The following account of the tell-tale signs, to the manifestation and development of his illness, was written by Jan Mars himself. A social geographer, Jan appears to have adopted a rather singular approach to his account. Judge for yourself:
I was in a hurry, as I still had so much to see. The grim reaper was breathing down my neck, after all. I’d had this sense of impending doom for some time, perhaps due to my progressed sun in the eighth house opposite Saturn, an astrological aspect that predicts little good and invariably leaves the person in question bereft of their zest for life. It was January, however, I’d survived the autumn blues and the days were beginning to stretch again. While it was cold and rainy, there was nevertheless a glimmer of light on the horizon. In between translation jobs, I had been browsing the websites of various travel operators, offering holidays in the sun. It was a sunny 18 degrees in Lisbon apparently. I read more about the timber-framed electric trams that operate route 28, stopping at all of the city’s attractions, the impressive River Tagus and the charming estates dotted along the coast. The flight was booked in a jiffy, and I’d begun checking out Air BNB for accommodation in the historic city centre. The tip of my tongue was rather sore, though. Strange, that.
The tip of my tongue was rather sore, though. Strange, that.
We arrived in Lisbon on 16 February. It is a stunning city, draped along the banks of the Tagus. The river broadens towards its mouth, forming a small inland sea which is bridged by the Ponte Vasco da Gama. This has long proven the ideal location for trade, shipping and explorers such as Vasco himself.
During the course of the holiday, I became aware of a pain in side of my tongue. On returning home to Harlingen – an almost equally stunning port city, albeit on a rather less grand scale – I made an appointment with my dentist, as I had begun to suspect that the oral discomfort I’d been experiencing might be the result of some flaw in the work of dental artistry that he had personally fashioned for me. I’d recently begun to accidentally bite my tongue more frequently, incidentally. Or maybe it was a case of my tongue getting in the way of my teeth now and then.
My dentist’s surgery is in Amsterdam, as is my bookkeeper’s office and the garage that services my car. Three confidants for whom I had yet to find suitable replacements since moving home to another city. The dentist swiftly identified the problem, and proceeded to grind down the offending protruding edge of the prosthesis a little. No, he assured me that it was highly unlikely that I had cancer of the tongue, as he had experienced only three case during his illustrious forty-year career
The coast of the ‘Land behind God’s back’, as it was called by the Dutch writer A. Den Doolaard, was our holiday destination in May 2016. What possessed you to visit Montenegro, you may well ask. It is a mountainous country with a population of just 600,000, bordered by Albania to the south, and Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the north. Montenegro nevertheless boasts stunning nature and barren landscapes. We discovered the interior purely by accident, when we intended to visit one of the local attractions but boarded the wrong bus, which deposited us rather abruptly at a bus terminus in the middle of the desolate capital, Podgorica.
It was rather hot, and the transport company’s budget obviously didn’t extend to fitting its buses with air-conditioning. I therefore chose to sit at the very rear, opposite an open door, wedging myself in tightly with my knees against the seat in front, to avoid being hurled out to the accompaniment of squealing tyres every time the driver negotiated one of the countless bends without applying the brakes. The seat next to mine was occupied by a rotund giant in police uniform, who dozed throughout the trip, awaking now and then to give me a polite nod. The presence of a sleeping policeman somehow took the edge off what would otherwise have been a hair-raising journey. There were no stops along the way, and few sights, except for mountains, rivers and endless green hills. Towards the close of the afternoon we stumbled from the bus, well-shaken and dust-blown, and headed for the hotel
“There was a big change coming up”
Budva is a coastal town with a fortified traditional centre, situated by the water’s edge. We stayed at Hotel Mogren, while offers views of the fortifications and one of the access gates.
It is a stunning spot! We ended up sharing the hotel with just one other guest. Much to my displeasure, we had been given no choice but to book half board. This nevertheless proved ideal! As the tourist season had not yet begun, we had the entire dining room and buffet to ourselves for the first few days.
One day about halfway through our holiday, while strolling through the streets of the old town, we came across a small square, where a young chap in a dusty hat was plying his trade as a fortune teller. He was Australian we learned, and laid the tarot cards at his rickety table for a negotiable rate. He said that we could pay him whatever we thought it was worth to read for us. He started with me, laying out the cards in the form of the letter H, in which the right leg represented the future. He laid the death card at the top right, but explained that I shouldn’t take it literally. It simply meant that a major change was about to take place. Nothing more, nothing less. We nodded our comprehension, as he continued to list several of my personal characteristics, though I can’t remember exactly what was said. So, then it was Denise’s turn. He shuffled the cards and began laying them, but was clearly startled when death appeared in exactly the same spot in the second spread. We took photos of both spreads, which I have since somehow felt drawn to re-examine many times. No, it had nothing whatsoever to do with death in the immediate future, but rather a significant change of circumstances. We came across the Australian chap at his spot in the square several more times that week, but he quickly averted his gaze.
As a holiday destination, Montenegro had been recommended to us by a member of the local ladies’ book club, de Daames van de Harnser Heeren, a rather illustrious circle which regularly descends upon the bar of Hotel Heerenlogement in Harlingen for drinks of a Friday afternoon. Although Budva had yet to be discovered by the mass tourism trade, it was evidently familiar territory to the jet set, who moored their imposing yachts in the harbour to spend a few nights in one of the town’s up-market hotels. It had nevertheless been a long time since we had such a pleasant week’s holiday. Of course, this can also be attributed to the time we spent lounging on the town’s charming beach. Not to mention our spectacular aerial experience there, as we took turns parasailing behind a souped-up speedboat, drifting through the air in close proximity to the rocky coastline and remains of the fortifications. Because we were among the very first of that season’s customers, the skipper and his cousin pulled out all the stops to ensure that the experience proved as spectacular as possible to participants and spectators alike. The tow rope was extended to its very limits, at which point I felt as though I was suspended around three-hundred metres above the sea and cliffs. It was very quiet up there, as I drifted along peacefully beneath my parachute. “Might that be the meaning of the card,” the thought passed through my mind, “that the rope breaks and I plummet to my death on the rocks below?”
From Harlingen it is a distance of about 70 km or a 1 hour drive to the town of Den Helder in the most northern part of Noord-Holland, which has the most beautiful North Sea beaches. Harlingen also has a nice beach, but if you want to swim you have to wade through the mud for a kilometre before the water rises above your knees. Of course you can also just sunbathe and occasionally step into the shower of one of the most beautiful beach pavilions in the Netherlands, “Het Zilt”. But nothing beats a swim in the North Sea when the water temperature is more than twenty degrees by the end of the summer. From Harlingen, you can choose to take the ferry to the beaches of the islands of either Vlieland or Terschelling, or drive to Noord-Holland.
In August less work was coming in and most days were sunny. The sea was beckoning. The route leads across the famous Afsluitdijk and then along a two-lane road past places with resounding names such as the “Zingende Wielen” (Singing Wheels) and “Anna Paulowna” (the title of a well-known song in the Netherlands), which gives the trip an extra festive touch. I was suffering from shortness of breath and thought my lungs might be inflamed. I wasn’t feeling too well because of this combined with my COPD (chronically narrowed airways). At the beach, you have to climb a staircase, then walk a few hundred meters through a sand dune area before you are rewarded with the sight of the beach pavilion and the sea. During these trips I noticed that I couldn’t just lie on my back in the sun for a while without getting short of breath.
The path to the beach on Google maps.
On the last summer day at the beach of Den Helder we were driving back behind a truck on the two-lane road and I wanted to overtake it. There was ample time to do this, because the oncoming vehicles were no more than distant specks on the horizon. When we were driving next to the truck, I accelerated a little to get back to our own safe lane as soon as possible, but the car suddenly started to hold back. No matter how hard I stepped on the throttle, nothing happened. The dots on the horizon had become a lot bigger by now and I had to estimate in a split second whether we were going to successfully accomplish this manoeuvre in a somewhat responsible way. The Tarot card of death appeared before my mind’s eye, but the faltering automatic gearbox somehow jumped back into the right position again and we speeded past the cabin of the truck. A few seconds later the oncoming cars flashed past us. We decided to get rid of the car.
The lung problems persisted. One Saturday morning at the end of August I woke up so short of breath that I went to see the weekend doctor in Sneek. The doctor didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary when he listened with his stethoscope, but at my request I was given some antibiotics just to be sure. In the autumn that followed I continued to have health problems and I could only sleep on my side and then best on the left. At that time I didn’t know why, but this would become clear later on. In the meantime I had started looking for holiday offers for a short holiday in the sun in December. That would certainly help. Everyone kept telling me that I needed to go and have a proper medical examination, but I was afraid. As soon as I fell into the hands of the white coats, my death sentence would be signed. They would say I had lung cancer. I decided to try and cure myself again first.
Yes, we had done it again! We got all kinds of discounts and paid only a few hundred Euros for our holiday on Lanzarote. On the first of December 2016 we would be flying to the sun with travel organisation TUI. We had already visited one of the Canary Islands at the same time the year before: Fuerteventura (which means Strong Wind) near Lanzarote, and we really liked it there. 100% sunshine guaranteed and a temperature of 21-24 degrees. Just to do some reading, no work and relaxing all day long. This way you can fight any disease. By the way, there was no strong wind at all and well, if you come from Harlingen like us, you are used to that!
The Canary Islands are the peaks of volcanic mountains off Morocco’s coast in the Atlantic Ocean near the Sahara. Fuerteventura is located less than 100 km from the Moroccan port of Tarfaya in the far south of Morocco. In December 2017, a ferry service between Tarfaya and Puerto del Rosario would be launched on Fuerteventura, but whether that actually happened is still not entirely certain today (February 2018). Speaking of shipping, the writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote his first novel here in Tarfaya, which was published in 1929. The former chairman of the Harnser Heeren’s rowing boats construction department sometimes quoted the following phrase of Exupery: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum people together to take care of wood, give orders and divide up the work, but wake up in them the longing for the vast, endless sea“.
By the way, this longing for the sea is deeply embedded in our genes and can be evoked with little effort. In the book ‘The Human Animal’, translated by Denise and I, Desmond Morris explains that we were probably sea monkeys for a while in the Pliocene some 2.5 million years ago. We lived on the border of land and sea and as semi marine mammals we developed all kinds of characteristics that distinguish us from the other ape-like creatures. We have no coat, only some hair here and there with a streamlined implantation. In addition, like other marine mammals, we have subcutaneous fat to protect us from cold water. Between our toes and fingers we have developed the start of webs. When we touch the water with our face, a dive reflex occurs, which ensures that the airways are closed and our lungs do not fill up with water. Controlling our breathing helped us speak and thanks to the healthy protein-rich diet that consisted mainly of seafood, our brains were able to develop better. This longing to be close to water and the sea is reflected in holiday advertisements every day.
We were right on time at Schiphol Airport. At 12.55 p.m., the plane left for the capital Arrecife. Our destination was Puerto del Carmen, which was 20 minutes away from the coast. However, Arrecife was to become my long-term location for 18 days.
We arrived at dusk. The flight hadn’t done me any good and the atmosphere on Lanzarote didn’t seem to be conducive to breathing either. I had so little oxygen in my blood that I kept standing when the suitcase passed us on the belt. “The flight was particularly strenuous and tiring for Jan. He didn’t want to take the suitcase off the baggage belt,” Denise would later write in her diary. .
We arrived at a nice holiday home in a holiday park that was popular with mainly Dutch tourists, and that had all kinds of facilities. On 2 December we relaxed at the holiday home all day. I could hardly get off my bed. On Saturday 3 December we had a look around in the holiday park in the afternoon, and in the evening we went to the port. We wanted to go for a walk there, but I had to stop every one hundred metres, so we had to take a taxi. On 4 December I sent a whatsapp to the girls at home that we had taken another day just to relax and that we were having a big, delicious sole for dinner. The skin of my face and hands was bluish in the photo I sent to them with this message and my eyes were strained with fatigue.
Denise kept sending the girls all kinds of cheerful whatsapps on 5 December at 23.30 p. m., but we hadn’t been very happy that day. I had asked Denise not to tell the girls because I was hoping I would be able to fly home that Thursday.
From Denise’s diary: “Monday 5 December 2016. After talking with Jan we decided to call a doctor. She came and after examining him, she called an ambulance. First they tried inhalers, then an overpressure mask, then they placed a bladder catheter, and shortly after that he was transferred from a private clinic to the municipal hospital. They called a taxi for me, because I was not allowed to join him in the ambulance. Looking back, I was also in a kind of shock. I know that at some point I was allowed to go and see Jan at the Emergency Ward. Because of the overpressure mask and Jan’s exhaustion, communication was very difficult. But he tried and I tried anyway. When I realised it was better to leave, the nurse frowned at me as I stood there with his shoes in my hands. There was no space to store them. The nurse gestured to me that I had to take them with me, he wouldn’t be needing them anyway. I remember thinking, yes, but they are too heavy for me now, I can’t drag them with me. So I put them in a corner and left.”
T.a.v. Denise Junge