A journey back in time to the life of Finnish colonials n Obera, Argentina
A gray-bearded gentleman arrives to meet us at the tourist information centre in the centre of the small Argentinian town of Obera. After exchanging kisses I notice his warm, gray-blue eyes, twinkling under the black beret. The Finnish features of this honorary consul, come from his grandad, who moved here over a century ago at age five. He had crossed the Atlantic with his parents, onboard a boat called “Linnea” and arrived here in 1906, in an effort to build a Finnish colony – Colonia Finlandesa, on this “new” continent. With our somewhat lacking Spanish skills we manage to express our interest towards the history of the Finnish colonials and within minutes we're sat in this friendly consul’s car, on our way to discovering some memories of the Finns that influenced the area a couple of generations ago.
At the Parque de Nacionales park, life of the colonials is exhibited extensively. In this rather sizeable park, each colonial country has their own house, in which their culture and traditions have been preserved. Casa Nordica, is shared between the Nordic countries, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Inside the house we get to see wonderful enlarged pictures of old photos. Many serious, Finnish, faces stare at us from the black and white images; Lemmetyinen, Laukkanen, Niskanen etc. We can't help but wonder how much courage it must have taken to leave their country behind, pack up their families on a boat and set off to the unknown. I doubt the conditions in their new home country always matched up to their expectations either.
We see some happier faces in pictures of the colonials descendants; Nordic beauty queens wearing tiaras, smiling after having won the annual colonial beauty contest. We hear that every year, in September, they hold a week long festival in this park of nationalities, where representatives of all the different countries march in their national attire, and the canteens of each house serve traditional delicacies from their native countries. Although September is a while off yet, we get to indulge in some waffles from a stall next to Casa Nordica and we get to practise our Swedish with the lady behind the counter; Och dom var så gott!
The colonial museum takes us a step deeper into history, showing us what life was like at the beginning of the last century. It appears that the people who ended up here were very innovative and hardworking. They had built many different machines and gadgets to help their daily chores, such us a manual washing machine, a combine harvester for corn, and a manual mixer.
On it's hay day, Colonia Finlandesa was occupied by up to 500 Finns. Now, only 4-5 of their descendants still speak Finnish. We're made up to meet a fluent Finnish speaker, Graciela Niskanen. The lively Graciela tells us many funny and intriguing stories about her family history and takes us round to where she grew up, to the now derelict and overgrown Colonia Finlandesa, situated about 40km west from Obera. When we see it, we begin to understand just how hard it must have been for the colonials here at the turn of the last century. Many had spent all their money on the travel tickets alone. Turning the dense jungle into farmland in this tropical climate would have been pretty taxing in itself. Homesickness would have hit them from time to time and it was often numbed by vast quantities of alcohol. There were of course success stories too, of people who set up a shop or a post office or who made a profit by giving out loans. A few Finnish built houses are still standing, as well as planted pine trees growing in a straight line. the river tiger flows fast and deep, so we get across it using the new bridge. The old one built by the Finns has rotten overtime. Soon after the Finns arrived, saunas started to pop up and Graciela shows us the chirka branch, that was used as a birch substitute in making whips for sauna, since birch trees don't grow here.
After the historical tour we have dinner with our new friends at the casino in Obera. At the table, while enjoying a delicious meal, we wonder what it is that us Finns, be it descendants of colonials or modern day nationals, have in common. And we all agree, that it's strength of character and perseverance – good old Finnish “sisu”!