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.