First Impressions: Johannesburg

It is a bit colder than I expected, but it is only nine in the morning. We wait at Carousel 3 for our luggage and discuss the options of leaving Africa a bit earlier than we intended – with our Canadian entry permit only valid for 90 days, we’re not exactly sure what will happen when we attempt to re-enter from Mozambique after November 23rd has passed.

Hills of Jo'burg from street
Hills of Jo’burg

Missing in Action

Unlike Berlin, the luggage trolleys here are free and we happily throw our four carry on bags on. Moreno finds his backpack, then my backpack, and then we wait for our giant duffel of camping equipment. It doesn’t show. It is not in the Fragile Baggage Pickup, or doing the rounds on any other carrousel; we cannot see it mistakenly taken on someone else’s cart. It is missing.

These things happen of course, and our Lufthansa representative is calm and kind and is quickly able to tell us that the bag simply didn’t make the flight from Frankfurt, which makes some sense seeing how our connecting flights were pretty tight. It will be delivered to our South African address the next day.

Tour of Jo’burg

We are picked up by the seller of the Land Rover we are purchasing and he takes us on a scenic route back to his house so we can get a tour of Johannesburg. The city is 7,000 feet above sea level, which explains the cold. It is extremely dry here. Very arid. There hasn’t been rain since April and humidity is only at 18%.

Johannesburg road from the back of the Landy
Johannesburg road from the back of the Landy

Jo’burg is huge. From the airport, the city spans from 25 to 50 kilometers out in every direction in a thick consistency of houses and shacks. The highways have four lanes, and the majority of cars are white or light colored, in an effort by the citizens to evade the heat however they can.

We pass under a white structure – toll readers, newly constructed, but the people of South Africa have banded together in annoyance and everyone refuses to purchase the vignettes – why should they have to pay for the highways when as tax payers, so many of them already do?

And there’s almost no way to enforce it, either: not paying the toll would be a civil, but not a criminal, offense, and there are loads of the best South African and international lawyers standing by ready to fight for the first person that gets tried in the courts. It is the first time that South Africa has come together in 20 years: together, they refuse to pay the toll.

Depleted hills of gold, Johannesburg, South Africa
Fun fact: Johannesburg sits on mountains of gold, and all the powdered yellow hills around are its depleted honeycombs

A Violent Reality Check

The people get more condensed the closer into town we get. James takes us right through Hillbrow, the worst part of the city, so that we never want to go through there again. It is barely two kilometers long, but it is packed. The population is overwhelmingly black. Everything is some muted colour of beige; the dry landscape, the dusty roads, the faded buildings. Crime is mostly individual but there is some gangsterism in this area.

Violence is rampant and James gives us advice on things like how much to keep the windows open: in the rural areas outside of the city, they’re fine all the way down, but in town, you might want them up just less than an arm’s width; as James’s experience tells us, more than an arm width and you could find yourself mid-hijacking with a gun to your temple.

View of street stretching ahead in Johannesburg
Driving in Jo’burg

An Uncomfortable First Impression

We were told Johannesburg is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and to avoid it if at all possible. We couldn’t. Now being here as a tourist, experiencing it from the safety of an electrically fenced-in house, I’m both more frightened than I should be, and yet too naive to really know what’s good for me. That said, I can tell there is tension, and it makes me uncomfortable. And I don’t want to be around when it explodes.

To Siena for Lunch: The Palio Victory Parade

We’re all about side trips and spontaneity here, and just as we weren’t expecting to go to Stuttgart after Poland, we sure weren’t expecting to find ourselves in Siena while in Italy!

Typical view in Siena - Anywhere Bound
Wide hilly winding alleyways typical of Siena

After a much quieter than expected day in the little Veneto town of Cornuda, Italy, finding ourselves without a place to sleep, and with much less family outings to go to than expected, Moreno and I were lamenting about what a shame it is to be so close to our good friend Giacomo and yet to not be able to visit him. That was when Moreno suggested we try to catch him wherever he was, and so, four hours later, we found ourselves bound for the hilltop walled city of Siena.

Siena Preserved

Siena lies 80km south of Florence, it’s biggest rival. In  1348, the Black Death killed about 60% of the town’s population, and the city never quite recovered, losing all hope of regaining prominence. Siena thus remained submerged in its medieval history, and in the 1960’s was rediscovered by tourists who found it almost completely preserved, its people devoted to their culture and traditions to this day.

The Palio

The Palio is perhaps the greatest of these traditions. In the simplest terms, the event is a 90 second horse race for a banner (note the hoof prints in the title image); in more complex terms it is what those true to Siena live for.

The Palio, Siena
The Palio – the hand painted silk banner prize of the race

Siena is divided up into 17 Contrade (districts), each with their own flag, colours, church and animal. Twice a year (July 2 and August 16 ), ten jockeys and horses representing the selected Contrade race to win the Palio – a banner of painted silk uniquely painted each year which features the Virgin Mary and Child.
The winning contrada is able to hang the Palio in their church, and for months on afterwards celebrate the fact that they won. They are also able to celebrate that their rivals did not – rivalry is still strong between the Contrade, and acts such as shoving, hitting, and hampering horses in order to win are not forbidden. In fact, only nine horses raced this August, as one fell ill shortly before the race in what was rumoured (and accepted) as an act of sabotage.

The Victory of the Owl

The Civetta Contrada Victory Parade, Siena Anywhere Bound
The Civetta Contrada ready to lead on their Victory Parade

Though we missed the race, Moreno and I were there to witness a small part of the Victory Parade of the winning Contrada – the Civetta, or Little Owl. The residents of the Civetta district were there to support their Contrada wearing scarves matching their Contrada’s flag. Those more directly involved wore full costumes as they whistled or drummed along with the parade as it came down the alleys, preceding the winning horse and, more importantly, the Palio which was being paraded through the town.

Il Piato Misto, Siena
Can’t go wrong with a sampling of Italian food…

We did eventually have a delicious lunch in some quaintly chaotic hole in the wall trattoria – a plato misti (mixed plate) featuring a sampling of traditional and featured dishes – but not before taking in the rest of Siena as well: a must if you’re anywhere in central Italy (or elsewhere)!

Monte Pasubio: A Hike of 52 Tunnels

Monte Pasubio, a rocky summit in Vicenza, was the site of some of the most important battles of the Italian Front in the First World War.  Today it attracts hundreds of hikers each day who come to climb and even scramble up its steep trails and tunnels.

Getting There

The two hour drive from the tiny town of Cornuda passes through vineyards, corn fields and other villages before arriving at Paso Xomo.  Yes, unlike Italian, there are x’s in Venexian the language of my ancestors which is spoken in these parts.  At Xomo, there is parking available for 5 Euros. The trail head begins with a large sign marking the entry to the Strade Delle 52 Gallerie as well as information plaques in Italian, German and English.

Entrance to Monte Pasubio hike
Start point of Monte Pasubio hike

The 52 Gallery Hike

The hike takes you up a 6.5 km mule track that served as a supply road for the Italian military positions here in the First World War.   2,300 meters of the path are contained within 52 tunnels and the 2.5m wide path has an average incline of 12%, with 22% at its steepest.

Monte Pasubio Scarubi road
Monte Pasubio Scarubi road

Recognizing the importance of holding onto Mt. Pasubio and the whole alpine plateau, The Italian miners constructed this supply route in just 9 months. The road and tunnels are a fine example of Italian alpine engineering and hard work: Tunnel n.19 is the longest excavated passage at 320m and tunnel n.20 makes 4 helical turns as it rises steeply inside a rock spire which provides access to higher portions of the mountain. It is akin to walking inside a giant corkscrew.

Monte Pasubio inside tunnel
Monte Pasubio inside tunnel

Not far from the exit of tunnel n.52 is the Porte del Pasubio, the final halt of the Austro-Hungarian Strafexpedition (Punitive Expedition) offensive. One hundred meters from that is the Refugio Generale Achille Papa, a lodge where weary hikers can refuel with local meals like polenta e funghi or minestrone.

I made my descent from Porte del Pasubio at 1928m, via the Scarubi road, a much wider supply road that winds its way down the northeast face of Pasubio, to Paso Xomo at 1058m.

Trail markers Monte Pasubio
Trail markers Monte Pasubio

History of Monte Pasubio

Monte Pasubio tunnel n.1
Monte Pasubio tunnel n.1

Monte Pasubio was of great strategic importance to both the Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces and huge efforts were made to gain control of it.  The Austrian offensive in the Trentino was comprised of 18 divisions, 400,000 men and more than 2,000 cannons.  By 1916 at least 50,000 Italian soldiers were living, fighting and dying on Pasubio’s windswept slopes.  The Italians constructed makeshift huts that were attached to the side of the mountain and safe from Austrian artillery.

In the winters most of the fighting subsided as both sides were busy just trying to survive the frigid temperatures and the terrifying threat of avalanches.  During three winters of alpine combat at least 60,000 soldiers were killed by avalanches. To put that into perspective, on the entire Western Front a total of 25,000 troops died as a result of poison gas attacks.

Scarubi road and cliff Monte Pasubio
Scarubi road and cliff Monte Pasubio

With fighting on Pasubio resulting in stalemate, each side began mining under each others’ positions in an attempt to detonate explosives underneath sections of the opposing forces’ front line.  On March 13, 1918 the Austrians ignited a 50,000kg explosive under an Italian position completely destroying it.

However, Monte Pasubio never fell and the forces of the Triple Alliance were eventually repelled as Italy marched to victory in 1918.

A History Lesson in Berlin

Our side trip to Berlin was only intended to be a quick visit with some friends and a stopover beween Vancouver and Poland.  Once on the ground, I was sucked in by its history, and my interest in the Second World War meant my eyes and ears were open to taking in more than just bier and currywurst.

The Berlin Wall

Bricks signifying where the Berlin Wall once stood.
Bricks on the sidewalk signify where the Berlin Wall once stood.

Kat’s friend and travel companion from southeast Asia now lives in Berlin. She gave us our first taste of history by pointing out the paving bricks that wind their way through Berlin’s neighborhoods marking the location of the mostly torn down Berlin Wall.  They are a stark reminder of how Cold War politics cut the world in two and literally divided a city.

Stolpersteine: Emotional Stumbling Blocks

On a walk along a quiet side street in Berlin’s Kreuzburg neighborhood our friend come tour guide directed our attention to a grouping of small brass plaques sunken into the sidewalk.  The words are in German.  There are dates and a name.  None of it has meaning until the last word is read. Auschwitz.

Stolpersteine on a sidewalk in Berlin
Stolpersteine on a sidewalk in Berlin.

Motivated by a conversation with a Cologne resident who denied that any Sinti or Roma (gypsies) had lived in her neighborhood before the war, artist Gunter Demnig began a quest to symbolically return the missing and murdered holocaust victims to their homes.  Stolpersteine, meaning stumbling blocks, are 10x10cm concrete paving blocks with brass plaques offering some details of a former resident or worker.

The stolpersteine are placed at the foot of the door of the last known place of residence or work of a victim.  These small and simple markers may not protrude from the ground for one to trip over, but do induce an emotional “stumble” as one walks the streets of Berlin and spots a shiny plaque on the ground in front of a doorway that reads, “Here lived Arthur Simon, born October 1872, deported March 2, 1943, murdered in Auschwitz.”

Topography of Terror: Where Horrible Decisions Were Made

Further into the centre of the city or mitte, meaning middle, we arrived at the site that once housed the SS and Gestapo headquarters. Now the Topography of Terror, an indoor/outdoor museum documenting the rise of Nazism, occupies the land, chronicling some of the cold decisions that were made inside the darkest offices of the Third Reich.

A preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, outside the Topography of Terror, Berlin
A preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, outside the Topography of Terror, Berlin

Here “the Jewish and Gypsy question” was answered with concise and deliberate plans of action.  The idea of erasing whole populations and whole cultures was drawn up in this place.  For instance, the plans to invade Poland, destroy Warsaw, and force labour upon, deport or murder its citizens were conjured up inside these neat offices by well educated men in pressed uniforms and peaked caps.  The heartless logic the Nazis employed is sickening, and some of the featured quotes really drive home that effect.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews

In the heart of the capital is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a huge site of stelae in varying heights and set in undulating terrain.  More than 2,700 concrete slabs occupy almost 5 acres right by the famous Brandenburg Gate: a site fitting to honor the Jewish victims, and a massive symbol of the responsibility the Germans feel as a people and a nation for the crimes of their grandfathers.

Concrete slabs at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe
Concrete slabs at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe

However, it feels somewhat insufficient as a memorial given the gravity of the occasion being memorialized. The signs referring to the Memorial are barely noticeable.  Without prior knowledge it is difficult to tell exactly what the area is supposed to be and there are no markings of any kind on any of the blocks.  Luckily, there is no graffiti thanks to a high tech anti-graffiti coating used on the blocks, but it isn’t without a perverse irony that the same company that made the coating also made Zyklon B, the poison used in the gas chambers where so many of the memorialized Jews here were put to death.

There is no mention of the reason these people were murdered, by what mechanism or by whose hands.  There is no information available, not one sign asking for respectful behavior. This utter lack of guidance means what you are likely to see are children and parents playing hide and seek in the maze-like setting, teenagers jumping on the blocks, families sitting and eating on them, and countless people taking tasteless selfies with thumbs up, big smiles and even middle fingers in front of what is supposed to be a solemn place.  It would appear that the only ones who come to reflect on the six million Jews who were put to death are the informed.

Berlin: An Important Stop

Being my first and long anticipated visit to Germany I am thrilled to have been pulled in by its history.  Despite what I feel about the need for more information around the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, I am mostly satisfied and moved by Germany’s attempts to atone for the sins of the Nazis.  I’m happy Berlin became a stop on our short European trip and can say that no trip here would be complete without a visit to some of these important sites.

First Impressions: Berlin

Everything is closed on Sundays.

The big streets look almost abandoned as we emerge from the U-Bahn station and realize that finding our air b&b room won’t be as easy as we first thought. Luckily the cafes are open on Sundays – Berlin parties hard and it’s a given everyone will need their coffee after a Saturday night out. Most cafes, therefore, are closed on Mondays. This doesn’t help however: despite its status as a major capital city, WiFi is hard to come by in Berlin, and we are stuck sitting on the side of the road for a while before we find our bearings again.

Berlin wall, west (L) and east (R)
A slightly skewed but valid representation of the two sides of the Berlin wall.

Berlin is different than I expected.

It is not as shiny – a metallic metropolis of high rises is not visible upon our arrival, nor further into the city center.  What modern building exists is sparse and barely protrudes between the old brick residences, communist concrete rectangles, and the eloquent churches and halls from long ago.

It is both bigger and smaller than I thought. Converted into the capital city for a united Germany (then Prussia) in the late 1800’s, it was eventually built up for 6 million people with condensed centers filling in the spaces between the villages to make it so. But this did not make up for Berlin not having the most thriving economy in the country. The city never fully filled in, and today just over half that number actually live within its borders.

Berlin is unlike any other city in Germany. A friend from California and another from elsewhere in Germany both cite “openness” and “freedom” as the reasons they chose to move here. The city is more tolerant, more welcoming, more flexible. It is less judgmental, less rule-oriented, less strict.

And so it is more international, and more multicultural. There are Turks among the Germans, Danish and English heard amid German. The third generation Turks, brought here as necessary workers after a severe lack of men post war, are now an accepted part of society, their own cultures permeating what “typical Berlin” includes. The Roma and Sinti (gypsies), however, are a new phenomenon, still striving for that acceptance and freedom,  even the Turkish kiosk clerks shooing them away.

My favourite piece in Berlin - unkempt greenery over graffitti covered walls.
My favourite piece in Berlin – unkempt greenery over graffitti covered walls. And of course, a bicycle.

There are more backpackers, and whether the tourists or the ambiance came first, Berlin feels like the Khao San Road of Germany. Despite flying through trends, fashion follows the simple rule of not trying too hard: dressed up in Berlin often means your clothes are actually clean. Bier can be purchased for €1 at the nearest corner store and leisurely sipped walking down the street.

Berlin is also grittier than I expected. Less clean and proper. More colorful and unkempt. The result is charming. There is graffiti everywhere. But it is safe: besides some strong suggestions to not walk through Gorlitzer Park at night, most crime is petty, and no one really balks at walking alone in the dark.

The canal near Kreuzberg, Berlin
Sitting on the canal near Kreuzberg, Berlin

Berlin is a hedonistic city – a lot of things are still about pleasure: the partying, the fashion, the socializing with friends on the canal. But what seems to draw the crowds here is what Berlin embodies – tolerance, acceptance and freedom – to be who you are and do as you please.