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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?’.


After Burning Man

If it had been the script for a movie it would have been dismissed as to unlikely to be true: a movie director, a photomodel, a math student & world champion juggling, a spiritual healer, a hippie whose car had broken down on the way to Burning Man, an amazing social media organizer and a random guy. And me, and all of us in the campervan / RV traveling eastbound out of Burning Man.
I had seen my last Burning Man sunrise of 2011, packed my stuff and driven the 30 kilo backpack on my bicycle through the dessert across the Burning Man playa and had arrived at the campervan at 08.00. We were scheduled to leave at noon and by now it was past 16.00 hrs and we still hadn’t moved because one person was missing. We had been waiting inside the campervan in the smoldering heat of the Nevada desert with sand storms beating the car. Despite the “somewhat eclectic” mix of people tensions were high. Was there any truth in the rumours of a car crash that blocked the road? Should we stay another night to enjoy Burning Man? Most people wanted to leave and just in time the last person hopped on board and we departed. We drove for half an hour until we hit the traffic jam and soon we were realised that we would be stuck for at least another 5 hours. At least we were moving.
During the wait in the traffic jam, people regularly hopped out of the car and chatted with their neighbours, watched kites in the sky or just stretched their legs. The “random guy” had hopped out for a long time. We asked him to stay in the car, but to no avail. Just before the campervan left the desert, he hopped out to see some friends behind us in the traffic jam. We never saw him again and all his stuff was in the car.
And so started our road trip. Europeans often make fun of the geographical knowledge of Americans (“Belgium, is that the capital of The Netherlands?”), but I had no clue how far the drive to Austin (my next destination) was going to be. The answer was: long. But during the days our eclectic group spend together we had an amazing time. To be frank: my world is very different from the world of a healer. I don’t see crystals in light beams with my bare eyes. I don’t feel magnetic flows radiating of mountains. He does and he’s an amazing guy. A world champion juggeling with a background in math is a totally different story. We spend countless hours brainstorming about iPhone apps, internet startups and patterns in throwing juggeling balls. A photomodel is not the typical person I hang out with, but she did brighten up our days. The owner of the car is a movie director, artist and photomodel too. She had the tough job of keeping us all sane and get the campervan / RV home in one piece.
To many things happened on that trip to recount here: we enjoyed the amazing decoration of the camper, we lost and found an alive three legged cat, swam in a gorgeous lake in the middle of the desert mountains, saw the most amazing sunset next to the Grand Canyon, etc. etc. A worthy continuation of Burning Man.
At the same time there were many sad stories: “do you have any brothers and sisters?” “yes, three and they’re all dead”. “If I don’t arrive back in time for work I will lose my job, I don’t have any savings and my parents don’t support me”. After I had left the campervan, I went on a 23 hrs busride from Alburquerque to Austin. More sadness. From the creative joyful white people of Burning Man to the harsh reality of American poverty (I definitely was the only one who had chosen the bus because I preferred it to flying). My fellow riders on this tour were immigrants and disillusioned consumers.
Reality had biten hard, but it wasn’t able to wash out the memories of Burning Man. I’ll be there again in 2012, let me know if you want to join.

At Burning Man

It was a strange ritual: rolling yourself in dessert dust upon arrival if you’re a first time (“virgin”) Burning Man participant (“Burner”). Warily, I rubbed some dessert sand on me, not wanting to get Frank’s car even more dirty. It had been a long drive and we’d been waiting in the hot sun, so all I wanted was to set up camp and get started. Frank explained that they were “greeters” as they told everybody “welcome home”. It seemed kind of childish to me, and I suspected the same level of honesty from them as the underpaid people at the entrance of shops everywhere across the USA. Only much later I would understand why.
I was thrilled. Something I had (literally) travelled half the planet for, days of preparation and hours of driving was about to commence. And then a big silence until I gasped: it’s huge! 50.000 people camping in the dessert isn’t something you can imagine. Near endless streets filled with campers (or RV’s as Americans call them), tents and anything that can create shade, in a three quarter circle. To my amazement we weren’t the only ones with a special car, there were 100’s, no thousands of cars like hours. From a little muffin concealing a a tricycle to massive trucks with sound systems to rival any club. Wearily I looked at my bike, most people drove bikes that were 3 meters high or 30 centimeters low, but few drove a standard second hand mountain bike like me.
Let’s explain a bit more. Burning Man comes alive at night, when the hot dessert sun is replaced by thousands and thousands of lights of what are called “Art trucks”. These are vehicles that typically are created by a camp, which is a group of people that decided to camp together and share things like food, water, shade and showers. All of these are precious as Burning Man has a pack-it-in-pack-it-out policy, meaning that everything you take to Burning Man has to be taken back. Moreover, you can’t buy anything at Burning Man except for ice that is used to cool food and beverages. There is a tradition of “gifting” which is different from “barter” in the sense that the other person doesn’t expect anything in return. This means for example that at Burning Man people will invite total strangers in their camps and have them drink and/or eat for free. And this happens a lot. At first I didn’t understand: was there some corporation behind each camp that sponsored the drinks? (but why didn’t I see any corporate logo’s?), were all of these people filthy rich? (they sure didn’t look like it). In the end the answer is much simpler than this: these people are very friendly and generous. So many a night you will share food and drinks with interesting strangers. At a very different level there are many similarities between TED and Burning Man: both TED and Burning Man bring together an amazing group of minds from very different backgrounds. Even though I’ve never attended a TED, I can tell that Burning Man is more hedonistic. Day and night you’ll hear pumping techno from the large “sound camps”. Is it all party then? No, definitely not. To my own surprise you’ll quite a number of people sitting on their own in the dessert or biking around and enjoying the art structures that are spread out throughout the city.
But what do people do there? I had a look at the planning for Burning Man and for the first day I saw 48 pages with 12 items per page. At that point I resigned to seeing “everything”. Actually, most people will tell you that they accomplish very little of their goals at Burning Man: “I was on the way to a class on a subject I never had even heard of, when I saw a group of people doing an amazing art performance, during which I met another group of people who told me about a performance at sunset tonight….”.
If this all sounds very chaotic: it is. And it’s wonderful. Burning Man is the best thing I’ve ever done. By a long shot. Why you ask? Sure there’s great art, interesting lectures, beautiful art cars, living a week in the dessert, amazing sunsets/rises. But Burning Man is all about the people. Nearly everybody creates something and contributes to the experience of others. From executives to people on the brink of losing their job and forced to live on the street, anybody and everybody has interesting stories to share or things to show. At a personal, level I learnt some of the wisest lessons of my trip right there, by one of the most unlikely of teachers.
Come to Burning Man, really. Sure there are things that might not be for you. One of those things for me was loads of people walking around naked. It’s just not my thing. If you don’t like pumping techno bass: go to Hushville. You’ve got children? Go to Kidsville. You can’t carry all your stuff? Rent a camper, join a camp or make some friends up front. You don’t have money? You can make Burning Man as inexpensive as you want by getting (nearly) free rides to/from Burning Man.
Other questions? As the saying goes at Burning Man: “the playa will provide”. Seriously, nearly anything is available right there. Doesn’t matter if you need a welding machine, a screw, tent or anything. And people will share it with you for free. Burning Man has been the best thing I’ve ever done, and even if you’re very different, it probably will have the same effect on you.

Going to Burning Man

It was one of those rainy days in San Francisco. And no matter how much I loved SF, I couldn’t help but feeling stressed for the trip to Burning Man. My backpack was full. So, how was I going to carry a bicycle, additional clothes, camping gear and food and water supplies for 10 days in the dessert?
But maybe I should start with why I was going to Burning Man anyway. It was an article from 1996 which had solidly locked Burning Man on my to-do-before-you-die list. Something about camping in the dessert, great people, cutting edge art and a progressive atmosphere, just triggered a switch. Before I left on this trip around the world I hadn’t met anybody who had been to Burning Man. Just a couple of days before I arrived in San Francisco I was contemplating not going to Burning Man at all. Mainly because I was in heaven already: a paradise-like island of the northern coast of Sulawesi, $15 per day (food and accommodation included) with stunning snorkeling at a 30 second walk from my hut. Why would I go through all the cost, effort and stress to be camping in the dessert?
But then, slowly but steadily the Burning Man magic kicked in. An online plea for help quickly resulted in a reply: “just travel to Frank and he will help you get to Burning Man”. I had managed to attach everything on my backpack (which ballooned to over 30 kilo’s / 60 pounds) and after a train journey of a couple of hours I arrived in the small city of Auburn. Frank picked me up in his pickup truck and as we drove to his house he told me that we’re probably going to leave a couple of days later. To shocked to speak because of the “theft” of my precious Burning Man days, I mocked in silence. Things cleared up quickly when Frank told me he had “a dragon”. What that meant became clear very quickly: it was a massive hard foam dragon mounted on an extended golf cart, seating up to 6 persons. “It just needs a little bit of work ” Frank confessed.
A dream came true: not only did I get to go to Burning Man, I could contribute something (however little as well). For the next day and a half I helped Frank with the last errands on the dragon. He helped me get the food and water shopping done. During these days Frank (a 12 year Burning Man veteran) and his with Susan housed and fed me (a total stranger) for free and shared their life’s stories. Both retired software engineers for the first large computers, they are not only very intelligent, but their unsurpassed hospitality made staying with them a true treat. My hurry to go to Burning Man was long forgotten when it was time to leave.

Musical interlude: Mumford & Sons

It seems an eternity ago, at the beginning of my trip, somewhere on the coast in Southern India. Two very different Brits recommended me the same band. I dutifully noted the name in my ‘to listen to’ list and didn’t think much of it for some time.

Once I downloaded the album (which isn’t easy in India), I didn’t like it: to much folk and they sounded like every other pub band. So I completely forgot about their music. Until a month or two ago. During one of my lengthy motorbike rides I gave Mumford & Sons a good listen and completely fell in love with their first album ‘sigh no more’. Why? I can only describe it as follows: sometimes when you listen to music you want meet the creators because they must be interesting and passionate people.

The music is amazing and their lyrics put philosophers to shame. Try it and listen at least two times.


I’m lost in this world

It has been a long time since I was this lost. The previous time it was different: a massive mountain in Argentina, fog, snow ice and rapidly changing weather. And I wasn’t alone.

This time it was on a small island called ‘Bunaken’ of the coast of Sulawesi. Despite it’s ridiculously small size, I managed to walk for hours without a clue of where to go. Even more humiliating: it was on the way back from a snorkeling trip. Calling the surroundings ‘jungle’ would be an overstatement, as it were mostly deserted coconut plantations. I hardly met anybody and the few persons I did encounter didn’t seem to have a clue that any major tourism resorts on their tiny island.

My frustration with the situation only increased the scorching temperature and my water bottle was nearly empty. And then, there he was: an intelligent looking man, early 40’s, the perfect guy to ask directions. Just like his fellow island dwellers I was ‘only ten minutes away in roughly that direction’. I didn’t buy his story, but bought him instead. The ridiculous sum of 2,5 euro for supposedly a 10 minutes walk. I was delighted though. When we where well on our way, he got a call on his mobile phone. Even with my limited knowledge of Indonesian I could make out ‘foreigner, walking many hours, go to resort’ and he mentioned the price. He had to explain it three times to the woman on the other side of the line. She didn’t believe that a foreigner could get lost on the island, let alone pay such a sum. He gave up explaining and passed the phone to me. Within 3 seconds she knew that the foreigner her husband mentioned really existed. I did my best in confirming the story, ensuring my savior wouldn’t get into trouble at home. When I arrived ‘home’ a lone turned around plate was waiting in the communal dining area. The story of the ‘lost foreigner’ quickly spread amongst the resort staff (thanks to my savior). This ensured a big smile from the waitress when she delivered my long longed for food.

You don’t know what you’ve got…

It had been over a week since I drove my motor.Tthe sun was shining; the coastal road was flanked by palm trees on one side and a deep blue to bright green sea. Still I was sad.

I only realized this morning that I will soon leave Asia. What once seemed an eternity into the future, has now become a 2 week deadline I need to make. So many things to do: see a park or two, dive in Bunaken, sell my motorbike…

I’ve met great people recently: from Wana tribesmen to an amazing guide in Toradja. The tourists were eclectic: from a Lebanese ‘gypsy’ who had been traveling for 11 years to a Dutch 62 year old IT consultant, Italian documentary film makers and a Bosnian aid worker who establishes child abuse protection centers in Cambodia and Sierra Leone.

So why leave to the country of Burgers and Bush? Because I’ve got a festival to go to? Because I’ve bought a plane ticket? Help!