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moments mundane and magical

The Great Crash of 2012

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The view from the top

by Romel Regalado Bagares

Davos, Switzerland — I may have missed the World Economic Forum (WEF) by a few weeks but my Filipino hosts assured me I couldn’t have come here at a better time.

For starters, the unusually cold spell that hit all of Switzerland just a week ago — with the mercury hitting as low as -16 centigrade – dissipated earlier than projected.

Then there’s the happy fact that the sun is up; everywhere you look you see people in their skiing best rushing out of cars and buses in a mad race for the snow-bedecked mountains surrounding this resort city.

You know snow is in happy abundance in the Swiss Alps because during the two-hour drive from Zurich to the city, you pass by houses, buildings and factories with roofs layered over with meters-high powder white blankets and for a moment you imagine them to be giant cakes decorated by an unseen hand with so much icing.

You’ve never seen so much snow in your life.

I’ve lived in Amsterdam for a year for graduate school but the winter I encountered there was rather mild — two days of snow and for but a few inches of it that before I could think about taking pictures, it was all gone. Forever.

In late January, European and American policy makers met again at Davos to try to hammer out a plan of action to prevent a looming eurozone crash in the event that the Greece 100 billion euro ($100 billion ) debt debacle make a turn for the worse — with little success, it seemed.

The Swiss, it seems, are largely unperturbed. Their currency is at its strongest, and wages in Switzerland are at their highest. The good economic situation here has attracted droves of nationals from other EU countries seeking escape from the bleak economic prospects in their home countries. Davos itself shows this — hordes of Germans have found employment here and many are seeking Swiss citizenship. Austrians and Portuguese are following suit.

But I’m here because my hosts think it’s the perfect time to introduce me to a fine Swiss contraption of daredeviltry known as the schlittel.

It’s actually the Swiss version of dear old Santa’s sleigh, only that it’s much smaller and there isn’t any Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer to pull you. Instead, you propel the schlittel down the snow-covered slopes using your own weight.

There’s been a revival in interest among the Swiss in this instrument of Swiss ingenuity in the last few years.

I guess that could mean anywhere between the spike in the sale of the contraption and the high probability that more people could get injured as a result of their newly-rediscovered enthusiasm for it: last year, an eight-year-old boy and a 21-year old woman died in separate schlittel crash incidents in Switzerland.

Reports quote the Swiss Council for Accident Prevention to say that around 10,000 people – both children and adults – get injured from sledging per year in this country of about 8 million. That figure is around 1,000 fewer than the entire population of Davos.

Of course, the grim statistics didn’t at all deter me- after all, I only learned about it after the fact.

The unit given for my use is the Davos, a traditional wooden sledge, named after the Swiss resort where the first official sledge race took place in 1883. I understand it remains the most popular model, consistently outselling plastic ones.

The instructions Hector Chio gave me made the whole exercise rather simple. You sit near the rear end of the sledge and then flex your legs towards the front and slightly away from each other. You bend forward and push on against the ground, using your hands.

Off you hurtle down the meandering path that’s nearly three kilometers long. You tilt your right foot ever so slightly to your right to steer the sledge to that direction, your left foot to your left. To stop your advance you stomp both feet on the snow.

After so much huffing and puffing –all to no avail — I had to be pushed forward to get my schlittel moving. So off I went, whooooweeeee…..very nearly ramming into Hector 10 meters down as he was giving instructions to his son Heckie on his own sledge.

No, no, no, no, I’m fine, I told him when he offered help. To assuage my hurt pride, I decided to let the others in our party of 20 men, women and children hurtle on ahead of me so they won’t see me crashing again.

And crash again I did. Well, it’s more like turn turtle I did.

After three more hard falls half-way through the course, I made a quick calculation of my chances at surviving the next crash with little more than a few scratches. I decided that the odds were stacked against me. There was only a thin and short wall of packed snow on my left to serve as a brake in case I veer off the path towards the abrupt drop down one side of the mountain into sure death.

Just before I crashed for the fifth and last time I thought I was making real progress: I had just cleared a 50-meter stretch of the route and was headed for a tight and narrow bend to the left. I rehearsed Hector’s instructions in my mind — bank ever so slightly to your left with an ever so slight tilt of your left foot.

A pose with members of Praise Christian Church-Zurich

Instead, I made an abrupt and wide jerk of my left foot, causing my sledge to make a sharp lurch, front pointed upward. An unseen force pulled the schlittel from under me and I flew and landed on my belly a few meters away with a loud thud.

I lay there for a minute or so to catch my breath. I felt my body ache all over as a cold blanket of chill gripped me. Then I heard snow that had gathered on the leaves of a nearby pine tree slide down. I picked myself up, took off my visor and threw a glance into the distance below at the foot of the mountain. I could see the roofs of houses, inns and hotels covered with a thick blanket of white powder. Behind them loomed yet another mountain all wrapped in blinding white. I smiled at the secure thought that no one had seen me and my schlittel crash hard into the snow.*


This is a slightly edited version of the essay that appeared in my weekly column for The News Today.

Written by Romel

February 26, 2012 at 2:00 pm

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