Friday, November 4, 2011

Occupy DC

Just got back from an Occupy DC march which surrounded the American Dream Summit (by and large a conservative gathering which included several (?) Republican presidential candidates) at the Convention Center... here are my observations, much of which appears to be getting misunderstood by the news already. For what it's worth, I'll clarify that I do not count myself among Occupy DC's ranks but nor do I affiliate myself with those against them. I just think both sides have fair points.

- I saw two fist fights. Both were between rival gangs from the area; did not involve protesters or anyone from the American Dream Summit.

- I can confirm one person & her dog were hit by a car which then left the scene. Protesters chased the car and surrounded it. Police did *not* let the driver go; they escorted it away from the protesters to investigate. Councilmember Wells confirms the driver was arrested. I hear (but did not witness) that two others have also been struck. This all occurred *after* I witnessed an American Dream Summit organiser asking police if he can run over protesters.

- Most protesters were friendly and let spokespeople with the American Dream Summit speak freely as well as let people pass through, though I did see several who were less ideal. In particular, the group on the west side tended to be more vocal at overwhelming the American Dream Summit's spokesperson and I also observed them blocking women with strollers and people in wheelchairs from exiting the American Dream Summit. The east side appeared more cordial, letting the spokesperson speak (who was very well-spoken, did not raise his voice, and overall a pleasant demeanor) and making way for people to pass.

- Every single police officer I saw acted responsibly and with excellent regard for their duties, laws, and with respect to both the protesters as well as attendees of the American Dream Summit.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Just updated my spreadsheet to include costs/day for my trips, though I'm still missing my 2005 trek...

$175/day - Austria
$90/day - Britain
$125/day - Canada
$345/day - Denmark
$410/day - Iceland/Greenland
$140/day - Ireland
$360/day - Germany
$535/day - Liechtenstein
$275/day - New Zealand
$565/day - Norway
$225/day - Switzerland
$165/day - Russia
$265/day - Sweden
$80/day - Ukraine

Costs include transport, lodging, food, touristy stuff, and anything else that arose... such as my hospital visit in Sweden or my impromptu changes in plan so evident in my 2005 journey. Hostels & wonderful friends who let me mooch off them helped keep food/lodging costs lower in many cases. Transport was easily the single biggest item, supporting my rationale behind one really long trip instead of a several smaller trips.

This was reversed in Sweden & Denmark- where ground transport was cheap(ish), but food & lodging was downright brutal. Norway was likewise, except you need so much transport that it added up fast.

Britain is only low because I did it on a tour & mooched off family along the way.  The real winner is Ukraine- awesome country & a downright bargain. Oh, how I want to return to there...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

DC - Earthquake

I was in the best seat one could have; the kind where it’s good to be when fear and chaos strike all at once.

What at first I thought was an odd rush of dizziness soon turned to thinking the crews remodeling the adjacent offices were rather loud... then I started wondering what the construction crews across the street had done... those thoughts flashed through my head in under a second.  But another second later the walls of the bathroom stall began to dance.  As the metal panels swayed back and forth it occurred to me that this was beyond the reach of anything the construction crews could’ve done.

This is DC.  With every passing electrical impulse coursing through my brain, my mind alternated between “earthquake” and “bomb”; and the screams coming from outside the bathroom were not soothing in the slightest.

So I hurried up with my dealings at that moment and emerged back into our building’s atrium to see most of the office building's tenants evacuating themselves.  (edit: that is, an exodus out of the building... a friend pointed out that "evacuating themselves" is poor phrasing considering my initial setting)

Returning back to my office, however, I found a room full of engineers, not one making even the slightest motion toward the doors.  Opting to stay in place, they instead put on hardhats.  This is why I love being an engineer.

Whoa, pretty good-sized #earthquake just hit in #Fairfaxless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Beating even the fastest news outlet: Twitter was awash with activity as soon as my fingers touched the keyboard, and soon enough the suspicions were unanimous: an earthquake had struck DC.  I was glad to see countless people tweeting from downtown DC, helping to ensure it wasn’t a bomb.  However, I was amused that my brain's first concern, if it was a bomb, was hoping my computer was alright… the masses & denizens of DC were second to pop into my head.

I was surprised to see feedback from friends in New York City and Boston sharing that they’d also felt the earthquake.  Within the next minute I’d come to find that friends in Canada and Wisconsin had even felt it, but it was missed down in Georgia and by anyone who happened to be driving at the moment.  Good reason not to drive; you miss out on the fun!  In fact, people in those further reaches read about the earthquake before it even struck.  So yeah: xkcd gets it right again!

Many of us returned to working until one of our engineers – one with a stronger structural background – pointed out something that we all should’ve known.  Our offices are located above a cantilevered section of the building… that is: exactly the kind of overhanging building bit that is most likely to fall down in an earthquake.  Within five minutes I’d come to learn that we were hit by a 5.9 earthquake with an epicenter just to the southwest & only within the top kilometer from the surface, and already aftershocks were giving that dizzying sensation that I’d felt in that first split-second.

(edit: USGS later revised back down to a 5.8, depth about 6 km)

Much of our staff had already departed by the time I wrapped up what I was doing, only ten minutes or so later.  To my amusement the guy sitting next to me was on a conference call with staff in our Baltimore office… an office who’d likewise felt the earthquake seemingly just as much as us.  Clearly those guys are quite dedicated.

The walk to the Metro station proceeded normally, albeit passing by evacuees from our office building as well as the apartments next door.  I looked over at the construction site and was glad to see it seemed OK – including the delicate 3 stories of timbers and massive 10 story-ish free-standing concrete elevator shaft.  I’d have been quite curious to have been watching that job site when the earthquake struck.

I arrived at the Metro station already armed with the knowledge that trains were running at 15 MPH.  I became aware that there wasn’t a single train headed back into the city on the boards… so I certainly had a decent wait ahead of me.  Entering the Dunn Loring / Merrifield Metro Station, passing through the pedestrian bridge over I-66, I passed by some fallen ceiling tiles that the station manager had already coned off.  The rest of the station appeared intact.

So the wait began.  And it continued.  It went on for 30 minutes, which on a weekend wouldn’t seem too out-of-place; but 3pm was the earliest stretches of the evening peak period… normally I’d wait 1-2 minutes; perhaps 5 minutes max.  Good thing it was a delightful day for a disaster, with the weather beautifully sunny and just a touch on the warmish side.  I-66, the interstate running along both sides of the station’s platforms, was rolling quite smoothly by this point; but it’d start to congest by the time my train crawled by East Falls Church.

Considering it was still pretty early, I was far out on the system, and headed in on a reverse commute – the platforms and train were certainly busier than they would normally be... but not jam-packed.  It was only at Foggy Bottom and Farragut West where my train car turned into a cattlecar.  It was really a rather pleasant ride, though the train car was a touch on the warm side… it made me all the more glad that the temperatures weren’t what they were like over the past several weeks.

At some point we'd picked up a police officer who passed through our car, walking between the cars while we were crawling along… I’m unsure of his precise role, other than perhaps to make sure people weren’t freaking out.  They weren’t.  While two cute Russian girls behind me – who’d boarded at Vienna – were clearly exasperated from the length of their trip; by and large most people were in normal or good spirits.

Many people read books and fiddled with their phones (as usual), though some were also exchanging stories & remaining cheerful through the whole ordeal.  Not one person ever derided the transit service: everyone was well aware that these were rather unique circumstances; I think we were all really just glad to have a way home at all – regardless of how slow it might be.  The train ride took a total 65 minutes, compared to the usual 20 on any other day.

Reading Twitter as the ride carried on was entertaining… most were light-hearted about the whole ordeal, but a few were still panicked and terrified.  Count me among the former, though some childhood memories came flooding back as soon as the train entered the subway tunnels – immediately reminding me of the Earthquake ride at Universal Studios that I’d both feared and loved as a kid.  Rumors were aflutter, with someone starting that the Washington Monument was leaning (it wasn’t) or that there was some significant damage to the spires at the National Cathedral (true).  I opted to send out a horrible tweet:

Lincoln Memorial is leaning ... leaning back in his comfy chair! HA ha ha ha!  ...sorry.  #earthquake #dcquakeless than a minute ago via Twitter for Android Favorite Retweet Reply

The only stations that were jam-packed were downtown, with the newcomers at Foggy Bottom & Farragut West immediately engaging others in conversation... and I managed to pretty easily slip through the door crowds when it soon came time for me to disembark at McPherson.  I chatted with the McPherson station manager briefly – she also seemed rather excited by the events' break in the daily monotony: she appeared to be doing patrols between the station manager's hut & the railing overlooking the platform, I assume partly to ensure that everything was still orderly down there (it was).  To think that only three hours prior I'd been in a course on pedestrian crowding, replete with multiple examples of disaster congestion.  It seemed fitting.

So began my usual walk back to Logan Circle, routing myself along K Street to witness the traffic chaos.  The streets were alive with the sound of sirens... and some horns for good measure.  Pretty much every road was backed up in all directions, largely with folk heading home early but also not helped in the slightest by numerous signals being out.  It was a good time to be a pedestrian.

Passing by some apartments at the corner of 10th and N Street NW I came upon a police unit in the process of taping off an alleyway… I soon spotted the load of debris scattered about, freshly fallen from the highest heights of the apartment’s structure.  This building is home to a number of low-income families -- I immediately shared news with my councilmember to make him aware, as these families face a very real possibility that they may not be allowed to return tonight.  It helped put into perspective that the “fun” of the day is only that way for those who don’t lose anything… but there are certainly some who may face some difficulties as the evening nears.  It also made me glad not to be a parent who had to worry about where my kids are and how they’re doing!

I returned to find that nothing had budged in my apartment.  Nothing; even the slightest bit.  I have some items sitting on slippy surfaces which were encircled by the dust as when I left, and the objects precariously hanging upon the walls -- which fall often enough even when the ground is stationary -- were still comfortably in place.  It was a nice contrast to the apartment building at 10th and N St or to my other friends whose breakable & expensive objects did not fare as kindly.

Sure, this pales in comparison to what California faces pretty much every day... and while eyeing up the fallen ceiling tiles at Dunn Loring / Merrifield I was chatting with a Japanese woman who was also no stranger to earthquakes.  But keep in mind: it's not just that the East Coast is full of softened hipsters (the West Coast has those, too); our buildings and infrastructure simply are not designed for earthquakes of this magnitude.  So what would be a ho-hum day along the San Andreas turns out to be a pretty big thing for folk in DC.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

SlutWalk DC 2011

The journey to the event began well before the march took its first step.  I had a maddening effort that morning at getting my cameras back.  The cameras had been in for repair, which particularly bothered me in that one of those cameras was only 2 months old & was already damaged; and even then: Canon wouldn't honor their warranty.

And also: for several days I'd been trying to work with FedEx to receive the cameras back... and to put a long story short: they'd been behaving very much like UPS usually does.  It was a pain trying to either get the packages delivered while I was home or to get them delivered to the local FedEx branch.  I ended up physically chasing down their delivery truck -- on the phone with the driver -- as it made its runs along Mass Ave.

To think that only a month ago I'd had such a high opinion of both Canon and FedEx.

I arrived out of breath after chasing down the FedEx truck and then dashing almost nonstop to Lafayette Square.  Finding the group had already moved on, I began a jog south across the Mall -- losing a couple pounds of sweat in the process.  The day was comparatively cool, but the humidity was of no assistance.  Intermittent rain did help, but drenched some wonderful signs, makeup, and only made it feel a bit more brutal when the atmospheric spigot turned off again.

This was a bit of a tricky event to photograph, as having grown up among the rather puritanical Amish of Pennsylvania: my mind was jousting with itself between the thoughts of "I shouldn't hesitate to photograph these ladies because they're here to show their pride & I can help to showcase it" versus "I should not photograph these ladies especially at an event like this; I don't want to look like a creeper and I don't want my photos to end up being salivating fodder for every horny man on the internet".

This subsequently resulted in me being rather timid the whole time... particularly in that I actually asked many of the women for permission.  Usually I prefer more candid shots as it gives a more authentic look, but I felt a bit too off-kilter to do as much of that this time around; hence the asking for permission.

I also only took a few photos of those wearing the least, as I just felt too uncomfortable standing there with a camera focused on their body when I'm at an event all about deobjectifying the female form.  Though at one point I did laugh with a participant when I asked if I could take a photo of her chest... one of the few times I could do that without getting slapped.

(to be fair: there were also plenty of men in attendance & participating; but I didn't feel nearly as reserved photographing them... in general, men simply don't carry as many sexual connotations)

There were some powerful stories shared on the stage spanning quite the gambit of scenarios.  While I didn't agree 100% with everything (then again: I *never* agree 100% with *anything*), it was nonetheless a great event and it was nice to see the comradery between stage & audience.  The early rain may have drenched makeup and soaked the ink on signs, but it certainly didn't dampen their spirit.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

NO - Bergen

July 2                     Sunday                                 Norway                                Bergen                 

The sun is up!  A great day for glaciers and fjords!

I picked up a glacier tour at the museum, standing on the rooftop and using my camera to spy on it as it sat at the docks in town before driving over to the museum.  While the six other people in the group wandered about the museum, I returned to its café to get me some breakfast… except the same fare was on offer.  So since I’d asked the server yesterday whether I should do a hamburger or hotdog, I figured this time around I’d go for the option not yet chosen: hotdog.

From the get-go I could tell it was not this girl’s morning.  It was a different girl than yesterday evening, though that girl was also there working the entry’s desk instead of the café.  But with the café girl this time around: first she set her coffee in front of the cash register.  So when the till snapped open: over went the coffee.  Then she gave me the hotdog and I immediately realized it was ice cold… she forgot to flip on the water heater when she arrived.  About 10 minutes later I received a freshly brewed hot dog … still cold.  Oh well.  Ketchup & mustard cover that up nicely.

The white pants girl from the previous evening inquired which I liked better: her burger or her coworker’s hot dog.  Here was a moment I could’ve been suave and offered a classy answer that clearly praised her cheeseburger in some manner, but at this time of morning I do not have such capabilities (nor do I often have them even at the best of times).  I just answered her burger & said the hotdog was cold in the too matter-of-factly engineering manner so stereotypical of my profession.  Doh.  I did get to thinking, though… she really  reminded me of someone; I just couldn’t think of who.  Something about her face & personality seemed so incredibly familiar.

The six people in my glacier tour included an older American couple from Staten Island, a 30-something couple from Mumbai, a 30-something Asian woman from Australia, and one other older dude I didn’t get a chance to talk to.  Oh: the dude from Staten Island totally had a handlebar mustache.

We visited two glaciers: Supphellebreen then Bøyabreen.  In the history of what I’ve seen in the Alps, Iceland, or Greenland: these were downers.  Neither was too endearing… I mean, I love glaciers & these were nice, but the glacier itself was high up and didn’t show much to the layperson at ground level.  As the glaciers advanced, gravity caused them to tumble down the cliffs into a large pile at the bottom… not really a glacier in the same sense, anymore, and not quite the impact I get from visiting glaciers more befitting the stereotypical look.

I returned and made my way to the bus stop on the other side of the museum, making myself comfy and soaking up some rays as I waited for my bus south toward Begen.  I got to thinking… transportation in Scandinavia has really not been to European standards: it’s inefficient, slow, expensive, and serves only limited destinations.  Norway, in particular, really hits those marks.  Passenger rail is only marginally better than the USA.  While the bus system is better than the USA, it’s still missing some pretty major direct connections… but on the plus side: they do a stellar job at coordinating bus transfers.  I’ve rarely had to wait more than 10 minutes.  But through it all: it got me to wondering if Fjærland’s apparent lack of business wasn’t in some part to its lack of a rail connection… buses and ferries just tend to be a bit more hidden and confusing to the casual tourist not affiliated with a tour group.

The bus dropped me off in Habakken (which sounds a lot like, and may be etymologically related to, Hoboken in New Jersey).  My next bus took me directly to Bergen, immediately entering into the world’s longest road tunnel after departing Habakken.  Now the problem with riding through tunnels breaking the distance record is that the kitsch is fun for the first 30 seconds, but then you have many minutes of boredom.  With each subsequent tunnel: the clouds grew and grew, also sinking lower and lower… soon enough we had arrived in Bergen to a rather dreary day.  But on its suburban outskirts we did pass by one highlight: a construction site… not just any construction site; I was witness to a baby Ikea being born.  It was beautiful; the miracle of furniture.

Sick of eating burgers, hotdogs, and takeaway pizzas: I yearned for something different & something with flavor.  Indian to the rescue!  The samosas were quite tasty, the lassi OK, and the main course good… but I probably shouldn’t have ordered it hot.  While it was still plenty edible, it was at the point where the temperature of the spice detracted from its overall flavor & appreciation.

My hostel was a pretty large dormitory, but I ended up getting some great uninterrupted sleep despite the crowd.  Of 16 beds: two stayed empty, a 30-something Italian couple occupied another bunk pair, two English guys in another bunk (one of which was originally from Indiana but moved at a young age; both from Birmingham but without as bad an accent as Ozzy Osborne!), a 20-something American girl (I think the first American of my trip?), a 20-something Japanese guy (from Tokyo; in the bunk above me), a 30-something woman I didn’t get a chance to chat with, and some other folk I also missed.

Friday, July 1, 2011

NO - Fjærland

July 1                     Sunday                                 Norway                                Fjærland             

It was drizzling when I awoke, which was moments before my alarm… I’m never sure whether I should be relieved to dodge that hateful noise or annoyed that I missed out on precious minutes of sleep.  Sure, a couple more minutes probably wouldn’t have made any real difference; but it’s how it feels when you feel like you’ve been robbed of sleep time.

I tossed together an open-faced sandwich of veggies & cold cuts for breakfast, briefly attempting a bowl of muesli with milk that smelled fine but poured like yogurt.  WHY, SCANDINAVIA, WHY??

The Chinese were first to depart, filling a bus and suddenly leaving the hostel quite blissfully calm.  I boarded the second bus with the Ukrainians & Dominique for the ride south to Geiranger.  We stopped in town to pickup a couple folk from the train station, one of which was an older woman – but I say “older” lightly – who sat in the other front-row seat across from me.  From the wrinkles in her face I’d hazard a guess that she was in her late-30’s or perhaps early-40’s, but holy cow had she aged well… perfectly fit and looking like a slightly older Kristin Kreuk (a longtime celebrity crush of mine ever since the first season of Smallville).  Named Linda, she’s an Australian (from Brisbane, if I recall) who works with weddings on cruise ships & had just finished a job in Italy when she came to Norway for vacation.  I was quite bummed when we she alighted in a town just before we ferried across one of the fjords.

The bus ride took us through Trollstigen, which includes some sheer towering cliffs above the road & also a very dramatic series of switchbacks as the road climbs one of the slopes.  Once again: one of those things I’d love to see in clear weather, but I made the best of the gloom as I could.

Our arrival into Geiranger was quite dramatic, with stellar fjord views along the whole descent into town.  From there we all switched to a ferry to Hellesylt – often credited as among the best ferry trips in all of Norway.  It was certainly with its charm, but again: the low-hanging clouds surely limited the views of the mountainsides.  It did kind of feel like I was entering Jurassic Park, though… a recurring issue with a couple more fjord cruises being that the Jurassic Park theme song gets stuck in my head.  But I love that piece; so it’s OK.

As our ferry passed by the Hurtigruten ferry: ours took the lead in a brief foghorn duel, causing everyone on the top deck to leap with surprise at the first sound.

Once in Hellesylt we all switched back to a bus, where we’d soon be parting ways.  While waiting, however, I finally struck up conversation with the Ukrainians.  There was one woman clearly enthused to have the opportunity to practice her English, though her English was only marginally better than my Russian… and I was equally excited to throw out a couple Russian phrases.   The two young girls with the group (I’m guessing the woman I was talking to was their mother?) were especially excited, and clearly they’d had some English courses in school.

The youngest was likely in elementary or possibly middle school… definitely around the 10-12 mark.  The sister (or I assume sister) looked to be about 17-18 and downright cute.  It may have been lost in translation, but I think she is either entering into her final year of high school or just graduated.  She seemed shy at first, but once she got to talking she became downright garrulous.  Even then, however, it was clear that English wasn’t her strongest point… but she was certainly the best English speaker of the group & quickly became my translator.

I posed for a photo with the smallest one as we each read our Norwegian guidebooks – one in Russian; the other in English – and I gave my card to the woman and asked if I could get a copy of the photo, but I feared the request was lost in translation.  Hopefully she’d just give my card to the older girl, who’d well enough know to send an email & I could follow up from there.

The Ukrainians disembarked in Olden and I ultimately left Dominique in Skei.  While I gave due farewells to the Ukrainians, I felt like I hadn’t properly thanked the tour guide for his help; and even in Skei I had totally forgotten to say anything to Dominique as I’d been fixated on trying to figure out my next transfer.  I felt kind of bad about that…

My final destination was only about 30 minutes past Skei: a tiny town called Fjærland.  Well I wasn’t even in the town… that was still about 3 kilometers from the bus stop, but fortunately my campsite was right at the bus stop.  The two teenaged girls at reception were exceptionally helpful at helping me plan out the next day, providing me with bus schedules and ferry scheduled for whichever mode I should choose.

Dinner was at the Glacier Museum immediately next door.  It was the only option… open for another hour; whereas everything in the slightly-distant town had just closed.  The café certainly didn’t serve world-class fare, but in my famished state: the cheeseburger served well enough.   I took heed of the server’s white pants… not specifically out of ogling her or anything; but just that a lot of Scandinavian women wear white pants; and what more: they wear it well.  White pants are hard for a lot of women to pull off.

I settled in for the evening in the attic dormitory, ultimately having the entire room all to myself… turns out tiny Fjærland wasn’t quite the tourist haven at this point.  At about 11pm I took heed that the skylight was sunny… the sun!  Sunset!  Yay!  It was a very pretty sunset, and with a 24/7 rooftop plaza on the museum next door: I had a great vantage point to capture the surrounding landscape of the tip of the fjord.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

NO - Åndalsnes

June 30                 Thursday                             Norway                                Åndalsnes          

I woke up with the Donkey Kong Country song stuck in my head.  It’s the song that kind of sounds almost like a musical box at first, with the jungle drums kicking in a few measures later.  I don’t know why it was in my head, but I was singing it as I woke up.

It was a dreary day & at long last it stuck, with the cycling weather pattern I’d noted yesterday now transforming into a consistently gray day.  Of all days, it was when I supposed to take a spectacularly scenic journey… bah.  But as I’d noted before: it’s best to try and reframe such weather as just another photographic tool.  The clouds are a diffuser; and their low altitude would help to frame things into a gloomy state… and considering the troll theme of much of the geology I’d pass through: perhaps this would even be appropriate.

I left my baggage at the desk to explore the town a bit before catching my train that afternoon.  I just revisited many of the same sites I’d already taken, but tried to vary my route a bit to take in different streets.  By the time I caught my train I felt that I’d taken pretty much every single street in the entire city center, including along both sides of the bryggen.

My train took me first to Dombås before changing into the Rauma Railway (Raumabanen) as it travels to Åndalsnes.  The first leg of the train ride was rather uneventful, with the highlight being my eating of breakfast.  The panini (if that’s what they want to call it) was quite lacking, though the cookie was tasty.  Amusing part was that the train’s café was actually rather reasonably priced… at the least on-par with any stationary convenience mart.

The Rauma Railway was definitely a delight, but again I’d love to see it in better weather… but I tried my best to use the gloom to my advantage.  The railway is famous for its civil engineering marvels as it tackles some pretty major grades, at one point bridging back and forth over streams to try and make the grade before eventually going into a tunnel that spirals & double-backs over itself – opening directly onto a pretty phenomenal bridge.  It was definitely worth the trip.

Upon arrival in Åndalsnes I decided to give myself a quick tour of the town.  Despite the backpacks & knowledge that I had a decent walk to my hostel, I also knew that this was my only chance to really see the town; and I knew it’d be a small enough town that it would only take a couple minutes.  And sure enough: I was soon on my journey out to the hostel.  I’d checked out the town on Google Maps the night before, which was all it took for me to get to my hostel flawlessly.  Thank you, Lonely Planet, for not giving me a map… no map is better than a bad map; it forces me to pay more attention & learn the layout of towns rather than think I can use the map as a crutch.

Along the way I’d kept pace with a guy who was clearly having some trouble with his rolling suitcase, but he kept up his speed just enough – and I’d slowed just enough with my frequent photos – that I’d never caught up with him.  At the hostel, however, while chatting with my new roommates he came in several minutes later and immediately recognized me as the guy who had been behind him.  His name was Dominique, hailing from the south of France, & he’d come to be a recurring presence in my trip.

Similarly, another recurring presence would be a tour group whose guide I got to chatting with – an older English guy who’d been living in Norway for years & ran tours catering to Ukrainians.  So sure enough: the tour group was formed of Russian-speaking Ukrainians from a town between Kyiv and Bila Tserkva… there’s a good chance I’d gone right by their hometown during my trip in 2008.  I came to love the Russian language during that trip & really like the Ukrainian people, so I was excited to have such a group around.  But even better: the tour guide helped me plan my route to Bergen… he had time tables of buses & knew their routes, which was fortunate considering that my initial plan followed paths which didn’t have any bus routes.  Surprising considering how direct they seemed & how large the towns were… who’d have thought Lom would be so underserved by buses?  His group was headed in much the same direction as me, so we’d be tagging along together the next day.

I’d arrived into the hostel just seconds before two full tour buses pulled in, turning the quiet farmstead into a wildhouse of folk… one bus contained the Ukrainians & the other bus had a Chinese tour group.  I was quite relieved to have arrived just in time to check-in before that cacophony struck the reception desk.

In addition to Dominique, my roommates consisted of two German guys – one about my age (bunked below me) and another seeming in his late-30’s or early-40’s; I couldn’t tell if he was a friend, coworker, or even father to the guy my age.  There were two other French guys who I chatted with briefly & I’m drawing a blank on who occupied the other bed; I don’t think I got to talking with him at all.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

NO - Trondheim

June 29                 Wednesday                        Norway                                Trondheim                         

Rejoice- the sun has returned!  It’d been such a dreary span of days that you could tell Trondheim was excited to revel in the warmth and light.  The street market was jam-packed; as were the tourist sites.  My first stop was the Nidaros Cathedral, which unfortunately prohibited all photography on account of when they allowed no-flash photos… people kept using flash.  Bah… I hate when people who don’t know how to work their crappy point & shoots ruin it for people who actually know how to use a camera.

As I waited to ascend the tower I took a moment to write out a prayer… well, not really a prayer so much as just a muse I figured someone out there might enjoy: “Evil is necessary for Good to find meaning.”  I kind of wondered if they’d read that aloud; I wondered if someone might find some meaning; if I might spark some great reformation which would only know to attribute it to some anonymous signatory “Bossi”; and I’d be thinking in total modesty… that’s me!  I started the reformation!  …Or they might just toss it out since it’s not a prayer request.  Oh well.

Within the same wait I took to looking at some of the stained glass windows near the tower entrance.  The one immediately right of the entrance, at the top of the window, totally has a Wookiee in it.  Sure, the girl managing the tower tour assured me that it’s Jesus; but I still assert that it’s a Wookiee.  Jesus wasn’t that hairy, even with the most hippie-esque of mangy beards.

Up the tower I snapped some photos, and soon I was being advised it was time to descent… too short a time to appreciate the view, but at least I got pretty much all the photos I wanted.  But my favorite part was probably the journey itself: first you ascend stairs at one of the church corners, then you cross over to another stairwell nearer to the center of the church.  That crossover is along the wall overlooking the cathedral’s open interior: answering my question as to whether those were passages or just aesthetic openings as I looked upon them from ground level.  While they are indeed passages: they sure placed a definite size limit on would-be visitors to the tower… while I have some bulk to me, I’d certainly not consider myself fat… but here I could just barely fit.  Granted, my backpack had some part in that.  We lost a few folk who had to turn away on account of being unable to clear this corridor.

From the cathedral I moved next door to the Erkebispegården, or the Archbishop’s Palace.  There really wasn’t much of interest… ruins and statues, for those who are enamored with such.  By this point I’ve seen so many ruins, statues, and museums that I think I just had a tough time appreciating even more of them.

That said: what do I do next?  Go to another palace, of course.  But while the Archbishop’s Palace was definitely more museum in nature; the Stiftsgården (Royal Palace) was more palace-like.  Granted, it still plays its intended role on rare occasion that the royal family makes a visit to the city.  Our tour guide wasn’t the most sociable or able to engage the crowd, but he certainly offered some interesting information.  Such as why there were two small bedrooms on each side of the main party hall: for those who pass out to recover.  Firstly there was the general drinking at a royal party, but that included a Norwegian custom to toast to every single person at the table individually.  That’s a lot of sips even before the party starts.  Add in the heat of the heavy layers of noble clothing, the oxygen depleting corsets on the women, and some other things I surely forget… and yeah: rooms for relocating those who pass out.

Tangent time… I write this now really just because I took a photo of it to help jog my memory; and that photo just syncs in at this point in the narrative.  Opening plastic bottles in Norway.  I’m quite convinced it’s impossible to properly open them… the bottlecap never fully separates from the little plastic strip that’s usually left on the bottle.  The perforated edge seems to fail each time… and it’s not just me; I’ve seen discarded bottles all over the place with the perforated strip still dangling from the bottle cap.

Also, while I’m on tangents… Scandinavians rarely walk on escalators, cross on Don’t Walk, nor even speed despite oppressively slow speed limits.  Just like the Germans: their patience is phenomenal.

I sauntered around the city a bit more, at one point passing by a fitness club whose doors was propped open by a lone shoe; an alarm faintly sounding at this long-term opening of the door.  That single shoe (I caught myself: I nearly said sole shoe… HA HA GET IT??) got me thinking about the Rapture.  I know; a perfectly natural thing for one’s mind to wonder to.  If everyone’s Raptured & they leave their clothes behind, I can only assume that they’re arriving in Heaven naked?  So if I were to end up there, too, and be delighted to find that my heavenly reward consists of lots of naked women; do I run the risk of getting kicked out on account of the sin of lust?  See now this testosterone-influenced tangent comes with greater theological meaning, as my wandering mind is wont to do: can one truly indulge in any of their promised heavenly rewards without committing a sin and getting themself booted right out?  This reinforces my belief that we’re all going to Hell; everyone’s gotta go at least once; so we might as well look forward to the trip.

Trondheim has an extensive bike-sharing system.  Well, so did Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo.  Stockholm had lots and lots of bikes all over, but I rarely saw any actual stations for them; and when I did see a station they were almost inevitably empty.  Copenhagen had a decent mix of usually having bikes & empty spots at each station, but I didn’t come around many stations where I’d have expected them.  The station placement seemed a bit more suited to the locals in-the-know rather than tourists trying to hop from sight to sight.  Oslo had a phenomenal amount of stations (or at least they sure do in the downtown reaches) and they were almost consistently a mix of bikes & empty spots… perfect.  Trondheim doesn’t have as many stations, but still a good coverage & good mix of bikes and empty spots.  So basically… good job, Norway!  Except their bike infrastructure is otherwise eons behind the Danes and Swedes.

Still on tangents: I’ve come to find that Scandinavians seem to have a fondness for either really small dogs (as is common or urbanites on account of limited living space) but also really HUGE dogs.  There have been several St. Bernards and quite a number of dogs that look very similar.  While there are some medium and other large dogs here and there, it’s not nearly of the same caliber as in the Germanic areas… but, of course, German Shepherds clearly have a bit of a presence in those areas.

I absolutely love the clouds over Norway.  While today was overall sunny, it did partly follow a trend that’s been around for several days… basically the weather changes every 10-15 minutes.  It’s sunny, then cloudy, the raining, then sunny again, and repeat.  Sometimes the rain and sun even overlap, with the tiniest of clouds actually being small rain showers.  With the mashing ocean currents to the west, interplay of seas to the south, colliding air masses of the temperate & Arctic, and the mountains jamming it all upward: the clouds over Norway end up being unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  Basically it’s a huge scattering of clouds which at sunset really lights up almost like a decorated Christmas tree.

Dinner was at a kebab shop just a couple doors down from the hotel.  It was tasty, quick, and freed me to enjoy my comfy room more.  By this point I’d hit everything I wanted to see in Trondheim and felt like I’d covered everything I needed to cover.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

NO - Trondheim

June 28                 Tuesday                               Norway                                Trondheim                         

The bus from Røros to Trondheim was rather noneventful… the day was dreary and I slept through large portions of the drive.  The landscape this far east of the mountains was rather bland: rolling hills at best.  I did appreciate the farmhomes, though.  I’d come to find that many of the farm structures throughout Norway are painted in a dark red – I believe traditionally it was ox blood, but I’d wager they use more modern paints these days.  Alongside the barns are often rather modern but still traditionally-styled farmhouses; they were quite beautiful.  The rest of the developed areas, however, are rarely too endearing… the small towns are often conglomerations of modern buildings; the large towns are often larger conglomerations of modern buildings.  The exceptions are the bryggen areas; the historic working-class wooden buildings preserved in a couple cities.

I was staying in the P-Hotel, and I was quite fortunate in that the bus just happened to have a bus stop only a block away.  Granted, the hotel’s location is excellent considering that even without that bus stop: the train/bus station is only a couple more blocks away; and the hotel is right within the city center.  Not just that, but as far as hotels go: it’s comparatively cheap… and the room I got was large and gave me a queen bed.  Add in that you get breakfast hung on your door knob the following morning – great considering I’m rarely awake for the official breakfast time at other places – and I was dearly impressed by the quality & price of the P-Hotel chain.

The reception suggested I grab food at a place called Graffi.  I got a garlic burger and was quite surprised… it was actually an American-style burger with an amazing garlic sauce.  The fries weren’t too shabby, either.

Walking up through the pedestrian area, I came upon a group of buskers in Native American garb performing traditional tunes.  It always cracks me up to see them in Europe – in this trip I’d come to see them in Copenhagen, Trondheim, and Bergen – and yet I can’t recall ever seeing them back in North America.  You know; where they come from.  This only reinforces my general theory that they’re not entirely genuine… first, beneath the costumes & makeup they more often-than-not look far more Asian to me than Native American.  While both tend to have high cheekbones and share Mongolian roots, Native Americans tend to have a squarer face; whereas Asians tend to be rounder.  Next: I highly highly doubt they are actually playing the music… this was especially reinforced by my experience a couple days from now, in Bergen, where the group wasn’t even playing half the time you heard the instrument… and when they started playing: you didn’t hear anything change in the sound.  Also half the time their apparent drumming was off-beat from the music.  So yeah: I think these groups are usually just rip-offs… good for only some relaxing New Age tunes if you want to sit nearby and eat.

There was some street market going on, and from some posters and handouts I’d gathered it was a multi-day affair.  Most of the stalls were tourist trinkets, t-shirts, and sausages, but I did happen across a stand of armaments.  I saw a coat of chain mail and expected the worst: masses of replicas and fake crap intended to rob clueless tourists of their money.  What I found was actually the opposite: about half were medieval replicas, but the weapons were mostly full-tare… that is: real weapons that you could use to hack somebody apart, if you so desired.  Even the modern guns I’d thought were just airsoft until I picked one up and found it was actually a fully functional firearm.  Then a couple 20th century blades caught my eye… an SS ceremonial sword, an SS dagger, an SA dagger, and a Chinese bayonet.  Now I have a small obsession with both hand-to-hand combat weapons and also World War II… I bought up all but the SS dagger.  I figured the sword served that niche well enough & the SA dagger was still related and also in better condition.  Plus the SA dagger carried a more legible manufacturer’s mark & date (1938).  Of course, this now meant I had to carry these through the rest of my trip & then figure out how to get them back across the ocean…

Going back to my earlier mention of bryggen: thanks to Trondheim for finally making Norway feel like Norway.  That is: the Norway I’d always envisioned… colorful wooden buildings right up along the shoreline.  Sure enough, Trondheim’s riverfront features rows of exactly that on each side: precisely the photogenic stretch I’d been pining for after my let-downs in the pair of small towns from the last couple days & even Oslo, the latter quite lacking in buildings that really define Norway.

Oh, a side-note… for some reason I’ve had Disney songs stuck in my head as I walk around.  Except every single song keeps turning into “Prince Ali” from Aladdin.

On the other side of the river is the Trampe.  That’s not some half-hearted attempt to be more classy about deriding a woman; it’s a bicycle lift for ascending a steep hill.  I took lots and lots of photos and then some more… but not one person used it.  Lots of people huffed directly up the hill under their own power; most taking a break at the top and possibly wondering why they didn’t try the lift or perhaps absorbing their pride in conquering a hill without need of the lift.

At the summit of the hill is Kristiansten Fort, offering great views over the city.  The main building didn’t seem to be open at this point nor on my visit two days from now, so I’m guessing it’s not accessible to tourists.  But the rest of the fortress was free for roaming about the walls.  The only open building was a café.  I smiled at the sight of the cutesy ice cream ad standing immediately in front of a row of artillery… it was a great contrast.

One nook has a memorial to resistance fighters who were executed against the wall… it was eerie to turn with your back toward the wall, looking at the very last sight of those who died there; or heading up the slope to look back at the wall as one of those who took those lives.

It was about this time when I had to rush back to my hotel to tend to laundry.  The lack of clothes had been a growing issue, with me now rewearing shirts for a third time (I’m OK with rewearing a 2nd time when backpacking; but 3 times crosses over the stench line).  The deal was that the laundry room – conveniently located just steps from my hotel room – closes at 8pm, so I was aiming to be back at 6pm to make sure I could wash and dry in time.  I made it back at 6:30, but that didn’t matter as an exasperated receptionist shared that she’d been trying to find the key, but was coming up empty-handed.  We went up to the laundry room and noticed that it sounded like something was running in there… but we never did sort out who was running the machines or where the key was.

She ended up letting me use a washer down in their basement, but I had to hang everything to dry up in my room.  I had just enough hangable space to store all my clothes, so it actually worked out quite well.  This laundering would also be enough to carry me through the rest of the trip.  Of course, I wanted to get the most out of a laundry load as I could: so as I followed her down to the basement I was clad only in my pajama pants and my jacket.  The sole button on my pajama pants’ fly is not a perfect device, as I took heed of whilst quickly descending the stairs… I slowed my pace the rest of that descent.  I shared that I’d be in for the night on account of no clothes & unzipped my jacket a bit as testament… I never saw a woman’s face become so visibly enamored before; so that was… interesting.  Except despite being the sole two folk in the basement & my being a click away from nudity: my mind was on my rather unsanitary condition & need of clean clothes; not on trying to seduce a hotel staffmember à la some late-night Cinemax flick.

So my lack of clothes kept me in for the night.  Combined with no need to get up early & a dearth of planning to do for the next few days: I was up quite late into the evening… late enough to watch as the bars closed & some dude decided to pee right outside my window.  I was raised several stories up and had a lovely view as he stood in the middle of an empty parking space & let loose, except he wasn’t close to any of the adjacent cars… he was just sort of right in the middle & slightly oriented toward the sidewalk.  So when a pair of women passed by one of the adjacent cars: they were greeted with fat guy dong.  That was a fun shriek, immediately followed by a pair of giggling female voices… except in the guy’s inebriated state he seemed totally indifferent; just wobbling about as much as he did before the flashing surprise.  Like any good person: I snapped a couple photos… even used the flash a few times just to see if he’d react.  Nope.

Monday, June 27, 2011

NO - Røros

June 27                 Monday                               Norway                                Røros                                   

Catching a train is easy when you can roll out of bed and be halfway there.  Today’s destination was Røros, to which I probably could’ve taken a bus for a much faster, direct, and cheaper route… but the thought crossed my mind about 5 seconds after buying the train ticket.  Oh well… another slow but relaxing ride later I’d arrived in Røros – the gem of Norway, or so I’d gathered from my guidebook.

At my transfer in Hamar, I seated myself within the quiet car… the silence broken by a woman on her mobile phone.  Go figure.  It was especially ironic considering the Scandinavians really aren’t major mobile phone users… especially compared to the rest of Europe or even America.  I rarely see anyone talking or even texting.

I made my way around Røros’ train station and down toward my hotel.  While Lonely Planet had my hotel – the Idrettsparken Hotell – placed on the wrong end of the street – a 5 minute walk off – signposts fortunately guided me the rest of the way.  However, I soon learned that it wasn’t the most convenient location thanks to the train station itself.  The train station only accesses to/from the north, so if you want to get to the south side: a 15 second direct walk becomes a 10 minute meander around the end of the station and back again.  It made me really miss the former Soviet Bloc, where there wouldn’t be any walls, fences, or any other type of barrier… if you get hit or electrocuted: you probably should’ve paid more attention.

The town has one major pedestrianized street and another somewhat major parallel street that’s open to traffic.  Then there’s a perpendicular road following the railroad tracks which serve as the main route through town.  The two parallel streets were rather pretty, but absolutely not what I was hoping for.  I ended up getting more joy out of its root cause for existence: the remains of the mining town’s smelting operations.  Large mounds of rock made for a some very quick and easy hikes with some decent views over town, but the rooftops weren’t nearly as endearing as many other villages I’ve been to.

I grabbed lunch at the Kaffestugu Cafeteria.  My burger had an oddly shaped beef patty… shaped a bit more like a pancake than your standard burger.  Its beef was apparently some local breed of cattle, contributing to a rather unique taste… with a slightly crispy edge, it was actually rather tasty.  Though its bun kept up something I’d noticed in Norway & would continue to have issues with: their bread crumbles very easily.  Fortunately the cupcake I got for dessert – cherry-flavored – was quite tasty and had a great texture.

With plenty of energy in reserve, I walked northwest out to the Kvitsanden: mounds of sand deposited by glaciers in eons past.  I’d thought I’d made it to them when I turned back, but on my bus ride out of town the next day: I’d spot a small mountain of sand just over the crest of a hill where I’d thought I’d made it.  It was exactly the sort of mound I’d have quite liked to scale… oh well.  The walk itself was nice.

On my way back I took a path which wrapped around a small lake.  A footbridge crossed above a gravel path which continued out toward the air strip and I paused briefly to watch a plane take off in the distance.  Two girls were fiddling about to my left, and from the looks of it I gathered there were gearing up for an amateur photo shoot.  No diffusers or reflective discs, but they definitely had a couple changes of clothes and a rather large blanket which they certainly weren’t rushing about to set on the ground for a picnic… besides, apart from right on the bridge, there weren’t any grand vistas to be had for a picnic.  They also didn’t have any food.  So I knew something was up… especially because just as I walked off, they dashed a couple meters into the trees; I heard giggling emanating from behind me as I continued my walk.

When I found that the path didn’t seem to be taking me where I wanted to go, I turned back to the bridge, where I could make my way down and follow the other trail back to the road.  Sure enough: I was right on the whole amateur photography session.  However, ideas that were floating about in my head suddenly manifested themselves into reality as I came across one girl with a camera and one flesh-toned girl posing beside a tree.  As I type this, I feel like I’m writing a letter to Penthouse...

They clearly hadn’t heard me returning, as the girl’s face flushed with color immediately; but she followed with embarrassed giggling rather than a shriek of terror… so that’s good.  At least they knew the risk of their location choice.   So now it was a matter of how to treat the situation… walk off and leave them embarrassed?  Start chatting and risk being really sleazy and keeping the embarrassment going?  Or option 3… I am carrying a decent-sized camera and just happen to have a full lens kit with me.

I said don’t worry: holding up my camera I said “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”  Noticing that the one girl had a low-end SLR and a basic kit lens: I pulled my f/1.4 out of my pocket and offered if she’d like to use it.  They were also shooting at an odd angle to the trees and light… while it was cloudy, the nature of the trees still created some degree of lighting differential.  So for the next several minutes I lent my lens and helped coach on some good shots.  I’d hazard a guess that the girls were born after 1990… I’d guess legal, but I didn’t want to risk photographing anything illegal nor did I want to overstep the delicate social line that had already been laid out.  Plus thanks to the internet: who needs photos of random girls, anyway?  They did a wardrobe change and within perhaps 10 minutes or so I was on my way again. At least by the time I left she felt much more comfortable… so I guess I ultimately handled it well enough.

And that pretty much wrapped up the night.  I’d felt I’d done Røros in its entirety and there was still plenty of daylight out.  I spent the rest of the night battling internet in my hotel room… throughout all of Scandinavia: internet has been an issue at pretty much every place of lodging.  These countries need a serious influx of techies.  Granted, in this particular case it didn’t help that the couple running reception didn’t seem to have much interest in service.  It’s not that they were rude or anything; they just simply seemed highly distracted… like their mind wasn’t on helping their customers.  They seemed confused by the whole check-in process, confused when I wanted to buy an ice cream bar (my first one of the trip!), and confused when I tried to explain that they needed to reset their router.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

NO - Lillehammer

June 26                 Sunday                                 Norway                                Lillehammer                     

My departure from Oslo went more smoothly than my arrival, with my knowledge of the city now letting me forego my Lonely Planet map and get to the train station in one smooth motion… though I was a bit dismayed that my local Bagels & Juice was closed along with pretty much everything else.  Scandinavia totally shuts down on Sundays.

I watched the world go by a little bit at the train station whilst I waited for my ride.  My eyes generally focused on the line for the rail company’s information desk, which was a bit bustling considering the severely cut rail services starting today (I’d noted yesterday that track work prompted the closure of almost all rail service for the summer, starting today).  As I watched the desk it made me recall how between Sweden and Norway (and I think Denmark, too): Scandinavians really don’t have much concept of queuing, in sharp contrast to England.  They instead grab a number slip & wait around until their number is called.  This can be problematic if you don’t realize this or if you can’t find the machine… the latter of which can often be the case when someone decides to stand right in front of it.  Of course one perk is that you can roam about a little bit & there’s not much need for managing where the lines form & wrap about.  It does feel like it moves a bit faster if you have other things to occupy yourself with, but if you don’t: it can feel a little like waiting at the DMV.

While toying around in a convenience mart getting breakfast (a mini-pizza; breakfast of champions!), it also occurred to me that cherry cola has been absolutely lacking in Scandinavia… but then again, I can’t recall how frequently I’ve seen it in the rest of Europe, either.  But one thing that’s definitely lacking in Scandinavia is water with gas… that is: seltzer.  This contrasts with Europe as well as my own tastes, as I’m really quite fond of it, but it’s tough to find as so many stores are predominantly loaded with still water.  This means I keep finding myself with, essentially, flat water.

I also got to watching the low-wage workers in each of the shops.  You can tell a lot about a society by who works those jobs.  In Scandinavia it’s been about ¾ young white folk, but about ¼ old Asian folk.  I’ve found the latter form a surprising population of the homeless, too, or at least the folk who roam about in the trash bins… I guess I can’t say for sure whether they’re homeless.  It seems odd that Asians would come so far to live such a life.  Especially with the stereotypes we have back in the USA of them starting out with restaurants & drycleaners and raising genius children.  But the Chinese restaurants here are mostly high-class affairs (or at least they seem so) and clothing-cleaning businesses of any variety are remarkably rare.  So really I’m still intrigued by it all.

It was only 10 minutes or so of waiting about before I figured I’d check into how I’m supposed to catch a bus outta town from the train station, as it occurred to me that the bus station was another several minutes away if I needed to go there.  I figured they’d either direct me to the bus station or perhaps to some side of the building, so it I was a bit intrigued when they sent me to Track 19.  I hazarded a guess that it was along the side, and sure enough it was the last track… but heading down to it I still didn’t see any side where buses could pull up.  Guides kept directing me down the track, and sure enough near its end the right side gave way to a street… a street with a bus that I could board right away!  Woo hoo!  Off to Lillestrom I went.

Of course, the early bus ride meant I just had more time to wait at Lillestrom for my train… I suppose it was a good thing to make the first leg early just in case something would’ve gone wrong had I waited in Oslo, but the problem with Lillestrom was a dearth of seating.  Fortunately backpacks make great backrests and a hiker isn’t too concerned with dirtying his pants from sitting on the ground.

The train ride went smoothly enough, though it was at a slow pace… Scandinavia really kind of sucks at transit between cities.  I’d dare say it’s only marginally better than in the USA; I only take trains because I dearly love trains.  In practice it’s seemed that buses tend to be better in so many cases… they go more places, travel more frequently, are cheaper, and sometimes even get there faster.  But hey: trains are comfy… want to get up and wander around?  Sure, knock yourself out.  Want to feel like you’re not crammed into a vehicle like cattle?  Trains are plenty roomy.  But this ride was so slowww…

The destination was Lillehammer, host of the 1994 Winter Olympics.  I really like its name… lilies just sound so peaceful & pretty; and hammers make me think of Thor and Vikings.  It’s a fun contrast.  Sure, neither of those has anything whatsoever to do with the town’s actual etymology, but nuts to that.

I made great progress upon arrival in Lillehammer, especially because my hostel’s reception was in the train station.  What more, I was sleeping in the building immediately adjacent to the train station, bordered by the rail platforms on one side and the bus station on the other side.  Most convenient hostel ever.  It even gave free linen and had a bath within the room of two beds… really it was more a budget hotel room that I might share with a stranger; not shabby at all.  I enjoyed hearing the bus & train announcements while awake but worried they might be bothersome overnight, but with the windows closed: the soundproofing was phenomenal.

My first destination was the ski jump.  Indeed, here in Lillehammer, that’s pretty much the only destination.  Plus I thought I didn’t have too much time left before they started closing things down, but in yet another testament to Norway: I’d later discover they extended their hours in the summertime, yet again another indication that Norway is one of the few Nordic countries to have a decent share of places operating with a bit more regard for the amount of sunlight.

On my way… heading uphill from the hostel, passing by some of the roads running along the hill, feeling like I’m on track, and then… the road ends.  OK, there should be another road just over here… nope; that’s a driveway.  Check just to make sure… yep, just a driveway.  Effing Lonely Planet.  In a town this size: how can they screw up the map?  Seriously, how do you get it wrong when there are only a dozen roads??

Thankfully I backtracked a bit nearer to the tourist track and soon spotted a sign which, while in Norwegian, clearly directed to the Olympic Park.  I knew that had to be the best option at this point: trust the town; not the book.  That worked out great… it was a quick & easy hike up to the ski jump, though the warm weather wasn’t the most helpful.  I point to the warm weather as my scapegoat for taking the lift up rather than the stairs, but really it’s just that I was feeling lazy at that point… I totally could have made it up if I really had the will.

Speaking of things I could do if I had the will… the ski jump wasn’t nearly as steep as I’d thought it would be.  Back in the Mid-Atlantic, its slope would just be a single black diamond… in a region with some real ski slopes it’d just be intermediate.  I could totally do that.  The only caveat is the “jump” part, where I’d do fine with the gravity-assisted take-off but would likely have issues with the gravity-assisted landing.  But a small part of me wanted to try it.  Fortunately there was a simulator included with my ticket…

I descended down the steps and hopped into the simulator.  It showed a downhill slalom and a bobsled run… no ski jump; I was kind of bummed.  Also I’m pretty sure it was running off a VHS.  The video quality was horrendous, with the slalom being especially jerky… I can (and have) recorded better videos of my own skiing, including my 20-second dash straight down Tussey’s Utah.  Hey it’s not the most dazzling of mountains, but it was a solid video.  The bobsled was a bit more watchable, but even then I can’t say I’d really recommend the simulator… its lacking video quality really detracted from the rest of the experience.

Downtown Lillehammer was cute, but like I said: it’s a small town.  There really wasn’t much to it, and I found myself a bit bored pretty quickly.  Granted, with it being Sunday much of the downtown was shut down, anyway.  But overall I’d suggest that unless you’re an Olympic or skiing guru: it’s a town that can absolutely be passed over.  It’s not bad on the eyes, but it’s not the prettiest town by any means.

As I chatted with people along its pedestrianized street: was amused at how many people thought I was Swedish.  I always like to try and blend in with the culture that I’m in.  Within a couple days I like to be good enough with the basics to fool people into thinking I’m a local; or at least until they realize that I can’t hold a conversation any longer than two sentences.  Well, I’ve at least gotten people in Norway to think I’m Swedish… so I think that’s a start.  But one problem is that I when Norwegians are talking: I can’t quite tell it’s not English until they finish talking, and I look back and realize that I have no idea what they just said.

I ate dinner at Blåmann, located in a very scenic spot above the stream.  While it’s location was the best in town, its food was decidedly less so.  I ordered fajitas and certainly received fajita-inspired food, but it was a good lesson in trusting a British guidebook’s definition of what good Mexican food is.  The salsa had as much flavor as water, the beef was a bit chewy, the chicken felt like it was relying on its inherent chicken flavor rather than any spice or marinade, there were no tomatoes, and worst of all: I’m pretty sure the lettuce had been pickled.  It wasn’t even sizzling when it came out… seriously, that’s a staple of fajitas: it’s still cooking when it arrives to your table.  But at least I choked it down to the tune of a babbling brook.

It was a bit odd to return to my room to find a key in the outside of the door… and entering I found an old guy in his skivvies.  It was an odd first meeting & I’d thought I was spending the night with a crazy dude for a roommate.  Fortunately, as we talked I actually came to find he was a pretty cool guy… in his 60’s or possibly 70’s and hailing from a small town in Bavaria near to the Austrian border: he was a retired police detective traveling on his BMW motorbike up and around Scandinavia.  Starting a week after I began my own trip, he first went through Poland and the Baltic States, continuing up along the Arctic Ocean from Finland into Norway, now headed from Trondheim down to Oslo, onto Copenhagen, and back home.  Given his profession, I suggested he stop by Christiana while in Copenhagen… figured he’d have an amusing take on that community.