>> Nov 14, 2009
Clutching my snowboard bag, the only item of my luggage to have made it with me to this frozen land -for this was the day that Tim, the God of luggage, stopped smiling on me forever- I stood shivering outside Kuusamo airport in northern Finland and wondered fleetingly if it was too late to book a return flight home on the plane I'd just arrived. The only plane scheduled to be leaving until tomorrow. A roar of engines behind me told me it was.
In my still-damp-from-the-London-downpour jeans, the hairs in my nose freezing unpleasantly with each inward breath and teeth chattering uncontrollably in my head, I looked around in dank despair at the gloomy car park and rows of menacing pine trees that seemed to have the place surrounded like a prickly, frozen army.
- Fuck me it's cold!
- What am I doing here?
Not exactly the inspiring first thoughts of great explorers reaching far off lands (or at least not the ones they record for prosperity). Nor ones usually associated with people finding themselves in the land that they will now forever know as home (although, in my defence, I didn't know this at the time. If I had perhaps I would have come up with something slightly more profound). They were quickly followed by ones even less awe inspiring given that I was standing in Lapland in early December.
- I wish I'd brought a thicker coat.
- Why's it so dark out?
Unless reporting my missing luggage had taken an awful lot longer than I thought, it couldn't have been later than 2pm. What right did the world have to be so dark at 2pm?
Looking forlornly around for the driver that was supposed to be meeting me, I wondered for the 57th time that day what on Earth had possesed me to sign that bloody contract. I loved snowboarding and skiing as much as the next ski rep and new challenges are all well and good, but I also loved the sun. Those months in the Alps where you could be snowboarding in a t-shirt by lunch time or sunbathing in a terrace bar with a nice cold beer. Plus the alps held no great surprises for me, there was no great learning curve to go through on arrival. Not like this place.
And yet there I was, shivering in a country about which I knew the square-root of sod all, except that it was cold and dark - the wealth of knowledge I had obtained during my first thirty seconds - and in 14 days time I was supposed to start hosting and sharing my knowledge of the area with 200 plus tourists a week. A suddenly very daunting task.
- Four whole months in this hell hole?
Little did I realise that over five years later I would be yet to leave this strange and beguiling land.
Tired, wet, shivering, sans luggage, and surprised to find myself still alive after a turbulently terrifying flight from Helsinki, I was starting to feel rather sorry for myself.
-Maybe this is one trip too many. Maybe I should just have listened to my mother and settled down back home in Manchester with some dull office job. Maybe I'm just not...oh!
I had spied a board with my name, only slightly misspelt, scrawled across it. I plastered a quick and probably not very convincing smile to my face and stepped forward to meet the driver who was impatiently tapping his feet and looking not in the least bit cold under his furry hat and bulky coat.
Furry hat envy was a whole new experience for me.
"Ah, you are here!" ("at last," his tone implied). "I am Jukka. I drive you. We go now Ruka," the man with the board said after I stopped my teeth chattering long enough to introduce myself.
-Great, at least I get to sit in a nice warm car and...
Jukka, bless his heart, was not actually a chauffeur (what was I thinking?), or even a taxi driver (another stretch of the imagination) but was, I realised as he gestured towards our transport, the bus driver. He escorted me hurriedly to a large coach ten yards away, a coach that, despite it's clean and generally healthy appearance (much better looking than a vast majority of the transport I have entrusted my life to in the past), did not sport any sign of snow chains. I looked down at the road beneath it, a winding ribbon of glistening, shiny white, and my stomach dropped. For a few seconds I simply stood staring at the bus wondering, as I had many times in the past but usually in third world countries, whether this was really a wise idea.
"Hurry please, we must leave." Jukka said from behind me, trying not to show his frustration at this woman who had obviously, from the fact that there were dozens of impatient looking people on his bus, held him up whilst she filled in lost luggage forms and was now dithering around like an idiot.
With a resigned sigh and a quick prayer to Colin, the God of bus journeys, I reluctantly surrendered my one remaining piece of luggage and climbed on board.
-Oh well, it's got to be warmer than out here.
And it was, mildly. It can't have been less than -5 degrees Celsius on board. I slouched in my seat trying not to watch the gloomy world speed by at sickening velocity as we flew past endless snow covered trees.
My stomach lurched everytime I caught sight of the trees whipping past the window. I closed my eyes and started chanting to myself.
- Please don't let us crash. Please don't let us crash. Please don't let us crash.
A heart-stopping squeal of breaks had my eyes snapping open and staring fixedly at the seat in front of me as we skidded to a halt in the middle of the road. Heart pounding in my throat, I unclenched my fingers from the seat beneath me, pulled myself upright from my cowardly semi-lying position and peered out of the window. There I saw, to my utter delight, a family of reindeer crossing the road.
Real, live, wild reindeer with velvety antlers, awkward looking knees and red collars around their necks. Despite myself, a smile spread across my face.