UTSJOKI is a tiny, remote county in the northernmost part of Finland and is one of the coldest places on Earth.
This year, I decided to celebrate Christmas with my wife in a place that is completely cut off from the crowd and noise.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this place was so quiet I could hear my stomach growl during digestion.
It is usually in total darkness this time of year, when the temperature plummets to -25˚C.
Mornings at 9am reveal nothing but pitch darkness.
Norway is just 200m from my hotel and the border post is constantly unmanned. I could walk across to the other side on the frozen river, or just take a stroll on the border bridge.
We were 80km from the Arctic Ocean, and when the winds blow, this place becomes a frozen land.
Skies are grey for two to three hours, and then the moon makes an appearance, eerily, in the afternoon.
With a population of roughly 1,200 in an area of 5,144.52sq km, there are probably more reindeer and elk here. In fact, there are some 15,000 reindeer who call this place home.
Utsjoki is the home of Finland’s native people, the Sami, who make up 46.6% of the population, with the rest Finnish.
The Sami people are indigenous folk of Northern Europe living in parts of northern Sweden, Norway and Finland, and the cone-shaped shelter they lived in, called Kota, are like the tepees of the native Indians in the United States.
Utsjoki was chosen because I wanted to find time and the right place to ponder and reflect on my life. I will turn 57 in May next year.
I have never considered this age to be old, often refusing to accept the reality that one is recognised as a senior citizen at 55, even though the retirement age has been raised to 60. Age is just a number to me.
You won’t see me joining a line dancing class or taking a trip on a cruise for two weeks with those of my age group, where the probability of us reminiscing about dead singers, would be very high.
I stubbornly pay the full price for my cinema tickets instead of producing my MyKad for the 50% discount entitled to senior citizens.
But one cannot escape certain realities in life, even though the mind and body are in good shape and kind to me, or so I’d like to think.
The coming year looks difficult for me.
My father turns 93 in June and he no longer recognises me. In fact, he does not even know my mother anymore.
It has been really tough for her as she will be 87 in 2018, and she is not exactly in the pink of health.
Being a caregiver – waking up at 2am daily because my dad would be up by then – has been extremely difficult on her.
If my mom sleeps through, my dad might fall and hurt himself. His frail body won’t withstand such missteps.
We tried putting him in a nursing home to ensure mom gets rest and recuperates, but the relocation lasted only two weeks. His condition deteriorated because the nurses were unaccustomed to his health needs, so he ended up in hospital instead.
My Langkawi-born dad does not indulge in idle chatter but enjoys speaking to anyone in Bahasa Malaysia, in his heavy northern accent. The nurses were glad they could keep him talkative, but it was a short-lived stay.
Believe it or not, my dad has not taken many regular holidays in all his working life. In fact, he didn’t stop working until a few years back.
So when I asked him, jokingly, a few weeks ago, if I could take him on a trip to Langkawi, he replied that it would not be possible because “I need to work.” When I asked him why he still wanted to work, he retorted:
“If we do not work, how are we going to put food on the table?”
It’s amusing, really. But such simple banter between me and my old man may be nothing more than a memory soon.
That is why I am so fearful of the days and months ahead.
So, Utsjoki was the ideal place for me to briefly escape the realities of life. I wanted to breathe freely and take in the fragrance of the forest, and simply feel and appreciate God’s creations and marvels.
Looking at my dad, who worked hard all his life, I don’t envy being in his position. So, I wrote up a bucket list that I wanted to tick down.
My work as a journalist has enabled me to travel to exotic and faraway places in all continents, but the time has come to take trips – slow-paced ones – with my wife. Importantly, holidays and not work trips.
After failing to experience the Northern Lights in Iceland last year, the stay at this border town of Norway-Finland was most rewarding.
God has been extremely kind. The aurora borealis appeared in the skies almost every night of our stay, and it is certainly the most spectacular of all natural wonders.
The bouncing, dancing lights are surely a spectacle of the universe, providing an eerie but true spiritual awe of His power. Forget the scientific explanations in Google that I still can’t grasp after reading them several times.
Looking up at the skies, away from noisy cities and the demands of corporate life, has given me plenty of time to think and reflect.
It is also good for one to feel really small and inconsequential. And let’s not forget the so-called priorities and urgencies in life, which in reality, aren’t the most important.
I apologise if this piece has been too self-indulgent, given my period of solitude.
But as we head towards another busy, if not exciting year ahead, let us always remind ourselves that life, health and time with family and friends are the most precious – not divisive, emotional politics, even if it’s an election year.
We must find space for ourselves to think deep and identify what matters most.
When you read this, I should be up in the air, homeward bound, bracing myself to wake up to the demands of the daily grind.
I wish everyone a Happy New Year and best wishes for the future. Stay positive for the challenges ahead, because we’re certainly going to need to be strong, whatever life throws at us.