A MARVELLOUS DEPARTURE

The time for us to leave Ethiopia has come. With cheer in our faces we boarded the airplane and I sat, this time, on a window seat, staring through the glass from the very take off. Immediately after, I pointed her Entoto, and commented our walks in search of hyena holes. Few minutes later, we swiftly flew by the Nile canyon with its ancient Portuguese bridge, laughing about the cheeky baboons encountered on its slopes. Following, the wondrous Blue Nile Falls appeared underneath, and we recalled the involuntary showers during our picture session. Gondar’s castle came across our view, and nearby the Fasilades bath, where we experienced the unique Timkat celebration. We were having the trip of our lives and the aircraft took a sudden right turn, that provided us the opportunity to admire again the incomparable rock hewn churches of Lalibela and Gheralta. We crossed the Afar region and veered left over the old town of Harar, our favourite civilizations crossroads and most adventurous destination for historical travellers, poets, and spies. But the pilot did not have enough of Afar and returned to its most Northern point, where we flew in slow motion, recalling our last visit to the lava crater volcano of Erta Ale in full moon. Later I spotted the beautiful red rose in the Danakhil salt lake that she planted with her own blood and I watered with my tears, the one we named Aleksandra. I was so excited to see it that I kept repeating her:

– Look, it is our rose, it is her!

But she never responded. I did not mind, because I knew that from the end of that flight she would have the rest of my life to show me the beauty of the North.

IN MEMORIAM

Kristiina Juutinen

6 Jul 1980-15 Feb 2014

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February 15, 2014

 

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Daniel Abraham

(cont. Searching for Santa in Lapland)

A stopover in my adored Istanbul was the only highlight in my dull expedition to East Africa. Upon arrival to Addis, the thrill of living without a plan stimulated my mind and raised my awareness. I directed my steps immediately to the orphanage, where I could deliver “Santa’s supplies” to Hanna, the Volunteer Coordinator.  She greeted me cheerfully, while receiving the donations given by the goodhearted Oulu people. I asked her whether I could hand over personally one of the toys to Dani, to what she gently approved.

Daniel Abraham is an eight year old boy, who has lived almost all his life in the orphanage. He is in the “Special Needs” pavilion and is affected by a cerebral palsy and possibly a tumor in his head. The result of them is the left side of his body paralyzed and regular epilepsy attacks. However, Dani is a brilliant kid, and the only one in the pavilion who is not mentally disabled.

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During our months together, Dani and I have slowly walked from his dorm to the babies’ pavilion, his favourite place in the orphanage. There he crawls from one room to another, saluting the staff and the babies by their names, often screaming from happiness, and at times singing aloud and playing drums with any toy he may encounter on his way. Dani is capable of walking with my support or the support of any other person who may be willing to share some time, a valuable commodity often disregarded. However, support and time might help Dani be self-dependent one day, as he is mentally fit.

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When I entered the pavilion and greeted the assistants, Dani heard my voice and immediately hung down from his bed. Crawled towards me and hugged and kissed with the usual warmth and tenderness he had been doing it for the last months. At that moment I felt I had finally arrived home.

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*Dani says hello to “Santa” in Oulu.

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Searching for Santa in Lapland

Last time I parted from the orphanage, Dani fare-welled me with a joyous ciao while playing noisily with the other kids. I did not dare to tell him that this time I would be away for a longer period, which disquieted my departing mood. During my last night in Addis, I could not prevent thinking about it and so I was determined to make it up to Dani. I would return with a genuine surprise.

I decided to set wings and search for the top adviser in children matters: Santa Claus in Lapland!

My journey from mild weather Ethiopia to Arctic Circle temperatures progressed smoothly with several stop-overs, gradually adapting my body and mind to the climate and excitement. The first step on Finnish land showed the effects of global warming as Helsinki‘s inhabitants bragged on local TV about playing homeland golf instead of flying to Spanish courses. So I kept heading North, in search for proper Winter conditions that would craft my most wanted encounter with Santa.

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A snow-mobile flip-over, a semi-failed telemark ski tryout, and plenty of night ski took me to the edge of Finnish Lapland, in Kuusamo‘s Winter hideaway of Ruka. In its surroundings I tried to hitch a husky sleigh ride to Santa’s condominium, to find out that I had been late for departure. I then entertained myself hanging around the husky farm, taking pictures of all Northern creatures encountered, among them, reindeers.

My tenacious camera pursue to a white reindeer ended up facing each other angrily while asking myself aloud:

– Why the heck don’t you stand still for a  picture?

To what astonishingly the reindeer responded:

– Cause you are the fiftieth tourist today with the same tiresome aim!

My skeptic foolish expression provoked a noisy reindeer laughter that made me sink in my boots so deep that I felt immaterial. The reindeer then calmed down and asked me about my origins. After slapping myself in the cheek a couple of times and realizing that I was not dreaming, I told my story about Dani and the reason to travel to Lapland. Prancer, as she named herself, mentioned that she was once one of Santa’s reindeers, but presently had been on compulsory leave as Santa had decided to distribute presents around the world in airline carriers instead of reindeer sleigh. I asked Prancer whether Santa was at that time back from Christmas delivery, as well as his current whereabouts. To what Prancer replied that Santa was indeed back to Lapland, but recovering from PTSD after having to deal with low-cost airlines staff unkindness during the entire delivery period. Prancer mentioned as well that Santa had to adjust to the ongoing economy crisis and book his tickets on low-cost, and that for the moment he would not receive any visits until full health recovery, as he would not like to endanger the 2014 Christmas delivery.

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Disappointed by Prancer’s information, I hit the road back to Southern Finland, hoping to figure out a plan B for Dani. While crossing the river Oulu, I decided to dip in the cold water, as many locals do, to temporarily shake off my dissatisfaction. The chilly feeling in my skin invigorated my mood and prompted a few cheers from local bathers. There were not many Spaniards plunging in the river during Winter season, and that drew the attention of a couple who were curious enough to ask about my business in town. I gave details about my adventure and they decided to compensate for Santa’s sick leave.

Few hours later, I was having brunch surrounded by locals interested in my story. The Juutinens, the Liskos, the Solins, the half-shy Lundin-Pirkolas, and the Värttö, they all decided to contribute with toys, clothes, and electronic devices that would not only provide a smile to Dani, but to many more kids at the orphanage, and as well support the institution’s administration.

I did not find Santa in Lapland, but I certainly found his spirit in the people of Oulu.

      …To Be Continued

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A Mulberry Row Christmas Tale

Mr. Scrooge’s British accent hunted me diachronically throughout my DC metropolitan visit. Not so much at the Ford’s Theater representation of A Christmas Carol, but unexpectedly during a marvelous Virginia Theater Machine street performance in Colonial Williamsburg. My ears relish the pronunciation perfection of Shakespeare‘s language, but I enjoy as well my freewill traveling choice that took me to Yankee-land to plunge into the civil-libertarian uses broadly accessible in this society.

I therefore hit the road towards another favored UNESCO World Heritage Site to re-visit Thomas Jefferson‘s adorable Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia. I quickly engaged in the house tour, rediscovering the ever ongoing changes, in the purest Jeffersonian style. While roaming around Mulberry Row I met James Hemings. With a warm greeting and noticing my non Southern accent, he asked for the whereabouts of my origin and effusively explained his time spent in Europe, learning French cuisine. Absorbed in his experiences, I was kindly invited to accompany James to the estate kitchen, where I could further collaborate in the daily cooking.

Upon arrival, I was introduced to Ursula, the “favourite house woman”, Suck, little Edith, and James’ brother, Peter Hemings. The kitchen was certainly alive and my presence barely disturbed the work in progress. I inquired about the dishes being cooked to what James replied proudly:

– Lunch menu consists of deviled eggs with anchovies, consommé Julienne, and baked shad with roe soufflé and scalloped potatoes, decorated with a “garden stuff” salad with Monticello dressing.

Needless to say that at that point I started salivating.

Upon completion of the appetizers, James proposed me to escort him and Ursula to the dinning room, where the Master, his family and guests would be awaiting for the food. To what, I happily accepted. The three of us entered the luminous room full handed, to surprisingly find the Master standing near six empty places on the table, and ready to address us:

– James, it is my pleasure to share our table with you, your brother, Ursula, Suck, little Edith, and the visiting Spaniard, and in this way show our appreciation to your lasting services.

On that same evening, back to my DC hotel, I recalled Mr. Scrooge’s British accent and booked a seat for the Washington Ballet‘s The Nutcracker to never stop living my adored Christmas spirit.

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Mubarak Bin Basel in Oman

A desert passageway flanked by rough calcified mountains only interrupted by scarce villages, palm colonies, and lesser towns led me from the most Western part of the Sultanate of Oman to the city of Ibri, from where I hunted the abandoned archaeological sites of Bat, Al-Khutm, and Al-Ayn.

Following the plain discovery, I dug my way out of A’ Dhahira govern-orate to Bahla, a magnificent town with an adobe fortress that successfully abandoned the UNESCO list of endangered sites in 2004 after a commendable fourteen years and nine million dollars restoration process undertaken by the Sultanate. However, to my uttermost disappointment, public opening is apparently restricted to Fridays and Saturdays, few morning and afternoon hours.

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Calling to my mind Sir Wilfred Thesiger‘s near-spiritual contentment, I hardly sped my Lancer towards Nizwa, with the desire to uncover an ancient engineering wonder: the two-thousand years old Afalaj irrigation system. Beneath a hard-biting sun I promenaded along the Falaj Daris, dipping my feet into a crystal clear water stream that chilled my condition and thoughts.

 

Upon restoration of my vital signs I proceeded to abandon the city and the A’ Dakhliyah govern-orate, although a last-minute bastioned surprise kept me wandering through the “Pearl of Islam” and its remarkable (Nizwa) Fort. The fortification was commissioned in mid xvii century by the Imam Sultan Bin Saif Al Ya’rubi. From the top of its 36 metre diametre drum-like tower I could gaze around and admire the souq, the So’al Mosque, and the Jabal al Akhadar or “Green Mountain,” described by Mubarak Bin London as his hideout during the 1948 journey. The Imam allowed him harmlessly to continue the trip, but not to reach any close to the town and its splendid fortress. This time, Mubarak Bin Basel beat him to the punch!

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Moneyland

I remember a couple of times during my childhood when I had dreams about finding coins all over the ground, and I couldn’t get hold of all, of course. Carl Jung interprets the basic dream symbolism as surprise and a few other meanings that could be related.

But not a dream surprise was the one experienced while strolling down-town Basel, in Switzerland. The town, historically founded by the Romans as Augusta Raurica in 44 BC, transient home for humanists, scientists, philosophers, or reformists, like Erasmus, Paracelsus, Friedrich Nietzsche, or John Calvin, and birthplace of the foremost tennis player in history, Roger, showed me magnificent views of its cathedral, Muensterplatz, Marktplatz, and of the river Rhein over the Rheinbruecke, and exhausted my artistic senses in the Kunstmuseum, the Beyeler Foundation, Tinguely Museum, and the Swiss Architecture Museum, to the extent that I was obliged to look for refuge in a central coffee shop.

I chose the Unternehmen Mitte, once a banking building and today a playground for “work, culture and good coffee.” Upon trespassing its entry hallway my sight connected to my childhood dream while discovering a three metres diametre pile of coins. My mind confronted the reality and my dream aroused egoist feelings. I rubbed my eyes and gazed around the pile to comprehend the reaction of customers sitting on the tables. But they all seem to mind their conversations, smart-phones, and laptops, disregarding such an enormous amount of money laying on the ground.

Ideas flew across my mind, most of them with a high component of self-serving. Then, I turned around and fled the scene, hoping to encounter a similar one in the street, where I could take all the coins I wanted (or I could) without nobody recriminating me for it. Cause in the end I was in Switzerland, the moneyland!

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*Find out here what those coins were meant for.

 

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Tito's Island

Almost dragged by an avid scuba diver friend, I succeeded to Santa Catalina, last onshore surfers’ hangout before boarding for Coiba National Park. During the past century, Panamanian dictators Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega exploited the main archipelago’s island as a political penal colony, forcefully devising it unappealing for non inmates.

My arrival to the Marine Preserve was followed by briefings and introductions from the scuba community. Iglesia and Bajo Canales were the designated immersion spots, and in between, stopovers at Granito de Oro island for a picnic and at Estacion Biologica to spot Tito. The latter attempt was regretfully not accomplished. Eager to disregard an encounter with the former Yugoslavian dictator, mainly because unlike “Elvis is alive” urban myth, this Tito would be one hundred and twenty one years old by now, and if in hideout plausibly to be found in Croatia‘s Brijuni Islands, my curiosity invigorated.

I focused then on my so far foremost diving experience ever. Guitar and white tip sharks, hawksbill turtles, spotted rays, and a choreographic yellow frog fish trio-motion made me increase the passion for sea submersion.

Guitar shark, By Oksana Kotik

Guitar shark, By Oksana Kotik

Frog fishes, By Oksana Kotik

Frog fishes, By Oksana Kotik

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still hyper after the dives we convened for dinner at Pinguino Cafe, a front beach Sardinian owned restaurant serving delicious lobster with pasta. Between “balboas” I shifted the conversation to Tito, my mysterious Coiba inhabitant, to finally learn that the referred individual is four metres long and possibly migrated from mainland to the island where it settled secure at the Estacion Biologica lagoon: Tito, the saltwater crocodile!

Video: Buceo en Coiba, by Oksana Kotik

*Thanks to Oksana Kotik and Cesar

 

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Arrivederci Roma

Once upon a time in Rome, where all roads lead to, there was an aperitivo fan, tasting spritz in Monti while writing some notes on his moleskine. At that time, a never seen before specie of Pingwine appeared in front of his eyes to explain the intensity and delights of riezling grapes. Although spritz-man was a keen student and thoughtful listener, he needed the experience of a practitioner and suggested Pingwine to roam through trattorias and ristorantes to further learn the benefits of, not only riezling, but pinot grigio, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and even muscat from the Golan Heights, accompanied by the finest Roman cuisine. From that moment on a sweet complicity led both into a charming wine and dine spiral, only to be abruptly ended by the roughest materialistic requirements of an airline carrier.

Ciao!

Ciao!

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Frank, Howard, and I

When I first met Howard, found him an individualistic romantic. His ideological egoism prompted repulsion but his romantic realism captivated my attention to the extent of letting my senses free dive into Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead. Howard Roark, characterized in King Vidor‘s film by Gary Cooper, represented in my mind the righteousness, clarity, and determination that my professional surroundings were lacking at that time. Howard introduced me to objectivism, libertarianism, Joseph Conrad‘s brilliant romantic realism, and to the heroine Dominique Francon. But, as well, he re-introduced me to Frank Lloyd Wright, to uncompromising and individual creativity through arts, and to organic architecture.

Enthusiastically I set mind beside Howard and accompanied him throughout the streets of New York City, into Monadnock Valley, and to Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Ohio states. I stepped on Stoddard Temple construction site, gazed over The New York Banner gate in search for Dominique, and even witnessed the Cortland housing project explosion. I was living Howard‘s intense life.

Fallingwater, by Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater, by Frank Lloyd Wright

I opened my eyes to a sunny day, disrupted by a bump on the dirt road pothole while cruising a green forest on the passenger seat of a Japanese sedan. I glanced around looking for references and found a road sign indicating three miles to the Bear Run Nature Reserve. I asked the driver about our location and learned that I had just awaken in Pennsylvania. Before being able to fully acknowledge my disorientation, the road opened to a parking lot associated to the Kaufmann Residence. At that point my brain processed all the information temporarily hibernated and I relished having finally arrived to Frank Lloyd Wright‘s masterpiece. The Fallingwater house was my favourite of Lloyd Wright’s works, and highlight of his organic architecture. Edgar Kaufmann, wealthy Pittsburgh businessman, commissioned the architect in 1935 to build a Summer house in the forest, over the Bear Run. The result was a splendid symbiosis between man and nature through architecture. Its structural vigour respected the beauty of the Bear Run and made efficient use of the natural resources without causing harm.

I was cheerful to find myself in such setting. To savour Frank Lloyd Wright‘s heritage through Howard Roark risky venture. I was privileged to capture those moments, through motion picture and personal observation. But I was far more fortunate to learn the immense legacy that both Frank and Howard left behind, influencing architects who developed their ideas into projects located steps away from my home.

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Timeless Lake Assal in Djibouti

After considering Djibouti as a new trip destination, mainly due to the purportedly great diving and the prospect of spotting whale sharks, I decided to google it and on the first result page three of the ten results were CIA, US Department of State, and IMF official websites. Still not discouraged by such lack of tourist appeal I clicked the omnipresent Wikipedia link and found out that Djibouti had a fascinating history. I felt particularly attracted by its Somali and Afar ethnic groups’ historical heredity and the close ties with Ancient Egypt, especially in the times of Queen Hatshepsut (1508-1458 BC). Finally, but with already enough grounds to pay a visit to the God’s Land, I searched on Lonely Planet’s recommended Sights, providing me, with its ‘three’ recommended locations, the ultimate rational motive to book a ticket and keep an imperishable grin, as it commonly occurs when I get ready for traveling.

          My first impression while taxing on the airport tarmac was that I had landed on a military base, as it was my second and third impressions, while driving through the city and checking in at the Sheraton Djibouti.

          Nevertheless, I resolved to dismiss any tedium that the first three impressions provoked and insisted in making the best out of my Djibouti trip. For that, I only had to find the ‘three’ highlights suggested by the Lonely Planet and book a dive around Mousha Island. I started from the end. After uncountable questions in my hotel reception, I figured out that the only operational diving centre during the season was located inside the Kempinski hotel, a massive luxury building block situated by the sea, between the port and the city, with sea views composed by vessels and warships. The interior of the hotel wasn’t that different. The majority of the people encountered were military, and while in Sheraton most of them spoke German, in Kempinski, the most heard languages were Italian and Spanish.

          After booking my dive journey, I embarked towards Mousha Island, where crystalline light blue waters and a rustic lodging complex filled my scenes. The dive was pleasant and irrelevant, and the instructors at the diving centre were accommodating and kind, but firm.

          My next highlight in Djibouti city was the Market. I roamed it at night, when temperatures slightly decreased and locals moved around frantically, particularly at the arrival instants of the Ethiopian khat. Djibouti’s population highly consume khat, and as suggested by a Canadian expatriate, it is a social use numerous times required to foreign officials in their meetings with locals provided that they want to achieve cooperation. The market was surrounded by charming colonial buildings, eroded by the adverse climate conditions and lack of human maintenance. The anarchic movement of blue and white minivans through it rendered additional motion to my image and a sense of bustling attraction.

Baboons in Djibouti

Baboons in Djibouti

          The next day I boarded a desert equipped SUV to make my way out to Lake Assal, allegedly the lowest point in the African continent, at -155 metres below sea level, and the third lowest in the world after the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. It is located inside the Danakil Depression at the very North of the Great Rift Valley where the highest temperature could reach 52 degrees C. On my way to the lake, I spotted a baboon colony by the main road. They were grouped at that singular place to benefit from a truck accident spoils. As I was approaching the lake, the landscape prompted visual recalls from lunar images. The basalt rocks presented evidence of the terrain’s volcanic nature. They were often piled forming circular compounds where the Afar people still camped temporarily and kept their camels. When I finally arrived at Lake Assal, there was a vast extension of white and blue surface, harming clear, charming albescent. I walked on the dry salty ground sensing crisps at every step. As I moved closer to the water the terrain was softening but not enough to safely walk barefoot, as the salty crystal formations were sharp edged and capable of damaging my skin. I entered the water and literally laid down on it. The high saline concentration, of about one third per litre, kept me floating as if I leaned on a floating mattress. At that point, nothing mattered. I had found another timeless place on earth, where I would always want to return.

Lake Assal

Lake Assal

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