Looking for Poland

This was our first trip to Poland, and Krackow, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was our first stop. Krackow dates back to a little Stone Age settlement.

 It’s is remarkably well preserved for a city that has stood for over a thousand years, and survived the hell that was World War II.

 

Even the McDonalds there is deeply rooted in Poland’s ancient history.

Literally!  During its construction, medieval foundations were discovered and incorporated into the restaurant design. We bought a cup of coffee so we could go downstairs to check out the McVault in the basement, and it was like nothing you’ve ever seen in The House That Ronald Built.

Krackow suffered under the Nazis, but Warsaw got pounded.  At the Warsaw Uprising Museum we watched a movie that gave us an aerial view of post-war Warsaw. Of that bustling metropolis, only miles and miles of rubble and ruins remained.  The scale of destruction was unimaginable.

 

When the Poles defended themselves against the German invasion, the Nazis response was to destroy hospitals, schools, churches, universities, and commit mass murder upon both Jew and Gentile. When finally forced to retreat, out of spite the Nazis blew up anything still standing.

The Peugot Building was built where the old synagogue once stood. The Jewish Historical Institute is next door, in a reconstructed building that housed the Jewish Library.

Between the Nazis and the Soviets, over 400,000 Warsovians were murdered in the war. Those lives and all their promise can never be replaced. But the people of Warsaw rebuilt their city, brick by brick.  Canaletto’s 18th century paintings were used as visual references to recreate beloved heritage sites.  All along The Royal Way that artwork is displayed…

…in front of the structures that were rebuilt using them as guides.

You can’t say they don’t make ’em like they used to.

The Warsovians resurrected the Old Town Square too.

 Some say it’s like Disneyland, too perfect, but I thought it was beautiful, and I loved all the cool details.

 The royal palace in Warsaw…

…was also destroyed and reconstructed.

Some furniture and other treasures were spirited away before the Luftwaffe bombings, but the throne room and the banner with its royal eagles were destroyed.

  Only one of the original eagles survived, and somehow found its way to the United States.  It was used a model to replicate the original design.

 The clock in the Knight’s Hall, featuring the god of time, is forever stopped at 11:15, a moment never to be forgotten– the exact time the Nazis bombed the palace.

Poland’s history is harsh and fascinating, colorful and complicated.

Reminders of its painful past are everywhere–like the memorial to the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews killed in this bunker by the Nazis. 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Pilsudski Square, which was called Hitler Platz when occupied by the Germans.

We saw statues honoring the Polish Resistance and the Warsaw Uprising…

…and one honoring the children who worked for the resistance, although their roles involved carrying messages more often than guns.

There was the memorial to the 15,000 Polish officers murdered in 1940 by the Soviet army at Katyn.

There were even teenage street musicians in uniform, singing war songs.

On a street corner we glanced down and realized we were standing on what used to be the Ghetto Wall.

So much suffering.  So many stories, most of which can never be told.

After living under the jackboot of the Nazis, like so many other countries of Eastern Europe, the Poles endured further decades of Soviet oppression.  But each new rebellion brought them closer to independence.

The success of the Solidarity movement was a long time coming, a difficult struggle that was as much for freedom as for bread.

It is all inextricably woven into the fabric of their nation’s past.

I wondered how it had affected the people…

…and how much of it was passed from one generation to the next.

After centuries of oppression and foreign rule…

…Poland is now a prosperous and independent Democracy.

I saw joy there, most often in stolen glimpses.

But wherever we went we felt safe.  People were always polite and helpful….

…although rarely quick to smile.

I’ve heard that Europeans believe Americans smile too much and too easily, and perhaps we do.

But in Gdansk…

…an old woman caught me watching her.  I could either avert my eyes and hurry on, or smile and give a little wave, which I did.  And when I did, she smiled back with such unexpected warmth that I couldn’t help myself–I blew her a kiss.

That was Poland in a nutshell.

All words and photos copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck.

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Islands Out of Time

We set out by boat from Puno, Peru.  Our destination, the Floating Islands called the Uros.

The islands are man-made, found on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, at 12, 507 feet, and 109 miles long.

There are over 40 small islands floating in the lake, each constructed of layer upon layer of totora reeds growing in the shallows.

The Uros were pushed back into the lake when the Incas conquered the region.  They were so poor the Incas found them hardly worth taxing, but some were taken as slaves.  After the fall of the Incan Empire, the Uros traded and intermarried with the Aymara on the mainland, eventually losing their Uru language for that of the Aymara.

We were given a warm welcome by the women of the island…

…who sang us ashore.

Each island supports up to 10 families, depending upon its size.  The islands are anchored with ropes tied to stakes driven into the lake bottom.  When attacked, the Uros cut the the ropes to escape into deeper water.  When cohabitants fought, as a last resort they cut their island in half, to live separately.

Totora reeds rot quickly. New layers must constantly be added. Even so, an island lasts only about thirty years.

When we stepped onto the island, our feet sank several inches into the top layers of reeds.

Marcos, a leader on his island, explained through a translator that the white part of totora is eaten for food, and its flowers provide tea. The same reeds used to build the island are also used to build houses and boats for fishing, hunting, and trading with mainlanders.

A model of the island community shows each component, with its real life counterpart.

Canoes.

Cooking pits.

Houses and watchtowers.

And the people.

The Uros fish, and keep pigs on floating islands nearby.

They domesticated Ibis for meat…

…and eggs.

Marcos welcomed us into his home.

Living in close quarters keeps it warmer at night.  During the rainy season they sometimes use plastic tarps to keep dry.

The islands’ population dropped from 2,000 in 1997 to about 400.  The draw of city comforts is strong, especially for the younger generation. The modern world encroaches.  Solar panels provide music and television to make them more content with island life.

Tourism now provides income to purchase products available only on the mainland.

The Uros sell handicrafts made from reeds…

 

…or from materials bought on the Mainland.

It’s a delicate balance maintaining their traditional culture and making a living,

…between supporting their way of life…

…and keeping the children happy at home.

Flashy non-traditional water taxis, the Uru version of a gondola, transport tourists from island to island for a fee.

We caught a ride with Marcos.

He operates his taxi, sells his family’s handicrafts, and fishes to eke out a living for four generations of family.

A French Canadian I spoke to expressed extreme disappointment in the experience.  She found it too commercial, and felt the Uros had sold out their culture to make a buck.  But I don’t see their world or mine in such black and white terms.

Like her ancestors, that woman lives in Quebec, speaks French, and eats baguettes.  But she also eats sushi, drives a car, and works for a tech company to pay her electric bill.

Such a fine line between preserving cultural traditions while adapting to the changing world around us.  Since the beginning of time, most living things have both adapted and made the choices that put food into the mouths of their young.

The Uros are a unique and hardworking people living in a harsh climate under difficult conditions.   Doing no harm to others or the world around them…

…they have done an amazing job keeping alive a way of life that began centuries ago.

All images and words copyright 2013 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Balance.

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Jungle Law

Thank goodness for window screens!  But as demonstrated in my last post on the Amazon, screens don’t always keep the wildlife out.

For instance, we shared The Hammock Room at the Research Center with this tarantula.  He wasn’t as interested in us as we were in him.

We named him Tomacito, or “Little Tommy.”  Tomacito served as a reminder to shake out our shoes each morning before getting dressed. Insects and critters found their way into our little sanctuary, but it was the ones I couldn’t see that bugged me.

That first morning we ventured into the jungle with Orlando, our amazing guide.  In spite of the heat and 90+ percent humidity, we covered as much skin as possible with clothing, and sprayed whatever we couldn’t cover with repellant.  Nighttime mosquitoes carry malaria, daytime ones dengue fever, and I can’t remember which carry yellow fever, but I didn’t want to be breakfast for any of them.

Below are a few of my own unofficial rules of the jungle for the timid traveler.

Rule of the Jungle #1– bring mosquito repellent!

Fallen trees and leaves, mud, and overnight storms in the tropical rainforest made hiking challenging.

We wore rubber boots to keep our feet dry.  Bea stepped in a puddle deeper than anticipated, and water poured into her boot.

Rule of the Jungle # 2–Watch your step!

Orlando uprooted several small trees, and cut the trunks off with his machete to make tea from the bark to relieve his mother’s arthritis.  He replanted the roots in the fertile soil, so the tree would survive.  Maybe the tea really was for his mom, but I believe it was also his tactful way of providing the Gringos with walking sticks to help balance on slippery walkways.

Rule of the Jungle #3–Take the hand extended to you, and be grateful for kindness in any form or guise.

So many trees and leaves were poisonous, covered with harmful insects, or had razor-sharp edges.  Another guest at the Research Center slipped and braced herself on a porcupine tree.  It left dozens of venomous barbs in in her hand, which swelled up painfully.  There was no doctor, but her guide Fernando cut the barbs out of her hand with pins and a knife, and she took a course of anti-biotics.

Rule of the Jungle #4–Don’t touch ANYTHING!

Rule of the Jungle # 5–There are exceptions to any rule.

Orlando saw an Olive Whip Snake, and quickly caught it with his bare hands.

He showed both kids how to handle a snake without getting bitten…

Orlando’s grandfather was a shaman.  He said, “My grandfather said if you can get a snake to wrap around you, it will become gentle and give you its energy.”  As soon as it wrapped around him, the snake calmed down, and then Orlando released it into a tree.

Rule of the Jungle #6–Be as open to new experiences as you can without endangering yourself or others.

Rule of the Jungle #7–Bring your camera!!

We caught many tantalizing glimpses of wildlife, but they were often quicker than I was  when it came to focusing the camera.

However, some critters obligingly held still for me.

 

Occasionally I would be rewarded with a shot like this.

Or this….

Or this…

 

Or this…

 Or this…

Rule of the Jungle #8–Only you can know what it requires for you to glean the most meaning and satisfaction out of your jungle experience or your life.  Do no harm, but make up your own damn rules, and break them whenever necessary.

All images and words copyright 2013 NaomiBaltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Trees.

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