The most stupid plan of all times

Zur deutschen Fassung dieser faszinierenden Geschichte.


Germans love plans. The bigger the plan, the better. World domination, an airport in Berlin which will never be opened, a spaceport in Congo, and so on. Between all the half-baked Schlieffen plans, it’s hard to establish a ranking because each one is dumber than the other. But I hereby nominate a surprisingly unknown candidate for the most stupid plan ever. On the other hand, I have full confidence in the anecdotal knowledge of my readers and I remain curious about your own nominations.

But first, let’s visit the Qattara Depression.

Never heard of it?

Good, because then you will leave this blog smarter than you came.

Well, Qattara is a depression in the Libyan Desert, which, confusingly, is not in Libya but in Egypt. But desert is desert, and at the arbitrary border demarcation conference of 1884/85, well-meaning Europeans couldn’t get dragged into the depths of every detail, could they? Especially when the detail is very deep, like the Qattara Depression, 133 metres below sea level to be exact.

Qattara depression map

That’s quite a dent. The only reason this major manufacturing defect of our planet went unnoticed was its location far away from the next quality control center in Cairo. Otherwise, it really couldn’t have been overlooked. It’s 120 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide. If you stumble into it while walking in the desert, you won’t crawl out that easily. At 18,000 km², the depression is almost as large as the land mass of New Jersey, which would provide ample opportunity for deep and dark comparisons of deep and dark holes, but those would not only be below sea level, but also below the level of this blog.

Qattara depression cliff

So, what do you do with something like that?

“Ignore it,” said the Stoic.

“Offer guided camel tours,” said the Egyptian minister of tourism.

“Build a secret chemical weapons factory,” said the neighboring Libyan dictator.

“Dig a canal from the Mediterranean Sea and lead water into the depression, which, because of the gradient, will power several turbines that generate electricity. It will also create an artificial lake [the size of Lake Ontario], whose evaporation will rain down and make the desert green. Tobacco and banana plantations can be created here, where Africans can work for us colonial masters, which, after all, should be better than drowning in the Mediterranean,” said Professor Albrecht Penck, a German geographer, geologist and expert on hollows and basins, who stopped off in Egypt in 1916 on his way back from Australia. Apparently, the long ship voyage had made him crave for activity.

At that time, however, the First World War was raging and every shovel and pickax was needed to dig trenches and to smash enemies’ heads in close combat. Peaceful canal digging on the sandy beach of the Mediterranean Sea was considered to be of secondary importance.

And then, in 1919, Germany lost all access to Africa under the Treaty of Versailles. Game over, one might think. But Professor Penck did not give up. He developed the theory of ethnic and cultural soil, of the need for a larger living space and colonial possessions for Germany. The Germans liked that. They voted for the Nazis and sent soldiers and tanks into the Egyptian desert. All for the Lake Qattara project.

Qattara depression German tank

 

Incidentally, the terrible habit of German men wearing short trousers until old age, which you may have observed on holidays, dates from that time.

Nordafrika-Bekleidungsappell-Afrikakorps-North-Africa-Uniform-Inspection

But there are other blogs to discuss fashion. You have come here because you finally want to know why an enormous tank battle was fought at El-Alamein in 1942, in the middle of the desert.

Qattara depression battle map EN

As you can see, El-Alamein (on the far right of the map) is located exactly where the channel to the Qattara Depression would link to the sea.

Just a coincidence? Ain’t nobody gonna believe that.

And anyway: Why were there several British divisions near El-Alamein, although they should have been preparing for the landing in Normandy?

At the time, Cairo was a nest of spies, and thus the British geologist, geographer and secret agent John Ball, who had good contacts with the German rock scene thanks to Erasmus semesters in Freiburg and Zurich, learned of the German plan to flood the basin. Initially, he offered his cooperation, perhaps out of genuine interest, maybe with perfidious motives from the outset. At any rate, when in 1933 Germany’s reputation began to suffer due to a certain Reich Chancellor, Ball jumped ship and in the autumn of the same year published his “own” proposal for canal construction and energy production.

Qattara depression John Ball

And now, it should be clear why hundreds of thousands of German, Italian, British, South African, French, Greek, Indian, Australian and New Zealand soldiers came together at El-Alamein in 1942. Thanks to the desert-tested Australians, the victory went to the British side, and the Germans retreated to Tunisia. There they founded holiday resorts, which they still regularly invade, reminiscing about world-conquering times.

But, to not let the main thread of this story seep away in the desert sand like blood gushing from a foot blown off by a landmine, what happened to the Qattara Depression and the crazy plan?

History repeats itself, one might think, because Germany did not give up.

Professor Friedrich Bassler, a hydraulic engineer, became the driving force after the Second World War. Because colonialism no longer sounded so great, he spoke of a “hydro-solar depression power plant”, which feigned scientificity. As is well known, West Germany lived under Clausewitz’s motto “economics is the continuation of war by other means”, and so the German Ministry of Economics and Technology supported the plans, explorations and feasibility studies. Egypt probably thought “what a stupid idea”, but let the Germans carry on. Because of the minefields that the same Germans had previously generously laid around El-Alamein, the Egyptians couldn’t use this part of their country anyway. (The idea that Germany and Britain could clear the minefields first seems obvious to us today, but back then, kilowatts were more important than children’s legs.)

The plan was, as I said, to build a canal or a tunnel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Qattara Depression, with turbines powered by water in between.

“And once the basin is full?” you ask.

“The depression will never fill up,” Professor Bassler answers, “because it is so hot in the desert that the water evaporates just as quickly as new water flows in.” A perpetual motion machine, the dream of every scientist.

“But if the basin never fills up, won’t the water seep away faster than it evaporates?”

“We’ve calculated all that, young man. In the first ten years, we let more water flow in until the depression fills to a level of 60 metres below sea level. As a result, the surface of the lake slowly rises and with it the evaporation. When we have reached this desired level, we keep the water cycle in balance. That way, we not only produce energy, but we also create an artificial lake for fishing, shipping, etc. New cities and settlements will be built and Africa will become as rich as Europe.”

About 80 scientists and engineers, mainly from Germany, were working on the project.

“But this is salt water”, someone cautiously tosses in, thinking of the few freshwater oases in the basin.

“Salt water is better than no water at all,” answers the water scientist, because it’s not about his own oases. Besides, he really believed in progress, as people did in the 1960s and 1970s.

The only problem was the construction of the canal. It was not even the length of 55 to 80 km. After all, the Suez Canal was just around the corner, measuring 164 km. No, the problem was a mountain range between the Mediterranean and the Qattara Depression. Drilling a tunnel instead of digging a canal would take decades. Besides, it was too expensive.

But Professor Bassler had an idea: “I’ve already worked it all out, and it’s quite simple. We will drill 213 boreholes along the route that the watercourse is to take. In each of these boreholes, we detonate an atomic bomb with an explosive force of 1.5 megatons.”

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This is the equivalent to one hundred times the Hiroshima bomb. In each of the 213 holes, respectively. Near a tectonic trench breach. Funded by the German government.

“Wouldn’t that lead to atomic contamination of the water, Professor? No one would be able to live there, neither fish nor man.”

“Oh, we will throw iodine tablets into the water.”

And then the project died a silent death. No one knows whether it was the Camp David peace agreement, the meltdown on Three Mile Island, or the murder of Anwar as-Sadat. Perhaps the West German government simply thought that the money could be better used to annex East Germany.

Links:

Posted in Egypt, Germany, History, Military, Technology, World War II | 6 Comments

But what about the Comet?

Zur deutschen Originalfassung.


No, I am not talking about Neowise, the current celestial body taking advantage of the boredom caused by the corona virus pandemic, seeking attention with marketing superlatives like “extra bright”, “supersize” and “only available for a short time”, which, for a few days, is making earthlings look up from their telephones into the sky, albeit only briefly and not without first using that very telephone for determining or – or rather to have determined for them – the optimal time and the optimal location for the heavenly rendezvous, during which they are more eager to take pictures than to enjoy the moment, and after which they are most keen on posting, sharing and liking on their phone again. Because for most people today, a comet counts for nothing if they do not capture it photographically and if nobody praises them for the photos that have been posted on the internet thirteen thousand times already, most of them in better quality.

I want to tell you of a different comet and take you back to the time when cameras were luxury and telephones were tied up at home. A time when we were involved in nature with all our senses, without distraction, simply observing, enjoying, marveling in disbelief, when we were devoutly absorbed in the uniqueness and transience of such moments.

The year was 1986, and the fly-by of Halley’s comet was imminent. Compared to Neowise, it says “Hello, Earth” much more often, but at that time, life expectancy was so meager (numerically and qualitatively), that even the 75-year interval of the speeding star was sold as a unique opportunity. I was 10 years old at the time and couldn’t handle such enormous time spans anyway. Or I sucked at math.

In any case, at that time, according to concrete calculations by Copernicus and his cosmonaut colleagues, it so happened that at some point, the nightly and thus visible overflight of Captain Halley over my small village in Bavaria had been calculated, prophesied and announced.

The times must have been uneventful, because for months the comet had been the big thing in the media. We bought science magazines, didn’t understand anything and had no money left for MAD Magazine. On television, which at the time had only three channels that weren’t even working around the clock, physicists in turtlenecks explained the planets and comets using pitifully wobbly papier-mâché models. I didn’t understand anything, but I remember that in the end some powder in a bowl was always ignited and exploded. The show was called “Piff Paff Poff” or something. The Postal Service ingratiated itself with the population for the upcoming change of ZIP codes by issuing a special stamp for Halley’s comet.

mission_giotto_28timbre_rfa29

By the way, for 80 pfennigs you could send a letter from Bavaria to Bremen, Buxtehude or Berlin (West), but not to Berlin (East), because that was intercepted by the Stasi. We didn’t know that, and so we always thought that relatives in the GDR were too wretched to write back. Just one of many misunderstandings between West and East.

For months, people who, unlike us 10-year-olds, had too much money had been acquiring binoculars and telescopes, extending roof hatches and training, practicing and exercising for the day of the century in such an elaborate and serious way as usually only displayed by NATO once a year, when Canadian soldiers occupied the primary school in Ammerthal and thus for one week cancelled PE lessons, which were never more than the dreaded dodge ball anyway, if I remember correctly. (Thank you, Canada!)

But I digress like the wobbly tail of a comet wandering through space for millions of years without the help of GPS. Back to the eventful day in spring 1986, which I can no longer pinpoint exactly, but which I date in March or April, first because it was no longer too cold to spend hours outside in the night, second for an incisive and epochal event, which, for dramaturgical reasons, I will only allow to make an appearance later in this story, hoping that I shall not forget about it as I have forgotten other things, which, however, form the core of this story and therefore must enjoy absolute priority.

I know for a fact, though, that it was a Friday. Because Friday night was chess club, without any competition from any Friday night alternatives. (By now, we don’t even have chess anymore, as if the comet had not only passed our village, but had struck here and wiped out all social life). One morning in the fourth grade (at that time, there was no school in the afternoon, because parents were neither afraid of children being alone in the afternoon nor of them not knowing three foreign languages and two musical instruments fluently), two gentlemen in suits came into class and tried to inspire us for the Soviet communist board game, which, following Cold War terminology, they consistently called the royal game. They resonated most with those who did not care about football, the only local sports alternative. Back then, I could not have explained it as I can now, but I always had an instinctive aversion to fascist cults of physical prowess.

Finally, the enthusiasts for the black and white board game mentioned that chess is somehow good for intelligence. As a 10-year-old, I thought I was incredibly intelligent, perhaps one of the few likable character traits which have remained constant throughout my life. Thus, together with other brave young men, I volunteered for the chess front. I can’t remember if girls were explicitly excluded or if their participation simply didn’t occur.

It seemed to be nothing more than choosing between shin guards and the chessboard, but after a few weeks, we chess students were already using terms like gambit, en passant and Zugzwang, while the footballers shouted “hey, pass the ball, you wanker”. At the time I didn’t think that far ahead, and I would be surprised if the adults did, but now it seems either amazing or shocking with which precision the students’ decision between chess and football marked the dividing line between those who went on to high school, university and the big wide world and those who remained in the local school and in the village, many for their whole life.

“What does any of this have to do with the comet?” the astronomically curious readers are demanding to know, and rightly so. So, let me get my ellipsis together: One Friday evening, I walked home with a class and chess mate from the chess club, where we had been prepared for the rook, king or tiger diploma. Actually, we weren’t walking straight home, but like land surveyors hungry for more kilometres to put on the travel expense account, we skillfully took the route in the vague direction of our respective homes, allowing us to walk together as long as possible. Because we still wanted to talk. Chess might have been intelligent, but it was very serious. One of the chairmen of the chess club was also chairman of the correctional facility. There was no room for jokes. After an hour and a half, enriched with lots of sugar-rich Coca Cola, we had a lot of catching up to do.

And that Friday night in the spring of 1986 was a special night. For months, people had been waiting for the comet, preparing telescopes, beer and potato chips and cleaning windows. But it was exactly that evening that Halley’s comet had promised an appearance in our region, spread reliably by the local press. Or maybe the comet could be seen all week, but on that Friday evening,  holes in the ozone and cloud layers were as wide open as mankind’s astonished mouths.

In any case, we remained where our paths would otherwise have parted, and did not part, but took turns sitting on some telephone-line distribution box that only had room for one, while the other paced back and forth. Like everyone else, we were waiting for the comet. Unlike everyone else, however, we did not have a watch, as young people traditionally received them at Confirmation, a level to which we had not yet advanced. But then, even a watch wouldn’t have done us much good, for we had forgotten (or never known) at what time the comet would pass by.

I am sure we were speaking about the comet, sounding as important as possible and without any trace of self-doubt.

“Hey man, we’re so small in the universe, it messes with your brain to imagine it.”

“And this thing is so far away, even if you go full speed in your dad’s car, the comet is always faster.”

“And it is so hot, if you fire a nuclear missile at it, it will melt on approach. It’s invulnerable.”

My esteemed colleague was able to come up with an ad hoc thesis on any topic and present it so credibly that I believed everything. I only noticed it years later in high school, when I had studied and he hadn’t, but he was called to the blackboard. He could present complete nonsense with such conviction that the overwhelmed economics teacher finally gave him a good-natured C.

Halley’s comet could not be seen, and so we jumped from one topic to the next. From comets to space travel. In January, the Challenger astronauts, also on the way to Halley’s comet, had burst into flames. From space travel to movies like Top Gun, Karate Kid and Crocodile Dundee. From movies to poisonous mushrooms, because we didn’t need logical transitions. Then we discussed which secondary school in Amberg was the best and whether Latin or French was easier or more useful. We didn’t think much further in our lives, because it was the carefree childhood where you could stay outside for hours at night without calling anyone. Nobody worried anyway. If one of us had only come home the next morning and explained that he had stayed overnight at the friend’s house, our parents would have said: “That’s what we thought. But next time, please call and let us know.”

And there was actually much more crime in those days. Oh yes, we probably also talked about terrorists, murderers, bank robbers and hijackers, because their WANTED posters were everywhere and we had memorized the bearded faces to collect the reward of 50.000 Deutschmarks, which meant potato chips for life.

Unmeasured time passed over these far-reaching conversations. We looked up into the sky less and less and almost forgot about the unique spectacle. We didn’t even know if the comet would pass in the north or in the south. And if we had known, we did not know where in our village north and south were. Who takes a compass to the chess club?

“I think we’ve talked so long, we missed it.”

“I don’t know what time it is, but I’m freezing, man.”

“And I have to pee.”

“When will the comet come back?”

“In 75 years.”

We were both too lazy to calculate the year, also because this period seemed so unthinkably far away. At that time, no one grew that old, only the Japanese, of whom we knew none, except for the one guy in the movie, who remains on an island in the Pacific for decades after World War II, preparing for the invasion. But:

“If we’re still alive then, we’ll meet here again. But next time, let’s be more careful not to miss it.”

“Deal.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

A few weeks later, the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl exploded and childhood was over.

Links:

Posted in Germany, Life, Technology, Time | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Horror Hostel

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Berichts.


Two weeks in Israel, five different hostels/guesthouses, with the most different experiences. At the last one, Al-Yakhour-Hostel in Haifa, I realize, painfully, why there is a horror movie called “Hostel”.

And it had begun so well: a beautiful old Templar house with spacious, bright rooms. Excellent location in Ben Gurion Street, just below the Bahai Temple. Modern and clean toilets and showers. A large kitchen. Sofas in the garden. A friendly welcome from the nice Arab boys who opened the hostel only a month ago. And – always the best hostel surprise, which I already experienced several times during this 2015 trip in Israel – I have the four-bed room to myself. A single room for a quarter of the price. Even more important than the savings is the guarantee of a night I can sleep through. No snoring roommate keeping me awake (as experienced in Jerusalem and Tiberias), no Erasmus students coming back late at night and announcing their return at the highest volume (bad memories of the shared apartment in Bari are still haunting me).

Al-Yakhour-Hostel Haifa

But I made the calculation without the all-around-the-clock service of the Al-Yakhour-Hostel: the non-sleeping guarantee is included in the price. Coming home from an early evening walk, I already cannot use the promised kitchen, nor the lounge with library, where other guests are lounging. But they obviously don’t pay $ 31 per night like me, instead insisting on their friendship, acquaintance, kinship, relationship or (incipient) relationship to the operators of the hostel. I am either not noticed at all or with a what-does-the-stranger-want-here? look.

The big room is being decorated with garlands. A birthday? The anniversary of the Nakba? A suicide bombing? Hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime event, not a regular occurrence every night.

So I’m going out again and find myself a pizza joint. I generously give the young people a few hours and don’t return until just before midnight.

But upon my return, the hostel has degenerated into a disco. Boys and girls are dancing, drinking, boozing, bawling, singing and a laptop is playing Arabic music so loud that the neighbors in Lebanon can hear it.

How am I supposed to fall asleep with this? Maybe it’s my fault that I didn’t bring earplugs, but they wouldn’t do much good. Because noise isn’t the only problem. With each bass, the iron frame of my bed is shaking. Even if I bury my head under the admittedly soft pillow, the movements of the whole barn are so strong that they probably register as an earthquake at the seismological station.

I do understand that people want to celebrate, – well, honestly I don’t understand it, but you have to be tolerant of other lifestyles – but if you charge money, renting a room to someone to sleep (!), then you shouldn’t actively prevent the customer from achieving the contractual purpose.

Shortly before 1 o’clock, I demonstratively go to the kitchen to pick up my bottle of iced tea from the fridge. I stop for a while, looking around (attractive girls), wearing an expression between angry, surprised and reproachful/uncomprehending (you have to know me to fear it) and hoping for a reaction, whether it be an apology, an explanation, an invitation, the acknowledgement of my (paying and thus financing the whole binge) presence or – my biggest wish – a reduction of the volume. None of these things occur. Just a lot of uneducated youth.

I retreat to the room, not yet giving up the hope that the latter of my goals will come true with a little delay. Instead, it is getting louder. The singing of the drunkards is already drowning out that of the singer moaning from the YouTube video.

At 1:45 in the morning, I have had enough. Either I will put an end to the improvised Woodstock or I will at least use the sleep deprivation to write a review of the hostel. With these two goals in mind, I walk down into the kitchen again, notebook and pencil in hand. The kitchen is empty at the moment (everyone is in the disco room or outside). I pour myself a glass of Jaffa orange juice, sit down at the big dining table and start writing these lines.

Those who want to go to the fridge have to pass in front of my eyes, firing the above described look, maybe even angrier now, at each of the beer collectors. Until one of the young guys running the hostel walks through the kitchen, grins at me and says “Hi” as if everything is hunky-dory.

With a decidedly frowning look, I ask: “I hope it’s not that loud every day?”

As if he hadn’t noticed the complaint, he replies: “No, only on Fridays.”

I explain to the, according to their brochure, “knowledgeable staff” that today is Thursday.

And this information about the calendar really works wonders! After a few minutes, the music stops and over the next 45 minutes, the guests are departing, alone or in pairs. They all have to pass through the kitchen in front of me. One boy says, with venom in his voice: “Now you have it quiet”, as if the wish of a paying guest to sleep at 2 o’clock has destroyed his youth. Only two girls politely wish me a “good night”, but they too look at me as if I was a spoilsport, a grandfather or a strange oddball.

I am sitting at the kitchen table alone, but with more than two dozen empty bottles of Becks beer. Next to them, there is a brochure about Palestinian “Life under the Occupation”. The irony that their comrades in the Gaza Strip are not allowed to drink beer not because of Israel, but because of Hamas, is probably lost on these young people.

Al-Yakhour-Hostel Haifa beer bottles

The next morning, the music is loud again. The little sister of the big party from yesterday is already in full swing. And now it’s really Friday, so tonight will be unbearable.

But here comes Farid and apologizes sincerely. For the remaining nights, he will transfer me to a soundproof house next door, which is actually reserved for families traumatized by incoming missile fire, and which costs $ 130 per night. I will have it all to myself and for $ 31 a night. And I will sleep really well.

Links:

  • More stories from Israel.
  • The Al-Yakhour-Hostel, if you want to try it yourself. According to the website, alcohol is now prohibited. Either Farid and his five friends have grown up, or the hostel has been taken over by Hamas.
  • If you are still looking for accommodation: On AirBnB you can save 25 € by using this link.
Posted in Israel, Travel | Tagged | 10 Comments

Birthday Hike 2020

Hier gibt es diese Information auf Deutsch.


Some people are looking forward to their birthday, because that one day of the year, they will be the center of attention. I have this blog and can make myself important every day of the year. So, for my birthday I don’t have to sit at home and count the calls of happy-birthday-wishers who never call on any other day.

For me, birthday is travel time, preferably alone. Although traveling alone doesn’t necessarily mean spending the day alone. In a park in Tiraspol, two guitar-playing boys gave me a concert, and in Ganja, the local dictator accompanied my anniversary.

KLW-Uebersicht

For epidemiological and environmental reasons, I won’t travel that far this time. From July 1st, I will be hiking the King Ludwig Trail in Bavaria. Although I am a strict anti-monarchist and would have joined the revolutions of 1848 and 1918, I find the trail quite alluring. It is only about 110 km, which I will certainly increase by intentional side trips and unintentional detours.

The route leads from Berg via Starnberg, Andechs monastery, Herrsching, Raisting, Diessen, Wessobrunn, Paterzell, Hohenpeissenberg, Rottenbuch, Wildsteig, the pilgrimage church of Wies, Steingaden, Halblech and Hohenschwangau to Füssen. In more general terms, I will set off south of Munich and walk towards the mountains that form the border with Austria.

The places probably don’t mean anything to you, so here are some photos to give you an idea:

diec39fener_marienmc3bcnster_vom_kc3b6nig-ludwig-weg_gesehen

eibenwald_paterzell1-1024x575-1

schloss-hohenschwangau

At the end point of the hike, visible from afar like a lighthouse pulling me in the right direction, is Neuschwanstein Castle. And I bet you have seen that one before.

header-schloss-neuschwanstein-kopie

I’ll be walking for at least a week. If any of you live along the route and have a free couch, maybe you want to invite me in. And if that doesn’t work out, then I’ll sleep under trees and bathe in the river. There are worse things than falling into a soft meadow in the evening and waking up with the first rays of sunshine to the view of a royal castle.

Hadrian's Wall 169

Eichendorff’s Good-for-Nothing didn’t have any detailed plans either, but in the end, he could stay at the castle.

If someone would like a postcard from the walk or from Neuschwanstein Castle, let me know! And if/when I come back, there will of course be a detailed report with hiking advice, photos, hopefully interesting encounters and pages of explanations about the Kingdom of Bavaria and especially about King Ludwig II. Just so much already: Please don’t call him Mad King Ludwig.

Do some of you also go away for your birthday?

Links:

  • Reports from previous hikes.
  • I kindly ask everyone to refrain from openly expressing condolences. Instead, the hiking reporter is very thankful for any support, which would keep this blog alive for another year.
Posted in Germany, Travel | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

The Day I Lost Everything I Owned

Zur deutschen Fassung dieser Geschichte.


On my last day in Bolivia, I had bought a bus ticket from La Paz to Puno in Perú. When the bus made a stop for lunch in Copacabana and the driver said “the bus will continue at 1:30 pm two blocks from here,” I thought: “Great, I have two hours to walk around town.” Copacabana has some fun things to observe during a lunch break.

way of the cross to Calvary in Copacabana

Naturally, I left all my belongings on the bus. Not only is Bolivia the safest country in South America, but who wants to steal two bags, weighing 30 kg and consisting mainly of books and notebooks and maps?

At 1:20 pm, I return to the described point of departure and don’t see the bus. Okay, I am thinking, maybe it’s somewhere else.

To readers unfamiliar with bus stations in Copacabana, Karachi or Kathmandu, I need to set the scenery a bit: There is no real station, the buses just all go to the main square. Because there are many more buses than space, the square fills up fast, with buses backlogging through the side streets and side alleys to side streets. In between, there are hundreds of ticket vendors, food stalls, taxis, travel agents, musicians, people selling hope in the form of lottery tickets, Aymara priests, an escaped lama, a butcher chasing after the lama, and a little lost traveler like me.

I thought I would recognize the bus because it was colorful, but I quickly discover that all buses in Bolivia are as colorful as if designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

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As the minutes in the scorching sun are progressing, trepidation sets in.

I ask one of the bus drivers if he happens to know where the 1:30 bus to Puno will leave from. “That’s my bus. Hop on in, we are leaving right now,” he says, using ahorita for right now, which in South American Spanish can meaning anything from “I was just about to close the door” to “let me first have lunch and then call all of my children to remind them to do their homework, before I get together for a meeting with the other bus drivers to discuss whether the bus drivers’ union fund should make payouts to the widow of a bus driver who got killed in an accident, although he was in default with his union membership contributions and although some drivers say that he didn’t really like his wife anyway, but then we’ll really set off for Puno.” But I don’t mind, for I am not in a hurry. In my time in the country, I have become bolivianized and all the more relaxed for it.

I am however worried because he clearly is a different driver with a different bus. Confused and causing confusion, I ask him if my luggage is on the bus already.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” he replies, as politely as he can.

“I left my luggage on the green bus with which I came from La Paz this morning, because I thought that bus will continue to Puno,” I explain.

“Oh, no. That bus is on the way back to La Paz already.”

Damn.

All the stuff I own, all the possessions with which I emigrated, everything is in those two bags. This may seem little to people who have houses and kitchen pots and winter coats and stuff, but my goal is to reduce it even more, so that everything fits into one backpack. Unfortunately, I really don’t like e-books.

“I have to leave now. Do you want to get on?”, the driver urges me.

I have already paid for the ticket, but finding my luggage again will be even harder once I will be in Perú.

“No thanks.”

The driver looks at me as if I am a bit stupid. And maybe I really haven’t been the brightest star in the sky today.

As the bus pulls out from the mayhem of transport options, towards the nearby border, I begin to think about all the things I have lost. The clothes are neither many, nor important. Only the loss of my Gabor hat, which I bought from a Roma trader in Transylvania, would be sad. I wouldn’t even mind the loss of my computer, my camera and my phone. Cleverly, I always buy the cheapest ones.

No, what I really grieve about, what I regret, what gets me slightly agitated is the loss of my notebooks. For many years already, I have been collecting thoughts, drafting poems and writing stories. Some of them created on location in a castle in Romania, on a ship crossing the Atlantic, or overlooking Lake Titicaca. Situations, memories and thoughts that could not possibly be recreated.

It’s a big loss, but I wouldn’t want to call it a waste. After all, I enjoy writing while I do it, almost independently of whether anyone will ever read it. But on the other hand, I also enjoy telling stories, especially as I know that not all of you will visit all these strange places yourselves. And if you do, you won’t live through the same adventures, if only because you will be smarter than me.

Less important to me, but probably more important to the readers of this blog are the almost 10,000 unpublished photos from Iran to Guernsey, stored on the computer which is now on the way to La Paz.

Luckily, I was very talkative this morning and chatted with the bus driver. I remember his name: Victor. At the square where all the buses arrive and mingle, I am looking for a bus from the same company and ask the driver if he knows Victor.

“The short one with a belly?”, he asks.

“Not an exceptionally big belly.”

“Yes, I know him.”

I explain the situation, and the very kind and helpful driver calls Victor. He is already beyond the ferry across the Strait of Tiquina, where he could have easily passed my luggage to another driver going in my direction. But he will work something out, he promises.

ferry Tiquina

The friendly bus driver sees that I am still nervous and tells, no almost orders me: “Don’t worry! We will work something out. Just go for lunch or for a walk and come back here at 3 pm.”

Worrying about having to start writing and photographing from scratch again – and about the lost toothbrush -, I cannot enjoy the lunch break. What the bus drivers don’t know, what you don’t know yet, and what nobody else should know, is that having lost all of my possessions is only one of my problems that day: I have been staying in Bolivia illegally for a few months. So I am nervous enough about having to cross the border. At the end of this day, when night will fall, I may already be in prison, not to see the sun again for many years. But that’s another story. First things first.

At 3 pm, the helpful driver welcomes me at the bus station: “Do you have something to write?” Luckily, among the few things I took with me from the bus, there are a notebook and a pen, as well as my passport, cash, and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.

“Write down the name: José Luis Velasco. But nobody knows him by that name. When you ask for him, ask for El Cupo.” And: “He is short and has a big belly,” which seems to be how he describes all his colleagues. He tells me that the man known as El Cupo is expected in Copacabana by 4:30 pm. On his bus, there should be my luggage, because all the drivers in western Bolivia got onto their phones, trying to find out who is going where at what time. When Victor found a colleague who was going from La Paz to Copacabana, they stopped on the highway in the middle of the altiplano, carrying two heavy bags, full of books, but probably suspecting something much more sinister, from one bus to the other.

And at 4:30 pm, a bus from the same company pulls in. I ask the driver (who is neither particularly short nor fat), if he is El Cupo. He nods and beckons me to get onto the empty bus to retrieve my luggage. It’s all there.

El Cupo and the helpful middleman are sitting together in the market square, having coffee. I thank them profusely and suggest that I invite them to dinner or something. “No, no, don’t you worry, Sir,” they shrug it off, wishing me a nice trip.

Before I moved to South America, people told me that I would get robbed many times. Instead, I was stupid enough to lose all my stuff on my own, and complete strangers got together, telephoning around all afternoon, not only to locate my bags, but to bring them back to me.

And this story is just one reason of many why Bolivia is the loveliest country in the world. (The way the immigration authorities dealt with me overstaying my visa by four months is another one.)
Practical advice:

  • Whenever you can take a train, take a train. Trains don’t disappear as quickly as a bus. Also, train stations are more organized than bus terminals.
  • In South America, don’t even bother about booking ahead. I had missed the bus to Puno, obviously, but there was another one within half an hour of me getting my luggage back.
  • Also, I have seen many travelers make the mistake of looking for buses online, where only a few are listed. Just go to the bus station and ask. There will almost always be a bus to your destination leaving ahorita.
  • Traveling with a lot of luggage is a pain in the culito.
  • If I hadn’t spoken with the bus driver, I wouldn’t have known his name, and maybe I never would have found him again. Speak to people! You can still stare into your cell phone when you are back home.

Links:

Posted in Bolivia, Peru, Travel | Tagged , , | 34 Comments

German Supreme Court ends Discrimination in Citizenship Cases

This is big and it concerns hundreds of you who have contacted me about restitution of German citizenship in recent years. I can’t contact each and everyone individually (my fees are too modest for that, and donations to keep this blog alive are not made as often they should be), hence the following summary of a decision by the German Constitutional Court dated 20 May 2020 (case no. 2 BvR 2628/18).

Legal background:

During the Nazi dictatorship between 1933 and 1945, many people lost their German citizenship due to racial, political or religious reasons. Since 1949, (West) Germany has allowed these former Germans to reclaim German citizenship under Art. 116 II of the German Constitution. The practical relevance now is that this extends to descendants of former Germans, because without the Nazi-era policy, they too would be German citizens.

However, when applying, one has to show that one would have gained German citizenship from one’s ancestors had it not been for the Nazi-era policies. There were always other ways of losing German citizenship (for example by applying for another citizenship or by serving in another country’s armed forces, with exceptions, respectively), as there were limits to German citizenship being passed to the next generation. For example, until 1975, German citizenship could usually only be passed through the father, not the mother. This was clearly discriminatory, but it was not a Nazi-era policy, so it was not rectified under Art. 116 II of the Constitution. (There is another way for these cases, as detailed in no. 8 (a) of my FAQ on getting naturalized as a German citizen without living in Germany. Or, relevant in the present case, until 1993, children born to a German father did not automatically receive German citizenship if the parents were not married at the time (see no. 8 (b) of the FAQ referred to above).

The present case:

A lady was born in the USA in 1967 to a US-American mother. Her father, born in 1921, was deprived of German citizenship in 1938. He had fled to the USA as a Jew. The complainant’s parents were not married. The father recognized her as his child. She applied for naturalization in 2013 in accordance with Article 116 II of the German Constitution. The Federal Office of Administration rejected the application for naturalization. The complainant had been born illegitimate and had therefore not been able to acquire citizenship from her father at that time, regardless of whether he had been deprived of his German citizenship under the Nazis or not.

All her appeals were unsuccessful, until the case came to the German Constitutional Court.

The decision:

The court ruled that the constitutional complaint was justified.

The interpretation by the German government violates principal values of the constitution as well as special provisions on the equal treatment of children born out of wedlock (Art. 6 V of the Constitution) and equal treatment of men and women (Art. 3 II of the Constitution).

The court focused on the definition of “descendant” and criticized that the lower courts had stuck to the strict wording of the Citizenship Act without taking into account the values posited by the Constitution (and by the European Charter on Human Rights). Although it’s legally logical to apply previous versions of the Citizenship Act to people born when these versions of the law were in place, the court ruled that henceforth the previous discrimination must not be perpetuated.

What does this mean?

Because the Constitutional Court explicitly referred to the equality clause regarding the German parent, not only the child in question, I would think that this reasoning also applies to the many cases of people born to German mothers before 1975.

This case was a restitution case under Art. 116 II of the Constitution, but I don’t see why the same reasoning should not be applied to other descendants of German mothers or fathers, who do not fall under Art. 116 II of the Constitution, but who applied under the Citizenship Act.

It also means that anyone who ever had their case appraised and was told that it’s not worth to pursue it, should probably have it reappraised in light of this decision. There are now many more people out there who are entitled to German citizenship (or who already have it, often without knowing it).

However, it also means that there will be even more applications, and it will take the German government even longer to process them.

Links:

Posted in German Law, Germany, Law, Travel | Tagged , | 32 Comments

History Lessons in Bolivia

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Berichts.


As I finally saw a village after a day’s walk through the jungle and several river crossings, I was relieved. When I saw that a village of 300 inhabitants, living so remotely, had an active school, my educated heart was overcome with joy.

Kinder vor Schule.JPG

But before education, there has to be some patriotism, apparently.

Lined up like in the military, the students, all belonging to the Mojeño tribe/nation, warbled the anthem of the Plurinational Republic of Bolivia before marching into their classrooms in an equally military order. Like all buildings in Buen Pastor, the school building was kept rather simple.

Klassenzimmer offen.JPG

Klassenraum.JPG

To my great surprise, there was a computer room, though, but it had been mothballed for five months. The power supply from the solar panels no longer worked.

Computerraum.JPG

There was an engineering student in our group, who checked that both the solar cells and the batteries were okay. Only a small intermediate part needed to be replaced. However, he did not have that part with him, and he would not come back for a few months. So, there would be another semester without electricity.

At least the teachers don’t have to worry about the children being distracted by their mobile phones.

children in class.JPG

Speaking of the teachers: They have to walk through the jungle or, in the rainy season, wade through the mud for 6 to 8 hours until they get to school. All four teachers working there are from other parts of the country, but between the long holidays they have to live in the village without showers, without toilets, without clean water (they drink from the river or rainwater during the rainy season) and now without electricity, all of this for several months in a row. They don’t receive newspapers, and nobody visits them because everybody is afraid of snakes and piranhas. The journey home for the weekend is not worth it because of the long walk. There is no privacy, because everyone lives in open huts around a clearing cut out of the jungle. The doctor comes once a month. After a few weeks, you really can’t stand fish and rice anymore, but there is nothing else to eat. I didn’t even want to ask about the salary.

During the break, which was of course used for football, I snuck into one of the classrooms to take a look at the history and social studies books. And what am I seeing there, in the middle of the jungle of South America?

Geschichtsbuch.JPG

Of the ten people depicted, 30% are from German history. Plus Vichy-Pétain. The Bolivian history book does not have a single Bolivian or South American on the cover. Where is Bolívar?? No idea why Hindenburg was more important. Well, at least Garibaldi fought in South America, and Napoleon, through his war against Spain, indirectly gave South American freedom fighters the freedom to go on with their revolutions.

On the other hand, as a history nerd from Germany, it fills me with joy that even small children in jungle settlements without electricity or roads know about the Weimar Republic. I am excited to read about Federico Ebert, Adolfo Hitler and Pablo von Hindenburg.

Ebert Hitler Hindenburg.JPG

Of course, I don’t expect a textbook for the third year of secondary school, especially on a distant continent, to provide explanations on the level of the thousand-page tomes I usually devour. But

  • was the Weimar Republic really a “república socialista”?
  • if one writes that Adolfo Hitler was appointed Führer by referendum, should one not mention that on 19 August 1934, the German Reich was already a dictatorship and the referendum was by no means free or fair?
  • referring to the Volksgerichtshof as “tribunales del pueblo” without any further explanation seems to downplay that instrument of oppression.
  • it’s not entirely true that the Nazis introduced a system of social security.
  • in light of all of that, it doesn’t really matter that the Gestapo and the SS were not the same.

But this book at least mentions racism, nationalism, anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews. Another textbook, which I find in the bookcase, deals with the history of the Third Reich without mentioning the Holocaust even once, although Bolivia received relatively many Jewish refugees.

Let’s see how things evolved in this distant Germany.

DDR.JPG

So, Germany becomes a “global power”, does not pay its foreign debts and puts the unemployed into the military. Hitler and Mussolini ally against the communists and help their friend Franco.

And then – poof, poof – in 1949 “Alemania Democrática” suddenly appears. Grotewohl and Pieck establish the “people’s democracy”, experience “some difficulties” in 1953 and 1961-62, but “things went ahead”. In 1955, the Western powers recognize the Federal Republic of Germany, the heads of government are called Heuss, Lübke, Erhard, Kiesinger, Brandt. If you confuse chancellor and president here, you won’t have any points deducted. On 9 November 1989, the wall is torn down (which wall? by whom? why?).

Something beautiful happens, because the fall of communism will allow the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany to unite and to “enter an era of freedom”. As if both countries had previously been unfree. Gratitude is expressed to Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, but it remains unclear of which Germany Kohl was chancellor.

No wonder that the image of Germany taught in Bolivian schools sometimes remains diffuse.

But seriously: There are pupils and adults in Germany who do not know or understand or want to know/understand any of this any better. And in my 13 school years in Germany, I never heard anything about Bolivia. Also, I doubt any of my teachers would have swum through a river with anacondas and crocodiles to get to school.

Links:

Posted in Bolivia, Books, Education, Germany, History, Travel, Video Blog | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Stranded on another island

Zur deutschen Fassung dieser Episode.


June 9th, the end of the involuntary Robinsonade, a date which I had been longing for after three months. I had begun to miss the mainland. I had read all the books I brought. I had finished the cigars months ago, and none of the ships brought any reinforcements. In the last week alone, I had dreamt about cigars three times, so you can imagine the withdrawal symptoms.

But yesterday the flight to Lisbon finally took off. Traveling is rather bleak at the moment, because there are restrictions and bans everywhere. No hand luggage, no food at the airport, nobody sitting next to me, a bit like on a prisoner transport.

I looked at the ocean, at Faial, at Pico, São Jorge, at the islands I was leaving behind.

flying to Sao Miguel

And soon, I dozed off. What else was there to do? Until a sharp turn to the left and the voice of one of the guys steering the plane woke me up:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry, but the Portuguese government has banned all flights from the Azores.”

Oh shit, that means we’ll have to turn back again.

“We don’t have enough fuel to return to Faial.”

Well, maybe the trip would be fun after all. Luckily the planes here can land on water. And then we would be drifting until a ship comes along. The sea looked calm, so I wasn’t too worried.

But the navigator had another solution:

“The nearest island we can reach is São Miguel.”

Never heard of that before. But I’m sure people live there, so it can’t be that bad.

As I was getting off the plane, I asked the pilot when we would continue to Lisbon.

“We’re grounded for at least another week. We’ll know more by June 15th.”

One week. Stranded again on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And because I had been dumb enough to spend all my savings for the onward journey from Lisbon to Vienna (it was the cheapest flight) and from there to Germany, I was so short of money that I had to decide: cigars or a bed?

It felt quite warm. For one week, I should be able to sleep in the forest and wash in the sea, I thought. Maybe there are as many empty houses here as on the other islands, then I can easily hide.

empty house near Eremite church

lighthouse storm

I am telling you again: Don’t travel this year! Things won’t go as planned.

With these gloomy thoughts I was walking through the city, apparently looking a bit depressed, because a lady ran out of a beauty salon, all excited:

“Excuse me, do you speak English?” she asked, as if she was looking for help urgently. But on the contrary, she wanted to offer her help: “You look a little lost. Can I help you?”

I explained the predicament. She was sympathetic, maybe because she usually lives in the USA (like so many Azoreans) and had planned to stay on São Miguel for only a month. But now she has been stuck here for several months herself.

She was so typically American-optimistic that she really infected me with her “Don’t worry!” She took her phone and called a friend: “Hey Marcos Flavius, how are you? Listen, there’s a young man here, he’s stranded on the island. You have rooms available, right?”

The man with the name of a plebeian tribune didn’t dare to say no to the effusive-resolute lady. I was extremely uncomfortable about this until it turned out that he was not at home (probably stranded on the mainland involuntarily) and I would therefore not be a burden to him. The house was conveniently just across the road, and the key was under the flowerpot.

Marcos (“you can call me Flave”) said I should just go inside and see if I liked it and then decide if I would stay. (A very generous offer to someone whose alternative is sleeping outside.)

yellow palace

I liked it very much, and thus, completely unexpected, I will be staying in a small palace in Ponta Delgada, which by the way is not such a small town after all. Exploring the neighborhood that night, I even discovered two cigar factories in the immediate vicinity.

Well, as far as I’m concerned, the flights can remain suspended for a few months. Because once I get to Lisbon, having lost all the booked flights and trains and stuff, I will have to hitchhike home to Germany. In case you don’t have a map on hand: that’s really far.

Links:

Posted in Azores, Portugal, Travel | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

De-Escalation Dog

Zur deutschen Fassung dieser Beobachtung.


On my travels around the world, I like to attend protests. Especially when I find the demands of the people worthy of my support. But even when not, protests or even revolutions are an excellent place to learn about the dynamics of the respective society. When protesters and counter-protesters clash, it’s very practical to be in the middle of it all, as I can get a picture of two sides at the same time.

Demonstrations also provide an opportunity to observe how the government deals with its citizens: brutally or politely, in a military or a civil manner, respectfully or criminalizing. As we currently see in the United States, some countries who think of themselves rather highly, aren’t really doing so well. (My home country of Germany is not a very good example either.) Heavy artillery is often brought in far too early and the policemen show up in fighting gear. When the fighting dogs are let loose, one wonders whether the issue of de-escalation was perhaps neglected at the police academy.

Quite different so in Bolivia: There, the police also have dogs, but they don’t bite anyone. On the contrary, the police bring dogs to protests on the verge of erupting into mayhem, so that both parties in a conflict are distracted from the quarrels about new elections or the deforestation of the jungle and all exclaim in unison: “Oh, look at the cute dog!” The dog can be petted, fed and photographed. And swoosh, there’s peace in the streets again.

Polizeihund1
Polizeihund2

The purpose of the Grim Reaper, however, did not become clear to me.

Links:

Posted in Bolivia, Politics, Travel | Tagged | 5 Comments

Finding myself in Maugham

One and a half winters ago, on a cold day in Calgary, I found a treasure trove of books by the side of the road.

I walked home, through ice and snow and wind, with three little gems by William Somerset Maugham. (There would have been one more, but I had just read the fabulous Ashenden spy stories, so I left them for another book lover.)

“These books will serve me well on the long train journey through Canada,” I thought, not anticipating that I would share the train with people full of stories themselves, so that I would be writing more than I would be reading.

Hence, one of the books accompanies me a year and a half later, as I find myself on a remote island of all places, a fitting location for the short stories set in tropical lands.

Not always being well understood by contemporaries, as hard as I try to explain myself in these pages, it is a delight to read stories, first published in 1951, in which I sometimes find myself mirrored with an eerie degree of accuracy.

In The Book-Bag, Maugham writes about the burden of travel as a book-lover.

And like the dope-fiend who cannot move from place to place without taking with him a plentiful supply of his deadly balm I never venture far without a sufficiency of reading matter. Books are so necessary to me that when in a railway train I have become aware that fellow-travellers have come away without a single one I have been seized with a veritable dismay. But when I am starting on a long journey the problem is formidable.

Formidable and heavy, I should add, not having any porters at my service. People who generously receive me on my travels often wonder about the weight of my backpack, which, if not put down carefully, puts an ever-lasting marker of my visit into the wooden floor. Once I empty the contents onto the table or the nightstand, they are torn between understanding the reason behind the brick-like weight and not understanding in the least why anyone would carry around a library.

I dare say, with more dismay than pride, that I have more books in my backpack right now than some people have in their house.

A number of well-meaning readers have suggested to me the purchase of one of those reading-machines that seem to be available in the sort of shop that sells this sort of thing. Apparently, you can return to the shop and ask for more books to be put on the machine, to be perused at a later time. “Unlimited books,” these friends say, which I think merely suggests their limited imagination of unlimitedness.

When I set out on a journey, I spend 15 minutes on packing clothes, toothbrush, shaving equipment and maybe some anti-malarial drugs. Then, I pace my room for hours, going through bookshelves and book piles and book boxes, trying to decide what reading material to take. Obviously, when I have books about the country for which I set out, these books shall come along for the walk. But anything else is difficult, for I don’t know in what mood I will be, how long the journey will take, and which books might be banned in what country. (A subject sorely lacking from the Foreign Office’s travel advisory, by the way.) My biggest fear before every trip is that I will run out of things to read. This once happened, on an island off Estonia, and it is what got me started with writing. So there you go, dear reader, you could have been spared all of this, if only I had packed Kalevipoeg.

Weight and size are an issue, too, because I don’t believe in the unlimitedness of my backpack. Hence my preference for paperbacks or books with thin pages and small print. Lastly, I prefer to take books that I don’t plan to keep, so I can leave them, after having finished them, of course, on the train, a park bench or with one of those little libraries whence I picked up Mr Maugham’s works.

If I manage to stay clear of book markets, my backpack gets lighter the longer I travel. Once it’s getting close to empty, it’s a sign to return home. This is actually how I measure time, by books remaining, not by days or weeks.

But I didn’t really want to write about books that much. I wanted to tell you about Mayhew, Maugham’s story about a lawyer, 35 years old, who, if not at the height, then on the ascending slope of his career, decided to call it quits.

He thought he could do more with life than spend it on composing the trivial quarrels of unimportant people. He had no definite plan. He merely wanted to get away from a life that had given him all it had to offer.

I did the same, at the same age, from the same profession, for similar reasons. And I definitely had no definite plan. Heck, even ten years later I don’t have one.

Mayhew was quicker:

Presently he made up his mind to write a history.

Have I not taken up studies in history, too?

For fourteen years he toiled unremittingly. He made thousands and thousands of notes. […] He had his subject at his finger ends, and at last was ready to begin. He sat down to write. He died.

Well, I shan’t be surprised if that is the fate awaiting me. I still have a few years, then, but the notes are already piling up.

Links:

  • More about books, including my wishlist.
  • Having left the parasitic profession of benefiting from the problems of others, I now rely on the generosity of patrons who agree with me that the world needs more beautiful writing, rather than writing for winning. After all, one man’s victory is always another man’s defeat.
Posted in Books, Life, Travel | Tagged , | 4 Comments