A Travellerspoint blog

Beautiful People

Remember the days back in your teenage years when a really beautiful bunch of trendy girls and boys ruled the school? They were impossibly fashionable; they had highlights when you still wore scruntchies and they co-ordinated their pens to match their nailpolish. The boys were athletic and popular, the girls giggly but grown-up. I spent most of my school years in the art classroom, elbow-deep in oil colours, sometimes squinting as I came out of the dark room after developing "artistic" photos of leaves and other interesting things. Then, after school, you say your good-byes and never see them again, right? Wrong. I met the whole posse on Saturday. For the first time in eleven years.

I went to Lahti, the ugliest city in Finland and possibly in the world (and I have, after all, visited Coventry and Leicester) for a friends' wedding. Lovely as the day was, the city was drab and forbidding. Every second person carried around a dirty plastic bag of cheap beer, the buildings reminded me of the charming soviet style which was so popular in Finland some decades ago. Everyone looked as if doomsday was just around the corner. I met some of the other wedding guests in the tiny hostel (ran by a russian woman whose face seemed somehow distorted- like it was put together by Picasso) and decided to go for a walk before getting ready for the ceremony. Everyone at the hostel (staff as well as the guests) seemed horrified by this. For a walk? In Lahti? Surely not.

There is indeed something seedy about the city. It has all the same coffee shops, pub chains and shops as most large cities in Finland, but they seem almost fake- like they are not really expecting to sell anything. I wouldn't be surprised if all the fancy bits were simply card-board cut-outs, planted by the city commission to make Lahti more appealing to tourists. And, when the beautiful, popular girls arrived, the dark city offered a magnificient backdrop for them; they are still, very much so, beautiful. And the same. Now, everyone has the latest little mobile and more professional highlights, but they are, essentially, the same. I felt like an awkward adolescent all over again. At thirty, that's not good.

The wedding took place slightly outside the city, luckily, in a small island-type setting on a lake. The happy couple got married under birch trees, and the whole ceremony was short and sweet and informal. Just my kind of wedding. In a true Finnish style, instead of a car, they had a rowing boat awaiting which took them to the restaurant at the tip of the island.

At one point there was cheesecake involved, but I won't get into it now as it's hardly the point of this blog entry.

The beautiful people have done well in life. All but one, they are married, and we are expecting the last remaining one to get married any day now. They all have mortgages, few have kids, all have careers. Not jobs. Careers. And unlike most beautiful, successful people, they are actually nice.

Dancing, eating and (quite a bit of) drinking later, and one of them told me how she had always expected I would be a bit different to the rest of them (elbow-deep in paint at school wasn't enough of a hint?) and how, compared to me, they were all so middle-class. I haven't yet figured out if she meant this as a bad thing. I didn't take it as such.

We got drenched in the pouring rain walking back (me to the hostel, they to an all-inclusive hotel) at 3am, and the next morning, although the sun shone, it did little to improve my outlook on the city. I wouldn't want to come back. I put my nice dress in my backpack, said bye to my gorgeous school friends, and headed back home from what was a very surreal weekend.

(and yes. I know. I'm no longer travelling, so I shouldn't really write a blog anymore. But i'm hoping domestic travel does count, at least a little?)

Posted by Ofelia 04:14 Archived in Finland Comments (3)

What's the Deal with the Giraffe?

One time, probably in Livingstone but it could have been elsewhere, I ordered two glasses of wine from the hostel bar, and as the bloke behind the counter corked the Merlot, I plonked Fred on the bar stool next to me, and placed the other glass infront of him. Like I always do. A German girl and a guy with a strange accent eyed me, first with suspicion, then with amusement bordering on worry. Why did this weird girl have an inflatable giraffe with her?

Well, excuse me. Fred is, in deed, an inflatable giraffe, but not only an inflatable giraffe. He is, actually, a wine-loving, gay zambian alcoholic albino giraffe (inflatable). And if I could've had a penny everytime someone asked me "what's the deal with that giraffe?", I'd still be in Africa, wandering happily around the savanna and being quite a wealthy woman.

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Fred was purchased from a very posh toy store in Lusaka. I saw him in the display window, and it was love at first sight. My friend Hanna was with me when I announced that I simply had to get that giraffe. He was not cheap (quality giraffes nowadays don't come cheap) but anyway, he has provided me with hours of fun. Not like that. Obviously. I said he was gay.

Fred was officially first blown up on the day before Christmas, in Livingstonia in Malawi, high up in the mountains where no giraffe has ever gone before. He quickly developed a taste for red wine, which we supplied to him in vast quantaties, since it was, after all, Christmas. Since then, it's become a bit of a habit. He danced with the owner of the campsite, and almost melted by the fire, passing out before he could reach the tent that night. It was one heck of a way of coming into the world, I tell you.

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Why he is named Fred is a bit of a mystery. He looked like a Fred, and I wanted a name that was simple and easy and would work pretty well in Finnish as well as English. He is gay, because, well, he is. He didn't choose so; it was the way the people in Taiwan manufactured him. As for being an albino, we're going through the motions of anger, denial, bargening, depression and acceptance. He is doing very well.

As for the mystery reason of travelling with an inflatable giraffe, there are none. I liked him, and he provides me with amusement when I'm bored- I can dress him up in clothes or take funny pictures of him (although my mum did note that it might be time to have a baby), and he is a fantastic ice breaker in conversations. Forget a hippo in the room- giraffes are the way to go!

So far, Fred has made tons of friends from all corners of the world, and is happy to chat to anyone about his travels, as long as you buy him a glass of wine to keep him going. He can tell you about his experiences sandboarding, playing in a band, scuba diving or meeting other, non-albino, giraffes. He's been in trains, planes, cars and minibuses, and even been involved in a police matter (although I will not divulge the details here). And, for some reason, whenever people meet him, their instinct is to do something less pretty to him. Hmm. I can grant access to the private photo gallery on request.

Fred is currently taking a break from travelling and living in a big house in the countryside of Finland with a nice family. He is planning on doing hiking in Lapland this summer, and returning to Africa a bit later on this year, via London and Copenhagen. If you see him on your travels, come and say hi. Preferably with a bottle of red wine in hand.

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Posted by Ofelia 05:37 Archived in Zambia Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

On the Subject of Backpacking

As the sun doesn't set at all now, I can't sleep; most nights it takes me ages to fall asleep, but last night was especially trying- so I got up, started flicking through my travel photos (I keep my very favourites in a separate folder) and started thinking about all the backpackers I've met along the way, some fantastic, some who shouldn't be allowed passport, some just very strange. The ones I met in Africa were distinctly different- in fact, everywhere I've been has had a very particular set of travellers roaming their internet cafes and Irish pubs. Take the Indian subcontinent, for example.

India is great, mind-blowing and exotic- at least to the heards of Americans and Brits who think of themselves in the highest cast of backpackers, the coolest, most open-minded, because India is, of course, the coolest. Every stockbroker turns into a hippie, before going back home to their portfolios and cocktail parties, where they tell about their life-altering spiritual journey through India whilst stroking a small Ganesha statue with a dreamy look in their eyes. Backpackers in India are the ones most likely to wear local clothes and sneer at tourists who choose another destination.

South East Asia is a starter continent, like a starter home, or a graduate job. The most likely destination for someone who's never travelled alone, South East Asia is compact, cheap and easily accessed. It was my first destination too, my first dorm room, my first eating-alone-in-a-restaurant, taking a train to nowhere -experience. It is relatively safe for the hundreds of backpackers who follow a trail of islands off the coast of Thailand, partying away at full-moon, half-moon and no-moon parties. The only problem with such backpackers is that after a few weeks of eating burgers in Koh Samui, they know everything about the world and I just want to punch them.

Backpackers in Australia and New Zealand are great. Eighteen- nineteen, they don't give a toss about anything; they just want to drink till their livers burst, and sleep around more than whoever they are travelling with. A British girl once told me proudly that she'd slept with fourteen guys already, and that was only between Cairns and Brisbane- she still had all the way to Sydney to go to! Every backpacker has, it seems, a check-list of things to do. Airlie Beach? Been there. Done. Hervey Bay? Going tomorrow, so done. Check. Errr....what was there, in Hervey Bay, again? I don't know, but everyone's going. And the cultural scene? Who cares, now lets go to Bondi Beach where everyone else hangs out. No one really remembers what they did or saw in Australia, but then again, who cares since it was sooooo much fun!

South America is full of my very favourite travellers- a bit older, a bit more professional, bit more organised. In a non-boring way. These are the people who've already established themselves in life, and don't feel the need to prove anything. Rarely a first-time destination, you're likely to meet teachers, business consultants and nurses on a sabbatical, wearing practical sandals and water-proofs, and carrying a complicated set of backpacking equipment which can only be bought in specialist stores in Germany, and need a set of instructions in fourteen languages to work. These are the people who feel liberated enough to party away the night, but are still up at 6am for that 4-day hike through the jungle to find a lost city. (Note: there will surely be a curio seller at the lost city. That, and an Irish pub.)

Europe sucks for a European backpacker. Full of mainly Aussies and Americans, who get excited about anything built before 1950, Europe is expensive, crowded, and full of the same cathedrals as your home town, albeit slightly grander. These are the check-list people; They spend 3 days hanging out in Budapest, and therefore "do" Hungary (sorry, but I have a specific hatred for people who say the "do" countries. Shouldn't "doing" a country be illegal, at least in Western Europe?), they go on a weekend break to Paris and have therefore ticked off France from their list; a very distinct group who I also feel like punching from time to time. The backpackers in Europe are also the most likely to travel on Daddy's visa.

Although I have lived in North America for 9 months, I've never actually backpacked there, nor do I know anyone who's done so (although I have "done" some of the bigger cities). The three occasions I've entered the country, I got treated like I was Osama's long lost daughter, with a suitcase full of nerve gas and several kilos of cocaine shoved up some very delicate areas. Too traumatic. I'll have to gather my strenght properly before I try it again.

But Africa, Africa. Africa is full of broken, haunted people. Peter Moore once listed the top ten reason to go travelling, and the number one was escaping something. Seems everyone's escaped to Africa. Backpackers of all ages and nationalities, who all have two things in common; being strapped for cash, and being emotional wrecks. Perhaps such a conflict-torn continent attracts similar people, people with small rucksacks and big emotional baggage. I've heard so many stories of lost or unrequited love that I could write a book. But in a way it's fascinating. At least people there have stories, unlike the party animals in Sydney or Singapore. And maybe one day soon I'll write about all of that, too.

Posted by Ofelia 06:48 Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Bring Back Africa

Odd, isn't it? Being somewhere utterly familiar after a long time away. I wandered around the house for a week, clicking on random machines and turning on taps, just to see water flow and electricity come on. My mother followed after me, annoyed I was turning on a half-empty dishwasher or playing six CD's on random just because I could. I was amazed to find I had a wardrobe, and spent a great afternoon staggering around in four-inch heels like a six-year-old. Doing laundry was a simple task of putting things in a machine, and whoops, out they would come, an hour later, almost dry and cleaner they'd been in nine months. The fridge had exciting stuff, like food, in it. I had music, books, free internet (broadband!) and it was all so easy. So easy, in fact, that it's no longer fun.

One of the brilliant things about travelling is how the small things make it all worthwhile. One of my favourite things is to wander through supermarkets, seeing what people load in their carts, and marvelling at things like Monkey Gland Sauce and Beef-Beer powder. Like in France, you get aisles and aisles of cheeses; in Argentina, the meat counter is monsterous, but no one's ever heard of tofu. In the States, you can find a frozen version of everything; ini Zambia, everything is made out of maize- drinks, crisps, bread, sweets. In Finland, you find the bread section takes up half of the supermarket. There's four things you are likely find in any Finn's shopping cart- bread, milk, potatoes and beer. Possibly a cider if it's a girl. And chocolate if it's me.

Everything is too simple. I no longer have to look at a map to find the post office nor do I need to do quick currency conversions to find out if something is cheap or laughable. There's no edge in anything. And, in a way, I suddenly find all this spending incredible- yes, I know, a fairly normal side effect of coming back from a working stint in a developing country, but oh so true. Inexplicably, I'm suddenly saving 2 three-week old shrivelled potatoes telling my stunned family that they're still "perfectly edible". My niece and nephew are drowning in toys they don't even play with, whilst every single auntie and uncle brings in yet another red fire truck or a pooping and peeing doll. And I think of my little Zambian kids, who have no toys, and who got excited when I gave them pens and pieces of my notepad to draw on. Although kids are wonderful like that- I asked my nephew what he would like for his birthday, and after thinking a little, he said he'd like to go for a picnic in the forest with me and granny. Now this kid would get on in Zambia.

I also have way too much energy. I should be sightseeing, catching buses, walking around hot and humid city centres and getting lost. This is not the way it's meant to be. Bring back Africa. Or Somewhere Else. Anywhere.

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Posted by Ofelia 12:48 Archived in Finland Comments (0)

London Rain


View The African journey on Ofelia's travel map.

I was once asked by the French-British border control what my reason for entering the UK was. I remember being so baffled that it took me a while to answer, and when I did, I blabbered, but I live here! My home is here; my job; my friends! They let me through- no one likes to contradict an obviously-crazy Finnish bird. And so, when they asked me the same thing at Heathrow, I was still baffled-if they didn't let me in, what would happen to all my shoes? Who would get custody? It's the same thing when people mark on my language skills- "you speak really good English." Oh really. Amazing what ten years in Britain can do- seems that sarcasm is contagious too.

On the flight, I'd asked for an upgrade to first class, not really thinking I'd get it, but anyway, it was worth a shot. I am, however, slightly embarrassed to admit that I did fake a certain "disability" in order to be upgraded. But it's not like they were full- I've shelled out large chunks of my minimum salary towards airfares, so it was about time I got something back. When I got escorted into the mysterious, private depths of the first class, I remained cool. even when people called me madam and handed me menus instead of just banging a plate of something gooey in front of me.
I get very excited about anything even slightly luxurious or expensive. I was always the daft kid who didn't know which fork to use when we went on a school trip and ate in a restaurant. But I maintained composure, even when I really wanted to whoop out loud when they gave me a toiletries kit with miniature eye creams and ear plugs which I could keep. I slept horizontally, in the darkened, quiet enclave of the plane, completely forgetting I was even on a flight. I felt tempted to whip out Fred to sit in the empty seat next to me, but I think that would have not been first class- cool. Have now decided to be famous so I can travel first class always.

London. Lots of white people at the airport, lots and lots of noise, rain and concrete. I felt a bit down, but it was possibly due to the rain and fog; people looked miserable- if you see two women walking together anywhere in Africa, chances are that at least one of them is smiling and laughing out loud; in the UK, they are probably telling each other off. It's not uncommon to see someone wear red, green and orange all in a happy mix; here, we all have grey coats and black umbrellas. All this will take a bit of getting used to.

But I love London. I have no idea why- but then again, why do people love anything or anyone? They just do. A few years ago, I was tube-surfing my way to work, standing in the middle of a full carriage in high heels, whilst using one hand to text and another one to apply lip gloss. I remember, because an old man chatted to me for a bit, about nothing really, and when he got off, he told me, London is full of bubbly girls like you, but somehow, you can always spot the ones who've been born and bred here. I thought that was an incredible compliment- he thought that I was a real Londoner.

And so, after a few days of being back, it actually feels ok. Nothing really changes; I came and go every few years, but everything here, although in constant movement, actually stays the same. There is something very comforting in that.

Posted by Ofelia 02:29 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged air_travel Comments (0)

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