Archive | March, 2011
March 20, 2011

Sightseeing’s Serious Side

Sightseeing’s Serious Side

If you’ve seen our “Highlights from Germany and Austria” video, you know we had a fun time in Bavaria. Beer halls, mountains, castles, alpine luges, pretzels, rolling fields, fast highways, schnitzel, and lederhosen make Germany a very fun place to visit. On top of that, right next door is Poland where you get cheaper beer, perogi, and quaint little villages.

However, there is also the obvious darker history of the area that can’t, and shouldn’t, be ignored.

Some of the most moving tourist sights in Germany and Poland are the concentration camps that have been restored and preserved and memorials honoring those killed in the Holocaust. The museums that document and bring to life this horrific event can’t be missed. These places do their best to tell the tales of millions of people whose lives were destroyed.

While not the most uplifting places to visit, we made it a priority to go to several during our time in Europe. It is impossible to avoid seeing the effect that WWII had on that part of the world.

Dachau – Germany

Main Entrance - Dachau Concentration Camp 1945

Built on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory 16 km north of Munich, Dachau was the first regular concentration camp opened by the Nazi party.  It was the prototype for all other camps built afterward. The camp was in use from 1933 to 1945 as an internment center of the Third Reich.

The purpose of the first camps was simply to concentrate a group of people who are in some way undesirable (i.e. Jews, gypsies, prisoners of war) in one place, where they can be watched by those who incarcerated them. The forced labor, beatings, murders, and mass extermination soon followed.

It is hard to know the exact number of people who spent time in the camp.  The general estimate is 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries. About two-thirds were political prisoners and nearly one-third were Jews. Many died in the camps due to malnutrition and disease as well as suicide.

The historic site is free to the public and pretty crowded (especially with large school groups). It is also very spruced up.   It was used after the war until 1960 as an interment camp and the site of the Dachau trials, so much of the original construction is not in tact. The audio tour is very reasonably priced (only a few Euro) or you can hire a guide. The site consists of a central building (now housing a museum), reconstructed barracks, the camp crematorium, and a gas chamber that, thankfully, was never used. (Although, it is still quite chilling to stand in the “shower” room and see the holes in the ceiling where Zyklon B was planned to be dropped in.) There are several memorials and works of art on the grounds as well.

It is a sobering place, however, some of the “feel” is lost because of the remodeling. All of the statues, memorials, and new construction detract from the “realness”. It is hard to put yourself in the place of people who actually walked there during the war. But, it is worth a visit if you are in Munich.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – Berlin

This controversial memorial in Berlin was created by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold.  The expansive grounds are filled with 2,711 concrete slabs of varying heights. The slabs gradually get taller and taller as you enter the memorial.  According to the creators, the site is “designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” I enjoyed the memorial quite a bit, especially the underground museum (also free of charge). Some of the exhibits there are quite moving.

However, I think the symbolism is lost on many of the people passing through. Kids are running and playing hide and seek while squealing, guards are constantly reprimanding people from climbing on the columns (including us), and the whole place has more of a playground feel when large groups of students come barreling through.  As a piece of art, though, it is beautiful and quite an appropriate memorial.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - Berlin, Germany

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - Berlin, Germany

Jewish Museum – Berlin

Judisches Museum BerlinThe original Jewish History Museum in Berlin was founded in 1933 and shut down by the Nazi party in 1938. It was revived in 1978 and the new modern section was completed in 1999.  The new section is the creation of architect Daniel Libeskind and was one of the first buildings designed after the reunification. The museum is massive and filled with not only Holocaust information and memorials, but a history of the Jewish people, culture, and lives.

The new building can only be accessed through an underground tunnel.  The entrance and architecture are all very symbolic.  The zig-zag of the tunnel symbolizes a broken Star of David. The Holocaust Tower is an empty silo 79 feet tall. The room isn’t heated or cooled and contains only one tiny window at the top of the tower. A guide essentially locks small groups of people in the room for a short amount of time. You stand in silence, taking in the empty, cold space.

The rest of the museum is much more conventional and chronologically follows the story of the Jewish people. We didn’t realize how massive the museum was, so we didn’t get to spend as much time there as we would have liked. You can easily take 3 hours. There is a lot of great information as well as some fun interactive exhibits.

Auschwitz – Poland

The pinnacle for “sight-seeing” during  our time in Poland was Auschwitz. Unlike Dachau, this place has been preserved  to almost exactly the way it was during the war.  The site consists of two camps: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  The first camp consists of 16 buildings and was used for administrative purposes and a prison camp.  The first prisoners were brought there in 1940.  It housed not only Jews, but also Jewish supporters, prisoners of war, and any other group of people the Nazis found to be a menace to society. As you walk through the camp there are signs describing daily life and operations of the camp as well as some sites were specific atrocities took place.
Auschwitz-Birkenau - Oświęcim, Poland

Birkenau is reached by a free shuttle bus that leaves every half hour.  This was the extermination camp.  Much of this camp has been destroyed, but the main railroad entrance, several barracks, guard towers, and furnaces are still there.  This was probably the most moving place we visited on the trip.

Small groups of tourists listened to their guides describe the process of herding huge groups directly from the trains and into the furnaces.  We came across many people standing alone to the side and crying. Some were holding photos of family members. It was here where the reality of the Holocaust really hits home.

There are a ton of great artists and writers that attempt to realistically depict the hardship and genocide, but standing on the actual spot made it infinitelymore real than any film, book, or photo can.

Auschwitz-Birkenau - Oświęcim, Poland

Auschwitz-Birkenau - Oświęcim, Poland

Auschwitz-Birkenau - Oświęcim, Poland

We made it a priority to do this kind of sight-seeing on our  journey.  A backpacking trip shouldn’t be all boozing at hostel bars (just a little…).  As backpackers, we try to gain some knowledge and history (no matter how dark) of the world we are traveling through.

These places are some of the most memorable on our trip and we’re very glad we chose to see these sights.

Have you had a similar experience? Leave a comment below and tell us!

March 9, 2011

How to love Guatemala

How to love Guatemala

Well, I’ve been back in the U.S. for about a month now. I finished up with Spanish class in Xela and flew to Ft. Lauderdale, FL on Valentine’s Day! Clark and I met there and spent a couple weeks soaking up the sun in South Beach. (More on that strange place coming soon!)

Thinking of visiting Guatemala? I’ve come up with a few tips to make the most of your Guatemalan experience.

Also, be sure to watch my Guatemalan Highlights video at the end of the post!

Senora Ana y Kim - Xela, Guatemala

Graduation Day at Minerva Spanish School!

Learn a little Spanish! You’d be surprised how far a simple “Hola, como estas?” will go with local people.Spanish is also quite necessary to be able to communicate with most Guatemalans. There is very little English spoken in most areas. Sure, you’ll always find a tourist to speak English to, but to communicate with the locals, Spanish is a must.

Learn the meaning of “Va”. When in Quetzaltenango (Xela), my host mom kept adding, “Va, Kimberly” at the end of her sentences. Sometimes when I was leaving, sometimes not. I thought she was saying “bye” until I discussed the topic with a fellow classmate. We asked her instructor and he told us that it was sort of a shortened form of “Verdad?” which means “true?” or “right?” So, she was basically saying “Yeah”. Apparently it is a very commonly used word in Guatemala. I heard it a lot in Xela.

Get used to guns! Armed men are everywhere in Guatemala. Even in the heavily touristed areas you’ll find private guards at coffee shops, convenience stores, banks, ATM machines. It’s quite disconcerting and didn’t make me feel safe at all. It actually made it seem more dangerous.

Eat the street food. While I wasn’t blown away by the food in Guatemala, there were some tasty street foods that I just couldn’t pass up. Most of them were fried, like Pupusas and Doblados. However, I really liked getting a crispy tostada once in a while too. It’s a crispy tortilla topped with guacamole and a Guatemalan version of cole slaw. Yummy.

Pupusas! - Xela, Guatemala

Ride a chicken bus. I know it can seem scary, but just use common sense, take short trips, and be aware of your surroundings. Very few tourists are targeted for violent crime on the buses. Most incidences that occur are between citizens. You won’t regret having this interesting cultural experience.

Chicken Bus - Xela, Guatemala

Drink Coffee. Eat Chocolate. I’m not a huge fan of coffee, but my time in Guatemala has pushed me higher on the coffee drinker spectrum.  The coffee and chocolate here is some of the best in the world. Definitely buy some freshly picked and house roasted coffee at the shops on Lake Atitlan. Tasting some chocolate is also a MUST. My school took us on a chocolate tasting outing that was just amazing. Try the thick, creamy hot chocolate. You won’t regret it.

Chocolate y Frutas - Xela, Guatemala

Go to the lakes! Words can’t really describe the beauty of Lake Atitlan. Photos only capture some of what you see. It is much more than that. It is tropical, relaxed, and peaceful. You’ll also get to dive right into the Hippie culture, or just watch from afar!

Take Salsa lessons. Salsa dancing is fun, fairly easy, and great exercise. Everyone in Guatemala knows the basic salsa steps. Even if you have two left feet, suck it up and take a few lessons. You’ll be glad you did. Going to a salsa club and watching the more advanced couples twirl around is great!

Eat the fried chicken. I know it seems like I’m going on and on about this topic, but it really is quite good here. The best fried chicken I had was in Xela at the weekend market. It was fresh, juicy, and packed with flavor. Don’t forget to add some hot sauce!

Here is a little highlights video I put together. Enjoy!

March 4, 2011

Guatemalan Firsts: Solo Travel (3 of 3)

Guatemalan Firsts: Solo Travel (3 of 3)

I traveled solo in Guatemala for about four weeks and had lots of “firsts”. In this series of posts, I’ve taken a look at these experiences. I rode my first Chicken bus, attended my first language school, tasted my first piece of fried chicken from Pollo Campero, and traveled solo for the first time.

First time traveling solo

At first I was extremely nervous about traveling alone. When I boarded the plane in Chicago I definitely had some butterflies in my stomach. Would I hate it? would I be okay by myself?

After my first few days in Quetzalroo hostel, my positive experiences boosted my confidence significantly.

I’m an only child and I enjoy my “alone time”. Maybe that’s why I took to solo travel so naturally.  It was easy to find a quiet corner in the hostel and whip out my Kindle or Laptop for a while. The places I chose to hang out in (Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and Xela) were all great places to wander around alone. The churches, ruins, streets, and architecture of Antigua and Xela and the breezy, warm, island-like atmosphere of the lake were all beautiful.

La Merced - Antigua, Guatemala

My favorite church - La Merced in Antigua, Guatemala

San Marcos, Guatemala

Waiting for the boat to cross Lake Atitlan

Yes, it was my first time traveling solo, but after just a few days I knew so many people that I never felt alone. I ran into someone I knew continually as I made my way from town to town. You meet people in hostels, restaurants, coffee shops, buses, and tours and end up seeing them again along the way.

Why did I love traveling solo?

Freedom: I loved waking up when I wanted and casually preparing for the day without worrying about someone else’s schedule. If I wanted to read on the rooftop terrace or beach all morning, I could. If I wanted to spend an entire day taking photos of doors, I could. If I wanted to eat at Pollo Campero twice in one day, I could…maybe that’s not such a good thing.

Copacabana Beach + Kindle - Dubrovnik, Croatia

Reading alone on the beach in Dubrovnik.

Feeling Adventurous: I got a lot more pleasure from my bus trips and hostel searches while I was going it alone. I felt more independent and adventurous throwing my bag up on the roof of a shuttle and waiting all alone at gas stations for the next bus. I became much more self-reliant during my month in Guatemala.

Meeting People: While couples who travel can and do meet people, it is much easier when you are by yourself. You are much more approachable as a single person and if you get a little lonely there is no other choice but to talk to a stranger. Solo travel forces you to be outgoing or you’ll just sit there alone and experience nothing. Travelers also feel an instant connection with each other, probably because of shared interests, similar age, and the college like atmosphere of hostels. Making friends is very easy.

Lindley - Xela, Guatemala

My classmate, Lindley and me and La Parranda.

Shared Experiences: One huge apprehension I had about traveling solo was that I wouldn’t be sharing my experiences with anyone. I imagined wandering around a city by myself and snapping photos with no real memories. This is far from my actual experience. I almost always shared my time with someone that I met along the way. I’ve also kept in touch with a lot of people. There were definitely times that I wandered around alone, but it was by choice and I enjoyed it. I still have those memories even though no one was with me. I can look back at those photos and remember the day, the scene, the weather, the feeling. It doesn’t take being with another person to enjoy a place.

I also have great memories with people like dancing at La Parranda and the Tropicana, hiking up Mt. Pacaya, tasting the best chocolate fondue ever, wandering around a beautiful cemetery, swimming in Lake Atitlan, and witnessing someone take their very first bite of a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

Sami's first cheeseburger - Antigua, Guatemala

Sami and her first Cheeseburger Happy Meal!

She liked the cheeseburger, by the way.

Of course this doesn’t mean I’m ditching Clark.

There were absolutely times when I missed him a lot and wished he was climbing the volcano, poking fun at the hippies, or jumping on a Chicken bus with me. But, separate experiences are good. And, I’m sure had a great time without me in Chicago. He spent most of it braving the “Snowpocalypse” huddled in Beth’s apartment with no electricity and heat and a five-foot high snow drift outside the front door. (I think I left at the perfect time!)

For those of you who are timid about solo travel, I have some advice: DO IT. Even if you have a husband, wife, significant other, new puppy, three cats, pet rock, whatever. Take a short trip by yourself. It’s liberating and empowering. You won’t regret it.

What do you love about traveling alone? Leave your comments below!

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