No Photoshop, just Instagram

@chrispytine on Twitter and Instagram

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Aurora and Santa hunter

As a child, Santa didn't play a huge role in my culture. As children, we did leave out stockings but when they didn't get filled, we stopped believing. Little did i know that Santa really 'exists'. I was told by a Finnish friend it's a full-time job for one in the Arctic Circle in Lapland

Also, there is the chance of the aurora.

So like a storm chaser, I assumed the unofficial aurora and santa hunter this season.

I've never hunted any kind of animal before (except men), but common sense tells me one would need patience. If a treacherous  journey is involved, it will make the story more worthwhile telling. 

Ivalo was a nearer airport to Kakalauttanen but I chose to fly into Rovienami with Finnair. The metro bus line passes through the airport directly to Kaklausttanen and is 3 hours.
Rovienami airport is like a dead town.
Go to the info counter and help yourself to a free passport stamp.
Day 1, 2030 hours:
The last bus scheduled at 2018 hours was late. I was anxious when i didn't see it rumbling towards me at scheduled time. I was afraid to be left stranded at the empty airport. Surely Santa's not gonna be here to comfort me. 

2400 hours: Its -20 but the people are filled with warmth. From the bus driver to Hotel Kakslauttanen's Jia Yi who waited for me past midnight for my arrival. Pushing my lugguage on a sleigh in 3 meters snow, i reached glass igloo 5.

If you wear glasses like me, it is best to have opti-fog lenses. Heaving my own lugguage created lots of heavy breathing that fogged up my glasses.
Self-serve/ carry luggage to accommodation on a sleigh is part of the experience
0030 hours: I set my alarm for 2.30am after hearing there has been aurora sighting the last two nights. The first was at midnight, the second at 4am. 2.30 seemed like a good in between. I turned in for the night without my regular before-bed shower. Igloo guests use a communal shower 5 mins away and it was -20 outside. My igloo was basic but warm and inviting. The floor is lined with rugs, and the double layered bed is covered with a zebra print over-throw decorated with red & black cushions. The toilet has a very low sink and while you can't shower inside, the detachable bassinet shower head was handy. A taste of living in an igloo structure without the cold as temperatures are kept at a optimal 24 degrees.
0230 hours: My alarm went off, i only had to open my eyes, look through the roof to see it was cloudy outside. A cloudy sky meant no chance of aurora occurence, I went back to sleep. 

Day 2, 0800 hours: my eyes fluttered open, above me i saw dawn breaking in the distance. The sky's colours are of nothing i've seen before. Pastel purple, pink and baby blue make the colours of day in the Artic Circle. My below-par Ixus could not capture this & i could only make a mental snapshot.
The steep price of my igloo was for this reason, i don't miss neither waking nor ending moment of the Artic sky. With 95% of its structure transparent, you trade privacy. There are mini curtains placed at the lower end so that when you lie down on bed, you won't have village creeps peering at you. However, if you stand, you'll be seen. I've seen my neighbours half naked & i'll know when they visit the bathroom (you only see shadows in the bathroom). 

I wonder if a couple has sex in the glass igloo, will they breach the Sexual Offences Act or Public Order Act? Only one way to find out. 
0900 hours: Breakfast is served at the main building. It is very simple with yogurt, hard boiled eggs, bread & a variety of herrings offered. The traditional Finnish pastry made of milk and sticky rice is exceptionally good, especially when warm. 

1015 hours: I signed up for a husky safari. As a dog lover, this was my favourite part. These Alaskan Huskies are working dogs. The farm owners explained immediately, dispersing our doubts when my eyebrow raised at the scrawny dogs. As i interacted with the dogs, i realize how much they love to run and pull the sleigh. They were buzzing with so much excitement, howling and revving to go. Tugging at the sleigh violently, they can't wait to transport me.
As i was a lone rider, i got to drive the sleigh throughout the 2 hour tour in the unspoiled snow forest. Full gear was provided for the safari, to wear on top of our existing coat for warmth. Ice formed in my hair, my hands and feet went numb but the experience was worthwhile. 
I weigh 48kg and i had 4 dogs in my team. At times, the scrawny dogs are strong enough to keep my wooden sleigh moving despite me jumping hard on the brake and putting my entire weight on it. 
Clinged on for my dear life. 

There are also reindeer sleigh rides, but i heard they are more sedated than the huskies. I am kind of ignorant, i did not know that reindeers are real. I had always thought they were make-believe because of Santa. 
Here they are, but without a red nose.

Day 2, 1300 hours: I explored the grounds of Kakslauttanen, in the distance, i hear the huskies howling. Everything was white, the air was dry and still. Skincare should be brought in creams and not lotion as the plastic bottles may crack. I went around for a photo shoot. The aurora temple on hotel grounds weren't anything spectacular. At 5pm, i went to the communal shower and sauna to kill time.
2000 hours: On my second night, i re-thought my aurora strategy. I downloaded the aurora sighting app but it needed 3G to get aurora alarms. There is no wifi in the glass igloo.

I realised i would miss the aurora if i slept through the night. Waking up intermittedly was not the strategy to catch an aurora. So i plotted to sleep at 8pm, wake up at 11pm and keep the midnight watch till 4am. And that's what i did. My alarm rang at 11pm, i dragged myself out of bed and did 90 mins of yoga under the stars in my glass igloo. Then i snacked on fruits and watched 2 movies. By 4am, there was still no aurora. I went to bed defeated.

Drowned my sorrows with reindeer piss. This is an alcoholic cocktail with meat bouillion.

Day 3: Disappointed i didn't catch the aurora despite splurging on an expensive igloo, i caught the 3 hour back to Rovienami city center. I had 2 more nights to catch the aurora.

Hotel Sky Ounasvaara had an aurora special where the hotel stay comes with an amazing dinner, breakfast, aurora alarms and a private sauna!
Private sauna in bathroom
Reindeer meat tastes gamey. Not my cup of tea.

The aurora 'alarm' comes in the form of an old-school Nokia phone!

If you receive a message, you immediately jump out and up the hotel's rooftop (3 storeys high).
Wear something to sleep that is convenient to jump out into the cold if your Nokia beeps. I really felt like i'm a soldier on standby.

Day 4: Still no aurora sighting, i went to Santa's Village.
At his village, you can find Santa in a chamber. Along the magic corridor, you will see his special boots which he needs when crossing marshlands and also a device, several meters long, to lower presents down the chimney. You feel like you walked into the insides of a clock, representative of Santa's secret abilitiy to control the clock- slow down the passing of time.
Take a picture with Santa for EUR 20
You can remember the Meet-Santa experience on USB for EUR 38

I am tickled by the fact that people around the globe sends letters to Santa. Every post office knows the address to forward to even if you just wrote 'Santa' on the envelope.
However, the correct address to write is 
Santa Claus,
96930 Arctic Circle. 
And the magic coordinates of the Arctic Circle are 66'33'07". Santa's post office receives about half a million letters annually and some 40K gets hand picked to be replied to by Santa himself. When i visited, one of the elves told me there has been 5 from Singapore that week. Yes, there are 'elves' working in the post office. It would have been totally awesome if midgets were employed, but that could be touche to some. 
Notable letters that reach Santa makes it to the Wall of Fame.
This elf is new on the job, while another elf i've met have been on the job for 10 years.
If like a needy kid, you want to guarantee a reply from Santa, you can pay EUR 7 for a reply.

Otherwise, when you are at the post office, you can send out postcards that will be stamped with the special Arctic Circle postmark. 
I don't know how it became a universal idea where everyone sends their pacifiers to Santa for his baby elves and baby reindeers when they outgew them. 
Santa's Village's only highlight is the post office. The more interesting one would be Santa's Park, which is like a theme park without rides. I didn't get to go as it was closed while i was there. 
Surviving in -20 degrees wasn't too difficult. Shopping on helped, with the wide array of jackets, scarf, boots and woolen tops. I wore thermal as a base layer, then ski pants, a woolen top, a fleece scarf, ski gloves, down jacket and a snow cap. 

On my last night, i signed up spontaneously for an aurora hunting tour.

And guess what? I did see an aurora in the end.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Things to do in Athens

Greece is my favourite Europe destination. The Greeks are very welcoming. If we looked like in a fix with a map, we would have passer-bys proactively asking if they could help with directions. It also helped that most of the good looking people are found in Greece.

Other than the obvious Acropolis, and the hammam experience (a must do), here're my best memories of Athens.
There are 8 archaeological sites, it took me 2 days to walk them all.
Where to Eat
You'll regret if you miss Oikeio (pronounced as Ikio) as every item on the menu is heavenly. Recognized by Tripadvisor (Certificate of Excellence 2013) and Michelin Guide (Bib Gourmand Prize), best is to book in advance. For high quality ingredients and authentic Greek recipes, the prices are very affordable. I think our table of 8 cost less than 200 euros. Moussaka is very Greek, an eggplant with mash potato lasagna  Every morsel made me tear with joy. Be sure to order the saganaki , pan fried feta covered with sesame and honey. Once you pop, you can't stop!

  • Ploutarchou 15
    Athens 10675
    Phone: +30 210 7259216

    From restaurant to street side, a few steps away is another typical Greek cuisine, the souvalki. These are grilled meat skewers. A typical after-party stick, i particularly like the meat patties as well as home-made chunky fries. The bill for 5 was less than 40 euros. 

    Kalamaki Kolonaki
    Ploutarchou 32, Kolonaki
    +30 210 7218800

    Where to Shop

    Plaka is near the acropolis and it took us awhile to locate where it is. We didn't know we were in it until we were quite sure we were in it because there was no other street like it! I swear i wasn't trying to play mind games by just writing that sentence. Plaka is the historical neighbourhood of Athens, the area is very different from others. If you arrived in an area with slopes and white washed tourist shops left and right, you are in Plaka. 
Epmoy is a girl's heaven. Greek fashion brought me to my knees. While the clothing and shoes on this shopping street are not quite cheap, they are of such style and simplicity that I can't resist. Clothes are what makes a Greek Goddess.

Where to Go
We used to book our ferry tickets to Mykonos.

An easy 3 hours away, we were in paradise! A Greece visit is incomplete without paying homage to the islands.
The flowers were blooming, the walls were without a speck. It is a community effort to keep Mykonos looking the way it is.
Oops, i think i dirtied the wall with that foot pose.

Caught the secret painter who keeps the walls so white!
The most beautiful sun set i've seen. 
My Spainard's face can launch a thousand ships. 
Mykonos has enough shops to keep a girl busy shopping as well as sea and sand to spend the day. October is the best month to go as the party summer crowd have gone so it is less crowded. Shops on this island open till late. When it is summer, it can stay open as late as 4am.
Be sure to eat at Pasta Fresca at 15 Kouzi Georgouli str. We chanced upon it getting lost among the narrow alleys that looked identical because of the white. You can't miss it, with such a display of handmade pasta outside. The pasta is AMAZING.
If you're into getting your fortune read the Greek way, you can get it by drinking a Greek coffee at Archileos 47, Paleo Faliro. Be mindful that there is also an Archileos street in the city center, it isn't that. We took a tram from Syntagma and it was an adventure just tracing down this cafe. It is one of the rare few still standing as people no longer frequent such. We went for the fun of it, believing it completes the Greek experience. 
Greek coffee actually tastes very bad. It has so much residue in it, its the worst coffee I've drank. However, it is from the texture that leaves behind your fortune. Don't get me wrong, you certainly can drink a Greek coffee any where, it doesn't necessary come with a reading. Like ancient Chinese monks reading inside the temple bells which evolved to the Chinese reading tea leaves in a tea cup (which resembles the temple bell), the Greeks uses their coffee. 

The coffee residue is read outside in. The outer rim represents the next 2 months and the maximum you can know about your future is 6 months. The lady speaks limited English but wrote the rest in Greek which needed translation. A reading costs 25 euros on top of 6 euros for the coffee that tastes nothing like Starbucks for that price.
The Gazi area has many quaint cafes to wile away an afternoon. Food is nothing to call home about though.
The College
Having not taken biology, i got a crash course on anatomy in the local Athens Central Market found on Athinas Street (Omonia station). Opened only Mon to Sat, from 7am to 3pm.

The butchers are super friendly and welcoming for pictures. It felt like a horror movie, walking into a slaughterhouse with men in white lab coats splattered with blood.
Not for the faint hearted and weak stomachs, i have not seen anywhere else where animals are skinned whole and displayed. One butcher told us that animal on the top left, with a cigarette from its mouth, is a cat. Later on his neighbour whispered to us he was pulling our leg. It's a lamb.
Rabbits with their furry tail still intact.
Dentures, anyone?
Greece, the true experience. 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...