A land where there is no Sun in winter, where our insurance against Armageddon is stored, where there is no requirement for a visa and anyone can settle in and work, where everyone stays out of choice and not because they have to, where nature and its beauteous might is visible every minute in the form of 24-hour Sun or the Northern Lights or the vastness of the icy wilderness, where the polar bears outnumber the humans, where it’s illegal to die (since the bodies don’t decompose here) where the beer is the best in the world… Sounds like paradise? It is a paradise in a way – it is called Svalbard! Up above the Arctic Circle, the last inhabited town before the North Pole…
I landed in Svalbard straight from sunny India (okay, with an evening in Oslo). India is about the Sun, brightness, people (lots of ém) and noise (one helluva lot of it). Svalbard is about none of these – no Sun, perpetual darkness (at this time), very few people (there are more polar bears than people here) and no noise. The rest of it is fine, but the silence is seriously disconcerting and comforting at the same time…
I started thinking of Pullman’s iconic “His Dark Stories”, the Norse mythology that I had read earlier with Odin and Loki and Thor and the Gods and even Led Zeppelin and their Ïmmigrant song” with the Hammer of the Gods…
The prospect of seeing the Northern Lights was exhilarating – they have their own charm irrespective of the number of times I have seen them. I still stand and gape open-mouthed every time I see them (this was my first trip to Svalbard, earlier I have witnessed the lights from Iceland, Norway, etc, all of which are very different from Svalbard, to say the least).
The Northern Lights – Perpetual night for 100 plus days every year. The Northern Lights through the day and night… through the night rather… Heaven, don’t you think? Well, it can get a tad boring for the locals, but it is sheer exhilaration for us plebs who aren’t as blessed. You can call it what you will – the Gods racing across the skies, Gods playing football with a walrus skull, solar flares, nature’s discotheque, djinns casting an evil eye, whatever… For me, every time I am in the presence of the Northern Lights, it gets me all philosophical. I start contemplating my own insignificance in the larger scheme of things, the presence of a supreme power holding it all together, the ridiculousness of targets and measures of success in an ephemeral life that is but the twitch of an eye in the larger construct.
Of course, there’s a lot more here:
Revered and feared, there’s no stepping out of the town precincts without a guide with a gun to scare these big 1000-kilo blighters off… We didn’t catch sight of them, though we hoped to…The Coal Mines
The Coal Mines
Now abandoned, they are still open for tourists to come in and take a look at the way the mines were operated a few decades back. They even give you miner overalls while going in, for that authentic feel… And then, deep inside one of the abandoned mines, we all switched off our headlamps. The darkness was so intense that if one kept one’s hands in front of one’s face, one couldn’t see it. Pitch black darkness that seems so thick you will feel you could cut it with a knife… And in this, one of our group started singing The Sound of Silence… She sang really well of course, but the setting gave us all the goosebumps…
A replica of the original camp in the midst of the icy wilderness which was set up by the initial settlers in the region. This is where we caught sight of the Northern Lights dancing in the sky and then warmed ourselves up with some reindeer soup, Akkevit and stories around a fire.
The place that distils their beer from the Polar water. Lends quite a different taste to the beer I must say. In the interest of academic research (and only that), I went to the distillery and tried all their varieties of beer… Quite an experience, especially when one had to trudge back to the hotel in the cold, with all that beer sloshing around in one’s belly.
Global Seed Vault
The iconic place where the seeds of all plants on Earth are stored for posterity for reuse in the event of the plant line going extinct, or in the event of all plant life on Earth being wiped out. This is the cradle of the resurrection in the event of Armageddon…
Seasonal Affective Disorder, the onset of depression, nausea, laziness, etc coming on due to the lack of sunshine… Folks told me about it, but this is one thing that I did not experience unless the need to listen to Simon & Garfunkel can be a symptom of this… ?
This is the northernmost Church in the world, with its plain, simple elegance and warmth (literally, the Church is open 24/7 for folks to keep warm and pray)…
People of Svalbard – Nomads at heart
This is where I met Mike from Brazil. He moved to Canada to work in a restaurant and Spain for a year and now has been in Svalbard for the last 2 years. When I met him, he was working as a Chef in one of the restaurants there. He intends to stay for a while, till he gets bored of the life here. He says till now he hasn’t been and expects to be here for far longer. They work really hard to survive here, they party harder and they enjoy nature. According to him, life and its setbacks and issues seem fairly trivial here when confronted with nature at its brutal, uncertain, glorious best at all times. That’s the drug he says has him addicted to this simple place where life is far simpler. This is a common sentiment that folks I met in various places (from bars, restaurants, mines, stores and even the Church) in Svalbard expressed… Nomads at heart, all of them.
Happiness at the moment, the falling away of Maya in the presence of nature and a realization of the self in the deep silence… This is what Svalbard gave me in the time I was there… That’s why I will be back here… To stay for longer amidst the silence and polar bears… And beer…
The most powerful memory that stayed in my mind and kept playing out was Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence”.
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
That’s Svalbard for me – Silence… Perpetual, silent, continuous, silence…
Did you know Svalbard is a no-visa place? Click the link to read more.
- By Kishen Prasad, Director, Beyonder Experiences,https://www.beyonder.travel