A trip to the Arctic circle leaves four men and their adventurous spirit cold and shattered. A trip of a lifetime, that has thrown them in various directions of life.
It was an unusual February morning in the year 2011. We were unaware of negative temperatures and far away from home in jackets that were at best suited for the worst winter in the Mediterranean. Following an exhaustive run through all modes of transport, spicy Indian food, cheap Swedish beer and laser tag, we were waiting for our train to Abisko. North of Sweden has mountains, rivers, trails and most of all the subtle splendors of natural phenomenon. Abisko, in particular, has merely ninety inhabitants and is latitudinally speaking close to the end of the world. I was traveling with three other guys from India.
Stockholm central is a gigantically drab station, with the morning hustle-bustle of Swedes and a handful of foreigners. To be precise, we were the only four not belonging to Scandinavia. Our train cabin definitely did justice to the last minute euros we shelled on it, until a backpacker in his mid-thirties showed up.
He was Norwegian and was traveling back home after watching an English Premiere League game in Spain. We looked at each other and nodded heads in unison. “Cool guy haan”, Gaurav said in broken Hindi that sounded exactly like English. We were unaware of the fact that he traveled with a single pair of socks and an anti-deodorant made from manure.
Gaurav is one of the very few guys I know who is downright honest, good and plays zero politics in love, friendship and matters of nature. Traveling with him is a joy ride. He is here to have a great time in spite of the inexplicable tantrums life throws at us.
The train rushed through no man’s Lapland of Sweden with unimaginable speeds. The landscape flying past us was overwhelmingly white except for the occasional brown bark of a lonely tree that made “Into the Wild” look like a romantic comedy. We had never witnessed such landscapes. Excitement was growing exponentially, with bouts of sleep deprivation, and the Norwegian socks did not seem to be on our minds anymore. We were travelling to Abisko for “The Northern Lights”.
Aurora (as the Astronomers call it), Latin for Sunrise, is a natural display of lights in various colors in regions of high energy charged particles, particularly in the Arctic. Perhaps, February is the only period when Abisko’s youth hostels are fully booked. It is located at the same latitude as Kiruna and Tromso that are internationally recognized destinations for tourists. However, Nishant’s worldly wisdom and my experience with cameras lead us to seek a light-pollution free zone. February is supposed to be the best period for this experience and is still a huge gamble.
The thing about Nishant is that he is constantly evolving and has sane ideas in this mad world. He has the wisdom of my late grandmother. He recognizes his passion and knows his inspiration, two things that almost never coexist in our minds and the only two things that I strive to balance every day.
We were booked in one of the hostels in the vicinity of the station. As we dragged ourselves to the hostel, dead tired from the journey, we were exposed to an inhabited glow of the winter sky and a feeling of void set in. Abisko appeared to be spectrally opposite to the chaotic society we are all used to. Gaurav settled to go for a sauna that has a long lasting tradition of rolling in snow after a warm bath. The rest of us shied away from showing our privates, perhaps. For me it was the charming caretaker. As usual, we urged Aswin to find us a restaurant. The only one open at this hour looked like a canteen by night and a bouldering gym by day. We enjoyed a great buffet with plenty of uncanny dishes on the menu and quickly slurped our drinks more so for the lack of heat in this place than our joy of being here together.
After a sumptuous meal and pots full of body-warming alcohol we headed back to the hostel. The caretaker, a young and noticeably serene woman, showed us the direction to view the lights. I still wonder why she lives there, or why I live here. The town looked so deserted that we were reassured of the solitude and darkness we were seeking. Although, a few hundred meters away there was a giant Moose gallivanting around.
Moose is the largest species alive in the deer family. It was the cumulative size of the four of us and sent a cold shiver down my already frozen spine. It was so scary that goose bumps decided to stay indoors. We walked through frozen ground, trying extremely hard not to draw any unwarranted attention from this wild animal and made sure that my hands didn’t involuntarily reach out for my camera. Minutes later we stepped onto a lake that seemed to have no water.
The only other evidence of life was a French couple holding each other to stay warm. At first glance I thought they were Eskimos. They saw my camera cladded hands and immediately asked for a photo. Obviously my gloves were too thick for holding the shutter and upon making the inevitable mistake of removing them I realized how much I loved my hands. Feeling awfully brave, I did it anyway.
Through my lens I could see a green tinge of halo around us. If it were not for the cold, my frozen tears of joy would definitely be visible. Still limping on my toes, I shouted to the others who were walking around the deck. The sky was a different color and the patterns were shifting in excitement too, as if it found an audience to dance to.
Aswin, the high-spirited soul that he is, ran so fast into the lake that we lost sight of him after fifteen seconds. If our Math was right, he must have been at the middle of the lake that was in all likelihood frozen to its entirety. Yet, we were extremely scared for him and panicking. Aswin is still alive and healthy exploring the globe for more such experiences. In fact, he is one of the very few Globetrotters I know, even though my Facebook feed tells me that I may know five hundred of them.
After gazing at the sky and taking pictures for friends and family, another glamorous scene captured my eyes. The Lapporten is a beautiful U-shaped mountain valley at a distance. We learnt that the terrain was easy to walk on but we were not well prepared for this sub-zero hike. However, we slept well that night.
The next morning before our train departed back for Stockholm, we went for a short hike to see mountain dogs being readied for sledding. These dogs looked like scary wolves yet so friendly and fond of humans. We fixed the sledges for everyone else and left for our untimely train.
It was an unusual vacation for all of us. We have never been so amazed and humbled by the power of the universe. This place has made us realize why we travel, helped us lose inhibitions about venturing out alone, given us enough visual for a lifetime and definitely a large olfactory threshold. Gaurav is making the world a better place. Nishant is spreading joy through his writing, filmmaking, music and comics. I wonder if he is going to turn this into one. Aswin is jumping off a train somewhere in South America at this very moment. I am just happy to know these guys and looking forward to some more madness with them and in time, their kids.