Dienstag, 31. Juli 2012

Last Day In Vienna...

31 July 2012

The last few weeks have been so crazy I never even found time to write about my trip to Mexico, relaxing on the beach in Playa del Carmen, visiting Chichen Itza nor my trip to Paris to see my dear friend.  Now, it seems too far gone with another heavy imminent trip approaching.  I move back to America in the morning.

Only because I loved this city and the people who I met so much did a short 6 month secondment become 1.5 years in this land.  I must be honest and say I will not miss stumbling over the German language but I will miss hearing versions of Austrian dialect chatting next to me in a beach chair on the Donau Canal.  Or hearing it linger as I walked around this visually delightful city.  The museums, the cathedrals, the bright red trams, and the architecture from a time well-before what most American cities were around to experience. 

The lovely parks, especially the Augarten, the Prater, and Volksgarten will sincerely be missed.  Year round, the Rathausplatz, Stephansplatz, and Museumsquartier had something to offer to residents and visitors alike.  In the warm months, the Strandbar, Sand in the City, and hiking up to the top of Kahlenberg and Leopoldsberg always made me smile.  I only had one season of Christmas Markets but I fell in love instantly – warm punsch and comfort food brought us through those cold nights.  This city has so much to offer, it is difficult to think anywhere else I could go would wrap its arms around me in welcoming delight the way Vienna did.

Now, with less than 24 hours to go, my departure is fully realized.  As I walked today, away from my former employer, through the 3rd district and into the park, tears continued to sneak down my face.  My friends here, who so easily understand the importance of people and give them a value far above their careers; thank you for the welcome back to a normal reality (quite unlike my days in DC) because it is here where people matter more than money and spending time with a friend is the best moment of all.  Vienna has revived me and now the next chapter is about to be written…

Sonntag, 17. Juni 2012

One day in Poland...

17 June 12

As I attempt to put my experiences from Poland into words, I am at a loss for what to share because it all is so important.  The trip was quick, the memories deep and the emotions overwhelming.  For my description, I will simply start at the beginning.  I took the night train on Friday, June 1st from Vienna to Krakow.  When I arrived at Krakow’s main train station on Saturday morning, I had only a slight idea of the paths down which my day would lead me.  First off, arriving in the country where my father’s family is from; the country where my father’s family’s last name was Madry made my heart long to know and understand as much as possible about this place.  For my single day trip, however, I would only get a glimpse.
My journey began with a tour to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, Birkenau.  We traveled the hour from the center of Krakow to the visitor’s entry where we met up with our tour guide.  She was from Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German) and worked as a teacher when she was not providing moving tours through the two camps.  We started in Auschwitz I which was a work camp where only able-bodied men were housed.  In our 1.5 hours we saw so much and I learned that the gas used in the gas chambers was called Cyclone 8 and its poisonous capacity was activated by heat.  We walked through several of the brick barracks now converted to museums.  Each told a story of the horrors perpetrated within the gates of Auschwitz.  One remains as it was during WWII with glass covering the doorways where we could see the wooden barracks where victims slept.  We were reminded that being held in Auschwitz I was a coveted position compared to the conditions of Auschwitz II, Birkenau. 
In Barrack 11, the main hall was lined with photos taken by the Germans when new victims were brought in and there were so many names and facial features that were too familiar.  My hometown was settled and formerly populated by Poles.  I found a connection in this hallway that made me visibly tremble.  Further down the hallway, I found pictures of Jewish victims who had been beaten before their photo was taken, and due to their date of arrival and date of death included under the photo I could see some did not even survive 24 hours in hell at Auschwitz. 
Our trip to Auschwitz I ended with being shown the only remaining gas chamber to elude destruction as the Soviets liberated the camps.  It was overpowering, it was devastating, it was terrifying, but we all walked in just as the victims did 7 decades ago.  I could not believe the tour included walking through this site of so many deaths.  It was such a small room where hundreds would be forced in at a time to die a few minutes later.  After this, we were told our next stop would be the extermination camp, Birkenau and none of us had any verbal response, our silence said it all.
Walking into Birkenau was strange because the remaining or rebuilt barracks were so far off in the distance that the train tracks and entry gate appeared something like a factory, which is so far from what it was.  When our guide began to explain each point to us the picture became so gruesome.  It made me so angry to be in there!  One point was the “staging area” where the train cars came into the camp and the victims were unloaded after days in stuffed into a small space.  The women and children formed one line and the men in another.  They were told to leave all of their belongings and a doctor stood at the front of the line; he would point his outstretched thumb to the left or the right.  To the right meant immediate death, even before registration.  To the left meant the person was fit to work and would thus have a chance to walk through misery and hell with a possibility of exiting on the other side.
We were taken through many spots in the camp including being shown how the Germans exploded the gas chambers in an attempt to hide their crimes before the camp was liberated.  In the rubble you can still see the underground undressing room and the columns of the death chamber.  There were four large gas chambers in Birkenau, remember Auschwitz I, the “work” camp only had one.
Our guide showed us the wash room and toilets.  These were only long buildings, identical to the rest of the barracks, with long open sinks that had water flowing to them only once a day in one building or long rows of raised cement with holes in the other.  Our guide also took us to the only authentic barrack that had not been destroyed or rebuilt.  We stepped in to the building with the bars still on the windows and cold misery hung in the air.  The ground was the dirt floor the victims had walked on, the bunks were the 5 or 6 feet wide shelves 6 to 8 people slept on, and the dim light was the dark world in which they had to live.  I was absolutely terrified in this space and as we spent longer in this structure, fear crept up my spine and seeped through every nerve in my body.  I was afraid to accidently touch anything, the floor being bad enough, for fear I would bring the hollow emptiness with me. 
On the drive back to Krakow, I was worn out.  Emotionally drained though my mind continued to spin in efforts to process all I had just seen and heard.  I closed my eyes and woke up just before we arrived in the Krakow city limits.  It was the separation I needed and seeing the groggy tour mates around me, I would guess they needed it too.
I asked to be dropped off at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in the city center.  I walked in to say a prayer in the chapel and as happens so frequently these days, I cried.  Having this moment with the tourists flashing their cameras around me felt ridiculous and I left to see what else Krakow had to offer me in the almost 7 hours I had left before getting on another night train from Krakow to Vienna.  Krakow’s city center was beautiful!  It was also very interesting and full of history.  I even took a golf-cart tour of the Jewish Ghetto and Schindler’s Factory.  My evening ended with some good wine and delicious pierogies!!  So much in just a single day in Poland…

Entering Auschwitz I - "Arbeit Macht Frei"...Deception and control, from the moment the victims entered...

One part of the double electric fence surrounding Auschwitz

Auschwitz II Birkenau - viewed from inside the camp looking back at the gate

Authentic barrack in Birkenau....overwhelming.

Saint Mary's Cathedral - Krakow, Poland

One long day - happy to be in my sleeper compartment headed home.

Montag, 11. Juni 2012

Italy is Amazing!!

11 June 12
            I finally understand why Italy is such a popular vacation destination!  I have only seen Rome, Naples and Capri but it all amazingly filled my eyes with such beauty and history that I cannot wait to go back.  I met Natasha on Wednesday morning, the 23rd of May at Fiumicino airport outside of Rome.  Seeing her again was great as she is someone who I connect with even beyond our similar career paths.  She is so much fun while also being thoughtful and able to look out for her friends.  The chance to experience Rome with her made me smile inside and out!
            We did so much in our 6 days in Italy but the two that were my most favorite included the day we went to Capri and our visit to see the Colosseum (aka the Flavian Ampitheather, est AD 80).  We departed for Capri the day after we arrived in Italy and from seeing the beautiful countryside on the drive to the port in Naples to the city of Naples itself, we were off to a great start!  The 45 minute boat ride to the island of Capri got a bit difficult for several of the passengers due to the choppy seas (though I loved it, it was just like a kiddie rollercoaster!).  When we got to the island we had blue skies with a few clouds – it was perfect!  Our tour took us from Capri up the small winding roads to the top at Anacapri (translation: above Capri).  The views were amazing and like nothing I have seen before – the mountains, the tucked away houses and buildings, the sparkling turquoise and blue water, the green lush foliage – it was perfect.
            After days of walking the streets of Rome, touring and enjoying delicious wine and food (with an unplanned night of debauchery at the local clubs in Testaccio), it was finally time to visit the Colosseum!  We had passed it several times as our bed & breakfast was only a couple of blocks from the immense structure.  At the thought of finally going in to the place where so much blood was shed and so many Romans yelled for more, I was beyond excited.  When we got inside it was early and the crowds had not yet arrived – I was able to take it all in and identify where the emperor would have sat, where the gladiators would have entered the arena as well as where the victor would have walked out through the Gate of Life.  There was so much here, I felt as if the building whispered tales to me as we stepped on stone flooring that have felt footsteps for centuries.  It was a place of bloodshed, death and gruesome “games” but it is also a place of so many stories.  Most importantly, it is a place that symbolizes what went very wrong with the culture of the Roman Empire; it is our reminder that when we call for blood, we beg for our own destruction.  The Colosseum can teach us so much.

View of the Island Capri from the boat

In Anacapri overlooking Capri

Coffee stop before our tour of the Vatican

Smiling in front of the Pantheon - inside this building, the lighing is amazing - do you know why? :-)

Oh, Colosseum, How I love thee!

The Colosseum

Kyiv, Ukraine...not the place to be.

11 June 2012
My decision to join my friend Adam during mid-May in Ukraine was completely uninformed.  I imagine my friend Sarah’s decision to join us leaves her with the same hindsight.  I do not have much good to say about this previous soviet region.  The water is undrinkable to the point that brushing your teeth in it can lead to a bad case of intestinal upset.  The poverty is at 60% and signs of the repression of communism (and its end in 1991) are still clear everywhere.  Within a rough triangle drawn with the main cathedrals (St Micheal’s, St Sophia and St Andrews Cathedral), Independence Square and approximately Khreshchatyk Street, there are interesting sights, architecture and main-stream (high-end) businesses.  Outside this area (even on the way to the number 1 tourist site, the monastery), the effects of post-communism poor political decisions and poverty are very apparent.  And even within this area, all three of us felt strange or vulnerable by the way certain groups of men would look at us (Sarah and I due to the odd feelings associated with fears of being sold into the sex-trade, and Adam due to the ignorant and ridiculous homophobia still alive and well in Ukraine).
I could not get comfortable in Kiev, Ukraine…though I can in the non-touristy areas of Jamaica, during solo travel in Africa and even in Detroit, Michigan.  I never wanted to make eye-contact with any men, saw frequent public urination and unfortunately watched a young girl get beaten by her “boyfriend” as his friends and others just watched.  This last event made it especially clear to me how uncomfortable I was being that along with the rest of the by-standers, I did nothing to help this girl…
When we planned the trip, we thought it would be interesting and perhaps a bit funny to book the Kiev Communism Tour (our tour guide assumed we were in Kiev for business and asked “why” when I told her we were there only for tourism…).  After less than 24 hours in Kiev, we realized it was not funny to have booked this tour but perhaps even more interesting and real than we could have imagined.  Getting to see so much history with two great friends makes me not regret the trip but looking back, knowing what I do now, I may not have chosen to take my time to go to that place so full of sadness, hopeless acceptance and still-apparent scars of war and communism.
Independence Square, Kyiv Ukraine

St. Andrews Cathedral...Under renovations, as the Russian Orthodox Church should be...

Best travel companions ever!

Ignorance protesting equality...anti-gay propaganda led by about 50 nuns and a priest...

Sonntag, 10. Juni 2012


10 June 2012

Each time one of my friends or family ask me to relay the top highlight of my travels to Namibia, I always find myself explaining along at least two paths: meeting the people and seeing the wild animals.  My short time during the first week of May in Namibia had so many great points.  The people, however, made an impression on me beyond what seeing zebras, elephants, giraffes and lions for the first time ever could.  
The people who I met were warm, observant, welcoming and curious (almost as curious as I was!).  Meeting people for the first time is always rewarding but meeting these people in Windhoek, Outapi and Onawa Village was beyond the social rewards usually experienced; getting to know people who live in a vastly different culture from anything I know or could understand was life-changing.
When I arrived in Onawa Village on my second day in Namibia, the welcome I received made me feel very special.  Three of Adam’s students were waiting by the shops that sit in stand-alone square block buildings as you turn off the main gravel road into the village.  They hopped in the truck to join Johanna, Ernst and me as we headed toward the Shaanika’s homestead in the center of the village.  Kahipi (Adam’s friend from his year as a teacher in Onawa), his brothers and other Shaanika family welcomed us and shared drinks, food and stories.  They made me feel so welcome in a way that I knew I was supposed to be sitting around the open-air living room with exactly these people at this time.  I was able to relax in the moment, drink in the oshikund, eat the oshifimi and be surrounded by sincerity.
My third day in Namibia allowed a tour of Onawa Village, which is loosely strewn together structures, connected by open flood lands.  During this short drive-around the village, anyone Kahipi introduced me to as “Adam’s Amanda” quickly showed light and love from their smiles as they reconnected with memories of Adam’s time in Oanawa.
After the tour, it was finally my chance to meet Magdalena.  After being her far-removed sponsor for the last 3 years, I was urgently excited that Kahipi was able to make contact with her family and arrange that we would follow the severely un-detailed directions to the Kamati homestead at noon.  We drove and drove, not completely knowing how to get to Magdalena’s family’s land that sits quite far from the village where they farm Mahangu.  As we drove I contemplated Magdalena’s dedication to education knowing she would walk this distance, plus all the way through the village, each day for school (even in floodwaters, sometimes so high the school had to be closed to prevent the small children from being swept away by the wet season’s taking of the roads and fields).
When we finally reached the Kamati homestead, Magdalena was not yet returned from the neighbors (it was harvest time and even the children work very hard).  We sat, and with Kahipi translating, I spoke with Magdalena’s father.  He confirmed I was indeed his daughters sponsor only after chatting and making me, Kahipi and my driver, Ernst, feel welcome.  Then Magdalena came walking into the homestead!  She walked slowly with her head down, displaying her extremely shy self.  When she saw me, she walked faster and let me give her a big hug!!  We talked, her family made us a fantastic lunch, we traveled back to the village together, then back to the homestead again, and we talked about her university.  I had previously given her the task to check on financial aid and grants for university but because only this year the global recession hit Namibia, the 50-60% unemployment and other economic struggles have created a situation with very little school financial assistance.  I told her that I would make sure she had the money for university if she got herself accepted – she did not respond, only looked down, and after Kahipi confirmed she understood my English it was clear this shy girl was just overwhelmed by the news.  Kahipi then translated this news to Magdalena’s father and this man grown old from village life, jumped from his chair and thanked me with a big American hug.  He explained that because their only son had died and he was now old and injured, there was no good work and no money for school.  He further explained that he is so happy Magdalena will have the chance for university.  I continued to explain how it was my honor to be part of their life and I was blessed with the love beaming from Magdalena’s father’s face. 
After my time in the North in Outapi and Onawa, I headed back for a couple days of relaxing in Windhoek.  Ernst drove us through Etosha on the way back from the North.  Here I saw amazing African animals in their natural habitat.  When we finally reached Windhoek and Ernst brought me back to Guesthouse Terra Africa, I was welcomed home like I was family.  All of Rolf’s staff are so warm and kind; it was just what I needed to enter two days of total relaxation.
…Until next time, Namibia!
Magdalena's Family - Father, Magdalena, older sister, me and Mom

A view of the land in the middle of the village.

I spotted a lion in Etosha!

And Ernst found me an Elephant!!

A Birthday Across the Pond...

No matter how far away I am, it is important that I am there for my friends.  During early March, I hopped on a plane to fly 10 hours and celebrate my friends birthday with her in Washington D.C.  Only two days in the hub of American political bullshit allowed for many necessities.  It was just enough time to reconnect with a few people, eat some good Chinese food and magnificent steak, celebrate one of my closest friend's birthday, meet the birthday girl's new boyfriend, and get a proper pedicure. 

Sarah's Birthday Dinner

Friends :-)

Donnerstag, 1. März 2012

Turkey! Not the traditional Thanksgiving meal...

01 March 2012
                There are two main focuses I want to share about my early February travel to Istanbul: the beauty and the experience.  The coastline, old buildings and glorious mosques left my eyes full.  The experience of the over-bustling bazaars, over-aggressive sales techniques and visiting the Hagia Sophia will stay with me.  I have never visited a place before that I can compare to Istanbul.  The minute I stepped out of the Hilton, I was in another world so unlike the Western world from which I come.  The people were so nice, yet pushy.  The buildings were so beautiful but full of domes and other such architectural flair not common in the sights familiar to me.   My travel partners and I, over wine on the terrace, decided our ears would ring with the demanding question “do you want to buy carpet” and our eyes would gloss over with memories of the beautiful buildings we saw for years to come. 
                One of the most beautiful buildings was the Hagia Sophia.  From the outside it looks not so nice but once you step inside and are greeted by a great hall and enormous doors (the center one used only by emperors), the amazement begins!  We walked around in a constant state of overwhelming, numbing, jaw-dropped bliss.  This structure, once Christian and then Islamic, holds so much history that you cannot help but be in awe.
                We also made sure to attend a belly dance show that also displayed many other forms of traditional dance from the region.  Our hotel (gotta love the Hilton) got us front row center seats and we almost felt like we were part of the action.  The dancer who performed Asian belly dancing was the most impressive.  Her entire body would vibrate while her belly danced and her head would be perfectly still.  A true master of her craft!
                I hope to go back to Turkey and spend more time in Istanbul.  All we experienced was only in the old town with one side-trip for dinner under the Galata Bridge.  The delicious and fresh seafood would be enough to get me back there by itself!
Entering the Grand Bazaar

Inside the Grand Bazaar at closing time...hence the lack of people.

Our choices for dinner under the Galata Bridge!

Hagia Sophia

The door where only emperors were allowed to enter during Byzantine times

Inside Hagia Sophia

View from the second floor in the Hagia Sophia

Inside the Blue Mosque

Belly Dance show!