There are two main reasons that I became a frequent traveler round the world. First I married a Slovenian. It goes without saying that we visited Metka’s family and her native country as often as possible. Secondly my employer was a multinational concern with global activities. Shortly after taking up my job I was told to put into operation installations away. To Metka’s horror I had to go to the Netherlands the very next day after our honeymoon. She was lonely in foreign Switzerland and required outside help. Later on she felt unhappy when I had to leave her and the infants for quite a long time alone. She was scared of air crash. As soon as I brought my work to an end I flew back at the first opportunity.
I wasn’t reluctant to travel. On the contrary, the assignments were challenging and the business partners in most cases cultured. One should not underestimate how demanding it is to change from Indian to Portuguese or Finnish culture within days. Jet lags, changes in climate, vermin, mud, and different eating habits didn’t bother me. I enjoyed whenever the food was good, even if it was homely native fare in Africa! Successful negotiations, of course, made me happy, setbacks modest and dejected. As will be shown later, my travels remain unforgettable, they were an enrichment in my life.
My story does not aim to rank a country above another. It simply reflects emotions, feelings and experience. Nevertheless, a few countries I prefer even their politics is not my liking.
Missionaries on home vacation have founded my interest in China as early as in the forties. I heard of thy Dynasties, philosopher Confucius, Marco Polo and the Great Wall. Still more I learned about the Communist’s Long March, World War II and the constitution of the People’s Republic. Under the communist regime religion was strictly controlled and foreign missionaries were forced to leave the country.
Mid sixties Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party and French President Georges Pompidou agreed upon a large locomotive contract. My Company participated in the execution of the order under French leadership, and I for the first time had to deal with Government officials. That was for well over two decades before the tourism to China spread. A second contract about three hundred locomotives led to several trips to the People’s Republic. It was an honorable moment to give about 400 guests a handshake at the contract signing ceremony in the Great Hall of the People. Guest of honor was Li Peng, the later Premier, who ordered to end the Tiananmen Square Protest in 1989. Meanwhile I have been dozens of times to China.
Metka joined me in 1994 when I attended the World Economic Forum in Beijing. I got a deep insight into China’s basic policy of invigorating the domestic economy and opening to the outside world by active participation at the International Conference on “An Integrated Strategy for Transport and Communications in China” in the same year. The longest period I stayed there in 1995 when I worked for the World Bank and visited Nankou, Changsha, Zhuzhou, Dalian, Changchun, Harbin and Qiqihar, beside Beijing.
Since my first acquaintance with Zhongguo, which means “Central Country” or “Middle Kingdom” I am fascinated by the recorded history that dates from some 3500 years . For the present generation it’s not an easy task to maintain the rich inheritance, the monuments and antique buildings. We are not aware how many articles in our daily use were invented by the Chinese. I found the people frank, honest, diligent and reliable. In the past years China has become a more open country. It’s easier now to get into conversation with someone. I met elderly people deeply understanding the enormous harm that comes with war. They had experienced Japanese bombing raids but also the internal “Red Guards Campaign” and the Students Demonstrations, crushed by military force. China has still to tackle the Taiwan problem. Reunification of the “renegade province” with mainland China is the aspiration of the whole nation.
Many Swiss have a trick of permanently criticizing the Chinese authorities. Admittedly there are many moot questions. One should, however, bear in mind the progress made in an ambitious economic development program despite many setbacks. The controversial promotion of birth control has slowed the growth of population that is still above 10 million a year. The deep fall of the Soviet Union has warned the Chinese to move step by step forward. Deng Xiaoping said as early in 1984 that “ the reforms are not without certain risks”. The country has all the basic conditions for long-scale development but needs still foreign capital to import advanced technologies and equipment. Top Joint Ventures have shown strong economic strength and high technological levels, while numerous suffer or have failed.
I am in close Internet contact with former business associates and friends. The son of one of my acquaintances studies at Shanghai University. His thirst for knowledge and his studiousness have always impressed me. The Internet has given the new generation an unexpected chance to get insight in global affaires. He pins his hopes on liberal rules for private and business use of the advanced electronic media.
It would be a deadly sin not to mention the Chinese Cooking, the oldest, purest, and perhaps most sophisticated one beside the Italian or French. To make it clear, each region has a distinct national cuisine. Nothing against “Gourmet Temples”; I had my very best dinner in the Locomotive Works canteen in Zhuzhou, and even a twelve-course meal in a dining car was terrific.
En route from Far East to Switzerland I had a stopover in a city of which I will not reveal the name. A few passengers left the plane for shopping, most remained on board. When the people returned a man asked his colleague: “Is there still a stink of mess as in the past”? Human have indeed the ability to perceive smell and to associate it with an experience later on. I still remember the penetrate smell of Russian petrol or acrid smoke of lignite. The most pleasant air I have ever inhaled was in Africa. I guess it’s the sweet smell nectar of blossoms. Maybe that’s the reason I feel so good there.
A few weeks after the police killed 70 unarmed people in 1960 at Sharpeville, I flew the first time to South Africa. That’s just why I should write about my experience gained after dozens of stays. My reflections will however be confined first to its neighboring country, Zimbabwe.
The economic sanctions were still in effect when I traveled to Rhodesia. The guerrilla war had reached a crucial situation and the Western countries pressured prime minister Ian Smith to extend voting rights to black Africans. Smith stepped down as prime minister following elections in 1979, and Rhodesia became independent as Zimbabwe in 1980.
Just at this critical moment the Railways were in need of new locomotives and intended to electrify the trunk line between the capital Salisbury (today’s Harare) and Bulawayo, the second largest city. As leader of an international supplier group we started negotiations in 1979. While the enemies were still at war, the Railways suffered severe casualties and loss of material. The persons to talk to were under enormous stress, they worked around the clock. We helped them a lot and were even on guard at night.
During the tender evaluation a new government was set in power. From now on we had to deal with inexperienced officials. Competitors from countries that had supported the guerillas in their revolutionary struggle tried to benefit. We finally won the competition for locomotives under very difficult political and commercial conditions but lost the fixed installations. To help the country in overcoming the economic problems, we agreed to manufacture a substantial volume locally. We installed an assembly line for locomotive bodies and testing of complete engines. The project reached its climax when the line was inaugurated in presence of Premier Robert Mugabe, the Members of the Cabinet and the Ambassadors of the supplier’s countries.
I owe a debt of gratitude to those who helped me in that difficult undertaking. My staff was of particular encouragement, as was my friend and adviser, the late Frėdėric Dahlmann from Belgium. I shall never forget the day I spent with him deep in Africa in the thick of native Africans, and learnt about their worries, delights in eating, singing and dancing.
Later on I followed the development of the young nation with great interest and have been increasingly critical. Mugabe’s program of land redistribution has failed. In addition, AIDS has assumed epidemic proportions: 60 percent of adults are infected HIV and 20 to 25 percent of them were believed to carry the virus. I wish the country new power to resolve the problems and to further develop.
Although Zimbabwe lies in the Tropic Zone, its climate is moderated by high elevation. The savannas are home to a variety of wildlife. A safari at Bumi Hills, Hwanga or Victoria Falls N.P. can compete with any in the neighboring countries. Metka, Silvio and I enjoyed exciting days at these places just after Independence and reopening of the parks. After years of segregation blacks and whites began to mix in public places and were much ahead the South Africans.