In the last thirty years the world has changed, the way we travel has changed, especially in the Covid year and the way we are responding to our touristic desires has completely put us on the defensive. In the last few months, it took a lot of courage and safety measures in place, to have returned to life near normal, when suddenly a couple of new strains of the corona virus were detected, rebounding this time from UK and this has again brought us back to a grounding halt.
Christmas celebrations were affected, as in many parts of the world, they came to a grinding halt. The excitement and preparations of people all over the world, was now going to turn to virtual celebrations. Businesses once again were badly affected. But before the spirit of Christmas is wiped out, let me recall the wonderful opportunity I got to visit the home of Santa Claus this time of the year, in 1987 in Rovaniemi, which is still a small town in the Finnish Lapland, inside the Arctic Circle.
Thirty three years ago a group of four journalists, two from established newspapers, one from the north of India and one from the south, along with one from the agencies and the fourth from the visual media which was Doordarshan, were invited to Finland in January 1987 to see the country for themselves, before the Finnish President, then Mauno Koiviisto was to come to India on a State visit.
The Fax machine had just been introduced into the world and few newspapers had the facility which was required both at the senders and receivers ends. While most hotels in Europe had this as a standard facility, few papers could afford the luxury. The e-mail was being discovered and its alacrity and reach was a phenomena yet to be witnessed. The visual medium was the most powerful one and the most effective. However, I was alone on the trip from our end, so had to arrange a camera crew with the Finnish Broadcaster. This also gave me the opportunity to have the first and exclusive interview with the Finnish President at his Presidential palace, which became a part of the overall visual story, telecast on the eve of his visit to India. In Helsinki, the official visits and meetings apart , including one with Nokia, there was little visual excitement other than the city’s architecture and shop windows. The Finnish design, decorations and architecture are recognised the world over. Other than this it is the green technology in manufacturing processes. However for me it turned out to be the connectivity of the Official Airline Finnair which we flew in from Zurich. Finnair, from its stipulated presentation boasted that it flies into the Arctic Circle. I caught the hint and requested the CEO of the airline, who was hosting a lunch, to give us the opportunity to do so.
Finnair thus became the host to fly us into Rovaniemi. Although an internal flight for them, it was a fact that they were connecting into the Arctic Circle. That was a matter of pride and Finnair was expanding its operations around the world and with this Presidential visit, the airline hoped to connect to India, as it was offering the fastest route to London and rest of Europe. Subsequently, Helsinki became the hub as Zurich, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Our desired segment of the trip became a delightful bonus, as it then gave us an insight into an area, very few would have been able to tread.
When we landed at Rovaniemi very early, in the last day of our visit, it was still dark and waiting on the tarmac, of a small airport, was a tour guide and a two members of a TV camera crew, with all the paraphernalia, including stands, mikes and lights ready to go off for a shoot. Luckily, there was a separate vehicle for me. I was pleasantly informed that the sun in this part of the world, at this time of the year, comes out only for a few hours, so we had to do all that we wanted, in the short span of daylight. It was indeed a shocking statement to digest initially. I literally saw for myself the sun come up on the horizon, it was just breaking daylight and within a couple of hours, by the time we hurriedly went about our work, indeed, it set. There was just the same horizon, to watch this amazing spectacle.
In the town, the outside temperature was less than minus 20° and our guide told us that there was scheduled in the evening, which was early night, the annual Rovaniemi car race. Finns in motor racing gear and special clothing, as temperatures could run up to -35 degrees, had come from different parts of the country to participate and the flag off point was, the hotel we were booked in.
From the airport, I rushed to the hotel, which was in the center of the town, to leave our bags and move about town to film, a ‘piece to camera’, take a few bytes and then rush to meet ‘Santa Claus’ in his office, which had been pre-arranged. The cameraman was pertinent to let me know, exactly when our vehicle was crossing into the perceived Arctic circle. What a wonderful experience it was. The car stopped for a moment, for me to absorb the marker, a moment later, we were inside the Arctic Circle.
The Arctic Circle is a circle of latitude that runs 66°33′45.9″ north of the Equator. It marks the southernmost latitude where the sun can stay continuously below or above the horizon for 24 hours. These phenomena are known as the Midnight Sun in the summer and the Polar Night (“Kaamos”) in the winter.
In Rovaniemi, the Arctic Circle runs through Santa Claus Village, which is located eight kilometres north of the city centre, where it is clearly marked. If you visit Rovaniemi and come by air, just to visit the Santa Claus village, then this village is only three kilometres from the airport. Once you cross into the village, perforce you get a certificate in golden letters, confirming your courage for the feat. The guide arranged this certificate for us.
Legend has it, that every year Santa Claus begins his journey on 23rd of December at 19.00 from Rovaniemi, to deliver Presents to the children of the world! This year too despite the lockdown and the play and work from home, Santa was scheduled to visit every city in the world, delivering the Christmas cheer and Presents, to millions of children, whose spirits despite the pandemic, remained high, irrespective of the new lockdown measures, as a consequence of the discovery of new strains in the virus. However, half the world was closing down.
Outside the official building of Santa Claus, I was introduced to the tall and handsome man behind the Christmas dress, in red and white. Santa sits in this office throughout the year. Since the day was now breaking, we made Santa walk with Rudolf his Reindeer, to the main door of his office. This was done a couple of times to make sure that the shot was perfect.
There was a white sheet of snow all around. This place had been trimmed of snow and the roads were clear and well-marked for the small traffic of families, especially children. Made of pine wood and shining glass, the Office of Santa was a delight in the white wilderness. It was like a fairy tale story. The lights inside added to the beauty of the soft daylight outside. Santa took me into his office. After a quick glance, I had calculated where all to place the tripod and the camera and take the shots. We filmed every bit of his office, his cabin and also his meeting with his Elves.
There is a Post Office next door which is visited by some one million people every year and large sized picture postcards and letters are dispatched from here. It carries the special stamping of the Arctic circle and the post goes to every corner of the globe. I bought a few cards and quickly addressed a few letters to my colleagues and friends, knowing that these would reach quite some time later. The interview with Santa outside in the soft daylight and a special Christmas message to the viewers of Doordarshan, were the epitome, of my conversation with him.
This Documentary was shown at the end of the month, on Doordarshan. It was a sensation. Historically, we received some thousands of letters in response, a record. Officially the Doordarshan Producer was inside the Arctic circle, bringing the cheer of the Christmas season, which by the time of editing and broadcast, was a few weeks later. For our viewers it was a great joy, especially for people in Shimla, to as far as Port Blair, Cochin, Shillong and Aizwal.
We were in a region up in the Arctic, which needs its usual seasons, snowy winters and warm summers to provide a safe environment for its Arctic species. The people expect you to appreciate their sustainable way of life! The subtle influences of climate change can make the region vulnerable.
As a visitor, while in Rovaniemi, you are advised to close the lights when not required, as part of conservation, pick up your trash, recycle, eat local and preferably travel outside the Christmas season. By doing so, you then become an Ambassador of sustainable goodwill.
Rovaniemi is the capital of Lapland, and what would be more fitting than to have the town shaped like a reindeer, the iconic animal of the area. Famous Finnish architects Aalto’s genius vision has central Rovaniemi wrapped inside the reindeer’s head, with the Keskuskenttä sports stadium as the eye. Roads leading north, west and south make up the antlers.
My senior colleagues were very happy to visit the Santa Claus village and by the time I got over with my filming, we went back to the hotel and after a short period of rest, which was indeed needed, as we barely slept the night before, we were charged for the rest of the schedule.
We were scheduled shortly, as part of a days visit to Rovaniemi, to go to a Reindeer farm a few kilometres inside the thick forest on the western outskirts of the town, along the frozen river Kemi.
Sami Sápmi, Finnish Lapi or Lappi, the White Sea Lapland, the conventional name for the region, is derived from Lapp, the name Scandinavians ascribed to the Sami people, who have sparsely inhabited the region for several thousand years. They call the region Sápmi. Lapland crosses several national borders and cannot be identified as any unified administrative entity. The region is still home to several hundred thousand reindeer, but off late, the traditional reindeer country has been invaded by organised farming, forestry, mining, and hydroelectric and even some industrial enterprises.
After the Reindeer farm, there was a visit to a traditional village of log huts, of the Finnish Lapps, to see the way they lived and functioned in this wintery wilderness. We were to go on snows mobiles wearing special suits to keep the excessive cold at bay. I was warned of the extreme temperatures we were likely to meet which for the guide and the crew, was obviously a routine affair. Every part of our body was covered in an overhaul of special material accept the face, which also was partially covered with special snow glasses. While the others took a ride behind, on the snow mobiles, I wanted to drive one myself, although I was a little scared of the frozen, but beaten path, which was on the river bank. I learnt that the temperature inside the forest was close to – 40 degrees centigrade. The visit to the Reindeer farm, as well as the ride on a Reindeer sleigh was indeed an experience. We were given golden certificates, in the form of a sleigh driving licence, having successfully accomplished, driving the sleigh with the Reindeer, on the periphery of the farm.
My senior colleagues came back after the visit to the farm, I proceeded deeper into the forest, which by now was, enveloped by the darkness and very thick fog and my only guidance was the tail light of the preceding snow mobile. However my camera crew was behind me and this was reassuring. The experience of lambretta and Bajaj scooters came in handy, but this kind of vehicle was long to come to India and applicable to the higher mountains. It was a sheer joy, although risky for lack of familiarity and experience.
We were not the only visitors, as quite a few visits to Reindeer farms were routine for the guests, which were divided into groups and in the same way, visiting the log huts in a designated area, was a selected tour destination. As a first time visitor, the log huts to me looked interesting, but small in size, the piled up and fixed logs were each some 6 inches in diameter and were dark and blackened by fire smoke. There was a window in the front and a sliding roof and as you enter a door, there was a sizable pit for a cooking fire. It could also be used as a hearth to warm the division of a room behind. At the back of the hut, was a small bathing room and toilet. All pieces of furniture were made of wood which included a narrow table, a bench and a bed. Traditionally, the lighting was by a kerosene lamp and the area outside was almost completely dark, although one could see the light of the other log huts in the vicinity.
The occupant host said that he would cook a very small dinner for me and the camera crew and he put a small pan on the logs, burning inside the pit. He had a long sharp knife in his hand which I could hear swish through the air and suddenly I realised, a piece of some kind of fat falling into the pan. A little salt was sprinkled to this fat which started to melt and with another swish of the knife, I saw that a piece of meat fall into the pan. Since it was dark around, it give us an actual feel of a natural habitat. A look up, it took a moment, to realise that there was a hunted reindeer hanging upside down which, because of the naturally refrigerated atmosphere, was a traditionally long source of food for the Lapps of the vicinity. This was the scene in every log hut in the area. This was by and large their dinner but of course the Finnish people are excellent bread makers and they are good at making multigrain breads which last for a very long time. I had for the first time some reindeer meat to taste.
Back at the hotel there was a lot of activity as this was the flag off area for the annual car race in Rovaniemi.
Arctic Rally, currently Arctic Lapland Rally and also known as Tunturiralli, is an annual rally competition held on ice and snow covered roads, in Rovaniemi and this event has been organized continuously since 1966. We became part of the enthusiastic and fun loving participants and the towns inhabitants who had gathered outside along the roads to witness this event. The snow and bitter cold was an enabler, not a handicap, for the people of the region. The shops windows were beautifully decorated, aligned with the spirit of Christmas, with the latest in winter wear. Despite the snow and sludge, everything else looked spick and span.
Last but not least, in the town of Santa Claus, was the look for the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, which are visible some 150 nights a year in Finnish Lapland.
In Rovaniemi, the spell binding astral show can be witnessed in and around the city from late August until early April.
Successfully catching the magical phenomenon, requires clear and dark skies and a viewing spot not affected by light pollution, like street lights and neon signs. In Rovaniemi, you don’t have to walk far from the city centre to find a good spot, and really strong Auroras can be seen even with interference from artificial light.
Being there, the feel was enchanting and privileged s, as not many get the chance, to cross into the magical Arctic Circle.