Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Sophie’s choice

April 8th, 2012

Continuing the religious theme – well, it is Easter – various accolades a few weeks past for Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams who’s announced he’s standing down later this year. A thoughtful, learned chap, I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn he plans to return to academia. But the religious leader I’d found myself in most admiration for is one Clemens August Galen. You’d be entirely forgiven if you’d never heard of him, for I certainly hadn’t until I’d uncovered him quite by chance in the pages of a friend’s paperback.

A Catholic bishop in Germany during the dark days of National Socialism, he’d bravely spoken out against Hitler’s racist policies, the Gestapo, of the euthanasia of those perceived as weak and infirm. And, surprisingly, with an element of success, at least the overt killing of mental patients being halted. But not without considerable risk to himself, leading Nazi Joseph Goebbels assuring friends Galen would be executed just as soon as Germany had achieved victory.

I’d been reading the story of Sophie Scholl, a young woman who’d also chosen to speak out against the unspeakable, before being brutally executed in Munich in 1943 for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets. A grim but somehow heart warming. That even in the darkest of places, there are always good people, prepared to sacrifice everything for what they believe is right. Challenging the oft, including my own, mistaken belief of a people cowering under tyranny, unwilling to speak out.

But I was off to meet a fellow traveller, recently returned from distant southern shores, for lunch in a quirky London restaurant south of the river. He’d travelled extensively throughout South America, for which I’d both admiration and curiosity in equal measure. And I liked the directions for the rendezvous. Quiet suburban street. Philippino women. Pristine new page in my A-Z with the unmistakable scent of fresh print, the road circled with a fountain pen and house number committed to memory. Noon sharp. Contemplating the quickest route, I’d found myself doodling over the Thames. Concentric shapes, straight edges rather than curves.

Thoughts of the southern oceans abounding, for I’d once sailed around Cape Horn, I’d come across an analysis of Shackleton’s leadership during his expedition to Antarctica aboard the Endurance. It read a little like those self-help books, the sort sold to tired, worn out suits at airports. A somewhat lighter read than Sophie Scholl, it was the Preface, penned by his grand-daughter, that drew me in. Her account of a visit to her grandfather’s grave in South Georgia, and the sudden recollection that I’d been there with her. Bitterly cold but bright I seemed to remember. My fellow traveller knew her well.

Leadership lessons from Shackleton quickly digested, my afternoon train out of London being fairly quiet, and I found myself returning to darker literature. Inspired this time by a recent BBC Radio 4 piece about State sponsored assassinations, I’d dug out an account of plots to kill Hitler, surprised at just how many there’d been. Positively queuing up. If Adolf had ever felt paranoid, he’d have been quite justified. Led quickly from the court room to meet her fate, Sophie Scholl would never have known that she and her fellow conspirators were far from alone, that others also wanted to bring war to an end, and were prepared to act, even if it placed them, and their families, in great peril.

But, despite the supposed enthusiasm of Israel’s Mossad for such things, it seemed most nations were actually quite reluctant to go around bumping off even the most vile and undesirable. Difficult to determine whether exactly this was necessarily a moral judgement, or a practical one. Or simply concern that whoever replaced a deceased, might be at best an unknown quantity, at worst a far greater danger. Certainly a persuasive argument for the Allies in not pursuing the assassination of Hitler. Perhaps nations were just reluctant to admit they favoured some measures, presumably to avoid recriminations. Or, in the case of occupied territories, retribution against innocent inhabitants.

There’d been respite from the moral maze. Her name was Ifrah and she was from the Sudan. Djibouti. But now settled in south London. She’d soft facial features, warm and engaging, and we were quickly engrossed in conversation. Did she often go back to Africa? Where was home now? Adding I’d love to ride through that part of the world. Even made a brief stop once in Djibouti. Quick to explain I wasn’t quite as mad as I might seem, had managed four continents, had a good measure of the risks. Kidnapping for one. About the only indecent living to be had there.

[Ken has been reading “Sophie Scholl and the White Rose” by Annette Dumbach and Jud Newborn, published by Oneworld Publications, “Shackleton’s Way” by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, “Killing Hitler. The Third Reich and the plots to kill the Fuhrer” by Roger Moorhouse, published by Vintage Books, and “Heydrich. Henchman of Death” by Charles Whiting, published by Pen & Sword Select. Who knows what next week will bring…]


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Church on Sundays

January 15th, 2012

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Catholic. Baptist. Methodist. Others. Small churches scattered across Eastern Texas and into Louisiana. Invariably clad in bright white wooden slats. Sunday morning. Even the most remote appeared to have very healthy congregations. Cars often obliged to park up on the edge of the highway, the parking lots full. One had a sign that simply said "God’s House is a Church". I smiled.

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Amongst the rafters

January 3rd, 2012

Making a brief stop in the desert, Ken notices a couple of rolled up magazines in the rafters of the picnic shelter…

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Mormon hospitality

December 17th, 2011

Joyce explained that, as Mormons, they didn’t drink coffee, instead offering me a selection of herbal teas. Curious, I asked why. It was the Word of Wisdom, she said, a religious text that prohibited the consumption of caffeinated drinks, illegal substances, alcohol and encouraged the sparing use of meat.

I admitted I probably drank more coffee than I should, but had never touched narcotics and rarely drank. Adding that I could hardly fault the rationale behind the text. Wondering if decaffeinated drinks were acceptable, but it didn’t seem right to ask.

I’d spent the night with Mons and his family, staying in his parent’s house next door. Welcomed into their respective homes with unconditional generosity. Conscious of the many cyclists that spent the night under their roof, I’d suggested a small contribution. Declined as politely as it’d been offered.

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Afternoon tea

November 30th, 2011

Ken stops for afternoon tea with Marcia, Ivor, Butch and fellow cyclists Aevind (pronounced ’Avon’) and Brian

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Politics, religion and guns

September 24th, 2011

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TV in the background. Seven or eight channels. Fox News. Political pundits debating events in Aimes, Iowa. Texan Governor Perry, it seemed, had thrown his hat – a Stetson presumably – into the ring for the Presidential race. Talk of Straw Polls, GOP, Tea Parties, Republicans and the Caucasus. I’d little concept of what they were debating.

The alternatives were less confusing. A few religious channels. Baptist services. A couple of solo preachers. Assertive rather than fire and brimstone. And then guns. Hunting skills. A programme dedicated to some serious weapons. Twin mounted water-cooled M16 carbines. Suppressed – silenced – belt fed grenade launcher. Either of which would work well on bears.

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The God question

July 29th, 2011

It’s a question I’ve never really understood. Do I believe in God? For, just like the search for the meaning of life in Douglas Adam’s book "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy", if you don’t really know what you’re looking for, how will you recognise it when you find it? Sticking point for me is what exactly do you mean by the term God? Religious deity or some as yet unexplained force, the initiator of the Big Bang and the creation of the Universe? It’s a broad church.

I’d been joined at the breakfast table by Katalina. Originally from Poland, she’d spent quite a bit of time in Taiwan, eventually settling in Australia. Written a book on cultural differences, between who I wasn’t quite sure. Possibly Buddhism and Western philosophies. Didn’t seem to matter too much, conversation flowing along, content that I too was a pilgrim, albeit of a different type. On a journey rather more physical than others staying at the temple. And it was her who’d posed the God question. Think she found my answer just as perplexing.

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Religious contemplations

July 12th, 2010

Footfalls on the gravel beneath the window. Sounded loud. Half expected the grey haired gentleman I’d joined in the hostel’s Quiet Room to tut. But he remained absorbed, aligning religious pamphlets into small, neat piles on the table in front of him. Sometimes he’d move one a little, like pieces on a chess board, and the process would repeat. Another man sat in the corner by the window. Silent. Contemplative.

I’d wandered in a little while earlier, clasping a cup of coffee and my notebook. The grey haired man objected at once. Coffee was not allowed. I swiftly pointed out that the sign on the door clearly stated this to be a Quiet Room, nothing more, and sat down across the table from him. He stared at me for a while. Occasionally I’d smile back. Flicking through the various pages of scribbles I’d made earlier, the wire spiral binding scraping a little on the table.

Abruptly he got up, hastily gathered his leaflets together and left. Just myself and the man in the corner. Then he too rose from his chair, slinging a small knapsack on his back. A wooden cross, about three feet in length and several across, engraved with Christ’s name, hung from it. He noticed I was staring at it. Told him I admired those who had the conviction of their beliefs to display them so publicly.

He spoke calmly, his words considered. He needed no church, no organised religion. Salvation, eternal life, or death, ever after, was between him and God alone. He had a sureness, a sense of purpose, humility. He sought not to convert, just to explain. Much more Christian than the grey haired gentleman.

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The Prisoner (Swansong in Sighnaghi)

May 5th, 2010

Just a question of time before they caught up with me. You had to admire their tenacity. “Watchtower?” she asked. I declined, politely. Besides I’d plenty of other English language reading material to be getting on with. I’d been interrupted chatting with Ruby and Mike, a couple of serious Canadian motorcycle tourers. They too were off to Azerbaijan, but first were going to enjoy a bit of luxury, a change from their normal staple of budget stays. An admirer of fluffy duvets and warm towels, I couldn’t fault their logic. And Ruby had a helmet camera to capture footage for their website. I wanted one.

Fountain

I’d arrived in the small Georgian town of Sighnaghi the previous night, a lofty vantage point offering a distance glimpse of Azerbaijan forty or so miles away across the plains below. Much of the centre has been renovated in an Italian style, and although quite tasteful, it does give the place a slightly surreal feel. Not quite Portmerion, but large opaque spheres bouncing along the streets wouldn’t exactly look out of place. And you have to cross the ’Happy line’ to enter – conveniently painted in English in large letters across the road.

Signs

The town has been deliberately re-developed with tourists in mind. There were the usual clues. No-one comes up to offer help when you pull up in the town square looking lost. Street lights along the road in. Plentiful signs in English. And what seemed like a demand for money from a man with a large stick. But I liked it no less for all this.

Guesthouse

And I really appreciated Sighnaghi that seemed, so far at least, to have resisted the temptation to exploit visitors. Prices seemed very reasonable, about ten pounds a night for a superb home stay (bed & breakfast), and the same amount in a local restaurant buys you a very decent meal. Funny though that prices in shops all seem to add up to whole Lari (about forty pence), a convenience you don’t see in the small villages.

Wall

A few people had suggested I stop in Sighnaghi, ten miles or so off my intended route towards the Azerbaijan border, and deep into wine making territory. I’d ridden from Tbilisi, about eighty miles, frequent downpours and some lengthy climbs, but worth it all the same. Spectacular views they said. Imposing fortified boundary wall too.

Must have been pretty tired by the time I eventually arrived, precious little daylight remaining. I’d not left Tbilisi until around noon, largely the result of a few last minute good ideas, but still leaving a good seven or so hours solid riding. I’d found a room in a home stay, had quickly showered and then gone in search of a decent meal. Found a place close by, even had a menu in English. Went for the ’Chicken live cooked in crockery’. Seemed a bit cruel but I was famished, and was curious how exactly they got the reluctant bird into the chicken brick. Still, it would be fresh. And best not to think about the feathers.

[The author stayed at Nana Kokiashvili’s guesthouse – Tel 899795093 or kkshvl@yahoo.com or http://nanahouse.ge.iatp.net (not checked) – 25 GEL (Georgian Lari) about £10 at the time of writing – head up the hill along the left hand road from the town centre fountain, then take the left fork up the no-entry street and you’ll find it on the corner – great value, very homely, and they speak pretty good English. Oh yes, the ’chicken live’ was in fact ’chicken liver’. Nice all the same. And you can catch up with Ruby and Mike’s motorcycle adventure at www.unusvita.com. And no men with large sticks were harmed in the making of this blog post. Tempting though, he was pretty menacing]

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