After years of having ‘been there, done that’ in several parts of the world, I decided it was time I did something different this summer. I decided to spend the longest day in the year in the land of the midnight sun. So in the middle of June, I headed for Lapland in the northern reaches of Finland.
<b1>The town of Rovaniemi, that has a population of 35,000, is just 8 kilometres below the Arctic Circle. In winter, the temperatures dip to –30o Celsius, sometimes even lower, and a thick layer of ice covers the region for months. The residents have two options: drill a hole on a frozen lake or a river, drop a line, and hope the fish will bite; or, better still, stay indoors and consume large quantities of vodka. And you will not find better vodka than the ones they make in Finland.
Rovaniemi is Lapland’s largest settlement. There is nothing much north of it except miles and miles of wilderness and the occasional bear or wolf. Finland’s beauty lies in its great outdoors, the lakes, waterways, pine forests and the tundra.
In summer, the temperatures rise and the country becomes a trekker’s paradise. But I am well past the trekking age, and was in Rovaniemi on a different mission. I had come here to be under 24 hours of sunlight.
If you had been paying attention to your geography teacher in school, you would remember that on summer solstice, June 21, the sun does not set north of the Arctic Circle. Conversely, on winter solstice, December 21, you do not see the sun north of the Arctic Circle.
My midsummer evening began with a leisurely ride on an open boat along the Kemijoki, Finland’s longest river. At nine in the evening, still bright sunlight, the two of us, my guide and I, docked at a log cabin. While she started the wood fire and unwrapped the provisions, I poured out the vodka and laid the table. She turned out to be a fine cook and we had a delicious meal of reindeer steak with a creamy wild mushroom sauce. Reindeer is a farmed animal in Finland, raised for their meat and skin. You will not find them roaming in the wild.
When it was getting close to midnight, we made our way to the Ounasvaara hill, the highest point in the region. The sun was hovering on the horizon and it was still daylight. I took in the magical view of the woods on all sides and the winding river below. The guide had brought a bottle of champagne and she popped it open. We stood in solemn silence for some time. Then I heard her say something behind me, almost in a whisper. Only later, when we headed downhill, I realised that she had said the equivalent of ‘cheers’ in Finnish.
By two in the morning, I was back in my hotel room. It came with a sauna and I thought that now was as good a time as any to indulge in its pleasures. The Turks are known for their hammams, the Hungarians have their steam baths, but it was the Finns who gave the world the sauna. It is an essential part of their culture. You sweat it out in dry heat and come out invigorated.
Not so steamy an experience
With nearly two million saunas in Finland, everyone has access to one. Most of them are in private homes and you will not find a hotel that does not have one. While Finnish families do not mind taking saunas together in the nude, in the hotels men and women are always in separate sauna rooms.
Foreigners seem to harbour an impression that the sauna, like the American hot tub, has something to do with sex. They are quite mistaken. The sauna is a deeply non-sexual experience — it’s a time for meditation and relaxation. You are expected to sit in silence, even when you are in company.
Sauna rooms are small and invariably made of wood. Traditionally, they used to be heated by log-fires, but these days most of them run on electricity. The temperature is kept around 80o Celsius.
When the Finns are sufficiently warmed up, they will jump into the lake or the sea. They will return to the sauna and repeat the cycle several times. This hot-followed-by-cold ritual is so important that in winter they will cut holes in frozen lakes and jump in. At other times, they will roll naked in the snow and go back into the hot sauna. The less adventurous take ice-cold showers. A glass of beer afterwards tastes heavenly.
The Finns enjoy their short summer season with passion. The long coastline and the thousands of inland lakes are dotted with private cottages. In the height of summer, the cities empty out and the Finns head for the countryside — to their cottages to commune with nature. The shacks have only basic amenities. Many have no electricity or running water. The toilet is a hole in the ground.
But there will always be a wood-burning sauna and a rowing boat. All summer long, the Finns will grill sausages, swim, fish and gather wild mushrooms and berries. They make the best of the short season nature has bestowed on them.
Patel is a former United Nations diplomat