Three memorable locations (September 2019)

Like many other European baby boomers growing up in the golden years from 1945 to 1975 I was lucky to find that the world was open for exploration as long as I had some funds in my pocket.[1] Even when traveling on a very limited budget in the 1970s I managed to find ways and means to get around, hitching lifts, staying in hostels and with friends, etc. I didn’t take many photographs in those days but I did get to some exotic destinations. In the 1980s Lene and I were keenly mobile, roaming from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas and assorted other locations… Then with our children Kathrine (born in 1987) and Martin (in 1990) we expanded our horizons from bases in Ouagadougou (1996-1997) and Managua (2002-05). The following are reflections on three very different memorable locations where my caravan has been.

First on my list is County Donegal, out there on the edge of Europe and deep in my sub-consciousness, with nothing but the sea and the sky beyond the beyond, facing westwards and towards the New World. At the end of the 1970s I joined several groups of young people from Belfast and Derry staying in County Donegal, when youth and peace organisations were looking for ways to bring people together ”across the sectarian divide.” There was a holiday center near a village called Naran, maintained through voluntary labour by mixed groups of Catholics and Protestants. Traveling to and from the coast was amongst the highlights of my life. The wild green hills and the windy beaches are… magic… what words can I use?

Some of the kids claimed that Derry is the centre of the universe! County Donegal has infinite qualities. There are few people. Most of the settlements are tiny and the roads are thin winding threads in an enormous patchwork of grassy slopes and rocky coastlines. The wind is always blowing and there are sea birds wailing overhead. Flocks of sheep and herds of cattle huddle behind stonewalls. Pubs are whitewashed cottages, where musicians often appear out of the blue with their fiddles and pipes. The towns and cities of Eire and the Six Counties seem far away and the border seems like a remnant of an idea that has gone out of fashion. I raise my glass to remoteness, the sound of waves and rain, small fishing boats moored in hidden harbours, to the light changing as clouds come and go, to fresh air and freedom of movement.

I drove to County Donegal from Belfast where I lived for a little more than a year. In those days there was a heavily policed border between the North and the Republic. Each little market town or village hosted a police station or an army barracks ringed with high barricades and barbed wire, the main border crossings were strictly controlled with car boot searches and questioning and the roads swarmed with soldiers on patrol setting up roadblocks and waving flashlights. Once I drove on the back roads from County Donegal, crossed the border near Derry and a few hours later was stopped at a checkpoint in downtown Belfast. “What were you doing in the border areas earlier today?” I was asked. The number plate of my vehicle had been photographed and entered into the police database. I was taken aback. Slowly we learned that Northern Ireland in the 1970s was a huge testing ground for the technology of surveillance.[2]

Before moving to Belfast at the end of 1978 I ventured towards the east of the continent a couple of times to learn a little about the iron curtain and the “people’s democracies.” Some stamps in an old passport bear witness to these trips, which included a stay in southern Bohemia and Prague as well as couple of journeys to Berlin. The Cold War was chilling in those days and travel in Czechoslovakia (CSSR) and East Germany (DDR) was a bit complicated, with currency exchange regulations, limited accommodation in mostly state-run hotels and heavily armed, suspicious border guards. There were few tourists and not many Czechs or East Germans who spoke English. Schoolchildren learnt Russian in order to strengthen fraternal relations eastwards.[3] Now neither country exists, the stamps are slightly faded reminders of states that mutated into other imagined communities and then merged into the entity known as the European Union.

The lasting impression etched into my memory files was a panoramic view of the wall winding through the middle of Berlin, the empty heart of the city. I was heading from the East into the West after a night journey from Prague. Walking from the Ostbahnhof, I drank morning coffee on the windswept Alexanderplatz and then took a suburban train stopping at Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse. The passengers entitled to transit descended below ground where papers were checked and stamped before returning to the station above. The train then undertook the one or two kilometre journey across no man’s land, a broad band cut through the city, devoid of buildings, but packed with brightly illuminated barbed wire and anti-tank barriers, trenches, walls and watchtowers. It was obviously high risk attempting to flee across such obstacles: in the 28 years from 1961 to 1989 over 200 escapees were killed.

Later this year Germans will celebrate the fall of the wall in November 1989. Almost 30 years have passed since reunification, but the divisions between East and West still shape political, social and economic agendas in the Federal Republic. The rise of anti-EU, anti-immigrant, proto-fascist movements has culminated in the emergence of the Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) party, which mirrors similar tendencies in many other countries. Looking back on the post-Cold War period, I wonder where we have gone wrong in the efforts to heal divisions and build tolerant, progressive societies… Rising inequality is an obvious cause of unrest. But I hope the extremists can be kept on the margins of German and European policy-making.[4]

Further to the south and east is the Sinai Peninsular in Egypt, another memorable region. We’ve had some brief glimpses of the Arab world. In 1981 Lene and I met in Cairo to do the Nile valley shuffle by train and by boat as well as briefly and madly by cycling to the edge of the desert around the Pharaoh’s tombs at the Valley of Kings near Luxor. Then in 2001, a couple of months before some crazed Saudis hijacked aircraft on the east coast of the USA and plunged the world into an endless war of terror, we took our kids for a holiday at the Sharm el Sheikh resort on the Red Sea.

We had a fantastic time in the fierce midsummer heat. There were huge pools at our hotel, but also a shelving beach where we could snorkel and admire tropical fish. Martin was a little too young to learn diving – which he did during a holiday trip to Roatán in Honduras a few years later – but we swam a lot and discovered the sparkling beauty of coral.

During our two-week holiday we joined the crowds on buses for a trip to Mount Sinai and St. Catherine’s Monastery. It is very hot in Sinai during the summer and the sunrise over the mountains is a spectacular sight, so tourists are deposited at around 3 am at the bottom of a track winding upwards, climbing in the coolest hours of the night, towards dawn. At sunrise we were perched on some rocks not far from the summit, imagining Moses looking into the heavens and God’s hand reaching down to give him the commandments.[5]

As the sun rose we descended towards the Monastery. Through a gap in the slopes we could see the solid yellow-brown walls surrounding the chapels, refectories and libraries forming the ancient settlement. Slowly we proceeded down the mountain on a narrow footpath, finally emerging just outside the massive bulk of the building. Inside we were shown around the public spaces including the chapel of the burning bush, a collection of monk’s skulls and bones and some glimpses of the many treasured manuscripts kept in the Monastery.[6]

St. Catherine’s was fortified by the Emperor Justinian in 565 and is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. The members of the religious order speak Greek. A peaceful oasis retreat in a wild desert landscape, it is an anomaly in a region torn apart by conflicts.

egypt-st-catherines-panorama-of-monastery

[1] French economists referred to high growth rates during ”les trentes glorieuses” (years) from 1946-75.

[2] Undermining the 1998 (“Good Friday”) peace agreement and threatening to re-establish border controls is probably the most scary and irresponsible outcome of the Brexiteer’s madness and their conquest of the Conservative and Unionist Party in the UK. After centuries of injustice English ruling class arrogance towards Ireland still knows no bounds. But the tables have been turned as the EU member states are backing the Irish government in efforts to prevent the return of a “hard” border across the island.

[3] In 1977 huge red banners hung in the streets of Prague with slogans like ”Se Sovetskym svazem az do vecnosti!” (with the Soviet Union until eternity!) Young Czechs told me that the students during the Prague spring in 1968 added a few more words: ”a ne o den vice!” (and not a day more!). Then the Russian tanks rolled in, but not for eternity…

[4] An easy to read introduction to the centuries old divisions of what was once known as the Holy Roman Empire was published a couple of years ago; check out the ”shortest history of Germany” by James Hawes (Old Street Publishing, 2017).

[5] For the full story, see Exodus, chapters 19 and 20 (e.g. in www.Bible.com)

[6] A thorough description of the Monastery is: http://www.sinaimonastery.com/index.php/en/

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