In Inari, Finland: Close encounters with a Sami family’s domesticated reindeer

Tuula Airamo, a Sámi reindeer farmer, feeds Valokki in Inari, Finland, hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle. Valokki’s name means “light.”

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

The long months of pawing at the frozen tundra, hunting for diet-dependent lichen, are over for the reindeer of far northern Finland. Many herds, tended to by the Sámi, the indigenous people of Lapland, are moving to their summer pastures, and delivering their quick-to-walk calves.

In late May 2013, I visited a reindeer farm in Inari, a small village (population about 600) nearly 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. The farm was run by Tuula Airamo and her husband, who looked after a private herd of only about 12 animals, solely for their own use. To be a successful larger economic endeavor, the herd would have to number in the hundreds  — or more.

For centuries, the Sámi have largely relied on reindeer, hunting and fishing and small-scale farming for their livelihood. Theirs was a nomadic existence dictated by the seasons, driving their herds from summer to winter pastures and back. Nowadays, the migration is easier, especially with the addition of snowmobiles, which came into use in the 1950s and 1960s, and later all-terrain vehicles. Some herders even have GPS collars on their reindeer.

These tools have allowed many Sámi to settle in towns and villages, and fewer than 40 percent make their living as their ancestors did herding reindeer. (Today, not all reindeer herders are Sámi.) Tourism and small business ventures have become increasingly important. Nonetheless, in Finland’s Inari-Saariselkä tourism region, reindeer outnumber people about 70,000 to a bit over 8,000.

The Sámi inhabit parts of four European countries: Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia. Sápmi is their name for this mostly northern geographical region that covers about 150,000 square miles and grouped together forms a shape resembling an angled boomerang with its center bend pointing northwest.

Reindeer shed their antlers every year. They can be made into usable implements such as needles and thimbles. Female reindeer also grow antlers.

An official census has never been taken, but estimates put the Sámi population between 70,000 and 100,000, with (using the lower figure) about 40,000 living in Norway, 17,000 to 20,000 in Sweden, about 8,000 to 10,000 in Finland and fewer than 2,000 in Russia.

Archaeological evidence, such as pitfalls used to trap wild reindeer, suggests ancestors of today’s Sámi were in the region, then known as Fennoscandinavia, at least 10,000 years ago. They possibly resettled from Denmark and coastal Norway. The first written reference is credited to Roman historian Tacitus in A.D. 98 when in “Germania,” he mentioned “Fenni” as a people who hunted in the far north.

Mingling with some domesticated reindeer at a farm set against a background of towering pine, spruce and birch trees, about 15 minutes from the center of Inari, was a good way for our small group to learn about reindeer husbandry. Airamo was a gracious hostess, answering dozens of questions with utmost patience.

Except for going away to school, Airamo had lived her whole life in Inari.

Airamo’s ancestors came to the Inari area around 1745, she said. In 1945, her parents arrived with two small children, and the first thing they did was build a log house. At that time, they tended cows and sheep.

“There was no road,” Airamo said. “Everything came by boat, ski or walking. There wasn’t any electricity.”

Things have certainly improved and Airamo’s wooden home had all the modern conveniences, plus two saunas: one in the house and an original separate building that is 67 years old (as of 2017).

In addition to the reindeer, the farm also produced carrots, turnips and potatoes in the brief growing season.

Airamo was a storehouse of knowledge about reindeer, and like all Sámi, utilized every bit of the animal. For centuries, the hide supplied warm clothing, shoes and leather goods, the meat and milk provided nourishment and the antlers became jewelry, decorative art and practical utensils, such as needles and thimbles.

Some antlers, which the animals shed annually, vary in bone density. She showed us the stem end of one rack, noting that the small holes we could see indicated that the animal had been castrated. Antlers from an intact male were completely solid.

The calves we saw were only a few weeks old. Their mothers keep a watchful eye out for the playful young.

We were lucky to see three calves, about two to three weeks old. They weighed about 9 to 13 pounds at birth. Reindeer are unusual in that the females also grow antlers, and we could even see the beginning of stubs on the heads of the adorable calves, who never strayed far from their mothers.

Later in the summer, the calves were to be “earmarked” with a pattern of notches cut in their ears, an identifying feature like a cattle brand. In subsequent generations of a herder’s family, a variation of that pattern will build on the original. Airamo said she knew by sight that some reindeer from other herds were “visiting” her corral.

With such a small herd, these animals were almost like pets. Two who were eager to munch on a pail of lichen and food pellets while we petted them were named Valokki, which means “light” and is also another name for cloudberries, and Vauhti, which means “speed” or “quick boy.”

Developing antlers are rich in blood vessels, skin and the furry covering called velvet.

Valokki was 13 (in 2013), and gray-white. Fuzzy velvet protected his blood-vessel-rich antlers as they grew and like all reindeer, the fur on his body was hollow. Airamo said he likely would be slaughtered for meat next year.

When they walk, reindeer make a gentle but noticeable clicking noise, the result of tendons sliding over bone on the rear legs. In the dark or fog, reindeer use this noise to group together and it may help the herders pinpoint the animals’ location, Airamo said.

Tanned hides and super-warm curled-toed boots are just a few of the products gleaned from reindeer.

After showing us how to bridle and hitch Valokki to a small sleigh, we accompanied Airamo inside her house. She explained the process of tanning the hide and showed us the various steps that go into making the distinctive curled-toe Sámi shoes. For added warmth, dried hay is stuffed inside, and an Australian woman in our group who tried one on indicated her foot was indeed cozy.

Tuula Airamo shows her visitors how she weaves by hand the fabric for belts and laces.

Airamo also showed us the wool she dyes using natural plant materials, and how the wool is woven into laces and belts.

The pride Airamo took in her heritage and her gentle care of the animals was a testament to the enduring bond between the Sámi people and the all-important reindeer.

Quick reference: I booked my outing, called “Explore Reindeer and Handicrafts,” online through Visit Inari, which can facilitate accommodations and a wide range of year-round safaris, such as hunting, fishing, horseback riding and visiting a husky farm. The reindeer farm excursion I did is now referred to as “Reindeer & Sámi Handicraft,” and Tuula Airamo is still listed. The price has risen to 110 euros, which includes round-trip transfers. See:

A version of this post appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of Scandinavian Press magazine. For more on Finland, see my Nov. 30, 2016 post about Rovaniemi, and my Feb. 20, 2017 post about a home visit in a Helsinki suburb.




A blissful day communing with the animals at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand


In that the feed baskets weren’t out yet, I think this elephant was having a bit of a yawn.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

An elephant’s flexible, mischievous trunk could be the most amazing appendage in the animal kingdom.

Its dexterity is such that it can pick up a tortilla chip without breaking it. It’s strong enough that it can uproot a tree or help to push it over. Somehow the elephant knows how much force it needs — or conversely how gentle to be — to get the job done.

Personally speaking, I found this jam-packed collection of highly integrated muscle groups more than a bit intimidating. (Sources differ widely on how many muscles are in a trunk — from 40,000 to 150,000.)

My friend Susan and I had the chance — several chances really — to feed Asian elephants at the Elephant Nature Park, a rescue and rehabilitation center, in November 2011, in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The curling and uncurling motion was almost hypnotic as the trunk flared its nostril, sniffed the air and reached out hungrily for the next piece of melon, or squash, or banana or whatever fruit and vegetables the keepers had cut up for that meal and placed in a large colored plastic laundry-size basket for visitors to draw from.

The elephant formed a “U” shape with its trunk tip, providing an inviting platform on which to briefly balance the offered morsels, and swiftly delivered it to an eager open mouth.

Elephants have huge molars, so it didn’t take long to grind the veggies to smithereens and swallow. (Tusks are teeth also, sort of like incisors in humans. All African elephants have them; generally only the males and only a few females of the Asian species do.)

And then the trunk came back for more, the gray, prickly-haired snout stretching again toward an extended hand dangling food. Once I got the hang of working with the elephant’s rhythm, I became a better food delivery partner.

(Asian elephants have one “finger” at the end of their trunks; African elephants have two. The Asian species is smaller in height and weight. The African species has larger ears — the shape resembles the continent of Africa — and bigger feet.)

Elephants are eating machines, consuming hundreds pounds of food a day, though their inefficient digestive system processes only about half of that. In the wild, they would be eating more grasses and green vegetation. They drink up to about 40 gallons of water daily.

Just checking to make sure that no food had been overlooked.

As feeding time wound down, the elephants crowded closer to the concrete platform where we were standing behind a do-not-cross red line and shin-high metal railing, laying their trunk flat on the pavement, sweeping it back and forth, making sure that nothing remained unconsumed.

I’ve loved elephants since childhood. I don’t know if my affinity was triggered by reading the Babar books or a trip to the zoo. I love their intelligence, the way they flap their ears, how they shyly peer at the world from beneath their heavy eyelashes, and the way they care for their young.

When I was little, I drank from a handmade teal blue-and-brown ceramic cup. Its solid, protruding ears were the handles, and though I could sip from the sides, liquid could also be drawn up through the hole in its upturned trunk. Yes, I still have the cup.

In my travels, I’m always on the lookout to add to my collection of elephant figurines and elephant-themed textiles. Recent additions include the blue-and-black elephant print harem-style pants that I bought in Cambodia in March 2016, the blue-and-white silk pillow cover I purchased in Bangkok, Thailand, in November 2011, and the Herend painted porcelain sitting elephant that I adopted in Budapest, Hungary, in October 2015.

So a joyful day spent among the elephants at the nature park was a dream come true. We fed them, petted them, observed them, bathed them in the river (twice) and then fed them again. I’m embarrassed to say how many photographs I took.

At Elephant Nature Park, visitors do not ride the animals, which at the time I visited, numbered around 36. (Current tally is around 70, a figure the park provided, but something may have been lost in translation.)

The elephants do not paint pictures, they do not perform tricks. They are simply elephants allowed to be elephants, sometimes gathering in familial groups, roaming the property freely (with minders nearby) without fear of man or predator.

Many were still healing in body and spirit after years of abuse and neglect, having been beaten and injured while forced to work in the logging industry, beg on the streets of Bangkok, or entertain in circuses.

The keepers told us a little about the history of some of the elephants, much of it terribly sad, and indicated which animals we should distance ourselves from because of their unpredictable personalities, still angry from the treatment endured in their former lives.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 elephants are left in Thailand, and fewer than 30,000 Asian elephants worldwide.

When we arrived at the park, we were given a lecture about safety and then allowed to wander among the animals in the barn area. After we fed the elephants, we assembled in two buffet lines for our own lunch. All vegetarian, choices ranged from stir-fry noodles, to rice dishes to curries, spring rolls, soup and fruit.

The person by the elephant’s trunk is its minder. The man in the blue T-shirt is giving the animal a scrub with a small brush.

Fully sated, it was time to follow the elephants down to the river for bath time. We were each given a small black plastic bucket to scoop up water and toss over the hulking animals standing beside us. A few visitors had hand-size brushes and gave the animals a bit of a scrub, too.

It’s not mandatory to do this, of course. Some opted to climb up to the shaded viewing platform and watch the activity below.

The riverbed was rocky and slippery, and the water was barely calf-high. I was wearing sandals, and it was difficult to get a good foot-plant for my basket scoop/water toss. No matter, I was still having enormous fun. The docile elephants, with their always-present minders, seemed happy in the cooling, cascading spray.

Bath time over, we followed the elephants toward the viewing stand, where we were allowed to pose next to them for pictures and watch them amble around the field. Need I say that the babies were particularly adorable?

This youngster was happy to be among the bigger animals on the field by the viewing platform.

The next activity was to watch a film about elephant rescue and conservation, and as admirable as those goals are, I didn’t think that was the best use of our time. So Susan and I skipped the film and went back to the morning feeding area to contemplate the movements of the real thing standing before us.

Another feeding session followed, and my masticating companion and I emptied nearly a full basket of melon and bananas by ourselves.

Then we followed the elephants back to the river for another bath, and too soon the trip back to town.

Elephant Nature Park was founded in the 1990s, by Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, who is also the force behind the Save Elephant Foundation. Her work has been much lauded and recognized by international media and conservation groups.

In addition to elephants, the park is home to rescued water buffalo, dogs, cats and other assorted critters. Its mission statement includes a commitment to rain forest restoration by planting trees in the surrounding area, preserving village and cultural life, and educating visitors about endangered species.

Elephants can live up to 70 years, so it’s reassuring for this elephant-lover to know that the residents at ENP should have a peaceful and contented existence for many years to come.

Quick reference: Elephant Nature Park: The park has a variety of programs. Visitors can spend a day, several days or a week, visiting or volunteering (fee involved). Prices vary according to program. Some of the longer programs feature interaction in tribal villages. Pickup from your hotel or a designated location is included. From Chiang Mai, it’s about 60-90 minutes to the park; you’ll be shown a video about elephants en route. Daylong visit is generally 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. or later. 2,500 Thai baht, about $73. Vegetarian lunch is included. Reservations are mandatory. Bring a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, a change of clothes (if you bathe the elephants you will get wet), flip-flops or sandals,  towel, insect repellant and walking shoes. And a camera, of course.

The program has expanded from its Chiang Mai location to include experiences in Surin and Kanchanaburi, Thailand, and near Siem Reap, Cambodia.

To see an elephant pick up a tortilla chip with its trunk:

In Chiang Mai, Thailand: A cooking class and market tour with a dynamic chef

During our cooking class in Chiang Mai, we visited a covered market that sold a range of goods from eggs to vegetables to palm sugar … and more.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Siripen Sriyabhaya, known to most as Yui, has a nonviolent plan for world domination (her phrase), though she does wield a mean cleaver.

Fortunately, what the petite Thai woman has in mind is far more appetizing: To share her passion for her native cuisine, one delicious recipe at a time. And her diabolical strategy starts in the shaded carport of her Chiang Mai home in northern Thailand.

In November of 2011, I took a cooking class taught by Yui, along with eight other students from around the globe. Our group included an Asian-American couple from the San Francisco area; a Swedish duo (though she was Icelandic by birth); a pair from Edinburgh, Scotland; a woman from Paris; and my traveling companion Susan, who readers of this blog will be familiar with as the person who went with me to Vietnam and Cambodia in 2016. (See 16 previous posts for that trip. We also did a cooking class in Ho Chi Minh City that’s one of the posts.)

We had all signed up for a full-day class, conducted in English. (I made the reservation online before leaving the United States.) Many of us were picked up (included in the cost) at our hotels by Kwan, Yui’s husband, driving a vintage blue VW bus.

The session included individual preparation of six relatively easy dishes, communal dining, a midday trip to a stimulating local market and a full-color paperback cookbooklet with all the recipes we prepared, and more. The cookbook also had tips and a section about Thai ingredients.

Yui, a graduate of Chiang Mai University with a degree in public administration, has been teaching cooking classes since 1999. In 2001, with her husband, she started A Lot of Thai cooking school.

She is a fanatic for fresh, healthful food, and her enthusiasm is catching. A real plus: For class, she will gladly accommodate any dietary restrictions, which in my case included making a special batch of green curry paste that omitted the ingredient shrimp paste. Vegetarians will feel equally at home.

After introductions all around, Yui explained some of the less-familiar ingredients we’d be cooking with, such as nutrient-rich galangal, a relative of ginger that shares the knobby look and light tan skin of that root.

With students watching intently, Yui demonstrates one of the dishes we’d be making at our individual stations in the shaded carport of her home.

Then we began what would be the structure of the day: Yui demonstrating the recipe, complete with technique tips, then us attempting to duplicate it. We scattered to our individual stations set up with a wok, a range of utensils and the ingredients mostly prepped by her assistant.

In the spotlessly clean space, all food was protected underneath a domed plastic basket until we were ready to cook. While we were busy slicing and stir-frying, Yui circulated, energetically calling out timely reminders (“sauce goes in now”) as we executed what she had just taught us.

Our six dishes, in order: Thai-style stir-fried noodles (aka Pad Thai); hot and sour soup (prawns optional); green curry with chicken over rice; stir-fried chicken with cashews; spring rolls; and sweet sticky rice topped with mango. (A check of the website reveals that only four dishes are made per class now.)

Ingredients for a single portion of Pad Thai. The white dishes and lidded metal containers have the sauces and oil we’d need to make the recipe.

With that much food, we’d clearly need to pace ourselves. But Yui wisely had thought of everything. Clear plastic rectangular containers were in ample supply to store whatever we couldn’t or wouldn’t finish eating. We wrote our names on our containers, which were then popped in the refrigerator until the end of class.

After plating each recipe, many of us took pictures of our creations, and then arranged ourselves at two snug tables to eat. Part of the fun here, other than seeing how successful we’d be at replicating Yui’s expert preparation, was sharing our travel adventures — where we’d been and where we were going in Thailand and beyond.

After the fourth dish, we all hopped into the VW, again driven by Kwan (he’s a graphic designer and helped design the cookbook), for a brief drive to the market. This was no boring tourist trap, but a bustling enterprise where neighborhood residents go to shop.

Cucumbers, cabbage, green onions and lots of other veggies were at the peak of freshness.

We followed Yui around the stalls and the tables heaped with brightly hued bell peppers, tamarind, onions, mushrooms, cabbages, lemon grass, Chinese celery, kale, long beans and other vegetables in many shades of green.

In another section, big tubs of mounded raw rice, running the spectrum from white to light brown to red to purple to black, nestled side by side. Nearby were plastic bags stuffed with balls of tan-yellow palm sugar. Every so often, Yui stopped to hold something up and expound on its history and use in cooking.

Back at her house, we finished our last two dishes and took a group picture. We piled back into the van to return to our hotels, this time with Yui and her daughter, who was celebrating her fifth birthday, in tow.

After a full day of cooking, Yui announced the cake would be store-bought.

As for world domination, no less than the cantankerous Gordon Ramsay has been won over, as evidenced by Yui’s appearance in “Gordon’s Great Escapes,” a series that aired in 2010 on a BBC channel.

Susan and I brought our leftovers back to our hotel, which graciously stored them in its fridge until we checked out the next day. We enjoyed them a second time for dinner on our overnight train journey from Chiang Mai back to Bangkok.

A version of this post appeared in the Food section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 15, 2012.

Quick reference: Classes 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; limited to 10 students. 1,200 Thai baht, which is about $35. Private instruction is available also. Reservations are necessary so that Yui can make plans to accommodate any special dietary needs. A Lot of Thai,

Yui would be the first to encourage cooks to have fun with these recipes. Experiment with the flavors and degree of heat and use your favorite vegetables. Have all the ingredients prepped before you start stir-frying. Once the oil is heated, the rest of the recipe will come together quickly.

Thai-style Stir-fried Noodles (Pad Thai)

Hands on: 25 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes, excluding soaking time for noodles

Serves: 2

If using dried noodles, soak them at least 20 minutes first. They can be extremely sticky. Rinse, drain well, and set aside until ready to stir-fry. If you have dietary restrictions, omit the pork and shrimp. Tamarind puree, sometimes labeled “concentrate,” can be found at Asian markets.

3 tablespoons canola oil, divided

1/4 cup firm tofu, cut into 2-inch sticks

1 tablespoon shallot, chopped

1 tablespoon garlic, chopped

2 ounces minced pork (optional)

1 tablespoon dried shrimp (optional)

1 tablespoon sweet turnip, chopped (optional)

4 ounces fresh narrow rice noodles (or 2 ounces dried)

4 to 6 tablespoons water or chicken stock

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

2 tablespoons tamarind puree

1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar

3 ounces bean sprouts

1/2 cup Chinese chives cut into 2-inch pieces

2 eggs

2 tablespoons ground peanuts

Chili powder, lime wedges, cabbage, bean sprouts for garnish

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a wok or large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add tofu and shallot and stir-fry until light brown. Add garlic, pork (if using), shrimp (if using) and turnip (if using). Cook about 1 minute.

Add noodles and water or chicken stock. Stir-fry until noodles are soft, about 3 minutes. Add fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind puree and brown sugar and cook for about 1 minute.

Add sprouts and Chinese chives and cook just until the chives are bright green. Move mixture from center of the wok to one side. Add remaining tablespoon oil to empty side of wok. Crack eggs into wok and scramble until nearly done. Remove from heat. Gently mix to incorporate eggs. Sprinkle ground peanuts on top.

Garnish with chili powder, lime juice, cabbage or extra spouts, if desired.

Adapted from a recipe in “A Lot of Thai Cookbook” by Yui Sriyabhaya


Stir-fried Chicken with Cashews is quick and easy to make.

Stir-fried Chicken with Cashews

Hands on: 25 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Serves: 2

A 1/2 cup of diced red bell pepper or julienned carrots will add extra color and crunch to this recipe. Add at the same time the chicken goes in. Mushroom sauce is a concentrated substitute for oyster sauce. It can be found in Asian markets.

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped

7 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced or cut into 2-inch pieces

2/3 cup sweet onions, such as Vidalia, sliced

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

2 tablespoons oyster sauce or mushroom sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar

1/4 cup water or chicken stock

1/2 to 1 large red chile or dried chile, cut into bite-size pieces

4 green onions, cut into 2-inch pieces

1/2 cup cashews, roasted or fried

Heat oil in a wok or large heavy skillet over low heat. Add garlic and cook until light brown. Be careful not to burn it.

Add chicken and cook for 1 minute. Add onions and cook until they look shiny, about 2 minutes. Add fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce and brown sugar and stir until well-mixed.

Add water or chicken stock and raise heat to medium-high. Bring mixture to a boil. When boiling, add chile and green onions. Cook just until the onions are bright green. Take a piece of chicken out and cut into thickest part to make sure it is cooked through. Return to wok. Stir in cashews, and remove from heat. Serve with rice.

Adapted from a recipe in “A Lot of Thai Cookbook” by Yui Sriyabhaya