The Day before Christmas

December 24, 2015

Norway7Today is our last day in Oslo. RP has taken the morning flight back. Our flight is much later and we have half a day to explore the city. Last evening we strolled past the Christmas gaiety and had dinner in the “ethnic” quarter of  city. Today we will walk the tourist attractions.The husband has seen some of it on his day alone in the city and is my walking guide for the day. The Norwegians are not great church goers, but we discover that almost all of Oslo has shut down for Christmas and will reopen only on January 4, the first Monday of the new year. On the bright side, we have the city all to ourselves. We walk to Akerhaus Fortress and wander around inside. The ramparts offer a wonderful view of the harbour and the Oslo fjord.   Every year on 10th December the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is held in the Oslo city hall. Note the date; what a remarkable coincidence!

Norway4The city hall is closed, so we walk around the entrance admiring the beautiful wooden friezes depicting tales from Norse mythology.We wander along the harbour, and pause by the Nobel Peace Center and a troll shop. It’s lunch time. Since I didn’t get RP and the husband the promised “dal” in Svalbard,last night I had to make up by having so-so dinner at an Indian restaurant that turned out to be  owned by our brother-turned-mortal-enemy-neighbour (country). Today we are going to have to pick up something from a local deli near the Christmas Market since all restaurants are closed and also because we want to catch the afternoon mass at the Oslo Cathedral. By the time we reach the cathedral, people are pouring out. I mentioned that the Norwegians are not great church goers, but clearly Christmas mass is a BIG thing! We enter once the crowd thins. The cathedral is beautiful and felt quite alive. Inside we met a wonderful  lady dressed in traditional Norwegian attire. She gladly posed for us and even sat down and explained a good deal about the attire. These days few people dress in traditional clothes, but on occasions like Christmas it is not uncommon. She recommended that we stay for the choir as it is one of the best but we have a flight to catch.

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Soon we are on our way to the airport –  to the BEST CHRISTMAS EVER 🙂

 

 

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The Return to Oslo

December 23, 2015

We have our flight back to Oslo today. I never did finish the story of how we got our new Schengen visas, so I’m tell that first. Who has ever heard of getting a visa at a police station, but we told we would so we dutifully turned up at the police station. The policeman authorized to issue visas was out on avalanche duty and we were asked to return the next day. We went to the police station the next morning but the man still wasn’t there. He had gone to pay his respects at a funeral. We were flying out the next day and this would have been a very good moment to PANIC, but in SVALBARD there is no reason to panic. The man at the police station collected our passports, and promised to call us once our visas were ready. When we hadn’t heard from him by 4 p.m. we simply turned up at the police station again. The man handed us our passports, new visas in place, and  application forms which he asked us to fill based on the visa. That’s it, we had our Schengen visas issued in half a day. Just like that.

Too good to be true? Here’s the glitch. When we arrive at Oslo, I clear immigration but the husband is asked to step aside. It seems his visa has been cancelled. He shows the lady both visas. She checks again and sure enough the old one has expired and the one is cancelled. He tells her our story and she figures they cancelled the wrong visa when they gave him the new one. The husband is ushered into a room, while I wait outside for a little more than a hour. In the meanwhile, RP  has collected our luggage and been shooed out of the luggage hall for hanging around for suspiciously long. When the husband finally comes out, the situation has been sorted and the officer is apologizing profusely for the inconvenience. It’s two days to Christmas and the immigration office is understaffed. Even so, they managed to resolve the issue in a relatively short time and were very polite and respectful through the entire process.  I am floored.

Svalbard – Northern Lights and Polar Nights

December 21, 2015

It’s dinner time. We decide to walk down to the Radisson. This seems to be the only place serving vegetarian big plates. We are carrying our cameras and tripods, well just in case. The vegetarian pizza is pretty good, the husband and RP enjoyed their meal just as much. After we clear the bill, the husband as always cannot wait for me, so he’s gone while RP and I are still bundling up. Just as fast as he went out, he rushed back in shouted, come fast, come fast.. The diners on the next table look at us quizzically, as though unsure if they should run out too or not. RP tries to hurry them on by saying, ”Northern Lights!!!”. I try to shrug it off as nonchalantly as I can, while one diner calms his alarmed partner with a dismissive it’s the lights.

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Aurora Borealis

We don’t know what to expect, but as we step out and look up we see green streaks across the dark blue sky. We set up our tripods and click away like people possessed. We peeled off our gloved and hats to better see and operate our cameras. It’s freezing, but none of us seem to feel it. There’s an overdose of light pollution, but we are too scared to move to a darker place, lest the show ends before we get there. The show however went on for the next 3 hours or so; lights dancing all from mountain to mountain, all over the little town. A few cars passed by, as did a few locals. None but one stopped to look up and admire this magic. We wonder how it was even possible to take from granted something so special, so rare, that people travel across the globe just from a glimpse.  We would find out soon. We finally decided to call it a night and head back. Now we realize how cold it was. If we didn’t keep walking, our toes would surely freeze in our woollen socks, inside our well insulated snow boots.

When we got back to the hotel two girls clad unbelievably scantily for so cold a night, step out hearing us, to ask if we truly saw the lights.  Seeing how their faces fell, we assure them that we would be hanging around outside the hotel for some more time and would let the front desk know if the lights came on again. Sure enough, we soon saw some green flitting across the sky, like a post-credits roll. RP is now jumping up and down outside the hotel, waving his hands randomly shouting “ Hey!! Heyy!! Hello!! Lights!!”, to catch the manager’s attention. A short while later the girls came out. This was nothing like what we had just seen and knowing this, the girls are clearly still feeling a little cheated. Even so, they still got to see something.

December 22, 2015

 

DSC_0403.jpgI have described to you our experience of the Northern Lights, but there is yet another phenomenon that we lived through here – the Polar Night. A Polar Night is a night that lasts for at least 24 hours. For six months a year, the sun stays six degrees below the horizon all day long and the night reigns supreme. The darkness is not absolute, yet it is complete. The summer, the opposite happens – the sun never sets. I wonder how much toll it must take on the physical body to adjust every six months at first gradually and then rapidly to such drastic changes. When there is no light ( or dark), there is no way to tell the time, save by looking at your timepiece. Ten a.m. or ten p.m. it is all the same to us. We’ve staked out a great location for pictures. The lookout outside the police station provides a panoramic view of the town, cradled in the lap of the mountains. Our eyes have learnt to discern the faint green blobs, from starlight and city lights. We now have the perfect location, but not the same luck. We see faint streaks but nothing compares to yesterday. We spend the rest of the day walking around the tiny town and shopping in it’s only store. Svalbard is a duty free island and alcohol is incredibly cheap. Residents are issued a card based on which they can buy only a certain amount every month.We buy some beer and wine for the night and after a lot of contemplating and debating we buy local cognac, and aquavit and a bottle of high end whiskey to take back home. In the evening, we are treated to yet another small show – this time right outside our hotel. At dinner, we discover the true reach of  the Gujarati-

 

Aabhar

 

 

 

 

The Global Seed Vault

December 21, 2015

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Photos Courtesy Rahul Pagey

The first thing we do when we get off  the plane is to get directions to the police station. At this time of the year, only 6 taxi are operational in Longyearbyen, so the shuttle bus agrees to drop us off. RP continues to the hotel with our luggage. The police station has a sign asking us to leave our shoes outside. We see others walking in nonchalantly leaving their coats and boots in a room to the side and follow suit taking care to discreetly hide ours. Inside we find out that the person authorized to give us new visas is out on account of the avalanche . There had been an avalanche just the previous day. The friendly man we spoke to assured us there was that there was nothing to worry, and to come back the next morning.He even called us a taxi. With no other option, we left, after explaining how  we were flying back to Oslo the day-after and how critical it was for us to get the visa tomorrow.

On the way to the hotel, knowing how my heart (and his too) was set on seeing a polar bear, the husband asked the taxi driver if any polar bears had been seen in the vicinity. “No.. but if one were to come, the police will be there instantly and take care.” “So, they can be seen here?”, the husband persists. ” They could, on occasion, come down the slope, but the police  secure the area immediately. ” ..but they can be seen here?” The taxi driver finally gets the husband’s drift. ” You wouldn’t  want to see them here. They are dangerous. “, he says gravely. “They have killed in the past and will kill again.” he continues.” You DON”T want to see them here.”

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We reach the Spitsbergen hotel. Here we find out, it’s Svalbardian culture to leave shoes outside. There is a board that says so and an antechamber with cubby holes filled with boots. Inside we sign up for what we think is the Northern Lights tour, but turns out to be a city tour. It’s the same taxi and driver that brought us here. The driver assures us we will be going around the city and to the same place the Northern Lights tour goes. He has an app that shows we have a good chance of spotting the lights. The skies are clear to boot.Our driver points out landmarks and important buildings in the city –  the polar bear sign, the Governor’s office, the police station, the church, Santa’s post box…. The avalanche prevents us from going too far out, but we go as far as our driver dared. As we paused to look down at the dog kennels, we looked up to see if we could spot the Lights, but no luck.

We drive further to the Global Seed Vault. The Seed Bank was established in 2008 and is fully funded by the Norwegian government. Also known as the “Doomsday Vault,” this seed bank contains a seed of just about every known crop in the world. It is meant as a backup for crops, against catastrophes. 300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, embedded in the side of a mountain, the vault is considered to be perfectly located. The location is as remote as it can get, yet perfectly accessible. The area is geologically stable and has low humidity. The vault is well above sea level so safe from flooding and the permafrost offers a natural and cost effective fail-safe method to preserve the seeds. Recently, the first significant withdrawal was made from the vault. The conflict in Syria has forced  scientists at the Aleppo gene bank to abandon their research  there. With the situation in Syria showing no signs of improvement, the scientists have begun recovering their inventory  from the vault and resuming their research at new facilities in Lebanon and Morocco.

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Svalbard Reindeer (Photo Courtesy Rahul Pagey)

 We wait here for a while, hoping the lights would show up, and when they don’t we turn back to the hotel. On the way back we spot Arctic reindeer, a breed that is only found in Svalbard. These reindeer are smaller and tougher than the ones we petted in Tromso. If one we to bring the Tromso reindeer to Svalbard, they wouldn’t survive the harsh climate.

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Funken Hotel

The hotel has a history of its own. Situated on a hill-top at the far end of the town, it  commands a spectacular view. It was built in 1947 as a mess for white-collared employees, living quarters for unmarried office personal and official residence of the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani als., a mining company. Funktionær is Norwegian for white-collar worker and so the hotel is locally known as ‘Funken’. In 1985, the last employee moved out, and the building became a guest house of sorts for important travellers and guests. In 1989, the Spitsbergen Travel a/s is formed and in 1993 they purchase the building from the Store Norske  and in 1994 Funken becomes Funken Hotel. Over the years the hotel has been extended and renovated multiple times and today it is a full service hotel with 88 rooms.