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The Atlantic, Chagcharan and Eva Cassidy

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I dropped Lana at the railway station this morning, came back home, took a cup of coffee, and sat in front of the computer. Got some inspiration at sunrise again. Wanted to write a piece about ‘how to become an aidworker’, and about something in Afghanistan.

The iPod played some random music and stumbled upon Eva Cassidy. In a flash, everything around me stopped, and the music pulled me back four months when we were racing across the Atlantic delivering a sailing yacht, the Persuader Too, from the UK to the British Virgin Islands.

Eva Cassidy. About the only music both Pete, my watch mate, and I liked. Most of the other stuff I played on the boat -I have a weird music taste, I agree-, Pete did not digg. And vice versa… But Eva Cassidy, we did agree upon.

So often, when we had the sunrise watch, we became close friends with Eva. In thoughts… Her music playing through the speakers on deck. A nice stiff breeze filling our sails. The pitch dark night disappearing and the sun climbing up through the orange-red striped clouds, lifting the mystic veil of the night, and displaying an ocean of emptiness. A total void, filled with clouds, wind and water. And a yacht smack in the middle of this infinite splendor.
The stories of this Antarctic crossing, you find here. They are displayed in reverse order, so you might have to read them from the bottom up. It is strange, now that I re-read them, it seems the stories go from very ‘business like’ through a stage of happy-madness, to an almost mystical mood. That is what eight weeks on a boat does to you..
Four months ago it was. Seems a life time ago.

Anyways, here is the story about Afghanistan I wanted to share with you:
Often we put up our radio-boosters (VHF repeaters for the techneuts amongst you) in remote places. We pay local people to guard them, otherwise the equipment disappears as fast as we can put them up. These guys in Chagcharan (Afghanistan) took their job a bit too serious. We did not really mean they had to deploy an anti-aircraft gun to guard the equipment. :-)

Afghanistan picture: Aramais Alojants. Picture Persuader Too arriving in St.Lucia: Tim Wright

Written by Peter

March 25th, 2007 at 3:50 pm

Wild Cannabis and “Oh Baby”!

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At the time, our Islamabad main office was based in a building called ‘Saudi-Pak tower’, along one of the main avenues. At first (and second, and third,..) sight, it was a weird looking office building. Weird, in a good way. You could not see any windows, but it had an exotic, Middle-Eastern flair to it. I spent a couple of years working in Saudi Pak towers. Quite some memories.

Wild Cannabis
You needed to pass a security checkpoint next to the building before being allowed to drive onto the parking lot. This caused a bit of traffic jam in the morning, when everyone was coming to work. Next to the checkpoint was a piece of bare land, with different billboards from the UN agencies and NGOs based in ‘The Tower’. Sometimes the weeds on the bare field were growing that high, they would almost cover the view of the billboards. As I was sitting in the car, queuing up one morning, I thought at first, I was mistaken. But no, the wild cannabis was growing that high, it almost covered up the UN Drug Control Program’s billboard. I thought it was quite symbolic. How to control the drugs in a country where hash grew in the wild, uncontrolled.

The Orange Bearded Guards
After the car check entering the parking, you had to pass through another security check at the entrance, where the local guards body searched you. They were a friendly bunch. Most of them old ex-army guys. Many were hiding their grey hair by washing it with henna, which turned their hair and long beard bright orange/red. I mean *real* bright. A European punk-age kinda red. It was funny to see sometimes.. They hardly spoke any English and always had a real apologetic smile on their face when they body searched us, the foreigners… As if to say ‘Really sorry, but my boss told me to do so’. The check was always more for the show than anything else. Certainly for me, as I always wore my safari jacket, filled with goodies that would set off their handheld metal detector. When something beeped, they pointed at it to ask what I had in my jacket there. I always said what it was, but most of the time, their English was so poor, they did not understand it anyway. They just nodded and smiled… And we all played along in the daily security slapstick.

Oh Baby!
Saudi Pak was a tall square building. The offices ran along the outer wall, creating a huge open space, stretching all the way vertically in the centre of the building. This helped the air circulation, and gave a special flair to the building. It also create quite a bit of noise, though, as any sound would travel many floors up and down. One night, I was working really late, and forgot all about the ‘mega amplifier’ effect from the central hallway as I was sucked into processing the backlog of hundreds of Emails. I had left the door leading into the centre hall open, just to get a bit of fresh air in. I played my music real loud, with a good sub-woofer bass. Little did I realize how the music must have echo-ed all through the building. Soon enough all guards from the ground floor had come up to my office to stick their head through the door, checking what the racket was all about. None of them spoke English, so I put my thumb up with a question mark on my face, and they nodded, thumbs up. It was OK. It was more than OK. To show me they really liked it, they started swinging slowly, and mumbling along with the tune… It was a lovely picture: half a dozen elderly guards, all with their henna-dyed bright red-orange hair and beard, in uniform, standing shoulder to shoulder, with their AK47 machine guns in their hands, swinging slowly side to side, as if listening to divine music, on the slow tunes of “Let’s make love tonight” by Faith Hill:

    Let’s make love,
    all night long !
    Until all our strength is gone!
    Hold on tight,
    just let go!
    I want to feel you in my soul
    Until the sun comes up…
    Let’s make love !
    Oh, baby, baby

Yep, oh, baby, baby!
I guess this was the living proof that music sooths all spirits. Guess the US should try that with the Taliban..

Picture courtesy (cannabis plant), Zootstar (bearded man)

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Written by Peter

March 1st, 2007 at 1:39 am

Posted in Funny,Stories

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Home – “Le Plat Pays”

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‘Gojnobuutn? Diknbucht!’
, the skipper of the fishing vessel shouted in our dialect, as we passed him in the harbour of Nieuwpoort yesterday. The instructor we had on board our ship did not understand a word of it. Even though he speaks Dutch, and lives only sixty kilometers away, he does not understand our dialect. It could just as well have been Chinese to him. ‘Gojnobuutn? Diknbucht!’.. The fisherman was warning us of the fog at sea.

We were out sailing on the Belgian coast. Loreena McKennitt’s music was playing. It is my home-coming music. It made me think: “Despite all the exotic traveling I do, I always come back to this place.” And ‘by this place’ I do not mean Belgium, nor the region where we live at the moment. No, the place that feels home like no other is the area I was born and raised, the coastal region of Belgium, where we were sailing yesterday. My roots.

Jacques Brel –remember, the famous Belgian singer-songwriter you had never heard of?- made a song about my roots: ‘Le plat pays qui est le mien’, he called it. Literally, ‘the flat land that is mine’… This flat land is a coastline of only sixty kilometers long, stretching from the French to the Dutch border, with England about fifty-sixty kilometers on the other side of the Northsea.

Every time I go there, I feel moved deep down inside. No matter what the season is. It can be stormy with massive dark threatening clouds and strong south-westerly winds gusting over the coastal planes, pushing so hard most trees grow, bent into one direction.
Or the white crispy clean beauty of frost and light snow, where you have the impression your breath will freeze in your noose.
Or baking hot blue skies, converting the whole sixty kilometers of coastline into one gigantic pool for millions of people, coming to seek freshness in the sea. The sea that welcomes them with a cool breeze and tumbling waves. At those times, the whole coastline is one feast of happiness, and terraces, and music on the beach, with parties and fireworks in the evenings.

Sometimes, a lot of times, the sky is grey. As you stand on the sand dunes which make a large part of the coast, you can look over the flat horizon: the fair almost white sand glides over into the sea, which is almost just as white. The waves reflect the cap of low clouds and mist, making the panorama one transition of shades of white and light-grey.

Sometimes the clouds are so heavy the light wind can not carry them anymore, and the moisture sinks down over the land, creating heavy mist, like we had yesterday. The people then say: ” ‘t is voe te snien”, literally “you could cut it”, so thick the mist could be. It happens you can not even see two meters in front of you. Then the sound would be muffled, echoed, and carries much further than usual. This makes everything confusing. And wet… Especially wet.. The mist would drip off your face and clothes, and off the tree branches. If you are real silent then, you can hear the drops create a weird, short and soft dripdroptiktok, echo-t all around, as if you would be surrounded by thousands of fairytale-d invisible dwarfs tiptoeing around you. It is then, this land of mine whispers its mystic and old stories. Legends about the people who lived there in a dark past. It is then the music of Loreena McKennitt comes to its full right.

It is a land of stubborn people. Traditionally keeping things to themselves. Speaking a Flemish dialect nobody else understands, rich in sounds with an ‘undertone’ of things that people do not say but rather think. Only to be read by the tone in which things are said..
‘Gojnobuutn? Diknbucht!’ the skipper of the fishing vessel had shouted at us. Literally he said ‘Going outside? Fat junk’. What he meant was ‘Are you going to sea? The fog is very thick’.

Our language is a dialect, a mixture of Dutch, French and English words often bastardized and changed into new words hardly showing their roots. Only people here, at the coast, speak it. Nobody else understands us. It is a language of all possible verbal sounds and intonations, making it sound funny. Even to this day, when I talk to Tine in our Flemish dialect, no ‘outsider’ can understand. Not even someone who lives only sixty kilometers further inland, like our trainer on the boat.

This is a land of people conquered and ruled by many nations, but they did not mind, they were independent at heart and in spirit. The Romans conquered, then the Saxons, the Franks, the French, then we came under Austrian rule, later Spanish and Dutch, until they had no clue anymore what to do with us, so they made us an independent country. We became a buffer state between “the big players” at the time: Holland, England, Germany and France.. Even after our independence, we came under German rule twice. We actually stopped the invasion of the Germans during the World War I at the very place we were moored yesterday, in Nieuwpoort: the lockmaster had purposely opened up the locks at springtide, and flooded a huge part of the country, making it impossible for the Germans to progress. They got stuck for 4 years, in the mud. No matter we had to drown most of our homes, the invaders were stopped! Once again, the sea had played its predominant rule in our history…

It is the sea that made the land what it is. The sea that gives and takes. The great plane, the great adventure, the symbol of travel, of limitless, of the unknown, of death and of life, of beginning and ends. The sea that can be as calm as a lake, and as raging as a nightmare. With huge waves, breaking everything in its way. Rolling in fast, and deep, chewing at the dunes, carrying away the sand on the beach, and at times dropping off whole vessels on shore.

The land of mine is very flat. Sometimes below sea level even several kilometers inland… Long ago, at every high tide, the sea would reverse the current in the rivers and streams, making them stream inland, and through a meshed natural system of saltwater creeks and marshy reservoirs, fill up all the waterways inland, sometimes as far as thirty km.. It would do this twice per day. And twice per day, the water would run back to the sea. Every six hours, the creeks and marshes would fill and run dry again. Well, they were never totally dry as the land was mainly marsh land. Filled with wild-life, and wild-people. You needed to be a special breed to survive here, living off the land, exposed to the elements. It was also the land of robbers and pirates. Fishermen, farmers, traders. But above all, of opportunists, and pragmatists.

As the land slopes ever so lightly into the sea, the sea has always been very treacherous. Loads of sandbanks off the coast, creating dangerous currents. On the shore we had ‘viertorn’, literary: “fire towers” (lighthouses), made in stone, where they would light a bonfire on the flat roof. At night, it would be the beacon to the entrance of the ports for the fishing vessels and trading vessels, bringing wealth to this area. But pirates would light bonfires on the beaches and in the dunes, luring vessels onto the beaches, where they would be plundered, stripped of anything with value. The currents, sandbanks, pirates, and dense sea traffic made this coast difficult to navigate. Yet many came to its ports, at we made the world’s finest decorative carpets in those times. And sold the finest wool, cotton, lace and linen. It was where good seaworthy ships were made, and where you could sell or buy anything.. What the Khyber pass on the Silk Route was in the East, we were to Western Europe in the Middle Ages.

But the sea gave and the sea took away. The sea slipped dry the main trading port of Bruges, which was twenty kilometers inland, by depositing more sand than what could be cleared, and the economy declined..

It was difficult to survive in those days. The towns along the coast were flooded every year.. My hometown was on a strip of land, a long stretched peninsula, sticking out into the sea. There was a west end, an east end and a church in the middle, and that is how they called the towns. West-end, East-end, Middle-church: Westende, Oostende, Middelkerke.. The sea took this strip of land, in one go, in one flood, drowning thousands. The land, the towns, disappeared into the sea.. The towns were later rebuilt further inland, under the same name, but the old land, we never saw again. Still today, the fishermen claim to hear the church bell from ‘Middelkerke’ clinging on the sea bottom, luring ignorant vessels onto the sand banks. Maybe that is why the area is littered with hundreds and hundreds of wrecks…

Because of its stubborn people, and the wild nature, these areas were very difficult to travel through. Roads would be flooded, and easily washed away. Even if the roads were there, the bush around it was so thick, anyone could hide, ready to rob any convoy. If it was not for the robbers, people would go out of their minds, scared to death, crossing the marshes as the legends filled the creeks and wetlands with scare-devils, curses and myths. They were not stories, they were part of the beliefs of people. Told father to son, mother to daughter. It would be given to the child together with the mother milk. It would be encapsulated in songs, and dances, and story telling evenings by the fireplaces.

I am a son of this land. It is so much a part of me. Like a magnet, it can draw me back. No matter how far I have gone on the earth, there is only one place I need to come, to feel home, and at ease. It is like migrating birds are, through some strange magnetic fields, compass-ed to their destination, I always come back. It looks like the start and the destination of my Road, reminding me it is the road I have to enjoy.

Samples of the music mentioned in this story (.wma): Loreena McKennitt , Le Plat Pays
My home area: Realtime peep through a webcam at the Flemish coast

Pictures courtesy of (J.De Keyser),,, www.uitkerkse-polder (R.Vantorre/R. Martein)
Music samples courtesy of

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Written by Peter

January 31st, 2007 at 3:11 am

Posted in Stories

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Have I Lost It, Or Just Found It?

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December 9, 2006. – In the Middle of Nowhere.

Dear J.,

We have been at sea for a while now. I am gradually getting into a mood, where I feel more than just ‘at sea’. I feel at home, in harmony with everything around me. At those moments, it is as if I feel the ship talking. It is more sounds rather than words. At times, I hear her giggling when she loves the excitement of a fast sail. I hear her hum a melody when she is happy with the sail settings and the wind. There are times where I hear her cry when something is wrong, when the swell and low winds make her sail flap and the boom bang to and fro.

Last night I was woken up when she was crying in pain, and screaming. The winds were low, and the side-swell had her boom bang every 10 seconds. . The ship shivered with every smack of the sails. The foresail emptied and filled again with a loud whack like a giant whip. She was tormented.
I came on deck to find the crew on watch chatting. They had not really noticed the banging. I gave them a piece of my mind ‘can’t you tell, she is hurting?’. They gave me an awkward look as if to say ‘What are you talking about?’. I hooked on my lifeline and went onto the foredeck, tightened the ropes of the headsail, changed the course harder into the wind, and trimmed the main sail to avoid the banging. The winds were low, maybe 6 or 7 knots. The swell was 2-3 meters high, rolling in from the side..

I put on some soft classical music in the cockpit, to soothe her spirit. I emptied my mind and sniffed the wind, closed my eyes. As the music went up in rhythm, I could feel the ship talking to the wind, and the wind whispering back. It was like they made a pact. The wind gradually picked up, sending shivers down my spine. The hair on my arms and legs stood straight up. I could just feel that I was in tune with it all. And everything was in tune with me. The wind picked up, gradually, bit by bit, and over half an hour, it was up to the ideal speed of 20 knots. With every push of the wind, I could feel the ship starting to sing and leap forward. She giggled with every push. I took the wheel and made her surf on the waves. She sung for me. Out of joy.

This did not happen once, but several times, where I came on deck, or on watch, and the wind was low, or from a foul angle. Every time, I could get into tune with the elements and it was as if I could have the swell, the wind change, to make the ship happy, singing again. It was so obvious that often when I came on deck, sometimes the crew on watch sighed ‘oh ok, now we will get wind again. Make us some wind again, Peter.’. And every time, I could blank my mind, and get into tune with the elements, and get the right balance again of wind, ship, swell and sails… Often, I could see on the instruments the wind had fallen right down again when I went off shift. Sometimes in a matter of minutes after I went below deck… Weird stuff, no?

She loves me, this ship. She loves what I do to her. She loves it when I switch off the autopilot and steer her manually.
The crew jokes about it: ‘The ship, she likes her little machine -the autopilot-, but she likes Peter’s hand job much, much more!’. ;-))

Sometimes I think ‘I lost it’, but more and more I get convinced ‘I just found it’..

What do you think? Haha



Top picture courtesy of Thomas Mallet

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Written by Peter

January 30th, 2007 at 12:04 am