Saturday, March 27, 2010

Longyearbjen, Spitsbergen

March 26, 2010
-15°C, Clear
This morning, we flew from Tromsø to the island of Spitsbergen, at 78° Northern Latitude. Flying in, there were huge icebergs and sheets of broken up ice floating along the polar sea, and on shore there were huge snow-covered mountains surrounded by nothingness. Like when we got the first peek at the turquoise water flying into the Maldives, when the plane descended and the arctic landscape was visible, all the passengers oohed and gaped out the window. Cameras were pulled out, and people moved around to get the best view.

We had to walk from the plane into the terminal, and I had put my winter clothes in my checked bag so I was just wearing a little sweater. Those 20 meters from the plane to the terminal, with the -40°C wind chill, was undoubtedly the coldest I’ve ever been in my whole life. We took a bus to our hotel, where we are staying in quads. I’m actually writing this while everyone else is having dessert – I’m full and am enjoying the few moments to myself. The feeling of confinement is even greater than in Alaska because it would be crazy to go outside right now because of the cold, not to mention the polar bears.

Our hotel has a pamphlet at the front desk called, “Take Polar Bear Danger SERIOUSLY!” and describes how polar bears should always be considered dangerous, and if there is a clear threat to your life or others lives, you should shoot to kill. It’s a shame they’re so dangerous because all the stuffed ones are so adorable. But apparently, it’s a serious issue all over the island, especially near coastal areas. As much as I would love to see a polar bear in the wild, I would not want to be wandering back from a bar and encounter one.
We did go out today, for a two and half kilometer hike to the grocery store. It started out great fun: we saw two people dog sledding, it was beautiful to look at the mountains, and it was really nice to be outside. The grocery shopping was uneventful, but the last kilometer on the way back was icy cold. I was all bundled up (four pairs of pants!) but the small portion of my face that was uncovered burned a little bit, then went numb. We came back and I was very thankful for the heating, and to my surprise, people who hadn’t gone out were wearing jackets indoors. It’s been several hours but I still feel like it is very warm inside. And my face is still very very red from the wind or cold burn.
Nevertheless, it’s wonderful to be here. It’s absolutely amazing to look out over the snow covered mountains with the totally unreal arctic sun blazing down. The moon hasn’t set yet (it didn’t in Tromsø either) and it was shining brightly just above the mountain closest to our hotel. I hope we’re going to get to go out on the ice, but it’s uncertain whether we will have the money in the budget. The other thing I’d love to do is ride a snowmobile. They’re noisy and spit out stinky exhaust, but they’re also ubiquitous here and look very fun to ride.

I can’t believe that I’m in the Arctic. I keep having flash-backs to all the amazing places we’ve been: the coral reef in the Maldives, Ngoro-Ngoro Crater in Tanzania, the Himalayas in India, and the only thing that I could even compare to the Arctic is the White Desert in Egypt: the snow could be the white sand, the dunes are like miniature version of the mountains, and it is about as barren.

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