My best Arctic trips ever: Part I

There’s something about COVID-19, with its imposed lockdowns and social distancing—and advice not to travel anywhere—which makes me, as I sit in a two-week isolation, think of the trips I have taken: the good and the not-so-good.

I’ve gone almost nowhere recently. One year I remember taking 44 flights (I counted them) and since this past March I have taken none.

But, first, I want to get the worst trip (or one of the worst) out of the way here: it was a train trip that started in Finland taken when I was still in my teens.

I learned I could travel all the way from Helsinki to Vienna through Russia, with a two-day included stopover in Moscow, for $50.

I wanted to go on holiday after having worked all summer in the Marimekko clothing store in Helsinki. It was a hot summer and we sweltered between the racks of brightly-coloured dresses in the store, whose windows didn’t even open. On those steamy weekends, I would either spread myself out on the rocks by the seashore within the city or take a four-hour bus ride to the summer cottage of the friend I was staying with. It was located a small island called Nagu or Nauvo in Finnish near Turku. For a couple of days there we lived on a diet of fish and cucumbers and then headed back to the city.

That place was like paradise but the trip through Russia seemed like a good deal to me because 1) I had no money and 2) most visitors were still only allowed into Russia in groups. I’d been to St-Petersburg with a school group a few years before, but this time, I would be an independent tourist. Yes.

From Helsinki to Moscow, I shared a berth with two girls from Tokyo who were on their way to catch the trans-Siberian train. They spoke almost no English. but they shared their food with me and later they would send me postcards which I couldn’t read.

The Metropol in Moscow. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Once in Moscow, I was deposited by a guide at the Metropol Hotel, right around the corner from the Red Square. There was really no problem with the hotel at all: it was elegant and my room was enormous. That was good.

There bathtub was in the corner, I think. No hot water. The toilet was down a cold hallway: a woman, who sat on a chair, guarding perhaps, handed me sheets of newspaper to use as tissue.

She and no one else there spoke English or any other language I spoke at the time. So I don’t recall how I found out that the little tickets I had been given as part of my train trip also included a free bus tour of the city and two breakfasts at the hotel. I made it to the tour bus. But the patter was nearly all in Russian. I had no idea what we were seeing, the university? the Kremlin? And we visited many churches, one decorated with what looked to me like gold.

And soon I was back out on my own, at the hotel, with the rest of the day ahead of me. I walked to Red Square and somehow, because it was obvious I was a foreigner, I was put at the top of the long queue of people waiting to see Lenin’s body. We walked by quickly. He was under glass, his hands were folded over this chest and waxy.

The gaudy and gorgeous St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

I walked over to St. Basil’s Cathedral. Its decorations were painted on! Strolling around the Red Square were many people dressed in their traditional clothing, one with a huge knife hanging from his belt, I recall (but of course I had no camera.)

I stepped into the large building, the Gum bazaar, then a dark maze of shops. I peered down into the metro. I wanted to go down the long flight of stairs to see where it would lead but all the signs were in Cyrillic letters. How would I get back?

I was only nn observer. My memories are vague, maybe because I was in a bubble, just looking and not understanding.

I watched as people went to a metal dispenser of liquid opposite my hotel that held a glass. They went over and over again. To me, the sign on the dispenser looked like it said “vodka” but it maybe was water. The people used the same glass over and over.

And somehow I managed with the little money I had to buy several buns at a kiosk: some were filled with cabbage and others with a sweet chocolate. That’s all I would eat for the next two or three days when I finally got back on the train.

The good part of the train: the endless hot tea I was served. The bad part: the Russian soldier who attacked me after I had chatted and then shared a cigarette with him (in retrospect a bad move on my part.)

Then, somewhere along the way, the train stopped for a long time. A nurse went from seat to seat with a big needle, vaccinating people or giving them a shot of some sort: I said “nyet.” She was insistent. I said no: I hadn’t yet learned about the dangers of sharing needles, but I had the feeling that wasn’t good.

I have no memory what I read or if I kept a journal or how I passed the time other than looking out the window. Every time we passed a village or town there were walls along the tracks, so I couldn’t see much. And finally, the trip, at a time of my life when I had too many hours, little life experience and hardly any money, ended.

My lessons from that trip included watching my back, making sure I had some money and learning the language of where I was.

I also learned to improvise, which would help me in the 1990s when I started to travel in Canada’s North.

But, let’s flash ahead to 2006. That’s when I decided to drive from southeastern Finland to Murmansk in Arctic Russia. (I never made it to Murmansk because I found out I couldn’t go over on a day pass as Norwegians did.)

But while I have no photos from that early Russian journey, COVID-19 has given me time to look over the photos I took in 2006…

I started after Midsummer with my Finnish family… we stood by the kokko fire far into the night.
Late June in Finland when you can go out at 3 a.m. and it looks like this scene from 2006 by Lake Saimaa.
Sometimes we sat inside, but usually only if it rained or the bugs were too bad.
I rented a small car and started driving north, stopping only for reindeer.

And then…

To be continued

Riddu Riddu thaws Arctic boundaries

After tallying up a record number of visitors, more than 9,000 over five days, Norway’s 28th Riddu Riddu Indigenous festival wrapped up in the early hours of this past Sunday.

“The festival has surpassed my wildest fantasies,” said festival manager Sandra Márjá West in a release.

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The outdoor stage at Riddu Riddu 2019, which this year saw a record number coming to the festival in northern Norway. (Photo courtesy of Riddu Riddu)

“I am happy that so many people would go to Riddu Riđđu this year,” West said.

I wasn’t at Riddu Riddu to watch the festival unfold, but sitting 5,200 kilometres away at my at off-grid island cabin: I had made no plans for July other than to watch the eagles roosting and see my family.

But then suddenly, thanks to social media, accessible now on my phone,  it felt as if Riddu Riddu was taking place close by, and I wished I could just step off my boat and be there.

Riddu Riddu, which takes place annually in Kåfjord in Arctic Norway, includes Indigenous music, art, theatre and dance, youth camps with artistic and political workshops, a children’s festival, seminars, course programs, films and literature.

Riddu Riddu means stormy wind off the water in the Saami language, and had I been at the festival I would have dressed warmly as I could see that my Saami friends wore light parkas over their gáktis during the evenings.

Every year, Riddu Riddu reaches out to other circumpolar regions and indigenous peoples to spotlight the music, art and culture from a northern, Indigenous people.

And this year, its featured Indigenous northern people of the year were the Inuit of Nunavut.

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Silla and Rise, who fuse Inuit throat singing with dance floor beats, perform at Riddu Riddu. (Photo by Kalvig Anderson/courtesy of Riddu Riddu)

The line up of performers from Nunavut included, among others, award-winning Tanya Tagaq and Silla and Rise.

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Tanya Tagaq, winner of numerous awards, performs July 12 at Riddu Riddu. (Photo by Kalvig Anderson/courtesy of Riddu Riddu)

Tagaq, who has appeared at Riddu Riddu several times, also read to festival-goers from her new book, Split Tooth, which I reviewed for Nunatsiaq News.

Back in 2004, Riddu Riddu’s Indigenous people of the year were the Inuit of Nunavik.

They came after, in 2003, I had first gone to Riddu Riddu with two throat singers from Nunavik, who performed under the name of Puppuq.

After that festival, I had headed south into Finland with a busload of Koryaks, members of Mengo, a 21-member dance and theatre troupe from Kamchatka in Russia’s Far East.

The Koryaks, 6,600 of whom live in Kamchatka, were Riddu Riddu’s northern people of 2003, arriving at the festival with boiled reindeer meat, broiled salmon and fish cakes.

I can’t remember how we communicated about where they should let me off, but their bus left south of Oulu where I spent a week with friends at their island cottage, immersing myself again in Finnish.

In 2006, I was back at Riddu Riddu, when the program showcased everything from polar ska, Ainu dub, tribal funk to ethno-futuristic rock played by groups from Norway, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Siberia, South Africa, Greenland and Alaska. I hardly slept.

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Oki plays the tonkori, an Ainu stringed instrument, mixing traditional Ainu music with reggae, dub and other styles of world music. (Photo by Jane George)

I stood in front of the Riddu Riddu stage late into the night, listening to Oki, an Ainu from Japan.

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Members of the Siberian group Ayarhaan, as seen at Riddu Riddu in 2006. (Photo by Jane George)

And then there was the Siberian group Ayarhaan, which means “the tribe of the creator” which took the festival by surprise with its wildly traditional music combining elements of traditional throat-singing and Jimmy Hendrix.

Their home, Yakutia in central Siberia, is a place where temperatures range from -40 C in winter to 30 C in the summer, an extreme sort of place that produces an extreme version of throat singing.

“To survive you have to be strong, so you can hear the strength in the music,” Albina Degtyareva, the group’s lead singer, told me. “In Yakutia, you can feel and hear the power inside you.”

Her mouth harp, or “khomous,” looked like a pair of scissors with a metal tine sticking through the middle. Yakutians traditionally used the khomous, which was said to have been made by gods and possess a magical voice, to accompany their throat-singing. But Degtyareva said that 20 years ago, only 10 people in Yakutia knew how to use the khomous.

Raised in a small village, with a family where the harp was still played, she said she was one of only two people in Yakutia who felt confident enough to teach others how to play.

(And playing the khomous certainly isn’t easy: you have to learn how to make the separate oo-aa-ay-e sounds and then vary them by using your tongue. At the same time, your hand has to stroke the harp in a certain way, moving it back and forward, “like dancing,” slowly or fast, depending on the desired sound. It’s the kind of music someone has to teach you personally — and that’s what Degtyareva and her two partners did in workshops at Riddu Riddu, showing an interested group how to produce basic sounds on the khomous.)

For me, going to Riddu Riddu was an inspiration and an affirmation of strength and cultural and linguistic unity which I had always felt throughout the Arctic—and so it seemed this year for some of those at Riddu Riddu.

To see more photos from Riddu Riddu look at their Facebook page.

And, if you haven’t already, take a look at my “Like an iceberg” series of posts  on being a journalist in the Arctic in the 1990s.