For as long as I can remember, my mom’s job has called her to conferences all around the world, and most of the time, my dad and I come too. I’ve seen the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, and scores of ancient castles. When I was really young these trips meant little more to me than seeing some cool places and buying souvenirs. But now, I realize that the whole time I have been experiencing different history and cultures first hand. Most of what I’ve learned from the places I go could also be learned from a book, but there is no substitute for physically experiencing these places and witnessing history with my own eyes; beholding unaltered, the raw truth.
In eighth grade, there was a unit on The Holocaust. We learned about it through films, songs, and poetry. It had a big impact on me, but I still couldn’t fully grasp what had happened. That summer, my family and I went to Poland. I went on many tours, but the places that really stuck with me were Birkenau and Auschwitz. Because of what I had learned in eighth grade, I was able to prepare myself for what these places might look like. However, when I stood in front of the crematorium smokestack and saw it looming above me like a menacing giant, I was caught off guard by the feeling of hopelessness and anguish that surrounded it. As I walked the gravel streets of Auschwitz, and stood at the spot where the arriving prisoners would have awaited the decision that would send them either to a labor camp or a crematorium, I felt closer to the people who had suffered there than I ever had before.
The following year, at school, there was another unit about The Holocaust. That time we read a book written by a Holocaust victim. My experiences at Auschwitz and Birkenau allowed me to put myself into their shoes; to more accurately imagine what they might have seen, and feel what they might have felt.
Earlier that year, my family and I went to Ireland. One of the places we visited was Aughnanure Castle, which was previously owned by some of my ancestors, the O’Flahertys. I had heard that they had tried to defend their territory from the Norman invaders. Apparently they were rather good at it because the Normans, feeling threatened, built a wall around their city and upon it, posted this prayer: “From the Ferocious O Flaherty’s O Lord deliver us.” It wasn’t until I was actually there that I found out about the brilliant defense system around Aughnanure castle, and I understood why the Normans were frightened.
I believe that traveling is the best way to learn, especially about history and culture, because when you experience a place for yourself you don’t have to look through someone else’s eyes, or rely on the words they have chosen to describe an indescribable feeling. I realize now, that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then actually being there is nothing less than priceless.