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Reflections on Auschwitz-Birkenau

One of the places I’ve always wanted to see is Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Poland. It is and has been on so many peoples’ travel lists, including mine, but I couldn’t tell you why. It’s supposed to be a sobering experience, and something that makes people realise how lucky we are to have what we do. I guess that’s why I wanted to go. I wanted to get emotionally sober, to feel more emotions than what I normally feel.

I was nervous going into the camp. I thought maybe I’d accidentally or unknowingly say or do something wrong, or that I’d see someone blatantly doing something inappropriate (such as taking a selfie or laughing). Everyone there behaved and I myself did not do anything dumb. First we went through the arbeit macht frei gate, which is quite small in person, and then you can see what Auschwitz looks like on the inside. It’s actually not a bad-looking camp. The buildings are well preserved and the lawns and trees well manicured. It’s such a juxtaposition to all the horrors that happened there.

A lot of the rooms we visited were informational, with artefacts, photographs, and facts relating to the Holocaust. With a guide, you don’t have enough time to see these for yourself. Of course, Auschwitz has items that belonged to Holocaust victims there: shoes, pans, suitcases with their names on them, and most notably, the hair. I wanted to imagine all of the lives that once filled the shoes, that cooked with those pans, that wrote their names on their suitcases, that wore their hair. The weight of all those lives would’ve been crushing.

There’s also a hallway with a bunch of photographs of early Auschwitz victims, which truly puts a face on the horrors. They had a lot of anger or even despondence in their faces, and I wondered how many of them knew at that time that they were going to die.
Actually, the most touching photograph I saw was at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. It’s of a little girl who I believe was 12. She had so much fear in her eyes.

We then got to see more administrative buildings and the Death Wall. This gave a lot more perspective on how people actually lived – if they got to – at Auschwitz. What got me was the little cells in which they’d hold up to 4 people. We got to see that they clearly were not large enough for 4 people, and had to be entered through a small door only a few feet high. I felt uncomfortable just thinking about it. We then got to walk through the doors that the condemned would walk through to get to the wall. It was so strange seeing what so many people saw during their last bit of life.

However I found Birkenau to be more touching. When execution got on so large a scale, Birkenau was built and was the real extermination camp. It was so desolate. Of course we went on the train tracks but here, you could see the actual gas chambers where thousands of people were murdered. You get to go into one gas chamber and see the holes in the roof for the gas pellets. This was particularly creepy. I rushed out of there and into the crematorium, which was obviously no better. Actually, I tripped on a recessed part of the floor, which was where the tracks for the crematorium cart went. At this point, I felt physically ill.

Auschwitz and Birkenau were both strong, thorough museums. They’re very well preserved and give quality information about the Holocaust. What struck me the most about the tour was how much it was driven home that nobody really knew what was going on. Of course there are a lot of theories and fake news out now, but I’d believe from the stories of locals that everything was kept hidden. That’s why so many people went and brought their prized possessions; they thought they were going to be relocated rather than killed. It makes me so terrified about what’s going on today.

Even though I did something I’ve always wanted to do, I was disappointed in myself for feeling so numb – for not being able to imagine and feel what happened there. For not being able to cry. I shouldn’t have been disappointed. In retrospect, it’s completely normal for people regulate their emotions as I did that day, so they don’t feel extreme feelings. But it reminded me of how privileged I am to live here and now. I never lived through a war or through genocide. To me, it’s hard to imagine that could ever happen in my country in my lifetime. But it’s heartbreaking that these millions of people walked straight into their deaths and they actually didn’t even see it coming. In a weird way, Auschwitz gave me more skepticism for the world, but also more peace with other people.

And to be honest, I never noticed how much the Holocaust and Auschwitz itself is always compared to current events. Visiting gave me a sense of what Auschwitz actually is, not just what people say it is.

At the end of our tour, we got to see the plaques in several languages that promise to never forget what happened there. Our tour guide sincerely thanked us for coming since it helps keep the camps open. That was actually the most sobering part for me: never forget. The site is a memorial now and a way to remember all the souls lost to genocide. It’s tangible proof that the Holocaust happened. It’s sad to think that if Auschwitz closes and is torn down, our memories might shrink a little bit. It’s so strange how that happens.

Maybe that’s why I wanted to go to Auschwitz: to help the memorial survive. But in all honestly, I still don’t know why I really went.

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Getting to Auschwitz: From Krakow, you want to get to Oswiecim, which can be done via train. The ticketing system at Auschwitz is a little weird since it’s free before a certain time, and after a certain time. And obviously, it’s a very popular spot to visit so the lines are naturally long. You can read more on their website here. I went with a tour group so I could also see Wieliczka Salt Mine in the same day. The costs I got online for tickets and public transit rides were only a few dollars less than I paid for the tour, so I don’t regret it. Whichever works for you.

Have you ever been to Auschwitz? What is your view on “dark tourism”?

Posted on Saturday, August 17, 2019 in Destinations
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Harry Potter’s Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a great city, and I’ve written about it a few times. But if it’s not a great enough city as it is, it’s also a great place for Harry Potter fans to visit as it’s steeped in Harry Potter history. J.K. Rowling moved to Edinburgh to be near her sister, and the welfare-dependent single mother wrote her first Harry Potter novels in this magical city. It’s easy to see where her inspiration came from.

There are a lot of walking tours to take but everything can easily be seen on your own, so I suggest saving some money and skipping a tour.

Getting Some Inspiration

George Heriot's School

Site #1: George Heriot’s School

Look familiar? This school is said to be the inspiration for Hogwarts. The school itself actually has four “houses” into which students are sorted – also sound familiar? J.K. Rowling actually sent two of her three children to school here.

Thomas Riddell's Grave

Site #2: Greyfriars Kirkyard

One of the prettiest and most interesting places to visit is Greyfriars Kirkyard. It’s filled with gorgeous and grotesque tombstones that J.K. Rowling herself also looked at. You can see the graves of William McGonagall, Elizabeth Moodie, and of course Thomas Riddell. Riddell’s grave actually has some gates around it since it’s so popularly seen!

Victoria Street

Site #3: Victoria Street

This is a quite popular street near Edinburgh castle that wraps around in a circular motion. You can kind of call it diagonal, as this was the inspiration for Diagon Alley. Actually, one of the great things about Edinburgh is that it’s filled to the brim with so many beautiful stone buildings and colourful facades. Though one can clearly see the inspiration here, the whole of Edinburgh feels like inspiration enough.

Pen to Paper

Spoon

Site #4: Spoon (formerly Nicolson’s Cafe)

Rowling’s brother-in-law used to own a place called Nicolson’s Cafe, and Rowling would go there to write her first books, along with the next location. It’s now called Spoon.

The Elephant House

Site #5: The Elephant House

The Elephant House is a cute cafe that also has a small gift shop. They advertise themselves with the slogan “The Birthplace of Harry Potter.” If you look out the back window, you can see Edinburgh Castle looking majestic atop its hill. What a great inspiration for Hogwarts!
Don’t forget to stop in the restroom because there’s a tonne of graffiti dedicated to Harry Potter there. I may or may not have written something there myself!
I’ve also eaten here twice and both times were delicious.

Balmoral Hotel

Site #6: Balmoral Hotel

A little less humble, Balmoral Hotel is where Rowling wrote the books after the rose to fame (in room 552 to be exact).

Geeking Out

Butterbeer from The Dog House

The Dog House

A local recommended The Dog House as one of his favourite pubs, but I already had it on my list. Why? They serve butterbeer! Actual alcoholic butterbeer. It was quite good. It could’ve done with a bit more butter flavour (and more alcohol) but we liked it. The bar is very eclectic and does seem to be a place that locals go to, so that’s a plus.

The Department of Magic

I have not been to the Department of Magic myself but it does look like quite a unique thing to do in Edinburgh. It’s an escape room and potions making complex.

Harry Potter as a Cat
They must have taken some Polyjuice Potion.

Shopping

There’s a tonne of shopping to be had for Harry Potter fans in Edinburgh. One cool place we went to was called “Museum Context,” which had a bunch of unique HP souvenirs. (Not that it’s particularly difficult to find Harry Potter themed things in Edinburgh or anywhere else.)

Did you know: The Harry Potter manuscript got rejected 12 times before it was accepted! The 13th time, the publisher’s young daughter really enjoyed the book, which is why it was accepted. They told J.K. Rowling not to quit her day job since they didn’t think she had a future in writing.

Talk about those publishers’ failure. I like to remember that J.K. Rowling was in a place where her work was being rejected and even ridiculed by the “professionals.” Then her work became one of the most celebrated and important literary series of all time. It’s just so inspirational.

Victoria Street

I usually end each post with a question, so here’s a different one: what Harry Potter house are you? I always identified as Slytherin.

Posted on Monday, August 12, 2019 in Destinations
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The (Sad) Pina Colada Hunt in San Juan

One of my favourite drinks here at home in the U.S. is the pina colada. It was invented in the 1960s in San Juan, though the exact origin is debated. The Hilton Caribe claimed that it was invented at one of its bars, while Barrachina Restaurant claims it was invented there. It’s now the national drink of Puerto Rico and the country celebrates Pina Colada day on July 10. So for my weekend trip to San Juan, I was determined to find an awesome pina colada to write home about. One that was perfectly creamy, flavoured, and maybe even a bit unconventional.

Except my expectations were set a bit too high. For starters, the pina colada is not very popular in Old San Juan at the very least. A lot of bars and restaurants focus more on beer and mojitos. A lot of them do serve pina colada on request but few highlight it as a specialty drink. It became apparent after a few drinks that it may just be a tourist attraction and not a local favourite.

Let’s start at the beginning: the pina colada at La Factoria was recommended to me. I actually stayed atop this bar, “one of the world’s best,” so it was an easy start. I braved the busy bar to have a taste of this incredible drink, remembering without joy the days of frat parties. However, this “world-famous bar”‘s rendition of its country’s national drink is the saddest I’ve ever had. It was pretty much like pineapple juice on ice (not blended in ice but on ice), and the ice took up about 70% of the cup. It lasted a few sips. It did have a delicious dried/candied pineapple slice that I enjoyed, and it did provide a nice buzz. However I was thoroughly disappointed.

Pina Colada

I absolutely had to do some research and found out that they used to have an unconventional drink that was probably very good. However they must have changed their recipe.

Up next was one of the places where the pina colada was supposedly invented: Barrachina Restaurant. The food was overpriced so I only bothered to get the pineapple drink, and it was probably one of the best I’ve had there. It had a nice flavour, good texture, and had a good level of alcohol. This was not a drink to write home about, but I’d order it again.

Pina Colada

Pina Colada

Up next was a pina colada from a restaurant called Palmas Restaurant. There was no vegetarian food there so I grabbed only the drink. It was served with a nice thick slice of pineapple but wasn’t super flavourful. I wouldn’t order it again.

Pina Colada

Next, I walked two miles to the Caribar at the Hilton Caribe, the other site where the pina colada was supposedly invented. Much to my chagrin, the bar was closed during the day. Since I didn’t have the will to come back a few hours later, I went to the Mojito’s Restaurant at the Caribe Hilton instead. The pina colada actually had a nice texture and flavour. However it was overpriced at $12. Also, I don’t think they put any alcohol in my drink. Their food was decent but overpriced. It was nice once but I wouldn’t return.

Pina Colada

Pina Colada

Next, I headed to Aureola, a Mexican restaurant, to eat. The had what’s called a “pina colada frappe” that you can get with rum. It was actually quite good: flavourful with a creamy texture, and definitely had added rum. Their food was good as well. I wouldn’t mind returning again but this was not a drink to write home about either.

Pina Colada

My last stop was at La Verguenza, which is a bar. They serve their pina colada with whipped cream on top, which I found to be interesting. However it was not the most flavourful. Again, I was left with disappointment.

Pina Colada

As I was with my hunt for a delicious pina colada. I’ve had so many good pina coladas here in the continental U.S. so it was such a bummer that in the country where they’re the “national drink,” they were a let down. It’s possible that I was just in the wrong place, and the rest of Puerto Rico is obsessed with the delicious drink of pineapple and rum. However I’m going to take a guess and say that’s not the case.

The next time I go to Puerto Rico, I’m not going to waste my time, money and effort finding the Holy Grail of pina coladas. I have a feeling it’s not there. My lesson is learned.

Where have you found the best pina colada?

Posted on Wednesday, August 7, 2019 in Stories

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