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Beards and Bears

My Scholarship entry - A local encounter that changed my life

WORLDWIDE | Sunday, 22 April 2012 | Views [123] | Scholarship Entry

10 minutes in - my scarf is beginning to freeze and my face is numbed, my hands (despite being in my pockets and being protected by two layers of glove) are close to being incapacitated. It’s about a 40 minute walk to the only hostel and I estimate it’s below -15°C but when you’re trudging through the tongue-tip of a glacial fjord land discomfort seems less of a problem.
Abruptly a van skirts on the ice as it stops by my side. A wide door is swung open to reveal a roughly bearded young man.
“What are you doing here alone?” he asks throatily.
“I just got here. I'm walking to my hostel,” I don’t understand why his face is screwed with concern.
“Do you have a gun?”
"No", I laugh. I just got off a plane; of course I don’t have any weapons.
"You shouldn't be here alone, where do you need to go?"
His face ordered me inside, I felt like I had no other option. He explained that it is illegal to be outside alone without a gun. He says this is mainly because of polar bears and glacial crevasses.
He drops me off at Spitsbergen Guesthouse. It’s a quaint little joint with decor that would look well placed in the apartments of the recently retired. The entrance is particularly striking though for two reasons.
1. A frost bite chart, which colourfully informs guests that an air temperature of -25°C combined with a wind speed of 20km/hr yields a 'high risk for most people in 5-10 minutes of exposure’.
2. Another bearded man, this one emphasised by his own commanding Russianness, however despite his Vikingesque appeal, he is jolly and chortled often.
I ask him,
“How cold is it outside?”
He contorts his mouth as if rearranging a phantom cigar.
“I'll check”, he plonks his thickly socked feet under the desk then turns and says
“-22 and the wind speed is 18km/hr”.

Suddenly I’m overcome with a sense of ridiculousness. I'm in Svalbard; I'm as north as I can go without actually being completely surrounded by ice and nothing else. Sometimes it's nice to shock yourself.

Tags: Travel Writing Scholarship 2012

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