On a ramble

ram·ble (noun): a walk without a definite route, taken merely for pleasure.


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Diving for a good cause in Gili Trawangan

This is a post I originally wrote in 2014 for The Gilis, a website curated by my friend Andreas who was one of my first diving instructors. 


Is it possible to combine eco-tourism, volunteering in marine conservation, a PADI distinctive specialty diving course, and two weeks on a beautiful tropical island? With the Biorock specialty course offered by Trawangan Dive in cooperation with the Gili Eco Trust, it is.

In April 2014, six participants from Australia, Finland, France, and Zimbabwe came together on Gili Trawangan (in Lombok, Indonesia) to learn about coral reef conservation and the Biorock™ process. Guided by Delphine Robbe of the Gili Eco Trust and Siân Williams of Trawangan Dive, they spent two weeks diving and studying topics such as:

  • The ecology and biology of coral reefs and their organisms
  • The importance of coral reefs
  • The threats facing coral reef ecosystems
  • Coral gardening: turning over pieces of coral that have been broken off and placing them where they have a better chance of survival, removing Drupella snails and other predators that threaten the corals, etc.
  • Charting coral health using the CoralWatch system
  • The Biorock technology, including how to build and maintain artificial Biorock reef structures.

During the course, the participants also built their very own Biorock structure, shaping it to look like the logo of the project sponsor, Samba Villas on Gili Trawangan. When finished, the structure was placed in the sea just outside Samba Villas, and pieces of broken coral were gathered from the area and attached to the structures.

After only two days, the structure was already starting to show a coating of limestone, helping the pieces of coral to attach and grow. This new Biorock is at a depth of around five meters, making it possible for both divers and snorkelers to enjoy, as well as protecting the shoreline from erosion, providing shelter for fish, and serving as a solid substrate for new coral growth.

The Biorock specialty course is currently offered four times a year. Meanwhile, the more than 100 Biorock structures around the Gilis are always open for visitors, both aquatic and terrestrial!

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Underwater highlights

Because scuba diving ended up being an important part of my experience, and because the best place to find good photos of all the fantastic creatures is online, I’ve collected some of the highlights here. Most of these images are not mine, and for each of these the source can be found in the caption. The ones that are mine are from later journeys, when I finally got that underwater camera.


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Home: A rambling recap

Flying home from Benin, the last leg of the ramble.

Flying home from Benin, the last leg of the ramble.

Helsinki, late January 2012. Temperature: -15°C. Snow depth: 50 cm.

I’m back after spending one year abroad. The weather makes it seem like I’ve been much farther away, for much longer, than I really was. Everything is familiar and strange at the same time. Inside, the dry heated air turns my skin into a scaly desert. Outside, the cold hurts my eyes and makes them water. It’s dark. People seem resentful, socially clumsy and impatient with each other. My Finnish is rusty.

Weird.

Weird.

But it’s so good to be home! Somewhere along the way I got tired of travelling: lugging the backpack around, looking for a place to sleep, being on one’s guard, not knowing how things work, being anonymous… My family is here, and friends, and hobbies. There are things like hot showers and functioning waste management and whole-wheat bread. I understand everything that is said around me and recognise everything in the grocery store. I have a clean home to call my own, with a comfy bed. The snowy landscapes are blindingly beautiful. And I look forward to a bit of routine and to doing something worthwhile, striving for something – and to seeing my fantastic colleagues.

The first few days back at my old workplace are confusing. It feels like being put in front of the piano and expected to play a piece of music you haven’t rehearsed for years – the tones are there, somewhere, but in a box in the dusty crypts of my head, not right in my fingertips. They come back to me bit by bit along the way, but I wouldn’t be able to play a specific part by request without peeking at the notes, like I could have just a year before.

And the pace! How do people manage the demands, the deadlines, the multi-tasking? There’s no time for reflection and recovery. It just doesn’t seem… healthy.

Then, gradually, over a few months, the routine works itself back into me. But I sort of hope things won’t go back entirely to how they were before leaving.*

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People ask if I had a nice trip. The question leaves me stumped. “Nice” isn’t exactly the word, but no adjective seems right. It has to be described in different terms: I’m violently happy about having gone on this year-long ramble.

This post is long, because it tries to cover all the gazillion reasons for that.

Dinner at Noon restaurant in Koh Lanta, with the most amazing sunset view imaginable.

Dinner at Noon restaurant in Koh Lanta, with the most amazing sunset view imaginable.

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First of all, this journey allowed me the feeling of having time, lots of time. That’s a delicious feeling for someone who’s constantly taking too much on and struggling to manage it all.

Time to sleep, at least 8–9 hours each day.

Time to “be still and enjoy the very little things” (in the words of Nietzche): marvel at a rainstorm, admire flowers, talk to strangers, listen – really listen – to music, watch ghostlike crabs make artworks of sand on the beach.

Time to rediscover playing.

Time to not “constantly succumb to the tyranny of the urgent” (Tim Kreider in The ‘Busy’ Trap).

Time to forget the time of day and the day of the week.

Time to wait. In our daily hamster wheel, how immensely frustrating is it not to have to wait for something or someone more than ten minutes? So imagine how immensely liberating it is to wait hours, days, weeks, without feeling stressed. (And then finally leaving the country on the very last day of your visa. No sweat.)

Time to take photos, to think and to write.

Time to laugh, with belly-bouncing vigour, many times a day, every day. If there’s a maximum amount of laughter you can squeeze into just a few months, I reached it.

Time to wiggle my toes, feel the the blood flow through each and every part of me, sense a complete aliveness, as if my entire body is singing. Hello belly button! How ya doin’, ear lobes!

Time to start a relationship without any pressure for it to go anywhere, because all you have is the present moment and because tomorrow everything may change. (Which is true all the time everywhere, just more noticeably so when travelling.)

Time to process some things that have been bubbling beneath the surface for a while, and to read and digest a couple of eye-opening books.

The feeling of having time did wonders. That alone made the whole year worth it. But wait, there’s more!

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This journey taught me a lot of new things, made me understand some others better than before, and made me aware of some habits, which is the necessary first step to changing those habits. It’s a daily endeavour to remember them, but I’m doing my best:

  • Slow down, at least sometimes. (At the start of the trip, it took me a while to start walking and eating slowly, and most of all to turn down the RPM of that propeller of thoughts that’s constantly spinning in my head. Then afterwards, it took me a while to learn to speed up again when needed – but now it’s much easier to ease up when there’s a chance, to press the stop button when things get stressful. Repeat after me: “I refuse!”)

“Do not lose your life making a living.”

  • Make space in your life to breathe, to be still, to watch those crabs in the sand, to listen to those rolling waves. To quote Tim Kreider again, “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.” (Had to look up rickets in the dictionary. Doesn’t sound inviting.)

  • You don’t need all that stuff you own – it’ll only weigh you down. (You also don’t need all that stuff in your backpack – that will REALLY weigh you down.)

... Yeah, you won't need all that.

… Yeah, that’s too much stuff.

  • Smile more: smile at strangers, smile when you fail. Acknowledge that other people are human beings: say hello to neighbours even if they don’t meet your eye, say thank you to the bus driver, joke with the cashier in the supermarket. It really doesn’t cost you anything, but it’ll brighten up your day, and probably someone else’s. (Finland, I’m looking at you.)

  • Nothing is forever and things change all the time. Accepting and appreciating that fact makes it a lot easier to make decisions, to see the good in everything and every moment, to let go, to content oneself with what is, to not sweat the small stuff. Everything we have is ours for a short while, and that makes it all the more precious.

After the rain, on Koh Tao.

After the rain, on Koh Tao.

  • Understand how lucky you are: If you work 8-hour days in safety-regulated environments, get two days off every week, and get to stay home with pay when you’re sick, you’re lucky. If you have time and money for hobbies, and lots of living space per person; if you have 24-hour electricity, a fridge, a washing machine, limitless clean hot and cold water from the tap, internet access everywhere, relatively reliable and safe public transportation, social security, health care, child care, elderly care, dental care; if you’ve trained your mind in school for years; if you live in a country with peace, democracy and near-universal literacy, you’re lucky. If you have any of those things, or more, just take a moment, right now, and think about how amazing they are and what it would mean not to have them. The people who came before you have worked hard for these things, and most of your fellow human beings don’t have most of them. Overall, things have never before been so good for humans in general, and you’re probably in the luckiest percentile or so. Remember this perspective, and try to be happy, or at least content, or at least realise that your problems maybe aren’t that terrible after all.
Singapore.

Singapore.

  • Some people are irreparable: they go for a sabbatical, do a lot of slowing down and relaxing and enjoying the moment, and still come back with two new professions.

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This journey brought me together with some beautiful people from all over the world, some of which I hope to keep in touch with for a long time.

It showed me that there are other ways of dealing with things. This is hard to explain, but here’s an attempt: You’ve been taught how to behave in different situations by watching others around you. Sometimes those behaviours aren’t necessarily the optimal ones, but you don’t realise this until you’ve seen someone behave differently. At this point, you go “… ah, that makes everything a lot easier”, and you try to unlearn your life-long experiences and behave in this new other way instead, which of course is tremendously difficult.

It made me a happier, more balanced person, and therefore probably a more productive citizen of the world. It’s easier for me to smile. I sometimes find myself whistling in public.

It made me feel at least five years younger. (My skin, alas, felt about 15 years younger. All the salt water, sun, humidity, whatever it was – spotty chin skin was the result.) Somehow my weight dropped a few kilos, too, despite a lack of exercise apart from scuba diving and long walks, and despite not having too much control over the nutrition contents of what goes into my stomach. It was probably enough just to not sit in an office chair for eight hours a day.

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And finally, in a league of awesomeness of its own: this journey brought me to Lucas. It was rather the opposite of expected or intended, but when love appears in an endearing mixture of sweet silliness and good-hearted rudeness and laughter, one can only capitulate.

Happy toes.

Happy toes.

Rewind to my very first blog post, one year earlier: “So, come the end of September, Helsinki will have me back – wiser, healthier, thoroughly rested and with a wider view on things. That’s the plan.” – SUCCESS! (Well, some of my ideas didn’t quite work out**. But many did***, and even more unexpected good things happened.)

Primary lesson: Live each moment with curiosity and wonder as if it were the first, and with intensity and delight as if it were the last. Piece of cake, right?

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* Today, nearly two years later, I’m happy to say they still haven’t.

** For instance, September turned into January – because although nine months seemed like a lot at the start of the trip, at the other end it didn’t feel like enough. And the teaching-English-to-villagers-in-Laos thing never happened, because diving happened instead. As for “experiencing another culture from a closer range than just as a tourist” – I tried to stay longer than a few days in each place, but even three months is not enough to get beneath the surface.

*** Like living in a bungalow and not using a computer every day. And getting a CELTA certificate, a diving certificate and an annoyingly good tan.

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Benin: Ancestors

Ouidah, about 40 km west of Benin’s capital Cotonou, was one of the major slave ports from the 17th to the 19th century. An estimated one million people were torn from their lives and lands, taken through this place and packed onto ships headed far away.

Today, on the shore where those ships used to lay anchored, stands The Door of No Return, erected by UNESCO as a tribute to those who were forced into slavery and as a reminder for the rest of the world of what happened here. Instead of a triumphal arch, it’s an arch of loss, with murals of the slaves moving in chained lines towards the water. The voodoo statues around it are meant to welcome back the souls of the slaves after their deaths. Other places in Ouidah tell other pieces of this grim story; like the Tree of Forgetting, around which the slaves were forced to walk in order to forget their lives here, and the site of a mass grave for those who died before even leaving Africa.

How do you approach something like this? How do you write about the suffocating sadness that after all this time is almost physically present here, like a burning, crushing weight on your shoulders? How do you, especially as a Western visitor, deal with any of this in a way that does it justice? I type, delete, type, edit, delete. Everything sounds pathetic. I give up.

As we linger on the beach and by the Door of No Return, people stream through it into the sand field below in ever increasing numbers. They, like us, are there for the international Vodoun (voodoo) festival, held here every year. Ouidah is the unofficial Vodoun capital of the world, and the festival is Vodoun’s most important gathering. It brings not only representatives from different countries and groups in West Africa, but also pilgrims from the USA, the Caribbean and other places, as well as curious tourists.

Vodoun is not the witchcraft that popular culture often reduces it to – it’s a religion and a culture, possibly 6000 years old or more, practiced by tens of millions of people, offering norms for leading a good life. Many practitioners combine it with other faiths: as Georges explains it, Christianity, Islam, etc. are for life-and-death things, Vodoun is for everyday things.

For the festival, the sand field next to the Door of No Return is lined with chairs and tent roofs. Each of the various tribes has its own area reserved along the edge. A growing stream of people wanders through the Door and disperses into their seats, singing and performing rituals. The stream culminates in the arrival of the spiritual chief of Vodoun, encircled by devotees dancing and singing, and lots of people taking pictures. I try to get close, but keep getting shooed away by more or less official-looking people saying that anyone who wants to take photos needs to buy a media bracelet.

The spiritual chief of Vodoun arriving festival, followed by a large crowd of people cheering and dancing to the music.

But Georges is well connected, and after everyone has taken their place, he leads me into the field to try to get some pictures of the action: dancers, speeches, acrobats in trance balancing on poles, spinning Zanbgeto masks, singers and drummers… It’s all extremely confusing. The midday sun beating down on my head, no idea what’s going on, people moving fast all around me, sand whirling up, things happening in every direction, me trying to find a good photo angle, not being sure what is ok to photograph, being ushered this way and that, throat drying up from thirst and exhaustion and emotion about this place…

The Zangbeto masks represent spirits of the night, and they protect the area by their spinning.

I started feeling dizzy and felt that it was time to go. The performances were over and the endless speeches about to start, so we wandered away towards the road, where merchants were selling Vodoun-related knickknacks and souvenirs. Stopping only for a drink and a meal*, we headed straight back to the peace and quiet of our little village, but a feeling of something larger than life stayed with me.

Even without having seen even one single rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle.

*… at a restaurant where I run into Chriss, the hat-wearing photographer from the sand field. Chriss is from Nigeria and has been travelling around Africa taking beautiful pictures, and we have an interesting discussion. All the best of luck in your projects, Chriss, if you happen to stop by here!


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Benin: Inspiration

In a previous post, it was mentioned that Indonesia is “really really big”. Well, Africa is about 15 times bigger, and spectacularly diverse with thousands of ethnic groups. Yet, as a Westerner having visited one West African country and entering a second, it is impossible not to compare those countries to each other.

So here are my first impressions of Benin, compared to my experiences of Guinea*:

Chaotic airport in Cotonou like the one in Conakry, although a tad more modern and fresh. Equally crazy traffic, lots more motorcycles. Better roads, not as hilly, not as many gaping holes and roadblocks. The same huts of corrugated iron and wooden poles along the roads. The same red earth. The same smells of soil, heat and gasoline. Foam mattress just as bumpy.

And hot! Hotter than South-East Asia, maybe more humid too.

My visit to the little village of Grand-Popo, in the far western end of Benin, is the result of a chain of coincidences too long to explain here. The short version is that my dear friend Camilla, a musician from Finland, is about to marry Georges, a musician and multi-artist from Benin. Together, they are starting up a cultural centre in the village, to work with the local children and to develop their unique fusion of Western and West-African culture.** They have invited me to stay at the centre as a friend and bridesmaid-to-be. Camilla’s sister Jeanette and brother-in-law Jan are also here for part of my stay.

Lots of things happen during my two and a half weeks: the Grand Opening Concert of the Centre, a musical boat trip down the Mono river and back (with villagers running down to the shore to dance as we floated by), a New Year’s Eve celebration at the restaurant Saveurs d’Afrique (with Georges beating the countdown to midnight on his djembe), a concert at the Villa Karo main stage (with me in the dance troupe! video here), the international voodoo festival in Ouidah (more on that later), late night beach bonfires with music and dancing, making music videos with the band (numbers one and three on YouTube)…

Ataï on the Mono river.

Our floating orchestra heading back towards Grand-Popo.

But what most stays with me are the little moments in between. The hours spent in the garden – making and drinking ataï tea, watching Richard and Tanko create a marionette from scrap pieces of fabric and string, learning the seven-beat rhythm on maracas with Adja and Abdoulaye, talking to Gabin the artist. Slow walks down to the village street, under the hammering weight of the sun, to buy water and coal. The boom of Atlantic waves against the endless, empty beach, heard all over the village. Those hazy mornings when it seems like the world ends a couple hundred metres away. Looking up into the mosquito net at night, breathing, feeling life streaming through every cell in my body. Discussions about art, culture, spirituality, life.

Maybe it’s a difference in culture, maybe it arises from cultural clashes, maybe it’s a matter of spending every waking hour with artists and musicians – there is a spirituality here that is rare in my life otherwise. I noticed it in Guinea, too: talk of less worldly things, of good and bad, of how to live your life, of how to be a good person. Back home there are practical conversations, intellectual conversations, moral conversations, funny conversations – but there seems to be a vacuum around matters of the soul. Maybe my social circles are too secular for that. Maybe it’s part of the reason that happiness does not correlate with BNP.

On top of that, there’s so much good in the social culture here: you take care of each other, you make tiny resources go a long way, you get things to work in spite of seemingly impossible circumstances, you don’t complain. People wish you well: they say “Bon travail” if they walk by when you are writing in your diary, “Bon appétit” if you happen to be having lunch when they stop by, “Bon repos” if you say you’re going to take a nap.

Neighbourhood kids jamming in the garden. Adja on guitar, Richard on drums and vocals, Camilla on maracas. Sorry about the blown-out highlights, was learning to use my new camera…

As my previous African experiences, this one too was a journey into the artistic side of life. Bayonne had allowed me to reconnect with African dancing, and in Benin that connection was made stronger. It’s been a very private thing for me so far, and not something I’ve been wanting to show off in spite of more than ten years’ experience. Especially the improvisation part, which is central in the living dance culture of West Africa, has been difficult for me. Being able to follow choreographies is not the same thing as being able to come up with moves on the spot, with a circle of musicians and dancers watching.

But Camilla, with her insights in improvising on piano, helped me realize that improvisation needs to be practised. And Georges encouraged me that it’s time to take the next step, saying that if you keep pouring something into a glass, eventually it will flow over. So that’s how I left Benin: glass full, calm and excited at the same time, ready to move on. To what, exactly, remains to be seen.

The night before I left, we had a beach bonfire, with CLAN playing, Richard singing and playing the talking drum, and local kids dancing.

*According to the Failed States Index, Guinea is considerably less stable than Benin, especially when it comes to tensions between groups, corruption and lack of representativeness in government, and violation of human rights. Still, Benin struggles almost as much with poverty, public services such as education and infrastructure, and demographic pressures such as disease, malnutrition, and population growth.

**As this post is published, the centre is up and running, and accepting visitors.

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Euskadi and Catalunya: Not Spain

It wouldn’t really be fair to leave San Sebastian, Bilbao and Barcelona out of this blog. They may have been digressions from the linguistic ramble in France, but they were very enjoyable digressions. May the photos speak for themselves.

San Sebastian

A couple of videos from Santo Tomás in San Sebastian

The crowded Plaza de la Constitución and people drinking cider:

Folk dancing:

Bilbao

Barcelona

Next time on the rambles: Africa!

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Pays Basque: A linguistic ramble, part deux

Is two and a half months of living in a French town enough to go from get-by-in-a-cafe French to confidently-manage-most-situations French (see the linguistic ramble, part one)? Probably, if you do it right. I didn’t.

First of all, two and a half months can go really fast. One week finding a place to stay, weekends in San Sebastian and Bilbao, a few days’ visit from a friend, a couple of weeks working on finding private English students – halfway through. A couple more visits to San Sebastian, lesson planning and teaching, a quick visit to Barcelona and Helsinki, a road trip in the mountains – one week left.

Second, as it turns out, if you want to learn by immersion, you kind of have to get out of the house and actually talk to people. I had no job and took no French classes, and just walking up to someone and saying hi is a lot to ask from a Finn. My home had fast wifi, a comfy bed and a well-equipped kitchen. Planning English lessons was time-consuming. The cafés were expensive and the coffee honestly not that good. Popping down to the boulangerie for a fresh baguette every morning gets old quickly when you’re not really a morning person. All this piled up into a considerable threshold for leaving the house, which my motivation wasn’t strong enough to climb over – at least not every day.

My French did improve, though, no question about that. Shopping in market halls, watching TV and looking up the unfamiliar words, using French cooking recipes, jogging along the Nive river listening to French podcasts – together these things improved my vocabulary, confidence and listening skills quite a bit.

Even more rewarding was talking to my lovely flatmate/landlady Virginie. Living in her apartment was really a brilliant stroke of luck. Partly because moving in where someone else already lives means that there are things like bedsheets, pepper mills and Scotch tape available, but mostly because we would chat a little bit every day. She has the capacity to slow down and speak simply enough for me to just understand, which is a rare talent. Merci, chère Virginie, pour m’inviter dans ta maison et ta vie!

Another stroke of luck were the weekly African dance classes at the local community college. I had spent all year without my dearest hobby, and walking into the studio for the first time, seeing the drums piled up against the wall, hearing two balafons playing – it felt like coming home! Amazing how rhythms and movements from West Africa can create such a common ground for a bunch of French people and a Finn.

Here, I made friends with delightful Basque sisters Maia and Teija, who even were nice enough to take me to a rugby game. In this part of France, football is not that popular, but rubgy is huge. The game was a lot of fun to follow, although Maia had to spend most of it explaining to me what was going on. In French, bien sûr.

It was also very rewarding to put my CELTA skills to the test with two private students: a young military man who was going to be stationed in Germany, and an elderly music and art lover who lived out in the country. The teaching experience I gained was good consolation for not achieving Grand Master Ninja level in French. Plus, it gave me a little pocket money. Most of which I spent on food.

So, before I knew it, it was time to leave. On my last night, Virginie asked what the best thing had been during my stay in France. I couldn’t really answer then and there. The answer only came to me on the airplane headed for Finland: After nine months on the road, a couple of nights here and a couple of weeks there, in shabby hostels and spartan bungalows, my soul had found peace in Virginie’s beautiful, cosy apartment. Travelling is necessary, but so is having a place that feels like home.

But before making a new home for myself in Helsinki and going back to being a responsible citizen, there would still be more adventure: two and a half weeks in Benin. In other words, more rambles to come!

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