Thursday, August 30, 2007

Never lost, always found (4): The good fight

Gird your loins; stand up and tell them that I command you. Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them; for it is I this day who made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land against Judah's kings and princes, against its priests and people. They will fight against you, but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.


Jeremiah 1:17-19

Monday, August 27, 2007

Start to Finnish (4): Night of the Arts

Earlier last week, we caught wind of a major cultural event that happens annually in the Finnish capital Helsinki. Itching to soak more of the country’s sights and sounds, we got on the 5:07pm Friday train out of Tampere and in less than two hours, we were transported from somewhere rustic and laidback to a realm bustling with life and bursting, quite literally, with art. After all, we were joining the 19th installment of the Helsinki Festival’s Night of the Arts.

The Finns seem to have a very efficient system for traveling. Train rides from Tampere to Helsinki cost 22 euros per person, where you can either be comfortably seated in cabins for eight or in the general seating section a la economy section of a 737. The railway whisks you across quintessential Finnish landscape of lakes and fields, often punctuated by birch trees (the actual plants, not mere milk products which Kuya Germs gave away on GMA Supershow back in the day) and conifers. There’s a dining car and WCs (a.k.a. toilets) as well. No wonder less people choose the highways and more opt for trains.

We arrived in the Helsinki central railway station (HEL-sing-kee and not hel-SING-kee as what we formerly pronounced it to be) a little before seven. To say that this building, opened in 1919, is beautiful is an understatement. It was indeed a portent of things to come, in this our Helsinki sojourn.


On the train to the capital, Karolina, one of our classmates in the Global Health Course who in turn will visit the Philippines in September, managed to brief us about what were getting ourselves into. With more than 200 visual, performing, and literary events possibly unfolding simultaneously, it was great to have a Finn help us meander our way into the festival.

The general plan was to traverse Mannerheimintie where almost all major edifices of importance are accessible: the Finnish parliament, concert hall, national museum, etc. And consequently, we’ll be able to get lost in all the art, so to speak. But before feeding our souls and replenishing our art quotient, we had dinner at ZETOR, a very unique dining place just a block from the central railway station. Featuring tractors as dining tables and cheese graters as lampshade, I must say that this was a very interesting way to usher us into Helsinki. And for the first time, I was able to eat… I’ll tell you next time.
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We stayed in Zetor for a good hour and a half or so. Much as the food was indeed yummy, we were in Helsinki to satisfy more than our taste buds. Even with Karolina’s briefing we felt a little lost so off to the tourist information center we went. (This is what I noticed about Finland: it is SO EASY for non-citizens and visitors to get tourism-related information- From the piles of guide booklets in at least five languages accessible from the airport to supermarkets, to ordinary Finns willing to give directions USUALLY in comprehensible English, to ample signages littering their major cities.) We initially got a really artsy guide to the Night of the Arts, but it was in Finnish so its beauty and quality layout was of no practical use to us. Lester managed to ask from the tourism office a computer print out of the August 24th schedule- nondescript but uber-useful!

We studied the list for a few minutes and ticked off the activities we- Johann, Lester and I- were interested in, looked at the schedule of the performances, and where the areas where in our map of Helsinki. We initially chose to see a puppet and shadow theater; the singing opera singers at a hotdog stand; the photo exhibit of a Finnish art club; a jazz event, and the open air cinema showing Gone With the Wind. We planned to stay the whole night and catch the first train out of Helsinki to Tampere at 6am. And so, off to soak in the arts we went.

Or so we thought.

It was so easy to get distracted in a city with events unfolding at every turn, not to mention the so-European architecture of many buildings. From the tourist information center, we planned to walk to Mannerheimintie and catch the puppet show at 10. But as we were walking along Pohjoisesplanadi, we just had to go into the European Union office and see the artworks of arguable the most talented gradeschoolers plus the free balloon, keychain, and bookmarker enticed us further. A few buildings after, we stopped again and watched a marimba-playing duo who drew a huge crowd around them. We walked back to the general direction of the central railway station and found ourselves always sideswiped by a cow pulling a cart on which a lady dressed in nothing but a long-stemmed rose covering her netherparts sat waving to the crowd. Mind you, it was around the air temperature was about 19C at this time.

Headed to the Hesperia Park where we were to watch the 10pm pupper show, we got sidetracked again by a HUUUUUGE mass of people congregating in front of the parliament building. The main thoroughfare was blocked by several police cars and vans and traffic was being re-routed to give way to some major performance. With all the lights and the set-up, I thought it was going to be some pop star’s concert, an opera even. But fearing a stampede may happen if the crowd turns wild, we opted to veer away from the parliament building. After all, it was just about 10 minutes til our puppet show began. But then again, people were POURING into every possible inch in front of the building we just left. SOMETHING major is supposed to happen.

And so, maximizing presence of the friendly cops, we asked what the deal was. The cop seemed fluent in English (as most Finns are given that more than 90% of them receive college education) but he was hardpressed to say what the performance is about. He just said something about “dancers on poles”. We looked through our handydandy sched and saw nothing about dancing as one of the performance for the night. Read read read read read up to the third page. Still nothing on this performance drawing crowds reminiscent of EDSA II.

Then we found it.

STRANGE FRUIT – The Field it was called.

The very FIRST performance listed on the very FIRST page, on the TOP-MOST section of the FIRST column. The Field was to be performed by Strange Fruit, a Melbourne-based company that the Night of the Arts guide said will be a real head-turning experience with dance, theater, and circus ingredients.


Then it commenced, dancers male and female alike went up what seemed to be five-meter high poles from where they did their “dances”. I hasten to call their performance dancing since what they initially did was just move back and forth, back and forth while standing/sitting atop the pole, not unlike how windshield wipers or Mexican jumping beans acted. Then, from an initial back and forth motion creating an angle of 30 degrees, their swinging got wilder, with the dancers almost touching the heads of the crowds below, and soon after they began to… Almost fly…




Since we watched the 10pm performance of Strange Fruit, we missed our puppet show but still we resolved to watch the latter’s 11pm edition. With some 30 minutes to spare, we hastened towards Hesperia Park where it was to be held. On the way, we were happily distracted (again!) by an encounter with a beautiful Beauty-and-the-Beast-type building which had a stone-hewn bear as guardian (turned out to be the National Museum);


an amazing, amazing jazz-cum-overhead-projector-cum-film-in-reel presentation at the Finlandia Hall, and;


a wonderful, wonderful all-girl vocal ensemble Too Many Sisters and their rendition of traditional and contemporary Finnish folk music.




Opting to walk through the park rather than the main street, we peeked into a tent where traditional Finnish tales were being told; avoided running into some drunken Finns cavorting amongst the trees; a group of fire dancers; walked alongside some more carousing, beer-toting Finns; peeped as an 8-foot wooden creation- a blonde lady named Dr. Tina- swam in the Toolonlahti Bay, and; got our curiosity piqued further by three mysteriously floating park benches in the middle of the bay.


We saw a cohort of artists, but no puppet show. We saw everything BUT the darn puppet show.

It was around 11.45pm already when one of us said, “What if we just went home- now?”

Ha!

Nothing in our plans came to fruition. We always got sidetracked and distracted.

But we were… Happy. It was an adventure. We were feeling… a tad like those Lonely Planet hosts, wandering in the big city, explorers with a busted compass. But we were tired- walking at least a two-kilometer stretch of Helsinki, soaking all the art that we could, and, speaking for myself, soaking in a thin later of sweat despite the cold- out of shape that I am.

We’ve had our quota of adventure for the day and it was time to go home.

We managed to locate the bus terminal in the map and started walking there. But on the way, we passed by the street where the opera singers where supposed to sing to customers buying sandwiches at the adjacent hotdog stand. But they were no longer there, the opera singers.

We plodded along to the bus terminal, arriving there at about 12.05am. The bus back to Tampere leaves at 1am! O joy! Homewardbound we shall be soon!

By this time we were so thirsty, from all the walking. The R-Kioski shops in the terminal, the Finnish version of Mini-Stop or 7-11, were all closed already. (Finnish law mandates the hours of operation of most stores. For example: most stores are closed on Sundays- even supermarkets- except during the summer months of May-September when they can operate for a limited period on the Lord’s day.) We went out of the terminal to explore the food court we passed by earlier as we hurtled to the bus terminal.


And there it was, the outdoor cinema.

And forming a ring around the food court, a series of photo exhibits of Finnish photographers. God truly makes a way, doesn’t He =]

It would have been more perfect had there been shorter queues at the food-sellers, but we just opted to buy from one of the 5 or so vending machines in the bus terminal complex. Coke Light, because of or in spite of its 2-euro value, NEVER TASTED THIS GOOD!

We descended to the underground bus terminal to wait for the bus. Our plans were almost derailed again by our drop-a-one-euro-coin-to-open-the-WC’s-door fiasco but we managed to escape what could have been an embarrassing event well before the bus left for Tampere.

Helsinki, with its mishmash of culture modern and medieval, is a remarkable, remarkable city. Maybe I’ve just stayed in Tampere for quite a number of days that the cacophony of this metropolis left me a bit out of breath. But the Night of the Arts was an amazing, amazing experience, because of or in spite of the fact that plans didn’t go as drawn.

But that’s life imitating art imitating life.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Start to Finnish (3): The REAL Reason I am in Finland

We just concluded week 2 of our five-week course here in Finland. Quite frankly, it took some getting used to to again be on the other side of the proverbial teacher’s table; but it is a welcome respite from my current work in the UP.



The Yliopisto’s main building.




The Faculty of Information Science.




“Parking slots” for the scores of bicycles transporting students to and from the university.







Benches and garden in front of the university.








Lucky shot: even bugs here are so laidback I was able to shoot one in action.

We hold classes at the Tampereen Yliopisto- the University of Tampere main campus, at the third floor of its main building. The real university students are due to return this last week of August so as of late, we’ve practically had the university to ourselves.
Walking to the university, first day of the course.

Our typical school day begins with walking to school. And if the GPS in the car of one of our classmates who drove us to school one morning is correct, it’s a 900-meter walk, or 1.8 kilometers to and from the course’s venue. In my non-athletic, sedentary mind of minds, 1.8 kilometers is a HUGE amount of walking. Here in Tampere, though, walking is a rather pleasant experience: the air is fresh, with the number of motor vehicles arguably outnumbered by bicycles 7-3. The weather is almost always great for walking, sunny to a bit cloudy, with light winds, and the occasional late afternoon showers.



One of the landmarks we passby everyday: the Russian Orthodox church dedicated to St. Nicholas and St. Alexander Nevi. (More on this in later posts).




The sessions begin promptly at 8.30 am but I usually come in at around 8 am, trying to squeeze before the day began some time to check my emails. The university here granted us basic guest user accounts so we can use the computers of the university for internet-related work and/or connect our own personal laptops to their wi-fi network. But even to a high-income country like Finland, the system is still not perfect hence my inability to post entries and check mails as often as I’d wish to.
Session beginning at 8.30 am lasts until about 10. We then have a coffee break for 15 minutes, then the second session resumes and ends at 11.45. We then have a choice of having lunch in any of the three in-campus cafeterias where our meals are covered by our daily stipend. By 12.45pm, we’re back in class, only to break for coffee again at around 2.15pm, after which the last quarter of the day commences and ends sometime 5pm.



Dr Per Ashorn- pediatrician, researcher, city council member, and uber-cool overall course coordinator.
Dr. Vibeke Rasch of the University of Copenhagen discussing one of the more controversial topics of the course

The topics we have covered so far are truly representative of the current health concerns of any human being in the planet: poverty, accessibility of health systems, reproductive health, malnutrition, obesity, AIDS, vaccines and immunization. The lecturers are topnotch as well. Many have worked as consultants of international bodies like the World Health Organization and World Bank and/or embedded themselves in the grassroots communities of countries like Burkina Faso, Kyrghistan, Malawi, the Philippines and Vietnam. Many are part of think-tanks of world-renown, like-


Dr. Anna Mia Ekstrom of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden who talked about poverty and health using the World Health Chart;



Dr. Carlos Esteban of the University of Chile, who discussed about advances in HIV-AIDS management;




Dr. UB Lindstrom of the University of Helsinki, who gave a lecture on sustainable food production;




Dr. Elizabeth Paterno of the University of the Philippines, who facilitated workshops on the social determinants of health, and;




Dr. Anneli Milen of the Finnish agency STAKES (stah-kehs), who (re)introduced us to the concepts of primary health care and health systems.



With Dr. Hanna Nohynek of the Finnish National Public Health Institute- a frequent collaborator in the field of vaccinology in the Philippines.

The participants, too, come from the broad spectrum of healthcare. The Philippine and Chilean contingent is composed of four medical doctors each; the Tanzania team has four medical doctors, two dentists, and two veterinarians, and; among the Finnish attendees, there are eight medical doctors, two dentists, and two veterinarians.


The mode of teaching is still generally via the usual didactics but there are almost daily group works, with the class divided usually by country or into groups where each country is represented by at least one student. The group work usually entail simulating decision-making tasks like how to put together a funding proposal for a project to combat malnutrition or how to select a new vaccine to be introduced to a certain country’s general population.

In a way, we get a better grasp of how difficult- or easy if there’s political will and/or money!- it is to make and implement public health policies. In preparation for our future work in the United Nations perhaps? =]


Up next: The OTHER reasons why I am in Finland

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Start to Finnish (2): Getting there, errr, here

Mom and Pop- you’ll be prouder of me: I’m washing my second load of clothes (the whites which I carefully separated from the colored ones) while my first load of clothes are already in the dryer. Washing clothes entail paying one euro per load, which is a bit steep if it were converted to the Philippine peso (1 euro = about 63 pesos) but it’s pretty cheap by standards here in Tampere.
Ian at the Keskustori, the Central Square, in front of the Old Town Hall of Tampere.

I’m currently in Tampere (TAM-peh-reh), about 160 kms from Helsinki, the capital of Finland. We’re just five hours behind versus Manila time. We got here the Sunday before the last after more than thirty hours in transit:

Manila to Singapore- 4 hours + 5 hours waiting time between flights
Singapore to Paris – 12 hours + 4 hours waiting time between flights
Paris to Helsinki – 3 hours
Helsinki to Tampere – 2.5 hours by bus

So far, everything is worth the looooooooooooong travel-

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I last encountered Changi Airport last June en route to a seminar in Jakarta- but we stayed in the airport for less than thirty minutes. This time, though, our five-hour stopover allowed us enough time to explore the airport further. And the more we explored, the more I felt it was a mall rather than an airport with a whole gamut of shops, restaurants, and a bevy of, for me, nontraditional plusses, including terminals where the internet can be accessed without payment (if you chance upon a working computer that is) and a cactus garden.
Photo of our entire team going to Finland, from the left, clockwise: Lester Geroy, my classmate and eternal groupmate from UP med, city health physician in Malaybalay City, Bukidnon; Johann Leonardia, my classmate also from UP med as well as roommate for four years, rural health physician in Concepcion, Iloilo; Yas Villanueva, UP Medicine Class of 2002, municipal health officer of Quezon, Quezon, and; Elizabeth Paterno, one of our professors in Community Medicine from the UP. This shot was taken by Jess, an OFW we met while waiting for our connecting flight to Paris, on his way to the USA.
Cactus garden adjacent to the Burger King store in Changi.

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It was my first time to travel via Air France flight. From the opportunity to use my decade-old rudimentary French from college as I was greeted at the door by (someone who I assumed to be) a native speaker to its sleek and chic cabin look- there was something definitely French about this leg of our trip to Finland.

I tried to read the required chapter for our first day of class but the inflight entertainment available lured me elsewhere. I saw two movies, played HANGMAN, tried to get some sleep (with not much success), attempted to read again- similarly with not much success. The flight was long, but there was an open bar of nonalcoholic drinks, replete with eat-all-you-can Asian noodles-in-a-cup and ice cream. Most remarkable about that segment of our trip was The Most Succulent And Flavorful Piece Of Lamb I Have Ever Tasted which we had for dinner. (No photo, sorry! I was too preoccupied with savoring the experience… Excuse me while I wipe the drool off of the corner of my mouth).

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We arrived in Paris’ Charles De Gaulle (CDG) Airport at around 6am local time. While the flight afforded to us something truly French, to actually step on French soil was a bigger source of excitement. After all, I was in the city that is in my list of top ten places I want to explore before I die! But given our rather tight schedule- our boarding time was 10.15am- we opted not to explore Paris even if there was a train from the station beneath Charles De Gaulle’s Terminal 2 that will take us directly to the city center which was a mere 45 minutes away.

Only our professor who was traveling with us was gutsy enough to take the impromptu Paris city sojourn- she went to the Cathedral of Notre Dame and took BEAUTIFUL photos of the rather quite streets of Paris on a Sunday. I was too scared to miss our connecting flight to Helsinki hence my reluctance to get lost in the so-called City of Lights. But Paris hasn’t seen the last of me…

(Goodie! My first load of clothes are out of the dryer. The second load is still in the washer. Did you know that water in Finland is SO clean that we can drink the water being used in the washing machine- prior to the addition of our soiled clothes and detergent, of course- and the water which flows from almost all toilet taps?)

We we’re thus contented with exploring the different terminals of CDG, taking curbside photos of the little bit of Paris we were able to enjoy, and buying some overpriced but nonetheless quintessential mementos of our Parisian pause.

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The FinnAir flight to Helsinki fulfilled what I thought shall be my introduction to Finnish culture- tall, blonde, blue-eyed human beings in the form of flight attendants, male and female alike. It was a rather uneventful flight, marked by some turbulence and by my record consumption of the airplane food served (Read: I WAS SO HUNGRY! And the eternal cheapskate that I am, I did not want to part with any of my euros, save for a bottle of water, the most expensive 500-ml mineral water I ever tasted at 1.5 euros).

We were welcomed to the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport by a light drizzle, a surprisingly hassle-free collection of our bags, a curious Finnish art piece (above) and a very tourist-friendly mother and son pair who gamely answered our queries about Finland while they, too, waited for the vehicle that will take them home to one of Helsinki’s suburbs. Our bus that was supposed to take us from Helsinki to Tampere promptly arrived at 4.30pm at Platform 13, all our bags ably hauled into the cargo hold of the intercity bus by a lady Finnish driver.

And we were off to the next five weeks of our lives in Finland, a place that was just five time zones away from the Philippines but could readily pass as a country on another planet altogether… Our arrival in Tampere, with the cab that took our teacher to her hotel (yes, it is a Benz- most cabs here are!)
With the E150-sized cab that took the four of us to our hotel… Which turned out to be not more than five hundred meter from the bus terminal behind me! Note the time on the clock attached to the building's edifice: yup, it's almost 7pm and the sun is shining as though it was 4pm =]
Sneak peek into the reception area of our home for the next month, Hotel Iltatahti
And the view from the window of our room…
Next time: Meet The Class