food / travel

Reindeer Sandwiches And Karaoke Bring Warmth To Lapland's Icy Beauty

Adventurers flock to the Finnish hinterland to take in the Northern Lights, winter sports and some culinary surprises.

Lapland's northern lights
Lapland's northern lights
Sandra Zistl

AKASLOMPO - This little sausage has seen better days. After having been carried around in a backpack for two and a half hours in the frigid temperature of Lapland’s snowy taiga forest, it’s scrunched and half frozen.

Ronja spears it with a stick and puts it in the flames of the fire she’s made at the edge of the trail: the forest ranger had left firewood in a small shelter. We’re having a barbecue at -20°C.

"We like to grill outdoors, even in winter," the 38-year-old explains. The snow-covered conifers all around us look like the wintry wonderland of every central European city-dweller’s dreams. In Lapland, scenery like this is routine.

The sausage is now brown, and is beginning to smell good. Ronja is laughing. She thinks the idea I’ve just proposed – that she’s the confidence-inspiring sort of woman you have no trouble seeing felling trees with an ax and building a log cabin – is funny but not wrong: "Maybe we got good genes from our ancestors so that we can survive up here."

Good genes – or are the Finns, at least the ones who live in Lapland, crazy? In any case, people who live north of the polar circle, whether in Finland, Sweden, Norway or Russia, tick a little differently than the ones who live south of it.

Lapland can refer to the Swedish province of that name, a region in Finland, northern Scandinavia, or a somewhat larger cultural area that is home to the Sami people and includes some regions south of the polar circle.

Regardless of your definition, think snow blanketing everything – despite climate change – for five months of the year. Up here a cross-country skier or snowshoer is more likely to run into a reindeer than a road. There are so few inhabitants that the library is on a bus that crisscrosses this area of northern Finland, stopping in the various villages once a month.

Far away from hectic city life, the pace up here is relaxed. The Finnish language, with its 15 grammatical cases and a pause after pronouncing each syllable in a word (like an off-beat in music), is perfectly suited to it – it’s as if people are trying to save energy when they talk.

White gold

"We’re not the fastest, for sure" says Toivo Qvist, confirming my impression. The 47-year-old is sitting in the bar of the Ylläs Humina hotel, warmed by the flames of a roaring fire in the fireplace, sipping a glass of 2007 Barolo. "But we know how to have a good time in these temperatures."

Toivo, who calls his guests by their first names, runs a family-owned hotel that mixes tradition with modern comforts. It has separate saunas for men and women; appealing warm, light log cabins grouped around a main building, all kept nice and warm with underfloor heating and fires in the fireplaces, and furniture inspired by iconic 20th century Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto.

Toivo collects southern European wines, mainly Italian, and has 1,000 bottles in the cellar. They are among the few imported items he tolerates. The ingredients for Ylläs Humina menus are mostly regional: lots of fat-free, tender reindeer meat prepared different ways, a great variety of berries and mushrooms, deep red salmon, caviar.

"For a long time, southerners made fun of us country hicks," says Toivo. But not any longer – ever since hotels like the Ylläs Humina with its log cabin charm have been attracting more and more tourists to the north. The village of Äkäslompolo (pop. 400) accommodates 10,000 during peak season.

"But there’s still enough room for everybody," says Pekka. He knows whereof he speaks: some days, all the company he gets is that of reindeer and birds. His "kotomaja" – a wigwam-like wooden hut – is only eight km from Äkäslompolo but in the winter you can only get there by ski or snowshoe.

Pekka is the only one allowed to drive a snowmobile on the trails of the national park. With him he carries food and drink that he sells to tourists: hot, very sweet berry juice, reindeer-meat sandwiches, fatty, fried baked goods and donuts.

Pekka is 45 years old. Does he sometimes get lonely in all this splendid isolation? Laughing, he says: "I love the snow, the forest, and the reindeer that visit me. And when I get the feeling I’m not seeing enough people, I go to a karaoke bar."

Finns in general love karaoke, he tells me – particularly those who live in Lapland looking for some excitement to the winter months.

Anybody who goes to one of the karaoke bars – and every village has one – after 6 p.m. is in for a surprise. Older people, some of them still wearing their cross-country boots, dance unrestrainedly to pop hits. Kati, a local cab driver, has just given her best rendering a Finnish version of Robbie Williams's "Angels" and is now sipping a Coke.

For five years she’s been heaving heavy bags into her minibus and driving their owners around Lapland, so she knows what draws tourists here. "The Japanese come because of the northern lights, the rest doesn’t interest them much."

Finns from the southern part of the country prefer snowmobiling, she says, while the Germans and Swiss are into vigorous daytime sports then like to spend their evenings by the fire over a good glass of wine. They all come here in search of picture-book winters – and are not disappointed. With a wink Kati sums up: "Snow – it’s Lapland’s gold, darling."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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