By Devki Pande
Abisko is located two hundred and fifty kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. The village begins at the shore of the Torne Lake, which drains into the Torne River. I was staying four kilometres to the west of it, about a hundred metres from the Kings Trail. From my window, I could see the lake which had frozen white and solid and ringed with members of the Scandes, and beyond that, the bite in the mountains that forms the Gate of Lapland.
“It’s good that you’re here.” A local remarked, when I told about my desire to witness the Northern Lights, and how I couldn’t see them on the journey northwards. “We have much better weather here. The air is so dense in Kiruna.”
If the journey through Lapland was a sentence, Kiruna would be one of the several commas in it. I paused there for a night, before continuing a hundred more kilometres north to Abisko, the full stop. These were the other significant commas: Linkoping, Jonkoping, Jarvso. Kiruna is the northernmost town in Sweden, is small and industrial, and located just within the peripheries of human settlement. Even entering into March, the snow was thin enough to wade through; thick enough to resemble cubes of feta cheese on the top of cars. The closer the Arctic Circle, the more bleached of colour the landscape becomes- like applying Fair and Lovely to foliage. The grass keeps becoming shorter, sparser, and morphs from dark green into a mottled yellow green, and as we nudged the Arctic Circle, all was white and glowed, like a radioactive substance. The town glowed; glowed white during the day, and orange for the few minutes of dusk. Out of the saffron coloured sunset, an iron ore mine sends trapezium shaped trolleys to border Kiruna, like a border on the page of a book.
It was that line of trollies that I followed to Abisko. Another comma – the Ice Hotel, with Sami symbols carved into the walls, with rooms made of blocks cut out from the frozen Torne River, with reindeer pelts on the beds and the doors. Another- the small Sami village, where I fed reindeer dried lichen and drank a broth made from the stock of reindeer fat and bones- the only drink apart from alcohol that can warm your bones. The sleds built out of Juniper and the rust coloured leather draped over it makes you think that this is where Santa Claus resides. But that is the Finnish Lapland, and this is the Swedish Lapland. Here, instead of a Santa Claus, there is a tomte-a small elderly man the size of a garden gnome, who lives in the farmsteads and acts as a guardian for the family.
Coming from a country filled with so many colours and sounds, it is odd to live in a place where the population density averages two people per square kilometre. To witness snowfall for nine months in a year, and to see no other colours other than the trees and the lego-like houses, with hills outlined in prickly green which from a distance look crowned with star anise. The ochre plains, the fields of straw so tall that you get lost in them are a place where folklore comes alive. Here, I can easily imagine Frodo and Sam making their way through marshes, and tap the knot of a tree to reveal Mirkwood. The river running through a forest dense enough to cut out all light is where Arwen confronted the Nazgul. This is, after all, Tolkien’s land.
In Abisko, when a herd of moose walking over a zebra crossing doesn’t propel you to grab your phone and start taking pictures, or at the very least crane your neck out of your vehicle, that’s when you know that you are getting used to the landscape. It is about those eight hours that you spend hiking through a snowy 425 kilometre trail thinking that it all looks the same until suddenly dark falls and you see the Aurora Borealis dancing its way in from a corner of the sky.
I started to think: when you actively visit in a new place, why does it feel as if you have been away longer than the actual count of days? Because I had experienced this too; I returned to Gothenburg after a week, yet it seemed as if I had been away for a season at least. Human perception of time is rooted in change; through sunset and sunrise, through the passing of seasons, through growing old. If I feel that more time has passed than it actually has, then it is because something inside me has changed.
According to the Gita, it takes a soul several lives to become equal to the gods, which happens only when you embrace change.It takes lifetimes to become a complete world; that’s why gods have rising suns for crowns. So when you change what you know in just seven days, you feel that it has to be longer; it must be longer. Moving, then, expands your time on earth. It allows you to create another tangent of time; a season has passed for you, but in the real world, it amounts to a handful of days. Like the unsuspecting person who wanders into Faerie. Folklore is full of stories about people who went looking for something and came back different. It doesn’t matter whether they found what they were looking for; what is important is that they chased it off the map.
Introspection doesn’t just happen in a closed room or a library; it is a violent reaction when there is nothing but the road in front of you.
If you think about it; this could be the crux of every pilgrimage undertaken; that travel is tapas.
On my last day in Abisko, a friend and I walked beyond the lake. We passed the black spot where people jump into to cool off after a session the sauna. We passed the river which had thawed in holes to reveal running water. This was a part of the Kings Trail known for sightings of moose and reindeer, and although we didn’t see any, we saw lines of cloven footprints and the pellet sized droppings of the arctic ground squirrel. We saw a black and white starling shake itself and fly off from what I had considered to be a curiously shaped rock. The path we were walking on was a straight route forward into the east. We had walked a considerable amount, yet she kept trudging forward. We had already distanced ourselves enough to capture a panoramic photograph of the buildings. I asked her where she was trying to go. There was a suspension bridge a few kilometres away, and if we looped the trail, we could reach the Aurora Borealis Sky Station. Is that what you want to see? I asked. I’m chasing the sun, she replied.
Student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, intern at Contract Advertising Ltd, Devki Pande has worked for Essel Vision Productions Ltd, developed education oriented content for Laugh Out Loud Ventures, conducted workshops for underprivileged children in rural Uttarakhand. She is currently in Sweden, on an exchange programme, studying sustainable design.