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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Crossing Cardigan Bay


The title sounds like it should be a Celtic song, about the sea crossing between Wales and Ireland, two of the seven Celtic lands. (For reference, the others are Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany, and Cape Breton—I’ve missed out only Galicia in Spain.) And music was the theme, as we were accompanied on the ferry by coachloads of Welsh rugby fans, on their way for today’s big match against a Munster team. From the other end of the ship I thought I must be imagining it, but no, the fans had assembled on deck and burst into a series of songs, including “Sosban Fach.” I have never known exactly what “Sosban Fach” is about—something about a saucepan and Nellie catching her finger in the door—but the fact that I recognized the tune from the foredeck once again reminds me of what I love about Wales. England may be all about the Football Association Cup match today, and Scotland the Scottish cup final, but there is only one game for the Welsh.

The weather could not have been sunnier for driving down to Fishguard (Abergwuan) in Pembrokeshire, a part of Wales new to us, or for the crossing to County Wexford in Ireland. There was a slight delay while a Garda (policeman) took away my passport and brought it back with a large green stamp, dates written in by hand. For a passport stamp it is lovely, but it also takes up an entire page; I sincerely hope this is not repeated at every border I cross or my new passport will very soon be full!

Co. Wexford features numerous berry stands by the side of the road. In places like Wiltshire, these stands crop up often too, selling strawberries, cherries, and other fruits of the field. Here, being in Ireland, every one sells potatoes as well. 

So after twelve hours of travel (leaving Abersoch early in the morning) we arrived in Co. Wicklow, and here is where things got a little bit interesting. The Airbnb model is based on people opening their homes, or extensions of their homes, to others for a budget price, and so naturally the hosts’ addresses and contact details aren’t posted on a public website the way a hotel’s would be. All very well, but somehow we didn’t have anything printed or saved. Text messages sent from the mysteriously uncontactable host were truncated, and we couldn’t access WiFi because the pub we stopped at in Rathdrum doesn’t have it.

What to do? Well, we ordered cold Cokes from the publican and the next thing you know, he’s fetched his wife Geraldine from upstairs, and they have WiFi in their home, so she’s on her phone looking for our hosts (by name—T. guessed they might all know each other here). Several laughs and Euros later T. had successfully found the directions via Geraldine’s phone. We will definitely be back at the Corner House to say thank you properly, now that we’ve had a rest!

Airbnb seems to know its market, which is proper coffee drinkers. After the initial scare of not being able to find instant coffee, T. is an overnight expert with the cafetiere. So this morning we were outside the little log cabin at the bottom of our hosts’ garden, drinking coffee at a picnic table and listening to the birds and sheep. Then the rain came. In we went to the glorified outhouse, which is part kitchen now, to fix a basket of eggs I am pretty sure were laid by the chickens we met scratching in the yard last night. 

So there are your recommendations: the “Cozy Cabin” near Rathdrum; the Corner House pub; and not to forget the customer service before you sail from the ferry dock at Fishguard. That guy must be the cheeriest person in the world. It was a pleasure just to ask him a question.

I foresee the weather being a big part of our travels, at least in Britain and Ireland. When we arrived in Snowdonia we had low cloud, so low that mists appeared to be rolling onto the beach and we couldn’t see the island across the water. The next day required sunscreen, but there’s no danger of burning today! 

One of the perils of planning a trip like this, especially talking about it in advance, is that for every idea we have, others have an equally good suggestion. Even before we got to Ireland, we were told we must go to the Causeway Coast. (We aren’t going to the north this time.) Or, “How can you not go to India?” (India deserves a trip of its own; you could spend months there.) “Are you going to China?” (Weren’t planning to.) The world is round and there are as many ways to circumnavigate it as there are people to try.

Finally, a couple of additions to “Great things about Britain.” Real ale!
And my all time favorite: British signs.


No room for subtlety here.

It comes to us all. So get out there.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

England to Wales

Having stayed in exactly one Airbnb so far in our lives, I don't feel qualified to recommend the service yet, but it was value for money. Not sure about the second b. The coffee was too complicated (i.e., not instant), but the real challenge was toast. Touch the toaster and all the power went out. Luckily, our host was on hand to get us on our way.

Continuing the theme of my earlier post, I had been to Manchester, and yet never been. I've celebrated many holidays in the vicinity of Altrincham, and further in towards the center, T. has shown me around her old stomping grounds, Stretford. I've seen Old Trafford and we got hitched at Sale Town Hall. But until this visit, I had never been to the end of the tram line in Altrincham, actually gotten on it, and ridden into Manchester itself.

In 1996 the I.R.A. set off a bomb in Manchester. Although no one was killed, it was the biggest bomb detonated in Britain since World War II, and caused much destruction in the city centre. The irony is that the massive redevelopment of Manchester in the subsequent decade has been credited with making it the powerhouse city of the north of England.

I don't know what it looked like before. I've read about nineteenth-century Manchester and the filth and misery of the industrial revolution, so it's interesting to see through revolutions from the other side. You don't have to be a militant trade unionist to understand that Manchester was the epicenter of struggle for rights and democracy, at least in Britain. The Manchester Guardian, as it then was, campaigned against things like the force feeding of women suffragists.

In case you haven't read it here before: We have rights because people struggled for them. The fruit of this can now be seen on Canal Street which, thanks to the original Queer as Folk on TV, is famous all over the world.
To someone who came of age where homosexuality was illegal, this pride of place is as mind blowing as a woman prime minister probably would be to Emmeline Pankhurst.

Another highlight of Manchester is the John Rylands Library. Rylands was a textiles magnate who made his millions when Manchester was known as Cottonopolis. His widow used her money to have Basil Champneys build a cathedral to books, a library that would be free for all to use.



There are real treasures in this collection, including the oldest New Testament text in existence (a fragment of the Gospel of John) and one of the Bibles first printed by Gutenberg. What most impressed me, though, was a Hebrew alphabetical writing exercise from the Cairo Genizah. I noticed the letter rosh was written before lamed in the aleph-bet, which is not how I learned it! The find in the genizah (storeroom) of the Old Synagogue in Cairo was not only a thousand-year collection of Hebrew and Jewish fragments, but is the largest and most diverse collection of mediaeval manuscripts in the world. 
Historic reading room
And so to North Wales. Despite the challenges I experienced hiking Welsh mountains, or perhaps because of them, I love Wales. I even tried learning Welsh once, at Dewi Sant church in Toronto, where the lessons were free. I got what I paid for. All I can say is "Nothing but water" and "Vengeance is coming!"

Although I wasn't successful in learning Welsh, I love hearing it spoken. I also love hearing English spoken with a Welsh accent, and hearing Welsh people sing. Somehow they always seem to be in tune, even in a crowd at a rygbi match. Pretty much the only thing I don't love about Wales is the climate, and that's no worse than the rest of the British Isles.

Speaking of things we don't love, T. has her own blog in which she noted things she wouldn't miss about the UK. I offered to list, in return, things I will. Of course she only came up with three! But let it never be said that I "slag the place off": I dedicated an entire post to things the country does well. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Love letter from Manchester

I was going to write about our day in Manchester, and then hours later it was on the news. So I'm interrupting the regular schedule for a special post. T. came up with only three things she won't miss about her native country. In return, my Things that Make Britain Great. 

  1. Top 3, seriously: These people aren't fazed by anything. Terrorism is terrible, but they've been there. British people have been handling bombs going off since before most of us were born. 
  2. Guns? Even the police don't carry them.
  3. Whatever you're dealing with, Britain has been dealing with it longer. If I had a big sister who inspired equal amounts of annoyance and affection, she would be Great Britain.
Now here are some others, affectionately and in no particular order:

  • Marmite. The quintessential "love it or hate it" item. Plenty of native-born Britons don't like it, but I have acquired the taste.
    100% vegetarian (you're thinking of Bovril.)
  • "On toast." That is, Marmite on toast, beans (more on those below) on toast, etc. I would never have eaten these things let alone put them on toast, but somehow in this country, it's comforting.
  • Heinz baked beans. They are not baked beans, in the way that Heinz beans in North America are (baked). They are a particular kind of runny item that Britons love, too soppy to do anything with but bake in something else, or eat on toast.
  • The BBC News. Especially Radio 4. No "newsreaders" will ever compare to the glorious Charlotte Green and Harriet Cass, but hearing the news on the BBC is still pretty bearable, as the voices present it so calmly. I always imagined that if the world were ending and everyone else were hysterical, the BBC newsreader would still just take a breath and move on: "Now sport."
  • Britain (and Ireland) are always green. These islands don't turn brown or frozen in the winter. That's because of all the rain, damp, moisture, whatever; but it's a benefit.
  • Indian food. What is called "curry" in this country has become the national dish, as much as fish and chips. Of course you can get Indian food in many other places, not least India, but it's not the same as here. (Chinese food is also different here from anywhere else, and probably from China, as well.)
  • Place names. Sure, every country has them, but Leighton Buzzard? Hooton Pagnell? Only in the U.K.
  • Nobody can pull off a celebration like British people. Where else do you see ladies' hats at a wedding? Or women, dressed to the nines in high heeled shoes, falling over trashed at a horse race? These people can party.
  • Again, they handle the weather. Is it freezing and pouring down rain? No problem; we're going to have a cookout! Just light the chiminea, put up an umbrella and wear fleece. The British let nothing spoil their day.
  • Kettles. Every kitchenette in the country has an electric kettle that boils shortly after being plugged in. It must be the most efficient device ever invented, and I have no idea why they aren't more common in North America. Kettles are the reason the British are happy with instant coffee, but  their real love is...
  • Tea! Only in this country could Lily Allen sing: "Beans on toast with a nice cup of tea/ Then we'll get a Chinese and watch TV." See beans; Chinese. Tea is the national drink and what keeps people so calm. Big rough builders drink tea out of flowery china cups. Groups of motorcyclists "queue" up at roadside stands for cups of tea. It's amazing.
  • The Ramblers. Hundreds of groups of hikers, many of them retirement age (who get free or reduced public transportation), spend every weekend and some weekdays as well trekking across hills and fields in every part of England, Scotland, and Wales. Thanks to them, public footpaths and rights of way are kept open no matter what village, farm, or busy built-up area they are in. It took everything in me to keep up with the Ramblers.
  • Sheep. Yes, other countries are better known for sheep and other cultures eat more lamb, but seeing sheep (rather than cattle) in pastures is emblematic of Britain for me.
  • The National Trust. For a membership fee you get free entry to how many parks and properties all over the country? And countless stately homes, woodlands, etc. are preserved rather than bulldozed over. Bargain of the year.
  • "Post" boxes on sticks or set into stone walls. For that matter, stone walls.
    Victorian post box. Note "V R" indicating who was queen.
  • Scotch eggs, sausage rolls, pork pies, Sunday dinners. If you're vegetarian they'll have a roast for you too. Even not eating meat is old hat to them.

Hats off, Britain. 
John Rylands Library, Manchester. Free to all

Monday, May 22, 2017

Soft Brexit

As the United Kingdom debates how "hard" or "soft" to exit the European Union, we are easing our way out of the U.K.

In my personal history, England occupies an odd space. It was the first country I ever visited outside my country of birth, but I wasn't on a tour through Europe like other college-aged Americans. Instead, my father and I stayed for three months (a mini-sabbatical). By the time we went on a two-week visit to Italy, Monaco, and France, returning to England felt familiar, even though we were leaving it the very next day. England, specifically Oxford, was thus the first place I ever felt both "home" and "not home," the way I have felt about an increasing number of places in my life.

I have a habit of traveling thus far on an international trip and then stopping. I came back to England, but stopped, staying on a six-month work permit and traveling to Scotland and Ireland. I did graduate study at Oxford. Each time, I was living (temporarily) in the new country, not just touring around or spending most of my time in London. When I emigrated to Canada, of course, I stopped in Toronto. It was my plan to stay in Canada forever, not just keep traveling. I lived there for many years without ever even visiting vast areas of the country. It seems I am more of a migrant than a tourist.

What we're leaving
For all those months spent in Oxford, I never spent a single night in Greater London until this last time. How many visitors can say that? Naturally, I stopped in London, and have been based here (with plenty of travel "abroad") for more than seven years. It has been home and not home.

So about our last few days in England, I cannot write exactly as a traveler, nor as a resident. We went "up north," by which the English mean "not London," to see family. Not my blood relatives, but T's family. I am related to them and not related.

I have become British--by residence and marriage [sic]--and not British. I have the same Right of Abode as any British citizen, but as soon as I open my mouth, the question is always, "Where are you from?" And I guess I should get used to it, because that is the question that travelers everywhere are asked.

After that first six-month stay in England, I wrote about the positives and the negatives and how, when it was all over, I felt more American than ever. Now that I have immigrated (again), I realize how much of me has become Canadian.

Next stop, Kilimanjaro!
Suketu Mehta wrote: “It was when I realised I had a new nationality: I was in exile. I am an adulterous resident: when I am in one city, I am dreaming of the other. I am an exile, citizen of the country of longing.” But for me, the experience is more positive than exile or adulterous imply. I have felt at home in the house we have emptied, yet I can hardly wait to move on.

Two women, six continents. Thank you for reading along.
Wise words at uncle's house

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Letting go

I feel I should write a post on the eve of our going, because this is a bigger trip than any I've ever been on before. In fact, it's not really a trip, in the sense of traveling someplace and then returning. The house we normally come back to will be lived in by somebody else, and there is no return ticket.

Indietraveller.co reckons that most longterm travelers spent much more time than they need to planning their itinerary in advance, while devoting too little time to packing well. I am starting to wonder though if we have erred in the opposite direction. A long period of time has gone into preparation and getting the backpack exactly right, while almost every detail of our itinerary is up in the air! Or sea, or overland.

The "before" picture
This morning when I was running errand #1,000,000, I glanced through the window of an independent coffeeshop (yes, they exist) and saw a guy who looked pretty carefree. He was sitting on a stool with his laptop out, looking as if he were musing on something rather than doing work. He was wearing a casual cap and flip flops. Perhaps a traveling writer, I thought, making his lightweight way around the world.

Around the corner in front of the coffeeshop, I saw a woman with a duffel bag who looked considerably more haggard. I don't think she was homeless, in the indefinite sense that none of us would choose; but she did look as if both she and her bag had been on the road too long. I am now wondering if I am more likely to look like that in months or years.

When you live in a house, you're in danger of tucking stuff away and forgetting you ever had it. I'd never lived in a house before, since my parents' growing up, so I was in for a shock. Thank goodness I started lists of tasks and sorting through papers, etc. in my study (also known as Harry Potter's cupboard under the stairs) months ago. Otherwise the temptation would be just to throw everything in the recycling center when we make our final (?) visit this afternoon.

Other than one unfortunate incident with the potato masher, though, it's been pretty smooth sailing. The guy at the storage center helpfully suggested that as we have multiple industrial-sized rolls of bubble wrap, if the stress of moving gets too much we can always use some for stress relief. We may yet make use of that!

George Carlin used to go on about "stuff" and I know what he means. I was feeling pretty good about the fact that for every box we are storing, another box's worth has been donated to charity or at worst recycled. We have not gotten rid of all the furniture however, so the real test will be when the big items are moved. Good luck to the men tomorrow. 

If you don't hear from The Discreet Traveler again, I'll be bouncing around the unit padded with bubble wrap.



Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The discreet hiker 3

People keep asking how we're going to travel around the world with everything in a backpack. There are actually many good blog posts from people who have done this, and they're more authoritative than I am. But, as I'm also planning to trek Mt. Kilimanjaro, there's the gear I need for hiking, in addition to my everyday traveling. Here is how I am attempting to have as much overlap as possible and minimize the load for myself and my porter on the mountain.

I've already written about hiking clothes; layering is the key. Other than being able to wear every item of clothing with every other item, there's not much to packing except a few additional items I won't be taking on the hike. Swimsuit, shorts, an alternative pair of shoes (light/folding up), a few cotton items not suitable for the trek. It is important always to leave one full set of clean clothes, for laundry day--or the day you return triumphantly from the mountain!

Non-clothing, in no particular order:
  • Water bottles. A regular (reusable) water bottle is very handy to have, in addition to the water sack on the mountain (in case the latter freezes), and to cut down on plastic trash where possible. There are countries where you can't drink the tap water, and Tanzania is one of them. However on Kilimanjaro, the crew purifies the water from mountain streams--disposable bottles are banned from the national park.
  • Electronics. You know what you need and what you can live without. A cheap and old (or at least old-looking) phone or camera is less likely to attract unwanted attention. Ziploc bags (labeled) are handy for cords, chargers, etc.--keeping them organized and making me less likely to forget or lose something. Which brings me to
  • Plastic bags! Ziplocs and larger (strong) trash bags--not the junk from store checkouts that splits with a single use. The Ziplocs are good for organizing and packing out trash; the larger bags are for lining backpacks or double-waterproofing items such as clothing*. However many you bring, reuse and remember to dispose of them properly, i.e., don't leave them to add to the landfill (or worse, sea pollution) in a developing country that may not have recycling facilities.
  • Even better are packing cubes or compression stuff sacks (or dry bags if it absolutely has to be waterproof, such as for submersion). These are washable and you are sure to find a type that is right for keeping things organized inside your bag.
Speaking of bags, there are two types. The backpack I travel with now is large (but not too large) with a small, detachable daypack for carrying around while the larger backpack is locked away somewhere. For Kili the requirements are different. There, porters carry everything inside a soft-sided duffel bag (it needs to be soft so they can carry it on their heads!), except for the items hikers need during the day between camps. 

The daypack for the Kili trek probably needs to be a bit bigger than the daypack I'd normally use to carry a bottle of water and guidebook around town. Fortunately, I have an old 25L backpack I've used for hiking for years.
I also have a soft-sided tennis bag that is large enough to accommodate a sleeping bag and all the other gear (up to a maximum 15 kg in weight) that I'll need on the mountain. These, along with Kili-specific gear, can stay locked away until I get there. 

*Waterproofing will be extra important because my tennis bag is not. The sleeping bag is the most important item of all, but I'm not about to buy one and schlep it around the world. I plan to rent from my trekking company--the warmest possible. Be sure to count the weight and packed-down size of the sleeping bag and mat, in terms of which duffel bag to take.

Other gear:
  1. A sealable, floating waterproof container with a neck cord can be handy. Not so much for Kilimanjaro, but for the beach, or anywhere else you need to hold a few bare essentials. I'm talking maybe a card and a key, in case you're swimming in the ocean and must have one or two valuables with you. Personally I wouldn't try a phone...
  2. Bath bag. You know what is the minimum you can get by with (see word to the women below). In addition to recommendations there, a few drugs are useful--any prescriptions you need of course (with the prescription), whatever painkiller(s) work for you, and loperamide, which has the handy effect of stopping you going when you really don't want to go. Enough said.
  3. Two liquids I definitely need in larger than carry-on size, so they go in the duffel bag until I put them in my Kili daypack. One is mosquito repellent (with DEET) that is vital at lower elevations in malarial countries; the other is sunblock (factor 50 is recommended at high altitude). I am told to cover all exposed surfaces including hands, and to pack sunscreen from the West, as it's not as much in demand by Tanzanians!
  4. Zinc oxide--that ugly white cream--is not only useful for sunblock on sensitive places like lips, but also heals all wounds, like time. And if you apply it to heels/other foot surfaces before you set off for a day of hiking, it can even prevent blisters! I call it "magic cream."
  5. I also always travel with earplugs, as they're as useful on a long-haul flight as they may be at a noisy campsite. And an eye mask (although as in so many cases, a bandanna will do). 
  6. Laundry supplies, if you expect to do any washing in a sink. A universal plug stopper and some hand-wash soap are sufficient. This came in handy when I crossed Germany in 2008 carrying only a 25L backpack (I could get away with it because it was summer).
  7. A few clothespins or binder clips, if you expect anything to sun dry (from your daypack or anywhere else).
  8. Bottle opener. I have one on my keyring. I used to travel everywhere with my Swiss Army knife, but since September 11 this would force me to check luggage, which I try to avoid whenever possible. (This is a good reason to minimize liquid sizes too.)
  9. Travel towel. This is the pat-dry type that is less absorbent, but much lighter and more packable than a fluffy beach towel. It's the only kind to take up Kilimanjaro where nothing else will dry.
  10. Essential documents and cards, and copies in a separate place.The only documentation I'm taking on the mountain are copies, including of my insurance policy (high-altitude trekking required). Everything else stays locked up in the hotel.
  11. I do always take small notebooks with me (and pens--Ziplocs are handy here). Books are heavy but it's always handy to have one--at least a guidebook for the country(ies) you're visiting. You can always cut out sections with that knife you can't bring, and bind just the parts you need with duct tape (if you're bringing that). Some people are into e-readers although to me, it would just be another thing to get lost or stolen. See electronics!
  12. I was tempted by a small, lipstick-sized charger. There's no charging electronics on the mountain, obviously, and the cold can make camera/phone batteries run down more quickly. I've tried it but only at home.
  13. Glasses if you wear them; prescription, case and whatever you need to clean them with. And sunglasses! For Kilimanjaro wraparound sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays are recommended, and pretty much essential to prevent snow blindness at the top.
  14. I assume you can't leave home without a wallet. Remember not to confuse this with a money belt or whatever you're using to keep valuables in a secret place. A money belt never comes out in public; a wallet is for your daily cash needs, and should contain nothing else. (Only tip money is required on Kili--check with your trekking company for recommendations.)
  15. Spare laces for your hiking boots, just in case.
  16. A washable laundry bag is something I already have, but wouldn't buy, since a plastic bag would do.
  17.  A headlamp. This is essential for camping and for attempting the summit of Kili in the dark! But it's handy anywhere, and more so than a flashlight that you'd have to hold in your hand. Spare batteries too (don't throw batteries away on the mountain).
  18. Vaccinations are not a thing, but you need them for many countries including Tanzania. Photocopies of whatever you've had are vital documentation, as is a yellow fever certificate (mine is stuck into my old passport). It may be required for you to enter the country.
Are you seeing how all this can fit? Not in 55L worth of backpack, but easily so if you leave out the gear I need only for trekking (such as poles). And very few of these are things I've actually bought for the purpose. The one item I haven't had a chance to try yet is a combination stuff sack/camp pillow. This water-resistant sack can be used to stuff fleece or thermals inside my duffel bag; when turned inside out, it has an incredibly soft surface that will make a nice pillow. At least as nice as one of those neck things on the plane, and much less bulky. I will let you know!

Finally, a word to the women. Kilimanjaro has become so popular that you can find a ton of blog posts and packing lists now, many of them from women. Nonetheless you cannot miss the fact that you will be vastly outnumbered on the mountain. Even if you book specially with a group of all female hikers, you will be outnumbered by your crew and they will almost certainly all be male.

This is not a problem--but I've found it really helpful to get ideas from women who've been there: some female-specific and some general. Have a look at this list (ignore the company-specific information). You'll know which tips would be useful to you. And there's one more thing I know you all are thinking about (skip this last paragraph if it's too much information):

The loo. More specifically, what to do between loos, which you will be for several hours hiking from camp to camp. If you've hiked before I don't need to tell you how to go in the woods, but it's not really woods on much of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Some women recommend one of those devices that goes by a variety of brand names and, essentially, allows you to stay standing up without removing all your layers of clothing. If saving time and privacy sounds like a good idea, check it out. I will pass on one piece of advice a very wise woman told me: Practice at home first. "In the shower." And if you're thinking of an extra bottle, to keep from having to exit the tent at night...make sure you clearly mark the bottle separate from the ones you'll carry water in ;-)


Monday, March 27, 2017

How to travel with two passports: FAQs

To my surprise, the most frequently read post on The Discreet Traveler has been Top 10: How to travel with two passports. Because I keep getting questions about it--thank you, readers!--here are a few quick answers. Most questions seem to be from Americans.

1. If I'm a United States citizen, do I have to travel on a US passport? 
The short answer is Yes, to and from the USA. The fuller answer is that you must (by law) show your US passport to US immigration officials when you enter the USA.
The law says you must enter and leave the USA with a US passport but in practice, the US does not have exit immigration like most other countries do. So the only requirement to leave the US with a US passport is that you must have the passport with you. Checking into a flight out of the US using your other passport is not a violation of the law. Airline officials are not immigration.

2. I am a citizen of X country. If I have a passport for that country, can I travel there without restrictions?
Yes, you can. It does not matter if you were born in that country or if you have never been there before. Being a citizen of a country means they have to let you in, and you never have to leave, and you have the same rights to live and work there as someone who has never left.
Now as with US citizens (1), the country may have rules about entering with its passport, and common sense says check before you travel to any country long term. But if you are a citizen of a country, it cannot refuse you entry. (A US citizen trying to enter on a foreign passport might run into fines or other problems, but s/he can't be refused entry to the US.)

3. But won't immigration officials think it's suspicious if I present a passport without any stamps in it/that's never been used before? Won't it look like I haven't gone anywhere?
This seems to be the most frequently asked, and the answer is No. First, stamps are irrelevant because many border crossings don't even stamp anymore. Electronic systems can show where you came from. If you are a citizen of a country, that country has to let you in!

4. I entered country Y with my US passport, and now I'm going to country Z. Can I use my Canadian passport instead?
Yes. You can use any passport you want anywhere in the world, except the USA. Of course, if you plan to use your other passport and need a visa, make sure to get the visa in the passport you're going to use.
Do be careful when leaving country Y if it has exit immigration (as most countries do): if you entered Y with your US passport, you need to show the same passport to Y's officials when you leave. Then, put it away and show your Canadian passport to country Z's immigration officials (and again at exit).

5. I accidentally used the wrong passport to exit/overstayed my visa/got a ban from a country the last time I visited there. Can I just use my other passport and pretend it never happened?
The short answer to this is No. You could try this, but it would be a mistake. Getting caught trying to "fool" immigration officials always has more serious consequences than just making a mistake in the first place. If you're asked a direct question, you need to give an honest answer.
Always remember that you are a person, not a passport. If you break a rule, don't try to use a different passport to get around the rule. Find out what is involved in rectifying the problem.

6. What information do I put into the Advance Passenger Information when buying a ticket online? The website only allows one passport.
Put the information for the passport you will use first. In other words if you are flying to the UK and will use your British passport to enter the UK, put the British passport information. This is the passport you will show the airline when checking in for your flight.
At some point during the trip you will probably need to show your other passport (for example, at exit immigration from the country you're flying from). Just show the immigration officials the passport they need to see. It does not matter if it's not the same one you used to check in.

7. I'm still confused. Isn't it better just to show everything to every official and let them pick what they need?
Not really. They tend to be to-the-point people and don't want unnecessary information--which is why you should keep your answers short.
Having said that, if you're asked something that can only be answered by your other passport, just tell them. It is not illegal or as uncommon as people seem to believe.

Travel safely. Have a great time. Don't worry; be happy!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Kraków, Poland, March 2017

My last post was a look at evil and the past. Here, I want to write about Poland's present, of which my first impression was a good one, and future, about which there is reason to be hopeful.

We've been to two UNESCO World Heritage sites in as many days. One was the memorial and museum, and the other is Kraków's Old Town. One thing I forgot to say about the former is that it must be the last place on earth where adults behave with true respect. No one visits that place who doesn't want to go. No one was acting inappropriately or taking selfies, and yet there were busloads of people there. Agniewska told us it is like this every single day.

That gives me hope: that every day, many, many people, too young to have lived through World War II, remember, and are willing to do the hard work of keeping memory alive. 
Like the English couple, now resident in Spain, who started chatting to us over dinner (kielbasa, pickle & potato casserole--can't remember the Polish name!) They'd been on the tour the same day. Sue used to nurse an Auschwitz survivor, a woman who lived to be 96; Neil used to work as a firefighter with a man whose father was a survivor. Always had a smile on his face, Neil said.

When we look at the past, we remember six million, but think about eleven million. For that is how many Jews were living in Europe before the war, and most of them were in Poland. We in the West are accustomed to thinking of Poland as Eastern Europe, but if you look at a map of Europe spreading out to Russia, Poland is right in the center of it. Poland was the heart of a great civilization that had been part of Europe for 800 years.

In Kraków we chanced upon a free walking tour being given in English. This thirtysomething man was as knowledgeable and passionate as Agniewska, about his country and its history. He wanted to show us all around Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Kraków, where both Christians and Jews lived for much of Polish history. This is the key point: Most of the Jews lived in Poland because for most of that history, this was the only country where they were citizens, like their Christian neighbors. They spoke Polish and paid taxes (and collected them, a profession that earned Jews peasant enmity but stemmed directly from their tendency to educate all of their sons). Look at the wall next to this synagogue, the oldest in Poland: Jews participated in building the defense of their city, because they belonged to that city. 

(The history of the Jews and anti-Semitism in Poland is a huge subject and I am not trying to elide it here.)
There is a saying that occurs more than once in the Talmud, that whoever takes a life takes an entire world--the world that would have come from that person, had that person lived. Our guide referred to the Talmud too: that whoever saves a life saves the world entire. A little more than a kilometer from the Old Synagogue was the ghetto, where the Jews of Kraków were initially forced to move by the Nazis. (Jews were then a quarter of the Polish population.) Before their final deportation, over a thousand of them worked in a nearby enamel factory, run by German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler. If you saw Schindler's List, you know that Schindler, at cost to himself, went against his country's government in order to save the lives of his Jewish employees.

Everywhere there are "righteous among the nations": Gentiles who took risks to save Jews. In Poland, the only penalty for this, if you were caught, was death. Why were Poles who helped Jews treated especially harshly? Because Poland was different. Jews and Gentiles knew each other; the Nazis hated Poles too. They imposed an especially high price on Poles who treated their neighbors in a Christian way.

Jan Karski with The Discreet Traveler, wondering about the great unanswered question of the last century, Photo by T.


So what about Christian Kraków? 

This is Wawel Cathedral, where centuries of coronations and burials took place. In those days, Kraków was the royal capital of all Poland. It's still full of reminders of some of Poland's favorite native sons and daughters: Copernicus; Marie Curie, née Skłodowska; and of course the Polish pope, St. John Paul II. 

Going along the wall of Wawel Castle,

there's an equestrian statue of Tadeusz Kościuszko, who was a Polish-Lithuanian war hero and later was made brigadier general by the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. (After immigrating to the United States, Kościuszko had the vision to will his American assets to the freedom and education of slaves; unfortunately his wishes were never carried out.)*

Hmm, first Tadeusz (Polish and American), later Marie (born Polish, naturalized French). Poland has a history of accomplished dual nationals. If you want more examples, look at the early leadership of Israel; despite the Hebrew names they were later known by, Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion were both born in parts of the Russian Empire that were once Poland. 

But back to the Old Town. Our first trip, disconcertingly, was not to St. Mary's Basilica but next door to the Hard Rock Cafe (a brand now owned by the Seminole nation of Florida!) This was at least a sign of how far Poland has moved towards the West since the fall of communism in 1989. It being International Women's Day, there was a protest in full swing around Plac Mariacki; Poland is currently under a right-wing government and a lot of women are not happy about the direction it's taking the country (sound familiar?) T. pointed out one man at the demonstration wrapped in a rainbow flag. My heart warmed.

I mentioned before the guide who shared with us the history of Kazimierz. Poles have only been free to speak the truth of their history since 1989, and young storytellers like this man and Agniewska seem to be on a mission. He told us of the variety of groups he's shown around his city, like "Faith and Rainbow" which comprised fifteen gay couples. He'd never known before that LGBT people could be Christian.

He told us this story outside the Isaac Synagogue, a seventeenth-century house of prayer. Today it is used by a Hasidic community. We couldn't go in on Friday afternoon, as it was almost Shabbat and they were getting ready for services.

Sometimes he shows school groups their own history, and there is always one young Polish kid with a shaved head who thinks he's a "nationalist." "Though how any Pole can have any sympathy with National Socialism is beyond me." The guide tells these boys what made Poland great: "It was a melting pot!" And by the standards of the sixteenth century, it was. 

Today the population of Poland is 1% Jewish. Yet Kazimierz is full of restaurants serving gefilte fish and playing live klezmer music. We heard "Hava Nagila" played on a fiddle and accordion in view of the Old Synagogue. It may be a museum today, but there is a living community.
Yes, there are Jewish Community Centers in Poland.

In the airport line, there were two Orthodox Jewish men standing behind me. For all I know, they were coming to Poland to start a business. But they were here.

L'chaim!

*The tallest mountain on the Australian mainland, one of the original Seven Summits, is also named after Kościuszko.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Teach them that evil dwells

Sometimes you visit places that are really important. Not enjoyable, but important. That was what I found about the (strangely beautiful) D-day beaches in Normandy in 2000. But I will never visit anywhere as important as where we were today.

Oświęcim and nearby Brzezinka are towns in Poland, better known to the world by their German names. The Nazis originally built a camp at Oświęcim to kill Polish political prisoners, which they did, along with tens of thousands of Roma (people once called Gypsies). When the Auschwitz camp was expanded to Brzezinka (Birkenau), however, the world got its most infamous atrocity: the murder of Jews on a ghoulishly industrial scale. Auschwitz II was not the only death camp the Nazis built in Europe, but what is hard to grasp about it, even today, is the cold-blooded calculation and sheer numbers. It was built like a factory, for the efficient killing of human beings. More than a million Jews were murdered here.

I know we've all heard about Auschwitz, but let that sink in for a minute: More than a million Jews murdered. Here.


Here is important because it is a physical place, on this earth, and you can go there. For free, although  we paid for a guided tour in English, and it was the best tour I've ever had anywhere. It started with someone giving the direction "This bus is going to Auschwitz." There was something chilling even about hearing the words. As soon as we were on the bus (about an hour's journey southwest of Kraków), it started to rain. 
Somehow it seemed appropriate that it was raining, gray, and chilly the rest of the day. All those black and white pictures give the impression that it was forever winter at Auschwitz. You get there by a road that goes through miles of woods. The Poles who lived in Brzezinka before the war were forced out, in many cases to concentration camps in Germany, and the bricks from their buildings were used to construct Auschwitz II--Birkenau, the death camp. 

Birkenau, where the trains arrived straight for death. You have to pace it out on foot to grasp the scale of this place.

“One person’s death is a tragedy, while the death of millions is a statistic.” This quote has been attributed to Josef Stalin, and while it cannot be verified, Stalin would know. Not only because of his own murderous regime, but because the USSR lost more millions during the Second World War than any other country. Thousands of these were Soviet prisoners of war killed here. In one of the great, grim twists of history, it was the Soviet army that finally liberated the camps in 1945.
Cattle car. The train journey from Greece (Poland has hot summers too) took 11 days, so most Greek Jews did not even make it to the camps to die.
Auschwitz I was only partially destroyed by the Nazis as they fled, leaving us this evidence of their crimes. I am trying to give the impression that I got, because "millions" does not tell a story. If you are lucky enough to have a guide like Agniewska, she will tell you that she is not a guide, but a storyteller. The only people who truly know what went on in the death camps, she said, are the survivors. And there are fewer and fewer of them left.

But what has made the strongest impression on me has been meeting survivors, and what most moved me today were photographs of inmates, and records of their names. For each one was a person. If you had glasses, if you were a professor, etc., among the Poles, you were the first to go to the camps, because the Nazis regarded Poles as a slave race, and didn't need any intelligentsia.
Rows of barracks at Auschwitz I

Today, there is a giant pile of glasses on display at Auschwitz. Each pair belonged to someone. There are prayer shawls, and room upon roomful of shoes. I saw the match of one pair flung on the other side of the room, in a different pile. "This is the only place on earth we find shoes without people." 

One woman whose picture hangs on the wall was named Amelia Biezker. I hope I have written her name down right. What struck me about her picture was that she has a lopsided smile--despite the cropped hair and the prison uniform. She was a unique person, who lived from 1912 to 1942. Perhaps hers was one of the everyday stories of people trying to make life better for others, even as they faced their own deaths.
The Germans recorded details of their prisoners--giving every Jewish man the name "Israel" and every woman Sarah.

After a while the Nazis stopped photographing prisoners. They learned that after a few weeks of emaciation, the people were unidentifiable anyway. That is when the tattooing with numbers began. And it only happened here. For the rest of their lives, anywhere in the world, if you saw someone with that tattooed number, it meant that they were at Auschwitz.
Used gas canisters. Zyklon B was a pesticide until the Nazis realized it could kill more than lice.

There is a room in one of the barracks where no pictures are permitted to be taken. When the women were gassed with Zyklon B, all their hair was removed. You have heard these stories of it being braided into rope. These were cheap supplies and, as any businessman knows, that's the way to make money. Companies profited from this place; it was a production line. At the time of the liberation of Auschwitz there was still a pileup of women's hair from the most recent trip to the gas chambers. The Soviets preserved this roomful, wall to wall on both sides. It represents the remains of 40,000 women.


It has to be emphasized: no one ever survived the gas chambers. We know what happened there from the few who survived of one group--the Sonderkommandos, inmates (usually Jewish) who were forced to remove the bodies of the dead. It is because a few of them gave evidence that we have eyewitness accounts. 

Gas chamber 1 at Auschwitz. The Germans did not dynamite it only because they used it as an air raid shelter. You can go in.


After Agniewska told us her father-in-law survived Auschwitz, and after we thanked her for the tour, only then did I think of the word for what she is doing. It's a mitzvah. A good deed ("commandment" in Hebrew). Yes, she is paid to tell the story but it's personal for her; it can't be easy to see and talk about these things every day, that affected someone close to her. It is a mitzvah to tell these stories and to keep the memories of survivors alive.

Today, we live in a world where free people are told to deny evidence, even things their own eyes have seen. Where facts are dismissed and the very pursuit of truth questioned. I am not just talking about the obvious: Holocaust deniers, who are in the curious position of denying Nazi atrocities ever happened while simultaneously applauding Nazi ideology. I am talking about the subtle. 

A Holocaust remembrance that somehow never mentions the Jews. A massacre in Orlando that some were quick to link to Islamism, while omitting that it was the largest single mass killing of homosexuals since the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered queer people too. I've been to the Homomonument in Amsterdam, which stands right next to the Anne Frank House. These are real places you can go and see.
Ruins of gas chamber 2 of 5 at Birkenau. Each killed 2,000 people at one time. Electric elevators then raised bodies to the crematoria.
Few people would dispute the particular evil of the Nazis, unsurpassed by any other evil in the history of the world. But with time and distance, it is too easy to feel far removed from the butchery that happened here, in Europe, in the lifetime of people who are still alive today. Cree songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie sang:

“Teach them that evil dwells across the sea
Lives in a mountain
Like they see on TV"

What Auschwitz teaches us is that evil is not just bin Laden in a cave or something on television. Evil is a human thing, ever present, part of our world. Evil can be routine, mechanical, someone's everyday work. It doesn’t dwell across the sea but in the heart of every human being—which makes it everyone’s responsibility to fight. It lives in the vandal attacks on American Jewish cemeteries--twice in one week in February. It lives in the dozens of bomb threats against Jewish schools and community centers across the US (eleven states on one day). 

Block 25, where women destined for the gas chambers waited for death.
Yes, this is a travel blog, but how can I go to Auschwitz and not talk about the anti-Semitism happening every day? No one--leader or private citizen--should hesitate, or not know how to answer, when asked "What do you say about hate crimes against Jews?"

“School bell go ‘Ding! Dong! Ding!’
The children all line up
They do what they are told
Take a little drink from the liar's cup"
--“Suffer The Little Children”