Thursday, December 17, 2015

Day 7 Part 2: Journey to the (almost) top of the World

The first leg of many legs on my flights to Hammerfest was a little over two hour flight from Oslo to Alta. I had never heard of Alta before today and I didn’t know it was in such close proximity to Hammerfest but today I’d be taking the scenic route.

            From Oslo straightaway there wasn’t much visibility to the ground as the cloud cover was immense. About a quarter of the way through the trip the clouds broke and being able to see the terrain was, and I’m probably going over use this word in this post and about this trip in general, amazing. To see small towns nestled alongside snowcapped mountains to lakes between mountains and a town along the shore put me deep in thought as, and I’m sure most people are like this; it’s hard to conceive of life elsewhere unless you’re there. Right now it’s hard for me to think of the daily grind in the metropolitan jungle of Tokyo and I’ve been there, but to think that people live above the Arctic Circle isn’t something that comes to mind on a daily basis. Furthermore, what type of life is lived there?

            About halfway through the trip, now about 1PM, the sky was now completely dark. As if jetlag wasn’t bad enough now being so far north the sun was now something I wouldn’t be seeing until I return south. This is an eerie feeling because I kept looking at the clock on my phone and looking at the window to the horizon and even though I knew it was only 1 in the afternoon the little voice in my head kept telling me, “It’s a lie! It’s later, it must be later!”

            We landed in Alta and I don’t think I’ve ever felt a 737 slow down so fast. The runaway appeared to be long but as we did a 180 to taxi to the terminal the latter third of the runway was covered with a massive amount of snow and ice. The runway looked like a moat between the walls of snow and the wind started to pick up which created some heavy amounts of blowing snow which is, when I did think about life this far north, exactly how I envisioned it.

            Inside the terminal the mood was one of apprehension among those that were there and I quickly learned why as the departures sign was full of delays. Airline delays aren’t something I’ve sat at home wondering, “How would a person in Norway handle a delay?” but it turns out that it felt as if I were in Salt Lake City or Atlanta. However, with just one set of windows and one runway when the plane that people were awaiting to board landed there was a chorus of cheers. Had I not deduced this I would’ve been rather confused as to why 100 people seemingly at random applauded.

            There were delays and my flight was scheduled to leave at 14:44. It’s hard to get accustomed to the 24 hour clock and as 14:30, or as I’d prefer to say 2:30, neared there was no plane at the gate. No worries, I hoped, as the other plane had a turnaround of just 10 minutes. Yeah, try seeing that at JFK or LAX! Anyway, it was now 14:45, or one minute past due of departure, and I now had a fear that I missed my plane. There had been no announcement of any kind but this meant nothing as I’ve learned in some European airports one can’t depend on PA announcements, and the departures screen still listed 14:44. Then, mercifully, the sign changed and said delayed and the new time was 16:00. I panicked being used to the old clock and thought I was in line for four hours in this airport but then I noticed the one in front of the six and whew! I’d be leaving shortly.

            On this plane there were no seat assignments, no zones, and no first class. Boarding in this fashion was certainly a different experience and choosing a seat wasn’t easy. The flight attendant told me something which I didn’t understand so I just took the first seat I found. I sat next to a man which I think he was hoping to have the row to himself but I was hoping for a window seat by my math we were even.

            We took off towards a town that I don’t know the name nor would I be able to type it since it has one of the fancy “o’s” with the line through it and the flight attendant came by to offer drinks. On this airline and the one before it all drinks and snacks come with a price so next time you fly a US carrier and you get a tiny bag of pretzels don’t complain because that small bag of pretzels with a soda would cost you about $5!

            I didn’t have a window seat but it was obvious the weather was taking a turn for the worse. The engine pitch changed frequently as did out altitude as the swirling air made for a choppy go. By the reactions of those on the plane I gathered this was the norm for this part of the world in winter. I tried to look outside but there was nothing, and I mean nothing. It was like looking into the very soul of the color black and conjured up a feeling of truly being alone, isolated, and certainly as far away from Kansas as possible.

            The landing at the first airport told the tale as the windsock was at full and there was now a dense fog with severe blowing snow. Crews were scurrying about in an attempt to keep the runway clear and the fortitude it must take to work in these conditions impressed me. Yeah, working at Denver, Salt Lake, or any airport in the mountains in the US, or Canada for that matter is probably the same, but it’s just never crossed my mind the work it takes to keep a small regional airport that’s terminal looked like an itty bitty train station in operation. And keep it operational they did and within 15 minutes we were back in the air.

            The second stop in line in this island hopping route was further east and as we neared the plane started to pitch in different directions. The weather was as inhospitable as could be and then an announcement came over the intercom from the pilot. The other passengers all looked concerned but I had no idea what was being said. On the first route from Oslo to Alta all announcements were made in the native tongue followed up by English, but when one is this far away from home this goes away and it was up to the flight attendant to do her best to summarize after the fact and sometimes this was immediate and on this time there was a gap which led my imagination to the horrors that were about to befall us.

            When the announcement was made it wasn’t as bad as I imagined as it was that the airport runway was iced over and the winds were 65kph and landing was too dangerous so we would be skipping that stop. Again, I felt, that the travelers here are accustomed to this because there had been a sense of concern by those on board but no protest. In America any time I’ve seen the slightest delay much less a skip of a stop there will be those that will adamantly protest.

            With each subsequent landing my fear of flying grew as I’m not a fan of rollercoasters much less one that has hundreds of gallons of highly combustible jet fuel and is traveling in the triple digits in miles per hour. This was truly a frontier experience for me (I say for me because those that live here, as I’ve mentioned, are used to it and my respect and admiration for those that choose to live here is great) but I was getting closer to my destination and then, finally, we landed at the Hammerfest lufthavn.

            Okay, so I’m there, but there was one slight problem; I had no idea what the procedure would be to get to the hotel. Were there taxis in Hammerfest? I had emailed the hotel several days prior and didn’t get a response. I was prepared to walk the two miles but that was before I saw blinding snow and the severe wind gusts. Surely though I could manage the 50 minute walk without boots, or a hat, but I did have the scarf my mom made me for Christmas two years ago so surely I’d be up for the task and that’s when it hit me and I let out the grandest of grand smiles.

            I’ve been a preparer my entire life. I’ve lived by rules on top of rules on top of provisions dictated by whatever I have done first. When I was in school I was as rigid as they came when it came to the schedule and rules. It was a sin upon all other sins to not be prepared for something and to not know what was going to happen next and how I would need to react for it. Heck, even in the recent years I have kept this persona of keeping everything even keel and being prepared and minimizing socially because socializing may result in changes of plans and yet through it all here I was standing in the arctic air having no idea how to get to my airport and I was smiling! Me! Smiling at the unknown!

            A couple minutes went by and I looked into the airport where there was a security guard and I figured I could either walk or maybe I could ask the guard to call me a taxi. That is, of course, if they existed. Just as I was about to turn in a few more people came out and one of them gave the distinct whistle that was straight out of New York City and that was the hailing of a cab. I turned around and I could’ve sworn the streets had been deserted but here was a taxi pulling in and I felt rather envious of the group that just came out of the terminal. But then, unexpectedly, the person who hailed said something I didn’t understand and he knew I didn’t understand so he gave a slightly gracious bow and put his hand out to indicate the cab would be mine. Going back to what I’ve said on this trip about what’s on the web and what I’ve heard of Norwegians being cold and aloof to foreigners I must say I haven’t encountered that.

            I told the driver the name of my hotel and we were off. It was only two miles, and I was extremely tired, but my eyes were fixed on anything and everything. How could life exist up here? What would it be like to live? The road was snow packed and there was a light snow falling which was adding to the piles of snow that could be seen in all directions. To the left I saw a woman running with her two dogs. It was… It was so normal!

            At the hotel when I checked in I was informed that the hotel restaurant was closed and I thought about not eating, but I hadn’t had any food in far too long so I asked the man if he had any suggestions and he was so gracious naming five different places within walking distance. For a town of a population of only about 6,000 there were many options and I chose the option that was the most Norwegian of them as I had done the pizza (there were two options) and a burger place, um, I can do burgers in practically any spot I’ve been to so it was time to further my boundaries and try something new.

            The walk to Qa, the name of the eatery, was only three blocks but I was mesmerized by the streets, the cars, the buildings, and even Christmas lights in the window of an apartment building. I go back to saying that it’s hard to conceive of life outside of one’s world and I had this image in my mind of what this place would be like and it wasn’t anything like I expected because everything was just so, normal.

            I also had this image of what the people inside Qa would be like. Images of a surly group of lumberjacks came to mind and I figured when I walked in all heads would turn momentarily at look at me with a hint of disgust then all would go about their business. Was it like that? Well, no, not at all. Walking into the restaurant was like walking into a fine dining establishment in any given city in America. There wasn’t anything foreign at all as there was one table of businessmen obviously talking business over dinner while a boyfriend and girlfriend were by the window lost in each other’s words and there were two teenage girls constantly showing each other whatever text message they got from whomever just texted them. I don’t want to sound like I thought this place would be locked in the 1890’s, but I just didn’t expect this level of what I would deem normal and I’m fairly confident you wouldn’t either.

            What I assumed to be the manager was also my waiter and when he caught on I didn’t speak Norwegian he asked me if I were an American or Canadian and when I said that I lived in America he mentioned that he lived in Pasadena for several years. I mentioned that I work a race in Lancaster each year and he knew exactly where that was which another thing I didn’t expect to find was; that being someone who knew California geography.

            I scanned over the menu and there was typical bar food affair with mozzarella sticks being the thing I wouldn’t have thought I’d find. For the entrée I decided to try something completely new and I chose the reindeer because that’s something one isn’t going to find back home in Saint Louis. The manager left and a minute later he came back with the statement of, “Houston, we have a problem” and he said this because they had just sold out of the reindeer. No worry though because I went with my second choice of duck on top of peppers and mushrooms served with fried potatoes. How was it? It was exceptional!

            During my meal I made sure to just sit and hear the ambient noise. The snow started to pick up outside as I could barely see across the small harbor and the flags with flying almost in an upward manner as the winds were howling but inside Qa the mood was just like any restaurant I’ve been to. There were hearty amounts of jovial laughter and conversations abounded. It was a shame I was so tired I was shaking because I could’ve sat in there and just observed for the rest of the night.

            When I left Qa a tranquil, slow snow fall had resumed after a brief hiatus. It was an astounding beautiful snowfall make even grander by the lights which highlighted the snow. I stood almost at attention, and in shock, and the beauty of this but this tranquil scene was quickly replaced by a scurry back to the hotel as what had been beautiful, soft snow flakes had been replaced by nasty pieces of sleet. And big ones at that! The kind that stings the ears so I made every effort to hurry with caution as I didn’t want to slip on any ice and I made it back to my hotel, entered my room, and tried to make sense of the day.

            It had been 14 hours since I left my hotel room in Oslo and I had to take stock on what I had learned on this day. It might be cliché, might be overused, but what had already been my favorite trip of the three so far quickly vaulted so far out in front because here’s this town further north than one would imagine and life is normal. I know there’s no normal, but it’s something to learn and see that even though thousands of miles can separate up people really aren’t that different from one another. I thought back to the man who gave me the cab he had hailed, and the atmosphere to the restaurant. This may make no sense to you, but this journey here has given me so much knowledge about myself and others and from that I feel this greater sense of confidence because people may not be that scary after all.

            As I turned off the lights to go to sleep I thought that I’ve probably been too closed off in my life. Asperger’s has probably played a big role in that but being here… I don’t know, it’s a soul changing experience and to experience a different culture and yet to still see people at that core, well, it just makes me want to be a part of that world instead of the observer I typically am and with that thought I floated off to sleep.

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