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)...

Holland ante India

It is pure bliss after the B-Country. The cycling path winds through a vast landscape of dunes shimmering in all colours. There aren't too many tall trees, mostly scrub and grassy vegetation with flowers and occasionally patches of sand. There are cyclists everywhere in Holland! Hence there are cycle paths everywhere in Holland. Attentive white signs in the shape of an arrow with a small bicycle icon and destination printed on it guide the way. Ahhhhh.
I admit, here and there you find some ugly beach resorts. But hey, I just pretend it's a spill over effect from some sick Belgian investors who couldn't find more nature to plaster away with cement blocks in their own country. There would have been that one place back in Belgium where there are still dunes left. About 500 meters of them. But then again that spot was dotted with ex-German bunkers from WWII and thus turned into a war memorial... pity to get rid of that, no?

Alright, back in Holland. Or, back in the Netherlands. I never figured out what to say: Holland or The Netherlands? Some have told me that Holland is just a part of The Netherlands. And then as a people they call themselves the Dutch... grrrrrrr - can it be more complicated?
I cycle along the coast to Rotterdam, the biggest container harbour of this planet. Under a burning summer sun with almost no wind, it takes me something like two endless hours in an industrial Mad-Max like scenery along incountable amounts of massive reservoir tanks, pipelines, barbed wire fences, a refinery and what not – but the path is always nicely marked with a white sign in the shape of an arrow with a small bicycle (and ferry) icon printed on it saying „Hoek van Holland“. And hurray! - at the end I reach the tiny ferry that takes me across the Maas to – guess where? - Hoek van Holland.

I enjoy the summer on the beach. Every evening I pull my bike on a sandy trail up the deich and down the other side and camp in the dunes. Camping on the beach is forbidden. What did the instructor use to say again when I did my driving license? „Right, Tim, the speed limit here is 60. However, you can always run as fast as you feel like. Just don't get busted!“ Camping on th beach is just great: big ships passing by, birds screeching, the constant sound of the waves, the sunset, the salty smell in the air and a permanent warm breeze on my skin...

After three days I arrive in Amsterdam. Time to relay with my friends from Medecins Sans Frontieres and a fat spliff. By coincidence, my friend Tamara has everything prepared; a friend of hers invites us for a boat ride in his small motorboat on the „Grachten“ (=small waterways everywhere in Amsterdam). We pack a bottle of rosé and join into a happy go lucky group of strangers all high on mild summer nights, wine and whatever was in those cigarettes...
We follow a few other boats to the outskirts of Amsterdam and soon find ourselves inmidst a crowd of boats all moored together next to a big green where a group of Techno DJs spin their records and another group sells Heineken from the tap. Lovely – I mean two hours ago I sat sweating on my ride...!

The next day I pass by the Headquarters of the Dutch section of Medecins SansFrontieres to say „hello“ to a couple of old friends and colleagues...