Love Is in the Air: Vladimir Putin, the World's Greenest Politician?

An unexpected actor has more positive impact on the world's climate than Mr. Obama and the EU combined: Vladimir Putin.

Cutting Emissions in India

A look at the construction sector

Why Coal is Worse than Nuclear

Many people would prefer coal power generation over nuclear. Is this preference justified?

Energy: Empowering the Consumer?

A talk by MP Laura Sandys

Dieter Helm: The Carbon Crunch

My review of Dr. Dieter Helm's latest book on climate change.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Two Weeks of Hell in Heaven, Part II

As I drank, I started recuperating, and realized that I was walking the streets of the most beautiful medieval town that I have ever been to. The views from San Marino were breathtaking, especially given that it was sunset. What was perhaps even more breathtaking, though, was the atmosphere in the town. Without knowing it, we were in San Marino during one of the four days of its Medieval Festival. People dressed in medieval costumes were walking down the streets, playing songs, making performances, and eating together at long, wooden tables to celebrate the end of a long day. I finally found the guys on the top of San Marino's first tower, and we all agreed that this place was the best so far. Even better was the fact that the prices in San Marino were cheaper than in Prague. A delicious pizza dinner on top of the castle, with breathtaking views of the surrounding fields, hills, and the Adriatic sea, cost only six euros per person! We had no choice but to eat pizza on top of San Marino, our second and last warm meal of the trip. We then bought three bottles of good Italian wine for only five euros (!) and found a nice park in the middle of the city where we first drank the wine and then slept. There is no doubt that the night in San Marino was the best part of our trip.

The view of the second Castle Tower from the First Castle Tower in San Marino.

Us seven in San Marino.

A group playing medieval songs in San Marino.

Six Euros for a delicious pizza and a view like this. That's San Marino.

Medieval festivities in San Marino.

The day we left San Marino we had only one target left: Rome. Because we had a lot of time, we took the next few days easy, resting a lot, and biking less than a hundred kilometers a day on average. We had to cross the Apennines once again, this time at Paso di Viamaggio at 1050m. We spent the night in a muddy field north of the enormous Lake of Trasimene where Hannibal beat the Romans in one of world's most famous battles in 217BC. The next day we went to the lake, where we did not even end up bathing because it was quite dirty. Luckily, there were cold showers available next to it for free. The next night we spent in Citta della Pieve, south of the great lake. We found an old, abandoned shack with a roofed terrace to which lead a set of stairs. When we woke up in the morning, one of us unfortunately stepped on a rotten step on the way down, hurting his leg. We were slowed down a bit due to his injury, and took a break in Orvieto the next day, about 50km south of Citta della Pieve. Our plan was to bike another fifty kilometers to Viterbo, and take a train to Rome from there the next day, but we found out that the connection from Orvieto was much better and decided to stay there. This virtually marked the end of our trip. We toured Orvieto, and found out that it had a beautiful historic center on top of a mountain, much like San Marino but smaller in size. We enjoyed our tour, and then crashed in a park next to Orvieto's elementary school.

Our accommodation the day after San Marino was not so good. We slept in a field next to the road, and woke up in mud and dew because we started looking for a place to stay when it was too late already. 

We slept on the terrace of that house near Citta della Pieve. In the morning, one of us stepped on one of the stairs on the picture and fell through it, hurting his leg.  

The Cathedral in Orvieto. Though only about two centuries old, it was quite monumental and its design full of detail.

The next day we took an early (though again delayed) train to Rome, and spent the rest of the day and the night there. We saw all that there was to see in the city: The Colosseum, the Forum Romanum, Circus Maximus, and of course Vatican City, the final micro state on our list. From there, we sent a postcard to the nice padre who let us sleep next to his church in Marina di Massa. As we found out, it was only allowed to enter the Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican with pants which cover one's knees: one of us had to change after being refused entry. When the sun went down, we biked to the outskirts of the city and spent an almost sleepless night on a concrete sidewalk there. We biked to the Fiumicino Airport the next day, where we had a bad experience with the airline company, whose employees refused to check in our bikes unless they were "professionally wrapped". This included two slow men walking around our bikes with a roll of plastic wrap, and putting an official sticker on it, eighteen euros a piece. A true rip-off, especially given that we wrapped the bikes ourselves with our own wrap at the airport, that the wrapping they did was useless as some of our bikes got scratched, and that we almost missed our flight because of it.

Us in front of the Colosseum, Rome.

Vatican City, the final destination of our trip.

Nevertheless, an hour and thirty minutes later, we landed in Prague and our bike trip was officially over. I learned and/or confirmed a few things along the way. First, I could do it. Second, it hurt. It hurt a lot. Since day one your leg muscles start hurting, then your back joins, then your crouch gets all red because of the saddle, then your knees join the symphony, and finally you start losing feeling in your hands as the carpal tunnel syndrome emerges because of holding  the handles all day. Third, the bike trip was a true hardship given our sleeping conditions, the food we ate, and the conditions we ate it in. Fourth, all this lasts for two long weeks. Two. Long. Weeks. Despite these hardships, though, you get stronger and more resistant every day, realizing that hundred and fifty kilometers on a bike is really not that long a distance.

Perhaps most importantly, however, you will realize that you have become a humbler person, one who appreciates every little thing which makes life comfortable. Last year, while hiking in the desert of Utah, I wrote the following sentences in my diary. "Going into the backcountry is always a humbling experience. All the 'necessities' that one can barely imagine a life without, such as a bed, a roof, toilets, artificial light, a shower, clean, accessible tap water, electricity, beer, all the comforts that human civilization brings with it, suddenly become non-existent. One must sleep on the cold ground in all clothes available, without a decent pillow, in cold and sometimes wet conditions. The only source of light is a headlamp and sometimes fire when allowed and possible...Showering is impossible in the desert and so is any kind of bathing because all the water that survives the heat of the day must be conserved for other hikers to drink. Toilets are yet another story: digging a cat hole is necessary in order to Leave No Trace™. One also has to pump their own water in the backcountry. We used water filters, though iodine and UV are more reliable. I somehow do not trust these filters. For example, how do they get rid of dangerous bacteria? I guess that they are more of a placebo which helps us drink the water rather than actually being a working device for treating it. In any case, they always break or get stuffed with dirt and the omnipresent red desert sand, which renders them even more useless. Listing all of these things, no wonder that living in the backcountry has a humbling effect."

Despite certain technical differences between hiking in Utah's desert and biking across Europe, I believe that no words can better describe my feelings after a job well done. I am proud I did it, and I am glad to be back.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Two Weeks of Hell in Heaven, Part I

It was raining in the night of July 20, 2011, when me and six of my Czech friends met in order to embark on one of the longest and most difficult vacations of my life. Duke, Glen, Míra, Preiby, Tomáš, Vašek, and me stuffed the van we rented with our bicycles and the little luggage we each had in our bike bags. We asked Duke's father to drive us to Zurich, and then take the van back to Mariánské Lázně, our hometown. Our plan was to bike from Zurich to Rome in two weeks, passing through Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican City on the way. If you do the math and know some something about European geography, you will know that this trip involved biking over 1500km and required us to pass the Alps once and the Apennines twice. It also involved biking along Italy's hilly Ligurian Sea coast, and climbing up San Marino's Monte Titano, or Titan Mountain. In other words, almost every day we had a very hilly climb up a mountain or mountain pass, and almost every day we biked over 100km. Our longest stage was more than 170km long.

Sunrise in Zurich.

Other than its length, the second feature of our trip was its low budget. The van ride from Mariánské Lázně to Zurich, three train rides in Italy, and a flight from Rome's Fiumicino Airport to Prague with our bicycles only cost us about $250 in total. In addition, our food budget was about five euros per person per day on average. We would buy the cheapest breads, cheeses, yogurts, cookies, and such in supermarkets, then sit right in front of them and ate. Depending on the country, locals passing us by gave us bad or worse looks, or, if we were lucky, no looks at all.   We got the most curious looks when doing our most favorite thing, buying the largest watermelon that the supermarket had, cutting it into two pieces, and eating it out with spoons right outside of the supermarket. We only ate a warm meal twice during our two weeks, and only drank our first cup of coffee on the ninth day.

Eating a melon outside of a supermarket.

Most importantly, however, we spent no money at all on accommodation. We set up camp wherever possible,  and always almost at dark, so that we wouldn't get caught by police or locals for doing it. This was not always possible, and not always comfortable. The morning of our first night, we got caught by Lichtenstein police for illegal camping, and were asked to leave immediately. The fourth night, we didn't find "accommodation" until about 3am, and the ninth night we camped out in the open on top of a mountain pass in the Apennines, getting extremely wet and cold during the night. Our last night we spent in a sketchy quarter in the outskirts of Rome, where some of us got no sleep at all because of being afraid that our bicycles would get stolen by sketchy hooded types walking around us all night. In general, though, the places that we slept in were not bad at all and I believe that they are worth mentioning.
A view of Liechtenstein. We slept in one of the fields below, on the closer side of the river.

On our first night, after having biked about 130km from Zurich to Vaduz, Liechtenstein, we camped out in tents on a grass field next to the Rhine River, just outside of the city. Because the grass was soft, and because we only got woken up by the police at about 10a.m., we slept long and well. On our second night, we camped in tents next to the Sufrensee lake in Sufers, Switzerland, in about 1400m above the sea level. The lake was beautiful and the environment was quiet, and though it rained at night, we slept well again. Perhaps it was because of the kilometer in elevation we gained that day. On our third day, we climbed up to 2065m above the sea to Paso di San Bernardino, or St. Bernard Pass, and then descended to Lugano, the largest city in Ticino, Switzerland's only Italian canton. We hoped to sleep on the shores of the beautiful Lake Lugano, which however proved impossible because the whole area was crowded with houses. We had to sleep in a more humble place, a small strip of grass between Switzerland's Highway #2 and a graveyard. The bad thing was that the highway was extremely loud and that we weren't able to bathe in the lake. On the other hand, we found fresh tap water at the graveyard, and used it to wash our sweaty bodies at night, a true luxury after three days of no showering. Also, the third night was the last night that we bothered to put up the tents. From then on until the end of the trip, we only slept in the open.

Us at Paso di San Bernardino.

On the fourth day, we went from Lugano, Switzerland, to Milan, Italy. From this day until the end of our trip we got exposed to crazy Italian drivers, horrible Italian roads, and dysfunctional Italian road signs. About fifty percent of Italian drivers have a very dangerous habit of blowing the horn before passing a biker. I believe that they do it because they want the biker to become aware of them, which is unnecessary given that their car's engine can be heard from far away. The only effect that blowing the horn has on the biker is that they freak out and do something stupid, such as turning suddenly to the left, straight into the car's way. Another problem about biking in Italy are its very bad roads. Their asphalt is often broken, especially on the sides which bikers are supposed to use. Finally, the Italian road sign system must have been designed by an idiot. For example, when we got to a roundabout, the sign would say "Milan 40km," but as soon as we got off the roundabout, there was a "Milan 36km" sign. Finally, about five kilometers later, there was another sign saying "Milan 40km". This repeated itself many times over in Italy. Even worse, though, is that small, regional roads often become highways out of nothing. Suddenly, without a warning, we ended up biking on a highway at least three times during our time in Italy. This was especially dangerous when one of us got a flat tire in a highway tunnel, having to walk through it for at least a few hundred meters.

Milan.

When we got to Milan, we boarded a train to Ventimiglia, which lies on the Ligurian Sea coast, in the very west of Italy, just a few kilometers away from the French border. On the train, we each got fined ten euros despite having bought our tickets in advance. Apparently, in Italy it is not enough to buy a train ticket, but one must also stamp it on the platform. If you forget to do this, you can be subject to a fine of up to fifty euros. I assume that this is how Italian Railways make most of their profits, given their otherwise relatively cheap prices. After this little problem, we arrived to Ventimiglia with a slight delay, at about 2a.m. After an hour of looking for a place to sleep, we finally found a nice building which stood on wooden columns right on the beach. There were even plastic deck-chairs which we used in order not to sleep in the sand. The problem was that since this was private property, we had to wake up at sunrise to not get caught. We found a shower on the beach - a welcome bonus.



That morning we took off early, going west toward Monaco. We crossed into France: some of us, myself included, for the first time. Because the sun was shining and the visibility was good, we could see Monaco's skyline from far away. Since the city-state is the world's most densely populated area as well as its richest country by GDP per capita, we hurried to be there as early as possible. Monaco's streets were truly crowded, and so were its roads; maybe even more than Tokyo's. Especially crowded was Monaco's historic center and the area around the Monte Carlo Casino. Interestingly, though, despite Monaco's crowds and lack of space, we found a beautiful beach there with almost no people on it. We were also pleasantly surprised about the prices: food in Monaco was no more expensive than in France or Italy.

A lonely beach in Monaco. Perhaps the only beach in Monaco, too?

That day we left Monaco at about 5p.m., and biked back east to Ventimiglia and finally to San Remo, a town located about twenty kilometers east of Ventimiglia. There was a nice bike trail (the only one we found in Italy) along which we found a coffee house in the process of being built. But, given that it was 9pm and no one was there, we decided to set up "camp" right on the coffee house terrace. We also found out that the terrace had a roll-off roof, which we unrolled using a tent pole, standing on each other's backs. That night we slept on a terrace under a roof; an unexpected luxury.

Rolling the roof under the cover of night.

The next day we woke up early and biked along the coast from San Remo to Genoa and past it. The interesting thing about biking along Italy's Ligurian Sea coast was that every five or ten kilometers, we arrived into a long town on the beach where we had to pass through bottlenecks caused by tourists who came to do nothing during their vacation. After leaving the town, we usually had to climb up a two to five kilometers long hill, and then descend it on the other side, arriving in a town no different from the previous one. In this sense, Genoa could be considered just another one of these crowded towns, though over 20km long, and with one large bottleneck all the way through it. Other than its old town, there did not seem to be many interesting things about Genoa. For us bikers, going through Genoa was equivalent to biking in a crowded garage because of all the exhaust gasses we had to inhale. It was a long day and by the end of it our speedometers showed over 170km. Despite the length, however, we were surprisingly not dead tired after arriving at sunset at a parking lot just off the road in Recco, our next "campsite."


A parking lot we slept at in Recco, Italy.

Though our sixth stage was shorter than the previous, it proved to be harder. The Ligurian Sea coast changed after Genoa: it became rockier, rougher, and much hillier. There were now 5-10 kilometer climbs, 5-10 kilometer descends, and no towns on the coast whatsoever where we could rest while waiting for the light to change. Our hope was to bike through Cinque Terre, a coastal national park consisting of five remote towns and the nature around them. We didn't know, however, that there would be no road leading through them, and thus the only way was to go around would be through a 700m high mountain pass. Given that it was raining, we decided to take a train from Sestri Levante to La Spezia, two cities on the edges of Cinque Terre.


Because it was no longer raining in La Spezia, we continued biking, arriving to Marina di Massa by sunset. We were desperately looking for a place to stay, but there was nothing to be found. All beaches were private or entry to them was strictly prohibited, and there were no hidden parks or fields where we could set up camp. We finally arrived at a church, where there was a party going on that evening. After explaining to the locals and then to the padre that we were pilgrims, traveling to from the Czech Republic to Vatican, we were allowed to take part in the party and then crash under one of the tents which were set up there. We got to eat a warm meal there, as well as to talk to three girls from Verona who were members of a camp organized by the Church. Glad that we got to eat something warm for the first time on our trip, we went to sleep slightly after midnight when the party was over.

The church party we crashed.

The morning after we continued to bike along the coast until we hit Pisa, where we saw the famous Leaning Tower. It was leaning indeed, in fact, probably more than any of us had expected. Though Pisa itself was a very small town, the area around the tower was crowded with people and with a large group of African men trying to sell us watches and such. Because entry into the tower cost fifteen euros, we decided against going. After all, it cost as much as three days of food for us! After a long lunch in front of a grey supermarket in Pisa, we left in the direction of Florence. Because the road no longer lead along the coast, we got immediately lost and it took us a while to find the right direction. After getting lost a few more times and a few disagreements about our direction, we arrived at a nice hill with an olive orchard, just west of Empoli, a town on the outskirts of Florence. There was a nice view of the surrounding landscape, and also bushes full of red wine and blackberries, and so we decided to call the place our home for the night.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The next day we got to Florence, with its beautiful old town. As usual, we divided into two groups: one group went out to take pictures, the other stayed with the bikes, and then we would switch. I joined the picture-taking group, and went out for about fifteen minutes. When we got back to the place where our bikes were, there was just one left. The local cops made the guys with the bikes move them away, apparently bicycle parking was not allowed in front of the bell tower in Florence. The cops came to us and one of them, a guy in his forties with a very strong Italian accent, told us that bike parking was not allowed. When I protested, saying that there was no sign saying against it, the policeman tilted his body toward me, put his face so close to mine that it looked as if he wanted to kiss me, and shouted in the strongest Italian accent I have ever heard: "Is the bell tower not enough!?" Though it was difficult not to laugh at him, I decided to stay quiet. Saying something was just not worth spending the afternoon at a police station full of guys as stupid as him. We left Florence in the afternoon, and continued northeast in the direction of San Marino. To be able to get to San Marino the next day, we had to get to the top of Paso del Muraglione, a 907m tall pass in the Apennines. When we got to the top after two hours of hard work, we were rewarded by a beautiful sunset over the mountains. Because it was getting dark, we had to find a place to sleep at the top. We found a hiking path with grass around it, and because we knew we wouldn't be able to find a better place, we stayed there. The stars were beautiful that night, and it was very cold. Some of us had to get up in the night in order to dress up warmer, but because a lot of dew fell as a result of the cold night and got us wet, this didn't help much.

On top of Paso del Muraglione.

In the morning, perhaps because the night was cold, we decided to get a coffee at a restaurant on top of the mountain. It was the first dose of caffeine we had in nine days. That day, our goal was to reach San Marino, third of the four micro states on our list. The first hundred kilometers were supposed to be easy: down the hill to Forli, and down the hill to Rimini, a harbor on the Adriatic Sea. They were easy, though it was extremely hot that day, and the wind kept on slowing us down. The heat made me feel a little sick and dehydrated, which made my climb up San Marino's 739m tall Monte Titano extremely difficult. I don't know how much longer it took me to climb the hill than the rest, but when I finally got to the top I was exhausted beyond words. I found everyone else's bikes tied to each other below the gates of the old town, and added mine to the rack. After grabbing a cold bottle of Peroni beer from the first shop I entered, I started walking the streets of San Marino's old town, looking for everyone else.

To be continued...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Summer in Monterey

Between Jun 19 and Jul 16, 2011, I spent a month as a student of the International Trade and Development Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. It was a privilege to be here as the only way to get in was by being a UWC graduate and receiving a scholarship from the Davis Foundation, who is also generously supporting my studies at Colby.

In a group of twelve UWC graduates, we attended trade and development classes and went on site visits to various companies, from less known start-ups to giants like Google and Cisco. The location was perfect for such visits as Monterey lies about an hour south from the famous Silicon Valley, a huge brainpower hub where mighty IT companies base their headquarters. I will write a separate post on our visit to Silicon Valley, but in this post I will focus on Monterey and its surrounding areas. I visited all of the places which I write about in this post.

The interesting thing about Monterey and California's northwest coast in general is that it has its own little micro-climate. Even though the air is very humid, it almost never rains in Monterey during the summer months: it only rained here once here during the whole month. Monterey's summer and winter temperatures are almost the same, rarely rising above 20°C during the day, and staying between 5 and 10 °C during the night. In addition to the moderate temperatures, weather on the Monterey Peninsula tends to be very cloudy and foggy, which is an exception to the otherwise sunny and hot Californian climate. The peninsula can sometimes get so cold in the summer that wearing a jacket becomes necessary. In fact, Monterey's weather is very similar to San Francisco's, which was once best described by Mark Twain: "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."

The Monterey Peninsula serves as a sanctuary for wildlife. Whales, seals, sea otters, and other water creatures can be found in the surrounding waters, plentiful deer and squirrels roam Monterey's forests, and all kinds of birds watch over the peninsula from its cloudy skies. In addition to the fauna, Monterey's pleasant weather supports all sorts of flowers, grasses, bushes, and trees. No matter the season, something is always blooming on California's west coast. My personal favorite is the Night Blooming Jasmine, a simple plant whose white blossoms give out an addictingly sweet, refined aroma. Biking around the peninsula on the famous 17 Mile Drive will give you a great opportunity to spot a dear, find a beach full of sea lions, appreciate beautiful coastal rock formations, and smell the fragrance of dozens of blooming flowers.

Night Blooming Jasmine
A deer near Pebble Beach, Carmel.
Sea lions lying on a beach near Carmel.

The peninsula itself features an ecosystem which is very different from its surroundings. Its moderate weather allows for a green environment filled with various forms of life. The moment you leave the peninsula, however, the temperatures rise sharply by as much as 20°C during the summer and fall by the same amount during the winter. These high temperatures are the reason why there is a large agricultural region to the northeast and a hot wine-growing region to the southeast of Monterey. The city of Salinas, which lies about twenty miles northeast of Monterey, is the center of an agricultural area called Salinas Valley, one of USA's most fertile regions. Called the Salad Bowl of America, this 150x10km strip of land produces sixty percent of all the lettuce consumed in the United States. Castroville, a small town north of Salinas, is in turn called the Artichoke Capital of the World, producing eighty percent of America's artichokes. The town of Watsonville, a few kilometers north of Castroville, produces a large portion of America's strawberries.  Carmel Valley, the area southeast of Monterey, is popular because of its many wineries and wine-tasting rooms.

A field in the town of Spreckels near Salinas.
The Chateau Julien winery in Carmel Valley.
Me and my two roommates at a wine-tasting room in Carmel Valley.

The area around Monterey is known for being home to many writers, celebrities, and rich people. The cities of Salinas and Monterey served as a base for John Steinbeck, one of America's most famous writers. He gained inspiration for many of his books in these two cities. "Cannery Row", his 1945 novel, is situated in Monterey's fish cannery district. Today Cannery Row is Monterey's most famous street, hosting numbers of tourist shops and restaurants, as well as Monterey's famous marine aquarium. The nearby town of Carmel-by-the-sea is well known for its romantic, European town feel, expensive art galleries, and a long, white sand beach. Carmel is also famous for being the home of Clint Eastwood, who served as its mayor and owned the Hog's Breath Inn, now a well-known pub. He still owns a hotel Carmel and visits the town regularly.

Cannery Row from Steinbeck's novel

Carmel-by-the-sea.

In contrast to the rich, touristy towns of Monterey and Carmel, the city of Salinas is poorer. A reason for this is perhaps its large Hispanic community, comprising over eighty percent of the city's population. In fact, English may not get you too far in many parts of Salinas; Mexican Spanish is the preferred language in most of the city. The Hispanic immigrants perform mostly low-paying jobs: they work as farmers, bus drivers (Monterey and Salinas have a working public transport system, which is quite a rarity in small towns in the USA), and cleaners. Indeed, all of the cleaners in our Hotel Pacific are Hispanic.

South of Monterey and Carmel lies Big Sur, or Big South, a stunningly beautiful coastal state park. Known for its steep cliffs, blue ocean, sandy beaches, imposing bridges, breathtaking views, misty scenery, tall coastal redwoods, grassy mountains, steep waterfalls, and abundant wildlife, this park is a true jewel for any lover of nature.

Panoramic view in Big Sur.
Monterey and its surrounding areas have so much to offer that I simply can not list everything in this blog post. Whether you like the sea, the mountains, wildlife, or deserts, Monterey has it all. I will never forget the amazing one month which I spent here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Window Shopping in Amsterdam

From June 1 to 6, 2011, me and my friend Martin went on a small trip of three European cities; Brussels, Amsterdam, and Bremen. Because the cities themselves as well as our trip turned out to be extremely interesting, I decided to tell you a little bit of our story.
We woke up, at 2.50am on Wednesday, Jun 1, in order to make it to the airport for our 6am flight to Brussels. We would normally not wake up that early, but it so happens that most European low-cost airlines sell the cheapest tickets for Wednesday mornings. The ticket from Prague to Brussels cost us 684 CZK, or about €25 per person. Had we chosen any other day, the price would have easily doubled or even more. In fact, the reason why we flew to Brussels at all was that the ticket to the Brussels Charleroi Airport, the taxi from Charleroi to Brussels, and the bus from Brussels to Amsterdam, turned out to be significantly cheaper than any direct flight to Amsterdam, plus we got to see the European capital. But later about the city; first I will tell you about our experience with Belgian taxis.

We decided to share a cab with seven other people: three Africans and four other Europeans, in order to get to Brussels. We took a cab because it left earlier than the Airport shuttle, promised to cost only two Euros more (€15), and the driver said that he would get us into the city in thirty minutes instead of the usual hour. At the time of getting into the taxi, we did not know that the driver was willing to risk his life, and ours in turn, to keep his word. The driver stuffed our group of nine into a van which only had eight seats and no seatbelts, and before we knew it we were speeding down a Flemish highway at 150km/h, thirty kilometers per hour above the speed limit. The real danger, however, came when we got into a traffic jam on the same highway about ten minutes later.

Unlike the usually calm German drivers who just patiently suffer through long “Stauben” on their autobahns, the hot-blooded Arab who was our driver showed an incredible willingness to risk his life to fulfill his promise, getting us to downtown Brussels in half an hour. To go around the bottleneck, ha drove the van into and right through the rightmost lane of the highway, the thin stripe at the very edge of the road in which no cars ever drive and which must stay clear at all times during a jam for the ambulance and police to pass. In that lane, the road was quite damaged, and the line between the cracked road edge and the ditch next to it was far from straight and very thin. Twice we almost ended up falling straight into the ditch at a speed of about 110km/h. At one point, though, we almost got pushed straight into the ditch by a large truck whose driver also wanted to speed his way through the jam and did not seem to take into account that there was our car passing right next to him. Had our hot-blooded Arab not stepped on the brake pedal sharply, we would have likely ended up in that ditch with quite some damage to our bodies given the speed and the lack of seatbelts in our van.

The moment that the truck got back into its lane, our driver opened the van’s window and splashed the truck’s driver with a series of thick-accented, hardly comprehensible French swearing words. He told him “fils de pute, ta mère est une pute”, or “son of a bitch, your mother is a bitch.” About five or ten minutes later, we got to the end of the jam, the cause of which was incredibly amusing.

A man in his sixties was parking in the middle of the highway, taking a bike out of his car’s trunk and putting it together. “Tour de Belgique, peut-être,” I said aloud, lightening the atmosphere in the van. Twenty minutes later, an hour after we left the airport, we made it to Gare de Midi in downtown Brussels; the two extra Euros were well worth the experience. Had we taken the shuttle, who knows how many hours we would have been stuck in the jam caused by the passionate cyclist. Thanks to our hot-blooded Arab, we could afford to spend about ten hours in the city of Brussels, an opportunity which we used to the fullest.

video
A video I took during our crazy cab ride, which ends with a picture of the old man and his bike.

For some reason, I thought that as its capital, Brussels would be a clean, monumental city worthy of representing the proud bureaucratic colossus which is European Union. I am sorry to conclude that my hypothesis was largely incorrect. Other than the immediate city center and a few select spots like the surroundings of the European parliament and Brussels’ famous Atomium, the city was quite dirty, full of cigarette butts and other garbage polluting the streets. In addition, there were many homeless people who, because the use of public toilets is charged with a 40-50₵ fee, simply used the parks and corners of train stations to do their business, making it extremely unpleasant to venture into such places.

In addition to a shock in the form of a dirty Brussels, I was also surprised about the composition of the city’s  inhabitants. I had sure expected a large minority of immigrants and citizens of Arabic or African descent, but I was surprised that they in fact seemed to form a majority over the white inhabitants of the city. Also, I daresay that more women in Brussels’ metro wore Muslim habits than not. I will not judge whether what I saw was right or wrong. I do now understand, however, why so many neo-Nazi movements are emerging in those parts of western and northern Europe newly affected by immigration. They do not want to end up ruled by the descendants of those whose lands their own ancestors had colonized and impoverished a few centuries ago. It is incredible that we are still harvesting the bitter fruits of African colonization, centuries after Europeans started it. Given the amount of non-whites in Brussels and other EU cities, I wonder when the first black president of the European Union will emerge. My guess is that we will have the first one, and certainly not the last one, in less than fifteen years. If the EU continues to exist as we know it, that is.


The Brussels Town Hall.

Old Flemish houses at the main square.

The European Commission.

A sort of replica of the Brandenburger Tor in Brussels.

Brussels' famous Atomium.


Dirt at Brussels' Gare de Nord. 
After a day spent exploring the European capital, we left Brussels’ dirty Gare de Nord on a delayed bus to Amsterdam. Slightly less than four hours later, at about 10.30pm, we arrived to the Amstel station in Amsterdam. I had arranged accommodation with Sebastian, a Hollander friend of mine from Pearson College. We had the directions to his house and it was no problem to get there by 11.30pm. The problem emerged when we tried to get into his house, though: Sebastian was simply not at home. We tried calling him, but to no avail. After a few minutes of confusion and hesitation, Martin managed to connect to the internet using his smart phone. We found a Facebook message from Sebastian saying that he totally forgot but that he had to do something important out of town and thus would not be in Amsterdam that night. Tired and knowing we had little time to act before the last metro back to the city center left, we quickly looked up a hostel downtown and made our way to the Amsterdam central station at about 12.30 in the night.

Because we were tired, because the trams were no longer running, and because we had no map of the city, we decided to take the taxi to the hostel (the second that day already). We ended up paying €15 for a twenty minute taxi tour of the city. Funnily enough, the walk back to the central station the next morning took us fifteen minutes. I wonder what could be done to prevent cab drivers in Europe from ripping tourists off. At the hostel we each paid €22 for a night, four Euros more than its web page advertised. We were too tired to argue.

The next morning we woke up to a pleasant sunny day and met up with my old Pearson friend Svend from Greenland. The last time we had seen each other before then was two years ago, at the end of our month-long trip of Eastern Europe. We took the advantage of seeing each other and visited some of Amsterdam’s famous Coffee Shops, where marihuana can be smoked legally. We then went to Sebastian’s place, who had made it home in the meantime and had a happy Pearson reunion.

Other than the coffee shops, another interesting feature of Amsterdam is its legalized prostitution. Just like smoking marihuana, though, prostitution is well regulated by the city’s government. First, it is enclosed in a “red light district,” an area of no more than a few blocks. Second, you must use a condom. Third, prostitutes can only stay inside buildings while on the job. The prostitutes of course craftfully go around this rule by showing their splendid bodies behind red-lit glass windows, giving you winks, smiling at you, and seductively opening their mouths and licking their lips when you pass around their window. This creates an unforgettable atmosphere, which is indeed very hard to resist. However, we did not let these excellent women seduce us. Instead, we enjoyed a few hours of window shopping. Unfortunately, as we were reminded by a friendly couple of police officers, no pictures of the girls are allowed, and so all of those I took are in a bad quality and tilted in various ways as I tried to take pictures inconspicuously.

There is much more to Amsterdam than the drugs and prostitutes, though. The city itself in an architectural wonder, featuring a large historical center connected with canals, in many ways similar to Venice. The only difference is that there are also cars and trams and trains in the center, unlike in Venice. Another interesting feature were the historical houses themselves. Rather than standing perpendicular to the ground, they are tilted outwards, making the visitor feel like they are in a fairy tale. Apparently the reason for this shape of the houses is threefold. First, since space in Amsterdam is expensive, you gain a few free square meters in your houses’ upper floors. Second, when it rains, the walls get less washed and thus need less repairing. Third, when you come home after a long night and urgently need to vomit from the upper floors, the building’s shape ensures that your house’s walls stay clean. Practical in every possible way, isn’t it?

After leaving Amsterdam, we took the train to northern Germany’s city of Bremen. We unfortunately only had about two hours to spend in this historical city before making our way north to Germany’s coast on the Northern Sea. There we stayed a night with Martin’s German friend Kana, whose mom is Japanese. This gave me a great opportunity to practice both my German as well as my Japanese: the ideal multilingual experience. Then we drove to Jena, where Martin and his friend study, and from Jena I went back using German car pooling. I got driven for mere €5 to the Czech border by a nice German girl who was traveling in the same direction. It saved both of us money, saved German highways some clogging, and saved the planet some gas. The German carpooling system, Mitfahrgelegenheit, is truly amazing.

That’s it for the Martin & Martin trip, thanks for reading!


A cheese shop in Amsterdam.

The thing in the corner is designed to prevent you from peeing in the corners.

Red light district.

A canal in Amsterdam.

A bike repair shop on the streets. Because the city is flat, everybody bikes there. The XXX flag is the city's flag, and XXX the city's symbol.

A man smoking up in a coffee shop.

A half-naked guy sitting on top of a police car, smoking a joint. This is Amsterdam. 

A happy Pearson reunion. Me and Sebastian are in the middle, the other two are Sebastian's friends.


A Square in Amsterdam.

The Markt square in Bremen.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What Next?

On Wednesday, Apr 27, I left Japan. After a ten-hour flight to Helsinki and a two-hour flight to Prague I finally arrived to the Czech Republic, my homeland. I have been here for five days now and still have not written the promised last post about my Japanese experience. What did I learn, how did I change? There are too many things which I could write about and many which I prefer not to write about. Let me, though, summarize my Japanese experience. I encourage you to click on the links within this post as they will take you back to my past posts about Japan. They will hopefully refresh your memory, will help you make more sense of what Japan is, and definitely will make parts of this post easier to understand. So again, What did I learn, how did I change during my eight months in Japan?

First and foremost, I became capable of having a decent conversation in Japanese about almost anything, though I do not dare to call the present state fluency. Japanese is a very complex language, and eight months in Japan were unfortunately not sufficient for me to grasp all of it. I am afraid that eight years might also not be enough. I am confident, though, that I did well considering the little time I had. I am proud to say that my current language ability is largely a result of making many Japanese friends and restraining my communication in English to the bare required minimum. I spent little time with English speakers and I did the right thing. If you ever decide to study abroad in order to learn a foreign language, do not fall into the easy trap of befriending almost exclusively the people who speak the same language as you. If you do, you will then leave your target country and regret it.

Other than language, I also became quite adept at seeing into the minds of Japanese people. What seems normal to me or you may be wrong for the Japanese and what seems right for them may seem wrong to us. This starts with the different ways in which the Japanese take a bath, to their way of expressing the most complex feelings in the most subtle ways possible. The Japanese take a shower before entering a bath (ofuro) and then have the whole family use the same water in the bath tub. They also practice different table manners; it is quite fine, if not required, to slurp aloud while eating noodles or drinking soup (yes, drinking soup). If you do not slurp, you are not showing enough appreciation for the cook. Another difference is that the Japanese barely show their emotions in public. It is rare to see a couple kissing on the street in Japan, a quite frequent occurrence in most European countries. The Japanese are nicer in general than the Czechs or Americans in dealing with customers or strangers. In a Japanese store, the employees smile, call you their honored customer (okyakusama), and their customer care is stellar. In the Czech Republic, you are lucky if they respond to your "hello" and you often have to go to great lengths to get the clerk's attention. When you do, they are almost angry that you are wasting their time which they could instead spend doing nothing.

To be honest, I only noticed the above things when I came back home. I realized that I was not greeted by the restaurant staff, I was not smiled at, and I was not given proper customer care while shopping. In this sense, I believe that the world, or at least people in the former Soviet block countries, have a lot left to learn. The manners from back in the times of communism, when everyone had to work but no one was motivated enough to work properly, are unfortunately still deep-rooted in the minds of the Czechs. It will take a generation or two to change. This change will happen when the people of my age who have experiences from abroad take over the leading positions in the country.

There are other things which many of us should learn from the Japanese. I was a witness to how people dealt with the aftermath of the horrible earthquake and tsunami in the northeast of the country. Instead of going out armed into the streets and looting shops for food and other supplies, as Americans in New Orleans did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina six years ago, the Japanese ran away into shelters, where they shared (and still are sharing) what little supplies were available. They did not go and ransack what was left, but felt a collective responsibility to restoring the old order as fast as possible. I dare say that most Europeans and Americans do not possess this quality of seeing the bigger picture. There are other things where the Japanese see the bigger picture. A good example is when someone gets sick, they most often wear a white face mask over their mouth and nose so as not to spread their disease to others.

All in all, there are many things which I see as better in Japan and which I see as better in other places. I dislike the Japanese people's general lack of showing their emotions in public, I am not fond of how much they work and I am not a big fan of how the country is crowded. I like how the Japanese can see the bigger picture and are not as selfish as the average American or European person. I like how they respect others, though even respect should have limits and the Japanese are sometimes overly respectful in my opinion. I love the customer care in Japan and how people are nice to each other, a difference which I only came to fully realize and appreciate after going back to my homeland. There are things which you can only buy in Japan. Some of these, like unsweetened tea, I think should be sold in the US and Europe as I believe that they would find a large customer base. Living in Japanese cities is convenient, and shopping for basic goods in Japan is fast thanks to their omnipresent convenience stores.

I love the city of Kyoto, with its old temples, beautiful surrounding mountainslight-ups of autumn leaves, and other attractions, as well as its amazing atmosphere which is just so hard to describe to someone who has not lived there. The red leaves in the fall, and the pink Sakura in the spring. The haze in the summer and the clear views on cold winter afternoons. The Geisha in their colorful kimonos and wooden slippers pattering around the old wooden houses in the Gion district, and random artists playing their music in the night near the Kamo River. Souvenir shops selling useless overpriced junk to oblivious foreign tourists, and monthly markets where you can buy real gold for almost no money. But Japan is not just Kyoto. It is a large country with an enormous vertical spread, making it possible to go skiing to Hokkaido one weekend and then relax on a tropical beach the weekend after that (if you are not employed, that is). Japan hosts Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area on the planet, which packs more people than Canada on an area smaller than Rhode Island. But enough about Japan.

I have decided upon one very important thing. I will not end this blog with my return from Japan. After all, I did not call it Martin in Japan or A Czech Guy in Kyoto, but Where Worlds Meet. I called it that because I have lived in four countries in my life, speak multiple languages, and have friends in well over one hundred countries. I often get to visit interesting places, meet interesting people, and my overall life experience is not that of an average person. People who read this blog reflect well the broad base of friends and acquaintances which I have all over the world. People from all countries, of over one hundred nationalities and citizenships, of all possible sexes, colors, religious beliefs, sexual and political orientations, people with more or less money and more or less power, everyone can and does read about my experiences and ideas on this blog. This blog is a place where all of my friends and people I know, and also people I don't know, get to meet and find a common ground. That is why I called it Where Worlds Meet. As long as my life continues to be interesting and unusual, as long as I continue meeting interesting people and visiting interesting places, I will continue to write in this blog. I will probably not be writing as regularly as I did when I was in Japan, where I experienced entirely new, interesting things almost every day, but I will continue to write. I hope that you will continue to read.

free counters
Thank you, people of the whole world, for reading my blog. I truly appreciate it.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Gone with the Sakura

Starting approximately the week of Apr 4, Kyoto's famous cherry trees started to bloom. Called Sakura (桜 or 櫻) in Japanese, they are as much a symbol of Japan as sushi is. Since the time of the Heian-kyo, which is how the city of Kyoto was called in the early medieval, many poets and artists have tried to express the beauty of the Sakura on paper. I will be less poetic, and instead of writing a poem I will portray the beauty of the Sakura in the .jpg form at the end of this post. Let me first, however, explain a little more about these curious cherry trees.

It is really difficult to explain how much Kyoto changed during the first week of April. From a slightly grey, misty, cold old lady, the city transformed nearly instantaneously into a pink, warm, blooming beauty as the cherry blossoms popped out of their buds almost overnight. Literally, everything in the city became pink. Everywhere I rode the train, I could see pink cherry blossoms beautifying the landscape. Every shrine and every temple, every street, every school, every backyard, every mountain, both banks of the Kamo river, everything was pink.

Before and during the Sakura season, the weather forecasts included predictions of when the Sakura would start blooming in a particular region. Because Japan is a big country spread over a large vertical distance, the Sakura do not bloom in all parts at the same time. They first start blooming in the warm Okinawa, then in the central regions where Kyoto is, and then slowly make their way to the north of the country.

The day that the cherry trees started blooming in Kyoto, the mood in the city turned around. People of all ages and all occupations, be they university students, housewives, or salary men in their sixties, went out where the cherry trees were, engaging in an activity called Hanami, or "Looking at the Blossoms." When I heard this phrase for the first time, I thought that nothing could be more boring than staring at blooming trees; how wrong was I. Let me describe to you what Hanami is really about.

In my opinion, Hanami (花見), looking at the flowers, should be renamed to Hananomi (花飲み), or drinking under the flowers. Literally, crowds of people of all ages set up blue plastic tarts under the blooming trees at major shrines and temples, around the Kamo river, at the Imperial Palace, and other popular places, bringing lots of food and alcohol, and drinking until late in the night. Hundreds of food stalls emerged around the main cherry-viewing spots, selling everything from okonomiyaki, takoyaki, teriyaki, taiyaki, oden, sausages, and noodles, to sweets and alcohol. No one cared whether it was Saturday or Wednesday, and if they had to go to work tomorrow or not. Today the Sakura are here, and tomorrow they may not be. If the winds are strong or it it rains too much, the blossoms could fall down in a few minutes.

Their impermanence is the worst as well as the best thing about the Sakura. The worst thing about their impermanence is that their beauty does not last. The best thing about their impermanence is exactly the same; if the blossoms did last, no one would ever appreciate their beauty so much. This idea is deeply rooted in the minds of many Japanese, a philosophy called mono no aware, which literally means something like "the pathos of things." Everything is impermanent, everything will die, which is also what makes it beautiful. Literally, the blossoms disappeared as fast as they came. First, everything was grey. One day, every tree was pink. Three days later, the ground was pink as well, because the Sakura leaves started falling down. Another three days later, the show was close to being over. See you next year, Sakura. The Japanese know this very well and waste no time to see the Sakura trees in full bloom.

Companies sell special Sakura edition foods, which are often no different from the usual products except that they have a pink wrapping instead of their usual color. A good example are the special Sakura beer editions, which feature pink blossoms on the can but the beer inside tastes the same. Sakura themselves can also be used as a food. Pickled in salt, they are put into tea or used to decorate traditional Japanese sweets. The fact that they are pickled in salt, however, means that they only smell nice, but taste horrible. Pickling the Sakura is only a meager attempt to preserve these amazing blossoms which are gone before you even notice that they are there.

Appropriately enough, my time in Japan will be gone with the Sakura. As the last lonely pink leaves fall to the ground, my eight-month long stay in Kyoto will come to an end. Next Wednesday, I will be gone from the amazing place which the city of Kyoto is. The eight months here indeed felt like the life of a Sakura: beautiful, interesting, and very short. What did I learn, how did I change, and what will come next? Did I make the best out of the time here? I assume that the pages of this blog can tell you better than I. Before I leave for Prague, though, I will try to write one more post concerned with exactly the above questions.

At the beginning of the last month of her stay in Argentina, my friend Kayla wrote in her blog that she had thirty beautiful sunsets above Buenos Aires left to watch from her apartment house's balcony. She also said that she must do the best with these thirty days because they will never repeat. I will now go and do exactly that during my last week in Japan. See you on the other side.


A great example of Sakura alcoholic beverages . Orion beer, sold in Okinawa, even made a special commercial for its Sakura special edition cans. The beer tastes the same, but the can has cherry blossoms on it.  The music is actually Cojaco, the artist whom I met in Okinawa.

New friends that I made during one of my walks through the Imperial Palace. They were doing Hanami and asked me if I wanted to join. I did, and we have been hanging out ever since. The trees in the back are actually peach trees, and not cherries. They last longer, but are not considered to be as beautiful. The Chinese, on the other hand, cherish their longevity.

A little UWC reunion: my friend Minami from Pearson came to Kyoto and we met under the Sakura trees. It was lovely.

A night light up of Sakura in Maruyama Park, downtown Kyoto.

This is what Hanami is all about: drinking and eating under the trees. The signs advertise Oden (an indescribable but delicious food), and Soba and Udon (types of noodles).


A detail of Sakura.

The Philosopher's Path, Kyoto.

A scene at the Kamo River. Notice the birds as well as the Sakura on all four of the banks.

Weeping Cherries at the Nijo Castle, Kyoto.