September 2013

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I had told my cousin to get lots of sleep our last night in Helsinki, assuming that sleep would be less comfortable on the road. But I had an amazing night’s sleep after our first day of biking (was it being lulled to sleep by the rain? was it that I was so ungodly tired from biking 8 hours?) and woke up super ready and excited to bike some more.

We snuck up to the pink house to leave a thank you note and some San Francisco chocolates to the lovely Finnish couple that had let us camp on their property.

We started the day off in our tent, eating tiny forrest blueberries that we had packed, along with delicious (Icelandic!) vanilla yogurt that we had picked up in an S-mart.

The most ambitious schedule was for this 2nd day (the first day was for getting adjusted, the third day, we wanted to leave plenty of time for buffer) but we were feeling good about making it since we had more of a rhythm, now.

We biked and biked, and took pictures of flowers, and farm houses, and stopped to drink delicious packs of chocolate soy milk (soy milk doesn’t spoil! What a good bike camping treat!) We lunched in a clearing in the woods, that we spotted while biking. We had rye bread, brown cheese, berries.

The couple had warned us that the weather would not be good on our way (they had been thoughtful enough to look up the forecast for us). Biking in the rain was not pleasant. Sweating under a rain jacket left me about as wet as when I didn’t wear a jacket. But the rain was not too heavy, and was sporadic.

My cousin and I talked about what order we should bike in. Whenever there was an explicit bike path, the must fun was biking side by side. We were about the same speed—I had more experience biking longer trips, but my cousin is more generally athletic, so it evened out. When we were biking on the side of the road, sometimes I biked ahead and navigated. And once in a while, she biked ahead. Later, she said she preferred me in the front because it was comforting to see that she had someone biking with her. Which I hadn’t thought of, and thought was cute.

We were so proud of making it in good time (8pm-ish) to the town of Salo, so we decided to treat ourselves to a fancy dinner there!

There’s only so much you can plan from Google maps and Google street view, halfway around the world. So on the night of our first day of biking across Finland, my cousin and I had assumed we’d be able to find somewhere to set up camp easily, since we had passed by so many suitable places earlier in the day. We had this dream of sleeping by a lake, and we located nearby lakes on Google maps, and would pass them, but would find that they were situated too closely to houses and private land.

It was starting to get closer to 10pm. We found a lake on google maps that looked promising. We walked a path to the lake and found a sign. GUARDED AREA, SURVEILLANCE CAMERA, it said, in Finnish. I looked at my cousin. “Well, it doesn’t say ‘Don’t enter!’ It’s probably fine!” she said. I laughed. She was much braver than I was.

“Um, I’m not sure I want to be under camera while I’m sleeping,” I said.

“That’s probably a bluff,” she said.

I laughed again. I was still hesitant. We saw a house nearby with a light on upstairs. A pink house. “There’s a pink house over there with a light on. Pink means they must be nice, right?” I said. “Might as well try!” she said.

So we were about to knock on the door of the pink house when the owners stepped out. A couple, about the age of our parents. They greeted us. We explained to them that we were visiting Finland, and biking from Helsinki to Turku, and asked if they owned the property near the lake and if it was ok for us to set up camp there? “Set up camp anywhere you like!” they replied. “Except probably not too near the lake, because those neighbors are not very nice.” They motioned toward the GUARDED AREA sign.

“And actually, you must be so thirsty! Can we get you coffee? Can we get you water? And, you must be so tired! Would you like hot water to shower?”

“Oh! That sounds amazing! But we don’t want to trouble you, we’re just so happy to have a place to camp!”

“It’s no trouble at all, just set up your camp and come into the house, and the shower water will probably be ready then.”

We set up camp, and came into the house and met their 5 super eager dogs. The dogs loved Novi, she is very much a dog person and they could tell! In the middle of my shower, the hot water turned off, and it became freezing cold. But really, I wasn’t expecting to shower at all during the bike camping trip, and my cousin and I had even brought wet wipes to clean up with and no-water shampoos to experiment with, so it just felt luxurious and refreshing.

After we had washed up, they asked us if we wanted any dinner. “We made chicken and… I’m not sure what the English word for this is, but in Finnish it’s called macaroni.” “Haha, in English it’s the same!” we laughed. “Look at that, we just learned a new English word!” they said. We had already eaten dinner at the gas station, so we politely declined. But then they offered us milk and cookies (maito ya keksi) instead and that, we did not refuse. They were so cute. We learned that they had grown up in the countryside, moved to the city for school when they were younger, and back to the countryside to raise a family. We learned that they considered India their spiritual homeland, and had visited 7 times. We learned that they rolled their own cigarettes, very perfectly. They said “This is so funny, this has never happened to us before. Can we take a picture with you?” We laughed and nodded, and got our pictures taken together, all of us. We talked to them until 1am and said good night and headed to our tent.

My tent is pink and covered in flowers, but it is a serious tent. It has an attachment at the top to hook a headlamp for room lighting, slots on the sides to hang muddy shoes, glow in the dark zipper pulls, rainfly, rain tarp. And that night, we really needed rainproof-ness. After my cousin and I had crawled into our sleeping bags, and started dozing off, we heard the patter of rain on the tent. I slept so soundly that night– so grateful for an adventuresome cousin. And for my trusty pink tent in the rain. And so grateful for strangers with hearts of gold.

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A year and a half ago, I didn’t know how to ride a bike. I’m super clumsy, and I never learned properly as a kid, but had been vaguely wanting to learn for real for many years. In the end what pushed me over was finding a super cute mint green bike to finally learn how to ride. I’m maybe a little ridiculous like that. My ridiculousness can be very strong a motivation for lots of things.

Fast forward to this summer: my cousin, my cousin and I took a 3 day bike ride across the countryside of southern Finland, from Helsinki to Turku, motivated mostly by eagerness to reach Moominworld, the Finnish equivalent to Disneyland, celebrating hippo-shaped trolls that live in the forrest with other oddly shaped creature friends, based on comic books that every Finnish child (and me) grew up reading. I’d been bike camping before, but this was my longest such trip. At night we set up a cute pink tent (Finland conveniently has an “every-man’s land” law that states you can camp anywhere that is not private property) and in the morning we’d eat yogurt and fresh forrest berries. The whole thing was one of the happiest things I’ve done in my whole life.

We had spent a happy 2 days exploring Helsinki before starting our trip. I had brought my mint green bike of course, and my cousin rented a touring bike in the city. The morning we left, our Airbnb host sent us off with a breakfast of karjalanpiirakka (she thoughtfully remembered that it was our favorite Finnish pastry!). We loaded up our bikes with all of our supplies and gear (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, toiletries, clothes, water, snacks, emergency supplies), and we biked city streets to the western edge of Helsinki until we hit a lovely tree-lined bike path (the one in the first picture!). After city biking, it was such a luxury to bike on this bike path, completely away from cars and surrounded by green, sans helmets, and letting the wind blow through our hair. Sometimes during the 3 day journey, though, the bike path would join the road and disappear, and total, we’d spend about half of our trip biking on the side of the road instead.

The first day, we biked and biked and stopped for an afternoon snack at a small town slightly beyond Espoo. We ate korvapuusti (literally “slapped ears” in Finnish) and piirakka (savory pies not unlike quiche) at a pink-walled cafe. Getting to try new Finnish pastries at little cafes we passed was a huge source of excitement. We also passed by fields and fields of green, aspen forests, and silver lakes. We were particularly excited about the lakes. (We had both packed pink bathing suits). Whenever we passed by a lake, we’d call out to each other “Omg look it’s a lake!” and the other would call out “A lake!!!!!” The same for cows or horses. Or sometimes we’d just call out “Wowwwwww, it’s so pretty here!” and the other would reply “Yes!!! Isn’t it!!?” Any time we’d get tired, we’d stop and drink and eat snacks and take pictures.

My cousin is the perfect traveling partner! I almost went on this trip alone, but I’m so glad she came along. The story was something like this: I had this dream to bike across the Finnish countryside for a bunch of reasons: because I had a dream to see Moominworld, because the Finnish countryside looked so pretty in photos, because I’d been taking Finnish classes (well I started taking Finnish classes because I had dreamed to take this trip, but it turned into a feedback look), because I was fascinated by Finnish art and design. I’d mention this whenever anyone asked about my summer travel plans, and people would mostly express surprise and ask “Finland! That’s so random!” but when my cousin heard about my plans, she said “That sounds amazing! I want to go with you!” And in a few days she’d asked permission from her professor (she works in a university chemistry lab in Singapore) and a while later she had her flights– even before I bought mine! It’s so great to have such a spontaneous and adventurous cousin!

We grabbed dinner at a gas station near Veikkola, possibly the fanciest gas station food we’d ever seen! Open faced sandwiches with hard boiled eggs & shrimp, or fried egg & pickles! I had bought a solar charger to keep my phone (our map) alive but since it worked only up until the trip started, we were grateful that the gas station cafe had outlets. (You learn to be grateful for the tiniest things when bike camping!) We went grocery shopping at an S-market for breakfast and snacks (granola bars! yogurt with real vanilla bean flecks! chocolate soy milk!) for the next day, and set off to find our camping spot before it got too dark.