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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Most popular posts of last year

Surely you’ve tried to keep up with my erratic publishing schedule: sometimes a story every other day, sometimes nothing for weeks. That’s why you’ve missed some stories. Here’s an overview of the most popular stories of the first year.


10. I’m going to Texas
9. Steve is my hero
8. After Burning Man
7. The most beautiful place in the world
6. Bad news at a bad moment
5. A tale of love hate and credit cards
4. You’re doing what?
3. Rotting away in a Delhi prison cell
2. My trip is a failure
1. NGO glamour


Happy reading!


Berlin revisited

It was 1990 and my father, sister and myself took a trip to Berlin (I forgot why my mother couldn’t attend). It were exciting times. The wall had fallen only two months before and crossing to East Germany was only possible through several holes in the wall. The east was unlike anything I’d ever seen before: the houses looked like they were going to collapse, everything smelled terrible due to some (brown?) coal they used and the poor exhausts of the Trabi cars. Still the place bustled with energy and I couldn’t wait to discover it on my own.

It was 1998 and I had just had the best year of my life. And it wasn’t in Berlin, but in Oxford. Together with great friends we had an amazing time. And suddenly I found myself looking for a place on my own. As luck goes with the stupid, I found the greatest place in all of Berlin. It’s a house with a tower that makes it resembles a mix between a church and a castle. The interior is even more amazing, not only 5+ meter high ceilings, but an amazing crowd as well. A 75 year old yoga teacher married to a 15 year younger man, a PHD in physics student, and a lesbian girl with personal hygiene issues.

She lived in ‘the tower’ (see picture). This 6m2 room was unique. Thanks to the height, it provided an amazing view over the city. Due to its size it limited possessions to the most essential. Due to the poor heating it only attracted people with real character. And great balance, as in order to get to the room one needed to walk over a 25 centimeter wide wooden board crossing the roof with no fence to prevent one from sliding down the roof and smashing into the garden. Needless to say the bathroom was downstairs, adding to the fun of ‘nature calls’ during Berlin’s cold winter nights.

It was 2010 and the pressure was on. I was seated in front of my manager’s manger’s manager’s manager and he shared a story of our the beautiful location where we had dinner with my colleagues. He explained that a couple of months before there had been a dinner in the same gigantic room inside the HQ of Axel Springer. The founder of the company had been an avivid fighter for reunification of Germany, which was the reason why this building was right next to the Berlin wall. Five years after the fall of ‘die Mauer’ the presidents who orchestrated it had been having dinner here: Gorbachev, Kohl and Reagan. In 2010 the USA was represented by George W. Bush and I sat on the same chair as he did 🙂

In 2011 things were very different. After over a year of traveling I was kindly hosted by a good study friend. One of the first things on my agenda was to visit my old house. It was like before. He told a nice story about his hitch hiking trip to Bosnia in the 50s. Rough looking local men caught him taking berries from some bushes. Neither side spoke much of the other’s language. They took him along to their village and sat him down without speaking. Then they shouted at their wife and only minutes later a delicious meal was prepared for him. He barely had taken a first bite when they gestured that:
‘Ffive years ago Germans came and were shooting at us from the mountains in the distance.’
‘Another German has come today.’ ‘And now we drink together.’


You are crazy!

When the crisis hit, it hard. Numbers don’t hurt, but cancelled weddings and bankrupt friends do. This crisis isn’t the USA in 2008 nor Greece in 2011. It’s Argentina around 2000.

What happened? After a disastrous inflation history, Argentina decided to lock it’s currency to the US dollar in a ratio of 1:1. In the beginning it did miracles for the Argentinian economy as one of the biggest barriers for foreign investments (exchange rate loss) was removed. In the long run it proved to be a disaster for the Argentinian economy. Year by year the argentineans couldn’t keep up with the USA productivity growth. Therefore the country became each year a bit more expensive. Unemployment started to grow, which was the beginning of a downward spiral of which Argentina couldn’t escape. In the end Argentina devaluated 75% to a ratio of about 4 Argentinean pesos to 1 US dollar.

Over a decade later, everybody and their brother has an opinion about the European financial crisis. I have one too. Historically, all concerned countries saw their currencies depreciate against the Deutschmark. Sometimes they had succeeded in lockin their currencies, but inevitably they devaluated. This hasn’t happened in Europe since the introduction of the euro. Despite that the euro changed some minor rules of the game, the Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian economies still can’t keep up with their big German brother. And that isn’t necessarily bad. Unless you’ve got the same currency…

A currency which is shared between two countries is unfair to one country, two countries or both. As there is only 1 exchange rate and there are 2 countries. The euro is oriented towards the country with the strongest economy and central bank: Germany. Thanks to the strong German economy and Germany’s fear of inflation, the euro has been a very strong currency, increasing in value (most notably) against the US dollar. This is good for a strong economy, but disastrous for weaker economies. Nowhere this is more visible than in Spain.

The Spanish peseta was one of the weaker currencies when it joined the euro. The economy boomed due to European subsidies and a housing boom. When both disappeared, the Spanish needed to compete on ‘normal’ terms with other countries. Which they couldn’t. Unemployment exploded to over 20%. With such high unemployment the country goes to hell. The government spends all its money on unemployment benefits and social welfare, leaving no room to invest in economic growth generators like education. Foreign investment halts due to economic uncertainty. The smartest and richest people leave the country, all accelerating financial doom.

How can you can a country escape? The most frequently heard solution is to keep them in the euro and support a country through these difficult times. As noble as it sounds, it grossly underestimates the severity of the problem. My personal estimate is that the troubled countries probably are overvalued between 25%-40%. Supporting all these countries until they have a competitive economy again takes at 15-20 years of frozen or negative growth in salaries. Unrealistic.  

The other solution is to do it the ‘Argentinean way’. This means that the affected countries would default on their debts and get their own currency back. That currency would be weaker than the euro, and keep their economies competitive globally. Why would this be a better solution? First of all, it addresses the fundamental causes of the problem: competitiveness of the economy due to a fixed exchange rate with other economies that behave very differently than their own. Secondly, it prevents the social situation from escalating. These countries were semi-dictatorships as recently as the 70s and  80s. Protests are increasing and a bloody ‘Spanish spring’ isn’t as unthinkable due to massive unemployment and even hunger. 

As painful as the Argentinean default was and despite the corrupt politicians, the terrible financial policies, Argentina is now one of the fastest growing countries in the world. The countries that exit now could with tight European guidance, re-enter the monetary union (read: the euro). But only once they’ve demonstrated a sustained capability of satisfying the original requirements with regards to debt, exchange rate, inflation etc.

‘But my bank has invested billions in Greece. It will collapse due if those countries default, creating a domino effect.’
Banks have weak financial buffers and multiple countries defaulting on their debts won’t help. But supporting banks that have a chance of surviving isn’t bad. For example: the Dutch government will make a nice profit on *all* their investments in bad banks.  Moreover how many European banks went bankrupt when the immensely important Argentinean economy collapsed? I can’t remember a single one.

‘But don’t banks deserve to go bankrupt? Isn’t this a case of private profits and socialized losses?’
Never let a crisis go to waste. With the government as a shareholder banks can be forced to address obscene salaries and irresponsible risk taking.

‘But going back to their previous currencies simply isn’t possible’
Why not? Most countries have their own currency. These countries had their own currencies before they entered the euro. It can be done.


I am crazy

When the word spread that I was heading for Europe, family and friends assumed I was returning home for good. When I explained my plan for Was to stay several weeks and continue traveling, it instilled surprise and fear in the people I love.

‘Isn’t about a year since you’ve left?’
True, I left on the 12th of October 2010.

‘won’t you have difficulties getting used to normal life once you return?’
Maybe, I will be very well rested though. I think that when I stop traveling life will be fine.

‘don’t you miss your friends and family?’

‘where are you going next?’
Good question. I’ll probably leave Europe around the beginning of November. By then I will have made up my mind.

‘wow, you must be very rich’
I got rich by wanting very little (Thorreau)

So yes, I will continue traveling. For how long I don’t know. As some of my travel naivety has worn off, leaving Europe will be tougher this time. However, my curiosity for new people and places is still there. Which will keep me on the road for the foreseeable time.


I’m going to Texas!

Most people in California and at Burning Man gave me a look with a mix of surprise and disdain, when I told them that the destination after Burning Man was going to be in the state of Texas. When I added that I was headed for a city called ‘Austin’ their faces changed ‘Austin is pretty ok’, I was regularly told. They were wrong. Austin is not ‘pretty ok’. Austin is incredibly great!

The difference between the Burning Man / Grey Hound crowd and the people I met in Austin was massive. I met two of my former managers, which instantly reminded me of he horrible activity called ‘work’ 😉 For my entire stay, I was kindly hosted by one of those managers. I wasn’t the only one staying there, his lovely wife and their *five* kids were living there too. Add to that their dog and the three puppies that they temporary hosted after they were saved from bushfires; and you can imagine my gratitude for having a 37 year old kid added to the family for no less than 10 (!) days.

When I write that Austin is great, it’s because of the people you meet and the things you do. Sometimes it’s an excellent combination of the two, like meeting up with former colleagues you haven’t seen in years and go wakeboarding & wakesurfing (first time!) with them a couple of times. 

Have you ever been to a ‘Texas gunshow’? Neither had I. Until now. It was strange experience in a dodgy part of San Antonio, where I just had visited ‘the Alamo’. We joked that the best sales pitch over there was ‘to explain to people that the best chance of making it back to their cars alive was to buy a gun’. Even when you know that a large number of guns that are sold are not suitable for hunting nor self defense, actually seeing somebody buy machine guns, remains a strange experience. Especially when they’re a family with kids and the next shop is selling nazi memorabilia…

You don’t need to watch a lot of movies, in order to know that American are crazy about sport. So I came prepared. My preparation wasn’t enough. To my own amazement, I was surrounded by literally hundreds of adults in an American football stadium for a match between 14 year olds during business hours (meaning that the parents had taken part of the afternoon off to see the match). If that wasn’t surprising enough, the match was filmed by multiple professional cameras, had cheerleaders, a flying team and a gigantic marching band during the start, half time and finish. The teams had specific coaches for offense and defense players and it all looked very very professional. One would expect fanatical parents, but I didn’t spot a single one during several trips.

Even though my stay in Austin was in total luxury and the area is typically referred to as ‘the bubble’ (for it’s well protected social environment), it was also the setting of one of the heart breaking stories of my entire trip. It unfolded over several beautiful sunny days in Austin. My host received a phone call detailing that her best friend’s husband didn’t return home from a solo fishing trip at the coast. At his wife’s request the hotel checked his room and found all his belongings including wallet. Initial thoughts were that he could have had engine problems, while fishing at sea or a rip tide during a nightly swim (he was a great sportsman). The police was informed and a search was started, including a helicopter of a friend. The following day, the man was found dead on a nearby island. If this wasn’t bad enough, the next day the police released information that the man was murdered. Shortly afterwards it was made publice that he had won a $400.000 lawsuit against his former employer, just the week before.

Even though I’ve never met the man, the story of his son sends shivers down my spine. His son and my host’s kids had a special event at their school, just weeks before the tragic event. All kids were asked by their teachers to come to school dressed like somebody they admired, for example an inventor, sportsperson or artist. The son made a special request with his teacher. He said ‘my dad has climbed all of the world’s highest mountains and there is nobody in the world I admire more than him. Can I please come dressed like my father?’.