Of Reindeer and Snow Mobiles

December 19, 2015

“We’re late!We’re late!We’re late!”

RP has gone ahead to hold the bus. Much to the husband’s consternation, I’m packing breakfast at the buffet.We walk, run, skid and our to the waiting bus and off we go. Arctic Guide Services is going to be drive an hour and a half or so outside Tromso to a place where we can see and pet reindeer and go snow mobiling. We doze past soaring mountains and icy fjords. Occasionally we open our eyes to marvel the beauty that surrounds us. Each time I open my eyes, I wonder how I can bring myself to shut them but the flesh is weak.

When we reach our destination, we are greeted by our Sami guide. He directs us to a little building where we change into the thermal suits provided by Arctic Adventures. The husband cannot find a helmet that fits so he is asked to ride with the guide, while RP gets me and more adventure than he bargained for.

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The first part of our ride is pretty smooth. We ride out to where the reindeer are. The reindeer are part of a herd that belongs to our Sami guide.  The Sami are the original inhabitants of northern Scandinavia, spread out over four different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola peninsula. Like most indigenous people, they have suffered discrimination and proselytizing and as a result their numbers have been considerably decimated. Today, to qualify as a Sami, a person must have atleast one Sami grandparent.  There are around 30,000 Sami in Norway , out of which only 2 -3 % of the Sami people still follow their traditional occupation of reindeer herding. In Norway, the Sami now have their own parliament which promotes political initiatives and manages missions and laws delegated to them by national authorities.

DSC_0039It is considered rude to ask a Sami man how many reindeer he owns. Honestly, it never even occurred to me to ask him that. Reindeer are like small donkeys with enormous antlers. After we pet and feed the them, we set off once more on our snow mobiles. When we get to a flat patch of snow, our guide demonstrates what a snow mobile can really do.  Each person gets a turn to sit behind him, while he flies past the rest.

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Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran

Now it’s time to change drivers.  I start the machine and here we go. Okay this is not so hard. Eeeasy. Now turn a little – use your body. “Turn the handle.” Huh! “The handle”, RP shouts in my ear.  I’m trying, but it’s stuck. This is hard. The snow mobile is not a toy. It takes considerable arm strength to turn it. You can’t use your weight, like I do on a motorbike. In fact you need to turn one way and throw your bodyweight the other way, to keep the mobile for toppling. It’s not that hard, but it takes some getting used to and you need to be a little strong. I struggle along, and bump into a tree. Tree, mobile, riders are all unharmed.After this, I somehow get the hang of it. Up, down, right, left and  back to the reindeer  herd. This is the scary part. Anyone with road experience in India knows not to trust cattle. Thankfully, the reindeer decide to keep out of my way and I park.

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We enter the little cabin and find ourselves in a Sami home of the yore. We are offered hot chocolate, cookies and a hot meal. While we munch ans slurp, we are educated on the ways of the Sami. Traditionally, the Sami lived in a community of families called a siida.  The menfolk went herding, hunting, trapping, and fishing, while the women stayed back to tend to domestic chores like cooking and stitching.The reindeer-herding Sami were traditionally semi nomadic. They maintained a permanent dwelling in the valley and spent the summer living in tents in the hills.Their permanent homes were either frame buildings or sod huts. The Sami tent or lavvo  is  in conical in shape. It has a circular framework of poles leaning inward  and a floor of birch twigs covered with layers of reindeer fur. Both tents and huts are arranged around a central fire. In the days long gone, the Sami followed a shamanistic religion. Now most follow Christianity.  Some Sami still wear the group’s brightly colored traditional clothing with distinctive bands of bright red and yellow patterns against a deep blue background of wool or felt. Their traditional shoes are hand stitched from reindeer hide and fur and most ingenuous.

It’s time to head back. In a few hours, we will set out to see the Aurora Borealis.

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