30 September 2014

Carpe diem

“Death twitches my ear, ‘Live,’ he says, ‘I am coming.’ ”
-- Virgil


Three city blocks – it happened that instantaneously.  The day’s excitement nose-dived into fighting for my life.

I was up late the night before, Skype-ing with people in the States.  At 05:00 I woke up slowly, placed last minute toiletries in my suitcase & ate the leftover strawberries + carrot cake from the mini-refrigerator.  Today in Bergen, Norway, I went through morning procedures like most other mornings of my life in the U.S.A.: groggy and functioning on a very basic level.

Iceland proved to be better than expected & Bergen was picturesque, but I was certain nothing from this trip would, or could, compare to the Arctic Circle.  As you know, the entirety of my European adventures spawned out of one singular dream – to see polar bears in the wild – and soon I would be departing mainland Norway, headed straight to the animals’ realm.

Still sleepy, Mom & I stepped onto Bergen’s barren streets.  Though the sun was up (and never really set) it was blocked by the skyline.  The fresh air and realization that my dream was about to come true lifted my haze. I was no longer a zombie. I could feel it.  This morning felt different.

Crossing the first street, I was thrilled.  I thought “let’s get this show on the road!” However, as we traversed block #1 I started to feel unwell.  My enthusiasm faded because I was cold, so I halted to put on my light jacket.  By block #2 my head felt like it had at 05:00 and I became exhausted.  By block #3 I felt sick – though I couldn’t pinpoint it, I just did not feel right.  At the Flybussen a.k.a. airport shuttle stop, I felt light-headed & standing consumed so much energy that I dumped myself onto a stoop while Mom waited with our bags.

The Flybussen picked us up, and I took the second row from the front to prevent swaying. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the Flybussen Express that only made four stops total (as opposed to the bus we were on, which wove through the city).  The minutes dragged by and my breathing became labored.  I had to close my eyes to ease the queasiness, especially through roundabouts.  Mom said I looked pale & handed me the complimentary IcelandAir vomit bag she confiscated earlier and had stowed in her backpack.

I felt so terrible that I could only perform one task at a time, so I focused on breathing steadily: a deep breath in through my nose, then out my mouth. I continued like this, on the verge of upchucking, as the bus filled but I did not have the energy nor care to move my luggage from the seat next to me.  My heart raced and the nausea heightened, but I fought to quell my stomach. 

Amidst the deep breathing, a woman sat down in front of me & I took a gigantic whiff of her nasty, matronly perfume.  My stomach turned & I stuck my face inside my shirt to filter the old-lady scent, but it was too overpowering. I grabbed the bag and spewed.  Up came the carrot cake; up came the strawberries; up came everything else. I tried to do it as quietly as possible since the bus was at capacity & I noticed Mom eye-balling me.  As we pulled up at BGO Flybussen depot, I lifted my head out of the bag and saw two cups of red liquid sloshing inside.

Eyes watering, I felt only slightly better.  Shaky, Mom & I exited the Flybussen last and she rolled both of our suitcases to the terminal. We needed to check in, but I urgently needed medicine (being a Type I diabetic, puking more than twice almost always results in an Emergency Room visit). 

Inside, I hobbled to the closest WC a.k.a. restroom and fell into the large, brown leather chair in the infant changing room.  First order of business: nausea medication.  Second order of business: check my blood sugar.  Third order of business: change my insulin pump’s infusion set (the point of the body where insulin is injected subcutaneously).

Halfway through my protocol, I abandoned the mission and bolted to the nearest bathroom stall.  I sat [clothed] on the toilet, elbows propped up on my knees, head in my hands, about to gag again.  After 15 minutes of feeling woozy, I emerged from the stall.  I was so enfeebled that I asked my mother to help prepare my insulin pump – she worriedly obliged.

Now, we needed to get to our Scandinavian Airlines a.k.a. SAS gate.   Like all great mothers, Stephanie made three trips up & down the staircases as she transported her luggage & mine to the security checkpoint.  Meanwhile, all I could do was remain hunched over on the very first step.  This could not be happening at a worse time...

Once at the gate, I was too sick to eat, leaned against my backpack and placed my forearm over my head to block the fluorescent lights.  Thankfully, it was a quick flight from Bergen to Oslo – where Mom & I had to switch planes.  Soon we boarded Scandinavian Airlines flight #4414 en route to Longyearbyen, Svalbard – the archipelago 600 miles north from the mainland -- via the town of Tromsø (pronounced "tromm-suh").
I squeezed down the aisle, bearing the weight of a stuffed carry-on bag + winter jacket + jam-packed bookbag, but an old man with stringy, white hair was already in my [window] seat.  I politely asked him what seat his ticket assigned, and he admitted it was not 14F.  From behind me, a short stewardess with brown hair interjected, wanting to know if it was alright that she moved the man from his original seat into mine? No, that was not alright for a plethora of reasons, but instead I informed her it was not just me; I wanted to sit next to my mother.

The flight attendant – named Mora – lost all niceness and rephrased: you won’t let this impaired man sit here?  It was no longer a simple question of “is that alright?”  She asked in a tone implying I should feel guilty.  Well let me tell you, I did not feel guilty.  What this contemptuous employee did not know, was that I had been trying to lock in seats since I made the reservations months prior.  However, SAS did/does not let foreigners arrange seating until 23 hours before the flight’s departure. So, 23 hours earlier I tried to check-in online.  No luck.  Then I sat on hold for 30 minutes until finally someone at SAS customer service said their system had been failing for a few hours & there was nothing the company could do.  I found it difficult to believe that a major airline had absolutely no back-up plan nor way of issuing seats when the system crashed.  What about all those people already at the airport?  With no predetermined seats it would be chaos at the gates & I strongly doubted the customer service employee fed me the truth.  After another attempt in the evening – with 3 hours of my day wasted – I secured seats 14E & F. 

Anyway, I responded “no” more sternly to Mora.  The old man looked at her & said – in a distinctly American voice – that he would move, but the vociferous flight attendant faced me and began berating: How could I act this way? Why couldn’t I just let this man sit in my seat?  Why didn’t I care that he was sick?  With that last comment, I shot back at her “I’m sick too! I just threw up an hour ago & here’s my bag of medicine!” as I held up my cold pack. If this man was so “sick” why was he going to the remote island of Svalbard?

The older gentleman released his seatbelt and slid towards the aisle, but the stewardess refused to shut her mouth.  Instead of confronting me directly this time, she admonished me indirectly by saying (excessively loud) to the guy “I am sorry sir, I have never had a situation where someone will not move” and “In my five years I have never had this problem. I am so sorry that she will not move.”  If the passenger agreed to move, what was Mora’s problem?

More travelers settled in, but the Scandinavian Airlines bitch still did not stop.  Since I fully planned on sleeping the entire leg to Svalbard & my Mom fits better in a window seat, I told Mom to enter the row first. Mora balked and emphatically pressed “I thought you needed the window to rest your head?”  Up to this point I thought I had remained rather indifferent to the flight attendant’s battery, but this was enough.  I was going to set this harridan straight and darkly retorted “I just need something to lean my head on and for you to leave me alone.”

Again, the attendant passive-aggressively instigated by apologizing to the old man from three rows away.  Again, the guy brushed it off. When she said (for the millionth time) “I am sorry sir for all of your trouble. I am sorry. I have never seen this” In rancor I yelled across the plane “And I am sorry you can’t read your manifest & put him somewhere not occupied.”  My mother shot her signature, raised-eyebrow, look of death at Mora and flatly said “You are being very rude.”  I knew that terrifying look from my mother, as I had been on the receiving end of it throughout high school.  The look threatened “if we weren’t in public, I would give you a beating.”

The worthless SAS woman rattled to her coworkers in her native tongue (I’d bet it was about me) and rearranged all sorts of disgruntled passengers.   Five minutes later I had my sweet revenge when Mora asked an Asian couple in row 12 if they would be willing to switch seats, and they too responded “no.”  The older gentleman was forced to sit in an aisle seat in our row.  For supposedly "never" encountering this circumstance, Mora was getting a double dose today.

As Mom conversed with the elder, Gordon, he was en route to Svalbard for a cruise – like us.  He was hardly crippled, he simply had “bad knees” so the process of standing up/sitting down was taxing.  In fact, if anyone on that plane was crippled it was me.  Though I felt chilled just a half hour ago, I was starting to profusely sweat in my seat.  The world started to close in on me & that same woozy feeling returned.  I felt awful asking Gordon to let me out.  If that flight attendant truly cared about his well-being, she would not have seated Gordon in the same row as another sick person.

Both ears rang loudly & felt like they were about to pop.  I lunged for a new vomit bag & immediately dry-heaved in the window seat.  Eventually Gordon made it upright, but I couldn’t thank him since I was running to the back of the plane.  It was déjà vu from earlier: [clothed] on the toilet, elbows propped on my knees, head in hands, about to gag. 

I remained in that tiny bathroom until I felt certain my stomach had calmed.  A blonde flight attendant knocked on the door to make sure I was alive (and not building a bomb).  She empathized because she told Mom, in my lengthy absence, that I would “probably be in there [the restroom] a while.” 

I looked and felt depleted, but gradually throughout the day my blood sugar recovered from the trauma of throwing up.  Also positive: we arrived safely in Longyearbyen & not in handcuffs due to the scuffle.  At Mom’s suggestion, I purposefully starved myself the rest of the day to soothe my tummy.  The first item I remember fully digesting was a cup of ice-cold milk… and after 24 hours of nothing, it was a Godsend.
In summary, there are certain situations where it is advisable – actually, imperative – that you put your own needs first.  Did Gordon need the window seat? Absolutely not. Could I give Gordon the window seat?  Absolutely, but I’d be damned if I was going to let the loads of preparation & all my struggles dissolve in front of my eyes.  This was my vacation too, wasn’t it?  Am I less worthy of having the same dream as Gordon? 

Above all, I know my body.  In three city blocks it clearly displayed its need for rest & attention.  I innately knew that had I not leaned against the airplane’s frame and slept for 3 hours, I would have ended up in a Norwegian hospital instead of Longyearbyen, Svalbard.  It has proven to be a forsworn, self-righteous path at times, but I have endured these life-threatening scenarios and emerged wiser with each trial.  People will vilify you, but, in the end, experience will vindicate you.

16 September 2014

Niches

"A friend, as it were, a second self."
-- Cicero


In this chapter of my month-long vacation – and, moreover, my life – I could not fully do my novella of the Arctic justice without describing its characters.

Aboard G Adventures’ (sometimes referred to as G.A.P. a.k.a. the Great Adventure People) MS Expedition, I quickly learned that the feeding hours were one step above lunch period in high school.  Dinner was a step above the teen years due to the more comfortable seating (individual, padded chairs chained to the floors versus plastic picnic tables), 4-course meals, and exceptionally better company.  Then, there were similarities between my high school cafeteria & the ship’s atmosphere: the food was still mediocre & usually fried, and there was a political undertow.  Like no nerds attempted to sit with jocks, certain people were hand-picked to esoterically join the captain for dinner.

To remove herself entirely from this silent social game, Mom sat alone – at a table suited for six – in the corner of the boat’s dining room, hands neatly folded.  That first night & meal, it was solely her & me until some of the staff arrived late and filled in the holes.  Confident employees were encouraged to fraternize with guests as part of the bonding experience, I enjoyed their company nonetheless.  In fact, Guy, Kevin, Lauren & Natalie – the four staff members brave and/or removed enough from the social undertow to join our empty table – proved to be riotous, erudite and great conversationalists.  As sometimes a cheerleader would grace the debate team with her presence, so the four crew transformed our estranged table into the hotspot.  First, Kevin shouted mid-meal “Fuhmuh!” in his thick British accent a.k.a. Fulmar to all within earshot as the Arctic bird flew by.  Second, Guy (pronounced “guh-ee”) beckoned a crew member to serenade me with the guitar & sing “Michelle” by The Beatles.  Third, a guest from another table stopped by to inquire about a particular type of bird she saw through the window.  Last, Guy told the most hilarious story about attending a funeral as a boy growing up in Seychelles + an alleged dead girl awaking from a coma + he and the entire village of mourners running in horror.
In chatting with Lauren and Natalie – both considerably younger than Kevin and Guy – I learned their backstories.  Lauren was an Australia-born, Kansas-bred, New York freelance photographer & had visited all seven continents.  Natalie was a cute blonde that hailed from Canada but – after backpacking much of Europe – resided in England.  Throughout the course of the cruise I learned most of the staff’s history:

Frank, an American-sounding Panamanian; “Scobie” (his nickname), originally British but now a Tasmanian farmer who lived a dual life on the Arctic/Antarctic; Jonathan, a glaciologist from the United Kingdom settled in Ecuador; Dmitri, distinctly Russian but lived in Seattle & worked in Japan; Jon, a Californian who admitted he spent more time in Russia, Antarctica & the Arctic than at home; and Guy, raised in Seychelles but spent his adulthood among true aboriginals in Arnhemland, Australia.

The next day – and the first morning on MS Expedition – the excursion leader questioned who, of the 94 guests, had set foot in the Antarctic?  One does not make the haul to Arctic Circle as a starter vacation, still I was surprised when a third of the people raised a hand.  That was my first indication that the handful of countries stamped in my passport was chump change compared to the travel resumes of these people. 

As days passed & I spoke to more and more of the passengers, I was choking on humble pie.  Iceland? Been there, try Siberia. A jaguar in Belize? How about getting 3 feet away from a brown bear’s face in Alaska?  Two countries in one month?  This is my third country in three weeks.  Like in Iceland, these people came from all parts of the globe: Israel, Sweden, Australia.  The largest slice of humble pie was served cold in the form of three, very different, unlikely characters: Louise, Giles & David.

The second day of the cruise, all the customers sat in the lecture room for the customary recap of the day’s events & preview of tomorrow’s. As usual, Mom & I plopped down wherever, not minding whose unspoken posse we split up or were entering.  That was when and how I met my brother-from-another-mother, David.

This eve only was the Captain’s Toast.  I banged glasses with Mom, other people in my vicinity & an affable guy who seemed in his late 30s/early 40s.  I eye-balled the pretzels & peanuts he munched on voraciously… too voraciously since the man offered me his dish.  I dove in for a handful, asked where he found those snacks and struck up a lukewarm conversation. Within three sentences, I was hooked on David’s Aussie accent, lingo and tales.

David was the epitome of a migrant.  As mentioned earlier, everyone within MS Expedition had some far-away countries under their belt (including the entire crew from bartender to engine mechanic), but I doubted any rivalled David’s travels.  Little of the planet remained untouched by him, save Antarctica and some Caribbean countries.
He lived and practiced psychiatry in a suburb of Sydney.  When I shared my adoration for Sydney, we deviated into judging other parts of Australia.  I was shocked to educate Dr. David about Devil’s Marbles – a site practically in his backyard (Northern Territory, Australia). From behind me, I heard a woman profess “they’re not all that spectacular” and swivelled my chair around to see Louise.

Louise & Giles (pronounced “juh-eye-ulls”) were a London couple, married for over a decade, but still quite young at heart.  Louise was the more vocal, straight-forward of the two with her stereotypical British accent, rosy cheeks, and blonde bob.  Giles was a jocular, assertive, smart ass with scruffy, salt & pepper hair and glasses that concealed his beady eyes.  Despite their constant verbal jabbing – usually started by Giles, but finished by Louise – they were well versed in the going-ons of the world and equally well travelled.
After the summary, the majority of the crowd sauntered up to Deck 5 for Day Two’s dinner.  I noticed the same most of the young couples sat with the other young couples (there were only a few on this cruise); the Brits hung around other Brits & there was Mom, in the usual corner spot.  However, we were flattered to be joined by Louise & Giles once again.  Then, David emerged from Deck 4 and sat down too.  The three of them split bottles of wine and more personal narratives were shared.

By the end of the dinner hour, Giles held nothing back (i.e. no topic was too inappropriate).  The five of us toyed with the preposterous idea of jumping into freezing water a.k.a. a polar plunge.  Perhaps it was the wine, perhaps it was the excitement of casting off, perhaps it was the infectious nomadic stories, perhaps it was the ardor of new-found friendships, perhaps it was each of us trying to throw away our old personality & reinvent ourselves as rebels.  Anyway, that night David, Giles & I sealed our fate as we shook hands and committed to partake in a polar plunge, should the MS Expedition offer it.

02 September 2014

Transportation

The last time Mom & I were in Europe in 2011 we train-hopped and shoved our way onto busses, but did absolutely no driving (unless you count wrecking a motorcycle). Traveling around Iceland and Norway I saw many unfamiliar signs.  Hopefully, after taking the quiz below, you will be more prepared than I was.


#1
* Tunnel
* Ranger station
* Shelter 
* Train station









ANSWER:  Tunnel 
You have probably seen a magazine advertisement with a cute, Norwegian town on the side of a fjord.  If not, then you are probably aware that travelers flock to the country for its BASE-jumping.  This fantastic landscape also necessitated tunnelens a.k.a. tunnels.  A local told us there were 80-some tunnels in the two-hour stretch of road between Bergen & Eidfjord.  He was correct.  Some were short & I could see the sky on the other side before we entered the tunnelen.  Others interjected into the rock face, as in the photograph above.  All the tunnelens had some form of lighting & -- smartly – two lanes on the uphill legs so that you did not have to suffer behind a laden semi-truck.

#2
*  24 hour parking
*  Roundabout
*  Recycle bins
*  Detour






ANSWER:  Roundabout.
Remember those billions of tunnelens I mentioned?  Though most were tolerable, a few had our engine’s RPMs & Mom’s claustrophobia maxed.  It was quite unsettling to read the signs stating our depth under water  en route to Lysefjord (pronounced “lee-seh-fyord”).  My ears popped frequently as the pressure of the North Sea bore down on us.  As the hire car descended further, my mind went to dark places. I imagined one tiny crack in the cement bursting, to unleash the infinite tons of water therefore crushing us.
This particular tunnelen in Hardangerfjord  was so lengthy there was a roundabout in it!  Simultaneously, Norway & the world's longest tunnelen is called Lærdal.  Since it is 24.5 kilometers a.k.a. over 15 miles I was told by a local the lights inside it change color to prevent tunnelen vision.


#3
*  To pedestrian walkway
*  To WC a.k.a. bathroom
*  To jogging/cycling trail
*  To emergency exit

ANSWER:  To emergency exit.



#4
*  Resume legal speed
*  Police station
*  No entry a.k.a. one way
*  Customs








ANSWER:  No entry a.k.a. one way.



#5
*  No parking on this side of road
*  Free parking
*  Low clearance
*  No over-taking a.k.a. passing


ANSWER:  No parking.



#6
*  No bus/taxi aboard ferry
*  No passenger pick up
*  No bus/taxi parking
*  End bus/taxi lane

ANSWER: End bus/taxi lane.



#7
*  No parking
*  No entry a.k.a. one way
*  No stopping
*  No gates at railroad crossing








ANSWER:  No stopping.



#8
*  Priority road
*  Construction zone
*  Mountain ahead
*  Low clearance





ANSWER:  Priority road.



#9
*  Polar Bear region; a firearm is mandatory.
*  Passing prohibited.
*  No parking on side of road.
*  Passing permitted.








ANSWER: Passing permitted.



#10
*  Merge
*  Meeting point
*  Motorway a.k.a. highway
*  Metro station






ANSWER:  Meeting point. 
I wouldn't have guessed it either.  In fact, I only learned the meaning after I Google-d the sign post-vacation.  The only time I saw this throughout our Scandinavian stint was around Lysefjord.



#11
*  National road
*  Viking settlement
*  Intersection
*  Attraction






ANSWER: Attraction.


How well did you score?

Norway's ferry network was textbook.  Most island roads ended abruptly at the next port.  The time for the next departure was clearly indicated (although I could not comprehend the writing) & most routes recurrently ran.  The only tricky part of the entire process was determining which of the six lanes to enter, but it was an irrelevant conundrum.  Like clockwork, tour busses, cars and semi trucks filed onto the many levels of the ferries, promptly shut off their engines & let passengers off.  Most people stretched their legs or ascended to the cafeteria/sitting lounge.  Others -- like Mom & I -- donned our heavy jackets and braved the battery of the wind to marvel at the scenery.  Of the twelve legs I sailed throughout Norway, each departed diligently on time.  The entire architecture and process was so efficient it made navigating this country of a thousand fjords (literally!) hassle-free.

In summary, everything in mainland Norway was well marked.  Its extensive and well-maintained transportation system must be fueled by its numerous toll roads.  Mom & I figured that driving the circuit from Bergen to Eidfjord cost $100 USD.  However, we never knew we were cruising on a toll road.  So keep a watchful eye for the suspended cameras & the “Kr” sign translating to Krona a.k.a. money.

Iceland was easy to explore as well, especially considering it was an island with over 13,000 kilometers of road but no rail system & a ring road circumnavigated it.  A car was imperative for Mom & I since we were not the tour group types.  The highland roads (which begin with an "F") only passable with 4-wheel drive vehicles and/or in summer were identifiable.  My only complaint with the country's transportation system was the lack of warning.  Here, in the United States of America, there are plenty of signs that prepare the driver like “Road work ahead,” “Next rest stop: 54 miles,” or “Exit: 2 miles.”  In Iceland -- especially the greater Reykjavik area -- Mom & I often missed an exit or caused an accident by violently jerking the steering wheel because there was a sole sign that sprang up seconds before the off-ramp.

Of all the foreign and funky signs I saw in three different countries, this one was my favorite for a few reasons.  First, it affirmed Mom & I had arrived at the destination that spawned our entire 28 day trip.  Second, I always enjoy these signs with directional arrows & distances because it helps me put the world into perspective and fathom how far away from "home" I truly am.  Third, it was a new, personal milestone: farthest latitude north.  Last, the red & black icon meant Polar Bears roamed freely.