Yearly Archives: 2016

Flashback Friday | A Christmas Miracle

I tightly clutched my St Christopher’s medal, and whispered a prayer “protect me”.  Even though I consider myself Catholic, I’m not a very good one.  Perhaps all this time in these heavily Catholic countries is wearing  off on me.  I gave Christopher one last squeeze, and tucked him safely under my shirt.  In reality, I was praying for a miracle.  A miracle that I would 1. finish and 2.not crash.

I took a drug test [they don’t let anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol ride], took a swig of some vile-tasting alcoholic beverage, [oh, the irony] sprinkled some of the same liquid on my bicycle tires and the ground, and said a prayer to PanchaMama.  I wouldn’t want to go pissing off Mother Earth with my prayer to the patron saint of travel.

I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

I  loaded up on the safety gear…elbow pads, knee pads, helmet, bright safety vest, wind-suit….  Had there been more, I would have put it on too.  What in the world had possessed me to sign up for a 40+ mile bike ride from La Paz, Bolivia to Senda Verde, Bolivia…a bike ride that changes in elevation from 15,900 ft to 3600 ft…a bike ride that travels a road with the moniker World’s Most Dangerous Road?  Did I mention that I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 18, and I have never been very graceful on 2 wheels? Did I mention it was Christmas Day? In Bolivia?

To be fair, it’s technically not considered the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” anymore. Due to the construction of a new highway close by, which directs most traffic away from its path, they’ve recently upgraded the trail’s nickname to a much more simple, passive and inviting moniker… “The Death Road”.

I’d hate to see the new road that has earned the name of World’s Most Dangerous Road

The ‘Practice’ Death Road

The start of the Death Road is located around an hour outside of La Paz, high up in the mountains.

The road’s twists and turns through the jungle as it winds down the steep road make it a scary path to travel. There are very few barriers stopping you from falling off the edge which makes it more dangerous than roads in other mountainous areas. The dirt road is full of potholes and scattered gravel meaning you have to stay focused for the entire four hours it takes to bike the road, bouncing over dips and bumps.

It was cold and rainy and as we sped down the highway I became soaked to the skin and started wondering why I’d even signed up for this in the first place. It was so misty that I could hardly see the view of the valley below which gave me a false sense of security because I couldn’t see how steep the drop off was to the right side of me.

All of a sudden there was a large BANG!

The tire of the person who was riding in front of me burst and rubber flew into the air.  As a side note, whenever I am driving on the interstate, this is my worst fear.

We pulled over and the we had a look a the damage. The tire had completely exploded, leaving nothing but loose rubber flapping around the metal rim.

At the top of the Death Road we received another briefing.  “Try not to stand up on your bike if you’re not a confident mountain biker. Try not to grip the brakes the entire time. Leave a good 10 meters between yourself and the person in front of you. Stay alert,” our guide told us.  I mentally calculate how far 10 meters is.  [about 30 feet or so for those wondering]

Under the guide of our tour leaders, we rode slowly five minutes further down the road before stopping for a sandwich and getting a new tire put on the damaged bike.  We piled into the van after this biking practice and snack and set off for the Death Road. It was eerily quiet as we drove.

I’m not sure what was going through everyone else’s head, but I had visions of my tire bursting and me losing control of my bike, being thrown to my death in the valley below.  Or someone else taking me out.  Either would be bad.

Dramatic, yes.  Out of the realm of possibility, absolutely not…

What they don’t tell you:  The Death Road is Quite Stunning

Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of the Death Road is that it’s so damn beautiful.  Valleys of green surround you and with each twist of the road there’s a chance you’ll come across a waterfall  or two cascading down from the top of the mountain.

When the rain stopped and I got hot from the exercise, it was easier to notice the beautiful vistas around me.  But I didn’t want to look too hard – I needed all my concentration to stay safe on the Death Road.

As we bounced down the beginning of the dirt track on the most dangerous road in the world, I began to realize that it was near impossible NOT to hold my brakes the entire time.  I’m the girl who rides my brakes on the Swamp Rabbit Trail; I most certainly was doing it here.  As soon as I let go, I picked up speed and felt as though I was going to lose control.

So the whole way down the mountain I gripped the brakes. Gently at some points and more vigorously at others.

Perhaps this gives you an idea of why I clinched the brakes so much.  At times, I could hardly see the rider in front of me.

My hands are not the strongest part of me.   So listen to me now: gripping mountain bike brakes for four hours was extremely painful.  Excruciatingly painful, but necessary.

So many times I was tempted to give up and ride in the van that was slowly following us down the road, but I held out.

No, we did not all fall over the edge of the cliff…we’re just taking a break.

Almost the end of me

The only time I managed to let go of the handlebars was when I wanted to fiddle with my camera which was slung across my chest…

And this was nearly the death of me.

I’d been recording video on my camera for awhile and wanted to preserve the battery life. So I let go of the handlebar with my right hand and, while looking down, I tried to feel for the off button.  BIG mistake.  


All of a sudden I found myself on the other side of the road, dangerously close to the edge. As I tried to swerve away from the cliff below, I jerked the handlebars too hard and fell towards the edge.

I felt as though I was moving in slow motion.

I think I screamed and tried to right myself but to no avail.

I was falling.


I had landed on a patch of ground that jutted out over the cliff. Just behind where I’d fallen, entangled in my bike, was the open air leading to the bottom of the mountain.

In front of where I’d fallen was a sharp drop.   I watch the camera tumble over the cliff.

I’d literally fallen within centimeters of my death or serious injury.

“OH MY GOD. Are you okay?” the guide pulled up behind me, out of breath.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I tried to laugh. It sounded strangled.

“You scared me!” he said as he helped me up.

“Sorry!” I replied.

The End of the Road

I was shaken after my fall but not too shaken to keep on going. With hands tensed on the brakes, sending shooting pains up my arms, I managed to finish the Death Road with the other people in my group.

It felt like a massive achievement.

But the biggest reward for me was that I was still alive. My fall was a close call and really put a new spin on the term ‘living on the edge’.

Is it an experience I’d ever repeat?  Hell no.  Am I glad I did it when I did?  Absolutely.  Let’s just say I was never as happy to see a suspect swimming pool as I was when we got to Senda Verde lodge.

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.

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).

tower bridge ceremic poppies 2

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.

tower bridge ceremic poppies 3
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.

cowpens battlefield
Cowpens battlefield circa 1780

cowpens battlefiled 2
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

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

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

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.

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?


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.


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.

ampelmann cafe 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.


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


Flashback Friday | 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.

this is my good side
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

sally lightfoot crab
one of the more interesting creatures- Sally Lightfoot Crab

long leg crab


Red footed booby


male frigate
Male frigates are such show-offs

PINK FLAMINGOS are cool no matter where you find them

crabs win...octopus loses
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.

Boobies…just as entertaining as the sea lions

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

Long-term travel? It’s not for me

No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.


There are thousands of travel blogs out there.  A lot of them are written by people whose job is to travel full time.  They are digital nomads. These people are even paid [in the form of free trips, freelance writing or photography, doing product reviews] to travel.  A lot of these same travel blogs have similar posts:  How to… Top 10 reasons… Best things about… Worst things about, ect… I am trying NOT to be like these blogs.  You see, I am not a full time traveler, nor do I ever plan to be.  I’ve never made a dime from traveling. In spite of that, I get out the door occasionally.

  • I’ve traveled the UK and Ireland for 3 months.
  • I’ve lived in Campeche, Mexico for a year.
  • I backpacked around South America for over a year.
  • I’ve lived in Moscow for 4 months.

but I still don’t consider myself a long-term traveller.   Why?  Because in almost all these circumstances I’ve had a home base [South America was my most nomadic existence, but even then I rented apartments, did home stays, and did a lot of ‘slow travel’].  Living out of a suitcase sucks.  Packing and unpacking every few days suck as well.  I know because I spent most of my childhood staying with various relatives.  Being in a new environment, not knowing where things are, hanging around bus/train stations–all of that sucks.

For some, the thrill of a new environment gets them going.  They love nothing more than to be constantly on the go.  I love nothing more than relaxing…whether it”s in my bed, on a beach in Thailand, or sitting in a coffee shop in a new location.  I love having a home base…somewhere to come at the end of a hectic day [whether its all day exploring or a challenging shift at the hospital]  that’s ‘my space.’


I am an introvert.  I need alone time to recharge my batteries. I don’t necessarily like routine, but I do like familiar circumstances. Traveling, being on the go all the time, meeting new people, is exhausting.  It’s even more exhausting when you are constantly moving.  I don’t really have family roots, but I have strong geographical roots.  South Carolina is where I will always consider my ‘home’ to be.  Even if I’m living elsewhere.  I am at a point now where about the most time I can squeeze into a vacation is a month [and that’s really pushing it].  I know that getting to Point B from point A is the most expensive part of traveling.  Spending $1500 for airfare seems like a lot for a 2 week vacation; not so much if it’s spread across of 4 months. A lot of travel expenses are like this.

In a perfect world, I’d work for 3 months and travel for 6 weeks.  6 weeks in one location [or region] is enough time to really explore a region.  Still, 6 weeks travelling is not the norm [especially in the USA], but any longer than that, and this guy may forget who I am.



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


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

auschwitz 2

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.

If I weren’t a muggle

Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.                                                          Albus Dumbledore

muggles can't see it

On July 2, 1997, I wandered into a bookstore in Manchester, England looking for a book to keep me company on my train ride to Edinburgh.  The sales clerk suggested a new book that had just come out three days ago called ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’.  I flipped through it and thought–seems interesting enough…probably written for middle school aged kids, but it will be a quick read and I’ll have a book to trade when I get to Edinburgh. On my train trip north, I became immersed in the wizarding world of Harry Potter…of how boy of 11 found out he was a wizard and he and his friends were able to thwart the most evil wizard of all.  I finished the book right before we pulled into Edinburgh and promptly put Harry Potter out of my mind. We weren’t re-acquainted again until 2006 [when I plowed through almost the entire series in a two week period and then had an agonizing year wait for the finale]  But by now, you could say I am a bit of a Harry Potter nerd.  I have read all the books and seen all of the movies [including the midnight premiere of Deathly Hallows-Part 1 in Trujillo, Peru] multiple times.  I feel as if I KNOW Harry Potter. The following is how I’d imagine my life would be if I weren’t a muggle. If I weren’t a muggle, my life would be completely different, but somehow still familiar.

  1.  If I weren’t a muggle, I could go shopping in Diagon Alley…instead of just Target.

This is what I imagine Diagon Alley to look like..the real Diagon Alley is in Leadenhall Market which today looks nothing like Diagon Alley.

   2.  If I weren’t a Muggle, I’d be able to access Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Station.

          3.  If I weren’t a muggle, I would either be teaching potions [my                         favorite class] at Hogwarts or be employed as a healer at St Mungo’s              Hospital for Medical Maladies.  My ideal job, however, would be taking          over for Madame Pomfrey at Hogwarts.

         4.  If I weren’t a muggle, I could have gone to Hogwarts for middle and                  high school.

Old Hoggy, hoggy Howgwarts….

  5.  If I weren’t a muggle and had gone to Hogwarts, I would have had to be sorted into a house. The sorting hat would have encountered a little bit of difficulty deciding where to place me, but according to this quiz, I’d be placed in Slytherin–which is ok because green and silver are my colors… [I wouldn’t be one of those Death Eater Syltherins though].

In my Slytherin sweater
In my Slytherin sweater

6.  If I weren’t a muggle, I wouldn’t have to use the visitor’s entrance at the Ministry of Magic.

            7.  If I weren’t a muggle, I could have eaten all my meals in an oh-so-elegant dining hall instead of the very generic one at Clinton High School. I fully expected to see The Bloody Baron or Nearly Headless Nick floating through the room or Dumbledore sitting at the head of the table.

  8.  If  I weren’t a muggle, I could have received mail via owl instead of            the Arden Post Office.

9.  If I weren’t a muggle, I could have brought my cat to school.  Lucy would have loved that, and she could have helped me study for my OWL exams.


Just a few ideas about how my life would be different if I weren’t a muggle and here are a few other photos from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter:

The cafe that started it all…Where much of the first books were written in Edinburgh.

Alnwick Castle in Northumberland taken during my 1997 trip to UK before it was Harry Potter famous [the learning to fly on broomsticks lessons were filmed here]…I went to see the Poison Garden [which in my opinion should have found its way into the HP books]

and finally the beaches of Pembrokeshire, Wales [taken before HP fame during the ’97 trip]…In my opinion some of the prettiest beaches in the world…For the films, they built the Shell Cottage.  I am not sure if it is still there or if they took it down after filming was completed.