Thursday, 29 November 2012

Northern Lights

"The Aurora blazed all of a sudden into brilliant life.... a thousand miles high and ten thousand miles long: dipping, soaring, undulating, glowing, a cataract of glory." (Philip Pullman)

It’s books that inspire me to travel. Since I was little, I have loved reading, and it’s the books that you read when you’re young that make the strongest impressions. ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ took me to Kefalonia. ‘Dracula’ to Whitby. And it was Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’ that took me to Lapland.

I thought it was such a cliché to come here because of that book; that lots of people would have passed through here because they had the same image as me in their mind: of Lyra racing on Iorek across the icy Arctic wilderness, under curtains of flickering and dancing lights. So, it was with a little bit of embarrassment that I answered the question of ‘why Lapland?’ with ‘Philip Pullman’. Embarrassment dissolved swiftly to disbelief when it became apparent that nobody, be it my fellow volunteers or my Finnish hosts had ever heard of it.

Needless to say, when my family came out to visit me a little over a week ago, a dog- eared copy of ‘Northern Lights’ came in the suitcase, and now sits proudly on the Hostel bookshelf where we live. Everybody has strict instructions to read it before they leave, especially so when Wikipedia informed me that the fictional Lake Enara, from where the witch Serafina Pekkala was the Queen of, is actually based on Lake Inari, the place where I am living. On learning this, and reading the book again, everything suddenly has a new significance, and I was struck with new perspectives and feelings both about the text and this beautiful part of world.

In ‘Northern Lights’ the Aurora is a gateway into another world. Physics explains the beautiful displays of colours and lights in the Northern sky as solar particles colliding with earth's magnetic shield and encountering atoms of oxygen and nitrogen at different altitudes. For the Sámi, the indigenous peoples of the North, the Aurora was an Arctic Fox made up of light that flew through the sky, brushing aside the stars with his tail. I think the beautiful image conveyed by the Sámis captures what it’s like to experience the northern lights so much better than the scientific explanation.

The Aurora is visible here in Inari nearly every night. However, clouds obscure it, and streetlights make it fainter, so the best nights have been when it is clear and we have walked or driven out of the village’s lights to somewhere like a lake, where you can look out across to the horizon without trees obstructing the sky. A 20 minute drive outside of the village is an old bird tower, which rises 100 feet above the ground, affording panoramic views of the sky. But we’ve also seen the aurora from our window, shimmering across ghostly green lines, or just outside our front door, snaking over the roofs of where we live. Dashing into the supermarket to buy some beer, I said in excitement to the lady behind the counter that there was a beautiful aurora just outside. She looked at me with some kind of mixture of pity and derision. Our host called us up last night: “Beautiful beautiful aurora outside just by the guesthouse!”…. and then she went to bed. I can’t imagine becoming so accustomed to such an astonishing and mysterious act of nature. Conversely, for them they think it’s kind of funny that people travel from the other side of the world to see it; a local girl: “it just means the sky is lighter! You can just see better!”

I think the indifference that is shown to this natural phenomenon is kind of sad, but beginning to be apparaent even in us. At the beginning, we’d be so excited at a greenish blur under a thick layer of cloud. Now, we’re kind of picky. If it’s not really clear out, or a really active aurora (the intensity of the colours and the movement of the aurora depends on the magnetic activity and wind speed) we do tend to roll back into bed. I don’t think I’d ever get to the same level of derision, and things can also work the other way with the people who live here. A guy who has been here since he was born explained to me that working with the ‘Aurora Hunters’, a group of British guys who sell aurora tours to tourists, has actually made him appreciate the northern lights more.

The cabin I stayed overnight in
What will certainly stay with me long after I have left Inari will be the time that I was stayed overnight at Kotiniemi, the horse and husky farm. The farm has no electricity or running water, and I was sleeping in the cabin for the night. It was beautiful. I made a fire in the stove and got the cabin cosy, lit a couple of candles, and snuggled in a sleeping bag to read a book. At about 7pm I looked out the window to see lines of green light hanging amidst the stars outside. Pulling on my coat and gloves I went outside, stood out on the frozen lake and looked up at the sky which was completely lit up by snaking green lines hanging in curtains above me, dancing and moving, some slowly and some more quickly. Reds and purples chased the edges of the thicker blocks of green, and sky was alive with colour and movement. Tendrils stretched right above my head before seeming to fall around me like rain. This continued for about an hour, and began to die away- I could then see more stars that I have ever seen in my life. Eventually  I went to bed. About midnight I woke up, looked outside, and it had begun again. I watched for another hour in awe; the place where I worked everyday with the horses and dogs was transformed into what looked like another world. I woke up again at 4am, and then again to start feeding the horses at 7.30am. Both times the aurora was shimmering outside. It was one of the best displays I had seen. I’m not sure if I’m sad or not that there was nobody with me to share that experience. I think it meant more, and affected me more, because of the fact that I was alone.
I think it was meant to happen like that. 

"She was riding a bear! And the Aurora was swaying above them in golden arcs and loops, and all around was the bitter Arctic cold and the immense silence of the North." (What brought me here. Lyra in 'Northern Lights')

Oh, and did I mention, we've started running horse sledding aurora tours. Awesome.

A day in the life...

So people keep asking me what I’m actually doing here, so I thought I’d give a quick run down of typical working day. The idea of doing this has been shamelessly stolen from a fellow French workawayer but hey ho :D

(If we have people staying in the guesthouse)- 7am- I put the bread in the oven and prepare the breakfast for the guests, and for us!

8am: Breakfast. We meet and plan the day, and then travel to Kotiniemi, the horse and husky farm.

9am- Driving slowly in the shy Arctic dawn, we first check that none of the huskies or horses have escaped.... We try our best to make sure that they are all safely inside the pen, but accidents sometimes happen (a husky once escaped and killed nine reindeer before it was found!) and for the horses, sometimes the lure of hay is just too much......

One morning we arrived to this....
If the horses have decided to wait for us until they get hay, we begin to feed them. In the summer and autumn, the horses drink at the lake, but at the moment the lake has frozen so we make sure there is water in their water trough. We then light a fire underneath it- our average temperate is about -15 at the moment. Any water left outside is ice within minutes.

10am- Check on our pregnant husky, our mummy husky and her nine beautiful puppies! What an awful task.... ;)We feed and water them and clean up some poo, and make sure they are comfortable. The puppies are beginning to eat their mum's meat now as well! (something she is not too happy about!)

Sydan (meaning 'heart' in Finnish) enjoying a tasty bit of reindeer meat!
10.30am- Poo time! Sleds full of horse poo, chipping it away from the frozen ground (or covering with snow the particularly stubborn bits) Not the best job in the world, but very important!

11am- Time for the dogs! Better than the horse poo, there is not as much, and the dogs are just so happy to see you. Barking with excitement when you arrive, licking, jumping, hugging you, squealing with indignation when you pay another dog more attention....

11.30am- Time for dog sledding! We might have clients, or we might be training the dogs on a new track. First we select the teams and then put the harnesses on. We then connect the dogs to sleds, "Odota! Odota!" (Wait! Wait!), we try everything we can to calm the dogs down as they jump and squeal and try as hard as they can to run, now! This is a time full of energy and excitement, and just as you think you can't keep these dogs calm any longer, it's MENA MENA, GO GO GO! Jumping onto the sled, the first few seconds are full of thoughts about not falling off as we rush down the track at near to 40km/hr....

12.30pm- Lunchtime! We go to the Laavu, a traditional Sami tent to start a fire, grill some sausages and make a nice cup of tea :) We also feed the mummies and puppies again.

1.30pm- It's the horses turn! We might have a client, or we might take the afternoon to chop firewood or fix things around the farm, but on good days it's both horses and huskies. Some people go in the sleds, and some ride. I prefer to ride- much more interesting, and so much warmer!

2.30pm- Time to feed the dogs- a concoction of dog biscuits, reindeer meet and a broth made out of bones. Each dog must sit and wait until we give the command to eat ('Vappa!'). Not too difficult with the older dogs, but a nightmare with the younger ones!

3.30pm- Feed the horses and do a final poo run.

4pm- It is pitch black by now, and we pack up the car and head back to village. We then spend the evening ice skating, drinking tea, or (more usually now!) arguing about whose turn it is to cook dinner! If there's clients the next morning for breakfast I make the bread ready, and if it's a clear night we go aurora hunting, otherwise we chill out, or go down to the pub.....

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Life in the frozen north

I have now lived in Inari, Lapland, in the far north of Finland, for just over 6 weeks. In what is, all things considered, quite a short amount of time, I have watched the landscape change a phenomenal amount. I arrived during the ´ruska´, the finnish name for the explosion of autumn colours on the trees. In what followed I saw an incredible amount of rain and sun, and the leaves gradually begin to fall from the trees. We then had a week in which everything around us froze. Puddles began to ice over, a frost was on the ground, and winter in the air. The weather forecast predicted ´a light dusting´ of snow to fall overnight. We woke up to about 20cm. Thick drifts of snow lined the streets and the lake began to freeze. The entire landscape will now be white until May, at which point it will finally begin to thaw. Sometimes, if alot of snow has fallen that winter, it doesn´t disappear until July.


The changes of the seasons were stunning to watch for me, but it was even more astounding for another volunteer who was here from Columbia. For her, it is warm all year round. There are no seasons, apart from a slightly rainier one, and a slightly drier one. The changes of the landscape here, the trees and the lakes was one that was completely incredible for her. She arrived in August, in temperatures of 27degrees. She then watched it change with me, to something of the other extreme. It is beautiful.
Trust an English(wo)man to talk about the weather...... So what am I actually doing here?! Well it is pretty awesome, working with huskies and horses. I found out about it on, an incredible work exchange website in which people from all over the world post up things that they need people to help them do. These range from working on farms, being a babysitter, an au pair, gardening, cleaning, working in a hotel, a guesthouse... pretty much anything. All from people in some of the most beautiful and incredible places in the world. You don´t get paid, but you get all of your accommodation and meals for free, and you actually get an insight into the local culture as you´re living or working with a host family. It´s really nice to be able to stay in one place for a little bit, and to be able to walk into the supermarket, or the pub, and people to recognize you and say hello. You´re no longer treated as a tourist, but as a local. You get to know the people who live here, and what it is like to live in a place like this. Anybody who is at a loose end, or wants to go travelling but doesn´t really have much money, I would urge and urge and urge you to check out the website, it is wonderful!

The people I stay with own a guesthouse, a hostel, and a shop as well as the horse and husky farm, so there's so many things to get involved in. We (the volunteers) actually live in the hostel which is really cool, as we often have travellers coming through and staying there, so are contantly meeting some really interesting and funny people. I was considering hitching from Rovaniemi to here in Inari, as the bus was a stupid amount of money, but was kind of glad I didn't when a rather bedraggled German guy rocked up to the hostel and said that he had waited 10 hours for a lift! Which, whilst sounding ridiculous, is somewhat easy to believe, the roads around here are very empty and you can sometimes go hours without seeing a single car go by.

I'm currently working with two australian volunteers, a Columbian and a dutch girl, and we're due a French guy to turn up in a week or so's time. I'm lucky, as with some experience of horses and horse riding I was dubbed 'horse girl' and so I'm out at the farm working with the horses and dogs pretty much every day, rather than stuck manning the giftshop or cleaning rooms in the guesthouse! Horse girl has been given the task of training a 2 year old horse to be good to ride, which is kind of hilarious in many ways as whilst I can horse ride and have looked after horses I have never done anything like that before! But it means that I am fulfilling my childhood fantasies of being like the girls I read about in my many (many) horsey books and having my own horse going on adventues.....

There's so many stories and anicdotes and things I've done that there simply isn't space or time. We've had many campfires in the wilderness. We've rolled in the snow naked and then gone into the sauna. I went to the most northen point of mainland Europe and swam in the Arctic ocean. I watched a dog give birth to 9 beautiful puppies right in the middle of our living room floor.

Maybe pictures capture things best. Here's a few of my favourties.

But then, it's not all fun and games. Part of the daily routine is half an hour of picking up dog shit, followed by an hour of picking up horse shit. And then again. And again. So here's a picture of me knee deep in dog shit, just to bring everything back down to earth........

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The Fin(n)ish

Before arriving in Finland I was warned by the rest of Scandinavia that the Finnish were a strange people. They liked to drink. They didn't say much. They were a little bit 'not quite right in the head'. Sounded interesting.

There certainly does seem to be a certain aminosity between the rest of Scandinavia and Finland - much of it of which I'm sure is in a joking way (in the same way Britain and France have a certain 'rivallry'.) The girls I met in Bergen though said Finland liked to think they were part of Scandinavia... but really they weren't. They were 'different'. I guess a big thing is the language. Whereas Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are all very very similar, to the point where the people from each country can all talk with each other with relative ease (similar to the difference between a London and a Glaswegian accent- it takes some getting use to, and each use some slightly different words, but it is completely possible to understand each other) Finnish, on the other hand, is utterly different. It has been most likened to Hungarian (something which I'm not entirely sure how has come about) and is about as different from the other Scandinavian languages as English is. I guess another thing which has made everyone else look at Finland a bit funny has been its proximity to Russia, and the long histories of wars and conflicts there. My Swedish friends complained that the Finnish people are generally very withdrawn- almost sullen. My couchsurfing host in Rovaniemi told me about how the Nazis razed Lapland to the ground. And then there was another war with Russia. And another. Finland has had a very long war history, and those kind of things really must make a difference. Especially compared to Sweden who simply does not have any kind of experience of war.

Nevertheless, I didn't like Helsinki. It was cold, it was tired looking, there was not that much to do. In the top 10 'things to do in Helsinki' list, number 4 was 'Go to Tallinn (Estonia) for the day!'. So that's what I did.... Just a 2 hour ferry journey away and I was in the beautiful little old town of Tallinn. Helsinki did have some nice spots, and a stunning cathedral. I also couchsurfed with a lovely couple who lived by the sea- I cooked my vegetable lasagne for them (classic) with mushrooms that they had picked from the forest the previous weekend and we laughed and chatted and took their cute dog for a walk around the area. I met up with Connie- the girl I had met in Bergen, and we spent an afternoon taking funny pictures in the city centre. But.... I was eager to leave. Helsinki struck me as a place where you lived, or worked. But not a place eager for tourists.

Helsinki Cathedral
Wonderful couchsrufing hosts


So I decided to get out of there a day early and, rather than get the train, grab a cheap flight up to Rovaniemi- the gateway to the Arctic circle, the capital of Lapland, but more importantly- the home of Santa Claus. I arrived with the announcement on the plane “Welcome to Rovaniemi. The weather here is.... well the same as Helsinki. Wet and cold.” Nice. I dislked Rovaniemi as well. It was concrete block after shopping mall after concrete block. I'm sure the wet and cold didn't help matters but it was a depressing place. Even Santa's village seemed a little bit sad- but that was probably because I was the only person on the 'Santa Express' that runs from the town to his village, and it was just kind of grey and drizzerly outside. Not the best for Christmas cheer or winter wonderland vibes. It was a cool experience though- all of the people that work there in the shops are dressed in little elf costumes- my couchsurfing host there actually used to work as one (she complained bitterly about having to smile and be a jolly elf in the face of rude spoilt kids). There's also even a postroom where you can write a letter to Santa, and you can also pay for him to send a letter back! I then went on through Santa's workshop to meet the man himself. A polylingual genius, Santa can seemingly speak any language- he was chatting away to a Japanese couple in front of me, and when it was my turn to go through to his study he turned what could have been a rather awkward few minutes of sitting with a random Finnish man to a hilarious experience.

A photo with Santa? 25 euroes. A video? 50 euroes. Taking a picture of your video when the elf's back is turned? Priceless.

Rovaniemi.... I visited a very good Arctic museum, I ate at the Northenmost McDonalds in the world, and visted 'Lordi Square', dedicated to the Finnish heavy metal band from Rovaniemi who won Eurovision about 5 years ago. My host took me to a Short Film cinema club she'd organised, and a club night where I got poured the poorest excuse for a pint I have ever seen. It was nice, but I wouldn't go back.

My impressions of the Finnish people were a little mixed at the this point. I wasn't sure if my Swedish friends had an point afterall... But hey, I thought, let's see what happens. My next stop was my final stop for a couple of months- playing with huskies and horses in Inari, Lapland, 6 hours north of the Arctic cirlce!