Home - "Le Plat Pays"

'Gojnobuutn? Diknbucht!'
, the skipper of the fishing vessel shouted in our dialect, as we passed him in the harbour of Nieuwpoort yesterday. The instructor we had on board our ship did not understand a word of it. Even though he speaks Dutch, and lives only sixty kilometers away, he does not understand our dialect. It could just as well have been Chinese to him. 'Gojnobuutn? Diknbucht!'.. The fisherman was warning us of the fog at sea.

We were out sailing on the Belgian coast. Loreena McKennitt’s music was playing. It is my home-coming music. It made me think: “Despite all the exotic traveling I do, I always come back to this place.” And ‘by this place’ I do not mean Belgium, nor the region where we live at the moment. No, the place that feels home like no other is the area I was born and raised, the coastal region of Belgium, where we were sailing yesterday. My roots.

Jacques Brel –remember, the famous Belgian singer-songwriter you had never heard of?- made a song about my roots: 'Le plat pays qui est le mien', he called it. Literally, ‘the flat land that is mine'... This flat land is a coastline of only sixty kilometers long, stretching from the French to the Dutch border, with England about fifty-sixty kilometers on the other side of the Northsea.

Every time I go there, I feel moved deep down inside. No matter what the season is. It can be stormy with massive dark threatening clouds and strong south-westerly winds gusting over the coastal planes, pushing so hard most trees grow, bent into one direction.
Or the white crispy clean beauty of frost and light snow, where you have the impression your breath will freeze in your noose.
Or baking hot blue skies, converting the whole sixty kilometers of coastline into one gigantic pool for millions of people, coming to seek freshness in the sea. The sea that welcomes them with a cool breeze and tumbling waves. At those times, the whole coastline is one feast of happiness, and terraces, and music on the beach, with parties and fireworks in the evenings.

Sometimes, a lot of times, the sky is grey. As you stand on the sand dunes which make a large part of the coast, you can look over the flat horizon: the fair almost white sand glides over into the sea, which is almost just as white. The waves reflect the cap of low clouds and mist, making the panorama one transition of shades of white and light-grey.

Sometimes the clouds are so heavy the light wind can not carry them anymore, and the moisture sinks down over the land, creating heavy mist, like we had yesterday. The people then say: " 't is voe te snien", literally "you could cut it", so thick the mist could be. It happens you can not even see two meters in front of you. Then the sound would be muffled, echoed, and carries much further than usual. This makes everything confusing. And wet... Especially wet.. The mist would drip off your face and clothes, and off the tree branches. If you are real silent then, you can hear the drops create a weird, short and soft dripdroptiktok, echo-t all around, as if you would be surrounded by thousands of fairytale-d invisible dwarfs tiptoeing around you. It is then, this land of mine whispers its mystic and old stories. Legends about the people who lived there in a dark past. It is then the music of Loreena McKennitt comes to its full right.

It is a land of stubborn people. Traditionally keeping things to themselves. Speaking a Flemish dialect nobody else understands, rich in sounds with an 'undertone' of things that people do not say but rather think. Only to be read by the tone in which things are said..
'Gojnobuutn? Diknbucht!' the skipper of the fishing vessel had shouted at us. Literally he said 'Going outside? Fat junk'. What he meant was 'Are you going to sea? The fog is very thick'.

Our language is a dialect, a mixture of Dutch, French and English words often bastardized and changed into new words hardly showing their roots. Only people here, at the coast, speak it. Nobody else understands us. It is a language of all possible verbal sounds and intonations, making it sound funny. Even to this day, when I talk to Tine in our Flemish dialect, no ‘outsider’ can understand. Not even someone who lives only sixty kilometers further inland, like our trainer on the boat.

This is a land of people conquered and ruled by many nations, but they did not mind, they were independent at heart and in spirit. The Romans conquered, then the Saxons, the Franks, the French, then we came under Austrian rule, later Spanish and Dutch, until they had no clue anymore what to do with us, so they made us an independent country. We became a buffer state between “the big players” at the time: Holland, England, Germany and France.. Even after our independence, we came under German rule twice. We actually stopped the invasion of the Germans during the World War I at the very place we were moored yesterday, in Nieuwpoort: the lockmaster had purposely opened up the locks at springtide, and flooded a huge part of the country, making it impossible for the Germans to progress. They got stuck for 4 years, in the mud. No matter we had to drown most of our homes, the invaders were stopped! Once again, the sea had played its predominant rule in our history…

It is the sea that made the land what it is. The sea that gives and takes. The great plane, the great adventure, the symbol of travel, of limitless, of the unknown, of death and of life, of beginning and ends. The sea that can be as calm as a lake, and as raging as a nightmare. With huge waves, breaking everything in its way. Rolling in fast, and deep, chewing at the dunes, carrying away the sand on the beach, and at times dropping off whole vessels on shore.

The land of mine is very flat. Sometimes below sea level even several kilometers inland... Long ago, at every high tide, the sea would reverse the current in the rivers and streams, making them stream inland, and through a meshed natural system of saltwater creeks and marshy reservoirs, fill up all the waterways inland, sometimes as far as thirty km.. It would do this twice per day. And twice per day, the water would run back to the sea. Every six hours, the creeks and marshes would fill and run dry again. Well, they were never totally dry as the land was mainly marsh land. Filled with wild-life, and wild-people. You needed to be a special breed to survive here, living off the land, exposed to the elements. It was also the land of robbers and pirates. Fishermen, farmers, traders. But above all, of opportunists, and pragmatists.

As the land slopes ever so lightly into the sea, the sea has always been very treacherous. Loads of sandbanks off the coast, creating dangerous currents. On the shore we had 'viertorn', literary: “fire towers” (lighthouses), made in stone, where they would light a bonfire on the flat roof. At night, it would be the beacon to the entrance of the ports for the fishing vessels and trading vessels, bringing wealth to this area. But pirates would light bonfires on the beaches and in the dunes, luring vessels onto the beaches, where they would be plundered, stripped of anything with value. The currents, sandbanks, pirates, and dense sea traffic made this coast difficult to navigate. Yet many came to its ports, at we made the world's finest decorative carpets in those times. And sold the finest wool, cotton, lace and linen. It was where good seaworthy ships were made, and where you could sell or buy anything.. What the Khyber pass on the Silk Route was in the East, we were to Western Europe in the Middle Ages.

But the sea gave and the sea took away. The sea slipped dry the main trading port of Bruges, which was twenty kilometers inland, by depositing more sand than what could be cleared, and the economy declined..

It was difficult to survive in those days. The towns along the coast were flooded every year.. My hometown was on a strip of land, a long stretched peninsula, sticking out into the sea. There was a west end, an east end and a church in the middle, and that is how they called the towns. West-end, East-end, Middle-church: Westende, Oostende, Middelkerke.. The sea took this strip of land, in one go, in one flood, drowning thousands. The land, the towns, disappeared into the sea.. The towns were later rebuilt further inland, under the same name, but the old land, we never saw again. Still today, the fishermen claim to hear the church bell from 'Middelkerke' clinging on the sea bottom, luring ignorant vessels onto the sand banks. Maybe that is why the area is littered with hundreds and hundreds of wrecks…

Because of its stubborn people, and the wild nature, these areas were very difficult to travel through. Roads would be flooded, and easily washed away. Even if the roads were there, the bush around it was so thick, anyone could hide, ready to rob any convoy. If it was not for the robbers, people would go out of their minds, scared to death, crossing the marshes as the legends filled the creeks and wetlands with scare-devils, curses and myths. They were not stories, they were part of the beliefs of people. Told father to son, mother to daughter. It would be given to the child together with the mother milk. It would be encapsulated in songs, and dances, and story telling evenings by the fireplaces.

I am a son of this land. It is so much a part of me. Like a magnet, it can draw me back. No matter how far I have gone on the earth, there is only one place I need to come, to feel home, and at ease. It is like migrating birds are, through some strange magnetic fields, compass-ed to their destination, I always come back. It looks like the start and the destination of my Road, reminding me it is the road I have to enjoy.

Samples of the music mentioned in this story (.wma): Loreena McKennitt , Le Plat Pays
My home area: Realtime peep through a webcam at the Flemish coast

Pictures courtesy of www.kustonline.be (J.De Keyser), www.belgiumdigital.com, www.zuidrand.be, www.uitkerkse-polder (R.Vantorre/R. Martein)
Music samples courtesy of www.archambault.ca

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How Bad Can Your Luck Get?

ARC 2006 – Sailing Vessel Persuader Too.
Log entry December 11, 2006 –

Transatlantic crossing, day #whatever – I lost count.

In the middle of the night, a flying fish hit Bob – standing on deck - in the face, and bounced into the cabin down below. Within 2 minutes it was in the fridge ready for Nick to convert it into canap├ęs. What a start of a new day.

(Picture courtesy of Gerhard H.F. Ott)

An unedited video to wrap up this sailing blog.
Click (twice) on the video to play it

All video footage of this sailing trip, you can find here.
All pictures of our crossing, you find here.

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Have I Lost It, Or Just Found It?

December 9, 2006. - In the middle of the Atlantic.

We have been at sea for a while now. I am gradually getting into a mood, where I feel more than just 'at sea'. I feel at home, in harmony with everything around me. At those moments, it is as if I feel the ship talking. It is more sounds rather than words. At times, I hear her giggling when she loves the excitement of a fast sail. I hear her hum a melody when she is happy with the sail settings and the wind. There are times where I hear her cry when something is wrong, when the swell and low winds make her sail flap and the boom bang to and fro.

Last night I was woken up when she was crying in pain, and screaming. The winds were low, and the side-swell had her boom bang every 10 seconds. The ship shivered with every smack of the sails. The foresail emptied and filled again with a loud whack like a giant whip. She was tormented.
I came on deck to find the crew on watch chatting. They had not really noticed the banging. I gave them a piece of my mind 'can't you tell, she is hurting?'. They gave me an awkward look as if to say ‘What are you talking about?’. I hooked on my lifeline and went onto the foredeck, tightened the ropes of the headsail, changed the course harder into the wind, and trimmed the main sail to avoid the banging. The winds were low, maybe 6 or 7 knots. The swell was 2-3 meters high, rolling in from the side..

I put on some soft classical music in the cockpit, to soothe her spirit. I emptied my mind and sniffed the wind, closed my eyes. As the music went up in rhythm, I could feel the ship talking to the wind, and the wind whispering back. It was like they made a pact. The wind gradually picked up, sending shivers down my spine. The hair on my arms and legs stood straight up. I could just feel that I was in tune with it all. And everything was in tune with me. The wind picked up, gradually, bit by bit, and over half an hour, it was up to the ideal speed of 20 knots. With every push of the wind, I could feel the ship starting to sing and leap forward. She giggled with every push. I took the wheel and made her surf on the waves. She sung for me. Out of joy.

This did not happen once, but several times, where I came on deck, or on watch, and the wind was low, or from a foul angle. Every time, I could get into tune with the elements and it was as if I could have the swell, the wind change, to make the ship happy, singing again. It was so obvious that often when I came on deck, the crew on watch sighed 'oh ok, now we will get wind again. Make us some wind again, Peter.'. And every time, I could blank my mind, and get into tune with the elements, and get the right balance again of wind, ship, swell and sails... Often, I could see on the instruments the wind had fallen right down again when I went off shift. Sometimes in a matter of minutes after I went below deck... Weird stuff, no?

She loves me, this ship. She loves what I do to her. She loves it when I switch off the autopilot and steer her manually.
The crew jokes about it: 'The ship, she likes her little machine -the autopilot-, but she likes Peter's hand job much, much more!'. ;-))

Sometimes I think 'I lost it', but more and more I get convinced ‘I just found it'..

Top picture courtesy of Thomas Mallet

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Letter to a Mum - Spoiling Innocence

ARC 2006 – Sailing Vessel Persuader Too.
Log entry December 8, 2006 – Transatlantic crossing, day #12.

With his 18 years, Tom is the youngest of our crew. Thanks to him, our crew has an average age of only 45 :-). We do joke a lot with him, and often ‘threaten’ him ‘to tell his mum’. Below is an invented letter to Tom’s mum.
The one in the red Tshirt is Tom. Obviously fiddling around with something again. Keep your hands off that rope, will you, Tom? Dammit!Dear Mrs. Mallet,

Greetings from the Persuader Too, now well on its way to St.Lucia. We were sorry you only found out that Tom was crossing the Atlantic when he was no longer available on his cellphone. Indeed, he did not stay overnight at a friend. He promises to call you once we arrive in St.Lucia.

As all sailors smoke, Tom started to smoke too. He says hi and asks you if you have a good recipe to get the nicotine from his fingers.

It took some effort to make sure he kept all his underwear, T-shirts, and shampoo in his cabin, as he clearly has the habit of leaving everything hanging around. Eric, our first mate on the passage from Hamble to the Canaries was rather upset as he left the boat and cleared his bunk. He found out he had slept on 5 pieces of Tom’s used underwear under his pillow case for at least a week.

Tom is very interested in technology. He has pushed every possible button on this boat (and there are a lot). His favorite pass time is to reconfigure the skipper’s navigation computer and to reprogram the response time of the autopilot.

Tom is also intrigued by the red/yellow plastic dummy steering wheel we have installed for him in the cockpit. He does quite well steering the boat with it, especially as we never switch off the auto helm and the dummy helm is not connected to anything. He makes the ‘Brrrrr’ noises too, just like 6 year old kids drive a car.

Tom did dishes yesterday. He rinsed a cup as there were no clean ones left.

He is the only one who watches cartoons on the DVD in the afternoon. We are running out of cartoons soon, so we are rather worried how to keep him busy for 10 hours a day. We have thought to run the same DVDs with Swedish subtitles and Swahili sound. We hope that will keep him entertained for 2 more days.

We do limit his beer consumption to 10 six packs per day. He has been quite good actually, and reduced his alcohol consumption quite a lot since he came on board.

We run out of dried mushrooms for our soup. We think Tom had something to do with it, as one night, he was rather ‘happy’, smoking weird shaped rolled cigarettes.
We also run out of dried soup, and oregano spices. We think he is in his ‘experimental phase’. He does have a dripping nose all the time though..
Tom would like to inform the other teenagers on the ARC-boats that the book with the celestial navigation tables works very well to roll cigarettes.
He also found a way to ferment the oranges, mixed with apple cider and sugar. He is now working on a device to distillate this mixture to a 90 degrees pure alcohol. He intends to sell at least 100 liters of it once we are in St.Lucia.

We asked him to put his stack of Playboys on port side, as it gave us a better tack, increasing the boat speed by at least one knot.

Tom has found ‘Indies Nightclub’ at our destination in St.Lucia, Rodney Bay, on the electronic charts, and kindly asks to wire over more money in anticipation of our arrival.
Since he discovered Indies Nightclub, he does stare westwards a lot, and does whine ‘are we there yet?’ continuously.

For the rest, we are all well and love Tom very much.

The Crew of the Persuader Too.

PS: Is the story of Tom and the Chinese nanny really true? We thought so. We have give him plenty of tips, experienced men as we are.
That is Tom (on the right) with me

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Yoh Man! - The Mother Watch Rap

ARC 2006 – Sailing Vessel Persuader Too.
Log entry December 5, 2006 – Transatlantic crossing, day #9.

(The ‘mother watch’ is a 4-daily rotating duty watch of 24 hours. The 'mother watch' crew is responsible for cooking lunch and dinner, and cleaning up the galley, heads and cockpit)

The Mother Watch Rap.
(heavy pumping beat).

Yoh man,
we are the mot-her watch
on Per-su-a-der Too
(Yoh man, watch man!).

We’ve come to sail the oceans
with kite and gul-wing
(Yoh man, sail man!)

None of us cooks at home,
but each of us now cooks at his best
(Yoh man, cook man!)

We take veg-gies, meat,
what-e-ver has to go first
(Yoh man, the chicken man!)

And stand for hours sweating
in the galley.
(Yoh man, galley man!)

Yoh we are the mother watch

on Per-su-a-der Too
Yoh every four days,

we are the mother watch
on Per-su-a-der Too
(Yoh man, watch man!).

Breakfast is an opt-ion
for those that have the e-ner-gy,
trying not to break-them-eggs
before they reach-the-pan
(Yoh man, pan man!)

Lunch is a must,
but light it goes,
cold cuts, toast with roast-ed bacon,
Slight crust, or well done
Mixed left o-vers,
or pancakes come and go.
(Yoh man, go man!)

Yoh we are the mother watch

on Per-su-a-der Too
Yoh every four days,

we are the mother watch
on Per-su-a-der Too
(Yoh man, watch man!).

Dinner is more e-la-bo-ra-te.
For eight crew, the quan-ti-ties
need many pots and pans on the sto-ve,
With the oven on full heat,
warming up the gal-ley
steaming like a saun-a
(Yoh man, sau-man!)

Wraps, stews, un-i-dent-i-fi-able chow,
is our spe-ci-a-li-ty.
Digging stuff from freezer,
fridge and stacks of cans.
Fishing fruits from the swing-ing ham-mock.
Cook-ing, cutt-ing, slap-ping and fry-ing.
While ba-lan-cing on
two feet holding on
while the boat rocks
and the stove swivels.
(Yoh man, swivelman!)

Yoh we are the mother watch

on Per-su-a-der Too
Yoh every four days,

we are the mother watch
on Per-su-a-der Too
(Yoh man, watch man!).

And after serving dinner in the dark,
forget the candle light
in this breeze,
we smile when we hear the kudos:
Thank you, well done,
mother watch.
We smile cause:

Yoh we are the mother watch

on Per-su-a-der Too
Yoh every four days,

we are the mother watch
on Per-su-a-der Too

Yoh man, watch man!
Yoh man, sweat man!

Yoh man, swivel man!
Yoh mother-watch-man!

yoh man.
yoh man.
mother-watch man.
sweat man.
hot man.
Here is James on 'motherwatch'

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We Are All Going No-Where

ARC 2006 – Sailing Vessel Persuader Too.
Log entry December 3, 2006 – Transatlantic crossing, day #7.

For days, we have not seen another ship. On Saturday all of sudden a vessel popped up at the horizon. We locked her on the radar and observed she was not moving at all. It was a fishing vessel, which looked like hovering on one spot. We were speeding on our massive green kite, autopilot set to follow the wind, about 155 degrees off wind, a course that brought us heading straight for the fishing vessel. – is it not odd, that for days on end you don’t see any other ship, and when one is spotted, it always seems to be on a collision course? –

Anyway, there she was, just hovering on one position, not moving at all. She did not drag any fishing gear, just ‘lay there’. We called them on the radio, in English, No response. In French. No response. In Portuguese. No response. In Spanish. No response.. It was not until we raced past her, a hundred meters off her bow, that all of a sudden we heard a voice on the radio. It seemed the crew only saw us the moment we passed her.. The guy on the radio sounded surprised… Probably he was on watch on the bridge, and had dozed off, until he saw us speeding by. I mean, put yourself in his place, here you are, in the middle of the Atlantic, minding your own business, not seeing anyone or anything for days on end and all of a sudden, this sailboat with this massive green sail comes racing past you..

Anyway, they were very friendly. They were Portuguese fishermen (what is a Portuguese fishing vessel doing so far south in the middle of nowhere, we wonder?). They asked who we were, where we were going to.. We answered we were on our way ‘to Saint Lucia’.. And he said ‘but you are going the wrong way, Santa Lucia is behind you..’. It took us some time to explain we were not going to ‘La Ilha de Santa Luzia’, one of the islands in the Cape Verdes – indeed now one day off our stern - but to St.Lucia in the Caribbean..
So we parted, with the fishing vessel left in our wake. We were wondering what the hell a Portuguese fishing vessel was doing so far south, just hovering on the spot in the mid Atlantic. And they were probably wondering what a sailing vessel was doing crossing the Atlantic only to go from one from one St.Lucia to the other St.Lucia.

Looking back... Video courtesy of Thomas Mallet
Click (twice) on video to play it.

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250 Boats Facing The Same Direction

November 26, 2006 - Just off the coast of the Canary Islands

I arrived back in the Canary Islands two days ago. In the marina, all ships participating in the ARC, the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, had assembled. 223 ships from different nationalities. From 27 feet (9 meters) to 100 feet (over 30 meters) monsters. From homemade boats to big luxurious one-off designs. From competition racing boats with little luxury to standard cruising yachts like ours. The ARC is an annual event trying to assemble yachts at the ideal time of the year to sail across the Atlantic. The purpose is to get everyone safely to 'the other end', in a competitive way. The people participating are from all kinds of walks of life. Some are professional skippers taking their charter ship over to the Caribbean for the season (like us), with a random crew often consisting of people who never crossed the Atlantic before. Some are competition boats with a well trained racing crew on board. Some are families, many of them from Europe where the ARC is their first trans-ocean crossing of a multi-year world cruise, often with kids on board. There was a pleasant and hectic atmosphere on all the docks as all ships were readied for the crossing. Everyone was busy stocking food, fuel, water, and making last minute repairs or changes to their ship.

This morning, one by one the yachts left the marina, cheered by thousands of people who stood on the cays, docks and breakwaters or ferried in small boats around us. Helicopters above, filming, and brass bands playing on the docks. Together with the 223 ARC participating yachts, there would be about 250 'ghost riders', yachts which would cross the Atlantic at the same time as us, but did not participate in the ARC. We all gathered just outside of the port, zigzagging while raising sails, trying to get a good position near the one km long starting line. Once the start signal was given, up went all the big spinnakers (the huge colourful sails which are used to sail down- wind). The start was one of the most memorable pictures I will never forget... Over 200 boats starting a race at the same time. And not only a race, a transatlantic crossing but also starting an adventure, chasing dreams. Even though we will often sail hundreds of miles apart from the other boats, we are still connected to one another, because of our common goal, our common dreams, our common interests, all to do with adventure, water, sailing and being addicted to the horizon.. It was an absolute fabulous sight, hundreds of boats and sails, and thousands of crew working on them.. All heading into the same direction: St.Lucia in the Caribbean.

Wish us luck and fair winds!

Picture 2 courtesy of Thomas Mallet

Start of the ARC 2006. Video courtesy of T.Mallet
Click (twice) on the video to play it.

Start of the ARC2006
Click (twice) on the video to play it.

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The Ugly Duckling

I thought Mats was joking in the email he sent me, while I was out on mission. ‘It finally has been put out of its misery, Peter.’, he said, ‘It is done now. Its suffering has ended. Your Landrover is no more.. A wall fell on it.’

I looked at the pictures showing how the seven meter tall wall surrounding our office parking had collapsed. My car was covered with tons of rubble. I could barely see part of the side window and a tire sticking out.

The guys in the Kampala office always took the piss out of my Landrover. They said the car could only make it from the workshop to home and would then break down. “As your house is up a hill, you do not need the engine to come down anyway”, they joked, “Just release the hand break – correction, that does not work anyway -,so pull the stone from underneath the wheel – and let it run off the hill until you reach the workshop. You let them work on it for a day, and in the evening you can make it up the hill again!” They exaggerated a bit, though… It was not that bad! Most of the time, I could make it home twice without a repair pit stop! The funny thing was, as they repaired one thing, something else broke. I suspected they used my car for spare parts. Or took out a working piece, only to put it back again once I returned the car the next day, charging me an arm and a leg for the work done.. The fuel tank always showed ‘empty’ when I picked up the car also. And my light bulbs would disappear.

The car was a challenge, I have to admit. I bought it second hand. Well, fifth-hand was more like it. It was a dirt-blue, 10 year old short-wheel base Landrover 90. It looked sturdy and quite macho with its squared shape and minimum of comfort. The seats were a sheet of plywood covered with foam filled pleather, which always glued to my legs in the heat. There were no electronic car accessories and those few electrical features like the headlights or the windscreen wipers were controlled by sturdy handles, not touch buttons. The gas and break pedals squealed like a piglet readied for the slaughterhouse. I had to refill the brake fluid every other day. I had a spare gas tank installed, as the car consumed so much fuel I had to stop by the gas station every three days. To get the fuel from the spare to the main tank, I had to switch on an electric pump which I think they got from a washing machine. Well, at least the noise resembled that of a washing machine.

The boys and their toys.. I had always dreamed of owning a Landrover. Something to do with the pictures from the Camel Trophy. I often thought of the Camel Trophy, driving around in Kampala with roads flooded from a rain squall and water almost reaching into the cabin. Most of the time I had to take off my shoes and roll up my trousers when driving during the rainy season. Negotiating my way up and down the hill to reach home was no less of a challenge. I did not want to spend money to replace the old tires, which had no more grip - I needed all my money for the mechanical repair anyway. This made driving in the lowest gear, skidding left and right in the slippery mud, in between potholes and ditches the rain had cut through the steep mud track up ‘our hill’, certainly resembled a Camel Trophy challenge. I was always glad I made it home in one piece. You might not believe it, but I always actually looked forward to the adventure of driving home in the evening. Like arriving home in the evening was an achievement.

When Tine joined me in Kampala and saw the car for the first time, she laughed and called it ‘our ugly duckling’. She needed a car as there was not one shop to buy everything that keeps a household running. Even just the food, we would have to buy from different shops, spread all over town. Often the wives of the expats would call each other with the latest shopping news.. ‘You know near Nakasero, there is a small shop on the corner where they had French cheese yesterday.’ or ‘Remember the butcher in Kabalagala? They start selling packed lamb chops as of next week!’. ‘Fresh yoghurt at the Star supermarket near the matatu station today!’. So Tine got the Landrover. I admired her, six months pregnant and racing around town, from shop to shop. She said it took a bit of planning to find a parking spot facing down hill, so she could jump start the car in second gear, as the battery was dead most of the time. She explained in certain flat areas of town, the kids would recognize her – and the car – and hang around until she got out of the shop, as they knew she would ask them to push-start the car. Tine would always give them some change when they helped her.

At first Lana, two years old then, did not like the Landrover. Having only front seats, we had to fix her baby seat with straps and ropes in the back. But each trip we did, she would cry her heart out. We could never figure out what was wrong, until we noticed she always tried to get up to look through the windows while her shoulder straps would keep her down. So we raise the baby seat by strapping it onto two big aluminum packing crates. Then she was happy. As the car would bounce around over the unpaved roads, we had to fix the seat real well with straps and buckles. It looked a bit like a pilot’s jump seat in a fighter plane. Our two year old in her jump seat…

My Landrover was not only famous for its mechanical problems. I never got its paperwork fixed either. First it took me a year to get the registration papers from the previous owner who had left the country. To get the car officially transferred to me, it had to go through inspection. The official inspection shop was not much more than a shack with a huge pit dug in the ground, and a guy holding out his hand asking for ‘Pesa’ (‘Money’). I always refused to give bribes and would answer him ‘Hakuna pesa’ (‘No money’). So my car never made it through inspection, even though it was in much better shape than the thousands of wrecks driving around in town…

And now the wall killed my car. Finally, the car was put out of its misery. I thought…! However, Edward, the landlord of our office building, felt so guilty about his wall falling on my car, he paid for the repair, in an ultimate attempt to revive it. Call it car-CPR ! The axles and chassis were still ok, it just needed ‘a bit’ of body work. He paid a ‘body work shop’ – another shack with a pit in the ground, to bang out all the dents and put in new windows. To top it all off, he had the car spray painted so it looked better than it ever did before. We towed my Landrover from the body work shop and left it parked in front of the office, as the body work had not solved its engine problems… If it was a human being, we could say, it was kept alive artificially, but could not live without external help…

To be honest with you, I almost gave up on our ugly duckling, by the time I got reassigned to Kosovo and had to sell off all of our belongings. Fred, one of our local technicians, bought the car for about a tenth of what I paid for it. That was not including all the repairs. Months later, my teasing colleagues wrote to me, a modern age miracle had happened: Fred had put a new engine in the Landrover, got the car registered in his name, and the ‘ugly duckling’ was now on the road again. Guess miracles do happen. On the other hand, probably it took a miracle to keep the old Landrover on the road in Uganda. With a bit of bribing. Or maybe it is just the patience needed to sit next to the car as it is being repaired to make sure they don’t steal parts of your engine, siphon off your fuel and run off with your light bulbs…

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We called him Kadee, though his real name was Lash vom Amselhof. He was fierce, ruthless, nervous, and aggressive at first. A big, dark muscled body with a massive head and piercing brown eyes. He would look people in the eyes and keep staring without blinking, until - almost in embarrassment - people would look away. He was only six months old, when he killed one of our full grown sheep with one bite. It was then we realized our German shepherd needed some serious and strict discipline. We trained him as a defense dog and he turned into the sweetest dog we ever had, unless someone tried to lay a hand on anyone from our family.

When Lana was born, we were a bit wary at first. Would Kadee get jealous? While Tine was still in the maternity clinic, we laid a cloth next to Lana in her little bed, and then let Kadee smell it, so he could get used to the odour of the baby. When Lana and Tine came home for the first time, we let him sniff the baby too. He did it very carefully and then, put himself beside the crib. He understood Lana was now part of his herd. For years to come, he would protect Lana, was always around her, looking from the background. When we had visitors, he would put himself between them and the baby. He would not growl, just stare at the visitors. If they wanted to touch the baby, he would look nervously at Tine or me first to see if it was ok.

When Tine and Lana moved to join me in Kampala, they brought Kadee with them. The locals feared him. Not one of our house staff dared to go near him. Dogs are either feared or ignored in Africa. There was no way anyone could ignore a big black dog like Kadee, though. He passed most of the day playing tricks on people walking past the fenced gate that locked off the compound. He would hear them coming from behind the corner and as they passed the gate, he would come running from behind the bush, jump up the fence and bark fiercely, scaring the hell out of them. Just for fun. He loved this game. It was good though, as our house was one of the few in the neighborhood which was not broken into.

One night, when we were in Belgium on holiday, burglars had skipped the wall, and opened one of the windows. Kadee, who was in the house, must have scared them off, but they still succeeded in grabbing some stuff reaching through the metal bars protecting the window. Yet it seems he got hold of one of them, as there were traces of blood on the ground in front of the window. There was also blood and bullet holes on the compound wall, as the police guard had emptied his machine gun on the burglars. Two of them died on the spot. A third was found dead on the way down the hill, but the fourth got away with a laptop minus its power supply. One old laptop left three dead… We only heard about the story when we got back from holiday.. Namayaa, our house keeper, said the policeman was part of the plot. She explained that he was standing next to the burglars when a neighbor came out of her house to look why the dog was making all that racket. Only when the guard saw her, he started shooting at the burglars. The next day, the police guard did not show up for duty and we never heard from him again. Guess he was looking for a computer power supply.

Despite that single mishap, we felt safe with Kadee around. Lana loved him. She could crawl on top of him, throw things at him, pull his fur and he would never lose his patience. The worse he would do was sigh with a deep breath. As if he was saying ‘Kids.. ah, kids..’.

When Hannah was born in Belgium and we brought her as a 2 week old to Kampala, Kadee lost it for a while. All of sudden he had two kids to look after. He would run shuttling between the two. I guess it became his full time job now, having two kids.. It did not take Hannah long neither to learn the furry dark thing loved being around her. She would not like Kadee to come too close though and would smack him on the nose if he did, making him sneeze violently. When Kadee sneezed, Hannah looked at him half scared, half amazed, with a finger in her mouth..

As Kadee turned fourteen, his hips started to give in. It was sad to see him crawling up and down the stairs, still trying to shuttle between the girls.. Within a few months, he could not do anything but drag his hind legs.. He suffered, often yelping as he tried to move. Painkillers did not help anymore. It was around that time, I was reassigned to Kosovo. Tine and the kids moved back to Belgium, and I sold off our belongings. The last night, it was just Kadee and me left. I called the vet and slowly, carefully, we put him to sleep. It was no use to take him back to Belgium. He suffered too much. Late at night, I dug a hole in our garden and buried Kadee in it. John, our gardener, did not want any part of it as he said burying a dog in the garden, would bring bad luck. But I still did. I also buried a drawing from Lana and Hannah with him, and a flower from Tine and I. He had been our family’s guardian angel.

The kids asked about Kadee when I joined them in Belgium the next day. I told them Kadee stayed behind in Africa, as he wanted to look after the family who moved into our house after us. They had kids too. And those kids became his new job. Just like daddy sometimes worked abroad, now Kadee was working abroad… It took years before they found out the truth.. Even now, Hannah sometimes makes drawings of him. She would picture him as a huge black dog, much bigger than herself. She forgets that as a nine year old now, she would stand much taller than him. To her, the dog still remains in her memory as this huge thing, which always looked after her. And maybe he still is…

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Burundi, June 4 1997

I can not believe how we could have been so stupid. With all our years of experience, we broke one of the basic security rules: “Don’t go out at night”. Not only are we out at night. Worse, we are in the middle of the bush at night. In a part of the country held by rebels. Have we become too complacent with the constant security threat? Have we become too accustomed to danger?

This morning Mats and I left together with Toure, the WFP security officer, for a mission to one of the remote radio sites up country. The radio booster we installed there a couple of months ago, did not work anymore. It was a nice trip, over remote roads, twisting and turning in between the dense forest. We drove through villages and small stretches of farmed land, dotted over the hills like a quilt made of squares with different colours and textures. Several times we stopped to take pictures, forgetting all about time. The work at the mountain top was done in just a few minutes. The guards we paid to keep an eye on our equipment, had simply switched off the power as the cooling fans of the radio booster made too much noise at night. It disturbed their sleep. We stayed up on the mountain for a good hour. The view was just too beautiful. Simply breathtaking. The lush green hillsides below us, with plumes of smoke from the different villages. Birds of prey floated on the breeze high above it all.

On the way back, we gradually started to realize how late we were. The people in the second car had radio-d us that they would stay the night in one of the villages we passed as it was getting too late. We decided to still take the chance, and try to reach Bujumbura, the capital, before nightfall. Toure drove fast. The pickup slid left and right over the rough dirt road, jumping over the potholes. He took the sharp bends as if he was a professional rally driver. All in vain. The sun went down too fast. We did not want to put on our headlights as it would attract too much attention. We knew in this part of the country the rebels came down from their hiding places in the mountains, at night, to attack villages or military posts, or to ambush cars. Cars traveling late like ours.

At one point, though the open windows, we could hear the sound of machine guns and small artillery fire on the road in front of us. We did not see anything, but all of a sudden, a soldier had appeared out of the ditch besides the road and stopped us. He had an AK47 in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other. We heard nervous shouting on his radio. He said a military lorry was ambushed a few hundred meters down the road and urged us to turn around. We had passed a village half an hour ago, and decided to drive back. Toure knew the doctors at the hospital there, so probably they would give us a bed for the night. We drove back, frustrated we would not make it to Bujumbura before the night.
A couple of minutes later, we saw short light flashes on the hill in front of us. Gunfire! Toure puts on the floodlights and in a distance we saw tens of people running over the road and in between the trees. Another ambush. We turned around again and stopped for a moment. There we were, stuck between two ambushes. Twice now, we had passed a small military post beside the road. We decided the best we could do was to stay the night there… It was not the best place. Small military outposts like these often get targeted by the rebels at night. But it was the least of two evils. Certainly staying alone in the car, by ourselves, in the middle of the bush was a worse option.
And now, we are sitting on the porch of a shack, in between tens of villagers and a dozen military. The villagers had done the same as we did: taken refuge with the military. All is pitch dark. There is no moon. We hear the remote cracking of machine guns in a distance, but the military are relaxed. They urge us not to make any light, though. No torches, no lights in the car, and when lighting cigarettes, cover it with your hands. Lights not only attract mosquitoes, but also the attention of the rebels. Mats and I are nervous. And angry in a way. Angry at our own stupidity. Our own complacency with security rules. We, of all people, should have known.
In the dark, the soldiers get us some beers and we drink in silence. From time to time, out of the dark, a patrol of two or three armed men appears and a new group leaves. They are guarding the small compound. They seem relaxed about the whole situation, as if they lived with this danger all their lives. It is part of their lives. Not so for us and partially not for the villagers, who are all around us. Mostly women, small children and babies. Even the babies seem to sense the danger and don’t make a sound. No crying, no talking, nothing..
In the dark, careful not to stumble over rocks, we make our way back to the pickup parked in front of the military shack. There is only one thought on our minds: ‘We hope this military post is not attacked during the night.’ If it was, we stood no chance.

I am mad. The adrenaline pumps through my veins. Mostly because of the anger. I guess I don’t panic easily. I just get frustrated and mad. Mostly at myself.

The sound of remote gunfire subsides. All of a sudden there is only the sound of darkness, of a night in Africa, with all its wonders. The crickets begin their play and the sounds of wild animals in the bush pops up now and then out of the pitch black world all around us. I hope the silence does not mean the rebels are regrouping around this military compound.

A feeling of fatalism comes over me. ‘There is nothing I can do about it. If it has to happen, it has to happen.’ I curl up in the back seat of our pickup truck, and try to sleep. Mats and Toure do the same in the front seats. I cannot sleep. Am bored. Cannot read, cannot smoke, cannot do anything but look into the absolute darkness. It’s probably best there is no moon tonight. It would make us an easier target. It also shows the stars more clearly. I can see the Big Dipper.

I wake up at first light. The villagers have disappeared already, back to their homes on the hills. Most of the military are up and about, lighting a fire to cook water, washing, or preparing for their day patrols. Their officer comes over to our car, and tells Toure the road is clear. We can travel to Bujumbura. ‘But please be more careful next time! Don’t travel anymore in this part of the country so late in the evening’, he urges us. Like we have not told ourselves that a thousand times over already…
We drive slowly towards Bujumbura. The border of town is only thirty minutes away. We were that close. That close to safety. I walk past the reception of the hotel, and go to my room. Don’t need breakfast, just want a shower and some sleep. I am thinking how lucky we were. It was a warning sign. To be more careful next time. Even more careful. Life is precious. Life is a string of random chances of luck and misfortune. Our time had not come. But how long will it take before there is a moment where our luck, our fortune will run out?

From the WFP emergency report the same week:
a) Three International Red Cross (ICRC) delegates killed in ambush north of Cibitoke on 4 June. ICRC suspends all humanitarian operations in Burundi. IFRC also stops distribution activities in northern Burundi due to insecurity.
b) A group of 85 French nationals evacuate from Burundi.
c) Massacre in IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp in Butezi, Ruyigi province, leaves 50 dead, mainly women and children.
d) Further displacement of population takes place due to confrontations between military and rebels in Kayanza.
e) Refugees from Rwanda arrive in northern Burundi following reported death of 40 persons in an attack in Cyangugu Prefecture, Rwanda

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"M." - Requiem For Baghdad

“The horror… The horror…”
(Marlon Brando in ‘Apocalypse Now’)

Dubai, December 2004
All of us, all our Dubai staff, are standing around in silence in the reception of our office. We put up the plaque our HQ gave us. “WFP FITTEST team – Dubai. Award for Merit 2004. For their outstanding global achievement and particularly for the critical support of the UN humanitarian effort in Iraq”. Each of us are in thoughts. It seems weird how in a split second zillions of thoughts and images can flash through your mind.

Robert was a bit angry at me this week. He rightfully said: ‘This plaque is something to be proud of, how come we still have not put it up? We received the plaque several months ago.’. I did not really have an answer for him. Sure, at first there was a spelling mistake, so they had to re-do it, then we had a problem finding a suitable spot, and then, and then… In the end, it were all excuses, I thought to myself. Excuses as it brought back a lot of painful memories for me… I did not want to remember that period. Did not want to remember the pain. Suppress it. Done. Buried. But that is not the right way. Robert was right, the team had done well. The team he had coordinated did well in the Iraq emergency operation, and they had to be remembered for their excellent work. Together we also had to remember how we all stuck together, as one team, despite all the pressure and challenges. Somewhere also we had to remember the pain of that period…

As we are standing in front of the plaque, I think of M. Her face comes before my eyes. I hear her laugh. Would she have felt pain? Fear? Regrets? Or would it all have gone in a flash? Like a switch. Switching off life. Done. Over. And then?

Belgium, August 2001
If you have lived through a number of humanitarian emergencies, worked long enough in relief operations, you start to develop a sixth sense. It was this sixth sense that helped us deciding to move our intervention team from Kosovo to Islamabad a few years ago. We sensed that at a certain moment the US would retaliate against the Taliban. Basing our team in the middle of Central Asia would allow us to prepare the region for a possible humanitarian emergency if the US would take military action in Afghanistan.

I told Tine just before I left home: “I do not have a good feeling. The stars are not right. Something is up.” That feeling was in sharp contrast with the one month holiday off the beaten track in Hawaii we just had. But the sixth sense was there, with big warning signs.

Islamabad, September 11, 2001
We were working in our office in Islamabad when Jalal, one of our staff, said ‘Hey, a plane just flew into the New York World Trade Center.’ And a few minutes later, the news came a second plane crashed into the Towers. We stopped all work. I knew it could not have been an accident. This was an act of terrorism. In a flash, I saw what would happen. The world was going to fundamentally change. I saw the US attacking Afghanistan. I saw the polarization of the world into Muslim and non-Muslim. I saw the invasion of Iraq.. I just knew we were going for a very rough period, with a lot of human suffering. I felt sad, very sad. When I came back to the guest house I was staying, very late at night, that night of 9/11, I just could not stop looking at the video replays on TV, displaying what happened in New York. It was so violent. So many people lost in one go. But above all, I felt “it is all coming our way. Within here and a few weeks, the world’s attention is going to be focused on our region.”

It did not take weeks. It took days. We saw them arriving at the hotels in Islamabad. All the international camera crews, with their equipment loaded onto rental cars. Setting up shop on the roofs of the hotels. All the well-known anchor people from the main broadcast stations started to report from Islamabad. The media often is one step ahead of the military. Only one step.

Kabul, January 2002.
Several months later, the Taliban was beaten, Bin Laden was on the run, and Afghanistan was ‘liberated’. I just ‘knew’ Iraq was going to be next. No matter what the world’s opinion was going to be, I felt the US was going to attack Iraq also.

Baghdad, November 2002
Richard and I spent a nice evening in one of the open air restaurants in Baghdad. Even though it was close to midnight and pretty cold outside, there were plenty of people still walking around. I loved the people there, the feeling the whole setting gave me. They were friendly, helpful, many of them very well educated. Never a harsh word. As we were walking the streets that night, people smiled at us, often to say ‘Hey habibi, how are you? Where do you come from? What do you do?’. When we would start talking to them, the subject of children and family would always come up. No matter where people come from, the love for their close ones always seems to be the main thing on their mind. We felt safe, almost at home, without the slightest sense of fear or insecurity. We were amongst good people.
The first UN weapon inspectors had arrived earlier that day. We saw them dragging up boxes with their equipment into Canal Hotel, the UN Headquarters in Baghdad.. Somewhere I knew that it was all going to be in vain. The US had already made up its mind: ‘Saddam had to go’. Even if the weapon inspectors would not find any weapons of mass destruction, any excuse was going to be good enough… After all, Iraq had oil. I could just see all the human misery a US invasion in Iraq would cause. And the anarchy, the violence that would follow. I imagined those peaceful streets of Baghdad in flames, shooting, bombing. I could see all the friendly, loving people, with eyes, filled with hatred.

Dubai, March 20 2003
As I closed the door of my apartment, on my way to work, I stopped for a moment. Something was not right. Something was different that morning. I could hear the television sets from my neighbours. Different languages, agitated voices of the reporters. It was an awkward sound. My heart started to beat real fast. I went back into my apartment, switched on the TV, and sat down. Images of helicopters, tanks, military convoys, crossing the border from Kuwait into Iraq. I picked up the phone and called Gianluca, in our HQ in Rome. It was still very early in Europe, he was still asleep. ‘Gianluca, switch on your TV. It has began. The invasion has began’.

June 2003
I met M. in Cyprus several times. She was working for another UN agency. By coincidence, we had the same travel itinerary, and spent several days on the road together: flying from Cyprus to Jordan, then driving into Erbil in North Iraq and a few days later flying to Baghdad. We talked a lot. Work, people we met in the past, our hobbies, adventure traveling, what appealed to us in this world, in people. The last time I saw her was one evening in Canal Hotel, Baghdad. For security reasons, the movement of our staff in town was restricted, and we all lived on the large office compound. A couple of guys had put together a barbeque in the parking lot which by then was filled with sleeping and storage tents. As I was walking back to my room, M. was walking towards the barbeque area. She had a strange look in her eyes. She hesitated for a moment as we were passing eachother. I remember I stood still for a moment, wondering what this look was about. I told her I was leaving for Dubai the next day.. I can not remember if she said anything, as we gave three kisses on the cheek. Maybe we did say something. Some pleasantries like ‘see you whenever I see you again!’.

A few weeks later, I received a message from her. Some stuff about work. She had decided the Iraq mission was going to be her last. In September she would quit and do something different. Enough of this type of work. It has been a good road, but this road had come to an end. The last sentence in the Email did not make much sense to me. It was about us meeting again. That it would mean a lot to her, that she would like to talk to me.

When I talked to Larisa, one of our staff in Baghdad, on the phone, she said: “you left quite an impression on some people in Baghdad.” I did not really understand what she meant. “Well, last night, I was having a drink with M., and again, it looks like you left quite an impression on her”…
Sometimes a lot of things happen, and it is difficult to pinpoint what they really mean, to make real sense out of a string of signs. But then something small happens, which causes all the rest to make sense. Now I understood the look in M.’s eyes the last evening in Baghdad. That last sentence in her Email. I sent her an Email that I was coming over to Baghdad before she left, so we would sit together and talk.

Belgium, August 18 2003
I had a long chat with Robert, our project coordinator in Baghdad. He ran the team installing the technical infrastructure for most of the UN relief agencies. Most of the conversation was about his main worry: security. He felt something was to happen, the ‘tension in the air’ was just too much. He felt some of our staff or some of our offices were going to be attacked. ‘Something bad is about to happen’, he said. I shared his feeling. I did not sleep much that night. I had a lot of my staff in Iraq and I felt very responsible for them.

Belgium, August 19 2003

This was one of the saddest days in my life. Mats called me ‘Our headquarters in Baghdad was bombed a few minutes ago. A truck full of explosives flattened most of the building’. Mats and I talked with Robert in a conference call later that day. It was bad. Robert said most of our staff was accounted for, but several of them were badly injured from falling debris, shrapnel or glass flying around. Ghis had a window frame hit his head. Michael’s face was badly cut by glass. Diya was evacuated with severe cuts in his arm and hands. Dozens of people had died. The pictures on television looked horrific. I was shocked. And felt endlessly guilty. Guilty as I had recruited these people. I had sent them in harm’s way. Guilty as no matter how good the security precautions we had taken, no matter how many times we had stressed to them all to be careful, still they, the people from my team, got hurt. It cut deep inside me. I felt guilty as I was not there to help. I should have been there with them.

Belgium, August 20 2003
As more details came in of the bombing, a provisional list was circulated, a list with names of those not accounted for, and those which were confirmed dead. I could not believe my eyes when I saw M.’s name on the list. M. was dead.

Dubai, December 2005
These thoughts and images fly, no, they scream, through my head as we are standing in front of our plaque.. It all takes a few seconds for it to come through. All of the hurt. The immense sadness and senselessness. The guilt of not having done enough. The guilt of not having said things that should have been said. So often we forget that when we say ‘goodbye’, it might really mean ‘goodbye’. A final ‘goodbye’. We might never see that person again in this life. I see M.’s face in front of me as we talked for a brief moment in time, passing eachother in Canal Hotel that evening of the barbeque. I should have taken the time to sit and talk with her. I should have known this might have been the last time ever, we had the chance to talk. But I did not. I was tired, wanted to go to sleep, had an early start the next day. But I should have. Should have. The guilt. And the horror…

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The Ebook Table of Contents

The Road to the Horizon - Ebook
Table of contents

The Reader's Digest of "The Road"
Introduction to "The Road to the Horizon"

Nights on Deserted Islands
The Children of Ambriz
The Real "Out of Africa"
Goma, the Scent of Africa
How Cigarettes Once Saved My Life
Wapi Yo?
The Ugly Duckling
Abby One and Abby Two
The Man with the Air Conditioner On his Head, Shot at us
Once, I went to Mpulungu
On Earth As It Is In Heaven
Once Upon a Fine Antarctic Morning
Shit No Go, We No Go!
A World Apart
Italians, the Art of Flying and the Laws of Probability
Scene of War
The Pizza Place on the Corner
The Adventures of Little Herman in Kosovo
In Pace
Lost Connection
TV Censorship - The Pakistani Way
The US Special Forces Have Arrived!
Wild Cannabis and "Oh Baby!"
How We Conquered the Mountain
Ham Radio, Anyone?
-"M"- Requiem For Baghdad
The Day I Got Deported from the US
The Day the Groom Got Deported from the US
Pero. Tears for My Friend
One Love!
Doing Good to Others
250 Boats Facing the Same Direction
We Are All Going No-Where
"Yo Man!" - The Mother Watch Rap
Letter to a Mum: Spoiling Innocence
Have I Lost It Or Just Found It?
How Bad Can Your Luck Get?
Home - "Le Plat Pays"
The Jihadis - A Close Encounter with the Terrorists
From Sand to a City
What's in a Gesture?
The Dudettes
Itanglish: Italian Food in English
The New Woman in My Life
My Life in Four Bags
This Man...
Murphy's Law in Sudan
How Deep Is the Deep Field?
The Pit Latrine?
Twenty-Four Hours in Aweil
The Theory of Relativity
The Forces of Nature
The Perfect Balance
The Driver's License

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Scene of War

June 1999.

Richard, Alf and I are standing on a mountain pass, at the border crossing between Albania and Kosovo. The view is breathtaking. It is part of a movie, projected in 360 degrees around us. Better than a movie.

A long, slow moving stream starts from far behind us. We can hear it, the random noise. It passes right next to where we stand, and follows bends and curves for as far as we can see. A stream, a steady flow. Not of water, but of people. Tens of thousands. Refugees returning home. Whole families on tractors and donkey pulled carts, with all their belongings stacked as high as they can. Mattresses, cupboards, tables, chairs, cardboard boxes… Mothers holding on to babies, brothers and sisters walking hand in hand. Elderly men with deep grooves in their faces, walking with a stick in their hand, or pushing a wheel barrel. A massive flow of people. Each with their own horror story to tell, moving steadily back to their homes. Homes they fled a couple of months ago after Serb militia and special forces wrecked their lives, burnt their crops, raped their mothers and daughters, killed their brothers, sons and fathers. As the stream of people comes the mountain pass, they see the same scenery as I do. I wonder what goes on inside them.

In between the mountains tops, capped tree forests, scarred by cluster bombs which Nato blanketed over them, lay the valleys. Valleys with a fresh green colour of spring grass and young leaves on the trees. For as far as the eye reaches, we can see plumes of smoke coming from the valleys, like candles on a cake, which have just been blown out. Plumes of smoke, going up in the air and dissolving into the clear blue spring sky. Smoke of houses, cars and farm sheds burning, for as far as we can see, dotted over the valleys. The militia and break away paramilitary forces looted and burned everything as they retreated. It looks like the whole country is still burning. People lives are burning. And yet the expression on the faces from all who pass us, is not one of desperation, but one of hope. They all smile. They look at the same scenery as I do, but they think of hope. Hope of starting afresh. They wave at us. They wave at the Nato military trucks and tanks maneuvering in between the stream. The liberators and the liberated.

It is yet another scene of war, another scene of misery and hope, another scene of destruction mixed with hope, of a past and a present. Will it ever end? Will we ever learn from our mistakes?

Two F16 fighter jets blast low over our heads. Instinctively, everyone pulls their heads down. The fighting is not over yet. We hear the remote muffled thunder of a bombing raid. Very far away. The misery is not over yet. As I get into the car, my eyes cross those of a young girl, sitting on her mum’s lap, on the back of a tractor. She looks at me and I look at her. I smile and she smiles back, hesitantly raising her arm to wave to me. Her mum searches who the girl is waving to. She finds me. She whispers something in the girl’s ears. The girl looks up, kisses her mum on the cheek, and looks back at me. She throws a kiss at me. I throw one back and wave. She laughs. Her dad, driving the tractor looks back and waves at me too. Would they know I am thinking of my daughter? Would they know she has the same eyes, the same hair. Would they know this is why I do this work? Because she could have been my daughter, sitting on my wife’s lap. This could have been my family, my life. But destiny has put them there and me here. Sheer luck determined those who suffer and those who never realize enough how lucky they are.

‘Let’s go’, I smile at our driver, ‘let’s go, work to be done’. I can see in his eyes he is thinking the same as I do. We all do.

Pictures courtesy WFP/Tom Haskell

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How Cigarettes Once Saved My Life

Wednesday February 3 1993, 5 am

My watch beeps me out of my sleep. For a moment, I don’t know anymore where I am. I lay on a hard cotton cot, in a wet sleeping bag. The side of the tent drips. I am cold, wet. My muscles hurt, my skin is sunburned, my head aches. All I want to do is sleep. Just another hour, just another minute, but I know I can not. I fumble under the cot to find my glasses. They fog up. I step through puddles of water in the tent, and grab a flashlight. It is still pitch dark outside. The flashlight beams over our surroundings. Sand, low thorny scrub bushes. Hundreds of tiny hermit crabs with shells on their backs scavenging in between the huge boobies and frigate birds sitting randomly around us. The sound of the waves crashing onto the coral reef and rolling out onto the beach a bit further away. The smell of guano in the damp tropical air. We had a huge storm last night. I remember we were fighting to keep the tents up, and the water out. It was never supposed to rain here. They call it the desert of the Pacific, this place. Howland island. On the crossing of the equator and the dateline. In the middle of bloody nowhere. Emilia Earhart, the first woman to fly around the world was supposed to land here to refuel on July 3 1937, but she disappeared, never to be seen again. They had even flattened part of the island as a make shift landing strip for her, and put a fuel on shore.

For a second I curse the pain I feel in my body, curse my constant urge to ‘go where no man has gone before’. Well few men at least.. Why this constant drive to do the unusual? To take the risks? ‘Adrenaline junky. Peter, you are an adrenaline junky’, I repeat to myself as I walk over to one of the main tents. Well, ‘stumble’ is more like it. Stumbling between the pieces of coral and trying to avoid the thorns of the bushes. My legs are scratched a thousand times already. Every evening, I have to pull the thorns out of the soles of my feet. Everything hurts.

I open the flap of the tent, and see Mike sitting at a table in front of the radio. He has his reading glasses on the tip of his red sunburned nose. He looks up and winks at me. I smile at him. The small light, dangling by its electric cord from the top of the tent frame, swings slightly in the wind. The light dims as Mike is transmitting on the radio. I just hear the click-click from his morse key. Randy lays on a couple of plastic bags on the tent floor, amidst puddles of dirty rainwater filled with sand. I pull his shoulder, and tell him my cot is free. Without saying anything, he smiles as if he is still in a dream and shuffles off towards my tent. I take a seat in the plastic chair in front of the second radio and computer, put the headphones on, and listen to the cacophony of noises. It seems like these are people transmitting from Europe.. Let me see if I can create some order in this chaos..

Several hours later, my shift is finished. The sun is already straight above us and has heated up the tent to 40oC. Sweat is dripping off my back. My shirt and trunks are wet. I need a bath. But there is no fresh water. There is nothing on this godforsaken island, unless if we had brought it with us. Bathing is in the sea. Plenty of sea water, though, surrounding this half a square mile island. The sea is wild. The waves created by the immense storm last night thunder over the coral and run deep onto the shore. Where there was a hilly white beach yesterday, the sand is flattened to a perfect spotless even plain today. No traces yet of footsteps. As sand was scooped away by the storm, parts of the remains of a second World War amphibious plane surfaced. I take some soap and shampoo from my tent, and walk to the sea. Kurt, the ship’s cook is standing at the shore line, looking at the Machias, our chartered sailing ship. A wave turned over the dinghy he and Captain Bill were using to deliver our daily rations of water and food. The Captain broke his wrist when he smashed onto the coral. ‘We were supposed to get off this island today. Guess not, hey’, I smile sourly to Kurt. ‘Nope, the waves are too high, man’, Kurt says, ‘No dinghy can get through this’. There is no port on this deserted island. Nothing. All transport between the Machias, anchored outside the reef, and the island is done by shuttling dinghies, riding the waves. But with waves this high, it is pure suicide.. I see Bob and Walt walking towards us, coming from the second radio tent. They say nothing, but think the same as we do: yesterday, we made a huge error. In a hasty effort to start evacuating the island, when we saw the storm clouds gathering, we first ferried water supplies and food rations off the island. We thought: ‘This is the only stuff which can get wet, so let’s see how well it goes’. But the waves got bigger and before we knew it, there was no way we could get through the walls of white foam crashing onto the coral. The waves now run fifty meters deep over the beach and then retract back. What a difference it makes from the babbling waves when we landed two weeks go. The sea had resembled a lake then, compared to this raging madness.

I pull off my T-shirt, sit down in a coral pool filled with 50 centimeters of water, and start rubbing soap over me. The waves come over the pool, filling it up, and a few seconds later, the water gets sucked out as the wave retracts. I feel like a baby in a cradle, rocking to and fro with the waves coming in and out. Kurt pulls off his shirt and shares my pool. ‘Lovely’, he smiles.. A bigger wave comes crashing over the edge of the coral pool and hits us off balance. We giggle, floating in the current. But as the wave retracts, the force is so strong, it sucks us with it. In a flash, our smiles change into disbelief, fear, panic. My heart skips a beat. The wave pulls us over the edge of the pool, into the water. I can not believe water of only 50 cm deep can have this force. We try to stand up, holding on to whatever we can grab, but we are sucked into the sea. We know the edge of the coral is only a few meters away. It has an underwater hole in it. The water gets sucked through the hole, and pulls me with it. My legs get stuck into the hole. Kurt holds on to the coral with his hands. An incoming wave is not strong enough to push me through, back onto the shore. I am stuck in the underwater hole. Kurt gets smashed onto the shore again. I lose my glasses in the thundering whirlpool of white foam. As the wave retracts from the shore I now get sucked underwater. My body is pulled through the coral hole, and I can feel the sharp edges cutting into my legs, arms and back. A few seconds later, I appear above water at the other side of the coral. I don’t feel the bottom anymore, I can not stand up anymore. The water is too deep. Having lost my glasses, I can hardly see. There are waves all around me and the current drags me with it, probably way from the shore. In the background I hear shouting on the beach. I paddle with my legs so I can look around. I can not see Kurt. I look at the Machias, shout at the crew, but don’t hear any reply. Probably they had not seen the accident. Suddenly I realize I still have my soap in one hand and the plastic bottle of shampoo in the other. Here I am floating in a rip current, with my body bleeding, peddling with my feet to stay afloat, but still holding on to my soap and shampoo as if these were the last earthly belongings I wanted to take with me into the next world… I let go of them. They sink. All I can think off is staying afloat. The current is too strong, I can not swim against it. I have to preserve my strength. I kick off my sandals and strip my pants as they hinder my movements. Suddenly I see a reddish colour in the water. I see the scratches on my arms. Can not see the stuff on my back, but it must be bleeding badly. This is not good news.. I know the sea around this island is infested with sharks. Bleeding in between sharks…. I remember people always said to lay still in the water not to attract sharks, and I temper my movements.. Have to, to preserve strength also. My hope is that the guys on the beach have witnessed the accident, and would do something to get me a rope or whatever.. I can not really imagine what this ‘whatever’ might be. I look at the Machias again. I am drifting away from it, towards the open sea. I am now probably 100-150 meters from the shore. And counting.. This current is strong… Suddenly, I hear splashing. Sharks? I am seriously contemplating I might not survive this. Either I will drown or sharks will shred me to pieces. Funny, I am not panicking. I actually think about how in the books people describe how ‘they see flashes of their life passing before their eyes’. I don’t see fuck before my eyes.. Maybe it is because I lost my glasses. The only thing I see is the fucking shoreline disappearing, and the fucking Machias disappearing, and the only fucking thing I feel is that this fucking current is dragging me with it, and that the fucking sharks will have a feast with me. In the best case scenario, I might only loose an arm or a leg. For a moment, I think how Tine would be mad at me, when I would come back home less one arm or a leg. She would tell me ‘And I warned you so many times before you left, to be careful, you fool! I have more problems with you than with a class room of three year olds!’ Tine is a kindergarten teacher.
No, the splashing is caused by something else. The first thing I see is something orange. My eye sight really sucks.. Orange. And then I see a head.. It is Kurt. He is wearing an orange lifejacket. ‘I have a rope, hold on’, he shouts. I swim towards him. We touch. I never could have imagined a man’s body could feel that welcoming… ‘Man, I thought, I thought’, I stumble over my words.. Kurt smiles.. He is a strange character. ‘He is a lunatic’, Bob once said. True, Kurt could get these sudden rages, shouting and waving a knife when someone would appear in ‘his’ kitchen while he was preparing the meals. But Kurt and I had a bond. A special bond which had been building for weeks now. I had cigarettes, and he had none. ‘Here, take the rope’, he says smiling, ‘The guys on shore will pull us in. You ok?’. I nod, grabbing the rope knotted at the back of Kurt’s life jacket. We shout and make signs to the shore party they can start pulling and before we know it, we are moving like a speedboat against the current. ‘Watch the coral’, Kurt shouts, spitting out water, ‘Watch the coral as we go in. Protect your head’. We are catching the surf again, as we get closer to the shore. A huge wave towers two meters high behind us, and picks us up. Now it is the white foaming whirl which pushes us onto the shore. Well, it does not push us, it tumbles us, throws us head over heels, literally, as one of my knees bangs my forehead. I grab my head, protecting my face with my arms and elbows while still holding onto the rope. The wave does not hit us onto the coral, but drags us over in a tumbling rage. I try saving whatever parts of my body which were not bleeding yet. The next thing we know, is the feeling of soft sand below us. When I stand up, I realize I am only in 10 cm of water. Kurt tumbles in behind me. I sit on my knees, catching my breath, spitting up water. Kurt comes to me and grabs hold of me.. ‘Hey what a surf, hey?’.. I stand up. Must be a funny sight. I am stark naked, with blood running off from me. Someone found my glasses. I put them on. They are wet and full of sand, but I don’t see anymore.. Blood gushing in my eyes…
The guys help us into the shade of one of the tents. Kurt limps. He has hurt his leg as he was dragged with me into the sea. He said he only made it because I got stuck in the hole, and ‘the hole was not big enough for both of us’, he laughs, with his nutty giggling sound. ‘Yeah, I think he is a nutcase’, I say to myself, ‘but he bloody well saved my life’.

Burt, one of our expedition doctors appears with a white plastic bottle and a rough sponge… ‘You know life coral in your blood stream will kill you. It will consume all the oxygen in your veins and kill you. We have to dissolve it with distilled vinegar.’, he says softly, ‘This might hurt a bit’.. ‘Distilled vinegar on open wounds?’ ‘Yep, and I have to rub it in a bit, to ensure it is all properly cleaned’, Burt says in a calm occasional tone, as if he would be talking about the colour of the sky.. I don’t think I felt pain like that before. Two guys had to hold me onto my chair, while Burt, with no sign of mercy, rubbed all the wounds and poured the damned vinegar over it.. Thousands of needles were pushed into my body.

I cry, I shout.. So does Kurt. With chuckles and sniggers in between. After it is all over, he turns to me, smacks his hand on my shoulder and smile ‘Hey Peter, can I have a cigarette from you now?’. He might be nuts, but he is a hell of a guy.

No, I never felt that kind of pain again. Once it came close. A couple of months later, back in Belgium, when I got a kidney crisis due to the dehydration after being stuck on Howland Island for another week after the incident, without sufficient drinking water, the boat breaking down, the engines of the dinghies failing… Kurt was crucial in getting us off in the end, but that is another story.. It is also another story how I got back to work a week too late. My boss shook his head in disbelief and anger ‘you always want to do weird stuff, don’t you?’. He clearly did not agree with me wanting to take three months off next year to go to the Antarctic. I quit my job a week later.

Why I do all this? I don’t know. Maybe it makes a nice story to tell afterwards.. Maybe it is to learn a few lessons. Lessons for life like “Always listen to your wife’s advise”, or “Soap and shampoo are of no use when drowning” or “Sometimes cigarettes can safe your life”… I don’t know…

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