Today I got back from a week long trip to Lapland hosted by AFS. About 80 of the exchange students from all over Finland signed up a few months ago to go on this trip north with AFS and explore one of the most beautiful places on the planet. After waiting what seemed like ages, I finally left last Tuesday night (6 February) for Rovaniemi.
I'm the only AFS exchange student in Kuopio so I left the city by myself on the 7:53 pm train to Tampere. I had spent the whole of that day running frantically around, screaming and jumping in excitement and scaring the random people who I encountered (2 host brothers, host parents, friends, &tc). Aapeli described me as, "A little kid who is just so excited to go on her trip." And yes, in all reality I'm a 5 month old Finnish baby and I was so so so excited. At about 7 that evening, my host parents and I left our house and stopped at Prisma to buy a thermos and mandarin oranges for the train ride. They drove me slowly to the train station and walked me onto the train (it had arrived already and was waiting to leave). They settled me into my seat, hugged me goodbye, and I was on my way. Waiting on the train for about an hour to arrive in Pieksämäki was awful, because I was so excited to have Michael, Jan-Gerben, and Arisa get on from there. I wasted the time by using the free train WiFi and staring out the window. When we finally got to Pieksämäki, I kept staring at the door, waiting for them to walk through, but just as I turned away they got onto the train wagon. Jan-Gerben walked past me, but Michael noticed me and eventually we were all seated together and laughing and chatting like it hadn't been a few months since we'd seen each other. That's what I love about exchange students... We all get on so well and we're all so comfortable together. From Pieksämäki we went to Jyväskylä and met an AFS volunteer, Minka, who was going to be volunteering at our camp. The five of us started talking to two Iranian salesmen who were riding the train from Kuopio to Helsinki, and the conversation culminated into this conversation:
Iranian Salesman #1: "[stares directly at me] May I ask you a personal question?"
Me: "Uhh, yes, sure."
IS #1: "Have you had any surgery done to your nose?"
Me: "... No, it's all natural."
IS #1: "Wow! About 70% of all women in Iran get their noses corrected. You have such a nice nose."
Iranian Salesman #2: "Yes, you have a very natural beauty."
Me: "Well, thank you."
For the next few hours, while waiting for the Rovaniemi train in Tampere, that was the butt of our jokes.
The train got to Tampere at 10:50 something that night. We had about two hours to kill before our train to Rovaniemi left and so we all decided to go out into the Tampere night and explore. If you've never done anything like this before -have a few hours in a new city- go out and explore. Run through the falling snow, take photos, laugh with your friends, go to McDonald's, stare at the river, feel cold... Do all of it. We did. The great thing about Finland is that it's perfectly safe to run around a big city at 11 o'clock at night (as long as you don't wander into scary parts of town, but Finland really isn't that scary) and doing that is one of the best ways to pass a boring layover.
Here are some snowy shots of Tampere. My camera isn't very good at nighttime so I can't say they're of high quality.
When we returned to the train station at about 12:45 that night (I think?), there were four AFS exchange students waiting there with Minka (she had been watching our bags). Three of them, all of the boys, were from Chile, and the girl was from Austria. My group awkwardly walked in, made eye contact with them, stood next to our bags, and mingled amongst ourselves before going over to have formal introductions. It was kind of silly, really. I don't know why we were so shy. Maybe we're integrating into the Finnish system. But we were all introduced and after a few minutes it was time to go up to the train platform and board the train for Rovaniemi.
Walking past the windows of the train was maybe one of the coolest things ever, because I was staring inside and watching the exchange students who I had seen on Facebook but had yet to meet. I recognized a few of them and was moderately surprised that they didn't quite match their profile pictures. We got onto the train, put our luggage in the proper spots, and then ran throughout the train to find everybody. I suppose it wouldn't do to summarize the train trip because it was basically 9 hours of socializing with fascinating people and considering I didn't sleep much, the memories are a bit blurry. But it was great regardless.
The train arrived in Rovaniemi at 10:40 the next morning and the AFS people met us at the train station. There were two large buses waiting for us and we were sorted into groups (bus groups and orientation groups). I was group "Taneli 1", meaning that I was in the first bus and my volunteer was a guy named Taneli who had gone on exchange to Japan a few years ago. He was pretty chill, a good group volunteer leader. I sat next to Jan-Gerben, who was put in my group too, and the two buses drove to the Arktikum Museum for lunch and a bit of Finnish culture.
On the bus
The Arktikum Museum is maybe one of the most beautiful museums I've ever been to, and it holds a vast amount of information as well as good food. The buses parked at the museum and people fell out of it, staring at the ice sculptures of the museum and the vast entrance.
We then went to eat in the massive conference eating area, listened to some AFS overview speeches, and socialized. I sat with my friend Felix and got to know some Germans and also listened intently to Italian. Italian is a crazy language (I mean that in a good way).
After eating, there were two options: you could tour the museum with a Finnish speaking guide or you could tour it with an English speaking guide. Me and Felix, being ever so daring, decided to go out on a whim and have the Finnish tour. I started out the tour understanding it all pretty well; "here is a map of the location of Saami people in Lapland, here is their traditional dress, &tc" but then the tour guide slowly progressed into very fast Finnish and I could only pick up bits and pieces. So yes, Finnish culture. I learned it there. It was a gorgeous museum and I liked the exhibitions (I think my favorite one was the moose) and I wish we had a bit more time there.
The drive to the AFS Lapland camp site took 2 hours. We went from Rovaniemi up to a little town called Pyhätunturi, famous for its ski slopes. It was 2 hours of talking with everyone and I think people were pretty happy to finally get off the bus and move around. We got our roommate assignments (I was with girls from Italy, Hungary, and Thailand) and settled into our rooms. There was another introduction, dinner, evening activities (I'm sorry, this is lame, but I forgot everything we did besides signing up for camp activities), and then everyone went to sleep. I had gotten about 3 hours -at the most- of sleep the night on the train (I'm pretty sure VR, Finland's train company, designs the seats to be uncomfortable on night trains just so people buy sleeping cabins) so I crashed pretty quickly.
Thursday was dedicated to the Pyhätunturi ski/snowboard slopes. The exchange students were bussed there and people either ski'd (how do you even spell that?) or snowboarded on their own or had lessons. Of course, me being from Alaska and all, I know how to ski very well.
No that's a joke. I had lessons.
And the lessons went okay and after these few days of skiing and completely in retrospect I suppose you could say that I am okay at skiing. I am very much okay at skiing. I can go down hills and turn back and forth, but I don't use ski poles and I don't like going down the full slope. That's freaky. Family hills are pretty much my deepest extent of skiing and even attempting to maneuver off the little ski lift is terrifying and I have the potential of falling over and dying. But I'm optimistic about skiing! I can get better. I'm living in Finland for this year, in the city that's known for skiing (Kuopio), so I'll make progress. On this first day of skiing, Thursday, I decided that it's good to know my limits and not tire myself too much, because after 3 hours of lessons I thought I could go down a steep part of the slope... That part of the slope turned out to be a black diamond (okay, I wish I could understand these labels) and I crashed and smacked my head somewhat hard. Thank god for helmets. So I learned my moral and I'm a bit more cautious now. I'm glad my host parents are doctors because they were just a phone call away and my head felt better after just a little bit of time.
A few times I took the big ski lift up the slopes and shot some photos. I wouldn't call Pyhä any sort of mountain, but it was very much a big hill and the surrounding area that you looked down upon was gorgeous. Going down the hill on the lift was a bit harder than I expected -hell no, I was not going down on skis- and I had to convince the lift conductor to let me go down. I used Finnish. Is anyone proud?!
On Friday I signed up for the snowshoeing activity thinking that it would be easier and more gentle than downhill skiing. I've never fancied myself an accidental comedian, but stuff like that happens, because this snowshoeing activity was maybe one of the hardest things I've done in my whole life. And you can take that with a grain of salt, maybe thinking that I've hardly done anything difficult in my life but there were definitely moments where I felt like falling down, screaming "APUA [HELP]!" and waiting for a helicopter to airlift me back to the hostel. Hiking in snow pants is torture. They were necessary, of course, because there was four feet of snow and it was -25 C or so... But I resented them most of the time.
I started out the snowshoe trek so optimistically.
It was so hilarious starting the trek, because people were handed ski poles and we wondered why on Earth we would possibly need these. Isn't it better to walk hands free?! For photographs and such. I thought so at least. And when we were setting out on the cross country skiing route, I definitely thought it was stupid to have the poles and stupid to be doing this in general, because walking on a defined ski route was boring. But I think the snowshoe guide heard my thoughts and decided to amp up our hike, because soon we were going up hills and wandering through feet upon feet of snow and I felt like dying. Cue the apua calls. After hiking for a few hours we stopped for lunch and ate outside in this gorgeous overlook... It was so nice. I'd eat there again. But of course we continued hiking more, down through a little canyon/theatre area and up a hill that would make you give up on a lot of things, and then eventually we all realized we had walked in a circle. So eventually we made it back to the hostel and we had a bonfire.
I was so tired and the nasty blueberry soup just didn't cut it.
We had dinner after the day activities and that night there was a pancake making party. It was pretty cool, but the only jam they had there was raspberry so I wasn't able to fully experience the perfection of these Finnish pancakes without the risk of an allergic reaction. So I didn't dare risk it. But I made an awesome pancake for Jan-Gerben.
Saturday was downhill skiing again, and that day I was more cautious due to my accident on Thursday. My friend Aliza, another American exchange student, decided she wanted to ski that day (she had done snowboarding before), and so I taught her the basics (I am super good at the basics, trust me) and she went on her way. I ate lunch, walked around the slopes, and attempted to get my confidence back for skiing. It didn't quite return, you know, but it was admirable enough and that day wasn't wasted. That day wasn't wasted at all, because that night we had... MISS LAPINTAIKA 2013! The best beauty pageant in the country. The goal for that evening's activity was to take a boy, any boy, and make him into the prettiest girl around. My group, consisting mainly of very fashionable French-speaking girls, picked our boy to be Matteo, a German exchange student, and the French-speaking girls made him into the prettiest girl ever. Really. He was gorgeous. The dress they designed -made out of two sheets, I should add- draped his body and gave him a silhouette. There was a purple belt wrapped around his waist made of a scarf and he had a beautiful flower filled headband. He had powdered eyes and bright red lips, too, with a black tear trailing down his cheek for the final effect. Part of the plan for the evening was to present the models as well, and so my group decided I would be the fashion designer for Matteo and I would describe his outfit and personality in a very "sophisticated, overly dramatic" way. I put on a fake British accent and exaggerated my words while wearing Felix's black scarf (around my head) and his big black button up shirt. We were hoping that people would listen when the presentations were going on, but no................... Nobody quite heard my attempts. And so that was disappointing and I wish everyone could have seen the full scale of our project, but it's okay. And! We also didn't give Matteo a girl name, having referred to him by using an arm gesture (bending the arm at the elbow and resting the forehead against the fist) thinking it more artistic. We didn't win Miss Lapintaika 2013 but we sure tried. And we won in our hearts.
[This is where the photo of Matteo dressed as a woman would go, but I'm not quite sure he wants that on my blog, so this is the replacement. He was pretty.]
That night everything was finished by climbing up a ski slope near to our hostel and watching the Aurora Borealis dance around. It was a steep climb and I really didn't like it because my snow pants slowed me down, but once I climbed up there I sat with some other exchange students and took in the view. It was gorgeous. There were photos taken and some people went sledding too. My friend Richard and I managed to get down the hill by sledding, but we went a lot faster than expected and I ended up with about a centimeter of snow caked to my face (it had lifted from the slope). But it was a gorgeous night, one of the best in my life.
Amethyst mining was next in the agenda. Apparently Lapland is rich with amethyst, and we had the opportunity to go mining for our own gem! The mine itself was on top of a tunturi (a big form of hill, basically) and we took the coolest little ice trekking machines up the hill to get to the mines.
We stopped half way up the hill at a little tourist place, in case people needed to pee. Well, the man in charge of this AFS camp, Esteban, had thought that that time was a perfect moment for ice cream... and so when I encountered him eating a chocolate ice cream bar, I decided that I, too, wanted ice cream. And this was the result.
It's more refreshing this way.
We got back into our little piccolo pendolinos and finished going up the hill. The top had the most breathtaking views, and apparently we were really lucky, because the AFS group last year couldn't even see the trees a few feet away from them. Things were working out nicely for us.
Instead of directly going into the mines to find our riches, we sat in a very warm room, drank good juice, and had a man lecture us about the composition of amethysts and how to distinguish them from quartz. I was fighting hard not to fall asleep so what I learned from about 20 minutes of him talking like this was that quartz are white and see through, whereas amethyst is light to dark purple and a lot prettier. His talk gave me echoes back to my grandfather lecturing me about geological findings and in the midst of falling asleep, those memories gave me weird dreams. But, anyway, eventually the talks finished and we all walked down a mineshaft into a clearing area that had about ten holes scattered around the ground. Me, Mara (in my chapter, from Italy), and Aster (from Hong Kong) shared a hole and Mara was the one who found her talent for mining. The amethysts she found were huge. Mine were about the size of half a finger nail and I wasn't disappointed. We were allowed to only take one back with us so I chose this one.
I'm rich now.
One of the nice things about having an abundance of amethysts in the area is that businesses, such as spas, decide to specialize in that era. And therefore one runs into amethyst spas! People on the Lapland trip had the option of going to an amethyst spa and I jumped on the opportunity. Spas in Finland aren't like spas in the US- there are no masseuses (at least, I didn't see any), no deep body scrubs, no cleansing herbal renewal or whatever. The spa that we visited was a hotel too, and besides hotel rooms it had a swimming pool, hot tub, sauna, and steam bath. The pool and the hot tub were really interesting in that all the commands were controlled by the push of buttons, and you could have a whirlpool going if you just noticed the little black button jutting out of a pipe. I decided though that my favorite parts were the sauna and steam bath, and me, being a good Finnish girl, went in naked. It was actually forbidden to have a swim suit on (and come on, swim suits in saunas are nasty because you get all sweaty and then it just sticks to you). It was my first time being naked in a sauna with other people and so I've hit that milestone. I also decided to be adventurous and go into the co-ed steam bath naked. Steam baths are maybe a bit more relaxing than saunas because the heat doesn't quite overwhelm you as much. I can be in the steam bath a lot longer than in the sauna. And once that was all over, Felix, Tianqi (from China), and I decided it was best to buy a pizza. And we had the most amazing vegetarian pizza in the whole of Finland. I am not exaggerating.
Tuesday was the last day in Lapland as a group and for as exciting as it was, I was also really sad. But I tried not to let that bother me. We packed everything up, ate breakfast, and cleaned in the morning and then we drove to Rovaniemi. We stopped at Santa's village and had a snack and visited the guy- but due to extremely long lines I was unable to get a photo with him. But here's his village.
After Santa's house we drove the remaining way to Rovaniemi and visited a reindeer farm! This was maybe the best part of the week (besides like friendship and memories and stuff) and I loved getting my reindeer driving license. Ever since I got the email last May telling me about the Lapland trip and the chance to do this I've been looking forward to it all. I'll let the photos speak for you.
I was the driver and my friend Richard sat behind me taking photos and filming. The man who was in charge of the reindeer was wearing traditional Saami clothes.
All the reindeers you could drive!
When that was finished, we drove back to Rovaniemi and people left on different trains. The trip was over.
It's kind of interesting to see the different relationships develop over the course of a week. I've met some absolutely amazing people while on this trip and I am so happy I was able to go. I don't think, when I stepped on that train out of Kuopio, I expected to have such an amazing time. From the outside it appears to be... just a trip north. With some people who share the same organization with you. But there's something more special than all of that that can't quite be described in any kind of intelligible word, something that happens when people who have the same mindset you do come together. I've made some best friends on this trip and I can't wait to see them again, even if it's just for a few days. This week has been, by far, the best week of my life, regardless of the grueling snowshoe hikes or crazy ski accidents. And recently, too, I hit the five month mark here in Finland, and I can't believe it. Everything goes by so fast. Everything is starting to make sense here and the only thing that I can distinctly determine is that I am so happy to be doing this. So happy to be here in Finland. When I changed from Iceland to Finland last year I wasn't sure how it'd be, or if I'd enjoy it, or anything like that. And even though I still have bad days sometimes, I know that coming to Finland is the best thing I could have done for myself. I have family here, I have friends here, I have a life here.
I know that this whole blogpost has seemed like a giant bout of rambling but I don't know if I can accurately describe how everything feels now in a sensible way, especially with my English kind of failing. Maybe this isn't sensible, maybe it shouldn't be sensible, but everything just feels light as air.
"And we are far from home, but we're so happy.
Far from home, all alone, but we're so happy."