Shanghai Lights (Shang Highlights)


(Note: all images can be expanded by clicking on them)

Like a retro Eiffel Tower

Like a retro Eiffel Tower

Shanghai is known as “the Paris of the east.” This is a wild understatement. Shanghai has more people, more diversity, more culture, more lights, and more fun just to name a few things. The only thing it may not have more of is cheese, Champaign, and Eifel Towers (but it does have a pretty cool TV tower).

The city is easy to navigate by subway and walking (A GPS phone is great to help you find your way), and Taxis are cheap (But don’t expect your driver to speak a word of English or understand what you’re trying to say in Chinese).

In short, Shanghai is most westerner’s favorite city in china, and it is definitely a good place to spend a few days to decompress from the oddities the rest China offers to western foreigners.

My Experience


There are three main reasons I travel the world:

  1. Surf
  2. Meet new people and experience new cultures
  3. See and experience new landscapes

You’ll notice that visiting museums, galleries, archeological sites, and other man-made edifices are not on the list. There are plenty of things to see in Shanghai, but I don’t do a lot of sight seeing. Hence, this is short list. (This statement is slightly contradictory because I did go to Beijing specifically to see the forbidden city and great wall, but that is the next post).



The first thing I wanted to do in Shanghai was visit the Shanghai Financial Center and view the city from their 101st floor observation deck. So this was my first mission. According to my guidebook, on a clear day you can actually observe the curvature of the earth from up there. Unfortunately, the air pollution in Shanghai was so bad that I could only see a few miles in any direction from the observation deck. It was still a really cool experience to look down on the city form 474 meters up.

View from the SWFC observation deck

View from the SWFC observation deck

IMG_1294I spent a lot of time walking around shanghai’s old European grotto, “The Bund,” which has made a big comeback in the last decades as China has reopened to foreign investment.

I also checked out a few Malls in China (They are loaded with good restaurants). I am from Minnesota, where the Mall of America is, and I found the size and number of malls in Shanghai absolutely staggering!

Jing'an Temple

Jing’an Temple

On my last full day, I went to visit the Jing’an Buddhist Temple. It was only a couple miles away so I decided to walk. I got a bit lost, and it was closed when I arrived. However, I found a nice park across the way to snap some photos as the sun went down. On the way home, I could feel liquid pooling in my lungs like I was getting pneumonia – the air pollution is really that bad in China!

Maglev Train

Maglev Train

On my way out of town, I rode the Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) train to the airport. Instead of wheels, this train uses electromagnets to hover above its tracks. There is virtually no friction, and the train can go incredibly fast. My train zipped to the airport at 301 km/hr (187 mph). A friend told me they used to run it at 440 km/hr (273 mph), but they have toned it back, probably over safety concerns.



View out the back of the Rock & Wood hostel

View out the back of the Rock & Wood hostel

I stayed at the Rock & Wood International Hostel. This was the most modern, clean, and organized hostel I have ever stayed in (I’ve stayed in hostels in 15 countries across Europe, Central/South America, Africa, and Asia). It has everything a good hostel has – comfortable mattresses, bunks that don’t squeak, A/C & heat, wifi throughout, clean bathrooms, hot water, social space, bar, movie projector, outdoor lounge, helpful staff, and a couple of guitars to boot (I think all hostels should have at least one guitar).

People back home are always a little weary when I tell them that I prefer to stay in hostels when I travel. Most Americans’ entire perception of hostels comes from the horror movie Hostel, where American tourists are abducted and sold to murder-fetish houses in Eastern Europe. If you think this is what hostelling is like, you’re probably ignorant enough to stop reading here, and continue believing that story. I wouldn’t want you to stay in a hostel and pollute the incredibly positive, tolerant, international atmosphere with your ignorance.

In my 10 years’ experience hostelling, I have never been attacked or robbed of anything except a little sleep – Sometimes the beds move and squeak every time your bunkmate shifts, and I’ve encountered some incredible snorers along the line. These issues can usually be resolved by using earplugs and having one more drink before bed.


My bunkmate Mehdi

My bunkmate Mehdi

The first person I met upon my arrival to Shanghai was my Iranian bunkmate, Mehdi. As I approached our tiny 4-bed room, he was just walking through the door himself. I smiled and said, “Hello, how are you?” to find out if he also spoke English.

He replied with a handshake and a smile from ear-to-ear, “Hello! I am happy because you are smiling!”

We began with the usual “What is your name? Where are you from?” How long are you here?” questions, but we digressed quickly into deep philosophical dialogues concerning greater meanings in life. I quickly realized that we came from very different places and backgrounds, but somehow, for that week in Shanghai, we were operating in the same place physically and mentally. On one occasion, our differences in background and culture led to intense disagreement and some arguing, but it always returned to friendship, trust, and understanding.

Mehdi and I are of the same god – Our opinion what, exactly, that means may be very different, but we are both peaceful souls and students of the earth and this life. Through this perspective, we forged a great bond and walked a similar path for several days and nights. Needless to say, we learned a lot from eachother.

In the hostel I stayed in previously, I met an 88-year-old retired heart surgeon from Sweden. He had spent a great deal of his life volunteering with Doctors Without Borders, and had incredible experience to draw upon. I recall the first conversation I had with him:

The Chinese language barrier had me starved for good conversation in English. I was thrilled to hear some people speaking English in the common area in the hostel when I arrived. I walked into the room and said awkwardly, “Hi, I’m Alex!”

Rolf returned with, “Hey Alex, where do you come from?”

“USA,” I replied.

“USA? Get the hell out of here! We don’t want talk to you!” He it said in a tone that I wouldn’t realize was a joke if he didn’t smile and start laughing immediately after.

I told him to “Bugger off!” in an attempt to prove my international travel proficiency and asked him where he was from.

“Sweden,” he told me. Excellent – I had him right in my crosshairs.

“Hjavla Svenskor!” I shouted at him. “Fan med dig!” That translates to, “Damn Swedes… Fuck you!”

I was born in Sweden and spent my younger years speaking Swedish and English at home. This leaves me with the unlikely ability to call out Swedish jerks and hit on Swedish girls in their native tongue – A huge benefit on both ends while traveling internationally.

My conversation with Rolf moved quickly to hugs and admissions that we were both a bit on edge because we’ve been unable to speak and joke in our native languages for so long. He had spent a great deal of time in New Zealand, and missed “taking the piss” out of his friends. He welcomed the opportunity to joke back and forth with somebody who understood kiwi humor.

I went on quite the tangent there… The point I was trying to make was that he said something incredibly simple, but gloriously intelligent in our first conversation there. I sat in the hostel common space with two Chinese people, a fellow Swede, and a student from Bangladesh. Rolf expressed seriously and with great empathy,

“I can’t stand it that people in this world try to solve their differences by killing each other. The more different people are from you, the more potential there is to learn something from them, and if you kill them, you can’t learn anymore from them.” The Chinese people didn’t speak much English and didn’t quite understand, so Rolf clarified to them. “You and I are very different. That means we can learn a lot from each other, but if I kill you, I can no longer learn anything from you.”

While Rolf clarified, I looked across to my new Muslim/Bangladeshi friend. Our eyes met as we nodded in agreement to Rolf’s words. Our eyes spoke a silent understanding – Yes, we are from cultures that have been at odds for hundreds of years, but we are beyond that. We lead lives of peace and hope for a better world.

I’ve been around. I’ve met people from Kansas to Kazakhstan, but I have never met someone I wished violence upon. Nor do I think I have met someone who wished violence upon me. Rolf’s simple words of genius can only be backed up by the words of another old wise man: “Peace cannot be kept by force, but it can only be achieved by understanding” –Albert Einstein.

Wow… I really lost myself there. This is going to be a long post. Back to Shanghai:

Through the hostel and a few choice oases, I made some great friends. It’s probably easier to just list the ones that I want to remember. I like to make a list of people and occurrences after each city I visit, so I won’t ever forget my friends and experiences around the world.

• Nathan: A Hawaiian living and working in shanghai as a distributor for Santa Cruz surfboards, skateboards, and snowboards across Asian Markets. I met him at a Reggae show that Mehdi and I stumbled across my first night in Shanghai. His wife was the backup singer – it was a great show!

• Mike and Luke: Brothers from Ohio. One in China working for an international acquisitions firm from Brazil. The other in Shanghai teaching coaches basketball coaching strategy (NBA is huge in China, and china has more youth basket ball players than the rest of the world combined).

• Alex and Sebastian (Seabass): Danish dancing dudes. These guys were taking a break from studying Kung Fu elsewhere in China. Alex, Sebastian, Mehdi, and I went out dancing at several of the best clubs around Shanghai almost every night. We made a good team. Usually we would arrive back at the hostel between 6-8am the following morning.

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Eva & Anuli

• Eva and Anuli: East coast American girls teaching English in China. We met via dance-off while closing down a club at 5am with Mehdi, Alex & Seabass. They joined our crew afterwards at the convenience store for some snacks and dancing (Yes, in the supermarket). They joined Rina’s family and I for Christmas mass at a Chinese church, and we had a Christmas dinner and drinks together afterwards.

• Ivon: An Australian/Chinese guy who invited me over for his “Orphan Christmas Party” he hosted for people who were away from their families for the holidays. Unfortunately, I missed the party because I went to church & dinner with other friends, but I met up with him at Perry’s (everybody’s favorite college bar) afterwards for a beer and some games.

• Ana: Uruguaya muy linda sourcing textiles for a Uruguayan clothing company. I met her when Mehdi left me alone at a bar late on Christmas night. She has been working in Shanghai for 8 months, and was able to teach me a lot about sourcing in china. Ana was super easy going, showed me incredible hospitality, and there was something very familiar about her, which was welcome in this strange land on Christmas. She even let me do laundry at her apartment before I left, which is one of the nicest things you can offer a backpacker.



• Rina, Ralph, and James: Rina is my classmate from the University of Malta. She invited me to spend Christmas with her family. Her husband, Ralph, and son, James, were an absolute treat to spend time with. They invited me for dinner and church on Christmas Eve, and lunch on Christmas Day. I learned a great deal from them all. Surprisingly, one of my favorite lessons of the trip came from four-year-old James. When Ralph asked James if he and I were friends, James replied with, “No.”

“Why not James?” Ralph asked his son.

“Because Alex is Mommy’s friend.”

My feelings were a little hurt at first, but I realized his confusion and said to him, “You know, James, we can all be friends. You, me, mommy, and daddy!” It was in this moment I realized that the Keynesian economic principle of scarcity cannot be applied to love and friendship. Unfortunately, keynesians run the world, and I fear that, like James, they might be applying the “law” of scarcity to love and friendship. This might explain why there is so much suffering in the world.


Happy Merry Christmas

I wrote the following post on Christmas Day, but I never go around to proof reading or posting it.  Chinese people know the phrase Merry Christmas from marketing promotions.  However, many of them think the name of the holiday is “Merry Christmas.”  This led to a lot of people saying things like “Merry Christmas is tomorrow!”  or “Happy Merry Christmas!”  I thought it was hilarious.  Anyways, here is a belated Christmas post:

25 December 2013, 11:01pm – Shanghai, China

Today is Christmas, and I am in China. This is the first time in my life that I am away from my family for Christmas, and I am definitely missing our tradition. Instead of swedish meatballs, ham, and potatoes at my mother’s house, my christmas this year consisted of friendship, nightclubs, untraditional holiday food, and lack of sleep at my hostel in Shanghai.

I am fortunate to have an old classmate who lives in Shanghai with her family, and they were kind enough to invite me to join them for their Christmas celebrations. I am incredibly grateful to have so many friends around the world who are always happy to invite me into their homes, and Rina’s family has been exceptionally wonderful and welcoming. Last night, I had Christmas dinner with them, and we attended Christmas mass at St. Peter’s Church in Shanghai. I also had Christmas lunch with them today at their apartment in Shanghai.

After lunch today, I took a short siesta because I have spent the past two nights out dancing until the wee hours of the morning with my hostel bunk-mate, Mehdi, an Iranian man of mystery who I could write a whole book about, but in short: He is unlike anyone I have ever met, he dances more uniquely and frequently than anyone I have ever met, and he always says what he thinks and seems to be having continuous revelations that reveal deep lessons in regards to the meaning of life.

Anyways… after my nap, I decided to treat myself to pizza at Shanghai’s best pizza place, Pizza Marzano. I LOVE pizza, and there is not pizza place in the town where my surfboard factory is. While I was waiting for my food, I was reading through Christmas messages from my friends and family, and I was hit by a wave of Melancholy. “What am I doing here?” I thought to myself as I sat on a cold patio eating Pizza alone for Christmas dinner. I’m thousands of miles away from the people I love most on a holiday that, to me, is purely about the blessings of friends and family.

Luckily, technology allows us to communicate across the world. I was reminded by a wise friend via Whatsapp message that this is part of a dream I have dreamt for a long time – “You sleep in the bed you make.” This made me feel a little better, but I was still pretty bummed and decided to walk it off.

I strolled through “The Bund,” Shanghai’s most westernized district, with a grande soy hot chocolate from Starbucks in hand. I was surrounded by about 24 million people, yet I felt incredibly alone. I simply could not shake a feeling of misery.

About halfway through my walk, I finally got the reality kick-to-the-face that I needed. As I was about to ascend the stairs of a sidewalk overpass, I saw a man lying at the base of the stairs, face to the ground, shivering, begging, praying for change. I was emotionally frozen, but continued past not knowing how to respond. When I reached the other side of the overpass, there was another man in a similar position begging for change. Shortly thereafter, another homeless man with white hair down past his shoulders and no shoes on. “How dare I be cold in my thermal hoodie and Northface Jacket,” I thought to myself.  I continued on and found myself walking through a subway tunnel.  I noticed a man looking over my shoulder with a look of sympathy on his face like nothing I have ever seen before.  I looked to where his eyes gazed, and saw a mag that was either a severe burn victim or an Agent Orange child.  He was also begging for change, but with the most hollow eyes I have ever seen.

This is when it all came together for me. I am among the most fortunate people in the world in terms of friends, family, health, and opportunity. I am not with my family and friends this Christmas, but I am blessed with the choice and ability to pursue my dreams to the most distant shores. And I have done so under my own will. Instantly, my melancholy turned to gratitude and appreciation for the gifts I have been given.

My Christmas was really made when I arrived back to the hostel in time to Skype my family while they ate Christmas Breakfast. My sister has a lazy susan/turntable on her dining table, so they placed the iPad on it, and I was rotated around the table to have individual face-to-face conversations with my family as they waited for breakfast to be served. I got to pop into the kitchen and chat with my dad while he made eggs, and my niece, Rhian even showed off her Ice Princess dress for me.

I think the best part was watching my 15-month-old niece dance to my cover of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. I didn’t know what to get for my mother this Christmas, so I recorded the most christmassy song I know and sent it to her. She plugged her iPhone into a stereo and played it for everyone.  Apparently my little niece loved it!  Here is a link to the song if you want to here it:

Merry Christmas everyone.  Thank you for your support and helping me achieve my dreams.  So much love!   -Alex

A Moment of Inspiration

I meant to spend my Saturday night catching up on emails and optimizing, but then I got distracted by a lesson from a friend. “Huni” told me that the universe vibrates at 432 hertz, which is the tonal equivalent of a Bminor chord. I recalled hearing that our planet, Earth, vibrates in the tonal equivalent of a C chord, so I picked up my ukulele, which hasn’t been tuned in 2 weeks, and tried the two chords together.  They sounded nice together.  Then inspiration struck.  Within 30 minutes, I had composed an entire song, lyrics and all.  I don’t really know where it came from, but that is the cool thing about inspiration – Sometimes it just happens. I haven’t composed a song so fast since I was about 17 years old.  I like it, so I thought I’d share:


All Surfboards are Shaped!

Exciting news today – All of my surfboards have been shaped!  That is 208 surfboards shaped in under three weeks!  Most of them are at some point in the glassing process too.  Some nearing completion!  Impressive…  The head shaper wanted to get home and enjoy the holidays (that’s Christmas, New Years, and Chinese New Years), so he’s been working his butt off over-time and left today for a 7 week holiday.  Who would have thought that a Chinese factory worker would get to take so much time off, eh?  I’ve emphasized it enough in previous posts, so I’m not going to drill it in again now but… workers are treated pretty darn fair in my Chinese factory, and I’m proud I can say that.

The last 3 boards to be shaped were a few personal boards I’ll be taking along to Indonesia at the end of January.  I actually got to finish these boards myself because the shaper had to left to catch his train home.  It was so nice to be shaping a bit instead of just supervising production.  I think I gained some street credit from the workers too.  One of the other shapers watched me shape, and I could tell he liked my technique.

My order is projected to be completed by January 20th, when the factory lets out for a the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival, So I will be flying Bali on January 23 with these sweet babies:

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bali fish

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bali hybrid

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The boards aren’t all for me.  Two of them are for Jay from W.E. Surf (seems like a good partner for iSurf right?) and Dominic Holland, Director of Photography for DP Dom Holland.  Check out the website or his Youtube page – He does fantastic work.  Holland is actually going to film a documentary style surf film of our adventures in Indonesia.  (Here is a link to Jay’s blog post about it).  It should be pretty cool – I’m really stoked.

Well, Christmas is right around the corner.  I’m going to celebrate with an old classmate that lives in China.  This will be my first Christmas ever away from home – I’m pretty bummed about it, but I’m also very excited for Rina to show me her stomping grounds.

Since all the boards are shaped, I’m going to take a little time out of the factory and do some sight-seeing.  People always wonder how I afford to travel so much – Well, I use low cost carriers or frequent flyer miles and stay in hostels or couch surf.  It’s really not that expensive at all, and I find hostels to be a much better experience than hotels.  Check out the itinerary I put together for myself.  Prices are for each flight segment or per night in hostel:

  • Saturday 21 Dec: Head to the coast and spend two nights with the factory owner’s friends.  Stay in international youth hostel ($9).
  • Monday 23 Dec:  Fly ($96) to Shanghai and meet up with Rina.  Staying at Rock & Wood International Youth Hostel for five nights ($9).
  • Saturday 28 Dec:  Fly to Beijing ($62) to see Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City & Great Wall.  Staying at King’s Joy Hostel for two nights ($6).
  • Monday 30 December:  Return to Shanghai ($62).  I land at 1:40am on the 31st and will probably sleep in the airport.
  • Tuesday 31 December:  Fly to Shenzhen ($109), near Hong Kong, to meet my factory owner and visit his friend’s surf traction pad factory.  We’ll probably stay one night (NYE) before returning to the factory via High-Speed Train (factory owner usually won’t let me pay for anything if he’s around).

So far, I’m looking at ten days in four cities for only $404 transport and accommodation.  Not too shabby, eh?  I’ve gotten really good at finding the best deals on flights and accommodations.  If you ever want to go on a backpacking trip, contact me – I LOVE to search for deals like this.  In short, the best low cost carrier in China is China Spring Airlines, and my preferred hostel booking site is Hostel Bookers.  I also always use Lonely Planet guide books.

Well that’s it for now.  I’ve got some fun times ahead.  I’ll leave you with this time lapse I shot from the roof of my apartment building the other day.  I love night-photography, and I’ve been experimenting with time lapses a bit in the last year.  I combined the two using a new remote timer I got for my DSLR and this is what came out.  Oh, and of course I cut it to some Huni music.  Enjoy!

Simple Comforts

There are many things you realize about life when you leave the comforts of home and travel to a place where the simple luxuries in life are not always available.  One of the major things I have realized in my journeys is that there is little worry over basic human needs in the USA.  If you are from a developed country, which you probably are if you’re browsing the internet right now, there is almost no chance you are concerned about your basic human needs:  i.e. you don’t have to worry about where you will find shelter tonight, if you can eat tomorrow, and whether you can find suitable clothing and accommodation to keep you warm.

my little friend

my little friend

On monday, I came home from the factory and found my apartment to be no more than 45 degrees fahrenheit (about 7 degrees celsius), and it is not equipped with heaters.  I looked up the weather on my phone and found that, for the next week or so, it should be near freezing temperatures in this town every night.  I immediately walked to Walmart (There are about 400 locations in China), and purchased a small space heater for ¥49.00 ($8.00).  This little heater has become my new best friend and greatest fire hazard.

This is my second winter living in a cool, damp climate without heat – I experienced a very similar winter in Malta last year.  People from my hometown in Minnesota, where it is currently 18 degrees fahrenheit (-8 C), often express jealousy that I escape the cold Minnesota winters so frequently.  Tonight, I sit here wrapped in down blanked, wool socks, and pajamas.  I’m huddled close to the heater wishing there was a better way to warm my core.

Then I think about the fact that it has rained for three consecutive days here.  All around me people are going about their daily routines, buzzing around on mopeds, carrying buckets of water and supplies on their shoulders, and walking the streets in sandals in this cold damp climate.  I know a lot of these people do not have little space heaters, nor can they afford them or the electricity to operate such a thing.  I realize how fortunate I am to be able to go to the store and buy a heater when I need it and pay for the electricity to operate my little friend to keep me somewhat comfortable.

Its amazing how basic necessities are not even considered by so many people, and to others, finding food and warmth are among their only concerns.

Its Not Easy Being Green

I’ve been in China for two weeks now, and I’m beginning to get a grip on what my reality is and will be here.  One thing is becoming very apparent – I do not fit in.  I’ve never been into conformity.  In fact, I’m quite the individualist.  I’ve always held a strong belief that beauty stems from uniqueness, but my experience in China is beginning to make me realize that too different can be uncomfortable.  Let me explain:

Aside from a 2 day visit to a larger city, I have spent every day in a small town where my surfboard factory is (by the way, a small town in china can have over a million residents).  In my first 2 weeks here, I have not seen another non-asian person.  When I am out and about, I am always the only white person in the room, and the next tallest person might be about chin-height to me if they really stretched their neck.  Also, Aside from 3 people I know with limited english vocabulary, it is impossible for me to verbally communicate with anybody.  Basically, I may as well be a giant green frog croaking his way through life here in China (queue the music).

Now, I have always been one for a good challenge – I even bought a pair of shoes in the market yesterday knowing only how to say “四-四” (“four-four”), as in my european shoe size is 44, but I am beginning to grow tired of constant stares and people randomly saying “Hi” to me without being able to speak another word when I try to converse with them.  I’m in the most populated country in the world, and I’ve never felt so isolated in my life.


"Blending in" - Atacama Desert, Chile

“Blending in” – Atacama Desert, Chile

Now, I have done a lot of traveling in my life, and one of the things that has always made it comfortable it that I’m a bit of a chameleon.  Like most Americans, I am an ethnic mutt.  My mother is a brown haired, brown eyed Swede, and my dad is a dark haired, blue eyed… who really knows, mostly german I think.  This has left me with brown eyes, a big nose, quickly tanning skin, and medium-dark brown hair (what’s left  of it).  The bulk of my travels have been in Latin America and Europe, and in these places, if I speak softly, I look ethnically vague enough that people passing in the street can easily mistake me for a local.  This is a huge advantage when traveling, especially in underdeveloped countries, as I do not worry much about being targeted by criminals, much less solicitors.

This experience in China has offered me a very interesting perspective on life – one that I have not had the chance to entertain before since I can usually fit in.  I am different… really different… so different that nearly everyone I pass in the street stares,calls out to me something that I don’t understand, or even snaps a photo of me walking by.  I’m not shy.  I am incredibly confident in my skin, but this is beginning to become uncomfortable for me.  At first, I would use my peripheral vision to notice the stares, and quickly look at them and “bust them” for staring at me.  Now, I walk around with my head down to avoid the awkward eye contact and looks.

Deep down inside I feel terrible – not because I know they’re judging me based on my looks, but because I know I have looked and judged others in the past.  Today I scorn myself for any time I was looking at somebody because they were different, especially if their eyes met mine while I gazed upon them.  It is not a good feeling to be looked at or pointed out for being different.  Take it from me – the only green person in this village in china.

A Quick Note on Quality

In the US, Chinese goods get the reputation of being cheap and low in quality compared to western goods.  I believe this is probably mostly true when it comes to molded plastics, machined textiles, and pretty much anything made by a machine and later assembled.  But there was once a time, before machines and molds, that oriental goods were sought after because of their incredible quality.  Back when oriental goods were all hand made, asians were considered among the craftsmen in the world.  Traders and dignitaries would travel from Europe the long way, by boat around the horn of Africa, to China because their materials and craftsmanship were higher quality than anywhere else in the world.

I was reminded of this when we stopped into a furniture store tonight with the factory owner and his friend, who was in the market for a new coffee table.  I couldn’t believe the detail and quality of construction of the woodwork.  Here are some photos.  Click to enlarge:

hand made woodsup mn234sup mn236sup mn237

I find this tradition of quality and craftsmanship very much alive in my little (its not really that little, but it is smaller than most) surfboard factory in China.  I recall when I was interviewing factories to build my surfboards, the factory owner said to me, “We are not the biggest, and our prices are not the lowest, but our quality is very high.  You will see for yourself if you come here.”

He reminded me of this today.  At lunch, a flatbed truck drove by loaded with EPS foam.   I asked, “Is there a foam factory nearby?  I’ve seen a few trucks now with EPS.  Do you source it locally?”

“No,” he replied sternly.  “Our foam is extremely high quality.  They can’t do high enough quality there.”

Ahha!  I had an epiphany.  I’d wondered before, “why do his foam cores look so much cleaner than anything I’ve seen from china before?”  I have been doing ding repairs on SUPs for several years now in Minnesota (iDol Surfboards is the only business in Minnesota that does surfboard ding repairs), and its amazing what I have found under the paint and lamination of several ‘quality’ name brands of stand up paddleboards.  I often find a dirty foam core disintegrating around the dinged up area.  No wonder the boards dinged so easily – there is no foam backing the fiberglass!  Most people don’t realize, that eps foam is soluable in a variety of chemicals.  Thus, the EPS foam core needs to be kept as clean as possible until it is laminated to protect it from possible solvents.  When you use dirty foam, you risk your EPS being exposed to some of these solvents, and the core of the surfboard can, over time, dissolve underneath the fiberglass.

Here’s a link to that video of an iSurf SUP being shaped.  Notice how clean the foam is – not a speck of dirt can be found.  The shaping room is also very clean – yes there is a lot of foam dust, but it’s clean white foam dust.  These foam cores are stored in a clean room away from any solvents until they are laminated.

Well that is my rant on quality for today.  Ask any of the iDol crew: Tollie, Stefan, Eric, and they’ve heard it all before… or anybody who has been in the shop with me, really.  My number one priority is always quality.  If there is the slightest problem with any board which will effect end quality, it gets fixed or it doesn’t get sold.  One more time for good measure.  QUALITY!

If you’re looking for a great read on quality, check out the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Not only is it a fascinating story, it gets to the ‘core’ of what quality is.

Fair Labor Practices From my Factory in China

Today is International Human Rights Day!  As a businessman working from a Chinese factory, I have an interesting perspective to write from on the subject.  So here it goes:

The title of this post is “Fair Labor Practices From my factory in China”.  It sounds like an oxymoron, but its not.  Workers are treated well in this factory, and that is one of the main reasons I have chosen the factory I am in (aside from the fact that their finished product is the best I’ve ever seen come from overseas).  When interviewing factories, I made it very clear that fair labor practices were of the utmost importance, and I required full access to the factory during the entire production process to monitor conditions.  I also made sure they knew I would have zero tolerance for child labor.  I’ve been here for just over a week now, and I am very pleased with what I have seen.

The factory owner and I had a detailed conversation about workers’ wages over dinner at KFC the other night (KFC is one of China’s most popular restaurants), and I got some detailed info on workers’ wages I will share with you.  He was a little stressed because he has to pay his workers over-time wages in order to get a shipment out to Australia by next Monday, so he vented honestly to me about workers’ pay.  If they have to work overtime, he must pay them 1.5x their hourly rate and 2x hourly wages on Sundays.  Here is what I learned:

"everyone likes a nice guy, but business requires honesty"

Adjacent the factory owner’s desk, this reads “Everyone likes a nice guy, but business requires honesty”

To preface this, I’m a numbers and charts guy.  My undergraduate degree was in economics, not because I wanted to be a banker or work in the financial industry, but because numbers truly fascinate me.  Math seems to be the universal language of science, and money and numbers control the world.  So here it is by the numbers – All of the following numbers came from the factory owner’s honest mouth or the most recent statistics from the World Bank Factbook, the US Census Bureau, or the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Workers in this factory work up to 48 hours a week, and earn a base between 3,000-6,000+ Chinese Yuan per month (before overtime), depending on skill level of their position (approximately $500-$1,000 US Dollars), which equals 18,000-36,000¥ per year ($6,000-$12,000 USD). That does not seem like a lot, but the average income for china is $6,091 per year.  Hence, even his lowest paid employees are making about the Chinese national average income.  The factory also provides room and board for free.  The only thing workers have to pay for is their own food, clothing, and entertainment.  Now, let’s also consider Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), which gives us the purchasing power, or value, of their currency compared to the USD when you average the cost of goods in China.  At a PPP rate of 0.61, workers are making a PPP adjusted income equivalent of $9,836 – $19,672 USD per year.

Let’s compare this to the US:  The most recent US Census reported the mean per capita income in the USA at $27,915, and the USBEA reports Americans spend an average of $7,980 per year on housing (remember room and board is free for workers in this factory).  That means that the average american makes $19,935 per year after they pay cost of housing.  Hence, workers in this factory are making a PPP and cost of housing adjusted income of 49%-99% the average income in the USA, before overtime wages.   It’s not great, but its not bad.

The factory owner says he pays higher wages and his employees work fewer hours than other surfboard factories.  And he is the only factory he knows of that closes for the Chinese New Year/Spring Holiday for a week.  However, most of his workers take multiple weeks for this holiday to return home.

I came to China to observe this process for two reasons: 1) to be quality control for iSurf and make sure that my surfboards are built to my exact specifications, and 2) to make sure working conditions are fare in the factory I have chosen.  I am beyond pleased by the results of both my initiatives so far.  I spend every day, Monday-Saturday, in the factory.  I walk the floors and check each board as it moves through the production process.  I doubt you’ll find another surfboard manufacturer who pays so much attention to quality of product and labor conditions for as I have.  Something to consider when purchasing your next produced SUP or wake surfboard 😉


The Young Man and the Sea

<–This post has music: Seaside by Kultiration.  Press play if the song didn’t autoplay.

image of beach where I said my surf prayer

The Beach / My Church

This weekend, the factory owner took me to his hometown in coastal China.  As part of my tour he and his friends took me to a small island outside of town.  We walked narrow winding streets where vendors sold fresh fish, seafood, pearls, and other ocean fairing goods.  As dusk began to approach, we found ourselves walking the boardwalk of a small tourist beach.  I told them I wanted to check the water temperature and walked down to the shoreline.  This would be the first time I felt seawater since I moved home form Malta.  I went past the high-water mark and dug a small hole in the sand.  Soon thereafter, a small double-up wave pushed ashore and filled the hole with salt water.  The water was cool and dirty.  Nonetheless, I wiped some of it across my brow and spent a moment with our mother ocean.

I stood up and approached my new group of friends, who I didn’t realize had followed me onto the beach.  Cissy (pronounced sea-sea) smiled at me and said, “you could write a book called The Young Man and The Sea.”  She, like most people I have met in China, carefully observes my actions as the culture gap makes for good entertainment.  By the way she had said it, I could tell she knew I was doing more than just checking water temperature.  I chuckled at her statement, and we continued as a group back to the boardwalk.

What Cissy observed was a ritual I have developed during my surfing career.  This ritual is something in-between a communion and baptism that I usually perform before or during every surf session.  I find it relaxes me and brings me to the present moment, which is especially important when the waves are big or I’m surfing a more dangerous break.  The ritual begins with me splashing water on my face or submerging it in the water.  As I do this, I go through a thought process thinking something along the lines of:

“The earth is composed of approximately 70% water, and so is the human body.  My blood, sweat, and tears are no different than the liquid that surrounds me.  The ocean pumps through my heart and veins. Water, you and I are one in the same.  My body is more you than anything else on earth, so take me kindly and let me experience your awesome power.  When I am done, return me safely to the shore, for you are the essential life giver and keeper.”

Instantly, I feel connected to the fluid which surrounds me, and any fear turns to understanding.  It’s really amazing how relaxing this practice can be when paddling out into larger surf where controlling heart rate, breathing, and oxygen consumption can mean the difference between life and death.  “I am the ocean, and the ocean is….” I have written that phrase on the stringer of every ocean surfboard I have ever shaped for myself.  I also put a little “70%” near the nose, so if I’m paddling head-down from exhaustion, I see it and remember to stay calm, connected, and in the present moment.

From the small island we went back to mainland and had dinner, then did Asian-style karaoke (private room with just our friends), and went on to one of the coolest nightclubs I have ever been to.  It was certainly an eventful and fun weekend.

The bus ride back to the factory town made for good sight-seeing.  It was a double-decker bus, and we had front seats on the upper deck.  Minus a slight hangover, I was enjoying the long ride home, but things took a somber turn as we reached our town.  Up the road, I could see an accident had just occurred.  Debris was scattered for about 35 feet in the right lane of the four-lane highway, and people were getting out of crashed cars as we approached.  Then ahead, a sinking feeling, a motorcycle lay on its side in pieces.  Next to it, an old woman and young boy sat bloodied, but upright and conscious.  The woman was crying hysterically, while the boy, no older than five, stared blankly into the street.  In front of the motorcycle, a man laid on his belly, his face lay sideways as we passed.  I will never forget his face.  One would expect the tragically deceased to bare an expression of terror or pain, but his face looked peaceful like he was gently dozing while dreaming pleasant dreams.  I looked again to the old woman.  I have never seen such agony – today was surely the worst day of her life.

Judging by the situation and their relative ages, the old woman, her son, and her grandson were all aboard the motorcycle when a vehicle struck it (riding on motorcycles and scooters with up to 5 passengers is common practice in developing countries).  We reached the scene no more than a minute after the tragedy occurred, so the man must have died on impact.  Today, that old woman lost her son, and that boy lost his father.

photo of sunset from bus

Melancholy Sunset

Those of us on the bus who witnessed the scene looked at each other and shook our heads – there are no words to be said in a moment like this.  For the short remainder of the ride, we all gazed silently ahead at the beautiful sunset before us.  It’s amazing how all your thoughts and perceptions can change in an instant when confronted by the reality of life and death.  I reflected on how fortunate I am to be alive leading this dream life.  But at that moment, I was most grateful for the blessing of a healthy family, whom has always been there with smiles and hugs when I return home from my adventures.

Traveling not only brings me places physically, but I often reach distant mental and emotional destinations.   It’s amazing how traveling far away will teach you the true value of the things you left behind.  To those of you who are at home right now with family and life-long friends – let me remind you, as today has reminded me, that there is no greater thing in this world than the good fortune of loving and being loved.  So if you are fortunate enough to be in the presence of loved ones today, I encourage you to take a moment and share your love and gratitude with them however you feel is appropriate.


Much love,


SUP shaping timelapse

I shot a quick time lapse of one of my SUPs getting shaped today. The entire process took just over an hour, but I condensed it down to about a minute and added a track from Huni (pronounced who-knee).  I plan to time lapse the entire process of the surfboard build, so this is just a start.  This weekend the factory owner is taking me to his home town to show me how Chinese people have fun.  I’m told there will be karaoke involved (one of my favorite travel past times).  So while I’m gone, I’d recommend you go to the Huni soundcloud page and listen to some amazing music produced by a great friend/soul brother of mine, and pop into his facebook fan page and hit the like button while you’re at it.  Enjoy!

Stand-Up-Paddleboard Designs for 2014

I spent a great deal of time coming up with SUP designs, and after talking to some paddleboard retailers in Minnesota, I decided to build mostly 10’6″ all around flat-water cruising paddleboards.  The “10-6 Cruiser” model is designed to be ultra stable at 31.5 inches wide, and with 171 liters of foam, it is buoyant enough to easily float beginner surfers up to 210 pounds.  It will come with a 1+2 fin set-up and has a double-concave through the entire length of the board, which will make it track really well through the water.  It has a fairly flat rocker, but plenty of nose flip, so it will be fast but can handle waves and chop.  This board will be offered in 2014 with a bamboo deck and the option of carbon fiber rails.  The non-carbon model will be available in a variety of colors.  Check out the image below of our final design plan:

Fresh Water Paddle Boards

What do you think?  They look pretty cool, right!?  Now onto the other models…

On the left you’ll see the 9-11 “Fresh Surfer.”  At just under 10 feet long, this board does not have to be registered with the DNR as a watercraft, and you don’t legally have to have a lifejacket with you (MN DNR requires the registration of all watercraft 10 foot and over operating outside the surf zone.)  I designed this board to be surfed on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and behind an inboard boat.  Is this the first SUP designed for wake surfing?  You’ll notice the surfy outline, quad fin option, and it also has more rocker and plenty of nose flip for the steeper waves on the more advanced reefs of the great lakes.  It also has a fish tail so you can sink the tail and engage the fins and rails on turns.   It also features a double-concave throughout, which will make it fast through the water.  This boards is designed to take a beating as it will feature a sandwich construction with bamboo deck and bottom with carbon fiber rails.  This board should be pretty much indestructible.  At 30.5 inches wide, it will still be stable enough for beginners up to 175 pounds, but I designed it for an intermediate surfer weighing about 185 (that’s me.)  Oh, the perks of being the shaper!

Finally on the right, is the “11-1 Yogi Fisher.”  This board serves 3 purposes:  First, its specifically designed for SUP yoga which is becoming extremely popular these days.  At 11’1″ and 32.25″ wide, this board is extremely stable and wide enough to fit your Yoga mat (although it has extra long traction so you don’t need a separate mat.)  It also features a super-flat deck and boxy rails which make it even more stable.  The second purpose for this one is to use if for fishing.  There is no way to get closer to the water and the fish below than on a SUP.  Its not shown in the image, but this board will have bungie straps on the nose to secure your gear.  The third and final purpose of this ultra-stable board is to accommodate beginner riders up to 300+ pounds.  This board will make stand-up-paddleboarding  accessible to almost anyone who can stand up!  It also features bamboo deck.  The rails and bottom will be offered in a variety of colors.

I’m super excited about these boards.  The reason I choose the factory I’m with is their super high quality construction, and clean finish.  I looked at over a hundred paddleboards at the Surf Expo this summer, and this factory produced the highest quality by far!  My favorite part is the carbon fiber rails.  I’ll try to get some photos of finished boards up soon.

The boards will be available from the Twin Cities area in Spring 2014.  They will be shipped directly to St. Paul – No middle-man distributors mean the prices will be competitive and the construction quality is considerably higher than pretty much anything on the market in the Midwest.  All boards will include bamboo deck, traction, leash plug, vent, carry handle and fins.  I will also be offering carbon fiber adjustable paddles with all boards.

Ever have a friend that good?

This is an email that I just wrote.  I thought it really captured what a truly amazing thing friends are, and I think the most important thing to do in life is share love and gratitude.  I’m also having an issue loading images on here, so I can’t post what I wanted to but wanted to post something.

“So I’m having one of those days when everything seems to fall to pieces… Everything is great here in China, but things back in the states are slightly out of control and there is little I can do from here except send emails.  I also woke up from a dream I didn’t want to have, and my day just started in a really weird mood (This dream was of an ex – a great dream, but waking up alone felt like a nightmare in itself)… Anyways, I decided to write you for some advice or words of encouragement or just to have a dialogue to figure things out.  The amazing thing is… as soon as I started typing your name into the “To” bar, everything made sense in my head and nothing seems that bad anymore.   How do you do this?!!  You always seem to bring clarity. Even without your physical presence or words, today you brought clarity to my life.  And for that I thank you.”


10 things I learned in my first 24 hours in China

  1. I am a minority:  I’ve only seen one other non-asian person since I got on my last airplane.  It was an Australian guy who was on the flight.  He saved me on #5 & #7 on this list.  Thanks mate.
  2. People observe unique people:  Being the only white person around, people tend to stare.  Children are especially funny and they look at me like something is wrong with me.
  3. I don’t think anyone here knows what peripheral vision is:  In the airport bathroom, the guy at the urinal next to me was looking at me the whole time.  When I looked back, he pretended he wasn’t staring.
  4. Farting, burping, and spitting in public places is normal:  My favorite was the guy who hawked a big one on the floor in the airport.  He proceeded to stomp it out like it was a cigarette.  I guess spitting indoors is cool if you’re the first person to step in it yourself?
  5. Unless single file line is explicitly stated and universally followed, its a free-for all:  When my flight was cancelled and tickets needed to be re-issued, getting to the ticket counter was like trying to get to the front of the stage at a punk concert.  I’m not kidding when I say anything goes.  People were throwing elbows, reaching over shoulders, and one guy was even gently ramming me from behind with a baggage cart.
  6. Everyone has clean/new shoes:   I’m quite sure I have the dirtiest shoes in China.
  7. Assume nothing:  I figured that when my airline ticket was re-issued because my flight was cancelled that my baggage would follow.  This was not the case.  My bag was just randomly dumped in the over-sized baggage area.
  8. Locals will assume they understood you even when they haven’t and give you direction based on their assumptions:   Me and my ‘mate’ ran circles around the airport trying to find out which ticket counter would re-issue our tickets.
  9. The lines on the road mean nothing, and side walks are not just for pedestrians:  I noticed several cars & mopeds driving against traffic in the far right lane.  Also, I went for a walk in the morning and was almost run-over by several mopeds buzzing down the sidewalk to avoid traffic.
  10. Food cooks on the table:  Most meals seem to be served almost done, and the still boiling pot is placed on the table (sometimes on a stove in the table) to cook a bit more before you eat.

Luckily, I’m a good sport and none of these things really bother me (FYI: the guy in the bathroom’s eyes were gazing above my shoulders).  I’m now about 72 hours into my trip, and believe me, that’s just the beginning of things I’ve learned.


How did I get here?

When I was in high school, I received a piece of advice from my mother.   It is the best advice a mother could ever give a teenager who was almost failing out of high school (this was not due to bad teaching, unintelligence, or learning disabilities – it was merely a result of boredom with course structure and material).  My worried mother casually said to me one day, “Alex, if you want to be successful, find something you love and get really good at it.”  I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but something about it stuck.

My fondest memories of childhood are those in which we were on vacation.  I was fortunate to have a family that traveled often.  My mother, sister, and I were all born in Sweden, so we would go back most summers to visit our friends and family.  At each airport, my parents let me buy a magazine to read on the flight.  Like most young American boys, I was drawn to car and motorcycle magazines, but I almost always opted for surfing magazines.  I found the images of waves in far distant places amazing, and the articles resounded an existentialist belonging to the oneness of the universe that is fleeting in today’s society.  Slowly, airplane seats became my pews, and surfing magazines became my bible in the religion that is the traveling surfers’ lifestyle.   (I should note here that around age 10 my mother was certain I would become a minister of the church when I grew up because of my incredibly strong faith as a child – for my 10th birthday, all I wanted was a crucifix to hang above my bed).

Although the ironing board was good for make-believe, I would not stand up on a real surfboard until I was 12 years old (OK OK I admit was body boarding for several vacations before).  Like most people who have felt the glide, I was in love with the feeling.  Unfortunately, learning to surf at age 12 and being from Minnesota put the odds against me becoming a professional surfer.  Find something you love and get really good at it, but be reasonable.  Nearly every pro surfer grew up on a beach and started surfing between age 3-5.  So pro surfer wasn’t my thing.  I tried to dream up ways to become a professional traveler,  but that job does not exist in the capacity that I like to travel (If I had to follow an agenda, be burdened by a film crew, or write extensively on the things I experience, the fun would be removed).

Then came wake surfing:  a sport so new that few people had the jump on me, and I had access to several inboard boats.   I tried competing a few times.  I even got 2nd place at the World Wake Surfing Championships in amateur division.  But let’s get real, the industry is so small and niche, that you’re not going to make a reasonable living on contest winnings (yet).  My friends and I (Team Idle we called ourselves) started making wake surfboards for fun.  I found myself thrilled by design theory, the build process, and the idea of creating functional pieces of art.  Pretty soon, iDOL SURFBOARS was launched, and life became very busy.  I was able to escape my busy life on a couple of amazing surf trips, but I always had to come home too soon for the spring/summer Minnesota surfboard rush.  Board shaping quickly replaced surfing and socializing with friends.  The past few summers, I have only been able to wake surf a handful of times because I am always busy shaping, glassing, or repairing surfboards.  I haven’t even made myself a wake surfboard since 2010 because I’m always too busy building boards for customers.  I found something I love, and I got really good at it.  However, the temptress of success through surfboard production pulled me from my true loves: surf and travel.  This would not do.

A new plan quickly developed.  This plan would force me to travel to new places, meet new people, and leave me ample time to surf.  This plan is a new brand of surfboards called iSurf.  Instead of working long hours to produce a couple hundred boards each year, I will outsource production to factories abroad which can build my shapes at higher quantities and lower costs.  iSurf will make the most advanced shapes in wake surfing and fresh-water specific paddleboards available to inland surfers at very reasonable prices.  And more importantly to me, it will send me around the world to places I’ve never been, meet people I’d otherwise never get a chance to meet, and experience cultures unknown to me.  Have I found my calling?  I hope so.

I know a lot of you are thinking, “Alex, you sold iDOL out.  You’re going to lose control of the process, and your boards are going to be made by kids in unfair labor conditions in China.”   Let me settle those worries right now:  iDOL SURFBOARDS are, will, and always will be made in the USA.  I have sold a large portion of the company to iDOL’s Head Shaper, Stefan Ronchetti.  He loves building surfboards, and it is his dream to spend all day every day building surfboards.  Under this new venture, he, our team riders, and I will have more time to develop more and more advanced shapes for wake surfing, paddle boarding, great lakes surfing, and other freshwater surfing applications.  And I promise I will not lose control of the process, and all workers building my surfboards will be fairly treated.

Right now, I am sitting in a surfboard factory in China where I will stay until all of my boards are completed.  I will inspect each surfboard along every step of the process, and help in every way I can.  The factory does not employ any children or bonded laborers (which I know some of my competitors can’t accurately state), and pays higher wages than most surfboard factories.  Employees in this factory normally work 8 hour days and have Sundays off.  All of the shapers in this factory have been shaping surfboards longer than me, and the quality of construction and attention to detail is astounding.  I did a lot of research, and I’ve risked nearly every asset I own to get myself to this place.  I know in my head and my heart that I have made the right decision and I am in the right place at the right time.

Now that was a lengthy first post, and probably not very entertaining.  I just wanted to attempt defining what the heck I’m doing over here.  Going forward, this blog should be a somewhat interesting narrative covering the surfboard building process, general travel observations of the existentialist surfer, and hopefully the ultimate goal will be accomplished – we’ll go surfing.  Stop back soon, and I’ll keep posts shorter and develop this blog with the sights and sounds of the world as I explore them.  I’ll warn you now – It might get weird, but as my favorite author, Hunter S. Thompson stated, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”  Cheers friends!  See you down the road.