the Whole World in a Day

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“Look at the camera and say: I wish I was in…” I’m standing in a photo booth surrounded by rolling hills and snowy trees. I chose that landscape from the selection. “Whenever you are ready.” In this photo booth I can wish I were anywhere in Finland. But today I can wish I were anywhere in the world really. And if I’m not careful, I might soon find myself from a plane to Turkey or Tanzania.

Annual Travel Fair has invaded Messukeskus, the Fair Center in Pasila, Finland. The whole world is visiting. There is Finnish archipelago, small stands form a network of islands in the corner, there is Sweden with neatly organised stands, and somewhere behind Qatar and Thailand, there is a selection of African countries all decorated with impressive pictures of wildlife. 80 different countries all over the world are represented at the fair. Travel organisations, airlines and travel destinations advertise, give guidance and sell their products to the visitors who meander around the massive hall. Over 60 000 visitors come each year, mostly from Finland but also from the other side of the border.

“I wish I was in the Northern Finland, skiing on the hills, surrounded by snow and nature.” I think I just gave my permission to use that wish for marketing purposes. I grab my free I wish I was in Finland canvas bag and dive into the crowd. My aim is to find out more about Australia and New Zealand. But how can I find anything from the labyrinth of the stands?

Cheap flights, luxurious travel packages, exotic destinations… Free candy, free leaflets and free raffles. I write my name and (thrash) email address on raffle tickets featuring prizes such as bicycles and Le Cordon Bleu cooking classes in Paris. All the other 60 000 will take part in the same raffles so the chances to win are minimal. But why not? Among the stands, there are few stages where talks and interviews, as well as music performances from Moomin children’s songs to Sami rap, engage the audience.

I do find the Australia stand. Unfortunately, there is only one small stand, Australian Tours, for the whole continent. I pick up the leaflets featuring New Zealand and Australia and flip them through. I have to wait 10 minutes before I get a chance to chat with the people at the stand, but at last I get some answers and tips. “The rainforest is another must see in Cairns. Can’t go without a guide, though. There are day trips where you take a small mini-bus-like-car and you serpentine in the thicket alongside the river. It’s really good”. Well, maybe I’ll check out the rainforest. Next week I’ll take off to NZ and then to Australia.

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Winter in the North

landFinimg_5779HBO has copyrighted the phrase “Winter is coming”. How selfish is that? But then again, it seems like we do not really need that phrase as nowadays everyone seems to be just saying “Winter is late”. Finland got snow early in November but it all vanished before the winter really even begun. Birds started to sing and willows were trying out their spring outfits. Not okay.

Luckily Finland reaches far to the North way beyond the Arctic Circle. You can always relay in Lapland. Enter the train in Helsinki and after an uncomfortable night in a small cabin with a bunk bed and an orange sink, you wake up in Lapland surrounded by snow and darkness.

Äkäslompolo in Ylläs is a bit touristic holiday destination nowadays. However, it is quiet and beautiful: small houses, two roads, a frozen lake and a starry sky. A fine place to spend midwinter. We (a combination of 4 families) arrived on the Christmas Eve ready for a cosy holiday. The hired cottage got a festive atmosphere when the Christmas tree was brought in and candles lit up. As there was approximately 3 hours of daylight and 20 minutes of sunlight a day, it was important to have a comfortable place to spend the remaining time by reading, playing games and, of course, eating. We had the first Christmas dinner with fish, casseroles, meats, rosolli and all the other traditional treats, at a local restaurant Rouhe. Second, homemade dinner, lasted for three days and filled the stomachs of hungry skiers.

Ylläs has a good cross-country skiing network that goes around the lake and fjells. The route maps are rubbish though, and the signs guide the way to the places that are not shown on the map. Nevertheless, the tracks were in excellent shape and skis glided brilliantly. Even my American friend, Ethan, enjoyed cross-country skiing of which he tried for the first time in his life. The swishing of the skies in a quiet wintry forest is amazingly relaxing.

There are also paths for snowshoeing. At least the path up to Kuer-fjell is good and well marked. The view over the village and lake from the top is beautiful. Those who want the view but no exercise can go up to the top of another, higher fjell, Ylläs, with a gondola lift. Ylläs has also downhill skiing slopes offering more excitement. If the weather is mild it is a good place to do some snowboarding or skiing. However, it can get very cold in mid winter (down to – 30C) and the wind can be very rough on the top, blowing the snow and blocking the visibility.

If the cold is not an issue rolling in the snow or taking a dip in an ice cold water are things to try. We hired a proper sauna for one night (our cottage only had an electric sauna and that is not good enough for us). The sauna was sitting by the lake, preheated and ready to take in 15 people. Warmth crept first to the toes and gradually to the heart. When the sweat was running down the back, it was time to sneak out, walk on the snow to the icy ladder that vanished into a large hole in the ice. Ice swimming (or dipping if your hands refuse to let go of the handrailing) is a Finnish thing. Possibly mental but absolutely wonderful tradition. Dipping into frigid water in the middle of winter might not sound fun, but it does feel great. The blood circulation gets a boost and the whole body feels fresh.

Once again Ethan decided to be brave and had a try. He was rewarded with the most amazing way. When he was getting up from the water, gasping and shivering, he looked up to the sky. Northern lights were drawing their fresh green lines in the horizon. Soon after the sky was lit up with the dance of the Auroras.

Now the winter has finally arrived in the South as well. Snow fell a few days ago, temperature touched -23C and the water pipes in the Sauna building are now frozen.