Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2

Poland and Czech Republic


Well, it’s been a while since my last newsletter and a fair bit has happened in the meantime, but as always to take off from where I last left you, in this case I was heading to Poland from Lithuania.

The journey from Vilnius to Gdansk was unexciting and the duty free shop was impressive, as it was I think the only one I think I have ever seen that does not sell any booze, particularly strange when one considers that there are alcoholics both sides of these borders. On arrival in Gdansk Brad and I went to try and find the hostel which we eventually did, only to be informed that firstly we could not check in until four o’clock and secondly that we could only stay there one night as they would be closing early for Christmas. This wasn’t just early it was several days before. To cap it all we were then told there was an eleven o’clock curfew after which we would not be allowed back in. It makes one wonder if they realise that the communist times have past. Anyway, off we went to have a look around town. If I start off by saying that Gdansk was pretty much levelled during the Second World War it will seem that there can’t be too much of appeal to see, however that is not the case. This is due to the monumental reconstruction efforts that took place in Poland, particularly in Warsaw and Gdansk. The main street is a step back in time to with a particular emphasis on Art Nouveau and it all looks very authentic as it has been reproduced true to the original buildings that stood in these spots. Off the main street are some lovely small lanes with interesting buildings, generally selling tourist paraphernalia. Apart from the good looking market street and surrounds there is a massive and interesting cathedral with an exhibition on Pope John Paul II, Poland’s favourite son. Some of the pictures are quite amusing, particularly the ones of him skiing in his priestly garb.

In the evening we got back before curfew and had an early night as a result followed by an early start as we were being kicked out. We stowed our gear at the train station and we went to Westerplatte, the place where WWII started on 1st September 1939. There wasn’t really a heck of a lot to see unfortunately as the monuments were covered in snow and were not particularly dramatic. Nowadays it is mostly just a busy freight port with an area given over for the monuments and some remains of fortifications. So we headed back to Gdansk had more of a look around town, then parted company – I headed a couple of hours south to Malbork.

Malbork is a small town, the only reason to visit it is to see the big castle, which is very big. Unfortunately once again it was largely destroyed during the war and was extensively rebuilt. It has been done very well, but is a little bit sterile as a result and doesn’t feel rustic the way a medieval castle should.

As everything seemed to be shutting down towards Christmas time I thought I would head to the capital, Warsaw where it should be possible still to do things in this Catholic country. The first hostel I went to had already shut down for Christmas, not a good sign. I went to another and checked in without any problem apart from being informed that they also had a ridiculous curfew. After chatting to an Italian guy in my room, he mentioned that the place was also closing for Christmas, but not until the next day. I went and asked the receptionist if this was true, she said it was. It pissed me off that she didn’t seem to think it was something that she should have told me when I checked in, I managed however to get her to find somewhere else for me for the duration of Christmas, actually in another hostel across town and make a reservation. So, after another early night we were all ejected from the place and I headed across town to my third hostel in Warsaw in less than twenty-four hours. The hostel I went to was thankfully a little more relaxed and had no intention of closing over the Christmas period.

I went and had a look around town again and was once again impressed by the colossal rebuilding in the old town. Although it is not authentic, it is near perfect recreation and doesn’t seem at all Disney, but appears to be a proper old town centre. There is however a down side to this. When Warsaw was demolished by the Germans on a building by building basis in the end it was just a desert of rubble. The post war communist administration decided it wanted to have its capital in Warsaw (there were some calls to move it to the ancient capital and largely unscathed town of Krakow) where it had been before the war. So a massive rebuilding effort took place and bricks were “donated” by smaller towns around the country. In order to meet the quota set by the government though many small, authentic, attractive and previously undamaged towns were razed in order to supply the bricks to rebuild Warsaw.

Before everything shut down for Christmas I went shopping to stock up on provisions to bide me over the period. On Christmas day itself I went with John - a Yank and Simon a Kiwi to walk the Jewish tour around Warsaw. Our first stop was to the Old Jewish Cemetery, which was very photogenic, particularly with the snow that covered so many of the tombs. For some reason the cemetery was spared the wanton Nazi destruction and although requiring maintenance and repairs exists today much as it has for hundreds of years. From there we walked along through where the old ghetto used to be and is now commemorated by large stones marking where and when major uprisings took place. This route also took one to several monuments commemorating the slaughter, the uprisings and quite simply the struggles that took place in Warsaw’s Jewish community. Otherwise Christmas was a non-event, as it usually is for me.

On Boxing Day I went off to see the Royal Palace which was rebuilt to the original drawings and interior designs of the original. Once again the Poles excelled at this, but gain the place has a rather sterile unused feel to it as a result. There were however many interesting rooms and artworks to see. I then went to the Warsaw history museum which was not the most fascinating but did have an interesting film showing the extent of the destruction by the end of the war and how the Germans literally went from house to house with explosives to level the place. My final cultural stop was to the National Museum, where there are some excellent paintings, including some by Jan Matejko, Poland’s most popular artist – who I also thought was rather good.

From Warsaw I headed onto Krakow, as mentioned previously Krakow was Poland’s more ancient capital and is an old town. This time the old town is actually genuine and it has a lot more character than those places I had previously visited. The market square is particularly large and is the centre of the interesting part of town. The former Royal part though is a short way south in Wawel. Wawel has a nice cathedral and the royal apartments, as well as some interesting exhibits. It is possible to climb the clock tower although it is more like an obstacle course up stairs, in order to get good views across town.

Krakow has become synonymous with the holocaust due to both its previously thriving Jewish community and its proximity to Auschwitz, somewhere every visitor to Krakow should see. After the two hour journey there, the first thing was to watch some film footage of the place after liberation by the Soviet troops in 1945. This was similar stuff to what has been shown in countless documentaries and films. Then we met up with a guide who showed us around the Auschwitz 1 site. We walked through the famous gate with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Work makes you free in wrought iron. Then the size of the complex begins to dawn, as one sees rows and rows of buildings. Many of the former sleeping and other buildings have now been changed to exhibitions. Some of these were historical with pictures maps etc. and others displayed stores the Nazis hadn’t yet utilised. For example in one room was a huge quantity of human hair from slaughtered women, to be used for stuffing mattresses and cushions. Another had a big pile of spectacles, from the deceased. Yet another was filled with thousands of shoes, but for some reason one that was particularly evocative of the scale of the genocide was the room full of prosthetic limbs that had been taken from the victims. We were shown around reconstructions of sleeping quarters and the wardens offices. A bizarre part of the tour was to the punishment and torture cells. It was peculiar to think that these people who were being killed, punished and tortured daily still had to worry about the horror they might expose themselves to here. There were various types of cells that would further dehumanise the victims.

From Auschwitz 1 we went to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. As Jan the guide explained the name concentration camp is incorrect there were no concentration camps there were death camps and extermination camps. None of the camps were designed to keep people interred for long the purpose of them all was in the death of the inmate, some indirectly through work or experimentation, others directly by execution. Auschwitz I was death camp and Birkenau was the extermination camp that is unrivalled in world history for its unparalleled efficiency at killing people. When it was running the bodies were piling up quicker than they could be disposed of through mass graves, crematoria, even open air fires. The most conservative estimates reckon on one point one million victims here, the generally agreed number is one and a half million souls. Most of these were Jews, but did also include Gypsies, Homosexuals, Catholic Priests, Political activists and general undesirables according to the Nazis. The complex at Birkenau is daunting in size with a capacity to sleep one hundred thousand prisoners. After the first couple of years of operation the trains would pull through the camp directly and all the transportees who had survived the journey would be ushered to the infamous showers directly as they had been sorted before boarding into those who could or could not work. Then the prisoners would have to shave the women’s hair, extract all the gold teeth sort through the belongings and dispose of the bodies. When at full throughput the flow of death was absolutely unrelenting, coupled with this, the brutality, the long winter and extreme cold and the inhumane conditions most of those prisoners didn’t survive longer than a few weeks.

The visit to Auschwitz was an enlightening although sombre experience, the harsh weather made it all more stark, yet it was and is impossible to empathise entirely with what happened. Most of the visitors seemed quite sensitive to this, but then there were some who would be smiling and posing for a photo under the famous gate, that was a bit odd to see. Anyway, by the end of the tour we got back to the bus for the return to Krakow, except the driver had found he had a hole in his pocket and had lost the keys so we couldn’t get in. So a few of us gathered around in the snow chatting and trying to keep warm whilst a replacement bus or spare keys came from Krakow. After a little while I saw a bus empty except for the driver, wanting to get out of the cold for a bit I managed to convince to let us wait in his nice warm bus until either our replacement came or his clients returned, something he reluctantly agreed to as long as it was only a handful. So defrosting and chatting in the bus another bus arrived with the replacement keys, but the wrong bloody ones. Having dealt with the cold for long enough we all stormed onto the other bus regardless as to whether we were invited or not.

On New Years Eve, Mario (a Chilean fellow I had met at the hostel I was staying in) and I decided to try and see the Wielizka Salt Mines as they were supposed to be rather interesting. After getting on the wrong bus and going too far, we managed to get a bus to the mines only to find they weren’t open that day anyway. So back to Krakow to get some tickets for a club that had been recommended for the evening. In the evening we went and ate well in order to get us through what we expected to be a big night.

The club was good fun and not too full as they had kept the numbers down to make it a bit cosier. There were different floors and rooms with different music and the DJ in one room was particularly good, accompanied by Rafo on guitar and Laetitia on flute. Everyone was having a good time and a number of drinks were included in the ticket price including a bottle of Champagne - actually Asti. At about eleven thirty everyone poured into the market square where there were many thousands watching a concert and then as midnight came champagne corks flew and it was as though it was raining Champagne. Many people also had fireworks which they released hand held in the crowd and the town also put on a great fireworks display which looked great in the setting of the old town square. Some Polish group played some folksy music and everyone danced hugged and kissed. Generally everyone was having a good time and there was a good atmosphere. We then went back in the club to boogie the night away which we did successfully, finally getting back to our abodes at about nine in the morning. A good night was had by all, but the following day was a total right off as a result.

The day after I finally made it to Wielizka which was interesting as the miners apart from simply mining salt often carved statues, rooms and even massive churches into the salt. The guide an ex-miner was good fun and made the experience more entertaining as a result. When I got back to Krakow I wandered around the Kasamierz (old Jewish) district. In the area there are still a couple of synagogues and the like and more peculiarly some Jewish theme restaurants. Then in the evening Mario and I headed off to Prague on an overnight train, which after some initial confusion was not too uncomfortable and we arrived early the following morning in the capital of the Czech Republic.

Prague is an extremely attractive city with a collection of interesting architecture, some of the gothic and baroque stuff has quite a sinister look to it I really appreciated, particularly the Tin church, clock tower and Karlovy Most (Charles Bridge). On my first day I went up to the Castle to have a look around. The Cathedral there is phenomenal and there are other points of interest there, but the Cathedral is the dominating feature. Another day I did a Jewish tour of Prague as there are some interesting synagogues and museums and a famous old Jewish cemetery. Several times we tried to get up early enough to productive things but after several hard nights on the tiles I decided I needed to move along, initially I was going to go to Berlin next. I decided I couldn’t be bothered with the Germans so would go directly to Amsterdam, but then had realised I missed my dog and wanted to see him, so I got a bus with Lindal an Australian girl to Paris where we then got onto a train to London (we had already missed the bus to London). At Waterloo I got on the tube to Pinner station and then walked back home to a welcome of no-one. My parents were away (something I knew in advance) and the dog was with a minder. I set about getting myself in order – something I have almost finished and have tried to organise all that needs to be organised in my brief sojourn.

Although I am home at the moment I am not going to be for too long I feel. I am going to be heading off to Brazil soon, after all it is Carnival time imminently. This trip will not be a long one though, only a couple of months – just to see a little bit of Latin America.



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