Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Monday, June 25, 2007

Helsinki is possibly the most easy going capital city we have had the pleasure of visiting. It is modern, easy to navigate and stylish, with the pace and attitude of a friendly town, rather than a bustling capital city.

The Upenski Cathedral stands proudly overlooking the city's harbour

The installation of the Cathedral's freshly restored domes was an interesting spectacle

Although it's not really a 'must see' city loaded with architectural and cultural gems, there are enough sights to draw the visitor in for a few days. The Upenski Cathedral stands out with its gold onion domes. We were also impressed by the Helsinki Cathedral and its majestic steps upon which we saw the President of Finland address a crowd of soldiers and onlookers. For music fans Helsinki's Sibelius monument is a magnificent salute to the composer. Last but not least, there is Esplanad Park and the harbour market, providing enjoyable strolling and people watching opportunities in the heart of the city.

The Helsinki Cathedral on flag day

The President of Finland's shock of red hair stands out as she speaks to an audience of soldiers, dignitaries and spectators on Flag Day.

At ease!

The biggest highlight of our time in Helsinki, however, was seeing our Finnish friends Pauliina Huurtela and Peter Ohtonen. I first met Pauliina in the Netherlands back in 1995 when we both worked as Au Pairs for Dutch families in Gouda. We were friends for a summer and have kept in touch ever since, although this reunion in Helsinki was the first time we'd seen each other in twelve years. Any anxiety on either side about meeting up again after so many years quickly dissolved as we got reacquainted, enjoying the qualities in each other that fueled our friendship in the first place. Actually, the long absence simply gave us more to catch up on. Jason and Peter hit it off immediately, and the four of us spent a great few days together. Pauliina & Peter were enthusiastic guides and generous hosts. They treated us to a picnic on Suomelinna, a pretty island close to Helsinki, as well as an evening at Seurasaari, Helsinki's open air museum with old Finnish buildings, pleasant wooded trails and low-key beaches.

Enjoying the summer breeze with Pauliina and Peter on the ferry to Suomelinna

An old Finnish phone box in Seurasaari, a reminder of life before Nokia took Finland (and the world) by storm

Clock tower in Seurasaari

We had great fun doing some distinctly untouristy things with Pauliina and Peter too. Perhaps the least conventional activity was visiting a Helsinki dog show with them. Tarek, Pauliina and Peter's Afghan Hound, was competing and we went along to meet Tarek's breeder and to cheer him on. The showground was an unusual but lively scene. We walked by scores of green tents, peeking in to see keen Afghan owners, breeders and extremely furry dogs full of excitement about the canine contest. We watched a couple of rounds of striking hounds being run around the ring and poked about by the judges.

One owner displaying her dog's fine form for the judges

We saw winners and losers being announced, and the ensuing delight and disappointment. We enjoyed the people watching as much as the dog watching, as Afghan Hound enthusiasts are as interesting as their pets. Many of them spend every summer weekend in green tents showing dogs and accumulating ribbons. The show was a one of a kind experience for us, and seeing Tarek win a blue ribbon for second place in his class made it an even more memorable occasion.

Pauliina and Peter with prizewinning Tarek

We soon discovered Pauliina and Peter enjoyed good food as much as we do, and they went to great efforts to introduce us to new and interesting Finnish culinary treats. Starting with delicious smoked salmon, Pauliina and Peter fed us everything from lingonberry pasties to reindeer stew to rye porridge (mammi) served with sugar and cream to cloud berry (lakka) schnapps. We enjoyed great food, company and conversation in Pauliina and Peter's home way past everyone's bedtime on several occasions. They even sent us on our way with a beautiful cookbook so we can continue the Finnish feasting back home!

Reindeer stew with lingonberries. Good stuff!

When we weren't busy eating with our hosts, we also spent evenings at their local pub, played with Tarek and even had a session in the electric sauna, which was much different to the wood one, but still pretty sweaty! We are extremely grateful to Peter and Pauliina for the great hospitality and fun times.

The five of us during an evening stroll
We certainly packed a lot into our three weeks in Finland, especially as most of it was spent with good friends Matt & Elina in Jyvaskyla and Pauliina & Peter in Helsinki, which enriched our experience and added plenty of fun. We learned quite a bit about Finnish culture, and the country made many lasting impressions. Here are a few of them.

Greenery & Scenery
Finland's landscape is consistently beautiful with woodland everywhere, complimented by picturesque coastline and lakes.

Travelling in Style

Getting around has been a pleasure, on clean, speedy trains and reliable buses.

Finland has a thriving music, art and dance scene. We experienced it all over town on Helsinki Day. Heavy metal music is something of a national passion. Rock on, HELLsinki!

This is where the party was really happening on Helsinki Day: the rock stage

Cinta Hermo performing in Esplanad Park on Helsinki Day

Social Democracy in action
Finland is a social democratic country and Finns tend to have a strong sense of fairness, favoring an egalitarian approach. For example, Finnish workers are afforded employment benefits US workers dream about, in areas such as maternity & paternity leave, health and unemployment benefits. They also have an admirable commitment to work/life balance.

No breaking the rules
Finland is a surprisingly regulated country in some ways. For example, there are such tight rules about the sale of alcohol that you have to go to Alko, the state-run liquor monopoly to buy it.

Finnish youth enjoying a lazy summer afternoon in the park

Light & darkness
Finland is light in summer and dark in winter. The winter gloom (it only gets light for a few hours a day) may contribute to Finland's unusually high suicide rates. The snow covered beauty of Lapland must be magical though. Our next visit to Finland will be in winter time, for sure. We found the long summer days wonderfully uplifting. There's something great about it still being light in the dead of night.

Hungry, anyone?
Finnish food is delicious. Did we mention that already?

All in all, we loved Finland. This country has definitely made it onto our 'highly recommended list'.

Jason and I in front of the Sibelius monument

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Next on Donkey Crossing: a quick day in Estonia and on to Russia, with love!

Thursday, June 14, 2007


After our time in the wooded bliss of central Finland with the Wuethrich family, we packed our bags and headed south to Helsinki, Finland's beautiful capital city. We had to get our passports to the Russian embassy in order to apply for our visas, knowing the processing time would be one week. We stayed in Helsinki long enough to drop off our documents, eat some delicious salmon soup and realize we looked forward to a longer visit the following week. After completing our business in the capital, we headed west to the quaint coastal town of Naantali.

The peaceful view from the one-room cabin we rented at the Naantali campground. The town is surrounded by numerous islands and bays, which all lead to the open sea.
Naantali still has plenty of traditional, wooden Finnish architecture which is quite an attraction for visitors. In much of the country, many classic Finnish buildings were demolished in the 50s and 60s to make way for more modern and durable construction.

The old church tower is an iconic landmark in Naantali and can be seen from many points around the area. Every evening a musician climbs up to the belfry and serenades the town with a couple classic tunes on the trumpet.

For most of the Finnish population there's only one reason to visit Naantali...Moomin Land! The closest thing Finland has to Disneyland, we fortunately left a couple of days before the park opened for the season. We weren't too disappointed to miss the swarms of excited children and traffic heading to Naantali for some Moomin mania.
At first glance this may only look like two old people walking with poles. Spend a couple weeks, or even days, in Finland and you will learn that "Nordic Walking" is all the rage. Young and old alike can be seen up and down the country with their thin poles and aggressive struts. There's also "Nordic Gliding", which adds a pair of in-line skates to the fun. Apparently adding poles makes for a superior arm work out.

Another new recreational sport we stumbled upon was "Billiard Golf". A simple combination of billiards and putt-putt golf, we quickly decided this sport would be a hit across the States and UK in no time!

This simple picnic dinner in front of our cabin consisted of pickled herring, fresh salad and smoked trout stuffed with prawns and Roquefort cheese. We certainly continued to eat well as we made our way up the western coast of Finland!

A final shot of Naantali's posh, yet modest harbor.

We were very lucky to find such a beautiful and pleasant village to relax in for a few days before our time back in Helsinki. Check back soon to read about our urban adventures in the capital and life with our Finnish friends Pauliina, Pete and Tarek.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Fun with Finnish friends

Finland has now officially made it on to our growing list of highly recommended countries. Jason and I are fortunate to have good friends in Jyväskylä, central Finland, which made for not only a fun visit, but also a cultural immersion beyond the typical tourist experience. Matt Wuethrich has been a friend of Jason’s since high school, and met Elina, his Finnish bride, around the same time Jason and I met. The four of us have been friends ever since, and baby Selma, Matt and Elina’s daughter, completes the current picture.
Enjoying a stroll in the woods with Matt, Elina and Selma

Matt and Elina not only welcomed us into their lovely home in the wooded outskirts of Jyväskylä, but also went to great lengths to expose us to all things Finnish, including food, language, landscape, sport, music and lifestyle. We experienced so much during our ten days with them, it’s impossible to recount it all, but here are some of the highlights.

The Wuethrichs' beautiful wooden home, built in 1935

A view of Jyväskylä University across the town's largest lake

The visiting team's batter in action at a Finnish baseball game. We had a hard time following the game, which seems only loosely related to American baseball, but enjoyed the atmosphere and the kabanos sausages!

Although the game was pretty confusing, we managed to figure out that Jyväskylä lost. Badly.

Finnish Feasting

It was clear from the start that we wouldn’t go hungry with the Wuethrichs, and the divine fragrance of veggie lasagna wafting through their home welcomed us on arrival. During our stay we feasted on savory delights such as smoked fish, grilled salmon, kabanos sausages, reindeer carpaccio, new potatoes with dill and more varieties of rye bread than we could keep track of. We tried two other rye based items which were ultra tasty and utterly Finnish: karjalanpiirakka (a rye flour pasty filled with buttery rice porridge) and muikkukukko (dense rye loaf packed with small fish that looked and tasted like sardines).

Kabanos sausages sizzling over a log fire as salmon cooks on a wooden plank
Finns are very partial to strong, fresh coffee. We drank plenty of that, in addition to sampling traditional sour milk (yucky) and local apple cider (yummy), also Finnish favorites. Worthy of a special mention are the sweet treats we indulged in, thanks largely to Elina’s first class baking. Our first taste was a decadent strawberry cream cake, which she then managed to trump with ‘to die for’ home made cinnamon rolls. We particularly enjoyed Elina’s leipäjuusto, a typically Finnish pudding of sweet baked cheese, vanilla cream and yellow cloud berries grown in Lapland. We even ate rhubarb pie with fruit harvested from the neighbour’s garden, as well as copious amounts of home grown berries. Needless to say, all intentions of weight loss have been postponed…..again!

Elina's magnificent strawberry cream cake, baked in honor of her birthday

Selma enjoys a feast of her own

Log Cabin Living

Perhaps one of the most impressionable windows into Finnish life was the weekend we spent at Elina’s parents’ summer lake cottage. Tucked in the pine and birch woods, meters from a picturesque, secluded lake, the cottage was typically Finnish in every way. The rustic, dark red log cottage had a wood burning stove and fireplace, along with oil lamps, instead of electricity. The composting toilet outhouse was decorated with retro posters, and equipped with Donald Duck comics in Finnish. Furthermore, there was a perfect lake view from the loo, an aesthetically pleasing alternative to Donald Duck. Since the cottage had no running water, we collected water in buckets from a spring up the lane. The cottage oozed low tech comfort and style, and we relished every moment there.

Breakfast on the lake cottage pier with Elliot, the family dog

Much of our time was spent playing Mölkky, an addictive lawn version of skittles, rowing the family boat on the lake and enjoying the idyllic surroundings with our friends, between bug spray blitzes against the million mosquitoes that arrived the same day we did.

Matt takes a shot at the skittles during a game of Mölkky in front of Jyväskylä University

Then there was the facility no Finnish lake house would be complete without: the wood fired sauna.

Steamed & Perspired to Perfection

We were anxious to get in the hot pine sauna and start improving our circulation as soon as possible, but there was quite a process to go through first, starting with building and lighting the sauna’s log fire.

Step one: lighting the sauna fire

Next, large buckets had to be filled with lake water for bathing and for throwing on the coals for löylyä lisää (more steam). We waited patiently for the thermometer to hit 85°C and the sauna to be declared ready. We were shown the ropes by our hosts, one gender at a time, with Elina and I going first. Conforming to the traditional sauna dress (or undress) code we left all our clothes in the adjoining changing room, and took our places on the sauna’s wooden bench, letting the heat do its work. The first few minutes were pleasant as we inhaled the heat and began to sweat. However, as Elina liberally tossed water over the coals, the extreme heat/steam combo made for severe sweating, a bit of a head rush and a growing sense of claustrophobia. After about fifteen intense minutes in the sauna, it was time to cool off.

Filling buckets of water for the sauna from the well. At the cottage, we used water from the lake.

Standing outside in our towels drinking cold beer seemed like a sensible cool down strategy to me, but Finns don’t build their saunas right next to lakes for nothing. Up for an ‘authentic cultural experience’ and against my better judgement, I jumped in the lake, landing on the soft, muddy bottom. That first plunge was definitely unforgettable. Never before have I experienced spontaneous universal numbness of every body part, external and internal. Breathing became a conscious effort since my heart and lungs were apparently in shock.

The men took the plunge too, with twice as much screaming and whining as the women

I must admit, after enduring the painfully cold water, returning to the sauna did feel decadently pleasant. Elina and I alternated between sauna and lake, taking turns with the men until we were thoroughly invigorated (or simply couldn’t take it any more). I can’t deny there were moments the sauna experience felt like an endurance test or possibly some kind of torture, but overall it was an incredibly enjoyable, sociable experience. Afterwards, fully dressed with a wood grilled kabanos sausage and a beer in hand, it all seemed worth it. Presumably my circulation has never been better!

Matt stoking the fire ready to cook post-sauna sausages

Friendship & family life
We are extremely grateful to Matt and Elina for taking such good care of us, and inviting us to share their home and family life. It was great to see them again, and our times with them left a lasting impression. Thanks also to Erke and Helga, Elina’s parents, who kindly welcomed us at their summer cottage.

Erke, Matt, Selma, Elina and Helga - our generous hosts


Two Donkey Crossing Successes!

Congratulations to Jason who had a photo from our Sahara desert experience printed in the June 10th Daily Herald newspaper in Illinois. Also, BootsnAll Travel Network has published my article entitled 'Sahara Crossing' with Jason's photos on their website. Click on these links to access the article and bio

Stay tuned for more Suomi stories.

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Monday, June 04, 2007


One of the hardest things about spending a year and a half backpacking around the world is being separated from loved ones. Our family has particularly felt the distance during Marty's recent cancer treatment and recovery from heart surgery. It has certainly been a double whammy nobody ever could've predicted. To coincide with the end of dad's long ten weeks of radiation treatment, we flew home for a visit. Our arrival made for an emotional reunion with Marty, Teena and MJ, but was the start of an amazing two weeks on our home turf.
A very memorable Mother's Day was spent on the South side of Chicago cheering on Chicago's "second" baseball team, the White Sox. Although the White Sox forgot to bring their offensive abilities to US Cellular Field on this particular afternoon (the Kansas City Royals won 11-1), we had an excellent time together at the ballpark. MJ, Rachel, Teena, Marty and I took a moment away from the action on the field for this quick self-timer shot.
A not so familiar glimpse of Chicago's skyline from the South side.

Although our time in the area was mostly spent in Naperville, we managed to get a few friends together in the city and dressed them up in traditional Dogon Country hats from Mali. Aaron and Rob (pictured above) were surely making a fashion statement in their "Dogon Country traditional meets Michigan Avenue chic" ensembles.

Rob, Amanda and Frieda pose with me for a photo after a bubbly toast in honor of Rob's 35th birthday.

A definite highlight of our visit was attending the opening game of the three game series between the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox at Wrigley Field. It was a great day at "The Friendly Confines" with our cousin Jack (a lifelong White Sox fanatic). Although I was outnumbered by White Sox fans being with Jack and Rachel, it was a wonderful feeling watching the Cubs defeat their crosstown rival 6-3.

A trip to Naperville certainly wouldn't be complete without a night at the home of our mates Neal and Jen. Drinking their delicious home brews and enjoying a BBQ feast always promises to be a great time. This time around, they had a fresh batch of delicious Mexican style pilsner. Delicious! We were also introduced to one of technology's latest marvels, the Nintendo Wii system. A little bowling after a large meal and a few brews can certainly assist the digestion process.

Our visit to Naperville flew by faster than we could imagine. A highlight we unfortunately didn't capture on film is the day we spent at Geneva South Middle School speaking to Ms. Beyer's sixth grade Social Studies classes. Our cousin Tyler is a student in one of the classes and we were invited to talk about our travels, show some photos and field some questions for a few hours. A big thanks goes out to Ms. Beyer and her students for such a wonderful welcome!

Another highlight was visiting the Edwards Hospital Cancer Center on our first day home. Marty needed to go in for a quick test, so we accompanied him to meet all the wonderful doctors, nurses and technicians we had been hearing so much about over the previous weeks. We thank them very much and appreciate all the care they have provided.

Since our visit to Naperville, we've been in the country of sauna, salmon, lakes and birch trees...Finland! We just enjoyed a wonderful ten days visiting our friends Matt and Elina Wuethrich in the wooded bliss of central Finland and look forward to sharing the stories and pictures with you soon. Also, for Donkey Crossing fans in the Western Suburbs of Chicago, be sure to pick up a copy of this Sunday's Daily Herald. One of my photos from our time in the Sahara was chosen for publication in their travel section's Best Shot feature. I'll be willing to sign autographs next time we're home!