I was out for supper with some friends the other night when my blog came up in discussion. Somebody who wasn't familiar with my blog asked me if I only write about depressing places, and I had to laugh. Later that night I got thinking about what she asked and I figured I would write about why I visit, and why you should visit, depressing places too.
They Define Who We Are
Contrary to popular belief, the world is the safest it has ever been. There is no war in the Western Hemisphere, with every country from Canada to Chile working together in relative harmony. There are problems, but we solve them through non-violent measures. The story is the same around the world – minus a few pockets of chaos. This is a huge step forward and one that humanity has never seen before. It is so impressive that it even has its own name: The Long Peace.
How we got here, however, is full of sad, heart-breaking stories. They are the stories that come out of places like Auschwitz-Birkenau, which show us how easily humanity can fall into barbarism. The stories of the victims and the horrors they went through are sometimes so hard to understand that some choose not to believe them at all. Ignoring these events, may it the extermination of Jews by the Nazis, the mass starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviets, the killings of Yazidi women by the Islamic State, the slaughter of millions in the Cambodian Killing Fields or the Residential Schools Program by the Canadian government, will only allow these events to fade from history and repeat themselves. These horribly depressing events and the locations they occurred in define who we are today.
They Bring History Alive
In school I read The Diary of Anne Frank, and I had trouble understanding her life in a city halfway around the world. It wasn't until 2011 when I visited her house and climbed the steep staircase into the secret annex, did I understand it. Finally Anne Frank wasn't just a story, but it was a record of somebody's life. It wasn't something like The Lion King, a fable made up to teach a lesson, but a personal record of a young woman's final thoughts.
Visiting my local cemetery gave me a similar feeling. By seeing the tombstones of people like Francis Darke, I finally felt their story come to life. By visiting the cemetery I saw the names of victims of the Regina Cyclone, the Regina Riot, the Spanish Flu and the North-West Rebellion, and I finally understood how these events tore families apart and changed the climate of our city.
They Make You Uncomfortable
Most people prefer to be comfortable with what's going on around them, but becoming uncomfortable is also important as it leads to personal growth. This can be caused by anything like a competitor threatening your job market, trying a new food at a restaurant you don't know, or having a discussion over political ideas. Feeling uncomfortable helps you better understand yourself, and your place in this world.
I found this when I was exploring an abandoned hospital in Pripyat. I was 8,000 kilometers away from my home, in a military controlled, highly radioactive, dark corridor of an abandoned hospital, and I felt slightly uncomfortable. But this uncomfortable moment stayed with me and I finally began to understand why people flock to empty houses, abandoned prisons and decaying warehouses. This thrill of being uncomfortable is something most people tend to avoid, but it's exciting and exhilarating – something too that we don't experience enough of.
They Leave You with More Questions than Answers
My most memorable moment in St. Petersburg, Florida wasn't my walk along the wharf, but my walk around a train car at the Florida Holocaust Museum. I've never seen a train car that was used in the Holocaust before, and I was amazed by how small it was.
Next to the train car was a small display that showed a recently discovered diamond engagement ring. It had been found between two of the floorboards of the train car, and the original owner was lost to history. An engagement ring lost on a train car on its way to a death camp creates a plethora of emotions and questions. Did the groom ask for marriage before or after they got on the train? Was it even asked? What did the bride-to-be say? Did she lose the ring deliberately? Nobody will ever know the answer.
The same can be said about visiting places like Hiroshima and hearing the stories of children who witnessed the incredible devastation of the atomic bomb. On display at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is a stone staircase with a dark spot in the middle. This is the shadow of somebody, baked into the stone, when the fireball exploded over the city. Why was he sitting there? What was he thinking about when he saw it?
Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania shut its doors in 1970. A year later, in 1971, it would briefly reopen and house inmates from Holmesburg Prison after a devastating riot. After the prisoners were returned to Holmesburg, Eastern State would sit empty for over two decades. It would rot, decay and collapse. Trees and shrubs would grow into the structure and a clowder of cats would take residence. These hallowed halls would sit empty, the only noise being the chatter of startled birds and the trotter of feline paws.
The following decades would see various discussions of what to do with the building. Eventually, it was decided to preserve it and turn it into a tourist attraction. Although it officially opened for tours in 1994, attendants would have to sign a waiver and wear hardhats before entering until 2008. They had 10,000 visitors the opening year, a number of tourists not seen in the prison since 1858.
From 1829 to 1970, Eastern State Penitentiary underwent a variety of changes and transformations. This massive, sprawling, 11-acre complex was founded under the belief that solitary confinement was the cure needed to prevent criminals from committing future crimes. It was believed criminals who served in solitary confinement would turn to a higher power to reconcile with themselves for their crimes – hence feeling "penitent". To assist in this process, each cell was equipped with a slit window on the ceiling nicknamed "The Eye of God". It would be the only light source available to the inmate.
I have been told my entire life that Winnipeg was just like Regina, but slightly larger. This gave the impression that there wasn't much to see in Winnipeg and that it, along with Regina, were more-or-less "fly over destinations". Since starting my blog, I've learned Regina is an absolutely incredible city so I imagined Winnipeg was the same. I then proceeded to contact Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba to find out the true Winnipeg, and ended up going on a multi-day excursion of their city.
Since a lot of my readers are from Regina and they almost all know somebody heading there for the Banjo Bowl in a couple of days, I thought I'd put this list together. There's a lot more to see there than just Investors Group Field, and the city's history is incredibly fascinating, so I hope you enjoy this list of 100 things about "Canada's Gateway to the West".
Several of these facts are taken from Frank Albo's tour of the Manitoba Legislative Building, but there are many I didn't mention. If you enjoyed them, I encourage buying his book: "The Hermetic Code"
The Island of the Dolls is in Xochimilco, a borough south of Mexico City. While it would be faster to take a car from Mexico City to Xochimilco, the traffic is dense and the roads are very congested. Instead, if you're going there, I'd recommend taking metro, which is easy and the cheapest in the world. What you gain in comfort, however, you lose in speed, as the train ride takes about 2 hours.
Mexico City and Xochimilco both sit in the Valley of Mexico. Until about a millennium ago, the whole region around Mexico City was surrounded by a massive body of water. Over the centuries due to both climate change and interference by humans, most of this water has dried up, for the exception of Xochimilco. With networks of canals crisscrossing the borough, car transportation is difficult and water transportation is essential. I'm sure there were motorized boats somewhere in the waters of Xochimilco, but I never saw any. Instead, canoes and rafts are common on the water. However, the most popular vessel is a trajinera – a colourful gonadal-like boat that is pushed along the water with a wooden pole.
Xochimilco is known worldwide for their Floating Gardens market, which are essentially canoes floating down the canals, selling wares to tourists on trajineras. These include things like food, drinks, silver rings, trinkets, ponchos and sombreros. Occasionally other trajineras full of Mariachi bands will approach tourists and offer to play beside them on the water.