Bad Taste

The Sachsenhausen concentration camp was called the “model” camp. “Work liberates” is the rough translation of the horrible euphemism on the gate.

Right after I took a picture of the gate, a guy asked me to take his picture beside the gate. Yes, he did. Paul says he would have refused. I wish I had.

Instead, I took it and then continued wandering around, even more bothered than before. I wanted to chase after the guy and get him to delete the photo, which struck me as completely disrespectful and which I had been a culprit of. I found it really off-putting that he posed at a concentration camp as if it were any other landmark. Tens of thousands of people DIED at Sachsenhausen. It embodies human suffering and vile government practices. How could he treat such a place as suitable for another tacky vacation snapshot?

I witnessed the same kind of disrespectful, self-absorption at the Holocaust Memorial in the heart of Berlin. People climbed up on the stones and even played jumping games to ensure they got the best smiling shots of themselves, their friends, and their families. I kept telling myself they were just caught up in vacation mode and being tacky and oblivious, rather than cold and heartless. I kept thinking maybe by interacting with the sheer magnitude of the memorial and later, by seeing the pictures, it’ll hit them that the football-field magnitude is not for their photo opportunities but to commemorate Germany’s WWII Jewish genocide. Maybe.

Sure, I could think all of that. Really, I just wanted to shout: “Show some respect.”

Stupid Tourist

from my travel journal: 19 july 09
kathmandu, nepal

I felt like a stupid tourist at Pashupatinath. Zsoka had said, “Go see the burning bodies.” But it didn’t register until I was there that I was trespassing (or so it felt to me) upon families’ funerals.

As soon as we paid our admittance fee, a man who wanted to be our guide hurried us up some stairs and proudly presented the platform we stood on. He gestured to the river and then ushered us to the platform’s walled edge. I tried to distance myself from him because I didn’t want a guide. I was wondering how we were going to lose him. Those thoughts were hastily swept away when I peered over and saw we were right above a couple of funeral ghats. A foot was just being licked by orange flames. My stomach jumped into my mouth. I felt sick – a human body was burning less than 10 feet from me. I also felt liking becoming invisible. I felt I had mis-stepped boundaries and cultures. I wouldn’t want groups of foreigners watching my loved ones’ funerals. Some things are meant to be private or, in this case, shared only within a known community.

Things got worse, in my opinion. (I’m very aware that I may have projected my personal discomfort, but I don’t think so given the glares we got from families.) We left the platform—and the guide—and crossed a bridge, which took us over the sacred river. Facing us were stone steps, like prehistoric bleechers. On them were at least 30 or so other foreigners all wearing—groan—matching red t-shirts. They magnified my tourist humiliation. The steps. The shirts. A disrespectful sporting motif tinged it all for me. What must these locals think of us? (And yes, I may as well have been wearing a red t-shirt.)

Sure, you can argue that the temple is a UNESCO world heritage zone for which tickets are sold. Sure, tourist revenue helps with the up-keep of the reverent area. But, I highly doubt the locals who are there, trying to say good-bye to their loved ones, were ever asked if they minded the foreign attendees. From the cold looks they gave us, I’m guessing an overwhelming “no.”

I took one surreptitious photo of the funeral ghats. There was an eerie beauty to the smoke and fire above the river, reaching up the late-day sky. When I focused on that view, I felt the reverence I wanted to communicate to the mourners. Stowing my camera away, casting my eyes down, and getting out of there as quickly as I could were the ways I knew to show some respect for the sadness that permeated the place.

The whole experience reminded me that I always have to put thought into where I go as a tourist. I feel I usually do. I can’t recall another place that overwhelmed me with regret. (You could even argue that that’s good.) The experience underscored to me that forethought is always so important. I hate feeling like a stupid tourist.

Fifteen Minutes

from my travel journal: 19 july 09
kathmandu, nepal

All Kathmandu’s traffic—foot, bicycle, auto—travelled and converged together in a water-like swirl down the main streets. The amount of hassling was high, but maybe that was requisite because the energy was also high. Walking was a challenge. But I sometimes like when things that should be easy, are hard. Puts things in perspective. And, believe me, my perspective got battered.

Aside from the traffic’s black spit-up, the city is vivid. Saturated saris. Overflowing stores. Painted pilgrims. Stone idols with pigments pressed on. Decorated rickshaws. And all moving, or being moved, at a frantic pace, often like a photograph’s blur. In hindsight, Kathmandu made a good impression on me because I loved its craziness. However, I didn’t like a lot of things that happened to me there. Especially….

Stephanie and I were walking down a street in search of a cab to get to the “monkey temple” (Swayambhunath).  Two boys walked on the other side of her. The older (12-years-old?) held the hand of the younger (eight-years-old?). The little one kept pace with her, trying to catch her eye and fiddling with a foil-wrapped candy. He offered a hundred rupees intermittently and something else that I couldn’t catch. Naïvely I thought maybe he was offering the candy. But once they passed us, Stephanie, looking somewhat horrified, said she thought it was for sex. And with my stomach lurching, I came to the same conclusion.

On our circle back, a ten-year-old boy flanked me. He flung out, “15 minutes, 500 rupees.” I felt sick because, yeah, he had to be offering sex. I had been offered everything else, from drugs to trinkets. His proposition only mentioned time and money, leaving an implicit and, therefore, explicit blank. He was clandestine, furtive. Even when I had been offered drugs, the tactic, though similar, stated what was being sold.

Street kids are rampant in Nepal. Of course I know about child prostitution. But having it right in my face was shocking, even if it sounds cliché. Knowing something and being faced with it are very different things. I felt the harsh, palpable difference.

Otter Snippet

from my travel journal: 18 july 09
driving to kathmandu

waterfalls streamed across the road, making our bus slow and letting us see how the locals were enjoying the surplus water. my glance up caught a jubilant boy on a green terrace. he was all shiny and sleek from the water being splashed on him by other kids. his face was open and his body was closed, hunched over. he was expectant for the next dousing, loving and hating it at the same time.


from my travel journal: 16 july 09
some tibetan road

Can’t forget our other driving adventure. We finally hit a relatively flat, paved patch of road. The bus pulled over. Our guide explained we all had to get out because the driver needed to go and get gas. Huh? Yes, we were to wait for him to return in 15 minutes.

Our options were to start hiking the road in the direction we’d inevitably go via bus, or to sit and wait. We all chose the latter since a couple of people were suffering still from altitude sickness.

On a sandy, windy, sunny corner in the middle of nowhere yet at some apparent junction, we sat. A Tibetan farmer and his son were already there. They stayed to stare at us for at least five minutes, bemused and curious as to what this whacky group of foreigners was doing. Unable to figure out our plight, the two of them turned and wandered away.

I found myself as perplexed as them. I was grumpy given the arid, evening sun still burning down and dirt blowing into my eyes and my mouth. Why couldn’t we stay on the bus and go with the driver to get gas?

The answer crystalized why foreigners can have a hard time travelling in Tibet. No permit. The closest gas station was in an area for which the guide hadn’t gotten us a permit. The government didn’t know we’d be going there and, therefore, we couldn’t go. (You also can’t go anywhere in Tibet without a guide.) Our Tibetan driver would make it through the obligatory police checkpoint without question.

Of course the driver didn’t return for at least 45 minutes. That gave a shepherdress ample time to come over while her sheep jogged across the highway. She came amongst us and stood and stared. I liked her blatant curiosity. Her little boy who just reached her hand also stared. Thankfully Zsoka speaks Tibetan. She explained our herd. The shepherdress got a wry smile on her face before pushing on with her sheep. Their bells and her prematurely aged, yet smiling face added decoration to the odd predicament.

Yak Snippet

from my travel journal: 13 july 09
some himalayan highway

one time i looked out the bus window to see silvery, green, slim trees framing silhouettes of yak. the shimmering foliage acted like a theatre curtain that had just begun to rise and reveal the ancient-looking, hairy cast. such wonderful, effective back-lighting.


from my travel journal: 10 & 11 july 09
lhasa, tibet

I like when people jump out of stereotypes, especially when the leap reveals humour and charm. Then I’m reminded of how much I usually judge, making quick assumptions. I shouldn’t.

On my way into Jokhang Temple I was stopped dead in my tracks by a lithe monk who pulled a leprechaun move and cut in front. Suddenly there he was before me, spinning the gold wheel, flinging his friendly, yet devilish giggle over his robed shoulder. All I could do was smirk.

At Potala Palace, when I was losing enthusiasm for taking it all in because there just was so much, I happened to catch the eye of a monk in a gloomy, dusty chapel. He quickly stopped his incantations and proceeded to dramatically slouch over, as if he had fallen asleep. A few moments later, his bright eyes peeked over his shoulder to see if I was still watching. Of course I was. We shared a smile.

Contrasts Snippet

from my travel journal: 10 july 09
lhasa, tibet

our arrival into lhasa last night was all about contrasts. the squat rectangular buildings against the triangular mountains. the dark toffee face of the guide above mine. the silky white prayer scarf in his dark hands. its shimmer around my neck, over my bedraggled t-shirt.

Bicycles and Bellies

from my travel journal: 7 july 09
beijing, china

My other favourite part of Beijing was the cycle tour I went on. I almost didn’t go because it was close to 40ºC and the sun cut through the smog regularly. The breeze on the bike made it bearable but as soon as we stopped for a second I would start streaming sweat.

But visual entertainment compensated for physical discomfort. We biked down alleyways lined with traditional houses (hutongs), dodging seas of pedestrians, others on bicycles, delivery carts, and once a gaggle of ducks – all like we were in a Nintendo game. We cruised under the trees that work overtime but could never hope to clear the clinging curtain of smog. (No blue sky here, just a white/grey haze that our tour guide called “fog,” as if it’s naturally occurring.) Down an antiques alley, through shopping districts, past the amazing minalmist Grand Theatre with its underwater entranceway, on the—supposedly—widest street in the world, past massive Tiananmen Square, we biked. We went beside lakes in parks where Speedoed old guys hung out, smugly and proudly showing off their less-developed bellies.

Guys here roll up their shirts as Westerners roll up their shirt sleeves. Most have ledges for their forcibly lifted shirts. All feel the need to pat their exposed flesh. Even if I had stayed in Beijing for weeks, I would have kept giggling at the belly parade.