Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Fire and Ice

On 19th of August was the Finnish fireworks championship. The 1855 bombardment of Sveaborg (Soumenlinna Fireworks with the moon in the backgroundIsland) barely touched Helsinki (but for a couple overshot shells), and the population even gathered on hills to watch the dramatic 'fireworks'. This event refers to the bombing of Viapori, when the English and French navies bombed Suomenlinna (Viapori) while Finns watched on from the hills of Kaivopuisto Park. The best places for watching the Finnish Fireworks Championships are along the coasts of Kaivopuisto and Katajanokka, as well as the end of Hernesaari Island. The fireworks this year started at 10:30 pm, strategically timed with a full moon night. As I prepared to reach the venue I was 'shell-shocked' to see the crowd accumulated at the tram stop. For a place like Helsinki, that's quite a sight. Suddenly there were too many ppl, more than the tram stop could accumulate, forget the tram itself. I realised just how much out of touch I had been with jostling around in crowds. As the feeling of inadequacy started creeping in, it got overpowered by my natural skills honed particularly by travelling in DTC buses. Out came an arm clutching my handbag under it, the zipped side firmly against my person, my unduly long plait in front of me rather than behind as it has a tendency of getting stuck in zippers (of bags all ye perverts) in the most painful The full moon nightmanner. At long last the tram made its way through crowds in its way, to the stop itself. I could see people packed in like sardines. As luck would have it, the tram stopped with its doors right in front of me and I felt like I was drowning in a sea of scurrying (make that jostling) mice. I somehow made it into the tram, well versed with situations like this and held onto the first handrest I could get my hands on. I couldnt fathom just where all these ppl were going. A lit up islandIt was unusually crowded even for a weekend, and then I realised that they were all headed to watch the fireworks near the harbour. Unfortunately I had the daunting task of getting off somewhere in between and not at the destination, where I would have just flowed out with the rest of the human mass. Experience has taught me to start making my way much before the stop arrives and that's what I did. After getting together with some of my colleagues, we all started walking in the direction that we saw the crowds going in.

The harbour looked beautiful, bathed in the full moon light. The water of the Bathed in the full moon lightBaltic sea gleamed and the *huge* moon peered down. I had heard that the moon is supposed to be as big as a thaali in these parts of our planet compared to the katori in our parts, and I saw it too. Swarms of people crowded around, drinking beer and generally picnicking (something they do a lot, anytime, anywhere). In sometime, the population explosion was replaced by the fireworks explosion. The crowd gasped collectively. "Poor mites", I thought as I remembered the diwali crackers back home and concentrated more on the huge thaali sized full moon, not so readily available back home. After enjoying the fireworks display, we enjoyed the huge moon and the glistening ocean, by sitting atop a hill in Kaivopuisto Park, far away from streetlights. No photography can justify the beauty of that moment.Traffic jam at midnight
Getting back was an adventure in itself. After waiting for about half an hour for a tram which was already more than half an hour late, I decided to walk till the station from where I got my connecting bus at 12:45am, back to my apartment. Anything to get away from that place which reeked so much of beer that I felt giddy myself. I felt as if I had had two cans of beer by just inhaling the fumes all around. Walking ahead, I witnessed a traffic jam at midnight probably because the majority of the population was concentrated at the harbour. I made it to the station, just in time to catch the 12:45am bus. There was a long queue for the bus, full of people acting stupid and drunk. I stood a little distance away from the queue, also wondering how I would ever secure a seat for myself for a 45 minute journey when everyone seemed to be going in that very bus. The bus arrived shortly and for the second time that day, it stopped right where I was standing and the doors opened right infront of me. Amused to the core, I stepped in, before another jostling session would have pushed me in.
After I got home, I reflected back on the full moon glory. The beauty of that black and white moment - the dark water and the bright full moon would remain a memory for all times to come.

Friday, August 19, 2005


I finally got to see the event as I wanted - on the eve of the closing ceremony. After scouring the venue for 2 days we finally got the tickets of the closing ceremony (14th Aug) for D-upper section (originally 155€) in 35€. Now I can pat my back for my bargaining skills. We ultimately sat in the D-lower section (since our seats were already occupied!) which suited us even better. The calculated risk, that we took by waiting for the closing ceremony and not watching the event before that was not really needed. The Indian flag along with others
We expected much fanfare for the closing (like in the opening ceremony) but all that happened was 'victory ceremonies' - in other words, medal distribution. Had India been there somewhere, it would have made sense.

It seems that even a country like Finland unexpectedly has its own market of 'tickets in black'. Only these tickets are not costlier than the officially available ones (like in India), instead they are cheaper, but not very. Some agents were even selling them at the same rates as the official ticket stalls! It all depends on the date, the timing at which *you* buy it and the date/timing for which you want it, the section of the stadium (in which one wanted tickets) and then of course ones bargaining skills. These agents seemed to be foreigners too. Moroccans to be precise. That's what I learnt when I asked a couple of them where they were from. One of them wished me ASAK and I responded back instantly as if I had been doing it all my life. Another asked me how long it took for my hair to grow 'that' long and labeled me as 'the lady with the long hair' for the next 2 days.

Watching this kind of an event was great. It was a first for me inside a stadium as I am not a sports freak anyway (I detest cricket even more so because it's fed so much to us Indians in our daily diet). It was also a first for even an event of that magnitude! I saw a world record happening in front of my own eyes and not on the camera for a change. Osleidys Menéndez from Cuba made this world record. It was The new world record for women's javelin throwamazing, seeing that particular javelin throw. The javelin just didn't stop and went on and on along with the collective "ohhhh's" of the audience and finally landed outside the last boundary line made for javelin throws. I dont have any shots of that. But I dont regret that. At times, one forgets to enjoy the experience in a bid to capture that moment forever. Some irony.

Even though I have seen on TV that more than one events take place at the same time, it was weird with so many happening at the same time that one had to instantly switch ones vision (as if channels) from one point of the stadium to another. At times people kept concentrating on the wrong end for eg. at the introduciton being given for a men's 4X400m final instead of where the real action was happening at that point (women's javelin throw).
A teary eyed winner of the women's final racing event
Apart from the games, I saw just how much pressure all players face. I also saw the glistening pride on the faces of the winners. Whenever any medal awarding ceremony took place, the flag of the nation which stood first, was hoisted and the national anthem played. Many a time, tears of joy would silently be overtaken by the evident pride.

My only regret - I could not cheer for India.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

IAAF World Athletics Championships in Helsinki

This was one of the events responsible for a lot of personal misery to me (and my colleagues) unfortunately. No, I am not a sports fanatic at all. But it's strange to note, how such external factors do affect us still. I had to arrange for an apartment for myself within the first 3 weeks of arriving in Finland. We had been told it's not really difficult. But when we started searching, we were just not able to get *any* apartment available in the time period that we wanted. Even though the time period was supposedly the best, since in summers, a lot of apartments get vacant as the majority of the population goes off to a summer cottage, we faced major problems in finalising an apartment. Whatever little was available was at greatly hiked prices. I remember one chap was renting out his place only for the week in which the IAAF World Championships had to take place in Helsinki and he expected 2000€ for it! Outrageous by any real estate standards! Well the woes can make up a long post in themselves maybe later.

For now, the world championships are taking place out here. Helsinki is all geared up for the event. As can be expected, there is much fanfare, tourist friendly schemes, escalation in real estate and a good business opportunity for people. Suddenly there is a major influx of 'foreigners' in the local transport and on the streets. It feels good to be not the only ones, who do not understand Finnish/Swedish. Initially we thought that India isn't taking part in these events as there was just no information anywhere in the Indian media (on the net). Finally on visiting the venue, we managed to spot the Indian flag and later we learnt that Anju Bobby George was taking part in the long jump event (She had won the bronze in the same games held in Paris in 2003). She stood 5th in the event this year inspite of the bad weather. The weather conditions were *really* bad for the past few days and literally dampened our plans to watch this event. So far, I have not been able to watch the event. But will surely try to, in the 2 more days that the event is on. Even if India wasn't participating we all would have loved to use this opportunity to make a first, as far as watching a sports event in a stadium is concerned.

There are a lot of other activities which go on outside the stadium, for eg. marathons, fun games for free in which one can win prizes ranging from small badges and caps to passes of a cruise! I tried my hand at these games and collected a lot of small stuff (badges, pens, caps) but no cruises passes unfortunately. I also got my face painted with the Indian tri-colour! For once I won't face a problem of my nationality being mistaken.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


The public transport system in Finland is quite good. One has trains, buses, trams and the metro to commute. Finland or rather Helsinki is a tourist's paradise in the sense of travelling around the place. Maps, public transport timetables and a whole lot of information is easily available in tourist information offices, railway stations etc. Maps with the details upto the house numbers are commonly available in most kiosks, information points, hotels, restaurants etc. Getting to a place provided you know the address, was never that simple before. To add to this, there's a great Finnish website which takes the source and destination and tells you the mode of transport, where to get down, change the transport etc. according to any date and time. It also provides multiple ways in which you can reach that place at that point of time, subject to the transportation facilities available then. It also provides links to detailed maps of the source, destination and the change points. Along with this are the routes (drawn graphically in the map) and the timetable of the transport involved. This works for one major reason. Transport more or less follows a timetable. Comparing this with India, err..timetable? Does such a thing even exist in the first place? Only in schools.

Buses here are sleek and big with pneumatic doors (like in Japan). Sleek busOnly a driver is there (no conductor to come asking for tickets - which is perhaps something that happens in the entire world except India). It's one's own responsibility to buy a ticket. Checking is rarely ever done. I never came across any ticket checking in Japan. But then that is because one has to swipe ones ticket/travel card through a terminal and only then would one be allowed. Anyone trying anything else, would face a hit from some baricades jutting out the moment you try to crossover. Mostly there's a policeman stationed at these points too. In Finland, though there are terminals for swiping cards, there is no restriction to access. In other words, one can go anywhere, anytime and you can get caught only if manual checking is done. So far, with me checking has happened only once in a train in Helsinki. Special tram with a pub in it.The only major difference between buses (and trams) in Finland and those in Japan is the way to indicate that you have to get down/get in. In Japan, one had to go and stand next to the driver, a substantial time before ones stop came, else he would not stop the bus (trams aren't there in Japan). To get in, there was no particular 'rule'. The bus stopped at the stop, and one got in if one had to. In Finland, there are buttons provided right next to each seat (in both buses and trams), so that if one wishes to get down, one may press the button in advance. Button to press, if you want to stop a busTo indicate that one wants to get in a bus/tram, one has to wave one's hand properly (so that it's visible) else the bus/tram wouldn't stop! Experience is the best teacher, but its fees is very high. All desis are so unused to this waving-for-a-bus-thing, that they have had to learn by experience. Everyone of us has had instances where we waited half an hour for a bus, it came, it saw and it went on without stopping simply because we forgot to flag it down! If one is not *at* the bus/tram stop (which is clearly marked) when the bus/tram comes, there's no use running, shouting, waving or any other thing to make it stop. Once the pneumatic doors close, they are harder than Alladin's caves to re-open. The driver (usually wearing a Mogambo-esque expression and goggles) will not even acknowledge your mere presence and will move on.

The roads in Finland (and probably the rest of europe) are great. They are smooth and well tarred and of course, things like potholes don't exist in the dictionary of the roads here. Not only that, they dont even have speed breakers. They have speed limits marked on signboards and each and every person respects them. The thing closest to a speed breaker is at times a section of the road, more like a zebra crossing (it's that wide) and hardly elevated from the road. I call it a speed breaker because vehicles do slow down when they come to that rare thing, but it's nothing like the ^ shaped speed breakers we have in India, which not only break your speed, but also your head, neck, back, vehicle and everything possible. Pedestrians and cyclists have separate roads for them which are actually the footpaths which are well tarred out of which half a clearly demarcated section is for pedestrians and half for cyclists. In Japan also cyclists used the pavements but there were no demarcations. One of the secrets for smooth roads is that these ppl pull out the old stuff and then put on fresh tar. The level of the road doesnt change. In India, the elevation of the road changes (mostly increases) with the years it sees in its life. The potholes get left behind unfortunately.

Somehow I noticed something lacking on the roads, when I got here. After a couple of days, I realised it was the absence of motorbikes! Finally after the first week I saw one. They are rare, quite rare. But the ones that do get seen also make sure they get heard. They appear to be almost as fast as the bike used in the sci-fi TV serial StreetHawk. Rather than other modes of transport, most ppl use bicycles to commute. But a lot of bicycles here have no brakes! Neither do they have stands. To stop a bicycle, you are supposed to reverse pedal or at least stop peddling and it would stop. They also have tubeless tyres, which means you need to apply more force and pedal continuously for any movement. Thankfully there are some bicycles which are 'normal'. Personal cars are quite expensive and so are cabs (like Japan). The place is scenic and beautiful. At least in the summers, the weather is great. All is perfect for a good ride and a good exercise. But nothing can beat the best way to see a place - peripatetic.

* - the tram in the picture is a special one. It's a pub inside a tram and of course you need to buy a drink to get onto it. The public transport tram is just different in colour.