All posts by Marko

Berlin – City of Freedom

It’s nearly four PM on a hazy Sunday afternoon as Alex and I walk past one of the top clubs in Berlin. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much – a dilapidated factory, one of many former industrial buildings that birthed Berlin’s underground rave scene in the early 90s.

The party was still going from the night before, as black-clad gothic types stumbled from the club into the hazy afternoon light, their eyes either squinting from the sun or glazed from the club drugs. Even more were lined up to go inside, waiting to get past the notoriously selective bouncer.

“Day-walkers,” joked Alex. Neither of us have ever been into the EDM scene – and certainly not Berlin’s hardcore expression of it.

“Not quite carpe diem,” I added. It was nearly my 29th birthday and I was feeling more mature, as if my years of all-night partying were surely behind me.

By contrast, the scene before us seemed post-apocalyptic. In an overgrown lot, small groups of people sunned themselves on concrete ruins. Down the road, a young guy dangled his feet from the window of his apartment, high on something, blasting Janis Joplin, and smiling blissfully into the sun.

It was hard not to judge it as excessively hedonistic – even nihilistic – as if they were partying like there really was no tomorrow.

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Berlin is a hard nut to crack for many first time visitors. At first glance, it seems dirty, run down, and gritty. In short, it’s completely unlike any other major European capital.

In place of the skyscrapers are Soviet-style architecture from the 1950s. Squatters live in abandoned buildings five minutes from Parliament. Stickers and posters call for political asylum for Edward Snowden. Middle-aged men ride the subway dressed in drag. And a Sunday walk through Friedrichshain reveals said partiers, as well as hundreds more.

But this is what makes Berlin Berlin. It’s a city of freedom. And the key to understanding why Berliners value their freedom lies in the city’s recent history. So in our recent episode, instead of diving straight into where to go and what to do, Alex and I decided to create some context around the Berlin during the Cold War.

After WWII, Germany was occupied and partitioned by the Allied and Soviet Armies. East Germany was communist, occupied by Russians, and part of the Eastern Bloc, while West Germany was capitalistic and part of NATO. This conflict came to a point in Berlin in 1961, when these ideological divisions manifested in a physical wall dividing the city in half.

Its East German builders claimed it was to keep out foreign “fascists” from the west. In reality, it was built to keep it’s subjects in, to prevent them from entering West Berlin’s airport, from where they could fly to the west.

If the wall squeezed East Germans physically, then the secret police (known as STASI) applied the pressure mentally – spying on their citizens, torturing dissents, and encouraging families to betray their kin. They ruled through fear, like a real-life version of an Orwellian distopia.

That Sunday, I walked along the Berlin Wall, trying to imagine how it would have been to live during those times. We traced the wall’s 140km long footprint through Mauer Park, once divided and now one of the city’s largest gathering places. Only 5 of the 302 guard towers remain, standing incongruously against the modern cityscape, like an airport control tower dropped randomly onto a city corner. Without the wall, they make no sense.

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The same could be said for Berlin today – without knowing its history of oppression, it’s hard to grasp Berlin’s love of freedom. Tolerance replaces the bigotry of National Socialism. Street art brings life and community to a wall that once brought only death and division. Snowden’s struggle makes him a hero to those who remember life under the STASI. And all-night partying sure beats having a curfew.

Alex and I didn’t have time to dive into the party scene, partly because filming is strictly prohibited inside. What happened inside remained a mystery to me. I’d only heard wild rumors – most of them revolving around huge orgies happening in the dark corners of the clubs.

So on my last night, I decided not to judge. I met a local girl (thanks Tinder) who invited me to meet her at midnight in a club housed in what seemed like rickety shacks squeezed between dilapidated factories and a bridge. It felt like place where vampires would hang out, and admittedly lot of people were dressed in black.

It wasn’t my scene, and for a moment I decided to leave. Then I saw her wave to me from across the room – even cuter than her profile pictures. I bought us a round of drinks and commented that there were a lot of people here for a Sunday night.

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“This is nothing. It’s early. You should see it on the weekend – people come Friday and don’t leave until Sunday afternoon.”

I stifled a yawn and asked her how late she was staying.

“Noon,” she said,

I told her I normally don’t stay out that late, that I had a plane to catch the following day so I couldn’t be out until dawn.

“Suit yourself,” she said, snapping her clutch closed and leading me out on the dance floor, where I found myself surrounded by the same crowd that I’d seen earlier that day. Earlier, I’d judged them for wasting their day. My early rising gave me a sense of superiority, as if I were getting more done. Accomplishing more. Making more progress.

Now I was among them, trying not to look like a total douche as I attempted to adapt my American bump-and-grind dance moves to the scene.

My date noticed, and we both laughed. I changed the subject, and asked her why they didn’t allow filming in the clubs.

“Because here it doesn’t matter what you believe, how you dress, who you love – anyone is free to be who they are, to live how they wish. It’s a place of freedom, and recording would take away from that.”

I checked the time. My flight was leaving in 12 hours. If I left now I could get my eight hours, maybe even send off a few important emails before I left. But what would that really accomplish?

“Still thinking about leaving?”

“No,” I said, putting away my phone. “I can stay longer. I’m free.”

Pilsen, Czech Republic: Birthplace of Good Beer

“That doesn’t look like beer,” I think, peeking into the massive open-topped wooden barrels fermenting the latest batch of Pilsner Urquell. The barrels are about two meters high, hold 40 hectoliters of beer, and are covered by a crust of hardened brown bubbles. “It looks like crème brûlée or a burnt cheese.”

I’m from San Diego, a city where microbreweries are sprouting up like mushrooms and it seems like all of us are becoming amateur beer-snobs. But this is unlike any brewery I’ve visited back home.

I’m standing in the damp underground cellars of Pilsner Urquell brewery in the town of Pilsen, Czech Republic, the town for which pilsner beer was named. Pilsen’s tradition of brewing has earned it the title of the European Capital of Culture for 2015, and I’d come to pay homage to the supposed birthplace of modern beer. But the final product looked less than appetizing.

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This is the traditional way of brewing,” continued the brewer guiding us through the subterranean cellars where the beer is stored. Beneath my feet, deep grooves are worn into the stone floor from countless wooden barrels rolling out to market. The corridors are carved into sandstone, their arches just wide enough to permit one of these barrels. But this is only one of many tunnels in Pislen, which sits atop a sixteen-kilometer long system of tunnels that functioned as a primitive refrigerator – perfect for beer making.

We’ve used this method since we made our first batch in 1842,” he said, pointing to the dates carved on the barrels. The barrel before me was made in 1895, back when this was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Pilsen has seen many changes since then. The breakup of an empire, invasion by the Germans, liberation by the Americans, and collectivization of the brewery under communism. But even then, the brewing methods were passed on and traditions survived.

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I’m told this the following day when I meet with Vaclav Berka, chief brewmaster at Pilsner Urquell. We meet at U Salzmannu, the oldest beerhall in Pilsen, named after its 19th century manager who was the first to send Pilsner Urquell to Prague, from where it spread worldwide. Vaclav orders us two half-liter mugs of his beer, served in the Czech way – with a thick head of foam.

Nas dravy” he says, raising his glass to mine and taking a long draft. “It’s good, isn’t it?”

It is indeed, and I’m not disappointed that most bars have only this beer on tap. But Pilsen’s beer hasn’t always been so good. In fact, when pilsner beer was first invented in 1842 its most notable characteristic was how much better it was than the junk brewed before.

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The town first started brewing when it was founded in 1295, after King Wenceslas II granted 260 families the exclusive right to make and sell their own beer. Quality was determined by the town magistrates, who would pouring beer on oak benches then sit on them with leather pants for one hour. If the pants didn’t stick when they stood up, it was considered undrinkable. But by the 1830s Pilsen’s beer had become so bad that locals refused to drink it. In 1838, 36 barrels were dumped in protest.

Pilsner’s brewers had to do something drastic or risk losing the market to the Bavarian brewers of Germany. So they banded together, invested in a state-of-the-art facility, and hired a young Bavarian named Joseph Groll to make them better beer.

Joseph Groll used only three ingredients: Pilsen soft water, Pilsen malts, and Saaz hops,” continues Vaclav. “The result was this beautiful golden beer you see here,” he says, holding his mug under the light above our table. “This beer is the same recipe as 173 years ago.”

The recipe worked. This new “pilser” lager spread to Prague, then Paris and the rest of Europe, where it was widely imitated by breweries such as Heineken, Amstel and Beck’s. Eventually, the brewers trademarked Pilsner Urquell to cement its claim as the original pilsner.

Back down in the cellars, our tour moves on to the tasting room where they serve us fresh, unfiltered beer straight from the wooden barrels. The beer is crisp and cold. I finish mine quickly and line up for another, realizing why Czechs drink more beer than anyone else in the world – 148 liters per person, per year. Double that of Americans, and almost 50% more than the Austrians in 2nd place.

Today pilsner remains one of the most common beer styles worldwide – 70% of all beer is a Pilsner. Not a bad contribution to world culture for a town of 170,000, and little surprise it’s this year’s European Capital of Culture.

 

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Pilser Urquell only recently stopped brewing in the wooden barrels I saw in the cellars. They remain only for demonstration and sampling. Vaclav tells me that beyond that, the brewing process remains largely unchanged.

Nevertheless, my inner beer snob is compelled to ask whether such a traditional lager can compete in today’s craze for microbreweries and innovative ales.

It is not the size of the brewery that matters,” he replies. “What matters is whether they make good beer, or not-so-good-beer. And this beer is the best in the world!”

That is debatable. But has we raise glasses for our third round, I have to admit that he has a point.

Making Travel TV on the Internet

If you’d stopped me on the day I graduated university and asked me what I’d be doing in five years, I never would have predicted that I’d run a YouTube travel show with my brother – not to mention one that was popular in Finland. But a lot has changed since 2008.

When I was an undergraduate, YouTube was in its infancy. It was founded when I was a freshman in 2005, and purchased by Google a year later. Back then it was still about cat videos and fail compilations, and to this day that remains its image in many peoples’ minds. But the internet evolves quickly, and YouTube changed completely while I wasn’t looking.

After graduation I moved to rural India to work in micro-finance, an experience that spurred me to start sharing my experiences through creative writing. I started blogging and traveling through South East Asia, a hobby that quickly turned into a potential career.

By the time Alex and I crossed paths in 2012, YouTube had matured as much as we had. I was a published travel author with two guidebooks under my belt, and Alex was emerging as a filmmaker with a natural gift for being on camera. For the first time in our lives, we realized that our differences could be strengths if combined and we decided to team up and develop a travel T.V. show for our generation.

When we uploaded our first videos to YouTube that autumn, we still viewed the platform as a means to an end – a place to post our video resume as we tried to break into traditional television. We wrote a proposal for a show and pitching it to production companies. A few Hollywood producers liked the idea, but told us that we had no chemistry on camera.

We decided to put all our efforts into developing our craft as filmmakers and story-tellers, and committed to posting a video a week to our YouTube channel. Things moved quickly, and six months later we entered and won a contest called the Biggest, Baddest Bucket List, which sent us around the world for the rest of 2013 making a 50 video web-series.

The experience changed our lives in many ways, but above all it taught us that YouTube was an end in itself.  Not only was it possible to make a travel show on YouTube instead of TV, it was preferable.

For instance, take our recent popularity in Finland.  It started last year when we took a two-week trip through Finland to make videos on Lapland, Helsinki and a bizarre Finnish competition called the Wife Carrying World Championships. We needed wives to compete, so we made a YouTube video proposing to the women of Finland, and tweeted it to one of Finland’s biggest YouTubers, Miisa.

Although Miisa couldn’t be our wife-for-the-day, she did share our videos with her audience. Suddenly, our videos on Finland started getting thousands of views and our subscribers jumped by 50% in less than a week. Our audience in Finland grew so quickly that it became our 2nd largest audience behind the USA. We’d heard of people getting famous in Japan… but Finland?

It has been a strange turn of events, one we never could have predicted. But we’ve embraced our new audience and found a new reason to keep coming back North. This winter, we came for the Nordic Bloggers’ Experience, but in summer we hope to explore more of the Nordic countries, knowing that our audience will be largely local.

This is the new world of making a travel show on YouTube. In the past, a TV show could make an episode about Helsinki that would never air in Finland. Now, most people watching our episodes are Finnish – and as quickly as they praise our efforts, they also correct our factual errors and mispronunciation!

YouTube is great because it’s an interactive platform that allows us to speak directly with our viewers – and them to speak back to us. No longer do the filmmakers have the final say on a subject. That is decided in the comment section. And for those of us who want to understand the world by hearing different perspectives, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

New Year’s 2015 – Camping in Ensenada, Baja California

Alex and I are blessed to live so close to Mexico. With the border only twenty minutes from our door, adventures abroad are possible every weekend. But for too many years we’ve taken Mexico’s proximity for granted.  In 2015 we intend to spend more time exploring our neighbor to the south – Baja California, Mexico.

As we’ve mentioned in our videos about Tijuana and the Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico suffers from an image problem. For a long time it was treated as a playground for Americans in search of cheap booze and all the thrills they couldn’t get in the States. Then in 2006 came the drug wars, ravaging much of Mexico as cartels battled each other and the central government for control of the lucrative cocaine trade with America.

Things have since calmed down, but tourism has yet to pick up. Baja California is empty, begging for you to throw your things in the car and road trip down the coast. So we decided to start 2015 off by doing just that – getting together all our friends to spend the holiday camping at La Bufadora, near Ensenada.

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It was the perfect way to begin the year living with intention. We were surrounded by our closest friends from San Diego, all of us somehow able to get time away from work to enjoy time together. We were in nature, camping just meters from the Pacific Ocean. Our cell phones don’t work in Mexico and there was no WiFi, so it was a welcome sabbatical from the “Evernet” on which our job as travel vloggers depends. And for once, we traveled somewhere and didn’t make a video. We just enjoyed the moment.

Friends: Baja California, Mexico

We did, however, take these photos. The ones we’ve selected here capture what is the essence of Baja California – raw, naked, unadorned beauty. Coastline stretching for miles with few houses and no large developments. The ocean lapping against the rocks, a few fishermen’s pangas rocking in the shelter of a natural harbor. No one there but us and our friends.

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As the name suggests, “Lower California” was the southern half of a California united under Spain and Mexico. But history has cleaved them apart and today the difference between the two is marked. While activists fight to preserve the last undeveloped stretches of America’s Californian coast, Baja California looks how my home state must have looked 100 years ago.

Some of the first Americans to explore Baja California were surfers in the 1960s. As the sport went mainstream and beaches like Malibu got too crowded to surf, a few brave souls threw their boards atop their vans and pointed them south. It was coastlines like these that excited their imagination at the possibilities that lay before them.

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That’s how Mexico feels to us now.  So on New Year’s Eve we left our camp to explore a nearby cove – exploration on a much smaller level.  We walked up over the headlands and stood atop a windswept ridge line overlooking Puerto Escondido, Hidden Port in Spanish.  A winding dirt trail led us to a deserted beach, not a trace of humans save for a few fishing boats offshore.  Most visitors came to this place to see La Bufadora, a natural blowhole on the other side of point.  But for us, this deserted beach was the destination we didn’t know we had been looking for.

Despite living next to the US/Mexican border, this trip marked the farthest I’d ever traveled down Baja California. As we left we realized there is so much more to discover – not just geographically, but culturally. The “Baja Med” revolution we’ve explore in Tijuana and the Valle de Guadalupe is making exploring Baja California all the more appetizing.

And on the morning of New Year’s Day, that’s precisely what we promised ourselves we’d do in 2015.

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London Through New Eyes

London was never my favorite city. Alex and I had come here first as teenagers, visiting with our parents for a cold, rainy Christmas while I would have preferred relaxing by the beach in California.

Our parents had a special connection to London – they had both lived here when they’d first started dating back in the 70s, when my mother was a Pan Am stewardess and my father was a backpacker from New Zealand.

But I never understood why they liked the city so much. To me, it was a succession of icons I felt I’d already seen a million times – Big Ben, stone-faced Beefeaters in funny hats, and red telephone booths.  London felt cliched.  The major upside was that we could order pints years before we were 21. The downside was that the beer was warm.

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This time I came back with a new set of eyes. Over the last few years, a lot of signs in our lives have been pointing towards London. First off, a lot of our friends have moved to London for work. Then last year we won the #mybbb contest, sponsored by London-based My Destination.

On that trip, we met Jack and Finn Harries from JacksGap (also Londoners) who introduced us to the UK YouTube scene, which we found much more vibrant and closely knit than its American equivalent. And after pitching travel-themed TV shows to Hollywood, we found that travel television was much stronger in the UK than the US.

So we planned to come to London. We spent four months in Los Angeles taking a break from our travels, re-branding our YouTube channel, building a website and planning out our trip. But we would not experience London like we had before – trapped in the tourist spots and insulated from the city by our guidebooks.

Instead, we would discover London through the locals, exploring it by neighborhoods instead of landmarks, seeking out things we loved to do back home – image_5not what our guidebooks told us was important.

 

Now, after nearly three weeks in the city, we can declare our trip here a total success. We’re getting ready to release some videos that we know you’re going to love – collaborations with local YouTubers and bloggers who have helped us uncover places we never could have found on our own.

From great food to craft beer pubs, amazing street art to underground galleries, we’ve got a nice set of videos that image_4we’re excited to share with you soon. For me, it’s been more than a trip. It’s been a revelation, a discovery of how much of London we’d missed beforehand – and how much more there is to find.

 

We hope you like the videos. As always, stay in touch and send us your tips for London or anywhere else we should check out.

Next stop: VidCon in Anaheim, California!

Finding my Pepeha in New Zealand

The ceremony was supposed to be a homecoming, but I felt oddly foreign. Alex and I took our places atop Mt. Eden in Auckland, New Zealand, an extinct volcano the indigenous Maori consider tapu, or sacred and untouchable. Across from us stood Tracey and Tom, descendants of the Maori chiefs who founded the city.

Kia ora,” began Tracey, “We will now formally welcome you home to New Zealand according to formal Maori protocol.”

Our father is from New Zealand and we are full citizens. We’ve always considered New Zealand to be our distant homeland, but I’ve never lived there and never felt very Kiwi. Neither are we Maori. We are descendants of Pākehā, or European New Zealanders, and I was acutely aware that we now stood on land historically belonging to Tracey’s tribe.

“First,” he continued, “we will acknowledge the creator. Then we will bless you – our visitors – acknowledge your ancestors, and introduce them to our ancestors, who walk alongside us at all times.”

According to custom, strangers cannot enter tribal land without blessings, formal introductions, statements of intent and asking permission in the form of a song and a poem. It is a tradition originating from when New Zealand was divided amongst hundreds of warring tribes and travelers could not casually walk across the country without risking trouble.

These days, such a formal host/visitor relationship is an increasingly antiquated concept in our globalized world of vanishing borders. But to me it represented a chance to formally reconnect with my kiwi ancestry, a chance to be welcomed not just into this particular place, but into the other half of my heritage.

Continue reading on MSN Travel UK

 

 

 

North Island NZ: The Grand Kiwi Finale!

For the final episode of BBBTV we explore the North Island of New Zealand: sailing an America’s Cup yacht in Auckland, learning about the natural and cultural origins of New Zealand in Rotorua, and sipping craft beer on the vibrant streets of Wellington.  Sweet as, mate.

My Destination North Island: My Destination Wellington, My Destination Auckland, My Destination Rotorua.

Wellington: Megisti Sailing, Museum Hotel, Weta Cave, Zealandia, Wellington Cable Car, and Brady Dyer Photography.
Rotorua: Four Canoes Hostel, Tamaki Maori Village, Wai-O-Tapu, Polynesian Spa, and Hobbiton.
Auckland: SkyJump, Explore Group (America’s Cup Racing), and Tamaki Hikoi (Maori Cultural Guides),

And, as always, credit for the final rap goes to our buddy, Stevie B of Higher Minds.

North Island NZ: Behind the Scenes (Episode 23)

In the final episode of BBBTV we reconnect with our father’s home country – New Zealand – where we race America’s Cup yachts, learn about Maori culture, and explore the real-life Shire!  Tune in for a recap of the last six months, some final thoughts and a big announcement.

My Destination North Island: My Destination Wellington, My Destination Auckland, My Destination Rotorua.
Wellington: Megisti Sailing, Museum Hotel, Weta Cave, Zealandia, Wellington Cable Car, and Brady Dyer Photography.
Rotorua: Four Canoes Hostel, Tamaki Maori Village, Wai-O-Tapu, Polynesian Spa, and Hobbiton.
Auckland: SkyJump, Explore Group (America’s Cup Racing), Tamaki Hikoi (Maori Cultural Guides),
And, as always, credit for the final rap goes to our buddy, Stevie B of Higher Minds.

Facing the Fear in Queenstown

Mark faces his fear of heights in the open door of an airplane at 15,000 feet.  Appeared on MSN Travel UK on 19 Jan, 2014.

The plane leveled out at 12,000 feet above Queenstown, New Zealand.  I straightened up and looked out the window to my left.  The deep blue of Lake Wakatipu snaked through the Southern Alps, the outline of New Zealand’s adventure capital reduced to just a few small houses in one corner of the lake.

The jump master threw open the door and the cabin pressure dropped.  A green light began flashing. To my right, the line of first-time skydivers was sucked out of the plane with their instructors strapped to their backs.  Out the window I saw them hurtling towards the earth at 200 km per hour – terminal velocity.

Then the door was closed, leaving just me with my brother Alex and our dive instructors.  The plane nosed sharply upwards, climbing towards 15,000 feet.  I tried to remain calm, but somewhere in the crevasses of my mind lurked was a primordial, instinctual aversion to what I was about to do.

From behind me, I felt my instructor tap my shoulder and pass something forward– a thin tube of oxygen, perhaps to calm my nerves.  I put the tube between my lips, breathed deeply, and prayed that the parachute was packed correctly.

Read the full story at MSN Travel UK

Queenstown: Parachutes, Propellers and Panoramic Views!

Queenstown, New Zealand is the birthplace of bungee jumping and jet-boating and an gorgeous destination for adrenaline-seekers.  We soaked up the scenery the best way possible: by rocketing down a river at 85/km per hour, jumping 134m off Nevis Bungee, and sky-diving at 15,000 feet over the Southern Alps.

Thank you so much to everyone who made our stay possible: My Destination QueenstownVilla Del LagoShotover JetAJ Hackett Bungy: Nevis BungyNZONE SkydiveAmisfield WineryGlacier Southern Lake HelicoptersMt NIC High Country ExperienceSouthern DiscoveriesSkyline GondolaMore FM QueenstownTracy Roxburgh from Otago Daily Times.