Crossing the Ocean of Milk, the Frozen Baltic – Stockholm to Helsinki (2000)

Crossing the Ocean of Milk, the Frozen Baltic – Stockholm to Helsinki (2000)

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The golden sun plays hide and seek behind the spires of the receding Stockholm skyline. The city’s myriad holmens and bridges are silhoutted against the horizon. The green church steeples glint through the snowdust. From the deserted deck of my Viking Line cruise liner bound for Helsinki, I frantically try to capture the magic of  the Stockholm sunset on transparencies. My camera turns recalcitrant and my fingers freeze.  After a few shots and I give up. It was early March. The temperature must be around Minus 12.

The Baltic is an expanse of frozen ice – white and luminous in the twilight.  It reminds me of the milky ocean which my grandmother used to tell me about – one that gods and demons churned with Vasuki, the serpent to extract “amrut”. I remember being somewhat sceptical about a snake being used as a churning rope, but never doubted the existence of the milky ocean. Now I knew why. This must have been it – the frozen expanse of the Baltic. Even the liner didn’t seem to split or churn the frozen ocean. The ice seemed almost invincible as the frozen mass joined to form a continuous sheet as soon as the ship passed.  Perhaps that’s why they had to use the serpent to churn it.

On both sides are the enchanted islands of the Stockholm archipelago. Some have quaint little cottages with red tiled roofs while most are deserted. There are many islands with just a single dwelling – and you almost expect to see a Viking canoe emerge from the bend with Hagar, The Horrible at the helm. There is not much boat traffic, though, during this season. Perhaps Hagar is still out on his expedition The wind makes it impossible to stay on deck and I reluctantly go down to the lounge.

Gabriella is a magnificient ship with ten decks. There is a huge lobby on the seventh deck, surrounded by bars, discos, nightclub, casino, restaurants and cafeterias. The dutyfree shops are one deck below and the cabins even futher below. I decide to park myself in the lounge with a tankard of beer to watch the janta. They are all ages, all styles – from frumpy housewives on holiday with their families to svelte nymphets in brief skirts balancing on their six-inch stilettos. There were matronly gypsies in their huge umbrella-shaped black gowns whom I mistook for performers.. Children of all ages were romping around everywhere. Gawky young men stood fidgeting, trying to catch the attention of the passing nymphets. They didn’t have to try too hard though. There were Brits, Germans and Italians and many other natioanalities that I couldn’t recognise, apart from the Swedes and Finns. Curiously, on that journey, I seemed to be the only non-white – male or female.

My cabin mate was an Australian computer professional who had travelled from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway and then on to St.Petersberg and from there to Stockholm via Estonia. Now she was going to Helsinki and from there to Greece via Gdansk in Poland, Prague, Vienna and Budapest and all other interesting places en route. She remnisces rapturously about Lake Baikal and Irkutsk in winter and I listen in awe. We make a date to meet at Vienna later that month, since I would be stopping there on my way back.

Early next morning I am back on deck again. The ocean of milk seems have to have curdled. The sheet is broken into a million icefloes – all rhombus-shaped and more or less the same size. Maybe someone churned it while I was asleep. Helsinki’s landmark – the cathedral with a characteristic green dome and golden stars – shimmers in the mist. I wonder if the days would be as sunny as they had been in Stockholm. The snow carpet over Helsinki seems to be much thicker – more like a white quilt with the tops of the buildings forming the patchwork. But when I land, I find the quilt is not fluffy or crunchy, but has hardened to slippery ice on the streets. I slip and go careening on the footpath, but mercifully, my backside is buttressed by my backpack.

Helsinki is a flat and uninspiring modern city where shops, plazas, malls and arcades seem to overshadow the few architectural splendours. It does have its share of a few landmarks – mostly churches such as the  Espenski Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in all of Western Europe,  the post-modern Temppeliaukio Church, the Opera House and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. Finns seem to like white color the best for their buildings. I pick up a few brochures at the tourist office and decide to take a walking tour of the city. The Finns don’t smile as much as the Swedes.

The sun takes pity on me and peeps out of the cloud.  The Esplanadi square where the Sami people have spread their atrociously priced handicrafts, is awash in brilliant white sunlight. The Samis spy me, the lone tourist at this hour and call out to me. We haggle raucously over a moosehair brooch which I have no intention of buying. I settle for a more affordable moosehead keychain.

The next day I take the ferry to Suomenlina, the Greta Garbo of the Baltic islands – beautiful, mysterious and aloof. You get the feeling it snows eternally in Suomenlina. The snow quilt over Helsinki seems to have graduated to a snow mattress on this remote island. Seagulls were everywhere, much like pigeons in our cities. Suomenlina has a 250 year old fortress which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built when Finland was still part of the Swedish empire. The Sveaborg Fortress was to fob off  invaders from the east, but capitulated to the Russians in 1808. Thus, Sveborg is a painful reminder of how Finland lost its status as a Scandinavian country. Today, 900 people live on this island, mostly to protect the sprawling fortress, but there was hardly any evidence of human habitation except a few bicycles parked outside closed doors, There are several fortress museums which trace its chequered history. I ramble through the silent ruins made even more eerie by the intense cold. There is a magnificient view of the bay from atop the hill. My shoes plough the first prints on the virgin snow. I lose my orientation in the blinding light and go in circles before I find the only shop on the island. I am grateful to be among people, – the few islanders who came for their groceries – and sit down with a hot coffee and a pastry. People in Suomenlina didn’t feign indifference as those on the mainland did, but joined me at table to chat me up.

Back in Helsinki, I go in search of an Indian restaurant. All over Scandinavia they stand out with identical names like Maharaja, Samrat etc. In Helsinki, there was even one called Indian Express which served fastfood samosas and the like. The prices are ridiculously high, but then I was also ridiculously starved. The owner, one Sood, had been living in Helsinki for the past 35 years, but had still managed to retain his authentic Punjabi accent.  The fare, of course, was as authentic as the accent. The next day, I ride a tram to the outskirts of the city and another to the harbour where a flea market is supposed to offer fantastic bargains. All I see are a few stalls offering garage sales of all kinds of secondhand household wares. Even old clothes and badges and medals were on display. The magnificient ships lined up on the harbour opposite provide better diversion. I stroll back to Esplanadi and walk into an internet parlour. The attendant was nowhere in sight, so I drop a coin into the slot to get started. To my dismay, I can’t locate the keyboard, but the screen tells me that my time was ticking away. I grope for knobs and buttons and suddenly the monitor comes alive with the image of the keyboard. Finnish technology is too modern for me and gobbles up my ten mark even before I figure out how to use the screen keyboard. I give up in exasperation and head for the Viking Terminal to get back to Stockholm.

(Published in The Statesman in 2001)

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