Buchenwald: Why you should visit a former concentration camp

Buchenwald watch tower

The value of discomfort

It’s easy for me to use travel as a means of escape, pursuing fun places where I forget about work and the worries of home. Yet I’ve also come to appreciate how my times of greatest personal growth occur not during the easy moments, but when I step outside my comfort zone. New lands and unfamiliar cultures will do that for me. But so too will putting myself in situations that bring about discomfort in other ways.

This is why, in part, on a recent trip to Germany, my wife and I decided to visit the Buchenwald Memorial, site of the first and largest concentration camp in Germany during WWII.

Located just outside of Weimar, the cultural epicenter of the country, Buchenwald was also used after the war by the Soviet secret police for their prisoners. Today, little remains other than sections of the original fence, the entrance gate, the foundations of the barracks and the crematory where they burned the bodies of some of the 56,000 people who died there.

These scant reminders, combined with a visitor center filled with emotionally devastating artifacts and stories, are more than enough to give you a sense of the horrific tragedy that happened to over a quarter of a million inmates there.

I came knowing the place would affect me emotionally. But I wasn’t prepared for the surprising ways it did that.

Buchenwald fence

Buchenwald prisoners' clothing

Buchenwald statsWhat you don’t expect in places like Buchenwald

I expected to confront the evils of the past. But what I faced was more than history. The same forces that led to such horrors are still at play today, all around me. And here’s the scary part: Maybe within me.

For example, for all the atrocities described in the exhibit, it wasn’t just what the SS and Gestapo did that wrenched me. I anticipated reading about their appalling deeds. What I hadn’t foreseen was how hard it would hit me to learn of the “ordinary” people of Germany – people like me – who chose to look the other way in the case of the concentration camps.

An elderly German friend of mine who lived through WWII recently told me, regarding the concentration camps, “We had no idea.” She resided far from any of the main camps, so I wanted to believe her. But her response was the same as that stated by the local townspeople when the Allied forces liberated Buchenwald in April, 1945. “We just didn’t know,” they said. And yet, the evidence indicates otherwise.

Many of the prisoners from the camp were forced to work in local factories, side by side with the town citizens to build armaments and other products for the war effort. Upon liberation, the prisoners informed the British, American and Canadian forces that they had told the townspeople what the conditions were like. Plus, all you had to do was look at the emaciated bodies of the prisoners to know something about the desperate conditions in the camp. But still, these same locals repeated their excuse long after the war: “We just didn’t know.” They intentionally chose to look the other way and do nothing.

Entry gate to Buchenwald

This phrase, “Jedem das Seine” means basically, to each his own. It was twisted by the Nazis to imply that all the prisoners were there of their own doing.

Roma and Sinti people memorial

This monument was set up in memory of the Roma and Sinti people killed in all the concentration camps. Each stone pillar represents one of the many camps throughout Europe in WWII.

 

Feeding bowls of prisoners

If you lost your food bowl at the concentration camp, you starved.

Asking the hard questions from Buchenwald

Personal items from prisoners

Personal items taken from the prisoners at Buchenwald

I find it easy to condemn such apathy until I ask the question, “What would I have done?” Then, it isn’t so simple. Nor so comfortable. Self-preservation is a powerful force for all of us. And making the right choice would have been even more difficult if you lived in a culture of intentional, cultivated fear. The exhibits at Buchenwald document how the Nazis went to great lengths to determine with ruthless efficiency what would strike the most terror in both prisoners and the general population. They were fiendishly clever at devising ways to turn neighbor against neighbor. Under such circumstances, knowing – much less doing – the right thing would have become increasingly difficult.

But what about today? What about me?

Travel has a way of holding a mirror up to our lives. Particularly in difficult locations such as Buchenwald, you have to ask – and try to answer – questions that rarely come up amidst your daily routines. And the hardest one for me is that personal one, “What would I have done?”

I can’t really say.

Or maybe I can.

I just don’t want to.

Because when I confronted the horror of Buchenwald, I had to confront one even closer. And that’s the realization that if I were one of those locals living in Weimar during WWII, if I’m honest, I’d probably would have done the same thing and looked the other way. Like them, I would have asked, “What can I realistically do that will not get me or my loved ones killed?”

It’s an uncomfortable realization. But so are most of the deeper, lasting truths in our lives. They tend to be hard-earned and not always pleasant in the acquisition. But they stay with us and cause us to rethink some basic premises about our lives. Both on a trip and then for long afterwards.

Display of shoes
Medical examination table

Nazi doctors conducted unimaginable medical experiments on prisoners here

Buchenwald crematorium

The crematory where bodies were incinerated

Living with the truth 

The awareness that within me lies the capacity for great courage but also great cowardice, however, was only half of the surprising lessons from Buchenwald.

The other aha came from a recognition of just how interconnected we all are. I didn’t just read stories of Jews, Poles, Communists, Roma and others imprisoned there. I read of people like me thrust into horrific situations. How they suffered. How some overcame. How all were affected in ways beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I left Buchenwald with a poignant sense of shared humanity, of identification with people who are more like me than unlike me. That’s something that the Nazis could never see. They sought to demonize and dehumanize others. But a trip to Buchenwald made me appreciate on a visceral level just how wrong that is, both then and now.

I walked away with this odd combination of bone-deep sadness, unexpected connection and a moral outrage tempered in my judgments against others by the realization that I could easily have been one of those others – on either side of that barbed-wire fence.  

It’s hard to explain this complex reaction. Which is why I encourage everyone who plans to travel anywhere near the location of a former concentration camp to make the effort to visit one of these memorial sites. To see. To better understand. To not forget. And to not let anyone else forget either.

Traveling to places such as Buchenwald isn’t fun. But sometimes we need to go to the dark places, in our world and in ourselves, to remember how much light there is. And to bring that light ever forward.

Buchenwald concentration camp

 

*******

This is a very different take on the topic of Looking the Other Way, but it shows just how many ways there are to see the world differently. And why even difficult places such as Buchenwald help us to grasp the world we live in, both the good and the bad, the world around us and the world inside us. You can read other entries in this series here:

Look the other way: Budir Black Church

Look the other way: Kirkjufell, Iceland

Look the other way: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia

Find what you love

Find what you love - Puppet Maker's ShopUse your trip to find what you love

Trips provide intriguing opportunities to find what you love. And for me, the best moments on a trip — those powerful, defining, magic moments — are ones so filled with meaning and emotion that I wish to linger long and absorb them. And yet, I never quite can, for I must inevitably move on. That leaves me with a poignant sensation of both loss and gain. I find something that deeply moves me in a place (gain). Yet as a traveler, I cannot stay in that place (loss). Still, I can take something of great value with me from the experience of having been there (long-term gain). I lose the place but gain the moment and all that it entails.

These defining moments are ones I can create for myself or others (as I discovered in Italy and Slovenia). But they often arrive unannounced. I open a door, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally (as what happened to me on a recent visit to Erfurt, Germany) and I enter a different world. And in that world, in unexpected ways, I discover a great passion and even, sometimes, a greater sense of purpose.

Erfurt's Kramerbrucke (Merchant's Bridge)The puppet maker of Erfurt

In the heart of Erfurt sits the Krämerbrücke (Merchants’ bridge). Built of stone in 1325 over the Gera river, half-timbered homes and businesses sit atop the bridge making it the largest and oldest inhabited bridge in Europe (sorry, Ponte Vecchio in Florence: you’re number two). Over time, a number of craftspeople have moved in with studios and shops. One of them, Martin Gobsch, makes hand-carved wooden puppets there. Or so it seems. For what he really creates is magic.

Outside his shop is a miniature window theater.

Theatrum Mundi, ErfurtDrop in a euro, and a sinister-looking queen pulls back her cape-draped arm to reveal a fantastical scene of Snow White and industrious dwarfs moving about. It’s a mechanical marvel that would delight any child. And yet those who linger longest and whose expressions reflect the most childlike wonder are adults like me.

Step inside his shop, and the awe grows. Magnificently carved wooden figures and corresponding drawings make you feel as if you’re part of a fairy tale. Most people who enter Martin’s workshop leave enchanted. But for me, it was something more.

I had found what I love.

A different kind of connection

If you look at the factors that Dan and Chip Heath note in their book, The Power of Moments, as most contributing to a magic moment, one of them has curious dimensions beyond its obvious intent. The concept of “Connection” normally implies that you have moments where you feel a deep relational tie to others, a collective experience of joy, pain or deep sentiment as in a wedding or funeral. But Connection works as well on the emotional level where you connect to something within you, a past memory that triggers all sorts of associations and feelings.

Martin Gobsch at workMy favorite visual example of this is in the Pixar movie, Ratatouille, when the food critic Anton Ego tastes the dish of the same name as the movie. Immediately, he’s transported to his mother’s kitchen as a boy eating the same food. So it was for me in Martin Gobsch’s shop. The lighting, architecture and decor took me back to Merlin’s Magic Shop at Disneyland where I worked as a magician through college. And his Theatrum Mundi (the name of the window theater) also reminded me of the elaborate window displays at Disneyland I used to marvel at as a child.

Tie all that into my adult experience working in my own wood shop at home (equally untidy yet remarkably well-suited to the work at hand) and you get a collective experience that is more than a trip down memory lane. Stepping into Martin’s studio provided a connection of deep emotional resonance to the subtle factors and ingredients of delight that made those past experiences so formative for me, in my youth and even today.

Martin Gobsch's shopFind what you love: The power of inspiration

In the video above, Martin Gobsch says that one of his goals is to inspire others, not just to experience wonder, but to create and make things by hand. It’s not a craft, he notes, that’s been passed down to him so much as one that has died out that he is now re-establishing. When I spent time with him in that shop, examining all the details of his work and asking him questions about it, I too was inspired to spend more time drawing, carving, woodworking and making more things by hand. All of these are things I love but rarely make time for.

A friend once noted that we value more something we’ve had, lost and have found again than gaining something new. I think that’s true, in part because of the emotional attachments we form even with inanimate objects that have become part of our lives. In a similar manner, I find that when I return to what I love but have left unheeded too long, it’s like a brand-new discovery only better. I get the same delight of connecting with something I enjoy, but along with that comes all the memories of past related experiences. I find what I love all over again.

Find what you love - Drawings of puppets

Find what you love – Drawings of puppets – copyright 2019 by Steve Brock

Find what you love: The takeaway for you

When you’re someplace new, whether on a vacation or just in a new situation, pay close attention to what triggers your attention. When I first read about the puppet maker, though I have only a passing interest in puppets, the fact that this artisan carved them from wood by hand intrigued me. I’m always interested in seeing artists, particularly sculptors and woodworkers, at work in their shops or studios. I wanted to make sure, if possible, that I found his place of work and I’m so glad I did.

For you, if something even hints at connecting to a deeper interest, pursue that. It may feel silly or unimportant at first, but you never know where it will lead. Make it a quest to find what brings you your greatest joy. Trips allow you the freedom to do this in ways you can’t — or won’t — at home. You won’t usually find what you care most about unless you go looking for it, even if you’re not entirely sure how it might manifest itself. And even though you may come across it in an unexpected place or manner, often it is the effort of the pursuit that gives you the eyes to see it – or clues of it – when you come across it.

Puppets and sketches - ErfurtWhen you do, you leave transfixed and transformed. In cases such as this one, where it connects to creative passions and interests, it leaves you inspired. Not just to keep discovering. But to eventually return home and make something yourself.

And when you do that, you find what you love all over again.

 

 

Look up: The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia

 

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood exterior

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (also known as The Church of Spilled Blood, The Church of the Savior, The Church of the Resurrection, The Church on Spilled Blood and probably many other names in Russian I can’t even imagine), is one of the most popular tourist destinations in St. Petersburg, Russia.

It is also one of the few places where people do something they rarely do elsewhere: They look up.

Look up to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood ceiling

Background on the church

They do so because the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is filled floor to ceiling (and ceiling to ceiling) with beautiful mosaics. While today it serves primarily as a museum or gallery of this mosaic work, it was originally constructed at the end of the 19th century to honor Czar Alexander II whom anarchists fatally wounded on the spot where the church now stands (so now you know who’s blood was spilled there).  Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood side altar

The czar had survived an attempt by one anarchist to kill him with a grenade and as the czar wrestled with the culprit, a second conspirator detonated another bomb killing himself and fatally wounding the czar who died a few hours later. Two years later, Alexander II’s son, Alexander III, initiated construction of the church on the site to honor his fallen father.

It’s nice to know the background of the place, but once you step inside, you tend to forget the history lesson and instead, you just marvel at the mosaics. And you get the best view of these if you practice a key form of Looking the Other Way, looking up.

Why we don’t look up

Most of us rarely look up. We don’t do so for a few reasons.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood ceiling looking directly upFirst, you can’t walk and look directly above you at the same time without risk of bodily harm or odd stares from others. Second, so many of us are glued to our phones peering in the opposite direction of looking up that we rarely consider there might be something of value above us. Third, it’s not that easy. You have to crane your neck back to look directly up. That’s a hard posture to hold for long, unless you’re Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel (and some surmise even he reclined on a cot-like contraption to do so).

Look up at an angle in the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The benefits of looking up

But if you do look up, you behold what few others ever witness. You see more nature (clouds and birds, maybe branches and leaves). You see more architecture (the most interesting parts of older buildings are usually near the top or around the entrance or above you as you go through the entrance). And you may find surprises — from interesting signs to ceiling details to hidden doors. You also gain a much greater appreciation of light or rather, lighting. We almost always focus on the object illuminated rather than the source of illumination. But looking up can help you do both.

Stop and go

Look straight up: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood ceiling In the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, to get the most interesting photos and to appreciate the value of looking up, you need a combination of stillness and movement. Stillness to stop and to look up. Movement to make micro adjustments if you want to get images like some of these that require you to center yourself directly beneath the main element of the ceiling. You don’t have to do that if you’re not taking a photo, but it can still be a fun challenge to try, even without a camera.

See in a new way by looking up

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood columnsWhile looking up is the opposite of looking down, with both you cease to see things in terms of recognizable objects so much as design elements. You start discerning patterns, shadows and connections you don’t normally notice. For example, I have a greater appreciation for the church’s columns, as shown in the photo above, because I’m seeing them in a new way, foreshortened and part of an almost abstract design rather than as an architectural support.

You notice this shifting of how you perceive values and design elements most when you look directly up or down and not at an angle but even looking up at an angle has its rewards. Notice in the following images how the shot that shows the walls and columns from the ground up has a very different feel than the ones shot directly up. You’ll never experience that difference unless you look up.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood side wall

Look up: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood column looking upward

Look up with your camera

When taking photos in places like the Church of the Spilled Blood, it helps to have a wide-angle lens when you look up. Often such lenses distort the image in the corners but in this case, it actually adds to the effect, bringing the whole scene together. You can try making panoramas as well if you don’t have a wide-enough lens, but be aware that distortions in making the panorama can occur in surprising ways such as in the first image below. One thing this shot does show, however, is just how crowded this place can be. Which is another benefit of looking up: Even in a jam-packed location, you can usually get unobstructed images by simply pointing your camera up.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood - panorama

Not all panoramas come out the way you want. This one distorts the curves but shows how crowded the place gets.

Look up: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood - vertical panorama

This is a vertical panorama made from five separate photos.

Enjoy the journey up

Finally, sometimes looking up not only reveals what is directly above you, but all that leads up to that as in this image below. In this case, you get the best of both, the mosaics that guide your eyes up to the ceiling and then the ceiling itself. It’s like getting a bonus prize, such as the free rutabaga peeler with your Ginzu steak knives. And all you have to do is look up.

Look up: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood column looking up

 

Look the Other Way: Kirkjufell, Iceland

Seeing more at Iceland’s Kirkjufell

Kirkjufell, the “Arrow Mountain” on Iceland’s Snaefellsness Peninsula, is one of the most photographed sites on this North Atlantic island country. The quintessential view you see everywhere usually shows this conical mountain behind the nearby waterfalls of Kirkjufellfoss.

Here, for example, are the top results on Instagram for Kirkjufell.

Kirkjufell on Instagram

The name, Kirkjufell, by the way, has nothing to do with Star Trek’s original captain. It means “Church Mountain” since its shape, from certain angles, resembles a typical box-and-steeple church. Throw in “foss” after it and you have “Church Mountain Falls,” as well as the entire extent of my knowledge of Icelandic.

There’s no question that Kirkjufell is beautiful, particularly when backed by a sunset or even better, a display of the Northern Lights.

But the mountain isn’t the whole story.

Look the other way from Kirkjufell

If you look the other way by turning around, away from the mountain of Kirkjufell, you’ll discover a world you never see on most travel sites or in photos of the iconic scene.

Look the other way from KirkjufellAs we explored before in Look the Other Way: Budir Black Church, sometimes you discover the best parts of your trip when you not only look the other way, but physically turn the other way.

Turning the other way requires movement. And even a small change of location can result in a very different perspective, of a scene or of your world.

Use your feet

There’s a saying among photographers that the best zoom function of a camera is your own two feet. Meaning, if you want to get a close-up shot, move. Get closer physically rather than relying on your lens to zoom in. Same thing with looking the other way. Sometimes you have to turn the other way and move your feet.

The irony with Kirkjufell is that you have to do that turning and moving just to see the mountain behind the falls.

If you drive toward Kirkjufell, you can see the mountain from the road. But — full confession here — I didn’t realize there was anything special about the mountain when driving by it. It’s a greenish yellow conical peak. Do you know how many of those there are in Iceland? Me neither, but I’m guessing their number exceeds that of cheap dining solutions on the island by a significant margin. Thus, unless you know what you’re looking for, you may arrive at the parking lot with a curious sense of, “What’s the big deal here?”

Kirkjufellsfoss from parking lot

View from parking lot toward the falls (Kirkjufellsfoss). Where’s that conical mountain I’ve come to photograph?

Seeing it from above—or not

I’d show you an overview of the area via a drone shot, but I wasn’t able to fly my drone there for two reasons. The first was this sign:

Kirkjufellsfoss sign

The second was the wind. Not just a breeze, but a blow so hard Mary Poppins and her umbrella would have hit Mach 1 speeds. On the flight to Iceland, the fun facts that Iceland Air displays on the in-flight screen include this gem: “Iceland is the third windiest place in the world. But what’s remarkable is that the first two are both uninhabitable.” How that little factoid entices travelers  to visit Iceland is beyond me.

Anyway, once you arrive at the parking lot for Killjufellfoss, you have to follow the trail up to the waterfalls, cross a bridge over the river above the falls, circle back on the other side and then, voila, there’s your famous shot. Or at least the place where you can take it.

That’s the usual process. You get your shot that looks like this.

Look the other way: Kirkjufell

Of if you proceed several more meters downstream, you’ll find the lower falls which, to me, are even more interesting in person, but you may have to look back and forth between the two photos to tell much of a difference.

Kirkjufellsfoss lower falls

Shooting during the day

Full disclosure on why my photos here of Kirkjufell are rather snapshotty compared to most of the sunset or Northern Lights images out there. We arrived at midday (which is a rather long stretch of time when the day in June lasts for 22.5 hours). That meant many other people scurrying around and most of all, very harsh overhead light. I think the advanced technical term in photographic circles for such a situation is, “Blech!”

Also, we’d been on the road since early morning, so I was rather tired and thought this would just be a quick stop because I could tell the light was too bright, even from the parking lot. I just grabbed my camera with no other lenses, tripod or filters and hurried up to the falls. My advice to you is if you have a wide angle lens, use it. Similarly, use a neutral density filter if you arrive on a bright day to darken the scene enough so you can take a longer exposure to blur the water of the falls. I tried to do that somewhat holding the camera by hand, but a filter, tripod and wider angle lens would have likely produced better images, even in that light.

If you want to learn more about how to take travel photos that look better than these, check out my free Beginner’s Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photos.

Go beyond what you came to see—and shoot

Which leads us to one of many reasons to look the other way: When the light isn’t what you’d like it to be for the subject you came to photograph, look around for something else to shoot. In my opinion, a less-than-iconic image shot in great light usually beats a famous landmark photographed under sub-optimal conditions. Such was the case here.

Because if you look the other way, constantly turning, moving and letting your curiosity hunt for what the scene can reveal rather than going only to see what you came to see, you will find these (to me) more interesting sights.

Kirkjufellfoss away from the mountain

I do love the images I’ve seen online of Kirkjufell. But as my images here hopefully reveal, there’s so much more here than just that mountain.

Kirkjufellfoss away from the mountain

If you could magically relocate those same waterfalls elsewhere with all the surrounding scenery minus Kirkjufell, it would still be a highly photo-worthy site.

And that’s the problem when you don’t look the other way, when you don’t consider a place based on its own merits instead of some preconceived idea of what you expect to be there. You don’t realize how stunning certain places actually are when they aren’t compared to what they’re “supposed” to be.

Look the other way: Kirkjufellsfoss

Next time you’re anywhere famous, take in the iconic sight. But then turn around. Move. Look the other way.

Then be prepared to be amazed by what you see. Not just because it can be visually rewarding, but because it is your own personal discovery, one you made, even in highly popular locations.

 

How to reduce stress and worry: Ten lessons from travel

.Reduce stress and worry: Cruise ship

We all struggle with stress and worry to varying degrees. But I’ve noticed something quite telling: I stress and worry far less when I’m on a trip. It doesn’t even have to be a relaxing cruise or beach getaway. Any trip tends to work.

Oh sure, there’s always some concern about making connections, staying healthy, or getting to that newly-discovered-but-now-my-favorite-in-the-world gelato shop before it closes. I mean, some worries are legit.

But overall, when I’m away from my daily routines, I also tend to avoid the accompanying concerns that frazzle me. Some of it is obvious: Most of my trips, particularly abroad, are vacations. If my vacations are causing stress and worry, I’m not doing them right. And if that happens, then, well, that’s just one more thing to stress and worry about.

However, I’ve discovered other reasons why travel lessens my stress and worry and have started to apply what I’ve learned to life at home. I’ve found I’m routinely less troubled when I follow these lessons and remember that worry is merely an act of the imagination. Hold worry up to the light of day and you realize that it is only a figment of one’s fertile imagination, no more real than a daydream, no more likely to happen, in most cases, than a bad hunch. It’s something within my control. And yours.

So keep that in mind as you consider these ten lessons from travel that will help you reduce stress and worry at home.

  1. There’s always another train. Few “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities” are. If you miss one, no need to stress and worry: There’s usually another. You may have to wait for that next train or opportunity, but in the waiting you may learn something you would have missed had the original option happened. Plus, there’s greater value to downtime than you may realize
  2. There’s always another route. Rarely is there only one way to do something or to go somewhere. We default to what’s easiest and familiar and when that doesn’t happen, we stress and worry. But we learn better and acquire new skills when we’re forced to figure out a new approach, a different pathway to our destination or goal. We cease to stress and worry as much because we’re too busy enjoying the quest or creative problem-solving inherent in travel and in the most rewarding of activities at home.  
  3. The worst mistakes make the best stories. When you realize that travel disasters result in great tales later and a greater sense of achievement and overcoming, you learn to embrace the so-called failures and mistakes. Similarly, you’ll stress and worry less at home when you take on an attitude of adventure in all you do.
  4. Who you’re with matters more than where you are. A great travel companion can make a bad place fun. An annoying travel companion can ruin the best place. Experienced travelers understand this. But the same principle applies at home. Want to stress and worry less? Curate who you spend time with. Don’t give up on friends who need a little extra attention. But also, don’t spend your time with consistently negative people who drain you. Your trip — and your life — is too short.
  5. Out of sight, out of mind. On a trip, you connect better with locals, with your traveling companions and most of all, with yourself when you unplug and only use your phone for directions or travel-specific purposes. Checking in periodically with home is fine, but trips allow you the chance to see what life is like free from 24/7 connectivity. Practice staying off your phone on a trip and, once you get over the initial shock to the system, you may find that your stress level decreases as a result. Most of us don’t realize how the constant state of connectedness (or our perceived need for it) keeps us both distracted and anxious. Take what you learn on a trip and apply it at home. Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport is a helpful resource if you want to understand just how much of a toll your smart phone is taking on your life and what to do about it.
  6. The news you don’t know won’t hurt you. If you can’t completely unplug from social media on a trip, try to at least avoid checking in on the news. It’s amazing how less stressed you’ll feel when you’re away from politics and other divisive information. Again, see how you can apply what you’ve learned on a trip to how you digest the news at home. Maybe slow down, read an actual printed newspaper or get your news from other sources like radio. Or maybe, as on a trip, give up the news completely for a while. You’ll find that the important issues still filter in through friends and other sources. But when you consciously adjust how much you consume the news, you begin to realize how much that news may be consuming you (and adding more stress than you realize).
  7. You’re not indispensable. Being away from and unconnected to work for a week or two (or three) can initially freak you out. How will anything get done while you’re gone? But most of us learn that everyone manages just fine without us. Just that awareness can reduce your worries on your trip. It may also help you take yourself a bit less seriously at work once you return home.
  8. There’s a reason they’re so happy. When my son was 13, he returned from a trip to Guatemala with a surprising insight. He couldn’t believe how young kids who lived in a garbage dump there were happier than most of his friends here in the US. “They had practically nothing whereas my friends have all the latest video games and gadgets.” What those kids in Guatemala had was each other; a strong sense of community and belonging. They used their imaginations to turn trash into toys. This isn’t to diminish their hard conditions. Instead, it’s to note that maybe all the stuff we own may be owning us and creating more stress than we realize. Learning to be grateful for all you have goes a long way in helping to keep it all in perspective.
  9. A rolling stone gathers no stress. Travel involves movement, but at home, we can feel stuck, in our jobs or in our lives. Research shows that stress doesn’t come from hard work. It occurs when you work hard but see no results. Travel teaches you how to stay flexible and how to focus on small wins that provide a sense of momentum. At home, if you get stuck in one project, shift to another right away. This isn’t multitasking where your concentration is fragmented as you flit back and forth between projects. Instead, it’s a way to keep you progressing, concentrating deeply on one project until you hit a wall, then shifting to another and so on. This approach, like going from sight to sight on a trip, tends to energize rather than stress you.
  10. Your worst-case scenarios rarely happen. Enough said. Just remind yourself of this the next time you’re head-tripping over all the things that might go wrong. And in the unlikely event that the worst-case scenario occurs, see point 3 above.

Try applying these lessons from travel and see if it doesn’t help in reducing stress and worry at home.

 

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Look the other way: Budir Black Church, Iceland

Budir beach from aboveLearn to see more of your trip

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tripper (tourist) sees what he has come to see.” This quote from G.K. Chesterton’s Autobiography takes on new meaning when it comes to travel, photography and Instagram.

Choose any popular spot around the world and it is mind boggling how many people are there to not just see, but photograph a particular landmark or site. All well and good, except they do so in pretty much the same manner. They come mostly to get their own Instagram shot, to claim membership in that club and to check off that experience.

That’s not a bad way to travel.

But it may not be the best way to travel. While you may have the bragging rights of capturing “the” shot, you’re likely missing so much more. In fact, you may be missing out on the best part of the place —or your trip.

Today I begin an ongoing series called, “Look the Other Way.” In it, we’ll explore numerous possibilities to do just that, to look the other way. That may mean looking up, down, from a different viewpoint, behind you or just from a different mental perspective. Today, let’s start with a rather obvious aspect: Look around.

Budir black churchAn example from Iceland’s Budir Black Church

I recently returned from Iceland (and several other Scandinavian countries). One iconic image you see of that windswept isle is of this lone church, black in color (because its wood is coated in tar for weather protection) and usually shot with the coast or nearby mountains as the backdrop. Pretty much like the shot above only, because it was a bright, sunny morning, the black is looking a little faded here.

I did a quick search on Instagram for Budir Black Church and this is the top page of results.
Instagram images of Budir

You see it in all seasons, day and night, with or without people, but with only one exception, it’s a similar shot of just the church itself.

This lemming-like phenomenon isn’t limited to Instagram. On virtually every travel blog or site I went to before visiting Iceland, I saw the same image. Here’s what a search on Google using the Images filter reveals:

Google images of Budir

Lest you think the results are limited because my search term was Budir Black Church, an expanded search to just “Budir Iceland” resulted in pretty much the same results with a few shots of the nearby hotel added.

Using images to plan your trip

I tend to plan trips visually, reading about places that sound interesting first, then doing image searches or using Google Earth to provide a fuller sense of what the place is like. Google Earth works well for understanding what’s around the site but it isn’t the best for capturing the beauty of it. Here’s what I mean with this destination shown in Google Earth:

Google Earth of Budir

Thus, based on the cursory search I did for the Budir Black Church, I assumed there’d be a small isolated church worth maybe a five to ten minute stop since it was on our way.

But look what happens when you look the other way, in this case looking around the area.

There’s always more to see

Budir Black Church and cemetery

First, I realized there’s a cemetery next to the church. I didn’t know that before.

Second, I had no idea there were these beautiful moss-covered tiny hills and valleys around the church that you can explore.

Budir from above

Third, I never realized that right next door to the “isolated” church is a lovely hotel.

Budir hotel and inlet

Fourth, the setting is as impressive as the church. The beaches, the water and the mossy volcanic landscape around the church and beyond the hotel make for a gorgeous environment you can wander. The conical and other mountains in the background make for a nice backdrop as well.

The road into Budir

Fifth, while many of the photos I’ve seen of Iceland show some lovely scenes, photographs cannot capture how beautiful many of the places are. The scenes just don’t translate well because the Icelandic experience is about being out in the vast natural environment there. You can’t capture in an image how the sun (rather rare), wind, scent of the sea, the intricate details of moss and small flowers and the expansive landscape all around you merge.

Why some images show up more often

Budir grass

For example, in the above photo, the scene itself when I was there was brilliant. It was a wonder to just wander amidst the grass, rocks, moss and sea. But honestly, I think it’s a rather boring photo because there’s no real subject, just the expanse.

Compare it to the following:

Budir hotel and church

I love this image because while it captures the rocks, grass and beach, it has a focal point on the hotel and distant church.

This lack of subjects to ground your photos explains in part why most people take the same shots of the same places in Iceland. Iconic subjects are simply fewer and farther between there.

It helped, in my case, to have a drone to get some of these shots from above. That added a level of interest you might not behold at ground level.

Budir water and coastA great photographer, however, can find a worthy subject anywhere, particularly when the right light and weather work together to make even an open expanse of field and distant mountains appear magical. But on a dull rainy day or a bright sunny one with no clouds like what we experienced, most of us need some subject to stand out in our photos. Hence the church or a handful or other iconic shots you see so often.

Don’t settle for what others have seen

Budir Black Church

That may explain why you only see the church in photos of Budir. But hopefully the above images reveal that there is so much more there in Budir than than just the church, both to photograph and most of all, to experience.

In any location, when you look the other way, looking beyond the iconic sight to what lies behind or on the other side of the popular subject, you discover an entire world that may be more wondrous than the one you came to see.