15 April 2020

It was supposedly an easy hike

The hike on this sunny day started well. It ended with barely making it alive back home, almost two hours after sunset. I made sure to immediately lower all the metal blinds and triple-lock the door, hoping the police or the drug dealers hadn’t followed me. The smell of marijuana was however very strong in the building’s staircase. If I’m here today to recount this story, then that means I’m still alive. For now.

Let’s rewind. It was the 26th day since the state of emergency had been declared in Switzerland. This however didn’t mean that we were in mandatory lockdown but that the population was encouraged to stay home, in typical Swiss fashion: the vast majority would be respectful of official guidelines without having to be coerced. I suppose this respect to collegial authorities which are otherwise barely visible is a major reason why Switzerland simply works so well. Ha, another reason to vie for that red passport.

In a twist of irony, the weather had been particularly pleasant for the past week, temperatures reaching 20° Celsius. The fast-approaching Easter weekend was forecast to be even better across Europe, the irony in a once-in-a-century period of lockdown. If we’re part of a giant simulation, then the masters of this game must be having a kick. Some Swiss clearly didn’t worry too much about the pandemic as they zipped through my village on their high-end bicycles in a constant flow throughout the day. Don’t even get me started with the teenagers who were congregating, fist-bumping and hugging each other, argh, I guess I’ve become one of the “old” ones complaining about the “youth”.

Enough was enough, breathing some fresh air was too appealing. The small village I live in is blessed with direct access to a lake (which I have dubbed “my” lake), canals, gentle and steep hills (up to 1,096m in altitude), forests, farm animals and even a couple of wild deers. Yep, all that in the fairly small perimeter of “my” village. So any “lockdown” does feel very virtual to me, however much I’ve been increasingly glued to reading news of the pandemic.

Swiss landscape

A. and I set out for what we initially thought would be a short hike up in the forested hills of the village. I proudly boasted my knowledge in the use of the official terrain map of Switzerland, showing to my hiking partner literally every turn, building, trail and altitude point on the map. I had however not realised then that I could have activated the GPS from the web application… demonstrating instead my prowess in manually deducting where we were located on the map.

There’s still some snow on the mountains in the backdrop. Yes, that’s the lake below.
The same trees as in the previous photo but from another angle. Yes, it’s still pretty from all angles.

The surrounding views were quickly very pretty and soothing, as we rose from our initial altitude of 413m (did I say I like numbers?) to about 600m. The noise of the highway grew dimmer and there really was nothing left to bother us. Reaching a tranquil spot, we ate our strawberries and I started reading. We were still on track for completing a serene day. Except that the masters of the universe had decided it wouldn’t be that way. Oh no, it wouldn’t.

Sebastian peacefully reading Principles by Ray Dalio – although it does look as if I’m missing a leg!

Our first mistake was perhaps to continue our hike a little late. We had “paused” for a couple of hours, enjoying the warmth of the sun. With 7pm about to ring in a nearby church it started to feel a bit chilly. And so we carried on with our little journey, initially going further up through the forest before circling around a hill to be rewarded with beautiful views of the sunset on the lake and countryside.

“My” lake in the background and the sweet orange tint of the sunset.
It’s not so often that the sun sets so round in this part of the world.

As we approached the village, the first telltale sign that something would go terribly wrong became apparent. While cars were parked in driveways, houses seemed eerily empty. What’s more, there was nobody walking anywhere. It’s as if the entire human species had suddenly vanished. Sure enough, police tape was cordoning off the sports ground, the signage indicating that there had been too many people using it at once recently despite federal guidelines on social distancing. Yet my map was indicating that the path was going straight through; it would only be the next day that I would realise that I had not selected the option to display “currently active trails”.

Last sun rays of the day. Notice the lack of contrails in the sky.

What did we do? You guessed it. We went under the police tape and engaged on what did still look like a path to me. Not only was it very steep but it was full of dead leaves that had piled up in multiple thick layers to the point that every step we took was like walking in fresh snow.

The path that wasn’t one

The photos you see here are the last ones of the day. There would be too many bad surprises to follow that the last thing on my mind was to take more photos. I was asking A. to wait for me as we were strolling down the abrupt non-trail. Night was falling quickly. A. was joking that we were repeating our past mistakes (getting caught by tide rising in New Zealand, a story for another time). If only the joke had stopped at that leafy path.

The hiss of a snake – or maybe it was simply my sandal screeching on a leaf – made me instantly dart forward, leaving A. behind but in that case, it’s about saving one’s own life, right?! And finally, there was light at the end of the tunnel. My relief was quickly shattered: a fence, most likely electrified, was barring the way. In fact, there was visibly no path beyond the metal wire.

Light at the end of the (forest) tunnel

We had two choices: either come back all the way up through the snake forest or go through the fence. A road that could be seen in the opposite valley convinced us to push forward. There was enough space between two wires for our athletic, slender, beautiful bodies to practise capoeira and make it through.

Emerging from the forest, looking back at the fence.

So focused were we on avoiding getting electrocuted that we hadn’t noticed the cows glaring at us. At first we thought nothing of it, although I had been a little worried about the glow of a cigarette I could discern 50m down in the shadows of the barn. A. naturally wanted to take photos of the huge cows who just as naturally had better things to do than posing, for instance charging at us! Well, the cow charging must have been an ox protective of its harem.

We bolted down the hill, doing the best we could to avoid the massive piles of methane-stinking cow dung between the thick grass. I didn’t even look back when I heard the menacing bark of a dog fast approaching us. It’s at that moment when we heard the gunshots. Upon seeing open-air targets earlier in the day, I had laughingly explained to A. that the Swiss were crazy about keeping their guns at home and about being obliged to practise regularly as a result. No wonder that the Swiss are among those in the world with the highest number of firearms per capita (about 3 for every 10 people).

Remember the glow of the cigarette? It was the crazy, old farmer who was calmly waiting to shoot at us! What the heck?! Did he really think we would want to steal his cows which were anyway chasing us? The atmosphere was surreal. Our clothes were not reflective so I can only imagine that the moonless night saved us from assured death. It would have been a silly way to die – we had managed to not get infected by the coronavirus so far, let’s at least not die from civilian gunshot!

We ran and ran until we lost our breath, until we reached the edge of the field. We were fifty centimetres from the road when I yelled at A. to stop. I had just noticed the metal fence, of the same kind we had crossed when exiting the snake forest. A. paid no heed to my advice, briefly touched the wire to see if it was electrified, didn’t feel anything and set to cross over it, since the wires were closer to one another. A. tripped over the wire and screamed in pain: it was for sure electrified. Recovering from the shock and still panicked at the thought of getting bitten by a dog, gored by a bull, or shot by a madman, A. quickly got back up, I lifted the wire with my book (the 550-page thickly-bound Principles by Ray Dalio, which I can therefore say saved our lives) and A. crossed over. I quickly followed suit and we darted off to the busy road.

We were still a few kilometres away from home but the road gave a semblance of civilisation. There was no pavement but I used the flashlight of my phone to signal our presence to passing cars. Only the police stopped, obviously, because we were not supposed to walk on the road. We carried on, at the edge of the road to comply with the law, until we reached the pavement that indicated we were getting closer to the village.

A. noticed the two fancy cars parked on the side and started guessing the model names, just as I was guessing the language spoken by the two men standing by their cars. As I looked towards the cars, I made the mistake of noticing the drugs and money the men were exchanging. They looked up. I looked up. Our eyes locked. And then I knew. I knew we had to escape, again. I grabbed A.’s arm and told her to run. She didn’t ask why this time, we ran, feeling cold and hungry. Police sirens suddenly started resonating, we didn’t want to know whom they were chasing. We ran until we reached our building, which could easily be recognised by its mere smell of weed that the neighbours were smoking every day and night. We closed all the blinds and ate some dry bread in silence. To be continued.

PS: some of the details of this story may not be completely factual, but you’ll have to excuse me for the inaccuracies, it was quite an adventurous day.