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 🙂

 

 

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-

 

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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.

Reaching Svalbard

December 21, 2015

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Photo Courtesy Rahul Pagey

Svalbard. I first came across this place while reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the name has stuck in my head since. I came across it again while researching Norway and the Aurora Borealis and I knew I wanted to go there. Svalbard is the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent civilian population. It sits in the  Arctic ocean, about midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Unless you’re a scientist or a researcher, this is the closest you can get to the North Pole.There’s only one flight a day to and from Oslo, and if that got cancelled for weather or other reasons, all our careful planning would go for a wild toss, but to tell the truth, we were all quite excited about it.

This time we’ve triple checked our tickets and make it to the airport well in time for our flight. Past security, one level down, we join a queue to two doors leading to what we assume is the waiting area at the boarding gate, but is infact the boarding gate. There are two booths before the doors. When it’s our turn, the husband hands over our passports – mine first. The man looks at it and asks me to please step aside, to the other line. My passport is riddled with issues that demand a post or two of their own, so the husband hands me my passport with a look that’s a mix of AGAIN!!!, I am leaving you here and going,  and why don’t you just get the darned thing fixed? Then the man hands him his passport and motions him to step aside too. “Me too?, the husband asks incredulously. I am quite besides myself with glee. By the time he joins the line, I’ve figured out what’s wrong. “Where is your return flight from?” the lady on the other side of the box asks. ” Oslo.” “You’ll need a Schengen  visa to go Oslo.” “It’s right here.” I reach for the passport, but before I can take it she patiently explains,” This is a single entry visa. Svalbard is not part of Schengen.When you go there, you will be leaving the Schengen region and will  need a new Schengen to return to Oslo.”  But wait…”Svalbard is a part of Norway, isn’t it?”We’re not leaving the country, so why do we need a new visa to re-enter. How can we re-enter when we are not leaving? Turns out Svalbard is (as the husband puts it) the Kashmir of Norway -the northern most region, mountainous, gorgeous and has special status.

Unlike the rest of Norway (including Jan Mayen), Svalbard is a free economic zone, a demilitarized zone, and is not part of the Schengen Area nor the European Economic Area. All citizens and all companies of every nation under the Svalbard treaty are allowed to become residents and to have access to Svalbard including the right to fish, hunt or undertake any kind of maritime, industrial, mining or trade activity. The residents of Svalbard must follow Norwegian law though Norwegian authority cannot discriminate against or favor any residents of any given nationality.

Aaha!! By now RP has joined our queue, but when he shows her his EU temporary residence permit, she clears him to go. What about us? “When you reach Svalbard, go to the local police station. They’ll give you a new visa. There won’t be a problem.”

 

 

Dashing Through the Snow

December 20, 2015

We did get a glimpse at the Aurora Borealis last night, but it was just a glimpse. The clouds parted just enough for us to say we saw it, nothing more. Not ones to give up easily, we’ve booked an evening dog sledding experience with Lyngsfjord Adventures.  I am adamant about choosing a company that allows participants to mush. We are going to be driven to Vass valley, which is an hour and a half or so away from Tromso. If the Northern Lights are to be seen, this is as good a place as any.The husband cannot understand why wouldn’t all companies allow let you do it, if one company does.RP  is desperately trying to reconcile us. What is mushing? I’ll come to that soon.  

IMG_9769We meet the bus at the 5:00 p.m. outside the Ishavshotel.   There’s not a star to be seen in the skies. It is pointless going chasing the lights today. As we take our seats, we silently hope the clouds decide to take a break and we see more action than we’ve paid for.  When we reach Camp Tomak, where we are given thermal suits and boots. Our bus load is split into smaller groups and assigned guides. Our guides lead us past the kennels to the sleds. Here we are given a short briefing on how to mush or drive the dog sleds. Each sled is to pulled by a team of five huskies. Each sled is to have one driver and one passenger, with opportunity to switch places half way. The instructions are very simple, press down on the break to slow or stop and lift the break to go. Sometime when you come to a complete stop, you need to give the sled a slight push or pump the ground like you are on a skateboard or a scooter to let the dogs know it’s time to go. The sled has no reins and there’s no way for us to direct the dogs left or right. Our guide assures us that’s not needed because the dogs are all trained to follow the lead team and she would be guiding that team.

DSC_4559Our guide is assigned us, and a group of six women. It turns out only one of those six wanted to be a musher, the rest were happy to be passengers. Our guide asks if one of us would be willing to mush for one them. The husband gallantly volunteers, leaving RP once again as my partner. Once the ladies have all been found mushers in other teams, we set off. Our guide is in the lead, followed by the husband and we are in the rear. RP is mushing first. I have never been sledding and don’t know anything about sled construction, but a dog sled seems more suited for carrying cargo than passengers. There’s no seat belt or  bar in front to hold on to. I’m nervous at first, but our guide sets a very easy pace and I quickly settle down.

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As we make our way through the valley, the only word that comes to my mind is dilfareb. I don’t know if this word even has an English equivalent. Literally translated it means something that can trick the heart and make you fall in love –  truly, madly, deeply. Alluring, enticing, mesmerizing would all come close enough, but none would completely capture the essence of the word. Mountains rise gracefully from the valley floor and ring it like indulgent big brothers. The white landscape is broken only by sled tracks. Had there been a moon, the light would have transformed this seemingly ordinary scene into something ethereal – pure, unattainable and worthy of worship. The kind of scene that would want make you throw back you head and howl like the lone wolf, perhaps with the lone wolf.

IMG_9799At mid point we take a short break, set off again. This time I am mushing. This is not hard at all. My dogs are rearing to go, but the husband’s team is too slow for us. My dogs are soon at his feet and I’m getting dirty looks.  I keep one foot on the break to keep my team the stipulated three meters behind his. Sometimes we stop. The snow deep and is starting to ice. Breaking is easy enough, but lifting the break pedal out is harder. I get off the sled, to give it a little push. The dogs are quick to pick up the signal and go dashing through the snow.Then next thing, RP is shouting for me to break, “Vidya, break. BREAK!!”The dogs are at the husband’s heels now and he’s yelling too,”STOP! BREAK!!” How could I? They didn’t know it, but I wasn’t even on the sled. The dogs took off without me. Our guide hears the commotion and races to the rescue. She stops her team, topples her sled over and runs towards us through  knee high snow. The lead pair of my team by now are getting into a fight with the rear pair of the husband’s team. She grabs the  dogs  by the mussel and smacks them into obedience.

All mushers have been given headlamps. Later RP tells me, he didn’t realize I was not on the sled, since he could still see the light from the headlamp. Ofcourse he could! I was still behind him, just not no the sled! I’m back on the sled and the remainder our 15 km round trip is smooth. The dogs now look back to me before they start running instead of depending on my signal. What is more, the guide even finds the lens cover we had dropped somewhere in the snow. We end the night with hot chocolate and a hot stew in a  lavvu (Sami  tent). We didn’t see the Aurora Borealis, but we did get more adventure than we signed up for.

 

 

Kaldfjord

December 20,2015

The tour companies don’t seem very optimistic about spotting the lights tonight, due to the cloud cover. Instead, we are going dog sledding this evening. If luck will have it, we may have a good sighting of the Aurora Borealis.

DSC_0136-001This leaves us with an entire day at our disposal to do as we please. We look up a few fjord photography tours and decide to DIY it. There is a bus that will take us to Kvaloya island. From there we need to take another bus to get to Ersfjord. We stop at the visitor’s center for more information on bus timings and directions.”Everyone seems to be headed there today”, the lady at the visitor center informs us. “You’ll are the third set of people asking for the same direction since morning.” They have just opened, so that does say something if not a lot. She proceeds to give us directions to Kaldfjord. We would need to take a bus to Kvaloya island and from the bus stop, we could either walk or hitchhike.” There a a lot of whales this year.” ,she gushes. “It’s a big thing for the locals too. Many of them will be headed that way to see the whales. You can try to hitch a ride.”

DSC_0138We are not sure if we have understood correctly. “Can we see the whales from the shore, or do we have to book a safari at Kaldfjord?” “Oh no no.. you can see them from the shore.” The lenses on our camera are not right for this new plan and the next bus is after 30 mins, so we head back to the hotel and grab our zoom lenses. When we get to Kaldfjord, literally translated as cold fjord, I want to hitchhike, the boys want to walk. By time we resolve our dispute, we’ve reached the waterfront. As we walk along the scenic shoreline, we ask passing joggers about the best spot for spotting the leviathans. One shakes her head regretfully and says usually they can be seen all along the coast but she hasn’t seen them at all today.Just then an Asian couple comes up behind her and says they’ve seen whales five minutes away. It’s amazing how easily distance can be measured in units of time.

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Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran

To our absolute delight, we see pair of whales frolicking in the distance. We chase after them up and down the shore. Soon it’s time we head back so that we don’t miss our evening adventure. We walk back to the bus stop. When the bus arrives, it is the same driver who dropped us off.

We were completely prepared to drop whale watching from our itinerary since the tour times were not fitting in with our plans, but this worked out to be much better. Taking public transport and walking around  has made the experience so much more real.