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Story: This photo journal appears in Volume 20: Homelands.
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I’ve never been more uncomfortable than when sleeping with the Nenets – reindeer herders in Siberia’s far north. The night-time temperature had dropped. The reindeer skins laid over me were so heavy that I could barely move. I smelt of wood-smoke. There was no en-suite bathroom to speak of, nor any Nespresso machine to look forward to in the morning. For a luxury as simple as coffee I not only had to bring my own supply, but also needed to melt a block of ice for water. For four nights this was my reality – a nomadic chum, or teepee, which the Nenets pitch five or six times every winter in pastures new as they move across the Arctic tundra. The only source of heat and light was a wood-fired stove at the heart of a tent where four of us slept hugger-mugger, our breath frosting in the air.
Yet I would go back in a nanosecond – for a glimpse of the Northern Lights above a polar landscape, for the sound of an Arctic fox padding over ice, or the starburst of ptarmigan birds. These white, grouse-like creatures are camouflaged by the drifts until they break cover and lift up like a squall of snowflakes. I would return to Siberia to watch the herders round up their reindeer, using a lassoing technique that writes circles in the air. Most of all I would return for the fragile authenticity of living among people who call this wilderness home, who are willing to accept foreigners in their chums on the simple condition that they aren’t asked to adjust their way of living in order to play host to the outsider. I would eat the Nenets’ reindeer meat. I would catch their grayling. I would move about the tundra on the back of a sledge pulled by a snowmobile. I would listen to their stories about avalanches, shamans, and alcoholism, which is the scourge of many Nenets who have moved to the cities for another future.
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