July 26, 2013
Travel Journal (Day 9)
Today, we spent the day in Zakopane, Poland. After all of the experiences thus far, our group needed a little love from Nature. We needed to recoup. So, we slept in past 8:00, which was very nice. Then we gathered for a decent hike up one of the mountain trails. Though it was not particularly difficult in terms of bouldering or climbing, the hike took a pretty constant incline. In a couple of areas, we were nearly walking on all fours. Nearly. This makes it hard on the lungs and muscles especially since we were at a higher altitude than Oklahoma, USA.
Yet, the hike and challenge felt good. We could all feel our hearts pumping, muscles working, and souls cleansing. Through our sweat and hard work we were able to cope with the emotions of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It felt good to challenge our bodies and to affirm our lives. Plus, we were surrounded by the beauty of the mountain forests. And once we made it to the summit, the view was outstanding. We could see for miles. Other peaks hugged our own. Sublime.
In moments like that I understand what Percy Shelley must have felt under the shadow of Monte Blanc; the sheer beauty of nature at its best, and the absolute power of such a domineering landscape. Impressive.
The hike down was more leisurely and calm. True, we did have to watch our steps and make sure we did not slip or slide or tump down the mountain, but going down is easier on the lungs while still working the heart.
I find that through exertion and exercise such as this, I am able to really work through the emotions that might battle within. For me, I struggled after the concentration camps. On the one hand, the devastation and evil that whipped through me while walking the paths that those who suffered there walked ripped at my soul. On the other hand, though, I feel compelled to live for those who no longer do. This binary of near guilt combined with the desire to be alive weighed on my shoulders. By the end of the hike, I felt a sort of enlightenment. The emotions of melancholy were completely appropriate, but so were those of fighting for life. I was able to work through my anger that people can be so cruel, my confusion at racism, bigotry, prejudice, and my guilt that perhaps I do not act when I should.
Part of this came from the feeling that I punished myself with the exertion. Really, it was more a challenge, but through my pain, I released the pressure of my emotions.
Truly, I was not the only one who dealt with this war while hiking. Though it was only four hours of the hike, when we finished we all clearly felt lighter.
After all that emotional release, we needed some bonding time, so we went to the market, and my boyfriend and I bought everyone some food for a BBQ. The students picked out what they wanted to grill–some meat, some veggies, some potatoes. We paid for their grilling food while they bought their own snacks (mainly candy bars) and beer or wine. Then we trekked back to their hostel, Good Bye Lenin, and cooked out, had some wine and beer, and communed with one another. I watched as our group of students came together and connected. Prior to this, there were a few small groups of pals, but after the BBQ, the students were definitely a cohesive unit of blossoming friendships. It was incredible.
In sponsoring and teaching short-term study abroad, I often find that this happens. By the end of the tour, the students are a family of sorts. Sure, they annoy each other (and their profs), but they also defend and respect one another. This is a wonderful outcome of culture tours like the one we are doing in central Europe.
I am proud of our group. We have experienced much culturally, endured overwhelming emotions, and grown as individuals as well as a group. I can’t wait to see what the next eight days lead to.
Image Credit: Thinkstock.com