Finland - December 28, 2009
I apologize in advance for the length of this e-mail, but seeing as I have all night to sit in the Edinburgh airport with not much to do, I figure I will take this time to reflect on my trip.
Lapland was amazing. The journey getting to and from pretty much sucked, but being in the original home of Santa Claus over Christmas made it all worthwhile. I didn't have my luggage while I was there and it is very liberating to travel with nothing but the clothes on your back and a few small extras in a backpack...especially when you are traveling alone and there is no one else around in your hotel room (or igloo as it may be) to be bothered by your one smelly pair of socks.
For roughly 32 days starting in December, the sun in Lapland never rises above the horizon. I was surprised to find that this doesn't mean it is totally pitch black. Instead there are a few hours of "daylight" each day. I don't think I've ever given much thought to the hours of light in a day, except maybe for noting the time of sunrise for some early morning outdoor adventure. But every single day of my trip one of the locals mentioned how much more light there was going to be that day versus the one before..."10 more minutes of light today"...it was actually pretty magical to have the whole "day" be a 4-5 hour period of what would elsewhere be considered a beautiful sunset...where the sky around the horizon is gray and light blue and pink. While sitting around a fire drinking tea out of a handmade cup (carved from the burl of a birch tree by a local Sami craftsman) an Austrian boy asked our Sami host if people got depressed in the winter darkness...to which the man, named Janne, replied "in Summer you fish and make love and in Winter you just make love...so that helps keep the depression away"...hahaha....
On Christmas Eve I had a nice dinner at my hotel where they served us roasted reindeer, among other local fare like white fish from Lake Inari and wild berries and mushrooms. Apparently you have to take a course and be certified in a certain type of mushroom (up to three only) before you can harvest wild mushrooms and sell them for public consumption...I wonder if that is a requirement in the US? Probably so. Anyway...reindeer was really tasty. All the reindeer in Lapland are semi-wild which mean they all have owners, but they roam free and so their meat is very healthy, organic and lean. After dinner Santa Claus came to visit. The hotel owner (a local Sami woman) invited me to eat at her table and her two young boys were there to see Santa. It was really cute. In Finland they sing a special song whenever Santa comes into or leaves a room...it was great to have all the adults singing as loud as they could...sadly I have no idea what they were actually singing, but it was fun nonetheless. I also drank Glogi, which is a Finnish mulled wine filled with berries and almonds...it was delicious and I have vowed to learn to make it and have it be part of my Christmas tradition from this year forward.
On Christmas day I went to a Sami reindeer farm (owned by the previously mentioned Janne and his family). It was a working farm, though there were only a few reindeer for pulling sleds, rather than the larger herd the family owned, since the herd roam free. Anyway...I got to ride in a traditional Sami wooden reindeer sled that they use to use as their main means of transportation before snowmobiles were introduced in the late 1960's. The sleds move in a single line and the reindeer behind me liked to try and overtake so I often had this big black reindeer eye in my face and got hit in the head by his antlers a few times...I must say as cute as the reindeer are (and they are really cute), it was a little scary to have these huge antlers right at my eye level for an hour. I was a bit worried he could somehow tell that I ate one of his brothers or sisters the night before.
The entire livelihood of the Sami people is based on the reindeer (and now also tourism and selling handicrafts). They use the reindeer as their main source of food and to make clothing and tools. Every Sami, and most of the locals I saw, carry a knife made from birch wood, reindeer antler and hand forged steel as well as matches and a burl cup. They also wear these colorful tunics and hats (which look a lot like what you'd imagine a court jester would wear) and elf looking shoes made of reindeer leather and fur. I now understand where our image of Santa's elves comes from. Also, this may sound really dumb, but I never put it together that the reason Santa has such rosey cheeks was because it is cold as hell in Lapland and that is how everyone there looks...including myself.
On Christmas I also went to the local bar in town. I was warned that I would probably get some marriage proposals from the local men, but instead I joined a table full of old drunken Finnish men who proceeded to say such dirty things to me that I was blushing (and if you know me well, you know I am not very modest and don't blush very easily)...If old men in the US were saying these things to me...I would have been disgusted and laid into them with some profane words of my own...however, these guys barely spoke English so the fact that the things they did know how to say were so outrageously dirty, it was hilarious and I laughed and drank merrily with them all night. A younger couple joined us so I actually spent most of the evening talking with them...the woman, Tea, spoke fairly good English and was really happy to have me around. She picked Finnish songs in the jukebox for me to listen to and laughed at the fact that I was such a typical American who said everything is so "nice". She kept laughing and saying "that's niiiiiiiice". I promised to come back and visit her in the summer one day. Also, the first night I arrived in Lapland I bought these two famous prints of paintings of Sami children done by a local artist named Marja. She came into the bar that night and joined us too. I don't often buy art (even prints) unless I really, really like it, so to meet the artist was really fun and I was a true dork, getting my picture with her and fawning over her like she was a celebrity.
The next day I went dog sledding. Now, as someone who doesn't particularly like dogs and is kinda scared of them, being surrounded by 30, husky, wolf looking dogs who are howling and barking and so eager to run that they are hard to control, was truly frightening. This was a small husky farm owned by a young girl, named something like Tilda, who was maybe 25 at most and lived way out in the wilderness by herself with 30 dogs and 5 horses. Anyway, we (me and these 2 other British guys who were there) had to help her harness the dogs and get them ready for the sleds. The dogs were so eager to run that once they were tied to the sleds they would rush forward only to be snapped back by the leads...and man were they barking and growling and howling. One of the dogs in my pack was actually part wolf. When we set off on the sled, the dogs became calm and were absolutely silent and you could tell were loving every minute of it. She lived along a river, so we started out racing across the frozen water. Driving was pretty scary, those dogs move fast...and we only used 6 dogs. Apparently Tilda would use 8 when she was sledding on her own. She often takes them on long journeys into the wild because behind her house there are no other houses or towns for more than 250km. I thought it was a bit crazy that she would venture out on long journeys into the freezing forests by herself, but she said she wasn't alone, she had the dogs and they considered her their leader, so if anything happened to her, they would know their way home and would pull her in the sled. Then she said "but they would only do that for me, they wouldn't treat a guest the same way"...fair enough, good to know...at that point I was glad she was in my sled, lol. She had a full-blooded Samoyed too, that was adorably furry and puffy and that I immediately loved since it was just like the only dog I have ever liked, Siena, who lives back home in DC. She also had these adorably hairy Norwegian horses. I rode one for a bit, bareback, and it was incredible how warm they were.
Later that day I transferred from where I was, Inari, about an hour and half south to Kakslauttanen. Strangely it gets a bit colder as you travel south since Inari is on a lake and closer to the sea, it stays about 5 degrees warmer. Kakslauttanen is where I had the amazing snowmobile journey that I wrote to you about and where I stayed in the igloo. Sleeping in the igloo was...interesting. Snow is mostly air so it is actually a pretty good insulator...but that just meant the temperature inside the igloo was around -5 Celsius rather than -25 outside. The sleeping bag was pretty warm, once you spent a few minutes inside it, but my face got pretty cold, so I fell asleep with my head under the covers. A couple times I woke with a frozen piece of sleeping bag against my face which was not pleasant. My nose was near the open edge of the bag and the moisture in my breath made the material wet so it would freeze. Also, I had to sleep with the light on because it just too claustrophobic inside the igloo with no windows and especially when totally wrapped up in a sleeping bag cocoon. Also, I had to keep my jacket and snow pants inside my sleeping bag so they wouldn't freeze overnight. Overall, I'm glad I did it once but don't think I will do it again...even now I am shivering just thinking about getting in and out of my sleeping bag.
Well, I think that about ends my story. Thanks for reading, if you actually made it this far (a sure sign you must be bored at work, lol).
Have a Happy New Year!