Islands. However I was surprised to see how much of the museum was dedicated to the US nuclear testing over the decades. The involuntary movement of entire populations from one island to another along with the destruction and contamination has obviously placed its mark on the country. However I hear that what really concerns most Marshallese is global warming and the water levels rising. Due to the US/Marshallese past there are arrangements were any Marshallese can freely move to the USA and use the USA as an extension of their own country. However living costs in the USA are higher and many cannot afford to take the opportunity. Another element is naturally that the USA is not home…Marshall Islands is home. The concept of a home is truly a fascinating thing. “Wherever I hang my hat, that’s my home”? I did a DNA test a few years ago and discovered that a percentile of me stems from the Balkan region. I immediately felt more connected to the Balkans having that knowledge no matter how silly that might be.
This poster was created by Roger Muller, MIRCS.
Most refugees around this globe do not want to stay away from their homeland permanently. It is not a question of better opportunities. They want to return home when they can. Switzerland may be a better country than Denmark in many ways but I don’t want to give up Denmark to go and live in Switzerland permanently. You may look at a country and say “what a dump!” Someone else looks at it and calls it home. They grew up there, feel safe there, have memories there, know the language, know the insects, know the temperatures, the smells, the people and more. They would never give it up! If you don’t like the place and think your own place is better, then that is perfectly fine. But to someone else that place you think is “a dump” is the best place in the world. I’ve experienced an extreme case of this in Kenya once. Kenya is a very fine country with a lot of culture, nature and different social classes. There is a large slum area in the heart of Nairobi (the capital city) and in 2016 I met a motorcycle taxi (boda-boda) driver who invited me to come and visit his home. The slum is called Kibera (Kibra) and I rode there on the back of his motorcycle. Slum is slum…it is not appealing to me. Very crowded, poor, filthy…we stepped into his home which was simple. People were nice and the hospitality was top notch. We talked about many things. At one point we talked about what he earned every day and I quickly worked out that he could easily afford living outside of Kibera – but he did not want to. He knew the neighbours, he felt safe…Kibera was home. Majuro is the capital of Marshall Islands. It is not the kind of capital that boasts impressive architecture, sublime infrastructure and grand parks with fountains. It is more like a village with some fine shops, some closed down facilities, some nice houses, some rusty containers, some walls that scream for paint and some full to the brim garbage cans. It is not Paris. However most of these people would never trade Majuro for Paris. Paris is not home…Majuro is.
Tropical rain can come down really hard and flood everything in minutes.
In doing some research I noticed that both Marshall Islands and our next country, The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), share some dates: forming their own constitutional government in 1979 and becoming members of the United Nations in 1991. So I looked into that. The pacific was a battlefield in WWII and islands were primarily occupied by either the Japanese or the USA. After the war the USA had control over much of it. Prior to WWII the islands had all been colonies. The modern concept of a country among these small pacific island nations did not exists prior to 1970 when Fiji as the first gained UN membership. In 1947, after WWII had ended, the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands was created. It was a United Nations trust territory in Micronesia (region in Northern Pacific) administered by the USA from 1947 to 1994. On December 22nd 1990 the United Nations Security Council resolution 683 was adopted which ended the Trusteeship of the USA. It had been decided that the objectives of the Trusteeship Agreement had been completed and therefore they ended it. Interestingly enough this was agreed by an almost unanimous vote with only Cuba voting against stating that the Council had not properly discharged its responsibilities. Marshall Islands and FSM became UN members in 1991, Palau in 1994 and the Northern Mariana Islands became a US territory which they still remain today (hence all my recent visa madness).
I decided to walk to the end of the atoll and back (12km/7.5mi). Had I walked to the other end it would have been 40km/25mi (one way).
One day has taken the next here in Majuro. I have been able to fill most of the days with work. A lot of emails have been going back and forth in regards to whether I will be permitted to transfer between two ships in Hong Kong or not. Hong Kong is generally very open to visitors being a huge business hub and tourist destination. However for some reason the initial information is that I am welcome to fly there but I can forget about arriving on a container ship. There is some nuance to it but that is the headline. The ship which is supposed to bring the Saga to Hong Kong is the good ship “Kota Hening” in Pacific International Lines fleet. I was scheduled to speak at two Maersk Offices in Hong Kong plus I am getting fairly desperate in terms of procuring a new phone and Hong Kong would have been the best place. I recently ran a pole on Twitter which ended with 5% believing that reaching every country in the world by flying or without is about the same. 2% said that without flying is somewhat harder, 35% answered that it’s a lot harder and the majority (58%) voted that it is mission impossible :) So I guess that at least among those who follow the Saga it is recognized that this is no picnic. And yet I frequently run into those who believe that I’m on some kind of holiday. It is perplexing to me how I can be so good at communicating certain things and absolutely hopeless at communicating other things? I really struggle to reach the masses in regards to conveying the complex nature of this project.
I am in such a strange place within my life. Ten countries from becoming the first person to reach them all without flying. By far the person within the Red Cross Red Crescent to have paid a visit and made a promotion of the movement in the highest amount of countries. A huge inspiration and source of motivation to some and a bearded bum to others. A funny story is what happened last Monday. Some kid on Instagram reached out asking if I would help him take a representational photo in Majuro as he wanted to surprise his girlfriend for their 3rd anniversary. He sent me an example of a picture with a congratulatory note being held out in front of a beautiful church in Bulgaria. I’m pretty busy but told him I would see what I could do. Majuro isn’t a capital full of iconic buildings. He was riding me for a bit in regards to when I would get it done. Last Monday I got caught in the rain and had to wait for it to pass. Meanwhile I had some rice and chicken and afterwards wrote congratulations blah, blah, blah on a note, held it out in front of my phone and took a picture with it and some men sitting in the background. Granted…not the best picture but it had a nice greeting and featured a few Marshallese men hanging out. It turned out the fellow from Instagram wasn’t satisfied. He got pretty snobby about it at which point I just stopped writing him back. Because come on…if he is trying to collect pictures from around the world then good on him. But I can’t spend my time realizing his dream and I don’t have any relationship to him. That same day I sent a signed photo of me to a generous man in Hawaii who requested it from me. He paid me $100 USD for that!! Yup…a kind man paid $100 USD for a signed photo…of me? Who would have thought? Anyway…same day: demanding kid and huge appreciation. Welcome to my life.
Not just a silver lining...I got a golden one!
In the good year 2020 I am on Wikipedia!! That feels rather big!! Someone created the page and did a really good job out of it!! Let’s say if Wikipedia lets it stay online or if the take it down. They have gotten quite strict with content in recent years. I know for a fact that other people have tried to create a Wikipedia before and have not succeeded. Looking at the page I thought that perhaps I should tell you all why I call myself Thor when my name is in fact Torbjørn. Torbjørn is a very old and very rare name. At least in Denmark it is only held by about 200 people. It dates back at least 1,000 years and translates to “Thor bear” or “Thor’s bear”. Thor is spelled Tor where I come from. And Thor used to be the second mightiest of the Norse Gods. He was the protector and the strongest of all the gods. Thor was also in charge of the weather and in particular well known for thunder and lightning. In Germanic languages Thor has given name to Thursday (Thorsday). His hammer became a symbol of the old religion when the official conversion to Christianity occurred during the reign of King Harald Bluetooth back in the tenth century. On a side note he has given name to the contemporary use of the word Bluetooth. The Bluetooth symbol you know from your phone is in fact his initials written in runes.
Fiji Red Cross Society should be pretty happy with the photo ;)
What else, what else. The people around here continue to be a delight. It is not hard to make people laugh which is always nice. People are always willing to go really far to make sure you get what you need. Some dress kind of “gangsta” but they are all sweat as sugar and I find the concept of a “Marshallese gangster” to be an excellent description of an oxymoron. In fact I feel perfectly safe wherever I go in Majuro…except for a few dogs that have gotten the jump on me! Man!! Just when I lower my guards and sink deep into my own thoughts there’s a noisy BARK BARK BARK!!! They scare easily but I get startled when it happens. It has also taught me something about myself about who I am today. I am ready to fight! The flight or fight response was first described by Walter Cannon in the 1920s as a theory that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system. When I get startled by those dogs I quickly turn and am SO READY to fight. Strange thing to observe about one self. It also translates to my mental state for this project. I am quite tired of trying to visit every country without flying. Tired of the tiny budget. Tired of living out of a bag. Tired of constantly being on the move. Tired. It began on October 10th 2013 and has never stopped. Think back at what you were doing in 2013 and what your life was like. So much has happened since then. Sometimes it is okay to give up. Sometimes the best thing is in fact to give in and give up. Giving up is not always a sign of weakness. Sometimes it is truly the sensible thing to do. So if I gave up I would be sending that message. On the other hand if we did get the Saga to the very last country in an unbroken journey all without flying – then we would be saying something else! We would be saying that goals are achievable even when they are impossibly difficult as long as you NEVER give in and NEVER give up. As long as you FIGHT and knock on every available door. One door will open and if you do it enough then it will someday be the last door. Yeah: fight or flight? FIGHT!!! I know you are with me! THIS CAN BE DONE.
Children plaing by the shore shortly before sunset.
Righto…well here we still are. In the capital of Marshall Islands. I’ve poured out my heart to you people over the years, shared my photos, created a few videos, spoken for live audiences all over the world…and I am slowly falling apart and at times being put back together again. I too am just human. A person. We are people. And people are just people. In the Marshall Islands too consists of people being people. They no longer teach their young ones the ocean and island from a “stick chart”. They look deep into their smartphones. Because the “good old days” are gone and the future is here. Even in the tiniest Pacific Island nations. This one isn’t all that tiny but it is all relative. I met some wonderful people at the Marshallese Red Cross Society (MIRCS). They are “the new kid on the block”. In December 2019 MIRCS was admitted as the 191st National Society of the movement. At the same occasion our friends at the Bhutanese Red Cross Society became number 192. Roger Muller is the Communications Officer at MIRCS and said something beautiful to me. He said that it was a special thing to have a friend from Denmark come and visit MIRCS under such unique circumstances. Because the Saga began in October 2013 while MIRCS was founded in November 2013. And I arrived to the Marshall Islands in December 2019 while MIRCS became the 192nd member in December 2019. I like stuff like that. The Seychelles became country number 116 and consists of 116 islands. Qatar Red Crescent Society was founded in 1978 and I was born in 1978. And England was country number 007 within the Saga ;)
I just happened to hop into the one taxi which used to belong to MIRCS.
The Marshall Islands Red Cross Society began as a small but dedicated group of volunteers who wanted to help drought-stricken communities in 2013. It has now grown into an organization that focuses on health, disaster management, climate change adaptation and volunteer mobilization, and building up an ever growing number of volunteers. Volunteers are the backbone of the movement and I have been fortunate to meet some dedicated ones both at the HQ and at their relief station during New Year’s Eve. There has been a dengue outbreak in the Pacific and it is still going now in 2020. Dengue is a mosquito-borne viral infection causing a severe flu-like illness and sometimes causing a potentially lethal complication called severe dengue. Most people with dengue fever can get better just by drinking enough. However a small number of people get dengue hemorrhagic fever or dengue shock syndrome. It can be truly horrific! MIRCS took up the fight and have distributed hundreds of mosquito nets and disseminating information in a success which stopped the spread of dengue fever on Ebeye Island! If you ever wonder why stories like these do not spread then you are not alone. That is a fantastic example for why the movement is important, needs more funding, more attention and more volunteers. And a sublime example on how MIRCS has already been of great service to the Marshallese ;)
A picture speaks a thousand words :)
The more I speak to people the more I realize that it is a mistake to come to the Marshall Islands and not to visit the outer islands of this little country. That is clearly where the beauty lies. I have personally seen plenty of beautiful beaches, coconut trees, crystal clear water and azure blue lagoons. However it is what draws in the increasing amount of tourist that come to the Marshall Islands every year. The US embassy, The Marshallese Red Cross, and my special friend who flew in and arrived on January 9th have been what kept me in Majuro. And of course that I am unable to fly within this project. You can venture far within Marshall Islands without flying. There are boats and ferries. However it is time consuming and I have not had that luxury.
My friend Mike Douglas from Switchback Entertainment has arrived! :)
Okay people. It has been years of this nonsense project and I am still not ready to quit it. Some value what I do and some do not. It will probably always be that way. I certainly hold true to the values of showing countries and people from their good sides, promoting the Red Cross Red Crescent in a positive fashion, proving that a stranger is a friend you’ve never met before, looking for the less told stories about the Red Cross Red Crescent, never paying any bribes, sticking to a low budget and always keeping on keeping on! The world is no perfect place and there is no such thing as a perfect country. However every country is the best country in the world to someone. I fight with a lot of bureaucrazy and I’m fortunate that I do not need to do that on my own. Pacific International Lines (PIL) and Swire Shipping/CNCo are really supportive which makes a world of difference! Recently I’ve had some help from old friends at Maersk and Sealand too. On my own I would never have been able to reach 193 countries which is why I often write “we” and not “me”. We got this far. I don’t feel like the Saga is almost over. I literally need to cross several oceans to get home. And ten more months if all goes well….more if not. It is not ten months of waiting for everything to fall into place. It is a lot of logistics which needs to fall into place and bureaucrazy which needs to be solved. Will I become the first to reach every country completely without flying? Will people care? Does it serve a purpose? Well nobody can say for sure and again I must stress that we are far from the target. Yes ten months is not much compared to six years. And 10 countries are not a lot compared to 193. However let’s see how it goes...it only took a single straw to break the camels back.
Mike "the godfather of freeskiing" Douglas and Thor "the godfather of long blogs". Together we are working on a film for Salomon TV! ;) #TimeToPlay
Some things I know for sure by now are that people all over the world are just trying to carve out a corner for themselves and those they love. People want to play sports, feel safe, watch cat videos and complain about the weather. They get stuck in traffic, frustrated at work and at school. They fall in love and do silly things. No countries have people with six arms and three eyes. It is always the women who give birth and so far I have not stepped into a bus where everyone was a terrorist or set foot in a country where everyone was sick. If you want to know what I intend on doing when this project comes to an end then please feel free to check out the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section on this website. I’ve put some effort into it ;) For now let’s just keep on keeping on :)
If you enjoyed this blog or think I am doing a good job then you can support here below. The Saga needs funding. Thank you :)
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - turning lemons into lemonade.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga