My Big Russian Media Debut!

Check this out – I’m famous in Russia! Woohoo!

Okay, well maybe not that famous, but at least a little bit – a translated version of my article about travel writing was published today in a Russian travel website called Arrivo. Apparently the website gets about one million unique visitors a month, so not too shabby! I would guess that’s just a few more than what my blog gets. 😉

You can get a general idea of the gist of the article if you read it with Google Chrome, as the browser does an automatic translation.

Or better yet, you can read the original English-language version here, as the article was first published by 219 Magazine, a publication of my alma mater, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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For those of you that can read Russian, you’ll notice that the English version is organized slightly differently. In the words of the translator, Ivan Kuznetsov, “It’s not a word-to-word translation, but that way it sounds better in Russian. We changed it a bit: made it shorter, mixed myths and truths and your personal story, which was originally in the beginning, as your quotes.”

And how did I get to be published in Russia? Easy. All I did was host Ivan, a Russian guy, through Couchsurfing.com in Finland for one night back in the summer of 2012.

Ivan recently emailed me that he was on the path to becoming a travel writer himself, partly due to being inspired by my example! And he asked if he could translate this article of mine for Arrivo, one of his clients.

Those of you that speak Russian can learn more about Ivan from his traveler profile, also published on Arrivo. He also has a personal blog that is partly in English: www.kunavithewriter.com.

And here’s a picture of me and some friends with Ivan (who is wearing glasses) from his trip to Finland in 2012, when we went to visit the eco-village of Livonsaari near Turku. That was a fun day and we definitely saw some alternative ways of living – including a family with young kids that was happy to have no running water. They just bathed with buckets in order to save water and eventually the planet. That sounds all fine and dandy in the summer time, but the Finnish winters can be pretty harsh! Brrrr. But of course they had a sauna that makes it slightly better…

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SAM_8893There was another woman building a giant wooden house for herself in the forest, after being tired of living in a “kota” for three summers – kota is a Finnish teepee of sorts. And there was another lady building a house with huge windows that allow in as much sunlight as possible.

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Speaking of alternative life choices: It turns out that Ivan’s life totally turned around after this visit to Turku and the eco-village!  Though not in the way you would expect (nope, he didn’t move to the woods to be a hippie). Instead Ivan met a Polish guy at the eco-village who told him about the European Voluntary Service (EVS) program and he decided to apply for the program himself.

Here’s what Ivan wrote to me a year later from Italy:

“I would like to thank you very much for this unexpected tour to this village.I mean, this day in Turku with you and your friends really changed my life. My main goal was Stockholm, it was cool, but nothing amazing happened there. Turku was on the way to Helsinki, but many things happened.

The story behind is that after this day in Turku I thought about my life for the rest of the summer. I decided to quit my office job, my rental apartment in Saint Petersburg which I never really liked, and go for traveling. While applying for the EVS I discovered many new things and possibilities for budget travels, like Help Exchange and WWOOF, and many others.

Now I am a volunteer in an environmental education center in a small city or better to say a village – Lamon, in Dolomites mountains, about 100 km from Venice. We do workshops for kids, learn local nature, meet local people, learn Italian and just have a lot of fun. The place is very beautiful. Mountains around. I have never been in such a nice place. I love Italy very much. We already visited south of the country – Napoli (which is just a crazy city, in some ways even more crazy than New York!) and we are planning to go to Toscana the next weekend.

After the EVS I am planning to go to South America for at least one more year to travel, to learn Spanish and to collect material for my new book. Actually, my new book is writing itself just here in Italy. But this is only the beginning! Okay, it going to be a long letter. I just want to wish you good luck, to send a picture from my window now and to say that I miss Finland, north, nature and people very much.”

Here’s the picture he sent me. Not a bad outcome for a night of Couchsurfing in Turku! And cool that it lead to my Russian media debut as well. Life can be pretty surprising sometimes. 🙂

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Weekly Wednesday Video: A visit to a nursery school in The Gambia

About a month ago I posted a video from crossing the Sahara in Mauritania, inspired by fellow globetrotter Francis Tapon’s 3-year Africa trip. Well, now that Francis is about to enter the The Gambia, it’s only fitting to reminisce about my own visit to the tiny English-speaking sliver of land in West Africa. The country was the fifth and last destination on my West Africa tour last year (not counting my return to Senegal thereafter).

Gambia school

The Gambia is dubbed “The Smiling Coast,” which is funny since it only has about 35 kilometers (20 miles) of coast line. It’s Africa’s smallest nation, shaped like a crooked finger that protrudes into Senegal. Teeny it may be, but it’s still a crowd favorite: this year’s visitor numbers may amount to 180,000. Europeans flock to the Gambian beaches especially from November to March.

Initially I was hesitant to go to The Gambia – I had heard an awful lot about its reputation as a hotspot for female sex tourism. I thought I would need to fight off potential suitors with a stick, and as a solo female traveler, would be a prime target for the bumsters looking for a sugar momma.

Luckily the reality on the ground was much better than I feared. I visited in the off-season, so tourist hassle was at a minimum. Also, for most of my two weeks, I was Couchsurfing with locals and expats. I thus ended up having a pretty different experience to most tourists.

The highlight of my Gambia visit was getting to hang out at St. David Nursery School in Serrekunda, a private school for 3-6-year-olds. The father from my Gambian host family, Abdul, is the principal there, and his daughter Bintou is one of the professors. Bintou brought me along to school with her on three consecutive days, so I got to spend a lot of time in the company of the super energetic students. Whenever the kids saw me,  they exclaimed “Toubab!” (white person) and ran over to hug me. I felt like a movie star. 🙂

This week’s video shows the students going through their morning ritual and studying in math class. With 120 children in three rooms, the noise level at the small school was through the roof. I have no idea how the kids manage to learn anything in that environment, but they all seemed really smart and enthusiastic. Despite not having the best facilities, the were such happy campers. It was quite humbling.

If you’d like to donate money to the school, click here to learn more. The website is run by a German lady who sponsors St. David Nursery.

Weekly Wednesday Video: Making pupusas in El Salvador

Continuing with the food theme (live Korean octopus, anyone?), let’s travel virtually to El Salvador this week and learn to make pupusas! As you may know, pupusas are stuffed corn tortillas that are a staple food in this tiny Central American nation, and they are delish. Wish I could have one right now, complete with tomato sauce and curtido (spicy fermented cabbage).

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Traditionally pupusas are made with beans, cheese and/or pork, but my favorite was this jalapeno and cheese version I encountered in a hip San Salvador eatery during my March visit.

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Want to learn how to make one of these yummy things? Check out this video from San Salvador, filmed at the apartment of my Couchsurfing host. On the screen you’ll also be able to spot my friend Mira, the sleepiest traveler of all times.

While this video teaches you the right technique for molding your pupusas and placing the cheese into the center, to find out the actual recipe you’ll need to click here. Buen provecho!

Have you eaten pupusas? What do you think?

Salam Alekoum from Morocco!

Hi everyone! Sorry for being out of the loop again. It’s surprisingly hard to get online when you are constantly on the go.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a palace-looking sand castle in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Well, almost anyway. I’m actually chilling in a small kasbah (village) in Southern Morocco in a house made of clay.  But it looks exactly like a fancy sand castle, as you can see here:

And the beige-colored dunes that start right from the backyard look almost identical to those you see in the middle of the Sahara, though we are actually just on the edge of the desert here.

But make no mistake, this is definitely the desert.  The houses are all brown and made of clay, there are camels roaming around, and sandstorms are a true occurrence, not just a song by Darude (who is Finnish, btw!). The pet donkey’s hollow yelling has awoken me every morning this week.

Unlike much of Morocco, this area of the country around the town of Tagounite seems very conservative. The call to prayer fills the air five times a day, the women all wear headscarves or full-on burkas, and men don the traditional outfit of the indigenous North African Berber people. That consists of an ankle-length robe called jilaba and a colorful turban, which helps keep the wind and sand at bay. Some of the turbans include up to nine meters of fabric! Here’s my new friend Kamal in his favorite desert man outfit:

So what exactly is this dreamy place and how did I end up here? After all, just a week ago I was skiing in chilly Finland. Suddenly the white snow has been replaced by various shades of brown, and the risk of running into wolves has turned into a chance to spot dromedars.

Well, the reason I’m in Morocco now is that this country is the first stop on my 3-4-month African tour. This means I have now officially set foot on every inhabited continent on earth, which was my goal for the first three decades of my life. Check!

And how I ended up in Ait Isfoul, the glorified sand castle that also doubles as a hotel, is because of Couchsurfing – Kamal and his friend Mohamed, fun and friendly Moroccan guys in their late 20s, are fellow members of the travelers’ network. They happily welcomed me and a Canadian couchsurfer girl, Melody, to spend a week in their desert oasis which Kamal has inherited from his grandfather. The guys do this every now and then when there’s a gap in the hotel bookings.

The difference between hosting paying customers versus couchsurfers, Kamal said, lies in the group dynamics. Hotel guests often prefer to do their own thing during the day, and will get lunch and dinner served for them. Couchsurfers, on the other hand, become a part of the Ait Isfoul family: we have cooked together, visited Kamal’s family in the nearby town of M’Hamid, gone camping in the deep desert and spent many nights around camp fires together with Kamal, Mohamed, Ibrahim, Mustapha, Hassan and whichever friend has happened to stop by. We also celebrated Mohamed’s birthday with a Moroccan barbeque.

It’s hard to say what has been the highlight of this unforgettable week. It has certainly been a busy one: we’ve gone riding with camels, gotten thoroughly scrubbed at a traditional hammam (bath house) by a feisty local lady, sandboarded down the huge Laabidlua dune in the Erg Chigaga part of the Sahara Desert (which I was terrible at), got our 4×4 jeep stuck in the dunes, learned to cook a delicious chicken tajine, met  a family of nomads… and we even had an impromptu dance party with some hilarious French people who stopped by Ait Isfoul for a picnic one day. Needless to stay, these have been some memorable days!

I’m also happy to report that the Sahara Desert is just as breathtaking as I had imagined. The night sky is the brightest I’ve ever seen (you can spot shooting stars every five minutes!), and the huge sand dunes continue as far as the eye can see. We even spotted a mirage – the heated air truly looks like water in the distance.

There were some surprises too, for example that as of last year they now have cell phone service in large parts of the desert. My phone got better reception there than at Times Square in New York! That was a relief, as I’d hate to get stranded in the Sahara, as beautiful as it is. I was also caught off-guard by how alive the desert was. There was hardly a moment when we were truly alone. Every 15 minutes we would encounter a herd of camels, a group of nomads fetching water from a fountain, another 4×4 jeep… so I guess it’s true what they say: if you get lost in the desert, stay where you are. Eventually someone will find you. (Or not, if this car below is anything to  go by…)

So a huge THANK YOU to Kamal and Mohamed and all their nice friends for all their hospitality. Ibrahim’s cooking is the best, and we will certainly miss the never-ending tea sessions. Hope to see you again sometime!

If anyone is looking for a truly authentic desert experience, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Kamal and Mohamed! If you are on Couchsurfing, you can find their profiles here:

http://www.couchsurfing.org/people/manodayak/

http://www.couchsurfing.org/profile.html?id=DXBMQ5P&from_search

If you are not into Couchsurfing, but are still  interested in staying in the most peaceful hotel in the Sahara, check out Ait Isfoul’s website for bookings: www.aitisfoul.com 

How many beds have you slept in?

The other day as I was lying awake at night, I decided I should start counting something to fall asleep. As counting sheep seemed a bit too mundane, I decided to try to remember the number of beds I slept in during 2011. As someone who is constantly on the move, I figured it would be quite a few. But I was still pretty surprised when the total came to 73.

(Hotel 25Hours in Hamburg, Germany)

Wow. 73 different beds in 365 days. That’s a new bed every five days. Or a couch, mattress, hammock or whatever it may have been.

Funnily enough, 2011 was actually one of my less mobile years: I spent more than a third of it living in Brooklyn, a bit less than a third visiting family in Finland and a third traveling around the world. That’s nothing compared to years when I’ve been on the move for six to eight months at a time. During those times I probably crashed at a new place every two or three days.

So what’s the big deal about this bed number of mine being so high? Well, for one thing it means I’ve had many changes of contracting bedbugs over the last years. Since I’ve stayed clear of them, I guess it means the world’s bedbug crisis is not quite as bad as we all thought. Phew.

But the real point I wanted to make about my 73 different sleeping arrangements is that it shows that this traveling lifestyle is not as easy as people think. You see, when I tell people what I do with my life (“I travel the world and write about it”), the most common comment I get is, “Oh, I’m jealous! Your life sounds amazing! You’re so lucky!”

Newsflash: More than luck, my lifestyle requires hard work and sacrifices. (I know, not half as appealing anymore.) How many of you could imagine changing beds every five days? And doing it for years on end… probably not too many. Most people like their own comfy pillows and blankets way too much to give them up. And don’t get me wrong – I love a familiar fluffy pillow as much as the next gal. But I also know that if I want to travel, that means giving up some things. One of the first ones is a place to call your own – you don’t want to be paying rent elsewhere while you are out roaming the globe. If you plan on only leading a semi-nomadic life, I suggest subleasing your apartment to someone while you are gone. Either way, you’ll have to get used to laying your head down in a new place every few days.

So where do I get my beauty sleep while on the road? Well, in different places: hotels, guesthouses, hostels, friends’ spare bedrooms or air mattresses, strangers’ couches (who I have befriended on the road, or met through traveler sites like Couchsurfing.com), hammocks, tents and sometimes in planes, buses, trains or even airports as I mentioned in my Quality Hunters blog. Yeah, not quite so glamorous anymore.

My accommodation in 2011 ranged from an outdoor hammock overlooking the mountains in Lanquin, Guatemala for $2 a night to a $350 hotel room in Amsterdam, Holland. So yes, I never know what awaits me! And that’s the beauty of it. Over my traveling years I’ve come to love the unexpected, and I thrive at not knowing where I’ll crash on any given day. I wouldn’t have it any other way right now.

(Zephyr Lodge in Lanquin, Guatemala. At $2 a night, you can’t beat this hammock accommodation for price nor the views!)

(Sakura Hotel in Tokyo, Japan, where the door slams into the bed every time you open it as the room is teeny tiny.)

(Le Méridien Bristol in Warsaw, Poland. Luxury for less: a room in this 5-star hotel costs less than 100 euro for up to two people as I wrote here.)

So next time you meet someone who travels a lot and you are about to exclaim, “I wish I could do that!”, just remember: you can. All you have to do is be willing to give up some of your home comforts and the sense of security that comes from living a stable life. In exchange you’ll get a life full of surprises, exotic foods, colorful cities, tropical beaches, new languages and international friends. Sounds like a fair trade to me!

And if you are ever having trouble falling asleep, I can truly recommend counting beds instead of sheep (as eventually I did fall asleep!). And once you do the math, please let me know what your total is! 🙂 Do you have me beat?