Merja, you are one of the highest ranking female travellers on our website. Tell us something about yourself and why you are fascinated by travel.
I’m Merja, 55 years old from Finland. I’m interested in all kinds of art and seeing it while travelling takes me more into a culture. When I was a teenager in the ‘70s and studied English at school, I started to have pen-pals all over the world. I then began to visit them and was fascinated by travel. I still have a pen-pal in Hong-Kong who I visited for the first time in 1985! Travelling is like a University for me. I learn so many new things on the road.
Finns generally love to travel a lot. How do you explain this?
We are far away from everything. Cold winters. At school we get good information about other countries, which makes us much more interested to see outside our small country. We learn English and other languages at school; it makes for an easy start to travel.
Which regions of the world especially attract you? Why?
I like South America, because of the beautiful nature and friendly people. Africa I like and hate. It’s hard and strong. There I have to do much in order to travel off the road. In Africa I feel either like a real traveller or like I am going crazy.
Tell us about one travel experience which has really impacted you.
In Ghardaia in Algeria, I met a family who invited me to celebrate Ramadan in their house. I saw how Muslims live. Sitting on the kitchen floor, with family girls, around them a big pot of food and eating with their hands. I got a strong feeling how much travelling opens you as a person. I consider myself very lucky to have met locals in such situations.
Do you prefer to travel alone or in a group? Tell us something more about your style of travel.
My way to travel is long, overland, alone and basic! Travelling alone, I meet other travellers and locals more easily. I like to stay in hostels, easy and cheap. An extra plus is meeting other travellers, getting good tips where to go, and maybe going together. I love to travel overland, using local transport. Often on a bus, a local sits by me and maybe we start talking. This way, I see so much more and get a better feeling of the country I’m in. A long journey is a luxury for me. Like, when I travelled in Central and South America for 10 months. I studied Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala, for a month. After that, I continued to travel, down the coast of the Pacific to Ushuaia and coming up on the Atlantic coast, I could speak with locals in their own language. In 1993, I traveled for a year crossing Africa and then overland from Helsinki to Bali. Travel for me has been like world school.
You are in charge of a major Finnish travel club. Tell us something about this.
In the autumn of 2000, Raymond Bell, an English teacher in Finland, had the idea to find how many people in Finland have been to over 70 countries from the TCC list. There was big article about it in the newspaper. I had 69 from list (now I have 170) and went to the meeting. I have been at every meeting since then, if I am not travelling. At the start, Bell organized the meetings, but after he left I started to be on charge. There are still 3 left of us who were at that first meeting. About 100 more people have been to at least one meeting, and filled the form to join in. There are about 40 active members who are travelling to a‘count’ list such as TBT. To become a part of the Finnish travel club, one needs 100 places from the TCC list.
The Finnish travel club meets every first Friday of the month in Hotel Arthur restaurant. We try to get about 5 times a year someone to tell more big about travel which will be of interest to us. Butmostly, it is a meeting of travelers and an exchange of the latest news on travel. Like one couple went to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman round-trip, after it many have done nearly the same trip. Getting new travel destination ideas is very valuable when meeting ’hardcore’ travellers. We are in a closed group in Facebook and this gives a fast way for people to ask questions and get information about their future trips.
So, give us a few Finnish gems that are generally not known.
I’ll disappoint you, I’m really bad at this. I haven’t travelled so much in Finland. I want more to get out of country. I walk or take my bike in the central park of Helsinki. On Helsinki coast line there is a bicycle road, so there are natural gems are all-around.
What are your travel plans for the next few months?
I’m about to visit London after 20 years. There have been so many other places to see, there has been no time to return. No other big plans, I’m a bit impulsive when it comes to travelling. High on my list, I have the Channel Islands, Faroe Islands, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
And finally a question we like to ask – if you could invite 4 people from any period in human history to a dinner, who would they be and why?
This is a very difficult question. But here are some: Ryszard Kapuscinki, the Polish traveller and writer who wrote the book ‘Heban’. We could talk during dinner about Africa. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the Austrian architect, whose art and ideas about creating greener cities, is something that I just love. Then I would invite Felipe Lettersten, he was a sculptor and tried to capture in bronze the physical characteristics of the indigenous people of the Amazon. I want to talk about how he worked and travelled in that region of the world. And finally, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, with whom I could talk about underwater beauty and how he felt about travelling.
The photographs accompanying this interview are from Merja’s private collection.