Pure, stark whiteness stretched out till the horizon, uneven in places, but blinding nonetheless. It was like someone had shaken out a giant pristine white sheet and let it fall down gently, but hadn’t bothered to smoothen it out. There was no sunlight but everything was suffused with a dull glow, making it seem almost ghostly. Yet, strangely, it was not disorienting or frightening. Perhaps because it was intensely cold, somewhere in the vicinity of -13/14 degrees C, I felt acutely alive to be enveloped in this snowy landscape. Excitement coursed through from the sheer fact that I was 250 km inside the Arctic Circle, in a little village called Saariselka in the Finnish Lapland.
The Arctic Circle is the northernmost circle of latitude — the land of the midnight sun and polar night, when, at least once a year, the sun is visible at midnight and not at all in the day, even at noon. Here, winter lasts almost eight months, from late August to late April. Being firmly rooted in peninsular India, I had great difficulty wrapping my head around the fact. Even more surreal was the incredibly small Saariselka — just one main street, less than 500 m, with restaurants, souvenir shops, a pub and sundry facilities.
Just a few hundred metres from the main street, where I stood, it was just all wild wilderness. It was also unsettlingly silent. There were trees, also covered in snow, but it was far too cold for birds and insects. So there was no ambient noise except the sound of my shoes crunching through the crisp, powdery snow that lay in thick blankets everywhere. It was like stepping into a dream. Only the occasional breeze, almost sharp as needles against the exposed face, jabbed like reality.
“All forest.” I started at the quiet voice. Timo, my local guide had walked up, his footsteps muffled by the dense snow, and stood gazing out like me, his wisened eyes seemingly looking into the distance much farther than I could hope to see. As my head struggled to comprehend how the white nothingness in front could be a forest, I also wondered if Timo was trying to look at it from my perspective. A man of few words, his liquid eyes seemed to do all the talking.
Belonging to the Sami tribe, the only recognized indigenous tribe in Scandinavia, Timo’s ilk numbers less than 10,000, but were scattered far and wide, and hence, relatively rare to come across. Like most other indigenous tribes, the Samis have a unique culture, speak a rare language, and live in remote villages in quaint wooden houses. They have found a balance between the contemporary and the ancient: using phones, email and social media to promote business and sticking to older ways in dress and habitation. More interestingly, and which I found absolutely adorable, the Sami in Finland are the only people allowed to rear reindeer — for transport, milk, pelts, meat and tourism. For some obscure reason, no Sami will admit how many they own. When I asked Timo, he pretended he didn’t understand the question!
Instead, he turned around, beckoned to me to get into his vehicle and said cryptically, “Museum of my people.” We drove further north for about 60 km to reach Inari, a large village in the northernmost part of Finland, and the heart of Sami culture. At its centre was Siida Museum, a seven-hectare indoor and outdoor showcase of Sami culture, heritage, identity and spirit, which sat on the banks of the 1,043 sq km Lake Inari, frozen solid now. The outdoor portion, with log huts and dwellings and other aspects of Sami life, was covered in snow. It also had displays of Sami hunting practice and ice fishing, but it was just too cold to stay out.
The indoor museum, however, made up for it and was an utterly fascinating place. As soon as I stepped in, Timo’s cryptic remark suddenly made sense. It took me through Sami history, evolution and development of language. More captivating were the various sections that provided a glimpse into their life and lifestyle, their relation to nature, survival strategies, fishing and hunting techniques, handicrafts and adorable stuffed toys, clothes and jewellery, and even marriage rituals. I spent hours wandering around, with Timo hovering nearby, drawing attention to an exhibit here, a board there.
Back at Saariselka, the light outside was bright but still grey. Timo had a glint in his eye as he headed towards a wicked-looking black contraption which looked like a motorbike on steroids, additionally souped up with skis. I rode pillion, and after a gentle start, Timo revved up the machine and we zoomed through the whiteness, bouncing, skimming, dipping and cresting over the uneven forested landscape. A path had been demarcated with wooden posts on either side, beyond which there were clumps of pine and spruce trees, all covered with snow.
About an hour’s ride took us to a little hamlet with a couple of log huts and the Joikun Kota reindeer farm, where I had my first encounter with the legendary animal. Despite the fierce antlers, they were docile and nonchalant, and gladly accepted clumps of lichen. But being out in the cold for over an hour was getting to me and Timo ushered me into the large log hut nearby.
Inside, Timo’s wife Armi, dressed in colourful and traditional Sami garments, greeted us with a bright smile. Behind her, right in the middle of the hut, was a square hearth in which a fire crackled and hissed. It was both fireplace and the cooking area. On one side were a few tables set for dinner. The walls were hung with pelt and interesting Sami artefacts. I was famished and gladly tucked into reindeer and blue cheese soup, followed by fried salmon and berry pie — all simple and flavourful, and comprising the food staples of the Sami. But the best part came afterwards when Armi sang traditional Sami songs, her voice ringing out in the silence. I didn’t understand a word but there was no mistaking the poignancy in the songs about love, loss and longing.
When I stepped out, it was already dark. Timo suggested a reindeer sled ride and it seemed the perfect end to the day. In the darkness, the silence was broken only by the scrape of the wooden sled on snow and the tinkling of reindeer bells. Timo talked occasionally of Sami folklore, of Stallos, troll-like giants, of how the reindeer was brought to them by the daughter of the sun and of spirits that inhabit the forest and their land. Hazy shadows of the trees seemed to jump around us. In my head, they seemed to give credence to Timo’s stories.
It was past midnight by the time I headed back to the hotel. The pub opposite was thrumming with music and people. But I didn’t want to dilute my Sami experience and wanted to hang on to it as long as possible. Both physically and metaphorically, it had been the journey of a lifetime.