To internship in IBS – by bike!

Rebecka Snefuglli Sondell, the new intern of International Barents Secretariat, arrived in Kirkenes by bicycle. Here she tells about her journey.


barentsaga-story-teltta-puolisivun-leveys.jpgThe long journey to Kirkenes and my internship at the International Barents Secretariat started off in a crowded six-bed compartment on a northbound night train together with an Afghan family and yet another hiker heading for Abisko, the tourist mecca of Swedish Lapland. We move steadily for fifteen hours through a seemingly endless forest landscape until the scenery is brutally interrupted by the Svappavaara mine, which clearly provides the vital base for its neighbouring communities. Having passed the most trafficked section of the Swedish railway system I reach Narvik, and head, as a rather lazy and novice cyclist, towards the bus station.

The passengers on the bus towards Lofoten are an international crowd who laugh at my poor cycling attempt as I admit that I was intending on starting cycling only once I reach Svolvær. A much more experienced Arctic traveler is the Swedish woman opposite me who after numerous positions in Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland is here for a two-week project at the local hospital and a good representation of the transboundary workforce that the Nordic cooperation makes possible. Before we reach Svolvær she gives me her number “in case I need a warm shower after a few days on the bike”; an offer I hardly can refuse.

barentsaga-story-laiva-puolisivun-leveys.jpgAfter an encounter with some clearly more experienced Dutch cyclists by the air pump at a nearby petrol station, and a from my side regrettable depiction of cycling in Lofoten as being rather flat and easy, I start pedaling westwards. It does not take long before the heavy paniers that caused the initial sense of total disequilibrium, become a source of stability and acceleration, enabling me to experience the landscape in a way that no bus window or train seat could ever match. At the same time as the staggering beauty of the surrounding mountains repeatedly draws my attention from the road, it is also a constant reminder of the importance of sufficient infrastructure in what would otherwise have been an inaccessible corner of the world. This paradoxical relationship between remoteness and access attains its climax a few days later as I reach Å, and the end of Lofoten, where the number plates in the car park suggest that representatives from all over Europe have decided to make this end-of-the-road their common meeting point.

Similar to the central role of the mine in Kiruna, the fishing industry is constantly present as I ride through Lofoten. Not only is the coastal line scattered with salmon farms and the characteristic “rorbuer” (some more historical than others) but also the people I meet have a strong connection to the fisheries, from the retired fishermen outside the supermarket in Ramberg to my Couchsurfing host in Svolvær who worked in the stock fish industry.

While I had imagined cycling to be an occupation in solitude, it did not take long before I realized how wrong I had been, as the invitations to conversation and meals as well as showers and future travel company presented themselves along the way. This was in stark contrast to the surprisingly unsociable atmosphere on the much more densely populated Hurtigruten as I departed from Lofoten after ten days on the road. Nevertheless, the three days of cruising was a unique experience of the ever-changing landscape as we approached the extreme north, from isolated yet welcoming farmlands to the hostile cliffs providing maritime defense wall in an environment that does not resemble anything I have ever seen in southern Scandinavia.

A visit to the Polar Museum during a short stop in Tromsø strengthens my identification with the pioneering explorers of the Arctic and although the final destination is approaching, this trip is for me but the beginning of a new adventure in this fascinating region.

Text: Rebecka Snefuglli Sondell

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