Friday, September 24, 2010

Dad and The Kids Go To: Croatia!

I was driving down the Croatian coast and saw two people walking along the busy roadway. They weren't hitching, so I thought maybe they're walking the length of Croatia or something crazy. After I stopped to take a photo I saw them again and asked if they wanted a ride. That was 11 days ago and now I can't get them out of my van! I'm kidding - I don't want them out of my van. They're great company, great cooks and lots of fun. Joseph is 23, Marion is 22, and they're a German couple hitch-hiking to Israel. At first they felt a bit like they hit the jackpot, riding in a van with a stove and fridge, after hitching and wild-camping without a tent or sleeping mats. But they missed the drama and sport of not knowing what's going to happen or where they'll sleep that night, so they've set out again on their own. I left them an hour ago on the side of the road, with thumbs out...

After my last letter from Auschwitz (which still has me reverberating) I drove south. In just three days I drove from Poland through the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia and then into Croatia. Some of those countries were declared by a president to be in the Axis of WhereTheFuckIsThat, but I can't remember which ones. At the Croatian border the agent asked if I was planning on going through Bosnia. I stuttered, uh, I'm, umm, not sure. I'm driving to Turkey! He was so stunned he just let me pass. The day before I got stopped by the Czech police for driving without a highway sticker, which you have to purchase if you use the highways. Oops. Do I get the dumb American discount? He said, it's been this way for 15 years, it's not new. That didn't make the news back home somehow, so I didn't know. The "fixed fine" was 250 dollars, but I only had 65 dollars in my wallet. So they agreed to the 65 dollars and made me buy a sticker at the petrol station. It looked like a bit of a shakedown, but it was a legitimate offense, and they saved me a lot of money, so I was happy. They said it was a $1,000 fine in Slovenia, so I was relieved that they got me first. That was Lesson One.

The evening I arrived in Croatia I got stuck in the mud by driving just barely off the pavement right at the border where Croatia and Slovenia meet. That was Lesson Two. I swore I'd be more careful about muddy roads until about 30 yards later when I saw a nice little dirt road to "wild camp." 

Lesson Three arrived in the morning in the form of two friendly Policeman With Guns, who found it surprising that someone would camp illegally 30 meters from an international border. When they put it that way, I was a little surprised, too. After a mini-interrogation, I apologized for being a dope and they said, no problem. It turns out that it's illegal to stay outside of an established campground here, so I've been in campgrounds since. Some of the spots have been right on the sea and spectacular.

I'd like to write more, but I'm running out of time. (How could that be, you're on perpetual vacation? I can't explain it.) Enjoy the photos!


Oops. I got pulled out by a newer VW van. He asked, in his non-English, if I had a rope, and I said no. I was fishing around for dental floss and wondering how many loops it would take when I found a REALLY nice tow rope in the back of the van. That might be Lesson Four: buy a van from someone who outfits it well.
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I spent three nights in the campground above this little village. One day I took a 7-hour hike that just about finished me. I got lost taking a "shortcut" through a forest and imagined myself spending the night there.
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This is a 500 year old olive press that was used until 1970. A horse was brought into this room to spin the stone around. The village is about 1,000 years old and only a four hour drive from Venice. 
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The first stop with Joseph and Marion in a little village way below the highway.
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In the village we met this gentleman, who was born in the house just across the street and recently moved back. He works for a month in Niger, Africa, then is home for a month. He speaks good English and German, works in French, and also speaks Portuguese and Spanish, along with his native Croation. He fishes with a net for fun, but on this day he caught 200 kilos of fish (440 pounds) and was busy cleaning them. He noted that his wife wasn't willing to help him clean them. Imagine that.
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The narrow road through this village went between the restaurant and the patio cafe on the right side. That's our waiter, running for his life.
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Exploring some ruins and eating some good sheep cheese and bread.
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The Kids go for a swim.
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We came across this giant purple poop in a national park. (Insert your own purple cartoon character joke here. Barney comes to mind.) Turns out it's from a bear! It looks like one I saw in Alaska. If you were wondering.
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A praying mantis.
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A beautiful cave in the national park. 
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We hiked from the valley far down to the left, up and over this mountain. It involved some climbing and was pretty rigorous.
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Love this! This is from the beautiful city of Zadar. The history of this town is overwhelming and defies simplification. Already an important trading partner (with the frickin' Phoenicians) in 7th century B.C., they were given special status by Julius Caesar, conquered by the Venetians, who ran the place for three and a half centuries, invaded twice by the Crusaders, affected by the Huns coming to Europe, taken over by the Italians, then the Germans, the Ottomans, the Serbs, the Klingons, I don't who else. It's incredible:
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This is taken from the top of the old castle/fortress in Sibenik.
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The old town of Sibenik.
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Limestone waterfalls at Krka National Park.
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Krka National Park
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Krka National Park
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A plant growing underwater in a stream at Krka.
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Villages like this are typically 500 or 1,000 years - some are 2,000 years old, and people have lived in the area centuries before Christ. It amazes me that they'd build such a beautiful place before there was tourism.
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Olive oil at a market.
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A peak inside a private patio in the center of the old town, Trogir.
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One of the many mega-yachts on the Croatian coast. This is the beautiful town of Trogir.
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Just a few days before the full moon on a beach just north of Split.
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We walked for several hours from our campground in Split to the town center. This former disco must have been something in its day. It was mostly walled up.
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This is the locally famous sport of Picigin, invented in Split 80 years ago. Five people play in a circle hitting a peeled tennis ball open-handed to each other, diving and having a blast. It looks so fun.
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Split has an incredible history. There's evidence that people lived here in the 7th century B.C., but the town had an official founding when Roman Emperor Diocretius decided to build a massive palace/fort right on the coast and retire here. That was in 306 A.D. This is the basement of the structure that was his living quarters. Spectacular to my eyes.
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Most of the basement area is original. The floor above, which had the same layout originally, was modified many times over the centuries. You can do a lot of remodeling in 1,700 years.
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This is an artist's rendering of the original palace, painted in 1912.
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These original stones are in a stepped pattern in places, which partially accounts for its longevity. There's no mortar between the blocks, and some of the walls are 10 feet (3 meters) thick.
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More of the basement, paralleling the sea.
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Some of the original walls. Many people live inside what used to be the palace of an emperor. Wow.
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Looking down into the village within the old walls.
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Someone's private garden.
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Inside the walls, the woman sitting on the chair is chatting with a neighbor who's at a window.
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The limestone gets highly polished as people walk on it. This is one of the town squares.
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Octopi at the fish market.
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The fish market at Split.
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(The End!)

Monday, September 06, 2010


I drove a long afternoon and evening into Poland yesterday, to the Auschwitz concentration camp. It was a cold and wet day, and as I arrived in the area there was a monster-movie fog, wispy and irregular, growing at times into a thick soup that made it hard to drive. I misread my GPS about campgrounds being nearby, so I started looking, unsuccessfully, for a forest. Note to self: that's tough to do at 10 p.m. when it's foggy. I ended up parking at the end of a little lane that led to some type of business. By the time I turned the van around and parked, I was totally disoriented and could barely make out the road I'd just drove in on. A little creepy, and a nice start to Auschwitz.

I came to Auschwitz hoping for a little understanding of what happened here. I can't say that I made any progress. At the end of a few hours tour, our tour guide summed up his version simply enough. He said it happened because one group of people thought they were better than everyone else. And he said it has happened since, in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and other places. And he added, ominously, "Humans will never learn. Never."

While that assessment might be true globally, it needn't be true for ourselves. Be vigilant. And while "Charity begins at home," you could probably also say that bigotry begins at home, and hardened hearts begin at home. Even concentration camps begin at home. 

Words fail me. I can't hold the scope and power of the brutality that happened here. It wasn't a wild-eyed fanatical murder. It was a cool, "level-headed" calculated murder that makes it that much more chilling and enigmatic. I give up. For now.

Much love,

It's a little too beautiful considering what happened here.
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A couple of Jewish boys happened to be looking out the window of one of the museum buildings. I can only imagine it's a different experience for them than for me.
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When the main crematoriums that could turn 15,000 people a day into ash weren't enough, they burned people in an open pit.
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Prosthetics. Anyone who couldn't work would be gassed immediately. That includes anyone with artificial limbs. Or old people, or children, or pregnant woman...
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Suitcases. They were told to mark them so they could pick them up after they "showered." 
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Shaving brushes.
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There were many hundreds of photos in one hallway, but this young man stood out. Wow. He survived for a year, which is twice the average for people who weren't gassed immediately.
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There were very few escapes. The most famous one, apparently, was four Poles who managed to steal Nazi uniforms, and the fastest car from the garage. They drove out the front gate, and were never caught. One of them is still alive. (Take that, ya Nazi bastards.)
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A cremation oven.
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A toilet house.
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Almost all of the wooden buildings were dismantled just after the war. 
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Living quarters for the men. There were typically 400 men in this building.
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The Nazis built a train track into the camp for efficiency.
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"For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe." There is a plaque in maybe 15 languages, lined up at the monument.
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In this very building, according to our guide, probably 250,000 people were killed. They were lead down the steps, up to 2,000 at a ime, where they stripped off their clothes. In the next room they waited for showers as cyanide gas pellets were dropped among them. Those closest to the gas died immediately, and everyone was dead within 20 minutes. The Nazis blew up the building when they realized they were going to be overrun by the Soviets, to hide the evidence of their crimes.
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Just yards from there, the forest is beautiful. What a contrast.
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Some of the victims.
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Self-portrait. Go ahead and read the inscription, too, since it's there. (It's not obvious, but I am wearing pants.)
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Auschwitz-Birkenau was about one square mile in size and could hold 100,000 people. It would take more than an hour just to walked the perimeter. Shit.
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One of the brick buildings, where women who had been sentenced to death awaited their fate. They weren't given food or water, sometimes for days, and some died in this building before they could be gassed.
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Is it beautiful? Guard tower, barbed wire and all? I don't know.
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(The End)