Reindeer Races

The post you’ve all been waiting for! Considering that I missed seeing any polar bears on Svalbard I’m pretty sure that I can already call the reindeer races the highlight of my Norwegian animal experience.

Now the website for Sami Week is pretty atrocious, but after much button clicking we eventually found the schedule for the reindeer races. Considering the website only has something like five tabs, it’s almost impressive how much effort it took to find the schedule. I’m convinced the webmaster is secretly an evil mastermind since it took us a good 30 minutes to find the schedule hidden away on an obscure section of the Norwegian version of the site. BUT we finally realized that the races weren’t starting until about 1 pm on Sunday. That meant that we were able to introduce the very American concept of Sunday brunch to a few of the local international students. One student, Caspar, graciously agreed to host brunch and let a few people cook in his house. After some deliberation, Kari and I decided to arrive a bit on the late side of things. Our strategic planning meant that we avoiding cooking but arrived just in time for eating. It was perfect.

After we gorged ourselves on pancakes, bacon, scones, and sausages we all bundled up and headed into the center of town. All of the Fulbrighters were quite happy to pay to enter the reindeer races, but some of the international students decided to set up shop at the local Burger King and view the races for free on the second story. Although there were some venues around the racecourse that would provide you with a view, many people were quite content to pay and stand along the course. In my eyes, the most impressive spectator was a guy in a reindeer onesie. How could you tell it was a reindeer and not a moose? Why, the red Rudolf nose on the costume. Sidenote: out of the five Fulbrighters who went to Sami Week only one of them had yet to see a reindeer. The fact that the rest of us were incredulous about this just goes to show how in touch with nature you are in Norway.

IMG_9016  IMG_9014  IMG_9055The main street in Tromsø, Storgata, was blocked off for the race and announcers even translated some of their commentary into English. From what I could gather, there were two different kinds of races. The first race involved one person and their reindeer and was timed. The second race was what we would think of as a more traditional race since it took place between two people. They had junior races for some of the younger racers and I suppose what you would call professional races for the adults. There were even people from Russia who had come to compete.

IMG_9037  IMG_9040  IMG_9081You can sort of see how the race actually worked from the pictures, but it mostly involved a skier being dragged along by a reindeer. Apparently different kinds of skis are chosen depending on what the skier is trying to do. Slalom skis allow for easier control, while cross country skis are better for speed.

IMG_9024  IMG_9046  IMG_9047IMG_9051  IMG_9060  IMG_9061IMG_9070  IMG_9127  IMG_9145IMG_9111  IMG_9116  IMG_9141Once the races were finished, Kari and I bunkered down at one of the local coffee shops. Kari was lost in a book she was reading for graduate school interviews, while I was lost in The Amber Spyglass (the snowstorm didn’t stop me from racing through the sequels to The Golden Compass).

We eventually made it back to our original brunch location and settled in for a pizza party and the first Harry Potter movie. After that, we went back to Kari’s place and called it a night.

Playing Tourist and Winter Storms

Tromsø actually boasts quite a few Fulbrighters (I met at least four of them during our August orientation) and two other Fulbrighters, Alyssa and Sarah, made the trip up to Tromsø for Sami Week. All in all we were a solid group of five people since two of the Tromsø Fulbrighters were out of town. Even though not everyone was able to make it, it was still great to have a mini Fulbright reunion and to have some of the local Fulbrighters show us around town. Lucky for us visitors, the Tromsø Fulbrighters had planned out some weekend activities for us to do.

My first full day in Tromsø was slightly more adventurous than the day I got in. To my delight I woke up to a bright and sunny day so I was quite happy to do some outdoor exploring.

IMG_8970  IMG_8971  IMG_8973Although there were five Fulbrighters attending Sami week, we were all scattered throughout the city. Luckily Tromsø is quite small, and I managed to catch up with most of the other Fulbrighters at the Sami Week lasso throwing competition. While I was hoping that the competitors would be lassoing actual animals, this was not the case. From what we could understand of the competition, the competitors had to lasso a set of reindeer antlers at different distances. Once someone had successfully lassoed the “reindeer” at each distance they were declared the winner. While it didn’t seem like the lassoing involved much technique, I suspect that probably wasn’t the case. I assume that their skills were such that it just made everything seem casual and effortless.

IMG_8980  IMG_8981  IMG_8983IMG_8982  IMG_8988  IMG_8990Once the lasso competition was finished we quickly stopped by the Sami Winter Market. Unfortunately the market was quite small (it only had three stalls) so it didn’t take us very long to look around.

From there we headed to one of the local art museums, Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum. Considering that the gallery was free it was pretty good. There is a permanent exhibit on the second floor and a rotating exhibit on the first floor. One of the things I found really fun about this experience was going with Alyssa, the Fulbrighter who works with Munch paintings. It was fun watching her walk around the paintings and learn a bit more about what conservationists and chemists look for in artwork. She said that part of the time what she is doing is keeping an eye out for conservation work. When I asked if the conservation work is obvious she said that it is supposed to be, but that it’s probably much less obvious to the layman than it is to the specialist.

One story of hers that I enjoyed was about a conservation conference she recently attended in Barcelona. She went to one of the local art museums with some of the other conference attendees and said their group managed to drive the security crazy. Apparently all of them would crowd around the pictures and do atypical things, like kneeling on the floor to catch the painting at a particular angle, in order to examine the conservation work that was going on. I was told that they created quite the spectacle. Fun fact: Picasso used to paint new paintings on top of old paintings, so in some of his paintings, particularly ones with peeling paint, you can actually catch a glimpse of an older painting underneath the one on display. You can now understand why the conference attendees were having so much fun staring at the paintings.

IMG_8998  IMG_9000  IMG_9002IMG_9004  IMG_9006  IMG_9007After that we for a nice lunch at a place called Smørtorget, a combination of café and boutique shop. Once we had filled our tummies we wandered through a few of the local stores before settling down at a different café called Aunegården.

Once we had finished our cakes and hot beverages, we decided to make our way towards one Fulbrighter’s apartment. The weather had forecasted that a storm would hit Tromsø at 4 pm, and for once the weather forecast was correct. At almost 4 pm on the dot we started to see the first snowflakes fall. By the time we made it to Meghan’s apartment it was a full blown snow storm with limited visibility. A quick check of the local news consisted of dire capitalized headlines proclaiming that you should not leave the your house for any reason.

IMG_2643  IMG_2645  IMG_2648Because Kari and I didn’t particularly want to spend the night sleeping on Meghan’s floor, we decided to risk it and see if we could catch one of the buses back to Kari’s place. To our great surprise, in the middle of our wait for the bus a car pulled over and the driver asked if we needed help. We told the driver that we were waiting for the bus and were told that if we were still waiting after the driver dropped off his son he would happily drive us to wherever we needed to be. Of course as soon as he left the bus came, but we were quite touched by the kind offer. We made it back to Kari’s place without too much of a hassle and found out afterwards that we had managed to catch one of the last buses before the bus system shut down. The whole city truly shut down for the storm. On the plus side it did mean that I managed to snuggle up with a book and occasionally watch the storm rage on outside from the comfort of Kari’s couch.

Trip to Tromsø

For those of you who are wondering, the ø in Tromsø means that it’s pronounced more like Tromsa than Tromso. While Tromsø is not as far North as Svalbard, Tromsø is Norway’s northernmost town and boasts a population of roughly 70,000. It’s the biggest town in Northern Norway (and I believe the only place in Northern Norway that can technically claim the title of town) and, to my surprise, is pretty much shut off from the rest of Norway. The train system in Norway doesn’t go much further than Bodø, where Alix and I went for part of our trip to the Lofoten Islands. As far as I can tell, the only really ways in which Northern Norway is connected to the rest of the country is by car, boat, specifically the Hurtigruten ferry, and by plane.

I’ve been interested in visiting Tromsø for a while but I decided to plan my trip in early February so that I would be able to attend Tromsø’s Sami Week. The Sami are the indigenous people in Northern Scandinavia, specifically Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula (part of Russia). To make matters more complicated, there are different kinds of Sami, and they have different rights and living situations depending on where they live. In Norway, the Sami are well known as reindeer herders and to this day reindeer are an essential part of their culture. Sami have a much stronger presence in Northern Norway than they do in Southern Norway and they even have their own capital, Karasjok, and parliament in Northern Norway. That is not to say that everything is rainbows and butterflies. The Sami have historically experienced a good amount of discrimination in Norway, and this discrimination continues to the present day. According to recent a survey, the Sami experience ten times more discrimination than ethnic Norwegians (United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe). Other obstacles the Sami face include the loss of their native languages and issues surrounding land rights.

Tromsø’s Sami Week coincides with Sami People’s Day, or the Sami national day, on February 6th. This date marks the meeting of the first Sami Congress in 1917 in Trondheim. Why Sami Week is not so well celebrated in Trondheim or even in Trondheim remains a mystery to me. Anyways, Sami People’s Day has grown into a week long celebration in Tromsø and consists of things such as a lasso throwing competition, winter market, cultural events, and reindeer races. Yes, reindeer races are a real thing. In fact, the races were the main reason I was in Tromsø.

Lucky for me, flights from Trondheim to Tromsø are pretty short and easy to catch. My hope was that I’d be able to see the northern lights in my time above the clouds, but unfortunately the sun was up for the duration of my flight. Once we descended however it was a completely different story. I was greeted with snow.

Thankfully the Fulbrighter that I was staying with, Kari, gave me very detailed instructions on how to get to her place, and it didn’t take me too long to find the correct bus into Tromsø. Once I arrived, I was pretty happy to settle in for the night and to curl up with my chosen post-Svalbard reading: The Golden Compass. I’m proud to say that I got unreasonably excited over the Svalbard sections of the book and of  my ability to identify terms such as sysselmann, or governor.

Svalbard Wrap Up

I have to say that Sarah officially wins the most badass Fulbrighter award. While I really enjoyed my visit to Svalbard, I couldn’t imagine living there for more than a few months, much less the two years that Sarah intends on living there for. That being said, Longyearbyen is located in a truly beautiful area and I’m happy that I made time for the trip. Here are my tips and tricks:

  1. Bring your passport with you to Svalbard, even if you are taking a domestic flight from Norway.
  2. Svalbard is not a budget location and I wouldn’t consider it a place that people should visit in a flight of fancy. Svalbard is a very dangerous place, even though those dangers are atypical.* Be aware that Lonyearbyen is little more than a one street town and that leaving town requires going with someone who is quite knowledgeable about the area and the risks. This pretty much means that you can only leave town if you book a tour (which tends to be expensive) or if you happen to know someone who can show you around.
  3. If you are going in winter definitely keep an eye on the sort of daylight that you will be encountering. I was lucky that my trip coincided with twilight, meaning that I didn’t need a headlamp when I went hiking.
  4. Keep an eye on the weather and pack accordingly. Keep in mind that Svalbard can be VERY windy so bring a few things that are windproof.
  5. Public transportation doesn’t exist in Longyearbyen so your only options are walking or a taxi.
  6. I would highly recommend exploring the area around Longyearbyen since it’s beautiful. I would also recommend the Svalbard Gallery, Svalbard Museum, and polar bear sign.
  7. Many places will have an area for you to store your coat and boots during the winter. If you have space in your bag, I would recommend bringing a pair of slippers that you can wear whenever you are indoors.
  8. If you go in winter and go outdoors I would recommend bringing hiking boots and some sort of waterproof pants/ski pants that are designed to help keep the snow out of your shoes

*In terms of typical crime Svalbard is very safe. Most people leave their cars unlocked and keep car keys and snowmobile keys in the ignition. Apparently the crime of the decade occurred when someone had their photography equipment stolen out of their unlocked car, but that was highly unusual and something that the community found really shocking (it was also assumed that the perpetrator was a tourist as opposed to a resident). I found I had no problem leaving my very expensive camera at a table when I went to the front of a coffee shop to order something, and lost items are easily returned to their owners on the island.

Gjelder Hele Svalbard

My last day in Svalbard was really only a half day. My flight left in the afternoon so there wasn’t too much time to do anything; however, one thing that I did want to do before I left was to go to Svalbard’s famous polar bear sign. The sign itself lies on the outskirts of town so it required a bit of a walk. Although I wasn’t overjoyed to step outside of the university’s warm halls and into the bitter cold, things looked up when we serendipitously we saw a reindeer along the way.

IMG_8812  IMG_8886  IMG_8887The reindeer in Svalbard are slightly different from the reindeer on the mainland. The first thing that I noticed is that they are much shorter than mainland reindeer, and they also have thicker winter coats. Additionally, unlike other reindeer, I’ve been told that they tend to live alone or in groups of 2-6. Reindeer can still graze on Svalbard during winter, as this one was doing, but it’s much more difficult for them to find food in the midst of all of the ice. Because the winter conditions are so tough, Svalbard reindeer put on about 10 kg (22 lb) of fat during the summer in order to keep warm in winter. On the plus side, the reindeer don’t have any predators on Svalbard so their greatest risk of death is through starvation.

IMG_8819  IMG_8827  IMG_8829IMG_8837  IMG_8844  IMG_8850After snapping a few pictures, we continued on our way to the sign. It was about a twenty minute walk away from the university, but before too long we reached the sign. The only problem? Just as we completed our walk, a taxi full of tourists stopped right in front of us. This means that we had to wait for eight or so tourists to take their pictures before we could finally go and take our own. Apparently you can take taxi tours of Svalbard, and considering the prices of the more expensive tours, the taxi tours seem quite cheap.

For those of you wondering what “Gjelder hele Svalbard” means I’ve been told that it translates to “Valid for all of Svalbard.” In other words, you should watch out for polar bears throughout the islands.

IMG_8864  IMG_8865  IMG_8883After that all that was really left to do was to buy a few more souvenirs (I bought a Svalbard hat that is apparently 30% possum—who knew that possum was a clothing material?) before heading to the airport.

The airport itself was pretty cosy. It’s so small that there aren’t even gates, though I suppose you could make the argument that the airport technically contains two gates—they just aren’t numbered. I caught my flight out of Svalbard without a too much of a hassle and eventually made my way back to Trondheim. I have to admit that compared to Longyearbyen Trondheim seems like a major metropolitan area. While I’m incredibly grateful to Sarah for hosting me, I’m definitely glad to be snuggled back in Trondheim and to have the (limited) sun for company.

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On Top of the World

The next day proved to be my favorite day in Svalbard. Sarah and I woke up on the early side in order to hike one of the nearby mountains, Sarkofagen (the mountain on the left in the first picture). I hadn’t quite realized how much effort it takes to plan anything in Svalbard until talking more to Sarah. Major things that were included in our backpacks were: extra layers, water, flare gun, flares, and a rifle. If we had been scaling a mountain with more than a 30 degree incline, Sarah told me that we would’ve had to carry a shovel, probes, and avalanche beacons. These three things are used to help in the event of an avalanche. Fun fact: one of the biggest dangers with avalanches is suffocation. If you are ever caught in an avalanche you want to wrap your arm in front of your nose and mouth in order to help create an air pocket.

I will also say that there is a significant difference between hearing about polar bear preparations and actually seeing them. Soon after leaving the barracks, Daniel, the other person with us, half loaded his rifle in preparation for the hike.

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The hike itself was gorgeous. At this point in time I’ve traveled around Norway quite a bit, but Svalbard might just take the cake for the most beautiful scenery.

Luckily the path we took wasn’t too steep so we made it to the top of Sarkofagen within two hours. All in all we went from sea level to approximately 512 m (1,680 feet). We were climbing on glacier for a good part of the hike, and at one point contemplated on going into one of the glacier’s ice caves. Unfortunately, we realized that doing so would take quite a bit of time and would require getting a lot of extra gear that I lacked, such as crampons. So we soldiered on to the top of the mountain.

Some things that jumped out at me on this trip were that you could actually see the imprints left behind by former hikers. When you step in the snow you compact the snow on impact. When the weather is windy it can blow the surrounding snow away and leave a type of reverse footprint (see pictures below).

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Other fun things include picking a less steep climbing route to reduce the chance of starting/getting caught in an avalanche, my breath creating so much moisture that it caused parts of my eyelashes to freeze together, my breath creating enough moisture on one side of my face that the hair on that side of my face froze and went white with frost, and alternating between being cold in effectively -35°C weather and feeling incredibly hot due to the hike. I definitely felt like the queen of the world when I reached the peak of the mountain, and while I wasn’t technically at the North Pole I felt as though I was on top of the world.

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The hike down was much quicker, though because we did spend a lot of our time walking on snow covered glacier, it was a bit slippery at times. I definitely fell over more than once and scooted down part of the mountain on my butt. But it was all worth it.

After that we made our way down to Svalbard Gallery, a gallery with some local artwork, and then called it a day. Because Svalbard had only just achieved civil twilight, it was dark the majority of the time that I was there (wreaking absolute havoc with my circadian rhythm). That in addition to the cold weather meant that I spent a good portion of my time in Svalbard hanging out with some of Sarah’s friends and spending time indoors. I was even introduced to a Norwegian miniseries called Kampen om tungtvannet, which translates to The Battle for Heavy Water. The drama focused on the development of heavy water in Norway and how the Germans wanted to use this during World War II to try and build their own atomic bomb. The stars of the program were British and Norwegian intelligence agents who tried to disrupt the Germans and the heavy water plant. While I didn’t understand the majority of the show, it was still nice to watch. The skiing scenes also emphasized how poor my skiing is in comparison to most Norwegians.

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The Svalbard Museum

My second day in Svalbard was much more low key. This time I was able to see more of the town simply because there was more daylight, and when I say daylight I really mean twilight. After about a 40 minute walk, Sarah and I made it to the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) and Sarah dropped me off at the adjoining Svalbard Museum.

The museum was great and full of useful information (pretty much everything below is taken from informational slides in the museum). Svalbard was originally seen as international and communal land; however, with the rise of the coal mining industry it became important that there be a governing body that could settle disputes. Things were finally established at the end of World War I with the Svalbard Treaty. In the treaty, Norway was given “absolute and unrestricted sovereignty over Svalbard.” However there are a few restrictions on this sovereignty. Norway is required to give the citizens and companies of the Svalbard Treaty signatories (as of 2005 this includes Afghanistan, Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Iceland, India, Italy, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, South Africa, The Dominican Republic, USA and Venezuela) equal rights regarding:

  • Entrance to and residence on Svalbard
  • Fishing, hunting, and trapping
  • Maritime, industrial, mining and commercial activities
  • Acquisition and utilization of property and mineral rights

Norway is still allowed to regulate the rights above, it just isn’t allowed to discriminate against a particular country. Svalbard itself is under the jurisdiction of the sysselmann, or the governor. The governor is not elected by those living on Svalbard, and is a part of the Norwegian administrative system. Fun fact: even though the sysselmann is part of a bureaucratic hierarchy, apparently the status of the sysselmann is the same as that of the king of Norway.

Because Svalbard is in some senses an international territory, the taxes and fees that are collected on Svalbard can only be used to benefit Svalbard’s residents. There is income tax on Svalbard, but there is not VAT (Value Added Tax) or fiscal taxes. The Norwegian government also helps subsidize the Svalbard budget.

Right now about 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers. That’s 36,600 kmof land covered in about 7,000 km3
of ice. Svalbard’s glaciers and mountains add new dangers to living in Svalbard, mainly in the form of crevasses (people will occasionally fall in them when they are covered with winter snow) and avalanches. Yes, the total number of things I could severely hurt myself with or die from on Svalbard was at about four (frostbite/cold, polar bears, crevasses, avalanches). It felt good to be alive on Svalbard.

Svalbard was discovered as Northern European nations looked to find a Northwest passage to the East. They didn’t find such a passage, but they did find whales, seals, and walruses. Whale and seal products slowly became more popular as the European demand for oil increased. In order to meet this demand, whaling was developed and in 1612 organized whaling came to Svalbard.

Until the 17th century, whaling was done near Svalbard’s coasts and inside the fjords. As whaling continued year after year, more permanent settlements were slowly built. In order to actually catch a whale, numerous boats were used. The whales were essentially hit multiple times with harpoons and then sailors waited until the whales tired out from fighting the sailors and from blood loss. The whale was eventually dragged back to shore where it was finished off and then processed for oil. You can get an idea of what these settlements looked like how whaling worked from the pictures below.

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Svalbard was originally located down by the equator, which is what allowed it to develop coal deposits. Once whaling and trapping died down in Svalbard, coal mining gradually began to replace it; however, the mining industry encountered low oil prices in the 1970s. The price of coal was so low that in order to save Store Norske, the big Norwegian mining company on Svalbard, the Norwegian government had to buy nearly all of its shares in 1976.

Because the company was now owned by the State, it became politically necessary for Longyearbyen to transition from being a company town to being a family friendly town. Normal welfare and public services were introduced in Svalbard starting in 1975, and the State introduced or expanded education, hospitals, the postal system, administrative system, and telecommunications. These days the services offered on Longyearbyen exceed those found in some of the more rural areas in mainland Norway. Though with regards to healthcare, there is only one doctor that services the approximately 2,000 people living on Svalbard. What really helped normalize Longyearbyen however was the opening of the airport in 1974, effectively ending Svalbard’s long periods of isolation.

Things have continued to expand since the 1970s. In the 1980s, the coal industry was again hit with a crisis. This prompted the development of more businesses on Svalbard, particularly those related to research, tourism, trade, and services. The university, UNIS, was established in 1993.

Right now, Svalbard is considered more of a research town than a mining town (they actually have super fast fiber optic Internet due to all of the research that goes on). In fact, coal prices hit another low this year, causing the coal company to be in the red. Apparently this prompted the company to make a joke presentation at this year’s holiday party proposing that the government replace the coal industry with the timber industry. How can you tell this is a joke? There are no trees on Svalbard. How’s that for an arctic desert? But even though it’s a silly presentation, it does speak to a wider problem. As coal gets more and more expensive to mine (if I remember correctly there is only one working mine out of the ten that exist near Longyearbyen) the communities on Svalbard will have to start coming up with alternative ways to get fuel.

Once I finished reading through all of this history, I had a fun time looking around at some of the animals on display. The polar bear was huge in reality. On all fours it came up to about my shoulder (around just over four feet/1.2 meters tall). Sarah actually told me that one of the professors she works with was responsible for shooting it. Apparently he was so against shooting the bear he waited until it was 1.5 meters away before shooting.

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After that we went back to the barracks and spent the rest of the day lounging around one of the common rooms. I had a good time talking to some of the other students and working on some of my knitting. Guys, I’m getting better! Finished fox scarf featured below. Pattern here with the English version towards the bottom.

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One thing that I found interesting was talking about the upcoming solar eclipse. The eclipse is scheduled to happen on March 20th and Longyearbyen is one of the only places in the world where you can see the complete eclipse. This has sparked a huge wave of tourism to the island. The office of the sysselmann has estimated that approximately 50,000 people are flying into the island to see the eclipse. The population of Longyearbyen is just 2,000 people, so it’s literally 25 times more people coming to the island. This also means that the government is worried about people having places to stay. There is one hotel in Longyearbyen that hasn’t even been finished yet (it doesn’t even have walls or a roof) that is completely booked for the eclipse. One friend told me that when she stayed at an airbnb in Longyearbyen, her hostess told her that her house had been booked for the eclipse five years in advance. People are making a fortune renting out their houses, and apparently most rooms are going for tens of thousands of kroner a night. At this point hotels are charging a minimum of 10,000 NOK a night (1322.36 USD/night). The government is concerned that many people will arrive and not only lack a place to stay, but will also lack the necessary protective gear and clothing to survive the cold. There is currently talk of opening the local gym and using that as a place where people can sleep. All in all it seems a bit ridiculous, even more so since the weather on Svalbard is so finicky. There is a good chance that all of these people will show up and that it won’t be a clear day. But oh well. I guess that’s the risk that people take.