The Art of Traveling Differently

The Art of Traveling Differently

Asia 1991 – via Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao and Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City – a fast track in three weeks

They recognize themselves by whatever means. They are unadjusted globetrotters, travelers who get on a plane and, after landing, see what’s going on and what they can do. Shortly after being told to unbuckle from the main cabin, they find each other and start exchanging information about places where there are no tourists, how to get there, stay cheap, eat exotic food and discover pristine beaches and remote cultural sites. All this happens with a natural and informal contact with the people of the country, from which again, new tips for further adventures arise. 

 Now I’m sitting next to my friend Juergen, one of these nomads (not immediately recognizable as such in civilian life) on the plane to Singapore, and I’m lucky enough to experience this kind of travel; at first, still tense, then enjoying it more and more. Our arrival and departure point were thus fixed – everything else resulted from a mixture of desires and opportunities and leads in the end to an unexpected highlight. 

Asia for me, has been a long-cherished dream destination, underpinned with a lot of book knowledge, and is now coming true. My first encounter with this continent captivates me so much that I don’t know where to look first. Jürgen, experienced in Asia, moves safely through the metropolises of Asia with local means of transportation.  I follow him in amazement, absorbing everything around me like a sponge. We land at 9 a.m., book a hotel for one night in the airport and off we go by cab to the hotel and then further by metro to the Singpore River. We followed one of the proven travel rules: get out of the plane and into life, use the short amount of time wisely – you can sleep and rest at night.

The change to the sultry heat slows our steps only a little until the first break at the Singapore River. There is the famous river view with the old trading houses. Here we discover by chance a poster with an advertisement for an exhibition of the HAN Dynasty. So we change our daily plan and have the unexpected luck of getting tickets . Fascinated, we stand in a large hall in front of the warriors and horses from Xian – the first exhibition of these finds outside China.

The cavalry army of Xian

Ten,Ten, Ten echoes over a square, lit only by countless open fireplaces.

After the first exploration of this sparkling clean city, we dive into the romantic scene of blazing fires, seductive smells, and plumes of smoke of the Satay Club in the warm evening air. Ten chicken, ten beef, ten mutton – a pleasure that no restaurant can offer – the atmosphere does it. We  eat uncounted skewers together with ice-cold Tiger Beer, enjoying the evening. We then slowly walk past the Merlion, the landmark of the city, to the hotel for the first rest after a long flight.

Satay Club Singapore

Finally rested, we fly at noon  on to Hong Kong. Three and a half hours later, we are in the adventurous landing approach to the old Kai Tak Airport, i.e. straight ahead to just before a mountain, 90 degrees to the right and just above the skyscrapers; almost touching the laundry hung on the roof terraces of the skyscrapers. We touch down on the runway by the sea. 

We had hardly arrived, but a look to the sky, blue sky and sun means, according to the travel rules, drop your suitcase and go up to the Peak to enjoy the fantastic postcard view over the bay and the city. Hours later, clouds come up again – it is a matter of capturing the right moment.

 Hong Kong, this vibrant, pulsating, never sleeping megacity c takes you immediately into the constantly flooding stream of people and cars. What a contrast to Singapore – a completely different world just a few hours away from each other by plane.  

 In the evening, when hunger sets in, Jürgen’s eyes light up as he takes us not to a restaurant but to Poor Man’s Night Club on Hong Kong Island. Loud hustle and bustle, open air and fireplaces all around. Cleanliness? Hygiene?  At first sight, not really. A first  look around and I say spontaneously: “ here I do not eat“ the diarrhea already setting in before my eyes. And then it was me who just wanted to go there again the next evening, tastier food you cannot eat and still stay healthy. The old rule, „cook it, boil it or forget it“ was found to be true here, by the huge woks over the flames. After several courses and now well satiated, we take the „Star Ferry“ for one Hong Kong dollar back to Kowloon and take another digestive stroll through another night market. Temple Street, with its fortune tellers, palm readers, small stages with Canton opera performances, majong playing older gentlemen (already prepared for the night in plain pajamas and slippers), countless stalls.

Poor Man’s Night Club Hong Kong Island

 We had a ferry to Macao, which we spontaneusly booked for the next day, and it went only when another rule for Asia was observed. Toilets could only be used during the day in the hotel when only on tour. We took the normal boat with the locals, the speedboat taking those in a hurry as well as tourists.  Soon I realized why. Shortly after leaving the territorial waters of Hong Kong, there was a huge metallic noise on our ferry – not from a collision but from hundreds of slot machines (forbidden in Hong Kong) rattling down the grids. Almost everyone on board rushed to the devices for a few hours of pure gambling. Macao, the Portuguese lease area is interesting to see, but above all has the Las Vegas flair of a were rather boring, but at sea, there was the Floating Casino, an adventure to be had. A whole other clientele squatted there, strictly supervised, at the gaming tables, deeply bent over,  with unknown old Chinese playing cards close in front of their faces, briefly at the edge, lifting, safe from glances from wherever. We had a feeling like in a Mafia film. At the doors, on the matted ancient carpets, stood the old spittoons, relics from former dynasties, used unerringly. We can’t stay too long, eyed suspiciously from all sides as „long-noses,“ a kind of discreet expulsion.

Floating Casino Macao

 We went on to Bangkok where, after visiting the main sights, we went to a small travel agency known to Jürgen, from the past. We hand in our passports (I didn’t think we’d ever see them again) and asked the head of the Exotissimo Travel Bureau to find something delightfully adventurous „off the beaten tracks“ for us in Indochina:  still absolute terra incognita for tourists in the early 90s. 

We took a bus through heavy traffic to the coast to Ko Samed, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand. We left our heavy suitcases in a large hut on the beach. Here I have, probably for the last time, a feeling of insecurity, e.g. never to see the luggage again. This different way of traveling had increasingly become part of my understanding of travel. We get into a small boat and go to an island without tourism for absolute beach recreation. At the jetty we are greeted with a chalk board by the proud owner of his first cell phone. Our cabins could be booked using his phone for the first time. This was a dreamlike time for us; sleeping on bamboo beds took some getting used to, though. The most beautiful experience came the next morning. The islanders on our side of the island, women in colorful dresses, went into the sea at sunrise; and we stood with them up to our necks in the warm water, blinking at the early sun. A last paradise, but unfortunately already endangered: On our last day, a first boat with day tourists from Bangkok docked…

The Pineapple Beach of Koh Samed


Back in Bangkok, the head of the travel office saw us coming and waved our passports. Beaming, he announced to our total surprise that we are among the very first foreigners who can enter the country after the Vietnam War. Proudly, he hands us a three day visa and ticket for Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We can hardly believe it and we don’t have much time left until our departure. We drop off our luggage in the „left luggage area “ and fly off with only the bare necessities.

We are picked up by our guide, a line loyal deserving member of the CP of Vietnam, and were taken to a hotel. During the ride we received clear instructions about the itinerary and a map in which the districts are marked where we are not allowed to go. Years after the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnam is cautiously opening up and one feels far back in time.

After a (guaranteed not the last) epicurean tasting in Saigon, we let tricycle drivers drive us through Saigon.

Trycicle Taxi in Saigo

The streets were teeming with bicycles, mopeds, rickshaws, a few cars and people in constant motion. It was frightening to see how thin and emaciated many people were. But everything works without accidents in this hustle and  drove into the horrors of the Vietnam War. We went past burned out tanks on which children play and shot down helicopters.  We go into the war museum. The photos there and the disfigured fetuses in glass containers as a result of Agent Orange and napalm bombs make us freeze. What we see there is almost unbearable and continues to have an effect on us for a long time.

The next day we drive overland with our guide, past picturesque rice fields and thousands of ducks that are brought in trucks and plunged into the submerged rice fields for natural pest control. Our destination is the famous tunnels of Chu Chi, whose entrances are so well camouflaged that we cannot find them despite an intensive search. They are being prepared for tours and it is an oppressive feeling to crawl into such a tunnel. The corridors located on three floors held everything the Vietcong needed; there were also kitchens whose smoke was directed in such a way that it appeared kilometers away and was bombed by the Americans without causing any damage. Perverse, however, was a shooting range set up as a foreign exchange earner, looked after by partially amputated Vietcong.  One could shoot there using the old weapons of the Vietcong. We politely declined the offer.  On the way back, we pass the American embassy, where in a panic the last American soldiers and embassy staff escaped in helicopters from the roof just ahead of the invading North Vietnamese troops.

The invisible tunnel entrances

Afterwards, we returned to the streets – unfortunately we again experienced the confrontation with the victims of the American bombardments: arms and/or legs amputated, war invalids, who crouch with their remaining bone stumps on cardboard boxes, laboriously   begging for a small alms…

I have experienced, through other travel, the courageous determination to do extraordinary things when it becomes unexpectedly possible. To experience special places at a unique time, small windows of opportunity are often closed again in a hurry. This has been one of those special opportunities that opened up to us on this trip.

There were still a few hours remaining to us today in Ho Chi Minh City and we escaped our leader by the supplier entrance. We rented a Tricycle and the driver drove us into the forbidden districts, with cellar vaults where art treasures from temples were hidden; to a market, from whose labyrinth we would have never found by ourselves.   He did not wait outside but accompanied us, unnoticed by us. At two points. he told us to go on and so gave us the security to enjoy this runaway trip and then return with a guilty conscience to our guardian. The slight panic on our guardian’s face slowly disappeared from his face when he saw us arrive. To reconcile, we invited him in the evening to a „dinner cruise“ on the Saigon River; there was a tiny kitchen on the lower deck, where sweaty cooks prepared freshly caught seafood for us in the wok. While they cooked, we could look on the upper deck at the transport boats on the quay, unloaded not with cranes, but with pure manpower. These men are known as coolies, and balanced on swaying planks with rice bags weighing tens of kilograms on their shoulders.

Vietnam 1991, what an experience!  A trip that shaped me for the future.

(c) Dr.Burkhard Mielke. All rights reserve

All pictures © by Burkhard Mielke and Jürgen Steinmeyer, all rights reserved, commercial and private use prohibited.

English translation editor : Dr. Marilyn C. Terranova, NY

The great Migration

Safari in Tanzania, February 2016

Our encounter with the Serengeti („the infinity“ as driver Steven translates the name for us) starts with a bang: Shortly after entering the national park, we come across one of the most fascinating events you can encounter here: the „Great Migration“, the big wildebeest migration that starts every year in February/March. More than 1.7 million wildebeest, 250,000 zebra and as many different species of gazelles are on the move together.

Being on the road for them means all day running, running, running, and in the early evening swarming out into the whole plain to eat, eat, eat for the route of the coming day. During this time everything must happen that brings rest and new strength as they exit the sun scorched earth moving into into the still fresh grasslands and northern waterholes. They are always on guard against the predators waiting for them, which in turn fight for daily survival.

We want to enjoy this spectacle forever, but we have to go on, dawn is beginningto dawn and the lodge is waiting. There we exchange with other groups and enjoy this unexpected experience with cool Serengeti beer, not suspecting what the next days would bring.

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The great Migration

During the next few days, Steven drives us on red, bumpy sandy roads at a speed of 30 through the unique landscape. There are few places in the world where the savannah serves as a habitat for such an abundance of diverse animals: giraffes, herds of elephants, small and large wild animals, families of lions right next to us, leopards and countless colorful birds of all sizes. One cannot get over how amazing it all looks. And then our driver suddenly stops, and while we are looking in all directions in search of one of the Big Five, he shows us in the middle of the track a small pillbug, which rolls a huge ball backwards over the track; in which later a female scarab will lay her eggs.

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What a contrast to our expectations!

Where we see only trees, Steven shows us lions and leopards lying in trees drying their soles because of previous rains. He predicted that a bouquet of birds was about to „delouse“ in the hot sand and so it goes on…. This shows us what is the most important thing on a safari – a good driver and guide, who knows the fauna and flora of his country and lives in its entirety and thus has a special view into nature. From him we learn that besides the „Big Five“ there are also the „Little Five“, named after the five big brothers: Leopard Tortoise, Buffalo Weaver, Rhino Beetle, Elephant Shrew and Ant Lion.

Without the small creatures, the big ones would not exist, such is the way of nature. Steven also showed us a colony of vultures at a carcass. One after another, such different animals, large and small, use their tools to fill their roles in this process of becoming and passing away.

Two days and many thrilling experiences later, we are on our way to leave the Serengeti again, because the famous Ngorongoro Crater is our next destination. But there was still a surprise waiting for us. We meet unexpectedly a second time on the train of animals. Unbelievable! Steven had exchanged information with other guides and learned where the animals have moved.

We see them again! Still in some distance away, thousands of wildebeest run (with some zebras in between) as a dark mass of lumbering bodies, and we come closer and closer. Immediately before us the train crosses our track and we have time to enjoy this spectacle. The animals trot along in a seemingly endless line, only to take off abruptly for a while. Something triggers this reaction in a single wildebeest, and the herd instinct then sets them all in motion.

For a picnic lunch we stop in the shade of a large umbrella acacia and a dream comes to life. All around in every direction on the horizon hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of animals can be seen, striving northward.

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Tanzania Travel&Information Portal Migration Map

The beginning and end of the train are unrecognizable now; the row of the animals extends from horizon to horizon, like a primeval force and we stand in the middle of it. Steven stated „You are very very lucky to be able to see this“.

The engine starts and our driver carefully makes his way through the mass of migrating animals and starts the journey to the Ngorongoro Crater, passing the memorial stone to Michael Grzimek. But really, we know that nothing on this trip could be even remotely as impressive as the migration. That must have been the highlight, everything else was just bonus. And so our trip into the crater started with drizzle and ground fog, but it quickly cleared with the first rays of sunshine. And suddenly we are standing in front of one of the last 50 remaining black rhinos in Tanzania.

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As if this had not been enough safari luck, we still experience the most emotional event of this trip for me – at the exit of the crater. Again the car stops suddenly and then we realize why. We are standing just a few meters away from a wildebeest and Steven tells us that the birth of the calf was imminent, indeed would begin in less than 10 minutes. None of us would have noticed. While the other animals continue to walk, the wildebeest cow lies down, several male wildebeests stay next to her like a protective guard. Then we also see the growing contractions. She stands up again several times, changes position, lies down again and then the birth begins.

A moment of complete silence occurs, a brief moment without any click of a camera, complete fascination and emotion in the face of this miracle of new life, so normal and natural and yet touching the vulnerability in nature and security in the herd.

I was so moved by this birth experience that, contrary to my usual photographic behavior, I did not take a single picture during the entire birth process and only noticed this when everything was over. How nice that my friend Jörg, mainly responsible for the telephoto shots, has taken over these close-ups for me.


The newborn falls out onto the ground, It struggles out of the shell of the amniotic sac is licked free and nudged, gets up, get on its own legs. The baby falls over, is nudged again, get up and fall over again with fragile legs The newborn gets up again and drinks, then the mother turns around and runs on. The young must run along to survive. The birth must happen quickly, the newborn wildebeest must immediately try to get to its feet, and then run along with the mother under the protection of the herd, because it is already circled by hyenas and other hungry hunters lurking for prey.

Nothing is easier prey than a newbor

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Stand up
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Drink fast
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Let’s go
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On the hunt

While we have experienced the birth, we learn from the second group, that evening, about the hunt for and the death of another newborn wildebeest. Birth and death, eating and being eaten, as a natural sequence of life, takes place here at any time.

This direct experience of the greatness and wonder of nature and the realization that everything is interconnected, relativizes the belief in human superiority: this leads back to the realization that we are only a part of this cosmos, only a part of becoming and passing away, while the world continues to turn unaffected by it. We realize that only Only that man has the ability to think and to decide between the possibilities to live in harmony with nature or to subordinate everything and thus destroy nature, our habitat and our future.

(c) Dr.Burkhard Mielke. All rights reserved.

All pictures © by Burkhard Mielke and Jörg Neidig, all rights reserved, commercial and private use prohibited.

English translation editor : Dr. Marilyn C. Terranova, NY

East-West-North -South

Germany and Vietnam –  A Journey with Thomas Billhardt

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Vietnam, Halong Bay, 2019. It is a warm, summery night. Reflected on the water are the lights of other boats that, like us, have anchored for the night in this romantic spot. Dimly, you can see the cone-shaped and forested limestone islands that are characteristic of the bay.

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After an eventful day in this fantastically beautiful environment, we sit on deck with a glass of wine and talk about this bay and how it may have been even more beautiful years ago, without many visitors. 

Then a sentence breaks the silence: Now we sit here and talk to each other normally“. After a short silence, we toast and know that in this sentence all that has brought us here flows together and is brought to the point. The inviting travel flyer, which had aroused our interest at the end of a conference in the Rosa Luxemburg House, the announcement of the trip, and commentary on the trip by Thomas Billhardt, former GDR photographer and contemporary witness of the Vietnam War. Even though we had never heard of this photographer, who is known and appreciated in many parts of the world, we expected a knowledgeable travel companion and versatile insights into contemporary life in what was then North Vietnam. And so it was. Our first meeting with Thomas Billhardt had to wait, however; he had already flown ahead  to receive us in Hanoi.

Billhardt had become famous for his reports from Cuba and his presence during the Vietnam War. The entire West, where we grew up, inevitably knew the image of photographer Nick Út (The terror of War), the burning, naked little girl screaming in pain as she fled from more American napalm bombs;the pictorial indictment of the war in Vietnam. But none of us knew the photo „Love in War“ by Thomas Billhardt; a pair of soldier lovers with shouldered guns, holding hands, walking towards a lake. On one side, the horror and on the other side, in the midst of daily horrors and death, love and hope for a future without war.

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The picture „Love in war“ – found in a store in Hanoi

So it was no coincidence at all that the travel group, apart from my travel companion and me, consisted exclusively of fellow travelers from East Germany, who of course knew a of Thomas Billhardt, as well as connections with North Vietnam. It had become clear to us, gradually, that this was a booking not usual for us. A booking with a travel agency from the former GDR: the exclusive reader journey of the „new Germany“, the journey with a departure from Berlin Schöneberg with Aeroflot over Moscow to Hanoi. It became clearer with every traveler we talked to, that they had all grown up in the former GDR and still lived there today. and that We were nevertheless travelers together who, in this moment of sitting together in Halong Bay as a matter of course, realized how  this commonality had been taken for granted for a long time, even long after the fall of the Wall. And This realization of normality happened on the  fifth evening of our common journey, and a great openness and interest for each other developed.

The central experience of this trip from North to South in Vietnam was our travel companion, Thomas Billhardt. Every day we heard stories from him about his adventurous and often life-threatening assignment as a photographer in Hanoi. Because of the preparation of an exhibition with the Goethe Institute in Hanoi, he had his photo books with him which documented this difficult time of the bombing of Hanoi. The pictures of little boys seeking shelter under the manhole covers were particularly moving. The poignant descriptions were also so impressive because they were told from his own direct experience, without any hint of ideology, as an account of human life during this time in North Vietnam, of which we knew little. Equally captivating was his own life story, which made him a wanderer between the worlds of East and West. He had been sent to Cuba as a photographer for the government of the GDR and, what everyone did not know at the time, he did not disappear during a stopover in Canada but returned to the GDR. From then on, he had the opportunity to come to the West at any time. He was now considered „reliable“ and his fame – furthered by his appointment as a children’s photographer for UNICEF – made him pretty much untouchable. This continued until shortly before the end of the GDR, where he was in danger of losing his photo archive.  He was able to bring it to safety in an adventurous way.

East-West contrasts from old times to new, and their continuation stories occurred again and again on this trip. Two Vietnamese guides, both with wartime and postwar experiences of Germany, experienced two differentworlds. The guide of the first week had studied mechanical engineering in the GDR while the war raged at home, not entirely without a guilty conscience, but with a loyalty to old economic contacts and knowledge transfer. The second guide was a former refugee, illegally in West Germany, and in constant fear of being tracked down by the police. He was without papers and feared being deported home, which indeed he was not spared. He would like to visit his German friends again, with whom he is still in contact today, but he would not want to live in Germany anymore. He sees his home in today’s opening and developing Vietnam.

And so We moved through the country from north to south with an incessantly photographing travel companion, who in the evening already began to delete the less successful pictures. We learned about his first exhibition in Hanoi with large outdoor picture panels, and Billhardt reported that many came there who had been photographed and had survived the war. We discovered Hanoi differently than on a usual tourist trip: rode bicycles through rice paddies to a small village to cook Vietnamese food under the guidance of the villagers; attended a performance at the famous Lotus Water Theater; learned about Cham culture; experienced the adventure of a night train ride south to the ancient imperial city of Hué; and went on to Danang and then, to what for me is probably the most beautiful city, Hoi An, the city of a thousand lanterns.

On one of the last evenings, the stories continued. East-West German biographies  and the North-South experiences concerning Vietnam were exchanged. And there are more than two Germanys that became visible.

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From this trip, a friendship developed between Thomas Billhardt and us, and he just sent me his newly published illustrated book „Hanoi 1967 -1975“, initiated and supported by the Goethe-Institut Vietnam and published by Nhã Nam/Vietnam 2020, crowning his life’s work.

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ISBN 978-604-77-8377-9

All pictures © by Burkhard Mielke, all rights reserved, commercial and private use prohibited.

English translation editor : Dr. Marilyn C. Terranova, NY

St.Pierre et Miquelon-how it all began


I had in hand two aluminum coins with the inscription „St. Pierre et Miquelon“, rummaging through a box of coins from all over the world in a small Amsterdam tourist store. Obviously French: 1 and 2 francs.

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This picture of the coins is from my own collection

 It was in the mid-fifties and I was maybe 12 years old – a time without Internet, Wikipedia, and Google. Among other small coins whose writing I could not read, I took these two aluminum coins home – for little money, because there were, as yet, no detailed coin catalogs with prices. My curiosity was aroused! For several years, I first collected stamps, then exchanged the stamps with my brother for his coins, and thus, gradually opened up the distant, alluring world to me. Nobody, neither my geography teacher nor the French teacher, could do anything with this country name. That is how it remained at first, until I came across an old stamp catalog by the Senf brothers, which listed all the corners of the world, no matter how small, where a stamp had ever appeared.

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Here, I finally found St. Pierre et Miquelon, a group of islands 25 km east of the Canadian coast and south of Newfoundland. It is a French overseas territory, so today it also belongs to the EU, and it is to this day, all that remains of the former French colony of New France. It is the westernmost point of Europe.

For today’s younger readers, this search process (today called research) is hardly comprehensible. Today, such a question can be answered in a matter of minutes via Google.

Subsequently, I continued to search for exotic coins, tried to decipher inscriptions and inform myself about other countries. One thing always remained in the background: I wanted to go to St. Pierre et Miquelon once in my life.

Early on, my longing to get to know other countries was further enforced by my travel-loving mother. With a Beetle and tent equipment on the roof rack, she set off with us children, and often one or another friend was also there, traveling to ever more distant places. Over the Dutch and Belgian North Sea coast and then to the warm south, through France to Italy to Rome. In winter, we went skiing with the German Alpine Club to Austria and the Dolomites. The German urge to go south to warmth, palm trees and blue sea became stronger and stronger after the long war years and the challenging years of reconstruction that followed.

For me, these were casual vacations on the beach and sporty ones in the mountains. But inevitably, in Italy, there were also the first encounters with culture; following the interests of my mother and older siblings, with visits to museums, cathedrals, and the encounter with ancient Rome. In addition, there were more and more personal encounters with people as well as family contacts. This was really something for me and my interest in them.

But it would be a long time before I reached the distant destinations in Asia, America, and Africa, which I had already learned about from my travel fantasies, starting with newly discovered coins.

And then it was almost time to finally get to St. Pierre et Miquelon.

Because of a long existing intense family friendship in Seattle, many trips started there, with different pre- or post-programs.

In 1996 meanwhile, with my own children, I drove from New York to Seattle via the TransCanada Highway and back to the Atlantic coast with the goal of arriving in St. Pierre et Miquelon at the end. Only a few days remained until the return flight, and then, what a disappointment! There was a storm over the Atlantic and there was no guarantee we would make it back in time to the ship. I had a wish that did not come true.

Much later, in 2011, I attended a convention in Toronto, and there was finally enough time to fly to Newfoundland. I booked a 3-day package for the boat trip and the stay on the last piece of France in North America. It takes 55 minutes from Fortune Newfoundland to St. Pierre et Miquelon. 

After a quiet crossing, I was astonished at the entry. At passport control we were to be waved through quickly, and they did not want to give me the much longed-for stamp of the archipelago in the passport. This easing of formalities did not please me at all, and it took a little explanation of my heart’s desire to succeed. Only then did we realize that as Europeans we were only returning to the EU. The border guards probably thought “Ils sont fous, les Allemands.” But I had my stamp in my passport and was happy.

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Finally the stamp in the passport

After 68 years, my wish to experience this group of islands finally came true.

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With one step further came the entry into the French world. A Francophile’s heart swells with the flair, the stores, the French restaurants, cafés, and the self-evident language. We enjoyed a menu of the additional selection of excellent wines at prices that are unthinkable in France.

Still, it is not easy to get enough French people to stay in this remote and climatically inhospitable area. French subsidies do, however, make this easier by not having to do without anything familiar from France, from French wine to …

The lonely location on the 45th parallel becomes particularly clear during a trip to the southern part of Miquelon, „Langlade“. Here, a cool wind blows over the tall, thin grasses that cover the hilly island country as far as the eye can see. Now and then one can see a long abandoned former country house, and a rare group of horses, which testifies to the fact that nevertheless, one or the other still seems to be inhabited. A stopped time.

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(c) Dr.Burkhard Mielke. All rights reserved.

All pictures © by Burkhard Mielke, all rights reserved, commercial and private use prohibited.

English translation editor : Dr. Marilyn C. Terranova, NY

Border Crossings

Border crossing points 

May 2016 in New Mexico

Do you really want to go to Mexico?

We took a wrong turn and suddenly we are standing at the border crossing of the USA to Mexico. Astonished, we are denied entry, and are allowed to turn around. On the highway, we now drive farther west along the American Mexican border. To the right and left of us, there is an empty wide desert landscape; and a deep ditch, from which, from time to time, police cars of the Border Control drive up, looking for illegal immigrants.

The black asphalt band in front of us flickers in the burning sun that accompanies us all day long. With the comfortable rental car, pleasantly cooled down, drinks sit on the console and cruise control.  We continue our journey, relaxed, and can experience the landscape in front of us. This feeling of driving and traveling is not available in Europe. We started from Los Angeles for a round trip through the national parks of the southwest, with an imaginary route. We had some fixed destinations but without a precise plan – except for the pressure of our return date. We like to „tinker“ and let ourselves be surprised, as we are on the route from El Paso to the west, always along the border to Mexico.  We usually start looking for a motel in the late afternoon.  We cannot assume that the small-place names on the map will be a place to stay. We are thinking about driving up from this border road to the highway. But then the unexpected happens: at the entrance to Columbus we see, to our astonishment, a big hotel sign. Without hesitation, we drive up and it says „vacancy“. 

Hotel Las Milagros Columbus, New Mexico

After a nice talk with Philip, the owner of the hotel, we check in. Opposite a building is a big advertisement for a restaurant and everything seems to be fine. To find all this in a small, a little bit desolate place, surprised us.

United States- Mexico – Border cities

Then we came to Mexico with the important question of whether we really wanted to go there.

„This restaurant here has been closed for a long time. I’ll take you over to a good restaurant in Mexico in 10 minutes.  That’s a good thing. I have to go to that restaurant anyway, their son is a new student here,“ says Philip, the hotelier. 

Do we need a visa for Mexico? “,we ask.

“It doesn’t matter if we drive back and forth here, it doesn’t matter, I will drive,“ said Philip.

Joyful surprise and amazement quickly changed our impression of a small, desolate desert town in many ways. 

I am a republican and you‘re? was the beginning of the conversation in the car – an unexpected start. “We are social democrats”, we said. 

“Ok”, he said without comment. Then it became clear how narrow ideologies and prejudices can be; how important it is to have human encounters and to recognize the individual without classifying him or her in the same way.

On the short drive to the border and afterwards, we learned about his impressive life story and that of the people in this region, which borders nearby. Originally from California and an entrepreneur with a production plant in Mexico, he stayed in Columbus and is now the mayor of Columbus, hotelier, tour guide, tour organizer and school bus driver, all combined in one person.

We were simply waved through at the border and thus came to the province of Chihuahu.

Just behind the border we see signs atypical for a small border town: American Dental Clinic and Optometrist Clinic. This is where the Americans go to get cheap dental prosthesis and other medical services that are so expensive in the USA. On the American side, there is a maternity clinic, where Mexican children are born Americans;  we learn this during the short drive. As the school bus driver, our companion picks up the children from Palomas de Villa every morning, takes them to the high school in Columbus, and brings them back in the evening. For more than 50 years, people on both sides of the border have felt basically like a community. While he talks with the parents about their son as a new high school student, we enjoy a super Mexican meal and then drive back to the hotel, waved through at the border.

Puerto Palomas de Villa, Chihuahua, Mexiko: in the restaurant La Fiesta with the mayor of Columbus

We had an emotional and thought-changing experience of a shared world, which has a strong influence on us and strongly revitalizes many of our previous prejudices, or rather, transforms them into new judgments.

The next morning, we cordially say goodbye and drive further west to our next destination with the name Twenty-Four Palms, which is expected in this desert region. 

With cocktails at the pool under illuminated palm trees, reality suddenly returns. We enjoy the evening in the company of a nice couple and then the conversation turns to politics. We are shown a video on our smartphone as proof that Hillary Clinton is Muslim, and we realize that we have landed in the 2016 election campaign. But this could not overshadow our experience of Columbus.

Now, years later, in November 2020, with my project to write about outstanding moments on a journey, the images and conversations come back and the question of how Columbus fared. The research shows grief and hope at the same time.

The ideology did not spare Columbus and Palomas either. The two places have changed greatly and separated them.

But now new hope appears on the horizon, that this „once-human-border relationship“ ( will become a reality, is revived and the will is there to resume the old connections before it is too late.

We drove through this desert landscape in May and the otherwise only green cacti bloomed in all red and yellow colors. These flowers stand for the possible beauty in this world and in interpersonal relationships. For some years, it was only a hope, which perhaps leads back to the common ground with the next flowering.

The wish arises within us to see this place again.

(c) Dr.Burkhard Mielke. All rights reserved.

All pictures © by Burkhard Mielke, all rights reserved, commercial and private use prohibited.

English translation editor : Dr. Marilyn C. Terranova, NY

Gorilla Meetings

Uganda 2020

Almost 50 years ago, an acquaintance told me that he had raised a baby gorilla for a zoo at his home a few years earlier. He invited me to visit his former fosterling at the zoo. As soon as we entered the corridor to the enclosure, the gorilla let out the first silent cries of joy. He immediately sensed his foster father. This impressed me very much, since he had not been to visit for a long time. My enthusiasm quickly gave way to a certain feeling of fear when the enclosure was unlocked and the foster father simply took me into the cage. The gorilla, by now grown to a stately size, hugged his visitor happily and excitedly, then looked to my left and also took me in his arms without crushing me. My heartbeat stopped briefly, but then it was a unique feeling in the warm bond between man and animal.

And now I was face to face with these magnificent gorillas in the wild.

We have driven through Uganda over the past nine days, always thinking in the back of our minds about day 10 : Will it rain? Will we see the gorillas…? Shortly before our arrival in Entebbe, there were torrential rains and floods. Since then, the floods have receded and the rains are less frequent and shorter. This gives us hope. We can drive again on the pre-planned routes, which were impassable days before. Tomorrow we will arrive at Bwindi National Park, where several gorilla families live. Excitement is building, and despite a few nightcaps, it will be a somewhat restless night of anticipation, and residual uncertainty as to whether the weather will cooperate. It rained most of the day yesterday, but today the sun is shining, slowly displacing the fog. We are lucky. But the ground is still damp. And then the adventure begins. We meet the rangers and porters, have to hand in our passports and are assigned to a group. A maximum of eight people belong to a group. Before we start, we get enough information about safety regulations and rules of conduct during the search for the gorillas and the encounter with them. There are five families in this park and we will try to find the Bweza family. Our ranger tells us that the family has been spotted by the scouts in a certain area, so we know approximately where they are. I take a porter as a helping hand. These are young men from the area who earn some extra money to live this way. A large sturdy stick is given to us for support, and off we go. Full of energy we set off, and it promises not to be a particularly difficult path, with magnificent views of the surrounding panorama of the mountain rainforest.

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Then our ranger turns left, and from there it’s a steep climb through dense undergrowth. We follow the guides, who cut a path through the mountain rainforest with machetes – always with one side close to the slope and the abyss in front of our eyes on the right. We are now at an altitude of over 2000 meters. For more than two hours we have been walking through dense jungle, over slippery, damp roots, brushing against thorn bushes, sometimes getting tangled in lianas or stumbling through hidden depressions. In some places we have to climb quite steep slopes, always in danger of slipping or hurting ourselves.

All of a sudden, everything matters. The climb takes us to our limits. Every slip and stumble costs strength and only the thought of the gorillas keeps us running stubbornly, panting and staring at the impassable terrain in front of us. Short breaks are necessary again and again, and one of our group almost seems to collapse, so that we stay on our break little longer. Physically I’m doing well, but my somewhat too slippery shoe soles require full concentration at every step. Several times I owed my Porter for everything going well. Fortunately, we only hear about daily casualties and the „Uganda Helicopter“ (eight alternating porters with stretcher) later from Moses, our driver. The ascent and the search became more and more arduous.

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But then our high spirits abruptly return. Due to the full concentration at every step of the steep ascent and on the verge of exhaustion, sounds suddenly reach our ears. I am electrified. „They must be there“ my porter points further up. Our last energies are now mobilized; we want to see the mountain gorillas, which is not always guaranteed.

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Actual distance traveled in search of „our“ gorilla family (GPS)

We still have to crisscross for a while, then we see the stop sign of our ranger. She shows us the first members of our gorilla family high in front of us on the tree branches.

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What a sight!
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The exertions of the ascent are blown away, and the euphoria is back, but we are not allowed to express it: Silence is the order of the day at this encounter of man and beast in the wild. We have one hour to observe the Bweza group. Tis is a profound emotional experience.

We continue walking to get closer to the group. Behind a bend in the road, our ranger stops, and suddenly we find ourselves face to face with a mother and two cubs. I ask quietly, „What now?“ She shrugs her shoulder and watches the mother with full concentration. Then she relaxes. The mother turns to the side, grabs a branch and starts eating leaves with gusto.

The little gorillas behave like all children, and come rolling towards us, cheerful and unconcerned, right up to our feet.

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But they are not allowed to come that close to us because of the danger of infection. After a small slap with the side of the machete, they retreat to a tree, insulted.

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After this first exciting and then cheerful experience, we move on and meet the whole family in a hollow a few meters below us.

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Central focus: the silverback
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Eating and playing are the main occupations of the little ones, preferably on the wide silver back.

We now have an hour to observe the gorillas. From now on, time is running out and I want to savor every second of it. Various emotions are pouring in on me and I can hardly believe how carefree the animals – sometimes only an arm’s length away from me – are going about their business. After the long ascent, from our point of view much too fast, the ranger gives the sign to leave. But then she suddenly stops and sees something that she herself, despite many years in the park, has never experienced: two teenagers make their first, still clumsy and futile attempts at love. She films this event extensively, and so we can stay a while longer.

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They do not let us disturb them. In a long habitation process, the Bergorilla families have been accustomed to these short visits.

Fulfilled and happy, the reality of the shorter but no less dangerous descent enters our consciousness. With slight bruises, strains and thorn marks, we reach our starting point in Bwindi National Park, otherwise unharmed.

There we say goodbye to our porters, without whom we would not have managed this adventure, and receive our gorilla trekking diploma. When I am called for the diploma, everyone starts clapping. The rangers must have read my date of birth in my passport, and I am supposed to have been the oldest participant here so far. Astonished and a little touched I thank them. Before we left I treat with the help of my emergency package a Ranger, who had cut himself deeply with the machete and made it „expertly“, as learned in the first aid class. Then we went back to Traveller’s Rest, the lodge where Dian Fossey had also stayed.

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The next day is dedicated to rest, and we gratefully accept the offer of a „Relaxing after Gorilla Massage“.

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Only after this relaxation did I really realize how lucky we had been with this unique experience of meeting the Bweza group. There are events that are difficult to put into words.

Before and after we drove a total of 2600 km, a big circle through a beautiful country. Unfortunately it is destroying its natural parks for economic reasons. Let’s hope for a turn to sustainable protection of the basic needs of people and animals in this beautiful but very poor country, and for the salvation of a unique nature.

(c) Dr.Burkhard Mielke. All rights reserved.

All pictures © by Burkhard Mielke and Jörg Neidig, all rights reserved, commercial and private use prohibited.

English translation editor : Dr. Marilyn C. Terranova, NY