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The Dangerous Business of Going Out Your Door I am often tired of myself and I have a notion that by travel I can add to my personality and so change myself a little. I do not bring back from the journey quite the same self that I took. - W. Somerset Maugham

Aurora, Helsinki, and the Numbers

FINLAND | Friday, 1 April 2016 | Views [304]

Leaving Norway on an Aurora High

My goal in going to Norway was realized in the end - I saw the northern lights!!! Going on guided light chases will certainly wreck your budget (see below), but it was totally worth it. You have to be able to get out into the complete darkness, with no interference from city lights, and you have to be able to move quickly to areas with the least cloud coverage. Since Tromsø is on the coast, the weather changes very fast and one area may be completely overcast while another is clear. It would be difficult to do alone, with no car and no familiarity with the area, so I still think a guided tour is the way to go for most people. 

The light display was just as spectacular as I had imagined it would be. Over a period of about 2-3 hours, it started off slow, built to a peak of activity, then trailed off again. When you stare at the sky so long, your eyes play tricks on you. You want to see the lights so badly that every reflection of the moon off of a cloud quickens your pulse and you believe you are seeing the aurora because you wish it so badly. We had several false alarms of, "Is that it?! - No; Wait, something's happening over here! - No; Oh, I think I see... - No." In my group were people from Northern Ireland, Germany, Israel, India, and Taiwan. We had come from all over the world to try to witness this beauty together.

First, there was a faint whitish-green glow to our left. We were uncertain whether it was the aurora. Our guide took a photo to better differentiate between moon light and aurora, and the lens litmus showed green light - confirmation that the show had begun! It wasn't all that impressive, but we breathed a sigh of relief that at least we could say we had seen the aurora, even if we didn't really feel like we had. That first glow faded away without any pomp or circumstance, but then we spotted another glow to our right. It slowly grew into a long, wide, twisting curve of white and green, reaching from the horizon to directly above our heads, spiraling and shifting slowly. This was the real deal! Whereas before we knew we had technically seen it, now we really felt it and believed it, with no need for camera confirmation. We stared, we gaped, we felt excited and satisfied. It lasted about five glorious minutes. Some time after that second one faded away, another glow started in front of us, and it was moving quickly. In a flash, it arched all the way to the other horizon, stretching until it spanned across the entire top of the sky. Unlike the previous ones that were slow and steady, this one flashed and danced. Multicolors of white, green, blue, and purple emerged in soft, playful spikes. It was truly amazing. We laughed, we clapped, we screamed, we jumped, we danced, we cheered. We forgot we were cold. We forgot we were tired. Most of us were seeing the aurora for the first and probably only time of our lives, and it was simply exhilarating. It must have lasted for several minutes, but I am unsure. In the moment, it seemed like it would last forever, but then it was gone. After that, there were a few more minor flares, but the peak had passed. Nothing from that point forward matched or even came near what we had already seen, so we started to lose interest. In a matter of hours, we had, as a group, transformed from the Aurora-Naive to the Aurora-Experienced, and with that came the freedom to not be impressed by just any aurora, but to decide which particular displays we found worthy. How quickly we become jaded.

 

Weird Helsinki

I only had one full day plus a few hours in Helsinki, so I cannot claim any great insight into it. After my lovely time in Tromsø, I didn't have high expectations for Helsinki, but I must say that it surprised me. Perhaps more accurately, it amused and bewildered me. While Tromsø was all bright blue and purest white, Helsinki was sepia, as if somehow trying to mask its bold and quirky contrasts. To me, it was both beautiful and ugly, Scandinavian and Soviet, impressive and depressing, lavishly ornamental and sparely industrial all at once. In addition, there were so many strange figures and faces carved into the stone of the city walls, everything from squirrels to owls to bears to leering trolls to graceful mermen. The architecture is like nothing I have seen before. Several times, I couldn't help myself from laughing, or commenting out loud, "Helsinki, what are you doing?! You're so weird!" In keeping with the disorienting strangeness, the Finnish language is a complete mystery, having neither Latin nor Germanic roots, and seeming to string together long series of umlauted vowels just for my amusement. Mercifully, nearly everyone speaks English. In short, I'm glad I saw Helsinki, though very briefly, but I don't think I would go back.

 

The Numbers

Even though I was expecting my daily expenses to double what it was in Trip 1, I am a bit dismayed and embarrassed to see that it really happened. Scandinavia in general, and Norway in particular, is one of the most expensive places in the world, so I'm trying not to be too discouraged.

 

Norway Numbers: From the day I left home until I returned to Oslo, which includes 8.5 days. I only had one coffee and two lunches in a restaurant. The rest of the week, I bought groceries and cooked for myself. 

  • Airfare from the US to Oslo (one-way): $94.50 + 20,000 AAdvantage miles
  • Airare from Oslo to Tromsø (round trip): $257.80
  • Private room with shared bathroom in a hostel for 7 nights: $405.18 (I ended up being upgraded to a private apartment for free because the hostel decided to close for Easter!)
  • Guidebook: $11.20
  • Arctic Explorers Northern Lights tour: $166.35
  • Tromsø Friluftsenter Northern Lights tour: $111.81
  • Daily expenses (airport bus, food, money exchange): $139.31

Norway Total: $1,186.15

Norway Average: $139.55 per day

Without the light tours, it would have been $106.82 per day, which would have been easier to swallow, but I don't regret the tours for an instant. I only wish I had decided to go with the cheaper one the first time. 

 

Helsinki Numbers: From the time I left Oslo until the time I left Helsinki, which includes 2 days. I ate out twice at some cheaper places and bought a few groceries, but it is harder to buy groceries when you're only staying a short time. 

  • Airfare from Oslo to Helsinki (one-way): $66.24
  • Bed in a 2-bed female dorm in a hostel for 2 nights: $59.00
  • Guidebook: $11.20
  • Daily expenses (24-hr transportation pass, food, laundry): $44.11

Helsinki Total: $180.55

Helsinki Average: $90.28 per day

 

Combined Average for Scandinavia over 10.5 days: $130.16 per day

So, it is almost double my Trip 1 average of $66.51 per day. There is room for improvement as I move into the less expensive Baltic and Eastern European countries!

Tags: aurora borealis, budget, finland, helsinki, northern lights, norway, sabbatical, solo, travel, tromsø

 

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