I could name him as my idol. Jorma Karhumaa has spent in total 3 years, 5 months and 10 days travelling. He has flown 690 scheduled flights and seen all the 196 independent countries in the world this autumn. Not to forget 60 nondependent ones. Whattawowman.
In June 2012 something caught my eye when I was in a bit worn out cafeteria in Fiji Nadi airport. I saw a red backbag, big enough to travel easy, which was covered with different tags – of different countries. It looked appealing. I started to talk to the man after I heard he had a familiar Finnish dialect that goes along with my roots. Soon I heard that Mister Jorma Karhumaa was only missing nine countries before having been to all the independent countries in this world. I was fascinated, couldn’t almost believe it because I had never thought it was possible. Now Jorma has only one to go – that is Laos, which will be conquered in October. I had kept Jorma’s details and the travel map he had given me close to my heart, and now it was time to go and visit him. I was driving to the north anyway (Finland, Sweden, Norway) – so why don’t have a five hours visit in Oulu/Finland on a way!
In his words, 70-year-old Jorma started systematic travelling in 1982 but the whole world he decided to travel through as late as in 2001. They were meant to watch the solar eclipse in Zambia with some fellow vagabonds but ended up going to 14 countries. When the borders were crossed again and again Jorma realised, how easy this travelling thing actually was – it is possible to go around the whole wide world. So right after mama Africa, the eager team started to plan and organise together where to head next and after that. Sometimes someone dropped out or ran out of money. But Jorma has been taking a good use of his passport and some places have been lucky to see this man again. You can’t get rid of this guy – if the weather is bad for example and he can’t experience something he’ll be back for sure. Like in the Himalayas. And who wouldn’t like it in paradise – our first meeting spot, lovely Fiji, Jorma has seen three times already.
A course how to face a rhino, shower by a humpback whale – but the Canary Islands are the most dangerous
As I’m asking the most memorable travel experience, Jorma expresses it with chords. Cassette player starts playing very ancient Chinese songs of Tang Dynasty. In 1999 Jorma went along the Silk Road with his daughter and in Xi’an they experienced an impressing concert when 600-900s music was pampering their ears. Jorma recognised all the songs except one; he could surprise you with his inexplicable knowledge.
Even when he’s telling me such thrilling adventures, the only place he claims to have felt in danger is the famous tourist spot Canary Islands! That’s the place where many Finns go to have a holiday. “Well, it’s the only place I have been robbed. My other travel buddies rather skip it.” I’m finding this weird, but I’m wondering if Jorma’s placid but respected essence helps in avoiding hazardous occasions. At least when it comes to his view! My heart would have jumped nervously if I would have been leaving from the war ready Congo – even it was my first time in a private jet. I would have celebrated for my life after getting the embassy report just before hitting Somalia: “If you go there, most probably you get shot right away.” But Jorma takes many things with humour. Another time when they were leaving from Somalia to Djibouti, he was pointing out arriving plane and saying, “Look boys that’s quite a scrap arriving there, how can that thing even fly?” Right after the officer came to them and told “Go now! It’s your plane!” They sat in the old cargo plane with rotating bar stools. Jorma has experienced 36 African airlines of all the 138 different ones that he has flown with – all have worked just fine!
Once this steady-nerved man got a cold shower from a humpback whale while sailing in the middle of the sea in Alaska. He had an eye contact with this big beast while taking pictures of it too close by, but luckily the man and the boat withstood the soaking! His 50-year Birthday Jorma spent in the ‘How to face a rhino’ course as well as riding an elephant on a tour in Nepal. In Irak under Saddam Hussein’s regime tourists were that rare that you could feel special when the border officers were bringing tea on a silver tray. You felt like a rich man too: In the financial collapsed Irak you got a hefty load of money when exchanging 50 euros, you could travel the whole country with it. 60 litres of fuel cost one euro.
All he speaks is body language
If you listen to this Finnish man, he’s an exceptional traveller. He didn’t finish even one full lecture of English in the grammar school. So he doesn’t really speak the same language with people out there. What I can see though is that he’s a master in body language and self-expression skills. Many times I have to try not to laugh; he’s such a rascal! Which is quite surprising because he has been in the military service for his whole life and made his living in the army. Jorma Karhumaa is a senior lieutenant by his military rank and worked as a trainer. In his hometown, he was also known as a well-liked bouncer at the door of the night clubs. These professions made travelling quite easy – Jorma knew his schedule at least a year before.
Maybe you’re after a certain level of mutual respect after the military service but liberté, égalité, fraternité didn’t really exist for example in New Caledonia, that is a colony of France. Class differences are reflected with a white table cloth. When Jorma and his companions sat down at a table with white tablecloth, they were directed to a table without one. Like were the black Kanaks, natives of the island who were also walking along the pin path instead of real paved roads. All the others expect the French owners seemed like pigs. The World isn’t equal – what about building a small military against this.
What a fine aware man
I like Jorma’s style. His idealism and principles feel right. Jorma didn’t travel to Malta, to my home island before spring 2013. It also happened to be the hunting season. In Malta, they shoot our birdies, the migrants of Northern countries. Like they do in quite many other Mediterranean countries too. “The culture difference is so huge, when they see a bird, they are thinking how it tastes, whereas In Finland, we are concentrating to listen how are they singing and how beautiful they look.”
We are talking over each other while we are worrying about littering and overwhelming eating – the sins of the careless crowds. Jorma is telling me that the small Pacific Island of Tuvalu is full of dumps. “They just throw the Coke bottles over their shoulders. They don’t have any waste management. Then the high tide comes along with the full moon and swipes everything to the open sea. There is a trash raft the size of Finland floating in the Pacific Ocean.” I experienced something similar when I was in the Gulf of Mexico, and now that I’m travelling a lot at the same time I feel all that joy and pleasure as well as the desperation and anxiety that are pushing through. When you’re travelling and seeing with your own eyes, you start realising the harsh reality. According to Jorma Island of Nauru is full of refugees instead. “That’s where they push them from Australia. Big countries don’t care about the small ones.” My awareness is rising fast when I’m listening to Jorma. What is a one big thing hard for him to understand are the buffet consumers in the cruise ships… This man has spent 152 days and 120 nights in a boat, and he wonders how come people come to a nice cruise just to eat. Alaska cruises are loaded mostly with big American people. Same goes with the Caribbean cruises. Not too many of the people get excited about the sceneries. The top performance could take a place in the Guinness book: “Once when we were waiting our turn to get to Galapagos Island – which is very well protected and only a certain amount of people can get there to walk the paths – we were meant to get a sandwich while waiting, but we didn’t. There was a big American boy first in line, and he just ate everything, at once, in front of us. No one said anything; everyone was quiet.” Jorma is expressing with a little sideshow.
After he retired, Jorma asked his wife to make a favour and iron all the 19 shirts of work uniform, and he took them with him to Africa. When he came back, he had only the outfit he had on. All the rest he had left behind for the ones that didn’t even own a shirt. This habit he learned from a friend and he’s repeating it always when he goes to a poor country. I can see it in my eyes when Jorma pictures one guy my age in Malawi for instance. He was hanging in front of a village store, just having big trousers tied with a robe. Jorma checked they were about equal-size and gave him one of his shirts. The man put the shirt on and then Jorma taught him how to button it. Then he wanted to know how to roll up sleeves and also wanted to have a pen inside the pocket like Jorma had. Finished by a few bank notes and that was one proud buddy.
Tricks and Finnish craziness
Jorma is a prankster. I think we have something in common. Sometimes he gets frustrated when people have been asking silly things. For example, to whom does the state of Finland belong to. Then he decides to change his nationality quickly: When putting on the shirt of Iran or a cap of North Korea on nobody asked anything. That’s how westerns are.
Of course, Jorma names home Finland the best with its seasons but when I’m excluding Finland and making him choose the most lovely country he names Bhutan. “Everything is so different there. Amazing sceneries. They are protecting almost everything. The country stands up; even the forest haven’t gone anywhere.”
Then when the list is done and even Laos has been ticked on the world list, I wonder what an early attraction of the humankind it is that brings Jorma to Africa again: “Africa is just so special place to be. I will go there again soon.” So he will continue travelling for sure. In this fantastic world, there is so much to see, it never ends. I’m even a bit jealous that Jorma has already seen the lemurs of Madagascar that I have only made a school essay about, and he’s planning to go back next spring. I’m restless, but I have time. That’s what Jorma and his wife keep telling me.
Finally, when I get to ask Jorma, what is the best thing in travelling in his opinion, he’s giving me an interesting answer without really having a clear point: “Well there is something stupid in it, who could name it. You must have some silliness in your life.” And I couldn’t agree more.
Thank you Jorma Karhumaa for this interview. Have wonderful extra travels and we’ll meet at some airport again!