Into the Wild: The Miraculous Norway Adventure

IMG_9854

It was sometime between when I filled my camelpack with glacier melt and started a fire with my own hands that I realized Norway might be my favorite country so far. This might come as a surprise since my last two entries have been a little on the down side, but that is only a glimpse of moments. The overall story is incredible and I would be surprised if it got better than this…

We arrived in Oslo courtesy of two Macedonian gentlemen. From there we made our way to our first host’s apartment, getting over the initial shock of how expensive food is in this country. When I say “expensive” I don’t just mean “SF-rent expensive” I mean “one-Corona-costs-$11-American-dollars-expensive.” Yeah. Our budget of 55 crowns per day per person is the equivalent of two bottles of Coca Cola here. This would be a huge inconvenience if Norwegian people weren’t so amazing and friendly and generous.Our time in Oslo was good. We stayed with two different couples, had good meals, drank beer, went running, and visited the two points of interest: the famous ski jump and the sculpture garden. 

But Oslo is just a snapshot of Norway. We were interested in the wilderness, and boy did we get thrown into it abruptly.

Friday night, we went out to a lesbian bar with our second hosts Arnaldo and Mia who turned out to be a lovely, beautiful couple. We went out, drank, came back, drank some more, shenanigans, debauchery etc. etc. This was our first party night since we left Dublin 7 months ago. It was long overdue, and we made the most of it. We stumbled home in ambient twilight, it was nearly 2am. But we didn’t get to sleep until about 5. Of course it’s Norway, so the sun was shining brightly by then, but we still decided to try and sleep it off anyway.

I was ready for sleep, and feeling fine albeit tired. Sadly, the same cannot be said for all parties involved. It started as low whispers from the bedroom, and then became increasingly louder and more intense. Our hosts were fighting. Their common language is English so we could easily understand everything. Unfortunately, it was getting serious and got to the point where we just decided to bail. We packed our things and were out the door. We are reasonable people and left out of courtesy more than anything. It sounded like the last thing they needed to worry about was coushsurfers when their relationship was potentially ending. 

I didn’t even have my hiking boots on all the way as I bounded downstairs. We realized at the doorway to their building that we left our running shoes on their balcony (which is connected to their bedroom). But there was no going back. Sleep deprived, we hauled our packs to our first host’s apartment to see if by chance they were home.

Success! They were! But…they were leaving in 30 minutes to go on vacation. Maria and I pulled ourselves up from the couch and got our things together a second time. It was not a nice feeling.

They were kind enough to drop us on the road outside of Oslo to save us a walk across town. We still had not slept so we bushwhacked into some forest just beyond the guard rail. It turned out to be infested with mosquitoes, huge, aggressive ones, thirsty for blood.  But we were too tired to care. We threw our tent down and passed out for a few hours. When we woke up we shoveled some bread and oil into our mouths and hit the road.

The first lift took about 8  minutes, and it ended up being the only lift we needed. We were picked up by a HUGE Norwegian guy named John. But after a few moments in his car, we realized he was very gentle and kind and probably also a little lonely. He was eager to show us EVERYTHING along the route to his cabin in Rjuken. Eventually, he said if we wanted, we could pitch our tent in his garden. This eventually turned into a full-on invite into his house. As we stood outside the supermarket, planning that night’s meal, it started to rain and we gladly accepted the offer to sleep indoors.

and to this mountain

he took us to this old train
and this old train

His house was messy and a work-in-progress, but huge. And it was nestled in between two mountains surrounded by wilderness. It was idyllic and exactly what you would expect from a mountain cabin in Norway. We made dinner, had ice cream, and slept off the past 48 hours.

view from our attic room
view from our attic room
our bunk
our bunk
the living room. Reindeer pelts and all.
the living room. Reindeer pelts and all.

The next morning, we had breakfast and he showed us some of his outdoors gear. He quickly assessed that we were into camping and hiking, and actually gifted us each TWO pairs of WOOL SOCKS EACH.

behold: tent socks
behold: tent socks

We were thinking it doesn’t get much better than that. This had to be the best lift ever. Later that day we said goodbye to John. He dropped us on a lonely stretch of road. The only one leading out of town. After a long while we finally managed a lift. It was slow going, and we ended up stuck at a gas station for quite some time. That is, until a kind woman driving a Prius pulled over for us.

I sat in front this time, and turned on the charm. After about 20 minutes, she suggested that we sleep in her guest room instead of sleeping outside. We accepted, and once again, had a roof over our heads that wasn’t made of nylon.

Her husband is from Wisconsin, so we actually had some nice conversations about America as they stuffed us with tea and homemade bread and jam. Oh, they also lived in a mountain paradise and had an awesome cat.

OMG
OMG
Blacky
Blacky

The next morning, we were fed the best breakfast ever consisting of coffee and oatmeal with blueberries and walnuts. I haven’t been this excited about breakfast since I lived in SF. And to think, she actually apologized about only having oatmeal to offer.

perfection
perfection

So off we were to Odda, in an attempt to climb to Trolltongue. Our host drove us to a good waiting spot, and though it took a while to get a lift, we eventually got one that took us directly to Odda. Once there, we got a lift directly to our trailhead with some Belgian hippies. It was the day of door-to-door service.

We began hiking at noon and slept in the mountains that night. The following day, I woke up with a sore throat which was lame, but it didn’t hold me back too much. It was a slow day getting out of the trail spot, but by the end of that day, we found ourselves with yet another hike under our belts (and a glacier) and we were in the best camping spot of my entire life. To top it off, I started a fire with my bare hands.

I AM GOD
I AM GOD

We were flying. Life was adventurous and easy. That is, until it began to rain that afternoon.

Our next destination was another glacier, but hitch-hiking in the rain is not ideal. As you know from ALL of my previous posts, I am thrown into a sea of despair when it rains and I am outside with no end in sight. However, I managed to keep it together for a little while. We didn’t wait long before a man pulled up in a BMW. He drove us all the way to the ferry and even pair our ticket for us. After that, we caught a lift to Voss where we spent some time in the tourist information center before setting out into the local wilderness to camp.

It was rainy, but we had the tent and there was a grocery store close by. The following morning was miraculously dry, and we packed up in high spirits. Unfortunately, it would take us about 3 hours to leave this tiny town.

PLEASE!
PLEASE!

We spent 45 minutes getting rejected by car after car after car. Amazingly, Maria was the one who took the first cry break. Indeed, this was the first time while hitch-hiking in Norway that we would wait more than 10 minutes for a ride. It was agony. I was actually waiting for the sting of despair to overtake me, but strangely it never came. This is when I had my moment of clarity that sometimes things are hard for no reason, just keep on keepin’ on and eventually you’ll be out of it.

I also had a strange 6th sense feeling that whatever lift did get us out of this mess would be a good one. I was not disappointed.

holy s**t
holy s**t

Pavel is from Slovakia and he was driving to Flom to pick up a few friends. He kindly picked us up and opted for the scenic route instead of the tunnel.

“Flom is famous for beer brewing. You must try a beer when you get there.”

We communicated subtly something to the effect of “like we have the money for microbrews in Norway.”

“Since you decided to go to Flom, I will buy you each a beer.”

Wow. Thanks Pavel! You just spent $40 on complete strangers and were late picking up your friends to stop on the side of the road so we could take pictures. Is there something in the water here?

It was the best beer we had since Belgium. Truly. And our good fortune didn’t stop there.

As we drunkenly hitch-hiked toward our next glacier, we were picked up by an awesome Polish woman who worked on a cruise ship. She took us through the longest tunnel in the world and dropped us right on the ferry line.

the longest tunnel
the longest tunnel

And we hitch-hiked right across the ferry into this:

A tunnel that we can't walk through.
A tunnel that we can’t walk through.

It was nice that the weather was good and we were able to laugh at this situation. The ferry worker who was apparently 16 (he looked not a day over 12) laughed at our predicament with us. He eventually called his coworker and asked if he would give us a lift to the other side.

He did and we had a nice dinner in a rest stop before we were picked up by another Norwegian guy who decided after we were in his car that he would drive us an hour out of his way to drop us off where we needed to be to hike to the glacier.

we set up camp in another mosquito forest
we set up camp in another mosquito forest

and called it a night.

Our trip to the glacier was a success except that it began to rain while we were there. We left our tent in the Mosquito Forest and returned to a sopping wet domicile. I begrudgingly ate a peanut butter sandwich inside, dreading the inevitable of packing the tent away wet. This was the beginning of the end for me. We stood in the rain for almost an hour trying to get out of that spot, and when we were dropped in the next town, I had another low moment.

I noticed the no camping sign where we were standing, and the dangerously curved road with no shoulder to speak of. It poured. We were doomed. We couldn’t camp anywhere, or walk anywhere except for backwards. This was hopeless. We were wet and sad looking. I looked down at my shoes and actually tried to cheer myself up with thoughts of being chained to a desk as an alternative to this. It didn’t work.

A semi-truck rushed by me and sprayed me with water and I just sobbed. I covered my face with my hands and accepted the fact that I was at the 11th hour yet again.

And then Kai stopped for us. In less than 10 minutes from my breakdown I found myself here:

petting a kitty
petting a kitty

And drinking tea and eating crackers. Kai had seen me crying and decided to pull over. This was the first time my despair was actually acknowledged by a driver. He invited us to camp in his garden, but as usual, it quickly evolved into an offer of a shower and a guest room….and tacos.

mmm taco Friday in Norway
mmm taco Friday in Norway

We had extremely stimulating conversation with Kai the entire night. He was actually running a foot race up a mountain the following day, and offered to drive us an additional 100 kilometers over a mountain pass. Obviously we took this offer too. I think he was a bit surprised by us. He confessed he was not expecting questions about Norwegian economics or about the ethics of the textile industry in other countries. He was expecting more like “where is the McDonalds?”

He was surprised, but pleased, and we enjoyed the opportunity to defy some American/hitch-hiker stereotypes.

The next morning he dropped us off and this was the day of Ask and You Shall Receive. There was rain. Lots of it. I was not happy.

fml
fml

This is not where I like to be, usually. I tried all of my usual mental exercises to get myself through it, but it was quite unsuccessful. Instead I started to focus on simple things that would improve my situation. The gas station attendant came by to chat with us. The thought crossed my mind (and Maria’s) that a coffee would be great.

I went into the station to make a peanut butter sandwich and out of nowhere the gas station attendant says “Would you like a coffee?”

“Yes, but I have no money, unfortunately.”

“No problem.”

And then bam. Two free coffees. AND just as I handed Maria her cup, a car pulled over for us. The bad news about this day is that there was the annual summer solstice Trondheim to Oslo bike race taking up all of the road and making every passing car super angry. We resolved to the fact that we would likely die there at the gas station. Worst of all, I really wanted ice cream.

I walked up to the first woman I saw on the sidewalk and tried to sweet-talk my way into her car. She wasn’t interested in driving us anywhere, but after a full hour of conversation and several tips about what to see and do in SF (when she and her family visit next week) she offered to buy Maria and me ice cream.

NO WAY!
NO WAY!

Yes way. This stuff really does happen to us. But wait, it gets better…

So we eat our ice cream and no one stops for us for a long time, and then finally a car sneaks into the gas station and calls us over. It is a nice-looking Norwegian guy who invites us to ride along with him to the next town. We find out while we’re in his car that he was running the same foot race with Kai earlier that day and he overheard Kai talking about us.

I think that was the first time our reputation preceded us. He mentioned that Kai said it was a very good experience and this was followed by an invite to put our tent in his garden as well. Score. It was raining. Life is good.

We ended up crashing their summer solstice barbecue. We arrived to a house full of kids playing and his lovely wife who stuffed us full of food as soon as we put our foot in the door. We stayed up past midnight talking and sharing stories. Basically, it was good old fashioned family fun for us.

barbecue!
barbecue!

If you can imagine, it gets even better than this. Not only did we get to sleep in a bed, indoors, but the next morning our hosts offered us each a wool buff for free. Apparently they were given as gifts but their kids don’t like them because they are “itchy.” I was both amazed and thankful at how stupid children can be and graciously accepted this gift of wool. Again.

And again it was raining. Our host left us, feeling somewhat guilty at a terrible place to wait, but it was no problem. I quickly spotted a hippy van driven by two Dutch kids and in no time we were headed back to Oslo in a 1973 VW bus. It was green and had flowers and everything. They informed us they had seen us the previous day during the bike race and wanted to stop for us but were too late to pull over. We are famous now. 

It took some time, but I’m sure you can see why Norway is my favorite country. Okay sure, it is really expensive and it rains a lot, but it is also the land of free coffee and ice cream and people are kind and gift you wool. I am leaving this place with some of the best memories of all of my travels. Okay yeah, sometimes I get bent out of shape about the weather and occasionally Maria and I have deep philosophical conversations about the meaning of it all, but this is what traveling is like. 

It is full of ups and downs and the best lesson I have learned in my time in Norway is ask and you shall receive. A positive outlook is usually followed by a positive outcome. 

A Week in Paris for 50 Euro

Oui Oui
Oui Oui

Paris is big, old, and full of awesome stuff and awesome people. It also happens to be one of the most expensive cities in Europe. It should come as no surprise to anyone that you are on an ultra-low budget during your travels. 7 euro per day might be reasonable in a small country town, but here that notion is absurd. In fact, you were met with incredulous laughter anytime you told anyone living in Paris about your 7-euro-per-day budget. 

Despite this, you managed an incredible week in this grand city and only spent 50 euro. How? Surely you must not have had a very good sampling of all Paris has to offer.  Okay, so you didn’t go to the Louvre every day for 3 or 4 days like a real tourist. But the food, the entertainment, there is no way you could have fun every day and spend that little. Impossible.

Possible. 

The key to all of this is deeply rooted within your travel philosophy. Of course values are everything.  Some people need those kitchy overpriced souvenirs, and they need to go out to dinner every night, and stay in a hotel, and go to the top of the Eiffel tower, and take taxis everywhere.

You need to have an authentic experience and meet local people and do local people things with them. You need to see things. And thus, your trip went something like this:

Tuesday-

You set up a couch-surfing host well in advance and were planning to stay with him for the entire week. Knowing you will be living in someone’s home for a week, it is important that you do not rely on them too much. They are providing you with a place to sleep, access to a bathroom and a kitchen for free. This is more than enough on their part and so you do not expect them to feed you also. According to your travel ethics, you must be prepared to be self-sufficient at all times. This means feeding yourself.

You were conveniently dropped right within the city boundary and the first thing you and Maria did was go to the grocery store. The grocery store is one of your favorite rituals when traveling. It gives you an opportunity to sample local foods without being completely ripped off. Among other things, France is the land of cheese, wine, 50 cent baguettes, and charcuterie. Their grocery stores reflect this in variety and price.  Behold:

The most French shopping cart there is
The most French shopping cart there is

Due to an exceptionally lucky day of hitch-hiking, you arrived at your host’s apartment about 30 minutes early. This is not usually a problem for those who stay in hotels or hostels. You check in when you arrive. But the money you save waiting around (in your opinion) is well worth it. This is how a traveler on a budget kills time:

derp derp derp
journalism

When your host finally did arrived home from work, he lead you up to his apartment. Famished and fully stocked from the grocery store, you had a nice get-to-know-you meal together. Vincent graciously contributed a bottle of wine from his own collection. What you spent on the food was given back to you tenfold in Vincent’s generosity and good company. This is how it usually goes.

Grocery store food, plus extra contribution from your hosts is much better than an expensive restaurant and still just as French.
Grocery store food, plus extra contribution from your hosts is much better than an expensive restaurant and still just as French.

Wednesday –

Your first day out in Paris. Vincent kindly left you a key so you could come and go as you pleased. Today was the day of introduction. The first thing on your list was Notre Dame. You were content to just look at the building, but as luck would have it, entry is free. Score! Little gems like this occasionally present themselves and they are always to be taken advantage of. 

Although you might have paid to see it. It was spectacular.
Although you might have paid to see it. It was spectacularly free of charge.

Notre Dame was easily within walking distance from your host. About 30 minutes. Now, this is sort of a crucial step because you do realize that you are able and willing to walk much farther than the average person. Blame this on your life in San Francisco, if something is within 2 miles, you will walk. When traveling (especially when you don’t have a backpack) if something is within 5 miles you will walk. You have learned over the short time you’ve spent on the road that nothing compares to what you see and observe while on foot. This is why you decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower.

You suspect most tourists (with the exception of those tourists with children, you certainly have an excuse) would take a taxi to the park and spend a half hour walking around and buy some food nearby. For you and Maria, your idea of an Eiffel Tower outing is to pack a lunch and set off with your day packs.

Many sights and many photos later you arrived here:

Victory!
Victory!

You enjoyed your packed lunches on a bench just across from the one in this photo and went on your way. You spent the whole day outside looking at Paris and enjoying the city the way the locals enjoy it – mostly on foot. (Is this perhaps why the French are so thin?)

On your way home you stopped at a farmer’s market and picked up some artisan foods for an excellent price (4 euro for charcuterie which ended up lasting you 4 days and 4 euro for 500 grams of artisan organic cheese. Not bad folks). For dinner that night, you cooked some of your groceries from the previous shopping excursion and called it a day.

Thursday –

Breakfast is served: the charcuterie and cheese you purchased the day before. Yum!

You also purchased a baguette and a pastry from the local patisserie next door. Total: 2.91
You also purchased a baguette and a pastry from the local patisserie next door. Total: 2.91

Later that day, you and Maria walked to the movie theater to see Les Miserables. Your ticket cost 4.60 because you are under 25 and her ticket only cost 6.50 because it was a matinee. (Did you hear that America? 11 euro for two people to see a movie).

As an added perk, you were able to walk through a different section of Paris and see even more of the city on foot. It was a relaxing but eventful day.

Your host invited you to an art exhibit by a friend of his that evening. The exhibit was awesome and afterward, he took you and Maria out for drinks. And paid for them. This is not something you rely on your hosts to do, but it is always appreciated when it happens. Thus, you had an authentic outing with a bunch of French people at no cost to you.

You finished the with some quiet down time with your host, reading on the couch. For a traveler, rest is important.

Friday-

Louvre! You packed a lunch and set off for a wonderful art tour. Of course you had no choice but to pay the 11 euro for the ticket. And of course, you couldn’t imagine anything more worth it if you tried.

Touristy things still happen when you're on a budget.
Touristy things still happen when you’re on a budget.

The point is, you are selective about what you want to do. Rather than see the entire Louvre because “you must”, you chose the things you wanted to look at and planned the day around that. Even as an artist and an art history major, there is certain art you care about and certain art you don’t (as much). For this trip, you decided to be selective and have a relaxed day in an outstanding museum.

You and Maria followed up the visit with a final run to the grocery store and a nice walk down main street. You went slightly over budget on this day, but not by much, and you still got a lot of sight-seeing in.

But what about other entertainment? The bars? the excitement?

Leave it to your host to cover that one. Vincent was planning a BeWelcome party that night, at his/your apartment. No taxis or metro required and you had a lot of fun and got to meet a bunch of new people and listen to 90’s club music until 4am. Priceless.

Hat party
Hat party

Saturday –

Early afternoon when you woke up, Vincent insisted on cooking you a French dish while you stayed with him. This involved a trip to the best farmer’s market you’ve ever seen and some damn-good food. Again, no cost to you.

Brunch and a show!
Brunch and a show!

Vincent was also kind enough to invite you along to play squash with some of his friends and then play board games afterwards. These are the kind of things your method of travel provides that other, more costly, methods do not. You could not pay for a day like this if you tried. These moments are entirely unique to who your host is and what kind of people you meet. They are random but they always happen in some way or another. It turned out to be a wonderful day full of awesome people, fun games, and of course, more delicious food.

Squash!
Squash!
Games!
Games!
Food!
Food!

You would like to note that you never want to free-load. You contribute when you must and you feed yourself when you must. In this case, you made sure your exchange with them was even. You and Maria purchased your own beer and some other things and only took what was offered to you. Even when you contribute monetarily or otherwise, your cost is almost always less than in a restaurant and always far more interesting and fun.

Sunday –

The hike. In Europe everything is closed on Sunday so there is usually no point in going outside. Also, everyone is recovering from their partying on Saturday. Still, sights are always open, and thus you and Maria embarked on a 17.5 kilometer walk around the city, visiting some less popular spots.

like the Beat Hotel
like the Beat Hotel
Pastry break!
Pastry break!

The money you do spend when you go out is selective, and thus, very special when it does occur. You will probably remember that pastry for the rest of your life because it’s not competing with a bunch of other experiences of the same kind. That is the same principle you follow when it comes to most food in foreign countries. Be selective and choose special things. 

A few trips to the grocery store to off-set some key splurges is well worth it. Additionally, giving up some privacy to stay with a local comes with its own special benefits. When you stay with a local you meet other locals and make friends. Usually, they invite you to do things that they do on weekends, or suggest good spots for you to go to that would be unknown to you otherwise.

In return, you respect their space, clean up after yourself, and provide them with stimulating conversation and allow them to entertain you when they offer. All it takes to spend a week in Paris for 50 euro is a loose itinerary, selective splurging, and a willingness to share your experience with others. It is a win-win for everyone and you can’t imagine traveling any other way.