Moving North – Part 1. The Beginning

Rishikesh Raut went on a journey to the essence of Finnish state of mind: Riding his bike towards the Northern Finland, exposing himself to the elements of the nature as well as its tough love. This is Rishikesh’s journal of his six days on the road. Where do birds go to die? In most silent […]

TEKSTI Rishikesh Raut

KUVAT Rishikesh Raut

Rishikesh Raut went on a journey to the essence of Finnish state of mind: Riding his bike towards the Northern Finland, exposing himself to the elements of the nature as well as its tough love. This is Rishikesh’s journal of his six days on the road.

Where do birds go to die? In most silent forests and in most secret soils, they bury themselves – far from all sight. Last autumn, I imagined – Starting from Oulu, can I ride my bike as north as possible, and touch the North Cape, Europe’s northernmost piece of land? I tried and was asked to turn back after half the distance.  

In my ride through the lap of land and water, I discovered that global warming is hoax. I slept in rooms with no roof, and where trees were kings. Nature showed me views of my outdoors and indoors, views that my four-walled home in Oulu kept hidden. The following account of those six days on the road is an attempt to share what I saw and how I felt, in my journey to the North.

// Picture 1. 10 kms from the Arctic circle (Aug 24, 2021) .

Days 1 & 2: Gray Life

The weather was ominous. By the time I rode 80 kilometers to arrive to Simo, it had started to drizzle. The town shares its name with a sniper nicknamed White Death. In the whiteness of sub-zero winter, the man earned the title by erasing 505 sorry souls who had the misfortune of being born on the other side of the border in Russia. The war lasted for about hundred days.

After dinner, I washed my biking clothes in the humid reaches of Simojoki’s bank. And as I slept, Nature thought my sleeping bag, mattress and everything else needed washing too. So, she made sure it rained all night.

I woke up to see tears of rainwater trickling down into my tent, to noiselessly feed a puddle. After adding some of my own,I decided to take the day off to warm up, dry down, and start fresh. That cold, wet day was the last one when I had wet clothes, because I never washed them again. I fell asleep to chocolate and hazelnuts in my teeth and Walter White from Breaking Bad on my phone.

Day 3, Part 1: Conspiring Givers

Moving from Simo, the weather outside and inside me had transformed for the warmer, for a change. The heater in the cottage I had rented dried my gear and clothes – wet by forces of earth and stupidity. The temperature showed single digits, but the sun was hinting arrival for the first time in two days. As the big star carved its way in through reluctant clouds, parts of me too were on their way out. 

When I get out, I try to leave my ‘self’ inside. Everything that I’ve allowed to merge with my identity – I try to leave it at home; for only an empty cup can drink anew. 

For the first two days, the landscape coloured by the unwanted baggage I was carrying, mirrored my dullness. But now, like the sky, the grayness within was making way for something new – like a snake shedding old skin. The sun’s warm fingers caressed my back, with the tenderness of a mother waking her favourite child. As the distant star oranged the asphalt ahead, I could feel it. The immersion – I could taste it.

Today I’d resolved, was going to be a hundred-kilometre day. At fifty, I would reach Tornio, which shared its border with Sweden. There I would see Suvi, who’s been my pen friend for a year now. We would have lunch, and she’d surprise me with a diary and a peacock box-full of stuff, decorated by her.

If you ask me, it was a conspiracy to paste a smile on my face every time I look at these things… but I could be wrong. My suspicion arises on account of her being a giver. It’s an art alien to many, because the lot of us – we never really give. 
We calculate returns and invest. 
We deal. 
After taking from Suvi, I moved further north. 

// Picture 2. Gift from Suvi.

Day 3, part 2: My Game, My Rules

I got back to pedalling. The day’s designated sleeping-spot was 50 kilometers further down the Tornejoki (Torne River). I thought, “50 is too much. 5 kilometers, ten times – doable. The last 20 kilometers, I would allow Eminem and other rappers to scream energy; so actually, only 30 kilometers to go. It’ll take me about 2 hours to make 30. 2 hours is nothing.”  

After five gruelling hours of uphill-downhill riding, I set up camp by the river. On the other side, a stone’s throw away was what they call Sweden. Many years ago, one group of people stopped identifying with another group, and began strongly identifying with their own. An imaginary line was drawn, and a real river was dissected.  

The dying sun watched my naked body shiver, as I neared the river it had so miserably failed to warm up. The sun might as well have been a spectacular photograph hung over the canopy of distant trees. And the waters might as well have been that way because a truck carrying golden paint crashed up-river. I dipped into the river, staying on the Finnish side – not out of reverence for borders, but only because it was too damn cold. “This is actually not that cold,” I said to myself before my feet grazed the surface. The showpiece sun watched my lying mind settle. 

ggs alone were enough to earn a feature on Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, but the noodles were the stuff of his wet dreams. 

// Picture 3. The showpiece sun along Tornejoki 

After feeding the noodles to the fungi, bacteria, worms, squirrels, and all those who sleep in soil, I slept. 

Day 3, part 3: Sleeping wild

I did not sleep before scribbling into the diary my friend gave me. It reads, “First night in wild. Chaos inside… The silence of being alone, utterly alone, is terrifying…There is also an unmistakably immense sense of calm…” I have been alone in a forest before, but never for the night. The mind, when faced with the idea of the unknown, goes berserk. Like an untied horse surrounded by ghosts, the mind gallops without direction, wanting to clutch to the safety of familiarity. 
What if something goes wrong? – Calm down, what will go wrong, there are no snakes here like in India, no leopards too. Calm down. 
 What about bears? – There are no bears here, and we have the phone and knife, just in case.

What if everything that can, goes wrong?”

I nearly dialed a friend back home, so she’d tell me that it’s okay. But like the hero who silently transforms as he persists through perceived impossibilities, and in that persistence becomes the movie’s hero, I did not pick up my phone. Through all that drama stirred up by the frightened mind, I decided to stay with myself a little longer… and suddenly, I was at home. I slept like a baby, who’s just thrown the biggest tantrum it could manage.  

Every day out, I woke up to pee, because it was always cold. Our body has evolved since millennia; when cold, it does everything to preserve its own warmth & energy. Then why did I have to wake up, wear socks & shoes, get out, and part with my warm fluids… Without investigating further, I unzipped the tent door. 

As if the sky had dropped to taste the grass, clouds of mist swallowed the forest whole. Eerie, moist, haunting. The river still raged – indifferent and intrusive. 

A deaf man would have assumed that he was on a mountain, and that the thick fog above the river, stomached a valley. A blind man would have tasted the air’s water and by water’s music, he’d deduce that he stood by a waterfall. A poetic man would have begun stringing words that would poorly describe what he saw. A tired man would have returned to his sleeping bag. 

Rishikesh Raut

Rishikesh captured his biking journey towards Nothern Finland in Autumn 2021. Now, he shares his thoughts.

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Part 2. Cultural Shocks: Is the grass always greener?

One of the most common challenges for anyone moving to a new country is adapting to the new culture, traditions, and habits while retaining their identity at the same time. Being an international student coming from an Arabic country outside of Europe, I had a lot of thoughts regarding my identity moving to Finland for […]

TEKSTI Moustafa Khairi

KUVAT Maiju Putkonen

One of the most common challenges for anyone moving to a new country is adapting to the new culture, traditions, and habits while retaining their identity at the same time. Being an international student coming from an Arabic country outside of Europe, I had a lot of thoughts regarding my identity moving to Finland for studying for a master’s degree. Based on my personal experience, I can say it is quite challenging to retain your identity but it is doable, and at the end of the day, it is a choice!

It is hard because of many different reasons that make the two countries almost completely different. Differences starting from for instance the core beliefs to even the food, making a living in a foreign country, not an easy job. On the other hand, no one can force you to do anything that you do not believe in. You have the freedom to choose whatever you want to do without being judged, which also makes it a tough responsibility.

I could write a lot about the different traditions and habits I have experienced living a year in Finland, but I would like to focus more on the Finnish people. Unlike the stereotype, most of the Finns, from my point of view, are friendly but you just need to start the conversation. I have been involved in quite many student associations and communities and have always felt appreciated being just present. Sometimes, I am the only international person in a room of more than 20 people and all of them just switch to English to keep me engaged with them while they do not actually need or have to do that. A few are even fine with struggling to speak their non-native language for the same purpose mentioned.

In supermarkets, for instance, people welcome you with a heartwarming smile, not only when you enter the place but also when you are done and leaving. In buses, it is kind of a tradition to wave to the bus driver thanking him/her for the ride before you get off the bus, and at the same time, he/she waves back and yes, this happens with almost every single passenger!

Most of the people are willing to help whenever they are asked and sometimes they even take initiative. Through my early weeks in Finland, I was waiting for my train at the railway station at it’s expected track and it was almost 4 minutes before the scheduled leaving time and it had not arrived yet. Then, people started leaving the track slowly and I was not sure what was happening. Before heading to someone to ask, three guys standing on the opposite track noticed that I did not start moving as well and most probably I did not understand the Finnish instructions. They reached out explaining that the train changed its track due to a storm that happened and it is going to arrive at a different track and in addition, they offered to guide me to the new track due to the time limitation.

Being appreciated and welcomed, most of the time, is one of the best feelings I experienced living in Finland.

Moustafa Khairi

A Machine Learning thesis worker at Nokia and a Computer Science master's student at the University of Oulu. Also, I am the Founder and Lead of Google DSC in Oulu, Slush group lead, and next president of AIESEC in Oulu.

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Part 1. Cultural Shocks: Is the grass always greener?

(Mis)understandings amidst the endeavor of a foreigner adapting to Finnish culture. “Place where you be, do as you see” says a Peruvian saying. It is quite useful to blend into any cultural environment by being aware of the differences, to identify them and replicate them. Better to ride the beast than letting the beast ride […]

(Mis)understandings amidst the endeavor of a foreigner adapting to Finnish culture.

“Place where you be, do as you see” says a Peruvian saying. It is quite useful to blend into any cultural environment by being aware of the differences, to identify them and replicate them. Better to ride the beast than letting the beast ride you, isn’t it? I mean, either you are an international student or a local with international friends, this close contact with someone from a different culture for sure would have some impact on you.

This change is not accidental, neither exempt of conflict. Since we are social beings, we try to mix with the people surrounding us. At the same time, when hitting a new place, we are carrying our bag of beliefs and perceptions. In my own experience, after living in Buenos Aires for some years I went back to Lima with my voice volume a few levels higher, and a more straightforward attitude. If I left Peru being a quiet and reserved person, I came back as a loud and straightforward one.

What is happening to me here in Finland? A mix of everything. First living in Oulu and now married to a Finnish woman, I have Finnish culture in and out of home. And that has created some interesting, funny, or awkward moments. In any case, they helped me to learn more and get a deeper sense of how to behave in the local environment.

Trust above all

Sometimes I tell my wife that to take her to Peru I must train her, to change her trust beliefs. I mean, it has many lovely traditions and people are warm and celebratory, but it also has a problem with respect and trust. And same in most of Latin America. To give you an example, when I was 17, I was robbed two blocks away from home. Concerned, my mom called the police, and then I had this dialogue with a lady police officer:

OFFICER      Did you try to run?

ME                No.

OFFICER      (a little bit surprised) But you tried to knock on someone else’s door?

ME                 (shier) Mmm… no.

(Long and uncomfortable pause)

OFFICER      You need to learn how to defend yourself, young man.

I was embarrassed. Double embarrassed, for letting myself be robbed and for the later reprimand. It was my responsibility to take care of myself, which also included being aware of the potential robbers. Something similar happened in my university. If my belongings were robbed, it was my fault for not watching them. So, I learned how to go around the city, always aware of the surroundings.

With that background, you can imagine now what a big deal it was for me to leave my jacket on the hangers during winter. Yep, leaving them unguarded, in no locker. Free for anyone to take.

It took me almost half a year to gather the confidence to leave it there. It was a cold day, and I could barely focus on class, imagining myself going back home just with my shirt. Walking down back to the green rack, my heart was pounding. When I found it, I felt like a parent picking his child after the first day at the daycare. Joyful and relieved.

Since then, I am more confident about leaving my clothes in the common areas or leaving my backpacks on my seat while going to buy food on the train. However, I still lock my bike. Several posts on Facebook suggest robbers here do not care about money or laptops, but their obsession is those devices with two tires.

The nuances of the system

When I go to the hospital emergency room, I know where I must go just by following the lines on the floor (red, green, yellow, black). I know what percentage to pay for taxes and what my retirement fund is. In need of a bus, I know at what time it is coming.

The system here is planned and effective. So, when I got appendicitis and was taken to the hospital, I thought that everything was settled just by giving them my personal ID. Convinced of this, I had a pleasant stay at the hospital, thinking of how well articulated the system was: just with my ID they were able to contact the insurance company that I put in my migratory application. Success. I left the hospital with this feeling. But unluckily it did not last forever.

It was a day like any other when I received the bill. It was not only for the operation, but also included the penalties for late payment. I was perplexed. I left the hospital with no one telling me anything about a bill. Now I also had to cover extra costs. Why did the nurses not tell me this? I asked this to the people in charge of the bill. “It is not their job”, they replied. And I got perplexed again.

In my previous hometown, although there were abysmal differences between the private and public healthcare system, they both shared something: if you owe them something related to your treatment YOU MUST PAY before leaving. With this background, I was struggling to understand how here everything was so different.

Although grateful for such a lovely attention, I felt a little bit bitter because of the misunderstanding. I mean, after receiving an explanation in the integration course about sexual consent and that I could not circumcise my children without the doctor consent, I was expecting something a little more detailed. Especially when there was money involved. Anyway, I paid straight away and began the process with the insurance company. However, some weeks later, there was another bill. And in this case, it came after they took the money from my bank account. This time I was just furious.

By the point I got the bills, I came back from another country after declining a doctorate position offer. What if I would have left Finland and stayed there? The local services would have lost the money. Maybe even got the impression that this guy with a foreigner name did not want to pay it, when in reality I was not even aware of how the system worked and no one explained to me.

After that I make no assumptions. Even if I sound dumb, I always ask all questions to avoid problems. It feels a little bit like back in school, when asking teachers the questions that my friends did not dare to ask to keep looking cool. Since there is enough cool here, I don’t have to worry about that.

Around flexibility

Studying my Bachelor, I used to have a friend who invited me to go for a beer whenever we met. “Now?” was my usual response, and it always preceded her laugh. For her I was a manic who had to plan everything at least a couple of days ahead. And in that sense, I feel that Finland and I had a wonderful relationship.

Do you remember that application that I said I declined? Well, one of the main reasons that led me to make that decision was the lack of planning. I could not get paid, because I did not have the local ID. To obtain it required around two months, but I only received the acceptance letter from the university two weeks before. After having lived in Finland for a couple of years, that was just impossible to bear.

However, during my studies I also unveiled some other aspects that differ from the usual Finnish thorough planning approach. I explain, before coming to Finland, I used to work as a university teacher in Peru. Mostly with experience in profit-oriented organizations, I was required to grade students several times during the semester. More exactly, three to four grades for practical exercises, and two for mid and end-term tests. And the administration assessed me, according to my compliance with the academic calendar. So, if I was late entering the grades, I would get a call from the coordinator to have a “nice chat” about my performance.

After these experiences, I was somehow manic to deliver all my assignments on time. I could eat or sleep later, but it had to be a well done and punctual delivery. So, you can imagine my surprise when hearing a teacher saying:

TEACHER     Just deliver it when you finish it

(Long pause of disbelief)

ME                 What?

TEACHER     Is it not clear?

ME                 So, no deadline?

TEACHER     No, just finish it.

And those words bring pure joy and bliss to my heart. I disliked that course from the bottom of my heart, but now I had until whenever I pleased to complete the final task. Not next week, neither the end of the semester. No, it was just me and my free will to deal with it. Well, kind of, because I still had to finish the university in two years or pay the corresponding fees.

I did not think about that task again until my classmates started to wonder why we did not get the grades yet. Then, I made peace with the course and deal with the assignment. I finished it during the weekend and send it. It was 67 days after the course finished (I just counted them again for the purposes of this article). The next day we all had our grades. I got a 5, but the guilt of delaying everyone else’s grades made me promise never to delay an assignment again.

With this article I do not pretend to make a generalization of the Finnish society, I just share things according to my own experiences during my time here.

When I came here, I thought that Finland was heaven on Earth. Now, I realized that as any other society, it has its pros and cons. Most of my experiences here had been sweet, and the few bitter moments did not alter my perception that this is a really organized country that cares for people. I am now curious to see how Finland would look in a few years, when more and more foreigners settle down on it.

Pablo Santur

Learning specialist in thesis writing mode. Former TV scriptwriter. Foodie. Anime lover. Twitter: @pablodsantur

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