On the


The Dead Sea is Alive!

John 2

A few years ago, I landed in pitch dark Amman, capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, to participate in a conference with Iraqis at the Dead Sea on World Bank managed development projects in Iraq in which I was involved.  From the plane, coming in from the black Mediterranean, the only sea of light I saw was Haifa in Israel. After that a much more subdued Jerusalem. Next, flying onto Amman over the West Bank, darkness. That’s how I always could gauge the state of  a country’s “economic development”: light in the dark and buildings, agriculture and roads during daylight. But Amman is a beautiful city. I would discover that later during daylight.

It was cold. The driver who picked me up from the airport drove with high speed for one hour and a half over a deserted highway, continuously descending from higher elevated Amman to the lower level Dead Sea, a difference of 800 meters, and dropped me at a luxury hotel.  A summer-like temperature surrounded me. This is what I saw when I woke up:

 Mowenpick 2Dead Sea Mowenpick

 The Dead Sea looms behind the majestic swimming pool. The veil of pink haze in the back hides the West Bank. A Middle Eastern colleague said with great pride at breakfast on the terrace: “There is Palestine.” A peaceful look on battled territory.

It was an excellent place to discuss hot topics of the difficulties of project generation and implementation in neighboring Iraq that was still suffering from internal strife. Iraqis are smart people, like most Arab nations, but would benefit from organizing themselves a bit better. It is not for nothing that Babylon lies in the middle of Iraq. But  no “Babylon” at the conference: we had good interpreters (in the little box at the back).

Dr Huda Iraq Ministry of Planning right-1 EMCS Consultants-1

The occasion of the conference fulfilled an old wish: swimming in the Dead Sea where “you cannot sink”. But I had no swim trunk with me. What to do? Early in the morning, at 6 o’clock, I put a bathrobe over my underpants, hoping nobody would see me, and walked from the hotel down to the Dead Sea shore. A beautiful scenery, except that a lonely lady took a swim there, too. Bravely, I took off my bathrobe and horrified she dove under. But you cannot sink! By the time she came back up, I was floating in the water, eight times saltier than the saltiest Ocean. “Good morning Ma’am” – “Bonjour,”she said. “Ça vous plait?” Well, of course it “pleased”me, floating effortless like a rubber dinghy. The French lady spent probably a few days enjoying spas in Dead Sea mud. When I got out, my underpants felt like lead. Completely stiff of salt. I could hardly walk with them and when back in my room had to throw them out.

Me in Dead SeaTake the plunge

But not before I had taken a nice pic of the shore side. Later in the evening I took the picture that now frames this blog:

Dead Sea ShoreSunset at Dead Sea


The Dead Sea area is famous for its sunset views. When the sun goes down, you can clearly see “Palestine”, a huge wall of mountains.

Since my passport name is “Johannes”, I visited the nearby site at the source of the Jordan River, where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It represents a vivid image of the Kingdom of Jordan being a place where Christians can live with Islamic people without being pursued. Pope John Paul II held a mass there for 25,000 people in 2002.

The Jordan River-1 Baptism Site-1

Pope John Paul read Mass here-1 An orthodox Church at the Dead Sea-1

From above left: Jordan River, Baptism Site,

From below left: Area where the Pope held Mass, Orthodox Church.


Proof that I felt “re-baptized” is below.

Johannes at his baptism site_crop

The conference did not “dance”: working deep into the night, we left with “a plan”. Which, as it appeared later, was pretty well executed thanks to an omnipresent Iraqi consulting firm “Etiman” (which means “fiduciary”) in Baghdad and its leader Dr. Tahir Hassoun, whom you see prominently with a white tie on the picture above, surrounded by his dedicated coworkers. And my long-held dream of swimming in the Dead Sea was fulfilled, despite the loss of my underpants.


Enchanté – A Horrific Adventure


Ever been in a jungle, a real rainforest in Central Africa? I was and nearly stayed in it forever.

This is the story of the Fourth Parallel Road. A monster of an environmentally wrong decision by France to build a broad earth road from nowhere to nowhere in the middle of pristine jungle in the Central African Republic.  It happened in the late eighties-early nineties and I had to inspect it in the context of a multi-donor transport project that I led for the World Bank. The habitat of pygmies was exposed to modern age, game put in danger of extinction, mighty tropical trees fell,  and the ecosystem got disrupted by bulldozers, scrapers and crude humans. A French engineer said, “This is the most beautiful project in my life, building a road from fresh straight through a jungle.”

 John in Central African JungleMe trying to climb a tropical tree

The road went from close to the Cameroonian border to mid-point in the Central African Republic (CAR), an area closed to the modern world, inhabited by zillions of the most beautiful butterflies I have ever seen. It was supposed to be connected to Bangui, the capital of CAR, on the one end and the Atlantic coast of Cameroon on the other, an old colonial dream that originally aimed at building a railway.  The futuristic dream featured prominently on a 5000 franc note, with the train crossing over a bridge to be built over the river the “Bangui” or, further down, the Congo River. Thank God, this never materialized. Railways in Africa proved an unmitigated disaster.

CAR 5000 Franc NoteCAR 5000 Franc Note (2)

The one side of the Note with the beautiful lady is the more realistic picture.

I stood in the center of a world where few people had set foot, looking in horror at huge tropical trees falling to make room for “the road” in the name of economic development. I’m sure that today such a project would never be approved. The World Bank battled it, but in the end France went ahead, tossing our objections aside.

John in Central Afr Jungle 2

 To make a final pitch to stop the project, we took a small airplane to fly over the jungle and get a better view of how the road would affect the environment. Leaving from a small strip close to the Cameroon border, the pilot skimmed through low-lying clouds of fog to show the panoply of tropical trees in varying colors of green. It’s an immensely thick area of trees, looking like dense fields of green cauliflower from the air,  and admittedly, the road would only affect a limited portion. But once you cut in, damage grows because its facilitates people moving in, cutting wood and hunting wild animals. and the damage grows like a cancer.

While we were flying, the pilot lost his way, as his plane was not equipped with a GPS. Besides, it appeared he had not prepared a flight plan. And this over an area larger than Texas. Below us, nothing but trees. One by one the fuel tanks ticked empty and the last one got dangerously low. My 4 or so Central African collaborators got scared and just went to “sleep” in their seats, having given up on life, waiting for the crash to happen. Once we would be down, the trees would fold over the plane and nobody would ever find us in this extensive jungle. I said a few prayers, looking at the maps with the pilot. Then I spotted a small strip: the beginning of the Fourth Parallel Road we had visited the day before. God had saved us, so had the road. The pilot could re-coordinate and with the last fuel tank down to less than a quarter full we landed at Bangui airport. As a result, we had little objection left to let the road construction continue. Life is precious.

 John with a road construction crew in CameroonOur team of engineers looking at the road.

Next time some stories about Cameroon, Lebanon and Jordan.





Why I am writing?

To join a masterful Great-Uncle, Joseph M.W. van der Poorten-Schwartz (1858-1915), a Dutchman who wrote bestsellers in the English language one hundred years ago, most of them under the pseudonym “Maarten Maartens.”

 Maarten Maartens

His 20 odd books are all stored in the Library of Congress (see picture below) and were widely read in the USA, England and Germany.


 Even though born in Amsterdam,  Joseph wrote in English because he spent his early youth in London where his father, Carl August Ferdinand Schwartz – my great-grandfather – was appointed reverend of the Free Church of Scotland. English became Joseph’s second language.

Maarten Maartens’s novels were popular in the USA and England because they dealt with “the psychological and moral questions of conscience…as at the time there was a growing tendency to devote attention to the psychological problem play and novel” (quoted from Hendrik Breuls in his Doctoral Thesis “Author in Double Exile, The Literary Appreciation of Maarten Maartens” – 1985, later completed as his 2005 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Dresden, Germany, entitled “A comparative Evaluation of Selected Prose by Maarten Maartens”). Maarten Maartens is especially known for his sharp characterizations and caricatures of certain professions.

Hendrik Breuls starts his 1985 thesis with one of many worthy Maarten Maartens quotes, which are as good a perception of the needed writing skill as we find in today’s essays on good writing: “If you want to be heard by your own generation” (and that is his, one hundred years ago) “never say in three words what you can say in six, and if you want to be listened to by all future generations, never say in six words what you can say in three.”

Uncle Joe made tons of money from his books and built a huge mansion for himself, his wife and one  daughter in a wooded area near Utrecht, not far from Amsterdam, baptized “De Zonheuvel” (The Sunny Hill). A nephew of mine, Michiel Kranendonk, a currently renowned Dutch painter in Holland whose mother is Marie Kranendonk-Schwartz, created a mural painting of the “Maarten Maartens House” in the hall (see partial picture below). At the back of the house featured a meticulously maintained “French Garden” with remembrances of the Chateau “Versailles”. The house is currently a Foundation and occupied by the Institute “Slotemaker de Bruine Institute” (SBI).

 Maarten maartens huisMaarten Maartens House

In 2015, Maarten Maartens’ one hundred year anniversary will be remembered to revive interest in the works of this forgotten prolific author.

More on this – and on painter Michiel Kranendonk –  in a future Blog.




Why join another millon bloggers?


Yes, why bother? Millions of bloggers are already hollering and hustling for attention, and thousands are joining each day, including me. 

I lived an interesting life, met many people all over the world, kept my eyes open and my ears stretched like Wonder Woman and her bionic powers   < http://tommartin.typepad.com> and that shapes your mind, makes you see the funny side of it, and drives me to blog about it.

This blog is not a syllabus on how to live or sell goodies. Too many bloggers write about that already. 

I will try to approach things from a lighter perspective, throw in a little humor and politics, make fun of our daily life, and commingle it with the Common Sense  from Mars Man in Outer Space.

 Mars Man’s face as it is seen on Mars was photographed by a friendly elf in the Cloud’s Public Domain. On Earth, he changes into a normal human being like you and me right after he lands with his Space Scooter One in a vast corn field close to Omaha, Nebraska.

 In addition, I will write about writing, music and my travels to strange places, and offer short stories that stir a smile, shed a tear or spawn some fear. I am not alone doing this, others have a voice there already. For example, check out http://erinbartels.com, or http://chrisguillebeau.com/3×5 or http://throughharoldslens.com by Harold Green.  

Take a backseat, sigh and breathe, and have a laugh. Sign-up, and come back next time.



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