Poland brought with it an ocean of emotions.
At first, I drowned.
Exhaustion drained the energy from my body as my friends and I travelled 300 metres below ground in the Wieliczka salt mines. I tried to keep my eyes open, but I’d overdosed on cough syrup in an attempt to counteract the virus wreaking havoc in my body. My feet were dragging and I ended up falling asleep on the salt floor in the short break we were given. Oops.
We finally surfaced (via a minuscule black box hurtling 300metres upward in pitch darkness) for a night of traditional pierogi making. Two Polish chefs fed us a variety of flavours of pierogi, with both sweet and savoury fillings, before teaching us how to pinch the corners of the dough to make our own. Enjoyable as the cooking demonstration and traditional dining experience was, one of my friends fell asleep somewhere between the entree and the main course- much to the distaste of the waiter. Evidently, we were all riding a wave of sickness and sleep-deprivation.
The waves peaked the following morning, but in an emotional rather than physical sense, as we visited the Auschwitz I & II Concentration Camp. This vile place of torture and genocide has to be the most devastating yet crucial historical site in Europe, if not the entire world. I passed through the front entrance, guarded by a black iron arch etched with the German words, ‘Work is Freedom,’ with an inevitable sense of agony draped around my shoulders.
I slowly made my way through the confronting site, wondering how those still granted the right to freedom could have possibly lived with the knowledge that 1.1 million others were being deprived of basic human rights. (Then again, is that not what we’re doing now? Carrying on our daily lives while thousands of asylum seekers are spending years deteriorating in offshore detention camps?) By the time I passed back through the gates- a privilege I was afforded that thousands of innocent people never were- I’d worked through an entire packet of tissues, mopping up the stream of tears staining my cheeks. I stood inside the gas chambers, scanned relics of suitcases, shoes and striped pyjamas, and stared at an execution wall lined with flowers. At Birkenau, I walked down the offending railway tracks and gazed out at icy fields through watery eyes, something sharp dislodging in my chest as I became conscious of the fact that the tall clumps of dilapidated brick disrupting the plain were chimneys.
The whirlpool of emotions shifted to a calm ebb and flow as the rest of the afternoon was spent exploring Krakow, the capital city of Poland. This city was intense on a different level, in terms of beauty. Glittering lights were strung across balconies to create archways between buildings, all of which were pastel-coloured and so very aesthetically pleasing. The highlight of the day was a spontaneous horse-and-carriage ride at sunset which left my heart feeling full, albeit swollen from the heaviness of the morning.
The reason everybody needs to visit Poland is that the country teaches the lesson that there are two ends to every spectrum. Although the world hurts, grieves and suffers from extreme tragedy, there will always be some form of light and hope to trust in (even if that may be in the shape of a horse-and-carriage ride).
Poland Photo Series: