It’s been a year since Sandy turned me into a breaking news reporter

Today it has been exactly a year since Super Storm Sandy ravished the lives of New Yorkers and many others on the Eastern Seaboard. My Facebook feed has been full of commemorative status updates and links. I checked out a few of the articles and photos, including this story of a man who lost his life partner and every photo of him in the storm. Heartbreaking.

I was lucky last year in that my part of Brooklyn wasn’t really affected by the storm. Instead, I experienced Sandy from a different standpoint – I was covering it for Finnish media. The stories I wrote were published in Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s biggest newspaper for whom I’ve written a number of travel stories, such as this one about the Trans-Siberian vs. The Indian Pacific.

The first call from the newspaper came on Monday morning, and the storm was due to hit that night. The paper had already found a photographer for me to work with, and they said they’d need a story about how New Yorkers were preparing for Sandy. And they would need it in about three hours. On top of that, they wanted me to find some Finns to interview, if possible.

Not going to happen, I thought – what are the odds I would find Finnish people wandering the streets of downtown on such short notice? The times I run into Finns in New York are few and far between anyway.

But the universe was on our side: as soon as photographer Kaisa Rautaheimo and I arrived downtown in our prospective cabs, we bumped into a Finnish couple! It truly felt like a small miracle. The couple, consisting of a Finnair pilot and his common-law wife, agreed to be interviewed. We got some great quotes from them about how they were stranded in New York as the airport was closed.

“Overall the feeling is peaceful, there’s no panic,” they said at the time. “We’re taking this as an adventure.”

We also found a number of other New Yorkers willing to give us a quick quote, and I rushed home to type up the story. Mission accomplished! For the rest of the night I huddled in a friend’s apartment, anxiously waiting for the storm of the century. The next day the newspaper in Finland ran three different versions of my story in their various print editions.

Picture 10

Tuesday morning I woke up to another call from Helsingin Sanomat. They updated me on what the storm had done while I had been asleep – hundreds of thousands of people were without power in Manhattan, the bridges were closed. They asked me to go out to find three people affected by the storm and to interview them for a post-storm article. Again, they needed the story in 3-4 hours.

The morning was super chaotic as I was trying to figure out if there was a way for me to get to Manhattan to do the interviews. If the bridges were closed, there was no public transport and the cabs were all taken, what could I do? Magically a friend just happened to be driving into Manhattan, and had heard rumors about Brooklyn Bridge being open to private vehicles. It was and I got a ride – phew.

I met up with Kaisa at Times Square and we spent the next few hours taking cabs around Manhattan in search of people to interview. On 14th street and 8th Avenue we saw a crowd had gathered around an apartment whose front wall had fallen down. Very few restaurants were open, and the lines were long. Finally we interviewed a woman who had huddled all night in her dark apartment downtown, a man who had ridden his bicycle from Brooklyn to Manhattan to see the damage and a Lower East Side family whose whole building had lost power.

As Kaisa also didn’t have electricity in her downtown apartment, we rushed back to Brooklyn to get online to send our stories and photos to the paper. We called the editor as we were on our way back. I started writing the article in the cab but had to change it midway after getting more instructions from the editor. Yikes.

I remember sitting down at the desk to write and looking at the clock: the story is due in 45 minutes! The pressure was building but I knew I couldn’t let that get to me. Whenever I got too self-critical, I remembered the advice of Anthony Mancini, my features professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” So I just typed as fast as I could and told the stories exactly how they had been told to me. And phew, I finished the article right on deadline. That story, too, made the front page of the foreign section the next day.

Picture 12

It was only at that point, almost 20 hours after Sandy had hit, that I actually had time to start learning about what had happened. I felt fortunate that I had gotten away with hearing a few howling winds outside my window and seeing a few overturned trees.

And I felt really lucky I had been around to deliver the stories to Helsingin Sanomat. It was my first real foray into breaking news reporting and was great practice for what was to come about a month later – the Connecticut elementary school shootings. I covered that for another Finnish paper, Iltalehti. That to this day remains the hardest reporting assignment I have ever done for multiple reasons.I’m sure it would have been even more challenging, had I not had the Sandy experience fresh in my mind.

As terrible as the storm was for many people, it taught me that reporting breaking news is not as scary as I had imagined, and it’s something I actually enjoy. The feeling of having finished an article right before deadline is an endorphin high like no other.  And it felt great to be writing about something that actually mattered, rather than doing yet another hotel review (as fun as those are). By all account, Sandy was a big deal, and I’m happy to have written up a tiny piece of history.

Were you affected by Sandy in some shape or form?

Advertisements

24 people, 6 days, 1 Sahara

What happens if you bring 24 strangers together and isolate them from the world for six days in the middle of the Sahara Desert? Unexpected things, I tell you.

And I am speaking from experience, as I was one of these 24 travelers to take part in The Road Junky Sahara Retreat this February. The retreat, which I randomly came across online in January, was the main reason I chose to start my African tour from Morocco.

In case you haven’t heard of Road Junky Travel, it’s a web magazine dedicated to travel stories and videos. This year was the second time that Tom Thumb, one of the website’s founders as well as a writer, storyteller and permanent nomad from England, organized this retreat in the desert. As last year’s camp was such as success, Tom decided to make this year’s stint a day longer, five nights and six days.

The Road Junky Sahara Retreat was advertised as a travelers’ meet-up, and a chance to meditate in the vast emptiness of the Sahara, and participate in workshops of yoga, aikido and dance. There would also be travel stories shared around the fire, and evenings spent listening to Tom reciting tales from the “1001 Nights” collection.

Those of you who know me probably remember that I am not into yoga, I definitely never meditate and I have never expressed even the slightest interest in aikido. A few years ago at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism I did participate in some martial arts classes held by Sensei George, but mostly just to show my support. I was never a natural-born Jackie Chan, nor into any remotely hippie-sounding spiritual stuff.

Add to this equation that I don’t like being far from the ocean, having grown up on an island four hours
off the coast of Western Finland. As an adopted New Yorker, I also don’t feel particularly comfortable
when I am far away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Three days is usually the max I can handle being in a remote location without getting anxious.

Yet somehow I felt drawn to this idea of spending a week amidst the sand dunes in the Sahara, so much so that I decided to shell out the 250 euro the retreat cost and sign up. I wanted to see how bright the stars would be, whether the yellow sand dunes were really as spectacular in real life as they looked in
photos, and whether I could actually learn to enjoy these activities I had no previous interest in.

As I mentioned in the beginning, unexpected things will happen if you bring 24 people to the Sahara Desert. An anti-American hippie will befriend a clean-cut Midwestern guy, a vegetarian will succumb to the smell of delicious chicken tajine and a reserved German will throw himself in the middle of a cuddle puddle of entangled human bodies. Unlikely friendships will form, long-overdue tears come running out at the sight of the most beautiful sunset and strangers will care for each other as if they were family.

A black-clothed heavy metal singer with a pony-tail Mohawk will turn into a hug monster, and a sandstorm will blow away a songwriter’s creative block. A hyper, cynical city girl will enjoy yoga, aikido and dance therapy lessons held in the middle of nowhere.

Yes, that was me stretching myself in unlikely positions at the crack of dawn, welcoming pretend-attackers into my invisible circle, searching for my sphere of energy and sensing that of others. Without thinking about how silly I looked, I allowed myself to imagine I was as light as a feather dancing in the wind and as heavy as a stone laying in the sand. I learned to lean on other people both physically and mentally, which is at times hard for those of us who are fiercely independent souls.

No matter how “hippie” some of the exercises seemed for my taste, I decided to face this retreat with an open mind and see if it would lead to something new, whatever that might be. After all, “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” And I did enjoy doing things differently for a change, and interacting with the types of people I normally do not encounter.

And though I was even contemplating trying to meditate to the sound of people humming “ommmmmmm” around me, I didn’t quite get to the right mindset for that. The retreat was so action-packed that I just didn’t have time!

In case you are interested in joining next year, here’s what our daily schedule looked like:

-8 a.m. wake-up call: “Yoga in 10 minutes!”

-Crawling out of our tents into the fresh but chilly desert air

-Climbing over the dunes into the designated yoga spot

-Yoga for 45 mins to an hour: stretches, breathing exercises

-Breakfast: bread, yellow and red jam, olives, olive oil, endless cups of Moroccan tea

-Another call: “Aikido in 10 minutes!”

-Climbing over the dunes into the designated aikido spot

-Aikido for 45 mins to an hour: exercises with a partner, pushing, gentle shoving, how to avoid an attack by moving along with the attacker’s movements instead of fighting them.

-About an hour of free time

-Lunch: Bread with Moroccan soup consisting of orange broth with bits of tomato and quinoa. Orange slices for desert, as well as dates, wafers and nuts before and after lunch. More tea.

-Chilling and playing music in the sun for an hour, enjoying the heat that would be gone after sunset

-Another call: “Dance class in 10 minutes!”

-Climbing over the dunes into the designated dance class spot

-Dance class for an hour: touching one person in the group when the music ends, pretending to be a
tree or a traveler in a forest, trying to find your energy center and developing your own dance

-Time for sunset: climbing up one of the highest dunes to see the view. This is harder than you’d think.

-Trying to find your way back to the camp in the moonlight, getting lost for a bit and panicking ever so slightly

-Dinner time: chicken tajine, veggie tajine eaten out of communal bowls. Bread, tea and orange slices for desert.

-Climbing over the dunes to the designated fire spot

-Guitar music and singing around the fire, chatting, Tom telling 1001 Nights’ stories under the full moon. Most of them seemed to include a girl who was “as beautiful as…the moon, shining in the night sky.”

I was officially dubbed the most unromantic person on the retreat after jokingly questioning this funny metaphor. “How can you compare a woman to the moon? The moon is just a white blob! A rose maybe, but the moon?” 🙂

Overall the retreat was great fun and definitely helped me empty my mind of daily worries for a bit. Some of the things others mentioned enjoying were the friendships, sunsets, losing track of time in the desert, workshops, feeling the connection to the earth, sensing love and peace, seeing the moon rise out of the horizon and finding new energy for the future. All very hippie-sounding, but I guess that’s not such a bad thing after all.

If you think this retreat could be for you, keep checking the Road Junky website for details. The next one should be announced in the fall, and will be held around February/March 2012.