Monday, 22 February 2016

Lost in China... And Pandas!!

Day 11: Because of jetlag and different time zones (8 hours difference) I ended up wasting one and a half days in Beijing, not very important for me when I’ll have a lot of time to explore, but mildly concerning for those who want to fit a lot of activities on a tight schedule. 

So what to do when I only had half a day left to enjoy? Visit the Beijing Zoo and finally see Pandas for the very first time. The Giant Panda Bear is my absolute favourite animal from as far as I can remember so it was a very important mark in the history of my life to finally see them upfront. I expected them to be bigger, but wasn’t disappointed. 

Going there was quite easy, the subway system is similar to London’s and the station have the Pinyin translation underneath. But when I went back to the hostel things turned out mildly sour. 

Most tube stations in Beijing have four exits, something I didn’t know so I didn’t pay attention to which exit I got in. So after getting out at a random exit and walking a little, I realised I didn’t recognise the place I was in and turned back to enter the subway again and exit through another.

I was still lost!

Finally, I started asking people that didn’t know where my street was, or didn’t speak English, or simply didn’t want to help, because everyone just shook their heads and repeatedly told me “no”! A nice gentleman agreed to help me and put the address on maps. The map indicated I was very close but none of knew which direction it was. He ended up telling me “it must be that way”.

Ahead I asked another man and this one seemed more certain but didn’t speak a word of English, I only understood from his crossed fingers that he meant to say a crossroad and turn right.

I kept walking and when the crossroad arrived I still didn’t recognise the street and asked again. A guy from a hairdresser gave me some directions, that ended up being wrong and caused me to get lost again. So when I arrived the place he had told me and people started telling me it was backwards, that’s when I started getting really furious. 

Maps in China don’t have the Pinyin translation, so that feeling that you might be saved by those beautiful murals full of roads that tell you are here, are rendered completely useless… 

I started getting desperate and stopping the taxi drivers and showing my address that I had saved on the iPad, both in English and Chinese, but the taxi drivers refused to take me for some reason I didn’t understand because they only spoke Chinese. 

The fourth taxi driver that I stopped seem to recognise it but didn’t want to take me, he kept gesturing number 2 and pointing backwards. At this point I started yelling in English that I was lost that people kept saying different directions and I was tired. He probably didn’t understand a word I said but agreed to take me. 

After driving the same road I had walked by foot twice, turning and stopping in an alley he pointed forward. I still couldn’t see my hostel and there was no chance I was going to pay and keep on being lost. So I pointed forward too and told him to keep going. He started arguing with me in Mandarin and I argued with him in English that I was tired of being lost. I ended up winning the argument cause the car, which he was afraid was not going to fit in the tight space, did fit, and I found my hostel.

The point is: had I payed attention to the exit I entered at the subway, the way to my hostel would have taken me 2 minutes instead of 2 hours.

Thursday, 11 February 2016



When I discovered that there were direct flights to Beijing from Europe, my immediate thought was to visit a city I had never been before. But the cheapest flights I could find were from Helsinki, Warsaw, and Copenhagen (all cities I have already visited). That’s how a new idea emerged: I’ve always wanted to see Auschwitz and last time I went to Warsaw, almost eight years ago, I promised myself I would go back to Poland just to see the concentration camp.
And when my sister wanted to spend her Carnival break in Amsterdam, we decided two put the two together and visit Anne Frank’s House ---» Concentration Camp (though only her father came to this camp).
The first thing I thought when I got to the camp was: “I’m wearing a jumper and a shirt, two jackets, a beanie and a scarf, and Timberland boots and I’m freezing. How did those people survive with just striped pyjamas?” While we were walking to the entrance it started snowing. The blood I my veins seemed so tick and soon enough the places where the flow was slower were beginning to burn. It didn’t take long till the simple act of taking my gloveless hands out of my pockets to take pictures was restrained to what was absolutely necessary.

Auschwitz I is divided in blocks, and some of these blocks are open for exhibitions about the life in the concentration camps. The story in some of the signs are atrocious: “the bodies of the prisoners trying to flee were displaced here as a warning”, “here is a site of mass murder, please keep silent to show respect”, among others… 


But those are not the stories that make my throat throb and force me to swallow hard, the solidarity stories do. The one that tells the story of a mother separated from her daughter who later, after the camps release, was reunited with her, due to the kindness of strangers that took care of the little girl and protected her. The stories of surviving children in Auschwitz telling how adults made them toys out of rags, stones and wood. The story of a priest who volunteered to die in the starvation cells to save a family man. The horrors that those people were subjected to do not surprise me, but seeing that protective instinct that characterises our species does. Seeing that there were people that never abandoned hope, kindness, and solidarity while suffering cruel acts? Those are the times I discover the true meaning of “humanity”.

The museum was full despite the cold and the occasional snow. Some people carried bouquets of flowers, perhaps people that empathised with what had happened or relatives of someone who had been forced to live there. But those people, with those flowers serve as reminders that these stories aren’t made up, that what happened there doesn’t come from a horror book. Those were real human beings with real families. How did things like fear, hate, thirst for power and abstinence allowed for such stories to become a reality?

The museum is not harshly severe for the faint of heart that might believe they could never visit it. We see more gruesome things on television on our daily lives. But there are some things less merciful. Rooms showing from one end to the other the two tons of women hair that were retrieved from sacks the Germans intended to sell as textile.Thousands and thousands of dusted and ratty shoes, taken from the people on their arrival when they were delivered wooden clogs. In the middle of so many shoes it is almost a miracle when you find one with a pair.

When we visited the gas chamber in Auschwitz I was waiting to feel that distinguished smell of burnt that so many people talk about when visiting the camp but it didn’t happen. It was only after we caught the free shuttle that takes us to Birkenau (Auschwitz II) that such smell became present. Dozens (maybe hundreds) of crematoriums are displaced in one side of the camp, broken and burnt. On the other side are the prisoners’ barracks, where they were force to sleep in three levelled bunks, squeezing against one another because of the lack of space.  Some even wrote their names on the walls, afraid that someone will forget they were there, afraid that history will mark them as just another number that died in the holocaust. 


For those who wish to know: from Warsaw’s train station (Warszawa Centralna) there are direct trains to Krakow (Kraków Glowny). The price ranges from 60-200 zloty (15-50 euros), depending on days and time (my advice is to go to the information centre and ask which one is the cheapest train). The journey takes 3 hours.
When in Krakow it is possible to stay in a hostel for one or two nights. Krakow is a beautiful city and there are some Free Walking Tours that tell the story of the city and guide you through the most important monuments (this works specially well if you’re anything like me and suck with directions and are constantly getting lost with maps).
It is possible to catch the train to go to Auschwitz (the stop is 2km away from the museum and they are less frequent than buses). My advice is to take the bus (the bus station is in the same shopping centre as the train station). The tickets are more or less 12-14 zloty (+/- 3 euros) and the buses stop in the museum. You don’t need to buy a return ticket, there are a lot of companies with buses at different times so you don’t need to depend on the same one. The Polish name for Auschwitz is Oswiecim so this is the name you should be on the lookout when trying to find the bus.
The entrance to the museum without guide is free. 


Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Anne Frank House

"How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single minute before starting to improve the world."
- Anne Frank

Today we went to Anne Frank’s house. I was surprised by the fact that until this day, people still don’t really understand how empowering and meaningful words can be, not until we experience things like this.

When we start the tour to the museum, in this little room, there are four televisions where a girl’s voice is relating the uprising of the Nazi-Germany and how they have started treating the Jewish people, leading many of them to emigrate. 

There isn’t a single whisper. Not like in school when the teacher is passing a movie and there is that occasional naughty kid who has to keep talking. Or when we are mourning those who’ve perished in a terrible accident or attack by offering them a minute of silence and there is that hush-hush sound a few seconds before people understand what is happening.

You can only hear the British accent of the girl portraying Anne and the sound of people breathing around you. And, when she stops talking, you see dozens of people staring at a black screen, not daring to move, to speak, some have even forgotten to breath for just a few seconds. A few seconds before normalcy takes over and you think: “if people are so moved by what happened, if those words have touched them in such ways they have even forgotten about everything else, then why can’t we feel moved by things happening right now? Why do we still allow that horrors like this go unpunished?”
Anne Frank's room

We continue the tour, and although I feel deeply about what happened to Anne and felt even more when I read the book and found out that she didn’t have her happy ending, I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t her death that made her silent voice heard by thousands. I read a smilar book to Anne Frank’s diary, called Clara’s War, about a girl who kept a journal while she and her family were hiding under the floorboards of a friend’s house who was hiding them. The life conditions that Clara and her family went through where much harsher than Anne’s, and they almost suffocate a child to death over fear of being caught, but she never had the public knowledge Anne Frank had. Perhaps, is due to the fact that her book was published later on, when the war was a distant thing, when the pain of it was just a scar that didn’t hurt anymore. Or perhaps, her survival didn’t quite get the catalyst factor that drove Anne to fame.

She wanted to be famous even after her death. She wanted to leave a mark that would last even after her eyes were closed and she got her wish. But why are we only moved by those who’ve suffered when it’s already too late to help them? 

The bookcase that hid Anne and her family
Racism is not a thing completely in the past. Descrimination against religious believes are as present now as the anti-semit times. War horrors are still allowed in some countries, where people don’t have anyone fighing for them. And what was the first thing the USA did after WWII? They created a segregated country. South Africa created the apartheid… And now we have countries refusing to admit the Holocaust ever existed, telling us it’s a made up story.

Will humans ever learn from their mistakes?

Saturday, 6 February 2016


If it's both terrifying and amazing then you should definitely pursue it.
My leaving day is here. I start looking around my bedroom and I have the sudden urge to put my hands on top of my head, not because I'm anxious or scared, although I think those feelings are not really helping, but because the drawers are opened, the clothes scattered, the books on the floor, and my desk filled with latte mugs.
I skim the check-list and I am certain that there will be something left forgotten. How did I leave everything for last minute?
Oh, I know! Because it's me!
Which leads me to that feeling I often find myself ruminating on: anxiety or lack of preparation? It's natural to feel slightly nervous before a trip, but all the time and that much? If you had prepared your itinerary a little more, seen how to get there, planned your days better, packed your bags sooner (and I mean everything, not just for the picture), wouldn't you feel more relaxed? Anxiety or lack of organisation? If you had prepared a list in advance, with the items as they appeared and not on the last day, hoping you'll remember everything and yelling profanities when you remember one on the way to the airport, maybe you wouldn't be so stressed.
And then I think: it wouldn't be me if I did. I wouldn't be that person who went to South America with nothing planned, with the two first nights reserved and no idea of how to catch a bus to go to Bolivia (I hadn't bothered to learn that the travel system in South America is actually amazing). That girl who found the next place she wanted to see only after someone mentioned it was nice and interesting (although to this date, I still regret my lack of preparation and the fact that I was robbed prevented me of seeing the Salt Flats). The one who only knew when she would buy the next ticket on the day itself and sometimes arrived at cities with unreserved hostels.
I hated that girl, she left my nerves running wild every day before a departure, but I loved that girl and her spirit of adventure. (Or perhaps, laziness, I bet on laziness)
The first week is already planned, not only because I won't be going alone but also because in Europe not planning is much more expensive, but from e 14th (the day of my flight to Beijing) I am going to celebrate Valentine's Day and I'm going to date that girl again, because although I hate the little nerves, I love not having plans or knowing where to go much more.

Moving again...

If we wait until we're ready, we will be waiting for the rest of our lives.
- Lemony Snicket

During these last days at home I have been gnawing at my finger nails, looking at the box my best-friend gave me for Christmas thinking wether I should or not open the "I need a hug" gift or the "Open when you're stressed or worried"...

I'm about to embark on one of the biggest adventures of my life: a trip to China where I will learn martial arts and will propably chane y life.

The feelings are ranging from "I can't believe this is actually happening" to "a whole year in China? Are you mental? Have you thought about the cultural shock? You know you're socially awkward and meeting new people leaves you anxious! You don't even like new people." Okay, so this part maybe a little streched but doesn't mean it hasn't crossed my mind.

But thing I am certain: this is the kind of thing that if you don't do it now, you will regret it for the rest of your life!

P.S.: I couldn't resist and I had to open the "I need a hug" gift to see if the stuffed animal my best-friend gave me was a panda after our "no boyfriend of mine would ever be allowed to give me a teddy bear that isn't a panda" talk. I can't believe I will finally see my favourite animal for the first time.

The Beginning

You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.
– C. S. Lewis

Perhaps I should start with an explanation of what led me to travel. 

At this very moment, my friends and family simply ask where I intend to go next, but it wasn’t always like this, I think I really took them by surprise at first. Except my mum, she always saw right through me and my adventurous spirit. She knew, for example, that in order to get me to do something she would just need to flap her arms and yell “chicken, chicken, chicken” and that would get me to do whatever I was afraid of doing. But the others? They saw me as a little shy girl that liked to sit in a corner with a book.

I didn’t like to talk to strangers, I spent a lot of time in my room and I didn’t go out much (not exactly what you would think of the free-spirited). 

But I did like travelling. I was my mother’s faithful companion, while my siblings complained of tiredness and boredom when we watched “rocks and more rocks” I was always eager to learn more and see more. So that was the beginning.

When I was nineteen, I was overwhelmed with a sense of not-belonging, of not wishing to be home. I didn’t like what I was studying, I really didn’t want to go out with friends and I felt a sudden urge to run away. So I did, with my mother’s permission and support of course. I moved to London to study a knew field and leave in a new place, somewhere where I could start fresh and finally live the adventures I was looking for in books. 

I started by moving into a house possessed by a ghost who was trying to kill us by making us all fall down the stairs. Or so my housemates said. He must have taken a liking to me or maybe he enjoyed the fact that I had a predisposition for supernatural things, because he (or she ,let’s not be sexist here) never pushed me down the stairs – although there was that event when the vacuum cleaner fell down the stairs and onto me.

Later, feeling better but still not feeling like I belonged there I decided that I wanted to learn Spanish and the best way for me to do it was if I went backpacking through South America. I met amazing people, and not so amazing. I saw old friends and family again. I had great experiences and some bad ones... But I finally started feeling that sense of belonging.

And so began my story…