17 April 2011


1947. The year of my birth, like every year, was marked by events great and small. Among the great ones of 1947, two stand out significantly for me. The first was the Kon-Tiki expedition. Thor Heyerdahl and a crew of five constructed a balsa log raft in Peru, named it after the Inca sun god, and set sail westward across the Pacific Ocean in an effort to demonstrate that Polynesia could have been settled in pre-Columbian times. Archaeological evidence accrued since the expedition tends to refute his hypothesis, but that does not detract from the sheer drama and adventure of the Kon-Tiki voyage.

The trip began on April 28, and culminated 101 days and 4300 miles later, when the raft struck a reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands on August 7. Along the way, Heyerdahl and crew subsisted partially on supplies they'd brought, but mostly on fish caught in transit. The Kon-Tiki was propelled partly by a crude, square wind-driven sail, and partially by the prevailing westerly currents of the South Pacific Gyre (see map below, click to enlarge).

I first read Heyerdahl's book in a high school English class, and its imprint has never left me. To boldly set out into the unknown with only a map, an idea, and a small crew of fellow adventurers was immensely appealing to me, and remains so. If you find a copy of Kon-Tike: Across the Pacific in a Raft, in a library or bookstore, snatch it up. You won't regret it.

The second 1947 event which has stirred my imagination over the intervening years was this -- On April 15, Jackie Robinson made his major league baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbetts Field, the first black athlete to play on any major team in any sport in the U.S. Breaking the color barrier was not easy. Robinson endured endless verbal abuse, even threats on the lives of him and his family -- from fans and from fellow players. Yet he understood the stakes for himself and for other black athletes, and he prevailed, with the encouragement of fans and of team manager Branch Rickey. Robinson was a stellar athlete, and over time gained the admiration of nearly everyone who had initially derided him. He led the Dodgers to the World Series championship in 1955. Number 42 remains on the short list of my personal heroes.

GLOBAL CAMPUS. I've long thought of the Internet as the world's library. Here is a link to several NYTimes articles on studying abroad, whether through virtual attendance or by living in another country to study there. I highly recommend the latter approach, since immersion learning is the most effective way to absorb knowledge. Either way, travel and study in other countries can only broaden our horizons, increase our understanding and appreciation for other cultures, and ultimately cultivate a true world community -- diverse and respectful, and perhaps one day devoid of war. Barcelona, anyone? Paris? Dublin? Prague? Tel Aviv? Beijing?

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