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Diwali :)

Diwali in HK was disappointingly quiet. I was nostalgic for all the Diwalis spent with family, for all the Diyas with friends, for all the khana and mithai and lights and laughter and communal prayers. Not only did I not get to go to the temple for aarti because I had class, I’ve also had a severe bout of food poisoning starting Monday, which is really untimely, because there is little I can skip this week. So all in all, a blue Diwali, and I didn’t get any mithai at all (jealous of everyone who did!). This Friday I will try to treat myself to something if my tummy will handle it 🙂

I’m not sure what the large community of Indians do for Diwali here in HK. Its odd to me, because there are clearly a significant population, yet so little seems to be going on, except for a few Diwali balls (which I unfortunately can’t afford 😦 ). It reaffirms my very large stereotypical idea that South Asians in the States tend to be more communal for some reason and driven to organize as a community than South Asians living abroad anywhere else…I say that as someone who lives in a city with 2 full time AM and 1 full time FM Hindu/Urdu stations, a number of temples and mosques and gurudwaras, several Hindi/Urdu newspapers and magazines in regular publication, and a continuous spree of activities focused towards the South Asian community. And that isn’t an odd city, in fact, it probably falls short of some other ones in NJ or CA (although probably takes the cake when it comes to the radio :)). I just don’t see as much cohesiveness and activity in the community here, and I think its simply because everyone is too busy, among other reasons. I’ve compared the same thing in other parts of the world too, and its consistently true, for better or for worse 🙂 Its interesting…

Anyway, I wish everyone back home in India and the States a very, very Happy Diwali. May light shine on everything this year, and may it be better than the year gone by (which really threw some tough ones out on us!). Stay safe, healthy, happy, and become wealthy (or more wealthy, whichever is applicable!) 🙂

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I am now in Hong Kong! Where I will be for the next year…at least until summer begins.

Here’s to the start of fall and a new adventure in a new country! Wish me luck!

My Hong Kong blog will be at http://thedimsumadventures.wordpress.com . Drop by anytime!

I will continue to blog here for all-non-HK stuff.

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Not this post, ‘course. You can bet on that 😉

Sha La La, Full House OST

‘Coz how can you not listen to this and remember Song Hye Kyo posing around on her trip, and wish you could pose around and look as pretty on your trips?

Right after I made my first post about my recent trip, I planned to make another describing everything I didn’t in my mousy mood. Because it was also one of the best and most important event in my life, returning home after such a long time. Its something I’d wanted so much it hurt, and then when I was there it was suddenly so strange to be there, so unreal. Things usually hit me much later anyway…the cause and effect time line is somewhat skewed in my system…so for some time it was like I’d always been used to this. Hadn’t I? I had always jumped away from traffic threatening to run me over, walked while minding the potholes and sewage water, and tried to make my way through the crowds. I think, in essence, that was me getting used to being back to who I was. None of this was shocking, because I wasn’t a foreigner, it just took getting used to to get back in the rhythm.

The best part, of course, was to reconnect. Re-adjusting was part of the reconnecting, and I was surprised at how well I did. At one point, I managed to live without electricity, with mosquitoes, and in questionable hygienic situations, being sick all the while, without any signs of the reaction I would have expected. Eight years ago maybe it wouldn’t even be a matter of consideration, but I was still somewhat pleased with myself that I could adjust. However, re-connecting with the people was the best. Sure, we had our gaps, our moments of awkwardness or ‘um, now how do I move past this uncomfortable situation without treading on toes?’, but those were few and far between, and with very few people. Mostly, it felt like time had failed to create a rift between the people we cared for the most. Like my childhood bff, D, said, it was like no time had passed between us. Hadn’t we always laid around like this? Gossipped about old classmates? Discussed movies and food and the city and the torture of waxing, all in one conversation?

I won’t discuss the family part so much (this being a public blog and all), but enough is said to convey how beautiful it was to just see everyone we could, relive the memories, and just discuss and catch up on where we were. It wasn’t always perfect, and we didn’t get to see everyone (and managed to offend many, but isn’t that always how it goes? ;)), but it was good enough :). And of course, one of the most exciting parts of the trip, which will go undescribed, was the meeting of people you’d always wanted to meet, and welcoming in beautiful, new parts of the family.

And then there was just the sense of realizing I was back in my own country and appreciating that to the fullest. Where service and being served is just a given. It was strange to have people open doors, serve your food and water, do your laundry, having a waiter stand next to your table the entire time as you tried to hide your disconcernment and continue your casual conversation. It was strange to realize that you weren’t expected to cook, clean, do any of the chores you usually did (and yet there was so much to do, but thats different!). Some of it was difficult to get used to (esp the constant waiter! eek, i’ll serve myself!), but other stuff I was too happy to oblige with (you can guess which). It was relaxing, and it was kind of a reminder of how hard we work here. Its not marshmallow smores here…in fact, its more sweet and chocolatey when you have somebody doing all the mundane things so you can focus on the important things in life. Like shopping.

And shopping was…well, fun. Styles change with the flick of a celebrity’s wrist, but thats okay with me because everyone’s going to be out of style here 😉 After being embarassed (but refusing to be ashamed) after my outdated wardrobe at the wedding, I stocked up on suits and whatnots, and ran after and shouted and urged and pleased with tailors as they kept failing to get it right (I still don’t understand why…), and then finally did (and that was the really fun part). I didn’t get to shop as much as I wanted to (or ‘needed’ to), but shopping and getting stuff tailored is an experience in itself. Don’t miss it. And no matter what anyone tries to tell you: stuff isn’t really that expensive. Sure, prices have tripled, even quadrupled, from eight years ago, but if you know where to shop and if you know how not to act foreignerly (or if your skin gives you away, take someone brown in a sari ;)), because its the people who get phoreigned who lose out.

Touring? Who has time for that? Granted I’ve barely seen most of the country. I’ll say it outloud: I HAVEN’T SEEN THE TAJ MAHAL. There. But touring takes a back seat when everyone’s inviting you to dinner and feeding you and you’re trying to visit everybody so you can stay in their good books. Its a lillll bit difficult. I was lucky, however, to have excuses to be in a lot of different cities this time. And we did make a little byway to Mysore, the city of breathtaking temples and palaces. Just a sneak peek at a picture post I hope to make again later. And I’ll have to make a whole different pictures post for the fantastic trip I had with P’s AWESOME FAMILY 🙂 to Shivaji’s Fort in Pune. We had THE best time (probably the most fun I’ve had in ages), and we saw the most beautiful things…birds, flowers, the most beautiful sights of the rustic land…and had the yummiest fresh food under the shade of some trees. Yup, that was quite some day. (Thanks!)

Srirangapatnam:

At Srirangapatnam

Mysore Palace (probably THE most beautiful palace I’ve EVER seen. It was just astounding)

Have you said hello to Mahishisura?

The famous Chamundeshwari Temple

(The Goddess Chamundi killed the wicked Mahishisura Rakshas (lovely pic above). The temple is in the Chamundi Hills)

The Goddess herself. Women (and Goddess) Power!

Last, but oh definitely not the least (how can it ever be the least), THE FOOD! Which is what everyone goes home for. Every foreigner. No matter what they tell you. Because can you get the same taste at any restaurant in the world? Can you get the same tandoori chicken, the same sweet corn soup, the same aloo tikki, the same saag and makki roti, the same peda and phetha and laddoo and gulabjamun? And the uncle chips, pudina flavor, which you’ve loved since you were about three? Can you get fed with the same love, care, pressurizing? Can you be filled to bursting point each meal, and then be offered some chai? Where else will your didi feed you sabji-roti with her hands, and where else will you eat the juiciest, sweetest, red carrots? Where else can mausis make your favorite foods and sweets and you almost cry because its just all so good and yummy and touching.

Now I’m hungry, and nostalgic and sad. And I didn’t take any pictures of the food. Oh darn.

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Yeh Tara Woh Tara, Swades

For the first time ever, I’ve been really jetlagged. For the past couple days I’ve been in a zombie state, and crashed randomly come 8-9pm. I think its the joint effect of being sick for most of the trip and getting little/no sleep, plus traveling constantly which makes for a terrible schedule. I don’t do well with randomized schedules.

While I don’t like writing about the personal bits of any trip, I will comment on the overall feeling of being back. Firstly, it wasn’t as shocking as I had expected it would be. Not until I got back to my home town, which was actually the only place which would be familiar anyway. And while it was very strange to be unable to identify the roads for a day or two, it was sad more than shocking. Sad in a ‘well, yes, ofcourse’ kind of way. It was expected. And then, when I did start looking beyond the new shinyness and development and saw those same roads and places I knew it was somewhat comforting and nostalgic for a little while.

But see, this has what has changed the most everywhere I went in India: there’s a lot of development. There are supermarkets, which sell everything from everywhere nowadays. There are malls and electronics stores and car dealerships, pizza huts and mcdonalds, all the sure-fire signs of a society becoming rich and growing Westernized with a zeal. There are a lot of things that I didn’t grow up with, that bring a lot of comfort to life and which are good to see. Everyone has a cell phone (and everyone means everyone. Even the rickshaw drivers. I think someone once saw a beggar with one).

But while this is great change in eight years, and while I’m really glad for it, it isn’t exactly what I imagined when everyone talked excitedly to me about how wonderful life has become in India. How everything is dramatically different. How its all comfort and sugar and spice. Because it wasn’t. You might not agree with me, completely understandably, and you might have your own reasons for it, but my eyes (ofcourse, jaundiced with activism), saw a somewhat different picture.

And I wasn’t looking at things pessimistically or critically. This is my country as much as anybody else’s, and I went with hope and eagerness. I hoped to be able to exclaim proudly at the wonderful changes and throw around compliments. But I didn’t get the chance to do that, because underneath all the fancy, dressy facade, nothing had really changed. Nothing that had formed the reason for my adaptation to this country. I didn’t leave because I wanted to shop in malls, or eat at Pizza Hut, or get a burger and then go to a giant multiplex. And those are also not the reasons I love America. Opportunity, respect (as a person not in the upper ranks of society and as a woman), the desire to not be faced by the hopelessness of life every day, the chance to be active in society and actually watch my actions create change…those factors are why I have adapted here.

While it may seem unfair and while its hard to hear and write about, these are the factors that are yet to change back home. I did not expect poverty to be eliminated, but I also did not expect the gap to have increased. While the middle class can now afford gigantic palace-like houses, the slums haven’t changed one bit. While the middle and upper classes may be getting better care in the hospitals (though that may be questionable with the reservation system, but thats for another time), the lower classes are still catered to by inadequate, dirty, and makeshift government clinics by overworked doctors and nurses (I should know this, I had to be rushed to one mid-journey and even while I was half-conscious, I was painfully aware that this was not where I should be). Beggar children still clamored and hung onto my arms. The rich still got away with murder (a car ran over four people at 5pm in the city. The driver was drunk, and presumably, from a rich family. The police came too late and I doubt any action was taken). The apathy has become stronger than ever, settled in like pollution and become a part of the environment. Natural human conscience, just plain goodness, is still biding its time somewhere else: my mother and I observed a large middle class family joyfully and greedily stuff themselves and their children while their children’s young caretaker (probably 7-8?), starkly brown and destitute against their rich, whiter, skins, sat right there morosely and hungrily. Not only was it unthinkable to buy her some food of her own, but the family was cruel enough to have her sit right there with their gluttunous family. I wished them all cases of severe appendicitis.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not sitting here pointing out all the deficits I noticed, whining or complaining like the typical ‘NRI-foreigner’. Though it may come off like this right now, I actually hate the kind who sit around and describe the negative side of India and all that BS, like they dropped from heaven and don’t belong to the same place. I am from there, and I’m proud of it…so much of who I am is because of my culture, my traditions, my ethnicity, the values I was raised with in India. Like I’ve said, there’s a lot of good change. There are new roads and highways (Mumbai-Pune highway: amazing), there are new sources of employment, there are greater opportunities than there were eight years ago. The people who can afford it have the chance to live a fantastic life. I’m proud of all of this. But as a child of that nation, I also have the right (perhaps the duty), to observe that there’s a long a way to go. Everything isn’t fine and dandy, and as people who have it in our power to make changes there, we should be well aware of this.

I love America simply because there is unabounded opportunity for anyone who wants it and wants to work for it, and because there is an ingrown desire to cause change and better life. I’m upset at India only because there are all the tools for these same qualities–the nation is rich (don’t believe otherwise, its just corruption thats sucking it away) the economy is booming, a significant portion is getting richer and growing in many ways, the education is probably the best in the world, even the entertainment sector is growing and maturing–and yet with all this, there’s not enough where it needs to be. More importantly, there isn’t enough drive to make it change. I know (too well), that change doesn’t happen overnight. But I also know that you need the drive, the feeling, the sacrifice of apathy, to initiate change. When does that happen?

In one way, what everyone tells me is right. If you’re rich, if you can afford a house, a car (preferably with a driver), and servants, and have a nice chunk of income (all this isn’t hard to get), then life is absolutely great. Actually, better than America, since you don’t have to worry about cooking, cleaning, laundry, driving, any of the mundane and tiring chores of life. You can live life the way you want, you can socialize, relax, shop, travel, enjoy the simple pleasures. You just have to close your eyes to the woman begging at your window, and forget about the slums a minute walk from your house, and stay in your social circle. But I have great respect for the people I know who live this comfortable life, yet, have quietly but actively begun to cause change, participate in or create movements to improve the life of those who are far from this life. Who are actively trying to pull street children off the streets, who are trying to lobby for the betterment of life with housing projects, who may live the good life but haven’t closed their eyes to their maidservant’s much different plight.

In the end, I wasn’t impressed by the mega marts and the malls and the restaurants and the cell phones. I appreciated the comfort of life there, the time to relax and slow down, the chance to be catered to, to not have to worry about the dishes and the laundry. I was appreciative of all the positive changes (especially the Metro. That was pretty freakin’ amazing. Just to have any place in India lasting this long without betel stains and garbage on the tracks is laudable and its so convenient!). I was proud of the media and the youth which is clearly less tolerant than it was eight years ago. News isn’t hidden and suppressed anymore with money and threats, and the youth are the propellants of this new phase. The media gets to where the injustice is, makes it known, and joins the fight where the police force doesn’t. And while biases always exist, I feel the urge to trust media there much more than the suspicious sources that are trying to feed the nation fabrications here. I was happy that my friends have more opportunities and more ways to direct themselves to than there were when I was a child.

I also came back aware of what was lacking, and with heightened respect for all those working to fill these gaps in that kind of environment. I came back driven to join forces one day when I have the means and knowledge to do so. And I think thats why it was necessary to stay honest to myself. If I refused to acknowledge these deficiencies, I’d stay happily away from actively working for a solution (however small my contribution), and I want a chance to do that.

And I came back grateful for the life I had here. It isn’t easy. I’ve worked hard for it and I keep working hard, just like everyone else here. And this country can be crazy and difficult, with deep seated issues in its young psychology. But I’m proud to live here. It has taught me how to be a person who has ambition, aim, and the drive to help, so I can serve both where I came from, and what I’m a part of, and I’m glad for that.

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Its been a while.

I always planned that when I’d have a really good stretch of time free (i.e, no college, no classes, no exams, no (or not too many) applications, no significant stress factors), I’d get all the other chores done. You know, that stuff you jot down for later? And that becomes even later? I figured graduating from college was a good point, and after my trip I was all geared up to get down and get things cleared up.

But vacation puts me in an ennui. Its like everything slows down, my motor and my mental skills. I can barely get myself off the bed, let alone try to complete and scratch off stuff from the many yellow post-its that decorate my laptop desktop. I guess it might be because this is my first nothing-to-do-at-all-nothing-to-worry-about vacation in a long, long time (probably my first since I was a kid), and it takes time to get used to it. I’m still on the procrastinating-college-student routine and I have to shake myself out of it so I can get everything done with before I leave for ze Motherland.

Ze Motherland!

Going back after eight years is all kinds of surreal. On one hand, its terribly exciting. Its like anticipating a giant present that you know will have all kinds of good things (and familiar sweet smells and sounds and tastes). You know there’s so much that you wanted all in that one gigantic present. And you just can’t wait to rip apart the wrapping and peek inside and revel in it. On the other hand, it has a sense of unreality attached, and something else that makes me anxious and nervous. Mostly because eight years is a long time. Its such a long time, and in that time the entire country has changed dramatically. Everything that I knew to be familiar, that I grew up with, that I was used to and loved has changed. People have changed. My roots, that had tightly hugged that ground, have grown weaker, the bonds I had with families and friends have loosened. I didn’t live the life that I had started there, and so I didn’t share the lives of the people who had been a part of that life eight years ago. For better or for worse (we’ll never know), my family and I transplanted ourselves, and circumstances did not allow me to return, even for a brief visit. In those eight years, I have become a different person from the child that left.

How will it be now? How will it be when I meet the family I held so close to my heart? Who I know love me so much, but whose physical affection I missed so much and longed for these eight years. How will it be when I meet those friends I held hands with as I skipped around the school? When I try to find my way around the city I grew up in? When I go back to the house I grew up in, now so lonely and cold without the bark of our dog and the smell of our family in it? When I try to relive the memories made in the 7 years I went to that school? How will it feel? How will everything have changed? Will I remember the nooks and crannies of that house? And of the school grounds? Will I recognize the streets? The smells? The sounds? The restaurants? The neighborhood store? Will it be joyous, painful, nostalgic, poignant, too difficult, wonderful?

How will I meet the people I have missed so much all these years? Will it be strange? Awkward? The distance insurmountable? Or will we in a minute traverse those eight years, so that it feels like the time never passed, the disconnect never happened, that it was always like this.  Will we laugh and cry and embrace, or will we be uncomfortable, shifting around till we find that place where it feels just right? I know the love and affection will be there, but how will it feel to be back there with everyone again, after the weight of the years and distance and age has been measured and exposed?

I won’t know till I get there.

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From Oswiecim the train to Krakow costs about 11 zlotys, and the ride is about and hour and a half. We reached Krakow around lunchtime and headed straight to our hostel. The hostel, which we reserved beforehand, was wonderful. Highly recommend it to anyone who’s planning to make a tourist stop at Krakow. Krakow, being a very popular tourist destination (probably one of the most popular in Eastern Europe) is home to many unique and comfortable, and very cheap hostels. We did some searching and came up with Kadetus, which was the most affordable for the time period we were there (29th December-30th December). Kadetus is right in the center of the city, minutes from the city square (which came as a pleasant surprise to us). It’s in a very safe location on the main street, snuggled in one of the buildings. You enter on the second floor to a comfortable lounge/kitchen area. The rooms range from 2-3 people to 6-10 people. Decoration is bright, cheerful, and the whole place has a homey feel to it. Our room was a six-bed room, with three beds booked for us. Luggage can be stored in lockers they provide, and small lockers are given inside the room for important stuff (leave your passport locked here!!). There’s free wireless internet, free breakfast, coffee/tea all day long, laundry services and many other amenities, all for the low, low price of 51 zlotys or $17/night (I know…wow!). There are also other themed and eccentric hostels around Krakow that are worth checking out online too.

K and I headed out for a quick tour of the city to use the couple hours of sunlight we had left. This was the second time the sun came out during my entire stay in Poland, and I was grateful to see Krakow by sunlight, although it was terribly cold. We took a quick walk around the city square (LOVELY) and walked into this building whose name I can’t remember anymore, which is lined with numerous souvenir stalls. It reminds me of little lanes in Paltan Bazaar in Doon and such. The souvenirs are mostly those hand-made by the mountain tribes in Poland, and it is beautiful work. My favorite were the small, light boxes with wonderful handiwork, that ranged from 5-35 zlotys. I also loved the hand-carved chess sets, and small wooden plates that had been decorated very carefully, and other unique gift pieces and jewellery.

krakow

(Ooh…I caught a pigeon in flight! There were pigeons everywhere, as seen below)

pigeonsinkrakow

By the end of our little excursion, our feet were getting numb with the cold and we were exhausted so we headed back to Kadetus for some re-energization with tea and cookies. Then, the three of us headed out to a little jazz bar for some dinner, where I had a traditional cabbage and kielbasa dish (very yum but heavy). We followed that with a delicious stop at the E. Wedel chocolate shop…and had hot and yummy chocolate (mine was gingerbread hot chocolate…mmm). Polish chocolate is AMAZING and there is just so much creativity and variety, and E. Wedel is one of the major chocolate companies. The store was a little like chocolate-lovers heaven, and just the perfect place to be on a cold winter night. Ahh…..

(Love the presentation of this apple pie a la mode. And the heart gingerbread cookie. Mmm…ginger. Gingerbread was one of my favorite parts of the trip. So much, and so many different kinds!!)

wedel hotchoco

After sleeping in great comfort and warmth (and like logs) we proceeded to explore the Wawel Castle the next morning, which is also about 5-10 minutes from Kadetus. Wawel Castle served as the royal residence and the site of the kings of Poland from 1038 A.D. to 1596 A.D. People have lived in Wawel Hill as early as 50, 000 years ago. The place is bursting with its complex, lavish history. I love historical places, and I especially love castles. We walked through the tour of the Royal Apartments, which are decorated with wonderful pieces of tapestry and paintings that are ludicrously old, and furniture that dates to many centuries ago. The oldest item we saw was a sculpture of a Roman emperor, dating back to the 1st centure B.C. I get shivers of amazement and wonder in such places, where the walls could tell such fantastic stories, where the objects have survived centuries of human civilization, and where we walk in the same places where a young prince once did, where a king once plotted his wars, where greed and lust and religion controlled the lives of so many, where games of passion, pride, power were played…how wondrous to observe the beauty in the architecture, the loveliness of the designs, the uniqueness of everything. Especially amazing were the detailed tapestries and paintings, usually depicting scenes from the Old Testament or Greek mythology. There was one very interesting room where the ceiling was marked with sculptures of heads! Each had a angry or unhappy expression, and they were strange, almost cartoon-like heads, ranging from a blindfolded lady to a man with horns. We couldn’t figure out why they had been made and placed up there, staring down at you creepily. My theory is that they represent people beheaded by the royal peeps 😉

All my pictures of Wawel came out really white and bright, and none were very special, so I won’t bother posting any. It was a great visit, and strongly recommended. Maybe you can also catch the Crown Jewels, which we didn’t have time for. We walked around a bit and reached the square again, where we feasted on delicious pizza from a Pizza Dominion, and then headed to explore St. Mary’s cathedral. The cathedral is right in the center of the square, it is opulently lavish and beautiful inside, richly decorated and absolutely shining with gold plating. For about six zlotys you get to go right up the altar. I truly enjoyed it, and could easily have spent several hours just gaping at the ornate designs. Cathedrals and churches in Poland was clearly where all the money flowed through the centuries.

stmarys dsc03300.jpg

I realized in Poland that God is given a face, atleast in Catholicism. He’s an old bearded guy, resembling Jesus. I realize Jesus is the son of God, and so giving him an image is fine, but if you give God a face, isn’t that idol worship? I wasn’t sure how it was different from idol worship, and we had an interesting (marked with sardonic bits) discussion on that.

jesus

We walked back through the square, which was extremely busy (which is probably the case all year around) and lighted beautifully in preparation of the New Year’s Eve party stage and headed back to Kadetus. The concert was apparently going to be graced by Shakin’ Stevens (whose style is reminiscent, I read, of Elvis Presley’s style) and…wait for it….drumroll…Lou Bega! Because no New Year’s celebration can be complete without Mambo #5 and I Got A Girl (don’t deny it, you remember those classics, and I bet you still sing along :)). Krakow is beautiful by night. The old square, reminiscent of Poznan’s city square, is lined with lovely ancient buildings, restored well and used by shops, cafes, and restaurants. The streets are paved, just like in Poznan, and lined with little stores (we went into a little tea shop that has been at the same place since 1859–wow!). Krakow is beautifully preserved, especially since it served as Nazi headquarters during the war, and so was not wrought havoc on as other cities in Poland were. There are also very few of the ugly Communist style buildings. Overall, it is a city rich in history and absolutely lovely in its architecture and its overall aura, brimming with life and culture. I wish I had had more than a day to spend there, but that day was extremely pleasant, interesting, and beautiful! Dziekuje, Krakow! 🙂

krakowbynite

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We’re 15 days into a whole new year! I hope the coming year brings to all good health, success in endeavors, the ability to stay strong in the face of adversity, the drive to fight injustice where you see it, the desire to improve our homes and communities, and the hope of a better year, with less sorrow and chaos and conflict, and much more humanity. I have hope for 2008…and with my loved ones I hope to make this year a happier one, one that brings us all together, one that creates beautiful memories and one that holds even greater hope for the future.

So I basically disappeared after my last post. We left for Krakow and Oswiecim soon after (Dec 28th) and then I left for England, where I essentially spent all my time adoring my niece, except for the final two days in London. And since returning I’ve been quite literally caught up in stuff, and just not in a writing mood. I apologize to anyone who’s been following up on my Poland trip. Blogging has to be fun for me and if it seems like a chore I take a respite. But here goes a brief account of my very interesting finale to the Poland trip, with this post, and the next one.

Recounting Auschwitz is going to be really hard, and thats part of the reason I kept delaying this post, but I know I must. Please be warned: the rest of this post is clearly going to be depressing and maybe even disturbing to read. The pictures are just of the camp area, you are not allowed to photograph inside the blocks.

Oswiecim:

From Poznan we took a late night train to Oswiecim. The train leaves after midnight, and you make one change at Karowice (I think thats the city), at about 5am. Its not bad, because you kind of doze off (not very comfortably since we didn’t get sleeper berths, which cost more), and wake up at the station. It beats wasting a day traveling. The whole train ride cost 46 zlotys or about $15 one way, which was a great price. We reached Oscwiecim around 8:00am on the 29th. It was freezing cold. This part of Poland is much colder than the Poznan area, and accordingly I was well-layered. With the large number of foreign tourists that come to visit Auschwitz year round, the station is fully equipped for non-Polish speakers. Information on buses to the camp are readily available, and all the staff speak English. There’s a place to keep your suitcases, which was extremely convenient. Around 8:30am we took a bus to get us to Auschwitz. Its only about a 20 minute walk from the railway station, I think, but it was too cold for walking. I remember someone saying that as you got closer to the camp it got colder, almost like the place had a horrible freezing effect on you.

We got there very early, before the large groups of tourists arrived (by 10am, even on December 29th, the place was packed). They provide guidebooks of both camps (Auschwitz I is the main one, closer to the city, and Aushwitz Birkenau is about a three mile walk along the ‘Interest Zone’). They mark out the route that shows you the key points of the camp, which is what we did. Everything in the camp was painful to walk through. You can’t rate anything on a scale of how horrible it was. We walked through the Polish exhibit (each country has its own exhibit. Poles formed the largest group of people killed at Auschwitz), then others chronicling life in the camps.

Entering the camp
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Arbeit Macht Free, or Work Makes One Free.
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This is at the entrance to the camp itself. Prisoners walked across here daily, and roll call was held here for hours. Those shot while trying to escape were hung from a post nearby in clear view, to warn the others.

The majority of those held here were men. Women were brought here starting 1942, when the gynecologist Carl Clauberg conducted experiments on Jewish women in one of the blocks of this camp. Josef Mengele also conducted his horrible, gruesome and blood chilling experiments in this camp also.

We walked through exhibits that chronicled what happened at each step. If you’ve read Elie Wiesel’s works, or anything related to the Holocaust, you know what those steps are. Belongings stripped away. Clothes stripped off. Shaving. Either the disinfecting baths or straight to the gas chambers. Its horrific. One block chronicles the barracks and living arrangements. Another chronicles the plight of the children. Another Mengele’s experiments, and on, and on.

In most of the blocks the walls are lined with framed pictures of the prisoners. Rows and rows and rows of faces of men and women. These were taken when the inmates first arrived (towards the end, the SS stopped taking these pictures). Most are sober, in some faces there is confusion, fright, astonishment, others look harried, exhausted, yet others are questioning, angry, frustrated. Here and there, though, there is a slight innocent smile (perhaps hoping the smile would soften the cruel photographer?), or even the calm and smile of rebellion. These rows of pictures are still vivid in my memory.

The Execution Wall
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Hundreds of men were executed by the SS against the wall here. There is a small room that shows the cleaning area through which those doomed for this wall passed through and stripped before walking out and being shot. It is chilling.

There were special rooms for those who were willing to act as spies for the SS. These are more furnished, clearly different from the grass wooden barracks that 5-6 people shared in the blocks in the freezing cold. No sanitary systems were installed earlier, these only came later and were minimal and very unhygienic. Prisoners were dressed in the striped shirt and pajama uniform that almost everyone remembers. Small colored triangles coded them: Pole, Jew, Gypsy, Homosexual, German criminal…

Prisoners were hung here publicly as a lesson to others

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Another block contains an exhibit about the resistance. This is one of the most profound parts of the museum. The resistance is what brought the news out of what was happening in Auschwitz. The members were individuals of unbelievable courage. Some even got arrested and thrown into Auschwitz just so they may chronicle what was happening, escape and tell the world. Others maintained the spirit in the camp. In a place where such an idea was unimaginable, hope still existed and ran through the camp. In fact, prisoners even fought against their own sorrow to look at their situation with black humor, the only way they could survive it. I stood there amazed and struck by a single thought: here I stood on the grounds of a place where the worst, cruelest, most unimaginable crimes against humanity were committed, and this is also the place which is the greatest proof of the resilience of human spirit, the tenacity of humanity. The will to survive, to live, to tell one’s story to the world, the will to just be fought through all the evil and cruelty and pain and torture here, and continued to exist. Nothing and no one could exterminate that, with no technique in the world. It is an amazing, wondrous thought. It increases one’s respect for humanity tremendously. It led me to question: would I have the strength, the desire to fight to live? Or would I be unable to tolerate the horror of my condition? Millions were held at Auschwitz, and according to the last study done in 1990, 1.1 million died. Most were killed by the gas chambers, others by starvation or torture, forced labor, executions, disease and experimentation. A very small percentage killed themselves.

Isn’t it ironic that a monument to how depraved humanity can be is also a monument to how magnificent and strong human spirit can be?

What is most terrifying of the Holocaust, and of Auschwitz, is how organized it was. Genocide has happened to every ethnicity, at one point or another in history. The Partition of India is marked by mass genocide that was never recognized or recorded. The Rwandan genocide, the genocide occuring in Darfur…However, it is chilling to observe how organized and efficient the Holocaust was. Records were kept, pictures taken by the SS, detailed notes taken…it was no mob mentality, violent uprising, no short period of knives and axes. It was a very planned and carefully executed genocide, an idea that sickens one to the stomach. That, I think, is one of the worst parts. Perhaps this has not been the only time, perhaps such an organized murder has taken place somewhere else at some other time in history, but this is one that is known, documented, studied, recorded, whose signs have been preserved. This happened only about 60 years ago.

It took a lot of strength for me to write this post and recount my walk through camp I. Thus, its broken, incomplete, and kind of in pieces joined together. Bringing myself back to it is something that I hate to do, but I continually keep doing. I want to remember it as much as I want to forget it. I haven’t been able to write a lot, not as much as I remember, because I just can’t. It makes me shudder everytime I think of it. I have been reading of the Holocaust since I was about 10, when I first read The Diary of Anne Frank, and by the time I was 15 I had read so much that I was actually forbidden by my parents to read anymore, since it had made me such a wreck. I always knew that if I had the chance, I would visit Auschwitz, and throughout my trip to Poland I dreaded this part. Reading about it is one thing, seeing everything makes it so real that it quite literally shocks you and shakes you inside. I’m not a weak person, and I do not shy away from a lot, but I did not have the strength for this. After camp I, I was so troubled that I could not go to Birkenau, which is the larger camp, and the extermination camp (and would have been many times more disturbing). K, who I respect for being much stronger than me, was not able to go either and very understandable agreed that we leave. I just knew that if I walked through Birkenau I would be in a terrible state and be haunted for a much, much longer time, and I just could not bring myself to it. I hope that one day I will be stronger and more prepared, and return to see the entire museum, because I believe it is something I must do. I must see it all, and talk about it, and tell others. We must all remember. K told me once when I was very apprehensive about going that it was very obviously something everyone fears, it is understandable that I was terrified. But no matter what, she said, it had to be something everyone must do. Everyone must fully realize the extent of what happened and remember it, no matter how difficult it might be.

I left Auschwitz terrified and trembling inside. I thought over everything I’d seen for a long time, then blocked it out. Occasionally, since coming back, when telling someone about my trip, I will think back and remember the faces. I’ll remember the block with the large expanse of eyeglasses, scattered toothbrushes, hairbrushes, torn and broken dolls. I’ll remember each part of our walk, what I saw and how I felt. I know I’ll always remember. I hope it will always affect me. I hope it will drive my human rights work, and each time I question the use of what I do or get tired of fighting I’ll remember that walk. I’ll remember that strength of the people who lived there, their desire to live, their hope, their tenacity to fight, that still breathes and can be felt in the walls.

I’ll remember it all.

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