Dienstag, 31. Juli 2007

It's the bear that will bring us together ...

There is no question that the most dangerous thing we all do regularly in our lives is - crossing the street (and apparently wearing an iPod makes it all the more dangerous). But, of course, as it is such a common experience - and we often don't have a choice as to whether we want to cross the street or not - we don't think about it. There is a street in Berlin called Gneisenaustrasse, that I had to cross every day for six years in order to get home. I often wondered how much time I spent waiting to cross that darned road. I even contemplated whether recording me waiting to cross that street every day may make for an interesting conceptual 'art' piece (which one would have to entitle "Reflections on Modern Life IV", or something similarly preposterous - and fun ...?). But never ever did I calculate how likely I was to get killed on that road - even though I often, I confess, ignored the traffic lights ...
My point is, and I know you are wondering by now ... that for some primordial reason - it's very different with bears! You are about as unlikely to be eaten by one as you are to win the lottery, but you wouldn't get that impression from talking to hikers or reading the papers in Canada in the last few days. When we were there, you were only allowed to walk in groups of four (or more) around Moraine Lake (a famous tourist spot) due to bear sightings. And, truth be told, I also was mightily nervous when two grizzlies were spotted by fellow hikers near the Egypt Lake campground (where the last hiking trip of our holiday took my partner and me for two nights). I was even more concerned when I realized, that the evidence of someone digging in the grass, that we had seen, were in fact signs of bears going about their business (see picture above). But fear, like adversity, unites people. And so, with due apologies to The Smiths, "if it's not love, it is the bear, it is the bear that will bring us together" ... The fear of bears certainly did unite an unilkely group of us when the time came to leave Egypt Lake and hike back down to the road. I love cities because they are places where contrasts, inevitably, meet. The fear of bears managed something similar in the unlikely location of the Canadian Rockies. Last Friday, Kathrin and I hiked for 5 hours with a two American doctors from LA and a construction worker and his partner from Edmonton. It was fun - and fascinating. We enjoyed listening to our North American 'fellow bear cowards' comparing their medical systems; we heard about chance encounters with celebrities (as one of the doctors lived in Holywood); we found out that, due to the oil induced housing boom, construction never stops in Edmonton these days (unless temperatures fall below minus 25 degrees and there is not heat source on the construction site, apparently). All interesting stuff - and not stuff that I would have predicted I would learn while seeing beautiful alpine meadows in bloom on Healy Pass.
I want to thank our fellow hikers for a great time had, and Canada's mighty grizzlies for making this encounter possible. I will pay my respects soon - at a safe distance in the Berlin Zoo. Bears behind bars are not scary. - that's what I learned from my nephews (7 and 5) yesterday. They, unlike me, had seen real bears - right here in Germany - and they had clearly not been afraid at all ...
P.S. The picture below shows us happy hikers (except me) some 500 meters from the Sunshine parking lot. As you can see, we believed in safety and survival by that point!

Montag, 30. Juli 2007

I lost my sole in Canada ...

There is no such thing as "Nature" - no primoridal, untouched Other as the Western imagination would like to have it, anyway. Even seemingly untouched places are full of toxic chemicals and affected by climate change. Even entirely 'natural' forests are only standing because of decidedly human decisions. But - smelling nothing but a forest, feeling nothing but the steps you take, and seeing nothing but rocks, trees and streams for miles on end - well, it is my idea of a holiday. So, I indulged over the last two weeks in many beautiful hikes in the rugged Canadian Rocky Mountains ... Together with my best friend from school, the first three day trip took us to Floe Lake and Tumbling Creek - both spots that are nothing short of earth-shatteringly beautiful! Despite their beauty, I was a little concerned at the end of the second day, that I may have to spend more time out in the woods than I had bargained for.... Having opted for the old - tried and tested, I thought - pair of hiking boots rather than the new ones - which I had not yet 'broken in' and were thus bound to give me blisters - I found myself a 'man without a sole' as we arrived at the campground. The soles had, well, simply come off. I was seriously concerned that I may have to hike the 12 km down to Highway 93 in sandals ... Luckily, an American family that did the same hike as us, but were rather better prepared (ok, they had climbed Kilimanjaro last year ...) donated their duct tape to us. The result was miraculous. Properly 'duct-taped in' (I kept singing "Duct tape me in, duct tape me in" to the tune of James's "Don't fence me in"; which my companion suffered with surprising grace ...) - I could hike with a certain nervouseness about the permance of this arrangment, but otherwise as if I had a sole ...! I hereby promise that I will never run a campaign against duct tape - whatever chemicals may be used in their production. But I will always carry duct tape now - just in case I lose my sole again.

This is a view from Tumbling Creek Campground ...

Freitag, 6. Juli 2007

Declaring my love - for jeepneys

I travel lots (for work), but usually have little time to appreciate what I see while traveling. To be honest, to be constantly on the road without ever being a traveler, is one of my main frustrations. I often realize with dismay, that I actively shut myself off to the impressions of the new and unexpected that foreign places provide. I need to function, after all. I need to work.

But some things make an impression on you, even when you are in ‘work mode’. I can recount countless beautiful skies over New York City, stored in my memory while walking to the UN. I will also never forget the view, smell and feel of crossing Hong Kong harbour on a ferry. And I certainly - on a visit to Manila earlier this year - fell in love with their main form of public transport: jeepneys. Jeepneys are as colourful and crazy as ‘matatus’ but - probably because they are bigger and bulkier - they have even more majesty and flair. The side windows are usually open – allowing for a wonderful breeze. Riding on a jeepney on an unpleasant and humid day can give you instant relief from the heat.

We can - and all do – love things that we know not to be perfect. So my affection for the jeepneys was real even though they run - very inefficiently - on fossil fuels; I would certainly not want to cycle behind one for any length of time (for the fear of choking). But when you love something and it gets even better: that’s true joy.

That’s what just happened with the jeepneys! My wonderful Philippino colleagues have teamed up with a solar-company and GRIPP and developed a fossil-fuel free jeepney - run on renewable energy. Now if that isn’t cool, I do not know what is. As colourful as the original – but not belching smoke. A form of transport that is fun and that our children can still enjoy. I certainly do not believe that technology can provide us with all the answers. But I do believe that these jeepneys are a giant step in the right direction. They should be an example to cities around the world.

Berlin, like many northern cities, has recently imported the idea of cycle rickshas from Asia. Wouldn’t it be plain wonderful if we imported fossil-free jeepneys next? I, for one, would be a fan.

But, of course, in order for all jeepneys to be run on sustainable energy – we must first revolutionize our energy system. In the Philippines as well as Germany. We must abandon coal and nuclear power. So, inspired by the jeepneys, it’s back to fighting for an energy revolution.

Thanks for lifting my spirits, though. Especially to Athena Ronquillo. I say I do not like heros – but I have to confess, she is one of mine as well! When others say "it can't be done", she perseveres. Now she has helped revolutionize a Philippino icon.

22 Baeume sind gefallen

Ich war nicht da, aber ich fuehle mich als waere ich persoenlich hilflos neben den Faellungen gestanden. Waehrend der Verhandlungen ueber die Zukunft der Baeume gerade liefen hat das Wasser und Schifffahrtsamt (WSA) unter intensivem Polizeischutz (150 Polizisten!!!) 22 Baeume gefaellt. Die lokalen Behoerden waschen ihre Haende in Unschuld. Das WSA ist begeistert und gibt ab morgen den Kanal fuer die Schifffahrt wieder frei. Ich bin ein grosser Fan der Bootstouren auf dem Landwehrkanal und empfahl sie bisher allen Besuchern Berlins. Aber jetzt gerader koennte ich kotzen. Und mich hat die Firma Riedel, die besonders Druck machte, als Kunden verloren ...

Dies ist Willkuer, Dummheit und die Arroganz der Macht. Dies ist nicht Demokratie. Das dies auch in Kreuzberg moeglich ist - ist deprimierend. Und doch: Als Campaigner weiss ich, dass wir auch in der Niederlage erkennen muessen, was wir erreicht haben. Es sollten mal 200 Baeume fallen ... Also: weitermachen und aktiv werden.

Donnerstag, 5. Juli 2007

What a cool picture!

This coal tanker ran aground in Australia. It's a very nice billboard, wouldn't you agree? More info here.

Mittwoch, 4. Juli 2007

Geneva and me - it's just not to be

Truth be told, I have had some fine times in Geneva. I gave my first speech at a UN meeting here back in 2001, which felt so much more important and fun than, in retrospect, it was. I spent many bizarre hours camped outside the World Trade Organization and even delivered an anti-genetic engineering message straight to their door. I love cheese fondues, I love swimming in the lake, I have been cross-country skiing, which I adore, only near Geneva in recent years. My old flatmate and dear, dear friend lives here. You get the picture. Geneva and I should be made for each other.

But somehow, I do not like Geneva - and Geneva certainly does not like me. First, when I am here it usually rains like hell. And yes, even when I am cross-country skiing. It did so once again today - both on the way to the United Nations for a press conference and on the way back. I used to live in Scotland for a long time. I know what you will all think about Scottish weather. But I have been soaked like today in recent years only in Geneva. Then there is the expensive restaurants, where you can't even get a meal late at night; the lousy bars, that are as expensive as in London, but lack the charm. Indeed, there is the distinct lack of metropolitan feel - anywhere. There is the absurdly ugly architecture - for the most part - in an absurdly rich city, which often ruins even the most beautiful spaces by the lake. I admit, part of it is also my appalling French. I am told there is good theatre in Geneva, for example. Well, not for me.

Geneva, to me, has the feel of a divided town - between foreigners working at the international institutions and local Swiss; between the jet-set and the poor, many of whom are, I am told, immigrants and all of whom, to the 'business' visitor, are invisible (as they populate the periphery); between young interns desperatly trying to have a cool life in this uncool 'city' and the locals who think 'genteel' is an adjective indicating the highest of praise. Then there is the impermanence. My friend tells me that at parties of the international institutions crowd, people do not ask you first what you do (as they irritatingly always do in Germany). They ask: "So, how long will you be in Geneva?"

Me? Until Friday. And though I will miss my friend and the lake - I say good riddance to that.
P.S. More on what I was in Geneva for, here

Dienstag, 3. Juli 2007

Edinburgh gets it right on transport and goes for trams

I lived next to a tram line once, in Bonn, and hated it. I am not the best of sleepers and once I wake up, well, I am up. So for a year I woke up whenever the first tram of the day trundled down my street. I distinclty remember thinking: who takes the tram that early? :-)

Still, I am delighted that Edinburgh has decided to go ahead with building a tram system.
Edinburgh has talked a lot about sustainable transport in recent years. But when push came to shove, they often failed to act. They ignored traffic concerns and opened new out-of-town shopping centres; in 2005 Edinburgh voters even rejected congestion charges designed to pay for sustainable transport improvements bringing on a bout of depression in the author ....

Edinburgh already has a pretty good bus system (at least on radial routes), a very good recreational cycle network and a passable on-road cycle lanes network as well (I was reminded last week that the new Chancellor of Exchequer, Darling, was still dealing with more pedestrian concerns when I was a student. As the local MP, he helped me (and others) get a cycle lane established in Buccleuch Street, for example...).

But though the image of public transport in Edinburgh is more efficient and positive than in most of Scotland (or the UK), that image still needs a boost. Trams will provide that, as well as a fast and efficient way to get around that hilly city. Trams will be good for the image of Edinburgh as well as for the image of public transport in Edinburgh and the rest of the UK. I can't wait to have Fringe Festival visitors have the 'tram experience' in Edinburgh and go home and demand improvements to public transport wherever they live.

So: well done, Edinburgh, and thanks to all those tireless campaigners who have made this victory possible.