Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Month: May 2015

The Security Situation Part 3……

Its been a few months since I commented on the security situation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The reason is twofold. First I’ve spent a ton of time outside of Saudi traveling, and second,  that there isn’t a ton of information put forward regarding what the actual risk level is. Information travels mostly by way of mouth here or via social media, which is good in that some information does eventually filter thru, and bad because often times these reports are embellished. Here’s what I do know. Security in public places is at the highest I have seen it during my time here (this includes the previous time I spent in Saudi after the Arab Springs.) As I’ve previously mentioned there is a much larger police presence than when I was here in 2010/2011. Since the end of April there has been a marked increase in security at local Riyadh malls amidst fear of suicide bombings. I’ve been to the malls a few times, and I can honestly say that this new “security” doesn’t make me feel any safer. Women are required to open their purses or bags for examination by an often bored lady who is most likely on her cell phone. She may or may not actually look in your bag. She most certainly will not care about what you might be hiding under your abaya. You know that large black cape women must wear that literally has room enough inside for a whole other person. Because obviously if you were going to carry something dangerous into a mall this wouldn’t be the first place you would carry it right?!  It’s much less security than you would see at any concert or sporting event in the US. In no way do I feel safer by it.

Here’s what I also know from following the news……there have been several shootings of police officers here in Riyadh. Pretty much one incident a month since March. There was the arrest of some 93 people suspected of having ISIS ties, 2 of whom were planning an attack on the US Embassy in Riyadh. There was a suicide bombing last week that killed 21 men and injured around 100 others, for which ISIS has reportedly taken credit. UPDATE: Literally as I was writing this post I came across a Facebook message about a bombing that happened about an hour ago outside of a mosque in Dammam. Current reports say 4 people were killed. Reports are also suggesting that the bomber was dressed as a woman and was intending to enter the female section of the mosque. It does appear that security incidences are increasing.

That being said I have not heard of any incidents affecting ex-pat workers. While I have kept a slightly lower profile I haven’t felt anymore unsafe than I did prior to the increased security measures. In fact, last night over dinner with a couple of friends we discussed the absurdness of the fact that we went out to eat at a local mall where there was security for the sole purpose of catching someone who might attempt to take a bomb to the mall. This would seem crazy were we in a western country, but here in Saudi, such is life…..stay safe people.

 

Dubai

Last month I spent 2 nights in Dubai prior to traveling to the Maldives, and 3 nights there on my way back to Riyadh. Dubai is awesome. To be fair, most places feel awesome after being confined in Saudi after any length of time, but I suspect had I visited from somewhere else I would’ve still loved it. Dubai is a booming city, with construction taking place everywhere you look. It is consumerism at it’s best and worst. It is completely man-made, there is nothing natural about it. Those are probably it’s biggest faults. Compared to Saudi it’s a taste of freedom. There is alcohol and bars to visit. Women can, and do drive. There are movie theatres, and women can try on clothing when shopping. What a revelation! And here’s the best part for all you Canadians out there…….there are Tim Horton’s all over the place. Literally everywhere, and it’s exactly the same as back home. In fact, that may be my favourite thing about being in Dubai was that it felt so dang familiar to me. It was like a trip back to Canada and the US all rolled into one. So many of my favourite shops and restaurants, places that we just don’t have in Riyadh.

Dubai waterfront

Well played Tim Hortons…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not a huge shopper. In fact, normally when it comes to shopping I’m a get in and get out kinda gal. Usually after about an hour at the mall my eyes glaze over and I’m eying up the exits. You can imagine my surprise then that we spent the vast majority of our time at Dubai Mall. Mostly shopping. I know. We also saw a couple movies, and paid extra to watch Furious 7, VIP style. What’s VIP style you might ask? Well basically you get a reclining lazyboy chair with a blanket and a pillow and a waitress comes to you and takes your order. It’s pretty awesome. But don’t get too excited- booze are not available at the movies. Dubai I think you should look into this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Besides being delighted by Dubai Mall we did the obligatory touristy things like having High Tea at the Burj Al Arab in the Jumeirah area. It was pricey, but lovely. Don’t make the same mistake as we did- arrive early as that’s your best change for getting a window seat with the best views. We were a little tardy, so missed out on this. By pricey, I mean it will cost you 620UAE ($170US). Yep I know it’s a little absurd. But I feel like it’s a you only live once kinda thing so we went. The service as you would expect was impeccable. Ours started out with stuffed dates and a strawberry pastry paired with a glass of Brut Champagne. This was followed by a tray of teeny tiny sandwiches, followed by a towering tray of pastries. It was very nice. The best part is that you get unlimited non-alcoholic drinks. Bottled water, soda, fresh fruit juices, any type of coffee, and a huge assortment of tea. The mint and the rose bud tea were my favourites. Then there is the view. The High Tea is held in the Skyview Bar on the top floor of the Burj. You have views of the Dubai skyline, as well as the Atlantis and The Palms, and the beach area below. It wasn’t a very clear day the afternoon we were there, but it was still impressive. High Tea is from 4pm-6pm, so you get to see the sunset. After tea we wandered around the over-the-top lobby of the Burj and took the obligatory tourist photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent a night out at a roof-top hookah bar called iKandy at the Shangri-La Hotel. It was far too trendy for us, so we took the party somewhere more our style and went to the Irish Village for the later part of an evening. The Irish Village is relaxed with tons of outdoor seating. Well worth the visit. The best thing we did though, was go to Friday brunch at Feast. It’s Dubai’s newest brunch place so be sure to make reservations if you go! It’s at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, and offers 3 different brunch options depending on if you want alcohol, and what type of alcohol you want. Naturally, we opted for the Moet champagne package which included any of the alcohol they serve and as much of it as you can consume. It will set you back 495UAE ($135US) and trust me, this is the first brunch I’ve ever been to that I feel I got my money’s worth. Service was on-point. We quickly informed our servers that we lived in Saudi Arabia and that based on that fact our glasses should never be empty. We normally had at least 3 glasses of some sort of alcohol topped up for our sipping pleasure. Now I know what you’re thinking……mixing alcohol is a recipe for disaster. And, you’d be dead right. But at the time, this was of little concern to me. The food is amazing. Fresh oysters. Fresh sushi station. Some lamb thingy that comes with23 types of garnishes. To be honest that’s all I remember trying, and there was a ton of other stations where they cooked everything up in front of you. They also paired wine with whatever food you were trying. I was basically in a food and wine heaven. I was also the most day-drunk I have been in recent history, and any plans for doing anything else that day were thwarted by the worst hangover I can remember in recent history. You win some, you lose some…..

 

 

 

 

 

So that’s Dubai. I have no doubt that I will return, in fact am already planning to do so in July. It’s such a lovely weekend break from Saudi, and feels like a little bit of normalcy. And obviously, I have unfinished business with Friday brunch at Feast, although hopefully this time I will learn from last time and go with the more food/less drink game plan!!! Next up………The Maldives………

Syria

Syria. Since March 2011 Syria has been making headlines. One would literally have to live under a rock to not be aware of the civil war which has been going on for over 4 years. Leaving at least 220 000 people killed. Some reports estimate that this number is in fact over the 300 000 mark. For my friends and family back home in Canada, that’s like the population of the city of Kelowna being wiped out. Twice.

I traveled in Syria in the fall of 2010- months before the civil war would make travel completely inadvisable, and change the face of that country forever. I feel fortunate to have seen the country, and meet its people before it made the headlines. I went with my dear American friend, and to date the land-border crossing from Jordan into Syria has been the funniest and most bizarre border crossing I’ve experienced. Basically we drew crowds everywhere we went, as people (mostly men) would cross the street and crowd around, everyone throwing in their thoughts as we tried to negotiate a taxi for the crossing, all the while clapping and applauding every time I attempted to speak Arabic. We spent 4 days in the city of Damascus and did a couple day trips to historical sites during our time there. I found the people to be kind and friendly. We had only one tense moment at the border where a man saw my friend’s passport and yelled “American” in a not-so positive tone, from then on we told everyone we were both Canadian, and never had any other safety issues. In fact we traveled via public bus, and had people go out of there way to give us directions, feed us, and generally make sure we enjoyed their country.

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Damascus

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Public Bus

 

 

 

 

 

 

So why am I writing this now? In the last week or so CNN and the BBC have almost on a daily basis had stories about the ancient city of Palmyra and reports that the entire site will likely be bulldozed as ISIS nears the site. As of Wednesday they have reportedly taken control of the site. Why does this matter? Why is this site significant? Why does this destruction matter?

On the most basic level this is the destruction of culture. Pure and simple. They are taking away the history of these places, and replacing it with a very grim future. In addition to the destruction of ancient sites in Syria, ISIS has destroyed a number of culturally significant sites in Iraq as well. The ancient site of Palmyra lies almost in the center of the country about 200km from Damascus. It dates from the Neolithic period, and was established in the 1st and 2nd century. It had major significance a caravan center on the trading route connecting Persia with the east. It is believed to be one of the best preserved historical sites in the Middle East, and became a UNESCO site in 1980. Today many of its statues have been removed in the hopes of preservation, but as you will see from my photos the site is extremely large, as are the many columns and remaining ruins, and therefore impossible to protect them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post is not meant to take light away from the death toll related to the Syrian civil war in anyway. And I’m not pretending to be any sort of expert on Middle Eastern conflict. I’m just shedding light on a place that in the following weeks may cease to exist. May be obliterated. Destroyed at the hands of people who wish to erase the culture of people who share different beliefs than they do. This post is meant to make you realize that if you put off traveling and seeing the world, the places of significance may cease to exist. Be it civil war, or an earthquake, or global warming. The earth is forever changing, and if you wait too long the only thing that may be left are photos on the internet, and memories in the heart of those who visited before you…

Copenhagen, how I Love thee…..

Where to start. I loved Copenhagen. Like seriously loved it, would move there in a second if I could find work there, kinda love. I spent 2 nights here, and most of that time was spend dreaming of what my life would be like if I lived there. Copenhagen had all the things I love about a big city- it was energetic, and clean, and cultured. It’s a very walkable city and as it’s built on the water. The waterways naturally add to its character.

Our hotel was situated a short walk from Nyhavn which is a super touristy row of colourful townhouses which house many bars and cafes along a waterway that’s full of large ships. To say it’s picturesque would be an understatement. We took a canal tour from here which sailed along the waterfront and down a couple of nearby canals. The architecture here is fascinating- it’s part modern meets 18th century factory buildings all rolled into one. We spent some time wandering near the Parliament- unfortunately the day we were there, there was some type of Islamic protest, so we steered clear. We walked to Christianshavn a nearby neighbourhood and climbed to the top of the spiral staircase at the Church of our Saviour. It had spectacular views of Copenhagen, but is definitely not for the faint of heart. There are 400 stairs to the top, the last 150 being a winding bunch outside. If you’re afraid of heights, just take it slow. If I was able to force myself up then I have no doubt that you can do it to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spend an afternoon on a true urban adventure to find the Carlsberg factory. I’m pretty sure I’ve never gotten so lost as we did on this brewery hunt. First off, there is a museum in Copenhagen called the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Don’t let the name fool you. This is NOT the Carlsberg factory. Nor is it any where near it. And if you happen to mistakenly go there, do not believe anyone who tells you that the factory is a 20 min walk from there. It is walkable, but only it you plan to walk all bloody day. Also if you think you’re a bit of a genious and hop on a local bus, and you ask the bus driver if this bus goes near the factory and he says yes, and 2 stops later he tells you that you’ve arrived, he quite likely is lying. If you ask 5 locals for directions and they all point in different ways, things are not looking up. So you will likely follow the most credible person, and after walking in the direction instructed you may or may not see a Carlsberg flag on an adjacent building. You may or may not high-five the people you are with, because by now you are really overdue for a cold beer. You might find yourself approaching said building, only to discover, that no, this is not the Carslberg factory, and that many, many buildings in the area have a Carlsberg flags. Crap. So ask directions again. Wander some more, and now you may or may not find yourself in an area with many Carlsberg flags, so things start to look up. And there are directions signs with the inscription “Visit Carlsberg” and as if to mock you, these signs are literally pointing in directions that you can’t go to because of construction. By now you will want to scream. Because its getting close to 4pm and they close at 5pm. So you may or may not find yourself climbing up a steep dirt embankment next to a skateboard park (coincidentally these skateboarders were drinking Carlsberg beer) and finally, finally, arriving at the factory. At 4:10pm. When the last tour was at 4pm. So then you may or may not tell a sob story to someone who works there, who at least gives you a coupon for a free beer. And you may or may not sit there sipping your free beer all the while trying to figure out how the hell you will get home. Or you may just decide to take a taxi directly there. That’s what I would do if I were you.

So there you have it. An eventful 2 days in Copenhagen. A city I have no doubt I will meet again. Likely sooner than later!! Happy travels…

Finland

After spending 3 nights in Sweden we crossed the border into Finland. We traveled by bus to Rovaniemi from the border city of Haparanda/Tornio. Rovaniemi is famous the world over for being the home of Santa Claus- in fact he lives just north of the town center on the Arctic Circle. (More on this later). The other reason we wanted to visit Finnish Lapland (apart from Santa) was that we wanted to spend a night in a glass igloo, and more importantly, I wanted to see the Northern Lights from the inside of a glass igloo!!

Originally, we had planned to travel to the very northern area in Finland to stay in these igloos. If you spend any time on Instagram or Pinterest then I’m sure you’ve seen the photos. Sadly, we were running out of time to make the trek there so we opted for a different igloo experience closer to Rovaniemi. We spent 1 night at the Arctic Snow Hotel which is about a 30 min taxi ride from the town center. The Snow Hotel was a bit of a let down after spending a night at the Ice Hotel in Sweden, but the glass igloos where super cool. The were all self sufficient with a domed glass ceiling with picturesque views of the sky. Ours had 2 super comfy twin beds, with a decent sized bathroom and shower. Insider tip: the beds are electronic, so they can be adjusted into chair positions which unfortunately we didn’t find out until the following morning, but would have been really cool to gaze at the northern lights in.

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On site is the Snow Hotel (duh) which had that kinda yellow colouring of old snow. The bar and snow restaurant on the inside were pretty neat. There are a couple hot tubs, and saunas which you have to book in advance. There are also a few different dining options depending on whether you want to eat dinner in a cottage near the lake, or in the Snow Hotel. You can also borrow snowshoes, or try your hand at ice fishing while there. We were really, really lucky the night we spent there because we were able to see an amazing display of the Northern Lights. I also got to teach my winter-naive kiwi sidekick how to chill a bottle of wine in a snow bank in the middle of a Finnish winter without the availability of a fridge. It might have literally blown her mind!!

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After our night of Northern Lights bliss we headed back to the town of Rovaniemi which was to be our base for another 3 nights. This was March 2nd and there was a very visible solar eclipse that I nearly went blind from taking photos of and was pretty cool to witness. Don’t worry Mom my eyesight is back to normal now! The first thing we did once we got back to Rovaniemi was go visit our boy Santa. Anyone who knows me knows I love Christmas. Like seriously love it. I was pumped to visit Santa’s workshop and wander in the Christmas Village. And then we got there. And surprise, surprise there were like a million tourists and tourist buses. And while Santa was great, the lines, and general kitchiness of the place was a major let down. But we did get our photo taken with Santa and asked him to bring us both husbands for Christmas. And we did get our photo taken straddling the Arctic Circle. And the coolest thing of all was that you can mail postcards that have the official Santa’s Village stamp. Well I thought it was cool……

Solar Eclipse

Santa Hall of Fame

Santa Hall of Fame

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent the rest of our time in Rovaniemi wandering the town. We spent an afternoon at Arktikum Museum which tells the story of the Arctic Circle and is also a science center. We spent a morning dog-sledding which is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. We got to drive the sled with 5 mischievous dogs. It was freezing cold (about -10C) and we spent about an hour and a half outside. Thankfully, winter clothes were provided so it wasn’t super unpleasant. After dog sledding over snowy trails and frozen lakes, we got to visit the kennels and cuddle some baby huskies. They melted my nearly frozen heart. And I seriously had to resist the urge to steal a couple of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Finnish Lapland is a magical place. I mean if it’s good enough for Santa it’s well worth the visit!! From here we flew to Copenhagen……..

Thoughts on Loss…..

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Hercules

“The universe gave us three things to make life bearable: hope, jokes, and dogs. But the greatest of these was dogs.” Robyn Davidson from her book Tracks.

Loss comes in many forms and can take on both a physical and emotional component. It can take the form of loss of future dreams, loss of physical things, or it can take on a very permanent form as it does with death. Last night my family had to put down our beloved family mascot Hercules. He was old. And it wasn’t completely unexpected, and yet even though it was for the best, it’s still really upsetting. Some of you who read this blog may have a difficult time understanding how emotional this concept can be. How someone can grieve for an animal, or how animals can play such a large role in a persons life. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in Western cultures where animals (especially dogs) are considered to be members of a family. Often times the bond one has with a pet takes on very human qualities. Hercules started out as my brother’s dog, and then in his later years he became the family dog, and then my Pops sidekick. People often refer to their animals as their family. As their children.

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In some ways the bond between a human and a pet is stronger than that between 2 humans. A dog after all, only wants to please its owner. Only wants to show love and affection in return for the same. A dog will be unwaveringly loyal. If you show them love them will only ever see your good qualities. Hercules was often aloof. He wasn’t super affectionate in a physical sense, but rather showed affection by following you around. If you were his person he didn’t want you out of his sight. He was a gentle soul. A protector. A lover of humans and equally so of human food. He was a very spoiled boy who will be missed.

So goodbye Hercules. You served our family well. You showed love and were loved dearly in return. Rest well….

 

 

 

 

Sweden

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe took the train from Narvik Norway to Kiruna Sweden. It’s a reportedly scenic train ride, although this must be specific to the summer months. In the winter it’s a never ending sea of grey. Grey sky, grey water, white snow, bare trees. The train takes about 3hrs and it’s good to note the the train station has moved in Kiruna so it’s not really walking distance into town. Especially in the winter. FunFact: the city of Kiruna is in the process of moving 3km to the east as the current city center is built over an ore mine and is at risk of falling into the mine. We stayed one night in Kiruna. It’s a really cute and walkable town- as long as you have grippy shoes, as many of the walking paths are quite snowy and icy. We spent an afternoon checking out the local shops and eating some delicious food. There is quite a big Sami population in Kiruna. The Sami people are the indigenous people of Scandinavia and live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. They have a very interesting heritage, and colourful traditional dress. I expected the indigenous people to look similar to the Inuit population in Canada, but many of the Sami people we met looked exactly the same as other Norwegian or Swedish people we met. Traditionally they are known as being nomadic reindeer herders, and reindeer are a huge part of the local diet. We ate reindeer meat several times during our time in this region. Sorry Rudolph!! The guesthouse we stayed in had a Sami museum in the basement, which was very helpful to see how the Sami people lived and to read about their heritage.

Carved Sami knife

Carved Sami knife

Traditional Sami belt

Traditional Sami belt

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our second night in Sweden was spent staying at the Ice Hotel. This was is fact, the entire reason we staying in Kiruna. I really wanted to stay at the Ice Hotel and see the Northern Lights while I was there. The Ice Hotel offers rooms in the Ice Hotel (made of ice hence the name) or cabins on the Ice Hotel property. We decided to stay in a 2 bedroom cabin instead of the ice rooms as that seemed more comfortable. The Ice Hotel originally opened in 1990 and is located along the banks of the Torne River. Every year in March ice blocks are taken from the river and stored with snow in freezing temperatures until November when the hotel is built. It’s open to guests from December to April when it melts. We took a tour and the guide said that the hotel is built on a slight slant so that as the hotel melts the water returns to the river from which it came. I liked that a lot. Every year artists from around the world arrive and design the reception area, the art suites, chapel and the Ice Bar. So every year the rooms are different. It’s utterly beautiful inside the hotel. The hotel also provides complete winter gear for guests as well as a buffet breakfast.

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We splurged and had a very fancy dinner at the restaurant on site. 4 of the courses were served on blocks of ice from the Torne River. It included bleak roe, arctic char, smoked reindeer tartar, and fillet of moose to name a few of the courses, all expertly paired with wine. Part way through dinner there was a big commotion as everyone rushed outside to view the Northern Lights. It wasn’t the best display as it was hard to make them out with the naked eye. They looked more like a greyish haze in the sky, until you took a photo and then they appeared bright green. We finished our dinner and bundled up to walk down to the shores of the river to watch the Northern Lights. From here they were much more visible, and we braved the cold temperatures until our cameras froze and decided they were done taking photos. We then visited the Ice Bar for a cocktail served in……you guessed it…..an ice glass. It was a really great day.

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The following day we had a long day of travel heading for the Swedish/Finnish border. We took the train from Kiruna to Lulea and then caught a bus to the border town of Haparanda/Tornio. This is a very interesting place because there isn’t really a border separating the 2 countries, and yet there is a time change of an hour. This made things very confusing the following morning as we woke up an hour earlier than we needed to when our bodies were on Swedish time but our bus was on Finnish time. I still can’t wrap my head around it! Onwards to Finland……..

The Right Place at the Right Time

While staying in Narvik Norway, my kiwi mate and I decided to walk to the ski hill the overlooks the city to ride the cable car to the top of the hill to take in the supposed amazing views of the city and surrounding area. Apparently on a clear day you can see the Lofoten Islands from the top. We asked directions from the front desk of the hotel we stayed at and were told that it was about a 20 min walk to the base of the ski hill. The receptionist did not mention that it was straight up hill and unless you had boots that had amazing grip to climb a steep hill of ice it would be far smarter to take a taxi. This would’ve been helpful to know.

So we set off. My kiwi friend is sensible and wearing snow boots. I, however; was not as bright and had on a pair of hiking shoes. Shoes meant for hiking, not ice climbing. So we start up this hill, and its slick, but not yet that steep and people are coming down the same path and they seem to be having no problem so I figure it’s ok going up. Later we would realize that all the locals had these traction devices that fit over their shoes making it easy and safe to walk on ice. So the road is getting steeper and I’m slipping every couple steps and starting to really get freaked out. Because if it is this hard going up, how the eff am I going to get down? Back in 2008 I had a bad bike accident that left me broken and bruised and had it not been for wearing a helmet I would seriously have sustained a brain injury. Ever since I’m very nervous about any chance of hitting my head on a hard surface. Climbing this hill of ice completely un-nerved me. But, we were literally trapped. I didn’t want to go on, but was too scared to turn around so we attempted to unsuccessfully call a taxi. No luck. So the next safest option was to walk in the street because at least the street was bare in most parts.

So we’re coming around a corner and a Somali woman is coming down with a toddler and a baby in a stroller. She’s coming down the hill that’s a complete ice rink. And the toddler slips, and pulls the lady down with him. As she falls her hands lose grip on the stroller and the stroller starts sliding down the ice into the road. To the exact spot I was walking up. It literally rolled into my out stretched hands. The woman is looking panicked, the toddler is crying and he’s bitten his lip so he’s bleeding. And it’s so icy that they can hardly get up. And we can’t get to them to help as it’s so damn icy. So, eventually she is able to get up and helps the toddler up, and we help them across the street all the while I’m pushing the stroller and this super cute chubby baby is staring at me like “who are you lady, and what’s happening?”

We get them to a safe area, and then we say our goodbyes. And I’m immediately thankful we didn’t turn around. Because if I hadn’t continued on and been walking in the street at that exact moment who knows what would’ve happened to that baby. The stroller would’ve for sure ran into the street, and quite likely into oncoming traffic, if it didn’t tip over when it went off the sidewalk. So sometimes, you end up being in the exact right place at the right time, even though seconds before that was literally the last place I wanted to be. I’m not overly religious, but I think it’s a hell of a coincidence that we found ourselves in that exact spot.

So we eventually made it to the base of the ski hill. Only to find out that the last trip up the cable car was 5 min before we got there. And that the ski hill was closed the following day.  So we had an employee call us a taxi because there was absolutely no way I was walking back down that hill of ice. And we never did get to find out it the view was as amazing as we had read. The End.

Norway

IMG_4894Those of you who know me well know that I am not a winter lover. In fact, for many years I dodged the dreaded Canadian winters by taking contracts in the southern parts of the US. A winter spent in Arizona and another one in Southern California were very good for my soul. I’m much happier wearing flip-flops than snow boots. And yet, in the middle of March I spent 2 weeks traveling thru Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark with my kiwi sidekick. For the last few years the Lofoten Islands have been a place I’ve been drawn to. A big part of the draw was how picturesque they are, but equally so is their isolation. Especially, in the winter.

The Lofoten Islands are a chain of islands off the northern Norwegian coast located in the Arctic Circle. To get there we flew from Riyadh to Munich, to Copenhagen, to Oslo, to Bodo where we spent a night. Bodo is the main transport hub for tourists heading to the Lofotens. The recommended route to get to the Lofoten Islands is to take an express ferry from Bodo which takes about 4hrs. The ferry, however; runs at odd times, and doesn’t get into Svolvear until after dark so we decided to take the bus. There are a couple different bus options. We switched buses in Sortland, and it took us most of the day to get to Svolvear. The buses in Norway are clean, and efficient. To get to Svolvear you end up taking a couple ferries while on the bus, and it’s a very beautiful journey. One of my favourite things about traveling is being in motion. I love to take the world in from a window of a bus or train as opposed to flying. This was a lovely bus trip. The scenery outside is a combination of utter beauty and the harshness of desolation. The grey winter sky contrasts against the snowy jagged cliffs as you pass lakes and the coastline of the Norwegian Sea.

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Svolvear is one of the main towns in the Lofoten Island archipelago. We decided to stay here 4 nights as the town looked very quaint. You can see most things within the town in a day. There are several cute shops, and a bunch of galleries with photography exhibits and more traditional style paintings. There are many food options. There is a large bridge with amazing views that crosses over to the small town of Svinoya. This is a great place to take photos of the massive fish drying racks which are a major contributor to the areas economy. We took a day trip to the opposite end  of the island to a place called Henningsvaer which you can easily walk around in a couple of hours. The buses don’t run often so you really have to plan your trips out well in advance. The best option (but also the most expensive) would be to have a rental car, but we were trying to stay within our budget, so the bus it was. Another easy day trip is to take the bus to the next island south to visit the Lofotr Viking Museum in Borg. The museum tells the Viking history of the area and is build on an archeological site. There is  a reconstructed Chieftain house where you can try on armoured clothing and see what it would have been like to live during Viking times. During the summer months you can go on board a Viking ship- this area was closed while we visited as the lake was frozen. There are many other activities to do while in the Lofotens. You can go on a whale expeditions, go deep sea fishing, or surf the Arctic Circle. There is limited day light hours thru the  winter months but in the summer you can take in the “midnight sun” with extended hours of daylight.

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From the Lofoten Islands we traveled to Narvik, again by bus which took about 4 1/2 hours. Narvik is a great transportation hub for those tourists traveling onwards to Sweden. There is a ski hill over looking the city, and many shops and restaurants to explore. We spent one night here before taking the train to Kiruna Sweden. Norway wasn’t the easiest place to travel in as several times we ate at restaurants that didn’t have English menus or staff that didn’t speak English. I often thought how difficult it would be if English wasn’t your first language seeing as we had a lot of communication difficulties. That being said, Norwegians themselves are very friendly. Especially the elderly ones. We often had elderly people come up to us and start chatting in Norwegian only to have us smile and shrug our shoulders to communicate that we didn’t understand. It’s also good to know that in a lot of pubs or simple restaurants you go up to the counter to order and pay prior to getting your food. Tipping is not expected at restaurants like this. The buses are easy, but can be a little frustrating as you don’t get tickets ahead of time, which means it takes several minutes at every stop for people to board and pay for however far they are going. The Lofoten Islands are as beautiful as I imagined. I would happily go back!

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