Wanderlust Au Naturel

Elina Wanderlust Cover


We’re all familiar with the stereotype of a young girl who goes travelling alone, oftentimes in Asia, and reports back home with Instagram photos of majestic mountaintops and awe-inspiring waterfalls. The captions include inspirational quotes and ooze strong, universal love for everything and everyone. The phenomenon of exceptional desire to explore is known by the term wanderlust, and this trend of discovering faraway lands and curious cultures has been strikingly visible in the western world for years. Sure, the urge to unearth what is new is a natural part of being human – the fact that in recent decades we have grown to know this trend of travelling is not telling us anything fresh about us people per se. We have wanted to see and conquer since ancient times, I daresay – but moving on from all the clichés, in this article, I am going to explore wanderlust itself.

Photo by Elina Virva

Photo by Elina Virva

The biggest and most straightforward reason as to why travelling has become more and more popular during the age of airplanes, and beyond, is simply economic growth. The development from such small salaries that they only cover every-day necessities to plumper wallets and affordable plane tickets may have had its ups and downs along the way of hundreds of years. However, spending on amusement has been self-evident for decades now, mostly in the western  countries, to be exact.

Thus, we can easily argue that travelling has become mundane years ago, partly because of monetary reasons. Contrarily, backpacking in foreign forests and admiring our earth from thousands of metres above is not every-day life for each young high school graduate, who form the majority of wanderlust campaigners. Take me, for example. I grew up in a small town, or to tell the truth, some country roads’ worth outside of a very small town. My quotidian view was a tall pine forest, a couple of birds flying about the backyard, and a silent lake. It took a car ride to even step out of the land owned by my family and relatives. I lived there for some 15 years, and the same year I graduated from the local high school, I was off to southern Europe, alone. Having spent a year volunteering and travelling around France and a little bit of Italy, having met and said goodbye to people from all around the world, having sensed something very different from the pine of the past, I now claim to understand wanderlust.

Photo by Elina Virva

Photo by Elina Virva

Discovering doesn’t always have to be cheesy and Instagram-captioned, it can also be silent and slow. Leaving family and Finland was hardly an easy step to take for the 19-year-old small town girl that I was, and during the first six months I didn’t encounter many #nofilter worth moments. It was mostly feeling helpless, homesick, lonely and tired from the constant combat with French and the French. I had a hard time learning how to do la bise and master the lengthy politeness poetry that was needed to act natural amongst the natives. It shocked a Northern newbie how every shop closed their doors at 7 pm, well before what would still be wonted working time in Scandinavia, the empire of efficiency. I struggled with being forced to take two hours for la sieste at lunch and then working late, while my inner self of the thousand lakes was crying for a faster pace.

This is a part of exploring a new culture that doesn’t always get exactly highlighted, but it still is a crucial part of the process. It is impossible to understand a different culture without trying to get accustomed to it, making mistakes and learning from them, and eventually, reaching that point where you feel comfortable within your brand-new home. For me, the process of fitting in peaked at around 7 months of living on French soil, and when it was the time to leave again, I had become so much of a stranger to my Nordic roots that I had to adjust again. When I, the grand, grown globetrotter, dragged my overweight valise again across the humble Helsinki-Vantaa airport, my family made sure to comment on my eccentric intonation and use of unnatural idioms in Finnish. Meanwhile, I had to gather all my strength to remember how Finns greet each other and, on my way back to life pre-wanders, to bury the idea of dropping by a boulangerie to purchase some Sunday croissants. Only after having been back in Finland for some three months, I felt at home again.

My French discoveries may not have always been Instagram worthy, but the sense of wanderlust I had been secretly growing inside of me for all my teenage years finally got satisfied.  I have come to learn to adjust; I have seen whole new types of trees, houses, manners, work ethics, coffee makers and dinner times; I have conquered a curious culture by adapting to it and learning from it – just for me. I travelled alone, and even though I made unforgettable friends along the way, it was still I who took the steps forward, who waited for the bus that was four hours late to go on a holiday on the coast by myself, who learnt which wine to order with a goat cheese salad in a Bordeaux restaurant, who found a way to an unseen place, who looked at it, and who remembered how to get back.

Photo by Elina Virva

Photo by Elina Virva

Above all: the grass still smelled the same, the sky still looked the familiar shade of blue, the every-day life still felt as ordinary as ever. Only the details were switched around just a little, so that I had to either adjust them or myself. I commenced what became the most difficult journey that I have ever taken, but it also taught me the most about life that I could have ever learnt in one year. And now, I’m happy at home, though as a little changed version of myself.

So, as certainly as is wanderlust a fundamental part of human nature, it doesn’t always equal what you see nowadays on glorious photos in social media. It takes a lot of effort to really explore, and most often than not, you will actually end up exploring yourself instead of a park, a city, or a mountain. One thing’s for sure: if you ever meet this magical motivation to go and see, the one that is known as wanderlust, you should listen to it. Instead of a foreign land, you might learn to conquer yourself. Now, if that is not a healthy hunger – wanting to grow as a person through learning to understand what is different – then what is?

From Benin, With Love

Beach at Grand-Popo
Photo by Caitlin Barán

Plenty of students experience internships and living abroad during their studies. Most of them just don’t experience these two simultaneously and in as an exotic and different environment as does Caitlin Barán, who is currently doing her a five-month internship at Villa Karo in Benin, West Africa. Villa Karo is a Finnish-African cultural center and artist residence located in the picturesque little seaside village of Grand-Popo. Barán ended up interning there by applying for traineeship through the CIMO traineeship program last fall. Talking with her, it is evident that her time in Benin has been a profound experience for her.

Marketplace at Comé Photo by Caitlin Barán

Marketplace at Comé
Photo by Caitlin Barán

“The culture here is very different, but it’s not too difficult to adjust to. Obviously, I’m always a bit of an outsider here, but I’ve gotten somewhat used to it. “

For Barán, the biggest cultural difference has been how much people care about others. She feels that the people in Benin are so much more interested in each other, and so much kinder than what she is used to in Finland, where, she admits, it often feels like people simply don’t care about others’ daily concerns such as flus, stressful life situations or funny everyday occurrences.

“Here, it’s just really different. Strangers greet each other on the street and always stop to ask how you are doing or how your day went. Every morning my neighbor asks me if I slept well and every day when I return from work she will ask me how my day went. One day, she was offended, because I had gone out of the house to do something without sharing my plans with her first, and she was worried about me. It’s just a whole another level of caring and it has also changed me as a person.”

When it comes down to it, however, Barán says that people are interested in the same things in everyday life as at back home, even though so many things in Benin are different. Beninese people want to read, eat a good meal, follow a football cup on TV, travel, attend concerts, and get time off work to go visit their families, just like in Finland.

“They just often have another kind of attitude towards life, and while there are so many people who have practically nothing, it seems to me that they are so much happier here than us in Finland who have everything, and still want more and more all the time.”

Baràn’s work days at Villa Karo vary quite a lot, sometimes involving staying in the library for the entire day, organizing books and talking to people – mainly children from the village, who come by to look at the books – while sometimes doing tours around the cultural center and its museums for all of the tourists that come to visit the place. She does other things too, and says it really depends so much on so many different factors.

“My most important task, however, is translating and interpreting back and forth from French to Finnish, and sometimes also English.”

French is an official language in Benin, and the locals in Grand-Popo speak it, though it is not their first language as they also speak the local language of Mina.

“The French is slightly different at times, as there are some words and idioms that I am not used to, having learnt my French in France. At first I was really confused when returning from work people would ask me: “Tu as fait un peu?”, meaning: “Have you done a bit?”. I was like, “a bit of what?”, until I finally googled it and found out that it’s just a way of saying “were you at work?”. It’s just a direct translation into French from an idiom in the local language.”

Barán spends her free time mostly with her friends, either driving out to nearby villages or cities to explore, or just hanging out in Grand-Popo.

“Last weekend we drove out to a village called Comé and had lunch in a little restaurant. Then we drove to a city called Possotomé to go swimming. It was a really hot day, so it was just wonderful to float in the pool and have a cold drink afterwards!”

Barán also does her laundry by hand and finds that it is such a pleasure to help the kids in her house by doing all the laundry with them on Sunday mornings. She is surprised at how well and quickly she was accepted into the community. In her house next door to her apartment there lives two sisters, the 2- and 5-year-old children of the younger one of them, and the teenage daughters of two of their other sisters. In addition, there is also her landlord who normally lives in the city of Cotonou, but stays with them during the weekends. Along with the people, inhabitants of the house also include three cats, the youngest one of which, Pekka, is only 2,5 months old.

Barán in front of her neighbor's restaurant La Légende Photo: Caitlin Barán

Barán in front of her neighbor’s restaurant La Légende
Photo: Caitlin Barán

“I’m so happy with my little community here, our house is simply the best place to live and my neighbors are the funniest and kindest people ever. And they just took me in, like that! They have a little boutique and a restaurant, and we always have so much fun there, listening to music and talking about stuff.”

She shares a little anecdote about the local people and their love of Lipton tea, which demonstrates the relaxed Beninese way of life.

“People drink a lot of Lipton tea here, and you can buy it pretty much anywhere. I went to buy some from a little store, because I wanted to drink it at work. The lady at the shop gave me a tiny box of Lipton teabags that had been opened and over half of them were missing. I am obviously getting used to the Grand-Popo way of life, because instead of complaining and wanting an unopened box, I just asked if I could get the opened box for half the price. I got my tea and everyone was happy!”

Despite enjoying her time in Benin, Barán misses her family and her cats back at home in Finland. In addition, she confesses to missing some of the normal, everyday things, such as going to a grocery store to buy things to eat and cooking them at home.

“Here there are no grocery stores like in Finland, and cooking is a lot of work and takes a lot of time.”

She also misses certain foods. In Benin, she tells, her diet consists of mainly bread, rice, couscous, spaghetti, canned food and the occasional fruit, because fresh vegetables, for example, are harder to come by. Additionally, she misses doing a lot of sports easily, as in Finland she is accustomed to doing something everyday, for example going to the gym, going jogging, or attending a dance class.

“Here the easiest option is waking up practically in the middle of the night when it’s not too hot to go jogging, and it’s sometimes a bit tiring.”

When Barán returns home, she says she will miss above all the great friends she has made in Benin, as well as the way people interact with each other, greeting, smiling, and shaking each others’ hands. According to her, people are also a lot more outspoken in Benin, and will not hesitate to tell others how they feel. She says she will miss the children as well, and how they are not told to be quiet in situations where they could just as well enjoy themselves and be kids.

“I love children! Here, they are around wherever you go, and if a child cries, people will not scowl and sigh in annoyance, but instead they will help and try to comfort the child.”

Benin has changed Barán. She has learnt to be more patient, as sometimes the Internet connection, for example, will be down for a week. Calling the repair man is an option, but he will possibly come that day, or the next week, or maybe not at all. Sometimes there will be no electricity for three days, and it just has to be dealt with. She also cites being forced to relax as another important lesson Benin has taught.

“In Finland for years and years I have been working constantly, often two jobs at a time, while simultaneously completing as many study credits as possible. I always need to be doing something. Here, sometimes there is simply nothing to do, and it has been a valuable lesson to learn. I have been forced to sit down, grab a good book, and relax, relax, relax.”

Beach at Grand-Popo Photo by Caitlin Barán

Beach at Grand-Popo
Photo by Caitlin Barán

Noodle soup and friendly mangos


Vietnam, June 2015

Arriving to the airport of Hồ Chí Minh City, I sat down on a plastic chair to gather my bearings and to take a moment to get used to the heat. Feeling a bit nervous and uncertain of what to do next, I suddenly got a phone call from an unknown number. A cousin of a half-Vietnamese friend of mine had agreed to show me around the city and I answered the call, expecting it to be from him. A young man’s voice greeted me and I replied, still thinking this was the cousin speaking until the voice started demanding repeatedly:

“When are you coming to my hotel?” I realised that the almost angry-sounding voice belonged to a friend of my friend’s family whose hotel I had been arranged to stay at. I tried to tell the man that I was still at the airport and wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get to the hotel. The man ended the call, telling me to wait, and then started calling back, constantly asking what time I’d arrive to the hotel. Beginning to grow more annoyed than confused, I kept on telling I wasn’t sure until the phone calls ended.

I took in a couple of deep breaths and decided that I was starting to feel more self-confident and so picked up my backpack and took a bus to the city. Driving through the busy streets, I marvelled at the crowds of people and the insane traffic. It was like nothing I had experienced in Europe or the States and I found it all very exciting and was eager to get to explore the city. Grinning to myself, I sat back to enjoy the bumpy ride and the blissful A/C of the bus.

Everything was going smoothly. Until I missed my stop.

Trying to get off of the bus was a bit tricky. By this I mean that I seriously had no idea how to do it and so ended up sitting there, feeling like an idiot, and just waiting for another passenger to get off. At last this happened and I found myself in the opposite direction of my hotel. Lucky for me, it takes a lot before I start panicking and so, just a little nervous, I got myself a taxi to take me to the hotel.


As the taxi pulled over, a new cause for extreme confusion presented itself. I was figuring out how to pay the driver with the strange Vietnamese notes when an elderly couple suddenly ran towards the car and I, a bit startled, wondered why these people were in such a hurry to get a taxi. To my further confusion, they opened the door and paid the driver.

“Hanna?” the man then asked and I felt great relief when I realised that the couple was there to show me to the hotel. I followed them through a narrow, dirty alley which made me wonder what kind of a hotel I was actually being taken to. To my pleasant surprise, however, the place we arrived to was very clean and charming.

Another pleasant surprise was to find the owner greeting me from behind the front desk with a big smile and happily welcoming me to his hotel. The anger I thought I had heard on the phone had apparently been misinterpreted. The young man handed a key to the old woman who led me upstairs with a ceaseless chatter in Vietnamese.

After we had reached my room, the old man joined us and the couple sat down, staring and smiling at me in complete silence. Okay then. Getting more and more confused as moments passed by, I asked myself who these people were and why did they stay in the room. After a minute or two of this, the man pulled out his smartphone and showed me a video chat on Skype. The video presented me my friend’s mother from Finland who then told me that the man was her brother and the woman his wife. Well, that explained some stuff.

The warm welcome helped me forget the jetlag and exhaustion of the trip from Finland to Vietnam. After the old couple left, I started unpacking and, feeling refreshed and curious to see this unfamiliar city, I left the hotel to go for a walk. As I emerged from the little alleyway, I had the choice of turning either left or right. Just a two-minute walk would take me to a large street from where I could easily walk to the city centre. I turn right. The wrong direction, of course.

After being completely lost for quite some time, I eventually found my way to the park I had originally intended to go to and I gave myself an imaginary high five. There I remembered how tired I actually was and sat down on a park bench. Soon a Vietnamese boy walked up to me and shyly asked if I wouldn’t mind speaking with him to help him practise English. Delighted, I started a conversation and answered the boy’s questions about myself and Finland while other people started stopping by to listen.

I had been told beforehand that this happened very often between tourists and the young Vietnamese, but I still wasn’t prepared for the crowd of twelve youngsters gathering around me. Each new arrival asked me the same questions about myself and I answered them while questioning them about Vietnam in turn. Without noticing it, I had sat at that same park bench for almost three hours.


It was getting late and by the time almost everyone had left, I decided it was time for me to go as well. The second I rose, however, first drops of rain started falling. I saw locals running to a shelter and joined them. I thought it was a bit of an overreaction maybe, thinking that the drizzle was nothing, but soon it started truly pouring down. I knew I had signed up for the rainstorms when travelling to Vietnam during the rainy season….. but still.

After a while, I decided that I really had to get back to the hotel. And so I braved the rain and started jogging through the streets, every now and then stopping underneath canopies. While standing under one, I saw a very grumpy street-seller who had some plastic rain coats in her booth. I walked to her and pointed at a rain coat. The old lady wasn’t happy just opening the plastic bag for me and slapped my hand away when I tried to take the coat and dressed me in it herself. I gave her a bright smile which she returned after a while.


Thus protected from the rain, I continued my journey. The walk from the street-seller to the hotel took only ten minutes. Or it would have. Walk straight ahead and turn left, you can’t get lost, I had told myself. Sometimes I undermine my lack of sense of direction.

Eventually, about forty minutes later, I was back at the hotel, dripping wet, tired, and happy.

I travel. A lot. And to the worry of many people close to me (sorry mum, sorry dad!), I usually travel alone. One of the biggest advantages of travelling on your own is that you meet new people more easily. And the important part of this is that when travelling, it’s not the sights you see that you remember, it’s the people you meet. Seeing Central Park and Times Square in NYC was great, but what I remember the best is how I got confused with the trains on my way to the JFK airport and saw an American couple with luggage, looking just as lost as I was, and I briskly marched up to them and asked if we could be lost together. I ended up spending the next two hours with this couple, telling them stories of my journeys around Europe and the US and in return listened to them tell of their life in the countryside.

Vietnam introduced me to quite some characters that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

To start off, here’s a quick impression I got of the Vietnamese as soon as I got there: friendly and loud with no sense of personal space. From the perspective of a tourist, the type characters of the Vietnamese include for example angry bus drivers yelling at the traffic, young people with endless questions that often get much more personal than any Finn would feel proper to ask, and old motorbike taxi drivers in basically every street corner, smoking cigarettes and shouting after you to ask if you need a ride. The Vietnamese seem to be divided into two very distinct groups: the quiet and shy and the very loud, the latter being the large majority. Both groups are very friendly and I have mostly good memories of the people I met. Obviously there were also those with the haha-stupid-tourist attitude which unfortunately also sticks to your mind, but good memories do outweigh the bad.


I mentioned the lack of personal space that characterises Vietnamese people. Finnish personal space is roughly the size of Canada, but during the trip I had to learn to accept the women I was talking with putting their arms around my shoulders or holding my hand. The most memorable personal-space-what-is-that moment came from a girl selling clothes at an indoor market. While haggling, she held my shoulders and kept on repeating “don’t worry, be happy!” and when at last I agreed to buy a pair of trousers, she friendly patted my ass and then gave it a quick squeeze for good measure. No, I don’t think that’s exactly typical for Vietnamese people, but gives you a fair idea of what I had to get used to.

Language barrier wasn’t a huge problem when making friends. I very fondly remember the middle-aged lady who sat next to me on a long bus drive with whom I communicated mostly by waving hands and using the little Vietnamese I had learned. I’d show her pictures of my friends and family on my phone, pointing at the people and explaining my relationships to them with words like “em” (a younger sibling), “má” (mother), and “bạn” (a friend). The lady fed me mangos and candy during the four-hour journey and towards the end of the drive held my hand tightly, stroking it with her thumb.


A short list of other interesting people I won’t forget: the soft-spoken cousin of my friend who drove me around Hồ Chí Minh City on his motorbike; one of the loud bus drivers who woke us up at 6am after a night-long journey by suddenly blasting out Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance at max volume; the girl and boy whom I managed to persuade to join me in a restaurant, promising to treat the meal, but who cheated by paying for all of us while I was in the restroom; an old shop-keeper and his wide smile as I tried speaking a bit of Vietnamese with him. These people and many, many others.

Of course it’s not only the people you’ve met that you remember. My picture folders are filled with photos of the cities of Vietnam, the mountains I visited, and the beaches I strolled in. I’m a city person and love to spend my vacations just walking around, looking at people passing by. This gave me a bit of a limited view of Vietnam, however, which I regret a little. But I did get to experience some of the Vietnamese nature in the mountains of the city of Đà Lạt which I’m very happy about. The beautiful scenery surrounding the mid-sized city combined nicely my love for cities and the pleasure of seeing mountains and visiting waterfalls, both of which really appeal to me considering you don’t really see those in Finland.


While being able to revisit the sights by going through my photographs, memories of Vietnamese food bring a tear in my eye as I try to imagine the amazing tastes in my mouth. Vegetarian version of the famous phở soup is something I particularly like to recall. Being a hopeless cook myself, I doubt I’ll ever be able to recreate the dish myself although I’m determined to try as soon as I gather enough courage to. Hot spices, fruits I had never tasted before, the strong coffee, and overly sweet desserts are also something that I love to remember. The food alone seems like a reason good enough for me to dream about travelling back to the country.


All in all, the crazy traffic, crowds of people, the interesting language, all the times I got utterly lost, the stares following after me that I had to get used to, the rainstorms I learned to predict like locals, all the noises and smells, and the culture so different from what I’m used to all hold a very dear place in my heart. I most definitely intend on going back.