sunnuntai 7. elokuuta 2011

The coffee thing

Ordering a coffee is the most simple thing in Finland. Anyone foreign would probably be confused there because of the simplicity. The basics of a Finnish coffee order are as follows: "One coffee please." "Milk or sugar?" "Yes/No." And you have your coffee.

This is not the case ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD.

I spent three months doing an internship in New York and it took me about the whole three months to get the hang of an American coffee order. There's no counting how many queues I managed to stall in different places around Manhattan and Brooklyn before I finally got it right.

There's no such thing as "just coffee". First you have to choose what kind of coffee you want. There's Americano, Latte (not to mention all the different syruped lattes like Caramel Latte), Macchiato, Moccachino to name a few. And that's not by far the end of it. Then you have to decide what size you want it. If you go to a Starbucks you'll get weird looks if you ask for a "small" latte. There's no such thing. Even though common sense tells you if you ask for something "tall", it will be big, but the Starbucks scale is - from smallest to biggest - tall, grande, venti, trenta. Similar scales are used in other coffee shops as well. And then you have to choose the milk, if you want some. Theres whole milk, skimmed milk, 1% and a few other kinds I can't even remember.

In China they have a thing called Mattcha Latte. First you have to figure out what the heck is mattcha and when you find out it's a Green Tea Latte (it's great by the way, try it if you find it!) you need to know if you want it hot or iced. That's also the thing with a foreign coffee order. Always remember to tell the salesperson if you want it hot or iced. From what I've gathered the only places where people don't regularly order iced coffee is in Scandinavia and Siberia.

Here in Australia I found another new coffee surprise. There's a thing called "Flat White". Arriving at Perth International Airport at 5:30 am I was desperately craving for coffee with milk and with eyes looking in different directions I ordered one of these flat things. And lo and behold it was a coffee with milk!

Traveling makes you learn new things all the time and I love it but never in my life did I imagine my travels would teach me so much about coffee. You have to be a barista these days to be able to make a coffee order. So far I've been doing okay but let's see how I do when I get back to the States. I might be a little rusty in my old coffee and bagel order: "One tall iced latte with skimmed milk no sugar and a lox bagel on whole wheat with low-fat cream cheese, onions, lettuce and tomato, toasted please."

lauantai 16. heinäkuuta 2011

A night to remember

Have you seen the movie "The Perfect Storm"? You know, the one where George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and the third guy die? Well, I was in that movie on Friday night.

I decided to head down south to Malaysia on Friday and booked a ferry and bus from Koh Tao to Kuala Lumpur. The boat took off at 9 pm, taking nine hours to get to Surat Thani on mainland Thailand. There had been a rainstorm earlier that night and watching the dark grey wall of rain approach Koh Tao I mentioned to my Canadian friend Hiro that I sure wouldn't like to leave tonight and face that with a small ferry. I thought the worst had already passed when the boat left the dock but well, it hadn't.

The boat was a fairly small old ferry with one big open area for all the passengers. We had numbered sleepers which were 40 mattresses half the size of a human being, crammed side by side so that even I had trouble fitting my shoulders straight with people on both sides.

Nice and cosy.

No life jackets for everyone.
After the boat got out into open waters the waves started crashing. And they crashed hard. The wood was creaking, the biggest waves sounded like cars hitting the bottom of the boat and the ferry was tilting from side to side, riding the waves in a vertical position at times. And if you're thinking "oh, I wonder if it was as bad as she says", just so you know, even the locals were reaching for the life jackets. All I thought was, well, I'm happy I've been swimming a lot lately.

It wasn't exactly a comfortable situation but what can you do? No one's going to come and get you out of there. I tried to focus on my book (which ironically was a novel about the important journeys in life) but it was hard because we were rolling back and forth on the mattresses and the girl on my left had a panic attack and a British woman on my right got seasick. I've never gotten bruises before on a boat but now I've got black and blue spots on my legs and arms.

We made it to Surat Thani in one piece, though, and I even got a few hours of sleep. The only time I woke up was when rain started coming in through the window we'd opened as a possible escape route. The ferry docked sometime after 5 am and then we were whisked to a random restaurant in a speeding tuktuk with everyone's backpack on the roof of the car. In the restaurant we waited for the bus, had breakfast and watched Jackass The Movie on a flatscreen tv. One of the most surreal mornings ever, eating yoghurt at 5:30 am in a pitch dark port city in Thailand and watching Steve-O being pulled by a boat with a fishhook through his cheek.

After breakfast a minibus came to pick us up and we started the first leg of the 15 hour bus ride to Kuala Lumpur. It seemed to be half tourist bus and half school bus because we picked up kids from a school too. I tried to sleep and the British woman who got seasick got carsick.

In Hat Yai we had to change buses and were driven to a travel agency office to wait for our ride. The ride was an old Toyota with a driver who wasn't sure where we were going. And me and the British couple weren't sure if this was our ride all the way to KL. Thankfully it only took us to our real bus which was a big, air conditioned bus with good reclining seats. It was heaven! I slept almost all the way to Malaysia and had some great food on our pit stops along the way.

It was an intense traveling experience in all respects. My butt was completely numb from all the sitting and until late Saturday night I felt like my body was still on a boat. But that's traveling for you! I'd rather have these kinds of stories to tell (assuming I'll survive to actually tell the stories) than waste my money on first class transportation.

Oh yeah and at the Malaysian border control my passport was checked by the coolest guy. He scanned the passport and looked at me with this blank stare, asked where I'm going to stay in Malaysia and then said: "Traveling alone?" When I answered yes he smiled and said: "Yes, better that way."

Six and a half months

My trip passed the six month mark on July 1. It's kind of scary to say it out loud: I've been traveling for half a year. I thought only hippies did that. It sure doesn't feel like six months. Feels like I just packed my backpack for the first time, swearing and cursing how I can't fit half of what I want in there - and not sleeping on my last night in Finland, thinking what if I can't make it and have to come home after two weeks or something.

Then I decided the only failure would be not having even tried, slept for 2,5 hours and took off for Berlin in the morning. Now 6,5 months, 15 countries, 24 cities, 15 airports, 13 train stations and two ferry rides later I'm on Koh Tao in Thailand.

It is hot! I'm not usually a big fan of beach life but after one scorching hot week in Bangkok I'm not complaining. A coconut shake in one hand and a mild breeze in my frizzy, overgrown Jesus Christ style hair - things could be worse! I also went scuba diving yesterday which was just as awesome as it looks on wildlife documentaries: coral, fish (even saw a triggerfish!) and all kinds of little ocean critters I couldn't name.

Bangkok was not my favorite city but I did leave with some nice memories. Like going sightseeing with a Canadian and two guys from Chicago. After many failed attempts and long negotiations to get a tuktuk, or a meter cab that would put the meter on, to take us to the Royal Palace, one of the Chicago guys just nonchalantly hailed a taxi, said three words to the driver ("Palace. King. Meter.") and the driver responded: "Okay!" Off we went.

Another guy from Holland, a Dirk Nowitski look-a-like, got upset with a tuktuk driver trying to screw him over. He was asked 200 baht for a fairly short ride and getting upset he put his fingers on the map showing about an inch on it and shouted: "But it's only this long on the map!"

To all the beautiful people I've met so far on the road: it has been a privilege! And I'm looking forward to all the crazy new friends I'll make along the way. And that way is soon turning into a return trip. In a few weeks I'll be pretty much as far away from home as is physically possible.

perjantai 24. kesäkuuta 2011

Pooling around

I promised a post about international indoor pool hunting about... Well, ages ago. But now, halfway down the road, there's actually a lot to blog about on that subject.

I love swimming but there are always some exciting challenges to the first time you enter a new pool, even back home. Where do you get in, which areas can you be naked in and which lanes can YOU swim on? Believe me, it's not as obvious everywhere as you'd think. Or hope.

In Hong Kong I thought they've got this thing thought through when I realised I can use my Octopus transit card to pay for my entrance to the sports center. No ticket hassle! I had used the pool for a week when one day trying to enter and beep the card in the reader the supervisor all of a sudden jumped from behind his desk and shouted: "No no!" He didn't let me go through the turnstile I'd chosen and made me take another one - beeping the card again and thus charging me twice. He didn't speak English so of course the reason for why I couldn't enter the first turnstile remained a mystery.

In Crystal Palace National Sports Center in London I got a bad case of locker room confusion. I wasn't sure but I remembered the Brits being a little conservative when it comes to being naked in front of other people so the large open space dressing room with lockers on one side of the room and dressing stalls on the other produced a bit of a challenge. How am I supposed to carry all my stuff with a towel wrapped around me (bound to fall off) from the dressing stalls' side to the lockers, open the locker, put the 20p in, shove my stuff in, turn the key and lock the thing? 

When I tried that the towel did fall off, I locked my iPhone out and had to open the locker again, lost the 20p because the locker ate the money, put in another 20p and locked out my wallet, ran out of 20p's so had to go to the front desk in my swimsuit to change money and finally got in the pool 15 min later than I thought.

In Cologne, Germany there was a school class having a swimming lesson when I started doing laps on bahn drei, minding my own business. I'd done about 200m when all of a sudden between breast strokes I heard screaming from one end of the pool. When I get up to look there's a 10-year-old kid yelling face all red: "Bahn zwei, bahn zwei!" The teachers were clearing lane three for the kids and this guy seemed eager to get in so he participated in giving orders. So me and the two others finished our swim, oh yes, on bahn zwei.

In Seoul I've taken my dips in the 1988 Olympic Swimming Pool. It's a wonderful venue with great facilites (saunas, too!) but everything is in Korean there. I mean everything, not even the "woman" and "man" images to point out the dressing rooms. Of course I first tried to enter the guys' side. Good thing there's a staff member there to hand you the keys - he pointed me to the right direction.

They have a swimming cap rule here in Seoul, like they did in Hiroshima, so I had to borrow one again and while I stood by the pool waiting one of the lifeguards stepped into a storage room to get me one and when I got it I noticed it was purple with Winnie the Pooh on it. A cap of champions! Serves me right for forgetting my own cap home.

The thing is you'll always be an ass the first time you go to a public swimming pool anywhere. But after that first time of total embarassment it's the most wonderful thing to dive in the pool, do the laps and then take a sauna and sit with the locals there. Even if I don't always understand the language, the tone and the tempo is the same everywhere, so probably the topics are, too: life and the men in it.

lauantai 18. kesäkuuta 2011

Seoul searching

Greetings from Korea! Got here on Monday evening after one bus ride, a ferry trip across the Sea of Japan and a train ride through the whole of South Korea.

The Japanese have a joke about how whenever they travel to Korea they can smell the kimchi even on the plane. But it's not just a joke. Both the ferry and train had that sharp smell of the Korean signature food. I decided to cheapo my way from Japan to Seoul which meant taking a 6-hour ferry ride from Fukuoka, Japan, to Busan, South Korea (instead of the three-hour one) and taking the 6-hour slow train from Busan to Seoul (instead of the 2,5 hour one).

As soon as I got to my wonderful hostel (Korea Central Backpackers, mark it down in case you ever come to Seoul) I met some other travellers and I joined them for dinner. One of the group was a vegetarian and in these hoods that can cause challenges in certain places, especially the kinds where the staff doesn't speak English. And our choice of restaurant was the kind where they didn't speak even a couple of words.

So we went back to the hostel where the owner wrote down the word "vegetarian" in Korean characters on a post-it and back we went into the same restaurant. The waiter was so happy to see us again she cooked the whole meal for us herself! Usually the guests fry the stuff on the heated pan themselves and then eat it.

If Japan was busy, South Korea and especially Seoul can be just crazy. I mean people are rushing into trains, escalators and through all kinds of doors like their lives are depending on making it through first. When we docked in Busan harbour I sort of got a feeling what an emergency evacuation on a ferry would feel like. People were elbowing their way out of the boat like they were running for their lives. I had an urge to shout: "People, it's okay, we're DOCKED not sinking!" but instead I just got pushed and shoved into customs and immigration.

You can really get hurt, too. In the subway in Seoul you especially have to look out for old people, mothers with children and invalids. They're transferring with a vengeance! So no matter how cruel it might seem, you just have to take your place - whatever that means - in the mass of people and hope you get shoved where you want to go. Mostly I've tried not to get aggressive and chill with an iced coffee or something and concentrate on my book (which has been knocked off my hands more than once).

One final thing: coming to Seoul I found some reeeeally nasty bug bites on me. And these are not mosquito, unfortunately. These are nasty enough to look like I've been shot in the leg three times. Thanks to an ointment I bought at the pharmacy, they're getting better though. The only weird thing: the lotion tube had a picture of a dog on it??

keskiviikko 8. kesäkuuta 2011

Japan - busy and asleep at the same time

I have no idea why I'm so sleepy all of a sudden. It must be something in the Japanese climate - everyone seems narcoleptic here in buses and trains. Salarymen, old ladies, young men... And now featuring me. Everyone takes a nap in public transportation. Some even do it standing. And nobody misses their stop (except me and I was awake then).

Shinjuku, Tokyo.
So far I've seen a fraction of Tokyo - because I don't think anyone can ever completely see it - and some of Kyoto, the former, historic capital of Japan. While Tokyo was big, bustling, lively and fun, it also felt overwhelming at times. The first mornings when I (eventually) woke up, I had no clue where to even start. As days passed though I managed to find some fascinating areas to roam (favourites being Ebisu, Meguro and Naka-Meguro) and delicious foods to eat.

And talking about delicious foods, I actually found the world's best ramen restaurant in Kyoto based on pretty much just one photo! My friends recommended the place to me and the only clue I had to find it was a photo of basically just Japanese lanterns and curtains outside this place. Okay and a vague direction where I should look for it.

So I roamed around Pontocho in Kyoto on two different nights and on the second one, just as me and a friend from my hostel were about to give up and go back, I saw it! And it was worth every compliment I'd heard. No wonder Nagahama Ramen is so famous. It's a street kitchen with a very local feel to it, even though it's touristy enough to have English menus. You can spice your ramen yourself with all kinds of toppings. They put Rice Krispies in the ramen! Will go there again tonight for sure.

And tonight is my last night in Kyoto. Tomorrow I'm getting my passport back from "daycare" at the Chinese consulate in Osaka and then I'm taking the Shinkansen bullet train to Hiroshima. On Sunday I'm off to Korea!

keskiviikko 25. toukokuuta 2011

World's best detour

I visited Finland the other week. After being sucked into the intense world of ice hockey for almost two and a half weeks it was an impossible idea to go straight back to being all alone. I don't know if it was all the great colleagues, the excitement of hockey (and the second Finnish World Championship, friggin' a!) or just the atmosphere of being in the middle of something crazy. The players are crazy about their sport, the fans are crazy about the teams and the sports reporters are crazy about their articles.

In a café in Helsinki.

It's hard to explain but after four months of traveling by myself, jumping from place to place, I sort of got used to making my own plans, meeting my own new people and doing everything solo. It didn't feel emotionally hard at all, on the contrary, I loved it! But when I first met my radio colleagues in Barcelona, then my father in Nice and then became a part of the Ice Hockey World Championships as a reporter for two weeks it was just so much fun I think my brain got an emotional hangover from all of it.

So I felt I had to come home for some comfort food - both for body and soul. Even at the Vienna International Airport I had no clue at first if I was flying to Tokyo or Helsinki. Then I decided it's worth spending a couple of hundred euros to get four days worth of new energy back home for the rest of my travels.

In Helsinki I paid my bills, finished some pending articles and took a new set of clothes on the road. I met my wonderful friends. I saw my 2-year-old goddaughter who still remembered me. She hugged me and asked me to read her all the postcards I'd sent her. I met my childhood friend who asked me to stand by her side and be her maid of honor when she's getting married in 2012. And mom made meatloaf.

It was a shit expensive flight but worth every cent.

My goddaughter and my friend, her mother, in the background.
And now, a couple of days later, after one of the best reboots in my life, I'm in Tokyo. At times the thought catches up with me but I still wonder if I realise the kind of life I'm living right now. Maybe it's something like the recent World Championship is to our ice hockey players. Right now they're just dumbfounded. In a couple of years they'll be sitting on their summer cottage terrace when they jump up and shout "Holy shit, I actually did it!"