The strong contrast, scenic-wise, between both sides of the Swedish border has rendered me useless for taking photographs: after two weeks in Norway, where the landscapes jump themselves into the camera and you don’t even need to think for getting excellent pics, what can you now expect to shoot at in Sweden? This country compared to its neighbour is like water beside coffee: colourless, odourless and tasteless.
And my experience at Park Hotel, where I’ve spent the night, has not helped to improve such feeling: the Middle East immigrant guy at the reception was cold, not to say hostile; and cold was also my room, which didn’t have any heating. Then, breakfast was dreadful: milk had gone sour in the carton, there was no real tea among the verious unappealing herbals, and no other food offered than baked ham, cream cheese, sliced bread and some cereals. The hotel itself was uncared for, and unattended. Now come and tell me about the high living standards in Scandinavia…
One hundred and thirty kilometres across monotonous woods from Lycksele, and here I am in Umea, a city of bicycles: there are hundreds, thousands of them all over, and cyclists swarm on the pedestrian streets downtown. But not everything on two wheels is welcomed here: motorbikes don’t deserve any better status than a car; so, for parking Rosaura I’ve had a hard time. The whole ciry centre is pay-and-display; not a single free spot. Finally I’ve parked on a church lot reserved to clergy, thus giving them a chance to show their mercy.
But, oh! I’ve finally found out where the famous Swedish gals dwell we were shown in those 70’s Spanish movies after Franco’s dictatorship. Here they are, in Umea! I guess in Stockholm too. Apparently, those knockout tall, slim and handsome blue-eyed blondes only exist in the cities; they don’t occur in the countryside, and if by any chance one is born there, she’ll quickly move where some urbanite deserves her, and where she can dress à la mode.
Now I need to find an internet connection for purchasing the ferry ticket for this afternoon. I try the tourist office, but it turns out neither their computer nor their wifi is working. What an advanced Scandinavia! So, since I have nothing better to do and Rosaura is badly parked, despite being too early I’m going to Holmsund, where the ferry terminal is. Twenty kilometres away from Umea.
When I get there, the place gives me a shocking feeling of abandonmnet: a cold wind sweeps the wide and lonely esplanade, and the spinning blades of nearby wind generators put an accent on this place’s desolate look. I can’t see a living soul.
There is a lonely truck on the lot, whose driver is probably sleeping in the cabin. Still more than two hours to go. And there is, also, isolated in the middle of the esplanade, a small fish shop. I go and push the door. It’s not locked, but there’s nobody behind the counter. I give a shout and then here comes a beautiful, young and nice lady. She tells me this is a self-sufficient family business, fishermen who smoke and sell their own produce. I’m not going to find a better chance to try something local, so I order what she suggests me: the fish-and-cheese cake with side salad, homemade. It’s delicious. It was worth coming. I take the opportunity for buying two good pieces of smoked salmon for my friend Andrej, who’ll be my host in Vaasa, Finland, right across the Botnia Gulf.
I still have lots of free time, so I take a ride with Rosaura to the nearby Holmsund town; but it’s a place devoid of any appeal: it looks like the average North American small town, a few houses with gardens per block, streets wide and empty, a little toy-yard where a few children play, and some courts where the youngsters exercise in don’t-know-which sport.
Back to the terminal, I ride to the very end of the pier. There, while watching the sea, an old man –the only other living being I see around– slowly walks to me and tells me: “there comes the ferry”. I scan the horizon but I can’t see anything. He insists: yes, yes, there! Then, straining my eyes to where he’s pointing, I finally spot a spot barely noticeable. Then he says: “I’ve been a sailor and I’m used to watch the sea”. Sure, I remember, when I worked in the ships, I was alwaya amazed at how easily the pilots could find other vessels in the distance….
Little by little other vehicles start arriving and queuing: cars, lorries, campers, some motorbikes… They randomly line up the waiting lanes. Now I realize that, after spending two or three days in Sweden, I’m leaving the country without having even withdrawn or exchanged currency. I haven’t touched or seen a single Swedish coin or banknote. No money lost in exchange commissions, or in useless leftovers you never know what to do with. Such are the advantages of plastic money and the countries where it’s accepted everywhere, for any amount. Long live plastic money!
Then movement starts, the bustle of the embarkment. First go the lorries and it takes a lot of time for stowing them in the hold, I don’t know why. Then, finally it’s the turn for the motorcycles. The other bikers are Finns going to Pietarsaari too, same as me with Andrej tomorrow: a kind of celebration takes place with bonfires and fireworks as a farewell to the summer cottage season. The last summer weekend when Finnish go massively to their dashas; the unofficial end of the summer. From then on it’ll be too dark and cold, most people return to their jobs, students retake their classes and life goes on. One of the bikers, a nice, calm and experienced fellow, helps me secure Rosayra with the stays. I haven’t yet got the handle of those tensioners.
One of the little things I enjoy in life is to watch, from the gunwhale, how my ship weighs anchor. I like to observe the sailors on the winch deck letting go of the lines one by one, how the hull’s beam comes off the peer little by little, taking distance, getting farther from the shore. Perhaps this moment summarizes the charm of travelling.
And I’ve done so many journeys in my life! Often I can’t tell between them. Now, for instance, I’m sure I’ve done this same ferry trip before (thouth in the opposite direction), a few decades ago, but I can’t remember anything about Umea, leave aside Holmsund. How did I get over the 20 km between the harbour and the city? There are no busses coming here, and you bet I didn’t take a taxi… Maybe someone gave me a ride?
Now I’m at one of the ferry saloons, recording these notes for finishing today’s log. It’ll be very late when I arrive to Vaasa, and yet I need to find the place where I’ve booked a room for tonight…
Last thought for this evening: I’m surprised by the small amount of passengers on board this vessel: probably less than one hundred. Keeping this line with eight weekly departures each way can not, by any means, be profitable. No wonder there’s a big notice on the deck saying this is a project co-financed by the EU. Definitely, without some sort of heavy grants, this line would be unfeasible.