Monday, October 30, 2006

Don't Panic!

Okay, so you know from my stories about Stephen and stuff that we have security. The gates to my driveway are always closed and aren't opened without permission. I have razor wire on my 8 foot cement block wall, and spikes set into the tops of the walls.

This is to deter people with sticky fingers. Honestly. We feel safer here than we do most places in the U.S. Violent crime is really not the issue. Considering something that I have left carelessly laying around inside my house to be "up for grabs", is. In a country where a tip can be a nickel or a dime, we are unbelievably wealthy- even though most of what we have was left in storage in the U.S., what we have here is still more than the average African will acquire in a lifetime.

So anyway, because of the possibility of sticky fingers, we have 24 hour security with live people on the premises at all times. Stephen doesn't leave until the night guards show up, they don't leave until he comes back. They all have walkie talkies that link them to the InterCon office, they have a log book that details all the mundane comings and goings around here, and we all have a panic button.

Well, the guards have one, and we have one in the house. So two panic buttons.

If you press and hold it, nothing obvious will happen. A small light will come on and then nothing. But soon, a Rapid Response Team will show up at your house ready to do battle for you.

I have always known this. I have seen other companies' RR Teams zooming around the city since we first got here. They all have snappy names- "React Squad" and stuff like that, and they are very serious and have big muscles and generally look very much scarier than our ordinary guards.

So yesterday I see a couple of Storm Troopers out the front window, wandering my yard. They are easily identified by their starched navy blue uniforms (the regular guards have tan shirts and navy slacks), their riot gear (big round helmets with face plates) and four foot billy clubs.

I figured it was just a spot check- the supervisors show up twice a day to check on the guards and make sure they are on their toes, and occasionally a herd of them show up with Storm Troopers in tow and I ignore them, assuming Stephen will let me know if my input is needed.

Well, Friday, it was.

I answered a knock on the door about ten minutes after seeing them in my driveway. They had secured the outdoor area and were now checking with me because the panic button had been activated. Stephen hadn't pressed it, and he knew I wouldn't just do it without reason, or telling him or SOMETHING, and they had to check with me.

Ummm. Nope. Wasn't me. (meanwhile the dog is row-row-rowfing his head off on the other side of the door, certain it's a trick to get me outside and steal all the rawhide chips).

On the driveway just off the porch there are three Storm Troopers standing with their pants tucked military style into their calf high leather boots, clubs ready.

I fail to resist the urge to say "Cool!" and give them two big thumbs up. Dork.

The Supervisor and Stephen are on the porch with me, as I shout to the dog to shut up, and I assure them I didn't push the button, although I appreciate the response just the same. Stephen and I speculate that the generator guys may have spiked the current enough earlier when they were doing regular maintenance to set off the main box in the Guard house (which is rigged to trigger if it's tampered with).

The Supervisor keeps asking me if everything is all right and I'm reminded of my years at the bank when we were being robbed at gunpoint and I was at my desk pushing THAT panic button for all I was worth and then answering the phone when the police called and having them say, "Your silent alarm was triggered. Are you in trouble?"

Uh, YEAH. That's a good bet. Would you like me to describe them over the phone as much as I can before they SHOOT ME????

Three times in two years I had to say, "Gosh yes! We have LOTS of that. You should come to the branch anytime and we'll get it taken care of. 'Bye now!" while some hopped up junkie waved his gun at the tellers and I tried to slide under my desk...(n.b. hopped up junkies get real nuts if you don't answer a ringing phone, so we always picked up promptly!)

I tell the Supervisor that things are dandy, but seriously, if they weren't, what would I say to him? My son happened to be inside just then and he could have been a good conduct hostage.

Which prompted the Supe to ask again if things were really okay.

Perhaps Stephen and I will have to work out a code. Or at least I will have to make sure he knows that if my lips are saying "Just fine." and my eyes are rolling into the back of my head, there's a problem.

But it is good to know that I have my own squad of serious muscle-y guys ready to pop in any time to crack some heads if I need any heads cracked.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Germany, the Rest of the Week

Onward, and literally upward!

We spent Sunday night in a hotel that has been around since 1550 or so (thankfully remodeled since its original owners), and
then we headed for the top of the German Alps known as the Zugspitze. It's about 10,000 feet, give or take, on the border of Germany and Austria. (click on the picture to make it big and notice the town waaaaaay down there in tinyville...)

They provide a combination of cog wheel train and cable car (the kind that dangle in the air) to get to it. The train starts in the valley and passes through this pastoral scene...

When the cog part gets really steep the train is inside a looooong tunnel barely big enough for the cars and that gave me a little claustrophobia much to Ted and Cooper's amusement. Once you come out and switch to the cable cars you are almost to the top. Where it's cold and windy and absolutely beautiful.

There is lots of space to wander and look and take pictures and have your picture taken while freezing your fanny off.

There are also signs that give you a chuckle.

The danger wasn't funny. The syntax, however, was.

From there we went to Passau and stayed on the Danube again...(that's morning steam)

...and headed out the next morning into the Bohemian Forest (near the Czech border), across to Nuremberg which we mostly gave a pass to. The site of the war trials is still a Hall of Justice and not someplace equipped for visitors, and we were much more interested in getting to Heidelberg.

Speaking of which, what a place. It's a maze, it's crammed with history, it's cramped and narrow, it's full of people and students and traffic, it's stuck to steep hillsides and built right up to the edge of the Neckar River and we liked it. Alot.

All the pictures you have may seen of it have been taken from the opposite bank at sundown. Our timing was wrong, and traffic was a nightmare, so you get a new view courtesy of our lack of planning. ;-) We are standing on the grounds of the Heidelberg Castle (which is also part of the usual photos you may have seen) looking down on the city. The castle itself is a spectacular thing built into the hillside and occupied for centuries. You can see the work of at least two different centuries in the ruins pictured here...

and get an idea of the precipitous perch it's on in this shot that happens to include both my guys (one of whom is immune to my cries of "Hey! Look at the camera!").

At the bottom of the hill we stopped in the market area, one of many we stopped in during the week. They are all "Something-platz" and they are great fun, full of fresh produce, flowers, handcrafts and people.

This view as you are leaving the market area was Heidelberg for us...

and these flower boxes were the norm, even though it was mid October and chilly- we couldn't believe how many places had bright, lively flower boxes blooming in defiance of the season.

From Heidelberg we went to Trier and made a quick foray into Luxembourg just because it was there. Pooh on the European Union- we drove into it like we were going from Kansas to Colorado and no one wanted to see our passports much less stamp them. But we were there. And I have Coop's picture to prove it...

We wandered around and then ate dinner, getting language whiplash from trying to remember we were no longer in "danke" land and trying to substitue "merci". At dinner we listed our French vocabulary words (Coop, who is taking French at school, declined to play), and mostly came up with a lame list that included Chevrolet, beaucoup, pommes frites, and Oui! So we got in our car and headed back to Deutschland and a language we were still hoping to absorb.

As long as we're talking language, I'll share with you our favorite german word (and those of you who are familiar with our everlasting immaturity will not be surprised)... fahrt. It means 'trip' and is part of a great many phrases, the most ubiquitous of which are 'entrance' and 'exit'. Einfahrt and Ausfahrt. These two words are used approximately seven million times on the Autobahn to mark the appropriate places, and we never failed to snort and chuckle as one of us yelled "Ausfahrt!" at each highway exit we took. In order not to cause accidents, we never managed to get one of the big blue highway signs that pointed down the exit ramps, but here's a train station example for you...

We think the 'h' adds some class to the word. ;-)

Okay, back to being grownups. We left Trier and headed into the Mossel Valley in Rheinland to follow the road up the Mossel river through Reisling wine country. The river valley is bordered on both sides by steep hills that don't stop the wineries from planting grape arbors straight up the sides of them.

As you can see, they put the grapes on any piece of ground they can get the vines to hold. They use what we started calling 'grapecarts' to harvest them...

...the people walk the hillside picking grapes and put their bounty on the rack behind the driver. We saw some grape pickers and couldn't believe how difficult it looked to pick fruit on a steep incline.

In an effort to see the valley from on high, we followed a small narrow road that lacked signposting until we felt we might be either a) trespassing or b) stuck in a spot we would have to back down all the way from. A German couple had arrived at the same place and conclusion sometime before us and the man came to Ted's window to ask him (in German) what he thought. With a combination of smiles, laughs, hand gestures, and raised eyebrows, we all decided that perhaps we should try to extricate ourselves from the narrow hilltop. Our new best friend peeked around an outcrop just ahead of where we had stopped our car and suddenly broke into a wide grin and waved us forward. We drove around the rock and found ourselves in a wide spot big enough for about five cars to park and take advantage of the view. Our German friend followed and we all piled out of our cars to stand on the edge of the precipice and marvel and snap pictures like this...

As we exclaimed to each other in our respective languages, another German couple poked their heads around the outcropping with worried looks on their faces. We all laughed and beckoned them to bring their car down and share our tiny parking lot. After we had our fill of oohing and ahhing, we headed back the way we had come to the accompaniment of enthusiastic waves and laughter from our soon to be erstwhile friends.

The valley is home to countless castles- most in ruins. It was common to look uphill and see this...

...a former feudal castle, fronted by those impossibly steep vineyards, protecting a town of untold age and history.

When we reached the end of the valley road in a town called Cochem, we stopped for brats and schnitzel at a tiny Bierhouse where the owner/waiter spoke no English and practiced our German phrases on him. Mostly he wished we would just shut up and point, but our lunch was delicious and we followed it with a walk through the local Something-platz.

From there we headed to Mainz where our only goal was the Gutenberg Museum. We tried to fire Coop up for the sheer spectacle of seeing the first books printed on a printing press after centuries of handwritten manuscripts and painfully hand printed flyers, and only succeeded marginally. The museum was dedicated to all aspects of books and printing as a result of Gutenberg's invention and he was more interested in the teeny tiny books and the fact that Gutenberg used dog skin for his inkers since it has no pores and wouldn't absorb the ink. But he did look at a huge number of exhibits in the four story museum, so we suppose he got something out of it.

Ted and I sure did.

As you can imagine, the 600 year old Gutenberg Bible (it's three volumes!) and many of the other exhibits were not things you could photograph, in fact the bible was in a vault that was humidified and indirectly lit with 25 watt bulbs, so we felt special just to be able to get a look at it at all. So there are no pictures of this part of our trip. You can Google it if you need visuals. :-) It was very cool, and worth the trip.

Outside the museum was the Something-platz for Mainz so we wandered the booths and stalls collecting cheese and bread and marinated shrimps and cherry tomatoes for lunch and then sat here and ate it all.

It was a serene end to a swell trip. We headed to the Frankfurt airport that night, and came back to warm, sunny Africa in the morning.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Germany, the First 48 Hours

Akwaaba (welcome) home to us! We spent the last week in Germany- mostly Bavaria, a little bit in the Rhein Valley.

Our combined knowledge of the German language consists of 'gesundheit' and two friends of Cooper's who live here in Ghana and who occasionally say "mein gott!". So we armed ourselves with two maps, two guidebooks, and one really good phrasebook.

We started in Frankfurt because that's where Lufthansa lands after they leave here. We had been flying all night, and gotten about three hours sleep apiece, but were determined not to waste time, so we picked up our rental car and hit the Autobahn.

Let me say right here, we love the Autobahn. Yes it's clean, clear, safe, and speedy, but mostly it's populated with German drivers who are easily the kindest, most orderly, safest drivers on the planet. Granted there are exceptions, but we marveled at what Cooper called "the zipper effect". Two huge lines of traffic that need to merge, because of roadworks, into one huge line of traffic.

In America and England and Greece, this results in a kind of haphazard blending of both lanes in a catch-as-catch-can sort of way, in Ghana it's a free for all with no rules that routinely brings the whole shootin' match to a dead standstill, but in Germany, every single time, the cars seamlessly meshed in alternating turns into a single lane that never dropped below 50kph.

On one day, we got caught in a massive traffic jam, the cause of which we never discovered, but there were only two highway lanes. The "slow" lane was nose to tail with semi trucks- literally miles and miles of them. We drove past three miles of stopped trucks before our lane of cars was stopped, and not one truck moved into the car lane to attempt to get further along the highway, because they weren't supposed to. In Ghana, not only would all lanes have been filled with every kind of vehicle, but there would have been third and fourth lanes made from the emergency shoulder and grass median. We were awestruck, and bow to the drivers of Germany. It was a unique experience for us and the wonder of the whole thing completely mitigated the half hour delay in traffic.

Anyhoo, we took off for Bavaria and managed to get to Ulm before our jet lag kicked in. We checked into a hotel - the first of a few directly on the Danube!- and took a two hour nap (enough to get us through until our new German bedtime- two hours off Africa).

As we tried to plan our first full day in Germany, we realized that our idea to start at the Austrian border would be scuttled by the fact that Dachau was closed on Mondays. Sigh. So we re-plotted our course for the North side of Munich and headed out the next morning to visit what I hope will be the last Concentration Camp I ever visit.

Not that it was a bad place to go, or that I'm not glad we went- I just don't think I can face another one. Dachau wasn't even a 'death camp' in the sense that people weren't sent there just to be exterminated. But the fact of the camp at all and the number of deaths from mistreatment, medical experiments, and other dubious causes still make it a terrifically horrible place.

The camp was established in 1933 and was the model for all subsequent concentration camps. Of the more than 200,000 people incarcerated there, almost 25% died. The malnutrition and disease in the camp at the time of liberation claimed hundreds more.

This is what you would have seen as you stepped out of your railway box car and walked away from the railroad tracks.

This serene view is what's left of the barracks area- only one of the barracks still stands, but in 1933 each side of this pathway was lined with a couple dozen barracks meant to hold 200 people each. By the end of the war, each one held ten times that many. Needless to say, the trees were NOT part of the original Dachau experience.

Inside the barracks, at the beginning of the camp's life, these were the bunks for prisoners,
usually equipped with straw mattresses.

By the end of the war, the neat dividers were gone and each 'bunk' had become a large open plywood box filled with countless prisoners.

The prisoners who didn't survive (often because of 'medical experiments', even more often because of having their arms tied behind their backs and then hung by the wrists and "played with") were cremated here.

The ashes of all those thousands of people were dumped nearby, at a site identified and given a suitable memorial by the Allies after the war.

This picture shows Ted and Cooper at the 'strip of death'. If you were on the grass, you were within range of the guards' rifles and would be shot first, questioned later. What doesn't show up is the razor wire and electric fencing, but trust me, it's there. Sometimes prisoners would 'commit suicide by guard' and intentionally run onto the grass. I might have done that myself in their situation.

Needless to say, it was a somber, emotional day. Cooper learned more in four hours at Dachau than he could have in a week in a classroom. He read about the people of all races and religions who were rounded up as enemies of the Third Reich, saw pictures of real people living a waking nightmare, and put the 'glamorous' images he had of WWII into a sharp and decidedly un-glamorous focus. He was moved by what he learned this time last year about Anne Frank, but actually standing in a concentration camp and seeing the film of the liberation armies has given him a much broader, more factual perspective.

But I don't want to see this kind of proof of how evil men can be again. I certainly believed it happened and had even taught some of the history of Sobibor to my adult literacy students, but to actually stand there and try to absorb it all was painful and draining.

Nuff said. If you can, try to go see one for yourself. Sometimes the hardest things are the things most worth doing- but I won't fault you if you can't do it more than once.

Tomorrow I'll post about more cheery stuff and the whole rest of our week in Germany.