I took the internship for a number of reasons, perhaps first and foremost because I believed it to be ideal for my career aspirations. I like doing the dirty work. It’s unnerving to have so many fragile lives in my hands and unsettling to be surrounded by so much death. The sad truth is that many of the animals we received did not survive. This is not a job for those seeking instant gratification.
However, in my first two weeks, I witnessed the rewards of the work rehabbers do: releasing a sharp-shinned hawk and watching him fly away into the treetops; opening the cage door for a road runner as he took tentative steps back into the wilderness after weeks of force feeding; admiring the determination of Rocky the sheep, a permanent resident, who managed to walk though he could not use his two back legs. Inspiration from livestock–who would have known?
I thought I’d pass out the first time I had to give an animal a shot, especially when the amount of fluid being injected was enough to fill a child’s Sippy cup. I’ve always been queasy around needles and the “B” word–blood. But I managed to remain standing on both feet after tucking the first fifteen injections under my belt. I did get a little nauseous when I had to empty the body freezer, a frosty storage of deceased patients. It was part of the job, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.
Remembering how far I was from the hustle and bustle of city life, I often stared up at the starlit sky, no light pollution blotting out the dark and fiery expanse overhead. One night, a group of us interns climbed onto the roof of one of the trailers and watched the sun set between the rolling landscapes. We were joined by an ornery vulture that made a game out of pecking at our feet. The black vulture was nicknamed “Mort” by many interns. He imprinted on humans and, consequently, thought we were his flock. His days were spent skipping behind the feet of workers as flight was, sadly, more of a second nature to him.
The hill country offers fantastic opportunities for outdoor excursions, and I’m glad so many interns took advantage of them. A group of us spent a day hiking at Enchanted Rock, climbing up the steep face of a mammoth rock, a terrain change from the plains after flat, flat plains to which Ohio made me accustomed. Near the end of the hike, we ventured into a cave and came out nearly unscathed. I knew Enchanted Rock would be a place to take the parents if Mom and Dad visited.
All WRR interns, of which there can be up to twenty-one, live on property in one of three trailers. The trailers are clustered together on 187 acres of Texas hill country. My first week at WRR, my trailer started to reek of skunk, faintly at first and then becoming so nauseating I had to sleep in another trailer the following night. (They welcomed me with open arms but did not fail to mention that I carried with me a most unappealing odor.)
Once, when I had two days off in a row, I spent one of the days with other interns going back and forth between boonie-ville and civilization. We went to church, ran the typical grown-up errands and saw a movie in the evening. On the way to the movie, I handed out some yogurt-covered raisins I had stored in a sealed plastic bag inside the cupboard. Chewing on them, we noted a unique taste. It didn’t become entirely dissatisfying until someone pinned down the source of the flavor–the skunk smell. Needless to say it took a while before me and my belongings were one hundred percent aired out of polecat.
One night, the skunk sprayed continuously. Even interns who had become desensitized to the odor could not stand it. Based on the smell–it had a hint of onion to it–and the frequency of his sprays, we theorized that he was likely seizing from distemper. On day three of continuous spraying, an intern from another trailer sported a head lamp and crawled into the bowels of our abode, belly crawling across the dirt. He resurfaced empty-handed, leaving me a bit skeptical (“Are you sure you covered every inch in there?”) and all of us worried that we’d die of intoxicating asphyxiation at some point in the night. But just after sunset, the same intern spotted the culprit’s nose sticking out of one of the two holes under the trailer. He and two other workers were quick to react, and after crawling back into the dark foreboding depths–an act soon to be dubbed the second leap for mankind–the skunk was removed. We guessed correctly that the skunk had distemper, a disease with symptoms similar to and often confused with rabies.
Skunks are a rabies vector species, a category that also includes foxes, bats, dogs, cats, coyotes and raccoons. Distemper can be contracted by any of these vectors, but unlike rabies, it cannot be transmitted to humans. Unfortunately, the period between acquisition, symptoms and death is rapid, days at the least and weeks at the most. It’s a nasty disease marked by lethargy, loss of appetite, seizing and discharge from the eyes. In only a short span of time, the bodies of afflicted animals become a mess of lost hope. At least wildlife caretakers can give the animal a comfortable, more dignified end. At the very least, that is what we wish for them.
Connecting the dots of where I’ve traveled, it looks like a maniacal spider spun a web over a map. Rhyme and reason don’t have much of a say in my endeavors. I find a comfort in living on the edge, as backward as that sounds. With each new move, I develop a deeper understanding of who I am and a greater philosophy of what it means to live. Included in these renaissance ideas is a definition of the word “home.”
For the past five years, I have dipped into my savings to fund my life of adventure, culture and animals, working to live instead of living to work. From traveling with my freshman college roommate in her homeland of the Dominican Republic, to building a school in the Brazilian Amazon, to saving monkeys and fearing tarantulas in Ecuador, to a solo backpacking trip through Europe, my hard-earned savings have been well spent. I was lucky enough to have Mom and Dad offering their parental support and independent enough to financially support my undertakings on my own. By living each day simply, I have been able to work toward my dream of rescuing wildlife. The path to animal rehabilitation is long and arduous, with years of unpaid internships and networking to get a foot in the door. I’m on my way to fulfilling my dream.
During the summer of 2009 in Ecuador, the jungle became my temporary home. In the summer of 2010, home traveled with me as I hopped from hostel to hostel throughout Europe. I embodied comfort and relaxation, adventure and happiness. I don’t need knick-knacks and picture frames, a closet of clothes and shoes, or even a pillow under my head. Everything I need to survive physically fits inside a fifteen gallon backpack. Anything else—memories, experiences—I carry inside me. My body, my mind and my heart are my home.
At the conclusion of my six month internship in Kendalia, Texas from January to July 2010, the trailer I shared with a group of co-workers was no longer my home. For six months, the rusty, boarded up shack on wheels was my solace, but in the end, exhaustion and frustration from the workplace became too much of a daily occurrence. It was time for a new home. But I needed to recuperate first. After about three months in Perrysburg, I headed south again. This time, instead of cowboy boots and desert, there is an invasion of palm trees and oranges.
Texas was an entirely new chapter in a life that continues to be fueled by animals and travel. There were ups and downs, moments of hilarity and heartache. Overall, everything I learned in the desert was invaluable. Like any book, each chapter is an integral part of the story. So, even though my days of wildlife rehabilitation in Texas are over with for now, I think it is best we start with that adventure, in the middle of nowhere.
Kendalia, Texas won’t show up on a lot of satellite maps. (See old school map below for verification of the town’s existence.) There is no grocery store. Cell phone reception is limited to non-existent. Lucky enough to have a post office for sending only letters, the mail room is inside a shack the size of a walk-in closet. And yet this town is still in America. A convenient store is the only other public service building, connected to the post office. The one truck fire station doesn’t have enough volunteers to stay running. Seventy-five people reside in rural Kendalia. I guess I made it seventy-six.
Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation is off one of two main roads going through the town. The facility takes in mainly native animals, those who are ill, injured or orphaned, but also fosters companion animals and provides a permanent sanctuary for rescued exotics. On average, six thousand animals are admitted annually to WRR. Initially, I was drawn to the center’s mission that encompasses providing “individualized care” and “a voice for animals in need.” We did not discriminate against the mean, the ugly or the smelly.
At the beginning, I was only trained to open the clinic. My daily schedule began to vary once I advanced to the closing shift, intern on call for rescues 24/7, and animal care for the permanent residents of WRR. The hours were bearable for the first couple of weeks, then increasingly less bearable as baby season exploded. During this season, the clinic is bursting at the seams with orphaned songbirds, squirrels, skunks, opossums and other Texas native wildlife. It was just around the corner when I arrived.
Who knows when I’ll see my older sister next. So, when she and her boyfriend said they would be in Germany for two weeks, overlapping with the end of my European expedition, we made plans to reunite in Cologne, most known for its giant cathedral housing the bones of the Three Kings.
There are some other things it should be known for, like the Michael Jackson memorial/shrine hidden under a bridge on a wall with candles, photos, flowers, teddy bears and eloquent love poems for the deceased singer. The same bridge that stretches at least one hundred meters across the Rhine River has a walkway for lovers. Couples write their names on a padlock, lock it on the fence and throw the key into the river. I’d be curious to know the success rate of the lovers’ promise on the couples bridge.
I met two of Ashley’s German friends, and one of them showed us around Bonn, a quaint city that used to be Germany’s capital. The composer Beethoven was born in Bonn. One day, Miguel and I got separated from Ashley and her friend, and (due to difficulties of which I will not go into detail that might have something to do with Miguel not correctly dialing the cell phone numbers into the payphone) it took half a day to reconnect with them. For an hour, Miguel and I stayed in the same place we saw the two last: in the plaza in front of Cologne’s landmark cathedral. We sat down in the middle of passersby and played poker with every item in my purse.
I must admit, the sister reunion wasn’t full of as many rainbows and butterflies as I hoped. However, my sisters are my best friends. We work through our disagreements. My last night in Germany went out with a bang. The five of us ate crepes the size of dinner plates, and then had a dessert crepe to satisfy our already-full stomachs.
My last week was spent in Madrid celebrating the feast days of various saints. Food stands, concerts, dancing and parades–you name it, the fiestas had it. In Spain, it seems like there’s a holiday every day. I swear it’s the abundance of fiestas that keep the Spaniards healthy well into old age.
Ending in Madrid, I let myself wind down a bit, preparing for the transition back to this place called America. I soaked up every minute of solo time left. This all led to me philosophizing and doing more thinking than my brain can handle. I thought about the best and worst parts of my trip and pulled those together to come up with what I learned. Here it is:
Like silence, solitude can be unbearable. Like silence, solitude also can be sacred. It’s something wonderful when you find solitude to be the latter. I find it strange how sometimes, you can be in a crowded room and feel all alone. Other times you can be alone but have all the company in the world.
Reflecting on my summer abroad, I keep replaying the moment when I really set the solo trip in motion. Ashley and Miguel dropped me off at the train station in San Sebastian, Spain. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to hold back the few tears trying to push their way through, tears caused by anxiety, fear, a worry of the possibility of feeling alone. I turned to my sister and said, “Why did I do this? It would have been so much easier to stay in Ohio.” I was right; it would have been easier.
It’s funny now, looking back on what I was scared of most. Friends, family and strangers worried I might get mugged or kidnapped. They didn’t worry about me feeling lonely traveling by myself. But groups of backpackers, the only encounters I had at the first hostel I stayed at, they knew. I remember trying to overcome that fear of loneliness in Porto, Portugal, when my bunkmate, one of four German girls traveling together, said to me, “You’re going alone? Don’t you get lonely?” Having spent the previous three days attempting to convince myself backpacking solo wasn’t that bad, it was exceptionally hard to smile and say, “You learn to love it.” And learn to love it I did. I made my own plans and met many more people than I would traveling with someone else. I went off the backpacker trail, further making myself vulnerable to capital L Loneliness. Through all of it, I uncovered a patience with myself I had not known before.
In writing this reflection, I want people to know that I wasn’t fearless. In the months and weeks leading up to the trip, I couldn’t wait to get started, but when the day finally came, I wanted to pack up and haul out. It took a good week for me to get hooked. I admit to you that I was scared because I don’t want anyone to read this and pull the “Ohhh, I could never do that” card. One of the mottos I live by is, “If you want something to happen, you make it happen.” I wanted a challenge, so I pushed myself to continue and to embrace the sacred nature of solitude.
Perhaps you read these trip updates because you want to be entertained. And while I do my best to entertain, there’s a dual purpose to my writing. I also write to inspire. I think these articles are much less inspiring if 1) I don’t tell the whole truth and 2) I make it seem easy.
Knowledge does not come from accomplishing easy tasks. (Hopefully I’m not recycling a Confucius quote there.) The first step toward wisdom is knowing one’s self (Confucius?), and as I’ve hopefully relayed to you, that’s not a smooth road. Solo time is difficult, but it’s good. In my opinion, it’s necessary.
I’ve finished this journey taking with me an appreciation of others, a stronger patience with people and myself, and a reconfirmation of my belief that, first and foremost, we must be citizens of the world. There’s so much out there of which I’ve only had a glimpse, but I hope my glimpse was enough to encourage you to go outside of your comfort zone.
After Berlin, I reunited with Jacky (the only skilled manual driver from my rent-a-car travels in Portugal). When Jacky and I found out we were in the same country, we worked out a short travel together. The location? Luxembourg. I know what you’re thinking. Luxem-huh? Is that some sort of disease? In fact, it is a teeny French-speaking country bordering Germany, Belgium and France. I emailed Jacky saying, “Hey, wanna go to Luxembourg, because nobody goes there?” and she responded with an emphatic “yes.” We met up at a hostel in Cologne for the night, playing cards with a German gal. (Along with water and nail clippers, I always carry a deck of cards.)
Then, we took a train along the Rhine River to Luxembourg. We stayed at one of four hostels in the country and the only one in the capital, Luxembourg City. Looking out the window as we crossed the border, I was already ecstatic that we decided to go here. Before we were even off the train, I’d picked out sights to see. At the bus stop, we chatted with a British couple who we ended up joining for lunch. I realize now that we never even introduced ourselves; it just didn’t seem important.
Upon checking into the hostel, one of the first things I did was look for a book exchange. Most hostels have them. In fact, all but two hostels that I’ve been to didn’t. Of course, those happened to be the most recent hostels I’d stayed at when my need for a book was almost as urgent as my need to interact with an animal. Filling the length of the wall in the common room were shelves of books. Eager to pick one, I ran over to skim the titles. That one’s in French. That one, too. French… French. Are you serious? Are these all in French? No, there were about three German books in there. Just when I was about to throw in the towel, two of the last five books in the final shelf jumped out at me. I had one of those movie moments where the sky opens up and a bright light shines down, illuminating the object of your desire, in this case, two English books. Finally!
The view from the fortress included a river, lots and lots of hills and greenery, and old buildings comfortably situated side-by-side. I discovered a sign that said “Wenzel,” which just-so-happens to be a shared nickname of the Venzel sisters. So began the Wenzel photo shoot. The sign had an arrow, so we expected it would take us somewhere. After a good fifteen poses with different Wenzel signs, I gave Jacky a rest from the role of photographer. We never did find out to what “Wenzel” the signs were referring.
It quickly became apparent that the only life in Luxembourg is in the small city center, covering only about 4 blocks. Over dinner, Jacky shared a lot about her family, focusing on the Egyptian customs. Both of her parents emigrated to Australia from Egypt. I was also surprised to see the Serbian folks I met in Berlin walk by while we were dining. Small country, small world. After dinner, I needed to fill a week-long void of ice cream and Jacky needed coffee. We walked with the cold and hot goods to a ledge overlooking the city, waiting for the sun to set. We told stories about our love life, because that’s what girls do. Jacky told me about a Swiss boy she met in Germany. I told her about the guy I met in Scotland. And… you’re either bored or awwing, so I’ll move on.
The moon that night was a magnificent orange, and I mean orange when I say orange. Not a burnt sienna or golden yellow. Take an orange fruit and toss it in the sky tonight. There’s the moon we were looking at. I always enjoy seeing a city during the night and day. Watching the transformation take place can be quite rewarding. I equate it to watching the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. You’re waiting, you’re waiting…still waiting and then BAM! Something completely different.
It rained hard the next day. That didn’t keep us from walking around town, but it did end with us drenched. I traded in my three Euro bright yellow “hi, I’m a tourist” poncho for a too-short-in-the-arms-supposedly-waterproof jacket at a Berlin hostel clothing exchange. Note the supposed water resistancy. We stumbled, literally, upon a documentary in a room that likely used to be a guard tower. Due to its hidden location, the documentary probably only gets a viewing once every month. Though we learned nothing, it was a strange discovery. As soon as we pressed the play button, the lights dimmed, automatic shades rolled down and aisle lights came on.
It turned out Jacky and I both had the same destination in mind after Luxembourg–Bruges, Belgium. I stayed at a hostel while Jacky stayed with her cousin who she’d never met. We did our own thing until my last day in Bruges when we met up once more. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First things first, I had language barrier overload going from German to French to Dutch in a span of three days. The waiter at a cafe on the main plaza in Bruges gave me a lesson on please and thank you in Dutch. “Please” was too much to handle, so I gave up trying to store that one in long term memory. (French is spoken in the south of Belgium, Dutch in the north–in Flemish dialect which basically consists of eliminating every other letter of a word until you end up with incoherent verbal diarrhea.) I learned that the waiter’s dog and identical twin are extras in the first thirty minutes of the movie In Bruges. I of course was more interested in his handicapped dog than the twin.
I learned why Bruges is called “Little Venice.” The name primarily stems from the canals gondola-esque tourist boat rides throughout the town. Additionally, Michelangelo’s Madonna with Child is located here, one of few of his works outside of Italy. I’d say Bruges has a taste of Rome, too, as I went to the veneration of the Holy Blood while I was there, which some believe is the preserved blood of Christ.
Belgium is famous for many food items: fries (originated here), chocolate (they say it’s better than Swiss), waffles (go big or go home), and beer (indulge with caution). I passed on the fry museum, so I am unable to impress you with potato facts. I passed on the chocolate museum, although it would have been neat to see the life-sized chocolate Obama. When my friends from university drank Belgian beer, it only led to the expulsion of a suffocating aroma, unbearable for both parties. I opted for the waffle. I held out until my last day in Belgium so that Jacky and I could partake in the Belgian Waffle Experience together. An experience indeed. At first I just ordered mine with powdered sugar. Then I found out I could get strawberries. A minute later, I added vanilla ice cream. Maybe it really was just a regular waffle, one that happened to have the perfect crispness, the perfect toppings (I usually eat my waffles with syrup and peanut butter; ridiculous, I know). Perhaps I subconsciously overlysatisfied my sweet tooth by reminding myself I was in Belgium, eating the infamous Belgian waffle. Either way, I don’t care. Never in my life have I made such inappropriate noises with every bite. I’ll go back to Belgium just for the waffles.
Jacky convinced me to go on a boat ride through the canals. You’re not going to be surprised when I tell you what made the too short, overly priced boat ride worthwhile. It was that doggy in the window, the most photographed dog in Bruges, according to the boat driver. He’s there every day, head resting on a pillow sticking just outside an open bay window that hangs over the canal.
I said goodbye to Jacky that evening, with plans to head back to Cologne, Germany to meet up with my sister. I’ve got so many friends in Australia now, I think I’m going to have to pay the country a visit.
To top off my trip to Bruges, I went to an outdoor concert with my bunkmate, Elise from Canada. Buena Vista Social Club performed! They must have made their way from Hamburg to Bruges. You’ve probably heard a song or two of theirs before, “Candela” being a popular one for movie soundtracks. The group not only plays great music, but they’re entertaining to watch because the singers dance and really involve the audience. I caught the gray-haired, dreadlocked group leader’s eye while I was salsa dancing with a huge smile on my face, and he winked at me. I took some videos of the percussionists for my daddy. He’ll be elated, watching how fast the drummers’ hands move on the bongos and congas. In the middle of the concert, an 83-year-old man was called on-stage. He used to be a member of the group back in the day. The crowd cheered for the five minutes that he was up there singing off-key and dancing as much as his joints allowed. It was one of the highlights of my time in Bruges.
My trip was coming to an end soon, but I wanted to make the most of it. It was back to Germany for a few days to practice, um, butcher, my German.
Before heading to Germany, I contacted all my friends (mostly from AmaZOOnico) who live in the country. Hamburg was my next stop–yes, hamburgers really did originate here–and, as it turns out, Konny lives there. She offered me a bed and I gladly accepted. However, finding her at the train station was a bit of a pickle. First, I got off at the wrong station. I realized it just as the doors started to close, so I shoved my body in between and asked a lady on the train if this was Hamburg Hbf. Nope. Next stop. Phew. Close call.
When I made it to the correct station, I realized that the SIM card on my phone had run out of credit so I could not tell Konny where to meet me. No phone card shops were nearby, so I tried a payphone.
I only had Danish kronnes, no euros, and I couldn’t figure out how to pay by credit card. This is when a mild panic began to set in. Luckily, Konny called me–I could still receive calls with the mobile, just couldn’t send any. With an overjoyed hug after a year apart, I went to her apartment, along with her boyfriend Lars. They gave me tips on what to see in Germany, and we took a walk with ice cream after dinner.
While Konny was at work the next day, I walked 7.0 km around the man-made lake, Außenalster. I ventured off the path every now and then to investigate buildings, etc. that caught my attention, snapping a photo of Wentzelstraße (Wentzel Street) for my sisters. (We all share the nickname Wenzel.) Sitting as close to the edge of the lake as possible, I ate a schmorgasbord of fruit while a family of coots inched ever closer.
Konny suggested I check out the River Elbe the next day. I made my way to the city center parallel to the harbor. The area is dominated by church steeples, World War II storehouses and an impressive town hall. At St. Petri-Kirche, I climbed (breathing heavily, sweating even more) the tower for a bird’s eye view of Hamburg. Germany was experiencing a heat wave; I think the whole world is in the middle of a heat wave. As any normal person knows, the best way to beat the heat is with ice cream. Europe has delicious ice cream bars called Magnum. I eat them when necessary. That day, Magnum was necessary.
Being the exceptional hostess that she is, Konny took me out to dinner that night. It was our last opportunity to catch up as I had a bus to Berlin the next day. Conversation of course centered on the jungle days but was not limited to the topic. We shared holiday traditions with each other, noting differences in celebrations of New Year’s and Christmas. There’s no sparkly new year ball that falls at midnight for the Germans. On Christmas, Santa takes a break touring the world and lets the Christkind (Christ Child) deliver gifts under the tree in Germany. After dinner, we stood outside the gate of the park’s outdoor concert arena and listened to Buena Vista Social Club, an Afro-Cuban group with an interesting history (Wikipedia it) and outstanding music. Before bed, I said goodbye to Konny, planning on putting the key in her mailbox in the morning before I caught the bus.
Transportation in Germany does not cater to foreigners. I finally made it to the eco-friendly hostel in the woods of Berlin after some minor setbacks with bus confusion. Wait. Back up a second. Woods? Berlin has a forest? Indeed it does, and a rather expansive one at that. The forested region surrounds Grunewaldsee, a lake that happens to be the spot to take your dog(s)(s)(s)(s)(s)(s).
On my walk through the winding, criss-crossing paths, I encountered three people and twenty-three dogs. My first thought was, Ohmigod this is Heaven. My second thought was, Hmm, must be doggy day care. Shortly thereafter, I realized I’d made a mistake. Used to the average American dog owner having only one or two dogs, I couldn’t believe the number of dogs per household these Berliners had. Seven for that lady. Two minutes later, another woman, this time with eight. Most of the dogs were off-leash heading toward the lake for fetch and a swim. I knew that was where I wanted to be tomorrow. I booked this hostel because I needed a break from the city life. That’s why I spent the next day reading, swimming and people/dog-watching on the sand. And on my way back to the hostel, I only got lost for a half hour!
Back at the hostel that evening, I shared my traveling stories with Andy #1. I also met a fellow zoologist! Before checking out the following morning, I talked with some guys in my mixed dorm room, Andy #2 and Mario. We all were planning on going on the free walking tour, so we decided to go together. Andy (from Australia–geesh, these Aussies!) showed me photos and videos from Running with the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Only danger-seeking-high-thrill-riding-psychos run with the bulls, and Andy was one of them. I’m glad he survived. Mario had just finished an ultimate frisbee tournament in Prague. He plays for the Mexican national team. Now, he wanted to travel for a bit before returning to Mexico City.
The tour gave me an appreciation of Berlin, which surprised me, because 1) It’s a city and as you well know by now, I’m no city girl, and 2) It is full of history and politics, things that hold little interest for me and of which I am highly uninformed (just ask any of the members of my college improv comedy troupe). But because of reason #2, Berlin turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. Now that I’m up-to-speed with history and politics, I only need to get up-to-date with pop culture. (I did see the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his infant child over the balcony. How about a point for pop culture?)
One of the features on the tour that stands out most is the Holocaust memorial next to the Brandenburg Gate which used to be an entrance gate into Berlin. An American Jewish architect designed the memorial which is composed of 2,711 cement blocks of varying heights, arranged in a grid pattern. The artist chose not to have any sign or explanation for the memorial, so tourists don’t usually know the structure’s purpose. Because of this tourists sit and stand on the stones, kids run through the maze, and people pose pretty as if this is the perfect spot for a senior picture. There are supposed to be guards watching the area to make sure people do not stand on the stones, but they are limited in number.
I went back to the memorial the following day to reflect on its impact, then went to a Holocaust museum nearby. I found a spurt of anger rising in me at the disrespect invading what should have been a sacred atmosphere. I had to remind myself they didn’t know better, and the artist intended this. But was he getting his point across? Many people do stop and think, wondering what exactly the blocks are, which is what was intended. Some people find that the stones resemble barracks, others see lines of Nazi soliders, or lines of prisoners. I felt like I was in a tomb. And while many do pause to question, and perhaps reflect, there are still many who do not. So my question still stands: In accordance with the architect’s intentions and the victims it honors, does the memorial achieve its goal?
Andy, Mario and I met two girls from Bosnia on our tour, and after Mario and I threw around the frisbee, the five of us waited in line to enter the Reichstag, a government building with a glass dome through which people can view the Parliament plenary sessions. The wait was long but it was in good company. Sanja and Sabina’s friends from Serbia joined us as well. That night on the bus, the boys and I had a long political/historical discussion, one in which my mind was amazingly present the whole time. I have such a hard time understanding how one man was so persuasive and powerful in such a horrifying way, igniting the Holocaust atrocities. Our political chat went from dictators to terrorism to 9/11, ending with the question of what determines which country is the world leader, its economic or military strength, if you had to choose one? I’ve never been so invested in such topics.
I will end this trip to Germany with Berlin’s East Side Gallery, coordinated and protected graffiti art on a remaining part of the Berlin Wall. The gallery stretches 1.3 km with art by over 100 artists representing 118 different countries. The work,painted from 1989-1990, is supposed to represent the emotions during those years, the fall of the Wall. And, while there were signs every meter noting additional graffiti to be an illegal act prosecutable by law, there happened to be a section painted over in white, now covered with pen and permanent marker. I waited a moment to see if I would stand out writing on the wall, but another man took out a marker and began to write something. As long as he didn’t try to make a joke on the wall, I supported him. That’s why I wrote something myself. “…That freedom never dies. …Remember your dignity.” If you go to the East Side Gallery, I’ll tell you where you can find my illegal words of inspiration. And if you see any German policemen, please don’t tell on me. Because anytime a German yells, especially someone of authority, it’s always ten times scarier.
I returned to Germany later, but first I had plans to reunite with Jacky, the stick-driver rental car friend I met in Portugal. We met in Cologne, Germany and left the next day for Luxembourg. Why there? Because even moreso than Wales, no one goes to Luxembourg.
Nobody goes to Wales, but the country deserves attention. Bilingual, with every sign in Welsh and English, I never once heard the native language spoken. Word on the street is that Welsh is only really spoken in the far north these days, and either way, it is a dying language. The country is quiet–even the city capital of Cardiff is relatively low-key. Ane and I stayed at hostels near the city center. We took a bus to Cardiff Bay one day, eating lunch at a local cafe on a boat. By chance, we came across a free viewing of a videotaped theatre performance. I enjoyed the simplicity of the script, but it was too slow-moving for Ane who fell asleep, in front of the theatre company director. Back-to-Back Theatre chooses innovative stage settings, always public places such as a train station where this particular one took place. Audience members sit in bleachers with headphones to hear the actors, but sometimes never see them among the hustling and bustling oblivoius crowd until the final bow. The themes of the theatre works focus on the political and social issues surrounding persons with disabilities.
Ane and I desperately needed a night of karaoke and were lucky enough to find a bar hosting a competition. We didn’t find out it was a competition until after our smash hit performances, so we just took the microphones and did a song and shimmy to the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” and the movie Grease’s “You’re the One that I Want.” Perhaps the karaoke judge slash lady running the show didn’t much enjoy our duets because we were the only participants denied requests. Needless to say we did not qualify for the final round, but I think the locals took a liking to the two foreign girls on stage. We received some whistling amidst the applause. (At least I think it was whistling of praise, but it could have been relief that our song ended).
If you learn anything about me from reading these articles, learn this: I love doing literal interpretation dances to songs. So when someone took to the stage singing Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer,” I took to the dance floor with my literal interpretation. Sometimes, I forget I’m in a public place and people are watching me.
In addition to Cardiff’s castle and park with Wales’ wannabe Stonehenge, we found another castle in Swansea. Ane and I wanted to go to the coast because we heard it is beautiful, especially the further south and west you go. We didn’t really go west and we only went an hour south, but it was refreshing to be on a beach again. The weather was chilly so we walked barefoot and picked up seashells. Ane collected enough to house the entire hermit crab and clam cast of The Little Mermaid.
In our search for the castle at Swansea, we stood in the plaza checking the map and saying, “Well, it is supposed to be right there.” It took a few blinking moments to realize it wasn’t a whole castle but rather part of a castle. Swansea made little effort to preserve the ruins seeing as soda cans and bottles littered the lawn.
However, the location of the (part of a) castle was nonetheless striking against the city landscape. Tall, glass window office buildings (as close as Europe gets to skyscrapers) dominated the view above, the modern looming over the ancient. I couldn’t help but think of what a strong statement this made about the society’s often disregard of civilization for the past, too focused on a more advanced future.
Before I forget to mention it, bask in the thought of me getting pooped on by a bird in the city center. A nearly empty plaza, plenty of open area to aim for and my arm is the chosen target.
While the Ghana vs. Uruguay game was on in the hostel’s common room, Ane and I played Monopoly and Clue (called Cluedo in the UK). Because the Monopoly pieces were the traditional thimble and dog, it wasn’t until about three times around the board that I noticed the property names were different–street names in London. King’s Cross Station? Hey, I’ve been there! Hasbro went religious for the UK version of Clue, blessing Mr. Green with the title of Reverend. The knife is called a dagger and the wrench, a spanner. Minor details but I felt like I learned something. (Yeah, board games can be culturally enlightening.)
After five nights in Wales, Ane and I took a bus to London, slept in the airport, and caught (er, nearly missed) a flight to Copenhagen. Another friend from AmaZOOnico, Sophia, lives there. Ane and I spent two nights with Sophia and her Ecuadorian/Quechua fiance Juan. We had a picnic before heading inside Bakken, the world’s oldest amusement park. Far from Cedar Point–the thrill level was just above that of a jungle gym–the company was great. An added bonus, there is no entrance fee. Just a pay-as-you-go fare per ride. We actually ran into a past AmaZOOnico volunteer who left the rescue center the day after I arrived. He now works at the amusement park. Pardon me if this sounds pompous or rude, but Ane, Sophia and I agreed that Sebastian now has a crummy job in comparison to the jungle days. At least he is getting paid this summer.
The goodbye to Sophia ended with talk of a hopefully soon reunion in Ecuador. We all want to go back, so it will happen some day. It is just a matter of when.
Ane and I went to her hometown in the north, Aalborg, where I spent a week practicing Danish phrases. I told many a stranger, “I love you.” While I think Ane would admit there is not much sight-seeing to be had in Aalborg, we rode to the harbor often. Aalborg is a city that caters to cyclists with a bike lane on every main road. Instead of car parks, there are bike parks at apartment buildings. Very few people even have a driver’s license beacuse cycling is the major mode of transportation. Of course, that means you’re bound to get caught in a rainstorm from time to time. It only happened once while I was there.
Alison, the woman whose apartment we stayed at in London, was visiting Ane’s mom in Aalborg. We had a scrumptious dinner, with edible flowers in the salad, the night before Alison’s flight back to England. The next day, Ane and I played in the sprinkler with her nephews, eight-year-old Adam and six-year-old Beatom. Beatom was quiet and smiley, but Adam was very talkative despite being deaf. Even though I don’t speak Danish let alone Danish sign language (did you know sign language is not universal?), Adam didn’t let that stop him from communicating with me. It reminded me of the Hello Kitty girl in Porto, Portugal.
Adam spent the night at his grandma’s in a tent with Ane and I. Before bed, the four of us baked bread twists over a fire. I tried mine with ketchup as is traditional, and it was pretty tasty!
When I first met Ane’s group of friends, it was the night of the World Cup final. I warned Ane that I wouldn’t be social, and she was already prepared. I told her there was only one thing I had to do while in Denmark, and that was watch the final match. I about ripped my hair out any time Spain just missed a shot or Holland almost scored on a breakaway. I might have been the only one in the student center bar actually rooting for a specific team, but people joined in my ecstasy when Spain scored. I haven’t stopped scolding my sister Ashley for leaving Madrid that weekend for a small vacation in San Sebastian up north, where she describes the vibe as much lower. Even though she is not a soccer fan (she recently reminded me that she has at least touched a soccer ball–volleyball is her sport), I still would have traded places with her to be in Madrid. I think that would have been a once in a lifetime experience. Ah, well, what’s done is done.
I went to Farup Sommerland amusement and water park with Ane, her boyfriend Andreas and his sister Ida. Ane and I rode the kiddie Tower of Terror and I screamed like a banshee, louder than any of the five-year-olds on board.
The four of us spent many afternoons at Platform 4, an empty warehouse now used for concerts, office space and a bar. Ida works at the bar and Ane and I helped her and her co-workers decorate the place like a park. At the end of the week, we brought some friends and joined in the opening, eating ice cream and playing cards amidst DJ music.
The night before I left Aalborg, Ane’s best friend, Bibi, turned twenty-one. I went to her birthday party where everyone included me in conversations, explaining card games in English. Bibi’s friends bought her a guitar, so there was a lot of acoustic music that night. A guy from Finland played some Finnish folk songs. A Danish guy showed me some magic tricks. It was a very fun atmosphere.
Andreas videotaped the goodbye at the train stations when Ane and I sang one of our many theme songs. There were a lot of “I’m gonna miss you” and “see you soon” exchanges. How soon soon is, neither of us knows. Maybe next summer if there is an Ecuador reunion, or if Ane visits the states. Maybe years from now. But we have a special friendship and we’ll make sure there are many more reunions. Ane’s mom and Alison are great examples for us of long distance friends keeping in touch, making sure to have reunions.
When I changed trains headed to Hamburg, Germany, I watched the goodbye video. It put such a smile on my face that I watched it again. I think this Europe trip has been the perfect reminder of that Girl Scout song that says, “Make new friends, but keep the old.” Sounds cheesy when I sing it at twenty-two years old, but it holds a lot of truth. “One is silver and the other’s gold. A circle’s round. It has no end. That’s how long I want to be your friend.” I know you’re crying now.
Germany came next. I speak zero German. Bring it on.
How exciting it is to meet someone from a different country in another country and meet up with them a year later in yet another country. Last summer with the animals in Ecuador, I worked with Ane from Denmark. We had a high-pitched-squealing, bear-hug-
squeezing, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening reunion in… London. I told Ane way back in December about my decision to travel Europe. She wanted a little vacation, too, so we somehow settled on London as a meeting point.
But first things first. Late in the night, Ane arrived at the hostel before I did. Once I made it to Camden Town, the section of London where the hostel was located, I stood outside the underground attempting to decode my hand-drawn map. Feeling futility pulling in the reins, I resigned to hail my first ever personal taxi. I have been in a taxi exactly six times before. I remember where and when for each time, but I never had to call for one myself. I couldn’t whistle if my life depended on it, so I stepped to the curb, raised my gangly arm and waved my dainty fingers. Evidently too daintily. I watched three empty taxis pass me by. How was I ever going to stop a cab without having to jump in front of one?
That’s when Roy appeared at my side. I’d been avoiding whatever paper slips he was soliciting. But he had the pleasure of watching my feeble taxi cab solicitation, so I took the paper he held out to me hoping that would make him leave me be.
“You need a taxi,” he said, more of a declaration than a question.
“Well, yes, but–“
He walked away from me mid-sentence, following the sidewalk.
“Where are you going?” he said. “I’ll take you there.”
“No, that’s alright.”
“It’s okay,” he assured me. “I’m a taxi driver.” Roy pulled out a set of keys from his pocket and headed to a nearby parked car. “Where to?” he said again as I stood non-committally on the sidewalk.
“Camden Town Inn,” I muttered. “Bay Street.”
“Oh, that’s just right down the road. I’ll take you there.” He opened the driver door.
I hesitantly walked up to the passenger door, then paused. “No, that’s okay,” I said when I couldn’t find a sign saying “taxi.”
“There’s no meter,” I pointed out.
“Look, my name’s Roy. I’m certified. I work right over there. You can ask them.” He gestured to a building behind me.
I smiled awkwardly. “Okay, well, thank you, but it’s alright.”
By now he was sitting in the driver’s seat. He pushed open the passenger door, starting to get frustrated. “You can drive with the door open. I’m not a kidnapper.”
I eyed his gold velvet sweatsuit with a matching cap. Not dressed for crime, but I wanted to trust my gut. He got out of the car.
“Where you going? Bay Street? It’s just down there. Five minutes walk. You come back tomorrow and you ask them about Roy. See that I’m a taxi driver.”
I thanked him for the directions (which proved correct–no more than five minute on foot). “I’m new at this,” I said. “I’m sorry. But thank you very much.”
I left Roy standing there next to his car looking like an angel in all that gold. I walked fast to the hostel.
Is there something about me that attracts creepy (albeit seemingly nice) men? I’m just not used to males being so… forward. That’s what made me uncomfortable on a bus ride in Ecuador. But I’d rather trust my gut never knowing than go against my instincts and be in a real pickle.
That was how my first two hours in London began. But from there on out, it was gleeful. And the next day, I trusted my gut which told me that the locksmith guy offering to walk to the hostel to break my stuck lock–“to save me the trip”–was a nice guy. Plus, I had Ane with me. He said no customers would be in the store for awhile anyway “on account of the football game.” He was indeed a jolly fellow. We talked about his growing up in India and what brought him to London. And then I was on a high for the rest of the day because I just love (non-creepy) nice people.
During my time in London, I saw the big attractions. A giant clock. A giant ferris wheel moving at the pace of an ant. Woohoo. The Prime Meridian on the Greenwich Line. Red phone booths. But these things are not what made my time in London memorable. In fact, I was disappointed sometimes. Why is there a children’s song about the London Bridge when it’s so normal I didn’t even know I was standing on it?
Ane and I stayed at Alison’s apartment the rest of our time in London. Alison and Ane’s mom met thirty years ago and have seen each other four times since then. But when they get together, it’s like no time has passed. Ane and I were lucky enough to have a kitchen for cooking quality dishes and free beds.
The Greenwich International Festival kicked off during the week we were in London. One of the events took place in a small dark box with room enough for only fourteen people. We participated in an interactive global warming crisis simulation, the audience acting as London’s response team. Our simulation was compared to others that took place throughout the week. In addition to this attraction, we watched an outdoor acrobatic/theatrical/musical show in a small park. I was impressed with the troupe’s inclusion of persons with disabilities, both actors and the audience. The entire cast knew sign language!
My favorite parts of Ane’s and my London experience were our self-routed treasure hunts for art–graffiti and pianos. Banksy, the graffiti artist with a name but no face, hails from Bristol. Much of his artwork is in London, though he has painted all over the place, from Palestine to Copenhagen to California and New York. The stencil graffiti always makes a political statement, and, even in crowded, public, heavily-screened places (by London’s CCTV surveillance system), Banksy hasn’t been caught. Some of his graffiti only lasts hours. The police or other artists can be quick to make it disappear. But buildings with his art often increase in value to the point that building owners create protective boxes around the art before power-washing or more graffiti can get to it. Ane and I found maps noting places where Banksy had graffitied, but we could never be sure we would find the treasure at the end of the trail. Graffiti comes and goes all the time. There’s even a rival group called “Team Robbo” who has attempted to deface Banksy’s art. Team Robbo is ill-favored among Banksy enthusiasts, i.e. the general London public.
Along with the search for graffiti, Ane and I included the musical realm in our treasure hunt. We read about an art project involving pianos, in its second year in London and this year also going on in Manhattan. Twenty-one pianos were placed around London, decorated and labeled with the words, “Play Me, I’m Yours.” The art project calls upon the community for participation. A map showed their locations and we sought out three of them. At one location, I played a modified version of the Titanic theme song on speed. While I was playing at our final piano stop, a little girl sauntered over to me. I asked her if she wanted to play. She nodded, so I scooted over and patted the open spot. As soon as I lifted her onto the bench, she began her improvised melody, first slamming her hands onto the keys and then alternating an unsteady rhythm between two keys. I died inside on account of the cuteness level.
With the British being avid soccer fans, we didn’t have to be in front of a TV to know how the matches were coming along. Walking by pubs, there were only two types of shouts: positive (hoorahs!) or negative ([insert swear word here]). After one of the matches, Ane and I met up with Fergus, a Londoner we worked with at AmaZOOnico as well. We tried not to rub in England’s 4-1 loss to Germany too much, but it was difficult.
In addition to seeing Fergus, Ane contacted two England friends she met on her post-AmaZOOnico travels in South America. I could have been the odd one out while Gemma, Dan and Ane recounted the glory days, but I wasn’t. We all shared stories. By the end of the day, I felt like I gained two new friends in four hours.
I lied before. I have another favorite part of my trip to London: willingly (and ever so ungracefully) making a fool of myself in public. It all started at the London-Hong Kong Regatta when Ane “offered” to pay one pound for me to get my face painted like a butterfly. Of course I accepted. On the tube–the London term for “subway”– Ane and I were headed who-cares-where post-Regatta when Ane suggested I perform Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” dance, Prior to, I mentioned proudly to Ane that I know the moves. Only semi-reluctantly, I danced the Single Ladies dance on the London tube, singing part of the time. I had everyone staring at me before I started because I stood clutching a pole trying to work up the nerve to do it. My face was still painted with the butterfly mask.
Somehow, that little routine turned out to be a mere warm-up. The tube car wasn’t crowded enough, so I danced again later in the day in a crowded car. This time, though, Ane and I acted like we didn’t know each other. I stood up, put on my poker face and started dancing in the middle, planning on continuing the dance until our stop when we would exit through different doors. That was one loooooooong transit. I ended up improvising. And… my face was still painted like a butterfly. Ane couldn’t see the people in the car behind her standing up to check out the action in our car, which served as encouragement for me to continue posing as the psychotic loner with an internal I-pod. Upon minding the gap as I exited the car, I continued dancing until the platform cleared. Then, I ran to Ane and said we should get the heck out of there.
I put myself to the test once again, this time posing as a street performer in South Bank, London along the Thames River. I sang a horribly wonderful operatic falsetto “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I even put coins on top of my purse near my feet to encourage people to pay as much as they thought my beautiful rendition deserved. I received nothing. Ane even took away my coins mid-song.
Luckily, all the escapades were captured on video (click the links above), and for once I will praise technology. If I can make a fool of myself in London, why not let the world view it on You Tube? Oh joy!
Needless to say I left my mark in London. Let’s see, in Ecuador, I got my ears pierced in the market (of a third world country?–bad idea). In London, I danced on the tube. And then I did a literal interpretation dance in a bar on karaoke night in Wales… Oh, but that
Whatever will she do next? Even I can’t answer that. Spontaneity is the name of the game.