The remote archipelago of Svalbard | DW Documentary
Efren Regato left the warmth of the Philippines to settle in icy Svalbard. For me it’s ok. As long as I have work, I can adapt to the cold. People from more than 50 nations live in the Norwegian archipelago just 1300 kilometers from the North Pole. In winter, it stays dark for months. And in summer, it’s constantly light.
Citizens of any country can live and work in Svalbard, without a visa. Many are fascinated by life out here in the Arctic. This is no nine to five job. You’re out in nature and feel almost humbled by this vast expanse. Filipino Efren Regato runs a cleaning business here in Svalbard, on the northernmost edge of Europe.
He has plenty of work. because tourists have finally returned. Good. More work. More job. More money. Better. Good morning. Housekeeping! While still in the Philippines, he heard that this remote location deep inside the Arctic Circle has well-paid jobs and no visa restrictions. It’s open to anyone who wants to work here.
He set out to begin his new life ten years ago. First time I arrived in the airport and then I saw the place and then: What kind of place is this? There’s no trees. First time I've been feeling that kind of cold the first time out of the airport. And then cold, it‘s cold, super cold. In Manila, he used to sell car insurance. But it was a struggle to feed his family.
Now he cleans up after others. He says it’s a good job apart from when hotel guests behave badly. Sometimes they are drunk and then they puke.
Sometimes it's getting worse like broken TV or glasses. It's crazy. Yeah, I am proud of myself that I am doing a great job with work. He lives in Longyearbyen. With just 2500 residents it’s the largest town in Svalbard. This footage was filmed earlier in the year, when there was daylight 24/7.
After two years of coronavirus pandemic and no tourists, visitors are finally returning to Svalbard. That’s a relief to Christian Bruttel too. He’s a tour guide from Germany and runs his own business, catering for German-speaking tour groups. He used to work as a schoolteacher in Germany’s Black Forest. Ten years ago, when he was about to qualify for a lifelong job guarantee, he took off for the Arctic, and stayed. Back then, I wasn’t even 30 and I just couldn’t imagine doing that same job right until I retire.
I am a bit restless. But at first, this was more of an attempt to broaden my horizons, just for a year. I never thought it would become a new life concept. His brother Mario and sister-in-law Miriam are visiting.
In a few days, they’ll embark on a one-week expedition with other tourists. Today, they’re off to find a good place to camp. On Svalbard, you need to carry a weapon residents here share the archipelago with around three thousand polar bears. Here, every decision you make carries weight. You’re dependent on your equipment working, on knowing how to use it and having everything with you. Any decision you make can have terrible consequences.
And the fact that every action counts in this also very harsh environment is something that really fascinates me. The coronavirus pandemic hit him and his company hard. The lockdown and the lack of tourists were both nerve-wracking and costly. Those two years were a huge challenge.
At first, we thought we’d lose one or two months of the season and then in summer it would start up again. But then summer came, and the fall, and winter, and we realized that the following winter and summer would be cancelled too. And we thought: how much longer can we do this? He’s now hoping for a bumper year, to get the business back on its feet. But first, the three will need to invest many hours to find the right camping spot for the tour group out here in the great white vastness. This couple also work as tour guides.
Élise Thil is from Belgium and her husband Loup Supéry from France. And, they’re preparing for the arrival of their baby daughter due in just six weeks. I think you miss maybe the key that I have in my hand? Being pregnant in Svalbard is a particular challenge. With no maternity clinic, pregnant women have to go to the mainland to give birth.
At some point when I got contractions in January, we got a bit scared of an early delivery. And we know that the system here is, that you get evacuated with the plane, but it still takes a few hours. So if you are after 24 weeks, when the baby could survive, you still need to be evacuated pretty fast, if you want to have a chance of keeping that baby alive. So that's when I realized the limitations of living up here. And definitely that it is not a usual place to get pregnant I would say. She plans to travel to the Norwegian mainland three weeks before the birth.
Élise doesn't want to leave any sooner. Because the island has given her the peace she so desperately needed. Her daily walks with the huskies are a little more arduous right now, but they’re nothing compared to her previous job as a doctor working in an emergency room in Belgium. Three years ago, she suffered burnout. You have so many patients to see, not enough doctors to see them.
So you end up with a crazy workload every day. I had never been on edge all the time and that’s not me. I fell asleep while driving and that scared me really a lot as well.
At some point it was just not possible to keep on going. She decided to visit her boyfriend Loup who was already living on Svalbard’s largest island, Spitsbergen. She was captivated by the island and extended her stay.
And then during the six months here, I fell even more in love with the place, with the wildlife, the landscapes, the community. When you need something, you just post a message on the group of town. So yeah, I think it's pretty impressive to have such a tight community all that way far north. She began a new life as a tour guide. Until COVID-19 almost forced them to abandon their dream. Because here anyone who can’t work has a problem.
Meanwhile, Christian Bruttel has spent more than three hours searching for a suitable location to camp. After driving 70 kilometers, the group sees the first place that looks like it could be suitable. They need good ski slopes and wind for snowkiting. They’ve now reached an altitude of 500 meters. We’re no longer on the glacier and here so there, there and there — we have sudden drops into the next valley. And the wind actually pushes you towards those precipices.
Well, the wind might not always come from that direction Wow it’s cold! If the wind always blows towards those drops, things can get dangerous. Especially for beginners, because they’ll be pulled by the wind to where it drops down suddenly, so we have to be really careful. No forget it, look it’s not even 30 centimeters deep. We need about a meter depth. Two meters would be better. Then you can easily dig down for the tent, get standing height in your tent and build a nice igloo.
They’re planning to go camping with ten visitors. Out here in the snow at minus 10 degrees Celsius and without a warm shower. Sure, getting up in the morning is tough. But you’re getting up in this landscape and this amazing view, and you warm up quickly once you start moving. It’s just an incredibly intense experience in nature.
It’s beautiful. Yeah amazing. But then it drops straight down.
But the view! Yeah beautiful! With the crevasses back there. But it’s no good. Both safety AND the scenery are important.
They’re hoping for better luck on their next stop. The visitors are due to arrive in a few days. Heading out into the wilderness is what most tourists come here for.
But for Efren Regato, that prospect holds no attraction. He doesn’t have time anyway. I don't want to, because it's hard. And I am busy. I can’t go there.
I am busy working. And then even if I’m off from the hotel work, I also helping my business to clean up. That's why I don’t have enough time to go there. He often works six days a week, and still he has to turn some jobs down. He’s hoping to earn a lot of money by the summer as he’s going on his first trip back to the Philippines in ten years. Not easy to go because expensive going there from here.
You must save money first. A little bit excited and then scared. Yeah, because it's been a long time I didn’t go back to my country.
This one is okay. I turn off the light and then close the door. His last room for the day.
While out, he often livestreams video for family and friends back home whose comments show how other-worldly the snow-covered landscapes seem to his relatives. Hi. Hello. How are you? This is your place.
A nice place. Beautiful place. And then: it’s cold. And then: a lot of ice, snow. A number of Filipinos living in Svalbard lost their jobs during the pandemic. Without an income or state help, they were forced to leave.
Now more workers are urgently needed. That's why I’m going back to my country. I just invite my sister to work with me.
Now, I don't accept private housing cleaning, because I don't have enough people. Around a hundred Filipinos currently live here. Even though it’s cold, this area by the sea is a meeting place for impromptu BBQs.
Efren also brought his two sons over, 23 year old Erwen and 18 year old Jericho. Since I've been here for five years, I always see the same thing as every day when I go out. So basically, most of my cousins or my friends in Philippines, they used to go out in the beach or like, go out in the mall, like hanging out around like that. But here I'm just always in my room playing computer. It’s still boring for me, I feel like it's not enough here, yeah. But he says leaving here isn’t easy.
He’d like to go to university. But for the subjects he’s interested in, he’d need to move to the mainland and be fluent in Norwegian. So far, he’s made little progress with the language. It's just too cold outside. Yeah. On the edge of town, there are a number of facilities for sled dog.
Huskies are only allowed to be let off the leash in compounds like these. The heavily pregnant Élise is relieved to have her friend Franka Leiterer helping today. They look like puppies when they're playing. But they are seniors, proper seniors. Temperatures as low as minus 30 are not for everyone. Then there are the many months of darkness.
From late October to mid-February there’s no sun or daylight here at all. If I would just listen to what my body wants to do so, and that is sleep all of the time, then it would not work. Yeah.
You mess up your rhythm. Some days I really struggle in the dark season depression-wise. It is not easy.
Usually we reverse our schedules, and we are more awake during the night, and we go and sleep in the early morning and sleep until noon. Well it's nighttime 24/7, so it doesn't really change anything, if you're awake at seven in the morning or seven in the night. Except that the shop is closed. That's really easy to forget about.
That’s true. Some people have really trouble to handle the dark season. For me it's more the summer season that is difficult, because during the summer season it's too much light, and I don't sleep enough. And when I don't sleep enough, I get cranky.
Svalbard has more than four months of nonstop daylight, from late April to late August. Élise and Loup select pictures they took to hang, another step in getting their apartment ready for their baby. Their dream of living in the Arctic was almost shattered when they both lost their jobs and their income during the lockdown. They had virtually no state benefits where the cost of living is high. That was definitely a struggle, because for me, I was not on any percentage contract.
I was only on what we call freelance here, so this kind of contract doesn't give me any unemployment benefits in Norway. So I was basically just getting nothing. So it was a lot of trying to survive using whatever we had on the bank account. And borrowing money and putting on hold the loans that I had to pay back as well. That, too, is part of immigrating to Svalbard.
When times are tough, you have to find a way. Élise and Loup were on the verge of giving up when finally, the restrictions were eased. We worked almost 200 percent, both of us.
In every single company that could give us work, we took the work. So last summer I worked as well two contracts in the same time, many, many hours. In the end I did the same numbers of hours than in the hospital, but doing something that I liked. Then you consider, okay, I dropped everything and I left everything to come here. And then if I have to go back, what do I do after that? It was a bit stressful.
Looks nice. It’s now two o’clock in the morning. While heading out to a second location, Christian broke down. He had to replace a broken belt on his snowmobile.
Ja. Let’s go. They drive for another hour and half. After 170 kilometers and 11 hours on the snowmobile, they arrive at the second location.
This time it’s a winner. The sea looks beautiful! In addition to the spectacular view, other criteria also fit... like the depth of the snow for example.
Over 90 cm. Great. You’ll never find the perfect spot.
We don’t want to nitpick, it’s definitely going to be amazing. Svalbard is the best place to live, according to Efren Regato. The most important thing for him is that his job is paid well. The fact that there’s only one supermarket here doesn’t bother him. A lot of the things that you can buy here.
But I think it’s a little bit expensive. You can even find imported tropical fruits. It’s a Papaya.
400 Pesos in the Philippines. You can buy fish and then three kilos of rice. You can prepare food for two dinners for your whole family for that, yeah. If any product sells out, the shelves can stay empty for a while.
The ship bringing fresh supplies only comes once every ten days. The next one isn’t due till the following Monday, as Erfren learns. My salary here, compared to the Philippines, it's a salary of a senator... Oh reindeer in the middle of the road.
Another one. If you hit that animal the police is giving you a penalty. For the past few months he’s had to manage household chores on his own, as he and his wife have separated. He mostly cooks Filipino dishes.
Tonight, he’s making Chicken Adobo, with ginger and garlic. It’s hard now, because my wife is not around. My wife has another woman also, same gender. They like each other and then I forgive them. I just give them free way. You are playing the same? Yeah, we're playing together.
With whom? We're playing together the game. Where from? I don't know. Different places, from Germany, from Sweden, from Russia. I think, you are wasting your time.
Just go in. Run. The food is prepared. Ah, okay... I gotta finish. Christian Bruttel’s company bought a house in the center of Longyearbyen, thanks to help from investors. It was a gamble.
And shortly after the purchase, the pandemic hit. Obviously, there’s a huge amount of debt to pay, and we couldn’t do that during Covid. We needed visitors. He was never bothered that there was no safety net here, until Covid hit. Then as an exception, businesses were allowed to claim state assistance, including those in the tourism industry. But that only applied to Norwegian firms. When your direct competitors are getting up to a hundred thousand euros in subsidies and you’re getting nothing, just because one of the owners there is Norwegian and you’re not, it certainly puts a dent in the idea that Svalbard is international, and everyone is equal and needs to be treated equally.
It felt like major discrimination. Following the lockdowns, they need to catch up. And thankfully, things are busy.
Despite that, they’ve decided to take some time out from work for a beer with friends. Long time no see. It’s a she? It’s a she. It’s four months that we haven’t seen each other.
And now it’s just we are getting blasted in the real season again. For me it’s like: Ok, wow, is that an actual real season? Yeah it is. I think it is crazier. From today to tomorrow it fully started again. But then as well we have more people coming here. It’s more crowded. We never had the situation that...
But it's two years of frustration. Two years of frustration for people not to be able to travel. Exactly Their work here is very much seasonal. When the tourists are here, there’s little time for friends. But they do value the relationships they have. I know what you guys think about it, but the fact that we are in this super rough environment also brings it to be: this is people that not only are your friends, but also that actually could save your life, when you're going on a trip together.
And that brings it to another level than a regular friendship. Efren Regato’s sons find life on the island less exciting. But they wouldn’t want to be in the Philippines either.
It's just way too dangerous there for me to stay or to live. A lot of people on the side street that do bad things to you. They do snatching phones like that or wallet or get a knife on your side and then ask for your money. You don’t have any choice but to give it instead of getting hurt. For me it's a good place to bring my kids here, because it's a safe place. And then there’s no bad people here and then I think it's a good place for my kids to grow.
How does it taste? It’s good. Not bad. It's just right. Longyearbyen normally gets around 70,000 visitors a year. It used to be mainly a coal mining town. But many believe tourism has a bright future here.
Élise included. During this film shoot, she was working hard on a new project. The magnets would go really well here. Together with three friends, she was preparing to open a rather unusual café. This is going to be a Huskies Café, basically it is a place where people can meet huskies. We have a lot of people in town, that usually ask, where they can meet dogs without taking a dog-sledding-tour.
It looks almost ready, but we still see everything that we need to do. But they made it, and the cafe has since opened to the public. Élise’s dream of living in Svalbard, where she recovered from burnout, almost didn’t work out.
Now she has a new challenge of living with a baby, in the difficult environment of the Arctic. But I still think, we can manage to go through all of it and find solutions for every single thing that comes our way like we always did. And we’ll adapt Pretty happy about being here, where I am now. When Efren Regato visits the Philippines, he plans to go to some of the country’s popular beach resorts, something he could never afford to do before. His family now see him as a wealthy businessman from Europe.
They think that I have a lot of money and they can eat at some fancy restaurant and then go to the beach resorts like that and have fun and party, party. And I am in charge of the expenses. I don't want to stay as long in the Philippines, because for me it’s hard and it’s warm in the Philippines. My body is adapted to here, cold. And then maybe if I go back to the Philippines as long as I go to a vacation, it might be, that maybe I get sick for that. Here’s lunch in here.
We meet Christian Bruttel one last time before his departure to the snowcamp. His tour group has arrived. I’m very thankful that it’s working again, that we have tourists coming, and that we don’t have to bid farewell to the livelihood that we built up here. For a long time, we just didn’t know.
It feels like the worst of the crisis is now behind them. But I very much doubt that I’ll do this forever. Because it’s a very busy life, it’s hard work and it’s like you have no roots. So I don’t think it will be forever. But for the time being, we’re here.
Svalbard is open to all those who are willing and able to work hard and cope with the extremes. Most migrants move on after a few years. For them, the archipelago in the Arctic is a beautiful, but temporary, home.