To be or not to be…?

November 9, 2018

When I got up this morning and looked at the little critter, I thought she was dead. She had shrunk visibly the past couple of days. When Diwali firecrackers were exploding all around us, she didn’t even flinch. But when I sat down next to her this morning and stroked her tiny body, one of her back legs twitched. She wasn’t dead yet.

But she would be, soon. And I couldn’t have her lying at my doorstep. I’ve picked up one dead kitten in the recent past. I know how not nice it is. So I got a scrap of olive green cloth, remnants of a tablecloth that had had way too much food over the years. I laid her gently on the green cloth. When the time came, it would be easier to pick her up.

As I worked my way through making and serving breakfast, I told myself I would toss her on the pile of leaves outside. She would die and decompose there, without stinking too badly. It’s not as if she was the only little kitten around, after all. We currently had three queens. Bread, with a litter of four, one of whom had been killed by dogs, so down to three, but those three now quite viable. (And cute – that goes without saying.) The Lil Girl, who had three, of which this one knocking on heaven’s door was one. The other two looked strong and healthy. They were now exactly two months old, and smaller than Bread’s kittens, but catching up fast. And then there was the Sleepy Eyes. She had delivered her second litter recently. There were three, but now there are two. I don’t know what happened to the third, but considering it was still blind and couldn’t move, she must have taken it and deposited it somewhere, presumably dead or dying.

So yes, births and deaths aplenty. And Piglet, the sole survivor of the Sleepy Eyes’s first litter, was still around, playing big bossy brother to all the other kittens and alternating between adopted son and suitor to the Lil Girl.

Black Head and Blue Eyes, Squint’s siblings. And Piglet curled up with the Lil Girl and all three kittens.


By the end of breakfast, I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t going to get involved. Let’s face it: Squint had always been the runt of the litter and she had something wrong with her eyes – at least one, maybe both. I’d thought it would fix itself, but maybe not. If nature didn’t think she was a survivor, and if her own mother wasn’t unduly concerned, and if we already had more foster kittens than one could shake a tree at…

But of course, I didn’t really have it in me to just sit back and watch a soul die. What if she had just a glimmer of a hope of survival?

How does one feed a dying kitten? She couldn’t even hold her head upright, much less actually eat something. Cotton wool dipped in milk is all very well when you read about it, but it’s damn tedious. I wasn’t sure we had cotton wool in the house. And it was a working day after all. I took one of my eye drop bottles and prised the dropper off it. I rinsed it and dribbled some warm milk into it. The bottle only held 10 ml, but it turns out that’s a lot for a kitten, under the circumstances. And so it started.

At first, Squint was too weak to swallow. I held her head up with two fingers and squirted the milk into her mouth. Some went down, some went out. When I went back a couple of hours later, she could swallow. She opened her mouth, rooting for her mother’s teat. The eye dropper wouldn’t do as a substitute, but the cow’s milk was acceptable. By lunch time, she could move her head, but by then she didn’t like the milk anymore. I don’t really approve of force feeding anyone, but honestly, there wasn’t much force involved.

By mid afternoon, she was ready to stumble around a few steps at a time. And by evening, she had stumbled in stages from the front porch to the back garden. She was also able to make it clear by then that she didn’t like milk being squirted down her throat, thank you very much. Not that that got her very far. The milk was clearly helping.

Her litter mates were quite outraged with all the attention that she was getting. If there was any milk going, they could dispose of it quite well, didn’t I think? And without so much mess. They went and licked every molecule of milk off Squint’s fur. It would have been sweet, if it weren’t so despicable. Luckily, Squint’s mother was a little more concerned. She wandered over to give Squint a good licking, and not just for stray molecules of milk, I believe. But cats are prosaic creatures (or do I mean stoic?). The Lil Girl wasn’t too worried that one of her babies was fading fast. She just got on with scavenging for food, getting her me time, and tolerating her other two kittens. Apart from checking in with me if there were any unexpected goodies coming her way, it was business as usual for her.

Only Piglet, surprisingly enough, stuck close to Squint. He’d curled up next to her as she declined over the past two days, and when she finally stumbled into the back lawn late in the day, it was Piglet that she curled up next to. He didn’t care for milk molecules on her fur either – Piglet had his good food sources all sorted.

At last, when the Lil Girl reappeared after her afternoon snooze, Squint mewed quietly and stumbled up to mommy and asked for milk. The Lil Girl seemed inclined to wander off, but that was too much for me. I told her to lie down and do her duty for once, for heaven’s sake. And she did, for a while.

Squint still refused any milk or water or scraps of boiled chicken that I offered (of course, there were plenty of other takers for those, apart from the water), but the fact that she had sought out her mother was encouraging. And yet, she didn’t look well on the way to recovery yet. She didn’t look as if she would die any moment, as she had in the morning, and clearly she could move about a bit, which was a big improvement over not being able to raise her head, but still… Her eyes keep getting encrusted and I’m not sure she can see at all. If she can’t see, or even if she can see with only one eye, she’s not long for this world, that’s for sure.

There are some battles you can’t win. But there are some battles which, even if you know you can’t win, you can’t help fighting.

Cat and Mouse Games

September 13, 2018

SleepyEyesSleepy Eyes climbed over the fence carrying a huge rat by the scruff of its neck. The rat wasn’t dead yet, but it would be soon, thought Sleepy Eyes happily. Such a big one – it would be food enough for her and her kittens. There they were: Piglet and Duffer. Stupid names, given by the humans; couldn’t they see he was a kitten, not a piglet? So he had a bit of a snub nose. That didn’t make him a piglet! After all, if he was a piglet, what did that make her? Stupid humans! Sleepy Eyes snorted as indignantly as she could without letting go of the rat. It wasn’t easy. Duffer was a slightly more accurate moniker, she had to admit. The small brown fellow was as cute as anything, but nobody could accuse him of being smart. Just the other day he’d been sitting outside the gate, a mere three feet away from a big brown dog. Of course the humans had seen that. One of them hurriedly picked him up and threw him inside the gate. Then they had also seen him the next day, scrambling for dear life as another big brown dog chased him across the street. He’d only just saved his hide by crawling under the gate. It was a close shave. Of course, all cats had such close shaves at some point – that was how you separated the wheat from the chaff, thought Sleepy Eyes with just a hint of smugness. Only, when Duffer got into those scrapes, you tended to pray for him; it was so apparent that he didn’t have a lot going on in his head. He was going to end up being chaff someday soon.

They’d seen her now. Duffer just watched lazily, but Piglet was off at a run, bounding over the grass toward her. In a trice, he had wrestled the rat from her jaws. Sleepy Eyes gave in reluctantly. He was her son, after all, her first born in fact. Having got hold of the rat, Piglet ran off to the middle of the lawn. Idiot. A sensible cat took his prey to a secret hiding place. And he was holding it all wrong, from the butt instead of the neck. Holding it from the neck, there was some chance of puncturing a vein and letting it bleed to death. But Piglet didn’t know that yet. The rat was almost as big as he was, and much older and much, much smarter. Piglet laid it down on the grass and didn’t know what to do next.

Ah, there was Mister Black. A big, strong, handsome tom, with glossy black fur, a long, thick tail, and menacing green eyes. The humans didn’t like him, but Sleepy Eyes didn’t mind him. True, he had killed at least one of her half-sister-from-another-litter’s kittens and had made a good attempt to kill the other four as well. But that was just him doing his best to pass on his genes like a good tom should. Kill the other toms’ kittens and mate with the mother as soon as she’s ready. That made sense. Sleepy Eyes, very sensibly, had mated with him and with all the other toms in the neighborhood. She only had two kittens but nobody knew whose they were, so everybody left them alone. That was the way to do it. Mister Black didn’t trouble her kittens at all.

The humans always chased Mister Black away. And there was a human watching them now. This one, the woman, wasn’t so inimical towards Mister Black, but Mister Black knew better than to trust any member of this race. He threw Piglet a disdainful look and strolled off majestically, ignoring the woman.

Piglet let go of the rat’s butt and the rat promptly limped away, heading, for some reason, towards Duffer, who had trotted along to see what all the excitement was about. Noticing this belligerent beast almost as big as him heading in his direction, Duffer promptly jumped a few feet back and looked around for protection. Piglet, rather nonplussed at this turn of events, followed carefully behind the rat. Sleepy Eyes sighed. It was going to be a long, hard battle now.

The rat found a nice leafy spot to hide in. Sleepy Eyes goaded him with a quick, careful paw. He jumped. They both waited a few minutes and then she tried again. He jumped again. He was big, he was evil, he wasn’t significantly wounded, and he sure as hell wasn’t going down without a fight. He had a tiny mouth full of sharp teeth and tiny beady black eyes that tracked her every move. He jumped, he growled, he did the rat version of snapping. Sleepy Eyes was not a big cat. Piglet was useless, Duffer was worse than useless and everyone, even the rat, knew that cats didn’t hunt in packs.

The action progressed sporadically from one bush to another. Once, for a few minutes, the rat maneuvered himself out of cover into a sandy patch and Sleepy Eyes thought she had him. But no. He jumped, snarled, and scurried around until he found a thick patch of Pentas to hide under. Try as she might, Sleepy Eyes could hardly get a paw through to whack him.

Then The Lil Girl turned up. She was Sleepy Eyes’ twin, but neither of them cared to remember that anymore. They tolerated each other, more or less (Sleepy Eyes more, The Lil Girl less), but The Lil Girl was a good hunter. She’d been known to catch squirrels, even pigeons on a lucky day. And plenty of rats, of course. The Lil Girl eyed the action in a desultory fashion. She didn’t seem to fancy the odds, so she sat down next to the Pentas and started to wash her face. The cheek of it, thought Sleepy Eyes. At least she could have shown some interest. After all, The Lil Girl had a brood to feed as well. Of course, they were still walnut sized, eyes still closed, nowhere near eating solids yet, but all the same. A lactating mother needs her protein.

Sleepy Eyes sighed as the rat, sensing her distraction, made a run for it. For a large, overweight rodent, he was surprisingly nimble and in a flash he had scrambled over the wall, up the fence, shimmied up a drain pipe and leapt into the first floor balcony of the next building. Sleepy Eyes gave chase, but her heart wasn’t in it. She couldn’t shimmy up the drain pipe, she knew that much for sure. And such a large and aggressive beast, was he even worth it? She’d already wasted a good 45 minutes playing cat and mouse games with him in the garden. She stared up at the balcony wistfully. There goes dinner, she thought sadly, as Piglet came bounding up to her and Duffer watched from below, trying to find a route that worked for him. Dinner would have to be cow’s milk from the stupid humans again. Cow’s milk! As if any self-respecting cat ever ate cow’s milk. And they had chicken tonight, she had smelled it. Humans were funny – the brought their catch home smelling nice and fresh, raw, bloody, just begging to be eaten. Then they made it cold. Then they mixed it with a lot of foul and toxic things like onions (sheer poison! Humans really didn’t know anything!) and garlic (seriously!? Garlic!?!) and then they made it really hot and then they ate it. Such a waste!

Oh, well, thought Sleepy Eyes sadly as she climbed down and ambled over to lie in the shade with Duffer and Piglet. There will be more rats to hunt. Tomorrow is another day.

The Sauna

May 6, 2018

Of course I went to the sauna. I mean, it’s Finland. How can you not go to the sauna.

I was informed by a Finnish woman that we have saunas here in Bangalore. Well, I supposed I sort of knew that… I mean, we have what we call “spa”s and even “spa and resort”s. So we have saunas as part of that, maybe. But is it a real sauna? I don’t know – never been to one.

The big deal about saunas, as you probably know, is the nudity. Apparently, it’s a big deal for many people, not just me. If I’d had to go somewhere to experience this, or if I’d had to pay for it, that’s all the excuse I’d have needed to not do it. But it was right there in my hotel and it was free. I had no excuse.

The thing is, even when you’ve worked up your courage and decided to do this, there’s still the question of how, exactly, is it done. I read up on Google before I proceeded to the women’s sauna in the hotel, but here’s the thing. There was a door and inside that door, a locker room. And then another door. I could hear voices, so obviously I wasn’t alone. Now, do I undress here? If yes, alright. If no, imagine walking through that next door to find that it contains a room full of fully clothed people!

Should I peek through that other door? What if it contains a room full of nude women who are ok to have me stroll in and join them but who would think it very weird indeed for me to just sneak a peek at them?

I snuck a peek. It was empty! Phew, what a relief. But there were shower stalls with transparent walls and no doors. And lots of steam. Okay. I guess I should undress.

I went into a shower stall and pushed the knob. All of a sudden there were several other women around. And all of a sudden I realized that I didn’t know how to turn off the water. Instinctively, I asked one of the women for help and in the mean time, I completely forgot that I was nude. I mean, seriously, it was as easy as that. (And you don’t have to turn off the water, silly, it goes off on its own! Doh.)

The other thing I didn’t know about saunas is that it’s alright to be really chatty in there, even if you don’t know each other and given that you’re nude. It feels a bit odd to me. I’d expect to be more reserved with people I don’t know when I’m nude, but apparently it doesn’t work like that. People talked to me as if it’s perfectly normal to be chatting up with nude strangers, so I talked back in the same vein. Pretty soon, we were engaged in long, personal conversations. One woman decided she’d had enough and exited without saying bye, which I thought was odd. I discovered why soon enough – she was waiting for me in the dressing area! It was expected that we’d continue our conversation there!

What about the sauna itself? Well, the sauna room was a lot smaller than I’d thought it would be. Perhaps five people could have sat there at any one time. Or six, at most. It was dimly lit, thank god! The seating consisted of wooden slats lining the wall. It was hot, obviously, but not unpleasantly so. There was a bucket of water with a ladle in the center of the floor and in the corner, the hot rocks. The idea was, you throw water on the rocks to keep the air humid, otherwise it dries out too much. You shower before the sauna and you immerse yourself in icy water after the sauna. This being a hotel, there was no frozen lake handy to jump into. So you opt for any icy shower instead. Then back into the sauna, then back into the icy shower. As many times as you can take it. Then one final shower and you’re done.

So the sauna room itself was very relaxing and I could sit there for quite a long time – such a long time that one of the women actually complimented me on my sauna ability! The ice cold shower afterwards just made me gasp. It was certainly invigorating… I got tiny pink spots all over my skin where the water hit. Overall, a good experience and I can totally understand why people do it. As to the nudity, you just have to get over it.

The second time, it was much easier. I just walked in as though it was something I’d done dozens of times before. The sole occupant of the sauna at the time assumed I was a local and said something in Finnish. She was absolutely astounded when it emerged that I was from India of all places. We had an unbelievable conversation about jobs and travel and parents and children – unbelievable because it made me realize that despite being from such different worlds our lives weren’t so very different.

It also transpired that my sauna companion was on the same flight out of Ivalo as I was, so that meant we’d be on the same bus to the airport as well. Of course, I was so tempted to tell her that I might not recognize her with her clothes on… but not only did I behave myself, I also surprised myself by actually recognizing her the next day. Fully dressed though we both were.

And so, with all of those conversations and experiences, another wonderful, memorable trip came to an end. As always, I went back to my world, my job, my home, my family and friends and hobbies and traffic and… all that. But, as always, a little richer, or a lot richer, for having seen a corner of the world, so far away, so beautiful, so utterly different and yet… not so different.


May 5, 2018

With two nights of aurora outings done, I was through with the planned activities for this trip and I had another whole day in town. So I walked into the nearest travel agent’s office and booked myself on a husky tour. I mean, having come so far, there’s no point not doing it, right?

The next morning at ten I was ready for my husky adventure. This, as advertised, involved a drive to a husky farm, a ride on a husky sledge, the obligatory hot drink with snack, and then the drive back to town. About three hours. There was another couple with me. I found out later that they were Finns who had been living in Spain for the last ten years.

The drive out was straightforward and not very long. At the husky farm, we stopped first in the “equipment room,” where my shoes were given one disdainful glance and a better pair produced. The other couple were given boots as well, so I was happy not to be the only one to be rebooted. I declined the offer of the jumpsuit. It wasn’t very cold anyway. I did take a pair of mittens, but they were so warm that my hands were sweating in no time.

I don’t know what exactly I’d expected of a husky farm. What I got was a large open area with fenced enclosures. Each enclosure held multiple dogs and each dog had a tiny kennel which they could sit inside, on top of, or near. They couldn’t go far, because they were chained. When I was there, they were all outside their kennels, prancing around in the snow. A few sat on top of their homes. They looked happy and full of energy, but I didn’t like seeing them chained. There were 250 dogs there, so how else do you keep them under control?

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Huskies aren’t as big as I’d expected and they aren’t all silver. There were plenty of huskies who looked just like regular dogs, long haired street dogs, even. One looked remarkably like a golden retriever. They looked heavy, but the guide said it was all hair; their weight was around 20-25 kilos, he said.

Two sleds were ready for us. I was offered the option of a sled to myself, which I would have to drive, or of sitting in a sled while the guide drove. It was tempting to let the guide do the work while I sat in comfort, but then, where’s the fun in that? So I chose to drive, although I must confess I was a little worried. It didn’t look that easy. The dogs looked big, strong, and very eager.

Then we were given a long list of instructions which made it sound even more intimidating.

Then we met the dogs. Don’t socialise with them too much, our guide told us, because they’re eager to be off. And they were! The guide was on a snowmobile, which is basically a motorcycle for the snow, and when the snowmobile took off, so did the dogs. If you were lucky, they took you along. If you weren’t, you were left in the snow and the dogs and the sled were a rapidly receding speck in the distance.

The sled is equipped with only a brake, no accelerator. The dogs don’t need any accelerating, I can tell you. Brakes, yes, they need brakes alright. The brake is basically a toothed metal plate that you stand on and it digs into the snow and creates significant friction, depending on your weight. It doesn’t help to be a featherweight. Luckily, that’s one thing I can’t be accused of, though the guide did make certain disparaging remarks along those lines.

Anyway, I was still getting my hands, feet, and head sorted out when the snowmobile took off with a whoosh and the huskies took off just as fast, resisting my attempts to moderate their speed and sort out at least my feet, which were supposed to be on the rails on either side of the brake thingy. It would have been exhilarating if it weren’t so disorienting. What was I supposed to be doing – focusing on my hands, my feet, the dogs, or worrying about where exactly the sled was headed at this breakneck pace? Of course, almost all the instructions we’d been given had gone clean out of my head as soon as the dogs got going. They rushed pell mell around curves and down slopes and I admired the sight of their backsides, which, amazingly, began to pop out poop and kept up that performance for quite a bit of the way. That was one benefit of driving, it kept you a couple of steps further back and so less likely to be hit with flying dogshit.

Once I’d got used to the pace, I began to enjoy the ride. I enjoyed watching the landscape rush past, the trees, the snow, the shoulder of the path we were driving along, now climbing perilously up and now, oh, shit! Apparently, sleds don’t do well on the shoulder. The sled toppled and I thought it best to hop off, even if it meant I landed on my butt in the snow, which was wonderfully soft and bruised nothing except my ego. The huskies kept right on running, oblivious to the fate of their passenger or indeed, even to the presence or absence of said passenger.

I dusted myself off and started trudging behind them, wondering what would happen next. Nothing much, it turned out. The snowmobile had stopped the huskies before they ran all the way home. The guide came back looking for me, and of course the sled that had been behind me overtook me, thankfully without knocking me down. I didn’t get a dressing down from the guide, though I didn’t get much sympathy either. What I did get was reassurance that the dogs were alright (but of course; they weren’t the ones who got flung into the snow at 90 kmph)and further reassurance that someone falls off every day (so don’t go around thinking that you’re special).

And then, of course, I got back on. The guide told me that if it happened again, I was to put all my weight on the higher side. That advice might have been useful earlier. Or, it might not. I probably wouldn’t have remembered it until after I fell off. Now that I knew, I became much more aware of what I was doing, in fact, I actually started doing something. I paid more attention to the path and the turns and tried to adjust my weight and balance. The guide also unhitched one of the dogs, so she was running alongside the team but not pulling. So I had only four dogs to balance with my meager weight. Even so, using the brake to get them to slow down and stop was no easy task. At least they didn’t drag the sled onto the shoulder again after that. At one point, we went over a bump and I hung on for dear life and even earned a thumbs up from the guide who was cruising along sedately on his snowmobile, looking back to catch all the fun.

We did a 13 km run which seemed to go on forever. When we got back to the husky farm, the guide hopped off his snowmobile and hopped on to my sled with me! Apparently, I was to stand on one ski, while he directed the dogs with the brake and the other ski. Interesting.

Afterwards, we got to thank our dog teams. I was told the names of each of them, which I promptly forgot. Mine was an all-girls team. We went to a shed where we got our hot drinks, snack, and some information about the dogs. We were introduced to two-week-old puppies, one of which was placed in my arms where it quickly went to sleep.

And then it was lunch time for the dogs, so we were booted out quickly, because when there’s food around, it gets top priority!

Overall, it was a thrilling and amazing experience and if you’re ever in husky land, I highly recommend it. Don’t worry, only one person falls off each day.

The Fascinating and Elusive Aurora Borealis

May 4, 2018

Obviously, one of the main reasons for this trip to Finland was to make at least a nodding acquaintance with the Aurora Borealis. I mean, there’s lots to do in Saariselka, apart from skiing and hiking. You can do husky tours, reindeer safaris, horse riding tours, snow mobile tours, and you can rent and use snow shoes. If you don’t know how to ski, you shouldn’t really even be here, but if you are, you can get skiing lessons. So yes, lots of things to do, all you need is 100 Euros or more for each activity.

Since all I really wanted to do was to see the northern lights, I decided to spend my limited money on that. I booked two aurora tours for consecutive nights, hoping to beat the odds, because April isn’t the best time to see the northern lights. You need long, dark nights and clear skies. I had he clear skies alright, but with long bright days instead of long dark nights.

I knew my chances of spotting the aurora weren’t high in April. All the same, I don’t really want to travel to a place that has 18 hours of darkness, even to see the aurora. So I’d come with high hopes and low expectations. Most of the travel companies wind up their aurora sighting tours at the end of March. A few have them running until the middle of April. Inari isn’t the best place for these commercial ventures; they all run out of Saariselka. Reaching Saariselka in mid-April, I was really at the tail end of the tail end of aurora season. Hence, two tours – hopefully at least one would be fruitful.

The northern lights are caused by solar flares that send charged particles shooting towards the polar region. This solar activity can be predicted and tracked, but not three months in advance. So I really had to gamble on the dates. Once the required level and type of solar activity has occurred, that northern lights will occur three days later is a given. But you know this only three days in advance. And you don’t know at what time the elusive lights will make themselves visible. And if there’s cloud cover, then you can’t see them anyway. So, in short, my prospects were dim.

The two aurora tours that I booked both involved long drives, one to a river, the other to the Russian border. I had no real reason for booking these particular tours, except that they looked and sounded beautiful and they were still available in the middle of April. Besides, a long drive in the snowy countryside, late at night in a heated van? That’s a winning proposition right there. I like long drives when someone else is driving and all I have to do is sit with my mouth open looking out the window. Did I tell you that already?

The first night there was another couple with me on the tour. They were from Thailand. They’d been aurora hunting the night before and had had great success. They very kindly showed me the pictures. Our guide, Erik, assured me that the predictions for today looked good. It had been a clear, sunny day. There were clouds at the horizon in the north, he said, but the south was clear, so we’d drive in that direction. After almost an hour, we stopped on top of a dam. I don’t know how the power station there generates anything because the water was almost frozen, but Erik assured me that it works. It was still daylight, although close to ten by now. We stood around for well over an hour. I’d been outfitted in a full body jump suit kind of thing, which should have kept me warm as toast, but I was cold around the neck and ears and basically, if you’re cold somewhere, you’re cold everywhere. Also my feet were freezing, not to mention my fingers. At least my teeth weren’t chattering, though by the end of it that was largely because my jaw was frozen in place.

After we’d stood around making small talk for a long time, Erik pointed to the northern sky and said, there. Well, where? What there? That’s nothing. Or almost nothing. I mean, it’s so close to nothing that I’m probably imagining it. In fact, if I were to imagine it, it would be something more than that! But of course, he was right, that over there was the northern lights. It was extremely dim, so I didn’t even bother with my camera. It shifted shape a bit, to reassure me that it was what it was supposed to be, then it disappeared.

So that was it. Done. I’d seen the northern lights. A bit underwhelming, but one can’t complain in this season. It’s much brighter in winter when the nights are dark, Erik said. Yet again.

We stood around for a bit longer. Freezing though I was, I didn’t want to give up right then. Just as well, too, because then the northern lights made a second appearance and this time, they gave me no cause for complaint. There they were, bright and clear, magically green and luminous and flowing across the sky. At one point they covered a vast arc overhead, then they hung in one spot, dropping towards earth like a teardrop from a green giant’s eye.

The show lasted several minutes. I was too captivated to take photos. Without a tripod, it would be difficult. And my fingers were frozen even inside my gloves. And my brain was numb, just taking it in. (Or perhaps due to the cold. Brain freeze!) It’s true that the reality of aurora borealis is exactly like its photos and so if you’ve seen the photos you know almost exactly what you’ll get if they grace the evening with an appearance. But it’s also true that, like the Taj Mahal and Niagara Falls, the reality is simply overwhelming. The only pictures I have now are in my mind, which is a pity. But I can get pictures on the internet any day. The moment, in its entirety, is in my mind. It will fade, of course, as moments always do, but the fact of it, the memory of it, will remain.

This was the last night of the season for Erik. He had his camera and tripod all set up, even though he must have seen this dozens of times. The next night, he said, he and his wife were going to go camping and they would lie in their tent and look out waiting for the aurora to appear. It sounded heavenly, but needless to say, very very cold.

When the show was over, we piled into the car, which had its engine running and its heating on. It took quite a long time for me to thaw out. As we drove back, the woman from Thailand fell asleep and her husband was flicking through the photos he’d taken. Me? Head turned all the way to the side, mouth open, gaping at the sky where the aurora had returned with full force, beautiful patterns forming, moving along the sky, rearranging themselves constantly. Of course it didn’t last the entire drive back. Maybe it lasted only a few minuets. But it was as much as I could have wished for and more.

The next night, off I went again, just me this time. My guide was Jukka. First off, he surprised me by asking if I minded if he smoked. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that. Those who want to smoke just smoke. Also, he didn’t want to smoke in the car, only outdoors before we started out. Imagine asking permission for smoking outdoors! We started talking about smoking and from there the conversation went all over the place. It was one of those rare, long, deep conversations that you have with complete strangers only when you’re traveling. In the van, I sat up front with Jukka. They drive these huge vans that probably seat ten and it didn’t make sense to sit in the back where you can’t really talk to the driver without making a huge effort.

I didn’t get to see the northern lights that night. But it was a fabulous evening. I’d chosen to keep my own Bear Force jacket on this time, so I wasn’t cold at all. We drove for over an hour and parked on the shores of a lake, about a kilometre from the Russian border. It as a beautiful location and just off the road there was a small grove of trees with a clearing and a fireplace! Jukka got out a box of wood and lit a fire in about five minutes. One strike of a match and the wood was burning happily. He’d brought juice (part of the package) and gluten free cookies (Erik had promised to tell him I needed gluten free) and we sat cozily around the fire and talked about all kinds of things. When we were done with the juice, the cookies, and the fire, we went back up to the road and waited and chatted some more. And then we came back.

If the northern lights had appeared, it would only have made the evening even more magical. But even without them, it was one of those experiences where you realize that this is what travel is all about. It’s not just about the sights you see; it’s about the people you meet.

Saariselka: More Walking, Less Getting Lost

May 3, 2018

The next night was to be at Saariselka. Since I like a bit of flexibility in my travel plans, I hadn’t booked a bus to get there. There was a bus and it went several times a day; which makes me wonder why it couldn’t have dropped me to Inari in the first place. I mean, the airport is on the way from Saariselka to Inari, so why not just pick me up on the way, the bus has to get to Inari anyway, why go empty?

Anyway. I opted for the 7:05 bus. The next one was at noon and that left me nowhere. Not enough time to do stuff here, not enough time to do stuff there. Of course, 7 a.m. is kind of early in a cold place. And I had almost 1 km to walk to get to the bus stop in the heart of town. And my backpack seems to mysteriously get heavier each time I hoist it.

As I checked out of the hotel the evening before – I mean, of course, that I just paid the bill; I could continue to stay in the room overnight – I mentioned to the guy at reception that I would take the early morning bus. Oh, he said, in that case I will call the bus. It will come here.

I was astounded, to say the least, at the concept of calling a bus as if it were a well trained dog, or a taxi. Since when are buses amenable to being called? In India, if a bus comes when it’s supposed to, and where it’s supposed to, you can count yourself lucky, especially if you happen to be in the middle of nowhere at the time. There’s no question of calling a bus.

I went up to my room wondering if this was such a good idea. Of course, nothing terrible would happen if I missed the bus, it would just be annoying and a waste of money. But the concept of calling a bus seemed so improbable and alien that I just felt I shouldn’t trust it. Before I could debate the matter much, there was a knock at the door. The receptionist chap was there to inform me that he had spoken to the bus (as he put it; he never mentioned a driver in any of this, just the bus) and the bus had asked me to be waiting downstairs at 6.50 a.m.

Sure enough, at 6.53 I saw the bus come around the corner of the road and by 6.55, I was aboard and on my way. Such are the wonders of travel – it opens your mind to possibilities you never knew existed.

The drive was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I love bus travel. You sit by the window, eyes glued to the world passing by, mouth agape, mind all at sea. Just for the moment, you are where you’re supposed to be and you don’t have to worry about a thing. What you’ve left behind is gone, what’s going to come has not yet come and you can hang on to each moment wholeheartedly, immerse yourself in it, draw it out for as long as humanly possible.

One hour was definitely too short.

The bus dropped me off right outside my hotel, which was good because at a little past 8 a.m., Saariselka was freezing. Literally. The temperature was a nice round number, zero. This was a big, bustling hotel of the kind I’m so not used to staying at when I travel on vacation. They obviously didn’t have my room ready at 8 a.m. Large numbers of people were just leaving. The women at reception pointed me to the luggage room, the rest room, and told me to come back later. Preferably much later. Like, at 4 p.m.

So off I went looking for my next adventure, or, as the case may be, misadventure.

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I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when, after falling and floundering so dramatically in the Pielpajäärvi hike, I was noticeably reluctant to go and get stuck on another remote, lonely, snowed-in trail. But it was 8.30 a.m. It was freezing outside, many of the shops and establishments hadn’t yet opened, and there was nowhere to sit and nothing to do. Nothing, except to get back on the trail, some trail, any trail.

The maps and signs in Finland are just amazing. It was quite difficult for me to get lost. Not to say that I didn’t get lost, just that it wasn’t as easy as it usually is, so it didn’t happen so often and not for such worryingly long stretches of time. And of course I had Mr Google on my phone, but some of the trails were too far off-road for him. And it wasn’t the sort of terrain where you could just cut across the open land and head for the nearest town.

Anyway, with minimal input from one of the locals, I found myself on yet another trail heading through the woods with pristine snowy tee-covered slopes on either side. I was on the way to Iisaakippa, which is a fell, which is like a hilltop. It was a very long 7 km, beautiful at every step. By the time I’d rounded the far end of the hilltop and started the long, slow ascent, I’d almost forgotten to be worried about sinking into the snow. There were more people around in this area, with skiing tracks nearby. There were also, unbelievably, some locals walking their dogs. At the top of the fell, there was a man with a dog just chilling out there – and I do mean that literally as well.

The fell itself was indescribable. It seemed to me to be like he surface of the moon, from photos you see from NASA. Vast, smooth, lifeless, featureless but arbitrarily pitted, gently curving, silvery white, utterly alien. Another similar lunar landscape dominated the scene behind me, as I climbed up the flank of this hill. It was surreal, like something out of a sci-fi novel.

There were absolutely no misadventures on this trail, which went some way to restoring my confidence.

The next day, I tried I short variant of this trail and also a long cycling path down to Laanila. This cycling path was broad and well maintained, the snow having been cleared by a machine. It was well away from the main road, so you couldn’t hear or see any traffic. Every so often a few homes would appear, sometimes with people sitting outside, or children cycling, or someone trying to clean the snow off their roof. It provided a fleeting, surreptitious peek into the lives of the locals.

There wasn’t much to do at Laanila, once I’d reached. There was a museum. I opened the door tentatively, wondering if I really wanted another museum, only to be greeted by a blast of warmth, aromas, conversation and general Bon homie. Apparently I’d come upon the most happening bistro this side of the Arctic Circle. This was the sole excuse for dozens of crazy skiers to slide 4km on icy trails from Saariselka – just to sit around the wood stove, drinking coffee and eating Danish pastries. Of course I joined the party. They even had a gluten free item; I’m not sure what it was, something between an apple strudel and something else, but it went down very nicely with a cup of hot chocolate.

And thus fortified, I started the long walk back.

The Sami Museum and the Wilderness Church

May 2, 2018

Siida, the Sami museum, is mentioned in quite glowing terms on the Internet and, though I am not overly fond of museums, this one really was quite amazing. The permanent exhibit was done in a most remarkable way. It was beautifully thought out and it managed to be detailed without being tedious. Quite well worth the time.

There was an information window at the museum and the people there told me that the other trail I’d noticed, to Otsamo, was best avoided. It involved a climb, they said. I’d seen it on the map and it didn’t look like much of a climb to me. I’d trekked in the Himalayas, after all. This was Finland. What climb?

But the snow, they said. The snow. It’s too soft for walking on. If you’re skiing, it’s okay, but not for walking on. It’s been so warm the last few days, you see.

Warm, yes, indeed. It was 8 degrees and I couldn’t tolerate actually wearing my fat, cuddly, comfortable and comforting Bear Force, the big fat parka I’d bought in Chicago — 20 years ago, was it? It remained slung over my shoulders, where it could continue to be comforting without being too warm.

Go to the wilderness church instead, they said. It’s a shorter route, 8 km each way (Otsamo was 9 each way) and easier.

Well, when the locals tell you something, you should listen. I spent the evening back at the laavu on the Jutuua trail… with a beer. Yes, I will walk that far just for a beer with a view. I mean, there’s a certain something to it, right? It’s not just a beer, it’s not just a view. It’s a beer with a view. In fact I went to the second laavu, which has a better view, but somebody had beaten me to it. Two somebodies. They had the fire going and the sausages laid out. I jammed their scene for a bit, but they didn’t take the hint and leave, so I had to go back to the first lean-to, which I could enjoy in solitary splendour. The beer unfortunately ran out way too soon. I should have carried at least one more, but it’s heavier to carry in the hand than in the stomach.

The next morning, I set out for the wilderness church at about 8 a.m. right after breakfast. I’d been advised to start early before the snow got too soft, but I didn’t want to miss breakfast. Why? Well, reindeer blood sausage, two or three kinds of raw pickled fish, reindeer meat salami, some tasteless cheese, yoghurt, coffee, juice. Who’d want to miss all that? I mean, this is supposed to be a holiday, right?

The wilderness church has a name and its name is — I’m only going to attempt this once — Pielpajäärvi. It is an old church and it is accessible only by foot. There’s a parking lot 4.5 km from the church and a spot on the lake that a boat can get to, 2.5 km away. Well, I didn’t think there would be any boats on the lake that day, given that the lake was frozen solid, so that left the parking lot, which, not having a vehicle at my disposal, I would have to walk to.
That part of the walk was unremarkable. A little tedious, walking on the road, but there were these mobile homes on one side, with paths sloping down to the frozen lake. You couldn’t see all of it, but what you could see was very pretty.

Then I reached the parking lot and the trail began. It was a narrow trail with plenty of snow on both sides and plenty of snow on the trail itself. Unlike in the Himalayas, there’s no sense of danger here, because the ground slopes away very gently and there are many, many trees. If you do fall, you won’t roll far (certainly not with a camera bag on your back) and it looks quite difficult to even get hurt.

The trail was beautiful and easy. The day was warm and sunny. The trees were tall and shady. The birds were signing. All fabulous. There were lots of reindeer trails through there, but there were lots of signs posted telling you which trail you should be on. Easy. Three and a half of the four and a half kilometres went by in a dream. Oh, I stumbled a couple of times and sank in up to my knee, but that we only because I didn’t pay attention to the path and stepped wide, where the snow was soft and deep. As long as I stayed on the hard packed path, it was fine.

Until it wasn’t.
I must’ve been no more than 1 km short of my destination when suddenly the path disappeared into a broken, jumbled, sunken mess. Someone with snowshoes on had floundered around in there. They’d got past, it looked like, because I could see the path resume it’s normal appearance just there, a mere 20 steps away. But I’d no sooner put one tentative foot into the mess than I was in up to my hips. I put an arm out to push myself up, and the arm sank in up to the shoulder. I tried to gain some traction with my other leg and then I was in up to my waist, with only my left arm still at ground level.

Of course I wasn’t ready to give up. I tried to rise, sank again. Tried again, sank again. Hmmm. Change in strategy. I tried to pull myself forward. My fingers got no purchase; wherever I touched the snow, it fell in. Hmmm. Change in strategy again. Twenty steps were never going to be accomplished like this. The only option was retreat and even that wasn’t simple. Trying to pull my left foot out of a hole, my boot seemed inclined to stay where it was. I didn’t fancy walking back in sopping wet socks, even if they were woollen. If I got my foot out, could I stick my arm in and retrieve the boot? Not a good idea. My arms are shorter than my legs and it wasn’t even clear that I’d be able to turn around sufficiently to actually get my arm into the hole. Hmm. I pushed my foot back into the boot and kicked at the snow deep down until the boot had a hole big enough to come out. _MG_5263

With some further shenanigans, I finally managed to claw my way out of that hole, distributing my weight on my arms and legs. My hands and feet were frozen by the time I could finally get to my feet again. Thank god for waterproof pants! My hands warmed up soon enough when I started walking again, but my feet were soaked and remained frozen for a long time.

Oh, and it’s not as if I gave up even then. I did look for a workaround and there was a path that looked as if it might skirt the troublesome patch. But no. Two steps in and I was in up to my waist again. I might be stupid, but I’m not that stupid. I’d seen only one person that day and that was 5 km away and he’d been headed in the opposite direction. If I got sucked into the snow here, they’d be sending search and rescue parties out for me after a couple of days. It was hardly a heart-warming thought.

So I tucked my tail between my legs and turned around. The way back wasn’t any too easy. The sun had already softened the snow at an alarming rate, so at first I was falling in above my knees every few steps. I shouted at myself, irritated at this inconsiderate behaviour, but there was no on around to hear except the birds who chirped back at me mockingly.

When I finally trudged back into the hotel, for a while I was happy to just thaw out in the warmth and gorge on whatever food I’d managed to salvage, while circulation returned to my feet. But not for long. The morning’s misadventures notwithstanding, I hadn’t come all this way just to sit in a warm room. I tucked my feet into fresh socks and walked to “town” — for want of a better word — where I stocked up on beer and other essentials. Then I went to the only restaurant in town and got myself kebab takeaway. And then I walked all the way up to my favourite laavu on the Jutuua trail and settled down to a solitary feast. It was sheer bliss.

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