Second, if you choose to bear witness ensure that you have support to process what you have witnessed. Are you traveling with a thoughtful friend or family member, or have one at home that you can Facetime with later that day? Have a discussion with them. Traveling solo and haven’t met people traveling that speak your emotional language? Try and have a conversation with someone who works at the centre or remembrance site you are visiting. Are you into journaling? Use written word to process your experience, or perhaps voice-notes on your phone. Are you a musician? Write lyrics or music to process. Are you an athlete? Find a local basketball court and shoot some hoops to process, or go for a fulfilling run. We are all different and as a result, we all process life and its experiences differently. Make sure you have the tools to cope.

Finally, ensure that you are kind to yourself and care for your well-being as you engage with these histories.

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Our travels take us to all corners of the world,

and being mindful of the histories of the countries we visit is essential to understanding their current political, social, cultural, and economic landscapes. Gaining insight into these countries can be especially challenging when navigating their dark histories. From trips to Poland that include visits to the concentration camps that defined the Holocaust, to visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia and the remembrance sights in Rwanda - we are surrounded by the discomfort and tragedy of a country’s past. And the sad truth is that most of the countries we visit have some tragic past, including atrocities committed against indigenous peoples in most modern states and the mistreatment of immigrant or refugee populations. My own country, Canada, has a complex and tragic history of abuse of our Indigenous peoples. Much like people, every country has a past - some unfortunately, have skeletons.

As a disclaimer, please note that the examples provided in this blog post come from my own travel experiences (with the exception of Rwanda, which is a location that I have yet to visit but have studied in great detail). These sites were not selected to exclude the historic suffering of others. Rather, I felt that when speaking of such difficult subject matter, it would be prudent to speak only from my own experiences.

And so, this week’s blog takes us into a morose but real travel conundrum as we provide tips to navigate your experience, so that you can feel at ease honouring a country’s past while still honouring yourself.

1. Engage in self-care - be kind and patient with yourself and others

2. It’s OK to cry, as much as it’s OK not to cry. Just be sure to honour yourself and your experience.

I recall that when I visited the concentration camp of Auschwitz- Birkenau, I didn’t cry. Not one tear. I was overwhelmed by the gravity of it all - the complexity of what occured not so long ago where I stood,  juxtaposed with the simplicity of standing on that same soil in my running shoes, leggings, and jacket. As a Jewish girl of 2009 with a bright life ahead of me, I stood where a Jewish girl with a different fate stood in 1942. Modern meets past, and the human of today meets the human of yesterday, connected physically through the one witness who had met both of our feet - the land. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel haunted - I did. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel empathy or connection - I did. It was that I processed it without tears. And that was perfectly fine  - I did not need to process with tears to feel the magnitude of my surroundings.

At a later concentration camp I visited, I cried and cried and cried. Remember that it is OK to honour yourself and process in a way that embraces your moment - your manner of processing does not add or detract to the effect of an experience. It is not anyone else’s place to judge how you process your surroundings, so long as it is respectful.

How do you best pay respect to the history of the country you’re visiting? How do you conduct yourself when faced with these horrifying realities on your otherwise happy trip experience? Is it appropriate to take photos? How do you pose in those photos?

Recently, actress Katherine Heigl was reprimanded for taking inappropriate photos at a cemetery in Buffalo, NY.  Another example is of a young woman who took a smiling-selfie in Auschwitz - Birkenau. The etiquette of it all begs the question, how do you conduct yourself in these settings? This issue has been covered by a great piece in The New Yorker Magazine, which speaks about the Auschwitz selfie phenomenon. The article suggests that “the Instagram era has now brought us the selfie in a concentration camp” and discusses the challenges this poses. In my experience, you can be in the photos you take if you are mindful of how pose. For example, if you don’t want your face to be in the photo, take a picture of your back looking out onto the site. Want to avoid that issue altogether? Take a photo of the landscape on its own. It can certainly speak for itself. If you’re active on social media, use the opportunity to educate your friends with a respectful photo, a small blurb about the history of the site, and explain why you chose to visit. Be an ambassador of history and inspire others to learn about what you have witnessed.

...I would recommend embracing the fear you may experience at the prospect of facing this history, and visit these sites in spite of it.

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The Complexities of being a Tourist:

Visiting Solemn/Historic Remembrance Sites Abroad

4. Ask questions

Most often times, the people who work at the sites you visit have great knowledge about the history you are bearing witness to. Either they have been directly affected, or they have studied the history a great deal and have been trained in the area. If you are an inquisitive type, ask questions. Be sure that you are thoughtful and respectful. I can guarantee you that your experience will be heightened by engagement with locals on the subject. I asked a plethora of questions while in the presence of Holocaust survivors in Poland, and as a result, my capacity to share personal stories of those directly affected by the genocide was heightened and my relationship with the experience is directly influenced by what I learned from the people who directly bore witness to the atrocities.

It is also important to note that even in a more removed environment, such as a museum committed to genocide education, where you are not in the place where the atrocity actually occurred, you may be affected by the content of the material you see.  For example, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC is a moving experience that is interactive and haunting. The Museum has tour guides and staff who are trained to debrief and engage with you on the subject matter - speak to them!

Learning about the past is an excellent way to internalize the lessons of history.  The ethos of “Never Again” is one that has been taught following each and every genocide that has occurred. Never again shall such human inflicted devastation occur. It is premised in the notion that we must learn from history to ensure that such atrocities remain a part of history and not a threat to the present or future. Unfortunately, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and persecution continue to plague our global community. Visiting remembrance sites prompts us to ask ourselves: What steps can we take to ensure that we are taking action in negating intolerance, prejudice, racism, xenophobia, anti semitism? How can we be conscious people and travelers?

5. Learn a little bit about the history before you go

Your experience within a country can be enhanced if you have an idea of the history of that country before you visit. First, some preliminary research can be essential to ensure your safety as some countries still feel the effects of past insecurity (for example, the legacy of Apartheid in South Africa). Second, even for those who do not take comfort in the glory of a library (maybe it’s just me, but a Hogwarts style library enamours and endears me every time), Wikipedia can be your friend and can provide you with brief insight into the past. Third,  doing a little bit of research can inform your decisions as to whether or not you want to visit the site in question. And finally, it can also inform your insight of the culture and society you visit. For example, when visiting Rwanda, you will likely hear about the Hutu and the Tutsi - the history of these two peoples is essential to understanding the currents within society presently.

When I visited the concentration camps in Poland, I was on a group trip called the March of Remembrance and Hope (for those of you who are still students and live in Canada, this is a remarkable opportunity and is not to be missed). The trip began in Germany tracing the rise of Nazi regime and finished in Poland with visits to the horrifying concentration camps - from Auschwitz - Birkenau to Majdanek. The trip was powerful and profound - and the entire trip was committed to remembrance. On account of that, our experience was guided toward addressing the trauma and respecting the past.  In preparation for this trip, I had read books, attended lectures, and participated in group discussions. And growing up in a Jewish home, the Holocaust had always been something I’d learned about and contemplated.

March 20th, 2019

By Chelsea Sauvé

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It is important to note that each experience, exposure, and motivation will differ from person to person. My perceptions are informed by my life experience and the travels I have engaged with. But each of you has your own life narrative, and your own experiences that will inform how you engage with these sensitive stories. Perhaps your family has a connection to the horrific history you will engage with while abroad. Be sure that you take precautions to engage in self- care.

A friend recently shared with me her feeling of overwhelm when visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Envisioning Anne Frank’s house is very different from stepping foot in it. A home that she had known through Anne Frank’s intimate journal was suddenly before her, and the magnitude of it left her feeling uncertain about how to interpret and interact with the immense history of her surroundings. Surreal is one way to put it. But how do you live presently while engaging with such history?

First, I would recommend embracing the fear you may experience at the prospect of facing this history, and visit these sites in spite of it. It is OK to have a trip committed to other endeavours, and visit the more solemn experiences on another, separate trip. But truthfully, when will you be back? That being said, the infrastructure of a country’s past is there to see, either on Wikipedia or in person, and it is up to you to decide how you want to engage with it and what your level of comfort is.

If you are a person who uses photos to process and recall, then tasteful photos of your environment are absolutely acceptable and encouraged. Photos spark memory later in life, and as a result, they help you to share your experience when you return home and reconnect with it in years to come. Photos are always my most important travel treasures.

Just be sure to be mindful of those around you and the culture of your environment. For example, ensure that you are allowed to take photos (some sensitive sites do not allow for photography for purposes of preservation or for cultural reasons etc.). Speaking of, be sure to dress appropriately for the occasion.

Years later, when I traveled to Cambodia and visited the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, the trip took place in a different context. I was living and working in Bangkok, Thailand at the time, and had taken time away to explore neighbouring Cambodia!  After my visit to beautiful and historic Ankor Wat, I decided that I wanted to honour the history of the country by learning about the events of the all too recent genocide. Unlike with my experience in Germany and Poland, I knew the basics about the Cambodian genocide, but did not have a genuine understanding of how society is still affected by its legacy.

Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was a formerly a secondary school turned into a prison under the Khmer Rouge regime during their terrible reign. I then toured the killing fields, where between the years of 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge regime killed and buried millions of Cambodians. It is, in effect, a mass grave. As I wandered the premises with my interactive audio recording in hand, which explained what I was seeing, I was keenly aware of being in a country that had seen such trauma and despair. I took in the history, and internalized the human responsibility I felt to bear witness to the remnants of tragedy left behind.

Following that day, as I navigated my travels in Cambodia, I was humbled to have been exposed to both the magical present of Cambodian culture as well as the traumatic history of its past. Both realities live side by side within a country that is still navigating the raw wounds of recent genocide.

6. Respectfully engage with the subject matter

While in some countries, honest discussions of the past may be common place in discussion amongst locals, and taught in school curricula, some countries maintain a discomfort with the realities of their past.  The history that may be too uncomfortable or painful for locals to discuss, or at times, too recent to have the language to discuss at all. Ensure that you get your pulse on what is appropriate and inappropriate to discuss in public, what is open for discussion and what is taboo. For example, in a country such as Rwanda, most people lost loved ones in the genocide. And in a country where even millennials were alive during the genocide, it is a fresh wound that requires care when discussing.

Most important, take it all step by step. Take in your surroundings. Take your time to process and generate your own feelings about the scenario. Allow yourself space and time to take it all in. Processing the gravity of history and its residual cruelty does not happen overnight.

If you have a specific circumstance you feel the need to process, or have an upcoming trip with similar content, and want to chat about it, feel free to email at [email protected]. Happy to speak with you.

3. You can take photos, just be mindful of how you pose if you are in the photos