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?