‘This is totally wrong!’ Shouted my new friend, jabbing with a half-smoked roll-up at a small newspaper cutting that he had taken out of his wallet. It featured a map of the world, with lots of dots and figures, and the title ‘Reindeer-herding peoples of the world’.
The man spoke very quickly, in heavily accented English, with the occasional foreign word thrown in, pausing occasionally to drink vodka through a straw.
‘They say there are this many millions of reindeer, but there are not! There are millions more, as you well know!’ He did not explain why I would know this.
I’m not particularly big on indigenous tourism. I feel like there is an element of the circus about it sometimes, or worse, and it makes me uncomfortable with my own part in it. The people on the Uros floating islands on Lake Titicaca made me sad, and in Thailand I had no desire to see the Padaung ladies with their ‘giraffe’ necks. Though it doesn’t do to make such wildly sweeping statements. I’m sure that balances can be found, and equally that poverty has a role in some of this. And I know almost nothing of that. Anyhow, it’s just not really my touristic poison.
While I’m generalising, however, I do have a lot of time for the Sami – the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. Their unfriendly museum in Karasjok, the Sami capital, takes the predictable preachy anthropological line that we would all do better to be living in tents in the woods, but fortunately the Sami themselves do not bear this out at all, and despite a history of some considerable oppression, seem to walk an admirable line between tradition and a modern world of which they are a completely normal part.
Traditionally, they were reindeer herders, and these days about ten per cent still are. Quite a lot of them wear pointy-toed fur boots, and walking around Karasjok you see a more than average number of huskies tied up outside the houses, or the occasional lady in traditional clothing. Otherwise they live fairly standard lives in standard houses, and, if they happen to be reindeer herders, visit their herds in big 4x4s or on snowmobiles like standard farmers. They have their own parliament and political presence, listen to their own radio station, rinse the tourists without demeaning themselves, and appear genuinely proud of their culture, which is unusually rich. So the Sami are not at all odd, apart from some who are actually called Odd. I think it must be short for something.
One of the two guys I was drinking with was called Odd. He was as softly spoken as his mate was manic. Peculiarly he kept referring to various ‘boyfriends’, often in the same sentence as he spoke of his wife, so either he was a casual philanderer who swung both ways, or something somewhere was being gained in translation. He was a pleasant fellow anyway.
Both men were reindeer herders, though ‘herder’ somehow makes you think of pastoral sorts with frugal habits and long beards. These two owned several thousand reindeer apiece, so were more like ranchers I suppose. And it turned out that numbers of reindeer are a flexible concept.
‘Go on! Ask this man how many reindeer he has!’ Shouted the fast-speaking man, whose name I never found out, but who was now on his fourth vodka since I had sat down. I was still eking out my single, extortionate pint. ‘Four thousand? Five thousand? Three thousand for tax! Sometimes they don’t believe us, and they want to come and count. So they count a few thousand, then when they try to count more, what do we say? “Oh no, but these reindeers you’re counting, they’re not mine. These are WILD reindeer!” Suddenly when they try and count them there are always a very great number of wild reindeer!’
‘We like to have a little joke at the Norwegians sometimes’, smiled Odd, quietly. He pointed at his friend’s wallet, lying open on the table, stuffed with cards and newspaper cuttings. ‘I see you have got the library out.’
It was Odd who had invited me to drink with them. I had been looking at the menu outside the bar to see if there was anything even remotely affordable (there wasn’t), and he was having a cigarette. I forget how we got talking, but anyhow, I ended up agreeing to join him and his old mate for a beer inside.
Both men were in their 50s, and each spoke a number of languages. Odd’s English was impeccable (bar the boyfriend issue, which only made it stranger), and he spoke about Cambridge as if he’d been there quite a bit, and spent a while trying to make out where I was from by my accent (which is pretty difficult actually). He had been in politics until recently. His friend had been to university in Finland, and spoke Finnish and Icelandic, as well as Sami, Norwegian and English.
‘They gave me a lot of money to go there, and I drank it all!’ he grinned.
Our conversation went in fits and starts. Odd kept jumping up to answer his phone (‘A boyfriend’, he remarked apologetically on one occasion), and his mate kept brandishing his card and disappearing off to the bar. He was buying both of their drinks, claiming that it was the least he could do as he’d stolen Odd’s wife, and was also conducting an ongoing negotiation with a couple at the other side of the bar. He proposed to give the man two thousand reindeer in exchange for his (admittedly quite pretty) girlfriend. The girl thought she was worth at least a thousand more.
‘Of course, as you well know’, he remarked, again not specifying how I would know, ‘there was another indigenous president straight after the American one.’ I wasn’t sure that some African blood really made Barack Obama indigenous to America, but I didn’t raise this. ‘The new president of Iceland. Yes – Sami, as you well know!’ I did not know. The papers, as I recall, were more excited by the fact that she was a lesbian.
Odd sat back down again. We talked for a while about a business plan he had while Fast-Talking Man did a bit more bartering with the couple across the bar.
‘I’m sorry’, said Odd. ‘He is an incredibly clever man. I know his family very well. But I think he has drunk a lot of vodka tonight.’
‘Go on!’ Said his mate excitedly, jumping back into his seat and still brandishing the half cigarette that he’d not yet got round to finishing. ‘Ask this man how many wives he has!’ I would greatly have liked to know the answer to this, but realised that such a question might be a little indelicate. Anyway, I had finished my pint, and decided that drinkers such as these were excellent but dangerous fellows to sit down with in a country where a pint is seven quid, so I made my excuses and sloped off.