I'm not sure what I was expecting to experience in Poland. An iinner identity renaissance catalysed by the motherland? Some spiritual epiphany amongst the catholicism run rampant? Or just a beer-and-pierogie-fueled joyride?
Eastern Poland is cold and still haunted by communism. Ravaged and mangled Marxist energies hang over Warsaw in the form of boxy buildings and a general suspicious contempt for foreigners. Forward movement is attempted in the fresh coats of brightly coloured paint over what was once abysmally grey architecture, and the commercial storefronts prominently displaying various international goods that were previously banned and found only in black markets.
There’s something to be said for self discovery, but how far back in heritage can a person claim? At what point do we sons and daughters of immigrant’s past become American only? Even if we actively pursue our heritage, is it accurate to hold the identity?
A Polish-American in Poland: Warsaw Old Town
A few years back outside a bar on Stanton street in NYC’s lower east side, a fully accented Polish person we dubbed Underage Kevin due to his age-related rejection from said bar, laughed with condescension when I told him that I am Polish too. “You’re American” he said, seeming offended but in retrospect- nonverbal “offense” to an American is simply Polish indifference. Cultural intricacies that I, as an American, are not privy to. Pierogies and a love for dill on everything can’t make a person fully Polish, not even a Polish mom and doting a Polish babcha grandmother who taught me to tie a babushka when I was eight.
My babcha, Anna Barbaryka Maceyko
“Let’s have a Polish lunch” Grandma'd say from her small and colourfully decorated Pennsylvania kitchen, beckoning to my brother and I. Sourdough bread, various hard cheeses and cold lunchmeat (primarily pork-based) were placed around the polished oakwood table. We’d say a short grace the Catholic way and dig in. On Sundays, pierogies at the church after mass. At Christmas dinner, our then-massive extended family ate ham with potatoes then passed around the oplatki with honey. Walnuts were cracked for the new year’s good fortune and baskets were blessed every year for Easter. We grew up pretty Polish for an American family in Pittsburgh.
It wasn’t enough for mom though. She’s 2nd generation and afraid her heritage might fall victim to the alluring “americana”- the same fate suffered by our father’s Euro-Slavic roots. He claims they’ve been here since the Mayflower, and related to John Adams on his mother’s side. Is this true, who can be sure? We don’t know much about the immigration origins of our paternal lineage.
Desperate to keep our heritage alive my mother took me, aged 9 at the time to the Old Country. We visited our family’s potato and bee farm three hours from the capital city Warsaw close to the Belarus border. We took trains around the country, seeing museums and mountains and salt mines and little streets with little colourful houses. We ate potato pancakes with forest mushrooms and cabbage pierogies with cheese. We learned some Polish, although my mother’s Spanish fluency proved helpful on multiple occasions throughout our journey. We flew LOT Polish airways because the prices were reasonable then. Our family was sweet and kind and I'll always remember our time there as some sort of magical alternative reality.
20 years later still full of love for Poland and my childhood experience there, I’ve returned on my own as rather American adult. I'm tagging along with our cousin Ursula who grew up on that farm outside of Warsaw, and has lived in USA with my parents for years. She’s been such an important link to our culture and was especially patient while watching us kids as we were growing up. Now I've come along as an adult for the journey home.
Family bee farm, three hours from Warsaw near the Belarus border
I heard someone say “cheerio”- it’s a thing. It was not, however, prefaced with “pip-pip” which is potentially a verbal relic of British past- possibly akin to “the bee’s knees!” among other strange old sayings that no one even thinks about anymore. Or- equally as likely-“pip pip cheerio” was never a thing and we made it up. Either way, when I found out I could have a long layover in London on my way to Poland - I wanted to say that phrase loudly and happily. London is cool, I’ve never been, I want to see it. So when the flight attendant said “cheerio” to the captain as we left the airplane at LHR, I giggled. like really loudly. and after fielding about ten thousand questions at customs regarding my intentions for the little layover, I hopped on the heathrow express and popped out at Paddington square.
The Paddington station is beautiful
I'm ashamed to say I fudged my own research- straddling google searches with personal recommendations from friends and forgetting to find the in between. Heathrow Express IS the fastest way to town, and Buckingham Palace/Westminster Abbey ARE "in town" but they're not walkable from Paddington if you have a time constraint. So I hailed a black cab/ stood outside of Paddington and it just pulled up mostly.
Did you know that all cabbies in London have to pass a super rigorous test to drive the black cars? It's called "The Knowledge". This guy here told me all about it (maybe a little too much). But damn London. Putting us NYC yellows to shame with your mad skills.
Except only kind of, because my return driver. An old "proper type" Englishman-with no provocation whatsoever brought up and proceeded to profusely praise the current US president- using nearly the exact campaign verbiage. It was bizarre and maybe a little funny, hearing in his dignified old Queen's English say the words "I like President Trump, he's not a politician- he tells it like it is. He's doing what he can to make American great again". Like, in a British accent! Maybe his usual American clients are older finance types on business trips so that's his icebreaker? Maybe he wants London to "be great again" and he voted for brexit and wants the world to be white, eat potatoes and all the time? I don't know. Shortly after the strange silence left in the wake of that word-by-word worst campaign slogan ever repetition, his next topic of interest was vodka and how Russians are crazy for drinking it with water. Fine, I mean, I like vodka.
Buckingham, Palace is stunning. Translating this visually via photography, man, I tried from all the angles and distances but it wasn't happening. Was it the overcast weather, or my new camera I'm still learning to use? Or maybe it was just too damn crowded, and the place is just SO large that you have to back really far away to get it all. Regardless, I enjoyed my brief visit.
Buckingham Palace to Big Ben to Westminster Abbey, it was a nice little layover walk with some of the big London attractions
Amazing, amazing architecture all throughout the Westminster area. I want to see more of London someday, the energy was fantastic!
and, sideline shoutout to British Airways for this little family in their safety video:
and with that, we were on our way to Warsaw
Lately life has been just how I like it- jam packed with educational activity and an eclectic mix of friends along for the ride. The bone chilling cold has ceased and everyone wants a taste of the newly no-longer-lethal air outside.
****currently in Europe, very excited to adjust this post with images and the most awesome quotes from smart badass do-gooder entrepreneurs when I get back!***
Directly following "best possible price" on my flight booking priority list is 'a long layover literally anywhere' (passport/visa permitting). 8-10 or more hours is preferable, and is only worthwhile if you land in the morning- I 100% never recommend wandering at night alone anywhere if you're not very familiar with the location (and most attractions will be closed anyway)
Sometimes there is a choice. Fly Emirates, you get Dubai. Fly Turkish Airlines, you get Istanbul. And China Southern? You get Guangzhou.
En route to and from Bangkok, we had 7 and 10 hour layovers in China. For a proper stay China is definitely on the "someday" list, but not immediately so, and probably not Guangzhou (Shanghai, please). That's the beauty of long layovers- sometimes you can get a great deal with a little bonus location you never would have thought to go otherwise. And China is just so cool- I've never seen so many LED lights in one place.
Beijing road, a popular shopping destination in the Danan District of Guangzhou. Probably the brightest lights I've seen in one place, and I live in new york city.
When staying somewhere for a while, like most regular travellers I love to explore "off the beaten path" locations but with layovers I find I get the most out of the big attractions- whatever Trip Advisor lists. Monuments, temples, restaurants or other well known locale types suit your fancy. A sure plan to make that rush to and from the airport worthwhile with highly rated, low-risk confirmed locations. Usually these things are found in popular areas of town, and therefore easier and quicker to reach.
Monks exiting the Bright Filial Piety Buddhist Temple after a chanting service. It was beautiful.
After the doors closed, we continued on our well-planned walk. A good walking route between attractions offers enough random chance to satiate wanderlust, while ensuring you remain on schedule with a smooth return to the airport in time.
So many of these little stores simultaneously sell buddha sculptures, various jewellery and what appear to be nuts and dry legumes in large tubs (lower left corner here). Pretty similar to the shops in NYC Chinatown actually.
Huaisheng Mosque was our next planned location, one of the oldest mosques in the world built 1,300 years ago. I love beautiful religious buildings, especially old ones. The energy is electric; intense with the essence of hopeful prayers and meditations forever fused to sacred spaces.
In addition to Beijing road, there is a Shanghai street in Guangzhou. All commercial - clothes and cell phones mostly- with just enough satisfying side streets and fusion food galore. This area is a short train ride from the airport; a safe use of our small 7 hours. We just walked up and down, taking it all in before our departure to Thailand.
A quick 7-11 stop, new favourite thing:
This weekend we went to a farm an hour away into New Jersey for apple picking, fresh air and sanity.
I wonder what it would be like, to wake up to this every day instead of pavement. What that could mean for both physical health and spirituality.
We grew up around this. I wonder if I don't want to return to it, something like it. Maybe somewhere much farther away, maybe only for a little while
Can we have both? After some time I'll miss the jumpcable startling urban energy. But that energy can choke a woman dry. That energy takes more than it gives. The way a city, particularly New York City, the way it distracts and delights with places and things and noise while draining life force from its inhabitants is baffling, amazing really.
and it's really beautiful. Opportunity is everywhere. Professional, personal, small inspirations, major miracles. We share so little space with so many people. We all influence each other immensely whether we'd like to or not, I've experienced firsthand the infinite domino game that is interacting with many different sorts of people on a regular basis. It does not begin or end with our experience together- it has no beginning or end. It continues from previous encounters fresh in our psyches - and echoes forward in each separate story we create with another person throughout our days. Most urban areas are like this. The people are the magic.
but we need nature too. I need more wide, open nature- with no Central Park Goliath city grumbling in the background
(although I do love Central Park. And the Hudson River:)
Throughout this journey we've been able to spend some time in Kutch (aka Kachchh), Gujarat- a creative, lovely, beautiful place. Lots of traditional crafts, lots of nature. A short bus ride from Ahmedabad.
Hodka village traditional embroidery
Last time, we visited Khamir to poke through their Kala cotton yardage and learn more about their process.
"“Khamir is a platform for the crafts, heritage and cultural ecology of the Kachchh region of Gujarat. Instituted after the earthquake of 2001, it is a space for engagement and development of Kachchh's rich creative industries.”
KALA cotton products and puffs :)
In addition to their vast amount of support to the artisan communities in Kachchh, Khamir is weaving new textiles out of recycled plastic bags on site. Like most places, plastic waste is a huge issue in Kachchh- it’s either littered on the streets or burned in waste piles, releasing carcinogenic toxins into the air. Khamir is creating a solution.
“The Recycled Plastic initiative is an example of the way craft can alter a space and generate income for marginal people. This is a skill that can be easily learnt by neo-weavers and can become a source of supplementary income to medium skilled weavers, home-based workers, disabled and senior citizens. In our age of global warming, this project has great significance. Rather than creating new materials, this intervention has found a way to re-use waste and protect our environment from the harsh toxins that modern production technologies may produce.” -Khamir
Nearby the plastic weaving, they were spinning their KALA cotton. The harvest I took part in a while back was on one of their KALA farms- so I asked where we could see the next step, between the picking and the spinning- the processing. We were instructed where to go, and who to ask for.
I tried to help with the spinning, she was kind for humouring me.
After the Himalayas, we took a funtime trip to Delhi. First thing we did after 10 days of dahl? -pizza-.
All our "planning" energy spent on the previous ten days (and also no longer responsible for anyone other than just ourselves), Teju and I winged it in Delhi. It was three days of relentless fun and some spiritual experiences as well. (How could we visit Delhi without seeing the Lotus Temple or the Jama Masjid?)
A night in Hauz Khas
"The importance of harmony between science and religion.. If religion does not correspond with scientific principles and the processes of reasoning, it becomes superstition... Science without the universal virtues taught by religions will lead to materialism"-Baha'i Lotus Temple
Jama Masjid, old city
On our last day while sitting quietly in Jama Masjid, observing the serene energy of prayer and reflecting on our past 12 days, we discussed what we were feeling. Teju was going back home within the week, and was processing her emotions regarding the intense connection she had felt with the Himalayas and the people at the community centre. I knew I was coming back to my work in Ahmedabad soon, with my departure almost a month away and realising that a list of top priorities was in order- but what those priorities consisted of was yet to be seen, as the things I valued before this trip seem to have been altered slightly. It was a beautiful moment of silence and reflection shared between us, before we made our way back out to the bustling streets of Chandni Chowk. A mad dash onto the train brought us back to our lodging, and then to the airport, returning to our previous world; a world whose meaning had shifted drastically since we left it 14 days prior
Travel is the best form of education. Relating to other people in different cultures, seeing other places and what it means to exist in them as a foreign spirit. Whatever personal growth or spiritual epiphanies any of us encountered over the duration of the Himalaya trip were certainly due to its initial purpose: the kids. We were escorting these happy and hopeful souls to open their minds and hearts to the big world that surrounds the only world they’re accustomed to.
For me, travel is the greatest gift and deepest love, the most amazing thing a person can do. And a close second to travel is hosting foreigners. Our visit to Uttarkashi also included three days at the community centre affiliated with Manav Sadhna- Manav Uttar (sp). Children from the community gather there daily to learn and play, just as our kids do at Manav Sadhna. We came to help the community centre, and introduce the kids so they could learn from each other while enjoying the company of new people from a different place. It was one of the most beautiful, authentic, surreal, amazing experiences I have ever had. I am certain Teju felt the same
Creating a mural on the front of the community centre, seem below from afar
A breath of fresh air literally surrounded by mountains and greenery, a breath of fresh air mentally from the purity of the people. The kids were light-hearted little dancers who taught us every possible schoolyard game. One night they staged a performance for us and their community- dancing and acting. They are very talented and so sweet.
Other than that evening, they wore the same clothes every day. I noticed many of their garments had been lovingly mended with hand-stitches. I managed to get a few photos of these pieces, but every time Teju and I pulled out our phones- the kids would scream “photo! selfie!” and pose for us. I’m not sure they know the proper definition for “selfie”, and I certainly wouldn’t be the one to tell them. I love, love, love how untouched they are by crazy consumerism and the pop culture that’s run rampant in my world, worlds and worlds away from theirs.
Some village women knit wool items for extra income, and for fun- or so it seemed fun, when they gave us a demonstration of their manual knitting machine. Knitting isn’t easy, especially with this machine and its guidebook full of number combinations and intricate instructions. These women operated with ease however, and were rightfully very proud of their products. Most notably, in our opinion, being the SWEATER VESTS that many women in the surrounding villages wear regularly. It gets cold in the mountains. Teju and I both love the cropped style, and when asked our opinions of the marketability of these items we asserted hands down- the cropped style in muted colors. (maroon, navy, black, brown). The perfect wardrobe staple with a beautiful story. Once they get the production power-we said- get these in those boutique “ethic” shops, like the Whole Foods Goods market. A cropped fair trade Himalayan sweater vest for $45? or maybe even $60? Done.
In general, the traditional mountain dress was beautiful. Obviously this isn’t so much “fashion” as it is a way of life, a way to denote which village one belongs to while shielding oneself from the elements in a landscape of varying weather patterns. Comfort and functionality in my opinion are the most important aspects to any garment- but there is no reason to sacrifice the aesthetics (unless you want to, personal choice! another reason I love fashion really. we can curate whatever and whoever we want to be within the context of our worlds) And these people? Proud of their heritage while using the best colors - seemingly playfully as well. Win win.
After spending three beautiful days at the Uttarkashi centre and other significant locations in the area (a school, the homes of some children and and the Swami Sivanand ashram in Ganeshpur) We were descended the mountain and spent a day relaxing in Rishikesh before Teju and I hopped on a bus for the next part of our adventure- New Delhi.
Gorgeous Teju. and off we went.
On the scenic yet very windy ride up the mountain many kids got motion sickness exacerbated by their exhaust. Our bumbling 4WD tank vehicle was driven by Macho Mountain Indian Guy, who Teju and I decided was attractive after observing his fast yet efficient, rough-and-tumble driving style. We stopped at various roadside shanties- each with their own phenomenal view of the Himalayas, becoming only more breathtaking the higher we got.
Traffic jam :P
Upon reaching Uttarkashi, the view was indescribable. Our accommodations were simple yet lovely- a room with two beds that Teju and I shared with a two kind ladies and one sweet little boy of four. Although still exhausted from the severe sleep deprivation and constant travel, we took a walk to a bridge I think I saw in a National Geographic.
The next day- yet another obscenely early morning after an obscenely late evening- we departed for a day in Gangotri, a holy town even farther north. The historical beginning of the Ganges river. We were utterly exhausted. It was so beautiful there however, surrounded by gorgeous snow-topped mountains and a divine chill in the air. (meanwhile. Ahmedabad was soaring to 120/50 degrees). We had taken the holy Ganges dip in Hardware and Rishikesh already- Gangotri is also a site of Gangaji immersion, however due to the low temperatures, freezing water and already sickly state of the children they were encouraged to submerge their feet only.
Teju and I took a moment to sit on the rocks while the Ganges bubbled softly by, talking about life and culture and what it means to have multiple identities between lives and cultures. What it means to be an American abroad. What does it mean to have privilege, as Americans abroad, and to be sensitive to this privilege? I’ve wondered about privilege in New York, how it dictates my behaviour, or the behaviour of others- although it’s such an incredibly difficult topic to discuss. Everyone has their own vastly different experiences with it, and it's so fluid- is it actions? Is it thoughts? How does privilege permeate our regular world at home on a daily basis? How can we be sensitive to our privilege in everyday life, and to uplift our fellow folks who might not have so much?
When traveling, especially in eastern countries- general western privilege is a completely different animal. The widely varying levels of socioeconomic statuses and confusing cultural exchanges come into play. I knew I didn’t understand what it meant here, although I’ve been in India for five months now. We’ve been living quietly in a house with various other women, hand washing our clothes and eating simple vegetarian meals. We don’t have wifi, there’s no TV or dishwasher or anything machine really. Nothing is fancy and it’s nice. It is very different from the life I was used to in the US. We had all the conveniences yet complained significantly more than it appears people do here (in my specific experiences), people who have much less yet seem considerably happier in life.
Yearly Spring ceremony at the Gangotri temple- Hindu pilgrimage sites are now open for 2016. People from surrounding villages bring all their unique deities in celebration.
So, what does it mean to live in a slum like these children? How does it affect their development, how does it affect them as individuals? In comparison to the western life on abundance and intimidating consumerism in which both Teju and I had been raised. How do these kids see life, how do they overcome obstacles? I wanted to know how different it is from the world that I have known- I wanted to check my privilege. That’s what people say, right? “check your privilege” when someone is being ignorant. I’d been to the slums a few times, but that’s not enough to know anyone.
:sidetone: -the slums here are not sad, deprived places as many of us might have imagined based on our knowledge of underprivileged communities at home. People are generally jovial and will greet you with a heartfelt "Namaste!" while offering chai as the children follow you screaming happily "DIDI!" What country? Name? didi hello!" ('Didi'= big sister)
We had been told that this trip would not consist of amazing accommodation. We hadn’t expected such a thing anyway, and we accepted. The organiser- a kind soul- tried to turn us away in strange ways, discussing obtusely the “lack of conveniences” and “potential for large insects”. Maybe he couldn’t articulate the reality, maybe he didn’t know the extent to which events would unfold. Either way, the more he spoke ill of the journey, the more I knew we needed to attend. To learn about the children, to try to support them at any difficulty, and to check that privilege. What does “simple accommodation” even mean? Simple to who? To us western women he assumed lived considerably more decadent lives than our actual realities? (my apartment in new york was by no means luxurious, I assure you) and Teju- I know she has a nice house, but I’m sure it is not a Beverly Hills mansion. Or simple to even the children, perhaps simple for himself? We went regardless.
That Gangotri night changed everything. In addition to extreme exhaustion of all involved, lack of regular food consumption (a rice/yellow dahl combo twice a day at random times) and sickness of multiple children after days of restless commotion, our accommodations-reached by jagged uphill stone steps- did not have electricity or running water and there were not nearly enough double beds to fit even three people each. Had our trip been smoother and more restful thus far I wouldn't have felt nearly as anxious as I did that evening. It wasn't the worst place to stay for one night only. However, between traveling to the children from Ahmedabad, and then traveling with them up around Uttarakhand, it had been almost a week of very little sleep or mental security and I began to worry that I'd go insane and become useless as a chaperone. Gangotri reaches freezing temperatures at night, despite this however I had hoped to find solace sleeping on the floor.
Morning time clarity speaks life, I wanted this. Based on the organiser’s pre-trip determent, I knew there would be some difficult encounters. I was hoping to understand what it means to make do and exist extremely simply, perhaps even lacking some basic needs temporarily. And seeing these kids- to the best of my knowledge, the children were very uncomfortable as well but said nothing. In the most inspiring way, they endured. They are so strong- and so hardworking. Every night they hand washed their clothes themselves, and one day they cooked dinner for us. The cutest 11-17 year olds peeling potatoes and rolling rotis like we'd never seen!
Things were different after that. A little more beautiful and worthy of understanding. Expectations ceased to exist, replaced by the gratitude of presence. The depth of energy surrounding these sacred spaces was no longer lost. We slept well the following evening back in Uttarkashi. The kids were no longer sick. I took a run to recover in the mountain air and began to understand why the Himalayas are such a spiritual place.