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26.12.10

Kerosene Creek

Hot river in the midst of the forest? Not your everyday aquatic discovery, I'd say. Well, people from New Zealand, Iceland or other volcanic areas in the world would probably be bored to death by such an everyday geothermal feature, but at least for us people from a country of solid bedrock encountering a steaming rivulet in the middle of nowhere is certainly an and now for something completely different -moment.

Some 30-35 km south from the city of Rotorua, New Zealand, before the quite closely situated astonishing Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, there is an undistinguished dirt road turning left from the State Highway 5. After a dusty and bumpy couple of kilometers there is a small expanse beside the road where you can park. Signs hanging on trees, if the locals haven't torn them off, tell you you're there. At any rate you can deduce you're at the right place from the other cars that are parked there. Right here you find a footpath that takes you to a little swimming place surrounded by forest.

Before you arrive to the swimming area, the path takes you very close to the brook. It's called Kerosene Creek, a small stream warmed by Mother Nature herself with her geothermal activity. It's amazing to spot the small river that is actually steaming with heat. Follow it for couple of hundred meters and you will arrive at a tiny opening in the forest where the creek makes a little pool under a waterfall. Here's the best place to take a dip. 

The water temperature varies depending the time of the year and amount of water in the creek. When we visited the spot it was clearly warmer than the body temperature. If you dug your feet in the bottom sand under the waterfall, it was almost burning hot. Except for a small ladder at the edge of the pool, there's nothing built here - no changing rooms, no vendors. Just a perfect little nature's own spa in the woods.


19.12.10

Zimmer Frei

Searching for a bed & breakfast in Germany.

11.12.10

The Parking Lot Ladies

Starting point
of the hiking trails
Axamer Lizum. Strange name, even for an Austrian alpine skiing center. We drove our rental car to the sun-baked parking lot of this summery skiing center nearby Innsbruck. The plan was to take a few hour hike on the surrounding mountains. We had arrived in Innsbruck only couple of hours earlier, and because of parking problems, we were able only to book a bed & breakfast but not to unload our luggage yet from the car. We wanted to make the most of the sunny day, so we decided to leave quickly for the mountains and change our car-sitting clothes into mountain-hiking clothes on that Axamer Lizum parking lot. The vast car park was hot, windless and almost empty; maybe a dozen cars were parked neatly on their spaces close to a maintenance building and the spot where the hiking trails begin. Except for the Ladies' car.

Under the canopy of the maintenance building, just a few meters from us, there was parked an old car. Inside were sitting two grim looking elderly ladies. The driver lady had her door open, and the shotgun side lady had opened her window. Neither of them said a word, during the whole episode. The car radio was playing quietly. Both ladies wore huge fly-eye -like sunglasses, and they just sat there. Quiet. And staring.

We hadn't even noticed the car nor the ladies at first, and had opened our suitcases and spread our things here and there quite openly when changing our gear. We had worn our trekking shoes, applied sunblock and I had studied the nearby hiking trail map. Luckily my wife suddenly realised it: One could see we had all our belongings in the car, we were about to be away for several hours, and potential car burglars would be able to work in peace at the almost deserted car park. At first I reckoned that such old ladies can't have malicious thoughts. But the ladies kept staring at our general direction (if I could deduce it despite their big fly-eye sunglasses).

I decided to have 'staring contest' with the shotgun side lady. We were both wearing sunglasses, so neither of us could really see if the other was staring straight into another's eyes. However, suddenly the shotgun lady turned her face away. All this time until now she had stared us. I felt a nasty cramp in my guts - they are really observing us there!

Above Innsbruck
We decided to take every easily enough portable piece of valuables with us: cameras, money, passports, car papers etc. Well, supposedly we would have done that anyway. Besides, that pure evilness emanating pair of ladies were surely after our car, weren't they? They would call a burglar team once they saw us on the mountain slope half a kilometer higher. Or they would steal it themselves.

Then I got a cunning idea: I would take a photograph of my wife so that the ladies, their car and its register plate would be visible in the background of the photo. Wife struck a pose next to our automobile and I positioned myself so that the needed information would get photographed as well. As soon as I lifted the camera in front of my face the car suddenly started and speeded tyres almost screaming away from the picture. The driver lady pulled her door closed while the car was already moving.

At this point the ladies' malevolent intentions didn't seem to be only our paranoid imagination any more. I was too stupefied to actually press the shutter, so the photo ended up to be not taken. The car stopped at the far end of the car park, at the exit. I raised the camera  in front of my face again, and the car quickly drove away.

4.12.10

(Past) Tension in the Airport

My English skills are far from perfect. There are probably many mistakes in this very blog entry that I missed when I proofread the text. So what, I still get along quite well with my English, which is more important than speaking with flawless grammar. Besides, Broken English is the most spoken language in the World.  But sometimes speaking the crucial sentences 100% correct can be very important.

Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Quick stopover. We are coming from New York, USA heading back to Finland. My wife is carrying a big camera in its bag. There is an unlabelled desk in the middle of the corridor. I mean, there reads nothing anywhere, just a desk. And two officials, a young man and a senior man, probably from the customs.

- Please step over here, one of them tells us. We were just a couple of people in the passenger flow, by no means everyone was stopped.  
- Do you have a camera in there? the younger man asks, pointing at the camera bag my wife was carrying.
- Yes.
- Could you open the bag, please?
- Of course. We show the camera to the officers. It's only few months old, so it still looks quite new.
- Where did you board this? Asks the younger man, or so we think.
- Um, in New York, we reply, both wondering about the odd question. But hey, that's where we're coming from. In few moments we'll board it into another plane that goes to Finland.
 - Aha! You have to pay duty for the camera then! the man declares triumphantly. The older man starts digging up some forms to fill in.

We are baffled by the turn the conversation just took. We explain that the camera is bought in Finland last November or so, and unfortunately we haven't been carrying a receipt with us in the last few months any more.  

- But you just said you bought it in New York, the man accuses.

After our brains ticking over for couple of seconds we both realise at the same time the young customs officer has used a double past tense, i.e. he asked us: Where did you bought this? where 'bought' sounded like 'board' in our ears. Probably partly because 'boarding' is not very unusual word to hear in an airport context.

My wife tries to explain the man where it all had gone wrong, but he becomes more and more puzzled. I start to dig pen and notebook from my backpack in order to make him understand the mistake by showing him the jumbled words written. Finally the senior officer seems to get what my wife tries to explain because he says it's all ok. We're free to go. We still don't know if that poor younger man ever understood what actually went wrong in that conversation.

25.11.10

Vintage Bicycling in England

A tad too big for a 2-year-old.
Couple of summers ago we took our kid to a photographer in Loughborough, England (who also is a friend of ours). During that trip I was introduced to this early version of what we now call a bicycle: the Penny-Farthing. The name is inspired from the size difference between old British penny and quarter penny coin, aka Farthing. The bike owner Mike, who is a relative to the abovementioned photographer, let us sit on the saddle for some high-wheeler tourist poses. He also taught me a bit how to scoot with the velocipede, but the actual mounting  seemed so difficult that we agreed I'd try the actual riding the next time. Mike himself had a sovereign command of Penny-Farthing riding. He made it seem so easy that I became determined to visit him again some day and learn to mount that damned vehicular structure.

Luckily we had an opportunity for another visit in less than a year, and this time I asked if I could try the actual ride on the Penny-Farthing. I have to say I admire the people who in their time used the high wheels for their everyday businesses, commuting etc. Penny-Farthing clearly had a mind of its own, and despite my repeated attempts, I managed to ride only few meters before the bicycle decided I should turn right into a ditch almost falling on Mike.

I made a small silent film pastiche video out of the experience. Yes, Ye Olde English used in the narration frames is very much pseudo old.



15.11.10

El Tintero

One of the greatest restaurant and eating experiences I've ever had was in Malaga, Spain. Picture this: A huge, covered seaside area with lots of identical tables with cheap paper linen on them, a big half-open kitchen with displays of various types of fish and seafood and tens of waiters constantly pouring out of the kitchen carrying armloads of delicious smelling cooked servings. And the noise. The noise! In an ordinary crowded restaurant it's obvious there's some background noise, but in El Tintero the cacophony is almost infernal. Not only because of the customers - it's mostly because of the waiters. They're not bringing by order made servings to the tables. They're trying to get rid of the servings they're carrying by shouting the name of the serving to the crowd. And each waiter tries to outshout the next one.

Yes. El Tintero is a strange kind of a food 'auction', where the paying customers have to be quick if they want to get that particular portion the waiter is carrying. Once you raise your hand in a 'bid' towards a waiter who is carrying something you would like, he will bring you a platter. Don't worry: if the next table gourmands hoard all those plates of prawns that man was carrying, there will be more available in no time. The waiters keep coming out of the kitchen with a variety of sea-swimming and bottom-crawling creatures, sardines, swordfish, mussels, cuttlefish, lobster, you name it. Just attract the waiter's attention and pick what you like. Order a pitcher of Spanish beer or bottle of wine along the food. Don't forget to get some salad, and e.g.  papas bravas con alioli. And grab that last platter of sole that waiter's carrying over there!

The restaurant first seems to be like an infernal chaos with hundreds of people making hellish clamour, but it soon starts to appear having its own laws of nature. Everything works here fine, just like it should. Once you get the idea of 'bidding' for the food, a collection of empty plates starts soon piling up on your table, especially if you're not alone.You can't resist picking one more plate of chanquetes as you listen to the guitar player who adds in to the racket by wandering among the waiters and tables singing Andalucian folk songs. When you finally decide it's time to go, you must call for a waiter with a notebook in his hand. He takes a brief glance at the stockpile of empty plates, bowls, pitchers and bottles on your table and quickly calculates the total sum and writes it on your tablecloth!

Visiting El Tintero is indulging oneself in a hedonistic eating spree, where the emphasis is not on the restaurant's fancy setting rather than on having lots of absolutely great food in good company. El Tintero serves all your senses.



7.11.10

Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian Railway

Couple of years ago I discovered that my father's long-time dream had been to travel from Finland to Beijing, China by train. I hadn't actually paid much thought to the idea myself, but when I heard of my father's dream, I realised that it's something I definitely have to do too. It's the legendary Trans-Siberian railway after all. My mother didn't even consider going to such an exhausting trip with dad, and my wife told me that while she could imagine doing it at some point in her life, that point is not even close now. So, the logical outcome was that me and dad started planning the trip together.

We made the two-week trip last summer. I wanted to do the whole trip by train starting from my home town. It seemed (and still does!) more elegant than to fly to Moscow and take the train from there. And that's what we did. I wrote a blog in Finnish about the trip, and I guess I'll write more about the trip on this blog later, but meanwhile, here's a video in three parts I whipped up from the photo and video material of the trip.

Part one is mostly about the Russian part of the trip:


Part two, Mongolia:


Conclusion: China.

2.11.10

Car Rental Scam

We once rented a car at Hahn airport in Germany. I had compared cars and prices beforehand in the internet and ended up booking a car from Avis. Problems occurred in Switzerland when we found our car dented at the parking lot of our lodging. It had happened during the night, but the wonderfull staff at the lodging was able to deduce the culprit from the pieces of the turn signal and stoplight covering that was left on the site: It was clearly from a Volvo, and there was only one Volvo in that village, and as it happens, the Volvo owner had been watching the soccer game the previous night at the restaurant.
 
Our host calls the Volvo man, who, very shamefacedly, arrives and apologizes to us. We still have to do the paperwork that has always to be done when your rental car gets into an accident. We are in a long mountain valley, where the small villages are located in a line next to each other, and nearly not everyone has a police station. However, there happens to be an Avis rental in the next village, just couple of kilometers away. Since our car is still driveable despite the dent, we drive to the Avis office with the Volvo man.

The man at the local Avis is very helpful and we fill in the damage report. He assures we don't even need the police, because the culprit has by a written confession admitted being the guilty part. We double, no, triple checked that we don't need the police, and since the rental company guy himself convinces it's ok, we shook hands and continued the vacation with the dented car. Although, we decide to lower the deductible from € 750 to € 75 by buying a Super Collision Damage Waiver instead of the regular CDW. This time we were lucky we found the guilty part, the next time probably not.

About six months later I get a letter from the German Avis which claims that my credit card has been charged € 750 because the Volvo man has retracted his confession! And because we never called the police Avis can't do but charge the deductible from me! In about a week I received another letter with almost similar information, but in that one there wasn't any reference of retracting the confession. I was furious. That monkey had the nerve to withdraw his confession. Obviously he had finally got the bill and decided to change his mind. And wait a minute, that guy in the local Avis rental, where we did that paper work, he was of course a friend of that scum of a Volvo owner. Of course he convinced us not to contact the police so that his friend wouldn't have to pay.

I called my credit card company (American Express) explaining the situation and indeed there was a € 750 bill coming from Avis, Koblenz, Germany. Amex was most friendly to freeze that part of the bill and they said they will also ask for an explanation from Avis. I used hours to track the people that months ago were somehow involved, and finally, through one employee of the lodging I managed to get the information that the Volvo man had actually never retracted his confession. If anything, he had been wondering why the bill hasn't come. The plot thickens...

Should I have reported this too?
I had emailed  my complaint to Avis since the beginning and kept them updated about my investigations. They never contacted me back. Not when I asked them something, not when I submitted my findings about the Volvo man denying he's retracted his confession. Nothing. Zero. Nada. The only things I got from Avis was the two abovementioned letters in the beginning and of course the € 750 charge in my credit card bill. They also didn't give any kind of clarification to Amex, who, after a while, cancelled the € 750 part from my credit card bill. When the original rental became one year old, Avis lost its right to charge my credit card, and the situation was over.

Now, Avis tried to charge me the deductable by lying about the guilty part. They also gave me false information at the village office by assuring that we don't need the police. They tried to use that against me, even when I had obeyed their direct advice not to contact the authorities. Always contact the police. This is why I will never use Avis again. I know it's a bit unfair, since I understand the Avis offices work with some kind of a franchising principle, and you can't blame everyone if one tries a scam on you. But still...


27.10.10

Correspondent's Vest

The ultimately best traveller's companion and the thing to bring is a correspondent's vest (aka photographer's vest). You know, that often green or khaki coloured multipocketed piece of garment with lots of zippers and compartments. Sure, depending on the design, it might make you look like you're going to a hunting spree. Or just plain country bumpkin. In the best case scenario, you might resemble a foreign correspondent or a photo journalist. But for a traveller, it's almost as useful as duct tape.

No Sweat!
You can stuff loads of your belongings inside the pockets. It's especially useful in the airports, when you, on your way back home, have filled your luggage with all those souvenirs, awful tasting local liquor bottles and presents, and you're way beyond the airline weight limits. The solution is to wear your correspondent's vest and make use of its pocket space. You can fit several books there as well as some other heavier stuff like electric devices, chargers and so on. It's easy to toss the vest with all its contents in the security check box and have the whole entity X-rayed. You will also look rather silly when wandering about the airport wearing a fully loaded vest.

But it's not only the airport where the correspondent's vest is useful. On the road, it's a practical substitute for handbags and backbags, even without having to stuff it full. You will be able to carry your wallet, passports (if you have to keep them with you), medicine, pocket knife, lighter, notes, maps, pencils, phone, camera, torch etc. very close to your body. The vest naturally doesn't give an absolute protection against pickpockets, but it's harder to steal anything from your breast pocket than from your bag. Plus, you have everything handy should you need it immediately. You can also sew a secret pocket somewhere inside for your emergecy money.

There seems to be a very nice quality version of correspondent's vest on sale. I bought mine, a cheapo version, at Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. Its design is quite military-esque, but it has served me well for couple of years. (Well, I recently pulled the slider off of one of the zippers, but what did you expect for a 15 dollar vest.) I learned the awesomeness of this fine piece of clothing from the excellent Travel Channel documentary Madventures by my countrymen Riku & Tunna, where Riku's regular gear is the mighty correspondent's vest.

25.10.10

The Little Shop of Horrors

Storefront Scream King
I just came from Rome couple of days ago. Despite the loads and loads of most amazing historical, architectonic, religious and mystical sights and sites of the city, I have to confess one of my main goals of the trip was to visit the shop and museum of the grand-old-man of Italian horror cinema, Dario Argento.

I grew up my teenage years among horror movies in strictly movie-censored Finland. Because of the censorship, all the decent horror films released in my country had been cut mindlessly, not paying any attention what happens to the plot if you take random seconds or minutes away from here and there. That's why we had vivid underground culture of sharing uncut horror movies brought or ordered from abroad. The films would spread around being copied, the copies would being copied, ending up to be 15th or so generation copies with barely watchable picture, occasional lack of sound or colours (we are talking VHS here, youngsters)... That was the time I got acquainted with Italian horror cinema, giallo, Lucio Fulci, Bavas, Ruggero Deodato - and maestro Argento.

The Note from HELL
That's why visiting the museum was almost like a pilgrimage to me. After a short metro ride and a bit of urban navigation we find the Profondo Rosso store. Here we are, at the roots of a Legend. Windows full of scary stuff, much more inside. But what do we find at the site? The not-English-speaking employee gesticulates effectively passing us the information that the Museum is closed. Indeed, the hand-written note at the entrance said in Italian something about the 2nd of November. And it isn't even Halloween yet! We Finns tend to be much more hand-controlled than Italians (at least when sober, which I was. Honestly.) but here I went totally Mediterranean. I spread my arms up wide yelling exaggeratedly Nooooo! and slammed my palms against my forehead recoiling them back up towards the heavens. The employee looked genuinely sorry and I gained my control again, gesturing and saying it's ok, no problem, no can do. Hell, at least I'm going to buy me something as a souvenir. I started rummaging among the eyeballs, monster fingers and vampire masks.

Very soon another man walks into the store. The employee speaks something to him, in Italian, of course. The second man suddenly asks us in English: Do you want to see the museum? Oh, those divine words of joy! The man appears to be the shopkeeper and he explains that the museum is not fully functional because Halloween is coming, and it's the peak season of sales for the store, so there are lots of boxes and other stuff around. But we could go in if we could forgive that and the employee would have to come with us, hope we understand. Understand? I would have danced him trepak half-naked had it occured him to ask. (I didn't do my homework properly, because only after returning home I discovered that the shopkeeper is an Italian director Luigi Cozzi. I actually watched one of his films, Contamination not long ago. Shame on me for not acknowledging. Hell, I could even have asked for an autograph.)

So we buy tickets and descent to the underground vaults of Dario Argento's Horror Museum. It consists of five or six red brick vaulted chambers of Argento movie memorabilia, like the real props and dolls used in making of his films, and other collector stuff like real size Darth Vader and Freddy Krueger. There is a voice-over English speaking narrator from the loudspeakers presenting the chambers in order, so you have to suit your moves in the museum according the narration. The whole place is a bit shabby in a most sympathetical way. First of all, it a very small museum (not the smallest, I've visited, but still). Poor old Darth is quite dusty, and the props actually look quite like what they are: old movie props from the Eighties or so. The narration is very campy with its Italian accent and grandiose horroresque intonation. Priceless. But one can easily see that the museum is built with love, and if you're into horror cinema at all, this is a place to visit.
Search Amazon.com for Dario Argento!

13.10.10

How to Peel a Pineapple

Once you've tasted fresh pineapple plucked straight from the tree and chopped in front of your eyes, you know there's no going back to tinned chunks. Granted, the pineapples they sell in Western greengroceries can be raw and more bitter tasting than the ones you can buy on any decent beach in Southeast Asia. But peeling and slicing your own pineapple beats opening a can anytime.

This seems to be one the most economic (and probably time taking) way to prepare a pineapple wasting the precious flesh as little as possible. It also gives very nice looking groovy pineapple result. I have seen people peeling pineapples this way many times in Thailand, and finally one time in Vietnam I thought of filming the procedure. Notice the disfigured hand of the nice fruit seller lady.

First off, here's a fast version of the video, where you'll get the idea how to cut a pineapple by Fibonacci sequence. Scroll a bit down for the normal speed version.



Starting Another Blog

I have two blogs already. I decided to start the first one, when I booked a Trans-Siberian trip for me and my father last spring. I thought it would be nice to keep kind of a diary about the trip and at the same time keep friends and family updated on it. Now that the trip is behind, I still find that some people actually find their way to my blog when they are looking information on Trans-Siberian railway, Mongolia or e.g. China. So, it appears to be useful or interesting for a number of people.

The other blog doesn't have a clear theme or idea. It is merely a junkyard for thoughts I have at some moment felt the urge to write down. (One can see that I might be slightly obsessed with zombies.) However, I noticed that in that blog I had written some memories of trips I've done in my life under a tag souvenir or memento, as kind of journal spirited entries of some more or less weird occurrences that have happened while on the prowl. As both of the mentioned blogs are in Finnish, I figured that I might as well start a third, English one, that would collect the usefulness-interest aspect and my occasional need to write down travel anecdotes before i forget them, and to enable my dear Finnish-challenged friends and occasional search engine readers to read it. I know, my English skills are far from perfect, thank you very many.

I tweaked the idea of mondo films to name the blog. Jacopetti & Prosperi had Mondo Cane, Russ Meyer made Mondo Topless, John Waters directed Mondo Trasho. Thus: Mondo Memento.