Finland is one of these nearly perfect societies.
Cities are clean.
There is no crime.
People are nice.
It is just that the winters suck.
Most people don't know where Finland is. The answer is simple: it's where Santa Claus lives. Really. Even the Indians know this.
Somewhere north of Europe lies this country called Finland that's about 80% the size of California. Here is a map so you can follow along my 10 day adventure.
Hiking all "night " at the Arctic Circle on Jue 21
I celebrated the longest day of the year by going way north (east of Kemijärvi) and hiking the 80km (57 mile) Karhunkierros Trail. If you can say the name of that trail, you deserve a trip to Finland. It means the "Bear Trail."
It starts at a place called Hautajärvi, which means "Grave Lake."
With such cheerful names I wondered if it was smart hiking this trail alone.
The rangers say it takes 4-6 days to hike it. However, I figured I would pack light and walk it in less time. Little did I know that a remote outhouse nearly stopped me cold.
Getting locked in an outhouse
I started my hike at 5:30PM and planned to hike all night. After all, the sun doesn't set when you're above the Arctic Circle on the Summer Solstice. So it really doesn't matter when you hike.
At 11PM I ate some food in a deserted cabin and then went to use the outhouse. Outhouses have locks on the outside to prevent rodents and other creatures who love feces from getting in.
Somehow the outside latch closed, locking me in this smelly outhouse with just a thin rain jacket on. The temperatures at night would be around 5 degrees Celsius, or 40 degrees F. Nobody was around.
"This stinks," I thought.
I tried all sorts of non-violent ways of getting out, but then I thought, "Wait. I am an American. Therefore, I must love violence and be a brute. Hell, I even voted for Arnold as my governor. What would he do?"
I decided that the old fashioned, just-bang-the-door-down method was best.
After 20+ kicks (and nearly falling into the toilet), I managed to break out.
The good news it that I didn't break the lock. The vibrations just made it unlatch. I breathed a sigh of relief (and some fresh air), and hiked the rest of the night.
80 km in 30 hours
I stopped at a cabin in Jussinkämppä at 6:30AM. After 13 hours of hiking I had covered 45 km or over 30 miles.
I woke up four hours later. I walked the last 35 km, finished by midnight, and stayed at an adorable one person cabin at the pinnacle of a mountain with 360 degree views. What a great ending!
What was my secret for covering 80km in 30 hours?
Endless sun and some fine friends pushing me along: a horde of mosquitoes.
Only seeing the occasional reindeer would make me stop. And seeing Santa Claus too.
Hitchhiking towards Oulu
I hitchhiked back to Kuusamo with a 36 year old Turkish man who had been living in Lapland for 17 years after marrying (and divorcing) a Finnish wife he originally met on a French beach.
Interestingly, this former body builder was completely pro-Bush and the war in Iraq. Maybe that's why he hasn't gone back to Turkey for a while.
I arrived in the west coast port city of Oulu. This quaint seaside town was fun to walk around. This French asshole was harassing this lovely Finnish girl named Outi, so I boldly intervened. OK, I really didn't know any of this was going on, but Outi did and kindly invited me to join her and some friends for some drinks by the wharf. Before bidding farewell, I learned a bit about the Finns.
So what are the Finns really like?
They were voted, "The Country Least Likely to Start World War III" for good reason. They are a peaceful people. Almost... too peaceful.
First came the Swedes who conquered them and ruled them for a while.
Did you know that Swedish is the official second language in Finland?
Yes, it's a legacy from the imperialist Swedes. Many signs are written in Swedish and Finnish.
So do the Swedes speak Finnish? Of course not. After all, Swedish is far more widely spoken than Finnish, right? It is almost as popular as Norwegian.
But the pacifist Finns just take it. They let themselves be forced to learn the useless Swedish language instead of telling the Swedes the same thing the French told the Germans: "Listen, you assholes, if you want to talk to me, you talk to me in English!"
Speaking of Germans....
Did you know that the Finns were allied with the Nazis?
The Finns are quick to point out that they didn't have a choice.
"We were only following orders....!!"
Seriously, the big Russian bear invaded their country. The USA wasn't helping defend them because we were still neutral. So Hitler looked like the only guy around who could take a good swipe at Stalin.
Like Israel, the Finns took back their territory and then some. But unlike Israel (who didn't side with the Nazis, by the way), the Finns got pushed back by the end of the war.
The Nuremberg Trials taught the Finns not to side with the Third Reich: they were forced to cede more of their territory to the Russians as punishment. This bummed them out, which lead to another problem....
Did youknow that the Finns drink a lot?
Like most northern countries, these guys drink like fish. They say it's because there is nothing to do during the dark, cold winter months. Good point.
Did you know that the Finns almost never get angry?
They are so calm it's creepy. The Germans are almost as stoic, but at least they get mad every once in a while and start a world war.
Even the Finns admit that they are horribly shy (unless they drunk). However, I found 99% of Finns to be very friendly and helpful once you start talking with them. They are good people, and we could all learn something from them, especially on how to kill yourself.
Did you know that the Finns have the highest suicide rate in the world?
Well, they don't.
The non-confrontational Finns do not vehemently deny this often cited statistic. It is wrong.
However, Finland does make the top 10. They have 9 former Soviet satellites beating them out for the top prize of blowing your head off.
My guess is that pre-1989, those suicide stats were not available from the Soviet Union, because they were trying to give us the impression that Communism produced happy people.
So Finland got stuck with the suicide label.
Did you know that "Did you know..." questions can be annoying?
So I will stop.
I returned to Helsinki and visited a Medieval town (Porvoo), the former capital of Finland (Turku), and the southern most point of Finland (Hanko).
Finland was a great, wonderful country, filled with honest, helpful, and good-hearted people. I truly enjoyed myself.
Then again, most Finns told me that if I came in the winter time I might have a different impression....
Next stop: Estonia!
Tomorrow I take a hydrofoil across the Gulf of Finland. The boat trip takes a couple of hours and puts me into Tallinn, the picturesque capital of Estonia. My trip to Eastern Europe will finally begin....
June 29, 2004