30 July 2008


History classes in a German highschool in the Black Forest somewhere around 1984 teach you a lot of (repetitive) stuff about WWII and the 1789 French Revolution. But I can't recall that during the whole lot of 9 years any teacher even remotely spoke about what was happening in Northern Ireland. From the news I knew that there was a war going on, that explosives were going off in shops and aboard busses and that it had something to do with religion.

Now, roughly 20 years later, I arrive in Belfast. The city gives me a sort of mystical feeling, just like Hong Kong did when I first arrived there and maybe Cape Town or Mexico City will do. What is left after the war? Has it really ended? How do people feel about it nowadays?

Funny enough, we all know something about Belfast but we don't know it is about Belfast. For centuries, Belfast was home to some of the best engineering in the world. The shipyard of Harland & Wolff (on one of the pictures you can see a massive yellow crane with H&W on it) produced some of the best ships worldwide. Ten thousands of dock workers were employed here. In the very beginning of the 20th century H&W pioneered in the construction of a totally new class of passenger ships. They would be bigger and more glamorous than everything that existed before. The harbour of Belfast had some of the world's largest dry docks. But the construction of this new class of ships (almost 300m long and 30m wide!) demanded even larger docks. They had to be twice as long as the biggest existing dock!
Three enormous vessels were build in Belfast during the period between 1908 and 1914. The most famous of the three "sisters" left the dock on May 31, 1911 and started its maiden voyage roughly a year after. Belfast is her birthplace but the world (including Belfast) forgot about this due to more dramatic aquatic events.

When I stroll through the city, it has a feel of change to it, just like Berlin after the wall fell. There are numerous construction sites and cranes are sticking out of the skyline all over the horizon. To me, Belfast isn't a beautiful city (just like Berlin) but it has a feeling of being on the move, transforming from one thing into another, waking up from a long winter's sleep. In some places, old houses stick out betwen the newer functional buildings. They give a hint of how the city must have looked like a hundred years ago when the alleyways were full of noise from street vendors and horse drawn carriages and people wore hats and long fluffy skirts.

I spend a couple of days visiting Pam, a friend of my colleague Emma from Medecins Sans Frontieres. We explore the north coast of Northern Ireland and visit the Giants Causeway, a basalt rock formation that is dated back to volcanic eruptions about 60 million years ago. The remarkable thing about the basalt stones is their almost perfect hexagonal shape (resulting from the lava cracking during its cooling process). The basalt sticks out of the ground as if some giant kids played LEGOs and forgot them when their mom called them in for dinner (T-Rex-Bone steaks?).

We also hike to some nice stretches of beach where we discover the secret for the good taste of Irish butter: the cows up here are having a real good time... when they don't spend their days in a jacusy in the SPA, they just hang out on the sunny beach.

One thing that strikes me on my way through Northern Ireland is the presence of flags and banners. When I talk with some Irish in a Pub about the "past troubles", nobody would say out loud words like "Protestants" or "Catholics". The whole issue is a hot topic and nobody wants to take sides or be associated with one or the other.
So what was all this Union-Jack fuss about? Do you see the Queen and Prince X on banners all over London?
I visit a spot where the old "Peaceline" had been - a tall wall with a high fence (see picture) seperated one half of the city from the other half. This looks just like the Berlin Wall or the bloody thing they built in Israel! On some building I find massive slogans for the "Ulster defence force". For a people that apparently tries to get by on peaceful terms I find this slightly disturbing... I don't want to come across as a pessimist, but in times of a shaky peace, plastering half the place with flags of one party and painting the other half with slogans for the other doesn't really seem all to smart to me.

I am leaving Belfast after a couple of relaxing days at Pam's and head down the east coast towards Dublin.

Oh, yeah, the ship... well, when she left Belfast she was in perfect condition. She sailed the flag of the White Star Line and she was unsinkable. She sank on April 15, 1912 and was not found until 1985. This is one of the last pictures taken when she left the docks of Belfast. It's the Titanic.

15 July 2008

Bring den Vorschlaghammer mit...

Just after my arrival in Glasgow (after having spent almost a month out in the highlands) I sit down in the pedestrian zone to smoke a cigarette. Buchanan metro station is just ahead and people seem to be very busy with life. The place is bustling with energy and people are running all over the place.
What a speed of life! I am overwhelmed and wonder if something could be wrong with me or my psyche...
I stay for almost an hour just sitting there looking at the world passing by myself. I see shoppingbags over shoppingbags. Like ants some people are loaded to the utmost capacity of what they can possibly carry with two hands and i realize that all shopping windows are decorated with "SALE" or "Save up to 50%" posters.

I immediately get this feeling of rising opportunity to get something I always wanted - and FOR CHEAP! "Use this opportunity!" cries my heart looking at Diesel T-shirts, Oakley specs and the newest North Face outdoor gear.
But blessed with the fact that my bicycle offers limited transport capacity and knowing that I have to pedal everything up everywhere I am able to resist. Still, I know just as well that if I wasn't on this trip I would probably find myself amongst this Glasgow ant tribe around me; carrying home what I can carry.

Thinking about it for another while I realize how I don't need ANY of this! I have what I need to get by and lookign at the passing pedestrians, I am very sure they do too. Now they add another designer fruit bowl to their overflowing shelves, another Gucci watch to their silly collection, another pair of high heels to the 56 other pairs (not counting the winter boots and snowboard gear) or the new fragrance of Dior to all those other dust catchers in the bathroom.

It strikes me as funny that in Norway everybody keeps asking me the question: "Why are you doing this?" while here in Britain the most frequent question is: "How do you afford this trip?"
I mean, think about it - if you suddenly had a million dollars, would YOU grab a bike and CYCLE around the world?
And if you would, why don't you save up your cash bit by bit instead of spending it on all this utter nonsense like those ants here?!

A wide, almost insane grin creeps up my cheeks and I am thoroughly happy about the state I am in - not possibly needing anything but food and drink. For me, buying ANYHTING means discarding of something else. A new shirt and one of my other ones must go; a new watch - why, I have one that works fine; and carry glas bottle of perfume up the alps?
I stay for another 30 minutes and another cigarette and remember a song from the German band "Element of Crime":

Bring den Vorschlaghammer mit
bring the sledgehammer when you come

Siehst du diesen Teller
do you see this plate
den hab ich aus Florenz
I got in Florence
Und der alte Benz
and the old mercedes
faehrt immer noch wie neu
still runs as if it was new
wie ich mich da freu

that makes me real happy
Und der Plattenspieler
and this record player
der wird heute nicht mehr gebaut
isn't produced anymore nowadays
der war mir lange Jahre treu
it did work so well for many years

Bring den Vorschlaghammer mit
bring the slegehammer
wenn du heute Abend kommst
when you come tonight
dann hauen wir alles kurz und klein
then we smash all this to pieces
Der ganze alte Schrott muss raus
all the old trash must go out
und neuer Schrott muss rein
and new trash must come in
bis Morgen muss der ganze Rotz verschwunden sein
until tomorrow all this crap here has to diappear

Der Aschenbecher da
the ashtray over there
den hab ich mal geklaut

I did once steal
ich glaub das war
I think it was
in einem griechischen Lokal
in a Greek restaurant
Und das Plattenregal
and the shelves for the records
hab ich selbst gebaut
I built myself
das war normal
that was what everybody used to do
Der Herd war gekauft
the stove was a purchase though
und die andern Moebel auch
and the other furniture too

Bring den Vorschlaghammer mit
bring the slegehammer
wenn du heute Abend kommst
when you come tonight
dann hauen wir alles kurz und klein
then we smash all this to pieces
Der ganze alte Schrott muss raus
all the old trash must go out
und neuer Schrott muss rein
and new trash must come in
bis Morgen muss der ganze Rotz verschwunden sein
until tomorrow all this crap here has to diappear

Der Computer ist

the computer is
auf dem allerneuesten Stand
state of the art
Da ist noch Pfand auf den Flaschen
and there is still some deposit on those bottles
die in der Kueche stehn
in the kitchen
da will ich bald mal Scherben sehn
oh, there I want to see broken glass soon!
Und der Buecherwand
and the bell tolls soon
fuer die ein halber Wald eimal starb
for that wall of bookshelves
schlaegt die letzte Stunde bald
that once must have killed a whole forest

Bring den Vorschlaghammer mit
bring the slegehammer
wenn du heute Abend kommst
when you come tonight
dann hauen wir alles kurz und klein
then we smash all this to pieces
Der ganze alte Schrott muss raus
all the old trash must go out
und neuer Schrott muss rein
and new trash must come in
bis Morgen muss der ganze Rotz verschwunden sein
until tomorrow all this crap here has to diappear

(Element of Crime)

14 July 2008

West coast and Glasgow

After the Outer Hebridies I pass the amazing Island of Skye which is part of the Inner Hebrides. With every place that I visit Scotland just keeps getting more and more beautiful!
During my trip I had passed numerous distilleries of famous Scotch Whiskys. Glenturret, Glenfiddich, Talisker, Arran and finally Oban (one of my favorites after Lagavulin).
The process of production is pretty much identical in all distilleries: malt (from barley) is wetted and yeast is added for fermentation. Then the mix is strained and the liquid is distilled at least twice (at different temperatures) first to an alcohol content of little more than 20%vol and then to more than 70%vol.
This highly potent but almost tasteless clear liquid is then stored in wooden casks that have previously been used for the production of Sherry/Madeira or American Whiskey.
The Scottish Whisky matures in those barrels for several years. Usually both types of casks are used for one "Single Malt" Whisky. After the ripening process, the contents of the different casks (Sherry and American Whiskey) are finally "married" in a single cask and left again for a time of 6 months.
The taste and smell of the Whisky comes from the wood of the different casks during the process of ripening (and marriage).
At the end, the 70%vol (now matured and coloured) liquid is diluted with demineralised water to approx. 40%vol, botteled and sold. "One, two, three, dram!"

In Glasgow I visit Mungo's Hifi and their families. The guys make fabulous Reggae music and I had previously met them when passing by Bergen (Norway) were they performed during a Reggae festival.
Mungo's Hifi also established an own label called "Scotch Bonnet" (http://www.scotchbonnet.net/).

Glasgow is simply great. And for a change: the sun is shining.
I enjoy the time strolling through the Glasgow museums (The transport museum features one of the first ever built bicycles from around 1840) and hanging out in the parks and cafes. There are cozy evenings in the backyard of the Mungo's Hifi Studio with BBQ and open fire. Another place to get stuck forever!

Inner and Outer Hebrides

In the north west of mainland Scotland are the Inner and Outer Hebrides, groups of islands with very changing landscape, ancient history and breathtaking white beaches.

But in order to get there I first have to cycle along the coast to Ullapool from where the ferry departs. The strip of road is a killer! Not only it seriously challenges your physical condition - it also eats up whatever is leaft of your soul after having been thoroughly soaked for several days. The road winds up and down with accents as steep as 25%. (With a car you would have to shift to first gear for this). As soon as you arrive on top, sweaty, steaming and with heavy breathing, you immediately embark on a neckbreaking downhill. The road is extremely narrow here, just wide enough for a minibus. My bicycle is equipped with pretty good brakes. But with the rain and the steep decends they don't work at all. I either have to push my bike or just hope that there will be no traffic coming from the front.

After an entire day of up and down (with the same amount of energy that made me advance 10 kilometers on the coast I could surely have crossed the Swiss Alps!) I am psychologically exhausted and close to a moral breakdown. What saves me in the end is my adrenaline from a new personal speed record during this trip: 73km/h fully loaded on a single track road :)
(I refuse to be a victim - no pushing a bike downhill!)

Finally I arrive in Ullapool, exhausted but at least just in time to see the German soccer team loose against Spain in the European finals (hihi). In a cozy pub I get drunk with two Germans and a Spaniard... definitely not a good preparation for an early rise in order to catch the ferry to Stornoway on Lewis and Harris Island the next morning!

Lewis and Harris Island (Outer Hebrides) welcome me with plenty of wind and rain. Again I soak to the bone. I nevertheless manage to have a look at ancient standing stone formations, sleep next to a romatic lighthouse and on day 3 dry off in the sun on a white beach.
In the end, the crazy weather also has a positive aspect: the mushrooms are just as confused as everyone else up here. So they start pushing up as if it was autumn. I collect them on the roadside for breakfast ommelettes and evening beef stew. Yummy!

Towards the north...

On my way towards the northern shore I pass by deserted valleys with gravel roads and incredibly splendid lush green nature.
The wind hits Scotland hard, so often there are no trees and just little shrub. Whatever resists the wind is usually eaten by the sheep.
Except for the thissle with its well developed defence. It is the Scottish national flower - you find it on some of the Scottish one pound coins and otherwise everywhere over Scotland.

Sometimes when I open my tent in the morning there is a funny surprise waiting for me. Well, to be fair, I guess those two rams in front of my door were just as surprised as I was. Luckily, after a short first-contact-staredown they opt for the peaceful option and tolerate me and the funny sounds that emerge from my early morning coffee cooking.

My days are getting a certain routine now. I usually get up around 8 and prepare breakfast. Packing, dressing and loading takes roughly an hour so I normally leave the place where I sleep around 10.
Every day I start off cycling in a low gear and pretty slow for about half an hour to warm up my muscles. Every hour or so i stop and have a snack and tea or coffee. The thermos I originally carried with me during the winter proves very handy even in the summer - I just boil water during breakfast and then usually have tea and coffee until the afternoon.

Every day, the scenery changes a little. Hills, forests, beaches, cliffs, moores, dunes, highways. Just looking at the scenery is so entertaining I hardly ever get bored. And if so, I listen to music or play roadside scrabble (see picture) or give my contribution to the heritage of standing stones... :)
One rainy day I arrive at the little wooden birdwatch shelter on the picture above. What a luxury! There is a bench, a table and windows in all directions!!! I stay for two days, read, relax and watch herons, ducks and oyster pickers at work.

When I arrive on the north shores I decide to climb "Ben Hope", a smaller peak that offers a nice view onto the highlands and the coastline. Ahhhhh...!
The road to Ben Hope has been one of the most beautiful during my whole trip. If anybody is interested to cycle up here, this strip isquite easy with fantastic views and suitable even for children.
Send me a message and we can work out your route details.