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!"

keskiviikko 27. huhtikuuta 2011

Play that funky music

Greetings from sunny Venice - and belated greetings from Lisbon, Barcelona and Nice where I spent the last two weeks! In Iberia - and somewhat in Cote d'Azur and here in Venice as well - dog shit smells and peoples valuables get stolen. And of course in all honesty it's also very beautiful, the food is great and men have beards.

Eating out on terraces in early April isn't something Finns get to do that often and I really enjoy it. The only downside is the amount of street musicians who force themselves musically on people who are just trying to enjoy a meal or a drink. A "cheap" lunch can quickly become quite expensive when one accordionist or guitarrist after another is coming for your change.

My college friend Pietari was visiting his brother in Barcelona last week and we had lunch one day on this touristy square - which all squares everywhere seem to be. In about one hour we got three artists and two random passers-by come and ask us for money. Me and Pietari started thinking what are the circumstances when you have to pay them? If you accidentally start tapping your finger on the table or keeping the rhythm with your foot? If you make eye contact?

The miraculous thing was, though, that none of the artists came on the square at the same time OR played the same song. What are the odds that just one of them played La Bamba? These guys have to have a schedule. And a playlist. Otherwise what would happen if a guitarrist and an accordionist would stumble on the same square at the same time? Would they battle it out?

Here in Venice I also got some unwanted attention the other day when I was having an espresso at a terrace along Grand Canal. A Mexican looking (!) Venetian trio came to my table and started playing these grandiose love songs. And I was alone! I don't know if they were hallucinating and seeing a handsome man sitting next to me but I really didn't feel the love in the air. And I felt I had to pay them. They had cornered me by singing only to me. I gave them one euro and thought that would make them stop and go away - because it usually does - but not in romantic Venice. They start singing more! Even more enthusiastically than the first time. I almost panicked. I'm from Finland. I'm not used to men singing to me. These guys were very sweet though, after a while they moved along and found a nice older couple to sing to.

After tomorrow I won't have much fear of having romantic music sung to me. I'm heading for the Ice Hockey World Championships in Slovakia. Taking the night train from Venice to Vienna and then from Vienna to Bratislava. The next thing that'll be music to my ears is the goal horn sounding off for the Finnish team!

perjantai 8. huhtikuuta 2011

Life skills - you win some, you lose some

What has happened to hotel room mints! The ones on the pillow? They've disappeared like airplane peanuts. Nobody serves those anymore either. World, it is a-changing...

Hotel life is dangerous in the way that it's the only place an average person actually has a maid. You lose touch with your everyday chores. That's also one reason though why I don't understand what musicians are always complaining about with hotel life. You don't have to make your bed, your breakfast is always ready (although served way too early) and you always get stocked on toilet paper and soap before you run out of them. And if you don't throw your TV out the window, usually the channel selection is pretty good too.

Of course in all honesty I'm not living in hotels all the time since it would bankrupt me in less than a month, so what do I know, but most of this year will be spent in places where I don't do the organizing. Living in hotels, guesthouses and at friends' places won't probably make me the domestic goddess of 2011 since I've done the dishes only less than 10 times this year and cooked probably just as often. On the other hand I've fixed clothe-tears and fallen buttons and been a self-educated nerd with my electronic equipment, so not all life skills are completely lost.

If hotel rooms etc. have become the new home, maps and info desks everywhere are the new best friends. You know the first moments in a new country, when you're standing at the airport arrivals hall thinking where the heck you're supposed to go and where are the trains and which taxi won't screw you over? Never leave the airport without checking at the information desk first. Those guys won't generally jerk you around. And I love clearly marked floor plans and maps that tell you where you are. I actually got so used to looking for the red "You are here" dot, that in London I tried to look for one in a department store brochure. Mom looked at me silently for a while and said: "There isn't any because the map is in your hand."

Language skills are also being put to a test. In the past three months I've heard Chinese, German, British and pidgin English, twi and afrikaans. My accent will be so fucked up when I get back home. When you enter a new country you have to tune your ears again to a whole new tone. It's weird but sometimes I think I'm hearing Russian or French and it turns out to be afrikaans, Portuguese or Swedish.

I voted in the Finnish parliamentary election this week. Thank you, Embassy staff! There's a right wing political party with an unfortunately big support group raising it's ugly head. I voted Green because I want to be able to come back to a liberal and open-minded Finland. Here's to hoping the political map won't go as medieval on anyone's ass as the polls project!

sunnuntai 3. huhtikuuta 2011

T.I.A. - this is Africa

I'm still in love with South Africa - hence the long silence again - but one thing here is a bitch: the power sockets. I know people who travel are not allowed to complain under any circumstances "because you're traveling!" or "you went there, live with it", but not having electricity is sort of a problem. Both me and one of my German housemates, Verena, had bought these adapter towers that are supposed to have all the possible electrical adapters in the world. One even says Commonwealth (former British regions) and South Africa.

The so-called "universal adapter tower".

South African sonofabitch.
Well, whoever produced that "universal adapter tower", let me tell you, the South African version was NOT to be found. It's like an electrical 8th wonder of the world. There's nothing quite like it anywhere. So Verena went on and bought a local adapter and because I'm cheap I've been borrowing it from her when she's gone off to work to do her internship.

I've been really lucky with all my housemates at this guesthouse in Gardens. Verena, Susanne, Daniel, Miriam and Christian have all been so wonderful. And what do you know, they're all from Germany! Cape Town is FULL of Germans. Seriously. Even the Germans think so.

Home @ Gardens. Table Mountain in the back.

I even had to ask a local friend am I just imagining it, do I hear afrikaans as German? She said no, South Africa is the number one tourist destination for German people and you really hear it on the streets. Thank goodness. My friends in Berlin, Cologne and Hannover would have laughed their hearts out if my "Sixth Sense" would've been "I see German people".

Visiting Ghana and R.S.A. has also taught me the T.I.A. philosophy. This is Africa. It's a phrase commonly used here especially in situations like the power socket thing or my earlier experiences with the trotros. Kind of like the Spanish mañana attitude, meaning to say it's not serious, take it easy and juuuust relax. You have to adjust your expectations and understand not everything will work like at home when you're this far away.

By the way, did some inventory today and I've only lost two socks in three months! From different pairs, obviously, but no worries. I got some airplane socks on one of my flights so that basically covered it. I think I'm even doing better than at home where I've even lost a cup of tea once. Found it in my bookshelf two days later.

perjantai 25. maaliskuuta 2011

Epic travel fail brought me to paradise

Getting from Ghana to South Africa was chaos.

My last assignment in Ghana, at the Accra Planetarium, came to a close when I told the interviewee I had to start heading to the airport. He asked me if I've confirmed my flight beforehand and when I told him that actually my ticket already says "confirmed", he started ranting about how in Africa you always have to confirm the flight with the airline three days in advance or you'll be kicked off the flight if it's full. He went on and on about this for so long I, of course, got into a nice little last minute panic.

My heart started racing but I told this scientist it's no use calling the airline anymore, I might as well just go to the airport and check it out. But he wouldn't have it, he had to call someone. So we wasted a good half an hour trying to call numbers where nobody picked up, until he said with a smug face: "I think you should just go to the airport to check it out." So off I went - in the slowest cab in the world (the driver didn't know how to drive a car, he just learned the day before, he told me) - and eventually at the airport everything was confirmed and okay.

Buying the cheapest flight feels like the greatest idea when you surf through the options and realize you can save hundreds of euros. But if you're not careful in checking all the flight details you can end up with a flight like mine from Accra to Cape Town. The ticket said it would make a stopover at Windhoek, which made sense because the airline was Air Namibia. But what I found out at the airport in Accra was that it would first fly to Johannesburg, South Africa, then I'd need to change aircrafts for the rest of the flight to Windhoek. Then change flights again to Cape Town, that was making a stop at Walvis Bay, Namibia. I don't remember how much money I saved picking this flight but four take-offs and four landings later I thought for a moment it might not have been worth it.

Everything changed, though, when I settled in Cape Town. I fell in love. With the city, that is. It's beautiful like Barcelona or Paris and as vibrant as NYC. I never thought I'd find a city that would be able to compete with New York in my mind, but Cape Town has pros that New York can't beat. Like nature. I'm still a Finn so I miss things like forests and water. And in CPT I can have those, right along with the big city life I also love. And I'm living right by the impressive Table Mountain, how awesome is that?

Also, everyone here looks like a surfer. I don't know how that's possible. Even the business people and pensioners look like they just got off their boards. I wonder if that would work with me too? You know, I'd grow into a tall, slender blonde with a balance.

Looks like Cape Town is one of those places that has a reputation that makes people hyperventilate and not come and check out the place themselves (although now that I say this I'll probably be robbed at gunpoint tomorrow). But it's beautiful!

Sorry guys, I'll get a little cheezy for a moment now.

Walking down Kloof Street in the mornings I've stopped into small restaurants to have incredible breakfasts and had coffee in these old, New Orleans style buildings on the balcony writing articles. All the art shops and boutiques along Long Street look like the kinds even I as a non-shopper could empty easily. And having a smoothie at the beautiful V. A. Waterfront on a sunny day with +25°C and a clear view of the mountain and boats going about in the shimmering water... Takes your breath away. The other day I thought to myself do I really have to leave here, and oh joy when I realized that, well

no, I dont!

lauantai 19. maaliskuuta 2011

The unbelievables

When you go out shopping in Ghana, you will eventually run into two world-famous characters: God and Jesus. Pretty much every store, shop and office has a religious name here: Psalm 91 Car Repairs; The Grace of God Groceries; Hallowed Glory of Jesus Hair & Nail Salon; Don't Judge Communications Centre.

Religion is a tough subject for a non-believer in Ghana. I hoped I could've avoided discussing the matter until the end of my Ghanaian trip but last week someone brought up the good ol' Almighty. "Do you believe in God?" I know the easiest thing would've just been to say "Sure, we go way back!", but for some reason especially with this matter I feel like Jim Carrey's character in Liar, Liar: I. CAN'T. LIE.

So I told this gospel musician I don't believe in god, I am not a member of any church and like to consider myself as a sort of religious Switzerland. I have no stand and won't start a fight about it. He didn't seem to buy it, though, and looked at me like I was the devil itself. For a moment there I was afraid he'd start trying to convert me.

The volunteers I met in Kumasi told me about their host families' reactions to the same thing. When they told the families they wouldn't be coming to church on Sunday and they don't believe, the responses had been near furious. After that they decided to just attend the services. It says something about the situation that they thought it easier to go than to stay and argue, even though the services can last 5 hours.

I don't have a problem with anyone else's religion. Anyone who wants to practice, thou shalt be able to do so. But I do have a problem with someone having a problem with me not believing, because respect goes both ways. Trying to make anyone adopt religious beliefs is trespassing on their mental property. And I for one will be sure to have my verbal shotgun loaded and ready.

The most disturbing thing about that kind of patronising is that many eager converters seem to think no person can have moral standards without religion. As surprising as it may seem, even without spiritual guidance I have actually learned how to honor my parents and not to steal other people's things or kill anyone.

Thankfully the gospel musician didn't try and make me a believer, although I did get an invitation to his record release party (will be in South Africa then, though, so gotta skip it). And he was curious how do we get married then. "Well, we date first and if it gets serious the couple can get married. Kind of like how everyone else does it."

Love and religion are kind of similar. With both it either is there or it isn't. That's why trying to convert someone (in either case, actually!) is as bad an idea as going to the toilet with someone. First of all, the fuss will take twice as long. Second, it's private.

keskiviikko 16. maaliskuuta 2011

Ghanaian experiences

The heat is making me tired. Even the locals are exhausted so you can imagine how the ghost from Finland feels. And I really feel like a ghost. It's not just the constant "Obruni!" shouts and the children's giggles when they see me. Some people pinch my arm, as if to see if I'm real or not, and the sight of me has also made a few kids cry.

These guys smiled.
He cried. I was the first white person he'd ever seen, said his mom.

I've also tried to learn to live with my fear of spiders, because let me tell you, travelling around the world with arachnofobia is a bitch. Coming to Africa was a good start. Some of the spiders here can be fist-size. I was told to "only look out for the hairy ones". Gee, that thought kept me up one night in Kumasi. But progress has been made! Gradually I'm getting used to the idea not all spiders are out to get me.

One day I spent writing in my home here with a big one clinging on the wall. I decided not to mind it and everything went well (in all honesty, though, had it moved all hell would probably have broken loose). And - this is a HUGE step - I walked into a room with the spider in the doorway above me! Normally I'd call for someone to kill them for me, but these guys got to live. And that is why all this makes no sense whatsoever, since usually out of the two of us it's the spider that gets killed.

Cape Coast Castle.

This week I also visited Cape Coast and it's Castle, the central place of slave trade. Seeing the small, dark cells where the slaves were imprisoned before being shipped into new countries and the corridor through which they passed before being forced out of their home country for good was heartbreaking. Like our guide Oscar said at the end of the tour: "We must all think about what part we've played in the course of history and be better people today; never think any person is inferior."

Cape Coast - my favorite city in Ghana.

Cape Coast was the most beautiful place I've been to so far in Ghana! A relaxed, sunny city with a friendly vibe. It sort of looked like I'd come to the Caribbean. Fishermen, swimmers, a lively market place... I was almost robbed here for the first time during my trip, but people around me tackled the guy and gave me my money back. Right on! If I ever return here Cape Coast is where I'm going to stay.

I'll be in Ghana until Saturday and then I'm off to Cape Town, South Africa. Nice to go to a bit cooler climate (only a bit though) that won't mess with my head anymore. I almost tried to take a picture with the air conditioning remote just now.

perjantai 11. maaliskuuta 2011

Rush hour Africa

I've heard the most hectic traffic in the world is in India. Haven't been there but I think I have some good comparisons already from this trip. In China any public transportation - or any queue actually - is a hoot. There's no queue really, there's just a bunch of people rushing. And forget about giving room or a seat to an elderly or a disabled person. If you start having a concience, you'll never make it to your destination. A London rush hour Tube is also a blast. I almost fainted carrying my rucksack to the airport in the middle of crowds created by the Jubilee line delays. The Londoners were just fine. Apparently the Tube has taught them to breathe even when there's no oxygen.

In Ghana the local buses, trotros, have offered yet new insane traffic experiences. The trotros are minibuses that are usually jam-packed with people. You wait for one at the roadside and when the trotro stops the conductor, or "mate", steps out and shouts where the bus is going. And pay attention - for example, when your destination is Circle in Accra the pronounciation for it is "Sehk".

Trotro hopping.
The trip from my home in Amanfrom to central Accra is about 1-2 hours depending on the traffic, which is usually heavy. And it gets hot! It's a good thing the street vendors sell everything from sweat-wiping towels to drinking water on the way, straight through the open trotro windows, otherwise I probably would've been hospitalised a couple of times already.

So the trotro can get hot and it can also break. I've been on one twice as it's broken down in the middle of the road. The driver and mate usually start to fix it right then and there. My very first trotro ride was one of these unsuccessful trips and when the other passengers noticed the confused obruni (white person) they just told me to follow them and we walked to the next bus stop (only to be picked up by the same trotro they'd gotten fixed). Even if it's not your trotro that signs off you can usually see some on the roadside filled with passengers and someone changing the tyre on it or something. Normally in Finland people would be furious. How can this happen? On a public bus? Outrageous! But not here. People gather their things, buy a mango and wait for another trotro or the car to start.

Taking the trotro to the Children's Village in Kumasi.

And it's not just people you travel with in trotros, it's their possessions too. Last weekend I sat in the backseat between a car tyre and an antenna. I witnessed a massive fight on a bus when someone tried to move a piece of furniture in the small minibus. The driver got so upset he turned off the engine and went to sit on the curb and pout. He didn't start the car until the mover was out.

This is why Ghana uses both GMT and "African time". You can't really schedule anything very precisely because you never know when you'll get into a trotro not to mention your final destination. You never know when the door of your minibus will fall off. But it's all okay. How can anyone get upset with the cheerful African music playing in the background (it really does always play everywhere).

So the traffic is chaos but this is the most relaxed traffic chaos I've seen anywhere and the only fight on the road has been about furniture. So please, when entering the country please don't import fruits, meats or your road rage.

keskiviikko 2. maaliskuuta 2011

Traveling alone

There are ups and downs to both traveling with someone and traveling alone and neither one is better than the other. When you have company you have to make compromises and get used to living 24/7 with another person, but then again you can share all your experiences with someone. When you're alone you can do whatever you want, whenever you want but, well, of course you're alone.

When I was preparing for this year's journey people's reactions were still surprising. The most frequently asked questions were "Are you really going to do it all alone?" and "How will you handle it?" That got me thinking, are people that afraid of being alone? I've figured if you don't enjoy your own company, who else will?

Of course traveling alone isn't for everyone and like I mentioned it has it's ups and downs, but I thought I'd write about the good sides of it, because I think there are many excellent reasons to at least once in your life leave everything - and everyone - behind for a while.

Befriending new people is much easier when you're alone than if you have an old friend to talk to. Instead of the "where do we go next?" hassle you can concentrate on going exactly where you want to go and use your energy into meeting other people.

You won't have any fights with anyone you care about - other than maybe yourself for making stupid decisions. You can eat where you want and take a break whenever you feel like it and nobody else's break will spoil your groove.

The most important thing in my mind, though, is that you'll learn more about yourself than ever at home. You can rely only on yourself to take care of business and when you travel alone you discover just what you're made of. Problem solution, communicating with others (even though you wouldn't have a mutual language) and mapping your way through unknown territories. Doing all that even on a short weekend trip to the next village can make you feel mighty good.

And when you get back home you'll appreciate your friends and family in a whole new way. And the fact that you know how to use that old ticket vending machine at your local bus station.

Earlier I promised to tell you why my current location, London, is sort of an important city to my existence. My parents actually met here. So if there are any complaints about me or my brother, send them to the mayor.

sunnuntai 20. helmikuuta 2011

The most annoying airplane passengers Top 10

10. The illiterates.
These people obviously either don't know how to read or think rules don't apply to them. They start sorting out the liquids and the tweezers and getting their laptops out at the X-ray machine only when the security guy tells them to. Read the plaque, fool!

9. The deafs.
Also a classic passenger type, usually presenting themselves on the plane. You know the situation, the stewardess makes the announcement after the seatbelt sign goes off: "Please remain in your seats with the seatbelt fastened." Immediately after that you hear the clicks of people opening their seatbelts. This species also spends most of the flight loitering in the aisle. These are also the people who are still talking on their cell phones during takeoff and need to use the bathroom only during heavy turbulence or meal serving. If you hear an announcement with instructions, these guys usually act the opposite.

8. Families
Sorry moms and dads, everyone understands you, but nobody likes to have your screaming kid on their flight. Not even other moms and dads. It's a loud, unnerving sound. You can't expect people to like it. Families also tend to scatter their stuff all over the place. Bags, diapers, blankets, toys. And if they're not scattered by the parents, the older kid will take care of it and throw someone in the head with them. And yeah, I know, some day it can be my screaming kid.

7. The Tax Free enthusiasts.
These people buy souvenirs for EVERYone. They have booze, chocolates (of which they eat some on the way home), candy, perfumes (which they also wear in excess) and other little things that "you just can't buy at home". They will also get some additional items from the tax free cart later during the flight. If they sit in the aisle seat and you by the window, you will surely be the last one exiting the plane after they get all their stuff together. 

6. The leaners.
Passengers next to you aren't the only ones who can be a nuisance. I mean, just try and enjoy your meal when the front seat is in your lap. When leaners return to their reclined seats they crash into it so hard your drink spills everywhere. The leaner is usually also deaf because they won't put the seat in the upright position even during landing.

5. The "We're all gonna die!" guy.
I'm dead scared of spiders so I do sympathize with people who are afraid of flying. But if you fly anyway, please remember to take your meds. Nothing is more unnerving on a plane than a person who fidgets constantly, chews his nails, goes on an on about the mechanical features of the plane or jumps at every noise the aircraft makes. I've actually heard "We're going down" uttered on a plane once. We didn't. It was the landing gear. (After 9/11 this type has also gotten a new subspecies: the paranoid "That guy has to be a terrorist" guy.)

4. The one with a bladder problem who never takes the aisle seat.
Rest assured, the ones with the most active bodily functions always take the window seat. You will get a good stretching exercise getting up and down every time this person has to use the bathroom. These creatures usually appear on very long flights.

3. The farters.
This is pretty much everyone. Don't try and tell me you haven't done it, it's physically impossible on a plane. Being in the air makes you... well, get air. This was confirmed to me by a stewardess. On long flights when they keep the pantry curtain closed for a while and then open it again the crew smells three things: food, feet and farts.

2. The drunks.
These guys are an excellent reason to avoid both Finnish vacation charter flights and cheap airlines everywhere. Especially when the drinks are free it seems these people feel an obligation to guzzle down the whole cart. And even when the drinks are not free the drunks have usually taken their opportunity at the airport. In Helsinki-Vantaa airport you can see the charter passengers taking their first beers at the bar at 6 am. Then they just bring the party onboard. Or even better, the fight. Not to mention their wonderful signature smell that oozes from them every time they turn to you to tell a reeeeaally funny joke.

1. The clappers.
You don't clap when your dentist cures your cavities, you don't applaude your hairdresser when they cut your hair and you don't clap when the guy at the cash register gives you the correct change, so why the f**k do you clap when a plane lands?? It's 2011, most of the planes have landed safely for decades. These days the most understandable cause for applause at an airport is either a) when you get bumped up to business class or b) when your baggage arrives after two or more connecting flights (or at the Charles de Gaulle airport). And it would even make more sense to clap to the dentist, because THE PILOTS CAN'T HEAR YOU!

lauantai 19. helmikuuta 2011

International grocery shopping

Not many things are as bizarre as doing your daily shopping in a different country. Everything sort of  looks the same but isn't. For instance when I was living in New York a couple of years ago I found 100% fat-free cheese. Seriously. Did not get what was up with that. They sold it in a block that looked like soap, at least from a Finnish perspective. Here in Germany what caught my eye was the wide selection of organic foods and the fact that pretty much all milk products are lactose-free. My roommate says it's because everyone here thinks it's good for them even if they're not lactose intolerant.

I went shopping for groceries yesterday because I'm cooking for my roommates today. I'm doing the Finnish makaronilaatikko or hackfleischnudelauflauf in German. I bought macaroni which I thought to be the regular kind, but later when I opened the bag I noticed they were twisted. It's not a big deal, just funny how even the basic stuff have a literal twist to them. I also bought a small piece of dark chocolate which turned out to be the Diät kind, yuch, and a bottle of Jägermeister for a party we were going to.

So I obviously had kind of a funny combination of items when I got to the cash register: macaroni, diet chocolate and Jägermeister.

The party was crazy and my makaronilaatikko turned out a bit, well, original. I didn't put enough liquid in so it was crispier than usual and I even Skyped my mom to find out if there's anything you could do to salvage it. Even before she picked up the phone she knew I was calling about the cooking: "What, you screwed up?" It turned out okay, though.

Like with stores I've also gotten to know the way public swimming pools work around the world. After I get to try out one in London I'll tell you more about those experiences. Tomorrow I'm flying from Cologne to the British Isles for the first time in about 15 years. And why that city is sort of important to my existence, I'll tell you on my next blog post.

Auf wiedersehen, Cologne! Es war geil!

sunnuntai 13. helmikuuta 2011

Try this!

One of the best things about traveling around the world is definitely the food. For instance you can actually find real spicy food, unlike the toned-down versions of restaurants in Finland. I had an unforgettable chili experience in Hong Kong where the noodle portion was flavoured with chili that made my lips and tongue completely numb. It was great! Also felt kind of like  after a dentist appointment.

Everyone around you always has a good suggestion on where to eat and what to try so it would basically be possible to spend the whole year just eating. But of course indulging in local delicacies is something you have to practice with caution if you don’t want to balloon up along the way. For my birthday, though, I decided to indulge myself a little because I really don’t think that on my death bed I’d think to myself, wow, it sure was a good thing I didn’t eat that piece of cake on my 28th birthday!

I went to a famous cake shop called Demel and first I thought I’d have the classic Sachertorte, because that’s what you just have to do in Vienna, but then I thought it’s not really my favorite – dry chocholate – so I got me a slice of some excellent Estherhásytorte. And yes indeed a glass of Moët to go with it! When the waiter repeated ”Moët & Chandon?” all that trying to interact in German thing took a weird twist when out of the blue I replied ”Oui!” Where that came from all of a sudden, I have no clue.

Estherhásytorte & Moët. Happy birthday to me!
What also made the day was that my friend Timo – yeah the same one I met up with in Berlin – came to town, this time with his girlfriend Eva. So we all went out for dinner and drinks. Pretty easygoing stuff, since all of us were leaving the city the next morning.

Eva, Timo & I having a Viennese blast. Especially Timo.
I’m writing this on the train from Vienna to Frankfurt and a nun just sat next to me on the other side of the aisle. I’m changing trains in Frankfurt and heading for Cologne. I’ll spend a week there, too, which I noticed in Vienna was way too short of a stay in a new place. From now on, longer stays! Which means less flying and train-riding around. Sounds good to me.

torstai 10. helmikuuta 2011

No kangaroos in Austria

Firstly, my apologies if the blog updates aren't that frequent. I have a lot of writing to do here in Vienna so there's not much free time. Start paying me and I promise to devote some more time to blogging.

Anyway, I met some wonderful people here on Tuesday. I spent most of the day with a local baker who's bakery is located about 120 km from Vienna. It employs three people and everything they do is organic and made by hand (you can read more about this in an upcoming issue of Finnair's Blue Wings magazine). Later in the evening I also met a couple who own a vineyard and produce organic wines. I'm really in awe of people's ability to make products that people enjoy. I respect those kinds of skills immensely because I don't have them. Even in crafts class in fourth grade all the other girls made mittens. I managed to knit a woollen bracelet. One piece.

Earlier I promised to post some photos of the people I've met during my one month on the road. Like the "Shoes, bags, Rolex" guy. I took the photo on my last day in HK, just in case he'd get the wrong idea of me wanting to take his picture. And he was quite the poser, as you can see.

"Shoes, bags, Rolex" guy.
Shopping for New Year's fruit. Orange colour brings good fortune.

My first ever dragonfruit shopping.

And from random salespeople to the ones who really made an impact. One of the most memorable moments of the trip so far was the New Year's Eve dinner with my friend Margot and her family. Her uncle was the chef, the 81-year-old grandfather made goose with his own special recipe and cousins from Australia came to visit. The grandfather lives in Toronto, Canada and knows just a few words of English. But he said them all to me: "take care", "you too", and his English name "Jack. J-A-C-K. Jack."
The Kwan family & New Year's Eve dinner.
This Wednesday I spent most of the day writing my next articles and I have to admit I'm feeling a bit of a writer's block now. I sort of wrote this as a training piece for my work ahead. Hope to get my thoughts together - and even on paper, which would be a plus. Those are the only kinds of thoughts I get paid for.
Oh yeah and yesterday when I was leaving the café where I'd been writing I yanked my MacBook's power chord off the wall - and the whole damn socket came out too! So I had a power chord in my hand that had a plastic socket and about 30 cm of electrical chord coming out of the wall hanging from it! The customers around me were just staring, nobody even smiled. I was hysterical. I tried hard not to laugh out loud when I stuffed the electrical chord back inside the hole in the wall and shoved the socket back in it's place.

Now I'm heading out in sunny Vienna and I'll try and find a place I won't be able to demolish.

sunnuntai 6. helmikuuta 2011

There is no such thing as the "in case of emergency" scenario

Everybody knows those safety instruction demonstrations, videos and cards planes have and you should pay attention to in the beginning of a flight. The scenario presented especially in the video is pretty priceless, because it's something that would never happen in a real case of an emergency. Have you ever heard of a plane crash where a smiling mother calmly places the oxygen mask first on her own face and then on the face of her child? Where people are jumping out of the emergency exits in an orderly fashion on to the inflatable slides? Unfortunately that just doesn't seem to happen.

It's 7:20 am and I've been sitting for two hours in a café at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan, waiting for my connecting flight to Vienna, which leaves in 3 hours. I haven't really slept on the plane and that's probably why I'm laughing at this idea more than I normally would, but just imagine a realistic safety instruction video. Animated people panicking, screaming, inflating their life vests too soon and stuff flying around the cabin. What a nice way to start your vacation flight to wherever.

Right now I'm feeling so light-headed and sleep-deprived I think I have to use the rest of my laptop battery to check out how to get to my hotel in Vienna so I won't zombie my way into a wrong bus or a cab ride way over my budget. I'm not really even sure what day it is, although my friends' status updates on Facebook seem to indicate Monday. Try to survive it - I will too, with a little help of some good Arabic coffee.

keskiviikko 2. helmikuuta 2011

Rest is not an option, I thought. And was wrong.

I went on a daytrip to Macau on Monday, even though I was feeling kind of fluish in the morning. When you're both traveling and working as a freelancer it's practically impossible to turn off the "got to see and got to do"-gear. It turned out I was a bit too optimistic about my symptoms but I'll get to that in a bit.

Macau is another Special Administrative Region of China and is known to most as the Las Vegas of Southeast Asia. And I do not wonder why. After the one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong pretty much all I saw were casinos lined up, one after another. One of the casinos, Sands, hosts Asia's only Playboy Club, and I figured there's one institution that must be especially thrilled about the Year of the Rabbit. Anyway, the whole city felt surreal. Even more so because my head felt like it was about to explode.

In a state like this you should never visit a new place because all your experiences will be tainted by that literally sickening feeling. Still I have to say that, especially after all my nice experiences in Hong Kong, Macau did not impress me. Bad - even rude - service at restaurants, horrible pedestrian walkways and guidance and high prices. So Macau is probably a great place if you love to gamble and have like, you know, money, but for a feverish freelancer or other similarly poor bastards I wouldn't recommend it as a first holiday destination. (I did win some money at the poker table though so if you're a risk-taking poor bastard, this might be your deal after all..)

Macao Lotus Blossom.
So I came back to Hong Kong with a good ol' flaming temperature and got myself almost quarantined at the ferry terminal. They've got scanners there to recognize people with flu symptoms and when I passed by I ended up behind the white curtains to get my temperature checked. When the masked nurses realized how hot I was - mostly on the inside unfortunately - they told me to go and see a doctor. And I got out of the terminal faster than ever! When people see you come out from behind a curtain that says "Avian flu", they really give you way.

Mine thankfully did not appear to be the avian kind - nor the swine thingy for that matter. At least the three different meds I was prescribed seem to have kicked in. No shortage on (prescription) drugs here, then. Or tea, for that matter. So I've been feeling much better since Monday. And tonight I got to eat something other than antibiotics when I got to celebrate Chinese New Year's Eve with Margot's family! A big dotse to the Kwans for having me over for a traditional Chinese festive dinner. The food was delicious and the experience something very special I'll remember for the rest of my life.

Happy Year of the Rabbit!

sunnuntai 30. tammikuuta 2011

The F-word

When you live in a country that's the size of a peanut it's always interesting to hear what people know about it. From Santa Claus and Nokia to polar bears and penguins the ideas people have of Finland are truly a Forrest Gumpish box of chocolates: you never know what you're gonna get.

I certainly don't expect people to know much, if anything, but it's exciting to hear for instance where people place Finland in their mental Atlases. When queuing for a Disneyland ride the man behind asked me where I was from and when I told him he said: "Cool, I've been to Amsterdam!" And speaking of Amsterdam, I was watching the Asian Cup semifinal between Japan and South Korea this week, sitting at the bar next to two Japanese businessmen. When the other one heard I was from Finland his eyes lit up: "Jari Litmanen!" We ended up having a great discussion about football. He also knew Jussi Jääskeläinen and wondered why Finland never qualifies for any big tournaments with such good players. I told him half of Finland is wondering the same thing.

Before we met my Hong Kong friend Margot was sure that coming from up north I'd be a tall blonde. Of course that wasn't the case. We've laughed about it later that Hong Kong is one of the few cities where short ladies like us can actually reach the subway trains' upper handlebars. She has travelled a lot and knows this too. No chance of that in, say, Berlin. And actually today I was at a shopping mall where I could reach a ceiling panel! And I did - just because I could. The first time I've ever touched a sprinkler.

The Disney line handles.

Coming from a nordic country also gives you a reputation close to Gore-Tex: made for all weathers. But unfortunately being Finnish doesn't make you weather-durable. Cold still feels cold even if you'd experience it most of the year. And the concept of what's cold can change by location. Minus three degrees in Berlin felt more freezing than -15°C in Helsinki and I have worn my winter jacket here in Hong Kong when it's been +10°C. My inner thermometer is fucked up.

And finally here's something I heard this weekend: "Finland, eh? They're all a bunch of drunks there." This was said to me by an Irishman.

tiistai 25. tammikuuta 2011

"Hello lady, I'm a dealer!"

The "Shoes, bags, Rolex" guy downstairs feels like an old friend already. I think if someone tried to give me trouble on my street he'd actually jump in and do something. Since my block is full of hotels and hostels I think the salespeople back off when they see that someone comes in daily and must be a hotel guest. Now all of them just say hi and don't try to sell me a Dolge & Gabbana handbag anymore. Yes, "Dolge".

So it was a bit surprising yesterday when a new guy appeared out of nowhere announcing enthusiastically "Hello lady, I'm a dealer!" I strongly believe he was just trying to sell the same fake goods as everyone else but just didn't realize his choice of words could really scare people off. I smiled and said "Good for you" and got into the elevator.

The double-decker tram on Hong Kong Island.
Especially when traveling on your own you have to balance yourself between not being too cynical but not being too naïve either. If you blindly trust anyone who comes your way you'll soon end up owning 2000 Rolexes and being hustled out of your valuables. On the other hand if you are too sceptical you'll never make new friends and can miss out on some memorable experiences. And as for my job, I couldn't do it if I'd never talk to strangers.

Talked to this stranger at Disneyland.
A friend from Hong Kong. Me and Margot.
I've only travelled for about a month now but at least so far I've been incredibly lucky. I've met some amazing people, some of whom I've befriended and some who I've just watched football with in a bar, sat next to on a plane or who've helped me with my work. I realize that a lot can happen in a year and most likely I won't be this lucky all the time. I've prepared myself mentally for encountering assholes, getting robbed or scammed, getting sick or being injured and of course losing my luggage (although the latter I'm trying to avoid by not flying Air France or Aeroflot and never passing through Charles de Gaulle Airport).

I'm writing this at Kowloon Park - free wifi at the park, how cool is that! - and a giant bird just shat right next to me. So I guess that's my cue to head out to town. Before I leave Hong Kong on Feb 6, I promise I'll try and get a photo of the "Shoes, bags, Rolex" guy. Your friendly neighborhood copy watch salesman!

perjantai 21. tammikuuta 2011

Walking in circles can pay off

After doing some writing this morning I was ripped off by a tea store vendor. I went to the shop to by a gift for my parents - a beautiful porcelain cup which cost about 25$ or 2,5€. When they started wrapping it up for me the woman at the store started selling me tea. Which I don't need. I told her no, but then she said if I buy a bag of tea the cup is for free. So I said okay, not realizing that the basic jasmine tea I had agreed to buy cost 180$ or 18€. For TEA! That's got to be some friggin' kick-ass tea, I tell you. I'm sending it to my tea-enthusiast friend Noora, who better a) drink the damn stuff and b) lie to me if it's crap.

The way I spent the rest of my day sounds like the beginning of a joke: a Finn, a Canuck and a Hongkonger went out to dinner... But that's pretty much what happened. My local friend here, Margot, has a Couch Surfer staying at her place for two nights, a lovely Canadian woman named Feleisha. After my tea shopping catastrophe I went to the Kowloon Park Swimming Pool with her to do some laps. Gotta love having an Olympic-size swimming pool right next to your hotel. Afterwards we went for a walk and ended up drinking, oh yes, tea at a café a couple of blocks from the swimming pool. And later we met Margot in Yau Ma Tei for dinner.

Temple Street Night Market

The area is known for it's famous Temple Street night market, which is spread around numerous streets in the Yau Ma Tei area. Souvenirs, fake designer stuff - pretty much anything is available here. Even sex toys that seemed to interest mostly elderly women who were picking out dildos at the stands. And of course everything is ridiculously cheap - and always possible to bargain down to an even cheaper price. If you know how.

When we first walked around just me and Feleisha, I thought I'd buy a mahjong as my Hong Kong souvenir. When we asked around for prices for a small mahjong set we got 180$ or even 450$. I declined and decided to wait for Margot. We met with her and went for dinner and after that did another round on the same street. And doing that same walk around the market with a local was a smart choice. That girl can bargain! When Margot asked how much for a mahjong, the same dude who asked me 450$ for it eventually sold it to me for 120$. A small victory, I didn't get screwed twice in one day thanks to my lovely HK friend.

Oh yeah, forgot to mention earlier, on the first couple of days here it was kind of a challenge to locate my hotel entrance between all the souvenir and electronics shops on my block, so one day I took a mental note that it's right after the blinking Sony sign. Well, that turned out to be a shit landmark.

One Sony, two Sony, and spot the third one?

Yes, there is not one, not two, but THREE blinking Sony signs in my block alone! So that kind of went down the toilet there. But now I know my way. Having accidentally taken a turn into a couple of those electronics stores when looking for the hotel entrance and then tried to explain myself out of there without having to buy anything has been incentive enough to make me learn the right way to my Hong Kong home.

tiistai 18. tammikuuta 2011

Got class?

I arrived in Hong Kong late last Friday. After a nice hot shower I figured I should get something to eat before I hit the sack so I went searching for a place to eat around the nearby blocks. And there were many - but where do I go on my first night here? An Irish pub! I know. I'm a pussy.

I just wasn't feeling that adventurous at the moment so I ate a chicken salad, watched some Asian Cup soccer (Australia-South Korea, 1-1) and went to sleep. Slept like a baby for 11 hours straight. I guess all the pre-trip sleep deprivation is now getting fixed. Funny thing but I feel more relaxed actually traveling than planning the journey.

The nearby neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui is one of the busiest tourist districts in Hong Kong. That means a lot of overly eager salespeople trying to sell you fake handbags, watches and such. I don't really know if I look like someone who'd wear a Rolex, but I can tell you I would own dozens had I bought one at every opportunity.

I've tried to get a taste of the high-life in Hong Kong by setting up shop in the lobbies of fancy hotels, drinking tea there and buying some wi-fi time. One day I sat in the Four Seasons writing when this nice, young businessman sat down opposite to me and we started talking. We were discussing our travels and all of a sudden he asked me where I was staying. At first I thought, wow, do I really look like I can't possibly be staying here, but then I realised my Octopus Card was sticking out of my jeans pocket. Yeah, I guess not a lot of Four Seasons guests ride the MTR...

My own lodging on the other hand is full of surprises. This maze of a building houses Hongkongers, small shops and businesses and a dozen or so hotels and hostels, all bundled up together in different corners of it's 16 floors. On my first morning I ran into this old man by the elevators. He wished me a good morning, took my hand, kissed it and then asked for money. The next morning at the same elevators I met a Pakistani hair stylist who gave me his card: "Call me, I fix your hair".

Thanks for the subtle hint. Scarecrow, signing off!

sunnuntai 16. tammikuuta 2011

Flying on the world's biggest cruise ship

Yes indeed. Transferring to my connecting flight to Hong Kong at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport presented me with literally the world's biggest surprise: the carrier was the enormous Airbus A380, the largest passenger jet there is. I felt like shouting out of joy! Little me in that giant of a plane!

It never looks as big in photos but here's one anyway. The Airbus A380.

And let me tell you people it is huge. My seat was 74K - 74K! - and it took a looong walk along the aisle to get there. There were probably at least 30 more seats after that, too. The seats were like in first class and the food looked like it was made in the kitchen of a fine Italian restaurant. I mean, coconut mousse and chocolate chips for dessert, when have you had that on a plane? It's usually always the dry brownie. And there was moisturiser in the lavatory!

Well, that 3-hour flight was pretty much all the luxury for me for the next three weeks. I'm back to backpacker mode. I arrived safely to Hong Kong, survived the insane shuttle bus driver with an apparent death wish (got to the hotel pretty fast though, so thanks!) and my hotel is in one of the famous lodging complexes on Nathan Road in Kowloon. And by famous I don't mean fancy. These places are made for travellers and vagabonds. The hotel rooms are scattered around the huge building and mine is pretty much the size of a stamp. But I have my own bathroom and get clean sheets every day so I got pretty much all I need. And I didn't come all this way to spend time in my room anyway.

Hong Kong Island view from Kowloon.

I met with my Hong Kong contact Margot yesteday. We got in contact through Couch Surfers and even though I wasn't in need of a couch I figured it would be fun to get to know the city with a little help from a local. And she is awesome! I think I found my Hong Kong twin: she works in media, has studied film and television production and loves food! We had the nicest time yesteday afternoon and we'll meet again next week.

Happy Appreciate a Dragon Day, everybody!

torstai 13. tammikuuta 2011

Confronting the suspiciously cheap pizza

Before I left Finland a lot of people gave me what they thought to be good advice. Something my godfather said to me came to mind the other day: "If something sounds too good to be true - it usually is".

There was recently an article in a Finnish economics magazine about the price of pizza. In Finland a pizza should cost at least 6 euros to cover all expenses. Anything cheaper than that and something's gotta give. Berlin is of course much cheaper than Helsinki in every way imaginable, but even here a pizza too cheap can make the locals suspicious.

Opposite to our building on Hermannstraße there's a very cosy-looking Italian restaurant that has the most incredible offers I've ever seen. You can get a pizza for 2,30€, lasagne for 2,10€ or a pasta meal even for 1,90€! You can't make any meal even at home for those prices. So when picking up that ridiculously cheap lasagne in the back of your mind you have to be wondering: what is wrong with the picture? (And here's an actual picture.)

We've been thinking about this with my roommates who've lived here for quite some while, and they  seem to be sure that there's money laundering - or other illegal activities - going on in the restaurant. It doesn't sound that far-fetched. I mean, there's 5-10 people working there at any given time, the restaurant is sort of centrally located and the food isn't crap. It all has to cost something so what gives?

Of course you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth but we did laugh out quite loud when we went to this place for drinks one night and when looking through the menus we noticed that whereas the pizzas are a little over two euros each the stuffed mushroom starters for example are 7€. And you can get a plate of nachos and salsa for the price of two-three lasagnes. I know I'm new at this entrepeneurship thing but this does not sound like good business.

So what exactly is the business behind this - that will remain a mystery to me. I'm leaving Berlin today and heading for Hong Kong. A big thank you to my high school friend Vappu, the roommates Christian and Katharina, my neighbors Anna and Daniel, the other Daniel (Katharina's boyfriend), Tobias, Philipp, Zouhir, the people of Tacheles and everyone who gave me tips on where to go here and who to meet.

And what comes to the advice on the too-good-to-be-true things, I did get the lasagne for 2,10€ so true it was. Though I might have supported the local mafia in doing so, who knows. And even that particular piece of advice was given to me by The Godfather.

maanantai 10. tammikuuta 2011

The things you find

It's been a fantastic 10 days in Berlin! I told you about the journalist I met at the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall. I just randomly chose to shoot him for my photo series. Turned out he was a Tunisian-British journalist, Zouhir Latif, who has years of experience reporting from crisis and war zones all over the world. Currently he's shooting a documentary for BBC Panorama and working as an advisor for the UN and Amnesty International. We met the other day and discussed freelance journalism and traveling. He was such an inspirational character. Proves that striking up conversations with strangers can sometimes lead to the most interesting new acquaintances.

Besides Mr. Latif I've also met up with a bunch of different people from Germany, New York and Finland. Entrepeneurs trying to build their businesses here in Berlin. It's always interesting to hear how someone has ended up where they have and what their dreams are for the future. This city is obviously a colorful place to hear those stories. Today I'm meeting with a bunch of artists who occupy the Tacheles Arthouse. It's an abandoned shopping centre with ateliés and dedicated artists who look like they've been caged up for a decade.

The other day I was meeting with my neighbor Anna at Hackescher Markt and switched trains at Alexanderplatz. Outside the train station they sell wurst and other barbecue items but the thing was there were these vicious smelling sewers right next to the stands. This evil smell was hovering all around, like someone had taken a massive dump right there in the street corner. Why the salespeople figured that would be the best place to sell food and how people could eat their sausages right there was a mystery to me.

I've actually gotten some things done in German too! I've asked for a lasagne to go ("mitnehmen"), bought a 7-day train ticket ("sieben tage karte für AB, bitte") and asked for a photographing permission ("kann ich ein par foto machen?"). I don't know if that's exactly right but I've been understood.

It's always kind of exciting, though, to use a language you don't quite know. What if someone asks something back? I'll have no clue what to say. When shopping for whatever they always do ask something and for a while I couldn't figure out what it was. Then I heard it's "Mit oder ohne tüte?" Then the question remained: what the hell is a tüte? Sounds like something a kid would need. But if ever faced with this question, with or without a tüte, say yes if you need a bag. My friend had once said "ja, danke" to this without knowing what they'd give him, but now we know!

Looks like it's going to be a beautiful day. +5°C and sunny. Looks like Finnish summer. Or winter. Or fall or spring. Heading out to Tacheles soon. Finally here are a couple of my shots from the East Side Gallery.

Moroccan kid walking the Wall.

Mr. Latif.
Japanese friends checking out the Gallery.
The Brits and the Irish bloke.
Posing at the East Side Gallery.

Swedish group.

Ladies from Brunei.

Artwork watching.