Freedom

If there’s ever a place to get away, it’s in a small town in Finland, just along the Arctic Circle.

Away from the turmoil, the negativity, the sadness, the chaos, the confusion, the attacks, the heartbreak, the madness, the noise.

To breathe.

In March of this year, I took a trip to Finland with my globetrotting boyfriend by my side. We arrived in Helsinki and spent two magical days exploring all that the city had to offer – crisp temperatures, a charming SkyWheel, strong coffee, a frozen harbor, Russian architecture, coffee cups carved from birch trees and prickly reindeer furs. And cloudberry jam – so much cloudberry jam.

Two days into the trip, we took a small plane to the northern region of Lapland, where we spent two perfect nights in a glass igloo under the stars. Yes, an igloo. You know, like the ones you’ve seen advertised at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort. But thanks to a blogger I found a few months prior to the trip, they were even better (here’s why – thanks Journey Wonders!).

I don’t know why I’m even bothering to write a section about this very specific corner of the world, because words, like photographs, could never do it justice.

We had arrived with one goal: to see the Northern Lights. Oh, did we see them. The first night, we eagerly smacked our credit card down on the dinner table at our resort and darted outside to catch them. Impressive, yet they only lasted about ten minutes. Later, we asked the hotel attendant when they’d show up the next night, and for how long. She laughed at our naiveté.

“Nobody knows when they’ll come or go. It’s always different. You just have to wait.”

And so we waited. After an afternoon of dogsledding in Sirkka and post-session dog cuddling (obviously), we returned to our warm, spherical abode. We waited for the next set of lights, lying flat on the bed, gazing upward. Trying not to even blink, or breathe, or make any sudden movements as if our actions directly affected the impending show.

There they were, even brighter this time. Shades of green filled the night sky and we gawked. They danced around us teasingly, disappearing and reappearing. But to my surprise, they were there when I closed my eyes to rest, and they were there when I woke an hour later. At peak brightness, we shoved our feet into our snow boots and wrapped ourselves with our robes and winter coats. We grabbed our iPhones to take mediocre photos of the phenomena before us. We suited up three times or so, and each time we laughed as the lights dimmed as soon as we stepped outside; Mother Nature laughed at the time we took to prepare for sub-zero temperatures. We opted to stay in.

It was peak season for the Aurora and we had expected to see them, but never did we expect to feel that feeling. Our out-of-body and out-of-mind experiences in those two nights jolted us awake, if only temporarily, to the true miracle of nature.

All the dogsledding and bittersweet cloudberry jam and reindeer babies and flavorful cuisine and hygge (Danish, not Finnish, indirectly translating to “coziness”) could not compare to the emerald skies that frosted over the stars outside our igloo.

We were universes away from every other human on earth, and we were free.

Half Mars, Half “Game of Thrones”

Iceland was everything I ever wanted and everything I never expected.

Admittedly, I was one of the many aspiring world travelers who jumped on the bandwagon and headed to the volcanic island on a whim, sucked in by its majestic waterfalls and seemingly supernatural landscapes that tourism organizations and airlines so cleverly promote. The spontaneous trip, however, was nevertheless worth it.

I arrived at the tiny airport in Reykjavik, complete with white walls and Scandinavian egg-like chairs dotting the food court. Outside, I quickly met kind, pale natives with icy blue eyes and much warmer hearts. On the eight-hour bus tour on day one, I saw thousands of short, stocky horses grazing in open fields with their thick layers of fuzz. (FYI: Today, 80,000 horses and 260,000 people live on the island – a horse-to-person ratio that beats that of any other nation).

I passed by miles and miles of brown, rocky, dried-up lava growing moss like a Chia Pet. I was both on Mars and in an episode of Game of Thrones.

Jagged glaciers and mountain ranges lured me into taking impromptu walks and sunset hill climbs. I tasted some of the freshest fish and the delicious, tender beef worth every extra dollar of its slightly excessive island price tag.

One early morning, I woke at 3 o’clock to find the sun still dimly burning, as if it had accidentally gotten stuck on its way down. I was happily at peace.

I navigated my way through some of the most jaw-dropping national parks. I repeatedly shielded my face with my wool scarf to keep the icy spray of the waterfalls from landing on my cheeks. I skipped back in surprise as geysers in Geyser sent forceful bursts of water from the boiling depths of the earth. I soaked in the therapeutic waters of the Blue Lagoon.

Iceland is, for lack of a better word, extraterrestrial. Its luscious views will remain engraved in my mind forever, a necessary reminder of the natural perfection that still exists on this fragile earth.

A Festival of Flaming Failures

In March, orange trees that line the narrow stone streets of Valencia shade small children as they toy with explosives. Later, the city is set ablaze.

The sidewalks are covered with remnants of fireworks as Spanish families and tourists admire the towering “ninots” (pronounced nee-know-ts) – massive, caricature-like doll statues that take a year to build and mere seconds to burn. Las Fallas, a festival in honor of St. Joseph and the coming of spring, is celebrated by Valencians and travelers from various regions of Spain, and attracts others from all over the world. As the word “falla” means “failure,” each of the giant float-like ninots, created a year in advance and costing up to $60,000, represent the past year’s major letdowns.

Displayed in various locations throughout the city, many of the ninots poke fun at world political and public figures, creating a sort of colossal, 3-D comic strip. They are all built according to a set prototype – each statue, similar in size to the Macy’s Day Parade floats, is made of cardboard, plaster, or wood. Yet none of them move – instead, they stay roped in their designated spots in central city locations during the entirety of the five day celebration.

Valencia is a coastal city that juxtaposes the modern with the ancient, pairing old castle walls and cathedrals with new complex structures such as a white sports stadium with a retractable roof modeled after a human eyelid. Yet during Las Fallas, visitors are most concerned with burning things – paper, fireworks, beer cans – to symbolically prepare themselves for a fresh new year.

It is not abnormal to head home after a day of celebrating with fingers covered in blistering burns. Children and adults alike spend hours launching fireworks in the middle of the street, often accidentally burning themselves or one another. But they seem unfazed, as the kids are fascinated and the adults, after drinking all day, are reckless.  And so the fiesta continues.

Throughout the day and into the night, store-bought fireworks are launched alongside an explosive show put on by the city at two in the afternoon, the hour of the “Mascleta,” which features the detonation of approximately 265 pounds of gunpowder that causes the ground to tremble violently as though the city was under vicious attack.

“I like to be right up close – right under fireworks so that I can feel the rumbling through my whole body. I live for that adrenaline rush,” said Madrid native José Carlos Sanchez during the 2011 celebration. During the procession, he clenched the T-shirt material over his heart and grinned giddily.

At various moments during the day or night, you might find yourself walking down the street, admiring the colorful ninots as you pass by, only to suddenly be greeted with the launch of a firework just a few feet in front of you. Though Valencians and other Spaniards are used to the dangers of Las Fallas, a foreigner, at the onset of his or her screaming eardrums, might think: “What if I had stepped just a little bit sooner?”

When they are not fueling the pyromaniacs in their explosive street antics, city locals and visitors eat paella, Valencia’s traditional rice, chicken, and seafood dish prepared in a hula-hoop sized pan, and wash it down with fresh, orange-garnished sangria. Later, they might pick up some roasted nuts or cinnamon churros with chocolate from the street vendors that swarm the street corners. While walking about, most drink some sort of alcoholic beverage – sometimes starting as early as ten in the morning.

Women who are native to all different Spanish-speaking countries dress in traditional, ornate garb and parade down the streets with marching bands in the daytime. Known as “falleras,” they spend the year saving up and preparing for the celebration. As they march through the packed streets with hair slicked back in braided buns, onlookers join them in singing famous Spanish folk songs and clap as they proudly strut by in their billowing dresses.

Some might find themselves wandering over to the palm-tree-dotted beaches in the midst of the festivities. Though the ninots are surrounded by flashy lights and other festive decorations, people do tend to venture off to the Mediterranean Sea, minutes away from the downtown area of the city. Though the water is frigid, the brave and the buzzed take dips, fully clothed, and race back to the streets to light a jumble of small objects on fire.

Amidst the smoky alleyways, ash-covered sidewalks, and hair-standing roars of the day-long pyrotechnics, city residents, who often sport traditional Valencian plaid bandanas around their necks, walk alongside their fellow foreign partygoers for hours, perhaps even into the following day. Sleep deprived and delusional, they pile into the main streets and move with the masses. And while you may feel like you are on the verge of going deaf, you are expected to do nothing but carry on rejoicing.

During the final night of Las Fallas, onlookers of all ages gather to witness the burning of the ninots – the emblematic ridding of the past year’s disappointments. Although thousands of dollars go into the making of each statue, the streetlights are turned off and the dolls, with their frightening yet life-like expressions, are completely destroyed.

And though a winning ninot is salvaged each year, the crowd stands back in awe as the rest of their failures burn into nothing.

Feature image via BeRoomers.com