The first thing you notice when you get out of the plane is its flat landscape. Similar to The Netherlands, Finland is generally flat, more so in the southern region where Helsinki is. The next thing you notice is the big, broad shouldered, extra tall, extra blonde Finnish policemen. And finally, you notice how quiet everything is
. Flying into a place like this after the madness of India was a huge blessing! Finland is a very small country, with a total population of only 5.4 million (Helsinki, the national capital, only has 550,000 people and it’s their biggest city). Finnish people are incredibly polite and humble, almost to a point where they put themselves down. There is also a general notion that they keep to themselves and are not very social, especially in winter when it’s cold and miserable. This is perhaps true to an extent because I didn’t get many locals initiating conversations but those that I did meet, were extremely friendly, knowledgeable and fun to hang out with. Stepping outside, you immediately sense the purity and crispness of Finnish air. It is such a remote country with miles of forest wilderness up north in the Lappland, but at the same time has cities like Helsinki which have buzzing nightlife and is a creative melting pot for art design. One of the hardest things to deal with in Finland, in my opinion, is the pronunciation of words. Finnish language is incredibly complicated with words that seem unnecessarily long and weirdly phonetic! If your throat and tongue are not in sync, your attempt to say a word simply sounds stupid! Street names like Kaisaniemenkatu
and Hermanstads Strandvag
just sound like somebody decided to string a lot of alphabets together to make it hard for the tourists.
In the city centre I met my couchsurfing host, Saara who lived about a 20 minute walk away in an area called Töölö
. Her apartment was tiny, cosy and well accessorised with IKEA like products. The most telling feature of her house was a quote on the feature wall – “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it is about dancing in the rain”. As cheesy as it sounds, it is a fantastic outlook towards life, something that everyone should aspire to. After dumping my bags, she took me for a walk over to a nice hidden café by the water where we spent a couple of hours getting to know each other. Saara is a doctor and a big name in Helsinki couchsurfing. Most people in the CS community there knows her. We talked about all sorts of different things – travel, life ambitions, volunteering, CS experiences, hobbies and interests. She was great company and gave me several pointers for my stay in Helsinki. We parted ways as she needed to go to work the next day and I headed over to an area called Kallio
to explore the city. Although end of August is towards the end of summer, it was still light till about 9pm and weather was quite comfortable. Even at that time of the night, there were a lot of runners, bicycle riders, dog walkers, everyone trying to take in the beautiful evening by the water.
The next morning, I donned my running gear and headed over to an island called Seurasaarenselkä
, close to Saara’s house. Running over the bridge, past tiny cottages and several lakes, through the woods, in clean crisp air and clear skies made me feel like I was running in paradise! It was the most effortless 10k run I’ve ever done. The landscape was so picturesque that you had to be there to appreciate it fully. Photos just do not do it justice. The woods in the island were near empty, different species of birds were chirping away and flying in and out of your path as if to show you the way ahead
. I had heard so much about this part of the world, and now I was finally there. It was amazing. Later in the afternoon, through the couchsurfing website, I had arranged to meet a German girl (Karo) and a Brazilian guy (Lutty) who were also in Helsinki and were traveling solo. We met at the Railway station and wandered around the city centre, sharing travel stories, travel plans and experiences. We bought some beers and headed to Senaatintori Square
(Senate Square) where Tuomiokirkko towers over it (a chalk-white Lutheran Cathedral). Sitting on the steps of the cathedral, in the sun, drinking beer, while hundreds of tourists went about trying to get their perfect shot, was mighty enjoyable. Then we wandered around Kauppatori (open air market), which was right by the harbour in the old part of town. The day was a beautiful 21 degrees, with not a cloud in the sky and sun out in full force – seemed like the whole of Helsinki was out on the streets. Everyone looked happy and were enjoying themselves thoroughly. I guess you have to when days like this only come along a couple of months in the year.
Lutty bid us farewell as he needed to find internet and book his flights to go home. Karo and I took the ferry to Soumenlinna, a sea fortress built in the 1700s by the Swedes to protect the eastern Finland against Russian invasion (By the way, for those playing at home, the Russians ended up invading Finland and the fortress was conquered)
. The 15 minute ferry ride dropped us on an island of several kilometres with a few attractions such as the Soumenlinna museum (with a huge replica of the entire fortress) and a WWII-era submarine. But essentially now it is an ideal spot for a quiet picnic with lots of open grass areas and houses with huge trees. We had brought more beers with us so we found a spot on the rocks by the sea and watched the Baltic ferries sail through the narrow channel. Karo was a very interesting, hippy and aloof girl. Very easy going and incredibly unorganised and forgetful! But she had an amazing adventurous spirit and a love for nature. She was telling me stories about hitch-hiking through Iceland, backpacking through South Africa and plans to study for a semester in the north of Finland, basically in the middle of nowhere, in winter and how she would love to get a paddle boat and paddle to little islands everywhere and live on them. She reminded me of the character from the movie, Into the Wild. There was a lot to learn from her and we got along really well. After spending an hour or so chatting, we proceeded to exploring the fortress. However, our exploration was slightly different. We went looking for all the forbidden areas, climbed rooftops of houses, sat up in the trees and went into secret stairs of a castle by climbing down a steep roof. We also tried to scale the wall of the fort to see the view from the top but realised about half way up that it would be almost impossible to come back down! It was probably the most fun I’ve had at a boring tourist spot. Our hands were black with dirt, scratched everywhere, Karo broke her shoes but we laughed so much and towards the end, people had started taking photos of us up on the rooftops.
After the senseless fun of Soumenlinna, we headed back into the town centre to attend a weekly couchsurfing meet up
. It’s was BYO picnic in grass area in front of the parliament house and had a massive turnout (about 50 people). I caught up with Saara who introduced me to several other locals and couchsurfers and we exchanged stories for hours. I got lots of tips for Spain from Maria, an exchange student from Granada, spoke at lengths with Hanna, a Finnish girl who lived in India for 6 months and filled in two Australian guys, who have been living in Helsinki for 7 years, on things back home. It was an ideal afternoon and made me realise that days like this is why you travel. The variety of stories, personalities and ambitions of people from different parts of the world is truly fascinating. The meet up dispersed around 11pm and a few of us wandered the streets for a little while longer before we parted ways with wishes of great travel and many more stories, hoping to run into each other again on the streets of another city, in another country.
I woke up on Day 15 slightly dusty and incredibly tired from the previous day’s activities. After a lazy start, I headed into city centre around midday, walked around Eteläesplanadi (Esplanade Park), into Kulvii shopping centre and ventured into Uspenski Cathedral. Uspenski was a red-brick, lavishly decorated orthodox cathedral with onion domes, distinctly different to the white cathedral from the previous day. More meandering ensued and with the sun shining brightly, I picked a nice spot in Esplanade Park to read a book and have a nap. It was so relaxing and an awesome feeling to be able to take time off like that, something I would never do back home because I would feel like I was wasting time. I’m certainly living the travellers dream thus far and making conscious effort to have downtime instead of running from one tourist spot to another, taking photos of buildings, names of which I would forget anyway. Later on in the night, I watched a bit of TV, cooked a small meal and packed my bags. My time in the serene beauty of Finland was over. I would certainly come back again to explore more of the wilderness next time. But for now, I look forward to landing in the vibrant world of London town tomorrow.
Day 13 was an early start, straight to the airport for my next destination. As I bid goodbye to India, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I was excited to get to Helsinki as it would be my first ever visit to a Nordic country but on the other hand I was sad to leave because I had such a good and more importantly, relaxing time with family. I’m certainly glad that I went to India, although the chaos is not something that I’m going to miss! So onto Finland. It was a smooth 7 hour status quo flight – average food, a couple of movies, a quick nap and boom – Welcome to Finland!