Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Baltic countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

When the slow ferry left in Tallinn, the Estonian Capital, I hastened my pace trough the intrincated network of alleys of the medieval town. I was technically in Eastern Europe. Talking about the ex Socialist Republics gets complicated. To most of us these countries are indistinguishable.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The three countries share in a high degree its cultural background. In medieval times the area was under strong germanic influence. The Teutonic Knights, a religious – militar order retreating from Holy Land, found in the paganism of Lithuania (last european country to convert to Christianism) an excuse to invade the neighborhood. Part of the Russian Empire, the three countries were passed on into the USSR after a short breath independence in the 20s. They regained their soberanity in 1990. In 2004 the three all togheter joined the European Union, as witnessed by 200,000 Lithuanians living and working in London.

The three countries share, as natural consequence of all prohibition, the phenomena of unmeasured growth. This growth can never be equal for everyone, giving place to weird condensations, last model Mercedes parked among Ladas loaded with peasants and babushkas. In Tallinn, the Estonian capital, glass towers grow like mushrooms, the same to be obsreved in Riga and Vilnius. But set your foot out the city centre and you will find an army of unmantained soviet era appartment blocks, not to talk about great looking and gracefully crumbling 19th century buildings, its stairs arched by uncounted bolchevik and perestroikan paces.. There, in any moment, it seems we are gonna find Raskolnikov flying down the stairs after killing the old woman...

I made it to Riga in the car of a man whose case illustrates the “Baltic proximity”. He was a Lithuanian that was warehouse manager for Coca Cola in Riga and was coming from a business meeting in Estonia... Who better than him to give me a picture of what the people think of themselves. After 300 kms it turned out that the Estonians are the slow going lads, for what they are the target of all jokes, altough their the economy is the one that best resembles a western european one in the area. Average salary here is around 200 euros... Lithuanians (and here the driver talks about himslef) selfportrait themselves as warm (“italians of the north”) ans somewhat unproductive by Estonian standards. In sports, Lithuanian is basketball country, Latvia dies for ice hockey while Estonians are to slow for any ball sport. Other issue that come to light is the independence process. It was not an easy process for everybody. While in Lithuania everybody got the citizenship of the new country right away, in Latvia the goverment denied citizenship to all the population of Russian ascendance, no less than 40% of the pie. Thus, in Latvia, there is a subworld of second class citizens...

On my way to Vilnius I decided to take distance from highways and proceed on minor roads. The change was greater than I had forecasted. Automaticvally i found myself in unpaved roads, where cars were a couple of decades older than the european average. Cool. The towns, ringed by a mist of abbandonment, didn’t qualify to be picturesque. Ocassionaly horse drawn karts mixed with cars. And there i shed a tear. Everything was Argentinian enough to spark my homesickness. A German that gave me a lift put it this way: “It is a pitty that these countries are slowly loosing their culture (he meant poverty). In 10 years everybody is gonna have a new car and everything will look just like any other European country.” He doesn’t know that the people here want to live like in an average European country.

Afterwards, a man stoppped me as I was walking a minor road swearing me that a friend of him could take me to next town. 10 minutes later his friend showed up in a scooter... Mi backpack caused the scooter’s suspension to bend in a way that the men changed their minds. It is getting dark. I see two kids who were back from fishing in the river, and were holding a bucket full of small fish. They are cute and I take a picture of them. When their mother appears I show her the picture of her kids. She is moved, and proud, says that I can camp in their garden, under some apple trees. Next day I made it to Vilnius, and got to know that mi italian passport is delayed because the Consulate in Argentina hasn’t sent the approval, confirming that I am not Bin Laden. Ragazzi, my steps have found an anchor in you. The passport...that chassis of the soul...

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Berry-picking in Katajamaki community in Finland.

Katajamaki is only one of the more than hundred sustainable communities described in the 2005 edition of Eurotopia, a volume that each year compiles on going social experiments in the Old World, including info as its population, number of acres, decision making system, and property status. I had heard of Katajamaki in the Rainbow Gathering in the Polar Circle, from Touco, Katrii and Aleksi, three finnish guys whom I later visited in Jyvaskyla, their home town, on the way to the Community. In those days the guys were conspiring how to make money out of the sell of electric mandolines made with biscuits tins. Between line and line they realised the telephone number of the community.

Katajamaki is in the middle of a conifer forest, altoguh the same can be said just about every place in Finland. The main house where its 10 inhabitants gather for each meal dates back to 1905 and was the main buiding of a mental sanatory that functioned until 1917 and that used alternative (and controversial for the time) therapies as taking the inmates to tree houses for some days and colortherapy. Kiutso, one of the 3 survivors of the original experiment team, narrates this with pride, while the sun, childish, plays among the threads of his beard. Self sufficiency is the idea behind any community, and according to the degree it is achieved they can be categorized. Self sufficienccy as a contestation to the divion of work, in which the worker that operates the TV making machine changes his salary for cucumbers and the one operating the cucumber making machine changes his salary for TVs. The idea is to recover the lost conexion with the food we serve on our table, but they also thrust against the idea of private property, everything is owned colectively, the land, the animals, the money. The salary, in case a community sell part of their products in the market, is distributed according to necessity. The model is similar in some points to a kibbutz. Gathered all the members, decision are taken only with total consensus. In this context, I felt honoured when Kiutso asked me if direct trade in Argentina was still flourishing.

But one cannot visit this places and pretend to be an anthropologist and set to scribble lines in a copybook. During the mornings, with a bucket fixed to the body by a belt, we would sit by the berry plants to pick individually those mature, which were later kept in a freezer for the long winter coming. There was job there for an army, it seems we were milking an infinite cow. Somebody in the house was listening to a Mozart vinyl, human sophistication to accompany the most basic of tasks, receiving the fruits of the land. By afternoond we would walk in the forest to collect mushrooms, we would collect potatoes from the garden and prepare a nice meal for the group. In the house (that smells of wood and herbs because they have a large drying room) is always with some visitant. 

The community encourages visitors, curious leave not only a few euros or their work in exchange of their board and food but they also substitute the connectivity of the abbandoned and criticized city, at the same time propagating the communitarian values outwards. In the whole, Katajamaki seemed to me underdeveloped in relation to their potential. Which is good. There is lot to do, but finding people with long term commitment is no easy. Now, Kiutso and Ossi plan to extend the garden to the forset respecting the principles of permaculture, a discipline in vogue among contemporary organic farmers, and which aims to make agriculture and nature coexist.

To Helsinki I arived using the same sign that, attempting to say “Around the world” it merely stammered a “The world, around you”. I had already discovered the mistake, but I had learned from vendors in the streets of Buenos Aires that ortography mistakes are eye catching. My fisrt impression of Helsinki had nothing to do with helsinki itself, and it was happiness, or better stated, melancholy. After so many rural experience and hipie meetings I was I a capital city. That melancholy dennounced an umbilical stigma with urbanism I still suffer. Automatically I started to musitate some tango, the esthetic vibes, that impredictable radio, had tunned with the other capital: Buenos Aires. I awaked from the hallucination and walked trough the city, modern and scandinavianly boring. I had arrived to attend in time th star of the marathon of the Athetics World Championship… Masses of people in the Esplanaadi, that danddy boulevard, fisrtly made me shy to sell my poetry books to people sitting in benches, but then I was turned on by the absurd of the poet Neruda who I was reading and said “it would be nice to roam the streets with a green knife and shouting until freezing to death”. I stayed two days in Siljia’s and jani’s appartment. Siljia was the daughter of the driver that had taken me to Oulu, she had kindly offered me accomodation. With her and her two german friends, Annika and Laura we strolled around the city. Two days later I ferried it to Tallinn, Estonia. On the board, the Baltic States….

Wednesday, August 10, 2005



In Gamvik, the fishing village in Northern Norway in which I had been mistaken for a migrant bird and ringed with the number BA20016, the continent had ended. To the north only the Spitzbergen islands and North Pole. Time to set thumbs, dreams and sails southwards, to Istambul, a trip of several months trough all Eastern Europe with the whole of Finland still ahead. In Lakselv I stayed a night in the house of Anna, a local teacher who spoke perfect spanish and whose contact had been given to me by Birgitte in Slettnes. Anna also allowed me to use the photocopying machine in the school to do 35 of my books, enough to keep me alive 35 days more! And the I set off, towards Finland.

An easy way to know Finland without moving from home is to imagine a pine: strong, tall and green. When we have this pine, we only have to multiply it for one billon. The we add an horizon line, some 40000 lakes and that’s Finland. These lands are not deserted: several millon reindeers and some finnish people live there. It’s still not clear how finnish culture has been able to develop in spite of the reeindeer. Some historians also point that even sauna, the finnish national pride, may be nothing but another way of the primitive finns to escape, for some minutes, the reindeer. In north of Finland, called Lappland, another race, pristine, native from these lands, has made the reindeer the center of their subsistence. I have met them before in Norway, they are the sami.

Inari, Ivalo and Vuotso are the three sami villages that I crossed in my way south. In Vuotso I decided to stay the night. From the road I had seen a family gathered around a fire behind their house. To make contact this time, I used a new technic, tea cup in hand I approached them and asked for some tea. Aki’s family understood that I was asking for much more than tea, mainly for company and some place to stay. After the vainilla twinings the beer arrived and then a terrible rain that made us move the fire into a tipee. Only inside the tipee I was asked my nationality, and even in this latitude when they listen Argentina they say Maradona and they do the mimic of “the hand of god”. We could plant bananos in the whole of our country and declare the skateboard only valid public transport, never mind, they will always know us for Maradona. I was asked what did I know about Finland, so I told them, that they had kicked stalinist troops out in an efficient way, almost using stones,that they invented sauna and that they had invaded the whole world with tiny Nokia phones. I was slow, I should have declined the offer kindly, but it was too late, Aki was standing, shouting “sauna, sauna!” and his family prepearing the sauna for me. Inside, Aki poored inmense spoonfuls of water over the heated stones. He seemed to be giving soup to a dragon. I thought I was gonna volatilize in the 10 minutes I joined Aki in this cruel finnish hobby. But I survived and that night I had a bed waiting for me.


After 4 hours, the following morning, a car stopped in Vuotso. It was a local sami girl called Saara. Saara split her time beetwen reindeer herding and studying International Relations at Rovaniemi University. Saara thought that using snowboards to work with the animals doesn’t imply a loss of traditional sami values, or the vanishing of their culture. On the contrary she thought that the problem were the southern finnish that still want to see the sami as primitive people who chase reindeer with skiies and live in tends. I am sure the sami are pretty sure of what they are, but in a touristic level, unfortunately, this is the image they give of themselves, converting themselves into their own stereotype, acquired reflexevely trough the expectations of the southern finnish in daytrip from Helsinki. The same happens in the Quebrada de Humahuaca since the mediatization of the Tilcara Carnival. Evverything seems to be about cactus, weaven things and llamas. This takes us to the question if it is possible to contact with corrupting. Can we talk even today about a natural line of development for native people around the world?

                                                     ¡Extraños vehículos que se ven en Laponia!

I stayed one night in Rovaniemi, I wanted to talk more with Saara. She explained me that the rheindeer was so important in her culture that when once a woman from her village married Finland’s second richest man, the townman who arrived with the news said that “the man is very good with computers but doesn’t have any reindeers”. I am still surprised that Saara didn’t earmark me as she does with her animals. Having been ringed in Norway as a bird, I was already afraid that I would arrive to Istambul bearing dozens of marks for different kind of cattle, rings, bar codes, etc.

To Oulu I arrived in one ride in Kari’s car, who lent me his laptop with wireless internet to contact on the spot members of Hospitality Club. Kari stopped for me also with the porpouse of educating his 12 year old son, who was also in the car. A really open minded person. So in Oulu I stayed in Passi’s flat. Passi had just arrived from a year in Ireland and spoke english with a funny western irish accent. These were rainy days, so I mainly stayed home to write.

From Oulu to Jyvaskyla I traveled with Esa. Esa had been in the UN peace corps before becoming a pacifist, and now was hoping to get a life in Lappland permanently. He took me to Katriina’s Touco’s and Aleksi’s house, a beautiful and relaxed place I really enjoyed. I had met them in the norwegina rainbow. When I visited them they were analysing the possibility of building home made electric mandolins with biscuits cans, in order to get some cash. Those days passed timeless, oppoertunity for inner travel.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Frozen bread, black Porsches and migrant birds in Slettnes, Finnmark’s far North.

How dou you say “the end of the world” in norwegian. You say that “Finnmark”. Even if the name makes unnecesary any further explanation, let’s say this is norways far North, Europe’s northermost territory. The landscape is barren, with an average winter temperature of under 10 C. In spite of this, a handful of norwegian and sami people strive to earn a living from this nature, the first fishing and the later reindeer herding. In 1944 the retreating nazi army burn everything to avoid the advancing russians to find any kind of shelter. Those refusing to migrate south were shot down. That event is still a stigma: no construction predates the 1950s. In winter people stroll in their snowmobiles (if you don’t hace one you are not in) or practice ski. There’s not much more to do.

In this land I was hitch hiking after the Raibow gathering in Dividalen. To memorize the name of the fiords that the road passes one of my drivers suggested a nemotechnic that he used with his kids: “a-po-la-ta-ba” (Altafjord, Porsangerfjord, Laksefjord, etc). While for the average tourist the series evokes memories of homogenous experiences, I was still to discover the wide range of things I was to live, walking from fiord to fiord, sometimes as much as 15 kms a day, hitch hiking if vehicules passed, as I did my way to Gamvik, a tiny fishing village in the far north of Nordkinnhelvoya penninsula. I was to explore all degrees of fortune from empty cans collecting to whale biff.

Even before reaching Altafjorden I met Gun and Salah (she, norwegian, he algerian). They stopped for me on the road and shortly after we were having dinner in their mother’s house in Nordstraumen. Her family had a long tradition of helping travelers, sometimes ven giving them some job in the farm. So, the dinner was exceptionally sophisticated (better than the half pack of biscuits my dinner would ‘ve consisted of) and included this flat fish whose name in english I ignore, but it doesn’t matter, there is only one fish which is flat… The flat fish had been captured in the same fiord. Gun’s mother silently orchetered all the hospitality from a corner in front of her TV, without speaking a word of english, and she took care of every detail as much as Gun and Salah. Before letting me go, the following morning, they gave me a pack of sandwiches of herring, salmon, flatfish and dry rheindeer meat (delicious). The first driver of the morning donated the beer abd thus I walked happily, probably with the vipest load of food my backpack has ever carried.

I arrived to Alta, main and only city in Finnmark, owner of a square and cheap modernism (again the german’s fault), with a terrible rain that wasn’t gonna let me alone for two days. It wasn’t the ideal weather for camping but the precious snacks I was carrying motivated me. But I didn’t have the chance, a local man I asked where to camp took me to his house, He was engineer in the local power plant. By evening I was drinking brandy with his family + curious neighbours arrived to meet the southern man… I Alta, that unfrequent card of the hitchhikers tarot, the washing machine, arose. (there were socks waiting since Sweden) Also in Alta I got to know trough an e-mail that my pans, forgotten in the Netherlands, were taking by a friend by car to Srajevo, Bosnia, and are waiting for me there….

Oh fortuna, velut luna, status variabilis” is the first verse of Carl Orffs’s Carmina Burana. And in the following days the moon was to change. It didn’t stop raining for a second, temperature dropped and trafic extinguished. On the 28 I arrived laboriously to Porsangerfjord and locked in my tent at 6 Pm, unable to resist the rain for a further minute (and I consider myself Ireland-proof, but that was too much). At least four rheindeers were lying at 50 mts from my tent. On the 29 I reached Lakselv, another town in the same fiord. I was walking all day under the rain with my water bag full of hot water and pressed against my face to keep me warm. (I had to asked for new hot water every 15 minutes). I also collected every empty can I would see (you get 1 kr for each). I camped behind a big wooden pale blue house near the fiord, beautifuol and abbandoned.

On the 30th I arrived to Laksefiord and stayed the afternoon in a sami settlement, helping to organize the rheindeers labels (they were gonna be marked). Sami people keep a semi nomadic life, living in the inner Finnmark in winter and taking their herds to the shores to graze in the summer. They really live up to date and even use helicopters to trace their herds. Some people expect the sami to live as picturesque primitive people and deny them the possibility of progress, so they can be nice thing to look at during holidays….

I thought it would take me a week to reach Gamvik, but then a constelation of nice events happened. I said goodbye to the sami family and started to walk. I had the hope of buying biscuits on the way, but some place that come up on the map are not towns at all, but the product of optimist cartographers. Nothing did I cross in 20 kms and went to tent dinnerless. The following morning I arrived to Lebesby with only one thing in mind: buying food. But it was Sunday, I had forgotten that detail… so I had no choice but to knock doord and ask for bread. The woman in the first house didn’t speak any english and wasn’t very helpful either: she came back with a big piece of forzen bread, rock frozen, bagged and smelling of salmon. Closer to murder than to gratefulness I addressed my fists to the second door. I still didn’t suspect that that rock hard bread was the first move in a hospitality domino effect. Because Pal’s familiy in the second house not only had bread to offer, but also they invited me in for a shower and a nice hot lunch. It was a numerous familiy, and during the year the all lived in Nepal. So also a door was being opened in Katmandu. That was the first miracle of the frozen bread. When I was about to set sails and thumbs to Gamvik they decided to visit some friends of them there, taking me some 100 kms to the place. Their friends lived in Slettnes, 2 kms north of Gamvik, in a WWF Migrating bird ringing station. Their names were Roy and Birgitte and they were ornitologists.

The 5 of us had tea in the compact, observatory looking station, in the middle of a plain which only other construction was the Slettnes lighthouse, the world’s Northernmost lighthouse on the mainland. I was first introduced to the basic aspects of the habitws of some of the 160 bird species that inhabit the area, some of which come from as far as Antarctica. Some other notably come only in the dark winter months, when it seems there’s no life at all. One hour later Roy had decided I should saty in the exclusive guesthouse that operates in the former’s lighthouse keeper’s house. His experience in Middle East more than qualified him to negotiate the price and make it plummet to less than half of the original. He ninvited me and I couldn’t decline the extravagancy of staying in the first class place. The guest house owner was also surprised of my journey, and invited me some extras, as roayal crab, speciality from the region, that I could have never payed myself. Another plate I had the chance to taste, this time invited by Birgitte, was whalebiff. All seemed to be too much. I had only knocked the door for a piece of bread.

During dinner Roy told me a bit abour his life. As a scientist he jas worked in dozen of countries from Yemen to Iran, in each of which he is happy to give me contacts. In top of ornitologist Roy works as a psicologist, and his concept of life as a game is fond to me: “I lived three months of my life throwing dads to take each decision”. That lightness of being didn’t stopped him from pregressing in our mundane material world, fact witnessed by the black Porsche Boxster he insist to drive at 40 km/h in the unpaved roads of Slettnes!!! Duriong the weekend Birgitte took me in the Porsche to visit some friends to Kjollefjord. When we would hop off the Porsche some young lad would rise his thumb to express his admiration for the bolid. How to explain it was all the fault of a piece of frozen bread?

The last night was emotive for me. We were in the station when Roy and Birgitte decided to give me a souvenir: one of the rings used for migratory birds. He took the special plies, my finger, and pressed it gently. In the metal the name of the station and the number BA20016 are engraved. We also know because of the records that 20015 was a cormorant. The situation was like this: I had reached the extreme north of the world, where fisrt I had been given old bread and then somebody had taken me for a bird and had ringed me. I know I haven’t shaved but… do I look like a bird. Or maybe it’s just that people in this area, so unvisited by tourist expect any arriving being to be a bird! Well, personally I don’t know if I deserve the honour of being compared with the ilustrous birds that cross oceans and continents each year,, but the metaphore planned by Roy’s sensibility fills me with pride. Still to be seen how far I can fly.

Hospitality in Finnmark

In Gamvik bus station I had the pleasure to had a rather quick chat with Vegard Valberg, from the town’s museum. According to Vegard, when the first guesthouses opened in Finnmark in the 19th century, locals complained that people should get hospitality for free. It was the beginning of tourism. More info can be found, in norwegian language, en el libro “Nesselkongene” (Knutsen, 1990) about the process of trade dinasties and guesthouses in Northern Norway.