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.

keskiviikko 5. tammikuuta 2011

Focusing on food - and other things

I've learned two important things about Germans and Berliners in the last couple of days, thanks to my local friends. Only really old people and tourists say "jawohl" - and Berliners hate it when you call Berliners Berliners. The last part might make a bit more sense with this picture. Behold - a heap of Berliners, a.k.a. pfannkuchen!

For some reason Berliners don't want to take credit for this sugary pastry. It might be a lost battle though. Everywhere in Germany but Berlin it's known as a Berliner - and even in my home country Finland we call it "berliininmunkki". But if you want these babies in this particular city without any eye-rolling, be sure to ask for "ein pfannkuche".

Pfannkuchen aren't the only edibles I've been photographing recently and shooting food has posed an interesting new set of challenges. Just like people, not all foods are photogenic. Like lentil soup. Or custard. Or take a pickle for instance. How in the world do you make it NOT look like a dead frog? Oh well, I love a challenge. Bring it on, Deutsche küche!

I met with my college friend Timo yesterday in Prenzlauer Berg. We walked around in the freezing cold and among other places went to check out Kulturbrauerei, a local gallery/club/art set-up in an old beer brewery (photo below).

We also visited a punk style café for some glühwein and sort of stood out from the anarchist clientele. My visit to the café's bathroom also made me remember why I think some things in the world should be universal. Like bathrooms. I don't care what kind of toilet would be the one - just as long as it would be the same everywhere. I couldn't find the flusher anywhere. I didn't really feel anarchist enough to leave the toilet unflushed so I searched for a button, a knob, a lever, a pedal on the floor or a chain in the ceiling. Nothing. Eventually I found the button under a "Kein Sex Mit Nazis"-sticker and made my way out.

I visited the Berlin Wall remains the other day at the East Side Gallery and took a photo series of people who came to see it. I'll publish some of them here a bit later. I selected the people randomly and got portraits of some charming people from all over the world from Morocco to Brunei. One of the people I took a picture of was surprisingly enough another freelance journalist - with a very interesting background actually, I'll tell you more about it later. We exchanged business cards and will meet tomorrow. That's what I'd call random networking!

sunnuntai 2. tammikuuta 2011

Berlin means business

Herzliche grüsse aus Berlin! That is one of the few sentences I can make in German. I'm staying in Neukölln in an apartment shared by one of my old high school friends and a couple of nice Berliners. I have set up shop onto the windowsill of the apartment kitchen because it's close to a functioning radiator and the fridge. And it's the only place where the internet works.

This is what my building looks like. It's the red one & my room is right above the undertaker's office.

The first leg of my journey also means that my work has kicked off. While others have been surviving their colossal New Year hangovers around the world I have interviewed a Michelin star chef, fought for hours with a non-co-operating audio editing program and sent about a dozen emails everywhere. Not that I mind. Everything has worked out and I'm getting things done. Which means I might deserve me a pretzel and some glühwein soon.

I mentioned that German isn't exactly my native language. It was actually the one language I kept as far away from as possible in school. All my German sentences pretty much consist of no more than three words and if there are, say, verbs in them, it can make a native grammatically nauseous. Here in Berlin I have come to realize that German would actually have been a useful language to learn after all. I mean, even "Hello, I'm a journalist, could you help me out with something?" today produced an answer "Sorry, I don't understand you."

All the German I know is a product of a German television series called Marienhof (yeah I watched it..) which aired in Finland sometime in the 90's. And it's not nearly enough. Nothing saddens me more than the fact that I don't understand enough German to know how to use the word "genau" in the right place. I love that word. It means you agree with someone, that you can tell them they're right... A positive word that I can't use because I can never tell if the other guy is right or not. Argh!

Like everywhere, also in Berlin the younger population is of course more fluent in English. I've met some wonderful people in my neighborhood who have helped me out enormously. My neighbors Daniel and Anna hooked me up to their internet (the reason it only works on the kitchen windowsill), my roommates invited me to their New Year's get-together and a Spätkauf kiosk salesman named Easy - seriously! - gave me all kinds of addresses for places with a free wireless network. Younger people can also tell very fast if you're not local. I thought I got the accent right in some German words, but no. The guy at the cash register figured out I'm foreign from my "ein moment" when I tried to look for some change. He replied "Just maybe a couple of euros?"

I love traveling. Even when it's difficult. It gives you such a thrill even despite - and especially when you overcome - things like language barriers, not knowing how to use the ticket vending machine or going to the store or restaurant and not having a clue which items are the things you want to eat. Difficulties are usually great opportunities to make new friends. A clichéish JFK quote from his 1962 speech came to mind when I left home: "We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things - not because they are easy but because they are hard." That's why I decided to do this trip. And that's why I hope you decide to do your adventure, whatever it is, before the chance escapes you.

Happy New Year 2011 - may it be even more kick-ass to you than 2010!