More Reflections on Travel

I exchanged emails with a friend of mine who is presently touring Russia with his family. I look forward to hearing more about his trip: what they saw, what they ate, and how the whole Russian experience thing went when he gets home.

He said in his email that the people were not very friendly. I am waiting to hear why. Is it because Russia  as I read in the newspapers  is in economic meltdown? Or because they are finally starting to lose faith in their leader?  Or maybe they are just prejudiced against Singaporean-Chinese people like my friend and his family? Or is it because the Russians by and large are not very happy and genial people?

I wouldn’t know. As much as I’d like to visit the Hermitage, eat some good caviar accompanied by some excellent chilled vodka, I would never go to Russia. The stories I’ve both read and heard make it sound like a place that isn’t very welcoming to value seeking travelers like myself.

I have been as far east as southern Poland. And I had several tremendous experiences there. One I remember fondly as being my favorite baby story – daughter not included – of all time.

We had just crossed into Poland from the Czech Republic and I was sitting in the back of a bus that was more or less pointed in the direction of Krakow when it made a stop to pick up a mother who was both holding her baby and wrestling with several shopping bags. The back bus door opened and she quickly scanned all the faces inside, most of whom were local women, before she briefly stepped in and handed her baby up to me, then gathered up her bags and boarded the bus.

I was so blown away that I must have had an ear to ear smile on my face. She handed her baby to me! It was so unbelievable that I swear to this day there was an angelic choir singing quietly in the background.

My oh my, to be given such trust. To be singled out among so many more qualified to be given a precious baby to hold; it remains one of the most magical and memorable experiences of my life. (Of which I sometimes suspect I’ve had more than my fair share.)

Later on another bus (or maybe the same, who remembers) we were deep in the Polish countryside when the bus makes another stop and an old woman and her granddaughter board the bus. The old woman was the classic withered up old babushka accompanied by her blond haired, blue-eyed granddaughter who had quite possibly the rosiest cheeks I have ever seen.

I remember her lips to have been slightly chapped, possibly from living what I imagined to have been such an outdoor rural life kind of life. Her dirty, broken fingernails did nothing to detract from the fact that she was quite possibly the most beautiful young woman I have ever seen in my life. She was the epitome of the innocent milkmaid with the blemish free, creamy white complexion that was perfectly offset with those rosy red cheeks.

Good gracious. It was almost like her and her grandma stepped out of some fairy tale. And it is another image I will hold close to my heart till the day I die.

In Krakow I remember finding a classic workingman’s restaurant commonly called a milk bar, I kid thee not. I always thought that was something Anthony Burgess dreamed up for A Clockwork Orange.  But nope, Poland has restaurant kind of things called milk bars. I forget exactly how everything was served up but what I do remember was that I got an enormous tray full of delicious food, including a bowl of borsch, for the improbable sum of something like 80 cents. Or maybe a dollar. It was almost 25 years ago so the specifics are a bit fuzzy.

My last noteworthy experience in Poland was visiting Auschwitz. I really didn’t want to go but the two people I was traveling with at the time all but insisted. In retrospect I am glad I went.

I remember stepping through the gate, entering a building that housed exhibits like entire rooms filled top to bottom with ordinary objects that people wear and use on a daily basis. One room contained nothing but eyeglasses. Another was filled top to bottom with old pairs of shoes. One room was filled with human hair. And it went on and on. It was the commonness of the items combined with the enormity of the collections that seemed to suck the very air out of your lungs. I quickly became claustrophobic.

I remember walking out of that building and not too far way I remember seeing two enormous buildings whose signage labeled them in several languages as gas chambers. I remember feeling like I had been kicked in the gut. I’d only been on site for something like 15 minutes and I couldn’t take it anymore.

I told my people I’d catch up with them later and took off on a fast walk that took me on a meandering path back through the adjacent fields and woods; as far away from those buildings as I could get. Somewhere along the way I realized that those giant pits and mounds I was walking past contained human ashes and the remains of untold mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. It reduced me to a shivering, teary mess.

PS – Many years later while living in Washington, DC I made one visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum as my landlady at the time volunteered there and she assured me that it was a most worthwhile as well as unforgettable experience.

I wasn’t really interested in revisiting the misery of the genocide of the Jewish people but I went mostly to shut her up and see how her supposed unforgettable experience quantitatively stacked up against something so impossibly visceral as Auschwitz.

As I suspected, she was full of shit. How can multimedia exhibits give you the same kick in the balls as seeing an entire room filled with human hair?

Even excluding the supposed gruesome nature of the museum itself, it was at best what I can only describe as a highly tepid museum experience. The only worst museum on the mall is the National Museum of the American Indian. The building is gorgeous. Unfortunately it contains no real artifacts to speak of. I am serious. My daughter made that particular visit with me and we were both positively astounded at how empty the building was. I believe the most credible artifact the museum possessed was a birch bark canoe. But who really gave a shit about that knowing it was a replica? Yeah, it majorly sucked. (One doesn’t have to think very long or hard to realize that all the real artifacts of the native American peoples are presently hoarded in private collections.)

PPS – While living there I remained constantly amazed at the number of visitors who came to Washington, DC but never really left the Capitol Mall for the entirety of their stay. I found that incredible because the city itself dwarfs the mall in culture with its diverse neighborhoods rich in great architecture and history, all replete with their own tasty multi-ethnic dining establishments.

Personally, I spent every weekend walking the city – it’s huge – and I constantly discovered new things. I should write a bloody guidebook, but who would read it? Example. Recently a friend traveled there with his early, twenty-something year old daughter. He asked for a couple of restaurant ideas but other than that they pretty much stuck to the mall.

Criminal. Stupidly is criminal and if I was in charge of this world, I’d punish people accordingly.

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