Friday, 6 April 2018

Blue, Bluer, Superblue, Hammerfest

Hammerfest, Norway, January 2015
A flashback from a trip done previously

Hammerfest is a small town in the North of Norway, until recently the most northern town of the world. The town is on the coast, by a fjord, surrounded by mountains. In summer it's said to be lively, but in the middle of winter it slumbers cosily. We spent a couple of weeks in Hammerfest January 2015. We being a contemporary dance group and me being its lighting designer, planning a new performance in the residency of Dansearena Nord.

Welcome to Hammerfest!

My original plan for January was to go to Thailand hammocking, but one should be careful for what one wishes for, since one might get the very opposite.

It's not simple to get to Hammerfest, especially in winter: Our route proceeded from Helsinki to Copenhagen, from Copenhagen to Oslo, from Oslo to Tromsø and from Tromsø to Hammerfest, planes getting smaller and clientele less posh every leg.

This is not Thailand

It was a good trip, though. We got some work done, met some nice people, took turns in having a stomach flu and I even had some time to see the sights. If you really curb your speed, you might end up using one whole afternoon to see them. My list of recommendations is as follows, but most of all I loved the hues of blue, colouring the scenery all julianonderdonk.

I have no idea what this is

Hammerfest Church

Burning churches was a fad in Norway some time ago, so architect Harald Magnus was clever in advance in choosing concrete as the main material for the church, completed in 1961. There are triangles everywhere in the construction, also in the colourful glass painting by Jardar Lunde. Oh my Gordiskknute, that's one confusing altarpiece! I'm not quite sure if Christ is dying, ascending or being captured by aliens. Anyhow, it's a groovy piece of art

Museum of Reconstruction

Gjenreisningsmuseet tells a sordid story of Hammerfest during and after World War II. Shortly put: before the war Hammerfest existed, after the war it did not. As the German army retrieved, it was scorched-earth policy all the way. There were two options for people in demolished Hammerfest, to be forcibly evacuated to southern cities or to hide in the woods and caves, waiting for the Allied Forces to arrive – which took way longer than expected. Quite an experience, even after seventy years. Luckily, there's a museum cafe with ultimate comfort food: warm waffles. You'll need them.

There wasn't a sudden summer day in January,
the photo is from Wikimedia Commons, by Manxruler,
since I failed to take one

The Ultimate Blueness

At the time of our visit, sun didn't rise above the horizon at all. Still, there was some daylight, like for fifteen minutes per day. After that it started getting blue. And bluer. And then, even bluer. Then, it got Klein International Blue. Then, Klein International Bluer. Just when I thought it possibly couldn't get bluer than THIS, it got bluer. And then some. And then, it was dark. You could suggest that this blueness happens elsewhere, too, but hello, I'm a tourist and experienced it here so I won't listen.

It did get even bluer, but my camera refused to believe.
The scenery might have affected the lighting design
of the piece we were working on

The Arctic Culture Center 

Check their website, the Center might have something of your interest in the program: concerts, plays, dance, movies, you name it, mostly during evenings. The building is worth seeing in its own right, too, with a scenic window facing the bay, and a café, should it be open. The building is somewhat a landmark of the town, lighted blue during the dark.

Arctic Culture Centre, this is where we worked

Nissen Mall

A small shopping mall slightly resembling an offshore oil rig, Nissen includes an almost hipster café and a shoe store called Eurosko. Among the usual shoes, you can find some pretty cool traditional and traditional-ish shoes here.

Pieces of information
• More about traveling in Hammerfest area in the Northern Norway webpage, including Hammerfest Church and Gjenreisningsmuseet
• Other people exploring Hammerfest: Vagabond Baker
• Fresh after the trip, I wrote about it to Kummat kengät blog from shoe perspective, in Finnish.
Arctic Culture Center's website, in Norwegian

Friday, 30 March 2018

Traditions and Obsessions on a Baltic Cruise

Baltic Sea Between Helsinki and Stockholm, March 11th to 13th 2018 (and various other dates)

The Stockholm cruise is somewhat an institution among the Finns. And Swedes, too. The previous call it ruotsinlaiva (Ship to Sweden) and the latter finlandsfärja (Ferry to Finland). Especially in the ruotsinlautta case, one is supposed to overeat at the buffet, drink the cheap booze, party in the overtly colourfully lighted disco, including at least some dance steps to the 80's hits played by a cheesy cover band, sing some karaoke with deepest of feelings, buy some more cheap booze from the tax free and pass out in someone else's cabin. All this wearing glitter decorated tops and polyester shirts, possibly changing wearer during the night.

Sunsets are the only reason to go outside during the winter,
in the summertime there are additional bars on decks

Kids are supposed to, according to their ages, pass out early by sugar rush caused by the cheap candies bought from the tax free, cry in terror of their parents behavior or scheme their way to the very first sip of alcoholic beverages. In the morning, parents are supposed to throw up and take the kids to Gröna Lund amusement park, where the kids throw up and then it's time to go back to the ship and do it all over again.

Even though the EU has ruined the really cheap booze part and there are occasionally actually good bands performing, you can still live this dream. Anyhow, there are other options. Like, here I am, as I write, relaxed, having a sip of sparkling wine (not the very cheapest, I might add), well fed, surrounded by pretty much sober families. The scenery passes by peacefully and if it was summer, I could even see it. A success!

Staring at the scenery

There are two ferry companies, Viking Line and Tallink Silja, of which Silja is traditionally regarded a tad classier but is accordingly more expensive. I've traveled both, found the differences quite small and ended up using Viking Line, because of the prices and better location of the harbor in Stockholm.

The main rule is to travel starting Sunday–Wednesday. Thus you avoid the most drunk weekdays of Friday and Saturday on board. Also, the trips are cheaper. Following ads, or even by joining Viking Club, you get quite favorable special prices, starting from a few euros. Offers don't happen between start of June till mid August, though, because the ships have more than enough customers in families with vacationing school kids then. So go before / after. By answering the company's email questionnaires and buying enough stuff from the tax free, you might get an offer for another cruise, and then the same happens again and all of a sudden you're in the Viking Loop. I should now, I traveled eight times last year.

Why? you ask. WHY ON EARTH??!!!! you might even put it. Well, the biggest reason is obviously Stockholm, but more on that in a later posting.

The welcoming port of Stockholm

When in middle of travels, I need my methadone, and a short trip abroad, anywhere abroad, is just that. Also, for some reason, I sleep very well in ships – especially in a tad more luxurious two persons cabin, equipped with a two persons soft bed, which is just large enough for one. The humming of motors gives me such a good sleep. Furthermore, I find the few hours in open sea, when internet doesn't really work, very relaxing. Viking Line has lately very kindly eased the non-internetting, by making the users renew the connection once in an hour and changing the password every day. Rather than going to info to check the new password in one's pajama's, it's so very alluring to just give up and read a book. Of course, it's also quite relaxing not to be able to actually go anywhere, without serious risk of drowning.

I mentioned the soft beds of a tad more finer cabins. Let's go deeper in that. Never settle with the cheapest option of windowless cabin. The stereotype of drunken Scandinavians is based on reality, and you might spend some time in your cabin, trying to avoid them. Or non-internetting. In the cheapest cabins, you'll have a good chance having one or eight of them as neighbors, too, or even more horrific teenage versions. Quite loud. So, upgrade at least to a cabin with a window, it really is not that expensive. The cabins are quite small and it's not exaggerating to have one of four persons all to yourself. The mentioned lux but still affordable cabins are available in the ship Mariella only.

The cheapest cabin with a window option on the left, 
a tad more expensive on the right.
Humans added for scale.

In my childhood I dreamed of the overwhelming buffet of the ship, pouring with shrimps and chocolate sauce, my favourites at the time. Respectively. Nowadays I sport a tad more developed taste, but the food still is ok. The wine is included in the reasonablish whole deal price, which drives people to drink too much and buy scarves they can't afford, but overall the ambience is quite civilized in the restaurant. There are other restaurants on board, too, but let's just say that it helps to be a carnivore. With a vegan friend of mine, with whom I started my career as cruise ship regular, we usually buy fancy food in advance and do not leave the cabin. A very viable option, that one, too.

Example of a moderate picnic in the cabin with food oriented friends

The buffet includes food, too

The tax free shop looks innocent enough and you'll walk in like "oh, there's nothing I'd have to buy from here, I'll just stroll to the candy shelf and buy me a chocolate bar", but be warned: amongst all the usual nothing special stuff there might be lurking something you just feel compulsed to buy. Like a Balmuir scarf just your colour, too expensive, last one left. Just a random example. For those believing in the almighty power of Elizabeth Arden's 8 hour lip balm in curing dry lips, leper and broken limbs; it's sold here very affordable. FYI: In Finland the stuff is known as Ellun ihmerasva (Elsie's miracle cream) and it has a cult following.

Defs not a shopping trip

Pieces of Information

Viking Line departs from Helsinki at 17:30, arrives in Stockholm the next morning at 10, departs back to Helsinki the same day at 16:30 where it arrives at 10:10 next morning. You have to be in the ship half an hour before the departure. The scheme is almost the same with Tallink Silja. 

• Ferry companies: Viking Line, Tallink Silja
• Other people done the cruise:  Malins mix (in Swedish), Wandering Dejavu (about a Silja cruise), Nordic Fairy

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Hidden Art and the Ultimate Passing as a Local in NY Advice

New York City, USA, February 23rd–27th 2018

I have a friend in New York. Well, not a friend, but the friend. Having that kind of friend is crucial to my mental health and happiness, but there are other benefits, too.

No, not that kind of benefits.

A generic NY pic

Without this particular friend I wouldn't have known about one of the greatest ideas in contemporary public art for a while. And she knew, because the project involved her friend. Learning about it through the grapevine only is kind of weird, since the art project takes place in Times Square, the most known and possibly visited place in NY. It's a treasure hidden in plain sight, par excellence.

The thing is called Midnight Moment: every midnight some of the billboards in Times Square steal three minutes from the commercials and show media art instead, starting 23:57:00. The artist changes monthly, I saw Save the Presidents by Tali Keren and Alex Strada. Previous artists include household names such as Laurie Anderson, Pipilotti Rist and Yoko Ono, but also up and coming artists are exhibited.

Pipilotti Rist: Open My Glade (Flatten).
Photo: Ka-Man Tse for @TSqArts

Times Square is surprisingly empty by midnight, at least on February weekdays. There were a bunch of youngsters, some tourists, a few drunks, all taking selfies. And me, staring around, waiting for the art to begin, prolonging my take away coffee. I was probably the most dubious person there, which really tells how boring Times Square has become. It also reveals that this project hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. There should have been crowds!

And then it started. Images of stone carved US presidents from a forgotten sculpture park slid in to a few billboards around the square, in different sizes an constellations. Amongst the banal commercials the historical characters appeared all calm and dignified, like quiet commentators. The art work was interesting to start with, and bringing it this environment really brought it to another level. 

In addition to being artistically impressive, the whole happening was stone sober hallucinatory: Don't these (few) other people in the square see what I see? And of course they didn't. It's pretty difficult to beat the surrounding commercials, optimized to catch our interest, with this delicate, subtle fine art, appearing without a warning and lasting only a moment. To notice it, you really have to look for it. Then again, I felt like all this was done just for me, which was a nice ego boost.

Another benefit: my friend has a dog. And not just a dog but the dog. He's the best dog ever.

The Dog, photo by the aforementioned friend.

I'm pretty unfortunate at passing as a local, but I'm really happy when I do, for some Freudian reason or another. New York is one of the few places this is theoretically possible. 

Whitening your teeth is one way, but that might be common in most US, so instead of being taken as a tourist from Europe, I would be taken as a tourist from Jersey. Not a lot to win there. But, there's a way more successful method: walking a dog. Or a cat. Or a zebra, you get the point. Not that many tourists bring an animal with them, so anyone with a non-human companion is automatically taken as a local. So, go on, get a friend with a dog, offer to take it for a walk and blend in!

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Combi takes me to the Daffodil City

Izamal, Mexico, February 17th to 22nd 2018

Google had told me that Izamal is called The Yellow City and I added it to my itinerary immediately. As usual, I didn't quite believe the Internet and expected to find a few worn out ex yellowish buildings around the center, but since I kind of like yellow, that was enough. 

Oh my Gooseberry, was I happily surprised on arrival!

I took a combi, a van packed with fifteenish people, from Mérida after arriving there from Progreso by bus. I bought a blue 30 pesos chip from a man in front of the Similares pharmacy in the corner of Calles 65 and 54, pushed my suitcase to the back of the van he pointed me to and squeezed myself in the car. The van became filled with people quite soon, the chips were collected and off we went. The combis don't have timetables, they leave whenever they're full.

As the combi majestically glided in Izamal, I saw a town supersaturated in my favourite hues of yellow: egg yolk, yellow cab, sunflower, daffodil and banana ice cream from the days of my youth, working in a ice cream parlor! And not just a few buildings, but all of them in the centre. Well, with some white houses amongst them, but merely for ornamental function I guess. Like the white parts in daisies, only there to highlight the yellow.

The yellowest of them all is the Convento de San Antonio, a church/monastery in the middle of the town. It was built on top of a Mayan pyramid, which kind of gives a sour colonialist hue to the beauty of the building, and the city at large. The huge atrium seemed to be in good use of the locals, there was some kind of dinner party organized on the lawn, as I visited the monastery.

Pope John Paul visited in 1993, a statue was erected and
the city was painted yellow.
I very much liked the overall colour coordination,
enclosing even the trash bins.
I was quite colour coordinated, too
I'm afraid the deep and painful regret pictured here
was not originated from destroying ancient Mayan temples
Seen from the rear, the monastery looks a little like a theatre
decor, meant to be seen from the front only

The Izamal central area is conveniently rich with Mayan ruins, and there is at least one Mayan pyramid left, with nothing built on it. On top of Kinich Kak Mo, a temple designated to Sun god of the same name, there's a good view to the town and surrounding areas, in addition to historical value. Climbing to the middle level is quite enough, I tell you.

On the middle level.
From Kinich Kak Mo temple,
you can see the suburbian, rougher side of Izamal,
comprising of approximately four houses

After all the climbing I was super hungry, but wanted a change in the menu, so I picked a Japanese restaurant on Calle 31, called Ikigai. Based on the miniature prices of the dishes, I induced them to be miniature sized, so I took three portions. Lo and behold, three full size meals were brought in front of me. Luckily, the food was not just affordable, but also very good, especially the Teriyaki.

The street plan of Izamal is a little more complex than in most of other, strictly grid planned cities in Yucatan, mostly because of the two instead just one central square and the monastery. In the picture above the smaller square, Parque 5 de Mayo. The larger one, Parque Itzamna, has most of the nice cafés, comfortably shadowed by the arched vaults, but in the corner of 5 de Mayo there is the Centro Cultural Y Artesanal, which inhabits most interesting specimens of folk art and design. I'm usually not that much into folksy things, but works here have pretty cheeky artistic touch in them and are not afraid to break out of traditionality.

Angélico Jiménez: Nahual (2006)
Angel Santos Juarez: Leon Coronado (2006)
Mauricio Hernández Colmenero: Calaca panadera con novia (2006)

I haven't paid too much attention to my lodgings in this blog, but my hotel in Izamal deserves an exception. Macan Ché consists of separate houses of different shapes and sizes, arranged in a big, lush garden, with pond like swimming pool and lots of hammocks. And a great breakfast. Every house and room is different so I guess there are murkier options, but I was super happy with my India room. First floor, windows on three sides it was almost like outside, in a good way. 

Of course, there was a hotel cat. Still al little shy here,
but sleeping on my laptop the next day already.

Corner of the India room

The hotel was far enough from the centre not to be totally yellow

Izamal was a perfect ending for my Yucatan trip. I still had five and a half hours bus trip to Cancun ahead of me – highly recommended, see a lot of small villages, just do not drink too much, no toilet in the bus – and then a night in Cancun where my flight to New York was to depart. But Cancun doesn't really even count. Except for realizing that I'm too old to sleep in a hostel, even in a single room. 

Way too old.

Pieces on information
• Izamal in Wikitravel
• Other people exploring Izamal: To Travel Too, Earth Trippers,  Mexico Cassie

Movie Set Town of Wild Wind and Nasty Dogs & Shrimps

Progreso, Mexico, February 13th to 17th 2018

Progreso is a small harbour town, with 6 km pier to beat the shallow shore. The pier was built in the 20's by Finns, I heard, and didn't bother to check the fact, since I like to gather extra points for my nationality. Whenever suicide and depression rates are discussed, I pretend I'm from Bulvania.

You can hardly see the end of the pier

As I arrived, the town was full of people, since it was the hey day of the Carnevale, with a parade and other festivities. The beach boulevard Malecon was packed with crowds, treats and tivolies. I may have eaten a marquesita or four, with both cheese and nutella. Wild life!

A surprise parade! Again!

Malecon on Tuesday

None of it was left the next day. 

Malecon on Wednesday

After that, it was all quiet on the eastern part of the town, where I stayed. Except for the wind. The wind never stopped blowing, not even during nights. There were barely any people on the streets nor on the beach, most of the seaside cafés closed. 

The amount of abandoned houses was remarkable and their looks fascinating. Of course, there were the lovely coloured and very much lived in houses, too. I could say the town is kind of lame, but with a weird feeling that anything could happen. If Federico Fellini and Aki Kaurismäki would have made a movie together, this would have been a perfect location. 

Oh my Godfather, I loved it!

One of the abandoned houses on the seaside
There were the colourful views...

...and the not so fancy ones.

The pier area, however, is another thing entirely. The daily cruise visitors have made the surrounding streets somewhat tourist oriented. Like "Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?" in Bali, "Massage lady?" was the signature call here. All the travel-magazine-like pictures are taken close to the pier, but the reality is way more boring.

I noticed the cruise effect in the online restaurant reviews, too. If there is a nice waiter nicknamed Joe who speaks English, dollars are accepted and there's a hearty burger on the menu, good reviews are granted. Still unaware of that, I chose a nice looking restaurant by the pier with good reviews, and ended up eating outside to avoid a Irish style troubadour, drunk retirees and horror movie lighting. My spagetti was lukewarm on arrival and chilled to freezing in the blowing wind, which also made my hair mix with the spagetti, not that I could make any difference. I hit some nasty tasting shrimps in my dish and decided, against my deepest held beliefs, stop eating midway.

There were good restaurants, too, but the whackamole effect of opening times was even stronger here than in Mérida. I ended up eating pretty much any place that was open. La Antigua was a good bet, with fine food and nice patio with some visibility to the sea. There was also a cozy, regurarly open and good Indian restaurant called Comida India. And loads of interesting-looking places, never open.

A sea view. Note the palm tree bending in the wind.

Compared to the gentle beasts of Holbox, the dogs here were killers. Not the ones roaming around the streets, but the ones behind fences. They waited in total silence until I was right beside them and then started a full blown barking charge, with the intention to cause me a heart attack. No doubt. I barely lived to tell.

For hammocking Progreso is not ideal, since the beach is pretty much poleless and the wind would have taken me away anyhow. Luckily, my hotel room had a high ceiling and huge windows, so I could just open the latter (and jam them to keep them open in the wind), lie on my bed and pretend I'm having a nap outdoors.

Pieces of information
• Progreso in Wikitravel
• Other people exploring Progreso: Trips, Tips and Tortilla Chips, Yucatan for 91 Days,  A Life by Design