I Wish My Visit to Auschwitz was Irrelevant

I Wish My Visit to Auschwitz was Irrelevant

While traveling, I have visited magnificent monuments as well as sites of great tragedy. Travel offers an important opportunity to learn not only the good (the art! the architecture! the food!) but also the bad. Thoughtful memorials are built to preserve the memory and the lessons learned in humanity’s darkest moments.

Earlier this summer, I visited one monument that is all too relevant today: Auschwitz.

I read the news today, oh boy

On Saturday night, I sat and scrolled through the news and comments coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia. Yes, I know there are populist movements rising in all different parts of the Western world. There has been an increase in violent, racially-motivated attacks. There are all the racist and provoking statements Donald Trump has made. Yet, it didn’t seem that it could really be happening.

A white supremacy rally in 2017? Really?

In the morning, I woke up and saw the news that came out overnight. The death, the violence, the calls to ‘go home’. It seemed surreal. Haven’t we learned these lessons from hatred already?

On a day trip from Kraków, I set off for Oświęcim with four friends to see the largest concentration and extermination camps of World War II.

Visiting Auschwitz

As you might imagine, the whole experience was haunting. We started at the original camp, Auschwitz I before going to the purpose-built Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Our tour guide asked for quiet and respect as we approach the entryway. The crunch of gravel and our guide’s somber words were all we could hear; the whole complex causes a quiet even on bright summer’s day.

Auschwitz I Entry
From the International Auschwitz Committee website: “Today, and into the future, the inverted “B” will always symbolise the message from the prisoners to coming generations: “Remember: when injustices take place, when people are discriminated against and persecuted – never remain indifferent. Indifference kills.”

 

“Modern historians suggest that without the mass transportation of the railways, the scale of the “Final Solution” would not have been possible.” Holocaust Trains Wikipedia

The whole camp seemed impossible. Walking down the hallway of prisoner’s faces, the names and dates cry out a story of a continent swept into a frenzy of fear and hatred. The cruelty and precision seem inhuman. In June, I thought, ‘How could this be?’

How?

In August, I think to the rally in Charlottesville. That’s how. Casting broad strokes, blaming ethnic and religious groups, polarizing people to extremes that ultimately cause terror. Breaking the world into simplistic blocks that can be forcefully rearranged to better suit some. A leader who avoids using the strongest and most accurate words to condemn these movements. A leader gaining political capital on the back of hatred and violence. Words matter.

Auschwitz quote
Words matter.

From my place of privilege, I’m uncertain what my words can do. But it’s not a time to stay quiet. We need to talk about prejudice and inequality and terrorism. We must remember our history.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  — George Santayana

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What I learned from 29 countries when turning 30

What I learned from 29 countries when turning 30

As I struggled with the idea of leaving my twenties behind, I scrambled to put together a list of accomplishments that allowed me to feel this youthful decade was valuable, fun, engaging, impactful, and overall worth it. I think it’s a common process that many 29 turning 30 year olds go through. And it’s disastrous.

There’s no grading scheme for a life well lived. There’s no meter to say “yep, you did alright, kiddo”, which I wish would be whispered in my ear by a wise old man with a southern drawl. It’s just life. Your decision, your stories, your relationships and that glimmering hope that you’re not screwing it all up.

In 29 years on the planet, one thing I have prioritized is travel. I was lucky enough to travel for work and for pleasure and for volunteering, and one of the reasons D and I decided to move to Budapest for his studies as it is a central point from which to explore. I believe travel is important to broaden your perspective, to understand the world and to try all the delicious things.

Barbeque lunch in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan
Barbecue lunch in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan
In my scramble to pull together what I’ve done in my twenties, I haphazardly had put together my list of countries I visited in my 30 years. Some I’ve explored thoroughly, and some I’ve visited only a city. It wasn’t planned, though that would have been clever (and I would have made 30!), but by adding in Canada (which I allow as I’ve traveled to every province and two of three territories) and remembering that afternoon in Monaco, my list totaled 29.

Midnight walk in Doha, Qatar
Midnight walk in Doha, Qatar
Here, I offer the distilled wisdom I’ve collected is from the from these twenty-nine countries, to be taken with many grains of salt.

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Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

{Disclaimer: this post discusses difficult content and may not be appropriate for all readers.}

[This post is the third part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

The Cambodian people are a warm, smiling, welcoming people. The people we met in our travels were gracious and kind. The kind of people who wave and smile brightly as you stand confused trying to cross the toad with never-ending traffic with your obviously-tourist pack. A wave and smile that doesn’t judge but says “Welcome to Cambodia!”. The capital of Phnom Penh is developing so quickly that if you stand still long enough, you can watch the city grow. However, this shift in development comes after a horrific period in their history, followed by international misunderstanding and mishandling in the wake of a genocide.

Cambodian countryside

I knew little of the Cambodian genocide until watching Brother Number One at the then called Global Visions Festival in Edmonton. It told the story of the genocide through one man’s journey to understand what happened to his brother after he sailed into Cambodian waters in 1978. It was powerful and gruesome and heart-breaking.

During our stay in Phnom Penh, the travel-savvy Camille organized a van to tour for our group, a fantastic hodge-podge of six visiting Canadians who happened upon the city at the same time. The van would take us to two memorial sites dedicated to the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide: the Killing Fields and S21.

Killing Fields
The uncovered Killing Fields.

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What will be our Angkor Wat?: Explorations in Angkor

What will be our Angkor Wat?: Explorations in Angkor

[This post is the second part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

Walking past the people hawking elephant pants and the fresh fruit stands, I approached my first temple within Angkor Wat – Pre Rup, a temple in tribute to the king’s mother. A Hindu temple, built in the 10th century before the Cambodian people converted to Buddhism. Our tour guide explained how a whole town would have lived surrounding the temple and where we stood was once covered in water. He drew in the sand to detail the layout and used the hand carved leather works for sale to illustrate the symbols of the ancient civilization.

Pre Rup carvings

The endurance of the structure became clear as I slowly climbed the steps of the central tower, the cremation tower. The steps rose more than a foot each time, ensuring a calmer, more solemn pace, especially as centuries of footsteps followed by modern-day tourism have rounded the edges of each stair. The restored ornate carvings marking each doorway add an otherworldly charm. The dancing and fighting figures intertwined with plants and animals tell stories I only begin to understand after sitting and reading my guidebook and looking and reading and looking.

Exploring Angkor

The Angkor Archeological Park Complex is immense. It is larger than life and has withstood centuries of life. From weather to rediscovery to theft to the Khmer Rouge, this immense center of worship that expands over 400 acres is the largest religious monument in the world, Lonely Planet’s number one site in the world, and is hard to truly comprehend.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We explored it by van, by tuktuk, and by bicycle. By guide, by guidebook, and by gut.  The site is overwhelming and has a lifetime of exploration possibilities. After just three days and scratching the surface, I walked away with a feeling of awe and endurance.

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A Simple Traveler’s Guide to Berlin

A Simple Traveler’s Guide to Berlin

Berlin is undeniably cool. It’s a city exploding with culture and subculture after a century of divisive politics that changed the world. It’s modern yet gritty, full of change-makers and fun to explore. I spent a weekend there in October, my second time to the German capital.

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Each time I travel, I try to minimize my budget, my impact, and my stress so I can better enjoy myself. Traveling is amazing, but it’s not without its challenges. In my journey to live simply, I’m trying to travel simply as well. Here are my takes on traveling simply in Berlin, saving you money and adding to your time.

Traveling Simply: For the Budget

Halle-loumi!

The large Turkish population in Berlin brought with it a delicious food tradition. The city is filled with great spots to enjoy falafel and halloumi. In fact, if you do a quick search for ‘cheap eats in Berlin’ (an important pre-departure step for any trip), the lists are limited in German options and packed with tasty, budget-friendly Turkish ones. Search for the lists, or just keep an eye out for a Turkish restaurant with a line and join in.

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Serenissima in Venice: Six Tips for Traveling Simply

Serenissima in Venice: Six Tips for Traveling Simply

Venice is a marvel. It holds the heavy weight of an empire, full of marble and fine art, on pillars imposed on a lagoon long ago in the time of Barbarians. The whole city seems to be floating, and in many ways, it is.

Water is essential and yet a dilemma for the city. Water allowed a faux-city of fishermen to evolve into an empire that connected East and West. Yet, the city floods annually, creating an on-going challenge to protect the impressive infrastructure from damage and decay. It is difficult to imagine how marble was shifted into place from neighbouring islands, piles and boats to act as waterproofing of palaces. It’s a wonder to see and even more fun to navigate. No cars or even bicycles can cross the city, so you have to enjoy on foot, which allows you to take in impressive architecture, explore quiet canals and bump into locals in tiny passageways.

 View from the Rialto Bridge, Venice
View from the Rialto Bridge

After four beautiful days in the Most Serene Republic, I came away with a feeling of awe. I encourage you to visit as it’s a top destination for good reason. As climate change causes sea level rise, Venice’s floating illusion may not last. Get there soon, and try a few tips and lessons from my trip.

Traveling Simply: For the Budget

Venice is known to be an expensive city. At first, I thought it was tourist-trap inflation, but after arriving, I realized the challenges and costs of living in a place that floods nearly a third of the year and where everything has to be carried by hand or trolley. With this in mind, the prices are fairer, but they are still high. I discovered that, with a little planning, you can still enjoy the city on a budget.

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Book Review: This Changes Everything

Book Review: This Changes Everything

Is it trendy to review a book over a year after its release? If so, then I’m spot on. Here is my book review and reflection on This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein. It’s a book that has been a companion through two moves, two elections, dozens of life crises and more “Are-we-screwed-What-can-I-do” moments than I can count.

Rather than my introductory words, please enjoy the trailer to the partner film This Changes Everything as an effective backgrounder:

This Changes Everything is an engaging read. Klein takes magnificently complex topics and wrangles them into a readable and captivating work. The first striking feature was the accessibility of the text. When I opened its pages, the weight of the book felt daunting. Though an engaged citizen and environmentalist, I was worried that the book would read above my head and I would be left behind after the first chapter. Perhaps this was a silly assumption on a work from an accomplished journalist who writes for the public, but the title pushed my thoughts to an impenetrable manifesto. However, Klein guides the reader through each topic in a way that allows the gravity of each fact to be understood, while wrapped in a human-scale story.

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Nothing’s Simple in History

Nothing’s Simple in History

After watching the devastating news about the attacks in Paris on Friday night and later learning about the attacks in Beirut on Thursday, it was quite a solemn weekend in our household. It’s hard to understand how such cruelty can be played out amongst innocent people. To better understand, I turn to a wide range of media sources to grasp the factors that took us to this point in history. It’s never simple. It’s layers of historical shifts, political plays, media overlays weaved together. My combination of CBC, Al Jazeera (including a new favourite AJ+), Twitter, Wikipedia and other articles, infographics and commentary that pop into my news, searches and social media feeds never provide a perfectly clear picture, but it does deepen my understanding of the situation. It deepens my empathy to the victims and affected communities. It deepens my compassion for those fleeing fear and my support for those fighting for peace and justice on all sides.

Memento Park Entrance

With this dark veil over the weekend, it made for a very interesting time to visit Budapest’s Memento Park. The Park was developed as a holding place for the statues and plaques of the Communist era. When Hungary peacefully became a democratic country with parliamentary elections in 1990, there was much debate as to the fate of the statues. Though destruction was suggested, the Budapest city council resolved to create a themed statue park. The architect Ákos Eleőd described the park as such:

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