Overnight at Ha Long Bay

Continued from… Visiting Hanoi

The next day, my friends and I hired a car to take us to Ha Long Bay, a world heritage site with its 1600 islands and islets of limestone formed over millions of years. We went directly to the harbour to board our boat. It was a traditional junk boat, which fortunately for us, was all ours for the overnight trip. There were no other passengers so we had the entire upper deck, restaurant and lounge as well as the four cabins to ourselves.

rope on deck

cabin

I have always loved boat rides and as we made our way across the Gulf of Tonkin, I spent a lot of time on the outer deck enjoying the feel of the sea spray and the chilly wind. The beautiful rock formations loomed ahead and it was fun trying to figure out shapes in some unique rock formations.

stone dog

witch in the rock

karst

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We eventually docked at one point and the guide took us on a tour of  Thien Cung grotto (the Heavenly palace cave). The impressive stalactites and stalagmites were highlighted by surreal lighting.

underground cavelimestone karsts

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pathway

After re-boarding our boat, we resumed our sea journey. We passed a lovely floating fishing village.

Floating fish market

Floating fishing village

Our boat eventually entered a lovely cove, where there were only a few other barges, and dropped anchor for the night.

Halong Bay early morning

That evening, we took our time over the delicious dinner that the crew had cooked for us. While I did enjoy our conversations and it was lovely to share the experience with friends, I enjoyed my moments of solitude the most on this visit to Ha Long bay. Especially the moments when I watched the sea, as rays of sunlight broke through the clouds or as the sun set…

Light breaking through cloudsSunset at Halong Bay

and especially the next morning, as I watched dawn break over the gulf and the sun gradually rose above the horizon. It was a spiritual moment and I felt happy and content.

Sunrise at Halong Bay

Halong Bay sunrise

As the boat lifted its anchor, I made my way back to the restaurant to enjoy my morning cup of coffee and wait for my friends to join me for breakfast.

Back to port

[I am sharing this post at the Weekend Wanderlust link up and The Weekly Postcard]

Weekend-Wanderlust-Link-Up-Graphic

Travel Notes & Beyond

Visiting Hanoi

Following our Malaysian road trip, my colleague and I decided we should travel again soon to another Asian destination using the same budget airlines. I was interested in visiting Siem Reap. As we discussed plans, another friend from work decided she was also interested in joining us. She had friends she wished to visit in Hanoi so we decided to combine both during our travel. We started our trip in Hanoi.

It was a bit strange when we arrived at the airport in Hanoi to see that all the airport officials were military personnel. After a lengthy process, we were issued our tourist visas and left the airport. Our hosts had sent us a car to pick us up so we didn’t have to be concerned about navigating the city on the day we arrived.

Our host had planned a full day of exploration of Hanoi city, showing us her favourite spots in the city. We started out at the temple of literature, which was built in 1070, to house Vietnam’s first university. The university functioned till 1779 as the imperial academy educating the Vietnamese elite.

temple of literature

This is a photo of the gate leading to the second courtyard, which was the constellation of the literature pavilion. In the third courtyard, the well in the middle was referred to as the well of heavenly clarity.

temple of literature

woman at temple of literature

I enjoyed the visit to the temple of literature the most during my day in Hanoi. The peaceful aura of the beautiful place of learning was enchanting.

After exploring the temple, we went to the nearby Koto café, a social enterprise aimed at providing disadvantaged youth training and work opportunities in the hospitality industry. The lunch was delicious and the café had a lovely ambience.

Koto

As my colleagues loved shopping, our host then took us to a market where she said great bargains could be found on stuff made for international brands but which had been rejected due to minor defects and thus available at budget prices. As someone averse to shopping, I didn’t like this part of the day but it was fun to watch my friends’ excitement over their various finds.

After stopping for a refreshing and delicious fresh fruit juice, we visited Hoan Kiem lake (lake of the returned sword). According to legend, this is the lake where a 15th century emperor was asked by a turtle god to return his magic sword and hence the name of the lake. A cute, red wooden bridge took us to the Ngoc Son temple in the middle of the lake.

Huc bridge

We ended the day with a lovely dinner at a restaurant overlooking another lake. As I had expressed an interest in visiting the Bing Minh jazz club, a popular jazz club in the french quarter, our hosts had decided to take us there after dinner. Enjoying the live jazz music was a lovely way to end our day in Hanoi.

To be continued… overnight at Ha Long bay.

[I am sharing this travelogue at Angie’s Fiesta Friday #120, co-hosted this week by Loretta and Linda.

I am also sharing this at
* City Tripping #28 Link up, hosted by Cathy@Mummy Travels and Elizabeth@Wander Mum

** The Weekly Postcard, hosted by Travel Notes & BeyondA Hole in My Shoe, As We Saw It, Eff it, I’m On HolidaySelim Family Raasta]

A Hole In My Shoe

Book Review: Family Matters

Rohinton MistryThe interesting novel by Rohinton Mistry weaves around the life of Nariman Vakeel in his last days. It delicately shows the past actions of the family members and how these actions and decisions contributed to the family antagonism and sympathies in the present day. The author cleverly manages to provide several angles to each character so that it prevents the reader from judging anyone or taking sides.

A sensitive novel with a good story.

What I enjoyed most in the book is the portrayal of each character: Nariman Vakeel, a retired english professor, regretting the wrong decision he made in his marriage due to parental pressure resulting in disastrous consequences in his life and his final days spent in contemplation of his happier days; the sensitivity of his grandson Jehangir Chenoy; the outwardly rebellious but inwardly gentle grandson Murad; his favourite daughter Roxanna who takes care of him in his bedridden state as only a loved family member could and would do; his angry stepdaughter, Coomy Contractor, who has not forgiven him for the sadness he brought into their lives and takes desperate and sad measures to take revenge finally in his last days resulting in sad results for herself; Jal Contractor, his peace loving stepson who wants to forget the past and move on but cannot do so with his stronger sister dictating his every action.

Each character that is introduced in the book does not vanish away but have themselves given definite form, feelings and thoughts.

An enjoyable book and look forward to reading Rohinton Mistry’s second novel ‘A fine balance’ next.

Book details:

Title: Family Matters
Author: Rohinton Mistry
Publisher: Vintage books (1st edition: 2002, reprint: 2003)
ISBN-13: 978-0375703423
Paperback: 448 pages

I am sharing this book review at The Novice Gardener’s Fiesta Friday. Happy birthday, Angie!

My initiation to cooking

Cooking is the last activity that I ever thought I would indulge in. Of course, I have put together a hasty lunch or dinner in the past, when I have had to but most of my meals at such instances were pretty much instant or micro-wave ready meals. In the instances when I took the trouble to cook, I was only prepared to take the effort to cook meals that could be prepared in fifteen or twenty minutes. A simple noodle or pasta dish and at times rice with dhal curry was the most I managed.

Yet, sometime during the first half of 2013 that changed. I can now cook. More importantly, I enjoy cooking.

The reason this change has been surprising to me and my family is that I have never enjoyed cooking before. I always felt it was a waste of time to spend time in the kitchen. I also never had the patience to go through a recipe, understand what seemed like a secret, complex code and make something. Fortunately for me, whenever I am at home, Amma’s excellent cooking and ownership of the kitchen spared me the need of venturing into that domain.

Apart from my dislike of cooking, I also had a mental block that I should not be in the kitchen. I remember as a teen, my father used to make a fuss that as a girl, I had not ever stepped into the kitchen and would not be able to make anything in an emergency. He would keep harping about the fact that he had been able to cook rice, dhal curry and a sambol at the age of eight. I would feel discriminated as he never said the same to my brother. So, I would dig in my heels and refuse to go anywhere near the kitchen for cooking. Luckily, my mother has always been liberal minded and anyway, preferred us to focus our energies on our studies and then our career. She just requested us, both my brother and I, to help out with grocery shopping which I happily undertook as my siblings and I took turns with it growing up.

However, over the last few years, I had been increasingly worried about Amma’s health. After returning home last year from some months abroad, I saw that she had become very frail. I felt that the fact that she does not eat proper meals, but rather snacks on a slice of toast or some instant noodles, was also a crucial factor in her weakening health. Amma’s excuse has always been that she has never been able to eat what she cooks. She says that after cooking and feeding the family, it feels as if she has eaten a full meal.

For Amma’s birthday last April, I felt I wanted to do something special. I decided to try my hand at making an apple crumble. As a friend had said that it was very easy to make and I love apple pies, I decided to make it. It didn’t turn out as I imagined it would but it was eatable and everyone at home was surprised. Amma particularly was quite proud of it. When my sisters heard about my attempt at making an apple pie, they started suggesting that perhaps I could think of making some food for Amma regularly to encourage her to eat better.

I gave it some thought and since I had just completed a consultancy assignment and was at home, in between work, I decided I would give it a try. The problem I had was deciding what to cook. Amma was anyway cooking complete Sri Lankan meals for us each day. There was no point in me trying my hand at making a curry when hers was the best. So, I decided to make my cooking attempt fun for me while making it interesting and tempting for my mother. I enjoy travelling and decided that while I was at home, I would look at travelling through food.

I scoured the net and depending on my mood, would select a nutritious, mostly heart healthy, diabetic friendly recipe from a different part of the world each time. From simpler, healthier Vietnamese style tofu noodle lettuce wraps and savoury vegetable pancakes, I soon progressed to making okra and chickpea tagine and mushroom and barley risotto. It didn’t necessarily mean that my food turned out well all the time but at least, they were eatable, flavourful and different.

Amma, while not having significantly improved her eating pattern, at least consumes a little of what I make and hopefully gets a slightly better nutritional balance. She is a very picky eater and I appreciate fully now the patience she must have had with us as kids to experiment and find what we preferred and to encourage us to eat balanced meals.

I still don’t enjoy spending much time in the kitchen and try to finish up in an hour, when I do go and make something. What I am quite proud of though is that looking at a recipe now feels like reading in a language I understand. I can now decode. More importantly, I am able to cook something that tempts my mother to try it out.

As I am sharing this post at The Novice Gardener’s Fiesta Friday #32, I will share one of the recipes I tried out for my mother – this is a slightly adapted version of Eating Well’s mushroom and barley risotto.Cropped risotto

Mushroom and Barley Risotto

  • Servings: 4
  • Time: 1 hour
  • Difficulty: average
  • Print

Ingredients:

  • 4 vegetable bouillon cubes dissolved in 4 cups water
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups cremini mushrooms, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup pearl barley, rinsed
  • 1/2 cup red grape juice, freshly squeezed and chilled
  • 3 cups spinach, chopped
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Cheddar cheese
  • 1 tablespoon margarine
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • Chopped carrots and spinach, for garnish

Preparation:

  1. Mix the freshly blended red grape juice with vinegar and refrigerate a couple of hours before starting the cooking.
  2. Bring broth and water to a simmer in a large saucepan. Adjust heat to maintain a steady simmer.
  3. Heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onion is translucent, about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring, until they begin to release their juices, 2 to 3 minutes. Add barley and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add an eighth of the grape juice and simmer, stirring, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 1 minute more. Reduce heat to medium.
  4. Add 1/2 cup hot broth to the barley and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the grape juice and hot broth by alternatively adding an eighth of the grape juice, stirring until the liquid has been absorbed, and then adding 1/2 cup hot broth. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, until the barley is tender and creamy but still somewhat firm, 35 to 45 minutes. (You might not use all the broth or you might need to add some of the water in reserve)
  5. Stir in spinach and cook, stirring, until it is wilted, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat. Stir in cheese, margarine and vinegar. Season with pepper.
  6. Garnish with a little chopped carrot and spinach and serve warm.

Source: Adapted from Eating Well

Arctic Lessons

My first encounter with the Aurora Borealis occurred by chance during my student days in Stockholm. One chilly autumn afternoon, having finished an assignment and not in a particular mood to study, I was randomly browsing Scandinavian related topics of interest and chose ‘Aurora Borealis.’ I came across Dick Hutchison’s page. I had my first glimpse of the aurora and I was totally bewitched. Truly love at first sight. It became my infatuation and for days after I would in all my free time read articles about the aurora on the web and admire the breathtaking pictures of the phenomenon captured by mortal cameras. I decided I had to see this phenomenon in person and thus began my planning for my arctic trip. Many lovely hours were spent searching for places where the aurora could be best observed, the season for observing it etc. Due to time and financial constraints of student life, I finally decided that the trip would be a Christmas weekend trip to Kiruna.

The day of travel finally arrived and my travel partner and I set off on the evening train from T-Centralen in Stockholm on a more than 12 hour journey to Kiruna in the Swedish Lapland. Our fellow passengers in our compartment were returning to their homes in central Sweden for the holidays and were curious about where we were going.

Kiruna? Why there?
Just to experience the Swedish winter.
But it is so cold up there.
Yes. We know.
But why do you want to be so cold? There is nothing to see there.
We are interested in the Aurora.
The aurora?
The Northern lights.
The Northern lights? Ja väl! Norrsken! But, it is so much better in the summer.
You can’t see the Northern lights in the summer.
But it is so cold up there.
We come from a very warm country and the cold intrigues us.
You will need lots of warm clothes.

With that, the other passengers gave up on trying to convince us that we should not be travelling to the north of Sweden during winter. When we eventually arrived in Kiruna, we took a taxi to the guesthouse.

We woke up in the morning rested and looking forward to the dog-sledge ride that I had booked online so that my travel partner, who was more interested in experiencing other things besides the aurora, could be satisfied. I had chosen this particular activity as the guide’s website had lots of cute Siberian Husky puppies featured and I looked forward to meeting them. The guide came in his van to pick us up. There were four other people from the Netherlands in the van. I could hear barking from the trailer attached to the van. I realized with disappointment that, since the dogs had been brought along, we would not be taken to see the puppies.

We drove for some time and as we left the town behind, the dogs started howling with excitement. When the van stopped at Kurravaara, they were beside themselves. The guide got out and handed us our thermal suits. We had opted to use the guide’s suits as we felt the cold through our winter jackets. The bright orange suits however smelt terrible and I wondered if I would have been better off in my old jacket but there was no time to change back. The guide was letting the dogs out of their cages to be harnessed to the sledge and was deciding on the order that the dogs would follow for the day. He started swiftly handing out a dog to each person to handle. We were told to hold on to the dogs no matter what. All the dogs were by now whining and barking behind their cages. One cage door was opened and out flew my dog. There was no leash and I had to hold onto the collar. My dog was too spirited to be confined by the hand of a stranger. He flew off down the road with me running to keep up and shouting for him to stop. I finally managed to pull the collar up a bit and the dog suddenly stopped. Of course, I fell down in the snow with the abrupt motion. This amused my dog and he thought I was playing and started jumping and trying to bite me playfully. Someone came to my aid. I was very much embarrassed because everyone else had their dogs calm and quietly by their sides.

The dogs were then harnessed to the sledge. We were told that we had to win the dogs’ respect by showing them who was in control and if that key message was missing, the ride would turn out a total disaster. Two of the other passengers had requested to ride their own sled, while the rest of us had opted for the guide’s sledge. We were not confident of our mastery over the dogs. Least of all me. For the benefit of the two adventurous sledge-riders and for our general knowledge, the guide took us through the basic points of dog-sledge rides.

• Always use a tone that is friendly but firm.
Never be harsh. You wouldn’t like to be ordered about, would you? So wouldn’t the dogs. Never be too soft, either. Dogs spot weaknesses and if they think you are too pliable, they will lose respect for you and will not listen to your command.

• Always reward them with an encouraging word, after they have followed a command.
You like to be recognized for a job well done. So do they.

• Always acknowledge the leader of the pack.
Egos are fragile. If you disregard the leader, the rest of the dogs will follow suit. And, then your team will disintegrate and that’s the end of a ride.

• Always act upon perceived misdemeanour.
If you see a dog disrupting the team movement or trying to incite another dog, act upon it immediately. Make the team stop. Give a word of warning to the disruptive dog. If you let it pass, the dog will perceive your move as acceptance and continue disrupting and this may erupt in total mayhem.

With these words of wisdom, we began our ride. I can only describe the movement as akin to a roller coaster ride. Apart from the numb sensation that I felt in my entire body and icicles forming near my nose and mouth, I only recall a mad dashing through snow-covered woods, too fast to enjoy the beauty of the landscape and too cold to enjoy the ride. I only wished we would reach the hut where we were supposed to stop for lunch quicker. My head had begun to hurt. I guess I have low levels of tolerance for the arctic cold or I was not warmly dressed. Finally, the sled stopped. To my dismay, I saw no hut but an expanse of snow all around. Were we going to have lunch in the open? I could not stand another moment in the cold.

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The guide told us that this was as far as the dogs would take us. From here, we would continue on our own to the hut after tethering the dogs to a rope nailed in the snow. The dogs were tired so it was easier tethering them to the rope. The guide had dug a small hole in the snow in front of each dog and we were asked to pour the contents of a bowl, filled with dog food, into the hole in front of each. After feeding the dogs, we walked on, until we came to a little river. Actually it was a big river, the River Torne, but we were walking over its frozen parts. The hut was on the other side of the river. The guide pointed to a small dinghy, covered by snow. He un-tethered it and pushed it slowly to the edge of the flowing river. Slowly he lowered himself in and taking three people at a time with him, paddled to the other end and back. The other end seemed like a tiny island. It had trees beautifully covered with snow. There was snow all around. Our feet buried itself in the soft snow and we trudged our way through the woods and reached a tiny hut, made of what looked like roots. Circular in shape and having a conical roof. This, our guide informed us was the traditional Sami hut, made of birch poles and covered with sod, and there we would be having our lunch. We could either have a nice walk and explore our surroundings and come back for lunch, or sit in the hut while he cooked lunch. The four Dutch travellers immediately set off. My travel partner and I were simply too cold and so we went into the hut with the guide. It was dark inside and I put my foot down and stumbled headlong into the tiny room. I had missed the step. A dirty looking bed occupied a narrow space. We walked past the bedroom, into another small space that constituted of the dining room. It had a small wooden table against the wall and two wooden benches on either side. A candle holder stood on a wooden stand in the middle. There were a couple of books on a tiny wooden bookshelf.

Our guide offered to make us some hot tea and we gladly acquiesced. He went into the kitchen, next to the dining area and lit the small stove and boiled some water. We sat on a wooden bench leaning against the birch poles holding up the roof. He measured some tea leaves into a pot and placed two large wooden mugs in front of us. When the water had boiled, he poured the water into the pot and brought the pot to the table and poured us some tea. Then he returned to his cooking and pulled out a sack and took out some potatoes. From another huge brown bag, he measured out some dark nuggets. We asked him what it was. He replied that it was smoked reindeer meat, the Sami staple food. Our guide informed us that it was a banned delicacy and could not be exported out of Lapland. As the reindeers were dwindling in population, they could only be consumed by the locals. I thought of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, my first introduction to a reindeer in my childhood, and here I was going to have his meat for lunch. My preference for vegetarian food aside, I was not comfortable with trying out the meat of a reindeer.

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Once the Dutch group returned from their walk, we had lunch before we started our return trip. When we approached the other side of the bank, we heard the howls of the dogs who anticipated our approach. I felt really sorry for them. To wait in the cold and not to be able to run about even to be warm. They were yelping and whining when we reached them. We were asked to help untie the dogs and harness them to the sledge. As we approached the dogs, they wagged their tails so much and were very glad to see us. I guess the long wait in the cold had curbed their exuberance and all they wanted to do was go home and rest. The ride back was even colder than the morning. It was pitch dark when we reached the van. The guide wanted us to hand over the borrowed thermal clothing before we got in the van so that he could put them into his storage place. I removed my gloves to unzip my thermal suit but my fingers quickly froze. My teeth were chattering and I was practically shivering like a leaf. To make it worse, the zipper got stuck. The guide was finishing loading up the dogs and everyone else had put on their own winter jackets and got into the van. I was getting frustrated and wondered if I should simply travel back in the smelly thermal suit and attempt to remove it at the guesthouse. While I was giving the zipper a final yank, one of the Dutch travellers got out of the van, calmly told me to relax and helped me with the zipper. I did feel silly that someone had to help me out on a simple matter but when someone voluntarily helps you out in your moment of distress, his or her kindness touches you to the core.

The next morning, we walked into town to take the bus to the ice hotel. There was hardly a shop opened nor was there any sign of any public transportation. It was Christmas Eve. We finally found one florist shop open. We walked in and approached an employee to ask some information on modes of transportation but she asked us to take a queue number. We did not want to start on a bad footing, so we took a queue number and waited patiently. When our turn finally came up, we were told that while there were buses to the ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi, they probably did not run on Christmas Eve. One of the helpful young shop assistants offered to call a taxi and we gratefully accepted.

JukkasjarviThere was a pretty pale pink sky in the background when we reached the ice hotel. We decided to explore the town while there was still light and besides, we had a long wait till the evening for the aurora and could explore the ice hotel in the afternoon. So, we walked towards an old church that I had marked in the places to visit in Jukkasjärvi. We passed a heritage museum, which looked inviting with chopped wood piled in a corner. Unfortunately, it was closed. My friend was beginning to be testy about everything being closed as I was the one who had made all the travel arrangements. I was content to simply walk around Jukkasjärvi, relax in a warm area and wait for the aurora. She wanted to see more sites and tourist places. Fortunately the church was open. We walked into the little wooden church which had brightly coloured drawings on its walls and which was relatively warmer than the outside.

After sitting in silence within the church, we went out and walked around the surrounding area. The church was on the edge of the Torneälven River, or more commonly known as the River Torne, which the founder of the ice hotel was advocating to be added to the World Heritage list.

River Torne

I stood on the soft snow and looked. Pure white snow. Distant hills. No sound, except for the noise of my breath. Clear, fresh air. The sky had donned a beautiful coat of greenish, red. I took a deep breath. There was a sense of exhilaration within. I could die that very minute. This was paradise. I was standing on top of a frozen river and feeling complete peace of mind and contentment.

Then the cold got to me. The freezing cold crept in and all I wanted to do was to get to a relatively warmer spot. We turned back and returned to the cozy wooden, reception cabin, which lodged the office, ticket counter and souvenir shop, and which became our pit stop for the day. After lunch, we decided to explore the ice hotel. It was dark outside and we walked towards a modest door covered by reindeer skin which marked the entrance to the ice hotel. The adjoining chapel door opened and a wedding party burst out. It was a beautiful sight. The bride in a beautiful white gown with the groom and best man on either side of her in black coats and fur caps. We learnt that this was the first wedding of the season as the chapel had just been completed. The temperature was dropping to -30C outside and we felt too cold to enjoy the sight for long and walked into the ice hotel. There was a small reception desk within the entrance. A couple of hotel staff were at the entrance and offered to give us a tour of the place. 

ice galleryIt was around -5C inside the hotel but much warmer than the outside air. We walked down the passage flanked by ice pillars, over the snow floor and were shown the gallery of ice sculptures. The theme that year had been family. Our guide, who was a student, was working at the hotel for the second consecutive year. She said that each year, ice-artists from all over the world were invited to work on the hotel. Each artist was given his or her own room to work on. We saw the globe room with the round ice bed at the centre and two ice steps leading up to the bed with lighted candle holders all around. How can anyone sleep on ice? Wouldn’t it melt because of the warmth of the body? We were told that guests were given special thermal clothing and sleeping bags and warm reindeer skin blankets and that the beds were not totally made of ice. The base had a wooden contraption to hold the structure together which provided more warmth than sleeping on a snow floor.
Snow carving on room wall We saw the conference room. A rectangular ice table with six high chairs around it and a huge chandelier above. The room was well-lit by the exquisitely carved ice chandelier. We were impressed. We were told that optic fibre lights were used to prevent or at least reduce the melting of the ice. There was even a comfy corner in front of a fire-place. Two ice chairs had been placed in front of an ice fire-place and a red fire glowed in its fenders. We ended our tour at the ice bar where guests were served beverages in ice glasses.

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We returned to our pit stop, the wooden reception cabin. There was a coffee machine there and we gratefully had a sip of hot Gevalia coffee. After resting a bit, we decided it was time for our aurora watch. As we went out, we saw people rush out of little, steamy wooden huts opposite the reception cabin, screaming and running for a hole in the ice and jumping into it. We were astonished though we knew Scandinavians were fond of their saunas. To go out into the extreme cold needed mental disciplining. To run out and jump into the freezing cold water naked was suicidal, we felt. Especially after sitting in a stuffy, steaming room. But, apparently the jumpers seemed to be in a euphoric state. We learnt that the experience costs nearly 1000 SEK. To pay to jump into a hole in the ice. It makes you wonder at times.

We walked down past the ice hotel to the River Torne and waited. It was past 6p.m. and pitch dark. We wondered which direction of the sky we should observe. There was a faint orange glow across the horizon, in the direction of the town of Kiruna. My friend was sure that the aurora display would be on that part of the sky. There were some clouds in the opposite direction of the town. Not very good news. I had a feeling that the aurora display would start from behind the hills across the river from the ice hotel, away from the direction of the town and the clouds. I had no idea which was north, east, west or south. We waited. My friend started clapping and running about. I chose to walk briskly instead. Eventually, the cold got to me. The pain was exquisite. Despite wearing three pairs of gloves, multiple layers of clothing and even a face mask and woollen caps, there was a sharp pain in my bones.

After an hour and a half, we could not hold on anymore. We decided to return to the cabin for a brief rest and hot coffee. The tourists, the majority of whom were from the Far East that day, had left on the ice hotel arranged guided tours for aurora watching with snow mobile rides and dinner over an open fire. We sat in a warm corner, had a quick sandwich and coffee, and went back. Just in the direction that I had predicted, we saw thin rays of green light shooting up. My friend was sceptical. She felt it was kids shining green torches at the sky on the eve of Christmas. I did not think so as the lights appeared at random over the entire horizon, some fading away quickly, some staying on for some time, moving a bit. The green was a rich, exotic colour to be the work of human hands. I was convinced this was the beginning of a beautiful display but even after half an hour, nothing further developed. Besides our endurance level had dropped. Where we were able to stay for nearly an hour and a half the first time, we were finding it difficult to cope with half an hour. After 45 minutes in the freezing cold, we returned to our comfort zone. There were fewer people now at our pit stop. In one corner, a wood fire had been set ablaze, glogg (mulled wine) and peppar kakor (spiced cookies) for the visitors was set on a low table. Christmas music was in the air. We decided to try some of the traditional Swedish Christmas drink of mixed spices and wine and the ginger cookies. This time our break extended to an hour simply because it felt good to be sitting by the fire, enjoying a spicy, warming drink.

We checked at the reception desk to see if those who had gone out on the tour had experienced the aurora but they were not able to help us, as they had no phone contact with their guides. Instead, they offered us their update from the Kiruna space station on the plausibility of citing the aurora that day. It was 90%. Precisely why I had chosen that particular weekend to come up north. We went back, confident and refreshed. We were determined that we would not return until we had seen the aurora.

We went back to our aurora watch and scanned the skies. Neither of us would admit being cold. Nor would we admit that thick clouds had progressed and covered a large part of the sky during our break. The sky in the direction of the hills still had comparatively fewer clouds. We were determined. Nature is neither moved by determination nor by the statistical prediction of a space station. Therefore, despite waiting past midnight, we did not see any aurora display only the development of a dull orange glow of thick clouds. I had to admit to myself that we were simply not going to see the aurora that night. After holding on stubbornly for some more time in vain hope, we both trudged back to our pit stop. A niggling feeling was in my mind that we might have missed the aurora during our extended break over the glogg and fire. Anyway, we asked the reception desk to call a cab to take us back to town and we waited, a little dejected and sullen. In that moment of disappointment, I quite forgot the wonderful moments and new experiences that I had during the weekend.

Postscript:
Often things in life do not happen when you want them to happen but unexpectedly, when you least expect them to. A year later just a couple of days before Christmas, I sat at my window, absent-mindedly contemplating the church opposite my apartment in Stockholm. I had my room lights switched off as I had been about to go to sleep when I had been drawn to the window. Suddenly, my eyes focused on some movement over a little hill by the church. I held my breath. Rapid movement of green light went across the sky. Beginning as a circular green ball and moving across the sky as if it had been flung out. The intensity of the display started increasing and then there were rays of green aurora in the sky. Finally, there was a dullish green glow left in the sky for a long time – a reminder that an amazing event had just taken place in the past hour. A reminder to take the moment as it occurs and experience it.

[I undertook this special trip back in 2001 and this was the very first travelogue I was inspired to write about. I had shared this post with The Novice Gardener’s Fiesta Friday #17 group.

This trip remains one of my favourite and most memorable travels to-date so I felt like sharing this post at #WanderfulWednesday, especially after reading Van’s post on seeing the aurora in Tromso.

I am also linking this post with The Travel Link Up, co-hosted by Emma, Carolann, Angie and Jessie, under this month’s monthly theme of ‘Unexpected Places’]

Wanderful Wednesday