Must Sees at the Berlin Zoo

The Berlin Zoo & Aquarium provides an entertaining experience that could potentially last all day but Matt and I only spent about three and a half hours there. The park is spacious and beautiful. For twenty euros each, Matt and I got entrance to both the zoo and the aquarium. The admission fees are thirteen euro for both the zoo or the aquarium if you only want to visit one. It’s worth it to pay to see both at once. The zoo is massive and the aquarium has three floors. Overall I was extremely impressed and wished we had arrived at the park sooner. I could easily have seen us spending a few extra hours sitting on the benches and enjoying people watching (watching kids see animals for the first time can be really entertaining and cute) or a nice lunch. We walked around the whole time and stayed until closing.

Puffer Fish Giving Me a Kiss

Puffer Fish Giving Me a Kiss (Perfect Timing Courtesy of Matt)

 

I was honestly blown away by the breadth of the collection at the Berlin Zoo & Aquarium. They have so many different types of animals that I have never seen. The animals also seem well cared for (that’s important to me as I prefer to put my money towards a zoo that does their job properly). It was fascinating to see so many new animals. Here are a five highlights that I found particularly interesting. I could easily say the whole park but I figured I should give a few examples.

 

Ant Air Walk: The ant air walk is on the top floor of the beautiful aquarium. There are lots of different fish and amphibians to see but also lots of insects. (I had only seen insects in pet stores up until then so that was cool to see them displayed in an educational way.) Back to the ants! The aquarium has created this piping system that the ants can crawl around the room in up near the ceiling. Park of this piping system has a walkway for the ants that is exposed to the air. It was pretty cool to see.

Hippos: Okay! I have never seen a hippo and for some reason I have never looked up hippo videos on Youtube. Seeing a hippo swim underwater is amazing. They just glide through the water so gracefully. It was impressive. The downside is that their habitat has murkier water so I couldn’t see them unless they were closer to the glass which wasn’t very often. I would have gladly stayed at that exhibit longer to watch them bounce around weightless but we didn’t have the time.

Polar Bears

Polar Bears

Polar Bears: This was Matt’s selection for the list. I had never seen a polar bear at a zoo before so it was cool to see them as well. They seemed a bit sleepy while we were there but one was doing a two step which was curious.

Baby Monkey

Baby Monkey

All Primates: I love visiting the primates although I find the visits often sad. It is fascinating to watch them interact with each other and the visitors. It makes me want to do research into zoos a bit more to see how they care for the animals and if the animals get enough physical exertion and mental stimulation. Even so, monkeys have had a place near to my heart ever since I was a kid. The vast majority seem lively and playful which are the monkeys that I prefer to watch. (The great apes seem less content to be captive so it tugs at my heartstrings quite a bit.) There were also baby monkeys which were super cute. I saw so many species here that I had never seen before

Rhino

Rhino

Rhinos: This was the first time I have ever seen a rhino. There were two at the zoo but one of the two (can’t remember the type) looked like he was all in armor. It was pretty awesome to see. They even appear to be really powerful creatures.

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If you like animal pictures (and, come on, who doesn’t), check out my Flickr page to see more animals at the Berlin Zoo.

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Things To Do In Edinburgh

Edinburgh was a beautiful, walk-able city for a tourist. A lovely, green park separates the older section of the town from the new. You could take public transportation if you want but walking affords lots of photograph opportunities and the possibility of stumbling upon an interesting café or shop. I would go back to Edinburgh in a heartbeat. It’s a happy, welcoming city that makes you want to come back again and again. Here’s my list of activities to partake of while you are in Edinburgh.

  1. The Edinburgh Castle: Going to this site should be an all-day event. Straight up, it’s a bit pricey but totally worth it. Cut down costs by bringing your lunch with you. Buy the tour book (you’ll see it at the ticket counter) and forgo a tour (which is more expensive). Plus it gives you the opportunity to explore at your own leisure. There are a few museums on the grounds that are jam packed with exhibitions plus there’s the castle itself. You will easily fill your time.
  2. Ghost Tour: While in Edinburgh, you might hear of the possibility of going on a ghost tour. If you want a different type of tour, definitely take advantage of the opportunity. Matt and I did a two hour ghost tour with City of the Dead tour company. We had fun hearing the stories and Matt eagerly took pictures of various locations to see if any ghosts would show up in the resulting images. It definitely made me want to learn more about the history of Edinburgh so I could figure out where the ghost stories fit into everything.
  3. Sunbathe at the Princes Street Gardens: Remember that lovely, green park that I mentioned? It’s smack dab in between the new and old portions of Edinburgh (Princes Street and the Royal Mile). Grab a coffee and go sit out on the grass or in a bench. It gives you a different perspective of some of the city sites as the park is in a large sloping grassy area. There are bridges that traverse this park so you can kind of get a perspective of how much it slopes. Spending some time to relax in this garden is a great way to take a break from all the tourism you’ll be doing.
  4. Get Out of the City: Edinburgh is a great jumping off point for tours to the Scottish Highlands. Matt and I used a free (well, tip what you think the tour was worth) tour service called the Hairy Coo Tour. It was a great experience that I would recommend to anyone. There are tons of other tours though that include whiskey distilleries and more extended excursions into the Highlands. They can get pricey though but the Scottish Highlands are definitely worth seeing.
  5. Support a Local, Independent Coffee Shop: Matt and I indulged at Castello Coffee Co. a couple of times while we were in Edinburgh. It’s on Castle Street right off Princes Street where all the major shopping is. I absolutely love going to independent coffee shops so this was lots of fun for me.
  6. Check Out the Free Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art: Want to see some cool art? Check out these museums. They’re free which makes them even better! While Matt and I visited Edinburgh, we mainly focused on the Generation exhibition that they had going on which was a cool way to become more familiar with modern and contemporary Scottish art. I’m sure that they’ll be putting on other great exhibitions in the future.
  7. Visit the Farmers’ Market: Buy and eat some local food while staring up at Edinburgh Castle. Farmers’ markets offer foods that are comparable to the prices of grocery stores or better. You’ll support the locals and may even get to experience something new. The farmers’ market on Castle Terrace runs on Saturday mornings to the early afternoon. You can grab breakfast there, buy a lunch for later, and then work your way to the castle. Matt and I did this and it worked perfectly.

Reacting to Auschwitz

Matt and I immediately reserved our tour to Auschwitz upon arriving in Krakow. As many of you may have noticed, I am usually slightly (or very) behind on our backpacking path with my posts. Upon arriving at Auschwitz yesterday morning, I decided that I must get my memories down before they faded.

Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau are on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. I find the label of “world heritage” particularly apt for this site. Everyone can connect to the event in some way or, at the very least, need to learn from it. I don’t have any family members who suffered persecution during the Holocaust. The only tangible connection that I have to the event is my past two internships at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I remember talking to one of the survivors on my first day at the USHMM. Leon was his name. He survived the Lodz ghetto and escaped a transport. Leon asked me why I decided to intern at the USHMM. I responded that I believe very strongly that everyone has a right to choose their own religion or their own beliefs. After my response, Leon launched into a story about his experience in the Lodz ghetto. He was given a task to guard a large vat of soup for the soldiers but wasn’t allowed to eat any of it. I remember him animatedly explaining how he was literally starving and dared not take a bite of that soup for fear that he might be killed. My supervisor informed me that Leon very rarely tells stories of his experiences. Leon’s the type of survivor who refuses to wear a badge indicating his status while he works at the museum. He doesn’t want to be recognized. For some reason Leon decided to tell me that story on that day. It meant a lot to me that he would share a memory. I worked with other amazing survivors and heard their stories as well. I learned how each individual survivor tried to move on and how each had their own unique way of contributing to the museum. Over my time at the USHMM, I became more and more connected to the events of the Holocaust. I saw my work as a way to bear witness to the events and make an effort to ensure that a crime such as that never happened again. My decision to visit Auschwitz was part of this effort to continue to bear witness. I want to be able to say, “I saw it. It’s real,” if ever, for some crazy reason, anyone should doubt the existence of the event in the future.

I wasn’t sure how I would react to Auschwitz. Having worked at the USHMM, I became, for lack of a better word, desensitized to the imagery. I say “lack of a better word” because I am still very sensitive to the photographs and artifacts that I see. I have learned to present these artifacts to people and help support their interactions with the objects. It’s work that requires you to compartmentalize feelings, I suppose. Walking through the USHMM, I would have my moments where I would have to pull back tears like when I would smell and see the number of the shoes or think about the people who wore the leg braces or used those canes. There’s one particular picture of this child in a ghetto. He is sitting on the edge of his bed, curled up into a ball, wrapping his arms around his knees. I remember the moment I thought, “That’s a child. But it looks like some creature, not a child.” The child was so emaciated he reminded me more of a nightmare than a possible reality. The Holocaust was like a nightmare though, a horrible, horrible dream that never should have manifested in our world. It’s when I would get to really thinking that it would be the worst. I knew that I would really think at Auschwitz.

When we arrived at the camp, the first thing I thought was, “How can a place where something so horrible happened be so beautiful?” The landscaping compliments the buildings and walkways. The trees are green. The weather cooperated nicely with a blue sky and sun. It could be a nice neighborhood of brick apartment buildings if only it weren’t for the barbed wire and the heavy memory of what happened in that place. I found myself wondering where people had died. If I was walking on some spot that someone was killed. I tried to remind myself that people die everywhere. The reality is that it’s not usually like it was here. I crossed my arms, looked at Matt, and said, “This is a sad place.” We came upon Block 10, the place where they did sterilization experiments on women. All I could think of was the sweet survivor who talked at the USHMM about how she found out after the war that she could not have children due to the Nazis’ medical experiment on her. No one should have that opportunity taken away from them. Between Blocks 10 and 11 (the camp prison block) is the execution site. I’m standing in front of this wall where thousands of people died. It’s surreal. I couldn’t fathom the number. I’ve tried so many times to comprehend the enormity of it. I have glimpses and grasps of it but it is so hard to hold on to. But I think it is worth trying to comprehend. It underscores the reality of the event. When I walked into the room of medical devices that people were stripped of before entering the gas chambers, I really started to feel it. The image of someone trying to move about without their prosthetic or cane or leg brace really has an effect on me. We turn into the next room and we see the shoes. Now, there are shoes at the USHMM but not like this. There are mountains of shoes on both sides of you in Auschwitz. It is overwhelming. So much so that it made me start to silently weep. The sheer numbers are incredibly disgusting. And that isn’t even all of the people who were murdered during the Holocaust.

There are so many facts that you’ll learn during your tour that will make you think, “What the hell? Couldn’t the victims even get a little bit of a break?” In the gas chambers people would die in waves. The people closest so the Cyclone B pellets would die first and then it would ripple out. Can you imagine watching people die all around you to know that you are inevitably next when you thought you were just going to take a shower? The cell block supervisors would be prisoner themselves. But they weren’t good people by any means. They’re the ones who would inflict violence on their fellow inmates. They followed the SS more than they were loyal to their compatriots. The victims received less than one thousand calories per day to eat. Heck, they didn’t even get real coffee. All the odds keep stacking up and stacking up against them. If you’re a kid, you’re done. If you’re too old, you’re done. If you are differently abled, you’re done. But you’re done anyway at Auschwitz. The people brought there worked until they died unless they were murdered upon arrival. The survivors are the lucky ones. They survived against all odds.

The Holocaust is difficult to come to terms with mainly because, I think, everything about is so overwhelming. It is beyond comprehension. I’ll have moments of grasping the enormity of the event but if feels like I never fully get there. It’s impossible to rationalize. This just shouldn’t happen in our world. Everyone should be allowed to believe what they want. It shouldn’t matter what country you live in or the ethnic group you come from. No one should be killed for having studied too much or for looking a certain way. No one deserves to be murdered because they are too young or old or too different. Going to Auschwitz reaffirmed my desire to bear witness to this atrocious event in history. It’s important not to forget so that it may never happen again. Auschwitz is a world heritage site. That means that the entire earth’s population should be responsible for making sure the Holocaust never is allowed to be repeated. If you can, go to Auschwitz. If you can’t, go to a Holocaust museum in your country. If you can’t do that, read up on it. Everyone should know and understand the enormity of that brief but greatly important moment in time.

10 Useful Backpacking Items That You Might Opt Out Of

Packing for a long trip can be a difficult thing to do. You don’t want to bring too much or too little but you don’t want to miss anything important. As my trip has progressed I’ve honed in on the objects that I find very useful that one might think, “Hey, I can probably get by without that.” Consider these items in the list below a couple of times before deciding you can go without them. You just may end up needing them.

 

  1. Sewing Kit: I flip flopped on this item a bit. I usually find myself using a basic sewing kit at home about twice each season. With that in mind, I decided to bring a miniature sewing kit (a couple of needles and a few types of thread). It has been so useful. I neglected to think through the fact that the few pieces of clothing I brought with me would be used a lot. I’ve had a few holes in my clothes that I’ve needed to fix just from the wear that I’m putting on them. (Matt and I typically walk six or seven miles a day not including the walking we do at actual sites.) Plus I’m up against the unfortunate fact that women’s clothing is made more poorly, in my opinion, than men’s clothes. It seems to just fall apart faster. I’ve used my sewing kit five times so far in a month and a half. You won’t regret bringing a small sewing kit. It’s so compact you won’t even know that it is there anyway.
  2. Hanging Toiletry Bag: I read in a blog that I should bring a hanging toiletry bag. I figured that I might as well because I needed a toiletry bag anyway. It is amazingly useful. Often times in hostels I will only have access to a couple of hooks in the showers. With a hanging toiletry bag, it ensures that I have one less wet item to deal with. My bag has three compartments so it also helps to keep all of my bath items organized. The hanging aspect allows for easy access to the items that I need. I’d highly recommend this item to anyone staying in hostels.
  3. Reusable Plastic Utensils: Matt scoffed when I told him I bought us each a reusable plastic utensil. I remembered from our short two week trip a few years ago that we ended up needing utensils and didn’t have any. I wasn’t going to let that happen again. We used them pretty much immediately. When Matt ate his first waffle in Brussels with whipped cream and speculoos, the little fork he gave him to eat the confection with broke on the second bite. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the utensil with me that time. We came back to get waffles again the next day and Matt ordered the same item. We brought the reusable utensil and Matt finally conceded that the reusable fork/spoon was one of my best traveling item ideas. I picked out utensils that have a fork at one and a spoon at the other. They barely take up any space so they are totally worth it.
  4. Collapsible Water Bottle: This is another item that Matt found amusing but soon agreed that it was a great idea. I bought a collapsible Vapur water bottle for the trip and I absolutely love it. It also comes with a clip attached to it so I can tote it along on the outside of my bag easily. And the top snap closed nicely (I haven’t had any accidental leaks yet, fingers crossed). There are two great things about this water bottle. The first is that you save money buying multiple water bottles. The second pro about this item is that you save space with it. You can clip it to your bag so it won’t take up space inside your bag when the bottle is full. When it isn’t filled with water, you can roll the bottle up and put it in your bag.
  5. Bungee Clothes Line: I’ve used our clothes line a few times while we’ve been on this trip. It’s great to help dry items that you can’t put through the dryer or if you don’t have time to finish the drying process at the laundromat. It doubles as an effective line to hang up some towels to dry them and create some darkness in your bunk. (Matt ends up using the clothes line for this after I’ve used it to dry some of our clothes.) This item isn’t absolutely necessary but it does make life easier. It gives you an extra spot to dry clothing which can occasionally be hard to come by on a hostel bunk. My clothes line has clips on each end. To shorten the line I simply wrap it around a post a few times on each end before I clip it. It works perfectly. It came with suction cups too but those things seem too rinky dink to ever work with sweaters which is what we usually end up drying on the line.
  6. Compression Bags: As a backpacker you are traveling with as few items as possible which means a small bag for the stuff that you do decide to bring. You might think that you don’t need to worry about organization of your stuff if you aren’t dealing with much room but you do. I have two compression bags that I put all my clothing into. One bag holds all my shirts, sweaters, mittens, scarf, hat, and pants while the other holds my workout clothes, undergarments, rain jacket, socks, and pajamas. Even organizing my stuff into two separate bags helps me to keep track of my clothing and allows for less stress while I’m repacking. The bags also help compress that items down a bit so you can pack more into the small space you’re dealing with.
  7. Eye Mask and Earplugs: I’ve been blessed with the gift of typically being able to sleep through anything. At the end of my rem cycle I do wake up if a light is on so an eye mask can come in handy if my roommates leave the light on or if I want to sleep for an extended time on transportation. I use ear plugs occasionally. Though I haven’t ever felt really unsafe in a hostel, I tend to not use them for safety reasons. When I use an eye mask and earplugs I am even more dead to the world than usual. Although I am not typically sensitive to sound while I sleep, loud noises can wake me up if they’re made repeatedly (i.e. loud drunk roommate screaming). Ear plugs help block that out so I can get some shut eye. Sleep is precious when you backpack. You’re always in a new environment so you don’t sleep as easily. The lights are going on and off frequently. People are noisy. Earplugs and an eye mask can come in really handy. I always have them next to my pillow just in case I find myself having a bit of trouble sleeping or if I get woken up and the nuisance won’t go away.
  8. Quick Dry Towel: These things are magical. They don’t even get that wet when you dry yourself with them. The dry time is so quick that your towel won’t be that wet even if you pack it away shortly after you shower. You should bring a towel when you backpack so you can avoid fees to rent towels. You might as well bring a quick dry towel so that you don’t have to use a wet towel every morning. I purchased a medium size one. I can’t wrap myself up in it but I don’t really need to anyway. I just dry off and get dressed immediately. The towel is big enough to wrap up my hair while I do my makeup. It’s perfect for my needs.
  9. Osprey Farpoint 70 Bag: My backpack is awesome. It has a detachable daypack that I use as a carry on. It is so convenient for travel because you can easily attach the daypack to the bag and then you have one huge bag instead of having to put a backpack on your front as well. It is a little bit more expensive to purchase this type of bag but you are buying convenience. In my mind, convenience is worth a lot. I would recommend the bag that I purchased to anyone who is in the market for a bag.
  10. Kindle: I have been reading a lot on my trip. I’m on my fifth book right now which happens to be the third in the Game of Thrones series. (I also read the first two Game of Thrones books as well as Four Fish and Death at SeaWorld.) These are big books that I would never have space for in my backpack. The Kindle has been so useful. It saves me a ton of space so I can read as much as I want. Plus I can carry it with me everywhere. And it saves me money in that I don’t have to pay to ship the books back home when I run out of space in my backpack.