Swiss Chocolate & Chemical Warfare (part II of II)
The next day, the hard core agenda continued, and it was clear that the sessions were going to be quite intensive. Although the symposium was being run on the so-called 'Gordon conference model,' the breaks were far and few between. Lots of technical ground was covered, and by the end of the day everyone was totally exhausted by the intensity of the exchanges and presentations. I, as official recording documentarian, had the 'pleasant' task of arduously making detailed notes on the proceedings, since due to the classified nature of much of the material being covered, we were unable to record anything electronically. I can tell you that at the end of the conference I had a pretty good case of permanent writer's cramp from all the extensive scribbling I was forced to undertake (I ended up with over 36 pages of handwritten notes, which I am now in the process of expanding into a formal record of the proceedings for the Battelle Memorial Institute and the ASA) [note: the original handwritten 36 pages became a final 41 pages of transcribed & typed notes in the final report, finished rather quickly and sent off to HQ].
There were many excellent presentations, including a significant section chaired by the three Iranian delegates (Dr. Bilali-Mood, Dr. Shorabpour, and Dr. Jilali, all of Tehran, although from three separate medical facilities there) who covered 'Medical Treatment of CBW Injuries: The Iranian 1980s Experience.' As one of the few nations in the world to actually have sustained a serious and continuing chemical warfare attack, during the 5 odd years of the Iran/Iraq War of the 80s, Iran has a very valuable contribution to make to the medical establishment's understanding of how Sulfur Mustard agent (Mustard 'gas') and nerve agent injuries were (and are) actually handled on the battlefield. These three gentlemen were brought to the conference at the expense of the symposium's sponsoring organisations (Battelle and ASA, Inc.), and their presence and contributions were well worth the expense, many times over, so I gather.
After the Iranians, another of the most interesting presentations was that given by the Chinese delegates from the People's Republic of China(Dr. Gu and Dr. Zhao). Their topics were centered on organophosphonate pharmacological research, and in particular, the so-called 'non-traditional' research being carried out on treatment of organophosphonate intoxication through application of herbal pharmacology & synthesis. 'Alternative medicine' of the NBC defense world! Much of their work was very, very fascinating, although a lot of it was still so classified that they were unable to actually identify the specific components of several of their oximic treatment experiments. I met Dr. Gu on the first day, privately, when he was being received by several of the ASA symposium sponsors, and he presented me with a pair of ornately crafted chopsticks made of intricate cloisonné from Xhang Xi province. They're beautiful things, and I was quite grateful for his thoughtfulness. I was warned beforehand NOT to mention to the PRC delegates that I had lived and studied in Taiwan and it is a good thing, too, since a similar embarrassment had resulted in a stony silence on their part at another meeting, somewhere else. Apparently the PRC is still VERY sensitive to even mere mention of the Nationalists--even in this age of the spirit of détente!
Other interesting presentations were centered on the Iraqi gassing of the Kurdish populations in that state and on the use of chemicals in Angola and other parts of Africa in recent years. Unfortunately, what promised to be one of the most interesting highlights of the symposium (the open session on the mysterious 'Gulf War Sickness Syndrome') failed to take place as the two major chairs of the session (both US Military brass from the Pentagon and US DoD) absented themselves shortly before the conference was scheduled to begin! This has all the looks, smells and appearances of a major cop-out on the part of the US military to reveal important (but not classified) information , and it bespeaks mightily of the sensitivity of the US military to this highly controversial aspect of the CBW aspects of the Gulf War. The essence of the controversy remains, as always: 'Did or did not the Iraqis actually attack Gulf Coalition forces with chemical agents during the Desert Storm operation?' The world's leading scientific experts say they did and the US military continues to vehemently deny that CW agents were deployed by Saddam's men against US troops (and others in the theatre). The investigation continues, and everyone is playing their cards very, very close to their faces in this particular poker game....deuces wild.
On the evening of the second day of the conference a formal symposium banquet was given at the Schlosshotel Freienhof, and it was quite an enjoyable occasion. Everyone, including our Iranian scientists, got quite pleasantly potted on the wide range of Swiss wines served with the dinner and the glass of that killer-Kirschwasser (which is a traditional, high octane Swiss specialty liquor that will straighten ALL the snarls in your angora socks out right nicely, at fifty paces!) that ended the dinner was the coup-de-grace, indeed. The international spirit of friendship and goodwill simply flowed throughout the evening and about as freely as the wine being served by the waiters. I took a fair number of photographs of some of the more interesting delegates, but development of the film had to wait until I was a bit more 'flush.' With the cost of things in Switzerland the way they are right now, it is easy enough to spend your entire life's savings on a one week visit to the home of yodelers, Alp-horns, and Heidi knick-knacks, with the possibility of having to ransom off your sainted grandmother for a small loan being not an impossible prospect.
One of the excellent 'ex officio' aspects of the symposium were the small side-trips to see various local sights and tourist attractions. One in particular was the inevitable cog-rail ride up through the solid living granite interior of the Eiger-Mönsch-Jungfrau massif to the highpoint of the ride, the Jungfrau-joch (12,000 or so feet, if I recall correctly). Of course, the trip lacks a certain air of reality ever after the infamous Clint Eastwood movie The Eiger Sanction, put a whole new twist on the world's perceptions of this experience, but it is a very, very interesting jaunt, nonetheless. Certainly one of those Don't miss this experience, if you are ever in the Interlaken area things. And Grindelwald, Emmental, and the higher communities of Wengen and Mürren are all beautiful, as well (although a bit overrun with Brits, if you ask me; seems to be one of their favorite watering-holes).
As for me, whenever I see the looming specter of the Eiger's ominous North Face (averaging a slope of more than 64 degrees throughout its expanse), I am instantly reminded of the more than 80 climbers who were killed attempting it back in a time when it was one of the more formidable, unclimbed faces in the Alps. The stories of the ill-fated climbs of the Eiger back in the 30s make chilling and electric reading, even if you aren't an armchair mountaineer.
Conspicuously absent this year is any sort of seasonal snowfall in the Swiss Alps. The Swiss tourist industry is scratching its collective beard and wondering 'What happened to all the white stuff that makes us so much money each winter?' Switzerland is unseasonably devoid of snow this year (1992), and in fact I was quite surprised to find just how warm it was--compared to previous winters in Zermatt, in other years. I had had my leather trenchcoat sent on from the states (before leaving Saudi) as a precaution against the expected chill of a Swiss winter, but it was almost unnecessary. Who'd-a thunk it? At any rate, a normal sweater and a bottle of good Swiss Upper Rhône region wine are all anyone really needs to keep the metabolic fires lit, if the ambient temperatures remain this way for the coming months there.
Back in the small towns and communities of the Interlaken region, the Christmas spirit was everywhere to be seen in the various seasonal street markets, the Christkind Markts, and in the retail stores. Thun had several on the first weekend of the conference and we had some time to stroll about, buy good Glüewine & Glögg (yes, seems this nifty Scandinavian counterpart of the German holiday brew is even to be found in Switzerland), hot roasted chestnuts, and other traditional holiday street fare while drinking in all the varied sights and sounds of this special time of the year. The citizens of Thun appeared to be a stolid lot and they affected the look of a uniformly lower-middle income segment among the good Burgemeinde: not quite the sort of sleek, glossy, well-fed and spoiled appearance that many of the wealthy Swiss present in the trendier holiday areas, but an interesting 'genuine heartland' sort of profile that many tourists never really bother to recognize, focus or concentrate on. Just ordinary townspeople going about their ordinary everyday business. I was quite interested in this, fitting it into what I know of Swiss demographics, social and economic circumstances as they are at present.
And so it went for the full term of the symposium. Lots of very interesting segments of technical agenda mixed with delightfully odd moments of casual enjoyment of pre-holiday Swiss ambiance. Actually, by the time the last days of the conference rolled around, I was fairly well sated with just about everything--I had had enough Swiss wine to last me another dry spell in the Kingdom and the information and findings produced during the symposium had produced a uniquely valuable and stimulating update on the medical areas of CBW defense. My money had long since vanished completely off the 'endangered specie' list and had entered the 'currently extinct' category; I found I had just enough left to get through one last night in Zürich, where I was scheduled to stay at the elegant old Schweizerhof on the Bahnhofplatz, before flying back to the Kingdom (that's THE central Zürich shopping promenade...gulp!)..
On the afternoon of the 9th of December I stayed late at the Hotel Holiday to see that all my charges got off successfully; I personally escorted Dr. Dishovski to the train station and got him on the right train back to Bulgaria, taking some photos and actually very much enjoying having had a chance to get to chat with him a bit (he is a very interesting, gentle old bear of a fellow). He projects a kindly sort of 'father figure' image, and I guess the unrequited fatherless child that lies latent in me sort of really warmed up to him (even at age 48--funny how strong these things are, even deeply buried and long since passed by). Anyway, I finally found that all my people had left on schedule and so I took a limo over to the Freienhof for one last debriefing with ASA before taking my own exit back to Zürich. On the way, I stopped at several bicycle shops and picked up various bits and pieces for my mountain bike (back in Riyadh), like tail lights, a headlamp, some seat 'skins', and a couple of safety helmets. One of the helmets cost me an arm and a leg, but I figure it was worth it. It was especially designed (originally) for downhill speed-skiing, and is a lightweight head-conforming fiberglass shell affair with full coverage (the cranium and the mandibular jaw). The design has become so popular for providing lightweight full face protection that it is now extensively used in lightweight aircraft (so-called powered hang-gliders), and most recently in bicycle racing. I have always hated the ridiculous looking hard-shell bicycle helmets that are so popular these days (they look positively 'fruity,' perched up on top of one's head; it's hard to take someone seriously when they affect such an appearance, if you ask me), and as a lifelong advocate of personal protection and safety equipment, I instantly found what I have been searching for in this new lightweight fiberglass full-face helmet.
Besides, the way people drive in the Kingdom, and with my typical 'breakneck' full-speed sprint the 5 km from the residence compound to the hospital every morning, I figured I had better take some precaution (you can get killed just as easily on a bicycle as in a car or on a motorcycle, as I well know). Besides, on a good run my speed for the average is about 20-25 mph: fast enough to be fatal, if you take a header on a bike at that rate.
So, swallowing the Sfr 280 price for this high-tech protection, I high-tailed it back to the Freienhof, and said my good-byes to my colleagues there. We had a few cups of coffee over some last-minute conversation and by the time I was at the Thun Bahnhof to catch my train, it was 1845 hours.
The trip back to Zürich promised to be uneventful, and the car I took seat on was a second-class carriage with only two others in it, a younger man and a woman in her late 60s. The trip normally takes about two hours (on a whistle-stop IC train, less if it is a schnellzug). Although this one was supposed to be a fast one, the information proved somewhat incorrect and we made a number of stops along the way. Just 20 km west of Brug (Bienne), I noticed that the woman had walked back to the lavatory, and had stayed there for a while. Suddenly she was back, staggering, bent-over and obviously having considerable trouble breathing and standing. She collapsed into the seat opposite mine and slumped over, vomiting copiously and giving every indication of having something really wrong with her. With my less-than-perfect German (understatement of the century!), I was frustrated by the need to assist her and yet unable to fully communicate with her to the specific extent required by her situation. Fortunately, the young man I mentioned earlier came over and started to help her. After a few minutes I introduced myself in German and quickly found that he spoke excellent English, being a doctoral candidate at the local university and an anatomist by training.
Between the two of us, we determined that she was apparently suffering some sort of limited coronary occlusion, but the problem was that he was getting off at the upcoming stop (a few minutes away) and I would be left alone with her. She was, furthermore, supposed to get off at a stop that was about 15 minutes down the line, and so there I was--left to take care of a seriously ill woman, on a Swiss railways car, communicating in a foreign language (my language skills in German--particular in grammar--would have scared the Teutonic tribes of ancient Rome back into their forest wilderness!), unable to obtain any help for her for the moment, and charged with at the very least seeing to it that she make it off the train at her stop (where her husband was supposed to be waiting for her)--all that and make it back on the train as it continued towards my reservation at the Schweizerhof in Zürich, which I was now good and late for!
It was a great scene--one worthy of a small screenplay segment on a European TV soap-opera at least. She keep heaving up copiously, was on the verge of lapsing into complete unconsciousness and there was no one else about. Finally I decided to take a chance on leaving her alone for a few moments and madly dashed off through the rest of the train (with as much dignity as I could muster, noting the many looks of puzzlement on the faces of the other passengers as I flashed by, looking for a conductor, or SOMEONE who could take over the job and let me continue on my way unencumbered by sole responsibility for this woman's fate...). The search was fruitless--there was no conductor to be found; he was probably comfortably ensconced in the train's engine compartment, sharing a small tot of Kirsch with the engineer. So, I ran back, took up station with the unfortunate lady and grimly waited for the minutes to pass until we pulled into the Brug Bahnhof, where her family was supposed to be waiting for her arrival.
It seemed like a decade before the Brug station signs pulled into view, but I am proud to say that I resisted the usual battlefield urge to discover Jesus Christ in a shell-hole and kept a grimly determined secular grip on my emotions. Beyond worrying how I was going to get her off the train with her several pieces of luggage, I simply grabbed both suitcases under one arm, grabbed her with the other and hoped fervently that she would be able to help me help her traverse the steep steps of the rail carriage. To my great relief we made it without incident, and so I started a frantic scan of the platform to find her family. Finally, an older man started to come towards us with a look of concern and it turned out to be her husband. Handing her over to him, I managed to tell him clearly enough in German that we had an emergency situation which required the presence of a doctor and an ambulance immediately. Then, I had just enough time to run back to the railway car I was sitting on and literally scramble through the still open doorway of the car, making it just in time as the train rolled off with typical Swiss precision.
As I reflect back on that it seems amazing to me that in all my nearly 30 years of cardiovascular and medical technology work, I have never had the occasion to lend assistance to someone outside of a hospital setting. I guess the odds finally stacked up high enough to bring this strange incident into being. Certainly, I wish the woman well enough and I am reasonably convinced that she made it through the crisis (given her apparent state, as well as I could determine it at the time). But...what a strange twist to an otherwise uneventful final segment of my travels; I still distinctly recall my feeling of exasperation in having this unwanted crisis (moral as well as emergent medical) foisted off on me in the face of my need to get myself back to Zurich quickly that evening (a sign of increasing cynicism and jaded outlook on life, perhaps?).
When the train pulled into the Zürich Hauptbahnhof, I was able to grab my briefcase, my single piece of luggage, and the two bags full of trinkets and chocolates for friends back in Saudi and stagger off the train to my hotel, which was fortunately just across the street from the station. I had decided well in advance that the Schweizerhof's convenient proximity to the bahnhof would prove wise, despite its rather steep 4 star cost. This was a correct surmise, for it was now almost 9PM, and after convincing the concierge that I was not a refugee from the Eastern Bloc nations and in fact a guest with a reservation (he seemed skeptical until I produced my American Express card...), I found my room. The usual welcoming plate of goodies (cookies, nuts, chocolates, & fruit) disappeared quickly enough, as I hadn't had any dinner and I was soon out on the street to see if any of this final evening in a city I am largely unfamiliar with could be salvaged. Unfortunately, it was a weekend, and all the stores were closed tight (they had had an excellent Christkindel Markt just the day before, which of course I missed). It was raining, but I elected to leave the Schweizerhof's courtesy umbrella in my room, gathered my trenchcoat around my neck, and spent an hour ogling expensive Swiss watches and other consumer baubles in the show-windows of this district's haut couture shops with the rain falling refreshingly all about. The mood was positively Bogeyish (as in Casablanca) and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Finally, after catching a bite in one of the bahnhof's underground kiosk eateries, I came back to the Schweizerhof and entered a small stube there for a final espresso and some desert. A young woman came in, and took a seat at the adjacent table after a bit and half-way through the whopping piece of raumtorte I was gobbling I introduced myself in German. Turned out that she was an American named Stephanie, from New York, over here to visit with her fiancé. We had a few more minutes of interesting conversation, chuckling over how many Americans seem to be clogging the streets of Zürich and then it was off to the room for some sleep.
The next morning I grabbed my bags and hauled off to the bahnhof connection with the Zürich flughaven. Reached the airport in plenty of time and settled down for my Lufthansa flight back to Riyadh, which was scheduled to depart at 1035 hours.
The flight was a brief one to Frankfurt, where I had a connecting flight to Riyadh and finally I was on my way back to Saudi Arabia on a Lufthansa flight. Unlike the flight out on Swissair, the Lufthansa flight back to KSA was a relatively lightly booked one. I had an aisle seat, and the seat next to me was unoccupied (something of a rare and wonderful event on international flights, in my experience as an inveterate economy class frequent-flier). No overstuffed, belching, hard-drinking Saudi businessman coming back home, pushing his debauched bulk into my seat space and dominating the single inter-seat armrest! Hallelujah! Consequently, it was a great flight. The service was excellent and the economy class stews managed to be efficient as well as friendly--also something of a miracle on the usually briskly efficient and Teutonically precise German national airline. The stew taking care of my section had an especially genuinely warm smile and I really had to hand it to her. It is a very hard job being a flight attendant these days, with hoards of passengers to look after on the wide-bodied planes presently in service and keeping one's friendly demeanor is no small accomplishment in itself.
The in-flight movie was something called LINDA, and starred 'John-Boy', (can't think of his real name, but that mole of his has always greatly bothered me, for some reason). 'John-Boy' lived up to his Hollywood stock character role as a wishy-washy goody-good and I tuned it out for the most part. I was fidgeting sporadically about the anticipated Saudi 'customs ordeal' that expatriates may be subjected to upon return from foreign countries, but the 5½ hour Airbus 310-200 flight went by fairly smoothly--no turbulence, and really quite an enjoyable flight (if there is such a thing). I always avoid having any last-minute alcohol on the flights back into the Kingdom since nothing incites customs officers to a frenzy as much as smelling alcohol on the breath of foreigners entering the Kingdom. Those around me, however, viewed this last opportunity to drink as a valuable entitlement, not to be wasted or disregarded and all about passengers were drinking as much of the stuff as their much-abused livers would allow before entering Saudi air-space (at which time the drinks disappear into a locked cabinet).
We touched down smooth as a feather--a perfect end to a rather good flight--and then it was off to the terminal for passport control and customs. I have learned, from years of experience in the Kingdom, that visual appearance is a relatively good tool to exploit in negotiating the tricky customs search process. The Saudis are very visually cued, vis-a-vis status and determining how to treat a person. The better you look and the more important you seem to be, the greater the amount of deferential respect offered. Consequently, I dress comfortably for flights out of the Kingdom, and save the sportsjacket, slacks and tie for return flights into Riyadh. It seems to work beautifully about 95% of the time, although the other main technique for passing customs with a minimum of trouble is to screen your customs officers in advance of approaching the inspection point.
Having passed passport control, I grabbed my luggage and other items (two bags full of things--groan!), and carefully and quickly inspected the line of customs inspection points. I was going to take a chance with the fellow at station No. 19--my lucky number--but I changed my mind when I saw him grimly going over everything a relatively decently dressed person had, with a fine-tooth comb.
Ahead, one of the officers seemed to be more relaxed, and somehow a bit more 'western' (read: less Bedouin) in his appearance, so I discretely shifted towards his station, hoping that my surveillance would prove accurate and fruitful. Another gimmick which appears to work (these things are IMPORTANT, if you want to diminish the dreaded Saudi 'hassle factor') at such times is using your Arabic as much as possible on the customs and passport officers. They are used to foreigners who make no effort to speak any language other than English and appear to warm up considerably when individuals take the trouble to communicate with them in their native language. A few greetings in Arabic and some bland pleasantries seem to go a long way towards buffering the potential irritation and harassment out of the usual customs encounter. Of course, it helps that you are strictly legitimate and not trying to sneak any forbidden articles past the inspectors, for if they find a single such item the whole scenario changes instantly. It always surprises me how many 'innocent' souls insist on attempting this sort of subterfuge, knowing full well that alcohol, pork products and any illustrative material revealing even one square centimeter of female skin are all illicit and sehr verboten in this religiously anal-retentive land. Consequently, I never have any of these things in my personal effects; it just isn't worth the potential disturbance they can create and the attendant unpleasantness evoked.
It also apparently helps if they associate you with a few 'good' things, and several of these are: 1) any sort of medically related occupational work; and 2) former presence in the Kingdom on the 'side of right' during the 1991 Gulf War. I have my soft-luggage sewn all over with a variety of embroidered emblems--a carryover of a custom that was popular in earlier decades of casual world-travel by backpack--souvenirs of places I have been. Several of them are Desert Storm patches, and there is one of the Saudi flag as well, prominently placed on my bag.
At any rate, my turn came to run the gamut, and I heaved up my possessions onto the inspection stage, fearing the worst. However, I put all phases of 'Plan A' into effect, as described above and was once again amazed how well everything worked! The conservative dress, evidence of being a medical professional who spoke some conversational Arabic, my careful pre-inspection suss of the inspector and the emblems showing I had been in the Kingdom during the Gulf War all brought about the hoped for result, and 'Pass' stickers were smilingly plastered on each of my bags. He didn't even check the gift-wrapped parcels which contained some Swiss Army knives, or bother in riffle through the many postcards to see if there was any covert pornography hidden therein.
To say I was a very grateful puppy, being thus exempted from the full horrors of the Saudi customs ordeal, is understating my feelings of collective relief and I was soon in a limo, headed back to my residence compound.
One last little thing happened on the drive back to the hospital, which I can only describe as droll, and one of those 'you just won't believe this...' circumstances. As we pulled off the major artery, Dammam Highway, nearing the sprawling National Guard facility, the Pakistani limo driver absently mindedly tuned in the limo's radio to a station. I feared the worst, recalling similar occasions in which the driver selected some local Islamic fundamentalist religious broadcast (they are constantly being aired at all hours, in the Kingdom) and played it up full volume while we drove. SURPRISE! Instead of the gravely-voiced bleatings of some hoary old religious Imam, muttering on about Allah's mercy and divine plan, the strains of....you won't believe this!......Nat King Cole's 'White Christmas' drifted serenely out of the stereo speakers in the cab! And this is a land where Christmas, and even Christianity itself, is forbidden expressly by national law!
It took me a moment to grasp what had happened, as the bright lights of Riyadh twinkled warmly in the distance through the pitch black of the night. The driver had tuned (deliberately) to the local US Army AFRES (Armed Forces Radio & Entertainment Services) radio station, which broadcasts a typical US program of music and whathaveyou on a low powered FM wavelength that serves a limited area (intended for US military personnel benefit). At any rate, I was quite highly amazed and amused, all at the same time. It seemed about as perfect a finish to an interesting trip as one could hope for, and for a brief moment I felt a twinge of the old Christmas spirit, despite once more being deeply buried in the bowels of this bastion of purported holier than thou Islamic purity that is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
And that is the whole nine yards of it! On this note of Arab 'reentry' observation, my trip to CBMTS I came to an end. It was a very different sort of Swiss venture than I had had on many prior visits to Switzerland, as judged by the completely recreational standards of my previous trips to that lovely alpine nation.