We finished our RTW, so What Were Our Favorite… Museums?!

We’ve finished our RTW trip. We get a lot of questions about our favorite things on the trip. We’ve decided to start a new series called “So, What Was Our Favorite…” We visited 29 countries on our RTW: Egypt (just 1 day), South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe (just 1 day), Namibia, Germany (just 1 day), Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, USA, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia (just Bali), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Nepal.

This third edition will cover our top 10 favorite museums around the world. These are not in order of preference, instead they are in the order in which we visited them.

Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg, South Africa

The museum started with the beginnings of Joburg as a mining town, and then went through the first attempts at segregation to the implementation of the full-fledged apartheid system in the 1940s. Then, there were displays about the realities of living under apartheid, and the first wave of resistance that led to Mandela being sentenced to life imprisonment. Then, as we went chronologically. We got into the student uprisings of the 70s. For the 1980s, there was a gripping video detailing the horrific violence that brought the apartheid movement to its breaking point. We then moved on to the 90s, which detailed Mandela’s release, then end of apartheid and the founding of the new government (and also showed how close the country came to total anarchy at the time). The museum is particularly gripping as it starts right out with you being randomly assigned to be white or non-white, and then having to enter through the respective door and then garnering a different experience for the first room based on what you picked. While we visited, there was also a large exhibition on the life of Nelson Mandela.IMG_9186

Cradle of Humankind Museum, Outside Johannesburg, South Africa

This nice (and relatively new) museum is set up to explain the history of life on Earth and the history of human life as well. Once you enter the main building, you are taken down into the basement and you do this cheesy but fun boat ride that takes you though the different elements necessary for life. We then went through the different exhibits in the large space. There ranged from discussions about DNA,to extinct animals, to the different types of hominids that paleoanthropologists have identified (many of which have been found in the Cradle) to what it means to be human. We particularly enjoyed some of the interactive exhibits, for example, there was a long hallway with illustrations which helped to show the length of different eras in time.

Posing with an austrolopithicus

Posing with an austrolopithicus

Shindler Factory Museum, Krakow, Poland

This was the only museum we visited in Krakow, and it was excellent! The permanent exhibits walk you through what happened in Krakow during the years 1939 – 45, during the Nazi occupation. The museum does fascinating things in each room, designed to make you understand the subject with all of your senses. The room for before the war has nice, warm lighting and happy music playing. It feels like sitting in a comfortable room, watching old family movies about Jewish life in Krakow. Then you enter a hall which describes when Germany attacked. It is black and gloomy with red lighting streaking across the walls, representing the fire, and the sounds of shooting and bombs is everywhere. Even the floor of each room played a big role: in the room describing the initial attack, the floor was uneven; in a room describing life for the Nazis, the floor was fancy swastika tiles; in a room for a concentration camp the floor was actual white gravel. The last room was quite interesting as well. To get into it, you walk through a dark room with a spongy floor (we aren’t quite sure of the interpretation). Then, you enter the “room of regrets”, which is stark white and covered with snippets of writing. Upon closer inspection, the snippets are quotes from people who did something (or didn’t do something) during the war period. The building was actually Schindler’s Factory (from Schindler’s List), so his office is preserved and there are a few rooms dedicated to him.

Room of regrets

Room of regrets

Gallery 11/07/95, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

We paid a visit to this moving and disturbing exhibit in Sarajevo – a series of exhibits that attempt to explain some of the tragedies of the war, mainly the genocide at Srebrenica. Our guide gave us a brief overview of what happened there. It’s hard to give a concise explanation in this space, but the gist of it is that over 8000 Bosniak people in the town, mostly males, were killed and dumped into mass graves by the approaching Army of Republika Srpska, even though the town was supposedly under UN protection. We walked through the photo gallery, watched a documentary, and also listened to the stories of some individuals who were affected. The gallery also included a small display and a documentary on the siege of Sarajevo. We vaguely remembered that Sarajevo was in the news when we were kids, but I don’t think we realized the scope of what the town went through. It was under siege for almost four years, which is the longest siege in modern history. The residents had to live in constant fear of being attacked by snipers in the hills surrounding the valley that the city sits in. The documentary, called Miss Sarajevo, was shot during the siege and showed the resilience of the residents in the face of this (and was later turned into a U2 song). It is extremely moving and worth a watch. (If you do watch the documentary, and you should… it’s linked in the previous sentences… and you find yourself as taken with the young girl in the beginning and the end as we were, here is a video of what she was doing in 2009!)

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National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

The museum went in chronological order and was quite extensive. The first major area was the Cycladic figurines and other art, from the 3rd century BC. Then, they covered the findings from Mycenae. We were pretty excited to see the artifacts from Mycenae that we had heard about when at the site and from reading Greek Treasure. The next stop was the Archaic era, where we again learned more about the kore and kourous statues. The next major era was the Severe Style. The sculptures started to get more realistic, but the expressions were stern. For the classical era, many of the finds were split into different rooms. There was a large collection of rooms focused on the art found on tombstones in the ancient cemeteries. There were many elaborate marble carvings to be found. The next period is the Hellenistic era, which was characterized by sculptures which more realistic faces (instead of idealized) and more active movements. The final period covered was the Roman era. Here they tried to copy the Greek styles and were somewhat successful, although the art was less impressive. All of this chronological history was enhanced by enjoying the museum while listening to Rick Steves’ audio tour. There is much more to the museum so it could be worth multiple trips.

The Jockey of Arteision

The Jockey of Arteision

Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil, Sparta, Greece

It may not sound interesting, but we found it fascinating. The top floor of this little museum gives the history of the olive and discusses how it and its oil can be used for a wide variety of purposes: food, light, rituals, etc. The lower floor discussed all about how to make olive oil, and had examples of the different machinery that has been used to make the oil from ancient times until the present.

Della about to perform the pressing stage

Della about to perform the pressing stage

Antalya Museum, Antalya, Turkey

This is a large archaeological museum, and we enjoyed seeing the different exhibits that included the Stone Age in the Antalya area, ceramics, Roman-era sculptures and sarcophogi, and finally a small exhibit on life during the Ottoman era. Our favorite exhibit was a room with different sculptures of Greek/Roman gods found at the nearby site of Perge, mainly because each statue included a sign with extensive text describing the myths around the god.

One of the goddesses

One of the goddesses

The National Museum, Singapore

When we visited, we were disappointed to discover that the main exhibits at this museum were under renovation, but ultimately it turned out that the temporary exhibit on the history of Singapore was very good! It walked us through the history as described above in a nice chronological fashion, with good displays. It also worked hard to set the mood and tone of each period in history through the size, color, and feel of the rooms.

The exterior of the museum

The exterior of the museum

COPE Visitor Center, Vientiane, Laos

COPE is an organization that helps provide prosthetic limbs to those who can’t afford them all across Laos. The visitor center describes their work in making the prosthetics, but also talks in detail about one of the main reasons so many are needed: the tons of unexploded ordinance (UXO) that remain in the country as a result of the many bombs the US dropped during the “secret war” as part of the Vietnam war. We also watched a couple of short documentaries about the efforts to go in the countryside and defuse the found items before someone is hurt by them. The problem is especially tough because scrap metal can bring in a significant amount of money, so people will risk harm and handle items that they shouldn’t. The visitor center was small, but we found that it contained a lot of interesting information and was quite moving.

Where the US dropped bombs on Laos during the war

Where the US dropped bombs on Laos during the war

Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, Bangkok, Thailand

This museum is actually within the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok and is free with admission with a palace ticket. Our first intention was just to take advantage of the AC and uncrowded bathrooms, but we also checked out the exhibit on the Queen’s fashion and were fascinated. Apparently, before a world tour in the 1960, she helped revive some classic Thai styles and designed nine different outfit styles that are still used by the Thai women today. There was also an activity room that described silk fashions, and Della got a chance to try on a traditional outfit.

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We visited a lot of museums on our RTW the world tour, and came up with a few observations about the ones we liked the best. It was important to us that the museum have good signage and/or a good audio tour. We also enjoyed when the exhibits were interactive or really created a good atmosphere. In addition, the museums that taught us the most about things we didn’t know about or if we were moved by their content.

Budget: South Africa

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This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at South Africa. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In South Africa we used South African Rand. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 10 rand to one dollar.

Total Spent (16 days): $1380.23

This does not include the days spent on our self-drive safari.

We normally break down into the following categories:

Accommodation: $550.11

We stayed only at hostels in South Africa.

Activities: $344.75

This included the various tours as well as entrance fees to sights that we took in Joburg and Cape Town.

Alcohol: $34.29

Food: $299.49

We ate out only a little in South Africa. We mostly bought food from the supermarket and cooked our own meals at hostels.

Miscellaneous: $23.24

This included laundry, stamps, and souvenirs.

This divides out to $86.26/day which, thankfully, is under our $100/day budget. Yay!

Soweto Bicycle Tour

This post was pre-scheduled to publish while we are off on our self-drive safari

While staying in Joburg, we decided to spend some time in Soweto. Soweto is outside and to the southwest of Joburg. Soweto in fact is the name for the southwestern townships- the cities populated by the black population of Joburg during apartheid. It began during the 1940s when the black settlements outside Joburg were destroyed by authorities. The people were forcibly moved into Soweto.

Soweto gained its fame during the 1970s when it played a crucial role in the struggle against apartheid. It is also well known as the home of Nelson Mandela before he went to prison.

One of the best ways to see Soweto is to take a bicycle tour offered from a local hostel. We decided, despite it being a little pricier than we hoped, to do it. We were able to pick a bike (we both chose red cruisers) and, with a local guide, we headed out into the city. Soweto was really like many other cities around the world. There were some areas with clean, comfortable looking bungalows but also areas of abject poverty: people living in shacks with only shared bathroom facilities. In these areas, there was much trash and running sewage that we had to pick our way carefully over.

The people, in all areas, were unbelievably friendly. They all continually waved, calling out to us and welcoming us to Soweto. They seemed very proud of their free city and happy to share it with us. The children were adorable, running up to us hoping to give us a high five as we rode past. Many times the kids shouted for us to “shoot” them. We were a bit taken aback until we realized what they wanted was for us to take a picture of them.

The tour wound through the many areas of town until we reached Vilakazi St. Here we stopped to reflect on the Hector Pieterson Memorial. In 1976, students of Soweto came together to protest the use of Afrikaans in their schools. There was a movement by the apartheid government to make Afrikaans (the language of the white Afrikaaners) the only language used in black schools. Students did not read or write in Afrikaans, so they wished instruction to be in English. During the large protests, police opened fire into the crowd, killing many, including the young Hector Pieterson (only 13 years old). This event led to nationwide demonstrations, mass arrests, and riots which took cost many lives. Our guide also explained that this lead to a famous picture, one of a student heroically carrying poor Hector to safety. He explained that this photo was spread on an international stage, helping to let the rest of the world know what was happening here in South Africa which helped bring new support and pressure on the apartheid government to change. It was a beautiful memorial, and we were able to spend a bit of time reflecting.

Also on Vilakazi St, we visited the old home of Nelson Mandela, which has now become a museum. A little farther down the road is the house of Desmond Tuto, making this street the only one in the world to host two Nobel Peace Prize winners. We did not see much of Desmond Tuto’s house as were told that it is actually still his Joburg residence, though he spends most of his time in Cape Town.

We found it interesting also that Vilakazi St has blossomed into a true tourist locale with large, hip restaurants and bars which look much different than the area surrounding.

At the end of our tour, we were treated to umqombothi (the q sound is actually a click which makes this a very fun word to hear and very difficult one for us to say) which was a traditional beer served in a shebeen during apartheid. It was illegal for black people in Soweto to drink anything except beer in government established places. A shebeen was where people continued to make and serve their own traditional beer. It was very interesting – a milky white color and a sour taste. It was also drunk in a very traditional way, everyone sharing from one cup, or calabash. We sat in a circle and when it was our turn to drink we had to assume the traditional stance, which was kneeling for girls and crouching, one foot slightly in front of the other, for boys.

We very much enjoyed our tour, and learned quite a lot. We would definitely recommend it for anyone getting a chance to visit Joburg.

 

Johannesburg

This post was pre-scheduled to publish while we are off on our self-drive safari

Our first international stop on our trip was the city of Johannesburg, a.ka. Joburg, a.k.a. Jozi, a.k.a. The City of Gold. Joburg has a mixed reputation as a tourist destination, but we found it a fascinating place with lots of history.

As we learned more about Joburg, we were interested to discover that in many ways it is similar to Denver! Joburg was a small farming area that exploded into a boomtown in 1886 once a giant gold deposit was discovered – similar to Denver’s origins. Denver did, at least, have a water source near the city core, whereas there is none near Joburg (the water is piped in from the mountains of Lesotho). Also, the elevation of Joburg is over 5700ft – so if Denver is the Mile High City then Joburg must be the More Than a Mile High City!

Where We Stayed

Johannesburg Backpackers – The first two nights in town we stayed at this basic backpackers hostel in one of the northern suburbs. We chose this location because this part of town is considered safer. Our double room was nice and spacious with its own bathroom. The downside of it was that it had no heat (and it is winter here, with nights dipping into the 40s), but they did provide plenty of blankets. Another downside is that there isn’t much to do around the area. There is an area of bars and restaurants called Greenside a few blocks away, but it is still considered a little sketchy so you aren’t supposed to walk back from there too late at night by yourself. Also, to get to any attractions requires you to use a taxi that they will help you set up.

Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers – The second two nights we transferred to the Soweto area. This township has a rich history as the location where blacks were forcibly transferred to in order to get them away from the city center, and then as the center of apartheid resistance. These days it is a friendly, gigantic suburb. The hostel is a nice and vibrant accommodation – there is a kitchen that serves all three meals for a reasonable fee daily. There is a nice patio area outside with a self-serve honor system bar, reggae music playing, and campfires in the evening. Our double room is small but comfy, and we used a shared bathroom across a breezeway.

What We Did

Johannesburg City Tour

This is one of those bright red double decker bus tours that you see in a variety of cities around the world which allow you to hop on and off at different stops along the way. Normally this would be too high on the “typical tourist” scale for us to really consider, but it seemed like the best way to see the sights in downtown Joburg in one day since it is not very walkable.

The tour starts at Park Station downtown and winds through the Central Business District. They give you headphones to plug in and listen to a narration of what we are seeing. We drove by, but did not get off at, various sights like Gandhi Square (Gandhi lived in South Africa in the early 1900s) and the Carlton Center, one of the tallest buildings in all of Africa. We got off at the Apartheid Museum (which I’ll describe later) and spent multiple hours there, limiting our ability to stop at too many other places.

We did get off at the Mining District, where we spent 30 minutes walking through some outdoor exhibits about mining and Joburg history. We also saw Mandela’s first law office here. We also got off at Constitution Hill, where we walked around the outside of the Constitutional Court, which was established in 1994 when the new constitution was written. We also walked around the ramparts surrounded an old fort/jail and provided a 360 degree view of the city.

We missed out on the Newtown area, specifically the SAB Miller “World of Beer” museum. Maybe next time!

After we got off the bus, our taxi had to detour back into the CBD to pick up another hostel guest. This allowed us to see the packed street scene of markets, local taxis and lots of people. And the driver said this was a light crowd since it was a Saturday!

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Della on the bus

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Eric in the old Fort at Constitution Hill

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The hustle and bustle of the CBD

Apartheid Museum

As mentioned previously, we spent the majority of our day at the Apartheid Museum. And even then we felt like we had to rush through! There is quite a bit of history to learn here.

The tour starts with you being randomly assigned to be white or non-white, and then having to enter through the respective door. You get a different experience here at the beginning as well. Eric was assigned to be White and Della to be non-white. This first part tells you about the classification system under which the apartheid system would actually assign people to be white, black, colored (mixed race) and a few other classifications. You could even petition to have your race classification changed. There was an interesting list of all of the people who had “changed races.”

The museum started with the beginnings of Joburg as a mining town, and then went through the first attempts at segregation to the implementation of the full-fledged apartheid system in the 1940s. Then, there were displays about the realities of living under apartheid, and the first wave of resistance that led to Mandela being sentenced to life imprisonment. Then, as we went chronologically. We got into the student uprisings of the 70s. For the 1980s, there was a gripping video detailing the horrific violence that brought the apartheid movement to its breaking point. We then moved on to the 90s, which detailed Mandela’s release, then end of apartheid and the founding of the new government (and also showed how close the country came to total anarchy at the time).

In addition to the history of apartheid, the museum also had a large exhibit on the life of Nelson Mandela. We spent quite a bit of time going through this. At the end, you were invited to choose your favorite quote of his and then place a stick of the corresponding color in a garden area.

By the end, we were overwhelmed by how much had happened – and within our lifetimes too. It is interesting to compare the racial strife in South Africa to that in the USA. Different types of issues, but still the underlying core of people in power doing horrible things to those without power. It is amazing to think about all that has gone in here in South Africa so recently, and how happy many of the people seem. But there are still many problems left to face.

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Where We Ate

Thai Restaurant – We arrived into Joburg early in the morning on July 4, and were pretty tired after two overnight flights in a row plus the time zone change. Still, we worked up to energy to meet up with a friend of a friend who lives here in Joburg. She was kind enough to drive us around to show us some sights and then take us to a Thai restaurant that was quite good.

Doppio Zero – After our city bus tour, we had the tax driver drop us off at the Greenside restaurant area for dinner. The hostel guest we were sharing the taxi with was going to this Italian bistro because she knew it had free wi-fi, so we decided to join here. We had some nice pasta dishes while we caught up on email and facebook on our phones.