Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Sky watch

When I came to Finland, the land of the midnight sun, 4 months back (yeah time sure flows by), all I could see was days and days on end, hardly ever night. The sun would be gleaming bright in our eyes beyond 10:30pm in the "night" and we would be sporting goggles. The "night" or rather a period of almost complete dimming of light (which never really resulted in a black night); in other words twilight, was barely 2 hours long from 1-3 am or so. Sleeping was a pain. Thick curtains was the only way out. Midnight in LaplandStill being the light sleeper that I am, I would wake up at 4am, 5am etc. only to discover that it was still "night". The scientific term for this would be "white night". It took me about a month and a half to see the nightsky at all. Civil twilight is supposed to last throughout summer in regions outside Arctic circle but above 60 degrees North. As a result, the nights are never dark and black. Whereas in India, immediately after sunset, the night takes over instantly, since the length of the twilight is heavily influenced by the lattitude. I had almost started to forget what stars in the night twinkled like. The first time I spotted a star here, which then appeared to be something bright perched on the top of a tree, it was *so* bright and twinkling, that I actually thought there was a sparking going on up there. I would regularly go out for late night walks all the time. At 12am I would set out and get a glimpse of the gradually darkening sky with its various hues. Something like that is unimaginable back home in India. Both geographically and socially. But then I had to be out. After all it was twilight.

It took me another couple of weeks, before I saw the moon out here. Again, the first time I saw it, I didn't realise what I was looking at. It seemed to merge with the bright street lights at first. Suddenly I realised that this light had a slightly different shape and colour than the regular streetlight.By the moon and the stars and the sky Now I know why they call it a pie in the sky. The moon is BIG and with just that crescent which makes it appear as if someone has hung it out there. I could see why fairy tales depict the sun and the moon in the same frame, as if they coexist! I saw that it is exactly that way here...the sunset doesn't exactly vanish into the black, inky darkness when the moon is already out with bright little stars. The whole sky seems to be divided into two - one having the aftereffects of a sunset, the other having a black night with a moonrise and twinkling stars.

The sun and the moon both, appear to follow slightly different paths than what we are used to (in India). The sun is never overhead. It cuts a low arc and is mostly near the horizon. Near the North pole, in fact, it is supposed to go around in a circle and never set actually (in the summers). Because of it being so close to the horizon, it's *really* dazzling, though we are quite used to (in India), the sun being a pinkish-orange ball when it's that close to the horizon. Again, the moon seems to oscillate up and down in the sky at least back home but not so here. It lies pretty low in the sky and never have I observed so far, the pronounced up and down oscillation (akin to a person nodding his head) in these parts of the world.

AnotherAurora Borealis phenomenon quite common around the Arctic circle is the Aurora Borealis or the Northern lights. So far, I have not been lucky enough to get a glimpse, though I have been monitoring solar activity on and off. Hopefully I shall see something when I go to the Arctic circle soon.

With time, of course the days started getting shorter (technically after the midsummer eve). About a month or so back, they reached normalcy (according to what I have been used to in India). Though, I noticed that the days were receding *quite* fast. Each day, the sunrise is about 3 minutes later and sunset, 3 minutes earlier. That would mean that on an average we are losing 6 minutes per day. That means that in a month, we would be short by 3 hours! It's already quite weird to have a sunrise at 8:15am or so. Soon it would be as dark as night at 9am. *shudder*. I am used to seeing a bright moon in the sky at 5pm in the evening courtesy my stint in Japan, but am not used to it being dark in the mornings also. If one outstretches ones thumb and index finger to the maximum and takes them to be the length of the day and then joins them together gradually, it would depict the way the days are getting shorter and the nights are gaining in. Eventually, there would be no "day" left at the point where the thumb meets the index finger. Technically this would happen completely at the Arctic circle, not Helsinki. It seems there're a lot of seasonal depression related ailments that happen in Scandinavian countries due to the "no light" factor. I hope to be out before the thumb meets the index finger!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

A day in Gamla Stan (old town)

Please read Cruise to Stockholm and Twilight in sunset and moonrise first.

The next morning, by the time we woke up, we could see that we had already entered the archipelago of Sweden and the ship was just skirting around zillions of small little islands to reach Stockholm, the capital. After quickly freshening up, and grabbing a pizza slice yet again, we again rushed to the sun deck to catch a glimpse of the slightly different looking panorama. The buildings lookedApproaching Stockholm similar (to Finland) from a distance. As the port came closer, ppl rushed towards the exits. The cruise staff had taken pictures of everyone while entering the ship and had displayed them for ppl to make it theirs for an exhorbitant sum. Yet, we all indulged and took a copy each of the rather silly looking pictures because after all, one doesnt go to Stockholm on a cruise everyday. The large crowd did what was expected. Due to us being such a large no of ppl in the group (8), and each one being at a different location when the ship touched land, we all got separated for some time. Six of us managed to find each other outside at the Viking line terminal but two duds got so late, that we missed the bus tour which left from the terminal once a day. Eventually we took local transport (had already converted to local currency - Swedish Kronor - in Helsinki) to the city railway station. From there, we took an open top, double decker, hop on-hop off bus, the sorts that Shah Rukh Khan has crooned and kareened in, in many movies. The open top, hop on-hop off bus
The plus point of these was that one could get off at any stop in between, visit the place and then hop on again into any of the later buses. It also had headphones for an individual audio tour in many languages, which gave a commentary about the various places being passed by. Thus, we passed by the cultural centre and Sweden house. We got down to see the famous Vasa Museum, which is a museum built around a ship. This ship was made in early 17th century and on the day of its maiden voyage, in all splendour, the ship sank, the moment it set sail (in 1628). A case of bad design it seems. The ship was salvaged in 1961 and a museum was built, after restoring the worlds only 17th century ship to what it would have looked like then. Click this to see the museum from inside. We were told that our exhorbitant "hop on - hop off" bus ticket included free admission to almost all museums, but that was not the case. Thereafter the hop on - hop off bus got coined as the hop on, hop off and f**k off bus.
Eventually we checked out Vasa museum from outside. There was another museum nearby which we went to and then waited to hop on again, since we didnt have much time in Stockholm either. We passed by City hall, where the Nobel prize banquet is held every year, the opera and some theatres. We also passed by the open air museum (Skansen) and the amusement park - Grona Lund, where we were entitled to free rides (for sure this time). But since we didnt have time, we didn't venture there. Next we got down at the Royal Palace, where we asked a rather stern looking guard when the "change of guard" would occur. Luckily we were just in time for that ceremony. We found some spots which provided a good view of the ceremony (yours truly being in front of a mob in full camerawoman style). The change of guard at the Royal PalaceThe "change of guard" was a typical formal, military affair and nice to watch. Immediately after the ceremony got over, the military band broke into ABBA's "Dancing queen" much to our surprise! After the change of guard, the new guard at the entrance was a rather cute looking young chap, with whom yours truly got a picture clicked. Unfortunately he looked more like a stiff mannequin than a real human being. By the time we got free from this place, it was already past lunchtime and all of us wanted to grab some lunch. We again hopped on into the f**k off bus and got off at the stop no 9 (Sightseeing boats) and went to the Central station once more (stop 13), this time on foot. Everyone had something at Burger King with the exception of yours truly who had Thai food. After a sumptuous meal, we were barely left with just enough time to walk back to the Viking line terminal in time to board the ship on time. The hop bus would have taken a complete circle of the whole town and that would have been too late. A narrow cobblestoned street
The best way to see a place is anyway peripatetic. So we gathered our maps and our bearings and walked our way to the ship. On the way back, we went by the narrow cobblestoned streets of Gamla Stan, saw the sparkling water all around and the various ships and tours available to the Viking village. I personally didn't find much difference in Stockholm and Helsinki. The architecture seemed the same due to the Swedish influence in Finland. Only the signs were not bilingual but only in Swedish this time. The same brands and the same stores are in both places. I didn't even feel as if I visited another country due to the seamless integration of EU. The only difference is that Sweden doesn't use the Euro as its official currency, otherwise everything else seems the same. A few things reminded me of back home though. For some reason a lot of the crowd in the cruise consisted of Bangladeshis. Also, surprisingly there were tongas being used in Gamla Stan! One of my colleagues even distorted Gamla Stan to gamlistan and then to gulistan.
Here's a nice bird's eye view of Stockholm. It actually has maps and pictures both and is really like flying to that place.

After getting into the ship, once again it was some more of the sun deck The beautiful skyfollowed by some more music, dance and drinks, since it got quite cloudy instantly. There were lots of pets on board and I met a couple of them. Pendo and Jerry were two of the dogs I met. Pendo is an Alsatian, known as German Shepherd in this part of the world. The ship even had a pet's corner. On the return trip, we had the tax free shopping to take care of. I bought loads of chocolates. We also had the karoake bar to try again. But this time again, by the time we got to the karaoke bar, the timings were already over. We went exploring the lower decks of the ship which were meant for the cars and other vehicles. Unfortunately, we were imagining them to be Taking a lift from the shipin some large yard kind of thing, but it wasnt like that. We couldn't see anything except for endless rows of cabins. We also visited the Sauna centre and managed to take a peek in as it was closing down for the night. After partying for some part of the night, we retired slightly early as we had to get to our workplace, straight from the terminal the next day. The next morning, 8 weary travellers got off at the Viking Line terminal at Helsinki, tired, hungry and pleased.