The Corona Virus Apocalypse

On January 23, the People’s Republic of China officially shut down all public transportation in and out of Wuhan, the city thought to be ground zero of the Corona Virus. Since then, Hong Kong, its people and government, have been on red alert. I can’t blame them for their panic and angst. The SARS epidemic was less than 20 years ago; 300 died from it and many locals who lived through that time speak of it like surviving a war.

Sadly, turmoil seems to be the new normal in Hong Kong. The past 7 months, we endured the pro-democracy protests which were at times quite violent and disruptive. Aside from a few peaceful weeks following the elections, we rolled straight into this health crisis.

Team Woods has been taking it all in stride. There’s something surreal about living in a foreign country and being somewhat of a third-party spectator. We can leave this place basically whenever we want and we have a place to which we can go and easily plug our lives back into. So, this begs the question, I know, why are we still here? The answer is complex and probably better left for another post. So for now, I’ll demur.

Anyway, we’ve for the most part been trapped at home for the past 2 weeks. We avoid public transportation as much as possible and for that reason we are virtually confined to our little fishing village, Sai Kung. Thankfully, the town is less densely populated than other parts of Hong Kong. It takes about 45 minutes to get to the island, so in many ways we have lived quite insulated from both the protest activity and virus mania.

Masks on public transport

As much as I love the little village where we live, we are all getting a bit stir crazy. The situation here is quite serious and I don’t mean to make light of it. To maintain my sanity, I’ve reached the point of needing some levity, so forgive me if I try to find the humor in it.

As far as I know, the supply chain in Hong Kong and throughout mainland China is still fully intact. I can say this with confidence because, for Benjy, it’s business as usual. While most anyone who can get out is fleeing mainland China (and shunning anyone Chinese), Benjy continues to fly in and out normally because Fedex has designated him “essential personnel.” I suppose he’s essential….to their bottomline. Yes, I know it’s important for food and supplies to continue to flow, but I am a bit annoyed that his company hasn’t found a work-around (or, to be honest, even expressed concern) to prevent him from potentially dragging germs back home to us after delivering packages. Events continue to evolve, however, and Hong Kong just announced a 14-day quarantine of all people coming into the city from mainland China. Fedex’s business model will surely need to change for its pilots living in Hong Kong.

So despite no rational reason to question the flow of goods into Hong Kong, people here have taken to panic buying. The grocery shelves are completely empty. First, it was rice. Chinese, Asians in general (me included), eat loads and loads of rice, so grocery stores always have a whole aisle devoted to just rice. And these rice bags aren’t the tiny boil in the bag Uncle Ben’s boxes that you see in the U.S. These are 10-20 kilo bags of rice and they are stacked to the ceiling. All of this rice is now completely gone from every store. The shelves are completely empty.

Then, anything related to killing germs: bleach, alcohol, hand sanitizer, face masks, and hydrogen peroxide have disappeared. Once that was gone, people moved on to hoarding hard liquor, like vodka and gin. I don’t know if they planned to use the liquor for sanitizing purposes or for consumption. Probably a little of both.

Now it’s toilet paper, feminine napkins (people line their masks with them…I have no idea why) and trash bags. A roll of toilet paper cannot be found!

Can you spare a square?

I confess that I hoard toilet paper anyway and have for a couple of years. I finally found this one particular brand that I like so I got into the habit of buying multiple packs whenever it’s in stock. I have on hand 36 rolls, which under normal circumstances would last until I saw it again. But these days, I’m just not sure. So, I asked Benjy to bring back some TP from Japan. We are now importing Japanese toilet paper.

Meanwhile, everyone is homeschooling in Hong Kong. All schools have been cancelled until March 2, this date could be pushed further back depending on how things go. Consequently, the Education Bureau has suggested that schools implement online learning for students. I have to admit that in this situation I feel a bit of schadenfreude for those who, much to their consternation, find themselves now homeschooling their children. (Aren’t you worried about your children’s social development? Are you a trained teacher? How can you be both mom AND teacher? Is that even legal?) Webley, too, has come full circle and is back to doing school at home. I came through the door the other day to find her sitting at her desk painting her nails. Nail polish is not permitted at her school. I looked at her and said, “are you working hard or hardly working? I think I know the answer.” Yes I’m a bit annoyed that I’m paying conventional school tuition to homeschool her. But, truthfully, I am enjoying having her around again.

So, Team Woods takes things day-by-day with a measure of seriousness to go along with humor; we wash our hands more (which actually can be a tall order for a certain 13 year old boy in the house); go out less; read the news and….above all else, we pray.

A Swing through Singapore

It’s been a long while since my last post. The truth is that we really haven’t done much traveling to report on since last summer, so I’ve had nothing to share. It has been, however, an “interesting” 7 months in Hong Kong. If you’ve been reading the news, then you’re probably aware of the pro-democracy protests in the city. I have considered blogging about them, but several foreign journalists reporting on the protests have either had their visas revoked or denied re-entry into Hong Kong. It’s not like my blog has a wide readership or anything, but I decided that discretion is the better part of valor and opted to stick to more benign subject matter. I’d rather leave Hong Kong on my own accord rather than be forced out. Talk about a chilling effect on free speech. <sigh>

At the end of December, Benjy had a layover in Singapore, so I decided to join him for a few days.

One of the few times Benjy willingly participated in a selfie.

We’ve lived in Asia for 6 years now and this was my first visit to the city-state. Like Hong Kong, Singapore is a former British colony. Comparatively, however, it feels much, much more western. Although most native Singaporeans are of Chinese heritage, the people are an interesting mix of many Asian cultures such as Malaysian, Indonesian and Indian. The primary language spoken there is English; nevertheless, you’ll hear people conversing in many different languages as you walk along the street.

Before arriving in Singapore, I asked a friend who is native Singaporean what I should do while I was there. Her response was, “eat, eat, eat.” So, eat we did. Sometime in the past, government authorities outlawed street food vending and relocated them to hawker stalls.

I suppose it had to do with hygiene and I have to admit the hawker stalls are much more hygienic than the street food venders I’ve visited in places like Thailand, Vietnam and mainland China. Still, in my opinion, the stalls lacked the same character. But what they lacked in personality, they certainly made up for in selection and tastiness. The hawker center pictured above is one of several scattered around the city, within which there were hundreds of different stalls with a wide variety of food.

Whenever Benjy is in town, his mainstay is an egg paratha.

It’s flaky flatbread cooked with a scrambled egg and served with curry dipping sauce. The cost of it is only about 1 USD, so it’s quite economical.

At this one particular complex, there was a stall with a long queue.

Benjy said that whenever he’s here, that stall always has a long line, but he had never given it a try. I said what the heck and grabbed a bowl for myself.

It was a bowl of noodle soup together with a variety of dumpling-like morsels. Other than the noodles, I had no idea what I was eating, but it tasted good and I didn’t get sick, so I slurped it down.

One of Singapore’s quintessential dishes is fish head curry. I felt like I couldn’t leave without trying it.

To those of you who don’t like to eat your fish with its head still attached, I know this dish looks particularly unappetizing being that the body is conspicuously missing. Actually, in my opinion, the head is the best part of the fish. There’s a lot of tasty meat in the cheeks and the back of the fish head; you just have to give it chance. And then there are the controversial fish eyeballs… but I’ll just stop right there.

Anyway, at this establishment, we ate off of banana leaves instead of plates.

I wasn’t exactly sure what the condiments were included with our meal, but again they were appetizing so both Benjy and I pressed on.

I was only in town for a couple of days, so we tried to see as much as we could, namely the sights made famous by the movie, “Crazy Rich Asians.”

There was the well-known Gardens by the Bay.

Which included the flower dome and cloud forest. They were essentially enormous greenhouses. The best part was that both exhibits were air-conditioned!

There were stunning flowers and plants.

There was the church where Colin and Araminta married.

…and the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the most expensive hotels ever built.

This was as close as we got to that place.

It was a fun getaway.

Beantown

Our summer wanderings took us to the northeastern U.S., together with our long time travel companions, the Sheffields. We visited Boston and enjoyed spending a few days exploring the city.

To most, a trip to Boston would not be complete without watching the Boston Red Sox play at the venerable Fenway Park. Admittedly, I don’t consider myself a member of the baseball fan subset, but alas, all of my travel companions are, so I tagged along. During our visit, the Sox happened to be playing their arch rival, the New York Yankees and we were fortunate enough to score tickets.

Since we have some high schoolers in the group, we took the opportunity to visit a few of the many colleges in the area….

Harvard
MIT

…and took in the many historical sites.

Site of the Boston Massacre

We ventured out of the city and explored Newport, Rhode Island. We toured several of the Gilded Age mansions there.

These were the summer “cottages” of the late 19th century American aristocracy, families which included the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts and the Astors. For you Downton Abbey fans, the American heiress, Cora Crawley, likely came from the likes of this crew.

The Marble House had an exhibition of the artwork by Nicholas Party, a renowned Swiss contemporary artist. I found the artwork terribly distracting to the grandeur of the estates, but I’ve never really been a fan of modern art.

Our next stop, was a bucket list item, Plymouth Rock.

Yes folks, there it is, Plymouth Rock. It’s a rock, and not a very large one at that. I suppose it’s a historical relic, albeit a truly over-rated one.

Our final destination was Martha’s Vineyard.

We took a bike tour around the island. One of our stops was the bridge made famous in the movie Jaws. Here’s a pic I found of the character Michael Brody running down the bridge as an unsuspecting boater gets munched by the menacing shark.

Aaron and Benjamin did the infamous “Jaws Bridge” jump, a must-do on the list of attractions at Martha’s Vineyard.

It was a nice getaway with friends.

Family

 Family [fam-uh-lee, fam-lee] noun - any group of persons closely related by blood, as parents, children, uncles, aunts and cousins.

This summer was an interesting time for me to explore the definition of family and what it means to me. During the first part of the summer, we enjoyed a lot of time with family, both Benjy’s side and mine, but for me, there was a notable augmentation.

I learned about a year ago that I have a half brother. It’s a bit of a long story that I don’t really want to get into on this post, but the joyous, yet unexpected result of taking an Ancestry.com DNA test was that my half brother, Mike, found me.

This is Mike. He’s my big brother.

After about a year of connecting through email and texts, I decided it was time to meet Mike in person. So, Benjy and I booked a flight up to Syracuse, New York for our first face-to-face introduction.

Leading up to our meeting, I certainly had some moments of hesitation and uncertainty. I’ve had my own share of familial dysfunction and disappointment, so I wasn’t really searching for any more of that in my life. After much consideration and prayer (and some prodding by Benjy), I figured I really had nothing to lose. There are times in life that requires a leap of faith and this was one of those times.

As it turns out, all my hesitation was silly, really. Mike and his wife, Nancy, are such sweet, sweet people.

Their children (my 2 nieces and nephew!) are equally as kind, beautiful/handsome, brilliant, athletic and talented!

Leanne, Jacob and Jess

So, from this experience, I have come away with 2 important life lessons:

#1) There’s always room for more love if you remain open to it.

#2) Don’t miss out on blessings by over-thinking things.

It would have been easy for me to let my own emotional baggage get in the way of walking through this open door. But if I had, then I would have truly missed out on having these dear people in my life. I can’t wait for us to get to know each other better!

While we were in Upstate New York, Benjy and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Niagara Falls, so Mike was kind enough to drive us the 2 hours there and back so that we could spend some more time together and mark another item off of our bucket list.

My first look at Niagara Falls was from the U.S. side of the border and I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed. I was expecting the falls to be much grander. We then crossed over to the Canadian side, and the view there was spectacular.

It’s difficult to get a perspective of how tremendous the falls are from a photo. The amount of water constantly crashing down is enormous; more than 6 million cubic feet of water goes over the crest every minute! It’s a wonderous sight!

Benjy and I took a boat tour that cruised right to the foot of the falls. Here’s a view of one of the tour boats from above.

We got pretty drenched just from the mist coming off of the falls.

The roar of the water was deafening.

The Lord’s creation is magnificent!

After our time in New York, we spent a week at the beach with my mom, 2 of her siblings and most of the progeny therefrom.

My mom, her brother, Reuben, and sister, Luz

It’s quite an impressive assembly and this is only a small portion of the Malonzo clan since my mom has a total of 6 siblings. It makes my heart happy looking at this picture. The 2 white guys in the back (Benjy and my cousin, Maya’s husband, Chris) are a bit out of place amongst the Asian invasion and I can’t help but chuckle at the sight of it.

The family fun wasn’t limited to just the Malonzo side; we had a brief get together with the all the Abangan girls as well.

There seems to be a lot of drama and intrepidation the weeks leading up to gatherings such as this. I don’t know why; I guess it’s just a function of being part of a large family. I was guilty of my own share of hand-wringing and belly-aching, but when we all actually came together, it was really, really so nice to be with family.

Siargao

“It’s chill.”

That’s how our most recent destination was described to us by the owner (who also happens to be a Fedex pilot) of the Pacifico Resort in the Philippines. It’s an apt description, but a few others come to my mind as well.

Picturesque…

Paradise.

It’s also known to many surfers as the best place to surf in Asia.

The “resort” itself and the area where it was located was rustic and quite remote.

There was no wifi, no a/c and no hot showers…but we managed.

The boys spent one day fishing. Their trip wasn’t as fruitful as the last one here, but Aaron still managed to snag a 15 pound barracuda.

While the boys fished, the girls chilled on the beach.

We spent a day puttering around the islands on a bangkak, a Filipino fishing boat, and had lunch on the beach of fresh-caught tuna grilled over a charcoal fire. We did some snorkeling, too.

There aren’t many cars on the island, so we rented a couple of mopeds and cruised around. Out here, farmers still work with caribou to cultivate the land.

And the dogs use coconuts for toys.

Even though I have never lived in the Philippines, it feels oddly familiar and comfortable being in the homeland.

We will definitely be back!

Sailing in the Seychelles

As a Christmas/birthday/Valentines Day/any other possible present I might be eligible for in 2019, Benjy took me to the Seychelles. Yeah, I didn’t know where it was either when he first presented me with the trip. The Seychelles is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean just east of Africa.

For our jaunt to the Seychelles, Benjy cashed in the points and scored us seats on Qatar Airlines. Those Arabs know how to travel in style.

We had a layover in Doha, Qatar. We didn’t get to see anything other than the airport, but that alone was impressive. The airport is apparently known for these gigantic bears.

The perks that Benjy accumulates through his job, like airline miles and frequent guest points, enables us to travel 85-90% of the time quite comfortably, oftentimes inexpensively and, occasionally, downright splendidly. The other 10-15% of the time…well…let’s just say that part usually adds to the adventure of it all. It’s during this portion of our trip that I typically find myself (as I did here) in the middle of nowhere, lugging all my personal belongings like a pack mule, stumbling onto a bus packed to the gills with locals, having only a vague idea of where we were going and when we should get off. It was another Romancing the Stone experience.

It’s in situations like this that the disposition and character of the local people are typically revealed. So here I was looking like Quasimoto with my back pack on, standing in the aisle since there were no empty seats, sweating like a pig and holding on for dear life because the bus driver was driving like he’s racing in the Daytona 500, when this lady with a sunny face looked up at me and sweetly patted her lap offering to hold one of my bags for me. And such are the Seychellois (as the Seychelle people are called). They are so very kind and helpful. Just a few minutes later, the bus driver without prompting pulled over right where we needed to go. I think everyone was probably just as happy for us to get off that bus as we were.

The Seychelles is made up of 115 tiny islands, many of them uninhabited. To fully appreciate this island nation, Benjy determined that we should travel by boat. Now, I have never been a cruise ship kind of girl. The idea of cramming thousands of people onto a ship just doesn’t appeal to me…but this was no ship.

We sailed on a 52-foot catamaran. This would be our home for the next 7 days.

Kitchen
Dining Area; meals were served family style

There were 10 other passengers and 2 crew, a captain and a chef.

With the exception of Benjy and me, the rest of the passengers were all European. There were Germans, French, Czech, Hungarians and Italians. Some did not speak English (at least not very well) and the language most in common was German. Since we didn’t speak German, or sadly any other language, Benjy and I spent a lot of time by ourselves.

Nonetheless, we had plenty to see and do and the 360 degree views were magnificent.

On the boat we enjoyed fish caught right off the back of our boat…

…and fruit grown on the islands.

Our crew were 2 native Seychellois guys.

Randy
Ryan

Since the Seychelles was formerly a French and British colony, the Seychellois are an interesting mix of European and African culture not unlike the Creole people who live in Louisiana in the U.S. In fact, the Seychelles is one of only 2 countries in the world with the official language of Creole, the other country being Haiti. Creole is spoken at home and in everyday life, but formal French and English are taught in the schools. As a result, Seychellois speak 3 languages fluently, a fact I find remarkable considering that most Americans (including myself) can only speak one language.

Growing up in the Florida panhandle, not far from Louisiana, Benjy and are quite familiar with and love Louisiana Creole and Cajun food. It’s probably what we miss most living in Hong Kong because you definitely can’t get that kind of food here. The Creole food in the Seychelles was not what we were used to, however.

Unlike our Louisiana favorites like seafood gumbo and crawfish etouffee, Seychellois Creole food is more like Indian food. The plate of food above is a typical Seychellois Creole meal with fish curry, pureed lentils, cabbage (that was much like cole slaw) and rice. It’s spicy and it’s so, so good!

So the main reason why Benjy decided to take me to the Seychelles is because he knows that I am an animal lover and that I really enjoy snorkeling. The fauna that the Seychelles is most known for are their giant tortoises. Don’t call them turtles (as I made the mistake of doing several times); they have those too. Tortoises are the giant, terrestrial reptiles with the big shells.

These guys just wander around the islands and they can live as long as 250 years.

These two were hanging out in the middle of the street when Benjy and I pedaled by on our bikes. People just drove their cars around them.

We spent much of our time exploring uninhabited islands and snorkeling.

I didn’t have an underwater camera, so unfortunately, I can’t show you any pictures of all the sea life we encountered beneath the surface. We came upon sharks, cuttlefish, rays and all kinds of colorful fish. The absolute highlight of the trip was witnessing this…

We were enjoying a barbeque lunch on the beach when one of the Italians started yelling “tartaruga! tartaruga!” We all looked up and saw dozens of these little guys crawling out of the mangroves toward the water.

As they made their way to the ocean, many of us took on the role as guardians of the galaxy by chasing away the attacking hermit crabs, birds, and eels. To them this was an all-you-can-eat buffet right before their eyes!

As far as we know, most all of the hatchlings made it safely to the water.

What happened to them from here is anyone’s guess.

The Seychelles is also home of the world’s largest nut, the coco de mer.

The world’s largest nut, the coco de mer

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, the shape of the nut is a bit salacious. Before the Seychelles was discovered by western explorers, nuts were carried by ocean currents and washed ashore on beaches sometimes as faraway as Malaysia. Legend had it that the nuts fell from trees growing in an underwater forest in the Indian Ocean.

The coco de mer tree is a rare species of palm tree endemic to the Seychelles. The tree is enormous. It’s difficult to get perspective in a picture, but this one with Benjy in it gives you an idea of how big the tree is. One palm branch is almost twice Benjy’s height.

The Seychelles was a long journey even from Hong Kong, but it was definitely worth the trip.

Dubai

For New Years, we decided to visit Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates. For me and the kids, this was our first trip to an Arab country. The contrast in demographics from Asia to the Middle East is quite dramatic. One boards a plane surrounded by petite, black-haired, fair-skinned Asians and then emerges amidst tall, dark, bearded Arabs, Indians and Africans.

Dubai is a newly built city with most of its skyscrapers and structures constructed just within the last 10 years.

For this reason, most of the cultural appeal of this place to me wasn’t so much the city, but the people. I’m just not used to seeing men in Arab garb and women in burqas.

An interesting thing that I quickly learned about the culture is that men and women are segregated as much as possible. The last 2 cars of each metro train are for women only.

Initially, I was a little put off by the fact that I was relegated to another car, but then I realized that the women’s cars are much less crowded and, more importantly, less odiferous than the cars where men are permitted. So, I embraced the cultural difference and enjoyed my seat and the fresh-smelling air.

Arabs love the over-the-top and ostentatious; hence Dubai is the home of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. It towers at 2,722 feet.

We took a tour of the building and got some pics of the stunning views.

Dubai is also the home of one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, the Burj Al Arab.

No we didn’t stay there. Since the average cost of a room is $2,000 per night, this was as close as we got to the place.

We then toured the Spice and Gold Souqs, a market for spices, gold and other knick-knacks.

Spices
More spices
Raisins and nuts
Dates (my personal favorite)
Gold
Lights
Pottery

To be honest, the souqs to me felt very contrived, a big tourist trap with no real-life relevance. We didn’t see any local people shopping there, just a bunch of tourists like us snapping pictures and buying very little.

We then went outside of the city into the desert…

to ride ATV’s in the thick sand…

and lumber along slowly on the back of a camel.

Webley and I got some henna tattoos.

I’m glad we traveled to Dubai just to see the place, but I don’t feel the need to go back. The buildings are impressive, but after you see a tall, fancy building, you don’t really need to see it again. I was sort of disappointed at the lack of culture of the place. It seemed really artificial to me and intentionally so, almost like going to Disney World. Maybe if we had stayed longer we’d be able to find a more authentic experience, but I also think the culture of a place and its people shouldn’t be made so difficult to uncover.

Speaking of ridiculous and over-the-top, I just had to share this Dog of the Day photo:

Dog of the Day

Yes, that is a dog in a stroller being pulled by a battery-operated, pink jeep. Webley and I saw this scene as we were strolling on the waterfront in our village. 🙄🤦‍♀️

Back to Bangkok

Benjy and I celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary in Bangkok again. Normally, when we travel, food is the thing we spend the least on. We enjoy eating street food; it’s cheap, tasty and if you don’t get too hung up on hygiene standards, it adds another layer to the cultural experience.

This time, Benjy arranged for us to have a celebratory dinner at a fancy sushi place called Sushi Masato. Now, Benjy is not a sushi fan, but because he loves me so much and he knows it’s one of my favorite foods, he so generously appeased my culinary preferences. And this place was not your typical sushi bar.

Chef Masato Shimizu opened his restaurant after having spent 4 years in New York City as the head chef at Jewel Bako. While there he was honored with a Michelin star and was the youngest chef to receive such an award in New York City. While there, I’m told that Jay-Z and Beyoncé hired him to cater some of their parties.

Normally, it takes 6 months to get a reservation for one of the 2 dinner seatings at Sushi Masato, but a friend of a fellow Fedex pilot happens to be the manager of the restaurant. She got us in on 2 weeks notice.

Masato is a traditional sushi bar served only omakase which means that there is no menu. The chef selects the items upon which guests will dine. So, you just sit back and eagerly wait to see what will appear in front of you. But dining at Masato is not just about the top grade sushi; it’s also about the impeccable service.

Once the seating was underway, 3 servers positioned themselves behind the 10 guests at our seating. Their job for the next 3 hours was to remove used dishes, position appropriate cutlery and ensure that our chokos were bottomless and always filled with sake (a gratuity I later regretted, sadly).

Our gastronomic adventure started out somewhat cautiously with uni, which is sea urchin…

then quickly crescendoed with Chef Masato’s more innovative dishes.

Monkfish liver
Salmon Roe

Abalone

Baby snow crab

Our experience climaxed (no pun intended), with this dish…

Shirako or cod milt

If you care to know what it is, google it. I’ll wait.

Let’s just say neither of us was clamoring for a second helping of this.

From there, we comfortably glided into the more familiar.

chestnut and chestnut milk
eel
mackerel
squid
tofu
a little bit of this and that

We finished off with a bit of dessert.

lemon sorbet

Without being too dramatic, it was a pleasure to witness such a true master at his craft.

They were even kind enough to let us take a picture. Too much sake for me! Benjy had to hold me up.

And now I’ll end with a recent pic of Mei Mei. I know I’m biased but I think she is so cute. I love the light-toned stripe on her nose.

Nuremberg, Prague and Berlin (sort of)

After Krakow, we ended our World War II tour in Nuremberg and Berlin.

It was fitting to follow our tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps with a visit to the place where the Nuremberg trials took place. The Nuremberg trials were a series of military tribunals held after the war by the Allied forces to prosecute prominent leaders of Nazi Germany.

We went to the Nuremberg Palace of Justice and saw the notorious Courtroom 600 where the actual trials took place.

After Nuremberg, we went to Berlin. We were in the city a total of maybe 3 hours when Benjy started to pass a kidney stone. We ended up spending most of our time in Berlin either in the emergency room or holed up in our hotel room. Other than watching a World Cup game between Germany and Mexico at a German bar (before the pain literally brought him to his knees), we saw little of the city itself. There are no pictures to show. Oh well.

After surgery and massive doses of pain killers, Benjy limped back to Hong Kong. The kids and I traveled on by ourselves to Prague to finish off our European tour.

We only spent a couple of nights in Prague, but we visited the Old Town and…

…enjoyed the views from the iconic Charles Bridge.

And with that, our European tour was complete!

Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau

Our study of the European Theater of World War II would not have been complete without visiting some of the sites of the most terrifying displays of human depravity, the Nazi concentration camps.  We stopped in Krakow, Poland to see one of the most notorious of those camps, the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

Before venturing outside of Krakow for that tour, we took some time to enjoy the city first.  Dating as far back as the 7th century, Krakow is one of Poland’s oldest cities.  Our Airbnb apartment was in a quaint area not far from Old Town.

So, we wandered around the neighborhood and enjoyed the medieval architecture.

We also enjoyed some Polish street food.

Roasted polish sausage…

…from what looks like the original food truck.

Pierogis, polish dumplings

Borscht, which is a soup made from beets and cabbage.

It’s difficult for me to put into words, the rest of our stay in Krakow which included a tour of Schindler’s factory (made famous in the Steven Spielberg movie, Schindler’s List), the Auschwitz labor camp and Birkenau death camp.  The solemnity of the place hung heavy in the air like a thick sorrowful shroud.

This was the gate of Auschwitz.

The metal sign reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei.”  Work sets you free.  Most of those who were imprisoned at Auschwitz were worked to death.

We viewed a room that held items confiscated from prisoners as they arrived at the camp.  There were piles of prayer shawls, shoes, brushes, clothes, suitcases…

In one room, there was a display of human hair that had been cut from the heads of prisoners.  You could see full braids in the mountain of hair that towered to the ceiling.  We were not permitted to take pictures in this room.  The sight was hideous and I sensed a feeling of dread in my heart as I walked through.  It seemed like something terrible had taken up residence in that place and lingered there.  Our guide told us that because natural resources had become scarce in Germany, the Nazis repurposed and reused items seized from prisoners.  They used human hair to produce winter clothing like hats, coats and blankets.  A bolt of felt was on display that was produced from human hair.  You could see hair protruding from the edges of the fabric.

Cremation ovens

Nearby was the Birkenau death camp.  The distinctive German efficiency was evident here as the railroad tracks run directly to the gas chambers.  People were transported here on cattle cars and literally led to slaughter by the thousands.

I cannot comprehend how the average person could rationalize and justify the crimes committed against humanity here. It’s easy to condemn those who affirmatively participated, but what about those who stood idly by? I told Benjy that if I lived during that time, I would rather die than have on my conscience the reality of standing by and doing nothing as millions were brutally slaughtered. But that’s easy for me to say now. To a large extent, it’s likely that I am willfully blind to the injustice and suffering currently going on around me.

Lord, open my eyes, soften my heart and show me what I can do to ease others’ suffering. Forgive me when I fail to help those around me. Give me the courage to speak up and act in the face of injustice.