A great misunderstanding in Palestine

Day 1,808 since October 10th 2013: 156 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)

People are just people – I guarantee it

pano

I try not to be political or to take sides in conflicts. However as hard as I may try, someone will always claim that I do. What you need to understand about this tiny part of our planet is that if you speak up then you have already chosen a side. And if you remain quiet then that is a political statement too. You are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Let’s start with the most obvious. Is Palestine a country? The planning of Once Upon A saga took place throughout most of 2013 and that is when the country list took form. The list of countries which make up every country in the world within this project counts 203 countries. Palestine was on my list right from the beginning. Countries come in all sorts of forms, size and constellations. To mention a few it would be very hard to compare China, USA, the UK, St. Kitts and Nevis, Ethiopia, Somalia and Germany to each other. And yet they are all considered countries and they are furthermore also member states within the EU. Palestine is another interesting country to behold. Palestine does not have its own currency but neither does Ecuador, El Salvador or Zimbabwe and yet they are still countries. Palestine does not have an army but it has a National Guard. Other countries which do not have an army include Andorra, Costa Rica, Iceland or Liechtenstein. That is of course just to underline that neither currency nor military are precursors for forming a country. How about having well defined borders? Well this one is super interesting! I have been to a lot of countries which dispute territory and especially in desert regions I have noticed that borders are not well defined. However I am surprised to discover that more than 75% of the world’s countries currently have ongoing territorial disputes!! How crazy is that in 2018? Fortunately for the most part they are not violent. As a given example Denmark (on behalf of Greenland) has a dispute with Canada about Hans Island in the Kennedy Channel. That barren little island is relatively close to the North Pole and there is a friendly feud ongoing between the Danish Navy and the Canadian Navy in which alcohol and national flags are the main tools for the “battle”. You should look it up if you haven’t heard about it. It’s a rather good story.

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I have taken a photo of someones eyes in each country. These are from Israel and Palestine. Or Palestine and Israel? I don't remember. Can you tell the difference?

Territorial claims between Israel and Palestine lack the cuteness of Danish/Canadian relationships. And if you have ever been told that it is “complicated” then that is not an understatement. Interestingly enough I have for years been saying that life is simple and we make it complicated. Around these parts we have certainly made it complicated. Before we get anywhere near that, I think it is interesting to know that Palestine competed in the 2016 Olympics. However Puerto Rico, which is consider an unincorporated U.S. territory, has also participated in the Olympics. In fact there are multiple ways to address what can be considered a country and what cannot. The United Nations count 193 member states and 2 observer states. FIFA counts 211, the Olympics count 206 and Jehovah Witnesses say 235. Why do we not know exactly how many countries there are in the world? Well for starters we do not have a universally agreed definition of what a country is. And with the above provided information I hope that it appears a little clearer to you. The world’s youngest country is from 2011 and the oldest has existed for more than 2000 years. Israel dates back to 1948 and Palestine was founded in 1988.

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This is passport no 000000001 for the Palestinian Authority :)

Palestine is what we call a de jure sovereign state, which in itself is rather special. Most sovereign states are both states de jure and de facto (they exist both in law and in reality). However, a state may be recognized only as a de jure state when it is recognized as being the legitimate government of a territory over which it has no actual control. Now, if I was to say that Israel is occupying Palestine then that would be read as a political statement. Mainly because of the usage of the word “occupied”. There is no way I’m going to write anything for you which is not going to be misinterpreted by someone else. I have done more research on Israel and Palestine than I have done for any other countries throughout the Saga. And for me it is really a case of “the more you know the less you know”. There are so many accusations, “truths”, versions, perceptions, feelings and “facts” between people in this particular part of the world. And the more I dig the more clear it has become to me that I don’t know what the heck is true in many cases? It feels right to quote Socrates here as he said: “The only thing I know is that I know nothing”. However I feel certain that mistakes have been made on both sides of the wall. And there is a wall: When Israel formed in 1948 they immediately found themselves attacked by a coalition of countries. After the dust had settled in 1949 an armistice border (green line) was set up to mark the de facto borders of the State of Israel from 1949 until the Six-Day War later broke out in 1967. During the Six-Day War Israel gained territory beyond the armistice border. Today a 708km (440mi) combined wall and fence runs along the green line. The green line itself is however half as long as the barrier so you can imagine how much it “snakes” back and forth through the landscape.

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"All in all you're just another brick in the wall..."

For those who question whether Palestine is a country or not I always take a look to see how much support there is from the international community. It turns out that 137 of 193 UN member states recognize the state of Palestine. And that is more than 70% of the world’s countries. Also, what is the 708km (440mi) barrier surrounding if not a country? Well, we can think and we can think and we can think…and now the scene is set for when I went to Palestine.

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Heading into Ramallah...

A taxi picked me up in Modi’in where I have been staying with Trevor and his family. Then we took off in direction of Ramallah. Before crossing the checkpoint my eyes caught a glimpse of a red warning sign stating that Israelis should not enter the area. As the taxi driver took me north on Ramallah Street I began to take in the view of country number 156. Life went on as normal with traffic, open shops, children and people going on about their lives. The infrastructure looked different from in Israeli as roads appeared worn and sand was to be seen on either side. However the same blue sky was still above me and neither rocks nor trees cared about what I would call the land we drove across.

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Football! You find it everywhere. And it doesn't take much. And it gives people something else to think about.

In Ramallah the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) has its headquarters which also doubles as a hotel. The Danish Red Cross has a delegate in Palestine who had organized a room for me. And generally I prefer to stay in RC (Red Cross, Red Crescent, Red Crystal) accommodation whenever possible as the money might as well go there. The PRCS uses the hotel as an Income Generating Activity (IGA) in order to raise funds for their humanitarian activities. As such they also rent out conference rooms and venues for weddings. The building is in fact very impressive and even holds a cinema/stage for events. On arrival I really wanted to explore the streets of Ramallah but I was overwhelmed with work and made good use of the WIFI connection at the hotel. Then as the sun set over Palestine Alfredo Melgarejo came to meet me at the reception. We had agreed to have dinner together that night. Alfredo is a great guy. He is part Spanish, part Austrian and full human. Alfredo is also the Country Coordinator for the Danish Red Cross and possesses 23 years of humanitarian experience within the movement. We rolled off in his 4WD and found a cozy little restaurant where we could get to know each other over a beer and a solid meal.

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First night out. Dinner with Alfredo.

As with most things in life it is hard to paint a simple picture of anything. Palestine is a country with dusty ruins and flashy new restaurants. You will come across poverty, the middle class and the wealthy. That night we sat and enjoyed conversation in a place which could have been anywhere on earth. Nothing suspicious about anything at all. The service was great, the waiters spoke English, the food tasted fantastic, the music was soothing, the lighting was perfect and it was easy to have a good time. Furthermore Alfredo is a really pleasant and knowledgeable guy so I was set for my first night in Ramallah. It was somewhat chilly as Ramallah lies at 880 meters (2,890 ft) above sea level. However cold is relative. I’ve just spent the hot months in the Gulf.

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About to watch an intro video about PRCS in their own cinema :)

The next day I met up with the PRCS who are spectacular and gave me one of my most memorable RC experiences! It all began when I was introduced to Dr. Khalid Joudeh who is the Director General of PRCS. Dr. Khalid has eyes and a smile that make you think that he is seconds away from cracking a joke. He is very kind and balances his role within the PRCS with consulting as a pediatrician. After the initial pleasantries we headed out to meet several department directors, staff and volunteers. I was then briefed about PRCS, its services, programs and plans as well as the key challenges they face. Given the history of Palestinian/Israeli relationships over the past seventy years a great deal of Palestinians now live in diaspora. You may remember that in last week’s entry I touched upon Jews living in diaspora. There are about six million Palestinians living across nearly forty countries in the world. Unlike the Israelis the Palestinians do not have right of return and that has resulted in a great deal of refugee camps since 1948. The PRCS is performing outstanding humanitarian support within these refugee camps and do so in collaboration with several participating national societies of the RC.

Alfredo

Alfredo is a great guy. He is especially involved with PsycoSocial support which is in a cooperation with the Iceland Red Cross and Danida.

It is in my opinion that in the hardest environments across our planet, you get to see the best of the movement. PRCS volunteers are pulling off miracles on an everyday basis and they manage to do so in spite of the overhanging obstacles and not because of them. Some of the finest people I have met throughout Once Upon A Saga have been dedicated humanitarian workers doing what I know I never could. They work in the outmost hardest conditions across our planet and because of it they often become the very best within what they do. The regional conflict has generated much mistrust on both sides of the borders and in recent years an increase of violence occurred in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The violence included a number of “lone wolf” attacks, riots and politically motivated attacks. In response to the increased violence, Israel deployed more checkpoints and roadblocks limiting Palestinian movement. The problem of course is that limited movement also limits ordinary people and indeed the PRCS. I was resently informed of an episode which is still under investigation. As far as the story goes, in a recent case a PRCS ambulance carrying a critically injured patient could not enter a hospital due to strict security protocols. Fortunately the story reported that the patient eventually entered the hospital and was treated. However in life and death scenarios every second counts and the RC should always be considered neutral and impartial. Whether this story is true or not remains to be investigated. I have been able to find more about it in in this article from The Times of Israel.

PRCS stair

Amazing people!! Biking through Ramallah is a memory for a lifetime :)

The Emergency Medical Service (EMS) of the PRCS is comprised of highly motivated, dedicated and very skillful volunteers and staff workers who have seen more with their own eyes than most of us can imagine. They carry the responsibility of the ambulance service for both the West Bank and in Gaza. The geography of Palestine is complicated too. It is actually two areas which are separated with Israel in between. Gaza is a tiny area on the Mediterranean Sea which borders Israel and Egypt. It is often regarded as the most densely populated place on earth. The West Bank is a landmass which got its name from its location west of the Jordan River. It borders Israel and Jordan and the borders are under Israeli control. I visited Ramallah in the West Bank and did not have an opportunity to visit Gaza. And frankly I have done very little research on Gaza. The PRCS EMS team (can you follow the acronyms?) operates across both Gaza and the West Bank. They log every incident and have detailed recordings on who has been injured by bombings, hits, falls, burns, rubber bullets, gas, and live bullets. They also record how often there has been obstruction of the movement of ambulances, the number of injured EMS volunteers/staff, violations against PRCS ambulances and violations against PRCS staff and volunteers. And frankly in my personal opinion there should be zero violations against PRCS staff, volunteers or ambulances. It is sad. And yet these volunteers are not deterred and keep on suiting up. Keep on keeping on.

palestinian flag

I would like to mention everything the PRCS does! They are really good at what they do and they deserve all the support in the world. I can however not mention everything and everyone so I will just quickly list some of their many activities: Primary Health Care, Secondary Health Care, Disaster Management, Rehabilitation and Ability Development, Psychosocial Support, International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Dissemination and Youth and Volunteer activities. All of this and more falls under the work of the PRCS and on a personal note I was very touched by seeing a young deaf child learning to communicate through official sign language at the school for hearing impaired children. The innocence of children always gets to me. Why some of us grow up to riot while others become respected scholars is beyond me. On that note conflict prevention and resolution is also a vital part of the RC’s engagement.

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Cycling Palestine :)

Then something funny happened. Probably the best outcome of a mistake which anyone could make. I am as you know traveling to every country in the world in an unbroken journey without flying. As such I am traveling predominantly by public transportation but somehow the rumor had spread within the PRCS that I am cycling. Palestine was in fact host to a cyclist a while ago who was on a large scale cycling project. So maybe that is how it all began? In either case the PRCS had arranged for a solidarity cycling tour through Ramallah with me. As I am not cycling to every country in the world I had to borrow a bicycle and I was outfitted with a helmet. Then a mix of staff, volunteers and participants from Cycling Palestine joined in and about thirty happy souls took to the roads! But that wasn’t it!! We had a police escort and the roads had been blocked off for our convenience.

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Just brilliant!! Well done PRCS!! You definetely stand out!! :)

Dr. Khalid joined in with his friendly smile and let me understand that he had not been on a bicycle for at least forty years. Ramallah is a brilliant, beautiful and very hilly city. It is a mix of the new and old. We took to the streets as the police sirens filled the air. People on the side of the road often had a clear “what the heck is going on” look on their face. I came side by side with Alfredo, then later on with Dr. Khalid as we moved forward under the clear blue sky. BRILLIANT! Who the heck can say they have cycled through Ramallah with a police escort? :) Our tour took us to Yasser Arafat’s Mausoleum and his museum behind it. Yasser Arafat was a Palestinian political leader who was born in Egypt in 1929. He was the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from 1969 to 2004 and President of the Palestinian National Authority from 1994 until his death in 2004. His mausoleum “floats” above water symbolizing that it is moving and that it is not his final resting place. Arafat’s wish was to be buried in Jerusalem. In 1988 he proclaimed the State of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. And he did that from Algiers. Among other things he is quoted to have said: “I come bearing an olive branch in one hand, and the freedom fighter's gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand” and “Peace for us means the destruction of Israel. We are preparing for an all-out war, a war which will last for generations”.

yasser grave

Arafat's floating mausoleum as seen from behind.

Palestine does not represent such strong views in my opinion. I have met all sorts of people with all sorts of views on what the future should hold. There are many Palestinians living in Israel side by side with Israelis. Like within any society you will find your extremists, your pacifists, your left wing, your right wing, your moderates etc. What do most people really want? If your answer to that question is “death and destruction” then I think you are misguided. In my experience people just want to cut out a small part the world in which they can live peaceful lives and know that their loved ones are safe. The majority of the Palestinians are like that and so are the Israelis. And yes, mistakes have been made on the Palestinian side. The horror of suicide bombings between 2000-2005 is a vivid memory today for those who lived though it. And with such horrific acts in the Palestinian luggage it will always be something which is brought up when the issue falls on trust. And yet these horrific actions were carried out by the few. Around the world people love dogs and they are found as pets in millions of homes. Sometimes a dog bites and yet everybody agrees that it has got nothing to do with the other pets. And before anyone gets carried away I am by no means saying that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are dogs. I know how some of you think and that is not my point at all. My point is of course that we are willing to give dogs the benefit of doubt but we find it hard to treat people the same way. You make peace with your enemies – not with your friends. And a compromise is not necessarily a situation where nobody walks away without what they wanted. The Palestinians are not going anywhere and neither are the Israelis. So there you have it. Only by such forgiveness as the world saw from Nelson Mandela in South Africa can the hardliners of this landscape move forward. The rest of us have got to do our part too.

alfredo bike

Our tour through Ramallah also brought us to Mahmoud Darwish mausoleum and museum. He was a Palestinian poet and author who was regarded as the national poet. The view from the mausoleum was brilliant and that concluded the end of our tour though Ramallah. I do not know that I have ever heard about Darwish before? However I have looked a little closer and he appears to be quite remarkable. This thing I do, going from country to country, it opens up so many doors which were previously hidden. Something nice I can quote him for is as follows: “Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down”. Darwish also wrote: “History laughs at both the victim and the aggressor” and finally “My country is not a suitcase, I am not a traveler, I am the lover and the land is the beloved”. I have had a least as much online aggression regarding visiting Palestine as when I visited Israel. And frequent claims about Palestine were that it was not a country and that there are no people called Palestinians. Well I think we have addressed the country issue already so let’s have a look at the people. 1500 years ago there was nothing called Islam. And 2100 years ago there was nothing called Christianity. However long before those religions you had people leaving here on these lands. You had various city states, ethnicities and entities. Then history happened! This specific part of the world has seen its fair share of empires and armies.

Iyad2

Olive branches are plentyful in the region. And a symbol for peace.

The region has been controlled by numerous peoples, including Ancient Egyptians, Canaanites, Israelites and Judeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Achaemenids, ancient Greeks, the Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom, Romans, Parthians, Sasanians, Byzantines, the Arab Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Mongols, Ottomans, the British, and modern Israelis, Jordanians, Egyptians and Palestinians. The Palestinians did not call themselves Palestinians any more than Phoenicians called themselves Phoenicians. It was the Greeks that called the “Phoenicians” as such and the name was later on adopted. Much like the people who lived in these lands throughout all of those empires didn’t call themselves Palestinians. There are several ancient references to derivatives of the word “Palestinian” but it wasn’t until the Greeks began referencing the area as Palestine 2,500 years ago and 500 years later when the Romans created Syria Palaestina that the name began to stick. Then obviously a lot happened since. If we fast forward to the British Mandate for Palestine, which followed the end of the Ottoman Empire, then that ran from 1923 to 1948…at which point the Brits left and Israel became a nation. Fair? Fair has got nothing to do with anything anymore. Fairness is a whisper in the wind given everything which has happen on these lands. Just know that there is plenty of blame on all sides and that it is useless to point at it. And a Palestinian is definitely a real thing. In fact my friend Hazem (since 2011) is Palestinian and Haya who interviewed me for MBC is Palestinian. And so are millions of others.

cafe zest

Whether a woman covers her hair depends on her family and/or her free will.

That night my friend Steve set me up with some of his friends though YPO which is a network of young chief executives. I first got in touch with Akram but he was in Jerusalem and about to leave the country for a business meeting. Akram however connected me to Omar who came to pick me up and brought me to a nice restaurant in a modern part of Ramallah. We small talked in the car on the way to the restaurant. I asked Omar about his profession and he humbly replied that he does business within consumer goods. He is actually the CEO of a forty year old business with his name on the wall. But I did not know that yet. We arrived at a smart restaurant called Zest in a completely renovated neighborhood which looked very modern. We then met a few of Omar’s friends who were fellow YPO’s and after a bit of meet and greet we ordered some food. It was clear to me that these friendly and humble men had done quite well for themselves in life. However they were all really down to earth and easy to talk too. As people entered the restaurant various people came to greet them at the table. And you could sense the respect.

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This was a GREAT table to be seated at!! :)

We had a great night with many lively conversations and I had an opportunity to share a few of my adventures from the past years abroad. Then a slim man entered the restaurant, greeted some people, headed for our table and sat down with us. His name was Bashar and he was as kind and humble as the rest. After a while of small talk I was told that Bashar was building a city. I do not know how to respond to something like that? Isn’t that the kind of stuff you would hear about Bruce Wayne? I thought about it for a while and said: “that can’t just be millions…that must be billions. How do you fund it?” Bashar was busy eating but smiled and said that he gets by with a little help from his friends. We talked a little about this city which is planned to house 40,000 people and has been named Rawabi. Everyone told me that I should go there and take a look. But unfortunately my time in Palestine was sparse. Apparently Rawabi City is the first city built by Palestinians for Palestinians since 1948. Maybe even before that. This massive project has not been an easy undertaking and is still placing gray hairs on Bashar’s head. I was told that under the occupation everything is made more difficult. Permits are delayed, there are issues with the water supply which is managed by Israel and agreements and permissions have been hard to come by. Yet Rawabi City is already a success and has come far since its beginnings in January 2010. After a lovely evening with goose liver and good company Omar took me back to my hotel and I said goodnight. Then I had to google this city? It turns out that Bashar Masri is a billionaire and among the top ten richest men in Palestine. I can only guess about the other men I met that night. Masri has refused to accept offers of building supplies from Israeli settlements, and has ignored Israels suggestions as to how Rawabi should be modelled. Bashar has gone on record stating: “Settlers are evil people in general that continue to harass our people; they continue to live on our land illegally, and it’s recognized by almost the whole world as being illegal. We do not deal with illegal bodies or illegal issues”. How did my life ever become one as interesting as this? The people I have met, the things I have seen, all which I have heard…

Snake

I saw a snake in Jerusalem and took this photo. It's a small one. He was waiting for the bus ;)

The next morning I had breakfast and then met up with Alfredo who drove me to Jerusalem were we met with the ICRC and then he dropped me off before I met with Magen David Adom (MDA), which is the Israeli RC. My meeting with MDA in Tel Aviv the week before had led to this meeting with MDA in Jerusalem. I can write a book about the engagement of the RC around the world and how important the work is to millions of beneficiaries around the world. Suffice to say I had a good time with the volunteers and got to answer a few of their questions. The MDA branch I visited in Jerusalem was an EMS center and I was guided among the many ambulances which were all donated by wealthy donors. As such you could walk past them and read where they came from: USA, Canada, France etc.

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Iyad has built himself and his family a great home. This is his driveway. Iyad's oldest son, Khalil, took great care of me when Iyad wasn't around.

I spent that night in a part of Jerusalem which is predominently inhabited by Palestinians. Last week my friend Trevor introduced me to Ivor who guided me around in Jerusalem together with Iyad. Iyad said that I was always welcome to stay at his place so I did. I reached his home which is a small castle that he built himself. Iyad has done well for himself within the security business and has some spectacular stories to tell. I don’t think I should mention here which people he has organized security for…but I can say that there are some very well known personalities among them and a good story he told was about an A-list celebrity who called him on the phone to which he replied: “yeah, and I am Donald Duck” and hung up. Minutes later the phone rang again and it turned out it really was that celebrity. I saw photos and we all know this person, who then had a tour of Jerusalem.

Trevor home

This is a great family!! Unfortunately Sarah is missing in this shot but Tahel (Daniels girlfriend stepped in). From left to right: Susan, Tahel, Daniel, Trevor and Jason :)

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Trevor and Susan are walking Milo and Roxy (the White Walker). No traffic - except for kids on bikes.

Oh my, this entry goes on and on. Hang in there…we are getting to the end now. The reason I couldn’t afford more time in Palestine was because of a Jewish holiday which I wanted to observe. It is called Yom Kippur and it is something absolutely unique to behold in Israel. More than a week ago I arrived to Israel just in time for Rosh Hashana which actually ends with Yom Kippur. The period in between is a time when Jews are judged and Yom Kippur presents itself as a 25 hour fast where the country pretty much comes to a complete standstill. I came back to Trevor and Susan’s home in Modi’in just before the roads were blocked and the traffic stopped. And I had only just walked through the door before Susan said: “have you eaten – are you hungry?” Susan is fantastic like that. So, the family (Trevor, Susan, Daniel, Sarah and Jason) were all together and I joined in for the last meal before the fast. I wasn’t actually going to fast because I’m not Jewish but it was interesting nonetheless. After dinner the city went quiet as there were no longer any vehicles on the roads. Trains, airplanes, busses, trucks and cars had all come to a standstill for 25 hours. All shops, schools, offices, factories etc were closed. And the streets filled with bicycles, electric scooters, skateboards and hoverboards. Families were out walking their dogs and children were exited playing on the streets.

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The following day there was a blue sky and not a single car on the road anywhere to be seen. There is an abundance of secular Jews in Israel. However the traditions which how sprung out of the religion run really deep. So you find that a great deal of Jews might raise an eyebrow in regards to much of what the Torah (religious text) has to say, but they will still follow through with the traditions. It is actually quite special and for Christians you can compare it with celebrating Christmas but not believing that it has anything to do with the birth of Jesus. Interestingly I have quite recently experienced the Ramadan across Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait. And I recently celebrated Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha with Muslim friends as well. Therefore it was just great to experience both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur too. Naturally a lot of people are religious to various degrees and for them these holidays are to be taken seriously. Israel is a relatively easygoing country when it comes to people and opinions. So those who religiously followed through with the rules of ‘not generating any energy’ might have stayed at home all day or found their way to the synagogue. The rest of us headed out to explore a country with its “plug pulled out”.

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I borrowed Trevor’s bicycle and made my way around the nearby landscape on the empty roads. Once in a while I could see an ambulance or a single car which swiftly passed by. It felt somewhat like if the world had been robed for all technology. Children rode around on the middle of the road as it posed absolutely no hazard. The silence was abnormal apart from the joyful screams from exited children. Even airplanes from abroad had been directed around Israel in order to keep the airspace clear. And on this special day the air pollution dropped significantly. Where else in the world can you experience an entire nation do that for a day?   

eyes2

Did you get it right? Does it matter? ;)

 

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - and that's all I have to say about that.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

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Israel – two Jews: three opinions

Day 1,801 since October 10th 2013: 155 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)

You cannot demand respect…you have to earn it

pano1 min

So here’s a puzzle for you: you are in Oman. You need to reach Israel and flying is not an option. How would you solve it? Well if you had some sort of sway over the Saudi immigration authorities then you could get yourself a Saudi visa, cross into Jordan and enter Israel. I spent seven months applying for visas before getting my transit visa under unique circumstances. The chances would be slim to get another. With a Danish passport you could also apply for a visa to Iran and then transit through the UAE, Iran, Turkey, catch a ferry to Cyprus and hope to make your way from there. Or finally you can do what I did. See if you have friends that own a container ship, then board it from Oman (through the Red Sea and Suez Canal) to Egypt, find your way to Cairo, catch an overnight bus across Sinai and hope to reach the ferry from Nuweibaa to Aqaba in Jordan – then cross the bridge into Israel. That didn’t quite happen…

Do you think you can climb to the top of Mount Everest and come back down alive? Do you think you could become an astronaut? Do you think you could walk on the moon? Will in each of those cases it has been done more often than reaching every country in the world completely without flying. I am continuously perplexed to discover how ridiculously complex it is to accomplish. And I say that having the most complicated countries and challenges behind me and having completed over 75% of the project measured by countries. It just really seems like something one should be able to do? I mean: we have ships, busses, trains and there are only around 200 countries - so why wouldn’t it be possible. I even have a Danish passport which makes it infinitely easier although not as easy as the official number reveal. A lot of countries which offer visa on arrival only do that when you fly and not at land borders.

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Cairo, while waiting for my bus.

And then the above would still only be the logistics. Because managing content and activity for social media which now counts over 40,000 followers is very demanding job. Especially when you are on the move and always generate new content. Getting in touch with the Red Cross and Red Crescent all around the world is also a lot of work. The structure of the movement means that the 191 National Societies operate highly independently and the news of this project doesn’t “spill over” from one country to the next. So that effectively means that although I have paid a visit to either the Red Cross or Red Crescent in more than 150 countries the remaining have never heard about the Saga which is easily history’s greatest attempt to unify the movement in a single journey.

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I'm really exited to share THIS VIDEO with you!! Danish singer Jacob Dinesen has made a great song called "Never Run" and he along with reo RECORDS gave permission to use it! :)

With all of the above in mind I have often though about what could possibly be left out of the Saga to lesser the workload. And believe me, the workload has become substantial. I used to work as a logistical manager on large scale construction projects and I know how to count my hours. A slow week in the Saga would be fifty hours of work and in crazy periods it goes up above a hundred. And it really doesn’t seem to get easier as one would think it would. I can’t cut out the social media as that is a direct channel to showing people the world as I see it while connecting with people all around the world. The Saga’s social media has provided so much support over the years and a great deal of my solutions throughout the years is directly related to the Saga’s social media. And how the heck would I ever forgive myself if I cut the Red Cross Red Crescent out of the Saga? Having seen what I have seen and knowing what I today know about the importance and reach of the world’s largest humanitarian organization it would be a crime not to continue promoting it. And the movement has also been directly responsible for a few of the solutions, which solved various Gordian knots along our way. I especially think back at certain National Societies and smile.

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I am also really exited to share THIS INTERVIEW with you. MBC has about 130 million viewers and Haya Yasmeen did a great job with her questions! :)

There is no money in the project. There is only debt. So there is no room for promoting posts on social media for greater reach or hiring an assistant to lessen the workload. It is what it is. I’m not financially concerned as I am quite resourceful and feel sure that the money will come back eventually. And anyone who thinks the Saga will finish the day I reach the final country is kidding themselves. The Saga will live on and grow as long as I live though social media, lectures, books and more. And I intend to age to at least a hundred :)

dbschenker

Thanks to DB Schenker in Denmark this package has made it home to Denmark. DB Schenker in Denmark has been a partner for small shipments for years! :)

Yeah, yeah, but what about Israel? Alright – here it comes. Israel is a full bodied member of the United Nations and became a country in 1948. That is fairly undisputable whether people like it or not. And as I will get to in a moment I have found out first hand that there are strong emotions involved. As some nations completely oppose the idea of Israel’s existence, merely visiting Israel can be enough to ban you from entering other countries. It was no coincidence that I visited EVERY country in the Middle East before heading to Israel. You can avoid getting a stamp in your passport when you visit Israel as they are fully aware about the situation. Instead you will have a separate paper visa loosely inserted into your passport, which you hand over to the Israeli authorities when you leave the country. However if you cross into Israel from any other border other than the Jordan River border crossing (bridge), you will have an exit stamp from the country you are coming from. From the bridge your passport will not be stamped as you leave Jordan under a special mutual agreement between the countries. Thus if you enter Israel across the bridge then you leave no trace in your passport which would reveal that you entered Israel.

sinai

Sinai has endless beaches and no lack of mountains.

As I headed towards Nuweibaa in the overnight bus from Cairo we hit all the same checkpoints as I did the first time I came that way in April 2018. However it all took a lot more time and I reached Nuweibaa thirty minutes too late for the ferry. The next one left the following day. Not usually a problem but I had at least a full day’s worth of travel ahead of me in Jordan to reach the bridge and furthermore Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) was about to begin. That would possibly delay me further if I didn’t enter Israel before it began – and furthermore I would miss it. So I made the decision to continue an hour north and enter Israel directly from Taba in Egypt. If you don’t see the problem then it is because I will need to transit across Iran (which we already visited) in order to reach Afghanistan and enter Turkmenistan from the south. If the Iran authorities see the exit stamp from Taba then they will know that I could only have continued to Israel. Welcome to my world…

nuweibaa

I crossed the border into Israel knowing that no matter where I would have crossed it would not be quick ordeal. The Israeli authorities are renowned for their efficiency and they certainly lived up to it. I had to leave my bags outside the first layer of security and empty my pockets as soon as they had a look at my passport: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia… Yup! Whoever was on guard that day had hit the jackpot with me. It took them about 4-5 hours to process me which included a parade of questions and a very physical massage (body search). I had decided to stay completely honest and not try to hide any information. They were all kind, professional and firm. Nothing was left to chance and my bags were COMEPLETELY taken apart. Anything which could be searched or disassembled was taken apart. I was not allowed to watch so had a moment of hopelessness when they called me over to pack my stuff. It was like looking at a teenager’s room! To begin with it looked impossible to assemble but as it is with a messy room it all begins when you pick up the first sock. I can generally pack my bags in a matter of five to six minutes if I take everything out. However THIS took me 30-40 minutes to reassemble. Welcome to Israel! Also I’d just like to mention that the initial scanner they used for the luggage looked like a canon from the year 3000. I’ve never seen x-ray or whatever it was like that before. However they had free wifi which I could enjoy the last hour I was there when I got my phone back and I was kindly offered water. My bags have only been emptied completely out like that twice before: at the Cameroon/Central African Republic border and in Ethiopia near Somalia. Israel, you are in great company ;)

Eilat bomb

By law buildings in Israel must be equipped with bomb shelters.

Nah, fair enough. I must be one of the stranger profiles on planet earth by now. And they were very professional. From the border I headed to a hostel in Eilat, where I had booked a bed for the night. When I arrived a group of Israelis were chilling outside and they offered me a beer (Goldstar). I sat down with them and we went through the standard “where are you from and what is your name” stuff. Interestingly I was also asked how old I was which doesn’t come up often. When they asked me where I was heading from Israel I replied Palestine. To this the reply was: “Palestine? Where is that?” At this point I had to assume that Israelis were not very good at geography as I had exactly the same response why answering questions at the border a few hours earlier. Or maybe there is just something I don’t understand? ;) To be fair it was said with a smile in both cases.

Egypt border

For a while we followewd the Egyptian border north. Israel is a small country.

road mirror

As we came further north the desert changed to green.

The next morning I got ready to leave the hostel and one of the Israelis had helped me organize an online bus ticket on a Hebrew site. The bus would leave at 3pm and it would take five hours to reach Modi’in which is located right between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Around noon (three hours before departure) I was getting ready to find myself some lunch. That was when I met Dean who was also staying at the hostel. We began talking and it turned out that he had a car and was about to make his way home to Modi’in. Now what are the odds? And furthermore he sells skin care products for Danish MOL-B. So that worked out well? Dean helped me cancel the bus ticket and we set off to explore the highway north. In the south Israel looks a lot like Egypt and Jordan does in that region with a dry landscape, rocky surface and small mountains.

Dean

Good guy Dean! However not everyone liked this photo. 

I was happy to be sharing a ride with Dean as it would get me to Modi’in a few hours earlier in time for Rosh Hashana with Trevor and his family. Trevor is a South African Jew whom I first met in Nairobi, Kenya, when my friend Steve Felder invited me for Shabbat (dinner). Back then he told me that when I reached Israel someday he would be happy to host me. That Shabbat was back in November 2016 when Kenya became country number 121. What did I remember about Trevor? Firm handshake, kind eyes, good energy…not much more to be honest. Although we had met just two years earlier that might as well have been a lifetime ago. The road Eilat was in great condition. Looking across the landscape it looked clean and well organized. Most houses looked to be western standard apart from the occasional Bedouin camp. There were signs warning about crossing camels but we never saw any.

Modiin

There are requirements for how much of Modi'in needs to be green.

Modi’in is a modern city which for the most part is only twenty years old. However people have lived around these parts since the dawn of civilization. The modern city as it stands today is like a well played game of sim city. It is really well designed with large green spaces, linear parks, playgrounds, schools, an artificial lake and some small commercial centers. I read somewhere that Israel is the only country in the world which after fifty years has more trees than before. Modi’in is surely helping in keeping that excellent statistic. As we rolled into the city I said farewell to Dean whom I had enjoyed many great conversations with during our five hour long drive. And I said hello to Trevor, his wife Susan, daughter Sarah and two sons Jason and Daniel…and their two dogs of course. We didn’t have much time together before we set out to join some friends for Rosh Hashanah which marks the beginning of the Jewish year and is a two-day holiday where businesses are closed on both days.

Rosh Shahanna

Father and son reads out a prayer in Hebrew. One of many! Good food and lovely people.

I was told that this holiday marks the beginning of a judgment process in which everyone is observed for their behavior and personality. The following ten days leads to Yom Kippur at which spiritual judgment falls. As such the ten days from the beginning of Rosh Hashana is your personal chance to correct yourself and get your affairs in order. According to the Hebrew calendar we have just entered year 5779 since the creation of Adam and Eve. For an outsider like me it was a pleasure to observe and learn about the traditions such as eating symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey, hoping to evoke a sweet new year. And really it was a lot about food and having a good time.

roxy

Roxy is the oldest of the two dogs. 17 years which is a million in dog years. She is both blind and deaf but keeps on keeping on! They call her the "White Walker".

At this point I had already uploaded my first photo to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter announcing that we had made it to country number 155 in a single unbroken journey completely without flight. And I combined the announcement with the friendly story about how I had met Dean and how he had given me a ride from Eilat to Modi’in. Little did I know the amount of grief such a post would costs me. About half the online comments which followed were kind and supportive while the rest were such as: “you mean Palestine, there is no Israel”, “Disappointed, visiting Israel is promoting their crimes”, "you visited a non-exiting country” and much more. And it continued with further comments on the Saga's social media posts with accusations from people I don't know stating that Israel allegedly kills a child every third day and has done so for the past eighteen years and other postulates? If people will venture to write such claims then just imagine the emotion? Also the Saga’s social media took an immediate dive in followers. Perhaps I should explain? First of all I count both Israel and Palestine as countries and plan to visit both. Israel is as mentioned earlier a member of the United Nations and Palestine is an observatory state along with the Vatican See. Who the heck knows the definition of what a country is? I’ve been living this project for nearly five years and I have not found a definition which suits all the countries we have in the United Nations (UN). People even have different opinions about how many countries there are in the world. If you can’t define a country then you have no business stating what is or isn’t a country. And here is how I go about it: the UN is the benchmark. It is a club with 193 members. Not every country is in the club but 193 is the baseline. If more than half of those countries agree that you are a country then I count you as a country within the Saga. As such 111 countries recognize Kosovo, 137 recognize Palestine and just for kicks I can tell you that 161 recognize Israel. Why I have also included Western Sahara, Taiwan, Greenland, Faroe Islands, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is another story.

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Trevor took me around the neighborhood on electrical scooters. My first time. Am I cool now? ;)

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Having been to every country in the Middle East and having found something nice to say about them all, the Saga has followers from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, UAE, Oman, Yemen, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. And Israel does not have the best political relations with all of those countries. And sometimes I can understand why and sometimes I feel it doesn’t matter. I’ve lately been up to three in the morning most nights doing research on what is what and why people have their opinions around this part of the world. I have researched history, buildings, people, religion, various claims and more. It is phenomenally complicated and as much as everybody is right nobody is right. My parents went through a divorce when I was fifteen. I remember my father said that he thought his mother-in-law would be upset with him and that she would take my mothers side. But my grandmother simply said: “it takes two to make it work and two to take it apart”. Damn I miss my grandmother. She passed away while I was out here busy with the Saga.  

dead sea

Susan, Trevor and I headed down to the Dead Sea. It drops a meter (three feet) every year. Trevor used to jump in the water from the dock when he was a kid.

I’ve always felt that it was somewhat strange when a fan takes credit for a national team after they won: “WE WON! WE WON! WEEEEEEE ARE THE CHAMPIONS”. What exactly did YOU do? The players on the field won. They spent their lives training, getting better and surely sacrificing something to get to where they are. You sat on the sofa and watched TV. How can you take credit? Even more so when it relates to the past. How relevant can it be to anyone today that someone they never met achieved something in the past? Can you lay claim to something which belonged to someone in the past? This part of the Middle East has certainly been conquered many times. Can we lay claim to what those conquerors achievements and own them in 2018? It will drive you crazy to think about this! And with all which I have seen all around the world I can’t help to think that when push comes to shove most people don’t really want to get involved anyway. Most people are in my opinion just trying to cut out a part of the world for themselves and their loved ones where they can feel safe and secure.

trio

Susan, Trevor and their three wonderful children (and the dogs) have been amazing! Susan is fantastic and works as an english teacher for studens after school hours. And Trevor and I have begun to look alike. Or what do you think?

One night Susan, Trevor and I drove to Jerusalem and went for a walk in the old town. It’s a magnificent sight and yet I feel I have seen similar in Valetta (Malta) and in Krakow (Poland). However perhaps not at such a scale. The walls protecting the old town are tall and look impregnable. And they have surely been reinforced over the years by Nights Templars, Ottomans and others. The amount of people which have walked those narrow streets over the years must have had everyday issues such as economy, family, sorrow, happiness and who knows what. Jerusalem. It is certainly a well-known city name. And yet in Arabic the city is most commonly known as al-Quds meaning “The Holy”. Oh well, this is as good a time as ever to reference William Shakespeare’s character Juliet as she ponders: “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. A movie I rather like although it has some gaps within its story is Kingdom of Heaven which was directed by Ridley Scott. At one point the protagonist named Balian stands face to face with the great conqueror Saladin. Jerusalem is about to be destroyed and much has been lost for the cities control. As the city risks complete destruction Balian asks Saladin: “what is Jerusalem worth?” Saladin replies: “Nothing”. Then he walks away but turns around smiling as he says: “everything”.

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The old narrow streets of Jerusalem.

I believe this should be understood as that the city as a geographic location, as cold stone, is almost worthless. This represents the rational secular view. When Saladin afterwards smiles and says "everything" I think he refers to the deeper more spiritual value of the city. Not only religious, but nationalistic as well. That is the emotional more spiritual view. The prevailing conflict that fuels the unrest in this region still continues to this day. I have spoken to both left winged and right winged Israelis and people’s views vary a lot. Is this piece of land worth all the trouble? To live in diaspora is a reference to a scattered population. As such the Jews have until 1948 lived all around the world and actually continue to do so today. About 6.5 million Jews live in Israel and represent some 120 different nationalities from around the world. Another 7-8 million Jews still live in other countries than Israel. Israel is the only country in the world with a Jewish majority and in which Hebrew is the national language and I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to have a country having lived in diaspora for so long. It does make me wonder about the decision those who come to live in Israel they take? There are literally rockets pointing at the nations from several sides and by law buildings are required to contain a bomb shelter.

western trev

The western wall aka the wailing wall is a sacred place for the Jews. Just a stone through away you have the Al-Aqsa Mosque which is sacred to the Muslims.

So imagine living in some country where you grew up, know the language, culture, have your friends and everything you know…and then someday moving to Israel, where you might not know anyone, your Hebrew might not be perfect and there is an external threat of elimination. You will even need to send your children to serve three years (two for women) in the military. That appears quite radical to me. And if you can get behind that thought then you may begin to comprehend some of the powerful emotions which run deep in people. And truly you have three opinions when you have two Jews! With a cultural blend of 120 nationalities and a rainbow from moderately to fanatical religious people in the country you can find whichever opinion you desire. In fact a great deal of Jews consider themselves as secular which is confusing when you first hear that. Because if you do not believe in the religious aspect of all of this then what is it all about? Then you quickly need to consider that Jewish people do not solely identify as a religious entity. If you remove religion from the equation then you are still left with language, history, culture and traditions. Especially the religious traditions are prevalent no matter if people believe in God or not.    

msk

I had a great time telling Maersk in Tel Aviv about the Saga. And it was great seeing David Golin (Managing Director) again. We first met in Instanbul a year earlier.

It does make you wonder what the country might look like if there was no external threat and Israel lived peacefully with all its neighbors. I would think that some of the more radical Jews from around the world would be in a greater hurry to make their way to the Promised Land compared to moderate Jews who would continue to live their lives in diaspora. After all you can continue living your life in some peaceful corner of the world and still remain proud that you now have a country. If this is true then there could be a disproportionate amount of highly strict and relatively radical Jews in the country over time. And would that then effect the Parliament and the very liberal lifestyle which exists today? Well, who knows? Israel is certainly by most measurements very liberal. Israel has annual pride parades which draws massive crowds. Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze live side by side and mostly in harmony. You will not believe the amount of inventions this start up nation is behind! To mention some there is Waze (navigation), the USB flash key, Intel technology, drip irrigation and the iron dome are just some of the most well-known. Seriously try doing an internet search on the amount of inventions that Israel is behind. It is mind boggling. I’ve seen enough of Israel to say that it looks like a great country in terms of infrastructure. You can drink the water from the tap although most prefer not too, there are no power cuts, it is quite green and getting greener and it even ranks as the world’s 11th happiest country. There wasn’t much here in 1948 and yet Israel has managed to create what on the surface to me looks like a great country.

safmarine

I also had a great time sharing the Saga with Seago in Ashdod. And it was great seeing Guy Wolf (Managing Director) again. We also met in Instanbul a year earlier.

I had a chance to meet with Magen David Adom (MaDA) in Tel Aviv. That is what they call the Red Cross here. It means the Shield of David and having sat down with Uri Shacham for a few hours I felt pretty convinced that they are doing a great job. I often meet people who think the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems have religions connotations but in reality they are 100% neutral. Uri explained that the red David star is likewise completely neutral and is perceived as such as they operate across the country. We talked about a lot of stuff but a few things really stuck with me. One of them being that they have an end to end blood drive solution in which MaDA collects the blood, processes the blood, stores the blood and delivers the blood. And Uri and I both mused over how nobody ever asks who will get the blood when they donate or who the blood came from when they receive it. That is one of those things in life where politics and religion really plays no role. Isn’t that refreshing?

telAviv

Tel Aviv, Israel.

RC

Here you see and orthodox Jew, an Israeli settler and an Arab Muslim working together. And it is not uncommon.

Another thing I really liked is that MaDA has numerous ambulance teams which are mixed. And I mean like ‘the beginning of a joke’ mixed. In one case they have an Israeli settler, an Arab Muslim and an orthodox Jew working together as a team in an ambulance. And of course it works. It’s like when on one of the first days Susan, Trevor and I went to buy a bamboo fence. The salesman was Palestinian and Trevor is Israeli so you know it didn’t end well!! Rubbish!! In fact they ended up hugging each other. Trevor tried his best to haggle and at one point he questioned the quality of the bamboo. The salesman immediately stated that it would last at least ten years and if Trevor wanted a new one by then, he would get it for free. Trevor laughed, they shook hands, hugged and we left with two rolls of bamboo fence. It really doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

MAX

Trevor works at Max Security and invited me to come by and make a presentation for the team. I got no "what is your favorite country" questions. It was more like: "how did you manage South Sudan" and "wheredid you stay in Central African Republic?" Great team!! :) 

jerus2

Jerusalem.

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Yesterday a friend of Trevor invited me to take another look at Jerusalem. Ivor is his name and he is likewise from South Africa. I met with Ivor at the Jaffa Gate and Ivor’s friend Iyad who is Arab and was born and raised in Jerusalem where he still lives. So there we were: a Danish Dane from Denmark, an Israeli Jew from South Africa and a Muslim from Jerusalem. And we all started fighting!!! Thankfully we didn’t because there were some serious biceps on those guys. Now I’m not at all saying that there are no violent attacks, that there are no stabbings and that there is no hate. Because there is. However I do feel that the media blows many things out of proportion and a lot of stories run with the wind even when they are not true. Perhaps especially when they are not true. And who wants to read about Arabs, Jews and Danes getting along. In fact it does seem like a bunch of holy sights on a small patch of land can easily be shared and that it would be great for tourism. The city already has a Jewish quarter, an Armenian quarter, a Christian quarter and a Muslim quarter. It bugs me that every human on the planet is so unbelievably nearly exactly the same! There are no populations where everyone has four arms or where babies are born out of the elbow. We are more than 99.9999% the same and yet somehow we manage to focus on the 0.0001% and ignore the rest. Why do we do that? I’ll leave you with something Ivor said as we looked across the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall: “neither the Jews nor the Arabs are going anywhere – so we might as well get along”.

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Ivor in the centre and Iyad to the right.

 

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - another Gordian knot.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

Thor emblem

Once Upon A Saga

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“Gjertrud Maersk” – passenger no 1. Another ship story :)

Day 1,794 since October 10th 2013: 154 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country. 

Badminton, pirates and kindness

pano

Sometimes I wonder. Nah – who are we kidding. I’m always thinking about something. Right this moment I am thinking about who or what has been the greatest support to the Saga? And what a privilege to be able to look back across several sources of support. The Saga is doing well…we are moving forward.

In my last entry I left you all in the Sultanate of Oman as I was about to sign on to the good ship “Gjertrud Maersk”. She was not due to come along side until 10pm, so Victoria from Anantara’s five star Al Baleed Resort in Salalah had offered me to spend the day with a complimentary day pass. That was more or less perfect as I was really tired after the overnight bus ride (1,000km / 625mi) from Muscat. At Anantara I immediately went to sleep on a beach bed while the waves roared somewhere below my feet. Around midday I called the ships agent and told them where I was. Then I had lunch, got on the treadmill at the gym and finally ended up at the library where I wrote and uploaded the Friday Blog for you all.

anantara

Windy and a bit damp. But I cought a few hours of sleep ;)

Late in the evening I left Ananatara and found a taxi which could bring me to the port for a reasonable price. Then I met with the agent and we cleared immigration without further problems. Afterwards we left towards the good ship. Now, at this point someone at the port had it in for me for whatever reason, called the police, spoke Arabic to them (of which I only understood “Danish” and “problem”) and I ended up being detained for about 90 minutes at the police station. I was completely without fault but I went along with it since putting up a fight would definitely have made things worse. I can’t tell you the full story here and now but, maybe someday over a good bottle of wine - if you remember to ask me. Suffice to say that the policemen were super cool about everything, treated me well and we ended up taking selfies and exchanging Instagram accounts. Welcome to my world. Traveling overland through the most bureaucratic countries in Africa have prepared me for a lot and I was never in doubt that my detention was a short lived affair. The police finally drove me back to the ship and I was permitted to come onboard. The duty officer was quite naturally somewhat perplexed towards what had happened but it was late so I was just assigned a cabin and we said goodnight.

bridge

There are ships, and then there are ships. Maersk Group is the greatest shipping company of containerized cargo on the face of this planet. Who could possibly contest that? They have been setting the trend for many years and the largest container ship in the world is often flying a powder blue Maersk flag decorated with a seven-pointed white star. The “Gjertrud Maersk” was once the largest ship in the world and she is still a great ship today! Amazingly she was built at Lindoe shipyard in Denmark only 15 minutes from where I was born. And even more incredible she was delivered from the shipyard on MY BIRTHDAY in 2005. What are the odds? When you walk her hallways you sense the pride the workers put into building her. The materials are quality and she has been well looked after by hundreds if not thousands of seamen over the past thirteen years. I always sleep like a baby onboard these ships. The generator is never off so even when the engine is off there is still a gentle humming going through the ship.

suction cup

What did you think? Off course suction cups need to be large if they are to hold a ship! ;)

The next morning I met the Captain, the Chief Engineer and several of the officers for breakfast. They were curious to see their passenger for the next few days and also to see if I was a troublemaker. My detention at the police the night before was a story which had quickly spread and I had my chance to tell them what really went on. The crew onboard “Gjertrud Maersk” was great so I had nothing to worry about. Salalah is by the way a port which faces the Arabian Sea and the container ships need to be secured to the wharf by large suction cups in order to combat the tide. Otherwise the ships would move too much during cargo operations. I do not know how frequent ships are held down by massive suction cups but “Gjertrud Maersk” was my 16th container ship and I have never seen it anywhere else than in Salalah? I told the officers that I had plenty of experience as a passenger but that I still most often do not know what I am looking at while onboard the ships. Someone replied: “Then you should feel right at home. Neither do most of us”. At that point I knew there was humor onboard ;)

lunch

Maybe I should have said "cheese!" No matter, this is more realistic :) Every Saturday everyone onboard dine together. The rest of the week the deck crew is seperated from the officers. It's just tradition...but it also serves a purpose as some jobs are more dirty than others.

And there was much more onboard than just humor. I’ve blogged a lot about being onboard container ships. This is the sixth time Maersk Group has helped me out with their own vessels. The ones I have signed on to have been: Maersk Carolina, Clara Maersk, Gunhilde Maersk, Maersk Lima, Maersk Kampala and now Gjertrud Maersk. In addition to that I have signed on to three container ships which were time chartered by Maersk. That means that Maersk doesn’t own them but is responsible for all the cargo onboard. Sort of like a long term agreement with a taxi driver. Those three vessels were all in the Indian Ocean and they were called: Cape Moss, City of Xiamen and Northern Magnitude. So I think it’s pretty clear that Maersk has been a good friend to the Saga for a long time now. These ships are like floating cities and “Gjertrud Maersk” is outfitted with a library, conference room, IT café, ships saloon, gymnasium, duty mess, dinning mess, small saloon, laundry room and since she has void space they also have table tennis, a badminton court and a basketball court. You might have noticed that I reference “Gjertrud Maersk” as “she” and Chief Officer Daniel Tode from Romania explained why we do that: “like with a woman, if you take care of her, then she will take good care of you and keep you safe”. The Captain onboard was also from Romania, a country which I remember for great things: 20 million people, the name itself comes from the Roman Empire, it’s the ninth largest wine producer in the world, it has the first European city to have street light, it has ancient fossils, the fountain pen was invented there, Johnny Weissmuller was born there and it is sort of shaped like a fish :) Captain Laurentiu Sandru is a great captain in my opinion and I will tell you why in a moment.

picture

That's my country right there on the wall! The Great Kingdom of Denmark in the High North of Europe ;)

On each ship I sign on to I always hear the same old song: “The sense of community has long ago been lost. Since the laptop became commonly owned the social life has disappeared onboard the ships”. Experienced seamen tell me how they used to play darts, play cards, watch movies together and talk about their wives (and other things I suppose). All the facilities still exist onboard but most seamen chose to disappear into their cabins after duty. Everyone has their own cabin and today most of these ships have WIFI as well. However the WIFI onboard a lot of them is barely enough to send a text message on WhatsApp or perhaps receive an email. “Gjertrud Maersk” is currently waiting to have 4G internet installed, which Chief Engineer Lars Kjelgaard (Danish) believes will create more social life onboard. As he explained: “Today we use a lot of time on simple tasks because of slow internet. Once the internet speed becomes faster everyone will be done sooner leaving more time for other things. That may be true?

badminton

There is plenty of void space on the ship. The accomodation has been made extra tall in order to get the bridge higher so more cargo can be loaded onboard.

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dart score

The gym has probably rarely seen this many people in it all at once?

dart

Now let me explain the reason I think Capt. Sandru is a great captain. It is because he has initiated a sense of community onboard. On my first day I was asked if I would like to participate in the table tennis, badminton and dart tournament? Would I?!? Absolute yes I would! I haven’t played table tennis or badminton for at least twenty years so I wasn’t expecting to win first price and my dart skills likewise leave something to desire. But how great an initiative was that? Capt. Sandru is also planning to have a BBQ for the crew next week and I remember being on a vessel which had “movie night” every night. Meals are typically at 8am, at midday and at 6pm so it’s easy to organize a 7pm movie at the ships saloon. Those who want to join can show up and often people will. The ships “slop chest” is like a small kiosk, where you can buy snacks, sodas and other small things which you might need. With six nationalities onboard (Romanian, Indian, Danish, British, Filipino and Thai) you may experience some segregation among the crew but with initiatives for joint activities you see everyone getting along and seeing each other in roles out of the ordinary. Friendships form and a sense of belonging is generated. A good captain will command the ship and do his duty. A great captain goes beyond that and also ensures a good sense of community onboard. Well that’s my opinion anyway and Capt. Sandru was present and participated at every event. Good stuff.

anchor

Visnu Visnubhavan Sathee was the 3rd officer onboard and took me around the ship for familiarization. In case of an emergency I need to know the basics. Here he is putting his hand on one of the anchor chains! "Gjertrud Maersk" has two anchors.

Now you may be thinking that these guys are on a cruise. And you’d be wrong. They work a lot more than average people and 60-70 hours a week is not uncommon. After all the reason why everyone is onboard is because of work and not for fun and games. Having said that, then meals are served, the dishes are done, shopping for groceries is obsolete and the workplace is nearby so it all becomes really optimal in terms of time management. A seven day week has 168 hours. 8 hours a sleep per day adds up to 56 hours a week. So with 70 hours of work and 56 hours of sleep you are still left with 42 hours of free time every week (6 hours per day). With my experience from 16 container ships I can say that I have been onboard ships that felt like ghost towns. If the crew wasn’t working then they were eating in silence and then afterwards they would disappear. It’s worth keeping in mind that some ships call a new port every second day and then the schedule becomes a lot more hectic as the sleeping pattern also becomes irregular. On the good ship “Gjertrud Maersk”, between Salalah and Port Said, I heard lots of laughter, I saw crewmembers talking, joking and watching movies after hours and it was clear from the beginning that it was a good ship to be onboard…in fact I believe this voyage has been one of my absolute favorites!

Gman

Yeah! So of course I couldn't NOT try this. Especially after my fiancee completed her Ironman. But who the heck set THIS record?!? I was 5 MINUTES off with 29,56 minutes. Rowing: 8,19 / bike: 10,18 / thread mill: 10,18 / lost time between diciplines: 1,01! No matter...I'm now a "Gjertrud Man" ;)

Gman2

Nitish works at the LOC office for Maersk in Dubai and has been very helpful in coordinating my permission to come onboard the latest three vessels. While coordinating for this voyage a question popped up regarding safety as we would be heading through pirate territory. I didn’t mind at all but someone in the approval process brought it up. That’s Maersk in a nutshell: nothing left to chance (Constant Care). I was fortunately cleared to sign on and we didn’t see the shadow of any pirates. From Oman we followed the coastline of Yemen aka Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia) until we reached the Red Sea by Djibouti just north of Somalia. Then we passed Djibouti and Eritrea on the left (west) while Saudi Arabia appeared on the right (east). Saudi Arabia’s coastline remained our companion for a while as we proceeded north, but to the west Sudan took over after Eritrea and then finally Egypt appeared on the map. None of this was of course visible to the naked eye as we were too far at sea to see land. Except for about an hour when we entered the Red Sea – at that point land was visible on both sides. Usually you don’t see a lot else than water when onboard. This time I did however see a dolphin playing alongside the wake of the ship.

yemen

And I have now seen a Maersk container in 154 of 154 countries. Back on track ;)

So what about the pirates? Well, I think I already went into why the pirates are pirates when I visited Somalia? And it’s healthy to keep in mind that most Somalis are fishermen, camel herders and family people - not pirates. While on the subject of Somalia I might just mention that they have 10,000 year old cave paintings, super-fast internet and Africa’s longest coastline of more than 3,000 km (1,875 mi) pristine beaches. But piracy does unfortunately exist although it is much less in this part of the world today compared to a few years ago. “Gjertrud Maersk” is a large lady which makes life a lot harder for the pirates. The distance between the water and the deck (freeboard) is too great and complicates an eventual attack (ca 15 meters / 50 feet). Furthermore her engine power is also a problem for the pirates as we might be able to outrun them. In any case the wake we would create at high speed would make it near impossible for pirates to come onboard. Besides, there is a well-protected corridor which all the vessels follow within the high risk area. And help is never far away. It has become tough to be a pirate. Just remember that Somali piracy was not born out of the will to be evil…it came because all other options were obsolete.

washing

I still enjoy coming onboard these ships. I sleep well, I eat well, I get a lot of work done, I get a mental pause, I get laundry done, I organize, I plan and I get some exercise in the gym. The quality of the meals depend on the cook’s skillset and on the budget. Our cook, Ernesto Lloa from the Philippines, knew exactly what he was doing. I left every meal satisfied. Regarding work I had two interviews I needed to reply to, I had a video I needed to edit, I had a video I needed to make from scratch and I managed to work myself down to 84 unanswered emails. So all in all it has been a great voyage for me. I also learned a bit more about navigation as well as I understood more about the engine room which all in all means that I now know slightly more than a lab rat. There’s a reason these guys go to school for a very long time ;) We also crossed two time zones which meant that we had to retard the clock an hour twice. Jetlag is no issue when you are traveling this slowly. Although slow is relative as we are hitting speeds which compare to those of a speedboat. In terms of time zones we speak about retarding the time or advancing it. I still giggle when I see a sign that reads: “TONIGHT: RETARD 1 HOUR”.

Suez

Looking back at the Mubarak Peace Bridge while passing through the Suez Canal.

Having worked twelve years within shipping and logistics it was exciting for me that “Gjertrud Maersk” was taking us though the Suez Canal!! That’s a big deal for a shipping nerd like me! The Suez Canal is an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea though the Isthmus of Suez. At the Mediterranean entrance you have Port Said and by the Red Sea you find Suez which has given name to the canal. The canal was constructed by the Suez Canal Company between 1859 and 1869. Passing though it saves you traveling once around Africa which I might remind you is equal to traveling once around the world (40,000 km / 25,000 mi). A midsize ship needs to pay a fee of $500,000 USD for the privilege to pass through. That seems like a lot until you start making calculations on bunker (fuel), time and running costs. Interestingly the container wasn’t invented until 1955 and today we all depend on cargo being shipped all around the world.

engine

Chief Engineer Lars Kjelgaard (in photo) took me on a tour through, over and under the engine! Imagine you are the size of a matchstick compared to a regular engine in a car. That's kind of what it is like.

It has been a great privilege to be onboard the good ship “Gjertrud Maersk”. She is a fine lady and it makes me happy that she is Danish. She and I come from the same hood and I have found all sorts of Danish products onboard. Anything from lamps (Louis Poulsen) to pillows (Nordisk Fjer). The dinning mess has a Danish landscape decorating the wall and portraits of my Queen and her late husband smile royally within in the room. I have had many memorable conversations with the crew onboard who were all kind to me. To mention them all would however add a few more pages to this entry so I will spare you that. And while I may be signing off, these seamen will continue for a while to come. “Gjertrud Maersk” will be crossing the Atlantic Ocean next and she will eventually bring the seamen onboard full circle around our planet – something I won’t experience within the Saga. It will be a while before I once again need to board such a vessel if all goes according to plan. We are heading east from Egypt and will do so until we reach the Pacific Ocean next year. There are many new and interesting countries coming up over the next many months. Let’s keep on keeping on! ;)     

JB2

Your personal Jason Bourne (wannabee) walked down this gangway and jumped onboard the smaller vessel while we were all moving forward. Oh yeah! ;)

JB1   

And a postscript for you all. Because I wrote this blog onboard the vessel but after I got land under my feet in Port Said I really feel I need to thank Arkas Egypt Agency. They are the agent for Maersk in Port Said and wow! They have really taken good care of me! Arkas insisted on paying for my Egyptian visa (USD 25) and also want to cover my costs from Port Said to Cairo. Because I’m off to Cairo in order to catch a bus to Nuweibaa as we did the last time (video) when I first reached Jordan across the Gulf of Aqaba. They told me they appreciate what I do and wanted to take part in the Saga. That is Egyptian hospitality for you! :)       

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - can you tell that I'm smiling?
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

Thor emblem

Once Upon A Saga

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