Favela Life in Brazil

With the World Cup mania going on full speed, everyone’s eyes are now on Brazil. This has gotten me to think about my most recent trip to the sunny country and about one of my most memorable experiences there – the week I spent staying in the favela of Pavao near the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.

While I was immersed in the colorful life of the favela – a slum for lack of a better word in English – I was bombarded with questions from foreigners and Brazilians alike: what’s it like to stay in a favela? Is it dangerous? Scary? How do you move around there? How do the locals react when they see you?

That’s why I decided to do this video that shows me making my way from our home on top of the favela down to the street level and back – a full 400 steps each way, navigating the narrow labyrinth-like pathways. The round trip generally takes about 15 minutes. Imagine if you had to climb up 400 steps just to get home! Insanity. But it definitely keeps the residents in good shape.

If you are still wondering what exactly a favela is, check out this good article that explains why no English-language word really characterizes it perfectly:

Why We Should Call them Favelas

And if this video convinced you that you really want to stay in a favela yourself on your next Rio trip, that’s easily done. Just book a room from Fiona, Pavao’s lone Brit: https://www.airbnb.com.br/rooms/841135

 

 

 

 

10 weird things to know about Brazil

Happy New Year everyone! I know, I know, I’m a little late to the game but this is my first post in 2014. Yikes! Here’s a picture from the wild NYE celebrations I took part in Tel Aviv. That place can party! My friend and I danced at this underground club The Cat and Dog until 7 a.m., but turned down all the offers of drugs and bathroom hook-ups. 😛

NYE

What a crazy year it has been so far, and we are only in mid-February. Over the last seven weeks I’ve taken nine flights and set foot on eight countries on three continents. I’ve gone from dark wintery Finland to spring-like Israel, made pit stops in Istanbul and Berlin, and taken a painful 18-hour train ride through Bulgaria. In late January I got into a car crash with a motorcycle in the Dominican Republic and yet danced bachata afterward for a week in a beach festival. I suffered through a few New York snowstorms in February but escaped to Brazil just before the 14th one. I’m now under the hot Brazilian sun in Rio de Janeiro and loving it! And this was supposed to be my year of taking it easy and not traveling as much… only a few months ago I was happy to be living a somewhat stable life in NYC and was trying to convince more digital nomads to move there.

But alas, such is a traveler’s life. It changes in a New York minute. 🙂

So now that I’ve suddenly found myself back in the only Portuguese-speaking country on the South American continent, it might be a good time to share some of my thoughts about this land that’s known for samba, sun, beaches, favela shantytowns (one of which I’m currently staying in – and the view is lovely!) and of course the impending World Cup. These oddities appeared in my old blog, written in 2008 during my first trip to Brazil, but I’ve found that they still hold true.

Turano

10 WEIRD THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT BRAZIL

1) Brazilians LOOOOOOVE meat!! There’s always a barbeque party (or a churrascu, as it’s called in Portuguese) coming up, and nope, they do not grill any tofu or tomatoes or tofu sausages here. It’s all about meat: steaks, ribs, chicken wings, chicken hearts (yep!), sausages…. maybe a bit of fish, too.

Rodizio

2) Salt is DEFINITELY a favorite among the Brazilians…. they use so much of it on everything that I’m surprised they aren’t having tons of heart attacks (or maybe they are… not sure about the stats..).

3) This is definitely the promised land of all-you-can-eat buffets, and “food by the kilo” buffets (where you pay according to the weight of your plate). They’ve even got this cool thing called “rodizio,” a buffet that comes to you! All you need to do is sit down at a table, and the meat/pizza/sushi just appears on your plate. The waiters bring the food around every few minutes, and you can choose what you want and have as much as you’d like. Yummy!

4) Brazilian houses (the upper-class ones anyway) tend to have several toilets. One for each room is not uncommon, I hear. Therefore a medium-size house can even have six toilets. Wow! No more waiting for your turn outside the door 🙂

5) Many of the bathrooms have a bidet bowl next to the toilet. It kind of looks like a cross between a sink and a men’s urinal. No one seems to know what to do with it. It’s just tradition to have one. I guess previously it was used for washing yourself up, but nowadays it seems to be just an expensive laundry basket!

6) Brazilians love all things made of manioc/yucca/cassava, the traditional root that tastes slightly like potato. Mandioca is eaten in soups, as mashed (like potato), as fried (like french fries) and even used as flour to dip your meat in… and probably in many more ways.

7) Brazilians also love their national booze, cachaça aka pinga, the main ingredient of caipirinhas. They think it’s the greatest thing ever invented. Taste-wise it’s not my favorite, but I gotta say it’s not the worst beach drink… (here as a mango version).

Mango caipirinha

8) Brazil is definitely NOT the right place for someone who has bacteria phobia! The locals love to share everything with their friends: beer, coke, water, pinga, not to mention food. If you buy a tapioca (sort of like a taco) or a sweet corn cob, you’ll need to offer bites to all of your pals. So you may even be sharing your drink or food with up to 10 people. But hey, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger! 😉 The Brazilian immune systems surely must be strong from all this sharing.

9) It’s fairly easy to become a true Paulista (FYI, a Paulista is a person from Sao Paulo. Carioca = Rio resident). All you need to do is spot a local “celebrity” called Fofäo on the city streets (well, more like a local loonie bin). Hahaa. 🙂 Fofäo is a scary-looking man who has injected tons of silicone into his cheeks… he got his nickname from a cartoon character who looks the same way.

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Why this guy has done that to himself, nobody knows. My Sao Paulo friends said he is a transvestite who was trying to be transformed into a woman. When that failed, he just became a weird-looking man who had done tons of operations to himself. Other people are scared of him, others just feel sorry… some say he can be violent too, so better keep your distance I guess. Fofäo works odd jobs around the city of Sao Paulo and can be spotted here and there by any lucky people walking around town… or unlucky, as he looks very scary! Legend says you can have a heart attack if you see him in the dark. As for me, I saw him twice during my 2008 visit to Sao Paulo. Once he had crazy make up on his face, neon colors all over. I guess that was to promote some flyers he was distributing. Scaaaaary….. I walked past him stiff as a stick… So yeah, you would think that in a city with 16 million people you wouldn’t see the same person twice but apparently you cannot avoid seeing Fofäo. Unless you are a Carioca for life… 🙂

10) Brazil has a reputation of being a somewhat dangerous place. However, the main thing that reminds you of the unsafe nature of the country are Brazilians themselves and the way they guard their possessions (those that have them, naturally). Most of my friends here have high fences around their houses, alarm systems, a scary barking dog in the backyard and some even have a paid guard patrolling their street. When going out in the city, my friends park their cars in guarded parking garages, as the risk of the car being robbed is supposedly high. Apartment buildings often have a guard downstairs who checks who is coming in and out. Sometimes my friends will ask me to walk fast as “this is not a safe area.” But I’ve seen a lot of proof that Brazil is not as dangerous of a place than what the locals make it out to be. For example, it’s customary here that if you are left without a seat in the bus, someone who has a seat will hold your purse so that you have two free hands to hang on to the strap rather than just one. WOOOOOW! I wouldn’t trust my purse to a stranger even in Finland! But here people don’t even think twice about it. How cute! 🙂

Iguassu

So yeah, Brazil is great and well worth a visit even outside of the World Cup! (For which I’m not sticking around, by the way… I’m not a fan of sports crowds.) People here are really friendly and even if you just met them, they will probably invite you to stay in their house for a few days, or to come for a barbeque.  And they always have a friend in another city, and “you can call them when you are there and they will help you out with everything!” 🙂

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.

Times Square

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.

nightsky

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. 🙂

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! 🙂

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?

Weekly Wednesday Video: Mongolian talent show

And…. I’m back! Yep, the little break I took for my birthday ended up turning into two weeks due various time suckers occupying my days in New York, but now it’s time to go on with the Weekly Wednesday Video series.

Today I’d like to take you all to Mongolia, a vast and isolated Asian country I got to visit with my dad during the Trans-Siberian train trip last fall. Unfortunately our time there was reduced to just five days due to China’s Golden Week celebrations messing up train schedules, but we did get to experience a few cool things. One of those was the 55-minute performance of the Tumen Ekh ensemble. The entertaining talent show features typical Mongolian throat singing, wildly twisting contortionists, folk dancing and funky masks.

The show was highly recommended to us by the Sun Path Hostel‘s manager Doljmaa (pronounced “Deutsch-ma”), so we couldn’t miss it – even though we almost did. We only had about ten minutes until show time when we hopped into a taxi outside the guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar. Despite encountering major language issues, we got our point across to the driver and magically made it to the theater just in time.

And I’m glad we did! The show was definitely one to remember. Here’s a short recap of what to expect if you ever get to attend a Mongolian talent show.

Have you been to Mongolia? Any interest in going?

Weekly Wednesday Video: Crossing the Sahara Desert in Mauritania

This week’s video is very short and simple – just 30 seconds of scenery from Mauritania, a little-known nation I visited last year on my West Africa Tour. Some 75 percent of the country is desert, as is obvious from this video that was shot from inside a shared taxi.

Mauritania has been on my mind lately as a fellow travel writer, Francis Tapon, just spent three weeks there. I’ve been eagerly keeping up with his Facebook and Twitter updates to hear about his adventures. Francis is working on a documentary called The Unseen Africa and plans to spend three years touring the continent. That’s quite the plan!

Francis has his own car, but I mostly got around West Africa with public transportation. In Mauritania that includes the bush taxis, which are usually of the Mercedes make (while in Senegal they prefer Peugeot station wagons and call them by the name Sept-place). The shared taxis take off for their destination when enough people have showed up to fill the car, or when the driver figures he has a good change of picking up the missing number of people along the way.

Shared taxis are a pretty handy and cheap way to get around, and observing the locals’ wardrobe choices is an interesting way to pass the time.

Those of you that speak Finnish can read more about my adventures in Mauritania and the Sahara Desert in this article titled “The Sahara isn’t easy on the tourist” that was published by Finland’s biggest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat last year. Among other places, I visited Cap Blanc, known as the largest graveyard of shipwrecks. By February last year, some of the 300 ships had already been hauled away by the European Union, but quite a few could still be seen in the horizon. This one on the beach is the Moroccan ship United Malika that crashed in 2003. This shipwreck bay was definitely one of the strangest sights I’ve seen in my life.

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Have you been to Mauritania or tried out the shared taxis elsewhere in Africa? 

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?

Weekly Wednesday Video: Speedboating in Nicaragua

As I promised last week, I’ve started a new Weekly Wednesday Video series and today just happens to be… Wednesday! Yay. 🙂

Hair

This week’s video is from Nicaragua, where I spent six weeks this winter with my friend (who was very sleepy). While most of my time there I was trying to catch up with overdue work, relax and enjoy the beaches, I also cranked out an article about Nicaragua’s sky-high teenage pregnancy rate for Passblue.com, a site focused on all things related to the United Nations. Would you believe that half the Nica youth have babies before they turn 20? That’s the record rate for all of Latin America.

This was yet another piece that I reported in Spanish, which is obviously more difficult for me than English or Finnish but still about ten times easier than doing the same in Portuguese Creole (as was detailed in my post last year, titled: The Worst Interview of My Life). So yeah, in the end all went well and the article turned out fine and dandy.

Anyhow, one of the coolest – and often only – ways to move around Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast is with a panga – a commuter speedboat. This video footage was shot on two separate trips from Bluefields to Pearl Lagoon and vice versa. The ride lasted about an hour and cost $5. And boy was it fun! Those things go fast. I felt like my cheeks were wobbling in the wind the whole time! If you don’t believe me, take a look at this week’s video (accompanied by music from my very talented brother Erkka).

If anyone is planning on traveling to the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, I highly recommend checking out the RightSide Guide website, a survival guide for the wild west that awaits you. And make sure to travel with as many pangas as possible!

Have you been to Nicaragua and/or tried out the speedboats there? What did you think?

Central American Dreams

While many of you were freezing in the Northern Hemisphere this winter and dreaming of tropical places like Central America, my friend Mira and I were dreaming in Central America. Well, at least Mira was. I was busy snapping photos of her taking naps in random locations around Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras over our three-month trip. And wow, this girl sure can sleep! She is hands down the most relaxed travel buddy I’ve ever had. 🙂

So if you are looking for inspiration for your next relaxing holiday, take a look at this video. You just might see a destination or two where you’d like to take a snooze yourself.

Have you ever gone on vacation where you spent a lot of time sleeping? What’s your favorite place to take a nap?