Issue 3, 2017

Godafoss Maura Geiselman10pm

Goðafoss at 10:00 pm by Maura Geiselman

Featured above is the 2017 winning photograph by Maura Geiselman.

2017’s winning essay is Helen Savidge’s Finding the Wild.

 

Read this year’s prose  & poetry from students and check out our photos.

 

Letter from the Editors:

Dear Reader,

Learning a new language. Trying a new dish. Seeing the world in new colors and lights, sounds and smells. Understanding and appreciating the experiences of other cultures and people. Seeing that you might not be as different as you believe. Culture does not have one single definition. As you read through this issue of Flagship, we hope you see culture as a force both unifying and distinguishing. It lends itself to adventure and insight, to contemplation and growth. It has the power to build bridges across oceans and nations, between people and places.

We invite you to imagine these moments with us. Travel to South Africa where Helen marvels at the Milky Way in the clear night sky, Kes discovers a new meaning behind holding hands, and Matt observes a new cultural reverence for death.

Learn with Chelsea in the Philippines of beauty’s many forms. Trek into a small Chinese village with Nikki as they browse a vibrant marketplace of fresh fruit and Buddhist statues. Wander with Arden through a red outback of moon shadows and centuries-old drawings.

Lose yourself in Scottish lore with Emily and Gretchen, exploring Fairy Pools and the Isle of Skye. Chase rainbows over the cliffs on Achill-Croaghaun with Keri in Ireland.

We would like to thank our reading and copy editors, who helped to shape this magazine through the selection and editing process. Thank you to Jess Ram for designing the elegant magazine you hold in your hands. And to Keri for crafting the website you can visit for more experiences.

Thank you to Mark Fertig for judging our photography submissions and to Dr. Roth for judging our written submissions.

Thank you to our sponsors in the GO Office and the English Department for their support and encouragement. Lastly, thank you to Dr. Glen Retief and Dr. Laurence Roth, our advisors throughout this process Without them, this publication would not be possible.

Now, you are welcome to turn the page and begin your cross-cultural journey around the world.

Sincerely,

Gretchen Hintze, Editor

James Hoon, Associate Editor

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An Essay about Beauty & the Philippines

By Chelsea Barner

In many cultures, to teach a child what things are, you hold it up and repeat what it is. Often, if it is an animal, you can include the sounds the animal makes. For instance, you would hold up a stuffed dog and say, “Dog. Woof.” During a visit to a neighborhood in Lipa City in the Philippines, I recognized this technique coming from a woman holding her toddler son in her arms just a few feet from where I stood. She was gesturing to me with a smile as she repeated the word, “Beautiful.” The toddler stared at me, unsure whether to cry at my different skin and different eyes, but he still listened intently as his mother insisted that ‘beautiful’ is me. All I could do was smile, send a wave to the little boy who looked utterly embarrassed.

The word “beautiful” was not uncommon during the trip. During my first walk through the streets of Lipa City, I received two very distinct phrases: “Where are you going?” and “You are beautiful.” These compliments of beauty came mostly from the women in no specific age range, but they were consistent.

Based on my own experiences where I was raised in America, I’ve come to the unfavorable conclusion that the tendency is to raise girls with the idea that being beautiful is our top goal in life. Statistics say a higher level of attractiveness can bring career success, romance, happiness, and so on. Think about it. When our grandmothers call us beautiful we just shrug and roll our eyes, but when boys call us beautiful we suddenly feel like we’ve accomplished this goal. Despite the many sexist and flawed theories about this way of life, it is one that many girls and women struggle with every day. Validation is sometimes indistinguishable from confidence, though where society has influenced us to feel this validation from is where things get complicated.

Based on this idea, during my walk through Lipa City I was waiting for that little spark of celebration when everyone complimented my looks, but it never came. I was a little puzzled at first, wondering why I wasn’t constantly blushing. I talked to my advisor about it, not sure why I wasn’t preening at the attention. I was receiving constant validation for my appearance, so why wasn’t I emotionally reacting? I feared that internally I was valuing their compliments as less significant than had it come from someone from America or Europe: a white country. I was so afraid that this was my self-conscious reaction to what was happening and that despite fighting against the stigma of cat-calling in America and “dressing for men,” it was internally festered in me to only feel good about a compliment if I respected the judgment of the commentator. This idea made me sick and at first I feared it would be a reaction I’d never be able to get rid of and I was forever trained to only feel that flutter in my chest after compliments from the white American man.

It was after this terrifying personal realization that I decided to see how the young Filipino girls responded to compliments from myself. For some background, during the first week of my trip we stayed in Lipa City and aided a family in rebuilding their home. The Bagay family has seven children and out of these children I got closest with Diane, who is now 14, and Daisy, who is 17. During a conversation, where they complimented my physical features, I expressed my appreciation for their beauty. Both are beautiful individuals inside and out, but they are very different in their personalities. Diane worked just as hard as the rest of us with the physical labor, didn’t care about the blisters she received or how bad she was sweating, and had a more standoffish attitude. Daisy spent more of her time socializing with our group and taking photos with us. She wore “girlier” clothes and sometimes makeup, while Diane wore large t-shirts and sandals. When I said they were both beautiful, they disagreed and said, “No, she’s ugly” at each other. Though they were laughing, it did not feel like an atypical comment. Instead, it felt like it was something they called each other often. And the way they reacted to calling each other ugly differed, both equally breaking my heart. Daisy pouted and nodded like she didn’t want to accept this fact but ultimately she believed she deserved it. Diane, on the other hand, agreed with the comment so casually that it seemed alien to consider herself anything but ugly. They refused to believe me no matter how hard I tried to convince them.

Another moment about beauty ties along with the idea of rarity. My driver’s license lists my eye color as hazel. In Lipa City, my eyes were blue and everyone I met loved to point them out. Blue, beautiful. When I discussed how my eyes weren’t technically blue to a peer along with me on the trip and instead closer to green, a black woman with dark brown eyes who had been receiving questions concerning whether or not she had Filipino descent in her blood, responded about my confusion. “They’re just not brown, like theirs,” she told me. This quote was probably the turning point for me during the trip when I began to emotionally respond to my environment. I was stunned at first and responded with, “Oh.” It was expressed to me in an academic paper concerning why Filipinos seemed to praise Americans. The author writes, “they are not looking to be [American] but rather, they aspire (as many of us do) to be slightly different versions of themselves.” From this I realized that my eyes weren’t special because they were blue—they were special because they were different. It is a similar concept used to express why most of us dislike our appearance—it is something you see every day, so it will get repetitive and boring very quickly but it is not an accurate reflection of yourself.

At the end of the trip I pondered about the little boy being taught what beauty is. I wondered, should I have done something different? Could I have done something more significant? By doing nothing was I encouraging the implications that my features are what is beautiful to this toddler? Will he grow up to tell his mother that she’s beautiful? Or will he forever see his own family and his own self as not white, as not American, as not beautiful, as not like me?

 

Check out Chelsea’s photo: Basketball 

the Dip

By Matt Dooley

Ancestral spirits dominate Zulu culture, taking something as morbid as death and finding a way to give it new life. The Zulus revere their dead as beings beyond life. In their culture, death is a stepping-stone, a door each living thing must pass through. However, the Zulus have days when one can have a direct conversation with their ancestors. This can occur, according to the religion, during any ceremony, such as a funeral. In this way, the ancestors can talk through others.

Now, there are religions out there that preach, death does not mean goodbye. However, those religions’ often mean that you can see them again once you also pass away. However, to actually communicate with dead loved ones, they push the idea of speaking with them in your prayers. Even if their words are true, it’s often a one-way conversation with a jar or a tombstone. When you’re little, you’re innocent to how life can crumble in an instant from the smallest discrepancy. To a child if someone is sick they will get better. There is medicine for that. Someone’s sick in bed one day and riding their bike down a hill the next. Death doesn’t mean much to a child. When I was little, I thought death was a funny skeleton man that couldn’t kill a hamster much less a person. I watched a lot of television.

Though, in a sense, death is the easiest form of conflict used to move the action in media. To that point, death may even be considered the most over-saturated conflict. Death never meant the end of something for the small chubby kid, watching TV. I had everything.

There was mom, with her office next to a giant window. There was dad, who got to press buttons on an elevator all day long, which had to be the coolest job ever. And there were two grandparents, who could still run faster than me. When a family member did pass away, they either lived in another country or I didn’t know them very well. I knew about death only from television. And in those instances, the character of death was usually played up for laughs. Death never came in person, keeping any sense of closure out of my reach.

When death took my great grandmother, I was around five years old. I wasn’t able to go to the funeral as lived in Puerto Rico and again I was around five. Instead, my grandparents had the wonderful idea to show, young me, her taped funeral, one night when I stayed over. I sat directly in front of their television set on the floor. On screen, her face was quiet amongst the loud speeches spoken in a language I couldn’t understand. I didn’t know what to feel at the time, bundling my emotions up, only crying when my parents came to pick me up. I held onto their legs, as soon as they walked through door, scared death would take them next. To be a witness to death’s aftermath, even from behind a screen, can warp a child’s perception on life. For a time, this made me want the humorous portrayal of death to overtake the reality, despite the despair and dysfunction death could bring.

Cattle herding is a dysfunctional operation in N’come village, especially if you add a couple of American students who have no idea what they are doing to the mix. Well, I didn’t. Nate, a fellow student, seemed to grasp the idea pretty early on. Sage decided to watch instead, participating for only a few minutes before leaving the job to the rest of the people there.

The villagers whistled to get the cattle’s attention, guiding them into a wooden corral. One after another, the cattle ran into the corral and down a makeshift alleyway built to contain the fiercest of bulls. Straddled against each other, the cattle groaned, trying to push out of their narrow confinement.

As an American college student, I would have never thought that I’d bear witness to a group of cattle undergoing simultaneous panic attacks. We had woken up early to help that morning, excited. Baba Mngani, the head of our host family in N’come village, had told us, the night before, we were to take the cattle to “the dip” to give them their medicine, but that was all he told us. Making me wonder what exactly was “the dip.” The more Baba Mngani and others spoke about it, the more I pictured the cattle walking through a grime pit filled with medicine. I was wrong to assume we’d even be able to coerce the cattle into any sort of pit. Getting the cattle into the village’s alleyway was hard enough.

The sun had risen earlier than I, causing me to lag behind the others as we chased the cattle into the corral. We were there to help the others get the cattle into the alley to administer the shots. These weren’t just any shots though. Those shots held the needles of my nightmares. The needle looked to be a hand’s length, reaching from the bottom of my palm to my index finger. Think for a moment about that being plunged into dense cow flesh. I learned later that the dip was neither a pit filled with grime nor the village’s homemade cattle container. Instead, the dip was a dark liquid that rested within the shot. And jabbing the needle into their flesh was the only way to keep the cattle well.

“It’s the worst drought in South African history.” Mandla looked up at the darkening sky. Being the village’s high school principal, Mandla’s words held weight to me. “Many cattle have died,” He told us, as we stood outside the rondavel, a stone hut with a thatched roof, where all of us American students had just finished feasting with villagers. To some, word of the drought and its effects may have been common knowledge. Though, as far as I remember, Mandla had been the first to speak of any drought, more so, the worst drought in South African history. Rain had not touched South African land in months, only caressing its shores, where the tourists and big spenders make their life.

Our group had spent days in N’come, and despite the smiles and “Yebos,” Mandla’s words lingered. You don’t tell someone, “Oh, yeah we’re only having the biggest drought in South African history. Livestock has died” and expect that person to ignore how serious the situation is. Each day in N’come, the people locked their situation away behind their smiles, guiding us up and down mountains, providing us warm water to bathe in. All with smiles. Keeping emotions hidden isn’t good for one’s self. The villagers worked together to fight the drought. They did not smile just for us. They smiled for each other and their children. A way to show everything would work out. The villagers didn’t give up going every Sunday to collect water, brought from the parts of South Africa that were unaffected. They found solace in their dances and in the words of their ancestors. They found a beauty in their familial connections, despite the disastrous situation: a feeling that by the time, I reached home, did not resonate with me as I thought it would when my mom and dad took me aside to tell me my grandpa’s cancer had spread, giving him little time left. Death had finally appeared and I could find no beauty in his ghastly form approaching my grandpa.

Now, when I see my grandpa sitting on his couch, with an aching back, I know death has moved passed the screen in my life. I smile for my grandpa, so he doesn’t notice my growing grief. Though, I don’t want to smile. I want to hold him and cry. I don’t want to smile when I hear the cancer is climbing his spine, spreading across his back.

I want to smile when a doctor says the chemo is working. I want to smile when the doctor says the cancer is mostly gone. Still, when these things don’t happen, I will persist with my smile, like the villagers in N’come. Though, I still cannot see the same beauty those in N’come see during such times. And I cannot embrace the idea that everything will be fine. All I can do is hold onto my grandpa and share whatever moments I have left with him.

Finding the Wild

By Helen Savidge

I’ve heard that a sphere of human influence covers the earth, our touch a second skin on the land. I got cell phone service in rural South Africa, out on the veldt five hours away from Johannesburg, and felt it like a layer of dust. Our touring group of college students had passed clusters of shopping outlets and crude cinderblock shacks like empty tin cans on open leagues of brown alien hills, aloe plants like teal glass sculptures nestled under the bare ridges. Instead of buffalo, we saw zebras, and amongst the grazing cattle, ostriches.

Our destination was N’come village, a cluster of square huts and cement outhouses out on the high grey plains identical to all the others. The name is pronounced with a click in the throat where the ‘c stands in. Local families would take in our group of twenty for a few days for a cultural experience. Sidney, the smiley preacher, put three of us in his truck and drove us down the long dirt road that made the village. Family compounds lined each side, collections of stone huts and herds of livestock wandering freely between the fences, rows of dead winter corn. Inside each dead wood and barbed wire fence stood red rock enclosures for the animals like the ground itself had eroded away and left them there as piles of stones.

From the door of our homey cinderblock rectangle we could hear bleating goats, cawing roosters, lowing cows, and yelling children. On the wind, the livestock sounded like the cries of lost souls on the plains of asphodel, especially from the pitch black outhouse behind the compound in the dead of night.

I looked out from our host’s compound before the moon rose, and it looked like the empty, black, salt marshes of Savannah, Georgia; my home. The scattered instances of electricity across the valley looked like McMansions lighting up along the edges of marsh-bound islands at night, concrete shelters and million-dollar waterfront property made one in the dark, all part of a sparkly shell that covers much of the earth. In satellite images, it crusts brightly along the edges of continents, thinning into darkness where the richest of us do not like to live.

On the flight from DC to Johannesburg, I read Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a memoir in which a native Georgian detailed the swift death of Georgian longleaf pine forests after settlers came from Scotland. Just by surviving, they completely destroyed the delicate and beautiful ecosystem within a couple short centuries. It vanished into the turpentine industry, into the farmed fields and local homes, the needs of the human sphere. For the first time since starting college two years before I got homesick for palmettos and marsh, as I was halfway across the Atlantic going in the opposite direction. Out the window, the coast of Africa was nothing but grey dirt and hollow buildings in the dawn, a shell of cement and asphalt wide enough to obscure the ground as far as I could see until clouds and bright sunlight covered it up.

In N’come, dying ecosystems stayed on my mind. During the final day I took a walk down towards the dry riverbed with a couple professors and students. The dry riverbeds ran down the hills right out of broken hollows in the grass, like water flowed down till its weight collapsed the earth into dusty veins through the valleys, eroding the rivers higher into the hills. The veldt depended on healthy grasses to hold the soil together. Like any good scientist’s daughter, I worried that the village’s grazing cattle could allow the hills to break down too fast for the community to sustain. At the subsistence level, it probably isn’t the same devastation that massive farms cause back home, transforming miles of the landscape into a biological desert, but more like those Georgian farms in the longleaf pine forests. Most people here don’t have electricity or running water, and many grassland species are now endangered.

After we left N’come, the view changed from rolling hills that looked like they should be spitting ghost towns and cowboys at one turn, and ruined castles and bagpipers at the next, to ugly, geometric tree farms. Young men drove small herds of longhorn cattle under the eaves beside the highway. Trees do not hold earth like grass does. At home, the islands on the ocean wear away steadily over thousands of years, a half-mile of grass-covered dunes between the waves and the forest, a natural barrier against hurricanes. When the dunes disappear into life-guard huts and the first line of defense is palm trees, oaks, and beach bungalows, a single hurricane can sweep the entire beach away.

But those trees are needed. Someone will buy them to make homes, or paper. There must be tree farms somewhere to meet that demand. To gift that land back to the grasses would deprive someone, somewhere, of shelter, maybe textbooks, so we must keep them there.

I expected Kruger National Park to be a wonderland in comparison, two million hectares, the size of a small country, fenced in and isolated, and it was. At dusk we entered and saw herds of little tan impala blending into the red dirt and bush. Kudu ate the higher bush leaves, deep grey-brown coats the same tone as the dry scrubs, curling horns lofted behind them. A line of four elephants marched in single file against the sunset while more grazed by the roadside. Buffalo roamed across the road. The land felt so stuffed with life I wondered if it had been stocked.

Did all of earth look like this before humans started to manipulate it? Do pieces of the ocean still look like this? Kruger would have been small villages and subsistence farming if the people who loved this land hadn’t been forcibly removed, and now it was contained in gated borders, patrolled by armed poacher-hunters, and carefully left alone to thrive and multiply while humans passed through slowly on mapped out roads to appreciate the fantasy world they’d created. The human presence cleared the land of its own footprint and ruled through the camps and roadways like a quilted bubble over the conservation land – a more direct, more preserving influence over the earth than any undeveloped park or untouchable wilderness. The absence of human presence is so unnatural that it is inherently another extension of control.

In the morning, we got up before sunrise and piled into open safari vans, covered in coats and blankets, and drove for forty minutes through an icy hell of frigid pre-sunrise air. As we disembarked, jumping up and down to get the frostbite out of our limbs, our two guides loaded their rifles, eyes wary on the pair of rhinoceroses grazing a hundred meters away. One stood in the middle of the road, head up and alert.

In the grey sunrise, a whole tribe of baboons ran past, babies clinging to the mother’s stomachs. “It’s unusual to see baboons or monkeys anywhere with big cats nearby,” Elliot, one of the guides, told us quietly. They send one baboon into the tallest tree in the area to look around and check if its safe. We must not have been a threat. A bush hare bounced away. Cat prints dotted the earth. Millipedes made their way across the ground.

We found a prickly pear. “This is invasive,” Elliot said, “If we find these in the bush we must report them so they can be taken out.” Further on, we found calcium rich hyena dung. “Nothing is wasted in the bush,” Elliot said. Hyenas ate the bones of the dead, and tortoises ate the recycled calcium to make their own shells strong. Cyclical and perfect.

In Florida, people release pet snakes into the wild when they get to big. These invasive snakes have no natural predators. They grow huge, some big enough to eat alligators, and multiply in the wetlands. They’ve opened an annual hunting season for the snakes, but it has barely made a dent. In the Appalachian Mountains, species of salamanders and songbird disappear year after year, and until they’re well gone, no one notices. On my own coast we take pride in how well-preserved the wildlife is, how isolated and protected the islands are, but 85% of the oyster reefs have disappeared in the last century, a keystone species, and we have no idea how much it has affected the water. As much as I love the wildlife, I rarely see it, no matter how much time I spend in the woods at the edge of the marsh. And where are the native people that once lived there? As controlled as it is, Kruger is missing one of it’s key species: humans. The landscape thrives. Are we invasive even in South Africa, the birthplace of our species?

Our group went out in our own bus one sunrise to search for big cats, and we found them, four lions lazing around in the bush slightly off the road, windows and a heater between us and the morning air this time. From the front, our professor’s father talked about the constant battle to keep the rhinos alive, a militarized campaign against poachers. It would be nice if just giving them a space and leaving them was enough, but it isn’t. We must go out and protect them in the space we have cleared for their lives.

Sigagule Village, our second homestay village after N’come, had the landscape of Kruger outside its bubble, different from N’come, bigger and less isolated, surrounded on all sides by bush. They had electricity, but no leopards besides the tall-tales people chose to tell about them. A local named Lucky took us on a tour of the wilderness just below the village, carrying an iPad through the brush, a swarm of children clinging to our hands and overpowering his explanation on the uses of various bushes.

I wanted to find someone who knew the flora here as well as I know mine back in Georgia, who could answer all my questions about the plants I had seen, maybe tell me about the native snakes, but he knew no scientific names. We heard nothing about invasive or indigenous, except that people used to plant gardens down in the ravine past the dam, including his own family.

“My grandmother and grandfather lived there,” he said, pointing towards the next line of low hills. “They moved into the town when it got bigger, but the homestead is still there. Grandmother taught me about the plants.” He told us that weeping wattle could be used as toilet paper, and the rain tree was terrible to camp under. The sickle bush could be used to cure wounds. “Come,” he kept saying, “I must show you something terrible.”

A deep rut cut across the end of the long dam over the reservoir, obviously a path for rushing water during the rainy season when the terrible drought threatening their drinking water hadn’t sunken the water level far down the bank. The rut opened into an unnatural canyon, the earth cut away in sharp tears, deep, narrow channels straight down to the granite under the dirt. “This isn’t supposed to be here, is it?” I asked. The land he held dear was damaged, the ecosystem in danger. “Do people care?”

Lucky shook his head. “People do not think like that around here.” He said he was trying to get people to see things as he did, to care that cattle could fall into the ravine and die, or children. Did he care about the effect that the trenches would have on local fish species? Why would he need to, unless it affected fishing? The villagers could not afford to preserve what they needed to use in order to survive. He knew how to fix it too, how to stack up logs so grass can take root quickly and hold the soil without being washed away, but it would be expensive and difficult, and they just don’t have the resources.

“Do you know what’s causing it?” I tested. He didn’t. It is so clearly the dam. The water, supposed to flow easily through rock beds or sink into the earth, rushes heavily past the dam and down over a land incapable of sustaining swift water. Dams are ecological nightmares wherever they occur, and even a small one like this is death to the ecosystem. The Susquehanna River near my college, an enormously old river, older even than the hills around it, formed when the continent of Gondwana slammed into the Euramerican continent. The river has some small dams. Already, rare species of clams and invertebrates that depend on fish migration have all but disappeared.

I didn’t tell Lucky about his dam problem. I’m a young white girl from America who isn’t even a science major. In two days I would leave. That was his home. What would he do, dig it up on his own with his bare hands? How would the community respond? Would they put together the resources and support to hire people to remove the dam and drain their lake when they’re worried about having enough water to last through the drought?

Lucky cared more about the bare earth than the other people in the village because he cared about how his grandmother used these plants in the same way he does now. But I doubt he has been taught much about healthy ecosystems, what I understood as synonymous with ecosystems outside human influence. To care about oysters, leopards, or rare plants is a privilege afforded to people that know their land as property only, not as food, toilet paper, shelter, and community. If I went out into the swamps of Georgia, I would probably die. Lucky would last out in the bush a long time. The bush is his family history. He lives with its dirt under his nails.
Somewhere along the line between poverty and wealth, humans take themselves completely off the real surface of the planet and recede into the sphere of human influence, asphalt and tended grass under their feet, treated air around their heads, the world’s natural flora and fauna scrubbed from their hands. And it is these humans who see nature as what the earth would be without people on it, as if we’re not irreversibly a part of it, slowly ripping it out by the roots. Many people live much closer to the ground. To Lucky, the land is his home, his culture. This too is a need. Taking the land away, giving it to nature, “saving” it, would be cruel. If only there were resources to coexist, funds to break down that dam and still give the community water, an incentive not to throw garbage in the bush, an understanding of exactly where they stand on the ground they inhabit in the same way we understand ours.

We hiked Blyde River Canyon, the third largest canyon in the world, a yawning gulf of red rock and scrubby bush hidden in huge, blocky mountains. Markets curved along the turns on the highways as we drove there, waterfalls and cliffs as the backdrop. The canyon itself sat airy and silent. The most wildlife we saw was a swarm of flies off a high cliff, a shock of emptiness after Kruger and Sigagule.

The human sphere lingered here in the park buildings, thin roads to the highest heights, and sandy paths snaking up and down the ridges, titled with the names of animals that we never saw, leopard trail, quail trail, blazes on the rocks, an emptiness caused by the usual ecological devastation. But this was the emptiness I had wanted to find, a thinning of influence, more so even than Kruger, human-less and utterly wild. After veldt, bush, even the hyper-restored game reserve, that was what I’d been looking for. It felt familiar, like the state park on the island back home, an isolated block of nature that people seldom bother to visit, and even fewer bother to understand. It felt dirty.

Even without the tangible human sphere, from a thousand meters up the slopes, we could see the thick white line at the river’s edge where the water level had dropped. Clearly the protection and isolation hadn’t helped it escape the drought. The thirsty landscape baked in the sun, people back in the village worried for drinking water, and at the top of the canyon, giant sprinklers watered the visitor center’s grass. I heard no birds, saw no lions or lizards. Maybe with more focus on stocking the animals and keeping them healthy, more removal of invasive species, more devastated communities and dislocated families, and more force from the human sphere, it could have been like Kruger.

If you ask me about my trip to south africa

By Helen Savidge

So there we were, a full-sized tour bus driving backwards down a service road across the savanna with a rhino charging us.

Natalie will hate me for telling this one. I woke up on the first night in N’come Village to the sound of loud splashing. For a minute, I had no idea what was going on, and then I heard Natalie whisper, “Hey Terry, I just peed on everything.” She’d missed the chamber pot. In the morning, my coat was soaked, and so were the curtains, sheets, and the bag of food. That was my last sweater. I had thrown up on the other one on the plane ride over.

The hyena on the other side of the bush camp’s electric fence is another good story, or the parade of elephants crossing in front of the safari van’s headlights and away into the moonless bush.

We found a hillside zoo on the edge of a glassy lake between sharp hills, a dislocated Tuscany. They had a common raccoon and a pit full of guinea pigs nearly as big as the pit with bears. Somehow, they make a better story than the black mambas stretching on and on across their tree branch, twice as long as you’d ever expect, and the pacing tigers, the pen of Aldabra tortoises like boulders in the sun along the sail-boat lakeside.

Alexandria Township was miles of red dirt and cramped shacks, a slaughtered goat spread out on the grass between roofless miners’ barracks, a broken pipe in the crowded street gushing like a geyser. Dead trees stood out of the corrugated metal honeycomb, clean-swept doorsteps half broken off, canyons of trash. There were flowers though, concrete pillars curving upwards to colorful mosaic balls. Some had snapped off in the middle, stems broken, wilting into brick rubble and hair extension flyers. People never ask about that.

“How was it? South Africa, I mean.” When I don’t want to talk, I say “It was good!” When I do, I say “Intense.” And then if they want clarification, I tell them about being groped and dragged away from the group by a fat man in a striped shirt, the same one who proposed to Natalie that morning, how he followed us all back through the village. They say “Ack,” sympathetically, and then ask if I saw lions.

Though I don’t like to talk about being sick on the plane over, I tell people about how half the tour group passed a bug around the small bunkers without windows they cooped us up in at a camp in Pretoria. I woke up to the sound of Terry throwing up into her towel, Clara saying “you first,” and ushering her into the bathroom, and the smell slowly seeping through the stale cabin air. We lay shivering in our bunks, because Clara had been fine a few hours ago. Who’s next?

I tell people I got swindled while bartering for souvenirs. I don’t tell people how much.

I don’t usually talk about the three-hour trek down the Blyde River Canyon, a landscape so huge that the sky seemed shallow. The short trees opened up to ancient rock walls, grass slopes too steep for deep roots, a bowl of too much air to breath. Sunlight lit the ridges, but darkness like a summer storm filled the river crack where the trees grew dense and green. We missed the path, took a harder way up, and scaled the rocky walls, hands steadying each other across slimy logs and stepping-stone creeks, straight up the cliffs. I came back with bruised palms and dirty nails, my shirt soaked with sweat, clean lungs, and wide eyes.

One night in N’come, Natalie woke me up to take her to the outhouse since we didn’t want a repeat of the chamber pot disaster. The full moon shone cold and quiet directly overhead, turning the huts, grass, and sky all beautiful shades of glowing gray, so bright that the crushed-diamond shimmer of the Milky Way had all but disappeared into the silvery sky. Inside the hut, the wind sounded like waves breaking right over the dunes. Outside, it carried the sound of livestock and roosters like souls in the underworld. Too much air to breathe. I have only told one person about that. It never sounds like it matters.

Pushing Boundaries

By Kes Baker

I have never had a child want to hold my hand so badly. Our group walked through the countryside outside of Sigacula village, and the children of the village had accompanied us. The countryside was full of plants, ranging from grass that ticked our feet and ankles to tall trees that did nothing to block the bright sunshine. The kids were all around the ages of six to thirteen and most were barefoot. Their clothes were brightly colored and their eyes were curious.

Almost every child wanted to hold the hand of an American. We were new in their village, in their lives. Holding hands was a way to ease their wonder and almost stake a claim on which American student would be their friend. Back home, my cousins hardly want to hold my hand, and that’s just for me to make sure I don’t lose them. Here, the kids were eager to hold our hands, scrambling for our attention. I enjoyed the attention and wanting to hold hands with someone new. I enjoyed this feeling of being wanted.

After a while of constant hand-holding and sweaty palms, I had had enough. I needed my space back. I had reached my limit of human contact and attention for the time being. I wanted my hands back. I also did not appreciate getting an “Indian burn.” The little boy who had been holding my hand for most of our walk was wearing a blue shirt and would look up at me periodically. Sometimes he would smile and glance away, other times he would stare. Before her gave me the “Indian burn,” he smiled. I wasn’t sure where the kid had picked it up. Maybe it was meant to be funny. I remembered watching kids do that to each other when I was younger, and I remember hating the feeling. I still hated the feeling.

When I had the opportunity, I dropped the little boy’s hand and crossed my arms across my chest. My hope was that the children would understand that this meant “I’m done holding hands now.” Apparently they did not. The little boy with the striped blue shirt and sweet smile tried to grab my hand that was crossed over my body. I immediately pulled away. “No, I am not holding hands.” He did not seem upset or angry with me. Instead, he walked ahead to the next American student and tried to hold their hand. The boy was not offended by my harsh words. He did not cry like my young cousins would when I yelled back home. It could have been because he didn’t fully understand what I was saying, but it could also be because he knew there were other free American hands in need of a smaller black one intertwining with their fingers. Whatever the reason, the child moved on from me and I discovered that sweaty palms and constant contact with someone is not something easily handled for long periods of time. Especially when accompanied by hot sunshine and prickly plants poking at my bare legs.

rainbows

by Keri Brady-Benzing

Though I’d never even been there before, my mom’s cousin Nora refers to my trip to County Mayo, Ireland as a homecoming. She brings me and my travel buddy turned best friend, Annie, to see where my grandmother was born and where Annie’s ancestors came from before they moved to America. We drive slowly through the county our first day, making stops in towns along the way before spending the evening with my great uncle in his tiny town of Ballycroy where there’s only a pub and a post office.

This morning started with a walk through the Ballycroy farmland. We pass by houses every now and again. Nora points many out to be empty, their owners having immigrated to America – in almost every case Cleveland, like my grandmother. The rain comes and leaves, partial rainbows appearing and disappearing across corners of the sky. More rainbows already in that hour long walk than I’d seen in my three months in Ireland so far. The land is flat and meets the sea. Across the calm water, you could see the mountains of Achill Island.

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Nora wanted us to see the cliffs on Achill – Croaghaun. They are the tallest sea cliffs of Ireland and Britain, the third tallest sea cliffs in all of Europe. The view is best appreciated by a walk along the beach to look upon them. The first time we get out of the car, rain pours over us. We run for cover in the car and explore more of the island before coming back. The second time, the sand on the beach is wet and shiny. The sky is cloudy and grey, dull.

The beach is huge – it doesn’t seem like we’re far from the cliffs, but even as we walk and walk we never seem to get closer. We stay suspended between the shore and the water, not near either, in a space of sand that stretches endlessly each way. The three of us are the only ones on the beach and I feel so small in its vastness.

The rainbow appears in pieces. A streak appears out of the dark mountains along the horizon parallel to the beach, on the side of the island away from the ocean, away from the cliffs. The streak of rainbow, a segmented chunk, begins to grow like it is climbing its way to heaven only to decide it wants to stay on earth and fall back in a perfect arch. The colors are bright and vibrant cast against the dark sky. We are walking, but we stop.

There’s this association with Ireland and rainbows. Walk to the end and you’ll find a pot of gold. Maybe you’ll see a leprechaun. You’ll get the luck of the Irish. Rainbows, though, they happen everywhere – in the United States, in England. Somehow, Ireland is the one with the special connection, the symbolic presence.

The rainbow does not stop at the horizon. It moves in a circle, it reflects down onto the wet, sandy earth until it meets back up with itself. A circle of rainbow. The three of us in the middle.

Three months before this, I moved to Ireland with two students from my school. They were my roommates and I knew them a little bit and while excited to get to know them, I was also excited to meet new people. Through a mutual friend, my roommate and I met Annie who lived downstairs in our apartment complex. “Yeah, I’m from Cleveland,” she said proudly. I told her I was born there too and we share pride. Within a few weeks, we were planning trips across Ireland and across Europe while spending our week days and nights exploring our city of Galway.

A second rainbow starts to appear over the left side arch. It climbs its way up, mocking the slow rise of the first. It tries to be a full rainbow and achieves for less than a minute to be a full double rainbow, not only across the sky, but reflected too across the sand.

A few weeks after visiting Achill, we will chase the northern lights in Norway. The thing on everyone’s bucket list. The tour guides tell us the importance of a single moment. In just one moment the northern lights can flare up across the sky and be gone four seconds later.

The second rainbow recedes into fragments that hang over the first rainbow. The first rainbow holds strong, its colors bold, its structure perfect from end to end. I take a step back, trying to get a better view, trying to capture it end to end on my phone. The circular rainbow looks like the eye of god staring wide open at us.

A few weeks will pass from our Achill trip and our family back home in Cleveland will see our photos. Relatives of mine who’s names I’ve heard tossed around will talk to Annie’s grandmother about seeing the two of us in Mayo – the place where both families began generations ago. We didn’t even know any of our family members knew each other.

There’s a crowd now on the beach, more than twenty people. I don’t know where they came from, but people stand out there with their families and their friends staring like we are. Surfers in wet suits run out to catch the perfect wave. I don’t feel so small anymore.

I chose to study abroad in Ireland because this is where my family originated. They grew up not far from here on a little farm, this island in view. Every time I talked to family at home, they’d ask if I made it to grandma’s childhood home yet and they’d talk my ear off about how beautiful it was. Mom told me try to visit Achill, said it was gorgeous. No one ever told me it was magical.

Nora, too, grew up on the farm that keeps this island just in view. Annie’s Irish blood goes a couple generations back, no family remains here but they’ve traced their roots back to one place: Achill Island. She almost has tears in her eyes as she mentions her grandfather, who passed away recently, and says that this is his way of showing her that everything is going to be all right. After she gives it words, I know I feel deep down what she does too, though through different family, different history, different friendships, yet still linked in just the right places.

The rain comes then, hard and unexpected, but not unwelcome. The sky grows a little darker and the rainbow dims. It will be gone soon, but that’s okay.

Check out Keri’s Photos: Rainbow, Achill Island & Cliffs of Moher

Ahlan Wa Sahlan min Al-Magrib: Welcome to Morocco

by Danielle Boyd

I’m not really sure what I expected when I booked my trip to Morocco, but I can tell you what I didn’t expect. Lush farmland. Crystal water over white sand. Unbelievably friendly people. Being inspired to learn Arabic. I´d heard so much about how supposedly dangerous the country would be, but it wasn´t until I was immersed in this culture that I realized I´d jumped to conclusions that were completely wrong.

I´d left Spain on a Thursday with the hopes of avoiding the typical weekend traffic.  From Sevilla to M’Diq (in Tetuan, Morocco) takes a little over five hours with traffic and a slight delay at the border between Europe and Africa.

The first city I visited was Chefchaouen, also known as “The Blue Pearl”. All of the buildings, streets, and even walls are painted blue, making it one of the most unique views I´ve ever seen.  Chefchaouen (or simply Chaouen) is located in the Riff Mountains in the northern region of Morocco. Situated in the mountains, Chefchaouen’s markets offer a lot of handicrafts that aren’t available in other parts of Morocco, such as Casablanca and Marrakech. This is due to the proximity to the Berber people who live exclusively in these mountains. The city is most well known for wool garments and blankets along with goat cheese.

Morocco is a country where bargaining is a part of the culture, something that was definitely new to me!. While at a market, I decided to try my hand at it. I saw two striped scarves the same shade of blue as the city for 350 dirham, which is about 36 U.S. D. The man came over and we started negotiating. Eventually, I was able to wiggle the price down to 200 dirham, about twenty-one dollars. As I handed over the colorful paper money, the man placed the scarves in my hands and I couldn’t help but fill up with pride. This was my first time bargaining and I was pleased with how well I did.

What I enjoyed the most about bargaining was, having to think about the value of the product that we normally don’t do in America. At first, I felt bad knowing that I was putting a limit on someone´s income in a region where poverty is evident. But after a bit of thought, I realized that the prices were set higher with tourists in mind. Still, I felt like the process changed my view of shopping. Instead of thinking of price in terms of comparison, it was more of a calculating consideration. When I want a scarf at home I’ll try to remember the cheapest one I saw, accepting what the American economy tells me a scarf should cost. In Morocco on the other hand, I found myself assigning a value to the scarf completely independent of what the price was. What material is it? How much time and effort went into making it? How unique is the product? How good is the quality? I figured since I was buying two hand made products that I got to watch being made, $21 USD or 200 dirham was a pretty decent price. Bargaining is an experience I know I’ll never have in the United States and certainly one that I will not forget.

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The second city I visited, Tangier, is one of the largest cities in Morocco. The city has a coastal vibe and city life feel to it at the same time. When I got to Tangier, the first thing I did was ride a camel on a beach where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean. It only cost about $3. After that we went into the center of the city and went to a fruit and vegetable market.

After just a day in Tangier, I circled back north to Tétouan. We went to a traditional market and restaurant. There were hundreds of people bargaining but it was mostly food and spices unlike the one in Tangier which had more jewelry and clothing. I bought a couple souvenirs and gifts, my favorite one being a shoulder bag made from camel hide from the only stand that sold something aside from food. The asking price was 270 dirham, but I got it for 70 since that was the last of my Moroccan currency.

After the market, we went to a traditional Moroccan pharmacy . The blue and gold mosiac tiles arranged into patterns reminded me I wasn´t in America or even Europe. The pharmacist began by talking about some of the products in Arabic and then apologizing by saying “lo siento… no hablo espanol…” (sorry, I don’t speak Spanish), but then switched to perfect English and French. Turns out he really did know Spanish to but wanted to see if we understood any Arabic. He was hilarious and had many super interesting things for a decent price. Most of what he was selling was cheap makeup.  I had a few dirham coins left, so I bought some lipstick for my mom. The cool thing about it is that it looked green, but when you put it on it was actually a pink color that blends according to the color of your skin.

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I learned a lot of interesting things about Morocco. The flag caught my attention. I asked a man in Chaouen while I was having lunch. He moved his chair moved the next table over to mine and began to explain its significance. If you´ve never seen the flag, it’s red with a green five-pointed star at the center. The red represents bravery and strength while the star represents the five-pillars of Islam. Ninety-eight percent of the country practices Sunni Islam, and unlike lot of other Arab countries, there isn’t conflict between religions. Although Islam is the most common, it is acceptable for Muslims, Christians, Jews, and all other religious groups to live and work together. After having heard so much about conflict between these religions in the past, especially in the middle east, I really appreciated Morocco´s ability to allow all of them to coexist. It´s so easy to forget how fortunate I am as an American and that not everyone has the freedom to live how they want.

Although it is a very agricultural country, it was pretty clear while we were there that resources aren’t as abundant as in America or even Europe. We had to buy bottled water since Moroccan water isn’t safe to drink and nearly every neighborhood we walked through had its share of street vendors, desperate to make even just a few dollars (or dirhams) so that they could provide their family with something.

On the way back to Tangier, two teenage boys jumped on the back of our bus thinking that it was going directly back to Europe. Going back through customs on our way out of Morocco took a while. One of the reasons it took so long was because they had to search our cargo space for children. It’s incredibly common for parents to put their kids there with the hopes that the children will make it to Europe and have a chance at a life in a wealthier country. It´s not uncommon to hear stories like this, but seeing it firsthand left me speechless.

 

Read an interview with Danielle here.

Walking in the Footsteps of Ghosts

by Gwendolyn Bodner

The customs line at the airport: what a perfect opportunity to daydream as you stand in the same place, the weight of your body making a permanent imprint in the industrial carpet as you wait to have your passport stamped. As I fight a losing battle with the carry-on that is slipping from my drooping shoulder, I imagine the country I left behind just a plane ride ago. In vain, I try to imagine myself back in Salzburg, Austria, where I delighted in walking through the Old Town, taking in the picturesque scenery of people milling about the Kapitelplatz and Mozartplatz while the Hohensalzburg Fortress stood protectively over the rooftops of this quaint town. I remember the thrill of sliding down a wooden miner’s slide in the salt-mine in Hallstatt. The notes of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony linger in the memory of spending my 21st birthday attending a concert at the Musikverein in Vienna. I chuckle to myself as I remember my trip to Berchtesgaden where I walked through Hitler’s Bunker and saw his Eagle’s Nest. Although I couldn’t talk the other Susquehanna University students into recreating the scene from Sound of Music where the children and Maria dance along the edge of the fountain, there was no better way to spend the last day of the trip than to stroll through the Mirabell Gardens at dusk. Yet, among all these delightfully fond memories of an unforgettable trip, it is the trip to a concentration camp that gave purpose and meaning to my GO experience.

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I have always been very interested in learning about the Holocaust and I’ve made a point of reading memoirs and autobiographies about the genocide. I’ve always found documentaries and movies about the Holocaust fascinating. Since reading Anne Frank’s Diary in fifth grade, I’ve been intrigued by the psychology of the genocide. In every account of the Holocaust I’ve read or watched Adolf Hitler has been described as a little man with a funny mustache. It seems inconceivable that this funny little man could be responsible for the horrifying deaths of millions of people. Even more inconceivable is the number of people who believed in Hitler and helped him execute the attempted extinction of millions. Although I went to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. when I was thirteen, I always dreamed of being able to go to a real concentration camp and see for myself what I’d read about in such graphic detail. Granted, this is not a trip that many thirteen-year-old children dream of. In fact, it’s not a trip most adults dream of. However, my desire to visit the museum was motivated by my curiosity about Holocaust and how we could allow it to happen. Knowing that the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. offered one of the most uncensored and authentic account of the genocide, I thought visiting it would supplement the literature and documentaries I’d so far used to inform my research on the Holocaust.

During our lunch, Andrea and I ended up talking to one another and having quite a meaningful conversation about the Holocaust and God. Andrea is more active in her practice of religion than I am, but we both pondered the question of how a supposedly omnipotent, omnibenevolent, merciful god could allow such a genocide to happen. I felt that visiting the concentration camp was an important experience to watch the introductory video where survivors of Mauthausen gave testimonials about their experiences. I almost dreaded the experience of watching the video, fearful of the effect watching the video in a real concentration camp would have. It wasn’t the first such video I had seen, but perhaps actually watching it at a concentration camp made it a more profound experience. It was horrifying to learn about the stairs that prisoners had to climb while carrying heavy boulders. Even more horrifying, was learning about how prisoners had to carry heavy rocks up stairs, only to be pushed off those same stairs. The reason for pushing the prisoners down the stairs? To impress the SS officers who would come to observe and assess the camp. There was one man who said there was a guard who would have the prisoners lay against one another in the cold, wet, mud to form a bridge over which he could walk so he didn’t get his boots dirty. “Inhumane” doesn’t seem to be an adequate word to describe the horror that people experienced in concentration camps like Mauthausen.

I think I liked the tour the most because the young woman who led us through the camp brought a new perspective to the experience. I was nervous about how to react as an American learning about the Holocaust from such a young person who is part of the culture that contributed to the genocide. I acknowledged that this was part of her job as a citizen of Austria, but I was curious to see how she talked about this event in history. She seemed to be comfortable talking about this darkness in her country’s past, though she appeared nervous as well to speak to a group of Americans who obviously had their own preconceived notions based on what they were taught about the Holocaust. It was humbling to compare myself to someone who has more reason to be troubled by her past than I did and to reconsider my own beliefs and perceptions of the Holocaust and those involved. The enormity of how complex humanity is was emphasized perhaps in the length of the tour than in all the literature I read about the Holocaust.

I appreciated the pictures our tour guide showed us in the beginning of the tour. The two depictions of the prisoners carrying the rocks up the Stairs of Death were interesting to study. For example, it was remarkable, the volumes one picture could speak and the distinct impression it wanted to give, just through the omission of the SS officer in the propaganda picture, but the inclusion of the officer in the artist’s drawing. In one picture, the men looked like they were voluntarily carrying the rocks while in the other it was at gunpoint and from a fear of death. The propaganda picture also mitigated the treacherous climb up the steps and the potential domino effect of men falling down them when those at the top were pushed backward.  It was chilling to see the picture of the SS officers standing as a group smiling at the camera like any high school soccer team. How could they live with themselves? What drives a person to commit the atrocities for which these men were responsible? Is there a fair and just way to punish these men and hold them accountable for what they did? Can we hold them accountable?

I wondered how I would react during the tour, whether seeing the buildings and the showers would affect me more than I expected. Perhaps it is the distance of time, but I found that I wasn’t as affected as I thought I would be. After all those years of studying the Holocaust, reading countless memoirs and biographies, and watching documentaries about Hitler and the Third Reich, I expected to be more affected by the experience of walking in the same concentration camp where the horrors took place. I remember standing in the middle of one of the barracks, looking around the empty space and at the worn wooden floors. I remember hearing my own footsteps echo in the empty space as everyone stood in the room in hushed silence. We were all thinking the same thing. We were imagining the prisoners crammed into this space, sharing fatal diseases and sorrow. We knew that the number of prisoners far exceeded the capacity for the room and we tried to imagine what “living” in such conditions could have been like.

And yet,  I felt as though I was working so hard to feel something, that I kept trying to imagine myself as a prisoner in the camp. When we saw all the memorials in the open grass outside the gates of the camp, I wanted to feel something more; I wanted to be more empathetic with the victims of the camp and feel what those who built the monuments felt. I wanted to cry in sorrow for the suffering of Hitler’s victims. I wanted to feel anger toward those who perpetuated atrocities against the prisoners of Mauthausen and the other concentration camps. I wanted to feel something. Feeling anything was better than feeling nothing. I wanted to feel something more than acceptance of the Holocaust as a part of history. I didn’t want to feel like I was standing in the middle of an elaborate replica of a concentration camp. I wanted to feel like I was in a real camp where real people once walked and experienced what I’d only read about. To connect more to the experience of being at Mauthausen, I recalled one of the English classes I took this past spring. In the class, I read a text about the Israel-Palestine conflict and learned about the Jewish tradition of putting rocks on graves. Before leaving the camp, I slowly walked toward the memorial for the Jewish prisoners and put a few small rocks on the cold marble. It was a surreal experience to stand in the middle of a camp through which you know thousands of prisoners passed. It was haunting to stand in the barracks and think of how scared these people were, how they couldn’t even go to the bathroom when they needed to. There are certainly a number of ways to imagine how you would react in such a situation, but I don’t know if is truly possible to know until you are there and fighting for your life. Throughout my whole time walking through the camp, I desperately tried to picture how I would have behaved had I been a prisoner. It was overwhelming and challenging to appreciate the reality of Mauthausen as more than a recreated model of some far away camp that once existed. I was walking the same ground that SS officers and prisoners walked. I tried to imagine the screaming coming from the human test subjects in the hospital building. I tried to imagine the officers playing soccer on the field just next to the barracks where people were put to die; the smell and sight of those buildings. The imprints left in the grass were like scars of the past.

After the tour, when we went to the museum part of the camp, it is perhaps the memorial room with the triangular pieces of granite that have the names of the Mauthausen prisoners etched in white on the surface that made me feel most connected to the prisoners since arriving at camp. Suddenly, there were thousands of names mirrored in the black granite. Suddenly, the victims of Mauthausen were not unknown. Seeing their names etched in stone made each person real, made the lives, families, jobs, houses, and communities they were forced to leave behind real. Seeing my own reflection in the black stone amidst the white names of the Mauthausen prisoners made the whole experience far more personal. I no longer had to imagine the people who walked within Mauthausen. They were all there, preserved forever. Seeing the myriad of names and my own face reflected in the soft lighting of the room was indescribable.

When I finished reading the placards of the other exhibits, I went to see the cremation furnaces, the rooms where they would keep the bodies cold until they could be cremated, the room where they would extract the gold teeth of prisoners, and the gas chamber itself. I will never forget finally seeing these parts of the camp, seeing framed pictures of several victims hanging from the wall of the gas chamber.  This experience has brought so much more meaning and power to the literature I’ve read and studied about the Holocaust. Mauthausen will always stand apart as one of the best–and most haunting–parts of the trip.

 

Read an interview with Gwendolyn here.

Holy Spaces

by Katy Griffith

Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England

The cathedral looks much the same as it did when Chaucer’s pilgrims journeyed to this town. They told tales to pass the time, and I think, perhaps, that we have not changed much these 600 years. We still tell stories to pass time, still go on pilgrimages. I wonder what stories I will have to tell when I arrive home from my own pilgrimage, and if they will be the kind that stand the test of time as Chaucer’s have.

The cathedral seems immense compared to the small two to three story buildings I have seen so far in Canterbury. It is walled off from town by buildings and accessible by a several hundred year old entryway. The cathedral is invisible from the cobblestone street outside. We pass through the gate and the cathedral comes quickly into view. Its size is breathtaking, and my step falters. This place has seen so much history. It doesn’t even fit in my camera frame until I squat in the grass that surrounds the cathedral and I’m thankful for the blue skies that appeared after a week of gloomy weather, for the grass is soft and dry beneath me.

It is silent inside, yet somehow the tall ceiling creates echoes. It is designed to look like the ribcage of a ship, and I wonder if I’m supposed to feel like I’m drowning. I feel uncomfortable here, like something is pushing the air out of me. I’m a stowaway on a ship and I pray that nobody notices that I’m not supposed to be here. For every tourist snapping pictures there is someone else who actually uses this historical monument as a place of worship. I’m afraid every noise I make is sacrilegious, and when anyone in my Chaucer class speaks in more than a whisper I have to stop myself from cringing. Don’t they know you’re supposed to be quiet in a church?

I feel like every picture I take becomes a crime, but I can’t stop myself. I don’t want to forget any of this. There are people who actually came to pray, to talk to God, to do whatever people do in a place like this, but I pull out my phone and take pictures of everything I can. Somehow I justify to myself that at least I didn’t pull out my camera like a real tourist.

This is the first time I’ve really seen stained glass. The glass here is like no stained glass I’ve seen before. Impossibly vivid colors, intricate patterns, and panels that are nearly floor to ceiling. The amount of man power and time it must have taken to put each piece of glass in its place, to manage to tell a story with those pictures. It’s almost miraculous. Our tour guide points out some of the newer stained glass, added in the 50’s. The people are almost cartoon like, and our tour guide tells us that their creator was heavily influenced by Disney. Now that she mentions it, I can see a little bit of the Disney princesses in their faces. It’s weird, reconciling Aurora and Snow White with the people in the glass pictures. Somehow my brain doesn’t think that these are two narratives that are allowed to cross over.

There are steps in the cathedral that are so worn down by people walking, kneeling, and crawling up them for centuries that they are no longer flat. They have worn away like river stones, rounded and softened by time and waves of people. Like cliffs that are worn away by waves, it took centuries to wear away this stone, so that it slopes in the middle like it’s made of melting wax. My feet are aiding in the shaping of these steps. My steps feel insignificant, but someday, hundreds of years from now, a college student on a semester abroad will walk these same steps and wonder what kinds of people helped wear them away.

Our tour guide tells us that the bare columns and walls we see in the cathedral were not always this way, and in some places you can see remnants of the paint that decorated them. The cathedral was not always this gray, she tells us, and the pictures on the walls served a similar purpose to the stained glass. They told stories, and served to give color in what otherwise might have been a somber space. Back when more people were illiterate, and when the church spoke only in Latin, the common people had to learn God’s stories somehow. Over time, censorship and the ravages of time have conspired and now there are only a few places where the color remains, faded now, but still hanging on.

Chaucer’s pilgrims wanted to visit this site because of man named Thomas Beckett. “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Those are the words that sent Thomas to his death.  It’s scary how quickly people listen to those who are in power, how literally they take their words and how quickly they act on them. Only God has the power to take away a life so quickly, so mercilessly. Everyone gives a wide berth to a single lit candle on the floor marking the spot of Beckett’s martyrdom, and I am compelled to take a picture. Centuries later, and he is still memorialized, still remembered. And all he had to do was die.

There’s a small gift shop by the door, and I buy a pin and some postcards, something that serves as proof. I was here. I saw this place. I am telling my story.

 

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland

There are a few large cathedrals in Dublin, and though we pass some of them on our double-decker tour bus, we decide to go to St. Patrick’s cathedral instead of any of the others. This is where Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels.  He is buried here, a statue of him stands outside of the cathedral. This is reason enough for me, even though I have never read anything by Jonathan Swift. Is it a coincidence that so far that both cathedrals I have been to have literary connections? Or is religion more closely tied to literature than I want to admit?

After Canterbury, St. Patrick’s is a bit of a letdown. It’s not as grand, and it doesn’t take my breath away nearly as much. I wonder if it’s because I am already becoming desensitized to places like this, or if after Canterbury, it seems a little redundant.

St. Patrick’s is just as silent, if not more so, than Canterbury. Since I’m not in a large group this time, I am even more conscious of the noises I make. It’s a little darker in here than it was in Canterbury too, but the stained glass is just as vibrant and no less spectacular. I take a picture of each window and hope that most of them turn out clearer than my iPhone pictures from Canterbury. The lighting is so dim in here that some of them turn out worse.

When we leave St. Patrick’s, we leave with all thoughts turned to the Guinness factory. This is our next stop and Dublin’s second holy space.

The Sistine Chapel, Rome, Italy.

I am a foreigner in Italy in a way that I have never been a foreigner before. Not only in the sense that I am so obviously blonde that I can’t possibly be from Rome, but in the sense that I can’t fathom how this city exists the way that it does. Rome is so Catholic that there are no Christmas decorations, and somehow that makes no sense and every sense at the same time. At home the Christmas decorations will have been out for weeks by now, but here in Rome you would never know Christmas was just a few weeks away.

Rome has been on my bucket list for years, mostly because I am fascinated by mythology and ancient civilizations. But as we wander Rome, I am struck with a question: how can a city built on the backs of Roman gods be so close to the city of the Catholic Church that they seem to be swallowing each other?

They’re setting out chairs outside St. Peter’s Basilica when we arrive, and I wonder if the Pope is going to be appearing in public in the next days or so, maybe on Sunday. We’ll be back in England by then, and it’s weird that I’m bummed out by this. I like this Pope, though, and I like to have bragging rights. The Sistine Chapel will have to serve. Not everyone can take a selfie with the pope.

The route we have to take to the chapel is long and mazelike. There are no doors to the chapel from the outside. It’s like a test. If you see and appreciate all of this art, then you may be allowed to see the most famous ceiling painting in the world. We meander through the Vatican’s museum, more conscious of time after we spend far too long looking at the ancient busts of roman gods, heroes, and philosophers, and therefore unable to take our time with the rest. There’s far too much to see in just a few hours and my camera dies before we are halfway through from the strain so I resort to my phone. I’ve come a long way since Canterbury. I no longer have shame.  

As we enter the chapel I almost forget that I should look up. The walls alone are masterpieces. I never knew that the rest of the chapel was painted in frescos as well as the ceiling, but it’s an unexpected treat. Once I remember that what I came here to see is on the ceiling, I turn my eyes toward heaven, scanning the ceiling hungrily. I look for the famous image of God, reaching, almost touching man but not quite there yet. It takes some time to find and the ceiling seems so far away. Each image is as magnificent as the next and I wonder why that is the one that is most famous.   

The chapel is so beautiful that I want to stand here for hours and soak in all of the details. I want to cement this moment in my brain forever, but we are on a schedule, and we can’t stay forever.

The signs said no photography allowed, but I am selfish. This painting was without precedent. It changed the course of art forever. It’s a testament to one man’s unparalleled skill. I wonder if I could ever have enough dedication or motivation to create a masterpiece like Michelangelo, or if I’m missing something essential. If I need some kind of belief system since there’s not enough raw talent in me. I know I will never have the words to express my dizzying awe at the ceiling so I pull out my phone, walk right under God’s hand and stealthily take a few pictures. It’s the sneakiest I’ve ever been, but I couldn’t leave without stealing some of that wonder for myself. I need a reminder of this place so that I don’t forget it when I leave. I need proof that this place made me feel something, though I’m not quite sure what it is.  

 

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria

The façade of Stephansdom is very gothic, more noticeably so than Canterbury, perhaps because of the lack of blue skies. It has been a couple of days since we were in Rome, and that means it’s a couple of days nearer to Christmas. There’s a massive evergreen outside the cathedral, strung with lights and topped with a star. Hundreds of people are milling around, walking to or from one of the hundreds of Criskindlmarkts that have taken over the city. The cathedral is nearly as dark inside as it is outside, and it’s difficult to make out its details.  We can only go so far into the building, there’s some kind of event going on later this evening, but we will be on our way in a few minutes anyway, several more things to see and do on our tour of Vienna.

We pass by the cathedral again in the daylight, and it’s more imposing this way. The black pollution stains on the side of the building are more noticeable in the light, and I’m told that workers have to routinely scrub the building to keep it clean. By the time they finish, the first section has already turned black again. I think about how pointless it all is, to spend hours slaving to make this cathedral look as it was intended, never fully succeeding, never getting to take a break. Faith is like that. You don’t get to take a break, it’s not something you will ever be done doing. It’s a process. Maybe that’s why faith is so hard for me, so seemingly pointless. I’m the kind of person who thinks the cathedral looks cooler where it’s black.

Even in the daylight, the inside of St. Stephens’s Cathedral is dim. In the daylight we can walk around a bit more, see the details up close. Statues and art adorn the walls and columns, and it’s noticeable that this isn’t as much of a tourist stop as the other cathedrals I have been in. Most of the people here speak German. After so many holy spaces I know the drill. It’s quiet inside, I take pictures and wonder if that is offensive to anyone, if it’s worse because I can only speak a little German.

This is the city of Beethoven and Mozart and Strauss. What was it about this city that inspired so many musicians? What is it about these tolling bells that called out to them? Was it that they toll at the same time day after day? Were they something to rely on? Were they a source of comfort? To me the bells remind me that time passes whether you want it to or not, and maybe this is what allowed these composers to create multiple masterpieces in their lifetimes. A reminder that eventually your time will run out can be a great motivator. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps me going. I can’t waste my time or I will never leave something behind that will outlive me.

A Small Green and Blue Planet, Somewhere in Space

God and space are equally terrifying to me, but I only believe in one of them.

As a deeply cynical and skeptical person, I have faith in very few things, and God is not one of them. If there’s a circle of hell for non-believers, I’d go there if I believed in it. But there is something about visiting a deeply religious place that sparks something in me. Maybe it’s just curiosity, maybe its fascination with something I can’t understand, but somethings is there.

Space is so massive that the human mind can’t comprehend it. God is similar, in a way. I will never understand why people would travel across an entire country to visit the site of a saint’s death. I will never understand why churches are always quiet. I will never understand what it is about God that inspires writers, painters, and musicians.

There are a few things that my brain can wrap around. I may never believe in or understand God, but I do believe that there is magic in imagination and storytelling. I understand wanting to build things that last, things that inspire people, things that are beautiful on their own merit. I understand wanting to leave a legacy, wanting to inspire future generations. I guess it makes sense then, why these holy places became so important and fascinating to me once I stepped foot in their spaces.

 

Read an interview with Katy here.