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4.11.13

Penn & Teller - It's What's for Dinner

At a restaurant in German city of Aachen I noticed familiar names on the menu. The item number 451 was called Jubi-Pennteller. I'm talking, of course, about Penn Jillette and Teller, entertainers famous for magic and tv shows like Bullshit! What on Earth have my favourite magicians, sceptics and bullshit revealers to do with German cuisine?


I already knew that Teller is German for plate and it didn't take too long to find out that Penner or Pennbruder means bum (as in scrounger, tramp or hobo). Thus, ein Pennteller would be maybe something like hobo plate, and the prefix Jubi, which probably derives from das Jubiläum, tells it is more fe(a)stive than just an 'ordinary' hobo plate. And what would be more feastive for your regular bum than some Puttes (local version of hash browns), cured pork, bratwurst, mashed potato, bratwurst and sauerkraut (we're in Germany after all)? Probably Penn & Teller themselves would agree that this is no bullshit!

28.8.13

Weird Europe - How to Find Unusual Attractions

Frightened tourists on an Edinburgh ghost tour.
When I'm traveling, I usually try to find if there's something unusual or exceptional to do or to see in the area. Sometimes even the most common touristy places have totally 'something different' to offer. For example, I never fancied the idea of going to Spanish Costa del sol, which has practically been covered with concrete over the last five decades and which annually sees way more tourists than local people. Of course, there are the wonderful caves of Nerja and the magnificent Alhambra castle in the area, which despite their being perfect school-book examples of tourist traps, are truly mystical and awe-inspiring must-see destinations for anyone. Then again, I dug some more and found out about El camino del rey, the infamous scariest footpath in the world. It's just around the corner in the Sunny Coast, but when I was there the first time I had no idea of the place. The second visit, after some research, resulted to one of the daunting trips I've ever made. Read more about it here.

Lurgrotte Semriach (Austria) gone phallic.
But how to find those different places? How to find the path less travelled? Most tourists don't have the opportunity to spend months and months drifting around, finding the coolest places and the secret beaches that no one has ever heard of. Usually it's the one or two week dash to the destination, some hanging around there, then back home and to the rat race. You can be lucky and find that awesome waterfall or that spectacular food selling street vendor, but it never hurts to do your homework before you even start packing. Usually I start by Googling if there are caves near the destination. Caves are cool (yes, literally too). I mentioned the Nerja caves above, but I've visited also couple of others. Sailed on an underwater river in Belgium. Become awestruck by the Naida caves on an Indian island (video link). Another must-Google for me are ossuaries. I've seen only few of the many European ones and they're fascinating. I'll definitely visit any if there's one nearby my destination.

So Google is your friend. But how did travellers find those coolest places before internet? Believe me or not, but there are these things called books! I ran into a wonderfully named guide, Weird Europe (by Kristan Lawson & Anneli Rufus), which is already quite old, my copy being 1999 edition. But it promises bizarre, macabre and just plain weird sights to its reader, including sewer tours, two-headed animals, pictures drawn by dead people and underground cities. It's just a book for me, and despite its age, most of the attractions are still there. Well, the Beatles Museum in Cologne has moved, but the caves, crypts and tombs seldom wander away from their present location. With this book I found about this awesome hedge maze next to a three-country-borderstone, got reminded of certain church chamber that has walls decorated with human bones (video link) and discovered an underground river in Belgium (who would have thought that there are such a many caves in Belgium). Many of the places I have already visited, and I happen to know few attractions that should be mentioned in the book that aren't there, but one thing is sure: I'll never leave for a European country any more without checking Weird Europe contents and index first.

8.1.13

Payback

A camera is one of the most common and distinctive single characteristics of a tourist. Everyone knows the hordes of the Japanese tourists swarming all over the world photographing every silliest detail they can find. But most 'western' tourists also have for decades taken for granted that they can travel to another country and take photos of children, animals, beggars, homes, old people, religious sites, people at their work and so on. Many times without asking a permission. I know I have. Then I travelled to India.

It began already in Mumbai. On the very touristy island of Elephanta some Indian people wanted to have themselves photographed with my six-year-old son. Well, he's blonde haired and pale skinned, so I guess he can look quite exotic in Indian eyes. A man touched his hair, then kissed his own fingers and took them on his heart. A lucky touch? One would think a huge city like Mumbai sees its share of caucasian tourists so regularly that it wouldn't be so big a deal, but then these people were most probably tourists in Mumbai themselves. Little did we know that it was just a small taste of what was to come.

We flew to the island of Diu, which is a former Portuguese colony just below the state of Gujarat. It has an old fort, some beautiful beaches, resorts, churches, temples and other sights, but compared to e.g. some parts of Goa, it's very small-scale, relaxed and laid-back. Foreign travel agencies don't bring people here. Tourists have to find this place themselves. On the other hand, Diu is to a great extent a holiday island to the Gujarati people. The big Indian state of Gujarat is a dry one - the local hero, no one less than Mahatma Gandhi himself, didn't have a taste for booze, so alcohol is banned for the rest of the people too. It's legal in Diu, however, so a drunk Gujarati is not a rare sight on the island, especially during big holidays like Diwali, Christmas or New Year.

Local people on Diu probably see caucasian tourists enough so that they're not that impressed, but the (often tipsy and uninhibited) Gujarati tourists often don't hesitate to show their astonishment of seeing exotic-looking palefaces. - Hello! Where are you from? Your name? Nationality? Profession? One photo? One only! they'd typically ask. Then, when the photographing permission is granted, they take turns to pose with the unusual westerners. Most of them are very friendly and clearly earnest. We got sincere invitations to visit people's homes only three hours drive! away from Diu. I still have a piece of paper on which a guy wrote three different phone numbers of his so that I could call him, the reason I really don't know. He didn't even speak English.

Then there's the awkwardness of this type of behaviour. No matter if you're absorbed in your book or otherwise look like you'd like to be alone: One photo only! If you're a woman in a bikini on a beach, you can be sure the mobile phone cameras will lick your body from head to toes. Without a male companion the thin line of harassment can get stepped over very easily. One kiss please! Just one kiss! 

In the end, the photographing and the curiousness towards western looking people is, of course, just a retaliation for all the photos the western people have taken over the years. It's a matter of taking something and giving something. On Diu we rarely denied the photographing, and posed for most photographs when asked. More annoying was to notice being shot on video or photos on the beach without having asked permission. Then again, I've done that too. It's just a payback.

3.12.12

Soaking up Siberia - Vodka (and Wine)

I'm positive it's possible to travel across Russia without having a single drop of vodka, but I have to admit did have a drop or two. We bought a bottle of locally made product from a shop next to Moscow station to be consumed by taking a shot once or twice every day. Strictly for medicinal pruposes, you know. I have never been any particular fan of vodka, even though I'm supposed to live on the Vodka Belt, but normally I won't turn down a shot if offered.

Salmiak vodka and some Chinese buildings at the background.
Travellers on the Trans Siberian railway are often advised to be prepared of getting a share of local passengers' provisions. It's also advisable to offer your food or drinks to other people travelling with you. So I grabbed a bottle of Salmiakki Koskenkorva, a popular vodka-based Finnish liqueur spiced with salty liquorice with me to be shared during the trip. Since I travelled the first half of the Trans Siberian trip in the first class compartment, there wasn't too many opportunities to share anything. After Irkutsk there was an American father & son in the same compartment with us, but since the boy was clearly under-aged, I decided better not to offer any alcohol around. Food-based supplies were shared, of course!

After 9000+ kilometres and half a  litre of vodka.
When we left Ulan Bator we got new train and new mates to share the train car compartment. Whether it was a pure coincidence, or some sneaky antics of the Mongolian railway authorities, they were Finns! Several thousands of kilometres through two continents, and here we sat, four Finns: us, father and son and our new travelling companions, mother and daughter. It didn't take too long to dig up the salmiak vodka and raise a toast to being a Finn on a Trans Siberian train. During the next 24 hours we had toasted the whole bottle empty, not much before the train pulled to the railway station in Beijing.


If you watch carefully, you might spot our wine bottle
on the other side of the window.
I mentioned wine in the topic, didn't I? Yeah, we had some on the rail. In Moscow, when we purchased the medicinal vodka bottle at the shop near the station, we also bought a bottle of wine. To go with the meals, you know. There was a good assortment of wines to choose from in the shop, many brands being familiar from Finnish alcohol selling establishments already. It was good wine, I have to admit. However, it remained the only bottle of wine we ended up having during the trip. Beer seemed to be the most suitable (alcoholic) drink for the hot hot hot summer of 2010 on the Trans Siberian railway.

Previous chapters of Soaking up Siberia:
- Tea and Coffee
- Kvass