Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reflections on the Poland Habitat experience

What better way to take a final look back at my Habitat for Humanity experience in Poland than to interview myself? Let's see what I have to say...
(questions stolen from a totally different interview with a different person about a different trip) 

Why did you decide to travel to Poland with Habitat for Humanity? 
This was my fourth Global Village trip with Habitat. It's funny--I was initially looking at going to Poland when I first ever applied for a Habitat trip back in 2005, but a variety of things led to me not doing that trip and moving to Korea at that time instead. Then and now, I was into the idea of traveling to Poland, the land of one-fourth of my heritage and, specifically, my last name's origin, as it's a heritage my sister, dad, aunts, et. al. and I have always been aware and yet not aware enough of. My Polish great-grandparents came to the U.S. a little before World War I. Of course, since 2005 I have now traveled to Honduras, Tajikistan, and Cambodia for Habitat builds, and I have set a goal for myself to do more Habitat projects and to do them in different regions of the world. So, I've now done Central America, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. My next volunteer trip will be in a new (to me) region.

What things did you like? 
Practically everything! Poland was such a pleasant place to be. Cool people, intense history, beautiful sights, EU progress, sooooo  much delicious food, stuff to see and do, cheap beer, I could go on... but I adored Warsaw, and I liked Krakow and Poznan, too, in their own ways, and the experience of visiting Auschwitz was mind-altering. And those were just my side travels; the actual build experience and the time spent with fellow volunteers and the Barka community were inspirational. I also liked the Palac Wasowo manor estate/hotel where we stayed and the wonderful Polish cats. 

What didn't you like? 
Thinking about where the outdoor cats spend the cold Poland winters. I suppose the hardy ones I saw are the ones who have survived thus far...it's such a tough world we live in, not that some of us humans would know. 

What was your favorite experience? 
Of the Habitat build, probably the opening night barbecue at which the Barka community hosted us and we shared life stories and grilled kielbasa over the fire and learned about this inspiring organization's work (previously discussed here). Of Poland, it's hard to say, partly because it's weird to call Auschwitz my "favorite," but that was definitely a hugely meaningful life experience, visiting there.

Did you have any problems traveling in Poland? 
Hmmm... I'd say no. There were a few OK-let's-figure-this-out moments when initially using Warsaw's train transport, or buying bus tickets in broken-Polish-broken-English conversations, that kind of thing, but I found traveling in Poland to be really smooth and great.

What other countries did you visit and how does Poland compare?
On this trip, I just did a day in Berlin on the way and then a layover at Heathrow on the way out. I suppose we could discuss the needless complexities of Heathrow here, but let's leave that for another day! Comparing Poland to the other three countries where I've done Habitat builds, let's see... Poland is obviously less hot-and-steamy than Honduras and Cambodia, and less remote than Tajikistan. Unlike Honduras (and, to some extent, Cambodia), you aren't bombarded with what seems like wall-to-wall poverty and devastation at every turn. Poland and Cambodia have both been the site of recent genocides, and it is sobering to visit the sites and grapple with that history. Poland and Tajikistan are both relatively recently de-occupied by Russia/Soviets, and it's interesting to discuss that, although we were much more able to discuss that in Poland, for language reasons.

What image did you have of Poland before traveling there, and how did your image change? 
Gosh, it's hard to remember and conjure up my pre-trip visuals, now. I mean, the old notion of the Warsaw/Eastern Europe/gray-urban-landscape image isn't exactly what I would have predicted, but there was definitely something a little bit more sleek and gritty to urban Warsaw as opposed to arty/touristy areas of Krakow or the brightly colored almost sing-songy feel to the old market square in Poznan. I think I pictured some open spaces of farmland, and the reality of the countryside matched my image of that. Next time I go to a new country, I suppose I should write down in advance what I envision/predict and then compare it upon my return.

Would you like to come back? 
And how!!  I totally considered my trip reconnaissance and spent a bunch of the time plotting return trips with Brian and with my sister/Napikoski family. 

What would you recommend to someone considering traveling to Poland or doing a Habitat for Humanity build?
First of all, I totally recommend doing a Habitat build in Poland, as the organization there is totally helpful and great. Secondly, I do recommend doing a Habitat build, and my recommendation for those in general is that you have an open mind, get lots of sleep, work slowly and steadily, and talk to people, even with only a word or two of a foreign language. And I absolutely recommend Poland as a travel destination. It's affordable and easy, and there's so  much interesting history. Definitely do Warsaw and Krakow, but don't just do Warsaw and Krakow. Include other cities on your itinerary, like Poznan, Wroclaw, Bialystok, etc. See the countryside and national parks. And don't rush in and out of Auschwitz--stay the night in Oświęcem, so you can take all the hours you want visiting, and you don't have to do the end-of-afternoon bus scramble. The Hotel Olecki, which is right across the parking lot, is great and it was a good place to be able to sit and reflect on all you've just learned and experienced. 

Any final thoughts? 
Regarding World War II and the devastation Poland and Poles endured, just the usual: "When will we ever learn?"  At any rate, let's try to keep traveling and learning.
Also! I loved that everywhere I went in Poland, people love Chicago and basically consider it a Polish city (ha ha, but kind of true) and they also all said the same thing when I mentioned the city where my great-grandparents were born: "Ahh, Lomza? There's a famous beer made there..."

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