My Eurocircle interview

As a reporter, I’m usually on the other side of the pen and notepad, grilling folks with tough questions. But recently the tables turned, as I was interviewed for Eurocircle’s Expatriates-series. To read the Q&A about my life as a traveling writer, click here.

For those of you not in the know, Eurocircle is a social networking group that was started in 1999 in New York by a Finnish lady named Kaisa Kokkonen. “EuroCircle is a free informal community for Europeans, Europhiles & expats,” states the website. Through EC, members can “exchange ideas and contacts & meet people at our events or via the forums.”

I first learned about Eurocircle in 2009, and shortly after that I interviewed Kaisa for an article about the organizations 10th anniversary. Nowadays I go to their various events in New York whenever I have the time. Most recently I attended one of their rooftop parties at Ava Lounge, which was a fun place to check out. So if you are in New York or any of the other cities that EC operates in, check out the events calendar and go mingle!

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Young Professionals – the United Nations Needs You!

Are you young and ambitious? Have you always dreamed of working for the United Nations in exotic lands but just didn’t know how to go about scoring a job with the mighty international organization? Here’s your chance!

The application period for the Young Professionals Programme (YPP) and its annual entrance examination starts today! If you are 32 or younger this year, hold at least a bachelor’s degree and hail from one of this year’s 63 participant countries, you are in luck.  Between now and August 2, you can submit your application to be considered for jobs in administration, finance, legal affairs, public information and statistics.

To learn more about what you may be getting yourself into, check out my article on the YPP program that I wrote a few months ago for the UN-centric website Passblue.com. And good luck!

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Have you applied for the YPP program before or are you planning on applying now? 

 

World’s Longest Train Rides: Trans Siberian vs. Indian Pacific

In case you were wondering whether the earth swallowed me last fall due to the radio silence on the blog, it kind of did: I spent much of September and October on the train crossing Russia, Mongolia and China. (See, I do get away from beach destinations sometimes!)

I had been planning on riding the Trans-Siberian railroad for years, as I’m a big fan of long train journeys. Yet for some reason I never got around to it before 2012. But it’s good that I didn’t – now I was able do the trip with my dad, who retired from the Finnish army a couple of years ago at the age of 50, and thus is a young senior citizen with plenty of free time. What better place to head for a family trip than Siberia!?

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So after I spent a fun summer in Finland, my dad and I set off for the 3.5-week train journey into dark Siberia (which, funnily enough, ended up being bright and sunny the whole time). And just FYI: Most of this time was spent seeing sights and visiting towns along the way, not just sitting on the train. The actual travel time from Helsinki to Beijing was about a week.

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After successfully completing the famous ride, I wrote an article for the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, comparing the Trans-Siberian with another long train trip I’ve got under my belt, the Indian Pacific of Australia. (And yes, I know that by veering off to Mongolia after Ulan-Ude we actually took the Trans-Mongolian route for half of the trip, but for the purposes of the article, I focused on the Trans-Siberian part of the journey.)

The article turned out to be quite popular based on the feedback I heard, so I thought I’d do an English translation of it for you. So here we go:

The World’s Longest Train Rides

Which marathon train trip suits you better, the tundra-crossing Trans-Siberian or the Indian Pacific zooming by the desert? HS put the trips to the test.

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The Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok is 9, 259 kilometers long. The trip takes about 150 hours, or more than six days.

History: Building a railroad crossing Russia took 25 years. The constructions were completed in 1904, and involved 90 000 people. The majority were inmates and soldiers sentenced into manual labor.

The main attractions: The city of Nizhny Novgorod that was closed off from foreigners during the Soviet era, where the Volga River can be crossed with a cable car, the Perm region with its 10,000-year-old permafrost ice caves, the world’s deepest lake Baikal, Irkutsk with its wooden mansions and the Buryatian Republic‘s capital city Ulan-Ude.

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DSC05918 (480x640)The atmosphere: The train rattles steadily along the tracks. The tobacco smoke floating into the carriage adds to the sleepy atmosphere. A young man pours hot water into his ready-made mashed potatoes, a grandpa takes secret sips from his spiced-up Sprite bottle in between card games. In roadside towns, older grannies with headscarves sell greasy pelmenis. The nights go by while listening to the snores of your carriage mates, and wondering what the sudden stops are all about.

Scenery: The landscape consists of Siberian birch forests, low hills, pine trees of the taiga and snow-capped mountains in the East. Pastel-colored houses and slowly crumbling old villages dot the way.

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Travel companions: Despite the Trans-Siberian’s great international popularity, the majority of the passengers are Russians: retired couples, families returning from visiting relatives, army boys and sports teams on trips. Every now and then you can hear some conversations in the Buryat language, spoken by the Buryat people who are descendants of Mongolians. Of the foreigners, most are Chinese and European.

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Price: For the 54-bed open carriage (platskarny), a one-way ticket costs about 200 euros. First and second class four-person cabins cost 400-1,000 euro per person, depending on the train. Tickets can be bought either in Finland or for slightly cheaper in the Russian railway stations.

Facilities: The first-class cabins have showers, other passengers have to make do with shared toilets. The dining car’s golden décor reminds you of the grandeur of days gone by with its silk table cloths and curtains. Beer and vodka flow freely, and chatter is accompanied by borscht soup.

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Please note: The term “Trans-Siberian” refers to the train track crossing Russia, not to any particular “Trans-Siberian train.” Rossija and Baikal are some of the better-quality trains that serve the route, as well as the new British luxury train Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express. There are also local trains traveling between different Siberian towns. One option is to get off the train in the morning in a town of your choosing and to continue the journey in the evening with another train. In doing so, the tickets need to be bought separately for each leg of the journey. Pay attention to the departure times: Russian railways always operate in Moscow-time, no matter what the local time in your Siberian destination may be.

The Indian-Pacific travels from Sydney to Perth. The 4 352-kilometer train journey takes 65 hours, or three days.

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History: The railroad that crosses Australia, connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, was opened in 1970. It includes the world’s longest straight piece of track, the 478-kilometer Nullarbor Plain.

The main attractions: Australia’s oldest mining town Broken Hill, the city of 700 churches known as Adelaide, Kalgoorlie with 100 years’ worth of gold fever history, Nullarbor Plain, the ghost village of Cook with its four residents and millions of flies, the beaches of Perth.

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Atmosphere: The 700-meter row of metal wagons rummages through the desert, past the occasional kangaroo, emu, herds of camels and two-meter wedge-tailed eagles. Happy chatter fills the restaurant car as the chicken curry dishes are scarfed down from the tables seating four people. The atmosphere is communal. The vast emptiness behind the windows is highlighted as the radio blasts bits of Slim Dusty’s perky song every couple of hours: “The Indian Pacific spans the land!” One can’t help but join in on the tune. A train trip doesn’t get more Australian than this.

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Scenery: The majority of the three-day trip is characterized by typical Australian landscape – red sandy desert, scrubs, bright orange sunsets and sunrises. Upon leaving Sydney you’ll see the bluish spruce-covered Blue Mountains, after Adelaide the shallow reddish mountains and on arrival to Perth, the lush Avon Valley.

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Travel companions: Adventure-loving Australian retirees, locals moving across the country, European and North American backpackers and train travel enthusiasts.

Price: In the Gold Kangaroo section, a one-way trip in a luxury cabin with full board costs about 1,760 euro and in the Red Kangaroo section the same goes for 1,200 euros. Occasionally there will be platinum-level suites with a double bed on offer, costing 5,000 per person. Budget travelers have to settle for a reclining seat, best accessed by accruing a Rail Explorer pass. For about 360 euro you can ride Australian trains for three months.

Facilities: The Gold Kangaroo cabins feature bunk beds, combined toilet-shower stalls and large windows, and some come with a TV and minibar. Once the train has left the station, the Rail Explorer pass holders have the opportunity to purchase a Red Kangaroo cabin for 120 euro, provided there is enough room. Different travel classes have their own restaurant and lounge cars.

Please note: The stopovers are a few hours long. Guided city tours are sold for about 20 euro.

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So that’s it! Have any of you taken the Trans-Siberian and/or the Indian Pacific? Any thoughts on which one is the best marathon train journey? 🙂 

Addicted to the Beach

A few months ago I realized something very profound about myself. It happened as I was swimming at a deserted paradise beach in the village of Diembering, in the Casamance region of Senegal. Jumping over big waves and body-surfing on top of the blue water, I was feeling overly happy – like a kid on a sugar high.

That’s when I realized that I have a problem – a beach problem. In fact, it’s a real addiction.

Since 1999, only one year has passed without me spending weeks or months in the vicinity of amazingly beautiful tropical beaches. That year was 2005, when the shore line of New York (which is actually not too shabby!) had to suffice.

But in 2006 I more than made up for the lost beach time by spending eight months in Australia, the country of pristine waters and white sands and mind-boggling snorkeling opportunities. My favorite memory from that year is swimming alongside a giant turtle at Lady Musgrave Island. 🙂

Since those sunny days Down Under I’ve also discovered playas in Latin America (Colombia! Cuba! Panama!), South and South East Asia, the Caribbean and most recently West Africa. In fact, looking at my travel routes over the years, my paths have almost always followed the coast lines of continents. Coincidence? I think not.

So yeah, I like beaches. A lot. But so do many other people. Why would that be a problem, you may ask…?

Well, not that it’s a problem per se, but my love of beach bumming has definitely had a profound impact on who I am, my career choices and the type of life I lead nowadays. Sometimes I have to wonder what kind of a person I’d be, had I never been enchanted by gently-swaying palm trees and the refreshing taste of fresh coconut water – to the point that being near them is almost an unhealthy obsession. You wouldn’t believe the arrangements and compromises I’ve made in order to stay near the ocean swells.

You see, it was the proximity to Pacific and Atlantic beaches that prompted me to pursue journalism studies in California and Florida, and even got me considering Hawaii for my master’s degree. Eventually New York won, but only barely.

Yes, my addiction is that bad! The thought of living inland has always felt suffocating. Even my occasional inland travels, such as the February yoga retreat in the Sahara, make me feel a bit uneasy. Generally a week is the max I can spend away from the coast without getting jittery.

So in early 2000s I studied for two years at Palomar College near the famous surfer city of San Diego, California. I then transferred schools and two years later got my bachelor’s degree from Flagler College in the tiny coastal town of St. Augustine, Florida. Since Flagler didn’t offer a degree in journalism, I had to settle for studying communication. But at least I was able to spend my days off rollerblading to the beautiful nearby beach! Now that would not have been possible at the Missouri School of Journalism, probably the most famous J-school in the US.

So basically I had to make the choice between a quality education and a quality beach – and I chose the latter. Was it the smartest thing to do career-wise? Maybe not, though the classes at Flagler were definitely good too and I learned a lot. Did I love my life in California and Florida to the fullest? You bet.

And I won’t lie – it was the images of eye-achingly white stretches of sand and unreal turquoise waters that got me thinking that the Maldives would be an amazing place to teach journalism in 2010 with the help of the Davis Projects for Peace grant. That, and the fact that the country had just gotten freedom of speech in 2008 and the residents were in dire need of media education. Lucky me, my proposal got selected for the grant as one of 11 out of 50 applications.

So for two months I taught workshops in this tropical island nation together with my super talented photographer-videographer friend Mariana Keller. The experience was truly unique: I loved being able to share my knowledge with the local journalists and to train them in our common craft. But yet somehow what I remember the best from those months is the amazing scenery that words cannot describe:

Ahhh. Pure bliss.

It may come as no surprise that it was this trip to the Maldives that solidified my decision to continue on the freelancing path. Sure, it may not be the best paid job out there or one that is for the faint of heart due to its irregularity. But then what other job would allow me adequate beach time whenever I felt a pressing need to hug a palm tree? If you hear of one, please let me know. Until then, you’ll likely find me typing away on some tropical beach.

So who else wants to confess to being a full-blown beachoholic?? (Yes! There’s even a song for us!) What kinds of sacrifices have you made in your life in order to keep your feet in the sand as often as possible?

The Worst Interview of My Life

As you may have read from the last post, I spent more than three weeks in tiny Guinea-Bissau during my Great West African Tour of 2012 (four months, five countries, two occupied territories – surely the name of my trip is not much of an exaggeration?). 🙂

Besides liking Guinea-Bissau a whole lot, one of the reasons I stayed there for some extra time was that I was reporting on a new museum that is opening up soon. It’ll honor freedom fighter Amilcar Cabral, Africa’s “Che Guevara,” who fought for the independence of his home countries of Guinea-Bissau and Capo Verde in the 1970s. The museum is housed in Cabral’s childhood home in the town of Bafata, which was recently renovated by UNESCO.

I visited the museum and wrote the story for Passblue.com, a website that reports on issues related to the United Nations. The article can be read here and I’d love for all of you to check it out! After all, this piece was very challenging to complete, so please show it some looooove. ❤

Why was it so hard, you may ask… Well, mostly because I don’t speak Portuguese Creole, the official language of Guinea-Bissau. And people there don’t speak much English. So there was a bit of a communication barrier…

But one language I do speak fairly well is Spanish, and many Bissau-Guineans can also communicate in Portuguese. So rather than spending time (and money) looking for a translator, I decided to try to somehow manage on my own.

So I traveled to the town of Bafata, organized some interviews, went over to meet the people of UNESCO, called the governor of Bafata, and dug up some relatives of Cabral and thought everything would just be smooth sailing from there on…

And boy, was I wrong.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that speaking Spanish does not equal understanding Portuguese, no matter how closely related the two languages supposedly are. And understanding Portuguese Creole is next to impossible, as at times it sounds nothing like the language it’s based on.

This was painfully evident during my interview with Amilcar Cabral’s niece, Iva Helena Gomes. I’d ask her a question in Spanish and then she’d give a great, long-winded answer in Portuguese (and/or Portuguese Creole), detailing the complex life story of her uncle… and I’d understand about 1/10 of each sentence, if even.

Every time the friendly lady spoke, it felt like a knife was being twisted in my stomach.

“This is the worst interview I’ve ever done, without a doubt,” I thought to myself as she went on in a language that might as well have been Chinese. I was totally lost, no matter how much I tried to search for familiar words. I have never left less in control of an interview.

In the end I had scribbled down just a few words out of the entire 30-minute interview. It was a sad, sad day. I left Gomes’ house without any spring in my step. Only a bit of panic in my heart. (“How can I write this story without any good quotes??”)

My interview with Bafata Governor Adriano Gomes Ferreira was also not the greatest of all times. Despite knowing Spanish, he would occasionally shift to Portuguese without even realizing it.

It was only during a lunch meeting in the governor’s house that the conversation got a bit easier. I think at that point the guv and his wife finally realized the limits of my Portuguese… Well, better late than never. 🙂

Luckily my other interviews went better, as they were conducted in proper Spanish and one even in English. So at least I learned I feel comfortable reporting in Spanish, but that I already knew from last year when I covered an HIV march in Guatemala City.

In the end the Cabral article turned out fine and I managed to work around my limited quotes. The editor of Passblue.com, Dulcie Leimbach, certainly seemed to like the outcome based on her email.

“I’m impressed you could use your Spanish so well in a Portuguese country. You deserve a Pulitzer!”

Well, thanks Dulcie but I’d hold off on the Pulitzer Prize for now. 😉

And while I did okay, I can’t help but wonder how nice would it have been to be able to choose from 20 great quotes instead of using the only two I understood?

So note to self: Next time I am in a Portuguese-speaking country, I should definitely hire a translator! Spanish is not the same as Portuguese. 😛