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Greetings.  This blog contains several hundred posts covering a wide array of topics.  The most recent ones are below.  For a chronological menu of older posts, see the lower left-hand side of this page.
Henri aboard 60' sloop, en route from Ibiza to Pireaus
(For the account about this fateful 1961 voyage, see the post of August 26, 2008)


A Journey from Massawa to Asmara, Eritrea

We hear that now, finally there may be peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, after decades of on-again off-again war. This reminds me of our visit to Eritrea during our millennium circumnavigation by ship in 1999/2000. (See blog posts of December 2008 for more about that remarkable voyage.)

We docked at Massawa. Natasha and I had decided not to take one of the package shore excursions, since we knew this was such a rare visit, we wanted to have some freedom.  It was a bit of pandemonium at the dock, since no passenger ship had visited Massawa in a very long time because of the war.  The locals were surprised to see this shipload of foreigners.  A group of women sang a welcome song. 

It was hot, and dry.  Soon we found a driver and van, and gathered up some fellow passengers to share the costs.  None of us had ever been to Eritrea, or had any idea how long it would take to drive to the capital of Asmara, up in the mountains.

Off we went.  First thing we spotted were the holes everywhere in the buildings and houses – scars and ‘souvenirs’ from the deadly conflict.   During the 1998-2000 war, over 80,000 people were killed.

One of the many war-ravaged buildings in Massawa, the port city of Eritrea.

The dwellings were in a miserable state -- this was one of the poorest nations in the world.

Driving out of Massawa, the land was brown and barren.  Here and there a camel could be seen, tied to a tree.  Houses were more like huts. But we had an excellent view of the coastal desert of the Red Sea.

Along the roadside, people stopped and stared at us.  Some with upheld fists and angry faces at this luxury van carrying ‘rich’ tourists.

When we asked our driver what had caused this ongoing hostility and war, he did not commit himself, other than saying access to a sea port, amongst other things, may have had something to do with it.

The official word was the war was “over claims to border towns largely due to cultural and historical differences in the aftermath of Eritrea’s independence.  The disputed border towns had no significant economic value, with the fight once described as “two bald men fighting over a comb.”

About an hour into our journey, and it was still very hot.  Our driver stopped at a small fruit stand.  Soon it was clear we were not welcome, the women outside, some in army fatigues, started to throw rocks at the van.  Needless to say we went on our way, leaving this hostile group.

From that point on for the rest of the day, we did not encounter any more aggression.   Instead, as we climbed higher and higher through a lusher, green landscape, we noticed a lot of baboons near the roadside. Also lots of wildflowers, and overhead – eagles, ravens, and weaver birds.

Curious baboons along the roadside

We climb higher and higher towards the capital, Asmara

The route up to Asmara seemed to be taking forever, and there was no sign of any village or town along the way.  Endless winding, switchback roads and dramatic vistas, with the occasional camel.
We marvelled at the excellent condition of the road – smooth, looking like new.  It had been constructed by the Italians many years ago during the days when Eritrea was a colony of Italy from 1880 to 1947.
Since our stopover in Eritrea was just for one day, we were starting to wonder whether we would make it back to the ship in time.  Since we weren’t booked on one of the ship’s official shore excursions, if we were delayed, the ship would not wait.

Finally we entered Asmara, the capital and the sixth highest capital in the world by altitude, at 2,325 metres (7,628 ft). Seventeen years after our visit, Asmara was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Since time was short, our driver took us first to a special restaurant known for its local cuisine.  We were presented with a delicious lunch served on large ceramic plates, with intricately and brightly coloured designs.
 Market, Asmara

We asked the driver to take us to the local market which was in full swing.  Out of the corner of our eyes, Natasha and I noticed a bundle under one of the vendor’s tables.  Curious, we asked the woman to show it to us.  Turned out to be two parchment scrolls of the saints.  

 Panel one of two parchments of saints, discovered in the market, Asmara

Strangely, all the eyes of the saints were covered over.  A mystery.  We later asked a couple of experts and they were stumped too.

The journey from Massawa up to Asmara seemed to take forever, but our return trip felt like it was short.  The driver accelerated when he came to that fruit stand where the women threw rocks at us. 

We had an hour to wander around the streets of Massawa. Everywhere reminders of the conflict, bombed buildings, holes in the walls of the very simple houses.  By now, word had gone around that the people on the ship were well-intentioned bearing no threat, and so we received many smiles and waves.

Let’s hope the latest peace settlement prevails, between Eritrea and Ethiopia, ending decades of hostilities.


"Who Would Have Thought Human Hands Capable of Such a Feat?" The work of my maternal grandfather, Anton Alberse, a diamond-cleaver.

A good friend was asking about the work of my maternal grandfather, Anton Alberse. He was a diamond cleaver.  Cleaving diamonds is very difficult, challenging work. Very few individuals have the courage and patience to become diamond cleavers. It requires exceptional concentration, plus nerves of steel. 

 Antwerp - one of the great European cities where my grandfathers and father 
worked (the other city was Amsterdam).

In my boyhood, before WWII, often I brought my grandfather his lunch and so I got the chance to see how it works. (More about this below.) Grandfather would prepare by setting the rough diamond on top of a tapered wooden stick with a special cement head.   

Before this step, he would mark with pen and Chinese ink the ‘veins’ where he thinks he will cleave. The ‘cement’ was made of shellac, and resin, and some other ingredients, including diamond-powder.  When the cement head was heated, it becomes soft and sticky but then becomes rock hard when cool. 

Then he’d take another diamond with a sharp edge (also set in a stick), and use that to make a V-shaped groove in the stone that’s going to be cleaved. Only diamond can cut diamond. And here’s the tricky bit:  that groove has to be made exactly on the growth plane of the stone (and there are four growth planes for a diamond). 

Once the groove is deep and sharp, then he’d take a blunt metal blade and insert it into the groove. Then the final step:  a short, sharp hit with a wooden mallet, to split the stone in whatever number of pieces his boss told him to create. These smaller stones go to the diamond-facetter (such as my father), who transforms them into jewels. 

Like I say, the studying and focusing before cleaving can take some time.  Sometimes the correct spot is missed and the raw diamond shatters.  This would cost the “boss” lots of $!  When something shatters or breaks not as planned, the cleaver then has to sweep up all the pieces. If the pieces are very small, then everything is put into a fire, what does not burn, is diamond. So you can imagine the pressure a diamond cleaver lives with.  At least in those days.  

Today this work is done with the aid of machines and computers. The more accurate a cleaver is, the more he got paid. Like I mentioned, often I used to bring grandfather his lunch.  Imagine this:  I was about six or seven.  Grandfather worked in a small room, there was one window, with bars (for security).  

Outside the door were two lights – green and red. If the green light was on, I would go in.  If it was red, I’d leave his lunch outside the door.  I knew the red light meant he was either about to cleave a diamond or in a state of intense concentration. With a green light, I’d enter with his lunch, and we’d chat while he ate.  But as soon as he was ready to resume work, I had to stand in the corner, be very still, and silent. Then I went back to school. 

Unfortunately I do not have a photograph of my maternal grandfather, who passed away many decades below.  But since we are talking about diamonds, here is a photograph of my grandfather's son -- my father -- who was a diamond-facetter.

My father, diamond-facetter Johannes Antonius van Bentum, circa 1950's


Shadrach, our beloved friend the Bengal cat goes ‘over the horizon’

Shadrach and friend Henri van Bentum, Paradise Valley, AZ

In two earlier blog posts we mentioned our cat-sitting experiences in Paradise Valley, Arizona.  (See the posts of March 3rd, 2014 and November 18th, 2016.)

After receiving the best possible care, Shadrach left his devoted ‘parents’ to depart for cat heaven this past February. 

Here is something I wrote in his honour:

It grieves and saddens us to hear our friend Shadrach has left for cat heaven, where he’ll join Miss Benny.  Our heartfelt condolences. We realize it must be a great loss for you both.  We were very attached to him after only knowing him for five weeks. For you both, of course, the loss must be deep.  Having had Shadrach since he was a handful-size, all these years.  
He was one of a kind.  With a strong will and personality.  Playful, with a remarkable imp.  'Still hear his purring when brushing him.  Even more when we gave him a bit of catnip. Being a lively companion, and with all his tricks, he gave you lots of pleasure and joy. 
We knew, of course, his departure was only a matter of time.  Yet knowing that Shadrach the Bengal aristocrat is gone, we cannot help but shed tears. Thank you for having made it possible for us to get to know Shadrach and to have him as a friend.
We recently learned our friends are likely going to get another Bengal cat, which is happy news.  “The King is dead, long live the new King”. 

Shadrach, RIP