Chasing Lights in Finland

If you have been following along with my previous blog, you will know that it ended on a minor cliffhanger. If you are interested in reading the prequel – my adventures in Iceland – you can read all about it here.

I travel very lightly and rarely ever check luggage. Several years ago, I was forced to check my carry-on at the gate due to a lack of overhead space. Well, I had a delayed flight and a tight connection – bad combination! Long story short, I ran to make my international connection, but my bag wasn’t as lucky. For two full weeks my suitcase took an amazing trip around the world – Germany, China, you name it. But I was in Italy with no luggage the entire time. As an extra little slap in the face, it finally arrived at the hotel on the morning of my return flight to the United States. It was just in time for me to inconveniently lug it back home.

Needless to say, I was a bit concerned as I had a tight connection from Copenhagen to Helsinki. Thankfully both I and my checked bag made it to Helsinki!

Maxin’ and Relaxin’

My final destination in Finland was a lesser known town called Rovaniemi. Not very many flights go out to Rovaniemi, so I had to wait to catch that flight the following morning. If you ever get stranded in an airport, Helsinki is definitely the best place for it. Pro tip: make your way to gate 34. With several full sized “beds” and more outlets than you will ever need, the lounge is tailored toward making long and overnight layovers as comfortable as possible. Helsinki also rents out private sleeping pods for a small price, if you prefer some privacy as you sleep.

Christmas in March

After catching a few zzz’s at the airport, I finally boarded my flight to Rovaniemi. Why Rovaniemi…? Apart from the gorgeous snow-covered scenery, there was one big draw for me to visit the Arctic Circle: this is where Santa lives!

The *REAL* Santa !!

How exciting! I stood in line and got a chance to chat with the Jolly Old Fat Man for several minutes. We had a great conversation, and he gave me his blessings for a safe and fulfilling year abroad. When it came time to take a photo with Santa, he insisted that we both make the thumbs up hand gesture. So did I do the cheesy pose…? You bet I did! When Santa tells you to do something, you better listen! I’m not trying to get on the naughty list!

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

After a lovely visit with Santa, I made my way to the next stop: a reindeer sleigh ride! What better place is there to do this than in the Arctic Circle?! There are exactly 200,000 reindeer in Finnish Lapland. Several families own reindeer – they keep them at home during the winter, but then are tagged and allowed to run wild for the rest of the year. Every winter, the animals are rounded up and counted. The population is capped at 200,000 to ensure the ecosystem is in balance and has a food source for all of the reindeer. Every year when babies are born and the population exceeds the max allowance, specific reindeer are chosen for slaughter. Every single part of the reindeer is used, there is zero waste; the meat, antlers, fur, skin – every part serves a purpose.

In my childish wonder, I imagined the sleigh magically gliding through the snow, drawn by all eight of Santa’s reindeer. The reality of it involved one lonely reindeer walking very slowly on a path through the snow. Soooo, not exactly as I had pictured it, but a peaceful ride and beautiful scene nonetheless. Finnish Lapland, with its snow covered forest landscape, is the quintessential image that comes to mind when someone utters the phrase “winter wonderland.”

Making it “Official”

After driving the reindeer sleigh in the frigid temperatures of Finnish Lapland, the owners of the reindeer farm invited me in for some hot tea and presented me with an official Reindeer Driver’s License. That’s right – watch out world! It is valid for 5 years and I am legally allowed to commandeer a reindeer and tear through the forests of Lapland. ? 

To end this section, some random reindeer facts that I learned and found interesting:

1. Antlers are unique to each reindeer, much in the same way fingerprints are to humans. Every time a reindeer sheds its antlers, they grow back in the same exact unique pattern.
2. Each antler can weigh up to 7kg, which means reindeer carry up to 14kg on their heads. Can you imagine walking around holding up 30 pounds on your head all the time?! I can’t!
3. Males and females both have antlers, and shed them at different times of the year. Males need them to fight with other males, and shed their antlers after mating season (September/October). Females need their antlers to protect themselves while they are pregnant. They shed them after delivering their babies in the Spring (May). 
4. Reindeer shed their antlers one at a time. Because they are so heavy, and because the reindeer are not used to the uneven weight distribution, there is a period of time that reindeer are unable to compensate and walk around with their heads lopsided.

Hiking in the Wilds of Lapland

The forests of Lapland are incredibly beautiful. While I was driving through the country, I came across a picturesque little hiking spot. There was a marked trail, but what I really wanted was to stand in the middle of all the snowy trees and get a 360 degree video. It looked like it was just over 1 foot deep off the trail, and I had my snow boots and pants on, so I didn’t even think twice about going off trail.

:: Big mistake ::

The first step I took, my right leg sunk to just above my knees. Wow! Deeper than I thought! Still, I was okay with this. I took the next step and both legs sunk waist deep. 

:: Uh oh :: 

I didn’t know how much deeper it would go, and I was alone in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere. I quickly decided to abort the mission. Screw the pretty 360 view of the trees – I need to get out of here! As I struggled to get out of the snow, my body sank deeper and deeper, until I was covered mid-torso in snow. Luckily, I manage to struggle my way out of it and got back to the marked trail. When you’re that deep in compact snow, simply trying to turn around and take two steps out is quite a task!

Lions, and Tigers, and Bears… Oh My !

I continued on deep into the woods of the snow covered trail. I have hiked quite a bit in the deep woods in various environments and have encountered all kinds of wild animals. The wildlife in the Arctic Circle is much different than the wildlife in warmer climates. Imagine my shock when I came across this big guy:

…just kidding! I’m pulling your leg. Polar bears are endemic just north of the Arctic Circle to the North Pole; they cannot be found roaming around the wilds of Finnish Lapland. The photo above was actually from a visit earlier in the day to the Ranua Wildlife Park. The only polar bears in Finland can be found at the park. It hosts an interesting range of animals not commonly seen at other wildlife parks – wolves, snowy owls, arctic foxes, etc. – and is worth a stop if you happen to be in Finnish Lapland.

Ridin’ Dirty…

As I made my way further north, I finally made it to my final destination, and one of my main reasons for visiting Finnish Lapland: The Kakslauttanen Glass Igloo Arctic Resort. I don’t know about you, but for years I have been seeing photos of this amazing glass igloo hotel. If you know, you know. The first time I saw that photo, I told myself I would definitely make it a point to stay there one day. And here it was, this was the day!

Before checking in, I went on a snowmobiling tour that I booked with the hotel. I have never, ever been snowmobiling before. I once rode a dirt bike, lost control, and went full throttle into a tree… so I don’t exactly have the best track record with operating heavy machinery. ?‍♀️  (In my defense, that tree jumped right in my way and came out of nowhere! ?)

…Like a Grandma

All jokes aside, I was both a little excited and a little nervous about my snowmobiling adventure. Please, whatever you do, just don’t crash into a tree, I thought to myself. When the tour guide rounded up the group of participants, I was so surprised to find I was much younger than everyone else there. There were six others, and they were all likely in their late sixties or early seventies.

Oh good, I thought. This is not a group that is going to be tearing through the snow, going ridiculously fast. I felt a little better about the ride. To my surprise, however, they were all seasoned snowmobilers and were ripping through the forest full throttle. Meanwhile, I was the one driving my snowmobile like a little grandma!

BUT I didn’t crash into a tree! Go me! The engine had a regulator for the speed, so I eventually caught up with the others once I got used to driving the snowmobile. Fun times were had by all.

Kakslauttanen – My Bucket List Hotel

The Kakslauttanen Glass Igloo Arctic Resort is one of those things you just have to book once in your life. When I travel, I mostly stay in cheap airbnbs, unless there is a destination hotel I want to visit. I had just one day booked at this unique hotel, and things weren’t looking very promising. I was lucky enough to see a great show of the northern lights in Iceland, and was hoping for a repeat performance while I was at this particular hotel.

The entire morning was snowy and rainy. Clouds bombarded the sky. The weather had been like this for one week straight, and it had been over a week since the locals had seen the northern lights. The weather just wasn’t cooperating. I was pretty bummed, but the forecast showed a one hour window at 8:00pm where it looked as though the sky might clear up. I crossed my fingers but, admittedly, I wasn’t very hopeful.

Crossing My Fingers… and Toes… and Eyes ! ?

One of the cool features about the hotel is that they have an “aurora alarm” in every room. There is a staff member whose entire job is to look up at the sky to see if there is any northern lights activity, and if so, he sounds the alarm so guests can wake up or direct their attention to the sky. Since the weather did not look promising at all, I thought I’d get some sleep before my early morning flight and hoped the alarm would wake me in the event of any activity.

As I laid in bed, around 8:00pm the sky began to clear, just as the forecast predicted. Slowly, I began to see faint streaks of color in the sky and thought “It’s actually happening!!” The faint streaks progressed to deeper, more pronounced colors. About 2 minutes after I first noticed, the alarm sounded. Beautiful greens with hints of purple danced through the sky. I couldn’t have been happier that the lights came out on the one day that I booked the hotel. Lucky! Just as soon as it started, the impressive show quickly ended after only 4 or 5 minutes. I feel so fortunate to have caught that brief window of lights dancing through the sky. The rest of the night remained clear with very mild activity, but an impressive starry sky. Not a bad scene in those last moments before you close your eyes and drift off to sleep.

Early the next morning, I made my way to the airport to fly to my next destination: Egypt! In true Sunita style, I arrived at the airport so early that the check in counter had not even opened yet. Ha! Even though my carry-on was within the size limit, they again made me check my bag due to its weight – a whopping 50 euros for one checked bag… ridiculous! If they’re going to keep making me check my bag, I might as well just buy a bigger one.

Anyway, travels to Egypt to be continued…

Happy Travels!!

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Hello! My name is Sunita Bendale and I have been an avid solo traveler for the past twelve years. I grew up with the values of a traditional Indian family, and lived a very sheltered life. After becoming a registered nurse, I made the very difficult decision to challenge my cultural and familial norms, and moved clear across the country to sunny California.

Best . Decision . Of . My . Life!

I didn't know anyone within a several thousand mile radius; my friends and family were back home in New Jersey, but I was not going to let that minor inconvenience deter me. My adventure had just begun, was absolutely thrilling, and I welcomed the challenge to create a new life for myself.

With an innate passion for dance, I quickly found myself immersed in the Los Angeles Argentine Tango dance scene. I was a young woman with big dreams and stars in my eyes. One day, on a whim, I decided that I wanted to see the world and dance in Paris. It was a spontaneous last-minute trip, booked only for four days, but I was determined to see and experience as much as I could. I spent those days running up the steps of the Eiffel Tower, taking in the views during the day and night, wandering through the Louvre, staring straight into the eyes of the Mona Lisa, stuffing my face with the most exquisite macarons and every delicious pastry you could imagine, making friends with the taxi cab driver that drove me all over the city, catching the 1am last sparkle of the Eiffel Tower, and dancing the nights away. I didn't sleep. I wanted to soak it all in. The experience was immensely liberating, and jump-started my obsession with travel.

Since that glorious trip, I have made it my life's goal to dance all over the world. It is wildly invigorating walking onto a dance floor in a foreign place, not knowing a single soul or speaking the language, yet being able to dance flawlessly with any random person in the room. To be able to detect the slightest, most subtle shift in weight and move perfectly in unison without so much as breathing a single word - it's enthralling.

Every successive trip since then has fueled my addiction. For the past several years, I have been working as a Nurse Anesthetist, which has been fulfilling in so many different ways. Not only do I absolutely love my career, it also affords me the financial independence and flexibility in scheduling to pick up at a moment's notice and travel the world. 

Many people find the thought of traveling alone a daunting experience, especially as a solo female. However, I am here to share my experiences and safety tips, and assure you that it is not only possible, but can be very cathartic. My goal is to empower women (and all travelers) by providing them with tools and resources that will bolster the confidence to travel solo.
I'm just a girl dancing through life, and enjoying every step along the way.

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