Yearly Archives: 2016

When in Cork…

Encounters with Blarney

I am not above being a cheesy tourist.

And one of the more cheesy, more touristy things I have ever done occurred a few years ago when I spent a few weeks tooling around Ireland.  After taking the ferry over from Anglesey, Wales to Dublin and tooling around Dublin for a few days, I headed south out of the city towards Cork.  I’m not a bad driver, but I don’t do so well with the manual transmission or driving on the opposite side of the road than what I’m used to.  Let’s just say it was baptism by fire, and I probably shaved a few years off my life and perhaps some of the other drivers on the Dublin-Cork highway.

I am a small town kinda girl, and while Cork is a pretty big city, but it’s fairly navigable.  Cork has a fair amount of charm, but it main draw in the Blarney Stone and to a lesser extent–Blarney Castle.

So the question of the day is did I kiss the stone? Did I really put my lips on that wet slab of germ-infested rock where thousands…maybe millions of people have done the same thing before me? Did I actually DANGLE my body off the side of the castle and risk my life?!  People have actually DIED doing this.

Yes. Yes I did.

I mean, how can you not? It’s there; I’m there. A lot of other people were doing it, and while it may be cheesy and touristy… occasionally I’m cheesy and occasionally touristy.

The Blarney Stone is a block of Carboniferous limestone built into the battlements of Blarney Castle, Blarney, about 8 kilometres from Cork, Ireland. [Thank you Wikipedia] According to legend, kissing the stone endows the kisser with the gift of the gab (great eloquence or skill at flattery). The stone was set into a tower of the castle in 1446. The word blarney has come to mean “clever, flattering, or coaxing talk”. John O’Connor Power’s definition is succinct: ‘Blarney is something more than mere flattery. It is flattery sweetened by humour and flavoured by wit.

The Blarney Stone gets all the press, but the castle itself is actually rather interesting and the surrounding castle grounds are gorgeous. The tiny, winding staircases are not for the claustrophobic, but the sweeping views of lush green country and manicured gardens are worth the trip to the top.

Kissing the stone is not for the faint of heart -– you have to dangle yourself over the gaping hole in the castle floor, death-grip the handrails and the man assisting unceremoniously grabs two fist-fulls of your clothes and shoves you close enough to kiss the stone. A second later you’re hauled upright and sent on your way.

Tell me, would YOU have kissed the stone? Or do you now think my lips are now tainted for a lifetime. Leave a comment and let me know.

 

Kindness of strangers

I am trying to live my life in a state of gratitude. Some days are easier than others. And sometimes, when I think about the past, I realize how truly grateful I am.

No traveler lives completely in a vacuum when traveling.  I suppose it is possible to travel somewhere and so strictly follow a schedule that it is nearly impossible to get lost or need help, but that’s never happened to me.  I have had to ask for directions at minimum on every single trip I have ever taken.  Sometimes it has been much more involved than simple directions.

We hear all the time that the world is a dangerous, scary place.  In fact, the most common question I was asked is “Won’t you be scared/Weren’t you scared?”

No, I am not, and No, I wasn’t.

I may have been a little nervous at times, but I was never scared. Okay, maybe I was scared a little when I was kidnapped by two guys between the Peru/Ecuador border when they were trying to extort $250  from me.  Maybe I was scared a little when I was caught by rouge waves that held me under water when I was learning to surf.

But I was never scared of the people. Even amongst strangers, I [almost] never felt like I was in danger.

I kept my guard up in the beginning, but I soon realized that I needed to learn to trust the people I met along the way. I think that is just part of me.  I am used to being alone [only child and all] so I don’t always think about needing to rely on others.  I have learned how to do so many things for myself.  Time and time again, I needed to rely on the kindness of strangers to get me through.  So this Thanksgiving, I want to thank all of those strangers who went above and beyond to help me in my journeys – from people whose names I never knew or soon forgot to those who I am now happy to call my friends.

Thank you to Missa and Jamie who helped me celebrate my birthday in Rome with a bottle of Chianti, a plate of pasta, and a birthday cards and flowers from the market. It was so nice to not be alone on my birthday.

Thank you to the elderly lady on the train from Rome to Naples or at least I thought it was to Naples.  It was actually headed to the other side of Italy.  I would have figured it out eventually, but she saved me time and money.  I don’t speak Italian great [and even less in 2006] but I know Spanish and between my Spanish and her Italian, she got me pointed in the right direction and I made it to Sorrento during daylight hours.

Thank you to the women in at the Ecuadorian border.  After being kidnapped and missing my bus, two women in their 40’s asked me if I needed a ride somewhere.  They were headed to Guayaquil and offered to take me anywhere along the route.  I had a great time, met some amazing women, had an awesome lunch, and relaxed for the first time that day.  After seeing the ugly side of human nature, it was a blessing to see the good.

Thank you to Javier….the teenager who came and picked me up on his moped after I couldn’t get the bus driver to stop.  I ended up about 2 km past my intended destinations and carrying the 65L backpack plus the daypack loaded down with my tools for  jungle-work would have made a sucky end to a very long day.

Thank you to Massimo…who taught me to cook on a gas stove.  I have always either cooked on an electric range or a grill and gas tended to scare me a bit.  Thanks to Massimo, I didn’t starve during my weekends alone in the jungle lodge.

Thank you to the lady in Trujillo who made sure I didn’t get cheated by the taxi driver.

Thank you to all the people who have hosted me during my travels.  By not spending a ton of money for accommodations, I have gotten to visit so many more places, see how people really live–not just as a tourist, and spend time in places I would have never dreamed about staying.

Lynnley in Charleston, Corinna in San Francisco, Cameron in Seattle, Emily in Vermont, Jeanette in Florida, Angie in Chicago, Emilie in Chamonix, France, Marta in Bratislava, Slovakia, Tomas in Wroclaw, Poland, Alex in Mendoza, Argentina, Steve in Stafford, England, and Sophie in Kokkola, Finland. All strangers at one point; all friends at another.

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Thank you to everyone who has helped me in my travels.

Remembering to remember

Today is Veterans Day in the USA.  In the UK it’s known as Armistice Day as it is the day that WWI ended–on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 the guns fell silent. It is a day to remember our soldiers, from the Revolutionary War to the latest conflict.  Remembering the sacrifices these men and women made allow me to pursue the life I do.  I don’t have to fulfill traditional gender roles if I choose not to.  I can speak my mind because of free speech.  I have the right to own, carry, and use, if necessary, my .40 caliber handgun.

I’ve seen a lot in my travels but one of the more haunting rememberes was the Ceremic Poppy Installation at the Tower Bridge in London in 2014 (the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI).

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The poppies represent the blood spilt during the Great War, and when complete on 11/11 there will be 888,246 poppies in the moat surrounding the Tower Bridge.  I visited in October for the specifc reason of seeing the poppy installation.  And it was amzing.  It was moving.  To think that many young men lost their lives in a single conflict is incredible.  Humans are very visual people and to see this loss of life represented so visually was breathtaking.

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Freedom is never free and sometimes, we, in the USA forget that.  There hasn’t been a conflict on our soil in nearly 100 years. [OK, if you want to be technical, some of WWII happened  in American territories–Hawaii, Alaska, and Philippians].  If you haven’t seen up close and personal the devastation war causes, it’s hard to imagine its consequences.

So in an effort to remember to remember, I visited three Revolutionary War battlefields over the last few weeks.  Without the sacrifices these brave men [and a few even braver women], the USA would never have become the USA.

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Cowpens battlefield circa 1780

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A group of South Carolina militia along with a few army regulars under the command of Daniel Morgan beat the British at Cowpens. The victory kept the British from expanding westward.

Kings mountain

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They were doing some reenacting at King’s Mountain this weekend.

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A 3lb British cannon hanging out inside Star Fort at Ninety Six

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My feet, just slightly smaller than the average revolutionary war soldier. I wear a US women’s size 8 and at 5’9, I’m a few inches taller than the average Revolutionary War soldier.

39 photos of spectacular places to be dead

     It’s October…one of my favorite months.  For starters, college football is in full swing.  Baseball is in its play-off period.  European football has gotten over its opening schedule shockers, and ice hockey starts up at the end of the month.  It’s also one of my favorite seasons for traveling.  For a few years, I took the month of October off from work and traveled, and those were some of my best trips.   The weather is nice …cool, but not cold…surprising warm days mixed in, and Halloween…my favorite holiday of the year.

   

So to celebrate my favorite month of the year, I’ll be featuring some of my favorite cemeteries in the world.  I LOVE, love, love, visiting cemeteries. [and I love cats…any coincidence that cats like to hang out a cemeteries….I think not] They fascinate me [cemeteries not cats]… Fancy ones like Pere LaChaise in Paris and Recoleta in Buenos Aires. Solemn ones like Arlington National just outside Washington DC and the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Old ones like Magnolia in Charleston, SC and Bonaventure in Savannah, Georgia. Eclectic ones like merry cemetery in Săpânţa, Romania, and the Mayan cemetery in Xcaret. Odd ones like the crypt of the Capuchin monks in Rome… None of it matters.  If I hear of an ‘interesting’ cemetery…whether its old and crumbly or happy and bright or austere and serene, I’m there.

Some of my favorite final resting places from around the world

1.  Pere-LeChaise Cemetery, Paris France

I spent a day in Paris.  I know what you are saying…’Only one day, impossible’, but it’s true.  I  watched fireworks at the Eiffel Tower and hung out with the dead.  Paris is awesome.

2.  Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

years ago, I was in Buenos Aires.  It was my birthday.  Instead of doing something fancy like going to a tango show, I went to Recoleta and hung out with the dead.  And the cats.

3.  Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA, USA

I stand up straighter and walk a little taller when I visit Arlington.  It’s impressive, quiet, and simple.  American soldiers. Clean white tombstones.  A Marine guard.  It doesn’t get more solemn than this.

4.  Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic

On a snowy day in January 2013, I visited the Jewish Cemetery in Prague.  I think I was the only living thing around.

5.  Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina

Southern cemeteries are awesome.  Spanish moss hanging down gives everything a spooky appeal, and the humidity makes everything rust and age rather quickly.

6.  Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia

They say Bonaventure is haunted.  If you go there at night, it certainly feels that way.

7.  Mayan Cemetery, Xcaret, Mexico

Confession time:  this is a fake cemetery.  It’s a creation of what a lot of Mexican cemeteries do on El Dia de los Muertos….this one is a lot cleaner, though.  The Mayans didn’t actually bury their dead.

8. Merry Cemetery, Săpânţa, Romania

It’s happy.  It’s bright.  It’s weird.  Go there. See for yourself.  These dead peeps are having the time of their lives.

9.  Crypt of the Capuchin Monks, Rome, Italy

Eerie.  Spooky…Bone-chilling…Fascinating…I wonder if the Monks know their bones are being used as decorations.  I’m not a Monk, but I’d love to donate my femur [you know, once I’m done with it] for a clock or better yet, the handle of the scythe of the Grim Reaper

10.  Monumental Cemetery, Milan, Italy

Morbid statues.  Fascinating pageantry.  Marble slabs of decaying flowers.  Ingenious.

11.  Hanging Coffins, Sagada, Philippines

If heaven is up, and hell is down, wouldn’t you rather be hanging on the side of a cliff instead of buried in a hole?

12.  Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow, Russia

Boris Yeltsin, Anton Chekhov, Gherman Titov…I’m a bit fascinated with Russia and the dead Russians.  If you can’t qualify for the Kremlin, Novodevichy is a fantastic second choice.

13. Hallstat Ossuary, Hallstat, Austria

Oooh…more bones….since I’m donating my femur to the Monk, the Ossuary can have my skull, but only if they paint a pretty design on it.

Unexpected Love: Seattle

2018 Michelle here:  I first visited Seattle in 2012 because I had friends there.  I never thought I like the city, but I fell in love with it.  Seattle was the first major city that I could *theoretically* live in.  Rwanda wasn’t my first choice; I was married to Madagascar, but this post reminds me to give a place a chance.  You never know what the outcome may be.


Opposite attract, they say. Whoever ‘THEY’ are, they are right, at least in this case.

Me:  Small-town Southern girl, likes quiet nights by the bonfire, wide-open spaces, tree-frogs and cicadas, roads with no traffic, sunny, summer days, and hot, sultry, summer nights.

top of Seattle
Seattle: One of the top 20 largest cities in the USA, compact, traffic everywhere [but certainly not unmanageable], modern, progressive, cool, drizzly in fall and winter, crisp in Spring/Summer, insanely pretty… pretty much opposite in every way what I am used to.

I’m not sure why I’ve never visited Seattle before because there are so many things about the city that is awesome. My first visit in May 2012 I did all the touristy things like visit the Space Needle, hang out at Pike Place Market, go see the Seattle Sounders match, and visit some of the city’s best museums. I was also staying in a neighborhood [Green Lake] with friends so I got a different perspective than staying a city hotel.  I went back to the city in October 2014, stayed in a different area [Queen Anne] and explored a slightly different side of Seattle [and then again in July 2015, October 2016, and May 2017 for a quick visits before exploring more of Washington].  I did a city hike, explored gas works park, took a ferry across Elliott Bay, ate some amazing food [It happened to be restaurant week], and said hello to Lenin and the troll in Fremont.

Home of Starbucks and the Space Needle, Jimi Hendrix and the grunge movement [hello Everclear, my favorite 90s band… yes, I know they are from Portland], Pike Place Market and the Seahawks, Sounders, and SuperSoncis, Seattle is definitely a place worth visiting. Despite its stereotype of being gray and wet [it rained like 5% of the time i was there], Seattle is a place that I could conceivably call home… you know, if I ever leave the South and want to live in close proximity to a big city.

First tip: I’ve used CityPasses before is some of the other larger cities I’ve visited and found it to be a good value in terms of sites and cost. So I sought out a Seattle City Pass, which let me visit 6 of Seattle’s top destinations and activities, and though not part of the City Pass, my friend Cameron had a season pass to the Sounders, and couldn’t make it, so score! I got to go to my first Major League Soccer match.

The pass covers the Space Needle [2X–once during the day and once at night], the Seattle Aquarium, a harbor cruise, EMP, Woodland Park Zoo and Pacific Science Center or Chihuly gardens.

Here’s what I got to squeeze in:

    • Space Needle–The best-known feature in Seattle’s skyline, the Space Needle was built in 1961 in time for Seattle to host the 1962 World’s Fair. The 605-foot structure was a bit of an engineering feat [nerd factor:  the “bottom” of the Needle is actually 30 feet underground to bring its center of gravity lower], and it has come to represent Seattle in everything from postcards to television shows. You can dine at the revolving SkyCity Restaurant, 500 feet off the ground, or check out the Observation Deck at 520 feet, which gives views out over downtown Seattle and Puget Sound. With your City Pass, take the elevators up once during the day, and then return at dusk to witness darkness falling over Seattle and the city lighting up.

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check out those blue skies and high cirrus clouds

top of Seattle

    • Starbucks [the original one]–While at Pike Place, head across the street from the market and visit the world’s very first Starbucks. It was from this unassuming location that the coffee giant began its world domination in 1971. After hours, is about the only time you can get a photo without a ton of people standing in line.

The Original Starbucks

    • pretending to be Jimi Hendrix at Experience Music Project

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    • the glass garden–Glass artist Dale Chihuly is originally from Washington, and the Gardens and Glass at Seattle Center is a permanent exhibit of some of his work. Indoors, you’ll find large glass exhibits lit up in darkened rooms, and outdoors are glass sculptures that blend in to the gardens. It opened the week I was there so I can say I was among the first to visit the museum.

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    • Seattle Aquarium–With the pass in hand, pop on in to the Seattle Aquarium. You’ll see all sorts of fish and sea creatures, but the real must-sees here are the room of Puget Sound natives (fish and plant life), and the otters and fur seals. Learn about the kinds of life found in the waters around Seattle, and then head into the building next door to watch some adorable sea and river otters frolicking, and some massive fur seals swimming around in zoo-like enclosures.

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    • Harbor Cruise in Eliot Bay

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    • Museum of Flight at Boeing Field–I am such an #av8geek, that this was a must for me. The Museum of Flight covers all aspects of flight history – from the very first airplanes to space travel. There’s one gigantic warehouse space filled with all manner of aircraft, a mock control tower, a space exhibit, rooms dedicated to WWI and WWII, and even commercial jets and an old Air Force One plane outside that you can walk through. It not only includes planes of all shapes and sizes, but also interactive features and tons of history to read about. You can book bi-plane rides outside the museum, or (if you’ve really got the money), sign up to ride in a B-17 or B-24 bomber.

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And beautiful mountain ranges surrounding the city.

Oh and nearby vampires in Forks.

Happy Birthday Ampelmann

Today is Ampelmann’s birthday.  Let’s all start to sing…Happy Birthday to you…Happy Birthday to you…Happy Birthday dear sweet Ampelmann…Happy Birthday to you.

 Wait, who/what is Ampelmann, you ask?

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This is ‘die Ampelmann’.  He is a cult hero, and certainly one of my favorite symbols. EVER. He is Berlin born and Berlin bred.  Ampelmann is the East German pedestrian traffic light symbols. He was ‘born’ on October 13th 1961 making today his 55th birthday.  Ampelmann is the brain child of East German psychologist Karl Peglau when, in response to the growing threat of road traffic accidents, he introduced the first pedestrian traffic signals to the GDR capital.

ampelmann 2

And so the traffic light, which up until this point had only directed car traffic, was joined by the pedestrian traffic light. Ampelmamm was designed to be cute and appealing to drivers because according to the psychologist Peglau “road-users react more quickly to appealing symbols”.  The cute and adorable traffic light symbols fulfilled their purpose and found widespread acceptance both on the street and in social life.

Berlin-walking man

In 1982, after 21 years’ successful use, ampelmann made his film debut. Friedrich Rochow started casting them as guardian angels in his road safety training film for children. The ampel men, in the form of animated figures, were always at hand with valuable tips in hazardous situations. The ampel men were also deployed in other areas of road safety training.  EDIT:  I would have been enthralled to watch a safety video staring ampelmann as an elementary school kid.  All we got were terrifying videos of kids being run over by buses.  I still remember those. School children who could demonstrate good road safety knowledge received the ‘Golden One’ badge with the green ampel man or a special ampel man key fob. The two ampel men also adorned the card-game ‘Take care in traffic!’. Kindergarten children made their acquaintance on rubber stamps and in coloring books.

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I had to show utmost restraint in not purchasing every.single.item. in the store.  Except the flip-flops.  They could keep those.  

And this is what the East German school kids got for excelling in traffic safety. But ampelmann was East German in design and only lived on the east side of Berlin.  Following reunification, the ampel men were supposed to disappear along with just about everything from every day East German life. The West German authorities, politicians, and traffic engineers were critical of the little green men on the East German traffic lights.  Who in their right mind could be critical of these super helpful, super adorable traffic signals.  I just want to take one and cuddle with it. In 1994 work started on replacing them with the euro traffic light man. Current arguments tried to argue that only the electronics were antiquated not the symbols, but bureaucrats being bureaucratic did not care.  They wanted the symbol removed from current usage. In 1996, industrial designer Markus Heckhausen adopted the discarded little green and red men. [Yay for Markus!] The first Ampelman products arose from the original glass of the traffic lights: as red and green ampel lamps. [I would sell my first born child in order to have one of these lamps.] The media response to the lamps and the story of the symbol’s disposal was huge, and so the extinct ampel men was rescurrected and once again entered the consciousness of the Berlin population.

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Oh.my.word. An Ampelmann cafe.  How adorable are the two ampelmen holding up the hostesses’ stand.

A resistance movement began. Under the slogan ‘we are the people’, committed citizens strove to prevent the abolition of the last remaining symbol of East German daily life. The ‘committee for the preservation of ampel men’ was founded. With many creative protest actions, it succeeded in drawing greater attention to the comical figures. When the media joined the campaign, politicians and authorities could no longer avoid entering into objective discussions.

The advantages of the ampel man, such as the clear symbolic and his wide-spread acceptance, could no longer be denied. And due to his stocky figure, large head and hat, the illuminated surface of the East ampel man was almost double that of his western competitor. This made him more recognizable which is particularly important for children. In 1997, it became clear that the beloved East German ampel men had been saved and would retain their place on the urban landscape.

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Yes, I bought ampelmann earrings.  No, I am not ashamed to wear them every day, and I do.  Or nearly every day.

 

Galapagos Island Animals

Last week I flashed back to that time I went to the Galapagos Islands as a research volunteer.  For 14 days I lived on a research boat, visited the islands of the Galapagos, and tagged little baby giant tortoises.  The tortoises ere the stars, at least from my point of view, but anyone with a passing interest in animals, nature, genetics, evolution, or general science would love to visit the Galapagos.  While tagging turtles was my main job, I had plenty of time to wander the island and snap photos of some of the other inhabitants of the islands.

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Sea lions are the most adorable things ever. And friendly too.

snuggley sea lions

sleep sea lion
sleepy sea lions

sea lions

underwater starfish
It’s not all snuggly sweet sea lions. There was some snorkling involved too

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one of the more interesting creatures- Sally Lightfoot Crab

long leg crab

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BLUE FEET

Red footed booby
RED FEET

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My CHARGES

male frigate
Male frigates are such show-offs

flamingo
PINK FLAMINGOS are cool no matter where you find them

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Survival of the fittest

courting blue footed boobie
This photo cracks me up. I can imagine all kinds of things these birds are thinking/doing. They could be a couple and one giving the other hell for some preceived wrong doing. Or they could be courting. Or they could be siblings getting into a fight. The possibilities are endless… and even in person, they were going at each other like cats and dogs.

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Boobies…just as entertaining as the sea lions

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And just for good measure…another sea lion and a baby…

Someday

We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.                                                                        Australian Aboriginal saying

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The world is a rather large place, and I love exploring new cultures, places I’ve never been, and seeing new things. And since the world is a large place, new destinations generally take precedence over places I’ve been before. Often, I say [in my head] “I’d love to come back here. Someday.” Which places are those, you ask? Places that hold a special place in my heart. There are the easy ones, like London, England where there is so much to see and do I doubt I could do it all in one lifetime. Or Charleston, South Carolina, which is an international tourist destination, but is relativity close to my current home. And Huanchaco, Peru where there isn’t a whole lot to do, but it’s where I was first part of an international community of backpackers. I’m not so naive to believe that if I went back to Huanchaco it would be the same as it was when I was there. Part of the charm of living in a tourist/backpacking town is the continuous influx of new people, but that’s also what makes it hard to fit in. Excluding the obvious, here are five places that I’d love to return to. Someday.

Mendoza, Argentina
There’s no other way to put it–Mendoza is simply amazing. The wineries

The food… [try the parilla for a plate full of delicious grilled meat]…

The scenery…

The mountains…[the tallest in the Western hemisphere]

The ruins… [some Inca ruins are all the way down to Argentina].  I only hope that someday I will make my way back to Argentina.

Isle of Skye, Scotland
Nestled up in the Scottish Highlands is the Isle of Skye. Other-worldly. Beautiful. Remote. Amazing. Skies that go for miles. Castles. Ruins. Stone footbridges.

Cartagena, Colombia
Colonial. Colorful. Safe. Fortified. Tropical. Magical. Botero statues. oh so Colombian. White, sandy beaches nearby.  Someday…

St. Petersburg, Russia

Russia in general isn’t known for its friendly, welcoming attitude towards visitors. But everyone I’ve known who has taken the time to deal with Russian bureaucracy has thought it was completely worthwhile. In 2009, I studied abroad at Moscow State University. My sole reason for doing that was to get to Russia. I didn’t care so much about the program as it was an agriculture program, and I have zero interest in farming, but from January until June I was in possession of a student visa which allowed me access to most of European Russia.

I made it to St Petersburg 4 times over the course of 6 months–each time different than before. I’d love to go back in the fall. Moscow is interesting; it is just too big of a city for me to enjoy. St Petersburg is more manageable with the added bonus of imperial Russian history. Moscow is historic in a communist sort of way. St. Petersburg, though, is more to my liking.

Kotor, Montenegro
I only spent one day and one night in Kotor as a last minute detour to defrost after being in Hungary, Romania, and Serbia. I was so glad I made time in my schedule to see this amazing small town. In January, it was as if I was the only one there. I’m told that even in summer, it gets none of the craziness like Split or Dubrovnik, Croatia. YET.

As the country of Montenegro, it has only been in existence since 2006, but its civilization dates back as far a 9th century, and it has been, at times, ruled by Italy, Ottoman Empire, and Yugoslavia. It is being “discovered” by tourists and is the second fastest growing tourist destination. Go now before it becomes just another blip on the European tourist trail.

Honorable Mention:
The Alps…any part, any country, any time of year.

Flashback Friday | 70 (ish) years later

“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little freedom deserves neither and will lose both.”

Benjamin Franklin

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I used to love to watch the news.  I think it was because 1. as a kid, we only had 5 channels and 2. the news was always so exciting with reporters in such foreign sounding places.  So, it was as a kid watching the news that I first heard the word ‘genocide.’  At that time it was referring to Slobadan Milošević and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ occurring in the Balkans in the early 1990’s. At the time I remember thinking the Balkans might as well be another planet and that could never happen here…or at least not in a place I’d heard of before.

So imagine my surprise when I learned about Germany and World War II.

The end of World War 2 has different endings, depending on who you ask. Some consider May 8 [V-E day] to be the end; others consider V-J day [Aug 15] to be the end and still others don’t call the end until the final surrender [September 2.]

It’s been just over 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz from the Nazis.  Poland was home to the world’s largest Jewish community for centuries. Before WWII there were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland. Between the German invasion in 1939 and the end of the war in 1945 over 90% perished.

Work does not, in fact, make one free

About 50 km from Krakow is the town of Oświęcim, Poland.  It’s better known to the world as Auschwitz. The Polish were the first to be brought to Auschwitz.  They were not there for racial reasons but instead under the broad term of “resistance”: for listening to foreign radio, reading illegal leaflets, absence from work, aiding Jews. They were killed for further resistance within the camp, shot dead for minor disobedience.  Then came the Soviet POWs and POWs from other countries.

At first it was not a death camp.  People were released as their sentence was completed.  At first, it was just another prison, ordered to be built by Hitler, but unable to be built by the SS.  Supplies were stolen from outside of Germany in order to just construct the camp.  In the beginning, it did not seem to be destined to become the most infamous death camp of the 20th century.

No mass killing just yet, that was to come later.

The Jewish didn’t arrive until 1942.

Within two years of building Auschwitz, it was the most notorious of the six extermination camps in Poland (Belzec, Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibór and Treblinka are the more unknown ones).

There were three primary to the concentration camp. Auschwitz held between 12,000 and 20,000 prisoners. Due to the overcrowding at the primary site, Auschwitz II-Birkenau was built in 1941 and is located 3 km away. Birkenau was by far the largest section and in 1944 there were over 90,000 prisoners.

In 1942, Auschwitz III-Monowitz was established. However, only Auschwitz and Birkenau remain. By early 1943 there were four crematoria operating 24/7 at Birkenau. Over 20,000 people were gassed and cremated every day. The exact number of people killed at Auschwitz and Birkenau will never be known but estimates put the number between 1.1 – 1.5 million people from across Europe. There is still one gas chamber at Auschwitz but the gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau were blown up by the Nazis in 1944 in an attempt to cover up the mass killings.

The Beginnings

In the original plan, the Nazis said that Jews would be resettled in the east. Or south…somewhere like Madagascar…just somewhere other than Germany and Europe. Many people actually had to purchase tickets for the trains that took them to their deaths.

All arrivals to Auschwitz were immediately stripped of their belongings. Luggage was taken and stored in various spots of the camp.  You could tell who would have immediately been taken to the gas chambers based on the markings smeared on the luggage cases. Hannah, age one ,would have immediately been marched [or carried] to her death.  Same with Otto, age 83. The very young and the old and infirm suffered the same immediate fate. They were no good for work, you see.

90% of children went straight to the gas chambers. A few were kept for work, and others to have medical experiments conducted on them.

A small display showed tattered clothes the kids wore to the camp. Another showed the many, many pairs of shoes, of all sizes, left behind.

The most disturbing part of Auschwitz I was the mounds of bundled hair that sat in a very long container of glass. The prisoners were shaved upon arrival, or if not done immediately, then another prisoner was forced to shave their heads after they had died in the gas chamber.

After 2,000 of them had been crammed in a chamber and after the excruciating twenty minutes passed following the cyanide being dropped in. When life was finally squeezed out of each of them, the hair would be taken, some used to make fabric other to be uses as stuffing for pillows and the like.

Up to 1.1 million bundles of hair, from 1.1 million people murdered.

I confess that I am an unabashed history nerd. I read history textbooks for fun. I ‘learned’ about the Holocaust in school. I’ve read Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and the ‘Diary of Anne Frank’. I’ve heard about Hitler, Himmel, and the SS. I’ve seen Schindler’s List and read about the horrors that took place at concentration camps across Europe. But I grew up a million miles away from that…in a small town in South Carolina. Standing there, in front of the gas chambers that KILLED over a million people or in a room of discarded personal effects, it’s as real as it gets. Nothing prepared for me for that.

Walls displayed pictures of prisoners on their arrival. When the photos were taken, the new arrivals had no idea what was waiting for them. Some were smiling. Some showed obvious fear, others, defiance. Many were indifferent. Most looked defeated.

I had been warned ahead of time that this would be emotional, that it couldn’t be understood…that the best thing to do would be to experience it and feel whatever it is you feel whether it’s sadness, anger, or nothing at all. Some people say that when you visit a place that is so devastatingly dark and depressing, you may feel nothing at all. I am not the most emotional person out there, but I didn’t expect to be numb.

I went on the first day of winter. It was mind-numbingly cold, but also breath-takingly beautiful covered in a blanket of fresh white snow. I don’t know that there is a “good” time to visit Auschwitz. In the summer, it can be crowded and bright and sunny. A place that claimed so many lives shouldn’t be bright and sunny…or at least that is what my mind says. In the winter, it isn’t crowded, but that’s because it is so cold. I was bundled up in long underwear, my thickest wool sweater, a wool coat, wool socks, North Face fleece lined boots, a hat, scarf, and wool mittens…and I was still cold. Most of the prisoners at Auschwitz had no coat or shoes. After about 30 minutes, I couldn’t feel anything. Not physical discomfort nor could my mind process all that I’ve seen.

Auschwitz was the only concentration camp where inmates were tattooed on their arms. However, the vast majority of people were never tattooed because they never made it beyond the initial screening.

My thoughts

Visiting a place like Auschwitz is not a pleasant experience. Nor should it be. It’s not happy and it will change you in some way. I completely understand how some people will never visit a concentration camp because of how utterly depressing they are. BUT, I feel that visiting places like this — facing this reality — is important. It helps us recognize the cruelty inherent in the human race. And hopefully helps us understand how important it is to never let something like this happen again.

South Carolina State Parks | Hampton Plantation

South Carolina State Parks | Hampton Plantation

Last summer, a friend and I started the quest to visit all 47 of South Carolina’s state parks.  We made it about halfway by the end of December. Since then, South Carolina is helping the National Parks Service celebrate its 100th birthday by adding an incentive:  visit all 47 parks + 8 National Park Monuments in the sate, get a free pass ($75 value).  I’m a sucker for a quest with prizes.

The friend and I are no longer friends [there’s been a lot of changes in my life lately], but I’m continuing the state park quest on my own.  After all, I only have 12 parks to go; it’d be a shame to give up a quest just because I no longer have a partner.

First up, Hampton Plantation State Park just outside McClellanville, SC. McClellanville is about 30 minutes or so north of Charleston so if you happen to be in the city, and want a quieter outing,  this state park would be an easy day or half-day trip if you have transportation. Siri led me seriously astray… 13 miles down a sandy, one lane ‘road’ with top speeds of 20 mph. So if you’re headed here, and GPS directions say go down ‘Farewell Corner Road’, just don’t. Take my word for it.

Of course, it was raining… because that’s exactly the weather you want when driving down a sandy, dirt road

The Park
Hampton-Plantation-Historic-Site

Tucked away among live oaks and magnolias in the Santee Delta region, located on the banks of the Wambaw Creek, Hampton Plantation State Historic Site is home to the  final remnants of a colonial-era rice plantation. It’s not hard to imagine the rice fields that once stretched as far as the eye could see.  Started in the early 1700’s, the house and the fields were built and maintained with slave labor.

The property also tells the story of the freed people who made their homes in the Santee Delta region for generations after emancipation.

The park has various activities such as hiking, cycling, and kayaking.  There are also less strenuous activities like sweet grass basket weaving and bird watching.  Also mosquito swatting could be considered an activity as they are numerous and viscous in the summer.

The House

Hampton-Plantation

Hampton Plantation is a beautiful old Georgian style mansion built in 1700’s. The first family moved in while the house was still under construction….  1735. The plantation grounds cover 450 acres and was once South Carolina’s largest rice and indigo plantation.  The Rutledge family lived in the house until the mid 1900’s, and the the house and land was given to the SC State Park system.

Hampton plantation inside out

Hampton-plantation basement

What’s at Hampton Plantation

  • Fishing:  catfish, bream and bass
  • Boating/Kayaking:  the park has Wambaw Creek access
  • Bird-watching:  woodpeckers and swallow-tail kite
  • Geocaching
  • Hiking:  An easy, two-mile loop trail begins in the parking area and circles around the abandoned rice fields directly behind the Hampton Plantation Mansion.  Descriptions along the way also offer historically significant information as well as information on local plants and animals. Take my advice:  Mosquito repellent, bug hat, bug jacket all are recommended as there are massive quantities of ticks, horseflies, mosquitoes, and chiggers.  And they will bite you. Many, many times.