The Final Frontier’s Fishy Festival

Between concerts – Salmonfest, 2014

For many, Alaska is synonymous with rough conditions and impenetrable nature, and when thinking about Alaska, our mind wanders to the guy from Into the Wild falling into a gushing river and Don Rosa’s Scrooge McDuck staring at the white topped Yukon Mountains during the Klondike Gold Rush. People who travel to Alaska are often thought to be crazy athletes, and/or passionate fly fishers. It comes as a surprise for many that during the summer time, the Kenai Peninsula is pretty easily accessible from Finland and it offers one-of-a-kind cultural experiences, full of that Alaskan craziness and humor that is exclusive to this great state.

One unique Alaskan happening is definitely Salmonfest, an annual festival dedicated to protecting the wild sockeye salmon. Describing the festival’s atmosphere is difficult with just adjectives – a tiny narrative from when I visited the festival works better.

Picture this, it’s a warm Saturday – well, Alaskan warm, so not too hot. On a low stage painted with huge pictures of red and green salmons, there’s an artist with shoulder length locks, steel guitar, and a melancholy yet hopeful rock sound. There are women with Janis Joplin hair hula hooping in front of the stage accompanied by dancing kids whose hair is colored with spray-on blue and purple.

Between concerts – Salmonfest, 2014

Between concerts – Salmonfest, 2014

The festival area is full of both exotic food trucks, with spreads that would make Flow festival jealous, and little booths of local people making you cheese toasts and lemonade. From the merch booths, you can find the raddest tie-dyed t-shirts, but also a lot of crafts made by the local artists. The area is full of young people in groups, families, and old couples who’re enjoying the music on folding chairs. In between American and Alaskan artists, there’re talks about the importance of protecting the wild salmon.

Salmonfest, in addition to being a fun event for everybody, is one of the most upfront adversary parties of the famous Pebble mine discussion. Most cars, coffee houses, restaurants, hotels, and shops I saw during my trips to Alaska had a red and white sticker opposing the Pebble mine. Salmonfest takes it a step further with their t-shirts, beer koozies, and tents that offer information about the mine and its ecological effects.

If you do decide to take on the Kenai Peninsula and Salmonfest, it’s easiest to fly to Anchorage, rent a car from the airport, and drive to Ninilchik. The drive takes approximately four hours, but since the roads are tiny and there’s plenty to see, and places to sleep during the drive, you might want to take your time. Salmonfest is an annual event, so if your travel plans and budget is set for this summer, it’ll be there next year as well. From Salmonfest, you can continue your road trip to gorgeous Homer, the cultural hometown of Kenai full of restaurants and galleries. Another great Kenai road trip destination after Salmonfest is the town of Seward. Seward is home to Alaska SeaLife Center, a combination of research facility and aquarium, and the port of call for many day cruise ships that can take you killer whale and glacier watching.

While traveling from Europe to the US has become pretty common vacation option, Alaska is still, in many ways, the Final Frontier for tourists. This might be due to the fact that there are no direct flights to Anchorage from many countries, and Alaska’s tourism industry is mainly focused in getting American people to the giant cruise ships that sail to Alaska. In spite of this, Kenai Peninsula is very welcoming for visitors, since the hard winters mean that businesses must meet their annual financial goals during the summer months. Alaska is a wonderful option for travelers who wish to experience local things, not spoiled by the tourist industry.

Alaska and its people remind me of Finland in many ways – they’re quiet, love nature, and go a little crazy during the summer time. Salmonfest lies in the heart of wilderness on the Kenai Peninsula, ready to surprise even the most experienced travelers.

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

Cultural Oddities and Other Observations

A splash of pink and yellow catches my attention as I step off the bus into the chilly October air. It’s an elderly Indian lady dressed in a traditional salvar kameez. Her long, black braid swings from side-to-side and the little bells sewn onto the hem of her tunic jingle cheerfully to the rhythm of her step as she waddles along the walkway. She is a miniature carnival, a stark contrast to the grey-toned crowd she’s making her way through.

I can’t help but wonder about her life, whether moving to Finland had been her only option. I wonder what this culture looks like through her eyes and whether she feels at home here. Does she view our social reservation as a form of segregation or our diffident demeanor as indifference? I start rewinding the events of the past 20 minutes, feebly attempting to see the “normal” every-day occurrences of my bus ride as something strange and unfamiliar.

The bus stop had been crowded by Finnish standards; nine people had stood waiting, at a safe distance from each other of course. I had joined the crowd, carefully placing myself where I wouldn’t invade anyone’s private space. Private space is important to us Finns and almost as if to prove my point, the lady next to me had given me a mean sideways glare, which I had understood as a silent command to move further from her, a command I hastily took to heart. Would her small gesture have gone unnoticed by a non-Finn or rendered as meaningless?

At the sight of the approaching bus, we had formed an orderly line in front of the quietly hissing bus door and waited patiently. Orderly lines are a vital component of our culture. Neglecting to stand in line will almost always be met with the deepest condemnation and disapproval. It’s high offence to cut in line, because for someone to wait less than the others would be unfair and we Finns are stalwart defenders of fairness. But such zeal over standing in line might look a tad ridiculous to a non-native.

The bus driver had greeted me with a quick inattentive glance and a stony expression, but of course, I expected nothing more. Chitchat, small talk, whatever name you give it, is a waste of breath. Speech should be reserved for meaningful subjects, valuable information and it should happen with familiar people. Exchanging small pleasantries with strangers is pointless and lets be honest, quite awkward. But it’s not a stretch to see how someone from a more sociable culture might view this restrain as impoliteness.

On the bus the mean-eyed lady had answered her phone and had immediately dropped her voice to a secretive, monotone murmur.

“ I’ll be home in twenty minutes, tell Jimi to heat up the meat casserole. No, no, I’ll take you to swim practice tonight. Ok, see you soon, “ she had said. Nothing even remotely interesting, let alone embarrassing. But I knew she had dropped her voice not to disturb the other passengers. It’s important not to cause disruption in public spaces; God forbid someone should think less of you, were you to make a ruckus.

In the end it didn’t take much effort to step back from my world and notice that every aspect of my culture could be flipped upside down to loose or take on a wholly different meanings in someone else’s culture.

Helsinki Train Station (Inka Vappula)

Helsinki Train Station (Inka Vappula)

Every-day manifestations of urban Finnish culture are the norm for us natives. We function according to social conventions and build a worldview from fractions of the reality we’re surrounded by. Our value system is largely a product of the culture we are brought up in. But what happens when a solid conceptual understanding of the “right” values or “normal” behavior is thrown into an unfamiliar setting?

A holiday abroad is one thing; the traveller always remains on the outside looking in, but permanent relocation is a whole other story, one that begins with a crash and a shock of the old familiar world catapulted into a new and strange locale. This crashing of the worlds is aptly called culture shock. Emigrating is in my books a damn brave thing to do for numerous reasons; codes of social interaction might become illegible, there might be new social status to conform to, values may have to be reorganized, a new language to learn, new customs to adopt, and as a few added bonuses in Finland, a reserved culture and endlessly long, dark winters to survive through.

At best culture shock is an opportunity to widen ones horizon, question fixed ideas about normalcy, challenge, re-imagine and then maybe be new. It’s a precious experience in terms of being able to empathize with non-natives back home.  Because emigration demands for adjustments to be made, eventually, once the initial shock has faded, a deeper sense of cultural identity and appreciation of heritage can take root. The Indian lady was a fine example of this. I read her colorful dress as a statement about her cultural identity. She embraced the vibrancy and flamboyancy of her own culture, completely disregarding the norms of Finnish culture which dictate that one should avoid being flashy. By extension you could say she enriched the street scene.

In the end the question is, what’s mine, yours or ours when it comes to culture? In a globalized world we can’t afford to keep the fences high and prejudices higher. Not when there are multitudes of opportunities to learn from diversity and possibly intergrade aspects of different cultures into our own, making it less alienating and incomprehensible to those from abroad.

If I had more courage I would walk up to the elderly lady, invite her for coffee and cinnamon rolls and ask her too many questions about her life, but my cultural (and personal) inhibitions keep me in check. The chilly air nibbling my fingers hastens my pace, but before I step into the warmth of the corridor, I add a point to my mental to-do list: “try, if you can, to make this country a home for everyone.”

Struggling to Adjust in Indonesia

These guys were very cheeky Indonesian ritual dancers. (Photo by Laura Kurki)

When traveling to Indonesia, the first thing to screw with your brain is the seven hour time difference: after the 34-hour flight I was sleeping until two in the afternoon for four days before getting the hang of the local rhythm. I had never been outside of Europe so this was something I wasn’t used to. But when I did wake up from my hazy sleep, I was greeted by breakfast fruit that glistened in reds, greens and yellows that made my mouth water. I could hear the little splashes made by the koi in the pond that lay in the shade nearby. As a person who turns into a lobster in five minutes out in the sun, gets intense sun rash even in gloom and gray of Finland, breaks out in sweat after spicy food, and is introverted and quiet, I knew a trip to Indonesia would be testing my limits.  But damned if I’d let that ruin my vacation!

An elephants trunk is ten times heavier than it looks. (Photo by Laura Kurki)

An elephants trunk is ten times heavier than it looks. (Photo by Laura Kurki)

One of my biggest fears was that the Indonesian food in would not agree with me. I knew from having eaten with my half-Indonesian boyfriend’s family, that the food is traditionally extremely spicy. And this girl cannot handle spices. At all. I start sweating like a pig if I eat one spoonful of Chicken Kung Pao. Going to a country where everything has chili had me feeling flushed before even stepping out of the plane. In every restaurant I made a point of asking whether the dish I was ordering was spicy. Too bad that Indonesian understanding of spicy didn’t quite match mine. We ended up often eating at home with my boyfriend’s relatives, who were kind enough to accommodate my Nordic food palate and make the spicy sauces separate from the food. Normally all the bowls of green and red chili would’ve been mixed in with the chicken and noodles in Soto ayam and sprinkled on top of Nasi goreng, but then I would’ve been living on plain noodles for two weeks.

Even before the trip I knew that everything would be cheap compared to Finland. But I wasn’t quite prepared as to how cheap it would really be. We started going to the movies every day because the theater was air conditioned and the tickets only 1.5 euros. We also took taxis everywhere. But of course, that was partially due to the fact that in Indonesia you can’t walk. Well, you can but it doesn’t make sense. The public transportation mentality of Nordic countries is nowhere to be found; if you wish to walk, you have to walk into the traffic while ignoring the hundreds of cars rushing towards you. Most will stop – slow down – well, they will try not to drive over you. Of course, if you do ask about the possibility of a bus going to town, the locals will tell you to look out for one on the main road: the words green and number are probably the only thing you understand from the fast bubbly Indonesian that pours out when you ask for the instructions. You are lucky if you catch the glimpse of a lime green little car whirring towards town. Well, the tiny thing does resemble a bus and also, in fact, has a number on the hood, so it must be what you’re looking for. You wave it to stop and climb in from the hole where logic tells you a door should be. You glance at the prices knowing it can’t be too much – five cents, apparently. A sigh of relief escapes when you position yourself on the bench between a chocolate-eyed little boy and a grandmother carrying a basket of mangoes. Apart from being squeezed into a coffee table sized tin-box with ten other people, the ride is relatively smooth. Of course, you don’t know yet that on the way back you’d have to wait patiently as the driver kick starts the car with a few wires while spark fly around you. Maybe a taxi would’ve been worth the extra money and trouble. But of course, taxis might jack up the price all the way to two euros. Drastic, I know.

These guys were very cheeky Indonesian ritual dancers. (Photo by Laura Kurki)

These guys were very cheeky Indonesian ritual dancers. (Photo by Laura Kurki)

More than the practical aspects, like money and transportation, I was dazed by the Indonesian mentality that all of one’s relatives are close family. Coming from a nuclear family of two, I’m used to peace and quiet. However, my boyfriend comes from a huge family. It seems I never fully realized how huge until we got to Indonesia and I was greeted by two uncles, two drivers, servants, aunt, aunt’s husband, three cousins and all of their significant others, baby Willa, grandma Oma, and an uncle’s wife. There were people around me all the time – as if I was automatically family. The constant attention and care was making my head spin. As a Finn, I’m used to meeting my relatives once a year or two when it’s someone’s wedding, birthday or graduation and we all gather together even though we live in different cities. Indonesians, however, have to rely more on their family, and extended family, because their government doesn’t support people the same way ours does, and they need some sort of a support network. The Indonesian support network is one’s relatives – every single one of them. After a while the hustle and bustle of the family grew on me, but I did enjoy the piece of the midnight swims under a clear starry sky in a clear, turquoise water away from everyone else.

And yes, I did mention servants earlier. They were a big part of the family life in Indonesia. I can’t even stress enough how uncomfortable I felt about having servants do my laundry and make my food. On one hand, I felt very pampered, but on the other hand, I’m used to doing everything for myself and having someone do what I considered to be my “chores” made me feel bad. Ashamed bad. Rationally thinking I knew that they were doing their job, but it was hard to let go of my self-reliance and trust that they didn’t share my feeling of awkwardness. And it was sweet seeing the servants’ little girl running around in her frilly little pink dress.

Afterwards I noticed how many of the cultural differences that I experienced during my trip (and there were many more than what I listed here, believe me!) were quite superficial and ones that I could forget about as time went on. Sometimes it’s good to be pushed out of your comfort zone because in most cases it’ll only lead to your comfort zone expanding further and further. I felt enriched by the trip to a country across the world – it’s the furthest I’ve ever been from my home and yet I still, in the end, ended up feeling at home.

A terrace like this would be nice in our Kontula apartment (Photo by Laura Kurki)

A terrace like this would be nice in our Kontula apartment (Photo by Laura Kurki)

Podcast: Intercultural Happy Hour

Dear readers of BTSB,

I’m incredibly proud to bring you the very first episode of my own podcast, The Intercultural Happy Hour with Jesper and Friends. This podcast will delve into ideas about culture, interculturality, and identity, and it comes from a very personal place for me. As of late, I’ve become more aware of certain issues with how we view culture and identity, especially in terms of how they are often seen as solid constructs. As this world becomes an increasingly global place, we are becoming more connected with each other and this means that issues of how to address culture and identity are becoming more relevant. There is no simple answer to how to deal with these ideas but this podcast aims to explore them as much as possible. Each episode, I’ll have a new guest on the show to explore these issues through their own personal experiences. For this first episode, I have my very good friend and fellow BTSB editor Ari Mäntykivi joining me.

As I said, this is the first episode of my first podcast. It’s a podcast whose own identity is still not locked in place so there may be a rough spot or two but I hope you will find something to latch on. I truly believe that there is great potential with this podcast and I warmly thank Ari for helping me start this journey.

This podcast is an experiment in dealing with certain frustrations while finding humor in other situations. Most of all, this podcast is about trying to understand our own identities better or, at the very least, it’s about coming to terms with how impossible that can be.

Without further ado, here’s the first podcast.

Thanks for listening,

Jesper Simola


Song credits:

Secret Chiefs 3 – The 3

Django Django – Waveforms

Michael Jackson – Black or White