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?
"Have you ever been to Medicine Hat?" Abby Czibere from the Visitor Centre asks. I feel bad when I tell her no, unless you count stopping to fill up and grab fast food. In short order, I realize that's a big mistake as there's a vibrant food and arts scene and beautiful riverside parks to explore in this city of 65,000 people.
The Hat (the city's nickname; its residents are Hatters) has experienced a renaissance in recent years thanks to innovative entrepreneurs. Trendy eateries, indie coffee shops, and craft breweries have opened, attracting like-minded businesses, while enticing young people to stick around after college. Even the museums add to the up and coming feeling with their unique exhibits and events. Smell the smells of war at Esplanade Arts and Heritage Centre, or attend a concert in a massive kiln at MedAlta Potteries (Tongue on the Post Music Festival).
A few months ago I entered a contest for a trip for two to visit Philadelphia on Two Bad Tourists. Normally contests like this are limited to United States residents so when I saw this one was open to Canadians I jumped at the chance. I've never won something like this before, so I actually forgot about it until I got the emailing saying I had won. Two Bad Tourists then worked alongside Visit Philly to organise the trip for me and my mother to explore Philadelphia for three days. Visit Philly paid for our flights, hotels and gave us a VIP Pass to experience the city to our heart's content. It is thanks to them that this trip is possible.
Several movies and television shows have tried to capture the essence of Philadelphia over the years – from the boxing Blockbuster Rocky, to the paranormal thriller The Sixth Sense, to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and even Boy Meets World – but each described the city differently. There is no easy way to approach a city as dynamic as The City of Brotherly Love. With countless layers of art, history, religion and the paranormal, Philadelphia is a city unlike any other throughout the United States.
One thing that surprised me the most about Philadelphia was the history. The city was founded and designed by William Penn, who is also the state of Pennsylvania's namesake. Born in London, England in 1644 he lived through The Great Fire of 1666 and The Great Plague of London from 1665-1666. Both events shaped Penn's life so he designed the city to be strictly stone buildings (to stop fires from spreading) and to have plenty of space between the buildings (as to prevent illness from spreading). This led to the older areas of the city to have winding corridors between old stone walls.
As I stood in the courtyard of Fort Henry, I heard screams emanating from within. Fort Henry was constructed to protect the Kingston Royal Dockyard from the invading American forces during the War of 1812. The threat was so real that the capital of Canada – which was then Kingston – was moved to Quebec to protect it. The docks are all that stood between the United States and the St. Lawrence River and both countries were all too familiar with how easily it would turn the tides of battle.
As the screams from inside Fort Henry faded, I turned to the man beside me. He had come with his family. We got talking, trying to calm our nerves as bloodied clowns and undead mimes began wandering out from inside the fort.