just pictures... words to soon follow

the festivities surrounding ghent's blue note jazz festvial

metal spiderweb on the castle!

flags of the original merchants in the area

one of the many canals in ghent

picturesque streets of ghent

kids in ghent, playing their violins on the street

yes, guys do actually use these to urinate in public

elaborate cathedral altar

chapel in the crypt of the cathedral

our farewell band in belgium!


just pictures... words to soon follow

our beloved amsterdam hostel

ornate church tower back in antwerp

amy and i in downtown antwerp

a bar called “boulevard of broken dreams”
(green day, anyone?)


losing another [loved one]

We woke up (not even excessively early) and had breakfast at our hostel which was amazing – a huge buffet with all sorts of food… totally the opposite of our last hostel in Poland, where they don’t seem too into the breakfast thing. It was kindof like eating in a mini dining hall, less personal, but the food made up for it.

After breakfast, we headed off to Nemo, which is the science center in Amsterdam. It’s, of course, aimed at young folks but it looked pretty high tech and exciting to us. We had to take a tram and then go over a zigzagging floating walkway, but it was well worth it. Nemo was over four floors of high tech interactive fun (with a café on the roof where people hang out when it’s sunny!) Amy and I got to make little digital versions of ourselves that went floating across a huge panoramic screen, plus there was even an interview in the psychology bit that was filmed in Santa Cruz! It looked like a funky ugly metal hunk-of-a-building on the outside, but definitely trumped Carnegie Science Center (in Pittsburgh) on the inside, which is a big statement coming from me since I have always regarded it as the kingdom of science centers.

We next walked a bit to get to the Foam Photo Museum which was pretty cool as well. They had a set of prints that were positives and negatives printed layered atop one another, which made everything appear to have a surreal aura. On the top floor, they had a funny little collection of prints of a woman sticking various parts of herself in and out of shrubbery which was cute (she was in a city and missed the forest!) In the middle of those two exhibits, there was an expansive one called “Mijn Amsterdam” (“My Amsterdam”) where a photographer had spent loads of time photographing (in black&white as well as color) the city and its people. He had a particular fascination with adolescents and their vibrant rebellious spirits, which he captured in many of his photos.

Finally, we were starving and had to find food. Of course, we got distracted on the way by a gargantuan five-story English bookstore (they had an entire floor devoted to sci-fi and fantasy novels!) At the bookstore, I also got this free DVD being distributed (actually made in Santa Barbara, California, strangely enough) about 9/11 and re-opening the case… should be interesting to watch, they really want people here to see all sides of things politically which is really cool.

After a lengthy detour in the direction of the bookstore, we had lunch at the Replay Café nearby. It was our first real sit-down type meal on the trip, since we generally opt for take-away because it’s cheaper… and we didn’t realize what we were in for. We wandered in and figured out we had to seat ourselves. Awhile later, a waitress comes and takes our drink orders. She brings back out drinks and then immediately scurries off despite the fact that we’re closing the menu and have been waiting to order. It took us what seemed like ages to get her to come by again and take our order, and when we were finished we couldn’t even get our check from her so we had to pay at the counter. Everyone definitely takes a little more time than we’re used to when they dine out in Europe! Regardless, the food was really good and we had the cutest little glasses of Heineken with our meals.

In the afternoon, we got the tram situation sorted out and successfully made it to the Anne Frank house (giving directions to other tourists along the way!) When we got there, we were even able to skip the huge queue because our pre-purchased tickets that we got at our hostel allowed us to go straight in through a side door. We walked through the office, the storerooms of the warehouse, and finally up the stairs behind the bookcase… at which point things became much more cramped as everyone walked through the hiding place of the families – it is so difficult to imagine that many people living there for so long, and how they were able to remain so silent and undetected. All of the rooms were unfurnished (something Otto had wanted) but there was a miniature model of the entire house as well as screens in many of the rooms that showed what the rooms would have looked like. The walk from entrance to hiding place is also linked together by quotes from Anne’s diary and interviews with those who were involved. The interviews were so sad to watch and to hear about how Anne had died only one month before her camp was liberated - and how even before her death she never knew her father was still alive. While we were there, I bought a new copy of her diary (the copy I originally read was an old library edition) to reread having visited its actual setting… the new copy apparently had a few pages and extra notes added to it around 1998. They had her diary on display in every language imaginable which was really a sight to see, and it’s sad she will never know the effect she’s had on so many readers of all ages.

After our long day out we came back to the hostel and I was really excited to call home for the first time in awhile… though unfortunately my call was met with really sad news. My dog, Sam, had a massive stroke this morning and my family had to let him go… I feel like this whole voyage I knew it was going to happen and I was so afraid of when I would get the news. I guess I am glad that at least it happened on a day when I coincidentally called home, it would have been so hard to find out any other way or several days afterward… I just can’t believe it; I’m so upset about it but at the same time too much in shock to know how to deal with it. I’m thousands of miles away from home, on the other side of the world and haven’t even really dealt with Lucky passing away last fall (since I wasn’t there when she passed away either)… and the worst part is knowing that for the first time in as long as I can remember (over fifteen years?) I don’t have a dog… my family doesn’t have a dog. I’ve been greeted every time I walk in the door with the unconditional love of Sam and Lucky, always missed them so much at school, and had them to lean on when I was home… and now they’re both gone and I can’t even begin to accept it yet. I talked to my brother, Sean, for awhile which was really nice since he was home… but I know this is going to be really hard for all of us. I’m so weary of losing things that I love.

I eventually got off the phone and checked my e-mail… my dad sent me a really cute picture of Sam in a bomber jacket titled “Samuel the Mamuel: A Prince Among Dogs” that I’m going to fix up (doggy case of red-eye). Meanwhile, my mum e-mailed saying she wasn’t sure if he went to dog heaven to be with Lucky, or if he was hiding out from her there – but either way I like to think they’re together somewhere now.

a boat-hotel (“botel”) near nemo...
we thought this was nuts until we remembered
we live on a floating uni campus.

bridge to nemo

“nemo” = “omen” when the wind blows the wrong way

there were swans everywhere in holland!


trains, trams, and sexmuseums

We didn’t have a diplomatic briefing today, so we slept in and stayed on the boat until lunch – some much needed rest, especially since we were leaving straight away for Amsterdam! We trekked downtown to the train station (a good 30-45 minute walk) and found out that the trains to Amsterdam actually leave from the other Antwerp train station (the tour agent people on the ship told us there was only one train station in Antwerp… hmm…) Anyhow, we figured it out and had to ride a train for a whopping one whole stop to the proper station where trains left hourly for Amsterdam. The trainride was quite nice, even in second class, though there were constant announcements in Dutch that occasionally sent us into a panic about if our stop had come up yet (turns out, Amsterdam was at the end of the line, phew!)

Having arrived in Amsterdam (which had even a lovely train station), we caught a tram to our hostel which was in the Leidseplein area (good bars/restaurants) overlooking the Vondelpark (full of skaters, live music, etc). We experienced hostelling on a new level – our hostel was enormous! Luckily, it was all spread about several quant cute buildings so it didn’t feel huge, but we got the amenities of a monsterous hostel: internet, bar/restaurant, big breakfast buffet, TV, etc. Something I’ve loved in general as well about European hostels is that instead of sheets and a blanket waiting for you on your bed, they give you a quilt/duvet and a duvet cover! It’s just like my bed at home…

We tried to make it to the Anne Frank museum during their discounted evening hours, but when we finally got on the proper tram we were told that they don’t stop there anymore… tragic. Instead we ended up wandering somewhat aimlessly around downtown (beautifully laced with canals) and decided to go to the Sexmuseum Amsterdam since it was absolutely enormous and only 2.50 euros. Not to worry, it wasn’t anything really lewd! It was actually quite interesting (though strange for obvious reasons), as it had a lot of artwork from all over the world in the form of paintings, sculptures, and so on. They had some funny multimedia bits with moving mannequins (like Marilyn Monroe singing) and also a little recreation of the old red light district which you could walk through. It was definitely more educational than either of us had anticipated!

After the museum, we continued wandering around and ended up doing some souvenir shopping – the most we’ve done yet in any country, I think! We also finally bought Russia patches, since we’ve both been getting patches in each country yet were unable to find them anywhere in Russia (odd we finally encountered them in Holland, but I can’t complain). I was really excited when I saw lots of Droste chocolate in the stores since we always have it at home, though it’s expensive in the U.S… but turns out it is just as expensive here! We also had some dinner which wasn’t anything special, except that a few Semester at Sea people saw us and recognized us. We found this particularly shocking because we don’t know much of anyone on the ship and furthermore can’t imagine why they all seem to recognize us, but it was sortof funny to bump into them in The Netherlands!

Back at the hostel we went down to the common room to try to play Canasta, which Amy’s been wanting to learn and I managed to get rules off the internet for. Funny though, right when we were sitting down a group of guys starting talking to us and asking us if we were from the states and were saying they didn’t understand where all the Americans were (don’t they realize Americans don’t go hostelling so much?) We talked to them for a few minutes (turns out they are from Philly), but they seemed disappointingly infatuated with drinking and smoking… fitting I guess, since they just graduated high school. Anyhow, we tried to play Canasta but realized before long that we didn’t have the complete or correct rules… so our card game crashed and burned rather quickly and we called it a night.

we came down a total gang-plank!
(our normal gangway was under repair)

beautiful graffitti in an antwerp city park

different spin on catholicism

doggies have to behave themselves inside stores

random orchestra in antwerp city square

streets of amsterdam (note how much they love heineken)

one of amsterdam's lovely canals

leidseplein, near where we were staying


floating outside antwerp

Well we are just now settling into port in Antwerp, Belgium… quite a bit earlier than anticipated. Our original arrival time was tomorrow at 8:00, but was moved to 23:00 today due to traffic or tides or some sea-related stuff I don’t really understand! It’s a bit taunting because we’re all sitting here looking out on the lights of the city but we aren’t allowed to disembark until morning when customs has cleared us and we’ve had our diplomatic briefing. Ah well, I’ll survive – I need to catch up on sleep and might get ahead on schoolwork, as we’re going to be quite busy while we’re here!

We’re planning to leave for Amsterdam tomorrow and spend two nights at a hostel there and we’ve got loads planned already for our stay (no worries mum, we didn’t overplan). Then we’ll still have a day in Antwerp after we get back, during which I may visit the medieval town of Ghent as well.

Shiplife is getting better, maybe. I’m meeting more people bit by bit and my teachers seem to be tuning into some of the social cliques, and how to encourage students to branch outside of them. Overall, it’s been a busy couple of days… I had a midterm yesterday, another midterm today, and a paper due today – maybe it’s good that I’m already used to the fast pace of the quarter system! Everyone has been in a panic all day because we had a really brutal Global Perspectives exam this morning, plus they apparently did some “random” drug testing today (one guy tested positive, I believe. I’m not rightly sure what they do about that!)

A highlight of my day was going on a bridge tour, where I got to see all of the fancy navigational equipment and setup – it was so impressive! We had the 2nd officer, Ricardo, explain a lot of the engineering features of the ship like our water supply (all comes from the ocean), how we propel all this weight, etc. It was also funny to hear about ship-to-ship communication over the radio. Apparently they always attempt first to communicate in English, but sometimes it doesn’t work out because of accents (or inability to speak English), so they have to find creative ways of conveying information. I also asked about all the noise from the ship’s horn that I heard a week or so ago in the morning during classes, and the officer said “Oh that was just greetings between ships!” Some loud and longwinded greetings, indeed! Overall it was impressive to see all the buttons, nautical maps, and electronic equipment – plus they had giant windshield wipers on the front windows of the ship that were awesome (although Ricardo told us they are very inefficient and not often needed).

Other than that, the past couple of days have been full of alternating class and meetings, though at least logistical preport was entertaining tonight. To start, our executive dean, Les, got up and started talking about how bad it smelled today when he was outside on the side of the ship. He asked everyone what on earth the smell was and some student shouts out “POOP!” So he goes on to talk about how he walked to the other side of the ship and it smelled fine and “how come one side of the ocean smells fine and the other one smells like poop?!” Finally, he said that a crew member told him (upon inquiry) that another ship came up close to us and basically pooped indeed, dropping some sort of stinky load I suppose.

After preport Amy and I proceeded to raid the campus store, since there was rumor that they are running low on hoodies/t-shirts and “there is no helicopter coming to resupply the store”. It was depressing because up until tonight we’ve both had credit in our shipboard accounts from trips we tried to get on that were full already… and now we’re going to actually have to start paying bills (like the rest of the student body has been!)

So finally we are relaxing, watching Bridget Jones’ Diary (the second one). It’s a treat because although there are often movies on, they are often very strange, outdated, class-related, or aimed very much at kids (we love some of the childrens movies, but not Barney and Barbie!) I love approaching port because there is no homework due the next day, no class to wake up for… so I’m going to go pass out, because even without class we do have to get up for our diplomatic briefing bright and early!

the bridge in all its glory

emergency light system

jumbo windshield wipers!

flags for every country

crazy nautical navigational maps


big boat in a little canal

We’re transiting through the Kiel Canal today (so that means we’re actually sortof in Germany!) We actually got a really intense explanation of all the calculations involved in the journey from one of the officers in Global Perspectives today, and it turns out that it is nearly as costly as going all the way around Denmark (like we did on the way to Russia). We save a lot of mileage this way and consequently a lot of money on fuel, but they have to pay exorbitant amounts to have the German pilots board our ship to navigate as well as having little pilot boats in front of and behind us.

More importantly, it’s really beautiful and has made the whole day seem so laid back within the countryside scenery…

view down the canal

the german countryside

european wind power!

boat traffic station



Today, the tradition of shipboard Olympics was continued, although Amy and I refrained from partaking in much of the ordeal. Amy blew through the new Harry Potter book during the day, while I caught up on a lot of reading for my classes (residual from my late arrival on the ship). It was relaxing to spend half a day (at least) in bed just resting, because everything in our microcosm moves so fast and changes so quickly. We did go to the closing ceremonies, which included a talent show where each “sea” presented two acts: one comical and one more serious in nature. We definitely saw some amazing talent – like one girl, Sarah, who writes beautiful songs for piano and a guy, Itai, who is equally talented in songwriting for guitar. And of course there were the comical acts… some were rather stupid, but there were a few good ones – like the five Japanese adult passengers from different parts of Japan sang a Russian song they all coincidentally learned as children. There was also a performance of “It’s Raining Men” involving a bunch of guys in tight shorts dancing with umbrellas (a strange laugh, for sure). Several funny skits were also performed, poking fun at Mike (“the voice”- our intercom announcer), the faculty, and Global Perspectives class… especially the new event “Choose the Snooze” in which a sleeping student risks being sought out by the A/V crew and woken up while being watched on video by the 400+ person class! It was sweet however, that many of these skits also gave mad props to our staff and crew aboard the ship, who are undoubtedly nothing short of amazing.

Overall, our sea came in 3rd place (though behind a tie for 2nd, so really 4th place). What this means for us is that we’ll be the 4th sea off of the ship when we get back to Ft. Lauderdale at the end of the voyage. Our sea also apparently came in first place in the spirit competition, which I found funny. Our neighbor, Brian, wrote our cheer/chant which is hilarious but annoying as well: “B-E-R-I-N-G, we are the Bering Sea! Rough waters, whoop, whoop!” .. and so on. Everyone was so sick of our sea chanting by the end of the closing ceremonies, especially the “whoop whoop.”

Too bad tomorrow is back-to-reality with early morning class and responsibilities… I miss weekends!


a very important day

And let me tell you why today is a very important day: the sixth Harry Potter book was released! I’ve had the date on my calendar since the start of the voyage, but was worried we might be unable to find English copies of the book in Poland (if it was even released on time here). Thank goodness for some amazing store called Empik Megastore, where we found our books after all (for 99 zloty/$30, the same it would cost brand new in the states). Plus I was able to pick up a Beethoven double-CD for about $10, which I have desperately been yearning for as background music for studying, since the ship is so chaotic all of the time.

We had also planned to go kayaking today to see the city from water-level, but we had a hard time finding specific information about it and also realized (after we got downtown) that we weren’t properly dressed for it. Instead, we spent the day at leisure in the center of the city. We saw some Intel-sponsored bike marathon go flying by, got to devour more delicious Polish baked goods, and also experienced Polish McDonalds (McDonalds has never tasted so good as it has now, compared to ship food!)

Unfortunately, at the end of our nice afternoon downtown, we missed our bus to the ship (which we had timed perfectly!) We were waiting at the bus stop, when our bus, #106, goes flying by. Me, being naïve, thought for some reason that it was going to halt to a stop at the next small bus turnin near us… so I took off pathetically running to try and catch it. I wondered why Amy wasn’t following me and when I turned back in distress, she was waiting nearly where we were standing initially, as she had realized significantly sooner that the bus was nowhere near braking at a stop (I’m pretty sure she was also engulfed in laughter at this point). A couple of older Polish people noticed my dismay and were really kind in trying to help us sort ourselves out… though eventually we discovered through a kiosk that our bus had already stopped about 20 meters before where we were waiting, hidden behind the KFC (yeah, KFC- phaw!) Of course, we made sure we were waiting at the proper stop for the next bus, since they only come every forty minutes or so.

We walked up the gangway for the last time in Gdansk fairly early in the day, but it gave us time to unwind, settle, and write postcards (the usual pre-sailing routine).

No class tomorrow because of the ship Olympics… totally sweet!


home sweet ship

Phew, I can’t believe we made it back to the ship! Getting back from Krakow was even more chaotic than getting to Krakow. We initially almost missed our train because a morning tour we were on was running late… so then we got to the train but Randy and Melissa were nowhere to be found. Slightly concerning, but we figured they either missed the train or had come back sooner for some reason. We settled in with our assigned reading on Russia for Global Perspectives and shortly thereafter both conked out, snuggling with out textbooks instead of reading them. Everything was fine until we went through the central station in Warsaw, and a load more of people got on the train. We’re thinking okay, no problem, we paid for reserved seats… of course there was the minor detail that Randy and Melissa had our seat reservation slip with them! People started rushing into our compartment, telling us that they had tickets for our seats even though we were sitting in the numbered seats we had paid for. But considering that the girls had our seating assignment slip, we couldn’t prove the seats were ours (seems like they were double booked, actually) and got kicked out! So for the rest of the train ride (three more hours) to Krakow, we were out in the narrow hallway standing or sitting on our luggage as people dodged us going from carriage to carriage. We got to see a lot of beautiful country scenery out the window though! We also saw a guy, Will, from the ship we recognized (but didn’t really know), who was on the same train… though he had a reserved seat that he wasn’t booted from. It was nice, though, to meet someone (it always is) and we were able to split a cab fare with him on the way back to avoid waiting for the bus and hauling our bags on it. The cab was really cheap (for a change), even though our pier is out in the boonies. Our cabbie almost accidentally drove off with our luggage, another potential disaster, but when he realized it he stopped and was laughing just as hard as we were.

Anyhow, before that whole train debacle, we had a really fun day visiting the Wielzcka Salt Mines! We also had breakfast at out hostel before that, though it isn’t much worth mentioning – they don’t seem too into the breakfast thing in Poland. We ended up heading to a bakery to pick up more substantial food there. Regardless, everyone has just been focused on Auschwitz, so I’m not sure many other folks from the ship went to the mines (but we saw Matthew from the hostel there!) I’ll admit, my first inclination was “why would I want to go see a salt mine?!”, but my mum’s friend highly recommended the mines (and their website looked spectacular). I am so glad we went! I am still glad that we went to Auschwitz, but anyone who didn’t go to the mines really did miss out. The mines are so incredible because they are so vast and elaborate (the two hour tour only covers about 1% of the mines!) There is even a sanatorium inside of the mines, where respiratory and other such illnesses are treated, because the air is such a pleasant quality down there (hmm... maybe my asthma could get me in for a visit?)

We started by walking down about 300 steps in a narrow stairway shaft to the third level of the mine, temperature dropping with our descent. From there, we began our walking tour through beautiful large chambers filled with intricately carved sculptures representing famous people, scenes, and spirituality – all made by the miners! There were a few chapels, a couple of saltwater underground lakes, a brass band playing for visitors (that has been doing so for the past hundred years)… it was phenomenal. There were some comical bits as well, such as our guide encouraging us to taste the walls to verify their saltiness (or to taste the salt water flowing out of the mine)… and the two chambers that had song and light shows in them. We walked down through two more levels of the mine, finally ending near their underground restaurant and large ballroom/hall. We then had to wait in line for a good bit for another guide to take us through loads more passageways to get to the lift to take us back up. My mum’s friend had warned me about the lift, and it was about what she described- but I thought it was fun! You’re crammed into a real mining-type lift with several other people, shut in by a rickety door, and then hoisted up through pitch black (with short bouts of light) until you reach the surface again. I suppose I can see how some visitors to the mines might freak out during that part.

I definitely had an absolute ball in Krakow, though it was really nice to come back “home” to the ship, take a nice hot shower, and be back in my room to sleep in my bed tonight... ZzZzZZzzz…..

the brass band playing inside of the mines for us!

salt water, on its way out of the mines (to the surface)

great room inside of the mines, with an altar at the front

in case you didn’t believe me when i mentioned the name of our hostel...!

me, stuck out in the hall on the train

amy, showing equal enthusiasm for our situation


exploring krakow

Today, thankfully, was a shorter and much smoother day than our last. After waking up quite early (about 6:45) to get off the train in Krakow, we set off to find our hostel (called “Bling Bling Hostel”!) It was supposed to be really close to the train station, however due to construction in the area, it took the assistance of a police officer to get us pointed in the right direction (we had walked a bit out of the way). We did eventually find it and it’s quite close to the center of town as well, which is quite convenient. They have been really accommodating here, and we were able to stow our luggage until check-in, plus sign up for an Auschwitz tour leaving not long after our arrival. In the meantime, we wandered into town and discovered a plethora of delicious things to eat… one bakery in particular was amazing. Baked goods are not only yummy but also cheap here in Poland! I don’t know how these people don’t put on more weight… I think I would risk eating doughnuts, bagels, and pastries every single day for breakfast if I lived here.

We returned to our hostel and met up with the small group to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and it turned out to be a pretty convenient setup. We paid about $30 (99 zloty) for the daytrip which took roughly six hours total.

A driver picked us up (about six or eight or us) from the hostel and the one next door and drove us nearly two hours to Auschwitz. We then were joined with another smaller group of Irish boys who by the end of the excursion proved to be annoying and way too obsessed with their cameras, but we did have a guide in English which was good. It was hard to hear a lot of the time because our total group was of a good size, and most of what our guide said was information that we already knew through our studies… but I am still glad to have gone. It was really hard to walk though a lot of the buildings and see where everything actually happened that we have grown up learning about, especially because a lot of people there were incredibly disrespectful given the nature of the place… poking fun at things or obnoxiously snapping photos inappropriately as others were wiping their tears and experiencing really intense emotions. Amy even saw a father taking pictures of his little girl pretending to be electrocuted when she touched the fences, which I found to be entirely disturbing. There was also a Canadian man in our group, who initially seemed really cool… until he started carving his name into one of the prison walls and videotaping everything in an inconsiderately pushy manner. I guess I was surprised because on the ship we even talked in advance about visiting Auschwitz specifically and I had expected the Americans to be the most obnoxious and disrespectful there… yet I am surprised (but pleased) to say that we weren’t.

When our guide had walked us all the way around the grounds of Auschwitz, we drove a few minutes to Birkenau. Visiting Birkenau was almost more surreal for me because of how much Schindler’s List centered there (or what I remember of having watched it). There were far less people at Birkenau, which made it a bit easier to have a moment and take in just how much had happened there.

After we walked through Birkenau, we were driven back to the hostel and went to find dinner somewhere. We surely didn’t have to walk far, because we found a pierogi place quite close and it was an amazing meal! For the equivalent of a few dollars each, we were able to have fried potato/cheese pierogies, blueberry filled pierogies, and a drink – yum!

Following dinner, we decided to look into the phone situation. We were told that the hostel next to us, Dizzy Daisy, had cheap international calls… but when we went over to investigate, it was just one phone sitting on the reception counter that you had to call from – a little weird. We walked down the street looking for local phonecards (so that we could dial our access numbers) but when we found somewhere selling them, the woman working had no clue what we were trying to buy from her (we thought we used pretty clever gestures, too). We asked around elsewhere, but everyone pointed us back to that same kiosk where we had been unable to successfully communicate what we needed.

We eventually headed back to the hostel, but were excited because we got to do laundry there. We had actually dragged some dirty laundry with us on the train to wash at the hostel, because we were running low on clothes (and we never know laundry day until the day before… if there’s a schedule, I know nothing of it). While our laundry was washing we met some interesting people in the lounge while playing cards – a couple of British girls backpacking together, a guy from Canada traveling solo, and a guy, Matthew, from New Zealand, backpacking solo as well. It’s always so much fun to meet people our age who are adventuring on their own as well!

inside auschwitz

the fences of auschwitz

near a watchtower

ruins at birkenau

chimneys... all that remains of the birkenau crematoriums

again, ruins at birkenau

the traintracks at birknau...


adventures in poland

Well… today was intense, despite getting to sleep in this morning. We awoke to being berthed in Poland, at Westerplatte Pier (which has significance to the start of World War II – the nearby monument can actually be seen from our ship quite well). When we did get out of bed, we decided we ought to go downtown and get our train tickets earlier in the day since we are so new at this idea of casual train travel. Luckily, our interport university student, Anna, was going to the train station at the same time as us… so she was able to coach us through the busride into town (a long one, about 25 minutes) and the ticketing system. Unlike in the States, where you just pay busfare and you’re set, here you buy bus tickets – but they are meaningless unless you stamp them upon boarding the bus (in little machines). We also found out, on the way into town, that two other guys on the bus were from the ship, heading to Krakow – so we decided to travel together and share a compartment. When we got downtown, it took us forever to find the proper ticketing counter (even with Anna’s aid… we were all just following her), but without her we would have been a complete mess.

Given the exhausting nature of purchasing our tickets, Amy and I decided we needed to go by McDonalds (I know, I know) and get flurries (they’re different because they are made with Lion candybars!) After that we wandered around town, shopped a bit, and came upon an interesting photo gallery called Cyklop. We initially walked by it, thinking we would have to pay to get in, but a few friendly older men on the porch kept yelling for us to come have a look inside at the photography. We went back to look inside, and it was definitely worth the stop. It was a really small gallery, currently filled with rows of faces of soldiers from around the world. Amy started to walk outside when we were done looking around, and they were like “Where are you going?!” and struck up conversation, finding out that we were from the U.S. At this, one of the men ran back into the gallery to fetch me, quite excited that we were from the states because one of the guys on the porch was too (well, he had lived there for several years). We sat down and talked to them for quite awhile, which was really interesting. Amy was talking to a guy named Zbigs, who seemed to be sharing a lot about what Poland was like after the fall of communism. I was talking to another one of the guys, named Christopher, who actually had lived in Pennsylvania for his time in the states! He also seemed really intrigued by the Semester at Sea program (most people we meet react that way – understandable because I find it intriguing too!) They both also impressed us in being at least trilingual in Russian, Polish, and English. After sitting and chatting for the better part of an hour, we had to get going. They had suggested that we go kayaking in Gdansk to see the city from water level, which sounded really cool, so we are going to try and look into when we get back from Krakow. It was really fun to be able to chat with locals. They had such a great sense of humor and were so welcoming to us!

We went back to the ship, packed our things, and met the guys, Dylan and Matt, in purser’s square to get downtown again for the train. Unfortunately they had brought another girl along with them whom we are not too fond of (I don’t know her name, but we refer to her as “Asian Barbie”). We walked to the bus stop and when they saw the bus wasn’t coming for twenty minutes, of course they had to go have a beer or three. When we got downtown by the train station, again they wandered off to have beer… instead of heading to the station (our train was leaving before too long). When we got up to the train platform, Dylan and Matt were nowhere to be found… but we did meet two girls (Randy and Melissa) with which to share a compartment. They ended up being really cool and sharing similar frustrations as us with the voyage and fellow students.

Given that we were all so tired, we started to fall asleep soon after getting on the train (it was at least 23:00 by this point). All of the sleeper car spots were sold out, so we had to take 1st class seats for the overnight trip. We also didn’t realize until getting there that we were on the same train as the huge (~150 people) Semester at Sea trip to Krakow… and I daresay we seemed more organized than they did when it came to getting on the train and settling in.

As we were falling asleep (four of us curled up in a six-seat compartment, pretty tight squeeze for sleeping), our compartment door flew open. A girl came and basically yelled at us telling us that we need to give our seats to Semester at Sea people who paid for them, and didn’t seem to care that we paid for our seats as well. (Also, it seemed absurd to us that people from the ship paid extra to have a seat when they already had a bed on a strictly overnight trainride…) We hadn’t objected to anyone taking our extra seats, because no one had asked/tried to, yet she was completely in our face about it. Turns out, she wasn’t even one of the people who paid extra to have a seat.

We were all really irritated after that, but eventually started dozing off again. However, soon out compartment door was flung open again and an older woman stepped over our luggage (in the total dark) to sit right on top of Amy and Randy’s legs, deliberately, while they were sleeping – without asking to sit there or stirring either of them, in order to take the seat. After that, she proceeded to say that word was spreading that the four of us were terribly rude and so on – totally ridiculous, we were the ones getting yelled at by an uninvolved peer! While she was trying to defend their side, she did tell us that students had kicked a Polish man out of his seat, thinking Semester at Sea had total control over the carriage – how sick and rude is that?! When I am traveling in a foreign country, I never assume that I am right, in control, or have the power to do such a thing as kick someone out of a seat that they rightfully paid for. Anyhow, the woman basically lectured us repeatedly about how we don’t understand the situation and need to be sympathetic of people trying to kick us our of out seats (backward logic, really). Randy couldn’t take it and was going to flip out, so she got up and left… soon followed by Melissa. With just Amy and I there, we couldn’t just get up and leave too, so this woman goes on being in my face for quite some time more. She was saying absurd things, like we should watch out because people (other students) may come in assaulting us because what they’ve heard about us, and we need to watch ourselves. I initially was very calm and polite with her, explaining our side of the situation, that we were traveling independently, and that we had absolute right to our seats despite the misunderstanding. I also said (as she was defending the rude behavior of others towards us), that under no circumstances is it appropriate for people to assault us in any way – discussion is how situations get resolved and we had tried that. Of course, discussion didn’t work with her either… and even as Amy and I were falling asleep again in our seats, she kept lecturing us about ways in which we had never behaved. Finally, I said to her that we would kindly appreciate if we could go back to sleep, as she had interrupted us from sleeping to begin with (and it was after midnight). Ironically, as soon as I said that and conversation ended… she got up and left. Randy and Melissa returned moments later and said the woman actually already had a seat in the cabin next door! Furthermore, there were entire compartments that were empty and several more that had only one or two people in them – yet they got off being in our face about hogging space (absurd because we would have yielded seats to anyone who had paid for one) when we didn’t have a sleeper carriage or anywhere else to sleep like they all did.

The whole wretched experience really just reinforced why we have been pursuing independent travel options instead of going on overpriced Semester at Sea overnight trips…

gdansk, along the water

downtown gdansk

swarms of polish pigeons!

saint mary’s church

beautiful interior of saint mary’s church

stained glass, also inside saint mary’s