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Long Way Up

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Vancouver, Canada. September 2014.

ME: So what’s this thing we’re doing before we go zip lining?

HER: Oh don’t worry about it; it’s nothing, a small hike.

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What appeared to be a rather innocuous pre-zip lining activity turned out to be anything but, yet it resulted in one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences a traveler could undertake.

That “small hike” was Vancouver’s Grouse Grind; the spectacular 1.8 mile hike up the steep, winding trail of Grouse Mountain. Standing at 2800 feet from its entry point to the final step, the trail boasts varying difficulties of steepness that fluctuate from 17 degrees to a calf-busting 30. For those not so hike-inclined, all those numbers mean that it’s a damn steep mountain; one that proudly claims the nickname “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster”.

The climb has become regular exercise for extreme fitness nuts, easily spotted as those running (yes, running) up as you huff and puff to stop every 10 minutes. The fastest recorded times clock in at less than 30 minutes, which, when you start climbing the grind, you realize is borderline insanity.

We had hiked a fairly decent trail around one of Tofino’s islands just days prior but what preparation is big enough to stand in the shadow of a mountain?

The gravity of the hike dawns on you at the foot of the trail, emblazoned with substantial warning signs and disclaimers warning those with poor health and rickety hearts to stay away. But with every quad-breaking step amongst the endless trees and rock, you begin to take in the enormity of the task at hand. And with every step, the opportunity to hit reset and trek back down the walk grows smaller and smaller. It’s a challenge that is only rewarding if you push through, fight the urge to quit and soldier on to the top.

After an hour into the hike, we really did feel like dying, and as what seemed like the last embers of strength faded in our search for respite, a marker finally twinkled at a distant, just barely out of our reach. The ¾ marker? The halfway point? Our anticipatory glimmer of hope was crushed as the ¼ marker made its much belated appearance. At this point, we really did just have to sit for a moment to pull ourselves together. Some water, a pep talk and new found determination later, we decided there was no room for quit.

Ten minutes at a time.

Through our ascent we noticed the wide range of people who took the climb. From the elite athletes who run the trail multiple times (we met someone who did the Grind 4 times in one day), to those like us, looking to challenge themselves, it really is a wide slice of society that finds themselves mountainside. Yes, there were those who were hopelessly unprepared for the trek too- lost tourists in jeans, young female socialites who couldn’t part with their heels(!), and for some odd reason, those toting their laptops up with them.

Yet while we huffed and puffed our way to the top, we would have been remiss not to stop as often as we did. Partially to catch our breath, but also to enjoy and to take it what a glorious setting it really was. We sat there, where the trees opened up to the view, and revelled at exactly where we were: the hard yards of a beautiful journey to the peak of accomplishment. While our feet grew weary, our hearts and minds grew stronger, more inspired in every sense as we neared the peak. You often see those tacky inspirational quotes shared across social media, one-liners and phrases meant to lift you. But there are few things more uplifting for both the body and mind than an accomplishment like climbing a mountain.

It’s why the Grouse Grind should be on your list of life’s accomplishments. It’s a fantastic way to test your body and mind while taking in some terrific scenery. It’s free, and if you’re so inclined, there’s plenty of paid activities once you get the top. Clocking in at about 2 hours, the completion of the trek was exhilarating, and endlessly rewarding. Yes, you’re tired, but with a renewed sense of adventure, we powered through two hours of zip-lining across the mountains which in itself, is a breathtaking way to fly through the clouds.

You’ve seen and heard how motivating the outdoors can be; living active, living strong. It’s an old mantra that continues to be one of life’s most simplest, yet most giving ways to get the most out of everything. If Vancouver is a stop on your next holiday and you’ve got plenty of nightlife and shopping on the list but need something with a bit of gruff, consider the Grouse Grind as a perfect antidote to the sometimes draining nature of modern living. There’s nothing out there but you and the mountain. Sometimes, that’s the only way to live. And let me tell you, that first beer I had when we made it to the top of the mountain was the best beer I ever had in my life.

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Flying Class First

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Flying on a budget has never been easier than it is today. More affordable with more options, the choice to find a cheap seat is as easy as it is economical. Budget airlines are a significant part of air travel and many larger, more established airlines are altering their practices to adopt many “non-inclusive” fees enabling passengers to pay for the absolute minimum.

You can fly from Sydney to Los Angeles for just over a grand, Brisbane to Tokyo for under $500 and from Perth to Bali for less than the cost of a cab ride in Melbourne. We cram into smaller seats, forgo in-flight entertainment and fly through China to save a few hundred bucks.

This is no way to live.

Friends of mine flew to North America and Europe via China recently to save $500 over a direct flight. The layovers added almost an entire day to their trip and cost them substantial headaches. They dealt with having to re-check in before re-boarding the connecting flight, were confused by Chinese airports, and dealt with unhelpful staff on the ground. All of these are ingredients to a painful holiday; something that defeats the purpose of a holiday to begin with. I understand that there are circumstances that crop up during your travels that can lead to frustration, but these are self-inflicted issues that can be avoided if you take into consideration that your holiday doesn’t start when you land at your destination.

Your holiday starts when you leave your house. Everything that happens after is part of your holiday. So plan and spend accordingly.

ailined

FLIGHTS OF FANCY

The biggest costs of your holidays are often your flights (or at least, they should be). If you’re flying across oceans to continents afar, a good majority of your time will be spent in the air, so why start out with stopovers and subpar airlines?

If you’ve got the money to travel business class or first class, then most of this is superfluous information. You’re probably going to be comfortable no matter where you go. However, for most of us traveling economy, there are a few ways to avoid early onset holiday stress that I believe are part of every good travel plan.

1. Fly direct if possible

It may cost you a few hundred dollars more to fly from Melbourne straight to L.A., but I can guarantee you that you will wish you did when you’re waiting in frustration at one of China’s many substandard aviation hubs. It’s not worth it.

If you have to stopover, find well known airports and cities that provide you comfort, ease and a mostly stress free environment.

For those traveling through Asia, the two best hubs are Changi Airport in Singapore and Hong Kong International. If you’ve got to stopover in Asia somewhere, make it either one of these and you’ll find that your stopover can be luxurious, comfortable and easy to navigate as you wait to pass the time. Both airports have excellent facilities for those either looking for food, recuperation (plenty of free massage chairs) or shopping.

2. Avoid flying budget airlines

Thinking about flying budget airlines on a trip longer than a few hours? Don’t do it. They are budget airlines for a reason and while the price is right, you’ll be wondering why you’re suddenly paying for check-in luggage. Sure, there are plenty of carriers that tackle long haul flights on the cheap; Australia’s Jetstar has many Asian cities on its destinations list while AirAsia does the same. Singapore Airlines recently launched their own budget carrier Scoot that will fly from Melbourne to Singapore for just $229. It’s ridiculously inviting, but what are you paying for? They’ve got a host of economy class options that include a “ScootSilence” seat that in reality means you’re just paying for a different colour seat. They’re “unabashedly no-frills” and “managed to significantly undercut the market by modifying its planes to have less space between seats, so more passengers can be packed on board.” I understand the majority of airlines are packing in more seats to compete in this market, but an airline that’s proud of it? No thanks.

I’ve never felt more nervous about flying in my life than the few times I flew budget for trips that lasted a mere hour.

My solution is to stick to the bigger airlines that have a great track record and who take extra care in doing what they can for their passengers. In an age where airlines of all kinds are cutting costs and optioning even the most basic of comforts, it is important to think above and beyond. The airlines I tend to stick to for international routes are Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Virgin. All of them offer fantastically competitive rates when you’re flying across the globe and the comforts and service they offer in Economy Class far surpass the rest.

3. Spend the money on bulkhead seats or buy premium economy

Most airlines have the option for premium economy seats (economy seats with a little more room) and in most cases, the ability for you to choose bulkhead seats (the seats directly behind the physical partition that divides a plane into different classes or sections—or the seats with lots of leg room). If this is the case, then spend the extra money on these seats for long haul flights.

On our recent trip to Canada, we spent $180 each to upgrade our Qantas economy seats to bulkhead seats. I can’t begin to tell you how much better it is to have that extra leg room while never having to worry about stepping over anyone to go to the toilets. You have room to stretch out anytime and some additional breathing space. It’s all part of making that 16-hour haul as enjoyable as possible. Our flight was just part of a 30+ hour day that included 3 flights and a significant drive, so reducing as much stress as we could was a priority.

CLASS IS NEVER CHEAP

Growing up, flying was a privilege. Safety, quality, and class are things I hold in high regard when it comes to flying and I’d like to enjoy as much of it as I can. Like renting a car on your holiday, you should find ways to make the most out of it from the get-go.

I don’t know where the airline market is heading to and whether or not things will turn around in the near future, but I’d like to see airlines move away from all these “pay for what you want” options and return to more expensive, more inclusive seating plans. When we realize that flying an airline that gives you the option of paying less to sit on a plastic deck chair at the back of the plane is a truly terrible idea, we’ll be heading in the right direction. When it comes to living mostly, flying is something you should never go cheap on.

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Death Camp Tourism

If these three words create the same reaction in you as they do in me, then all this writing has been unnecessary: Death Camp Tourism.

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Only after arriving in Poland did I learn that visiting Auschwitz is a tourist staple for any Contiki style visit to Krakow. Something you tick off the list, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Learning this put me off more than slightly. The idea of tour companies scrapping each other to ensure your money, fed by swathes of backpackers who visit the death camps by day and then pub crawl by night; it seemed odd. Still, if I was to do one offensively touristy thing then surely I – a student and lover of 20th century history – should choose this one. Besides, it must be quite unique. It must be a change from the other, somewhat tarnished, milestones along the European tourist highway.

That’s the kind of frame of mind I was in. I arrived to Krakow at 7 am and booked a day-tour which had been advertised at the hostel as soon as I got there, before I could even check in. In fact I had already been offered a trip to Auschwitz earlier: outside the train station by a dubious man with a tattered pamphlet offering to give me a ride. And the largest poster on the window of the closed Information Centre had read: ‘Aushwitz-Birkenau Tours Daily.’ So not exactly hard to find. I paid 109 PLN to the hostel reception.

I was picked up outside the hostel one hour later by a man in a suit and black dress shoes called Peter. He drove me, and a British couple he had picked up from a different hotel, to Oscwiecim – the Polish name for an old town outside Krakow better known now by its German label, Auschwitz. For the first five minutes the British couple were clarifying the price of the tour with Peter.

“It said 46 euro, I don’t want to pay more.”

“No problem.”

This says a lot about the modern Auschwitz experience: something in the holiday budget, to be ticked off the list, then to continue with the rest of the itinerary.

So far what I have written has been vague. But I just want to try and evoke how I felt before the experience. Is this really a memorial? I want to create for you the same sense of scepticism I held before going there. A scepticism I hoped would become a good literary counterpoint to the solemn and sobering experience of the camp itself.  But here comes the kicker… that binary balance never came. This initial feeling, of falsity, of insincerity, has either remained or been heightened following my visit. I do not wish to point the finger of shame at anybody. I’m not saying this should be done better or differently.  I do not know how that would be. All I am saying is that something is not quite right about the Auschwitz experience. Something about what it reveals of the human psyche.  Maybe these three words can evoke for you the same sense they evoke in me. If so, then this entire preamble will be redundant, and you could just keep the image that forms in your mind when you see these three words.  I read these three words on the cover of a book, something like New Eastern Europe, at ‘Massolit’ book store in Krakow. If these three words create the same reaction in you as they do in me, then all this writing has been unnecessary:

Death Camp Tourism.

Simple as that. Usually my account of a historical tour would circle around historical facts and interesting information. Since much of the history of Nazi death camps is well known, and since they present you with a saturation of the history when you are at Auschwitz-Birkenau, too much to remember, I will avoid most of this. But let it be noted, that they did have a lot of informative, readily accessible history presented at the memorial. That is not what I am writing about.  I am writing more about what is not there. What cannot be printed on a board alongside some photos and simply told to you. What has to be felt. What has to be experienced. The reactions. These feelings, experiences, and reactions, sadly, do not result from a visit to Auschwitz.

There are few mantras I believe in more fully than this: those who ignore history are bound to repeat it. So in one regard it is good there is a popular, well established record of this dark chapter in human history. But there is a very stark difference between remembering history and manipulating history. To remember is to feel something, to have a personal reaction to and realisation of; to link a private emotion with a particular event in the past. When I stroll by a WWI memorial, I remember the stories of soldiers who lived through Hell on Earth in the name of Who Knows What.  When I walk through the infamous gates at the entrance to Auschwitz I – “Work makes you free” (rough translation) – I no longer remember the stories of the men who passed under it, for whom anything but was the truth. I do not think of the young mothers and helpless children who fell out of wagons onto the railway platform at Birkenau, underneath its iconic watchtower, unaware that they would only leave its barbed wire confines through one of the chimneys. I do not remember those terrible tales of those tragic people. Instead, upon hearing ‘Auschwitz,’ I remember the three food kiosks and two book shops you pass between the bus-laden car park and the entrance to the camp-memorial. I remember the clicking of turn-styles as you begin to climb the stairs of the Birkenau watch tower. The buildings and paving stones are largely untouched since 1945. The snow is on the ground and the flimsy wooden walls of the cramped wooden huts let in the same fatal chilly draft.  The piles of shoes, of spectacles, of children’s clothes, of hairbrushes, lie in piles. The history is right there in front of me. Yet I remember none of it.

It is not my aim to depict Auschwitz merely as a tacky touristy spot. To be fair, it is still treated with decorum and respect. People are silent and solemn, often wide-eyed and open-mouthed. There is no food, drink, or smoking allowed anywhere inside. But something is not quite right.

The majority of Jewish people taken to ‘Auschwitz’ – the colloquial collective name for Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenhau (a camp built in 1941, 30 times the size of the first camp) and Auschwitz III – were Hungarian; 430,000 of these died. The name of the houses where Nazis stored stolen valuables from prisoners was ‘Canada.’  These are a few random facts. The numbers, the names, everything is a bit overwhelming. So eventually they lose their impact. The statistics, names, numbers, only confuse. If you want to remember the victims, do not be confronted with an over-abundance of material details. Remember history, don’t choke on it.

Just before the tour started I was thinking of techniques I could later employ to describe the lack of feeling I got upon arrival. I could see the buildings and fences, and still felt like I was nowhere special. Again, I expected this to form an initial sense of disappointment, which when written down would contrast with and exaggerate the great wealth of sadness brought on from my actual visit. That did not happen. After 3 ½ hours in Auschwitz I and II-Birkenhau, those initial thoughts remained. I walked in silence along the road from the Birkenhau platform to the ruined crematoriums – the walk which for so many new arrivals to the camp was a death walk. On the same road. And I still could not imagine I was anywhere powerful or significant. I stood in the very same dark chamber where a group of Soviet prisoners were the first to be killed en masse by the use of Zyklon B gas–an experiment proving so successful that it became the standard method of execution throughout the Holocaust.

I stood in that room where it was first tried. That stuffy, concrete room. I looked up and a drop of rain fell on my nose. A drop of rain that had dripped through one of the wooden openings down which a small handful of SS men had dropped the first bundles of Zyklon B and waited to see the effects. The same hole through which hundreds of thousands more such bundles would be dropped. A raindrop from that very opening. And still I was unmoved. I did not cry. I tried to well up. I could not.  It was just a raindrop. Instead of filling with disgusted thoughts of how mankind could treat itself, my mind was filled only with the urgency to move forward and not hold up the stream of people behind me. My ears did not hear the imaginary screams of people who stood on this very spot, naked, wailing as they realised, having been fooled right to the end, by the fake showers mounted on the walls, by the Nazi troops telling them to remember the number of the hook on which they hung their clothes so they could pick up the correct ones after their shower, realised for the first time, that this is the spot on which they would die. I only heard the annoying crackle of static through the headphones of my compulsory audio guide. The Nazis embroidered different markings onto their prisoners for identification purposes. The group leaders used stickers to know how many of their group have remembered to meet at the right times. I always had to look out for my group, to catch up with them. If I could see another person with the same sticker, I felt comfortable – I could not be lost.

I did not smile throughout my entire visit, as expected. There was one time, however, when my lips tightened and almost turned upward.  It was a vague sense of irony I got as we ended the tour. I think the irony was lost on all those who either work or visit Auschwitz, but perhaps somebody else felt it.

Tourists come in waves to the site of Auschwitz. They do as a guide tells them, unable to think for themselves. Prisoners from minority groups brought to Auschwitz were forced to speak German. English, the tourists’ lingua franca, is now the most prevalent tongue there, and almost compulsory if you want to understand the signs and placards. It is hard to be inconspicuous when you are forced to wear a sticker labelling you as a member of a certain tour group – an initiative designed to help your guide keep you under better control. My sticker was blue. I saw big orange ones, square yellow ones. The Nazis embroidered different markings onto their prisoners for identification purposes. The group leaders used stickers to know how many of their group have remembered to meet at the right times. I always had to look out for my group, to catch up with them. If I could see another person with the same sticker, I felt comfortable – I could not be lost. All these subtle ironies bubbled up into the half smile I talked about once I got to the end of the tour of Auschwitz I: we had to line up and hand back our audio guides. First, we were told, you had to unplug the headphones. Then we had to hang these on a metal rack, just like the person in front of and behind us. Then we had to hand our radio receiver box, after we had switched the channel back to 5 and turned it off, to an expressionless man with a badge around his neck. Of course we all did this without question or complaint. It’s easy to follow somebody else. Then we were told to go and wait by the white van in the car park, so we could be counted. Everybody had to be there. Everybody was. The van took us to Auschwitz II-Birkenhau.

In noticing the unintentional parallels between then and now I at first almost chuckled. Then I realised how sad this really was. The only part of the visit not designed to make me remember this terrible history, was the only part which did so. Only through this comical irony did I remember the sad story of those victims of mankind, and realise also the sadder story: that this dark chapter of history is not an anomaly. These victims are a by-product of humanity, a result of how we think, act, and treat each other, just part of a tragic production line that started long before any of us were born, and will continue to operate long after all of us have disappeared.

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