Monuments and Memorials: a tour of the US Capital

While Washington, DC does have a number of great museums, the city’s major attractions are still, without a doubt, the monuments and memorials. They’re all conveniently located in the same general vicinity, so on a bright and sunny Saturday morning Robert and I headed off to do a tour of the monuments. Funnily enough, our first stop was not technically a monument, although it was arguably just as, or even more, iconic than the host of monuments stretched out on the neighbouring greens – the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

We joined the scores of people who were crowding around the gates, trying to get the best possible pictures they could. Of course, the White House does offer guided tours, but you need to book them well in advance due to the limited places, and unfortunately my ‘planning-lite’ style of travelling hadn’t allowed for that. Security around the whole property was high, as to be expected. As well as the tall wrought-iron fences there were security personnel guarding every single exit and entrance to the premises. The tourist pictures look decent enough when you can squeeze your camera through the bars in the fence to get an unobstructed view, but sadly there’s no way there’s no other way to get a photo with the White House without looking like the cheap tourist on the outside who didn’t want to pay for the official tour. I like to think that’s part of my charm, though.

The White House - on the outside looking in.

The White House – on the outside looking in.

After the White House we wandered down through the green and onto the World War II Memorial, a tribute to all the American soldiers who fought in the war. The design of the memorial is actually quite well thought out to represent a number of finer details, and Robert explained it all to me as we walked around the site. There are two arches on either side of the memorial – they represent the two victories in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Flanking the two arches are 56 granite pillars, which represent the US states and territories and the District of Columbia. The water feature in the centre is known as the Rainbow Pool, but the main wall of the memorial is what I found the most chilling. The Freedom Wall commemorates the lives of every solider who was killed during the war, and those who have since remained missing.

The fountain creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The fountains in the Rainbow Pool creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The Price of Freedom.

The Price of Freedom.

Every single gold star on The Freedom Wall represents 100 men, and there are over 4000 stars on the wall. The figure in itself is a sad reminder of the reality of war, but to gaze upon The Freedom Wall and have that visual representation before your eyes was absolutely heartbreaking. To think that each star was a hundred men, and to see how long the wall stretched on for… I couldn’t even capture the whole thing in a single photograph. It is definitely a chilling reminder of just how high the so called price of freedom really is.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing on The Wall of Freedom.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing from WWII on The Wall of Freedom.

The WWII memorial it situated in the middle of perhaps two of the most iconic features of this area of DC – the long stretch of water known at the Reflecting Pool and the huge obelisk that is the Washington Monument. At this distance from the Washington Monument you could see that it was actually surrounded by scaffolding – Robert told me that they were just doing routine repairs and maintenance to the monument. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – from The Hermitage to the Vatican to the Roman Forum and even my view of the Brandenburg Gate, so many famous sights that I had set out to see on my journey had been obstructed in the name of reconstruction. The usually gleaming white pillar appeared a sinister shade of dark grey, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, so I just smiled for the camera and told myself that a picture of the monument looking like that is probably rarer than it’s original state anyway.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Instead of heading straight down the Reflecting Pool to the memorial at the other end, Robert took us on a detour through the Constitution Gardens, an area that was originally submerged in the Potomac River and was dredged up at the beginning of the 20th Century. We walked along the edge of the Constitution Gardens Pond until we came to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial wall is beautifully designed, with the two long stone walls sinking into the earth, gradually getting taller as they go deeper. Along the wall are the names of all the soldiers who were killed or missing during the war, and the reflective properties of the stone means that viewers can clearly see themselves among the names, an intended design feature that aims to symbolically combine the past and the present. There are small marks next to some of the names that indicate whether a person a was missing or how and when they died, and the wall is actually updated whenever new information is received about any of the fallen veterans. While listening to one of the volunteers explain more about the wall, we learnt that it was also intended to represent a kind of timeline of the war – to the best accuracy their records allow, the names are in chronological order of their deaths and disappearances, with the height of the war and the height of the loss of human life corresponding with the tallest part of the wall. It gave me shivers as I was reminded about my visit to the war museum in Saigon, where I was confronted with images of the war that were not as pleasant to behold as this memorial. The two arms of the wall are also carefully placed – one points in the direction Robert and I had just cam from, towards the Washington Monument, and the other one points in the direction of what our next destination would be – The Lincoln Memorial. There was so much care and planning behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that despite it being another reminder of the tragic loss of life that war brings, it really was an architectural work of art, and still beautiful to gaze upon.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Onwards we pressed towards the Lincoln Memorial, a statue I knew well from a multitude of pop culture references throughout my life. The statue in memory of the 16th President of the United States sat at the other end of the Reflecting Pool, and the top of its steps offered some great photographic vantage points.

Statue of President Lincoln.

Statue of President Lincoln.

It wasn't often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert's presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren't selfies.

It wasn’t often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert’s presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren’t selfies.

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom...

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom…

... and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

… and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

From the Lincoln Memorial we headed south towards the Korean War Memorial. If the other war memorials had given me shivers, then this one definitely gave me goosebumps. While the other memorials were a dedication to the soldiers who had fought and served, with walls that literally listed the extensive loss of life, the Korean War Memorial was an homage to the similar veterans of a different war, but it was more of a graphic depiction than a written or symbolic dedication.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

From there we left the war memorials behind to visit the remaining memorials on the walk Robert had planned out, all of which were dedicated to important individuals in America’s history. First up was the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the newest of all the memorials, created in 2011, near the Lincoln Memorial where the famous human rights activist delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. The memorial is made up of three main pieces, and together they depict one of the inspiring quotes from his address in 1963. Two pieces stand with an empty slot in the middle – representing the “mountain of despair – while Martin Luther King Jr. himself is etched into the third piece that represents the “stone of hope” which is carved out of the mountain. It’s a beautiful memorial, with simple but effective symbolism.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

We moved on to more presidential memorials, starting with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which was actually a peaceful little trail that was set in a quiet and shady grove. During the walk through the memorial, Robert taught me a lot about the former president that I knew surprisingly little about. Roosevelt had been paralysed from the waist down after contracting polio in 1921, and while he had refused to ever be seen in public with it, he used a wheelchair for much of his private life. With this in mind, the memorial is specifically designed to be easily accessible to those with a disability. He was also the president that led the country through the Great Depression and WWII, and the memorial serves as a kind of timeline of the tumultuous events of his presidency. There were various visual representations, but the thing I found most inspiring about the memorial were the quotations from various speeches he delivered.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”

"I hate war."

“I hate war.”

"... and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war."

“… and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war.”

"The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man..."

“The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man…”

"Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear."

“Freedom of speech.
Freedom of worship.
Freedom from want.
Freedom from fear.”

The fact the Roosevelt also led the people through the Great Depression is acknowledged by statues that show the poor lining up for food. As Robert and I wandered through the memorial, we saw some tourists taking photos of the line of poor people, except they were jumping in the photograph to be a part of the line.
“Isn’t that kind of disrespectful?” I asked Robert quietly as they finally walked away.
“It’s incredibly disrespectful,” he said flatly. “They’re making a joke out of a period of historic poverty. Nobody should be wanting to join that line.” We stood there for a sombre moment of silence, before continuing on our way out of the memorial.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

As we crossed of the Inlet Bridge, which bridges the gap that lets the Potomac River flow into the Tidal Basin, we approached the final memorial on our tour – the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. When we got to the base of the steps, Robert sat down to catch his breath and sent me off ahead.
“I’m too old to be bothered climbing all those steps, and I’ve seen the inside more than enough times. You go ahead, I’ll wait here.” I had to cut him some slack – he was more than double my age – so I left him there to climb the steps to the top of the memorial that was designed in the style of a Classical Roman rotunda. The inner chamber held a bronze statue of Jefferson, and I took my time walking around the room and reading all the inscriptions along the walls, presumably quotations from some of his speeches and addresses. I surprisingly found myself recognising some of them – words and phrases that somehow rang a bell, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where I knew them from.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

When I was finished musing over the words of the former US president, I returned down to where I had left Robert, and we made our way over the National Mall for some lunch, feeling throughly exhausted and completely famished from our long walk through the September sunshine.

***

On our way home from the memorials, Robert took us on another detour to show me a few more sights of DC. He took me down to what was known as the waterfront – the area along the Potomac River – and pointed across to the towers that signified the state of Virginia. Robert explained that there are laws that restrict the height of buildings in Washington, DC. The height of most residential buildings is limited to 110 feet, or 34 metres, and buildings on some commercial and business streets are allowed up to 160 feet, or 49 metres, with variations in areas around the White House and Congress buildings. I suppose it could have something to do with security – something that is in the back of every Americans mind since September 11, 2001 – except for the fact that the first version of the law was introduced in 1899. I guess it must have something to do with keeping the important buildings still looking important, and not letting them be overshadowed by skyscrapers.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

There are also canals that run through some of the streets of DC, parallel with the river, and Robert and I walked along a few of those until we got to one specific sight he had been keen to show me.
“This is the famous staircase from The Exorcist,” he said as we finally rounded a corner and approached it. If I’m perfectly honest, I didn’t remember exactly what the staircase looked like – to be fair, it was nighttime in the movie – but I remembered enough to appreciate it. I had probably been a little too young to be watching it when I had actually seen The Exorcist, because I remember being thoroughly spooked, even for a film as old as it was when I saw it.

The canals in DC.

The canals in DC.

The Exorcist staircase.

The Exorcist staircase.

Robert and I climbed the staircase – I took it slowly, step by step, taking my time to soak it all in and appreciate it – before continuing on. We passed through the prestigious Georgetown University on our way home to appreciate some of the architecture, although by this point of the afternoon our feet were well and truly aching, so we called it a day after that and made our way home. But I was so glad that Robert had taken the time to show me around – he knew the best route to take to see as many monuments as efficiently as possible, and he’d also been able to show me a couple of cool things that I otherwise never would have known about. He was also a really nice guy, who had done an extensive amount of travelling in his lifetime, so we were always talking about our trips and exchanging stories. He was old enough to be my father – which is sometimes a throwaway term, but he was literally only a few years younger than my dad – so he might not have been the kind of person I would have ever got in touch with or got to know if it hadn’t been for Couchsurfing. But I’m glad I had though – fun, friendly and incredibly knowledge, he had been a perfect guide and host for my weekend in Washington, DC.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

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Where Art Meets History: East Side Gallery

The train from Prague to Berlin was probably one of the worst trips in the whole of my travels through Europe. It sat idly at the station for over half an hour before it finally departed from Prague, and suffered major delays along the way. Parts of the air conditioning weren’t working, and the cabins inside the train were reaching ridiculous temperatures, with everyone on the train dripping in sweat before we were even halfway there. When the train attendants came down the aisle at one point handing out bottles of water to everyone, I knew that the problems were actually pretty serious, and I had no hope of getting to Berlin at my previously anticipated time. But as it is with such unavoidable nuisances, all I could do was sit there in the stinking hot train with a bunch of other travellers around me. Everyone was was so hot and bothered and looking rather fed up with the whole thing that I wasn’t even going to bother trying to strike up a conversation to pass the time. I listened to my music, read my book, and closed my eyes, dozing off and dreaming of my current destination.

The last time I was in Berlin I had stayed with my family friend Donatella and her assortment of wild and zany housemates – Lola’s words about never leaving the city were still nagging at the back of my mind as I found myself drawn back to it. But after meeting and staying with him for the last two nights of my previous stay, Ralf had said that I was welcome back to stay with him any time I was in Berlin. I don’t think he had anticipated my return being quite so soon, but he agreed to let me stay with him when I told him I would be coming back on my way west to Amsterdam. I’d really enjoyed the brief time I had spent with him last time, so I was pretty excited to seem him again. Of course, the train was running late, so some of the logistics in actually finding each other were a little difficult. Yet when I stepped off the train at Berlin Hauptbahnhof there was a slightly different feeling that I hadn’t felt in quiet some time, and that was the feeling of returning to a familiar city. Not since arriving back in Bangkok after the bus ride from Hell had I arrived in a city where I was able to say: Yes, I recognise this place. I know where I am and I know where I have to go. As much as I love the excitement that comes with discovering a brand new place and city, that kind of familiarity with a place is strangely comforting. When I finally met Ralf – and had changed out of my soiled travel clothes, showered and freshened up – we had dinner, and I told him all about the adventures I’d had throughout Europe since I had last seen him. He listened and smiled as I told him my stories, and I was glad I had come back to Berlin – that adorable smile was the cherry on top of all the things that I already loved so much about the city that had drawn me back here.

***

Ralf had to work during most of the week, so I had to find other things to do to amuse myself. I spent a lot of time just resting and hanging out, happy to have a place to myself while Ralf was out, but one of the major things to do in Berlin that I hadn’t gotten around to doing last time I was here was see the East Side Gallery, which is actually the painted and decorated remains of the Berlin Wall. I had only briefly seen it in the dark with Dane on our first attempt to get into Berghain, and I wanted to go back and really take it in. I have to say, I had seen to some pretty amazing art museums on my travels – famous notables include the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Louvre, and the Vatican Museum – but I have to say that out of all of them it was the East Side Gallery that captivated me the most. The artworks are such a diverse collection, from detailed masterpieces to simple murals that could have been done by children to sections that looked more like elaborate graffiti more than anything else. In fact, despite it obviously not being allowed, many sections of the wall had been vandalised, but in a way I feel like it was almost some kind of artistic extension. The wall is part of a long history for Berlin and Germany, but the periodic graffiti that marks it almost gives the face of the wall itself a traceable history, a reflection of ideas presented in both an official and unofficial capacity.

Whether it was the graffiti or the actual murals, the thing I loved about the East Side Gallery is that there is such a strong and powerful meaning behind each and every word and image. With the wall itself long being a symbol of division and oppression, that’s hardly surprising, but I often found my slow stroll coming to a gradual halt just so I could stand there and look both ways, up and down the wall, and just take it all in. I have no idea what it would have been like here during war time – I couldn’t even begin to imagine – but for me these paintings scratched the surface of the emotions and impacts of the wall that inspired them. It was art and history seamlessly combined into one, and it gave me shivers to behold, something I can’t say for any of the other artworks I’d come across.

At the start of the East Side Gallery walk.

At the start of the East Side Gallery walk.

Beginning my walk down the wall.

Beginning my walk down the wall.

I got excited because I'd been to all of these places - well, almost everywhere.

I got excited because I’d been to all of these places – well, almost everywhere.

Doves carrying the Brandenburg Gate, an iconic symbol of Berlin.

Doves carrying the Brandenburg Gate, an iconic symbol of Berlin.

An image that doesn't need much explaining.

An image that doesn’t need much explaining.

A beautiful and intricate rainbow piece.

A beautiful and intricate rainbow piece.

I loved this painting. So simple yet so powerful and suggestive.

I loved this painting. So simple yet so powerful and suggestive.

A colourful mural tainted by graffiti.

A colourful mural tainted by graffiti.

Even exchanges between graffiti like this I found fascinating, the ever changing face of the wall and the continuing history or perspectives.

Even exchanges between graffiti like this I found fascinating, the ever changing face of the wall and the continuing history or perspectives.

That’s not to say that all those artworks in the previous galleries didn’t have any meaning – there was plenty of beautiful and moving pieces in all of them. But there’s just something kind of sterile about the museum environment, where things are locked away behind glass cabinets, or sectioned off with velvet ropes. There’s a division between the viewer and the art, and it’s kept pristine and preserved in its slice of history. The East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall had none of that – it was real, it was there in front of you. You could feel it with your hands, and it had moved forward and changed, developing its own history, for better or for worse. It’s not your conventional art gallery, but then I suppose I don’t really like conventional art galleries all that much. There were plenty of other ones I could have visited while I was in Berlin, but I had found such a sense of fulfilment after seeing the East Side Gallery that I really didn’t see the need.

***

It felt great to be back in Berlin, but there’s a danger in getting too familiar and thinking that you really know the city when you still have so much to learn. Previously in Berlin, I had only bought tickets for the U-Bahn about 50% of the time, rationalising it with the fact that you don’t need them to actually enter the trains or platforms, and I had never seen anyone ever checking for them. I had bought them the couple of times I’d travelled places with Ralf, because I wouldn’t be able to play ‘dumb tourist’ if I was hanging out with a local. But for the times I was out on my own, I took a chance and skipped the ticket machine on my way into the subway.

Never really expecting to have it happen, you can imagine my surprise when someone did come around inspecting tickets – of course, on my journey back from the East Side Gallery when I was not in possession of a ticket. I fumbled wildly through my backpack, triple checking my wallet for a ticket that I knew wasn’t there, trying to convince the plain clothed inspector that I had bought one, and I must have lost it somehow. He wasn’t buying any of it. “For not having a valid ticket you will have to purchase an increased fare ticket,” he explained to me, which essentially is a glossed over way of saying you’re going to get a fine. “It’s going to be €40. You can pay for it now, or you have two weeks to pay for it at one of our offices.” I stopped and thought for a second.
“I’ll pay for it later, thanks.” I was only going to be in Berlin for another 4 days, so I figured if I skipped town there was little they could do about it. The guy had already taken my Australian drivers licence to record my name and address, and he told me it would be in the system for two years. He gave me a pice of paper with the payment details and was on his way again. I hadn’t given them my passport, which I feared might have caused migration problems, but he did have my address in Australia. “I’m not going to pay it though. There’s no need, right?” I had said in a discussion with Ralf. “It’s not like they’re going to send me a fine to the other side of the world.”

Fast forward a few months to me sitting on the couch, finally in the United States, with my new friend Mike in Washington, DC. As we were drinking red wine and watching The Walking Dead on Netflix, my phone vibrated. It was an email from my mother with the subject line: “The Germans are after you!”
Yo Bob, got a bunch of what appear to be angry German letters from your letterbox today. Something about not having a ticket. Care to explain?
Well I’ll be damned – I certainly got a schooling in German efficiency. They sold the debt on to debt collectors who had also sent me letters. I have to admire their tenacity, as I had never really expected them to send a single letter, let alone a few. In hindsight, it was a reckless disregard for another countries rules and I do feel a little bad about the whole thing now – though not bad enough to pay the fine, which to this day I still haven’t done. But I did learn a lesson from the whole ordeal – from that day on, no matter what country I was in, I made sure I always bought tickets for the public transport. 

The Geometry of Genocide: Triangles and Tales from a Concentration Camp

While I was trying my best to avoid the typical tourist scenes and experience the more authentic culture of Berlin, there is one historical aspect of the city that is simply impossible to ignore. So on Wednesday I set off on the S-Bahn heading north to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, located on the site of one of the “model” concentration camps where prisoners were taken in WWII. It was located approximately an hour north of central Berlin, and it took me even longer after getting lost in the surrounding suburban streets, but the trip was worth it – ‘enjoyable’ isn’t exactly a word use can use to describe a visit to an old concentration camp, but it’s definitely a moving experience that you come away from with more of an appreciation of your life, and of life in general.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

***

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

When I visited the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Laura had described the place as “harrowing”. I still feel like it’s the best fitting adjective to describe a visit to a location tainted with a grim history of mass genocide. While the Killing Fields were particularly morbid, with broken skulls and bones depicting the barbarity of the Khmer Rouge clearly visible in their monuments, Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum was a little more refined as a tourist attraction. After passing through the main entrance and picking up an audio guide, and listened to the history of the camp as I wandered down the same path that hundreds of thousands of prisoners were brought down during the Second World War. As I waled through the wrought iron gates, I noticed there were words – a slogan, or a motto – worked into the metal: Arbeit Macht Frei. Translated into English it reads ‘work will set you free’, something that is hard to mistake as anything other than cruel irony given how things ended up for most of the prisoners who walked through these gates. In the courtyard I sat and listened on the audio guide to testimonies of people who had been hit, kicked and beaten when they were down, right at this very spot. It was almost too overwhelming to listen to, and I moved on before hearing them all, already feeling a little depressed as the scenes were visualised by my imagination.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

This concentration camp was opened in 1936 as a model design for other camps, although it ended up being much more than just an example – Sachsenhausen become a fully functioning concentration camp and prison. The architecture was designed to symbolise the subjugation of prisoners and the absolute power of the Nazi regime – the triangular design was built in a way that meant while in the grounds, prisoners were unable to escape the gaze of the guards in the watchtowers. Most of the barracks that were the prisoners quarters have been levelled, so now the area has an even eerier feeling, with so much open space between yourself and the watchtowers. There’s obviously no armed guards in there these days, but it still managed to recreate that sense of vulnerability the prisoners must have felt. Other features of the camps design included a security system which included a ‘death strip’: an electrified pathway and fence that took the lives of prisoners who made fleeting attempts to escape. Some of the barracks remain standing and have been converted into museums, showing the daily lives and conditions of the camps prisoners with a little more tangible depth, and you could also see the site of the gallows in the middle of the main triangle, where troublesome prisoners were routinely executed in front of large assemblies in order to create and example for the remaining prisoners.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

The Execution Trench - the morbid name is self-explanatory.

The Execution Trench – the morbid name is self-explanatory.

In a building that used to be a garage for Nazi vehicles, there was now a museum that showed the history of the camp, and had numerous artefacts on display. Included in these was one of the uniforms that the prisoners were required to wear – the pink triangle sewn into the shoulder indicating that this particular prisoners crime was being a homosexual. The Nazis imprisoned anyone who disturbed their regime, whether they were political opponents, or those who were deemed by the National Socialist ideology as racially or biologically inferior, and were later joined in 1939 by captives from countries which Nazi Germany moved to occupy, such as Austria and Poland. Though historically famous for the persecution of people who were Jewish, the Nazi regime would happily have beaten me senseless and locked me up to starve simply because of my homosexuality – this uniform, now sitting behind a glass cabinet looking as innocent as a pair of striped pyjamas, was a chilling reminder of that. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp between 1936 and 1945, with tens of thousands of them dying from starvation, disease, forced labour, malnutrition, and brutal, systematic murders. It’s a lot to take in as you stand upon the scene of these crimes, especially considering this is just one camp, where only a fraction of the atrocities committed during the war were committed.

The memorial obelisk.

The memorial obelisk.

The pink triangle resonated with me strongly during the time I was at the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, but weeks later, at the time of writing, it’s truly terrible to realise that some parts of the world are still stuck in some of these barbaric ideologies. I’m referring, of course, to the horrific state of affairs for LGBT people in Russia. The newer, even harsher homophobic anti-propaganda laws came into place after I left Germany, but right now it’s something that I can’t just ignore. Having been to Russia and met a couple of very lovely gay men, it absolutely breaks my heart to see what is going on over there, to think that they might be suffering.
In the middle of then main triangle at Sachsenhausen, there now stands a forty metre high obelisk adorned with 18 red triangles – the symbol the Nazis gave to political prisoners – on each side, the number representing each of the European nations where prisoners at the camp came from. It’s a monument of memorial, but right now all it makes me think of is the European nations that are in such close proximity with Russia, and hoping that something might be able to be done before the persecution reaches a level of homosexual Holocaust. I never had the intention of using this blog to voice political opinions, but that was just one thing that I couldn’t let slide.

***

It had been a long hot day wandering around Sachsenhausen, and I was sweating profusely by the time I’d walked back to the station in the afternoon heat. “It’s not a heat wave”, Ruth would later tell me, fending off the claims of some other Berliners. “Thirty degrees is a normal summer day for Berlin – winter just lasted so long that most people forget about it, and are just shocked when it’s actually hot!” Nevertheless, even for an Australian I was feeling the heat. On the train home, I messaged Eva to find out what she was up to – the two of us had been sharing a key, since there weren’t enough for both of us to have one. She would be going out before I got home, but Simon would be around for a little while longer. When I was back into the heart if Berlin, I got a phone call from Simon.
“Hey, where are you?”
“I’m nearly home… Do you need to leave now?”
“Well, sort of… I’m going to the pool to meet Ruth, I was gonna ask if you wanted to come?”
Swimming sounded exactly like what I needed. Donatella had had to head out of town today for some work commitments in Munich, so she wouldn’t be joining us, but Simon said he’d grab my swim shorts and towel and pick me up from the U-Bahn station I was at.

What I didn’t realise – either because he didn’t say so or I didn’t listen – was that he was not picking me up in his car, but on his motorbike. A surge of panic ran through me – I hadn’t been on a motorbike since the horrific afternoon in Phnom Penh, and I still bore the mental and physical scars. However, I had to reassure myself that I’d since ridden quad bikes in Siberia and navigated the bicycle traffic of Copenhagen, and had come out unscathed, and I also wouldn’t even be driving this time. It would be just like catching the motorbike taxis in Bangkok, and so I put on the spare helmet, climbed on behind Simon, and we took off onto the roads of Berlin. We passed a few other bikies done up in their full leather gear, which I guess was to be expected in Berlin, and whizzed our way through the traffic until we finally reached the pool.

The place rented deck chairs from Simons vodka company, so we got to skip the queue and also got in for free. The place was really cool – the water in the Spree River and the adjoining canals is not something you’d ever want to go swimming in, so this place had designed a way around the problem. There was a large pool that was built on the river. The ground all around the edge was covered in sand so it felt as though you were really at a beach, and then off the wooden jetty the swimming pool itself sat just off the edge of the river. Of course, given that today was an extremely hot day for Germany, there was a long line to actually get in the pool. After finishing a beer from the beach cafes inside the complex, Simon and I joined the queue to go for a swim. After the long day I’d had walking around the old concentration camp in the hot sun and learning about all the horrors of history, it was definitely worth the wait – the swim was exactly what I needed. And so the end to an otherwise slightly depressing day was spent cooling off, kicking back and putting my feet up with my new Berliner friends.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

Getting to Know You: Miss Saigon

My first impression of Ho Chi Minh City was that it seemed like a baby version of Bangkok. It has the backpacker district with the flashing lights and street hawkers, it has the numerous food carts selling a variety of local cuisines, and it has a lot of busy traffic. However, it’s almost as if the vehicles are in baby form, with the motorcycles being to cars what tadpoles are to frogs, and the motorcycles are everywhere. I know I’ve said it before, but literally everywhere – they put the gangs of Central Coast NSW to shame. So the city may feel a little smaller than Bangkok, but in no way does that make it feel any less busy, at least in District 1 in the central part of the city.

So. Many. Motorbikes.

So. Many. Motorbikes.

Vietnamese flag out the front of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Vietnamese flag out the front of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

There is also a confusing aspect in that this city has two names – something that puzzled me to no end in the early stages of planning my side-step detour to Vietnam. Pretty much all the native locals call it Saigon, even a lot of the travel agencies do too. Ho Chi Minh City, taken from the name of the Vietnamese leader during the wartime period, is the name used by the government and officials and anyone else of relative importance. As a traveller, I don’t really have a preference, and will use both interchangeably throughout this blog, just to keep y’all on your toes.

***

My first few full days in Saigon were spent doing some sight seeing. I decided to tackle the city on foot – after letting my guard down and being scammed into paying an exorbitant amount of money for a brief ride in a cyclo, which is basically a bike with an oversized basket for passengers, I became a little mistrusting of all the locals who approached me, offering rides on their various street vehicles. I also found myself slightly terrified of the traffic, although I quickly learnt that in Saigon, being a pedestrian is just as hazardous as being behind the wheel of a car or on a motorbike. Which is not necessarily saying that it’s risky – you simply need to really keep your wits about you at all times… although, it is risky. I’ve had a number of extremely close encounters where my attention lapsed for just a moment, and I came this close to being far too acquainted with the front end of a motorbike. Look both ways, amnd look all four ways at intersections. Sometimes it’s easier to just slowly wander out onto the road and let the bikes move around you. This is particularly terrifying though and by no means safe – sometimes I just got impatient waiting for a legitimate gap in traffic.

Outside the Ho Chi Minh City People's Council People's Committee Building .

Outside the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Council People’s Committee Building .

French-designed Cathedral in the city centre.

French-designed Cathedral in the city centre.

Reunification Palace.

Reunification Palace.

Another thing Ho Chi Minh City seems to have a lot of is museums. As well as the War Remnants Museum, I visited the Fine Arts Museum and the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. I took some refuge from the bustling city outside to observe some of the paintings and sculptures in the Fine Arts Museum, almost all of which are created by Vietnamese artists. I’m no art critic, and I don’t know the first thing about techniques or designs or any of the fine details when it comes to the fine arts, but the museum did have a huge variety of works on display, much of which represented lots of aspects of Vietnamese culture. As I wandered through the halls, I noticed that many of the paintings depicted soldiers and other wartime themes. Despite being beautiful works, that saddened me a little bit, and I was beginning to understand just how much the war has affected the mindset of so many local people here, and had branded their cultural history with a very distinct and conspicuous mark. It was a mark of remembrance and mourning, but also hope for the future.

Then I came across a piece called ‘Agent Orange’, where the oil painting had been textured so that it recreated the horrific deformities of the victims of the harsh poison, to a point where the art was almost three dimensional, and the suffering reached out from within canvas to force you to feel the emotions it depicted. I both loved and hated the painting, because it was so confronting, and because it filled me with the similar feelings I felt at the War Remnants Museum. I took a few photos, which I think I probably was not supposed to do, so I won’t upload them. I also feel like these works are best experienced in their true medium, and not from within a computer screen.

The other museum was also interesting, learning about the history of the the city. I don’t really care to regurgitate everything I read though, so make sure you check it out if you’re ever in Saigon. The building did, however, have a nice view.

View of city from the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

View of city from the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

***

My first evening in the hostel was when I began to experience the tourist nightlife. As people began slowly arriving home from their days activities and trawling into the dorm room, one of the guys made an open invitation to anyone who was interested in joining him and a few other guys in getting some dinner. Having no plans and nothing to lose, I tagged along and found myself with four guys, respectively originating from Germany, Wales, America and New Zealand, and a Hungarian girl. Our small international party set out looking for cheap street food. I’d always been a bit of a fan on Vietnamese food back home, so it was kind of a novel thrill to sit on a tiny plastic chair on the side of the road, like all the local people did in District 1, and eat my pho noodle soup. After that we were joined by two Argentinians and headed to a bar to drink some beer. I say “bar”, but in reality it was a little hole-in-the-wall joint with tiny plastic chairs (and slightly bigger plastic chairs that were used as tables) littering the footpath out front, sprawling out onto the road when it got busy enough. Later in the week, when I explained this scene to a New Zealander expat now residing in Ho Chi Minh City, he merely chuckled and said, “Yep, we call that a bar here.”

However, what the place lacked in bells and whistles, it made up with value for money. Draught beer was 7000 Vietnamese dong per glass. That converts into approximately 35 Australian cents. It seemed criminal to drink anything else when you could drink for so ridiculously cheap, and not for the first time on this trip I found myself succumbing to peer pressure and going in for a round of beers, only to be surprised that I actually quite enjoyed the taste of it. I didn’t love it, but for a few quiet drinks on a Tuesday night it doesn’t get much better than three beers for a buck.

The weekend was a different story though – I met a bunch of Australians who had been in Vietnam for the last month or so for work, and they took me out to some of the nearby nightclubs. The bars were a little more sophisticated then plastic stools on the pavement, and the drinks were more than 35c, but they were still exponentially cheaper than back home and the cocktails were lethal. Two Long Island Ice Teas later and I have to confess that I couldn’t tell you much about the difference between the clubs in Saigon and the clubs back home. Except that in one of them I ran into a Tasmanian couple casually smoking a hukka, and I’m pretty sure the flavour was “blue”. And security guards loved to pose for photos, something I have never seen in Australia.

In an e-mail to my father about my trip down to Krabi, I had mentioned how good it had been to get out of the city for a while and see the rest of the country. His response triggered something in me that I’d never really considered before: “Yes, cities tend to all feel the same after a while. It’s best to get out and see the real country”. While I could see comparable differences in each city I had visited, I promised myself that I would make my best effort to see a little more than just the major cities in each country went to, wherever I could.

Because at the end of the night, whether its beer or spirits, Sydney or Saigon, hangovers are generally all the same too.

Suburban Hikes on Motorbikes: My first 24 hours in Vietnam

The warm air of the night was countered by the wind that billowed against my t-shirt, as we sped down the highway on a motorbike. All around us were the chirps and toots from the traffic, horns and indicators blaring out into the night. There was the odd car or bus, but the majority of vehicles on the road were other motorcycles. In Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as its known to the locals, motorcycles rein supreme. They fill the streets, they clutter the sidewalks, and you can’t walk fifty metres without an old man waving his hands lividly in the air at you, screaming “Motorbike! Motorbike!” in an attempt to attract your patronage so they can drive you to your destination for a fee. It really was a strange moment for me, whose mother has such a vehement opposition to motorcycles that I’d probably get cut off from the family should I ever attempt purchase my own, to see hordes of them flooding the streets in a way that just seems so normal and commonplace.

“You want to ride the motorbike?” my driver had shouted to me over the roar of the wind in my ears. I let out a short, sarcastic “Ha!” at the very idea.
“Come on, it’s easy,” he tried persuading me again. Driving a motorbike was one thing, but the traffic in this city was just as reckless as the streets of Bangkok – in the “You have to know the city extremely well to avoid certain death” kind of way – and I don’t think even the most expensive insurance premium would cover the driving of someone like me in a place like this. So I just laughed again, a little more genuinely this time, and shook my head.

Motorbikes in close proximity.

Motorbikes in close proximity.

My first 24 hours in Vietnam would prove to be a ‘rinse and repeat’ in the culture shock process, but to explain it properly, I have to take it back to the beginning…

***

After landing in Ho Chi Minh City airport and dealing with the various visa and customs issues, I exited the airport into a heat that closely rivalled Thailand, and made my way to the bus terminal. My stay in Vietnam was to mark another of my many ‘firsts’ on this adventure – my first experience of being a Couchsurfer. For those not in the know, Couchsurfing is an online community that connects travellers from all over the world with people in cities all over the world that are able to host them, and provide a place for the travellers to stay while they’re in their city. The philosophy behind it is cheap accommodation when seeing the world, and at the same time creating global connections and friendships. Vietnam was to be the first country I was staying in where I didn’t have any contacts at all, let alone friends to stay with, so I figured it might be a good opportunity to take part in the Couchsurfing phenomenon that is taking on the travelling world. While I was in Bangkok I’d put a message into a subgroup created specifically for queer Couchsurfers – because sometimes it’s just nice to be around fellow friends of Dorothy – and after a few days I had a reply from a 22-year-old Vietnamese guy living in Ho Chi Minh City. We discussed the issue some, and he offered me a place on his couch.

However, he wasn’t able to meet me at the airport, and so gave me instructions on which bus to catch, and a time and place for us to meet. This involved me catching a public bus – something I was yet to do in South East Asia. As the bus rattled out of the airport and towards the city, I noticed a group of three girls sitting across the aisle of the bus from me, looking at me and whispering among themselves. Well… I assume they were talking, but I couldn’t see their mouths since they were covered by face masks. They’re the kind that doctors and medical professionals wear during operations, or that people in the street wear when they’re afraid of bird or swine flu – and suddenly I thought I may have missed some vital health information. I was later told there wasn’t too much to worry about, and that a lot of girls were just shy and wore them to hide their faces… Okay then.

I didn’t think much of it, until one of the girls reached out and passed me her phone. It was an iPhone opened to compose a new message, and in the typing section she had written ‘Where you from?, I smiled, passed the phone back and said I was from Australia. After a few moments she passed it back ‘What you do?’. I smiled again, amused by the exchange, and replied “I’m travelling.” The girl looked at me, perplexed, then back at her friends. Then back to me. Then back to her friends. Maybe I had overestimated their English? I took the phone from her and wrote ‘travelling’. She took the phone back, and I noticed the girls regrouping around another phone, perhaps for translation purposes. This exchange continued for the remainder of the trip, where they asked me where I was going, if I was alone, what I studied back home, and finally: ‘do you play facebook?’. I said I did, and gave them my Facebook name. ‘See you in facebook!’ was the last message I read. I hopped off the bus at the final stop, equal parts amused and confused.

Motorbikes take up every spare inch of the road.

Motorbikes take up every spare inch of the road.

***

The place where I was meeting my host was close by and I found it easily enough, and soon we were getting to know each other and chatting away. My host had previously spent time studying in Sydney – at the same university that I attended, as it would happen – and so we had a surprisingly large amount of common ground to cover. Then it came time to travel to my hosts house – knowing I had a large bag, he hadn’t brought his motorbike, so we caught another bus. Where I had stayed while I was in Bangkok was rather close to the major parts of the city, but after 45 minutes on this bus, watching the city scenery pass and eventually dwindle into the suburbs, I realised that my location in Ho Chi Minh City wouldn’t be quite so central. As we descended into the outer suburbs, out of the tourists areas and into the domain of the locals, it became clear I was going to get a very authentic Vietnamese experience.

I didn’t really have any definite expectations, but it was certainly a bit of a shock when we alighted from the bus. The city was well and truly gone, and all around us were either stretching roads full of buses and bikes, or narrow roads that forked off in twisting alleys and concrete walkways. We travelled through the dingy labyrinth until we got to my hosts house, where I made a few other unexpected discoveries: my host still lived with his parents, so I was staying with a family, and the ‘couch’ was actually a mattress, which I would be sharing with my host, in a room he told me he shared with his brother. The bedroom didn’t have a door, something that my host told me his parents did not allow. As we got chatting about it more, I learnt a whole heap of other things about Asian culture that were considered quite strange by my standards, but were completely normal for him. Though he had been to Australia before and understood the common practices and standards of living there, so I think he understood some of my confusion. They were quite middle-class living conditions for Vietnam, but that’s still very different from middle-class Sydney.

After I’d settled in, my host took me around the city on his motorbike, pointing out various attractions in the city centre, showing me his university where he studied, and took me to some truly local places to eat – the menus were entirely in Vietnamese, and had I come alone, I would not have had the faintest idea what anything on the menu was (besides ‘soda’, ‘Coke’ and ‘Sprite’). It was a great way to see the city from a locals point of view, and I am truly thankful for the experience and for the generosity of my host. However, the living arrangements weren’t exactly ideal. Sharing a bed is tough for me at the best of times, and the distance to and from the city meant it wouldn’t exactly be easy for me to get around without relying on someone else and their motorbike (I was not going to accept the offer to ride it by myself). So in the morning I headed off into the city, with a hand drawn map by my host, and found a hostel in the backpacker district to stay at for the remainder of my time in Saigon.

Motorbikes maintain the majority in the minor metropolis of Saigon.

Motorbikes maintain the majority in the minor metropolis of Saigon.

***

The rest of my afternoon was to be taken up by a highly recommended and fairly popular tourist attraction – the War Remnants Museum. My knowledge of the Vietnam War basically comprised of pop culture references and the part of the Australian History syllabus that addressed the topic and Australia’s involvement in it. I knew about the stigma attached to the soldiers and the war crimes they were accused of committing, but as a 15-year-old reading a slide from an overhead projector, the true meanings behind all of this never really sunk in.

The War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum

So I wasn’t expecting my trip to the museum to be so mentally and emotionally exhausting. The exhibit that particularly broke my heart was the galley titled ‘Victims of Agent Orange’. Agent Orange was a powerful dioxin that was used by the USA in biochemical warfare during the Vietnam War. It poisoned millions of Vietnamese people, but some of the most devastating impacts come from second-hand contamination – babies born with all sorts of horrific birth defects as a result of their parents being infected by Agent Orange. Seeing these images and reading their stories was such an intense experience – it took everything I had to blink back tears and not have a moment in the middle of the museum. The fact that many of these people do their best to live ordinary lives despite their crippling deformities just makes their stories even more amazing and inspiring. I thought about taking some photos of these powerful images, but I decided my poor photography would not do them justice to the incredible way that they affected me. But I urge anyone who visits Ho Chi Minh City to take the time to see this museum – it gave me a thorough schooling on what it’s like to feel compassion and empathy, and to be thankful for what you have. After viewing more galleries about war crimes, historical truths, and a photographic history of the Vietnam War, I left the museum feeling a little overwhelmed. I’ve long considered myself a pacifist, and seeing such shocking displays of the horrors of what seemed to be such a pointless war firmly re-cemented my position.

USA war plane outside the museum.

USA war plane outside the museum.

***

My first 24 hours really forced me to reevaluate some of the priorities in my life, both past and present – my future is just a big messy ball of ‘unknown’ that I’m not prepared to tackle right now. But I feel a little bad about the way I reacted to the Couchsurfing experience, simply because it hadn’t been what I had expected or of a standard I was used to. People make do with a lot less, and here I am complaining about not having my own room and/or bed. And to think that I ever felt that my life back in Australia was lacking or incomplete in any sort of way just seems completely laughable now. You really don’t realise that kind of thing until you step outside of your comfort zone and experience something that you would have otherwise never come into contact with. I know that no ones life is ever “perfect” or “complete”, and that you can always strive to do better, but this kind of experience really highlights how pointless and deconstructive complaining about it can be.

I don’t want to get all preachy or anything though, so I’ll just settle for saying that each and every day of this adventure is opening my eyes wider and wider to the incredible, immense, diverse and ever-changing world world around me.