13 December 2008

Books 2008

For those who are interested, here come again a couple of nice books that I had the chance to read in 2008. This time with comments...

If it says on the label of your shampoo that it will enhance the glance of your hair by 63% is that really possible?
"Geekspeak" is written by a Scottish Pysicist who claims to be one of the world's biggest Geeks. He isn't able to just sit idle somewhere - wherever he is, his brain asks for answers: How much power does that wave over there in the ocean possibly have? How fast is that airplane flying over here? Are those chubby angels above the altar really able to take off with those tiny wings of theirs?
He explains how we are all able to calculate those and many more things with what we already know about the world... no need to consult the internet or ask experts. Actually, he tells you how to quickly calculate whether so-called-experts tell the truth or not...
So does shampoo enhance your glance by any chance?

Valley Of The Casbahs", a well written travel report by an American who, inspired by the great Explorer Thesiger, travels for several weeks by camel caravan through a layed back Morrocan valley. He offers insights into the nomadic lifestyle of the local population and how this traditional way of life changes in our modern times.

The absolute classic travel report by Mark Twain: "The Innocents Abroad". In 1867, in times long before mass tourism, frequent-flyer-miles, the World Wars and the conflict in the Middle-East, Mark Twain travels by paddle steamer on what is called the first ever "Leisure Excursion" from New York to Palestine. Very witty and full of interesting fact and stories.

"Longitude" researches the story of the simple watchmaker Hamilton who dedicated his life to making the most precise watch of its time. A watch that could travel on board a ship and so enable its navigators to determine their exact position at sea. In a hard and not always fair played competition against famous astronomers - long before our age of satellite navigation -he wins the race to solve one of the most important problems of his times. Captain Cook and other famous sea farers travelled with his original watches which are now on display in the Royal Observatory Museum in Greenwich.

In "Life of Pi" Yann Martel tells the touching and philosophical story of a young man who survives the sinking of a big cargo ship on its trip from India to America only to find himself in a liferaft with several large animals, amongst them a Hyiena and a Bengal Tiger!

Yes, it sounds a bit freaky to read a book with the subtitle "A guide to spritual enlightenment". But if one doesn't regard it as the ultimate wisdom (just as one shouldn't do with any, and particularily not with any religious book) then "The Power Of Now" reveals interesting thoughts about happiness, our concept of time and the way we live our axious and stressful lives today. And by the way, who is the freak - the one who is taking a deep breath and sees life a bit more relaxed or the one who isn't?

I read it again this year. And I probably read it again in 2009. "The Passion" is a story about love, hatred and what makes life worth living. Jeanette Winterson has the gift to put things into poetic language that I felt I always knew. They were somewhere inside of me but I just wasn't even able to put them into thoughts.

This book is translated from the original title: "A World Of My Own" by Robin John Knox. In 1959, he is the first person to ever sail around the world nonstop and single handed! What makes his trip so special is the fact that he is a simple commercial sailor while some of his competitors in the single-handed race around the world are millionaires who have special boats constructed for this purpose. He tries to acquire sponsors for his adventure but doesn't receive any positive feedback. So when time starts running out he just uses his slow, self-built wooden ship "Suhaili"... and wins!

And for all those who like a snack at the side when they're reading, or for those who prefer the movies, well for anybody... this here is the King, the Queen, the Prince and the Princess of potato chips!!! I found them (they found me?) first somewhere in Scotland. But now that I know them I find them all over the world. To quit smoking is easier than to stop eating before the pack is empty.

12 December 2008

The German Rivers - from Kassel to Basel

Beautiful Germany!
Ahhh, it just feels how the saying goes: "Manchmal sieht man den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht - Sometimes one doesn't see the forest because of all the trees."

Now I have lived here in middle Europe for the longest part of my life and I mostly went abroad to seek beautiful nature and exitement. What a fool I am - it's all been right in front of my doorstep! Ok, I agree, nothing beats the roughness of the Norwegian coastline. Nothing beats the thrill of standing next to large game in the Kenyan or Tanzanian savanna. Nothing beats the emptyness of Mongolia. But do we always need to beat a record just because we need a bit of recreation? By now, with all those cheap airline offers we fly half around the globe for a fucking weekend trip!!! We work in Bruxelles (ahem, they... at this point I do exclude myself) and fly home to Berlin, Barcelona and Belgrade to meet our partners on Saturdays. Hello?!

Some of my friends (I am sure some of yours, too) don't feel as if they are on a holiday if they don't get there in economy class. I must admit that I admire their simplicity: Visa card, E-ticket, security check, go to gate 23. Always the same stuff to pack: passport, bikini, aftersun lotion. A book in duty free along with a new pair of sunglasses. Towels are handed out at the bar next to the 4-star-all-inclusive pool. And how turquise the water is! And how cheap the cocktails! And how hot the sun! And how you can eat as many barbequed shrimps as you desire!

Well, yes, this is different. The European waterways. Muscle power. What a bore. It is certainly more interesting to excercise during Kieser Training sessions. And who wants to get to Dresden and Prague along the river Elbe? Or to Paris and LeHavre along the Seine? Budapest along the Danube? Or to Bordeaux, Valencia, Sevilla, Belgrade, Florence, Pisa or Marseille?

However, for all those jet-setters who are kind of bored with the way all 4-star-luxury hotels look the same, worse, all their guests (including you...) or who feel that lately their CO2 footprint starts looking obese; there is a new paradise to be discovered, unveiled, explored: your home country.

These friendly little books show just a little selection of fantastic trips along Europe's rivers! From the source to the delta or the opposite way, be assured that you will have an experience that will not forget for along time: small wooden bridges over little trickling streams, birds nesting and hunting along the shore, small side roads and singletracks through a moist, rich senting forest, cozy little huts on the roadside to seek shelter from the occasional rain, beautiful old town centres, churches, monasteries, waterfalls, gorges... NATURE! There are plenty of restaurants, camping sites and hostels along the way (you can even make pre-bookings on the internet). There are bicycle shops and other cyclists to ask for help with a flat or other technical issues, and there are plenty exciting and interesting things to see and learn not only for kids but also for adults. There are grottoes, castles, beaches and fantasy forests everywhere. You just have to go and get them!
Within the range of a couple of hundred kilometers of your hometown you will find a big river that goes through pretty exciting places. The Danube, the Elbe, the Neckar, the Altmuehl, the Rhone, the Seine, the Dordogne, the Po, the Rhine, the Themse, the Shannon, and so many more.

The downside is: there are no overpriced duty-free stores. So you will have to get your book and your shades in a real shop. You might have to hop on a train and enjoy the view. You also have to live without the excitement of a security check each and every time you change planes (but they don't take away the Swiss Army Knife and the lighter in your hand luggage!). And you will not receive any additional frequent flyer miles. (If you have already had this thought - please stop reading my blog.)

From Kassel (where I visited the Rohloff factory) I first follow the river Fulda southwards. Riding along the course of a river is perfect when you don't feel like a champion. A river usually isn't flowing over a lot of hills. It goes pretty smooth. And if you are lucky it goes downhill - all the way to the ocean.

It is mid November now, the weather is getting pretty cold. At night the temperature drops almost to zero. When I am lucky I stay overnight in small wooden shelters or on the terrace of a fishing club. I have only my summer sleepingbag and so I freeze a bit if I don't eat enough for dinner. That's why I usually make a big pot of stew in the evenings. Fresh vegetables, potatoes, carrottes, turnip, celery, onions, cabbage and a bit of meat - mhhhhh. Eating something hot as well as drinking sufficiently makes a big change during the night.
The mornings are beautiful! Drops of dew on the grass, mist in the forests and the fields. There are still some flocks of migrating birds flying south. And those who stay for the winter sing for breakfast. Once in a while I pass a bird-watching-tower, wooden platforms near a lake or nature reserve that permit observing animals without disturbing them much. I see herons, falcons, eagles, swans, wild geese, countless ravens and lots of small stuff that I don't know the names of.

At the river Kinzig (Kinzigtalsperre) I make the first 10.000km of this trip around the globe. Hang on, that's a quarter or the world circumference and I just made it from Berlin to Frankfurt?! Whatever - I've just cycled through Sweden, Finland, Norway, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. Satisfied I sit down, light a cigarette and enjoy the scenery.

Along small roads with very little traffic I continue my way south. I cross the river Main and cycle through the Odenwald to Mannheim where I visit an old friend from highschool. Then I follow the river Neckar to Stuttgart and see some friends from university. Many times I cross big bridges over the busy (famous or infamous?!) German Autobahn. Thousands - no - millions of people are in a rush to get to work and back home. Thousands more spend their time working on the Autobahn as truck drivers, highway patrol and repairmen. I remember how I used to feel the haste on these roads; always in a hurry to arrive, always looking at the speed-meter and the numerous warning signs at the road side. Always pissed off at the roadworks for slowing down the traffic or at someone else speeding. Always impatiently looking for the next gas station, and barely ever enjoying the ride.

Now, another couple of quiet side roads along the river Lauchert and the Danube finally bring me to the Hochrhein-valley (river Rhine) and to the Swiss border where I arrive at my mother's. The Danube is absolutely lovely! In this part there are steep gorges, lots of castles and traditional Fachwerk architecture - a real pleasure and a great tip for a family trip. If you wish you can follow this very long river all the way to the black sea. Romania!

In the small town of Wehr I arrive in late November, just in time to celebrate my mother's birthday. The day after my arrival it starts storming and snowing heaviliy. Not a good time to cross the Alps in Switzerland. My two months'
detour for Medecins Sans Frontieres to India now takes its toll. And so what? I decide to spend Christmas and with it the entire winter once more at my brother's in northern Norway. If snow then lots of it! Plus Husky dogs :)

17 November 2008

Religious studies in Ihringhausen

The reason to take a big detour via Kassel instead of following the river Rhine from Holland to the Black Forest is a small specialized company called Rohloff. Bernd and Barbara Rohloff started with their production of bicycle chains more than 20 years ago somewhere in a crappy shed in a German back garden.
They had the vision to produce an entirely new concept of flexible chains because they anticipated a rise in chain-based gear shifting. In the years to come they consequently (and with the help of relatives and friends taking shifts in the production shed) developed and tested a new kind of chain which today simply has become the best bicycle chain in the world that you can purchase over a counter - the Rohloff SLT 99.
After the successful development of the chain it kind of turned quiet around Rohloff for a decade or so. Until a couple of years ago a revolutionary new shifting system appeared - the Rohloff Speedhub. 14 gears integrated into an internal hub shifting - no more need for a dozen chainwheels and sprockets to whiz and whirl with the help of derailleurs in the front and back. The hub is filled with oil that automatically lubricates the whole system during the rotation of the wheel.
I had installed a Speedhub on my bicycle before my trip through Tibet in 2006. The terrain would be tough, the air sandy, the temperatures challenging - a perfect place to test my new gimmick with the idea to maybe take it all around the world.
Now, 12.000 kilometers later I am absolutely convinced of this technology and see if I can meet the grand masters in their factory in Ihringhausen.

The visit turns out a fantastic experience. I arrive Thursday and receive a comforting introduction into the technical details of the shifting. Other cyclists turn up unexpectedly who just traveled three years in South America by bicycle - also Rohloff equipped. The factory has a comfortable, almost cozy feel to it and the distinctive metallic-lubricant smell of all metal works. It is easily recognizable what counts most: quality instead of quantity - every hub is assembled and tested by hand here.
Thomas (technical support) gives me a nice and useful introduction. But where are the grand masters themselves? Sorry, too busy. Understandable with today’s output of 20.000 units per year.
Thomas and I discuss possible wear and tear that might happen during my trip around the globe and he hands me some spare screws and parts to take along. I then leave my bicycle in the factory and head to the city of Goettingen by rail to see an old friend from highschool and her family over the weekend. How time flies - we haven’t met for 10 years…!!!
After a few days of beautiful family life I return to Ihringhausen on Saturday afternoon, to pick up the bike and still have some daylight to find a place to camp. Well, that was the original plan… on my way back from Goettingen the train is taken apart in the middle and the front part goes this way while the rear part goes another. I am - guess what - in the wrong part and go the wrong way smack into the middle of German nowhere. I curse the German railway system including all managers, station officers, sales agents and conductors and then figure out that it didn’t help and I am still standing on the same platform in Fuck-all-nowhere-town (…wind blowing, tumbleweed rolling by, music fades out…); alone with only a strange looking woman sitting next to me who is wolfing down a generous helping of potato salad (40% mayonnaise) with the aid of a torn up wheat roll (half the sauce runs along her chubby fingers and she later licks them with her whitish-green mayonnaise tongue… *hrgggh*).
“Great!” I think but then remember how we (happily and voluntarily) used to watch films like “Delicatessen” or “The Blob” when I was young. “Mayonnaise Queen” isn’t so bad entertainment after all - I mean it is still another two hours until a train heads back to the junction and there isn’t even a coffee machine here, leave alone a newspaper agent. After a while I notice another detail: a small metal plate on the opposite wall announces an interesting geographical fact: The ass of the world is situated precisely 232 meters (700ft) above sea level! Who would have guessed?

When I arrive back at Rohloff’s the sun has long sunk. Barbara picks me up from the train station and we drive to the factory. Bernd is sitting on a bench in front of the door having a smoke. They are both very nice, communicative people and not only offer me their sofa for the night but also to take me along to a friend’s birthday party. Fantastic! Over beer and roast pork we philosophize about the universe and its bicycle mechanics.
We also talk about their company logo - a black raven. Barbara and Bernd have for years rescued young ravens from the surrounding villages. Some fall out of their nests or get lost during their early days and it became a passion for the Rohloffs to take care of those highly intelligent birds. They tell plenty of funny anecdotes about how their ravens grew up, raided brunch buffets and trained themselves in thievery of important metal parts from the production line… and then they just became integrated into the Logo.
The next morning, before I leave (Sunday!), Bernd gets up early to change my run down Shimano chain into something proper. I try to assist but stand there like angels must do in heaven when God is creating new earthy gadgets. I observe but feel kind of silly with my morning coffee in hand while right next to me THE bicycle guru himself installs a new SLT 99 (my fist one) on my blue elephant!!! I look at him and think to myself: “Yes - God does have white hair. Both of them - Barbara and he.”

Thank you guys for the great time, the spare parts and all the good advise!

Holland (and Germany) post India

After 15 hours, two in flight meals and a movie I land again in Amsterdam Shiphol Airport. Hurray – I am happy that I brought my fleece pullover along. It is 5 degrees Celsius (Fahrenheit = you freeze) and what the pilot calls light rainfall (it is pouring).
I make it to the hotel in the city center and collapse on the double bed. In the past two months I had two afternoons off. Now is the time to sleep.
The next day debriefing and medical screening and a decent dinner. Then I pick up my beloved bicycle again that has waited for me in the office basement. We hug and cuddle and kiss and re-inflate its tyres and load it with all my stuff and off we go direction Utrecht and then Germany. Very fast I notice that the light clothes that I am wearing aren't really what I need in this kind of weather. Well, it wasn't really my plan either to still be in Holland in November. I should be in Italy by now! All my winter stuff is in Norway at my brother's...

Ah, stuff it – I'll do fine. I buy a fleece shawl and leave. The first night I regret not buying more warm clothes – I just returned from 30 degrees Celsius in India! I do freeze and sleep very little. The second night it rains and my clothes and the tent get wet. So I freeze some more, brrrrrrrrrr.

Then after three days I readjust to the climate and the cold weather becomes more bearable. I cycle past Arnhem and then cross the border to Germany in Bocholt. When I stop at the first organic shop to buy some real crusty German whole wheat bread and creamy full fat butter a girl starts talking to me. I am surprised (after all I haven't showered for 5 days and I look and smell it). If I travel far? I normally answer „Morocco“ because then people nod and smile and turn around and leave me alone. Instead, when you tell them you cycle around the world they always ask more questions, one of them being „Why are you doing that?“ I then want to shake them and ask back: „Why do you go to work every f..king day and later watch TV and eat processed, parboiled food when you could do so many other things with your little life?!“ But back to the girl. She says that her boyfriend Nils and she (Caro) just decided to quit their jobs. They each ordered a bicycle and are about to book a flight to Alaska because they want to cycle around the world. And, by the way, if I would need a place to stay, why don't I stay in their flat and we can chat over dinner...
Said – done. Just three hours ago I had found 2 kilograms of Porchini (Steinpilze) right next to the cycle path near the Dutch-German border. Look at that monster-mushroom; almost the size of my head! And not a single worm or maggot in it! With mashed potatoes, sautéed carrots and some wine and onions in the sauce this will make a fantastic dinner for three!

The next day I continue direction Kassel where I plan to visit some very special people. The weather turns rainy again and I prepare for cold and wet nights… and beautiful mornings with dew on the grass and fog caught up between the trees in the distance.

Medecins Sans Frontieres Bihar, India

When I visit my colleagues in the headquarters of Medecins Sans Frontieres in Amsterdam the emergency coordinator Vince gets hold of me and since I am not really busy with anything else at the moment he proposes that I fly (the very next day) into the flooded area for a couple of weeks to join the exploratory team during their assessment and initial response. Assessments and setting up a new project is always a very intense, energy draining job... but isn't that precisely what makes it such an interesting challenge? Before he ends his sentence I am already mentally prepared to go. And so I do - as planned - the very next day.
Meanwhile my bicycle will wait for my return in the basement of the Amsterdam office...

Now, almost 2 months after the Kosi river embankment in Nepal broke, many areas in the north of India are still cut off. People live in simple bamboo shelters and have nothing but what they were wearing on the day of the disaster. We have a difficult time finding out where people are and how to get to them. We operate two motorboats to transport our team into the flooded area. Transport along the rivers is fine. But often we get stuck in the muddy ground when going through rice fields. Some areas are so difficult to reach that we can only get out of the boat and wade through the water. We have several mobile medical teams roaming around the area plus a vaccination team to carry out measles and polio vaccinations (the original course of the Kosi river has one of the highest Polio prevalences in the world!) A Water and Sanitation specialist is looking into preventing communicable disease by chlorinating drinking water. I am almost at the end of my assignment (and at the end of my energy)...