This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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Dead trees on a dead vlei

deadvlei-1Once upon a time this was an oasis. There was a river flowing through, nourishing these 500-year-old acacia trees. But the river decided to go elsewhere, and the acacia trees could not follow. In the hot, arid desert climate they dried upright, like skeletons from better times.
deadvlei-2The dark scraggly trees against a white lake of salt and the red dunes and blue sky is one of the most photographed landscapes in Namibia. And at 7.30 am it is all mine. I am the only person on the entire salt pan.deadvlei-4From time to time (not even once a year), the rains come and the dry white pan becomes a flooded lake. When an oryx walks across the mud, its footprints dry up like those of dinosaurs, waiting for the next rains to come.

Deadvlei also serves a more modern purposes: fashion shots. And less fashionable tourist shots. That’s me on the far left. deadvlei-3(Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia; July 2017)

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The Martian

deadvlei-77.30 am on the Deadvlei salt pan. It is as if I am the only person on a foreign planet. A Martian on a red planet of sand, where water once existed but is now long gone. This must be how the space-age people of the 60s imagined walking on Mars to be like. It is quiet. Still. The air is chilly but strangely easy to breathe, even with the dryness. There are no sounds anywhere, except for my team mates and two other crazies trying to ascend the Big Daddy dune, far above.

The echolessness of the desert is too strange to get used to.  It is not just the lack of an echo, but the lack of any sound. There is no sound of birds, people, traffic, or even the wind in the trees – because there are no trees, and often also no wind. And the sound that there is is somehow muffled. As if one were in a padded chamber for lunatics. deadvlei-6Standing in the still desert reminds me of the movie Truman Show, where Jim Carrey plays a man who has a lovely suburban middle class life – until he one day wakes up to realize his world is literally a stage and everything in it is scripted and televized. He begins to seek the boundaries of his physical world and comes to the end of it: at sea, outside of town, he touches the side of the dome which he always thought was the sky and the horizon. The water splashes towards it and all sounds are muffled, as if he were inside a room. Endlessness isn’t endlessness, but finite and staged.

My friends, hungry for sights and sheer exhaustion, are making their way up the 325 m tall dune Big Daddy. It has a rough start and a muscle-wrenching end, and in-between those two it is long and winding. While I wander around on the Deadvlei pan by myself, I can hear my friends cheer each other on. It is so quiet we can have a conversation: I down on the salt pan and they up on the ridge of one of the tallest dunes in the world.

At 8.30 am the first group of (other) tourists begin pouring in. Chinese, with big cameras, shouting instructions to each other as to where to stand for a best pose and effect. This is not Mars. This is still the Earth, just more wondrous than I thought.
deadvlei-5(Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia; July 2017)

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Sunrise at Sossusvlei

sossusvlei-1We camped under a full moon at the overflow site, away from tourist buses and noisy families. We lit the braai fire under the tree, under a full moon, with lizards keeping us company. At night as I walked the 200 m stretch from the tent to the bathroom facility, I needed no flashlight because the moon lit up the sand. Somewhere, not far away, I heard the agitated grunt of a grazer, maybe a zebra or an oryx. Either it had a quick disagreement with a herdmate, or it was very quickly killed. Only the moon knew which one was the case. The jackals were howling in the distance. Thank goodness each campsite in Namibia has guards patrolling the area day and night.

We rose in the dark and passed through the Sesriem gates before first light, at 5.45 am when they opened, aiming for some of the most famous sights in Namibia: the Sossusvlei salt pan, the Big Daddy dune, Dune 45, and the Deadvlei salt pan. It was a magical 1-hour drive through the river valley, with dry savannah on the sides flanked by tall, red dunes. sossusvlei-2The desert here is one of the oldest in the world. The red sand of Southern Namib comes from the Kalahari desert. When the Sossusvlei area was under the sea the Kalahari sand got washed in and stayed as the sea dried up to the desert it is now. The beaches became dunes. Some of the tallest dunes in the world are in Sossusvlei and the coast around Walvis Bay.

The last stretch to the salt pan must be with a proper 4WD, or preferably, a safari vehicle. Sossusvlei means a “dead-end marsh”. Most of the time it is not a marsh but a white, hard pan of salt. It becomes marshy only when it rains, and the rainwater cannot exist the pan but stays in the dead-end of the river valley.sossusvlei-3(Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia; July 2017)

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At the EU HQ

eu-2At the EU Parliament in Brussels, one can spend an entire morning learning about the twists and turns of the history of the EU. Did you know for example that French war general and president Charles de Gaulle initially vetoed the UK’s entry in the 60’s – twice? And now some say he was right all along…

Finland joined in 1995, after a supporting referendum with 57% yes-votes. Geographically, the Northern two-thirds of Finland did vote against joining, but were outnumbered by the major cities in the South. Glad we did join. Otherwise I would need to get a new passport every year due to all the stamps required.
eu-1(Brussels, Belgium; May 2017)

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The future was great

atomium-1Once upon a time the future was all about space, both outside of planet Earth and in the minds of people. It was about scientific progress, with a joyful look at the future of humankind. This time was before anybody spoke of acid rains, holes in the ozone layer, the end of oil, and how tobacco kills. atomium-2Future would be great, and the progress of science was great. It was as if the human mind was too youthful to worry about the heavy responsibility we carry towards our planet and every living thing on it.

Sixty years later, in the world of uncertainties regarding nuclear threat, fossil fuel, and the use of the power of genetics, stepping into the Atomium in Brussels feels like a happy memory from a time I never experienced, left behind by people with an unwavering faith in the future, and total ignorance about the effects of their actions.atomium-3(Brussels, Belgium; May 2017)

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At the opera

vienna-32Opera houses and theaters were like bars and nightclubs today: places to see and be seen. And because cities were much smaller still in the 19th century, and the ruling class even smaller still, everybody did know everybody. Thus, going to the opera was like going to one grand party where you know all guests.

And what better than to go to a party held in a house decorated in splendid gold, mirrors, and red carpets? So thought the Emperor of Austria-Hungary as well, and commissioned the work of a new opera house in Vienna. vienna-33When the glorious building was finished, the architect and interior designer proudly showed it to the court. But their hearts were broken: the emperor thought it rather simple. He proclaimed it resembled a train station. The interior designer committed suicide before the opening night, and the architect died of a stroke not long after.

Life sucks sometimes. But the opera house is still standing. And, viewed through today’s minimalistic eyes that usually encounter bare surfaces, it is quite an extravaganza. Everything is relative.vienna-34(Vienna, Austria; February 2017)