How to navigate the blog

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.


The Artist, Santa

 Zonnestraal Sanatorium many years ago

We all have some anecdotes and memories of the Christmas season.  Long ago, in 1952, I had tuberculosis on both lungs, and was bedridden for several years at Zonnestraal (“sunbeam”) sanatorium in the Netherlands. 

Each patient had his own room.  The rooms were a unique design: no windows, but one side of the room was completely open to the outdoors. The Sanatorium was located in a small pine and oak forest, so this allowed for a lot of fresh air.

Having much time on our hands, and being young (then I was 22, now 89), we were encouraged to do something, like handicrafts.

Believe it or not, some made photo albums from old X-rays of patients who had died. Others, like me, worked with raffia, creating all sorts of animals.

Many of the patients worried about their illness, which of course is counter-effective to healing.

Then I had the idea to do some sketching.  It wasn’t long before several fellow patients began to draw too. 

The town had a local, elderly artist, Jan Zondag (“Jan Sunday”).    When he heard some patients at the Sanatorium were doing artwork, he came to visit.

He encouraged us, gave pointers, and all this morphed into us wishing to do art in colour.  Now, it’s called “art therapy”.  But then, it was “you need to do something to prevent worrying and feeling sorry for yourself.”

My father brought me chalk pastels, but these were soon rejected by the nurses.  It made a mess on the sheets. There was no oil pastel, it hadn’t been invented yet at that time. 

Jan Zondag said we could work in coloured pencil, gouche, watercolour or even oil paint.  Since one side of our rooms were completely open, the turpentine and oil paint odours did not linger about.

There was one problem – art supplies were costly.  They still are.

By now, it was late November, close to the day of Sint Niklaas, the holy man from Myra, Greece (now Demre, Turkey), after whom Santa was modelled, and a day much celebrated in the Netherlands, especially for children.

Without us knowing, Jan Zondag began collecting funds for art supplies from doctors and friends. 

And on Saint Niklaas Day morning, December 6, to our joy, six of us received art supplies that would last for quite a while.

Jan Zondag

Although working himself, Jan Zondag – the Good Samaritan - visited us twice a week, to see how we were doing.

Myself, I had unknowingly embarked on a career that has lasted more than 65 years.  When I was released from the sanatorium, the doctor told my father this creative work had speeded up healing and shortened my stay by years.

All started because of the mentorship and care of that kind “Artist Santa”.

p.s. In an earlier post, I wrote about how the Zonnestraal building has become a UNESCO World Heritage site.  “Founded by the Diamond Workers Union of Amsterdam, the sanatorium was part of a larger aftercare colony for tubercular patients. It was funded by Union dues as a facility that would train members who had been afflicted with the disease for their return to society. Zonnestraal is emblematic of the emerging ideals of social democracy in the Netherlands during the 1920s, and it reflected the new concept of using occupational therapy in health cure.”   World Monuments Fund 


Episode One of Five - beginning of our quest to get to the Galapagos Islands. Stage one: Colombia and Equador, 1969

Our mentor, an experienced traveler and I, arranged a journey to visit the ‘enchanted islands’ – otherwise known as the Galapagos.  A group of artists – sculptors, ballet dancers, singers, writers and painters – flew to Miami in early May, 1969 and from there to Cali, Colombia where we spent a few days. I arranged for a bus to get us to the coastal town of Guyaquil, the port of embarkation, in Equador.

'Was able to hire a brand new Mercedes bus, along with a husky, moustached Colombian at the wheel.  Everyone was in good spirits.  Both of us sat next to the driver since I spoke Spanish. We reached the border of Colombia and Equador and went through customs and immigration. This went smoothly and our passports were all duly stamped. 

But what was not expected was our Colombian bus – our beautiful Mercedes – would not be allowed into Equador.  There had been a recent soccer match between the two countries which led to an uproar and the Equadorians were not on a good footing with their neighbours.

Meanwhile, we had paid for the bus and driver all the way to Guayaquil, and had a heck of a time getting (some) of the money back. That settled, we now continued on our journey, but this time in a dilapidated Equadorian bus with metal seats.

Nevertheless, everyone was in a good mood and were singing popular Beatle’s songs of the times such as “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, “All You Need is Love”, “Yellow Submarine” or “Octopus Garden in the Shade”, and Bob Dylan’s “The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind”.

Always on the lookout for something creative or new, we suggested we all go to Ingapirca, a little-known place I’d read about.

“Es muy pequeno”, our driver said.  “It’s very small”, the site of Ingapirca.   We asked about the location.  The first three places we enquired said they’d never heard of it.  Finally at a local post office, there was one person who knew about Inca Pirca but laughed when we said we wanted to visit the site.

He pointed to a postage stamp and said in Spanish, “That’s how small it is!” And that we’d need jeeps or horses to get there.

We assembled five Jeeps.

That took some time but we did corral them, each with a driver.  After negotiating the fare, we were on our way.

Ingapirca was, in those days, not your everyday tourist attraction like the more famous ruins of Mexico and Peru. Only one of the drivers knew where Ingapirca was located.

Torrential rains had put an obstacle in our path – a washed-out bridge.  The jeeps could go no farther. We continued our journey towards Ingapirca on foot, criss-crossing ice-cold Andean creeks.  The rains did not let up.

Maybe I could find some horses?  Off I went, into nowhere.  Amazingly, I encountered two gauchos on horseback.  I told them our dilemma.  They were able to get us eight or nine horses.  I negotiated a deal, including two guides.  This was what I came to call Miracle Number One.

Some had to carry on by foot, there weren’t enough horses for all of us.  The day was getting on by this time and every minute counted if we wanted to get back before dark.

After some time, we asked the horsemen if it was far to go to reach Ingapirca. 

“This is it”, they replied.  We were, literally on top of the ruins of Ingapirca.  Drenched but happy. We made it!  The site was basically a rubble of unremarkable stones, and without the guides, we would have ridden right over it.

“That’s all?” we asked in disbelief.  “Si Senor, es todo”.  Yes, Sir, that’s all.”
Ingapirca today - much more developed than in 1969

We spent no more than half an hour altogether at Ingapirca. And back we went to rejoin the jeeps where a few had stayed behind. So they were not joking back at the post office, about the size of Ingapirca. Nevertheless, it felt like high adventure in the high Andes of Equador.

The scenery was magnificent.  In the distance there was a snow-capped volcano, nearby waving tall grasses and grains – with once in awhile the sun peeking through the rainclouds complete with rainbows.

We made it back to the jeeps by dusk. One of the gaucho’s exchanged his whip (I still have it) for my sunglasses – yes, sunglasses in the pouring rain!

The drive through the Equadorian Andes was unforgettable, and when we finally descended in Guyaquil on the coast, the temperature had changed gradually from 5 degrees to 32 degrees Celcius, plus high humidity.    

Next episode (to come) - Galapagos, here we come!