Monday, December 31, 2007

Back in London UK Adventure Part 2

After a fantastic trip home to Sydney (have stuff to write and pictures to post but will do that next time) I arrived back in London last night. It was brilliant to go home and anyone I spoke to (cheers Vic, Anthony, Jo and Jonathon) in my last week in London before leaving will attest to this - I needed to go. I needed to touch base with Sydney, sun and my family to find my bearings. I realise now that I kind of lost my way a bit and certainly the level of excitement at undertaking this adventure was dwindling. Going home filled up the tanks again and I am looking forward to 2008 and finishing off my UK time with a smile and lots of memories to take home.
Unfortunately though I have to do that without Vic, who went home for good just after I left (but not according to her blog which has us still in Scotland. Update your blog woman!). Her not being here is kind of weird and I keep expecting to hear her key turning in the lock at the flat.
But 2008 is another beginning and I am very much looking forward to meeting new people, not yelling at different kids everyday (I will yell at the same ones everyday now) and seeing a bit more of the English countryside and Wales.
I've never been a good one for keeping New Year's Resolutions. The best I managed to do was give up ice cream for Lent once. Instead of a resolution for 2008 I just have a plan, to take one day at a time and to keep everything a simple as possible!
Fingers crossed! Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Going home for Christmas

I am going home for Christmas. If you could see me now you would see I am jumping for joy.

Goodbye annoying children who yell at me with such attitude and vocabulary that is unnatural for 5 year olds. Goodbye yucky cold weather. Goodbye evil tube commuters who think it is acceptable to elbow me every 2 minutes.

And a big Goodbye to the woman in Primark who tripped me over on purpose by sticking her foot out. You didn't see Karen walking behind me with an arm full of clothes with coathangers and you got one in your face! As Karen said "That's feng shui for you!" Karma got you, b***h!


Davina and I at her housewarming party last month. Martin and I cheated at drunken Scrabble and we still came last!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Foxes make good walking companions

I went to dinner last night with Shannon and Mary from my old school here in London and had a fantastic time catching up over marvellous food and drinks, but something has really got me freaked out. Mary was telling me how November is considered winter here. Sure, the weather sure feels like it but November at home is Spring. Shouldn’t that then mean that November over here should be Autumn since it should be the opposite? Mary then said that May 1st (May Day) was officially the first day of Summer here. That’s odd, as May is the last month of Autumn at home. I am well and truly confused. Probably not as confused as my English Year 1 class from last year, who I spent a term teaching the seasons to!

Photo - Mary, Shannon and I in Richmond, London.

P.S: It is so cold at the moment. I swear I think that the ice caps aren’t melting; they’re just migrating to London!

P.P.S: I was walking home last night and got the fright of my life when I glanced down and saw a fox walking beside me. Obviously thought I might like some company.

P.P.P.S: I learnt this week that the best way to do a job interview is by phone. Because you can do it in your PJs and Ugg Boots! Wasn’t the greatest interview I’ve ever done (I could hear myself echo back through the phone) but was certainly the most comfortable!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Davina Diary Blog

Last week Davina, Rachel, Michelle and I were talking about blogs at Davina’s new Shepherd’s Bush house whilst she served pancakes and champagne for brunch (yes, I know I lead a privileged existence). We decided that Davina writes her blog as an eccentric diary which, knowing Davina, suits her very much. I tend to write my blog as an account of things that happen that are interesting (or at least I think so). This time, I thought I would give the eccentric diatribe a go…

Things in London have been full steam ahead for a month now. We moved out of the Village in September and I am living in Tooting in South London. I’ve been working pretty steadily at a handful of schools and even got employed at a school for a day to put paper on display boards! That has been my favourite day working in London.

Karen moved to Oxford with Richard as he studies for his MBA at Oxford University. I don’t know how she survives the daily 4 hour commute but she does seem really happy. Adriaan moved to Stanford Brook not that far from Chiswick.

I woke up one morning with the decision made that I wanted to come home. Working at a new school everyday was starting to get me down. I was sick of arguing with 9 year olds who thought that they knew everything (except what they were supposed to be doing in their learning task). Lo and behold, as soon as I made the mental decision to go home, I was offered a wonderful job at Balham. The times that I had taught there before I found it had taken me a long time to get there by bus, but I finally figured out that I could walk through the park opposite the Common and it would spit me out in front of the school. It is a Year 5 class and they seem like a decent bunch of kids. By this stage I had applied for some jobs at home and had heard nothing. But as is the way with life, I got a message asking me for a phone interview. So now I am back in limbo land. I feel like I am the rope in a very aggressive and close game of tug of war,

I’ve been keeping busy regardless and find myself smiling and laughing at the strangest things. Like the day I walked home from the school in Balham through the park. It started pouring with rain, my umbrella was useless so I just pulled it down and walked through the streams of water with my iPod singing in my ears, I couldn’t physically get any more drenched so I just kept walking. As I neared the end, there was a couple sheltering under a tree. They had been riding their bikes through the park when the skies had opened. There was only room for one of them to be dry so the man stood over the woman covering her with his coat. It was such a lovely scene.

Last Saturday Vic moved out of her house. She is staying with me until she heads over to Ireland for her last trip before flying home. Instead of letting her sit at home feeling sad and sorry we went into Embankment to see the Lord Mayor’s fireworks display. Since that finished at 5:30pm, we then headed to the London Eye. I had been on the London Eye the last time I was here but had never been up at night time. It was even better as there were virtually no lines either. The skyline was littered with small bursts of fireworks displays left over from the previous week’s Guy Fawkes celebrations. The lights from London’s landmark buildings shone bright and the air was clear, mild yet crisp. You couldn’t have asked for a better night even if you ordered one from a catalogue 2 months in advance.

London for me is a happy place at the moment. I can’t lose on the job front as if I get the job at home I will be excited to start something new. If I don’t then the job here in Balham will offer me the experience I need to teach in America (my next frontier to be conquered). Either way would be a blessing. As a result, I am a very happy young lady.

Scottish Soil

I read somewhere recently that if you have any Scot in your blood you will feel instantly at home when your feet touch the soils of Scotland. Without better words to describe the feeling I would totally and utterly agree with this statement. Australia is my birthplace, England my home, Austria my favourite travel destination but it is Scotland that has my heart. Another week of school holidays meant that I finally had some time to head north and visit Scotland again. It had been 4 long years (to the day actually) since I last had the pleasure of travelling through Scotland and I had missed it deeply.

Instead of flying I decided to drive instead. That decision had little to do with enjoying the English countryside and more to do with having not driven since 2006 and feeling the need to get behind the wheel again. I even managed to drag Vic along too.

A while ago my parents had travelled to John O’Groats and my dad had spoken highly of it so I decided that that would be my intended destination. We stopped along the way whenever the urge took us and as a result, Vic and I stayed at some very interesting places. My favourite was the Royal Highland Hotel in Inverness with its tartan carpeted grand staircase and most amazing shower ever! I also loved “The Tickled Trout” hotel in Preston. I kid you not. Got to love a hotel that pays homage to a ticklish fish, but you do have to ask what kind of person thinks to tickle a fish. We were also strangely haunted by broken and lopsided lampshades. At no less than 3 different hotels the lampshades were broken and lopsided in our room.

The Highlands of Scotland were exactly the same as I had left them 4 years earlier, peaceful and calm, filled to the brim with history and the souls of Scotsmen and women from years past. Out of all the wonderful scenery we saw this time my favourite day was driving the entire length of the north side of the Loch Ness. With the autumn weather turning the leaves magnificent shades of gold, rust and copper I felt like I was wrapped warm and cosy by nature’s own hearth.

Vic and I took turns in driving. We put in an impressive 1768 miles all up. I found it slightly odd though, that fates dealt me all of the single lane width, unmarked and low visibility roads, whilst Vic got the double or more lanes with easy to see oncoming traffic and lovely new markings. The potholes shared themselves around evenly though. :P
(Photos - 1. Me at John O'Groats, 2. Our car on the side of one of the many highland hills, 3. Some Highland cows, 4. Inverness)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Random London Happenings

Last night saw London light up the night sky with a huge array of fireworks celebrating Guy Fawkes Night. I had been hanging out for Guy Fawkes Night after reading a book that had the characters watching the fireworks at a south London park. For some reason the imagery described stuck in my head and I wanted to be a part of the experience as well. After a little bit of research (I read the TNT magazine) I settled on Battersea Park and managed to get Nicola to come along to and she brought some of her friends. The £5 entry charge was well worth it with the fireworks going for a little over 30 minutes and the music that they were timed to was funky and fun. And you can't have fireworks without your own sparklers!

Other random things that have happened to me this week are:

** On Thursday I raced a man up the stairs at Tooting Broadway tube station. Well, I ran up the stairs and he ran up the escalator. I am pleased to announce that I won.

** I am was in trouble on Friday because I taught a class their entire term's history work in one lesson and they are getting an Ofsted inspection this week. The teacher was not happy at all.

** A lady rammed me with her trolley in Sainsbury's because apparently I was walking too slow. Have a sneaking suspicion that it was the woman with the walking frame in front of me that was holding the line up but I could be wrong.

** The bus driver I had yesterday on my way to Shepherd's Bush yelled at everyone and all the traffic in very loud Polish. Was rather scary.

And that's about it. :)

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Love Boat

The Love Boat is a cruise ship that takes you on an overnight journey from Helsinki to Denmark. It is pretty much a smaller version of the Pacific Sky. Budget tours being what they are our cabin was at the bottom of the boat with no windows. It was darker in there at midday than the inside of a coffin six feet under. Unfortunately there was a bit of an incident before boarding the cruise ship which grated my cheese involving a couple of people on the tour. I’m not going to go into it because it would cause some problems for those concerned but will say two things.
1) I am very proud that I found my voice and stood up for someone and something I believed in, even if it cost me the friendship of another person.
2) I am very disappointed that the end of a fabulous time in Scandinavia was marred by the events.
Before you start wildly guessing away. I didn’t start anything or participate in anything, just managed to say some things that finished it.

Moving on…as with most cruise ships, once you had toured the gym, swimming pool and kids area, toyed with the idea of playing games in the kid’s area and settled in for a drink I one of the bars, there is not much else to do. So the girls decided to get dressed up for an evening of all you can eat buffet dinner and a cabaret show. The food was plentiful, even if the prawns were all pregnant (have you seen a pregnant prawn? Very yicky and off-putting), and the desserts to die for. The show was an array of dancing centred on movie themes, James Bond, Hairspray, Dirty Dancing etc. Not sure how the dancers managed to get through their choreography with the boat rocking. Photo - Bridget, Bree, Sarah and Barbara on board the Love Boat.

Driving the next day was a sombre experience. We had lost half of our fellow travellers back in Helsinki before we boarded the boat as they were meeting their new Russian friends. The bus felt more than empty. For the first time on tour Mick “I can’t sleep on moving vehicles” managed to get some shut out stretched out across the back seat. Each of us had our own space and there was little chatter. I borrow Dirk’s book about Asperger’s children called “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night” by Mark Haddon (awesome book) and managed to read it cover to cover in just over 3 hours. Sarah took over from Andy for a while as tour manager so she could practise her microphone skills (she has a Contiki interview back home this month) and Google (Peter from New Zealand) felt compelled to give it a whirl as well and had us all in stitches. Google got the name Google simply because the boys wanted to call him Britannica because he is a walking encyclopaedia but it was too long and Google was snappier. He could tell us distances to upcoming destinations, random facts and history of areas at the drop of his hat. Peter packed a wireless radio and a topographical map of Scandinavia the same way I packed a toothbrush and underpants. It was a natural thing. And although strange to get my head around to start with, his daily updates made me laugh without fail every day. Without Google our travelling experience would have lacked a vital ingredient. Photos - (top) Mick finally catching some shut eye and (bottom) Google managing the tour.

Arriving in Copenhagen was bittersweet. Dinner was made even more difficult by the fact that it was a Saturday night and it was the Gay Pride Festival that weekend. There was not a table to be had in the city and so we had to abandon plans to have a final meal together. As many people were leaving at the crack of dawn the next morning to catch trains, planes and well, no-one drove so I can’t really say automobiles, we said our goodbyes the night before. The following day ticked slowly by (my plane was at 3pm) scarred each time we said another farewell. I waved 7 taxis off before I caught my own with Wellsey and Dirk and after hugging them goodbye sank back into the thick crowd to find my way to customs and eventually my plane.

Travelling by myself is the scariest thing I have ever done (including jumping off that cliff in Austria). But with some guts and a “you only live once” attitude you might just be lucky enough to get a trip of a lifetime, like me. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if you put your hand up for Team Tent either! :)

P.S: I just figured out that a taxi is an automobile so I could have written that anyway. Photo - (l-r) Bridgetm Barbara, Sarah, Me, Dirk, Disappearing Tom, Google and Craig.

Happy times in Helsinki

Eventually we arrived in Helsinki. And it was here that we would part ways. Some people were headed for the Russian part of their trip whilst the rest of us would be taking the cruise ship (affectionately dubbed “The Love Boat”) back to Denmark. But we couldn’t split without first farewelling our friends in style. What better place to do that than an Australian bar? Truly a fantastic night had by all, but most especially the girls who were able to get very cheap cocktails because apparently it was Ladies’ night. Although I have a sneaking suspicion that every night was Ladies Night. It never ceased to amaze me that I was sitting in a bar in the middle of Helsinki in Finland and I knew people. It sounds really stupid to write it now, but at the time I was fascinated that every time I turned around I knew someone. It wasn’t just in the bar (although when you are inebriated it does tend to become interesting to you) but even in the street. I would be walking down an “off the beaten track” street and happen upon a familiar face. Photo - Bridget and Vikki in the Aussie Bar in Helsinki.

Helsinki itself is more European than Scandinavian. A feeling that is echoed in the fact that they are members of the European Union and embraced the Euro as their currency instead of holding out like Norway, Sweden and Denmark with their Kroners. It may have something to do with the fact that poor Finland has been invaded and jostled about like the only child in a messy divorce. Between being taken over by Russia, commandeered by Norway and seized by Sweden at various points of time during history, you can hardly blame the country for having something of an identity crisis. They are also the only Scandinavian country to have done away with Kings and Queens so there would be no more palace visiting for me. Photo - The old Orthodox church in Helsinki.

I was surprised by the cosmopolitan feel of the harbour and squares that flank the marina area. The markets are old school, with elderly ladies selling crocheted doilies and silver merchants setting up shop next to the men who hung clothing made from furs and skins. But old school is not necessarily old. The ladies crocheting doilies were also selling intricately stitched headdresses for young girls to wear with their ball gowns or horse race attire. The silver merchants also carried items with swirling pearl designs and the fur traders had hung a sign saying that they also stocked faux items as well. I am a market freak, loving the experience of meandering up and down the haphazard aisles, soaking in more than the sights, smells and sounds but the history and general feel of the place. I am flying back to Helsinki in December and am eagerly anticipating a return to those wharf side markets. If nothing else than to smell the coffee from the little coffee stand that marks the centre of the small world that exists on that boardwalk. Photo - The boys in the Aussie Bar in Helsinki.

Santa's Big Let Down

From Hammerfest it was literally a downhill run through Sweden, into Finland and down into Helsinki. Lots of driving again but some interesting stops along the way. Like Santa’s Kingdom in Lappland. Did you know that Santa doesn’t wear shoes when he is at home? He wears really long stripy woollen socks to keep his tootsies warm! I searched that kingdom high and low and couldn’t find one Christmas tree decoration. What is world coming to if you can’t buy a Christmas tree decoration in the only place on earth where is it Christmas for 365 days of the year? Sure, I could have bought Swarovski crystal, flashing reindeer ears or a very crude troll t-shirt but there were no tree decorations to be had! In all honesty (and don’t tell the kiddies) Santa’s Kingdom was a bit of a disappointment. More so because it is one of the main places I was keen to visit in Finland. I had even contemplated making the journey to Lappland for the sole purpose of visiting Santa at his house. Am very glad I didn’t now. It left me with the same feeling that you get when you go and see an eagerly anticipated movie at the cinema only to decide that you should probably have just rented it on DVD. Maybe if there was snow it would have been better? Photo - Matt, Sarah and Michael.

We got to see Santa’s office where all the letters that children address to “Santa - North Pole” go to. Australia’s inbox was a little empty but I suppose it would overflow closer to Christmas though.

Thinking positively, the best part of visiting Lappland was the Contiki Christmas party that we had. Wellsey cooked up a brilliant roast chicken dinner (not as good as Mum’s though) and we had a secret Santa present swap. I managed to pull out a Viking puzzle and some clever detective work led me to my secret Santa - Dirk from Holland.

One poor girl from the Asian group that was travelling with us pulled out her gift only to discover that her secret Santa (Nigel from New Zealand) had thoughtfully provided her with a porn magazine.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Hammerfest finally

It took us nearly 4 days of solid driving, but we finally made it to Hammerfest. In all honesty, there is absolutely nothing worth writing about with regards to Hammerfest. It would have to be the most boring place on the face of the planet. There is nothing to do there except sit in the library and read your book (did that), have a chat for 3 hours over a luke warm coffee (did that), walk the 500m of main street (did that), and have your photo taken with the polar bear (photographic evidence speaks for itself). Truly, I challenge anyone to go up there and not get bored. And we had to spend 2 days there!

The bright light during this depressing and dreary (can’t say dark because it never was dark, even at 2am in the morning) time was getting back on the bus - never thought I would say that - and travelling a further 3 hours north to Nordkapp. Nordkapp is the furthermost point in Europe and standing there was another tick against my “Things to do before I die list”. Singing at the front of the bus because I needed to use the toilet on board was not on the list so I made sure to hold until we arrived. Others, like Ryan, Lee, Sarah and Bridget were not so lucky. Photo - Andy and Canadian Dave singing Summer Lovin' from Grease.

Despite the fact that what winter clothes I had brought with me were not helpful in warding off the biting wind and that we had missed the midnight sun by a mere 8 days, Nordkapp was amazing. You stand at the edge of the cliff face and see…nothing. Nothing but open sea and an amazing array of colours that splash across the sky like an artist’s mural. A sunset that never ends, and never begins as the sun just simply loops the small platform that is Nordkapp. You feel like time doesn’t just stand still, it ceases to exist and for a few moments, the beats of your own heart are the only measure that the world continues to turn.

Go there. It’s all I am going to say about what it meant to me. It’s a personal thing and one that I will never forget, nor be able to find again. And I was lucky enough to share it with some pretty amazing people.

Oh and some pretty outrageous people, namely Andy (tour manager), Lee (driver) and Wellsey (cook), who decided that climbing the monument marking the edge of the world would make for a great story. They were damn lucky not to fall off as the steel began to frost over.

The Arctic Circle

Crossing the Arctic Circle has been on my “Things to do before I die” list for a very long time, and travelling to Hammerfest in Norway provided me with this long sought after opportunity. It wasn’t as grand as I had built it up in my mind, but it did not disappoint. When our bus pulled up to the line marking the beginning of the circle, all you can see is a tourism store and a vast expanse of almost barren land. As it was summer there was no snow, something my visions hadn’t counted on, so it kind of took a little of the atmosphere away, but the wind that whipped at my face made up for it. I spent most of my time at the tourism store queuing up in order to get Wellsey and my passports stamped. It took the best part of 30 minutes but at least now I can spend the time I waste lining up at airport customs queues looking at the stamp and remembering the time I actually achieved something I set out to instead of accidentally on purpose.

Progressing further and further north you notice that the green nature of the scenery begins to make way for brown low riding shrubs and you scratch your head trying to think about how anything, flora or fauna could survive a winter here. There is a marking by the side of the only highway to go to Hammerfest that shows how high the snow gets in winter and when standing next to it you see that it stretches high above your own head. Survival here in winter is not a matter of life or death, it’s just death. You wouldn’t stand a chance.

We stopped off at a small campsite nestled at the bottom of mountains that the word majestic does nothing to describe. I shared a cabin with Vikki, Nina, Annie and Sarah that backed onto a small bubbling brook. I never really knew what a brook was until I saw this place. I knew that it was a medium of water, but until I saw this place I had never had occasion to use the word when describing anything I had ever seen. Bigger than a stream, smaller than a river. It made the most wonderful sound that no cheesy meditation tape could ever emulate. Almost like it was singing. Just thinking about it gives me goose bumps. The campsite might not have come with accessible showering facilities, but it did come with its own tepee, complete with reindeer skin covered seats and wooden tables ready for us to sit around and ward off the biting chill. Emerging from that tepee into the cold, black expanse of night, listening to the brook serenading you makes you feel alive. Alive, with all of your senses, from one to six, on alert.

Vodka has no language barrier, as I found out in that tepee. There was a Swedish lady of about 60 years of age making gestures to Matt’s vodka Smirnoff and asking another lady to translate “Where on earth did you get that from?” Seems not only does the Norwegian government hit the consumer with a 95% tax on alcohol but they also regular what alcohol can come into the country. Vodka Smirnoff’s are not on the green light list. We had an abundance of bottles in our Contiki bar so I went and bought one and gave it to her. She spoke no English. I spoke no Swedish, but we got the point across and for the rest of the evening she kept offering me cigarettes.

Contiki, for those who have not had the illustrious pleasure of travelling with them, is a budget 18-35yr travel company. This was my second trip with them having done a western European trip back in 2003. Seems that on this particular journey they took the whole budget concept to a new level and we ended up having to push start our bus in the mornings because the battery was not charging. I did manage to win €5 by guessing it was the alternator as the problem (don’t tell anyone but my little blue Corolla suffered the same problem back in 1998). This morning however we couldn’t push start the bus as it was parked on a dodgy incline so we waited for the equivalent of bus AA or NRMA. To pass the time away most of us slept.

Legend has it that trolls walk the hills of Norway in the dark of night but when the sun comes up they turn to stone. Littering the sides of the road are literally millions of little stone clusters where people have stopped to add their own little man to the legends. Pity Mick, Mark and some of the other Aussie boys didn’t see them as legends, but rather targets to go troll bowling. Or as it affectionately became known, trollicide! Thousands of the little stone clusters were brought crashing down by these boys and their well aimed rocks. To appease the trolls though, Mark and Mick spent a good 20 minutes building their own mega troll at a pit stop, whilst the rest of us were taking in the now common breath taking view. Or buying reindeer skins from the man who could give you a good discount on antlers in a 2-for-1 deal.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Pit stop

I still have to write about Hammerfest, Lapland and Helsinki but I am taking a pit stop because lots has happened since then.
I have moved! No longer residing at Weevil Village in Chiswick. Karen has planned to move in with Richard once he started his MBA at Oxford University so I decided to jump ship as well. In the end Adriaan moved too so we had the arduous task of trying to deal with our estate agents, Townends, again. We still haven't sorted it out! They would have to be the most inept estate agents on the face of the planet. Or maybe it is all estate agents and I am just too trusting. Either way it is costing us a fortune to tie up loose ends. But enough about that.
I am now living in a one bedroom flat in Tooting which is fabulous fun. I love Tooting. It is a cosmopolitan mix of races, cultures, religions, foods and smells (mostly yicky ones that consist of rotting meat from the meat markets and fish). It is good to get away from the district tube line too. The Northern one is a lot ore reliable and can get me into the West End a lot quicker.
There is a bus I can catch right out the front of my house - the G1. It is the bus with no bus stops. You just stand on the side of the road and wave it down. It will take my all the way up to Battersea or down to Streatham Hill which is good because I can get pretty much anywhere from those two places.
3 things happened to me this week that kind of weirded me out in good and bad ways. The first was teaching at a school on Monday. The Teaching Assistant (TA) said to me that it was lovely to have an English supply teacher for a change instead of "all those Australians". WHAT THE???? Geez, that's scary. So I said I wasn't English. And she asked me where in America I was from. DOUBLE WHAT THE??????
The second was working at a different school on Thursday. I was teaching Year 3 and after lunch there was a knock at the door and a tea lady (yes, you read it correctly, a tea lady) came in and offered me a cup of tea in front of the whole class! How awesome is that?!? Now I can say I have truly experienced the English way! A tea lady! I'm still shaking my head in amazement.
And the third is not as fun. I was travelling home on the bus with no bus stops last night and a young white girl and a young black guy were sitting and standing just in front of me. There child was sitting on his mother's lap. A white man of perhaps eastern European nature started saying things under this breath and then when he got off he hurled abuse at the young family. Telling the black guy that he was a .... well you get the drift. Then he started yelling at him to get off the bus and he will teach the young guy a lesson he wont forget. The whole bus got really angry and started yelling abuse back at the European guy. I was so mortified that someone could say such nasty things about a stranger for no other reason than he was black and had a mixed race child. Guess the European guy didn't look at the people on the bus before he opened his big mouth because it was full of every race, colour, and culture you can think of. An the loudest people yelling back at the European guy? The white guys up the back. Defending the black guy at the front.
Humanity, huh?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Has anyone seen Tom? Tom, are you there? Where the **** is Tom? (part 4c of 5)

We drove a couple of 8 ½ hours days and we felt every single one of those hours. The main difference between this Contiki tour and my last one was that in Scandinavia you don’t stop in cities and towns everyday. On the Western Europe tours you usually see a different major city each day. On the Scandinavian ones you see a lot of trees, rocks and hills. Our campsite in Mo I Rana was by the side of the major E6 highway. There was a lake, a couple of camping cabins, a service station and a shop selling ski-dos and that’s all! It’s pretty boring and mundane, until you look at the lake. Not just glance at it, but really look at it. The water is like glass. You can see the reflection of life on planet earth staring straight back at you.

The days started to get longer with the sun travelling with us as we moved further north. It wasn’t unusual to have the sun up until 11pm and rise again at 3am. Whilst Wellsey (our camp cook) cooked dinner in the wonderfully erected tent, Andy, Mick, Mark and Matt threw a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy Frisbee around and there was a group of people playing cards at a nearby picnic table. After this stop, my fingers started to become increasingly number as the cold set in, and the names of places started to mesh together in my brain as individual ones begin to get lost in the connection between my brain and my mouth.

When you do a Contiki trip you get a list of optional extras and one of the ones I was looking forward to the most was climbing the Svartisen Glacier. It took over 1 ¼ hours to climb up rocky terrain and cliff face to it but it was worth every single moment. You know how you have those moments in your life that you feel so proud to be alive and to be exactly where you are at that moment in time. That glacier was life affirming for me.

To get to it you catch a small ferry boat 20 minutes up river where it pulls into a dock flanked by a rusty tin shed and a thunderous waterfall. The only clue that there is even a glacier there is a combination of the obvious (huge waterfall) and not so obvious (small hand sketched sign reading “this way”). My hiking boots at this point became the best investment I had ever made because weaving, almost haphazardly, behind the shed is the trail that signifies the beginning of your journey. The first part of the trail heads up the hill beside the waterfall. It is loose underfoot, and your feet flex over the oddly shaped rocks easily with a few hiccups where my trousers kept getting snagged on my heels. But it’s not too hard going, especially for American Matt (Army doctor currently serving in Germany) who powers up the track at lightning speed. For the rest of us mere mortals it doesn’t take long before you reach the next stage of the trek - the cliff face. To navigate along the cliff you need to follow the orange flags waving in the cool breeze. Problem with that is I am currently blind as a bat without glasses and couldn’t see an orange weather worn flag on a makeshift flag pole anywhere. Luckily Lee (tour driver) and Sarah were just in front of me and my very intelligent theory was to just follow them. I wasn’t a very graceful climber either and provided much entertainment as I stumbled, slid and stacked it towards each of the markers. Despite the many avalanche and falling ice warning signs most people continue past the “Stop Here” sign and continue their climb up to the actual glacier itself.

It kind of sneaks up at you. There are a few indicators that it’s coming, signs being one and huge chunks of ice floating in the lake another, but when it finally pops up over the next cliff platform it steals the breath right from your throat. Just like in a cyclone, hurricane or twister, you get the feeling of being inside the eye of a storm. There is an almost reverent silence. You can no longer hear the waterfall tumbling down towards the river system in the background. People’s voices seem hushed and the silence envelops you. Silence is, I now believe, nature’s version of the drumroll. Just before I saw it, I lost my footing and blindly grabbed onto the rock and looked up to find my next hand hold and instead I saw…

Actually touching it defies all words associated with feeling. Anything I attempt to write here will not do it justice, or describe it accurately. The colour is a thick, gluggy blue with splits in the ice that look as if a bear has clawed at it and scratched deep into its core. Touching it is, as you’d expect, cold but you can hear the ice crackling under the heat of your hand as the top layers melt away. I’ve climbed to the top of the world before (Jungfraujoch, 2003) but this is something different. Awe inspiring maybe… but so much more than that. Sitting there looking at this creation of nature you start to think about how it would have been so much bigger in just as little as 10 years ago. You also start to look at yourself and realise what a huge accomplishment it is for a kindy teacher from Sydney is climbing on, touching and yes, I licked it, a glacier that was formed when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It’s very easy to get lost in your own thoughts up there.

It’s also easy to get lost if you are a Japanese tourist on our tour too apparently. Instead of meeting back at 2pm as we were all supposed to, a quick head count revealed Tom and Jessica (both travelling Asian tourists) were missing). With the ferry coming only every 2 hours we realised that this was serious. Never can it be said that we left someone behind as 8 of us volunteered to stay back to start a search team. I have scribbled in the pages of my notebook times or departure, names of people in teams and what people were wearing as we set off up the track again. Wish I could drag it out for you but it was a fizzer really as one of the teams found Tom and Jessica within 25 minutes. Was very exciting though and I think we missed our callings with mountain rescue! It’s also good to see that the age old fire fighting tradition of “Hurry Up and Wait” is traversable into glacier rescue work. We got to sit on our butts for 1½ hours until the next ferry turned up.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hurtling towards Hell (part 4b of 5)

Many of the days I spent in Norway were travel days as there were so many kilometres to cover to get up to Hammerfest but along the way we made some absolutely amazing stops. One of those stops was the Winter Olympic Bobsled track where we were offered the opportunity to hurtle down the course at speeds that caused my head to smash quite violently and unladylike against the metal cage. It was very scary but great fun. They strap special braces to your stomach and back so that the g-forces don’t do permanent damage to your spine and guts. You have to hold onto the smallest handles I have ever seen and just before they push your sled off at the start line you get an attack of the panics and want to scream “Let me out!” I am very pleased to announce though that my sledding team won third place. We were even awarded bronze medals at a mini award ceremony on the bus afterwards too. Photo - my bobsled team preparing for take off. I'm the scared one at the back.

We also stopped at Trondheim which is a beautiful and quaint little city located about midway up the side of Norway. I loved the feel of this place. It is home to only about 145,000 people and it certainly makes a difference to the 7.4 million people I fight with every day to get a seat on the tube in London. Most of the Trondheim townspeople are actually students studying at the local university. It was slightly chilly and I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like in the middle of winter as snow would cover the city like a big, fat, fluffy doona. I bet that they celebrate Christmas in style there! I could just see them hanging fairy lights and decorations through the trees and the snow lining the pavement.

Another stop was at the Geiranger Fjord which is an amazing valley and river system nestled in the crevasses of mountains. We took a boat cruise down the river and the scenes were simply stunning - beautiful, shimmering water at the base of monstrous mountains. Waterfalls cascaded down the rock faces, racing to meet the river like a lost child might race to its mother. Breath taking doesn’t do the fjord justice. It is a magical place where your imagination can run wild. It sounds clich├ęd to say that you almost expect dreams to come true there, and for one couple on our tour it did - Andrew asked Bree to marry him. Photo - Standing just above the Geiranger Fjord.

We pit stopped at Hell, a small dot on the map not that far from the Geiranger Fjord. Many people spend their faithful lives questioning the meaning life, of the existence of heaven and hell and I can safely assure you that yes, there is a place called Hell and it is in the “Middle-of-Nowhere, Norway”. What is in Hell, I can hear you asking? Well, as disappointed as I was not to meet the red horned little fellow carrying a pitchfork, he just wasn’t waiting for a train that day. The only thing in Hell is a train station, with a post box! That’s all. The station has only one platform. Trains come in, trains go out. And that’s about it. Hell was a strange experience for most, but more so for poor Ryan, who spent the night before becoming acquainted with some local ladies and reacquainted with the bottom of a few beer bottles, promptly overslept and was woken by his room mate 3 minutes before the bus was to depart. He grabbed his unpacked suitcase (I’m sure that the next hostel patron will love Ryan’s towel, undies and Aussie green and gold socks) and hauled his butt onto the coach. Sleep was all he could think about and didn’t seem to mind that the only part of Hell he saw was the flat top of the garbage bin! To add insult to his already fragile head, we decided that for his own safety Ryan needed to be tied into his coach seat. He was swaying dangerously from side to side in his slumber and as his seat with directly opposite the back door, we could see him tumbling out of his seat and down the back stairs at any moment. Imagine his surprise however, when he woke up at lunchtime and couldn’t get himself out of his seat. Photos above - The train station in Hell. Photo below - Ryan having a kip on a skip in Hell.