I have a little rebel in me

John Oliver’s recent “last week tonight” episode reminded me of a blog idea that has been in the back of my mind for a long time now. Let’s start with the clip that triggered this:

At the 7:07 mark, a man steps up to defend confederate statues by speaking about his family heritage at a community meeting in North Carolina. He says he always felt proud of his great grandfather’s involvement in the American civil war. His ancestor had stood up for his rights and was willing to fight and die for them. The man says it reminds him that he has “a little rebel” in him. You can tell he feels he is being robbed of this feeling now that the confederate statues are being shown in a different light.

As much as this makes me giggle, roll my eyes and shake my head, I do get it. Profoundly more so than I may care to admit, at first glance.

My own heritage is filled with adventurous globetrotters, standing for what they believed was right in the context of their time.

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My great grandfather, for example, was a preacher from the rural North of the Netherlands who travelled to the Dutch colonies (in current day Indonesia) at the beginning of the twentieth century for what I imagine would’ve been missionary work. I know very little about him or what he did there exactly, but as a colonizing power, you can imagine we Dutchies do not have clean hands in every aspect.

I hope to be able to find out more about him and what he did, some day. I am proud to be a descendant of a man willing to venture into the unknown. I can only hope he did more good than bad for the people of Magelang.

The preacher had a son, my grandfather, who was born in Palembang, Indonesia in 1915. All though I’m not sure about when exactly they returned to the Netherlands, I do know my grandfather was attending University  in the Dutch city of Delft, when  the Second World War was at its peak.

I can imagine his international upbringing made him more conscious of global issues and the miles he must have made at sea as a child traveling from Indonesia to the Netherlands, would have tempered his fear of open water. So, when faced with a possible Nazi labor deployment, he decided to flee the country by boat with two companions and his Belarussian wife, who refused to leave his side. Across the North Sea, in England, they joined our queen and the allied forces to fight fascism across the globe.

Foto+van+de+Dag++vaarkrant+2As I wrote a few years ago after my own tribute to their voyage, the so called “Engelandvaarders“, or England sailers, are an important part of Dutch WWII history and even have their own museum in the seaside town of Noordwijk to commemorate them. So yes, I am proud to be able to call myself a descendant of theirs.

At the same time, I know my grandparents chose to join the KNIL, or Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, a military division that is not without controversy. As with my great grandfather’s deeds and position, I do not know the details of my grandparents’ role here (yet). What I do know is that following World War II, “the KNIL was used in two large military campaigns in 1947 and 1948 to re-establish Dutch control of Indonesia. The KNIL and its Ambonese auxiliaries have been accused of committing war crimes during this “police action”.”

So yes, still proud… but very conscious of the fact that the reality they were facing and that facts they were presented with at the time, must have made them feel the cause they were fighting for was a just one. If this is still the case today, now that we can zoom out and look at the end results, remains to be seen.

Next in line is my father, who was born in Indonesia in 1947 himself and has travelled the world during much of his life, doing development work in South America and the Middle East. How many people’s lives has he actually improved? How many people learnt how to fish themselves thanks to the projects he led and how many “merely” received a charity fish? How much money was wasted on corruption and how much was actually spent effectively? How many projects brought people what they really needed on the long term and how many were merely set up as short term tools in the Dutch political agenda?

So… I guess my point is, I am proud to say that I come from a lineage of adventurers and people wanting to make a difference in the world. If their cause or methods were always good, is up to debate. A debate I am willing to engage in.

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Mind Cleanup – April

All though May has already kicked into gear my April Mind Cleanup was still due. So here it is. The first topic mostly has to do with celebrations that have taken place in May, but the discussion started on April 30th, so I think it does count for this blog…

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All though it is something that is not always apparent (to me) a heated discussion that broke loose nationwide last week has reminded me that Dutch society is broken, or at the very least torn.

The discussion started on twitter, where a young woman posted a picture of herself holding a sign reading “No 4th of May for me”.

Beside being Star Wars day, in the Netherlands the 4th of May is also Remembrance Day. On this day we commemorate all the victims of the Second World War and all wars after that.

The point of this lady’s protest-selfie was not that she thought one day was too short to remember ALL of the victims of ALL wars worldwide. She was upset by the hypocrisy of it all. She felt it was all just a farce; how we all pat ourselves on the back for beating fascism in the second world war on the same public square where days earlier our own homegrown, contemporary far-right groups gathered to promote their racist propaganda.

Her hashtag “geen4meivoormei” exploded on twitter and poured out into all other forms of social media and even into the morning newspapers. Most of the reactions I read did not agree with her and you can imagine how some of the harshness that was slung at her, demonstrated she was on to something.

What saddens me the most is that the 4th of May celebration is precisely the kind of day she should be participating in most actively, as it is perhaps the only day that us Dutchies ever shut up for long enough for someone else to be able to make a point. We shut our mouths for two whole minutes.

How useful would it be if we used those two minutes to analyze our own xenophobia, guided by someone who has perhaps been on the receiving end of it? I hope somehow this outspoken young woman finds her way back into this national day of reflection and helps it be an inclusive one, where everyone feels welcome and represented.

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Epic moments

  • I spent a couple of days in Prague at the beginning of the month. Verdict:
    • Beautiful, beautiful town.
    • April is a great time to go, as the fruit trees on the hill are in bloom and the weather is very pleasant (or maybe we were just really lucky, not sure)
    • Love the goulash, not so much the dumplings.
    • A lot of booze-related tourism
    • Friendly people despite of this.
    • I had so many really really deep philosophical talks with my bf that we started to believe we were being haunted by all the great thinkers of Bohemia in our sleep!

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Self reflection

It’s been two years since my trip across the North Sea in the Yvette II and 73 years since grandparents made their trip in the original Yvette.

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Epicureous

I really like sweet potato and especially  when I cut them into fries and bake em in the oven. The only thing I haven’t mastered yet is the right dip to go along with it…

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Movies / Series

I finally got around to watching the 2nd season of Fargo and I absolutely loved it! To my own utter surprise, I really appreciated Kirsten Dunst in it and may even forgive her for the horrible job she did in the Spiderman movies. Apparently she is better at playing difficult roles than she is at easy ones.

So yah, totally recommend Fargo season 2, even to people who haven’t seen season 1 (there is very little correlation between the two seasons)

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Music

At this point I don’t even know if this has much to do with music anymore, but apparently life gave Beyoncé a big truckload of lemons and she made some serious lemonade. I have only seen snippets of the music video and am not completely sure how I feel about all of that but that it’s one for the history books can hardly be denied.

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Cowabunga – funny moments

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Bummerama

  • Ecuador earthquake. 😦 The Japan one was nasty too, but I have a little Ecuador shaped compartment in my heart and my entire heart goes out to those struggling there to rebuild their homes and lives. If you are wishing to contribute to this process and you want to be sure that the money makes it all the way down to those who need it the most, take a look at Runa Foundation’s Emergency Relief Fund

Museum to make the world awesomer

Today was the official opening of the Engelandvaarders museum in an old bunker, once part of the Nazi’s Atlantic wall.  Our jolly king did not let the weather bring his spirits down and had no trouble putting himself second to give the amazing volunteers and veterans that made this museum possible a moment to shine.

Eng vaarders museum Willem opening

All though I might need some more time to come up with a decent blog on this topic, I did want to post this today, also in response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Generation XYZ.”

You see, this new museum in Noordwijk is both a tribute to those who gathered up all their courage and decided to risk their lives to make freedom possible for themselves and the rest of their countrymen and -women during WWII as it is a reminder to younger generations that every single person can play a role, take a stand and make a change!

As German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.

And as far as I’m concerned it’s not any deity that you are accuontable to, it’s all of us. It’s society. The world. Mankind. Give it whatever name you want. Show you know right from wrong, by speaking up against injustice or malice. You’ll see you’re not alone. Be inspired and inspire others. We can do better than this.

Quoting Kid President: What will you create that will make the world awesome?

Remembering and celebrating 70 years of freedom

It will be exactly seventy years ago this week that the second world war officially ended in the Netherlands.

The 4th of May is Herdenkingsdag, or Remembrance Day. On this day we all do a conscious effort to commemorate the cruel history of war, to realize once again what men are capable of when exposed to hateful doctrines and to honor the people who did not survive. Poems, speeches and solemn music help us get in a contemplative mood that suits this day of mourning.

At 8PM, we are all silent for 2 minutes. Cars stop by the side of the road, all TV and radio channels adjust their programming, cities go quiet, children study the faces of their parents and try to understand the sudden change of atmosphere… And then the national anthem is played, smiles reappear and life slowly picks up again.

I always wonder what other people think about in these two minutes. There are no real rules about this (luckily!) all though I always ask people around me what they will focus on during the moments of silence. You can steer your thoughts in all directions during those quiet moments but I’m quite sure most of us try to keep our thoughts relevant. That is to say, we think about the second world war; about the destruction of Rotterdam, about the underground resistance, about the concentration camps and the millions that died. But we also think about more recent wars and conflicts where military force was used and soldiers met their deaths, – our soldiers, their soldiers, guerrillas, civilians.

A few years ago there was some controversy because the annual poem that was chosen to be read aloud  (always written by a child) was dedicated to the boy’s grandfather, who had joined the SS and was therefore, as we call it in the Netherlands “fout”, which translates to “wrong”. The poem was about making choices and how these choices can echo on in future generations. The poem is a sort of reminder that in times of war things can get confused and one must not judge too quickly.

This caused so much upheaval that in the end, the Committee decided to pull the poem out of the program. The wounds are still too fresh to forgive. There is no room to grieve for the men that stood on the wrong side of the line, at least not on this day. I do understand this sentiment even though I think it is valuable to stay open for the fact that there is always another side to the story.

The sad realization is that in the end it makes no difference. No battles are prevented or stopped by the strength of our quiet thoughts and next year we will do it again and we will have more death to think about…

…but to not end on this somber note I will also tell you about the 5th of May, which is Bevrijdingsdag or Liberation Day. On this day we celebrate our freedom by dancing in the streets, as the people must have done in 1945 when the Nazi occupation was officially over.

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What will you do on the 5th of May?

The power of words

[…]

Now, it is a massively difficult to get your head round; how ordinary people, – and Germans are ordinary people just like us, and if we don’t believe that, then we’ll be doing to them what they did to the jews, we will be ascribing a racist characteristic just to Germans, that is unique to them, – I think we can all be grown up enough to know that it was humanity doing something to another parcel of humanity, and that it was very extraordinary. We’ve seen examples of it in our own lifetimes, such as Ruwanda and Burundi and other places where massacres of extraordinary brutality have taken place.

And in each one of these genocidal moments, or attempts of full genocide, each example was preceded by language used again and again and again to dehumanize the person that had to be killed, in the political eyes of their owners. […] And they start to characterize them week after week after week after week, and you start to think that someone who is slightly sullen, someone you don’t like very much anyway, and you’re constantly getting the idea that they’re not actually human. Then it seems that it becomes possible to do things to them that are, we would call unhuman… inhuman… lacking humanity. Oddly enough, we’re the only species that does it…

It is interesting and important to remember that language not only guarantees our freedom.  In free exchanges of ideas, such as this, in which one is allowed to say anything in which one would hope everyone observes the decencies of debate and of good nature and is not cruel and unkind, mocking derisory, unpleasant, vicious or indeed whipping up violence, but as long as ideas are exchanged freely then we can more or less guarantee some level of stability within our societies. But the moment we begin to use special language for special people and special terms of insult to special people, then thats when, and we can see it very clearly because history demostrates it time and time again, that’s when ordinary people are able to kill.

There’s an amazing book called “Ach die schone Zeite”, which I think has recently been translated under the title “Those were the days” and it’s a horrific thing to read because it is so ordinary. It is simply the letters home from the guards and soldiers and SS members and officers of the death camps of Auschwitz, letters home to their families.

[…]

It’ so human that it makes someone kind of gasp at how this kind of happened. And language is at the root of it and I suppose that is why we have to be careful about our language or we have to be alert to it, we have to think about it…

Finding my bearings

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My story is not spectacular. My story is not heroic. My story is actually not even my story but at the same time it really absolutely is! This story forms part of a greater whole and I am so proud that I am a part of it! It deserves to be told and I want to be the one to do it. So there.

I ended my previous blog on a bit of a cliffhanger. I wrote about the voyage of my grandparents in 1943 and may have briefly mentioned that I retook this voyage, as an ode to them and all others who attempted to cross the North Sea to England during WWII. But enough about them (but no seriously, they were awesome!), allow me to tell you about my part in all of this!

So, I think I’ll start at the end and work back from there. You see, when we returned from our fourtysomething hour long journey, we came ashore with cameras pointing at our faces (waiting for us to break down?). We were applauded, photographed, filmed and interviewed. We were asked to pose, to talk about how we felt, to smile and to wave this way and that. I tried to be original every time I was asked about the voyage and to treat every question as if it was asked to me for the first time.

The most frequent asked questions were the following:

1)      What drove you to take part in this venture? (sometimes asked in the form of: why in the blazes did you say yes?)

2)      What went through your mind while you were at sea?

3)      What does it mean for you to step in the footsteps of your grandparents?

4)      Would you do it again?

The questions sound simple enough, but I had the hardest possible time coming up with the right answers. I think whoever asked me them, was pretty satisfied with whatever I came up with but I always felt I hadn’t quite covered it. I kept thinking they actually wanted to hear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and I felt I was never really giving them all that. Sure, it was always true but I always had to feed it to them in ready to eat soundbites and therefore my answers always sounded incomplete to me. It missed the “on the one side blablabla, but on the other side blablabla” crap we academics love to get lost in.radertjes

That’s why I thought writing this blog would be easy. I would just jot it all down, from left to write, and equip my formulated thoughts with tons of footnotes and sidethoughts between parentheses, which is what I reckon most of my daydreams must look like as well… but I degress…

Let’s answer these questions… Numero uno, why in the blazes did I say yes?! Ahhh, but my answer needs an introduction… because my perceptive readers must have noticed that this question implies the involvement of another party, being the one that is asking me to come along. That would be Epco and Teije, who came up with the idea for this undertaking during the new year’s reception of the newspaper they both work for.

Eddie Jonker jongThey found out about a little boat that lay in a museum in Overloon, named after one of the original passengers, Yvette Bartlema. And during their first brainstorm sessions about how this project could take form, they came into contact with living legend, Eddie Jonker. This 90 year old war veteran was also the chairman of a Stichting Engelandvaardermuseum, raising funds for the resurrection of a museum to commemorate all those who travelled to England during the second world war and joined the allied forces and the resistance. He joined the RAF himself and contributed greatly to the cause and remains an amazingly sharp witted man today with a strong will and a warm hart. The foundation was working on a project to build a replica of the Yvette for in the museum’s collection, which turned out to be the final boost Epco and Teije needed for their idea to really set sail.

All they needed now were 3 other people to come along on this odyssey, which (long story short) brought them to me. And I said yes because… well, honestly because I thought it sounded like an adventure. The first time I tried to explain this to my friends and family, I described it as the reaction a child would have hearing his / her favorite attraction park had just opened a new ride. But of course there was more to it… I was getting the chance to learn about these mysterious people in the black and white pictures. I read their words from fading letters that had been kept safe (but nearly forgotten!) in boxes and cupboards by family members. I learned things about my own history and about history in general that I didn’t even know I missed.

I also said yes because from the very start, the organizers emphasized that safety was very high on their list of priorities. That made me feel like I could permit myself to be brazen. It was an opportunity to go on an adventure, with a big chance of discomfort a slight chance of getting hurt, but with a panic button in case things (or people) would go overboard. That my grandparents did not have this luxury, was a realization that was often in our minds and humbled us during our get-togethers.

And I guess that brings us to the second question. In all honesty, what I thought about during my time at sea wasn’t all that interesting… I wish I could tell you I philosophized about the meaning of life and my part in it. I wish I could tell you I solved some crazy riddle or perhaps made up one, but I’m afraid it would be untrue.

My thoughts were more along the lines of “Man, this North Sea puddle sure is BIG!” and “ Didn’t I see a wave just like that one, an hour ago?!” and most of all “ bleeeuh, my tummy feels funny… but luckily not as bad as THAT guy…”. That guy was one of my fellow passengers and grandson of one of the original crewmembers, Coen. His nausea started somewhere during the first night and never really stopped. He came out of his greenish-greyish cloud of misery for a couple of minutes every time he ate something. It would give him enough energy to make a couple of jokes and then fall back into his zombie-state after hanging over the side to give whatever he had just eaten back to nature…Foto+van+de+Dag+vaarkrant

There were a couple of moments during the voyage that we spoke about what we were doing and what it all meant. We talked about the original passengers and about their role in the bigger picture. We talked about the other veterans we had met and what they represented for the younger generations. We talked about boat refugees in current times and the way we view them. My grandparents were heroes, boat refugees arriving in Southern Europe from Africa are a plague. Is it really that different?

After this last conversation I had Manu Chao’s song, Clandestino, on my mind and tried to remember all the lyrics. All I kept coming back to was “Soy una raya en el mar”, or “ I’m a line in the sea”, which is pretty much how I felt. Another song that stuck with me is Papeles mojados, by Chambao. I encourage you to listen to both songs and look up their translated lyrics if you don’t speak Spanish.

And how it feels to step in the footsteps of my grandparents…? In truth, I don’t think I have. I made a trip in a boat and I am proud of myself for doing it, but I have in no way done anything matching the heroism of the original passengers, as the boat trip itself was merely the beginning of their voyage. I guess that is also why it was so hard to write this blog. I just felt so small in the light of their story and almost unworthy to be putting the spotlight on myself for something so meaningless.

I did feel the need to describe this feeling of gratitude and admiration I feel for the people that fought for our freedom. Not just my grandparents but all the men and women that contributed to the resistance and stood up against the hate and injustice that was swallowing the continent. The last question is therefore an insignificant one. Retaking the boattrip does nothing for the true meaning of their mission. To truly honor their valor I must actively participate in the world and make an effort to make a difference. I can either sit by the sidelines and point at all the things I see going wrong, or I can find ways to truly make a difference.

In current times, things have been getting so confused. People are being called fascists left and right. Politics are filled with fear mongering rhetorics, which is creating an atmosphere that is truly worrying. Fear is the best bed to plant the seed of hate in and it is happening all around me. I will not go into this much further in this blog (but I will try to in a future one) but will leave you with this video that recently aired before the European elections.

We must never forget our past, and that is the true moral of this story and the only true way to honor the original passengers of the Yvette! yvette vlet in GB

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

It was 1943 and spring was just starting to make room for summer in war torn Europe. Jan and Yvette Bartlema were just settling in as a newly wed couple in Delft. Happy as they were with eachother, they just couldn’t make do with the status quo of every day life. They were fed up with the Nazi occupation, fed up with the insecurity and fed up with the fear of being deported to work for the Germans and their arbeitseinsatz.

They teamed up with a close friend, Henning Meyer and were soon after joined by two more young Dutchmen, Hein Louwerse and Hein Kaars Sijpesteijn who had been planning their own escape for a longer time. All participants knew a little something about boats, varying from great rowing experience to extensive experience in sea sailing. Important traits, as the escape route they were planning on taking would take them to England, straight across the 100 mile North Sea crossing.

People had done it before but no one had succeeded since 1941. Fellow countrymen were still fleeing the Nazi occupation but most favored the slower but slightly more secure landroutes at the time. They would go either South through Portugal and Gibraltar or North through Scandinavia, but everyone had the same destination; England. That is where the opposition had been gathering, the allied forces and our queen.

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I know this story, even though the details are new to me. This story is in my blood, all though it was never spoken about much. I grew up with the pictures of these people in my home. Their names resound in the names of the people I grew up taking for granted. If someone were to ask my 9-year old self to summarize the life of my grandparents, my answer would have been: “They went to England to have a cup of tea with the queen, and then they went to Indonesia where my dad was born”.

My 29-year old self had to admit she knew absolutely nothing, when she was called by a reporter at the beginning of 2014. This journalist had come up with a plan to bring tribute to the so called Engelandvaarders or Englandsailors by retaking the voyage in a replica of an original boat. And it so happens to be that the boat my grandparents sailed to England in, actually returned to the Netherlands and ended up in a museum. The boat was also named after my grandmother after their arrival in England, as she was the only woman ever to have made (and survived) this voyage.

It was easy to track the boat back to my grandmother, and then to my aunt who is also named Yvette. My aunt then put him in contact with me, as I was the only granddaughter of Jan and Yvette that was somewhat in the same age category as the original passengers were at the time. So, what I am trying to say is that it was no merit of mine that I was the first person this reporter asked to participate in this project. But he did, and I said yes, not completely understanding what I was getting myself into.

I introduced myself many times in the weeks following that first phonecall. I introduced myself to the staff at the Telegraaf, who seemed to grow increasingly uneasy with my lack of sailing experience and the fact that I was not worried about it at all. I introduced myself to old veterans and other valiant people from my grandparents’ generation who reacted thrilled to hear my last name and had many questions for and about me I did not know the answers to. I introduced myself to other grandchildren of the original passengers, who were in varying stages of bewilderment (as I was) about how big this project was growing out to be.

The replica of the original boat was finished in March and presented to the public at the Hiswa, the largest boat event of the Netherlands. That is where I first saw her. If you were to imagine a walnut being blown up by a magic spell, similar to the one that helped James’ giant peach grow, you would get the Yvette II. A 5,5 meter long walnut shell, be it with a narrower rear end than your average walnut…

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Why?

So, why was I compelled to do this? And more importantly, why were my grandparents? It is sad that I never had the pleasure of meeting them and never had the chance to ask them this question (and so many others) first hand. Luckily, we do have many letters and reports they wrote in the years after the war. My grandfather wrote:

 It became a selfimposed yet impelling duty to participate actively somehow, somewhere in the fight against the invader and in our case we felt that the call lay in trying to join the Allied forces.

My grandmother’s report is very colorful and pays more attention to the emotions and reasoning behind certain decisions, which is immensely valuable to me. She describes how the German invasion made her feel and how it drove her to choose such a perilous road, even though she was in no direct danger at the time. She writes:

 Before the war I had accepted [German] as just another compulsory highschool subject, just like English and French. Now German had become identical with cruelty, suppression and lies. I would never have dreamed in those carefree days of prewar Holland that I would be capable of such intense feelings of despise. But three years of German occupation had taught me otherwise.

(…) Although never able to chain the mind of the Dutch, the Nazis succeeded in regimenting everything else. The road for a free individual had become pitifully narrow. A deeprooted intense urge of rebellion grew gradually inside me, an urge that was not satisfied by occasional activities like helping subversive persons, finding safe homes for cornered Jewish families and such.

You can imagine how proud I am to have the blood of this strong woman running through my veins. I wish I could say with certainty I would do the same in her situation, but I really don’t know. (Luckily) we can’t imagine living under those circumstances and having to make actual life or death decisions. I said yes to this journey, with no sailing experience whatsoever, but with the guarantee we would be escorted by the Dutch marine and the best possible clothing and life vest. Hardly heroic.

The crew of the Yvette II consisted of Teije Brandsma, – the reporter that had called me so many months ago-, Epco Ongering, – the editor of the newspaper’s sailing magazine and TV program-, Robert Croll, – chairman of the Dutch veteran fund,- Coen Meurer, – grandson of Hein Louwerse and myself, granddaughter of Jan and Yvette. During the training sessions we were accompanied by our sixth crew member, Inge Kaars Sijpesteijn, granddaughter of Hein Kaars Sijpesteijn. She came along on the marine ship and was a great support for all of us.

And I think I am going to leave it at this for now. I’ll write about how our trip went in a separate blog, on another day….