Lands of bog, lake and troll: day 5

Two $980 round-trip plane tickets, eight months of waiting and two flights later, Cavan and I arrived in Helsinki, Finland. We had no idea where we would sleep that night, or where we’d go the next day. What we did know was that we had each other, our packs, a bit of food, a bit of money and a huge case of wanderlust.

For the next the next thirty one days, I’ll recount our trek across Finland, Estonia and Sweden (plus a little of Norway and Latvija) as if it’s happening in real time. There will be blood, thievery, epic folk metal, a meat-eating vegetarian and other scintillating things you definitely don’t want to miss.

Lands of bog, lake and troll: day 5

(archive: day 1, 2, 3, 4)

 Wednesday 10, August 2011

I woke to lakes on fire–fog burning in the sunlight, rising from the water like its own ghost.  I  sat up stiffly from the two seats I’d crammed myself onto for the night, rolled my head around a bit and stood.  The compartment was shivering and creaking along the track like it had been all night, but now it was alive with vaporized white gold.  I ate breakfast and watched Cavan continue to sleep.  He swears his hair has no red in it, but in this light it was like fire.

After eating, I rummaged through my pack, chucking tent, jacket and dinner remnants over my shoulder until I found my toothbrush, then stepped out of our luxuriously large compartment and squeezed into the miniscule bathroom.

But about the luxuriously large compartment. Let me explain.  It sounds expensive, sounds like something out of the heyday of riding-the-rails .  It’s not.

At nineteen o’clock the previous day, we clambered onto the train, our giant packs squealing against the narrow corridors.  We went along, looking for the emptiest compartment to weather our fourteen hour ride in and, after just a few moments of searching, found train-compartment-perfection.  The penultimate compartment. (Sounds like a  Potter book, doesn’t it?  Harry Potter and the Penultimate Compartment.  Uh, anyway…)

Hesitantly, we stepped in and sat down.   Where we supposed to be here?  Was it reserved?  Was it first class?  Was the conductor himself about stomp in and throw us out?  There was no one here and it was lovely and spacious and we were paranoid as hel about trespassing in someone’s private compartment.  But it was very nice and if we could get away with riding in it, then we’d do just that.  So we sat, waited.  The ticket-checker came by and checked our tickets.  Said nothing.

And then the lady and her dog walked in.  Huh.

We gave what we thought was a taboo, first-class compartment a closer look–and noticed the little dog stickers in the windows and above the door, the plastic bags for poop-scooping.

Oh.  We weren’t in first class.  We were in the dog compartment.

It’s been a good time, though, riding with the dogs.  Lots of space and furry, inquisitive company–I need nothing more to survive a torturously-long train ride.

The land’s becoming soggier and boggier as I write and as we speed further north.  Still lots of birches, though.  Cavan woke up while I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth and when I came out, he swore he’d seen a pair of five-foot tall swans.  The midnight sun must make ’em bigger up here.  Earlier, we passed through Kemi, which was surreal, because it’s the hometown of the band closest to my heart, the band to plunge me headfirst into metal (thus making me a metalhead, ha…ha…), Sonata Arctica.  But now, we’re nearing Kemijärvi so I’d better put down my pen.  See you in the arctic circle…

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We disembarked to drizzle, alongside a girl wearing cheetah-spotted tights and combat boots, accompanied by her elven side-kick (the tallest Finn I’ve ever seen, with a long dyed-black ponytail, leather pants and a woolen sweater that had a long, pointy hood–the garb of some fae, woodland creature).

We found the hostel after a minor bout of confusion involving a slew of guest cottages and a steel sculpture of a giant fish talking on a cell phone, but it wasn’t open till five, so we trekked into Kemijärvi in search of information.

The town is not large.  Just two grocery stores, a church, a couple of streets and shops and a confusing amount of pizza places (I’m not completely sure how they stay in business…).  And speaking of confusing, here’s a quirky promotional video for Kemijärvi.  It’s short, so you should watch to the end, if only to see the lake it’s named for and for the man who pronounces Kemijärvi  quite beautifully.

We kept an eye out for the conspicuous i sign (which in Finland and many other European countries means information) and found the knowledge we sought (or some of it), in the form of a Finnish man tending his flower shop.  As we soon found out, he also owns the hostel, the fish-guarded cottages, and a car rental place in Canada.  Entrepreneur much, no?  It was a bit difficult communicating, but we eventually figured out that if we wanted to know about something other than his businesses, we had to go a few blocks further.

But fortunately, a few blocks further into Kemijärvi  is the equivalent of just a few steps.

The info center was a dim, cluttered room populated by a dismal-looking wax man and a cheery girl (who’s name , we later found out, is Minnä–I really hope I’m spelling that right).  She told us all about the Sami and the wandering reindeer farmers, as well as the hyper-real wax man sitting at a nearby table contemplating the whole of his existence in the bottom of an empty beer stein.  Apparently, the majority of the tourists who come through Kemijärvi  come to see this day-dampening man, as he’s a character in the popular Finnish television show Taivaan Tulet.

Our stomachs were putting up a fuss by now, so Minnä kindly translated for us the menu of a pizza and kebab restaurant just across the street.  I was a little skeptical of it–the fluorescent lighting and the grungy exterior weren’t exactly…appetizing–but we were too hungry to wander in search of better fare.  We wanted something warm and we wanted it now.

The Russian girl at the till froze as soon as we opened our mouths.  She scurried back to get the owner and, after a rather patchwork-conversation accompanied  by many apologetic grins, Cavan ordered pizza  without ananas, which in Finnish means pineapple;  I’m not sure if everyone here thinks pineapples have some sort of magic healing power, but unless you specifically ask for it, it’s pretty much impossible to order pizza without any.

After a gauntlet of confusion that involved me finding out that Finnish felafels have nothing to do with chickpeas and are, in fact, just another form of meat-on-a-stick (or something like that.  It’s all meat to me–so no, I still have yet to gulp down animal flesh), I gave up and ordered a Greek salad.  Which tasted all right, but was disappointing in so many ways:  firstly, I want to eat Finnish food in Finland.  Also, I was hoping for something warm and ended up with a very cold salad.

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“If you don’t see reindeer, you will see their shiit.”

Or so said the  campground’s friendly one-man clean-up crew.  It was his charm (and the cheap price tag) that convinced us to camp, instead sleeping at the hostel.

(they put up our flag after they discovered we were American.  And we were trying to stay inconspicuous…At least it’s a very small American flag.)

We set up the tent and danced around (not really), free at last of our ball and chains (our packs) and practically nanced* to the market for dark rye bread (it’s everywhere and wonderful here), eggs, rye pasta (have you detected the theme yet?), fruit and a chunk of foil-wrapped Finnish mystery cheese.

The campground had an extremely convenient kitchen in which we made salad and an unexpectedly gourmet pot of mac and cheese.  To my great horror, we unwrapped the foil from the mystery cheese and discovered a slab of something, tragically mutated by ravines and pockmarks of blue, green and grey mold–a  badly infected slab of cheese.  Now, I love cheese and I devour a lot of weird edibles, but blu cheese just isn’t my thing.  But it was also all we had, so.  I decided it was time to learn to like it.

The horrible truth I must admit to: I actually did.  After it’d melted into the pasta, it made the best damn macaroni and cheese I have ever had.  That may have been because of our ravenous hunger, but my stomach’s just going to ignore that fact for now.

Once we’d eaten, we went and paid our camp fee and were offered a free warm and dry room to stay in, because I apparently looked miserably cold in the wind and rain that had started up.  We declined, though; I was just fine–the weather up here’s little different than a Cascadian winter and actually, after a  conversation (briefly interrupted by Cavan running off after what he thought was a fox.  Or a coyote.  Or a rabbit) with the owner of the campground, we’ve decided to backpack even further into the arctic circle by busing to nearby Pyhä and trekking up a Finnish ‘mountain.’

POEM 5

He blackened his hair with melted salmiakki
beat the juices from licorice root
gossamered his skin.

To his tines she tied ropes braided from reindeer hide
lead him by the antlers.

His eyes were midnight suns
winter approaching.

(Uh, I’m not really sure what to say about these three pictures…)

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*for a more proper use of the word nance, see The Very Secret Diary of Gandalf the Grey, specifically day 23.

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