Life Beneath New York’s Sidewalks

Over the past four years Finnair’s in-flight magazine Blue Wings has been one of my main clients. I’ve written all kinds of articles for them, ranging from monthly travel news blurbs to longer features. Thus I thought I’d share one of my favorite articles that I have ever written for them. (To see the original layout, go here and scroll to page 20.) This is is about all the subway artists that are working so hard in the tunnels of New York, and are making commuting more fun for others in the process. 🙂 (And sure, there are always some people who are annoyed at these musicians and dancers as they bring noise to the subway car. But you can’t deny that some of these guys are crazy talented!)



Flight 2/15: San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York

This post is part of the Ultimate Flight Marathon multi-part series, where I review each of the 15 flights I take during 3.5 weeks of intense traveling.

Airline: American Airlines

Date: May 7, 2016

Type of plane: Boeing 737-823

Duration of the flight: 4 hours

Delays: None

General info: As everyone knows, American Airlines is one of the three major legacy carriers of the United States. From my experience, many of their planes tend to be on the older side so things like personal screens are a luxury you shouldn’t expect to get. This flight landed at New York’s JFK. Being a thrifty traveler, I usually get to the city by taking the B15 bus to New Lots Avenue and by hopping on the 3 train from there. This way the airport trip costs just $2.75! The savings from the AirTrain might be just $5 at a time, but given how many times I do this airport trip every year, it all adds up. Also, taking the bus directly to the 3 train often ends up being the fastest option for me anyway.

What was special about this plane: Nothing really. It’s the basic Boeing that is used on tons of American Airlines flights around the United States. However, what was special before this flight was that I was all alone while clearing US immigration in Puerto Rico as I was the first to exit my plane from Guadeloupe and I guess no other planes had landed the same time. It was amazing not to have to stand in line for an hour, as is usual when entering the US via bigger airports (here’s looking at you, Miami!). However, I did encounter a slight delay after the customs guy asked me if I had any checked bags. When I answered no, he said I had been selected for a “random inspection” and had to step aside for a thorough bag check-up and questioning. How random can it be when I was the only person around? Haha. But somehow it seems unfair that I constantly get singled out because of traveling with only hand luggage. 😦 So this inspection took another 5-10 minutes, but overall it was a very smooth airport transfer, and flight as well.

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It was such a pretty day to be flying over the Caribbean.

Highlight: It was a really beautiful day and the clouds were floating super high in the sky. This meant that we flew below them instead of above, and I had an unobstructed view of the flat-looking blue sea under us. It looked really pretty. It also made me feel a little weak in the knees to see how incredibly high we were. This is a sensation that I don’t get a lot, as I’m usually not afraid of heights.

What I would do differently next time: I would have earplugs handy. The TV screens in the middle of the plane started blasting at full volume at one point, and I was worried we would be subjected to this noise for the duration of the trip. Luckily the TV went back to silent after the annoying ads ended.

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There’s the communal TV, blasting as loud as ever during commercials.

Food served: We got a bag of the savory snack mix and a choice of a non-alcoholic beverage. Luckily I wasn’t hungry at all, as I had just visited the Global Lounge at the San Juan airport. I’m happy to report that Global Lounge’s food offerings have improved since my last visit in November! Instead of just cereal and crackers, this time they had actual ham and cheese sandwiches, veggies and dip, and even a yummy-looking fruit salad. Sadly looks can be deceiving: the fruits tasted old already, so I decided it was best not to finish the bowl I took.

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It looked good… but didn’t taste so fresh at all.

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The Global Lounge is one of my favorite lounges due to its simple but trendy decor.

 

Turbulence: At first the flight was super smooth, but then there was intense turbulence for 10 minutes. It made me think twice about undertaking this Ultimate Flight Project. :/ No matter how much I fly, I have yet to feel comfortable during turbulence.

Price: As I explained during my first flight review, this was the second flight of the two that made up my one-way ticket from Guadeloupe to NYC. The total price of this ticket was $220, which I covered by using Thank You points from Citibank.

Miles earned: 1,597 miles, deposited into the American Airlines AAdvantage program. These are the final days for me to utilize the American Airlines program though: I’m switching my miles-accruing over to the Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan soon. This is because in mid-June AA is changing their award program to be revenue-based (following in the footsteps of Delta and United). That doesn’t work well for people like myself who tend to fly long distances for fairly cheap fares. Under the new system I would only get 1,100 AA points for this trip that currently gives me 1,900 miles. On longer trips this difference in earned miles is even more striking. Boohoo!

Overall experience: It was OK.

Flight 1/15: Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, to San Juan, Puerto Rico

As I promised, here starts my review series of the flights that make up the Ultimate Flight Marathon (i.e. my personal Amazing Race).

Airline: Seaborne Airlines

Date: May 7, 2016

Type of plane: Saab 340 TurboProp

Duration of the flight: 1.5 hours

Delays: We did leave about 10 minutes behind schedule, but it didn’t impact our arrival time. However, it was a bit nerve-wracking that boarding only started after we were supposed to have taken off already (as I knew I had a tight connection in San Juan).

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General info: Seaborne is a tiny Caribbean airline that partners with American Airlines and Jet Blue. Therefore your e-ticket may say American Airlines (as mine did) but rest assured – your aircraft will be much more exotic than “plane” ol’ American (pun intended). On the route from Guadeloupe to Puerto Rico, Seaborne operates a tiny 30-seater twin-engine propeller plane, Saab 340 TurboProp. It’s definitely not the most modern aircraft out there – Wikipedia tells me that the production of this plane type ended in 1998.

What was special about this plane: The overhead bins are so small that a regular carry-on suitcase won’t fit up there. Therefore the staff collected bigger carry-ons from people as they were stepping up to the aircraft, and stashed them in the plane’s luggage compartment. Folks got them back as soon as we landed in San Juan. Luckily my backpack was small enough to fit in the tiny space we were allotted. (Yay for packing light!)

Highlight: It was entertaining to watch the lone flight attendant, Julio, trying to play several roles simultaneously and to try not to hit his head onto the low roof.

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What I would do differently next time: The whole left side of the plane is made up of single seats, so everyone got a window seat – except for me! I managed to be assigned the only window seat onboard that didn’t have a window. Lame. So next time I’ll ask for a seat that is not 2A. I had to gawk over at my neighIMG_7446.jpgbor’s window to steal at least a small glimpse of the pretty islands of the Caribbean we flew over.

Food served: We got two bags of pretzels and a choice of mango/guava juice and water. Not shabby for such a short hop across the pond!

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Turbulence: In smaller planes you tend to feel every twist and turn. From that perspective the ride was exceptionally smooth. There was practically no shaking at all – just a tad at the landing time.

Price: This was the first flight of the two flights that made up my one-way ticket from Guadeloupe to NYC. The total price of this ticket would have been $220, but I paid it with the awesome Thank You points from Citibank. As long as you have the Citi Prestige credit card, these points offer great value if you are booking an American Airlines flight or a codeshare (which is what this one was). Yet another reason to love that card (getting access to airport lounges is another!). Of course I would have much rather taken one of the cheap and direct Norwegian Air flights from Gwada to NYC, but unfortunately those flights aren’t running again until November.

Miles earned: Not a whole lot – I earned just 331 miles, which I deposited into the American Airlines AAdvantage program.

Overall experience: Just OK.

Five Reasons Why Digital Nomads Should Live in New York

You may have heard the term “digital nomad” before. Basically a digital nomad is a 21st Century creature much like myself: a person who is highly mobile and makes a living through working remotely. With no physical office to trek to every morning, I can choose to live anywhere – or nowhere, if I feel like it.

Out of all the world’s cities, I have selected New York as my base.

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I first moved here in 2004, and altogether have spent about six years in the City of all Cities since then. The rest of the time I’ve been roaming around the world: Australia, Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa. My trips away from NYC have varied from a couple of months to even a year at a time. But no matter how far I’ve ventured, I’ve always found myself back in NYC sooner or later. It truly is the best place in the world to call home! I am always excited to come back here, so homecoming blues is a foreign concept to me nowadays.

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But despite what you might think, there aren’t a whole lot of other digital nomads using this megalopolis as their home base. Most seem to set up their mobile offices in places like Chiang Mai, Thailand, or Playa del Carmen, Mexico. I suppose that is mostly because of the lower living costs of developing countries (and the eternal sunshine of these spots…).

Well, I can’t blame these kids, but I sure can think of multiple reasons why more digital nomads should live in New York City instead. (Not counting the obvious: New York is the center of the world’s media and definitely one of the most exciting cities in the world.)

Here are my TOP 5 reasons.

1. New York just might be the most multicultural place on this earth

As a globetrotter with precious memories from 60+ countries, I tend to get nostalgic for at least five countries/cultures per day. I may simultaneously miss Bolivia, Laos, Korea, Nicaragua and Senegal. Luckily New York has people from all over the world who have formed lively communities here – some 110 different languages are spoken in the borough of Queens alone. So whenever the mood strikes, I can head over to Korea Town, Little Ecuador or Little Senegal to ease up my reverse-homesickness. Easy peacy! A normal New York day for me is one where I use 3-4 languages, hear music ranging from reggaeton to Irish folk tunes, wander from a Latin area to a Chinatown (of which there are three in New York) and chat up some strangers from exotic lands. I often feel like I’m traveling, even when I haven’t left the city borders. Amazing.

2. You can get all your favorite foods in New York

pupusaEvery country I’ve traveled to has left some kind of a mark on my culinary palate: it’s because of my recent trip to El Salvador that I now love pupusas, both home made and those from street stalls (pictured above), and I still yearn for Mexico City’s tacos that I tasted in 2009. My Korean trip would not have been complete without daily helpings of kimchi and bibimpab, and the Senegalese yassa sauce was so delicious I want to learn to make it. The good news is most of these foods can be bought in New York. All it takes is a trip to some far-flung ethnic neighborhood, and you’ll get all your favorite cuisines from the world over. No passport needed.

3. New York is inspirational

A few months ago I attended the Social Good Summit and the Global Citizen Festival in Manhattan and learned a ton about the problems plaguing the world today. More importantly, I learned about the solutions. That’s the beauty of the city: whenever I have extra time on my hands, there’s no shortage of lectures and networking events to attend, and most are free of charge. My favorites are the speeches organized by the Open Society Foundations, as you also get served a tasty lunch. Can’t beat that, free nourishment for both the body and the mind. In my spare time I also attend lectures about the future of journalism and the art of travel writing. I meet other writers, get inspiration for new stories and improve my craft. Love it!

4. New York is affordable

Sunset Park

I know what you are thinking – “what is this girl talking about? New York is the most expensive city in the US!” Sure, the city is pricey based on the statistics, but make no mistake – there are always deals to be had in this town. I might even go so far as to suggest that New York has more deals than any other place in the world. In midtown Manhattan there’s always a $1 pizza slice war going on, and in Brooklyn you can find neighborhoods where beauty salons charge $12 total for a manicure and pedicure. Happy hours are abundant, as are $10-15 three-course dinner specials in Thai restaurants. Taxis cost a fraction of those in Europe. Even rent gets down to affordable levels once you leave Manhattan. Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and New Jersey just across the East River all have affordable housing options and fast public transportation into Manhattan. Plus with all the free events going on, who has time to spend money in this city? I find that I spend relatively little money in New York, considering how much fun I have here every week.

5. New York has great flight connections

Digital nomads need good flight connections and many airports options – and New York City has three airports in its proximity. Bargain hunters can score roundtrips to Europe for $400-500, and one-ways to Central America can be bought for as low as $150 on Spirit Airlines. And getting to the airport doesn’t break the bank either: New York has the world’s only 24-hour subway system (as far as I know), so you can take the train to the airport at all hours of the day.

Convinced yet? Let me know if you are a digital nomad contemplating moving here! It would be great to have more world traveler friends in New York. 🙂

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.

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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.

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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?

Inspiration and desperation at the Social Good Summit and Global Citizen Festival in New York

Last week was truly something else – I learned more than I ever dreamed possible about various problems currently affecting the world: extreme poverty, funky-sounding but terrible tropical diseases like hookworm, global warming, infant mortality, malaria, lack of education for girls…. Phew! Needless to say, my brain was running on information overload after receiving all of this info from two NYC events: the three-day Social Good Summit held at the 92Y, and the one-day Global Citizen Festival in Central Park. These happenings were the source of a lot of inspiration (extreme poverty is on its way out!), but also desperation: so much to do, so little political will to do it!

I attended the Social Good Summit, organized by the UN Foundation and Mashable, mostly to report on the latest climate change news for The Interdependent.com. To read my article on how social media is playing a role in the fight against global warming, click here.

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During these two eye-opening events I also saw a ton of celebrities, like Al Gore, Alicia Keys, Will.i.am, the drummer and bassist of Linkin Park, George W’s daughter Barbara Bush and my favorite reality TV star, Ernesto Arguello from NBC’s short-lived show Ready for Love. I even got a photo taken with him! 🙂

ErnestoArguello, who is a “humanitarian entrepreneur” according to his Twitter account, spoke at the summit because of something you see in this photo. The yellow belt he is wearing is the symbol of Snap2Live, a “life-saving fashion statement” campaign that promotes seat belts and traffic safety. Sadly enough, car crashes are currently the leading reason of death for children worldwide. Someone dies on roads every 6 seconds: a million of the victims are children. With 70 percent of its profits going to the Road Safety Fund, Snap2Live supports the UN’s “Decade of Action for Road Safety.”

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Discussing new energy initiatives are singer Will.i.am and Jessica O. Matthews, CEO of Uncharted Play. They spoke at a panel called “Sustainable Energy and Global Youth: Making a Complex Issue Fun and Accessible for a Measurable Difference.” After having been kicked around for 30 minutes, the ball that Matthews designed can generate up to three hours of electricity.

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Linkin Park’s bassist Dave Farrell was at the Social Good Summit to to promote “Recharge.” This new climate change-influenced videogame is part of the band’s “Power the World” campaign, which supports the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative.

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Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president, revealed his latest campaign, “What I Love,” a multimedia exhibit that makes climate change a personal matter. The site lets you choose things you couldn’t live without and explains how those things are threatened by global warming.

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On Saturday, a few days after the Social Good Summit ended, some 60,000 New Yorkers and visitors attended the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park. Here I am with my friend Faviola, who scored us two of the free concert tickets given through the website. The fundraising day featured a collection of well-known artists: Kings of Leon, Alicia Keys, John Mayor and Stevie Wonder. We were all the way in the back and could only see the performers as ant-size on stage, but it was still good times for a great cause!

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Did you by any chance attend the Social Good Summit and/or the Global Citizen Festival live or via the Internet? What did you think?

Please make me Jauntaroo’s World Chief Explorer by voting for my video!

Wouldn’t it be cool if I got selected for the Best Job Around the World and got to check out 30+ vacation destinations over 12 months, volunteer in all of them and blog about it for all the world to see and learn? And minor detail – be paid $100,000 in salary. I sure think it would be pretty sweet 🙂 So please go vote for my super cool video application on Jauntaroo, a travel-planning website, and do it TODAY before the voting ends – which is any day now, as the Jauntaroo team is currently reviewing all applications. If you have already voted, no worries – you can “Like” the video again every 24 hours! 🙂 Thanks for your support!

I was up until 7 a.m. today working on this video, so I hope you can all show it some love!  Thank you!! Gracias!! Kiitos!! Tack!! Danke!! Merci!! Jerifef!! Terimakasim!! And so forth. 🙂 Just click here or click on the photo to get to the voting site:

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And if you think that you “liking” a video online hardly leads to any tangible benefits in a sea of thousands of applicants, you’d be wrong: In 2011 I got selected as one of Finnair’s seven travel bloggers (called Quality Hunters) after my application scored 2,227 Likes, the second-highest number on the site! My video can still be seen on my own YouTube channel, even though Finnair has taken the contest page down. The race was extremely tight and nerve-wracking as I recounted in the blog later, but worth every missed heartbeat – the seven-week gig, then also at times dubbed “The World’a Best Job,” was beyond amazing and saw me flying to destinations from Japan to India and Europe! So there you see, every Like counts in today’s social-media obsessed world! 🙂