OUR POLAND (AUSCHWITZ and KRAKOW) TRIP!! (AUGUST 2015)

My husband and I spent the first week of August 2015 in Krakow, Poland. I am very lucky. The first week of September 2015 we will spend several days in the Bavaria region of Germany—so expect another trip blog post coming soon.

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Salt sculpture deep inside the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Poland
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Chandelier made of carved salt crystals inside the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

In Krakow, Poland we visited a variety of cultural and historical sites including: The Wieliczka Salt Mine, the market Square in Krakow and the Cloth Hall, St. Mary’s Basilica, the Jagiellonian University, the Wawel Castle (and the accompanying dragon’s den below it), the Jewish History museum, the Vistula River, and the park which winds its way through the core of Krakow. We also made a side trip to Auschwitz.

 

Auschwitz Concentration Camp

By far the most emotionally riveting experience was our tour through the Auschwitz Concentration camp; we visisted Auschwitz 1 and the Birkenau concentration camps.

 Prior to going to Auschwitz I was exponentially ignorant of the Holocaust, especially many of the important details surrounding this tragic segment of history. I still have lots to learn. The emotions that came upon me penetrated deeply and stung for the remainder of the week.

We saw the bare, cramped “living quarters” that the victims were housed in. In the buildings of Birkenau, there were 3 tiers of wooden platforms—starting from the floor to near the ceiling—that served as “bunk beds”. There was barely enough hall space between the wooden plank “beds” that were jammed tightly within the buildings. Up to seven people would sleep on each bare wooden tier that served as a “bunk bed”. There were cracks in the walls of these buildings that allowed for freezing cold temperatures to seep in throughout the winter months.

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Many of the Auschwitz victims would live in the concentration camp for as little as three months before they died of hunger, freezing, being shot in the back of their heads, and/or being swiftly ushered into gas chambers. Very few people would live for a year or more. Actually, since many individuals were deemed “unfit” to live, most would be forced into gas chambers promptly upon their arrival.

We walked through one room that displayed mountains upon mountains of shoes. We saw display cases full of cookware and suitcases that the Jews had brought with them to the camp. Many of the Jews seemingly believed that they were just being “relocated” and that their lives and family structure would go on as it was before. Thus, the women brought their cookware thinking that they would be cooking for their individual families.  The Jews would also label their suitcases with numbers, assuming that they would be getting their belongings back at some point during their stay in the camp. Little did they know that they would be forced into a rigidly structured death camp, meant solely for their annihilation.

 We were taken through the gas chamber and the crematorium. We even saw a room full of human hair which we were told was used and sold by the Nazis as “Mattress filler.” The Germans didn’t want to waste human tissues that could potentially be useful or profitable—after all, the victims were already dead, so why waste it? This was their mind-set.

To me, perhaps the most cogent aspect of the Holocaust was the way in which it was orchestrated.  It became clear that this entire morbid enterprise couldn’t have happened so effectively and smoothly without large numbers of people playing different roles in a cold, calculated, incredibly silent and deceptive fashion. While Hitler is most certainly one of the most putrid characters in human history, we must remember that it took an entire nation of people who agreed with him and thought like him for such a feat to take place.

On a lighter note, we truly enjoyed our time in Krakow. We wandered through all the entrails of the city and stopped by the Jagiellonian University (Krakow University)—the place where Copernicus studied. I didn’t know that Copernicus was a polymath. He studied medicine, mathematics, philosophy, economics, astronomy and he was also a Priest (Per our Polish Tour guide who works at the Krakow University). While Copernicus practiced religion, he was still hesitant to share his findings about Heliocentrism until he got much older—and we are all familiar with the reason why he waited: fear of being burned at the stake for suggesting such a preposterous idea! We got to see a copy of his “Revolutions” which is a precious artifact of scientific progress.

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We went on a tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine—one of the oldest salt mines in the world (1000 or so years old!) Please see the pictures of the incredible salt sculptures.

The dining in Poland was great. When you walk through the city you are assaulted with some of the most delicious smells your brain has ever entertained. We enjoyed many Pierogi lunches and we even tried some Georgian cuisine.

So far, my favorite European cathedral is in Krakow. It is St. Mary’s Basilica. This place has towering ceilings and is full of all kinds of ecclesiastical treasures. There are Biblical paintings, stained glass windows, gorgeous statues and sculptures adored in gold and the interior of the church has this unusual yet striking color scheme of steel blue and gold—very celestial, indeed!

I think Krakow, Poland was one of my favorite places in Europe that I’ve been to. Even though the weather was intensely hot and muggy, we enjoyed our time there—even more than Ireland.

Some of the Treasures I bought in Poland 🙂 These include: A painting from a Polish artist (reminds me of a Matisse), adorable skirt, Polish Pottery and little wooden, hand-made boxes.

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OUR IRELAND TRIP!! (July 2015)

Ireland. The land of feeling wet and soggy–most of the time. Of all the countries I’ve been to and spent time in, in my opinion Ireland has the most humble (and kind) people. You will love the Irish people. They are especially helpful if you get lost looking for the Guinness Brewery or the Jameson Distillery in Dublin.

 

We had an excursion on the Paddywagon bus tour to the city of Galway on the western side of the Island.

 

One of our tours was provided by this young lad. He provided a fantastic tour delving into Irish lore–like leprechauns.

MY PREGNANT AFRICAN SAFARI in NAMIBIA!! (June 2015)

MY PREGNANT AFRICAN SAFARI in NAMIBIA!! (June 2015)

We just returned from a 2 week Namibian safari that was truly a chance of a life time. My husband and I got to witness some of the most arousing and poignant scenes of Africa. This was my husband’s first time on the African continent and something that he was looking forward to. Although it was my 4th time, It was my first time to go on a real safari!

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Might I just add before I go any further–that one of the MOST AMAZING things about going to Namibia and spending time in the desert was the night sky. Sans light and air pollution as well as very little moisture, you can see stars like you never imagined! As if the tapestry of shining southern constellations isn’t enough, you also get to see the Milky Way galaxy itself. You can readily discern the swirls of our galaxy and see distinct features like the Orion Arm as well as the central Bulge.

 

Being away from western civilization and a speedy internet connection (if any, at all) gave me the time to indulge in meaningful reflection and to be present in the moment…fully captivated by all of my senses….fully immersed in nature.

We flew to Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. This city is surprisingly progressive, has well-paved roads, modern buildings and a clean, downtown with lots of curio shops, a mall and even a few European-style restaurants. We stayed at the gorgeous Hilton for a couple of nights!

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We arrived in Windhoek early in the morning with the freezing chill still hitting hard as we got off the plane (28 degrees F). Namibia can be so cold in the morning…brrr; yet once mid-morning hits, you feel the intense desert heat. The sun rays, like daggers, pierce through your flesh with an intensity I had never felt before. The arid desert landscape reminded me of Phoenix, Arizona.

 

Our two days in Windhoek went by quickly. We visited the lovely Botanical gardens just walking distance from the center of town. The botanical garden is a must-see for plant-lovers or anyone interested in gaining more knowledge about desert plants—and it is FREE, so totally worth it! This garden features several green houses and a trail through a parched desert that abounds with cactus, acacia trees, bottle trees and other-worldly looking succulents. We saw many lizards scurrying over rocks.

 

Day 2

In the afternoon of our second day, we started our “Sense of Africa” tour. A shuttle picked us up and drove us into the orange sherbet sunset, westward.  In the late evening, we arrived on the Atlantic coast and stayed the night in the town of Swakopmund.

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Day 3

My husband and I decided to take a small boat excursion out in the ocean near Walvis Bay. As the ship left the dock we were greeted by giant pelicans, flying overhead and then landing on the side-rails of our boat. It wasn’t long before a couple seals began swimming nearby and then, spontaneously flopped onto the boat deck.  The seal even hopped right onto a seat and became affectionate with one of the men on our boat tour.

Walvis bay is a fantastic place for viewing sea life. We saw countless dolphins and seals frolicking in the harbor. The boat even took us to the edge of a sandbar where we saw seals galore! There is nothing quite like viewing animals in their natural habitat.They are such happy creatures with pure puppy-like sweetness exuding from them!

In the afternoon, we had a chance to walk along the beautiful coast and also visit the Swakopmund Aquarium—costs about $5 for two people. The aquarium is small but very cool with lots of weirdly shaped fish as well as sharks, and sting rays.

Day 4

Our safari guide was an older white Namibian woman—born and raised in Namibia. Our tour group was small. It consisted of a Swiss couple, a chain-smoking German couple, a stereotypical Italian man, a 20-something French woman, a 20-something German woman and a 72 year old German man sans wife. We were the only Americans; and for that matter, the only Americans we encountered on our trip! The Germans on our tour spoke very little English so it was fitting that my husband happens to speak near-fluent German. Our tours were given in German and English :). Everyone on our tour was a traveler at heart and eager to go on the safari at Etosha National Park.

We spent a long portion of our day driving from Swakopmund to the Damaraland region. For a while we even drove along the Skeleton Coast and got to see shipwrecks that are characteristic features of this coastline.

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Next we drove east-bound, through the dessert. The desert landscape unfurled before us in red-sandy terra cotta with splashes of purple and sage mixing in the distant hills. The sky was pure blue and stood out in stark contrast to the orangey rock formations and red dirt.

The desert terrain in Namibia is covered in red sandy earth and further sprinkled with milky quartz as far as the eye can see. This arid terrain offers an astonishing treasure house of precious rocks and gems. Among these are citrine, rose quartz, topaz, amethyst, aquamarine and carnelian.  There are also generous deposits of precious metals like copper, uranium, iron and mining areas are found in several regions. Oil is also found in Namibia. If I was a rich investor, I would no doubt invest here!

While in Damaraland we got to walk through a petrified forest, see ancient sandstone engravings and also visit a traditional Damara village.  We came across many Welwitschia plants; some of which are the oldest living plants on earth (they can live up to 2000 years).

Perhaps the most intensely magical and surreal experiences I found were in Etosha National Park! Etosha is a world-famous wildlife reserve situated in the northern, central section of Namibia and covers 22 thousand square kilometers (roughly half the size of Switzerland). Imagine endless savanna and shrubby plains that stretch far out into the distance.There are dusty parched forests densely packed with every variety of acacia. Despite the dry, almost unexpected texture of the landscape, there is wildlife variety like no other place!

Our safari guide brought us to several water holes. Like children on Christmas, we patiently waited for the animals to arrive. Sometimes we would wait for 30-40 minutes before any animals made their appearance. Like clockwork, the animals slowly but surely made their way to the watering hole. The animals strode in from all directions. In the distance we would first see subtle movement. We watched as the zebras made their way in. It wasn’t long before giraffes could be seen—their tall necks surpassing the trees and shrubby savanna. One or two warthog babies would scuddle in and dip their thirsty tongue in the small pool. We saw many different bird species skimming over the water hole. Secretary birds, Pied crows, Guinea fowl, Gray- Go-away birds, and Lilac Breasted Roller’s were just a few to behold. A herd of elephants made their way to the hole. There is nothing cuter than a baby elephant coming to the water hole with its mama and dad.

What makes the water hole so very special—a quintessential feature of the African Savannah—is that you can see an astounding array of wildlife in their natural habitat. This is especially noticeable during the dry season!

There is something so pure and innocent about seeing animals come out from no-where to satisfy their most basic survival needs. I am reminded of how vulnerable they are to the whims of nature, to climate change and to poachers.I was appalled to learn that the Black Rhino is a critically endangered species. Our safari guide informed us that JUST IN THE LAST 6 MONTHS OVER 80 BLACK RHINOCEROS HAVE BEEN POACHED in ETOSHA ALONE. THERE ARE ONLY 300-400 in ETOSHA park. Apparently there is a HUGE demand in Asian countries (especially China) for Rhinoceros horn.

The Rhino horn is crushed up into a powder and then used inTraditional Chinese Medicine as an aphrodisiac, to HELP ACHIEVE SEXUAL STAMINA IN MALES and it is also used for fevers, typhoid, rheumatism, gout, headaches, hallucinations, poisoning and demonic possession. The facts tell a different story though. Rhinoceros horn is made of keratin (like your fingernails) and has not been shown to have any unique properties that address any of these ailments. THIS MEANS THAT THESE ENDANGERED ANIMALS ARE BEING KILLED SO THAT SOMEONE CAN GET OFF ON THE PLACEBO EFFECT! It is sickly irrational when you think about it!

We stayed at several lodges around the Etosha park and thoroughly enjoyed our time. The meals were delicious (with South African Braai (BBQ) being the one exception—too undercooked for our tastes and neither of us enjoy the wild game meats that were offered at the BBQ’s). There were plenty of beautiful pools and lovely gardens to explore but our time was consumed by going on safari trips into the park.

If I could, I would move to Etosha and become a wildlife advocate. I was totally unaware of how fast these animals are going extinct. We were told that going on Safari and bringing money into the country of Namibia helps preserve the park and the animals as the park provides many sustainable jobs for Namibians. There are Namibians who are employed just to keep an eye on the park and watch for suspicious activity (since poaching is all to common here).

Our trip was AMAZING! I can’t wait to go back someday!

OUR NEW YORK CITY ADVENTURE! (May 2015)

OUR NEW YORK CITY ADVENTURE! (May 2015)

We went to New York City in May of 2015. The weather was PERFECT! We had an amazing time. While there, my Mother in-law hosted a baby shower for us. It was wonderful because we got to see my husband’s parents and grandparents, his brother and sister and his Great Uncle and cousins. My parents even flew in from Oregon to attend the event.

 

 

Highlights of our trip:

  • Baby shower at my In-laws and spending lots of time with them 🙂

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    My husband’s Grandparents 🙂  We also celebrated their wedding anniversary!
  • Going to the very top of the Rockefeller building in Manhattan
  • Going to the Natural History Museum with my Creationist parents
  • Walking through Central Park
  • Chinese Food in Staten Island
  • Pizza in Brooklyn 
  • Walking across Brooklyn Bridge
  • Visit to the Hayden Planetarium 
  • Tour bus through the city
  • Hot dog Stands in downtown Manhattan
  • Visiting an Irish Pub
  • Timesquare

 

 

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Top of the Rock (Rockefeller Center) 16 weeks pregnant

 

MEETING MICHAEL MOORE IN MUNICH, ALSO, OUR SALZBURG AUSTRIA TRIP!! (April 2015)

This past weekend my husband and I had the exquisite pleasure of taking a weekend trip to Munich—the famous party-city in Germany.  The last time I entered Bavaria was in 1998. At the time, I was with my family and we stayed in the city of Garmisch. Like the average tourist who visits Southern Germany, we had made a day trip to visit the Neuschwanstein Castle. We never did make it into the beer-guzzling city of Munich. I wonder why.

My husband and I were looking for a short, frivolous getaway. Thankfully, transportation in Europe is done with supreme ease. Even if you book a train at the last minute, it seems you can still find options to go anywhere—provided you are willing to stand. We caught the Ice train in Mannheim which took us straight to Munich. We even passed through the village of Ulm, the town where Einstein was born.

We arrived in Munich in the early afternoon which gave us plenty of time to explore the city square. Once off the train we walked our way through the bustling train station and out onto the streets of Munich.  Munich is a large city—roughly 150,000 in population. I learned that the people of Bavaria proudly see themselves as almost separate from the rest of Germany—think Texans and the United-States—only that Bavarians are not Protestant Bible-Thumpers.  In Bavaria the locals are patriotic, conservative and largely Catholic.  Their unique cultural heritage is a result of being separate from Germany until only 100 years ago.

People with model-looking bodies are seen on all corners of the streets. Everyone is toned, youthful, glowing and smiling.

Thankfully, our hotel was located walking distance from the main city square. After dropping off our bags in our hotel room, we wandered into the city center. We passed gangs of tourists and locals all jostling their way into the town-square for Friday-night escapades.  We walked by countless trinket shops and clothing stores specializing in dirndls—the traditional dress of German women. I even found a sushi spot nestled in the heart of the city—not too bad!

I would highly recommend walking by the Munich Rathaus. Architecturally, this building stuns with richly ornate flare and at times, seems almost gothic. Like Notre Dame, it has gargoyles peeping out from all corners; definitely a captivating visual experience! Also, in the square you will come across several fountains with erected stone statues in the middle. I randomly notice that a Merman statue sits in the middle of one fountain and squirts water at a little boy.

There are also a couple accessible cathedrals in the town-square that are free and absolutely worth a peak inside!

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Munich Rathaus

That night we found our way into the Augustiner Keller and Biergarten—an authentic hot-spot that you must visit while in Munich. Once you enter through the gate you weave your way through the sprawling Biergarten full of Friday night locals all sitting on picnic tables in this outdoor garden. My eyes were grabbed by the variety of sparkling amber brews and assortment of beer glasses positioned all over the tables.

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We decided to eat indoors. The beer hall was enormous! We sat at a long, wooden picnic table and then ordered typical Bavarian fare. In less than 40 minutes the beer hall filled up and became a rowdy, cantankerous joint though sans an accordion player. It was a fun place to observe the locals clanking their beer glasses with each other and having a good time.

The next day we made a short trip to Salzburg, Austria. For music lovers, this place is famous for being Mozart’s hometown and for many an American, it is famous for its various scenes in the 1965 musical, “The Sound of Music”.  WE LOVED SALZBURG! It is definitely my favorite smaller city that I have visited in Europe.

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Salzburg, Austria

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The old town of Salzburg is of delightful, quaint beauty. The streets are narrow and the buildings and storefronts are packed tightly together. There is an old graveyard in the center of the old city and above the city stands a fortress (Hohnensalzburg Castle) which we never made it to.

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Beautiful graveyard in Salzburg, Austria. The Hohnensalzburg Castle stands in the background.

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MEETING MICHAEL MOORE

After our Salzburg day-trip we headed back to Munich. We were just entering our hotel when we saw a group of 4-5 people standing in the lobby, checking in.  As we passed my husband muttered under his breath, “Looks like Michael Moore”.  How random could that be that a famous, controversial documentary filmmaker would be staying in the same place as us? I turned around, taking a closer look and exclaimed, “That IS Michael Moore”.  Michael Moore, hearing his name, turned around and glanced at us. Sure enough, it was him. We made a dash for the elevator. Neither of us are major Michael Moore fans but it was quite random (and surprising) to see that he was staying in the same hotel that we were and on the same weekend.

That night we secretly hoped to pass by him again but of no luck. My husband and I went downstairs so that he could get a drink at the restaurant bar. The bar maid accidentally spilled beer all over his pants and shoes.

In the morning we were offered free breakfast in the hotel since the bar maid soaked (and stained) my husband’s shoes in beer. Free food is free food.

Coincidentally, I stood right behind a GIANT (Michael Moore)in the breakfast buffet line who was heaping himself to lots of eggs and bacon. He had a specialty glass with orange juice and 2 sliced oranges adorning the rim. He was wearing a black t-shirt, sweat pants and an old ratty baseball hat. It felt odd that no one else seemed to recognize who he was. Then again, it seemed like we were the only Americans at this hotel.  My husband hadn’t noticed my location yet, when he caught site who I was standing by, he smiled brightly.

Confidently he walked right up to Michael Moore and asked, “So when can I be expecting your next documentary?”.  Michael Moore seemed very enthusiastic that finally someone recognized him. He even pulled us over to the side of the breakfast room and told us that he was in Munich filming a documentary that will be entitled something like “Invade”…forgot the exact title.  His documentary will highlight “Some of the things that Europe does right…and should be incorporated into America (trains, health care etc)” He was quite affable, down-to-earth and actually, rather sweet. He was more than willing to talk to random strangers like us.