Travellers Tales and Stories
A tale may be fanciful, a story the narration of events: in any case travellers' tales are often a mixture of both. These are amongst those collected by John Francis Kinsella in fifty years of travel to almost every corner of the world.
The cover below is from my latest book
The Legacy of Solomon
This tale starts with A Jesuit at the Shakspeare and Company bookshop in Paris...
A good story with good original writing.
Whisky on Ice
The first tale is set in the north of Finland at a place called Yllasjarvi about 100 miles north of the Artic Circle. It takes place around 1990.
Partagas and Pigeons
The second tale, Partagas and Pigeons, is set in Cuba, and is a rocambolesque story of a couple of Irishmen and their attempt to buy illegal cigars Go to page
This is one of the stories that inspired the novel Offshore Islands
The story here is one of four published on these pages, the other three are: Partagas and Pigeons, A Weekend in Bangkok and A Jesuit at Shakespear & Company
But first we start with...
Whisky on Ice
eering through the window of his room, he saw in the morning half light a whitish grey world punctuated by the forms of a few pines and birch in the near to middle distance. To the left he could make out another log cabin, some fifty meters away. The snow had continued to fall all through the night and had drifted up to the edge of his window. In the parking area, their Chevy was a smooth white mound, topped out with about thirty centimetres of fresh snow.
His throat felt sore: he had no doubt caught a chill from the cold dry northern air the previous evening. It's just the kind of place I've always dreamt of for my old age, he thought, shivering at the idea of the cold outside. Yllasjarvi was about 150 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle and on that March morning the mercury was a little under minus fifteen degrees centigrade, the snow was still blowing fiercely at an almost horizontal angle.
Thank God it's well heated, he said to himself as he opened the room door and made his way towards the kitchen, where he could smell the aroma of fresh coffee.
"Hi there! Have some coffee," said Eriksson, his greying hair hanging in a mess over his forehead. He set a mug on the table, carefully avoiding the ash from his Marlboro fall into it.
"See the snow?"
"Is possible to ski in that?" said Ennis.
"No problem, of course it's possible, we can ski in anything!"
Ennis had been hoping, after what he had seen outside, that the ski outing would be put off. Breakfast had been laid out for them on the table in the dinning room; it was typically Scandinavian, ham, sliced sausage, cheese, canned fruit salad, cereals, milk and orange juice. In the background, CNN news was announcing the details of the never ending Middle East crisis, and Axelmann was hunched over his mug sniffing suspiciously at the coffee.
"Do you know that this cabin was built from dead trees?" Jorgen announced suddenly.
"Well I didn't think they were living," Ennis replied waking up and laughing hilariously at his own wit.
"Seriously, they were already dead before they were cut down, perhaps as long as one hundred years, in the natural forest areas of Lapland."
"They still exist?"
"Sure they do, though there are less and less. Look at that tree out there!" he said pointing through the window.
Ennis saw a naked, lead grey tree, its bark had long disappeared, it was smooth, lifeless. A few paces away were living pines, the ochre red of their trunks contrasting with their dark green needles.
"Yes, it's been dead a long time."
The cabin, if it could be called that, was in reality a well equipped bungalow, designed for the harsh northern winter conditions, disguised as a traditional log cabin, constructed from ancient wood that had stood dead untouched for more than one hundred years, preserved by the arctic climate and pure air.
After breakfast, they pulled on their ski suits and took the Chevy driving over a winding track to the ski lifts, about three kilometres from the cabin. Jorgen purchased their ski cards as Ennis observed the scene, no more than a handful of hardy skiers, slowly hiking - skis on their shoulders - towards the lifts.
Following the line of skiers they arrived at the lifts and hitched onto the T-bars that towed them to the summit of the hill that dominated the slopes. The wind gnawed at them as they were slowly towed upwards, their unprepared leg muscles strained as their skis skidded, weaving menacingly over the icy ruts. On reaching the top, they dropped their T-bars in a scramble and then leaning against the wind, they pushed their way across the exposed plateau.
The wind moaned and Ennis felt the cold biting into his cheeks. In spite of his thick snow gloves his hands started to feel the chill, his skis skittered over the hard ice exposed by the gusting wind, the fresh surface snow had been carried away by the wind to form drifts against nearby mounds, which were probably outcroppings of rock. On the communications tower that dominated the plateau frozen snow blown by the wind had grown in monstrous irregular forms.
"I feel like fucking Scott of the Antarctic!" he said turning to Axelmann who was struggling along behind him.
"Who?" His voice was barely audible in the wind.
"Scott of the fucking Antarctic!" he shouted.
"You got the wrong place to start with, this is the Arctic."
Axelmann made a sign with his hand pointing down: he then turned sharply around on his skis and without pausing headed down the slope, in long curves throwing small bursts of finely powdered snow, towards the restaurant-bar three kilometres below.
It was just the right moment to get something hot inside of them, to ease the bitter cold that had started to penetrate through their ski suits. Once inside the restaurant they joined Jorgen Eriksson, who was already comfortably installed at the bar, a large of glass beer before him, lighting a cigarette.
"You look like you are enjoying yourselves," he said laughing.
"Here, let me offer you a hot grog.” He ordered two grogs from the barman. “Don't worry we have a warmer program for tonight and when we get back to the cabin we'll start with a sauna."
Axelmann lifted his eyes to the sky accepting the steaming grog. "There's girls?"
"No, no, you got it wrong the Finnish sauna is for your health!"
"Well a nice looking girl would do a lot for my health right now," said Axelmann.
"Okay, tonight at the Whiskylumpolo!"
"You’re obsessed...okay; sure, it's about 35 kilometres from here, around the other side of the mountain."
After a light lunch they returned to the cabin, where the sauna had already been heated up. Following Eriksson's example they took a shower, then timidly holding a square of stiff, white, paper board: to cover their nudity and on tip toes went into the pinewood sauna.
"That paper is to sit on! You know hygiene."
"I see," Ennis muttered, "they don't want us farting on their sweet smelling pine benches."
"If you like," said Eriksson, giving up hope on the two southern philistines, who were beyond appreciating the finer aspects of Finnish tradition.
The temperature in the sauna was about 70 degrees centigrade. Eriksson threw a ladle of cold water onto the heated stones, and with a sharp hiss a scorching cloud of steam billowed up, making them gasp for breath.
"Are you sure this is good for you?" said Axelmann, who was already perspiring profusely.
"Well providing you don't have a weak heart it’s okay. You know one of the best things is to roll in the snow afterwards."
"Not fucking likely," retorted Ennis. "Where’s the beer?"
"That's outside, where we cool off."
"Let's do that."
They left the sauna for the adjoining room, where a crate of Lapin Kulta beer stood waiting for them.
"Lapin Kulta, that means Lapp Gold," said Eriksson opening a bottle and handing it to Ennis.
They sipped their beer directly from the bottle, and seated themselves comfortably in the large wicker easy chairs that furnished the room, recovering from the different extremes of thermal shock of the day.
That evening the snow was still falling as they headed out in the direction of the Whiskylumpolo. Rudi was driving, he was a Bavarian, and had already drunk a couple of large beers, which according to the strict Finnish laws was well above the limit. He carried a Saudi Arabian driving license, just in case he was stopped, it was his conversation piece. He drove like a German, snow or no snow, with his foot on the floor.
Ennis sat on the front seat hypnotised, half with fear of the accident which he was convinced was imminent, and half by the whiteness of the world that was unfolding before them. The ubiquitous snow blanketed the road ahead, it looked hard, like frosted ice; it rose up over the banks on the side of the road, and covered the trees on the edge of the forest. Rudi was a good driver and the Chevy, a four-wheeled drive with spiked snow tyres, did not budge a single centimetre from his predetermined track. The road was narrow and from time to time a bus or a truck loomed out of the darkness and passed them in a whirling cloud of white powder.
It was about thirty minutes to the Whiskylumpolo, around the other side of the mountain. The road rose and fell, from time to time they were forced to slow down or stop for reindeers, the size of very large dogs, standing in the middle of the road caught in the headlights of the Chevy. The animals moved off into the birch and spruce, their hooves slipping on the smooth snow that covered the road - but only after Rudi had sounded his horn several times, swearing loudly at them in German.
Soon they saw the lights of the Whiskylumpolo flickering through the trees, then the road broadened out as they left the woods.
"Here we are, over there," Jorgen said pointing to a large car park, full of snow covered cars and pickups. It surrounded a large modern winter resort hotel, a huge neon sign shone brightly, announcing the Whiskylumpolo. Inside, the disco was packed with a mixed winter sports’ crowd, aged from twenty to sixty. The lights were low and through the thick cigarette smoke they saw a dense crowd of dancers swaying to a popular love song, sung by a plump blond accompanied by a four piece band.
They pushed their way through the throng towards a long S shaped bar, positioned diagonally across the discotheque. Finding a narrow space between the drinkers they ordered drinks, tall beers for Jorgen and Rudi, and whisky sodas for the others, Axelmann took a coke. With their drinks in their hands, they turned towards the dancers, scanning the scene, hopefully trying to locate the unattached girls in the dim light: they were not disappointed and were soon dancing and changing partners. They enjoyed the evening dancing, drinking and laughing, lingering into the small hours, closer and closer to their disco partners, in eternal hope of an instant conquest.
The ride back to the cabin was much quieter than the outward trip: they were in varying degrees of fatigue and inebriety. It was almost four when they collapsed into their beds, barely aware of where they were, and soon dreaming of the dates they had fixed at the disco the next evening with their new friends.
A few short hours later, equipped with cross-country skis, they left the cabin with Jorgen Eriksson and Pieter. They followed in the tracks made Eriksson’s skis in the fresh snow. It was about two kilometres to go to the pick up point, where a rented helicopter was to fly them to a peak, in a nearby range of low lying mountains.
The morning sun was shinning brightly but the temperature was minus fourteen degrees centigrade. The overnight snow hung heavily on the pines, sparkling in clear light that filtered through the branches. They stored their skis in the helicopter baggage compartment and clambered in. The pilot switched on the ignition and the motor started, whining slowly, a cloud of powder snow rose into the air, projected from the blades of the rotor, which turned slowly, then gradually picking up speed. Eriksson gave the thumbs up sign to the pilot and the helicopter lifted out of the clearing, rising over the trees and headed east towards the sun.
The forest below seemed petrified, the coating of snow appeared to be fixed to the landscape like frost in a freezer. Before them was an unchanging panorama stretching as far as they could see, the dark form of trees and then more trees, punctuated with open patches of snow covered ground. There was no clear horizon: it became a greyish-blue blur where the hills blended into the sky. There was no sign of human life, no roads, no houses, no smoke, and no cars.
"We will fly about sixty kilometres to those hills over there," shouted Eriksson pointing vaguely to a white ridge in the distance ahead of them. "It's about seven hundreds meters altitude - not so high."
They looked into the distance and simply nodded the noise was too loud for any intelligible reply.
"It will take only about twenty minutes," he said fumbling with a map that he had taken from his pocket.
"It's about seventy or eighty kilometres through the forest back to the cabin, about six or seven hours including a stop for lunch ... a good part is down hill," he had added 'down hill' so as not to discourage his guests, whose faces showed their surprise.
"I thought it was just a couple of hours," shouted Ennis over the noise.
They landed in a flurry of snow and unloaded their skis and knapsacks, hurriedly carrying them away from the helicopter, which promptly took off after a peremptory wave from the pilot and disappeared back in the direction from which they had just come. They quickly put on their ski caps and gloves, fastening their jackets tightly. The wind was as sharp as ice as it cut through them, stinging their faces, cold to the point that it was difficult to breath.
"It must be under twenty up here," said Eriksson with some relish. "It's good for hangovers."
"Let’s get our skis on then."
They slipped the knapsacks onto their backs and fastened their skis making last adjustments. Then pushing on their sticks followed Eriksson as he turned into the wind and headed down the slope, over the icy hard snow that had been uncovered by the gusting wind.
They were not used to cross country skis and had difficulty in turning and braking on the slope, it was not at all like the prepared slopes in the resorts of Switzerland or the French Alps they were more accustomed to. It took a considerable effort to keep up with Eriksson following the trail he traced over the fine snow. The trail resembled a desert like wilderness, permanently whipped by the wind, forming mini drifts with streaks and ridges, reminding Ennis of the dunes he had seen on the edge of the Sahara. Soon they were trailing some fifty or more meters behind Pieter, who stopped to wait for them, then immediately pushed on.
"It will be easier after this first part, it’s the steepest," he shouted pushing on.
After a short distance, they left the higher slopes of the hill and arrived at the tree level where the going was easier, the slope was gentle and the ground was almost flat. There was no distinct trail: they simply followed Pieter’s tracks, who was obviously used to such outings.
It felt a little less cold; the efforts they had made in their thick ski suits had warmed them up. The only noise that could be heard was the whishing of the skis in the snow and their own panting as they kept up the brisk pace. Jorgen Eriksson in spite of his bulk seemed to follow with very little effort, unaffected by his heavy smoking and drinking.
Their path gently turned through the forest and they settled into the rhythmic arm and leg movements, skiing in the grooves the Pieter had cut in the snow with his skies, their breathing slowly recovered to an almost near normal effort. The snow was less sticky than on the hill where the temperature had been lower now, their skis slid easily over the snow, the temperature had risen to just under minus ten degrees centigrade. The branches of the spruce bowed under the weight of the fresh snow. The monotonous black and white landscape was only contrasted by the ochre trunks of the pines.
There was no apparent life in the forest, although Eriksson had assured them there were reindeer and even elk in the region. They saw no birds, but after careful observation, Ennis saw from time to time the tracks in the snow, and even the small round droppings of some small animal.
They had been going for just over an hour, when Eriksson announced they would make a pause for a smoke and coffee. They had each been supplied a large thermos filled with hot coffee, a small bottle of cognac and a supply of sandwiches.
"These trees here are probably 200 hundred years old you know," he said with a wave of his hand. The forest that surrounded them was a mixture of pine and birch trees.
"Some of the big ones could be 350 years old," he said pointing to a large red pine. "This is a northern climax forest, quite different from tropical forests," he laughed, "but the ecological principal is the same, climatic climax. This is a natural park area; it has never been logged or disturbed, except for a few skiers like us. When a tree falls down, it's left where it has fallen; everything is left exactly in its natural state. The rules are very strict for visitors. In any case this area is so far off the beaten track that not more than a few hundred people come here each year."
They intensely appreciated their coffee, which they held cupped in both hands for the warmth, sipping it slowly.
"How far have we come?" said Axelmann, with an edge of hope in his voice.
"I would say about fifteen kilometres," Pieter replied.
"Fifteen kilometres!" Ennis said with some surprise, "I would have thought more than that."
"It's not bad, at this rate it will take about four more hours without stops, if we keep up the same pace."
"Christ!" exclaimed Axelmann, "we'll be half dead at this rate."
Eriksson laughed sending a cloud of cigarette smoke and vapour into the cold air.
"Don't worry your doing fine, you'll soon forget about distance ... but I have to say tonight you'll probably have some problems with your legs!"
There was a noise in the trees, a little off to their left a movement, then they saw three reindeer looking at them with what appeared to be curiosity, their legs sunk deep in the snow almost up to their chests, one of them had only one antler. They were a creamy white in colour. After a moment, the animals turned and with what seemed to be laborious jumps ploughed through the deep snow, off into the forest with a flurry of powdered snow falling from the branches of the spruce.
Ennis and Axelmann laughed with surprise and pleasure, experiencing the closeness of nature and the animals of the forest.
"We'd better be going, you'll probably see quite a few more of those today and maybe an elk if we're lucky!" said Pieter.
They screwed back the lids of their thermos flasks and set off again, settling down to the rhythm in a mindless effort. The blue sky had become leaden, just a pink lining on the low black hills ahead of them. It had started to snow.
"How far have we to go?" Axelmann asked Jorgen.
"Just over to those hills," he said pointing to the west. "The temperature is dropping, the wind is blowing from the north. Look! You can see the snow building up on the tree trunks, only on this side, that's how we know the direction of the wind, when it's from the north it's colder."
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