Hello 2015!

I’m very literally in the final hour of the first day of 2015, and to be completely honest, I don’t really feel like doing a write-up for the previous year, but I figured I might as well do the bloggy thing and get this out of the way.

There weren’t many significant things in 2014, but I’ll list those that stuck out at me the most:

1. The aviation disasters – MH370, MH17, QZ8501. My heart truly goes out to all affected by it. I remember the horror when I first read the news, the text messages telling me to be safe on future flights (not that I have much control over those, but thanks y’all), the unsettling feeling when people joked about them. Tragedies are never anything to joke about, and never something I will let slip easily. They are insensitive and callous, IMO.

2. The Twin going to Glasgow to continue her medical studies! Commence the parents wanting to send money to make sure she doesn’t go broke. Some things never change (but really, if you’re a JPA scholar anywhere apart from the USA and Australia, there’s a good chance you’ll have enough money to get by decently, but not extravagantly, naturally. You’re abroad to study not to live like a king.)

3. Going up Mount Kinabalu! That was something. I really enjoyed it, even though I didn’t make it all the way up. Full blog post here!

4. My sole surviving grandmother has diabetes, and it made some progression over the summer. I can’t communicate much with her due to a severe language barrier (I can’t speak dialects, which is a source of some regret I suppose), but she means a lot to me, so naturally I was, and still am, concerned about her well-being. Please take care of your health while you’re young and able. Your body is a temple of God, and it deserves all the care and concern you can give it.

5. I went to Prague. FINALLY. I say finally because I believe that in the batch of Malaysians that flew over to Poland back in 2011 with me, I was one of the few who did not visit Prague within the first 2 years here. We have friends in Prague, which is why it seems to be a natural decision to visit Prague at the soonest possibility. Now that I’ve finally been there, I can say that while it is pretty, I still like my good ol’ Krakow better. So biased.

6. I saw Michael Buble in concert! You mayyy only know him as the guy who makes amazing Christmas music (such as this one with Idina Menzel), but he makes some of the best love songs too! Which I adore, second only to sad melancholy songs. Full post here, although I fear it is rather incoherent a post.

7. Academic-wise, I would say it’s been pretty alright., Glancing through my academic transcript, I am very thankful to see an immense improvement from an incredibly dismal first year. The only thing that is set to mar my 4th year results seems to be my Pharmacology paper. I make no excuses for it. I disliked the subject and even failed one of the 5 tests we had to take throughout the year. No surprises that I will not be getting a brilliant final score for it, but hey, I’m still so grateful for God’s grace where my studies are concerned.

8. Speaking of God’s grace, I’ve definitely taken it for granted one time too many in 2014. He’s always been kind to me, and towards the end of my 3rd year (so sometime before summer 2014), I felt that He was just always paving the way forwards for me, and I think I grew too comfortable and nonchalant and ungrateful about it. I’m thankful that He’s been sending me tiny reminders through faithful Christians that He is the Giver and my Jehovah, and that I need to always have a good relationship with Him :)

9. Last place I visited this year was the UK! Flew over to Glasgow a few days before Christmas to visit The Twin and spent Christmas there. We also made day trips out to Edinburgh and Loch Lomond. Probably the best place in Glasgow was the University of Glasgow itself. It is a majestic work of art. Then we flew down to London for a couple more days. It’s my second time in London, and it’s as lovely as ever (minus the unending streams of people). We also made a day trip out to Cambridge, where we bemoaned our lack of intelligence. What I would do to be smart enough to study Medicine there. Sigh. All in all it was a brilliant trip! Great place, wonderful company, good food. Miss it all already!

10. Spent the very last day of 2014 back in Krakow, in the company of some friends from church, where we shared food and wine and champagne and laughter and hugs with each other. There’s never any better way to celebrate anything than with people who you care about, and who love you just as well!

This post is already too long, so I’ll stop here. As usual, I make no resolutions for the new year, but as always, I shall continue to endeavour, by the grace and love of Christ, to press forward into the unknown and strive for perfection and to be mindful of my errors.

God bless all you wonderful people as we enter a new year! :)

Paranoia

I was almost pickpocketed twice yesterday (or rather, about 12 hours ago), and now I can’t seem to fall asleep.

Those of you that follow me on Twitter may have seen me tweet the following:

“Oh wow. Some foreigners just tried to pickpocket me. The nerve.”

Which was followed up minutes later with the following tweet:

“Ok now the two of them are following me. What the heck. Follow me some more and I’ll take you straight to the cops.”

The story was that I needed to get British Pounds because I’ll be heading to the UK in a couple of days, so I went to the bank to withdraw a nice sum of Euros. Instead of a crossbody handbag that I normally use, I had on a backpack, and of course, my purse was in the backpack, albeit buried low beneath my other things. After making the withdrawal, I walked about 15 minutes to a currency exchange (we call them kantors, so I’ll just refer to them as kantors henceforth) to convert them to Polish zlotys and then to Pounds (that’s just how it works here).

The street I was on had 4 or 5 kantors, and I decided to convert my Euros to zlotys in one shop, and then go down two shops to convert the zlotys to Pounds. I was in line at the first kantor, replying a couple of messages when I felt someone bumping my backpack. That isn’t an uncommon occurrence – often people accidentally bump into you when you’re in line and they aren’t paying attention to their surroundings – so I moved forward a little and ignored it.

Then it happened again. This time I turned around and sharply eyed the person behind me, mostly because I was annoyed. There wasn’t one, but two Romani-looking women behind me, all decked out in massive black scarves and long black clothes, and a bright-coloured beanie each. The more aggressive one of the two wore a purple beanie, so we’ll call her PurpleB. Again, I shuffled a bit so that I wasn’t standing directly in front of them, thinking that they maybe had a problem with not being able to stand still, for whatever reason.

THEN I heard a zipper sound. My bag has zippers. Instinctively I turned around and swung my bag off to find that, surprise, surprise, one compartment was unzipped just wide enough to comfortably fit a hand in. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do, so I glared at PurpleB (who was shuffling her hand under her massive black scarf) and kept my bag in front of me after making sure nothing was missing from that compartment. It was then my turn at the kantor, so I got my zlotys and headed down the street to the next kantor.

At the next kantor, just after I had changed my zlotys for Pounds, I saw PurpleB’s head peeping at me through the door, and then quickly ducking out of view when she saw me looking at her. At this stage, I was thoroughly annoyed. I knew they were up to no good, but I just wanted to get home and didn’t think much about it. I kept my purse and walked out the door.

I walked maybe 100m, turned around, didn’t notice them following me, so I leisurely made my way to a tram stop to get home. The walk probably took me 10 minutes, and as I neared the stop, I felt a slight pressure on my backpack. There were many people around so I didn’t think much about it (argh, why was I so silly!). Then I saw the tram arrive and I did a little jog towards it, and for whatever reason, I abruptly stopped about ten paces from the tram and I felt someone ram right into me.

I turned around, and guess who it was. Yep. PurpleB was back.

She panicked and ran up that tram, but at that point I knew they were trailing me and I absolutely did not want to get on that tram. So she hesitated and got off the tram (she was really just bad at trailing people). I decided that I could probably get on the tram and try to lose her by getting off at the next stop. When I got on, she and her buddy got on too. We were somewhere near the front of the tram, so I quickly pressed my way through the crowd of people to the back of the tram to gain some distance and check if they had successfully stolen from me. Thankfully (!!!) all my items were intact even though they had opened one of the zippers halfway.

PurpleB just kept making incredibly obvious moves to keep an eye on me from the front of the tram, when I lost my patience and snapped my phone out to make like I was taking a photo of her. It worked for a bit – she stopped peeking at me.

At the next stop, I quickly alighted the tram AND THEY FOLLOWED ME DOWN. ARGH.

At this point, I was beyond irritated. I wanted to get on with my day and they were ruining it for me. The tram had stopped right behind a zebra-crossing, and there was a small crowd of people there waiting for the light to turn to cross the road, so I stood with them and just death-stared PurpleB, who decided to duck behind an advert at the tram stop. Said advert was perhaps 30 paces from where I stood.

While I was deciding what to do, I saw PurpleB deliberately, and very obviously, sneak a peek in my direction (I tell you, they would not make good spies). I was so fed-up, I could have screamed at them. Right then, the light turned green and everyone started crossing the road. Bear in mind that the tram was still positioned behind the zebra-crossing, so what did I do? I dashed right across the street and behind the tram hoping that they wouldn’t see me.

Near the corner of the opposite street, there was a tall kiosk with opaque walls. I was super desperate to lose them, so I thought, you know what, I’m going to hide behind this kiosk. I didn’t think it’d work, but it did. I lost them just by hiding behind a kiosk! Hurra!

At that point, I was borderline furious at being made to resort to such actions, annoyed at myself for not knowing what else to do, and ever so slightly nervous that they were still following me. So I just stood behind the kiosk like a weird creeper and kept an eye on my surroundings while replying tweets and texting to appear normal. The owner of the kiosk probably thought I was a vandal of some sort and got out of her kiosk to stand somewhere near me and pretend to sweep non-existent leaves. Thank you random lady, you truly made me feel a lot safer.

A friend reached out to me, and his place was only 10 minutes away from where I was, so I quickly made my way there with many glances over my shoulder. It was there that I started to feel incredibly nervous and anxious. I probably talked a LOT to cover up my (rather mild) anxiety, but I really did not want to leave. When I eventually did 2 hours later, I definitely spun around every 2 minutes or so to make sure no one was following me.

And now I’m telling you all of this because a) I am super paranoid that there are people waiting to follow me around and rob me when I leave the house tomorrow; and b) I am nervous. I feel like anyone could break into my apartment and rob me.

I, and everyone else, deserve the right to walk around town and not feel threatened or worried. It’s served to make me further distrust the foreigners in Poland. I’m not saying that all Polish people are upright and all foreigners are crooks (because I am very obviously also a foreigner here), but at least temporarily, this is not an impression I will easily discard. I am up now wondering if I could have done something differently, or rather if I should have done something differently, like call them out in public, but I felt like there was no way I could have proved it? But I don’t know, you feel free to tell me if I could have reacted in a better way.

If you’ve read the entire thing, I applaud you and thank you. I know that my anxiety is perhaps slightly irrational, but I can’t help it. I will be glad to leave this city for a bit, I’ll tell you that. I am now going to go talk to God and thank Him loads for His grace and protection. *breathes*

Michael Buble in Krakow!

So as the title says, Michael Buble was in Krakow recently! THE Michael Buble! The one with all the soothing Christmas songs (that are all totally relevant year-round), the bubbly singles, the romantic relaxing tunes, the constantly-on-repeat covers of the good ol’ oldies. That fella was here. In Krakow.

And I was at his concert, watching him sing and shimmy and all that good stuff on the 4th of November! Ack!

If you can’t already tell, I am fangirling very hard. I fangirled even harder when he got up on stage (have I mentioned how much more handsome he looks in person?)

A photo I stole from his Instagram account of him in Krakow! http://instagram.com/p/u8Sh4EpS-V/?modal=true

A photo I stole from his Instagram account of him in Krakow! http://instagram.com/p/u8Sh4EpS-V/?modal=true

I know that in this age of happy preppy pop music, people like Michael aren’t nearly as popular as, say, Katy Perry or Nicki Minaj. But hey, he is superb at what he does, and I like to think I’m a bit of an old soul who generally prefers slower tunes, with the occasional addiction to catchy ones.

The concert was held at our spanking new Krakow Arena, and my friend and I got there 30 minutes earlier to find our seats. It took us a TON of wandering around and receiving misleading information from the stewards before we stumbled into the VIP area and noisily made our way to our seats (which were not in the red-cushioned VIP area, sadly).

Then Naturally 7 came on to get the party started! I’ve never heard of them before, much less hear them sing, but boy were they good! They are an acapella group consisting, you guessed it, 7 people, and they mimicked the sounds of instruments sooo well! It was insane. They don’t call it acapella though – they call it vocal play. What a neat little term. Anyway, I thought their Wall of Sound and cover of Fix You were incredibly good. The recordings were nowhere close to properly demonstrating how good they really sound live, but click the links and listen to them with headphones on, maybe it’ll be just as awesome!

Krakow Arena all decked out in purple and gold in anticipation of the Michael Buble!

Krakow Arena all decked out in purple and gold in anticipation of the Michael Buble! Crappy phone picture quality, but hey, whacha gonna do about it

At around 8pm, The Man came on. He began with so much pomp and splendour, his voice resonating across the entire stadium as he shimmied his way through You Make Me Feel So Young. Almost everyone spontaneously got up on their feet, because how could we not! He made seamless transitions from song to song, pausing to joke and interact with the fans after every 3 or 4 songs. He even gave his band credit and let them do their own thing while introducing each one of them. Come on, how many other artists do that?

It’s supposed to be a tour promoting his latest album, To Be Loved (which is a beautiful work of art!), but he also included some of his older songs, and performed covers of some more popular songs too(!) such as Taylor Swift’s rather annoying We Are Never Getting Back Together and Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. I was just disappointed he didn’t perform any of his Christmas hits. Those are seriously some of his best yet.

Michael Buble Krakow Arena

In the middle of all of that, heart shaped confetti started raining down on us! Some people grabbed handfuls of that stuff and threw them about, danced in them, and eventually took them out of the stadium and littered the pavement with them.

It ended at around 10pm, and I couldn’t decide if I was upset that it was over, or if I was simply too excited from it all. It’s amazing to see an artist you like so much perform live. It’s even more amazing when you realize that he sounds even better live than he does in recordings. I just asdfghjkl.

That was money well spent, is all I’m saying.

And in case you’re interested, I’ll leave links to a lousy quality video I recorded of him singing That’s All, and a short clip on Instagram of him singing Moondance, because I love both of those songs. Some of the best songs ever, in my opinion.

I’m off to fangirl a bit more, then get some shut-eye before I end up being too tired to function in the morning. Ciao!

Haters Gonna Hate, Hate, Hate, Hate, Hate…

… baby I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it off, shake it off!

So goes one of Taylor Swift’s singles from her latest album, 1989.

I love T-Swift, and I am absolutely nuts over that song (I actually have it on right now). But that line about the haters? It bugs me to no end.

I may possibly be in the minority here, but I’m thoroughly fed up at how pop culture has taught us to define haters. Sure, T-Swift is super popular, so naturally, she’d have people who hate her for no reason at all, the way people did (and probably still do) with a certain Justin Bieber.

But the rest of us common folk? Unless you’re a perfectly horrid individual (which I am hard-pressed to find), you probably only have one or two people in your life who dislike you intensely for a reason that makes perfect sense to them, but so many people now seem to think that “haters” refer to the people who:

a. criticize you;

b. advise you to do something you do not want to do;

c. disagree with you;

d. refuse to applaud your achievements; and

e. are less than cotton-candy sweet to you

Come on. Aren’t others allowed to have an opinion that differs from yours? What happened to accepting criticism with gracefully, and handing them out with love?

Are you so impeccably flawless that any word against you simply must stem from a deep-set feeling of jealousy and hatred towards your stunning perfection?

Let’s be real here, guys. There will always be people who dislike you or the things you do, but that doesn’t make them a hater. The same way you disliking what your friend does does not mean you hate them.

Not every person with an opinion is a hater.

Throwback: I Hiked Up Mount Kinabalu, Sabah!

Long, long post ahead!

Some months back, one of my friends suggested an East Malaysia trip, with the highlight being a hike up Mount Kinabalu. Myself and 5 other people jumped at the opportunity to push our leg muscles to the limit, so along with the fella who made the suggestion, we found ourselves in the city of Kota Kinabalu (henceforth referred to as KK), Sabah, Malaysia on the 19th of August, 2014.

A little background: Standing at 4095m above sea level, Mount Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in Malaysia, and one of the tallest in Southeast Asia. I’ve only ever been up half of one mountain before this, that is Mount Murut in Sarawak, but that wasn’t much compared to what I was about to put myself through.

Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu. Not really. This is just a view along the hike up.

 

To even attempt to ascend Mount Kinabalu, you have to have a permit, and we obtained ours under a package by Amazing Borneo Tours. It cost us almost 900MYR per person, just for the permit, a guide, transportation to and from KK, and lodging and boarding while we were on the mountain. Pricey? You be the judge.

At 6.30 in the morning, we climbed into a van that would take us to Timpohon Gate, the starting point of our hike. We spent the night before in a condo unit right in the heart of KK, where I shared a room with 3 other girls. None of us got any sleep. Pro tip if you’re going to hike for hours on end: GET SLEEP. Maybe we were too anxious/excited/nervous, but being sleep-deprived wasn’t too great. Adrenaline kept us going well enough, though.

Not too sure about this, but we probably reached Timpohon Gate about 1.5-2 hours later. We unloaded our bags, met our guides, were briefed, and off we went!

The trail around the 1-2km mark

The trail around the 1-2km mark

I get the feeling that many people think hiking up a mountain is pretty simple stuff. While it wasn’t incredibly difficult, it still was challenging. The terrain changed considerably along the way, beginning with very steep and earthy steps, moving on to granite boulders and slippery slopes, clay earth, and even more slippery boulders. You could definitely try the hike even if you’re just the average, not-so-fit Joe, though. You would just have to climb very, very slowly.

The trail around the 2km mark

The trail around the 2km mark

The first part of the hike was 6km long, to our base camp at Laban Rata, where we would spend the night before attempting to ascend to the summit. We were told that most people take about 6 hours to reach Laban Rata. The fastest member in our group eventually reached in a little under 4 hours.

Personally, I made it in almost 5 hours. I cleared the first 4km in about 2.25 hours (yay!), but then altitude sickness slowly crept in.

Part of the trail, also somewhere at the 4-5km point

Part of the trail, also somewhere at the 4-5km point

At about the 4.5km mark, it was already about 2500m above sea level. I began to feel very dizzy and nauseous, and out of all the medication I had packed, I forgot to get altitude sickness pills. What a stroke of genius.

By the time I reached the 5km point, I was ready to give up. I could barely breathe, and everyone who passed me was stopping to ask if I was okay. I later learned that I had turned so pale, that there wasn’t any colour in my face. How long did it take me to cover the remaining kilometer? A whooping 1.5 hours.  I probably stopped to catch my breath every 200m or so.

Out of the seven of us who climbed that day, I suffered the worst from altitude sickness. The rest of them barely had any symptoms. Take-home message? Bring your pills. Who knows if you might be that weakling who hyperventilates at higher altitudes (i.e. yours truly).

View of a helipad from Laban Rata

View of a helipad from Laban Rata

 

View from Laban Rata. I wish my lens was more powerful, because somewhere in the greenery is a small village, that is very visible if you're actually standing there.

View from Laban Rata. I wish my lens was more powerful, because somewhere in the greenery is a small village that is fairly visible if you’re actually standing there.

It was 2 in the afternoon when I reached Laban Rata. I rested, changed out of my wet clothes, and pulled on thermal undergarments and a windbreaker. It was a little chilly up there, around 5 degrees Celsius, I think? As my breathing and heart rate both began to normalize themselves, I felt a lot better and thought that I could possibly make the climb to the summit the next day, at 2am.

Until I came down with food poisoning 2 hours before we were supposed to start.

I had gone to bed at around 7pm, and at 11.30pm, I woke up and started throwing up! When I started throwing up bile and hyperventilating all over again, I realized that I had gotten food poisoning for the umpteenth time. I don’t know if I have a weak gut, but I seem to come down with it a little more often than most others, and at all the inopportune times, it would seem.

I took my anti-emetics, went back to bed, but when I woke at 2am, I realized that I was still very weak. And that it was raining cats and dogs outside.

I said,"Boss, posing mari!" He laughed, pointed me out to his friends, then grinned for the photo.

I said,”Boss, posing mari!”
He laughed, pointed me out to his friends, then grinned for the photo.

At the canteen, they told us that we would have to wait for clearance to climb to the summit because the path up was all steep rocky slopes, and rain often turned many parts into mini waterfalls, which meant greater danger for the climbers. So after waiting an entire hour, with the rain still not letting up, we were told that the ascend was called off. What luck. One of my friends informed us that the previous year, weather only got in the way 7 times, and none of the 7 were in August!

I was not-so-secretly pleased with the decision, because if they hadn’t called it off, I would have went ahead in my weakened state, and I would probably have suffered very badly because of that. But everyone else has my sympathies. It was still a waste, and I regret it slightly, but not enough to complain about it. Instead, I went back to sleep and then walked around to take more pictures.

Laban Rata, Mount Kinabalu

Some climbers decided to still take the risk though, and went ahead in spite of that. 2 of those climbers were part of our group! And they did make it to the summit! The rain cleared midway through their ascend up the 2.7km hike, but it was still slippery and one of them slipped about 10 times. The guide was with them all the way to keep them safe.

After they reached Laban Rata and had rested, we began our descend.

Part of the trail closer to the 6km mark

Part of the trail closer to the 6km mark

Everything was wet and muddy and somewhat slippery, but going down is definitely a lot faster than going up. It has to be said though, that all our knees and calves were already sore, so there were many grimaces and “Ouch’s” on the way down.

Part of the trail, also somewhere at the 4-5km point

Part of the trail, also somewhere at the 4-5km point

One of our guides, Iging, who also doubled up as our porter.

One of our guides, Iging, who also doubled up as our porter.

Two days after that climb, we were all still going down staircases like 100-year-old grannies. You should have seen us grasp the railings and slowly inch our way down, with our faces contorted to make us look like the most attractive people on earth. The pain is real. So real.

After all that’s said and done, it was worth it. All the muscle aches and vomiting spells and dizziness were all worth the climb. It was a shame that 5 out of the 7 of us didn’t make it to the summit, but hey, we still have a future ahead of us, and who knows, maybe we’ll attempt it again at some point. :) I just thank God for keeping us all safe, and for keeping me well, albeit a little unhealthy up there.

Yet another morsel of thought

First things first (I’m the realest! Eheh), I’m back in Malaysia! Been here for about 3 days now, and aside from the pests and the humid, humid weather, all has been good. I’ve been prepping for Mount Kinabalu too, which a group of friends and I will attempt to conquer (hah, conquer, hah) in about 10 days! Pretty excited about it. Pray for good weather and good health and stamina, please!

Anyway, the point of this entry is to share a random thought that’s a bit too long for Twitter, and Facebook has fallen out of favour with me (just with respect to wordy blocks of text, not photos).

Have you ever realized how often we take the people closest to us for granted? Your best friend/siblings/parents/whoever else who is close to you is almost always the object of your unwarranted outbursts of emotion. We don’t even stop to think if we are hurting their feelings, because those people have feelings too!

“That’s just how it is” or “Oh, I never mean it, but they’re unfortunately always there when I’m upset” are never good enough excuses. Heck, no excuse will ever be good enough to warrant you hurling verbal abuse at the people who care most about you, all because you happen to be in a lousy mood.

Get it together, both you and I (assuming you sometimes take people for granted, the way I do). It’s not terribly difficult to filter what exits your mouth. What has been said can never be taken back.

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Picture of a sleeping kitteh to lighten the mood :D

Throwback: Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp

You’d think being done with medical school (for now) and only working till 12.30pm would mean that I have more time to myself, but oh boy, how untrue that is. Somehow, there’s always something else to do, on top of reading up on new admissions to the hospital where I’m doing my clerkship. I wish I had a little more time to myself, to curl up with a book and pay no heed to everything else, but hey, being occupied isn’t so bad.

Rambles aside, I have time today, and it being Thursday, I thought I’d do a Throwback Thursday here (#tbt for you hip folks), and write (and show you pictures) of a trip I made on May 1, 2014. To my Facebook friends, there will be a considerable amount of repetition of my captions from the album I uploaded to Facebook, and for that I apologize.

It took me almost 3 years living in Krakow and a visiting friend to finally make a trip to what is arguably one of the most historically significant places on Earth: the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. Long post ahead!

Us at Auschwitz-Birkenau

My friends and I at the camp

 

Auschwitz-Birkenau camp is actually a network of Nazi concentration camps near the Polish town of Auschwitz, or in Polish, Oswiecim. History being a weak point for me, I may have some facts wrong, but I believe that this camp was spread over 3 sections, and we visited 2 of them, the first of which our guide referred to as Auschwitz, and the second, Birkenau.

We traveled from Krakow to Auschwitz by bus (we simply bought a bus ticket from the conductor and spent about 1.5-2 hours on board) and arrived around noon, where we bought our tickets and stated our preferred language, then waited for the tour guides to group all of us English speakers together. Each group comprised 10-15 people, and each person was given a headset so that we could always hear what the tour guide was saying.

My first impression of the place was how pretty and serene it looked, which in my mind, stood in stark contrast to the obvious horrors which took place back in the 1940s. I just couldn’t shake off that difference the entire time I was there. How could a place which looks so nice in spring bear so much heartache all year round?

Auschwitz concentration camp

 

As we began the tour and entered the camp, we were greeted by gates that bore the words “Arbeit Macht Frei”, which means “Work Frees You” in German. How terribly deceiving! Many who passed under those words would, very literally, work to their deaths. I suppose, in a morbid way, they were freed of their physical suffering.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" - German for "Work frees you."

We were then led through hallways and large rooms which once housed kitchens and workplaces, but are now filled with glass displays, all aiming to depict the history that is written in their walls. From uniforms to food rations, from children’s clothes to pots and pans, from broken suitcases to torn shoes – everything on display pointed to the kind of treatment the victims received from the dreadful moment they reached camp.

Those victims all went to camp willingly (at least initially, when no one was aware of the nature of the camps), duped into leaving their countries and towns in hopes of a new and better life. The false prospect of better employment was so well-spun that people would often sell their property and gather enough money in hopes that they could buy one of the lands in Auschwitz to farm. It didn’t matter that they were packed into small train carriages and made to travel long distances, for they were promised warm food and a hot bath upon arrival, and hope of a much better life.

When they did eventually reach Auschwitz, they would be given uniforms – a set each which were to be their only clothes from that point on; some were also given shoes, many others hard wooden clogs – and directed to the showers, where they would be blasted with cold water to “rid them of any impurities”, and then tattooed with serial numbers, which marked the beginning of their imprisonment.

Of course, that only happened if they weren’t sent to the gas chambers. In the beginning, Auschwitz was only intended to be a labour camp, not one where people were killed. But the numbers grew so greatly that they decided that the only solution was to eliminate the useless ones (a bit more on that later when we reach Birkenau), which included the elderly, the lame, those who lacked manual skills, and many women and children. The Nazis, being occupied with the idea of creating a master Aryan race, had a preference for blue eyed blonde girls. Many other little girls were sent to their deaths upon arrival simply because the colour of their hair wasn’t “right”.

Nazi-issued uniforms for the camp prisoners

Nazi-issued uniforms for the camp prisoners

And what became of their belongings? They were confiscated, every single article. I cannot even begin to describe the piles and piles of reading glasses, pots, pans, labelled suitcases, shoes of every size, shaving brushes, clothes for the young and the old, combs, hair brushes, vanity items, and the most heartbreaking of all, human hair.

There was an entire block of just human hair! Piles and piles of them, all shaved off the heads of the women who were gassed at camp. Even recalling it now sends shivers down my back. And those I saw were just that which happened to be at camp when it all went south for the Nazis. They used to salvage women’s hair and send it to factories to be spun into fabric. Waste not, want not, yeah? Can you imagine how much more hair must have been obtained the entire time the camp was up and running? The horror!

Old glasses

Old shaving brushes

"Starvation" sculpture at Auschwitz

A sculpture titled “Starvation” in one of the hallways at Auschwitz

Those who survived the initial selection were put to work immediately. Most started off with serious hard labour – digging trenches, burying their fellow travelers, etc. Some skilled workers were given other tasks, including a certain Wilhelm Brasse, who was a trained photographer of Austrian-Polish descent. He photographed almost every member of the concentration camp, and in an interview with our tour guide, he said “Do not think I kept these photos for the future generation – I kept them because they were my work.” He survived World War II, and passed away at a ripe old age of 94, refusing to take another photo ever again.

Portraits of the Auschwitz prisoners

Among the many portraits of the prisoners which survived WWII

 

Auschwitz, being built with the initial intention of only being a slave labour camp, only had a small gas chamber. It was an unassuming little building which used to be painted white inside and out to resemble a bathing area. It was yet another trick by the Nazis to ensure compliance among the victims – the Nazi guards told the 1000+ victims that they had to strip down and be sardined in that tiny space to receive their nice, warm bath.

The tiny space would be their death bed. Because it was so small and there were way too many people, many of them would die standing, arms linked in the final moment when they realized that they were being gassed to death.

 

The gas chamber at Auschwitz

The gas chamber at Auschwitz, now blackened by time. Next to the lights are little holes where the soldiers could drop Cyclone B pellets into the hall, then shut those holes tight until everyone was dead.

The crematorium at Auschwitz

The crematorium, also very small, right next to the gas chamber.

 

After that, we were taken by a shuttle bus to Birkenau, which is a lot larger than Auschwitz (if you want numbers, you’ll have to look it up yourself). There is a train track that runs right down the middle of the camp, and it is on those tracks that trains carrying hundreds of people from 23 different countries, all crammed into spaces so small that they could barely sit, transported them to their fate.

Train carriage in Auschwitz

 

If you look at the picture below, you will notice a long building at the far end of the picture. That is the entrace to the Birkenau camp. Running down the middle are the aforementioned train tracks, and midway through that, the train would stop, and everyone would alight. Some others got off the train before they passed through the entrance, opting to walk into it instead. One woman who was travelling with her mother asked her elderly mother to stay on the train, saying that she would meet her once they were inside. She never saw her mother again.

Once inside, they were asked to segregate themselves into groups of men and women and made to line up, thus beginning the selection process. At the front of the line was the camp doctor, who would give every person an all-over, and then point them either to the left or to the right. If he gestured to his right, the victim would be headed down the so-called “pathway to heaven”, meaning he would have to walk his way to the gas chamber, and he wouldn’t even know until it is too late. If the doctor thought you were fit for work, and you had a skill that they needed, you would be sent the other way to hard labour.

It’s amazing how well the deception was executed. No one ever rebelled, no one suspected anything because they were all promised a good life at the end of the arduous journey. And even if they had their suspicions, they were already so worn down from the journey to the camp that they wouldn’t be able to physically fight back.

Birkenau concentration camp

Birkenau War Memorial

The Auschwitz-Birkenau War Memorial.

At the very end of the tracks was a large empty area which now houses the Auschwitz-Birkenau War Memorial. It is made in a rather abstract manner, intended to cause the observer to deduce for themselves the chimney of the crematorium, the fallen victims, the gas chambers, all of which are regrettably not well photographed here. At the foot of the memorial are several plaques in the languages that were thought to have been spoken by the prisoners, then. There is a solitary plaque in English simply because it is an international language.

The plaques read:

“For ever let this place be

A cry of despair

And a warning to humanity

Where the Nazis murdered

About one and a half

Million

Men, women, and children

Mainly

Jews

From various countries of Europe

Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945″

 

There were 3 crematoriums in Birkenau and an underground gas chamber, and again, the victims were told that it was a shower area. Mothers were even assured that the water will not be too hot for their infants to bear, so that those women would take their innocent babies with them to their deaths.

When the Nazis realized that the war was ending, they burnt down much of Birkenau, and much of the camp which was still under construction was left unfinished. Many buildings weren’t well destroyed, however, because it seems the soldiers at camp were rushing to get away from it.

Ruins of the a crematorium

One of the crematoriums, or what is left of it

Sleeping quarters in the concentration camp

Sleeping quarters at the concentration camp. 4 to 5 people were made to sleep on each level, that’s on all 3 levels. The bottom-most level was the worst, with feces and rats all over the floor. There was absolutely no heating, even in the bitter Polish winters.

Communal latrines

At the concentration camps, the prisoners were only allowed to defecate at fixed times throughout the day. They were all brought in groups into communal latrines such as this one, ordered to sit, and then minutes later ordered to stand and leave. There was no way of cleaning yourself, and many would go on to urinate all over their living quarters. Clearly, the Nazis did not consider hygiene an important aspect for the prisoners.


As I left the camp, I realized how difficult it is to walk away untouched by everything I saw. As bright and beautiful as the day was when we were there, there was still an eerie, heavy gloom looming over the place. It’s almost as if its past still clings to it like a stubborn stain, a reminder of how inhumane the human race is capable of being.

And yet, I saw that as difficult as it is, it is possible to leave thinking of Auschwitz as just another museum of sorts. What you take away from it depends a lot on how much of it you allow to reach your deepest recesses. I have so much more to say about this, but my word count is already over 2000, and I think it’s high time I stopped writing. I have this to say, that while I regret what has happened at that camp, I am thankful for the chance to have walked those grounds. The difference to just reading about it is immense.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana