Weekly Wednesday Video: Crossing the Sahara Desert in Mauritania

This week’s video is very short and simple – just 30 seconds of scenery from Mauritania, a little-known nation I visited last year on my West Africa Tour. Some 75 percent of the country is desert, as is obvious from this video that was shot from inside a shared taxi.

Mauritania has been on my mind lately as a fellow travel writer, Francis Tapon, just spent three weeks there. I’ve been eagerly keeping up with his Facebook and Twitter updates to hear about his adventures. Francis is working on a documentary called The Unseen Africa and plans to spend three years touring the continent. That’s quite the plan!

Francis has his own car, but I mostly got around West Africa with public transportation. In Mauritania that includes the bush taxis, which are usually of the Mercedes make (while in Senegal they prefer Peugeot station wagons and call them by the name Sept-place). The shared taxis take off for their destination when enough people have showed up to fill the car, or when the driver figures he has a good change of picking up the missing number of people along the way.

Shared taxis are a pretty handy and cheap way to get around, and observing the locals’ wardrobe choices is an interesting way to pass the time.

Those of you that speak Finnish can read more about my adventures in Mauritania and the Sahara Desert in this article titled “The Sahara isn’t easy on the tourist” that was published by Finland’s biggest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat last year. Among other places, I visited Cap Blanc, known as the largest graveyard of shipwrecks. By February last year, some of the 300 ships had already been hauled away by the European Union, but quite a few could still be seen in the horizon. This one on the beach is the Moroccan ship United Malika that crashed in 2003. This shipwreck bay was definitely one of the strangest sights I’ve seen in my life.

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Have you been to Mauritania or tried out the shared taxis elsewhere in Africa? 

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Weekly Wednesday Video: Eating Live Octopus in South Korea

Hmm, somehow this blog has changed into one big Weekly Wednesday Video series. It seems like I never find the time to write an actual post, even though my head is full of ideas and stories I want to share. But whoops – AGAIN a week has gone by and it’s time to post my weekly video. And that is a whole process in and of itself (as I have to scroll through tens of videos from tens of countries to choose my favorite).

In honor of completing my first four weeks of the Weekly Wednesday Video series, I am taking you all back to South Korea (whose cat cafes I showed in my first weekly video). Initially my plan was not to feature the same countries too often, but this time I’ll have to make an exception. That’s just because this particular video kept popping up today, as if begging to be seen.

What is it about, you may ask…. Well, it’s about eating live octopus. Yep. That’s exactly what a fellow traveler, Shai from Israel, wanted to do as we toured around Seoul together last October. This bizarre dish, called Sannakji, is common in Korea and is believed to make you healthier. It’s really quite simple to whip together – as Sarah Shaw wrote for Mappingwords.com, the meal consists of “fresh, wriggling pieces of live baby octopus, drizzled with sesame oil. After minimal preparation, it is served immediately.”

So here we go! Bon appetit!

Initially I was a bit grossed out, but finally ended up popping a few pieces into my mouth, as you’ll see in the end of the video. And I was pleasantly surprised! The moving tentacles felt really funny, and the suction cups kept latching onto my tongue and mouth. The raw octopus didn’t have much of a taste. The worst part was having to crush the wandering tentacles with my teeth. It felt pretty cruel. 😦

While this plate was just a little appetizer, I came across another video on YouTube that shows a more elaborate live octopus dinner, in case anyone is interested.

Have you tried live octopus? If not, would you like to? 

Weekly Wednesday Video: West African Dance Party

I woke up today convinced it was Tuesday. But would you believe it – turns out it’s Wednesday! Again! Wasn’t it just Wednesday?

Well, who I am to fight it. It’s time for my Weekly Wednesday Video! So let’s travel virtually to Senegal’s Casamance region where I witnessed a wild dance party during my West African roadtrip last year. The fiesta took place in Oussouye, a small town that loves to bust a move. This particular time the celebration was in honor of someone’s birthday, I was told. Who wants to do the same for my birthday next month??

Casamance has in fact been on my mind for a number of reasons lately. One is that I just wrote an article for The InterDependent about how the United Nations is starting a sanitation campaign to build more toilets. As you may remember, in Casamance I visited a family that lived in a tiny town without a single toilet.

Yeah, that was quite an experience. I had been in Bouyouye for a couple of hours by the time I discovered the situation. I had looked into every nook of the little clay house I was staying in, and poked around the yard’s various corners. I just couldn’t see it.

“Where’s the toilet?” I finally asked my weekend’s host, Jeannette Diatta, 40. The cheerful mother of six school-age children pointed at the sky-reaching Fromager tree in front of me.

“Just go behind there. Nobody will bother you.” She handed me a bucket on water for cleansing, as is the local custom.

So off I went, climbing over the wide roots of the so-called elephant tree and wading through piles of brown leaves in search of my own makeshift latrine. Finally I found a spot where I could comfortably go about my business while leaning on the trunk of the tree for support. I tried to be careful not to step into other people’s leftovers, should there be some, but luckily I didn’t see any.

Later on that day I realized why – there were rows of happy little piglets running all over the town that is the full-time home of about 300 people. A human’s dump is a piggy’s treasure. I secretly felt relieved the Diatta household wasn’t serving pork that day for dinner.

During my travels in more than sixty countries on six continents, I have come across many types of latrines: the low porcelain squat toilets of India, a hole in the wooden floor a’la Mongolia, the no-wall group stalls of old Beijing and the high-tech Japanese toilets that give you an automated butt rinse.  But my visit to West Africa last year was the first time that I came across people without access to any kind of a toilet. In Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagos Islands, I even saw locals nonchalantly pooping on the side of the road.

Little did I know how typical these folks actually were: According to the UN, there are 1.1 billion people in the world still defecating out in the open, some 15 percent of the world’s population. To read my piece on what the UN is doing to change this, click on the photo below.

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While West Africans may not all have toilets, they’ve sure got the moves. What did you think about my video of the Casamance dance party?

Weekly Wednesday Video: Speedboating in Nicaragua

As I promised last week, I’ve started a new Weekly Wednesday Video series and today just happens to be… Wednesday! Yay. 🙂

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This week’s video is from Nicaragua, where I spent six weeks this winter with my friend (who was very sleepy). While most of my time there I was trying to catch up with overdue work, relax and enjoy the beaches, I also cranked out an article about Nicaragua’s sky-high teenage pregnancy rate for Passblue.com, a site focused on all things related to the United Nations. Would you believe that half the Nica youth have babies before they turn 20? That’s the record rate for all of Latin America.

This was yet another piece that I reported in Spanish, which is obviously more difficult for me than English or Finnish but still about ten times easier than doing the same in Portuguese Creole (as was detailed in my post last year, titled: The Worst Interview of My Life). So yeah, in the end all went well and the article turned out fine and dandy.

Anyhow, one of the coolest – and often only – ways to move around Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast is with a panga – a commuter speedboat. This video footage was shot on two separate trips from Bluefields to Pearl Lagoon and vice versa. The ride lasted about an hour and cost $5. And boy was it fun! Those things go fast. I felt like my cheeks were wobbling in the wind the whole time! If you don’t believe me, take a look at this week’s video (accompanied by music from my very talented brother Erkka).

If anyone is planning on traveling to the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, I highly recommend checking out the RightSide Guide website, a survival guide for the wild west that awaits you. And make sure to travel with as many pangas as possible!

Have you been to Nicaragua and/or tried out the speedboats there? What did you think?

Weekly Wednesday Video: Korean cat cafe

I was poking around my external hard drive the other day when I realized that I have about a gazillion short bits of video footage just sitting in a folder. These are snippets I’ve shot on my travels all over the world, in hopes of one day doing something with them. Some of them have been waiting to see the light of day for months, others for years.

Well, that day is here. I’m starting a new blog series called the Weekly Wednesday Video. So every Wednesday I’ll be posting a short travel video of mine, shot in some random country.

The first flick comes from South Korea and features a cat cafe that I visited last October. It basically shows you what it’s like inside this cafe that is home to 50 cats. As you’ll see, sometimes tension builds up between the furry residents. My apologies for the quick moving camera work in the end of the video – I just wanted to give everyone a better idea of the decor of Y-Cat cafe in Seoul, Korea.

The video is actually pretty timely right now, as my article about the history of cat cafes is out in the May issue of Blue Wings, Finnair’s in-flight magazine. (Well, more than an actual article, this is a short side bar to someone else’s piece that talks about Japan’s cafe culture. But nonetheless.) If you view the video, you’ll surely recognize some of the cats that make an appearance in these Blue Wings photos as well.

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In case you are interested in reading the article and can’t squint your eyes enough to make sense of the tiny print (can’t blame you!), here it is:

CAT CAFES POUNCE FROM ASIA TO EUROPE

TEXT AND PHOTOS BY Mirva Lempiäinen

A cat cafe may seem like a quintessentially Japanese institution – after all, the country is Hello Kitty’s homeland. Yet the first one, Cat Flower Garden, opened in Taiwan in 1998 before the concept landed to Japan in the mid-2000s. Since then there has been no stopping the feline fever. Japan is now home to about 160 cat cafes, where for less than ten euros one gets a drink and a chance to pet tens of Garfield’s cousins. There are also cafes featuring dogs, goats and rabbits.

In 2012 the special coffee houses started making their way to Europe. The first of the continent, Café Neko (www.cafeneko.at, Blumenstockgasse 5) with five resident kitties, popped up in Vienna, Austria last May. St Petersburg in Russia followed suit in October of 2012 with Cat’s Republic (en.catsrepublic.ru, 10 Ulitsa Yakubovicha). London’s Old Street area is slated to welcome Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium (LadydinaHs.com) in May.

The project, which will be the home of rescue cats, recently received more than 120,000 euros in funding through the crowdsourcing website IndieGogo.

(You can also read the entire article about Japan’s cafe culture and my cat cafe history sidebar by clicking here and scrolling to page 56.)

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