“Let the Chips Fall Where They May” Tour

Reprinted from a previous story I wrote for my friend Jonathan’s website www.owilybug.ca

Norway, Finland & Sweden – Part I – Oslo to Nordkapp

“Well, the only way to see what we want is to rent a car.”
Two weeks, over 4000 km from Oslo to Nordkapp and back and a car plastered with its rental company’s namesake (Rent-a-Wreck) – this was what the future would hold for us after our arrival in Bergen and two-day trip to Oslo. What sites would we behold? Where would we rest our weary heads at night? How could we have enough money left in our budget to afford the astronomically priced alcohol? That was all left to the navigation and planning skills of Jonathan as I took on the driving duties for the entire trip (and as it has turned out in my life, most road trips I have ever made usually leave me behind the wheel as no one else could either drive a manual transmission car or they didn’t have a driver’s license at all). Now, as far as road conditions go, Scandinavia is a pleasure, and you don’t have your teeth rattled out (Poland) or have pieces and parts of the automobile darting off in directions opposite your intended route (Romania), but the exceedingly strict speed limit in a country that is as long as it is can make getting anywhere in a hurry impossible. We stayed within the limits for fear of being nabbed by any one of the many hidden speed cameras, but I can tell you that after too many days, and occasionally nights, within the confines of a car trying to reach your destination, you begin to lose all reasoning (not that Jonathan or I had much to begin with), and imitating animal sounds starts to take on an entirely new level of humour unknown to the average short-distance combustion engine traveller. I wonder if lorry drivers can be heard making cow noises to themselves in the enclosed cab of their trucks?

North of the Arctic Circle is a truly stunning part of the world, and Norway doesn’t disappoint when it comes to scenery. We were also lucky enough to come in mid-August at the close of the tourist season, so we had the roads, hostels and camps to ourselves, quite literally as two or three of the places we stayed at had us as their sole guests. I do wonder if the nice people that ran these establishments were actually cursing us behind our backs.

“Dammit, Sven! I was ready to pack it all up and head back to the city, but then those two North Americans show up and make us stay open another night! They didn’t even ask for the expensive rooms!”
“Calm yourself, Olaf. We could always say they were gored to death by rabid reindeer. I mean, who would miss two punters that embark on a journey and take stuffed animals and sock puppets with them? Also, what kind of sick perverts are these that take photos of themselves shagging animal statues? We would be doing the world a favour!”
“True, but it would be a bitch to clean the blood stains out of the Volvo later.”
“Oh well. They’re only here for the night. Put out the CLOSED FOR THE SEASON sign before more come.”

After a few days, we made it up to the ferry port town of Skutvik (I just love that name!), left our set of wheels and headed over to the Lofoten Islands. I have been on the Pentland Firth heading to Orkney (some very choppy water at times), but nothing made me want to hurl my partially digested lunch of convenient store hot dogs and potato salad as much as the passage from Skutvik to Svolvær! I am also still surprised to this day how all the vehicles in the hold did not get tossed around like Hot Wheels in the carrying case of a child who’s had too much Jolt Cola and is trying to run away from a bully trying to forcefully take away his brand-new Pontiac Trans-Am made to look like the car from Smokey and the Bandit.

That aside, let me actually get back to the issue of lunch. I know … most of you may say that the food itself was enough to make a grown person standing on dry land turn his guts inside-out, but when in Norway, dealing with our budget and in a car most of the day, road side snacks that are grouped together in special meal deals (Coke included in the price, which, by means of caffeine, keeps your eyes open whilst driving) are the way to go, especially during the second week when you can stomach no more sliced pepperoni sausage and blocks of cheese on bread.

What can I say about Lofoten that will give anyone reading this an idea of the place? Unfortunately, there are no words. They have not created adjectives in any language that can encompass my feelings for the remarkable beauty of this place (the word ‘beauty’ is so trivial a word here, and I wish I had the energy to look in a thesaurus and find something better, but I’m sure I’d be disappointed with any synonym I could find, so I’ll just leave it for now). As I have been back there recently, I recommend anyone to go there at least once in your life … especially to the hostel in Stamsund run by Roar Justad. You just have to experience the place for yourself as well as the humour and hospitality of Roar, the owner, with his traditional Norwegian jumper that seems to have a personality of its own. The place also attracts a specific breed of traveller, too. Some never leave, or at least not for too long! I happened to run into a young lady on my second visit that was there when Jonathan and I were there the first time five years earlier. I, too, want to go back as soon as possible and maybe settle there for the rest of my days! That’s how spectacular it is (another lame adjective that just doesn’t cut the mustard)!

There were people at this hostel that have left a lasting impression as well, though “lasting impression” for me does not mean that I can recall a single name. I am horrible with names. Always have been. A face… no problem! But a name … tattoo it on your forehead, and I’d still forget. Really! I had a friend that I constantly called Ryan for about a year although his name was Nathan. I maybe got it right two or three times. He doesn’t talk to me much anymore.

Anyway, some of the impressions of the people I am left with are:

An Israeli couple – very sweet people, but during a night of telling jokes around the table, the guy was laughing so hard at the lead-up to the punchline of his own joke, that to this day, I am still quite sure he never finished telling the joke. I really wish I knew the punchline, dammit!

A lone traveller from Switzerland – quiet type with a bad case of eczema, but one I have dubbed “Goat-Boy” due to his ability to climb up a mountain like it was a stroll in the park. Jonathan and I were panting a bit and occasionally taking a breather, but this guy (who started about an hour behind us) bounded up the slopes like … well … a mountain goat and caught up with us in no time! (on a side note – this guy also travelled via his own car, which he brought over to the islands. One morning, we all decided that we’d do a bit of sightseeing and would go by car. Jonathan was taking an exceedingly long time getting ready (I’m still not sure of the reason), so I decided to walk around and shoot a few photos, but all within sight of the hostel. Well, as I was returning, Jonathan and this other bloke go speeding by me in the car and off on some grand adventure! They claim that they couldn’t find me … yeah, right! “Well,” thought I, “if that’s the way it is, then I’ll just hitchhike around by myself and enjoy the sunny weather without them! Maybe I’ll even say that I couldn’t find Jonathan as I make my way back to the mainland in a few days and continue north without him in the car, you bastards!!” My anger increased when, whilst waiting on the side of the road hitching, they passed me by again … and didn’t even stop to pick me up! (They claim they didn’t see me … yeah, right!) I was left a bit puzzled, though, as when they passed me, they were going back in the direction of the hostel. I was to find out later that the tunnel a few kilometres ahead linking to the next island was toll, and they couldn’t be
bothered paying the fee. I, though, caught a lift with a nice elderly man (hmmm … that sounds creepy) and got through without even reaching for my wallet. Needless to say, I felt justified. I wouldn’t have stayed angry long anyway as my day was wonderful and the hitching got me down to the last fishing village of “Å” just in time to catch the bus straight back to the hostel. Jonathan never made it there, and I am now making that horrendous “ha ha ha ha ha” laugh that annoying kids make when they get an ice cream and their friend doesn’t.

Oh, yeah … back to the people:

Tomek and Barbara – a married couple from Poland that we had the good chance to meet and who ended up travelling along with us in the Rent-A-Wreck all the way north and then to Finland. After I moved down to Kraków, Poland, I went to visit my new friends. Tomek was unfortunately held away much longer on business, but Barbara took me around her home of Wrocław and played the hostess exceedingly well. I did find it a bit funny when she introduced me to ‘smalec’ – basically lard with a few chunks of gristle that you spread over a slice of bread. Why I say funny is that Barbara kept telling me she was a strict vegetarian and all the while shoving this pig fat down her throat and her eyes turned to heaven with a look of pure, near orgasmic ecstasy in them. She said it was her only weakness, and after trying it myself, my eyes bulged with pleasure as well. I hope no one took photos of the two of us, as her husband may get the wrong impression!

Cute German girl working at the hostel for the month – what can I say? She was a cute German girl working at the hostel for a month, and I was a single traveller … alas, it was never meant to be.

These are the ones from the hostel that stay in mind, but there are plenty of others we met during our trek that have left lasting impressions like the guy Jonathan and I caught a lift from who was so genuinely disappointed that his daughter couldn’t ski that I honestly believe he was in some way ashamed of her; or the drunk down in Oslo that almost punched Jonathan and I for taking a picture that he just happened to be in the background of; or a woman that was in our drinking crowd at our one night out in Oslo that got really offended when we bought a round of beer for everyone (as we were used to doing in Scotland and which I still think is a wonderful custom) – “Hey! What are you doing? Why did you by me a drink? Don’t fuckin’ expect me to buy you one later! I’m not going to reimburse you, and I am going to drink it, but I’m not getting you one! Now, don’t ever do that again, you fuckin’ foreigners!”

Well, as sad as it was to leave Lofoten, we had to make our way north to Nordkapp – one of the “must see” points on our itinerary. Along with our new travel companions, Tomek and Barbara, we got back to the mainland and to our trusty, though rusty, rental car.

Now, as most people know, you cannot do a road trip without having some form of audio entertainment to relieve the stress of the endless kilometres and to take away from the thoughts that run through your mind whilst driving (Can I really risk going faster than the speed limit? Do people living above the Arctic Circle go crazy during the dead of winter? Who was the first person to look at an oyster and say, “Yummy!”?). Just as we were leaving Scotland for Norway, the song Rock DJ by Robbie Williams was just peaking in the charts. Being a sucker for a catchy new tune, we couldn’t resist any longer and picked up the former Take That star’s new CD at a petrol station during one of our hot dog, potato salad and Coke stops. Immediately after purchase, the song became our morning wake up tune every day. Get in the car, crank up Mr. Robbie on the crappy speakers in the car that only occasionally worked and head off on our new day of adventure.

I guess I should also explain that by nature, Jonathan and I are in no way fans of the boy band genre. Jonathan is more of an industrial and goth-rock type of guy, whereas I usually went for the alternative rock and indie stuff, though our tastes are much broader than that by far. We just found the song amusing and enjoy the fact that Robbie can take the piss out of himself and his past. It is also a lively number to drive to!

As I have stated, this song became our daily starter, much to the annoyance of Tomek, who one
morning as we were setting off shouted from the back seat: “Guys! Please! Please stop playing that damned song! Every time I think of Norway, I don’t want to think of Robbie Williams and Rock DJ, too!” For the next year, I threatened to send him a CD with only that song on it playing over and over, but I decided against it as the thought of having to pay for his psychiatric treatment may severely cut into my future earnings.

So, with the stereo a’ blarin’, we made our way up to Tromsø (which has, I kid you not, an entire museum devoted to seal clubbing!) and then to Nordkapp. I have mentioned before about toll tunnels and their price that turns away even the mightiest of tourists, but nothing prepared us for the tunnel through to Nordkapp. Even with four of us sharing the fee, it was a very close call between actually paying the hefty price (with the realisation that we’d have to pay it again on our way back as there is only one road in and out of the area) and just saying, “Yeah, I know we just drove over 2000 km to get here, but this is a bunch of monkey piss!” A slew of foul language followed from all of us and we gave the toll collector many evil looks (he seemed not to care though), but we payed and tried to cheer ourselves up with thoughts of all the mystical revelations we would have upon reaching the most northerly point of mainland Europe. Though the weather was a bit overcast, our minds were still full of the inner peace we would receive after viewing the last bit of sea before reaching the North Pole. There were visions of a calming spirit that would settle over us all and give us insight into how to better the world and love all the wonderful creatures and people that inhabit the Earth. WE would be some of the chosen few to come here to ease the turmoil raging within our souls! WE would stop war and create a greener tomorrow!

WE were so thoroughly disappointed!

I had it in my mind that even though the weather was a tad foul, there would be some magical clearing of the skies as we reached our destination. Maybe the sun would even poke it’s head through the clouds long enough to give us that postcard picture moment we saw at so many shops and in so many coffee-table books along the way. This was the land of the midnight sun! This was the spiritual Mecca where the faithful pagans gather for the summer solstice! I wanted this experience! I NEEDED it!

As we got out of the car, the wind nearly took the doors off. Bad sign number one. By the time we reached the door of the information centre ten metres away (where we had to pay an entrance fee!), my raincoat already had me contemplating suing the manufacturer for false advertisement, and my face felt as though it had been ten centimetres behind the tail of one of those utility vehicles they use to spread salt and grit out onto icy roads after a snowstorm. My hopes and dreams of getting that memorable photo from the edge of the world that makes all your friends and family jealous that you have been here and they haven’t were bashed out of existence just like one of those fluffy, white seal pups we saw in the museum earlier in Tromsø. When we actually braved going back outside to see the “view” from the cliff top, I think we stayed out just long enough to grab three or four snaps with the camera of the lot of us huddling next to the monument placed at the cliff edge. There’s no photo of the four of us together as we were the only ones there, and one of us had to hold the camera lest it blew away and flew off to Iceland or Moscow depending on the direction of the wind that day. I guess what made it worse was the fact that the haze cleared just enough intermittently for us to get an idea of what this place could look like on a bright, sunny day.

Mocked by the gods of old and chilled to the bone, we struggled back to the car, turned on Rock DJ to cheer us up (well, Jonathan and I anyway) and made our way back down the road to Loki, the Norse god of mischief, who just happens to be working in the tollbooth of a tunnel in the north of Scandinavia.