Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Planes, Trains and Automobile...my trip to Gummersbach, Germany

It’s my first time to Germany. The land of the BMW, of famed engineering prowess and of impressive punctuality and clockwork, has always been of fascination for me. I don’t know if it is an offshoot of my fascination with World War II, but I have always looked at Germany and Germans with fondness and admiration. Not that I’m a fan of Hitler (which definitely I am not), but their adherence to efficiency and excellence is something that I look up to.

Not to mention that in spite of the short time in history when mention of Germans evoked images of stormtroopers, the holocaust and Hitler’s Third Reich, the Germans of today are strict advocates of democracy and liberty.

It is through the German organization Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) that I was given the privilege to participate in a seminar on Strategic Political Communication in Gummersbach, located in the German state of North Rhine Westphalia (NRW). The FNF, which is locally partnered in the Philippines with the Liberal Party, endeavors to spread and inculcate the principles of Liberal Democracy, which basically gives primacy to the individual’s right and opportunity to develop oneself and ensure others are able to do so too.

With that principle as a framework, the seminar intends to impart on the participants the principles and skills of conveying to their constituents the programs, plans, and platforms of their respective organizations back home. So with 21 other participants from countries in Asia, South and Central America, Europe and the former Soviet Union, I was selected as the Liberal Party of the Philippines representative to the seminar.

I left Manila on January 31, half eager and half reluctant (because I was going to miss my wife and kids for the next 9 days), but nonetheless prepared to learn new things which I can bring back to my party and my country.

The flight took off from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport at 8:00 pm, for a two hour flight to Hong Kong, my first stop. Fortunately, due to my Mabuhay Miles membership and the vacant seats in the flight, I was upgraded from economy to business class. At least for the first two hours, I was comfortable in the wider seat of business class, since the economy class seats are not a good fit (because I fit exactly in the seat) for my wide body.

The one hour and a half stopover in Hong Kong was long enough for me to be able to prepare and stretch out before I board the Lufthansa flight to Munich, Germany. That leg of the trip was the dreadful part, since it was going to be a 12-hour flight in economy class. 

As expected, the flight from Hong Kong to Munich, my port of entry into the European Union, took its toll on me. Although I was fortunate enough to be seated in an aisle seat, the narrow seat and the short legroom ensured that I had the best upright position not just during take-off and landing but also during the entire flight. Sleeping was almost out of the question except during the last four hours of the flight when I was able to doze off simply because I was too tired from trying to get sleep. I was able to get about an hour and a half shuteye.

After landing in Munich International Airport and checking through immigration, I had about three hours to spare before I get on another plane to fly to Cologne. I tried to sleep on the airport benches, but somehow, I couldn’t. It was around midday to early afternoon back in Manila and my body was still in that time zone.

The flight to Cologne was just about an hour, so even though I was still cramped in my seat, it was more bearable. If I could withstand the 12 hour trip, what’s an hour more?

When I arrived at Cologne, I got the first taste of the cold German winter weather. Although it wasn’t snowing, the cold breeze cut through my clothing, making it necessary for me to open my luggage and get the thick jacket I brought with me.

I was supposed to be met by a driver from the Academy, but unfortunately, I didn’t see him. I tried to call the Academy but somehow, I couldn’t get through the line. After concluding that I wouldn’t be able to rely on being picked up by the Academy driver, I decided to go to Gummersbach by myself.

At first I thought I can simply take a cab. But the Ilocano blood flows in my veins so I decided the more economical mode of transportation---by rail. Thankfully, the airport had a train station. After asking some general directions from the information desk, I boarded the S-Bahn in the Cologne/Bonn Airport train terminal to Cologne Central Station where I’m supposed to transfer to another train which will take me to Gummersbach.

It sounds simple, but when you’re in the train station in a country where it is your first time to go to, with some language obstacles, the simple becomes complicated, even intimidating.

As I was in the train, a certain part of me had the jitters that I might be in the wrong train and headed towards the bowels of Germany where I would definitely be lost carrying my handcarry luggage and a big suitcase.

But the beautiful scenery of the German countryside made the trip more interesting and enjoyable. It was made even more pleasurable when snow started to fall in a couple of towns that we passed through. In some places, snow completely covered the ground, although just several centimeters deep. Still, it was exciting for me since the lat time I saw snow was when I was six during our one-year stay in the United States while my father attended Amphibious Warfare School in Quantico, Virginia.

After about 45 minutes train ride, I arrived at Gummersbach, which is just a small town outside Cologne. It was so small that when I walked out of the train station towards the bus station, I could count the people in the streets around me with just the fingers of my two hands. Being a Sunday, the establishments were closed with most of the people at home, unlike in the Philippines where the street and mall population multiply tenfold during that one day in the week when people  can take time off from their busy week.

I tried to get a taxi to go to the Academy but the taxis were probably also on day off. I tried to call the Academy again, this time successfully and was able to request for someone to pick me up.

While waiting, it got colder and I had to open my luggage again to get my scarf and gloves. It felt like I was standing inside a freezer and the cold air was already permeating my head causing a minor headache.

After several minutes, my ride finally arrived in the person of an Academy staff named Denise. A German girl. Pointlessly, the song from the 80’s entitled “German Girl” came to my mind…

I arrived at the International Academy of Leadership in Gummersbach, Germany around 2:30PM local time. By then, I had traveled for 24 hours via planes, trains, and automobile.

As I entered my room and fell on the bed like a fallen log, I felt the fatigue finally seep through my body and slumbered off to Napland. But not before setting the alarm at 5:30 PM in time for our welcome session at 6:30PM. With much anticipation for what I was going to learn, I dozed off.


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