Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Retiring the retirement dream

I've always had an idea of what my retirement would look like.

In between clogging up bank and post office queues at lunchtime, and yelling at teenagers who drop rubbish on my lawn, I envisaged travelling the world.   With no job to rush back to, I saw myself spending months wandering around Europe, the US, South America and Asia.

At the risk of being over dramatic, that dream is dying.

Are we there yet?

With the Federal Budget approaching and ongoing "conversations" about pensions and retirement savings, I doubt whether my generation and those that follow will ever retire at all.

Instead of wandering the world, I'll still be searching for a seat on the peak hour bus to work.   And rather than enjoying the freedom and flexibility of my twilight years, I'll be stuck in the monotony of nine to five until I drop dead at my desk.

Is that retirement getting further away?
We can expect to live longer, but we'll also be spending more health care, have less government support, and hoping our super will last as long as it needs to.  Even those with children must be wondering whether their "precious little darlings" can be relied upon in the future, or if they'll have moved to the other side of the country to escape the parental burden.

The upside?  In my mind, all this makes a more compelling argument (as if we needed one) as to why we should travel now as much as possible.  It may have once been the dream to retire and then travel Australia and the world, but it's time to fact the facts:

Fact 1.  You may never retire
As the government encourages us to stay in the workforce for longer, chances are we'll be working until we die or until we're too ill to work.

Fact 2.  If you do retire, you will be older than you parents and grandparents were
Your parents and grandparents may have retired in their 60s.   We'll probably be hoping to do so in our 70s.

Fact 3.  You probably won't have the money to travel further than the local bingo hall
Living longer means we'll also need more money to live comfortably.  The uncertainly of just how long we'll hang around for means we'll probably put off travel.

The Bottom Line:  Don't delay, travel today.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

In the red

With Anzac Day behind us, it's fitting to contemplate what happens when the battle has been won or lost.

What of the soldiers and of those who have been displaced by war?

For more than a century, this question has invariably been answered by the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Entering the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum
This organisation has become such a regular background feature of wars and disasters that you almost don't see it anymore.   Yet without it, it's hard to imagine how communities would regroup and rebuild.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva charts the history of this global organisation and it's almost enough to restore my faith in people (almost).
Helping those who need it most

The genesis of the Red Cross started when a Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant witnessed the gory aftermath of war in 1859.  Responding to the lack of organised army nursing systems and institutions to treat those wounded in battle, the idea of a voluntary humanitarian organisation was born.

Dunant also called for international treaties to guarantee the protection of neutral medical and field hospitals for soldiers wounded on the battlefield.  This led to the first Geneva Convention.

Given the depth and breadth of conflicts and disasters the Red Cross has been involved in, this museum adopts a different, experiential approach to tell its story.  This is probably just as well; documenting every incident it has been involved in would require a much larger building, possibly the size of Geneva itself.

The museum's "The Humanitarian Adventure" creates three distinct spaces that sum up the organisation's vast body of work: Defending human dignity, Reconstructing family links and Reducing natural risks.

Defending human dignity, with its graphic representations of wounded soldiers and human suffering, is the most confronting of the exhibits. It uses projections and technology to tell the age-old story of human rights literally being trampled.

Defending human dignity

However it is the exhibit of small gifts made by prisoners of war for their Red Cross case workers that is the most touching.  Often a Red Cross representative was the only contact POWs had with the outside world and the only ones checking to see they were being properly treated, so many POWs created gifts of gratitude with the limited resources they had at hand.

Gifts made by POWs for their Red Cross case worker

Reconstructing family links continues the tale, documenting how families torn apart by disasters are brought back together.   Here, row upon row of index cards dating from WWII (each card representing a person searching for loved ones) highlights how the mammoth task of reuniting families across war zones is done.  While computers may have stepped in, the job of reaching out and collecting each individual's details remains the same.

Index cards from WWII that were used to reunite families

Rather than a depressing jaunt through more than a century of people mistreating others or falling victim to natural disasters, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum left me surprisingly upbeat.  Perhaps it's comforting to know an organisation like the Red Cross exists.

It's fitting that a short distance down the road from the museum stands the Broken Chair Monument, a wooden sculpture of a giant three-legged chair.   Directly across the road from the UN's Palace of Nations, it symbolises the opposition to another legacy of war, land mines.

The Broken Chair Monument

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

In the footsteps of war

Given the devastation and loss of life they have witnessed, it's curious to think how some battlefields and sites of wartime atrocities become magnets for tourists decades later.

Of course, this is the more sombre and thought-provoking side of tourism; where people reflect on what occurred, honour the sacrifices made, and hope lessons have been learnt for the future.

I am particularly fascinated by World War I and World War II for many reasons.  WWI strikes me as an especially brutal war, where unsuspecting young men faced gas and trench warfare for the first time.   WWII had its own form of horrors and left a legacy that shaped the course of countries like Australia and that continues to influence global politics.

Even tucked away in the Pacific, Australia wasn't untouched by these wars.  There doesn't seem to be a town in Australia that doesn't have a war memorial of some kind, hinting at the sheer impact these wars had on every community.

As Anzac Day approaches, it is important to remember.   But not from a jingoistic viewpoint, but quietly and respectfully, with consideration for how we can avoid future conflicts.

On my travels, I've had the opportunity to visit a number of important war-related sites:

1.  Anzac Cove, Turkey
It's a place every Australian school student has heard about, but it was only when I was standing at Anzac Cove that I really appreciated the unforgiving topography.  While a military disaster, I respect the determination of those who tried to capture the peninsula.  Apart from the graves and the remains of trenches, I was particularly struck by the words by Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk etched on a memorial.  Read more...

Anzac Cove

2.  Flanders' Fields
The number of cemeteries that lie around the small Belgian town of Ypres speaks of the hundreds of thousands of people, from both sides, who lost their lives in this relatively small area during WWI.  Even today, remnants of the gritty trench warfare, complete with tear gas and heavy shelling, can be seen.  Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae's famous In Flanders Fields poem was also born here.  Read more...

Tyne Cot Cemetery

3.  Hellfire Pass, Thailand
This stretch of the Thai-Burma Railway, dubbed the Death Railway, is a particularly difficult rock cutting created by Allied POWs and other forced labour, who chipped away in brutal conditions without proper construction tools.   The cemeteries in the nearby town of Kanchanaburi is the resting place for many who died while working on the project.  Read more...

Hellfire Pass

4.  Pearl Harbour, Hawaii
The bombing of Pearl Harbour heralded the entry of the United States into World War II. Today, you can still see the submerged hull of the USS Arizona, one of the battleships sunk by the Japanese bombing.  

Submerged USS Arizona
Memorial wall

5.  Anne Frank's House, The Netherlands
It's a small and unassuming multi-storey warehouse along one of Amsterdam's many canals, but it was here that a young Jewish girl and her family hid from Nazi persecution in the Netherlands during World War II.  Anne Frank's diary remains one of the most touching individual accounts of wartime civilian life and of the Holocuast.  Read more...

Statue of Anne Frank in Amsterdam

6.  Auschwitz, Poland
While just one of the 1,200 camps and subcamps believed to have been set up by Nazi Germany, Auschwitz, and neighbouring Birkenau, encapsulates the horrors of Hitler's Final Solution.  The prisoner huts, gas chamber, torture post, firing squad wall, and hordes of stolen belongings speak of the systematic brutality.  Read more...

Auschwitz's gates

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The royal way

I'm thinking of changing careers and becoming a royal.

Now, I know what you're thinking:  I'm just saying that because of the hype generated by having Prince William and Kate in the country.  Not so.  I've been contemplating it for some time.  

The move would be slightly at odds with my views that Australia should become a republic, but I'm prepared to live with this philosophical dilemma.

Britain's House of Windsor isn't my first pick either.   I'm thinking of somewhere a bit more fun, like the Netherlands, Sweden or Denmark (would two Australian Danish royals be too much?).

And I'm not walking in the role blindly.  Like any good job hunt, I've done a list of pros and cons: 

1.  Instant property portfolio (hop on the property ladder at the very top)

2.  Job for life (a rare thing these days)

3.  Job comes with accommodation and other fringe benefits (I may never have to pay for anything ever again)

4.  Buildings, bridges, boats and other things are named after you (a great boost to the ego)

5.  You don't have to actually run the country any more (constitutional monarchies are a wonderful idea!)

6.   I'm assuming you're invited to Eurovision every year

7.  You've got good looking security

1.  The world is constantly watching (so no more wandering around in my bathrobe?)

2.  You get a lot of crap gifts you'll never use, including dodgy portraits of yourself (I've got a mirror!)

3.  You have to mingle with the masses and sometimes even touch them

4.  Every minute of your day seems planned (when's "me time" kick in?)

5.  It appears you have to go to church a lot 

6.  You have to have kids (who will probably overthrow you)

7.  There's always a risk of revolution

Sunday, 13 April 2014

A visit to Auschwitz

With Anzac Day approaching, I'm reflecting on my visit to one of the most infamous World War II sites - the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps.

While I had visited other Nazi concentration camps, the reputation of Auschwitz-Birkenau makes it a must for anyone who wants to learn more about the Holocaust.

Not surprisingly, the camp holds many confronting and gruesome sights, but it's important these are seen so that we understand how discrimination and persecution can escalate if left unchecked.

The camps lie on the outskirts of the small Polish town of Oswiecim, a short bus ride from Krakow, ironically one of the most stunning and beautiful towns in Europe.

It's hard to properly verbalise what I saw and the feelings these generate, so I will let my photos do the talking.


My journey started at the famous "Work makes (you) free" Auschwitz gates

The camp's fence

Inside the camp

One of the many low-rise buildings that held prisoners

This was one of the most confronting sights - a room featuring the possessions the Nazis confiscated from their prisoners.  It featured suitcases, spectacles and this... bags of human hair for mattresses

A guard tower is never too far away 
Death Wall

The post where prisoners' hands were tied behind their backs and hung as punishment and torture

Door to the gas chamber

Gas chamber chimney

(only a few kilometres away from Auschwitz)

The expansive Birkenau site, considerably larger than Auschwitz

The train line leading into the camp under the guard tower
In many cases only the foundations and chimneys remain of the countless rows of prisoner huts that occupied the site but were destroyed by the retreating Nazis

Chimney of prisoner hut with guard tower in the background
Stepping inside one of the prisoner huts

Inside one prisoner hut with the "beds"

Another view inside a prisoner hut
Fireplace inside prisoners hut that would have done little during the Polish winter

One of the platforms where prisoners slept
Communal toilet block
Communal washroom

Security around the huge Birkenau camp

Rows of prisoner huts

Remains of the Birkenau gas chamber, destroyed by retreating Nazis

Another view of the gas chamber
Steps down into the gas chamber

Standing at one end of Birkenau and looking back at the entrance reinforces the sheer scale of this camp

Some of the camp's victims

The camp is so large that visitors can cycle around to see all the sights

A road through the centre of the camp.  Rows of prisoner huts lined each side.

Looking into the camp.  Note the chimneys - one for each hut

Why these concentration camp museums continue to be important