On Valentine’s Day, a slight Finnish woman asked me how long she should submerge herself in the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea.
“30 seconds” I replied with a nervous half-laugh, shifting uncomfortably on the sofa in my study as I watched her approach the inky rectangle of ocean, cut out of the ice. The snow piled around the edge, along with the shape of the bathing hole, reminded me of a freshly dug grave.
It was night-time in Helsinki and all colour appeared to have been drained from the city. White pavements, white roads, a white beach with white snow sand, black buildings with white windows lit from inside, a black sky. People were skiing in the background; black shapes holding black poles, sliding over white streets.
Just a few minutes earlier the window into Kati’s world had been so different. The warmth of her home emulated the warmth of my home. I sat relaxed with my warm tea, whilst she sat relaxed in her warm sauna informally discussing the Finnish tradition of sauna and ice-bathing. We were hundreds of miles apart, but through the screen of my iPad, it felt as though we were in the same room.
The visual contrast between the subtle golden light of her home and the stark Scandinavian winter landscape, was a perfect illustration of the physical contrast my host was experiencing. I felt a prickling sense of unease as she crunched through the snow towards the city’s beachfront. I watched her strip with trepidation, I held my breath as she approached the frozen waters and my body tensed as she was slowly swallowed by the bitter sea.
I have pondered over my online tour guide experience since February, particularly perplexed over my own feeling of awkwardness. I have come to the conclusion that feeling complicit in Kati’s physical discomfort, from the small responsibility of suggesting how long she should remain in the water, altered my role from bystander to participant, challenging my usual position and lifting me out of my comfort zone.
With the future of travel unknown in the short-term, virtual experiences allow individuals to engage with people from around the world, learning about cultural differences and traditions, possibly pushing personal boundaries and are an opportunity to visit destinations interactively whilst supporting local guides.