Happy Birthday To Me!

I know what you are all thinking… where’s the Weekly Wednesday Video??!! Yep, you were probably all holding your breath in excitement…. and here I was feeling guilty that I didn’t find the time to post one this week.

But then I realized… this is my BIRTHDAY WEEK! June 4 was the actual D-Day, but here in New York the party still continues. Thus I think it’s perfectly justified for me to take the rest of the week off from my blog duties (that’s the least I can do to celebrate, right?). See you next week!

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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?

Five reasons to skip Christmas (every now and then)

Hope everyone had a merry Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus and whatnot last month! However it was you spent those leisurely days between Dec. 24 and New Year’s Eve, I trust you had a jolly time.

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Though I’m in the habit of celebrating Christmas, as is typical in my native Finland, this was my “skip-year,” so I did not do much. Instead of being huddled over a mountain of presents or munching on delicious holiday food, I chilled out in New York and spent those December days much like any others in the city: working, catching up with friends, eating in Thai restaurants, going to the gym, etc.

This might sound sad to you if you are a Christmas fanatic, but don’t worry. For me it’s not at all. You see, over the past decade I’ve crafted my own tradition of forgoing traditional family Christmas celebrations every second year for practical reasons (mostly for saving money and time).

Sure, I do miss my family and it would be great to spend time with them during the holidays, but aside from that, skipping the hustle and bustle of Christmas is really not all that bad. In fact, it’s kind of refreshing.

Some of my skip-year Christmases have been quite memorable, like  2008 when I flew to Cancun, Mexico and danced around the bar with a group of Mexican holidaymakers singing “Feliz Navidad.” Or 2006, when my friends and I toured the vineyards around the Margaret River region of Western Australia. (A white Christmas has a strong contender in my mind – a sunny one! Aussies may be onto something…)

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Being someone who loves change and variety, it’s nice for me to spice things up every other year and do something different from the usual “family dinner – Christmas sauna – presents – church” –routine, as warm and comforting as that can be. This year I attended a Panamanian Christmas fiesta in Brooklyn, where we danced Bachata and Merengue until midnight.

So believe it or not, there are plenty of good reasons to follow my lead on this tradition of skipping the holidays every other year (or at least celebrating them super low-key), many of them travel-related.

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Here are some of the biggest benefits:

1) Avoiding expensive flights

Flying to most places in the world between Dec. 18 and early January is prohibitively expensive. A round-trip ticket from the US to Europe or vice versa can easily set you back $1,000-1,300 this time of the year, when you can find flights in non-peak months for $500-700. So why not postpone that trip home by a couple of weeks and save a small fortune in the process? As most festive dates are artificial anyway, who is to say you cannot celebrate Christmas in January, should you feel like it? Or even in the summer! (Well hey, some scientists say Jesus was born on June 17.)

2) Scoring cheap flights

While prices for flights are generally sky-high in the end of December, there are two dates when you might score a deal: Dec. 25 and Dec. 31. Yep, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. That’s because most people wouldn’t dream of flying anywhere on these days, preferring to celebrate on the ground. But during my skip-years, I am more than happy to fly whenever, if it saves me hundreds of dollars. This New Year’s Eve I flew from New York to Costa Rica for a mere $195 with Spirit (and still made it to San Jose in time for the party!), while the fare was $100-300 more on the days preceding Dec. 31. You can’t beat that!

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(Our NYE party crew in San Jose – matching checkered shirts provided by our friendly host Luis, second from the right.)

3) No presents – no holiday stress

We all know the feeling: the holidays are just around the corner and we have yet to buy a single present, clean the house from top to bottom, bake cookies and plan a fancy dinner for family and friends. And why is it that the days leading up to Dec. 24 always zoom by so quick?! Streeeessssss!!!

– Well, not for me this year! I didn’t need to care how fast Christmas was approaching as I didn’t have a single thing to prepare (aside from picking up a bottle of wine for the Panamanian fiesta). I didn’t buy any presents and I told my family not to get me anything either. I didn’t even send out a single Christmas card. I did put up a holiday greeting on Facebook, but that’s about it. 😉 While everyone else was freaking out about getting things done on time, I couldn’t have been more relaxed the closer we got THE day. Plus I was able to use my Christmas-time savings towards that Central American holiday (I’m typing this on the beach as we speak… yes, I have a beach problem)!

4) Avoiding holiday weight-gain

I know how some of you are feeling right about now – looking at the newly-formed flab on your belly, you’re thinking “did I have to eat that extra box of chocolates during Christmas?” Well, don’t feel bad – you had to. That’s the spirit of Christmas. I’ve been there a million times too, but luckily I’m not there this year. By skipping Xmas I not only steered clear from fattening traditional foods and goodies, I was also able to spend some extra time working out (plus the gym was nice and empty during the holidays)! So now I’m having a much better time touring Central America without extra pounds holding me down. 🙂

5) Bringing that special holiday feeling back

Remember the days when Christmas was something you looked forward to with joy, not dread? Back when you felt like the holidays couldn’t get here fast enough? Yeah, for most people this excitement has been long ago replaced by feelings of panic as December seems to roll around quicker each year (wasn’t in just Christmas 2011?). Thus my solution is the best: when you skip the festivities every other year, Christmas retrieves its role as a truly special occasion – one that only takes place every 24 months, just often enough for you to start missing it. And during your skip-years you can spend the time and money to travel to that dream destination of yours!

What do you think about my “skip-year” habit? Have any of your tried skipping Christmas  or embraced a low-key version of the holiday? Why or why not?

Trinidad & Tobago: the Ultimate Carnival Nation

Hey people – it’s CARNIVAL time!!

This year Feb. 20 and 21 are the official Catholic carnival dates. So the party is on in the ultimate carnival nation, Trinidad & Tobago! I can almost hear the music blaring from the loudspeakers of the trucks and see the Trinis shaking their hips in unison. The year’s most-awaited fiesta is finally here!

But of course the emphasis here is on the word almost, as I’m nowhere near the Caribbean at the moment.

Instead I’m sitting in the peace and quiet of Dakhla, an isolated town in Western Sahara. There’s no music to be heard, and not a single dance club in town. Instead there are countless cafes serving only non-alcoholic drinks and a nice ocean breeze blowing over to the beach boulevard from the turquoise bay. Whereas in T&T hoardes of women are currently prancing around in skimpy bikinis, here the ladies are covered head to toe with colorful fabrics.

But this stark contrast shouldn’t stop me from reminiscing about last year’s carnival, and telling you about it! After all, T&T’s carnival is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.

So to get you into proper carnival spirit, let’s take a look at how I described the Trinidad & Tobago carnival last year in my old blog a week after the party:

Now that carnival and all the craziness is officially over, it’s time to look back and figure out what exactly happened during that whole week of non-stop action.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that nobody takes carnival as seriously as the people of Trinidad. It’s been said that Trinis are either celebrating carnival, talking about the last carnival or planning the next carnival. I don’t have any doubt about that being true. After all, I met a person who had spent US$2,000 on their carnival costume and party tickets, and another one who had spent US$1,200 on flight tickets to be able to fly to Trinidad for a day and then fly back to the US for work the next day. I also witnessed some 80,000 people taking part in the carnival processions.

Whereas in Rio de Janeiro most people watch the carnival show from the comfort of their Sambodromo seat, in Trinidad they say 80 percent of the people actually take part in the show, and only 20 percent watch it. “Are you playing mas?” was the most popular question of the week, as was “Which band are you playing with?”. It took me a while to figure out that playing mas with a band had nothing to do with playing any kind of an instrument with a live orchestra. “Mas” refers to masquerading, and “band” refers to a set of trucks that have huge loudspeakers on them blasting music as they roam the streets. Some of the popular bands include Tribe, Yuma and Island People. Apparently there are slight differences in the types of party people each band attracts, but costume- and music-wise they all seemed very alike. The same Soca hits, the same colorful feather outfits and the same drinks (anything with Red Bull being the favorite). But people still seemed very patriotic towards their own group, which for my friends was Yuma.

Those that choose to play mas will thus don their skimpy outfits and dance next to a particular band (group of trucks) on Tuesday, the official carnival day. The highlight of the day is “crossing the stage” with your group, the official carnival stadium in the center of Port of Spain that was built a couple of years ago. One of this year’s biggest Soca hits, Machel Montano’s Advantage, talks specifically about the excitement of crossing the stage: “The stage is in front of us, time to take advantage of it!”.

The previous day, Monday, is a “training day” of sorts when people wear their band’s signature T-shirt and shorts and follow the trucks for miles on end.

Much to the surprise of many, I had decided not to play mas. “Why would you come to Trinidad and not play mas? That’s the best part of carnival!”, people asked me. My answers varied from “I don’t feel like squeezing into a skimpy costume” to “I don’t have the energy to walk 20 miles after a truck” and to “I’d rather watch you guys from the audience.” The truth is that I just couldn’t justify spending $500 to “play mas” (nor did I have an extra $500 lying around anywhere!). Yes, you read right – five hundred United States dollars! That’s how much the tickets were for the two official carnival days, if you wanted to play with a band. The price included free drinks for the two days (from a moving truck that doubled as a bar), the band’s t-shirt and shorts, your skimpy carnival costume for Tuesday’s show, and a boxed lunch both days (a simple chicken and rice meal, served cold and often hours late).

Call me a cheapskate, but that to me sounds like a rip-off. Someone is making big bucks off the Trinis’ love for their biggest national holiday. A more reasonable price would have been $250, and even that would have still been way more than what I’ve ever paid for an all-inclusive party in New York. Granted, someone had to pay for the trucks and the security people, but the price still seems pretty steep to me. However, most Trinis seemed to think that paying $500 for two days of partying was a decent deal (never mind that $500 is the average monthly income in Trinidad, when all social classes are taken into account). And the remaining people must have thought that even though it isn’t an amazing deal, so what? It’s carnival! Time to splurge and engage in revelry! Take the skin off my back and sell my grandma’s house if it guarantees a good carnival!

If you still don’t believe that the Trinis’ devotion to carnival even beats that of Brazilians, check out this popular blog called Trinidad Carnival Diary by a woman who writes about carnival – 365 days a year. So yes, I missed out on the experience of playing mas (but I saved $500!). And I did sneak into the band my friends played with on Monday anyway, and walked and danced along with their trucks for miles just as they did. Then on Tuesday, when everyone was in their full costumes and thus blending into the group in regular clothes would have been harder, I watched the show from the Savannah stadium. Even this would have cost $80, but luckily I have friends in high places so I got in for free. 😉

Personally I think I got the best deal, and I didn’t mind missing out on crossing the stage on Tuesday. Quite the contrary, I was happy I didn’t have to get up at 5 a.m. to put on my make-up and costume, and then walk for 20 miles in the heat and try to keep up my party spirit until 10 p.m.! And this was after at least four days of partying, as the two official carnival days are preceded by a week of celebrations.

While it seems like every self-respecting Trini needs to play mas at least once in their lifetime (or preferably every year), I would recommend visitors to skip out on paying the $500 and just dancing next to the bands for free when you feel like it. The rest of the time you can pop into some of the bars along the parade route or make your way near the Savannah to see the groups preparing to go on stage. And anyway, as is the case with the full moon party in Thailand, the best parties are actually those that happen before the official celebrations. In Trinidad, one of the biggest fiestas is the J’Ouvert morning party. At 4 a.m. on Monday morning, thousands of people gather on the streets and cover each other with cocoa powder and paint and colorful powder. The end-result is a sticky mess, but it’s all good fun.

My personal favorite was the Veil breakfast party, which started at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning and went on until noon the next day (yes, the Trinis do party 24/7 during carnival!).
Not many parties are more fun than those where you dance outdoors to the beats of great Soca songs, and watch the sun rise out of the horizon. Finally at noon, sunburned and all partied-out, you get home and just crash. It’s then that you know that you’ve really made the most out of your carnival, like a true Trini.