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Part 4: Tromsø, Norway — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 3: South Africa (Kruger National Park)

Why Tromsø, Norway?

The northern lights. In my research, there were a few places one could go to have a good chance of seeing the lights, like Iceland, Norway, and Finland. I chose Tromsø after reading brief reviews of each of these places.

Itinerary

  • Sunday, 19 Oct: Arrived in Tromsø, art museum, northern lights tour
  • Monday, 20 Oct: Tromsø Bridge, Arctic Cathedral, northern lights tour again
  • Tuesday, 21 Oct: Tromsø Museum, bus ride to Tromsø University and back.
  • Wednesday, 22 Oct: Depart Tromsø

My Impression

Tromsø was a lovely city. It is an incredibly normal city, because it is. People just lived out their lives. It’s apparently a college town, and it’s also known for tourism for northern lights. It is pretty cold, especially in more remote areas in the region at night.

Part of me wants to find a reason to return and just stay for a little longer to get a better sense of normal life. I think checking out the midnight sun on Summer Solstice would be a legitimate reason to return.

Getting There

From Johannesburg, I took three flights:

  • Johannesburg to Frankfurt on Lufthansa
  • Frankfurt to Oslo on Lufthansa
  • Oslo to Tromsø on Scandinavian Airlines

The whole route took about 17 hours.

From the small Tromsø airport, I was going to take the bus across the island to city center, but it was Sunday and the buses either don’t operate or were much less frequent. So I resorted to use the shuttle service offered at a booth at the airport. It costed me 70 kroner, which was about $10 USD at the time. I thought it was expensive at the time because 1) I had heard that Norway and Scandinavian countries were expensive, which was true, and 2) my research showed that taking the bus would’ve costed only 40 kroner or so.

Accommodations

Since I had heard it was expensive to be in Norway, I briefly looked up hotel prices before moving on to Airbnb. Fortunately, there were enough options to choose from, and my final choice ended up pretty good. Location-wise, judging by the maps, I thought it would be a bit too far from city center. But as I found out once I got there, it was really close and totally walkable.

The listing I booked was someone’s house. It seems that the owner wasn’t there, but her late-teen/early-twenties son was, so he opened the door for me, showed me the room, and left me alone for pretty much the rest of my stay. Actually, he opened the door for me, asked me to wait in the living room while he went back to his room to finish doing whatever he was doing that involved typing loudly on his keyboard, then he came out and showed me my room. Regardless, I was just very grateful to have a place to stay.

Room

My room was pretty basic. It had a bed with sheets and comforter, a nightstand, and a window with somewhat broken curtains. There were closets and armoires, but they were filled with the owner’s stuff so I assumed it was off-limits. So there was limited room to hang clothes, but I somehow made it work. I had brought portable collapsible hangers and I just hung my clothes behind the bedroom door and on the door handle. I also brought a rubber clothesline with suction cups so I stuck it on the mirror on the closet and hung my laundry to dry.

Space Heater

There was a space heater right outside my room, which was the exact model I had at home (small world moment), and while it wasn’t so cold that I need it at night, I used it to dry my clothes during the day. But it sort of stopped working at some point so I thought I broke it, but it worked again the next day, so maybe it overheated.

Bathroom

The bathroom seemed like a normal house bathroom, except I noticed and LOVED the floor was heated. Even though this was the only home I had been to in Tromsø, it must be standard to have heated bathroom floors. It just made the place feel even more homey.

The shower was also worth mentioning just because the powerful water pressure combined with the hearty hot water totally warmed up my cold bones from being outside; it was almost an experience. I almost didn’t want to leave the shower, partly because I would have to feel cooler air by contrast.

Another thing I did notice was that the trash can was very full. I figured because with just a young man staying there, keeping things clean was probably a much lower priority. It would’ve been nice to make sure the communal areas are decent enough for Airbnb guests, though.

The bathroom also included the washing and drying machines. There were so many nobs and button on the washing machine that I had to look up the obscure brand and model online to try to find an English version. Finally, I managed to select the most basic one and just made sure my clothes at least get some sort of rinse.

Wi-Fi

So far on my trip, I had experienced “slow” Wifi by American urban utility standard. I was relying on the Internet to backup my photos and videos from the trip because I knew I would take more picture and videos than my phone could store. Plus, I wanted to have a backup just in case I lost my phone.

My Digital Storage Plan

I had set up personal cloud storage as well as Dropbox and Google Drive, and even Microsoft OneDrive if I really needed to. And during the trip, I would upload my photos whenever I had access to wifi and power source, so basically my hostel or hotel. When I got to South Africa, there were so many days of files I had yet to backup because the internet speed was so slow that my phone was approaching its storage limit. I even bought a flash drive at the Johannesburg airport, hoping to find a computer somewhere in the next few days and transfer my files more quickly.

Sweet European Wi-Fi

When I left Johannesburg and landed in Frankfurt airport for a connection, I tried to get on the airport wifi, expecting the typical, spotty, basic Internet speeds that airport wifi had. Instead, when I turned on my personal cloud app, I could see the progress bar for each file zoom by every two seconds or so, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was unfortunate that my connection was boarding soon, so I tried to milk the service as much as I could until I really had to board. I didn’t know if I would get such fast Wifi again. I was desperate and thirsty, clinging on to the wifi. It was a bit pathetic but I didn’t care. Sweet, sweet Wifi!

So when I got to the Airbnb house in Norway, I was equally happy to find out the Wifi was also fast. Hooray, European utilities! For a brief moment, I contemplated staying in the house the whole time and use the Wifi, but I knew that was silly and not realistic. Still, I took advantage of it as much as I could and backed up my files whenever I had the chance.

Getting Around

Downtown is relatively small; it’s very walkable. The streets were also pretty empty, not too many people or cars. It’s as if everyone went out of town for the week. Maybe it’s like that all the time, I don’t know.

Tromsø is a long-shaped island with large hills toward the center. To get from one corner to another, driving is recommended, especially in the cold. I bought a multi-day bus ticket from the bus station downtown the day after I arrived (because I arrived on a Sunday), and I just took the bus everywhere. One time I crossed the bridge to check out the Arctic Cathedral and other things, another time I took it to the southern tip of the island to visit the Tromsø Museum, then I took the bus in the wrong direction and got a tour of the other side of the island and ended up in Tromsø University.

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: mid-October.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

During the day, it’s “comfortably” cold. By that, I mean I wore about three layers of long sleeves with a good pair of leather gloves and was okay when I was continuously moving. It was okay to keep the head uncovered for a short period of time outside. But a beanie or hat should be worn for longer duration. My face, exposed to the cold air, got a bit numb after a while, especially when there was wind. The wind definitely gave me a good fight to keep the warm in.

"It's, uh, pretty cold in Tromsø."At night, especially out in the middle of nowhere during a northern lights tour, when we stood in place outside waiting and watching for the lights, it was much easier to get really cold. Clothing wise, I wore an extra top layer; that was sufficient. For bottoms, I wore thermal underwear. The fact that I felt normal in my legs meant that it was a good thing I had them on.

Shoes — Bring Good Boots

I arrived in Norway a little bit unprepared in terms of footwear. For my six-week world trip, I brought a pair of breathable hiking shoes and a pair of loafer-type shoes for versatility. Let’s just say if I were to go to Tromsø again, or anywhere very north or very south, I would invest in a pair of well-insulated boots. On my first northern lights tour, after standing for ten to fifteen minutes, my feet started to really feel the cold. There were multiple stages of them going numb and more numb, and when I thought they would become better if I just shuffle my feet in place, I was very wrong, and they just became more numb than I thought were possible. And then they got even more numb, to the point where I was wondering if I still had those legs, if they would recover if I ran back to the bus right then.

Back To the Bus

At one point, probably thirty minutes in, I couldn’t take it anymore. The lights were really pretty and everyone was expecting better ones to come. So I got back to the tour bus where there was a heater going. As I tried to warm up, I grabbed the plastic shopping bags I got from my souvenir shopping earlier that day and double wrapped my feet and stuffed everything back into my shoes. I had also worn two pairs of wool socks already. After maybe ten minutes, I hesitated leaving the warm tour bus but I still made it back to the group to try to enjoy the lights, but they were mostly gone. My feet were still numb, probably less so but I could feel them quickly getting back to where they were before. The plastic bags didn’t feel like they worked.

End of Misery

Fortunately, soon after I returned the guides decided to head to another location so we got back on the bus, and I got a bit of a chance to warm up. The second night, I was smarter, in that I wore the plastic bags before starting the tour, so I had time to properly insulate it better, so I suffered less. It may also have been that the temperatures were slightly warmer, or that it was more cloudy, or that we went more inland and away from the sea breeze.

Losing the Airbnb House Keys

When I checked in to the Airbnb location, I was given two keys with a wooden keychain with “Airbnb” written on it. I thought that was cute. On my second northern lights tour, we stopped on the side of the road to catch the northern lights flying above us. I took out my phone from my pocket to take pictures. For the trip, I got a heavy duty double layer phone case and attached it to a retractable keychain clip. So it was kind of bulky and taking it out of my pocket took some effort at times. The pocket also had the house keys in it, and I think that was when I dropped it. I may also have been wearing gloves and would not be able to feel the things falling out of my pocket.

I noticed that my keys were missing in the middle of the tour. In typical fashion, I checked and rechecked my belongings, every nook and cranny of my bags, around and under my seat. I also started thinking about how I would be able get back into the house, especially if I would get back to town from the tour at around midnight and the host’s son would probably be in bed and I would feel bad for ringing the doorbell.  

What to do?

I knew that if I were to have a better chance at getting back into the house, I had to act fast and contact my host, which meant I had to be sure I lost the keys and give up a little bit of hope that I could resolve this myself, and also pride for having to admit I lost the keys. I agonized repeatedly over whether I should write the message to my host or I should risk it and ring the doorbell after midnight to get the host’s son to open the door. I also thought about how much of a hassle it would be, let alone costly to replace the locks on their doors. The thoughts in my mind were starting to get out of hand, so finally, I decided that the right thing to do was to contact my host as soon as possible.

Corresponding with the Airbnb Host

Fortunately, the bus had Wifi and I contacted the host through the Airbnb app, writing a long message thanking her for hosting, and explaining the situation and apologizing many times. After sending the message, I continued the tour and tried to enjoy the northern lights. But it was difficult with the incident on my mind, along with an uncertain near future. It reminded me of Albuquerque after I lost my wallet and I tried to enjoy the balloons but it just lacked the shine of pure happiness. To my surprise, about an hour later, the host responded and told me she arranged with her son to leave me a spare set of keys. I felt so lucky. It improved my mood for a few minutes, and then I reminded myself that I still lost the keys, and I should make up to my hosts somehow.

Second Chance

With the new set of keys, I guarded it very closely. I attached it to my retractable belt clip and made sure it’s still in my possession throughout the following day. That evening, the host’s son asked me for the keys back, and as I gave it back to him, I apologized and he straightly said it’s okay and that it’s not like I did it on purpose. I appreciated his lightheartedness at the situation.

Thanking the Host

Earlier that day, I went to the souvenir shop, “The Best Souvenir Shop in Town”, and bought a few keychains, one wooden and one plastic to give my host a choice to replace the one I lost. Then I got a card and gift bag from a bookstore. Finally, I went to the grocery store to get some chocolates. I also included some cash meant to cover the cost to get new keys. Right before I left the house to head to the airport, I gave the gift bag of things to the host’s son, who seemed really surprised. He either really was speechless or didn’t know the English words to express his thoughts, but before he had a chance to express them, I left the house and headed to the airport.

People

The people are generally very nice. Some have better customer service than others. There were also different levels of patience as well as ability to communicate in English. No one was particularly rude, although there was this one time when I went to the cable car station, hoping to get up to the top of the mountain, and finding out it was closed for the week. I still managed to get into the lobby with no one inside, until a man came out from his office, and I asked in English to confirm that it’s closed. The man said yes with a stern face so I left the awkward situation and made my way out of the parking lot. I turned around and noticed the man watching me from the window.

Language

Even though I was only going to be in Norway for four days, and that I heard people in Norway spoke English (which they do, maybe at 80-90% ability and speed), I still wanted to learn Norwegian so I can somehow put it to good use. Like with the other languages that I learned for the trip, I had little chance or time to practice speaking it with other people beforehand. I only listened to the audio lessons and practiced in private. I jotted down the words and phrases that I learned so I could be familiar with how they looked and get a better understanding of the grammar structure.

As I said, since I heard most Norwegians could speak English, it was a bit difficult to 1) figure out who could speak it, and 2) have enough confidence to speak Norwegian instead of giving up and default to English. Every new interaction started with the awkwardness of those two factors, but that quickly went away when I just made the call to speak English, or that the other person seeing my appearance rightly assumed that I would be more comfortable with English. It was also easy to default to English when the casual greeting “Hi!”was pronounced the same in Norwegian (“Hei!”). Once in a while, I threw in a “God dag!” (“Good day!”) and then proceed with English. And I got pretty good at the end of an interaction with “Har det!” or “Har det bra!” which was a common phrase equivalent to “Have a good one!”

Knowing when and how to use phrases like that sort of redeemed the hard work I put in to learn the language, and to me, it showed the other persons that I made an effort, and hopefully threw off one or two people a little bit to wonder if I really knew Norwegian.

Tours

Photo Slideshow: Norway - Northern Lights - LBT 2014

I looked up tours for northern lights and there were a few companies who did them, and a lot of search results tend to lead to TripAdvisor reviews. So I used them to help narrow down the companies to choose from. I ultimately chose NorthernShots Tours because of the great reviews as well as their promise that if they couldn’t see the lights that night, we could return the next day for half price.

Actually, originally, the package I bought promised a second tour for free if I couldn’t see the lights the first night. But on the day of the tour, I was contacted by the company asking if I wanted to switch to the less expensive package. I agreed to it, and because I got a reissued credit card, they couldn’t refund to my old card, so they had to refund me in cash.

I walked to the pickup spot that evening, which was right outside of the office near downtown. As I was going through the process to get my cash refund, I learned that the company was created by a couple of young passionate photographers who wanted to share their love for the northern lights by driving visitors around the area and take pictures. I thought the guys were really down to earth and genuine, and they made the experience as pleasant as possible. Judging by their accents and brief chats, I also learned that they were from other places in Europe, like France and Italy.

The Bus

We rode in a big charter bus, which was much larger than I thought. Based on my experience on the trip so far, I thought I would be in a large van with uncomfortable seats. But instead, only about half of the large bus was full, so I got to sit in my own pair of seats. I noticed that there were a few groups of middle-aged Chinese tourists on the tour as well, which surprised me because Tromsø seem like a place Chinese people would visit, and it’s so cold that all I could picture were middle-aged Chinese people like my relatives scoffing at the idea of traveling to such a place and would prefer to go elsewhere warmer and with more landmarks to see in the daytime.

There was also wifi on the bus, which felt like such a luxury, even for the States. And a small bathroom was in the mid-section of the bus, right next to the mid-bus exit door. It surprised me that a bathroom could fit in that little nook, but it did! It’s small but very usable. These guys were prepared, and they got the right equipment.

The Tour Starts

The tour started at around 6pm, and one of the guides explained the agenda of the tour and then gave a history of northern lights. The ride to our first spot probably took 45 minutes, and right before, the guide explained how to set the cameras settings to capture the lights perfectly. I didn’t pay too much attention since I was going to use my basic iPhone 5s camera, and the settings were quite limited.

Literal Cold Feet

The first place we went to was by the water somewhere west of Tromsø. We had to get around a rocky and muddy hill in the dark to get there. Once there I started feeling the cold setting in, most notably my feet, partly because I was underprepared with footwear and wore my breathable hiking shoes. Basically, my feet felt numbing cold like I never thought were possible. They experienced alternating phases of cold and numb, but every phase more intense than before. Shuffling my feet did little to help.

It got to a point where it was too uncomfortable to think about anything else and my brain started wondering if my feet were still there, as if they had been disconnected from my body. I worried I did irreparable damage to my feet, so I decided to get back to the bus to try to warm up. The tour package offered professional northern lights portraits by the guides, and since all I brought was my iPhone 5s, I wanted to get a good photo of me and the lights to remember the experience. According to the guide, the lights were pretty good but less than optimal, so I took that as a good time to warm up in the bus for a little bit and come back out when it supposedly got better and get the portrait then. Still, the guide said to not go for too long because I might miss it.

Back to the Bus

Another visitor who also wanted to warm up in the bus made the little dark hike with me back to the heated bus, where the driver was comfortably waiting. I expected immediate relief once I stepped inside, but it was much more gradual, and actually slower, than I thought. I took the opportunity to take the plastic shopping bags from my souvenir store visit earlier that day to wrap my feet, which already had two pairs of wool socks. I figured it could probably seal in any heat that was escaping. It felt really silly but I had to do everything I could to keep my feet alive.

I waited in the bus for probably ten to fifteen minutes, watching faint streaks of green in the dark sky through the tinted windows. I imagined the hassle and discomfort I would experience if I had to put my layers back on and step out of the warm cocoon of the bus and into the chilling cold outside. My comfort was more important than a bucket list goal at that point. But finally, I snapped out of it, telling myself that I had traveled all this way not to sit in a bus. Actually, it was also because the other visitor wanted to go back outside again. So we rejoined the group, and my feet quickly restarted the process of becoming numb again. The plastic bags were of little help.

Apparently the conditions were not improving, and the lights were starting to move away. I missed my chance when everyone was getting their portraits taken, and I missed the last of the good lights while I was in the bus.

Snacks and Hot Chocolate

Some time in the middle of the tour, we took a break as the guides went outside to prepare hot chocolate. They had brought large containers of hot water and packets of powdered hot chocolate, and they were mixing them one cup at a time as quickly as they could. I was impressed at the level of service these guides were providing. They seemed to genuinely care for their customers. In the mean time, trays of cookies were also being passed around on the bus, where people could take as many as they want and there would still be enough left over.

After the break, we resumed the tour and visited other locations, stopping on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. The lights didn’t seem to be getting better, so I asked the guides if I could get a professional photo. The guide said the lights weren’t ideal, but he would try his best. At that point, I just wanted some visual proof that I saw the lights.

Northern Lights in Town

By the end of the tour, I became relatively good at spotting the lights and distinguishing it from long streaks of clouds, because they looked very similar, especially if the lights were weak. So after we got dropped off from the tour, I walked back to my Airbnb house and to my surprise, I saw thick streaks of green right above the street, freely dancing in the sky. I thought it was just clouds at first because I thought it was hard to see the northern lights with light pollution. But it moved and changed form too quickly to be clouds.

Seeing this made me feel so special and lucky, partly because there was no one around to confirm what I was seeing nor to share this moment with, so the lights felt like a private show, in public, just for me.

The lights were visible in town!

Second Tour

Aside from the freezing feet, I had a good time on the tour with these guides. And since I had nothing else planned the following night, and I got the refund from the previous night for going on the cheaper tour (which was half the price of my original tour), I figured I should do the tour again for a second chance to get a good portrait.

The second night had a much smaller group than the first; there were only five or six people, but we still took the giant bus. We went to the opposite direction toward Finland, but it was a cloudy night so seeing the lights would be more difficult regardless.

Since this was my second consecutive night, I had more experience spotting the lights from inside the bus earlier in the night. At one point, I asked the guide to confirm that what I saw were the lights, and he confirmed that it was. (Teacher’s pet moment). Actually, the lights were so active that he decide to make an impromptu stop on the side of the road to take pictures.

I got my professional portrait but it was next to the front of the bus with its lit sign. Still, learning from the previous night, I had to take what I can get. I also tried to take some selfies with my phone using a camera app that could adjust the aperture and shutter speed. Of course, the quality was lower and more blurry from my ever-so-slightly moving arms, but it actually turned out better than I expected. Also, it was the wrong time to experiment not smiling in pictures and being more pensive and dramatic. That was also the place where I believe I lost my Airbnb house keys.

Professional photo:
Professional shot (Second night)

Selfie with iPhone 5s using ProCam app:
Overexposing the shot on my camera to make sure I get something.

Later in the tour, we went to an open field and the sky was partly cloudy. We were probably there for an hour or so, and the clouds changed just as much as the lights. We were excited to see the clouds part or the lights become stronger, and then became disappointed whenever either of those improvements reversed. I helped a friend take photos of him and his girlfriend with his commercial camera, and he returned the favor and emailed me those pictures. That was also when I was dealing with the lost keys and thought more deeply and philosophically about life and the cosmos while being in the middle of nowhere looking at the lights.

Overall, both nights of tours were good. The guides were really cool folks who were passionate about photography and treat the patrons as special guests. I would do it again, and I would try to be more prepared with footwear and camera gear.

Museums and exhibits

I occupied my time during the day by going to different museums and exhibits throughout the city. Some were really abstract (Tromsø Kunstforening), some were very contemporary (Perspektivet Museum) and current with recent events around the world, and some were more standard museums, like the Tromsø Museum, which had a permanent exhibit on the local Scandinavian natural history. It had really simple but effective models illustrating specific ideas, like the comparison in scale between a particular whale and human being. The image alone said a lot without words. American museums should take note.

Simple yet effective display at Tromsø Museum.

I also visited the Arctic Cathedral, an iconic building in Tromsø. The admission was 40 kroner which was around $5. I felt that it was a bit pricy because it was more or less just one big room with unique architecture. There was very little else to do, unless one was religious. I stayed there a bit longer than I needed because I paid so much for it and I should at least enjoy it a bit more.

Inside the Arctic Cathedral.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Smørbrød

The one thing I wanted to eat in Norway was a smørbrød, which is an open-faced sandwich. It’s a simple and common dish in Norway and Scandinavia; it’s probably so commonplace that I was making a big deal out of it. I learned about it in my Norwegian lessons, where I had to repeatedly order “et smørbrød” and “te” (tea). I became fascinated by it and looked up its significance in the culture. Smørbrøds could apparently get really fancy, but I just opted for the regular version, at a cafe near downtown.

I chose that cafe because I could tell from outside that they displayed the smørbrøds in a glass display case so I could just point and order. When I went up to pay, the language thing really made it awkward as I said what I wanted in English in a soft voice, a little embarrassed, and the cashier had trouble understanding. I wasn’t sure if she couldn’t hear me or if she didn’t understand English. There was also a problem with using my card. My card wasn’t the problem; it was me using a chip card on a chip-reading machine. It was the first country that I had use it, and the screen was displaying Norwegian, which I could recognize and could probably understand if I took some time deciphering each word. I think I did after the fact, as I pieced together the translation of the phrase by each word “TA KORT UT” (“Take card out.”), which I had learned in my audio lessons.

Finally, I got my smørbrød along with a hot chocolate. I grabbed a fork and a knife because I heard that’s how it’s supposed to be eaten. The smørbrød was really simple; it was a piece of buttered bread with a piece of salmon, hard-boiled egg slices, and some veggies. It tasted exactly as it looks. It was a bit underwhelming but I felt proud that I finally ate something that I set out to eat on the trip!

Other Foods

Photo Slideshow:

Norway - Food - LBT 2014

Since I was staying at an Airbnb, food was totally on my own. For snacks, I went to the grocery store and got packaged cakes, nuts, mini bread rolls, chocolates, and dried fish (which seemed to be locally produced). They were decent. Standard grocery store food quality, although the nut clusters (“Nøtte Godt”) were especially tasty, probably from the salt content.

I had trouble finding bottled water at first, so I bought a bottle of flavored water and winced every time I take a sip. The grocery store I went to twice was named “joker” at a street corner by the church. Ironically, I found out the evening before I left Tromsø that the building with the giant “Eurospar” sign two blocks from my Airbnb place was a big chain grocery store. I saw the same logo across the bridge earlier and noticed a parking lot in front with shopping carts. So I went inside and found a much larger selection of foods, including bottled water! I also got some chocolates for my hosts as a gift as well as souvenirs.

For meals, I went to places I felt familiar with. One evening, I went to a Thai restaurant near my Airbnb place (across Eurospar, to my ignorance) and tried to warm up with some spicy soup, though that didn’t work. I went to a medium-fancy burger place called Flyt and that was decent. Other times, I just went in convenience stores and bought pastries to bring with me.

Getting out

I had an early flight out Wednesday morning, so I walked to the 42 bus stop in the morning cold and crossed the island through tunnels to the airport. It was relatively convenient.

From My Travel Log

20 October 2014, 2:31pm, Tromsø Bibliotek (Library)

  • Tromsø is a lovely city. It’s cold but it’s real. Streets remind me of video games when you walk down a street and only a few people are there minding their own business. The bridges remind me of Macau’s bridge and the “small city” quality. The bridge walk reminds me of walking on the Brooklyn Bridge. The side of the Arctic Cathedral reminds me of the side of the Sydney Opera House.
  • Regarding languages, people at places I’ve visited have a high enough probability of speaking English that I have yet to really need to force myself to speak the local languages. Maybe after the fact I go over the expression over my head. Also, I don’t know enough to complete one interaction; if I knew how to ask the question, I might not understand the answer, which feels stupid to have asked in the local language in the first place.
  • I also seem to have trouble going into restaurants myself, and also not knowing which restaurants to go to. I’m relying heavily on the Internet to find good places to go. And when I’m on the road, I just choose whatever I find. * Languages I should learn: Dutch, German, Portuguese. Even though I feel very foreigner in all these places, I could see myself having a life anywhere, even cold Tromsø, but I don’t want to. Everywhere I can get used to provided I have enough time. I can imagine living in Europe for a while and just be a local. Maybe I do that for a year, four countries, three months each. We’ll see how I feel at the end of this trip though, to see how homesick I feel.
  • I realize I really like showers. I love good water pressure, warm water that hit the spot and heat up my bones. So far the two showers from my Airbnb hosts were good.
  • Tromsø, third international spot. I have yet to FEEL being in a foreign place. I either am really in my head during the moment or that it doesn’t exist anymore, the feeling of being in a place. Every place feels similar in some way; I am just at a spot on a typical Earth, no matter how beautiful the view is (like right now at the library looking at the mountains and the Arctic Cathedral). I think I feel it the most when I’m in “God mode” and can see from really high up, like a plane, but outside, or less contained. That’s why paragliding sounds like a good goal to achieve.

21 October 2014, 4:40pm, Flyt

  • Two and a half weeks ago, I saw hundreds of hot-air balloons fly into the sky. Just under two weeks ago, I witnessed the majestic view that is the Machu Picchu. Six days ago, I went on a safari and saw cheetah on a hunt. For the past two nights, I had seen the northern lights dance above me. Whatever happens for the rest of this trip, I must admit that I have been a very lucky guy so far.
  • One frustration I’m having in Europe, or Norway, is the credit card machines. It seems like most people use it with ease, but I’ve often had to let the other person copy the three digits in the back of the card, or sign the receipt when other customers didn’t need to. What makes it worse is the display reads out in Norwegian, and I was only able to decipher one of the gajillion messages they have, “Ta sort ut.” which mostly doesn’t help me make the purchase. Hopefully, I get more practice in England with English so I know what to do in France and Italy.
  • Took an accidental tour of Tromsø when I didn’t realize there’s a bus in the opposite direction when I left the Tromsø Museum.
  • Tromsø Museum’s exhibits are pretty good. Good for children with some parts.
  • Went to Thai restaurant last night. Didn’t know until I went home to check that you don’t tip in Norway. Oops.
  • Lost the house keys on northern lights tour. Apologized to host Ellen and fortunately got another set. Bought a bunch of stuff as gifts to make up for it.
  • Also, I don’t think Ellen is there, just his son Gunnar. I felt awful and it made the northern lights tours unenjoyable until Ellen replied that they have another set of keys.

Thanks

  • Shuttle saleswoman and driver
  • Shuttle riders who are serving in the army
  • Airbnb hosts, Gunnar and Ellen
  • Nazarene saleswoman who inadvertently helped me feel comfortable in Tromsø
  • OSL -> TOS flight attendants
  • Francesco x2, Helder (sp), Pedro (northern lights guides)
  • Julia and Harold (northern lights tour drivers)
  • Sales clerks (both really friendly and “real”)
  • Edwin and Christina (northern lights tour patrons)

Tips

  • Eurospar is a chain grocery store.
  • Bring well-insulated boots, along with layers
  • It is very cold.
  • The northern lights looks like they move slow but in twenty seconds they could disappear.
  • The northern lights also look brighter in photos because cameras can capture more light than the human eye can.
  • Listen to your northern lights tour guides; they knew what they’re doing. At least mine did.
  • Buses are nicely heated.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Tromsø, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Albuquerque International Fiesta 2014

Part 1: Albuquerque — Little Big Trip 2014

Why Albuquerque?

Whenever I started listing my itinerary for the Little Big Trip (LBT) to people, they were surprised that Albuquerque was on there, let alone my first stop. (Some thought it was because of the show Breaking Bad, which I have yet to watch.) I wanted to visit Albuquerque to check out the annual International Balloon Fiesta. A few months earlier, I saw photos of a field of hot air balloons somewhere and thought it would be a great sight to see.

Getting There

My entire luggage: a carry-on bag.After carefully packing my things into one carry-on luggage for the six-week adventure, I flew from San Francisco to Albuquerque (or “ABQ” as I refer to the entire city now) with a connection at Phoenix. While I had flown over the American Southwest before, this was the first time I really looked out the window and become mesmerized by the alien-looking landscape. It may also be the time of day when the sun hits the land with a warm color. The Phoenix airport, maybe because of the openness of the land, also looks out to beautiful skylines in the evening time. Beautiful Phoenix landscape from the airport.

Accommodations

I stayed at an Airbnb in Albuquerque. Since I was one of the hundreds of thousands of spectators coming to Albuquerque for the Fiesta, a lot of the hotel rooms were booked in advance, and any rooms left would be expensive or low quality. This would be the perfect opportunity to book an Airbnb and be economical and self-sufficient to start off the trip.

I chose the place I stayed at based on its relatively close location to the pick-up spot for the Fiesta. The Fiesta offers these “Park & Ride” tickets where you meet up at one of four locations in the city and they would shuttle you to the Fiesta park. I looked up the Airbnb spot on a map and it was about a 20-minute walk to the meet-up point at Coronado mall, and I felt that 20 minutes was totally doable. The listing was also relatively inexpensive.

After landing at the ABQ airport at night, I Lyfted to the Airbnb house. I could go into detail about this place some other time, but basically, the place belongs to a young guy who’s starting a business and has this large house, so he’s renting out some of the rooms to Airbnb guests. This is one of the listings. The house was large, and it definitely has a 20-something guy’s pad feel to it, as in under-furnished with mismatched pieces of furniture. My room left something to be desired. But at this early point of the trip, I had an open mind and was glad to have a place to stay.

My Airbnb room. Very very basic.

Getting Around

Most of the traveling I did in the city were 1) walking to and from the Airbnb place and the Coronado Center, 2) the school bus shuttles from the Coronado Center to the Fiesta Park and back, and 3) riding a bike I borrowed from the Airbnb place for a special errand (more on that later). I forewent the idea of renting a car because I felt that it was too much trouble, responsibility and money for an “easy” 20-minute walk. After settling into my Airbnb place that evening, I woke up very early the next morning because I had to walk to the Coronado Center for the Park & Ride. The walk was much longer than I anticipated; it may have been 25-30 minutes. It was around four in the morning, so the temperature was cool. During the day, however, when I returned from the mall (Coronado Center), it got a bit warmer, and the walk felt even longer. I believe I walked this length six times during my stay. In retrospect, I would rent a car. Albuquerque is very spread out with most of the streets in a grid.

Climate and Clothing

Time of year: Early October
My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

  • At night, it’s cool. A light jacket would suffice.
  • But at the Fiesta Park, since it’s a big open field, it gets really chilly before daybreak. So wear layers to get ready to take off as the day warms up.
  • During the day, it’s sunny, with barely a cloud. Sometimes there’s a breeze. Short-sleeves are preferred. Long pants are still okay if walking.

People

For the most part, the people are nice. I would say it’s the standard American polite etiquette for interacting with strangers. Small talks come up, especially around big events where there are out-of-towners and they’re generally in a good mood. Actually, on my first Park-and-Ride shuttle ride to the Fiesta park, I sat next to a woman who I honestly would not have a reason to talk to at home. I remember thinking on the bus that as I began this trip, I should start being more open and outgoing and try to talk to more people. I debated whether I should just break the ice with this woman; I would have doubts and make assumptions based on how different both of us looked and that we would not have anything in common to talk about. Finally, if I remember correctly, she broke the ice for us and asked whether I’ve come to this before. I said no, and then we found out we were both doing some traveling. She told me about her plans of traveling across the country, and I told her about my stunt to travel around the world and how this is the second day of my trip. By the end of the bus ride, I made a Facebook friend, and she had followed my journey ever since.

The Fiesta

Photo Slideshow: Albuquerque - Balloon Fiesta - LBT 2014

The Fiesta lasts for nine days, starting with one weekend, running through the week, and ending on the next weekend. Weekends are when most people visit, so they have “mass ascensions,” where a lot of balloons go up at the same time. On the weekends, there’s a morning session and an evening session. I attended the first weekend, morning and evening sessions on Saturday, and the morning session on Sunday.

There are many ways to attend. There are general admission tickets where guests would just enter the park on their own. There are the Park & Ride tickets, where guests meet up at one of many locations in ABQ, and get picked up through an enormous, organized network of school buses driven by real school bus drivers from schools in the area. There are also special VIP-type tickets that cover parking and food and an area at the Park to watch the balloons from. You can also buy tickets to ride one of the balloons. But a quick research showed how out of my price range it was (a few hundred dollars) that I didn’t look into it any more. I got the Park & Ride tickets and I would recommend this for most people. It just takes a lot of the hassle out of figuring out the logistics of getting to the Park.

On the way to Coronado Center.I arrived at my Park & Ride pickup spot, Coronado Center, at around 4:30 in the morning. I thought I would be too early, or that there would be only a few people there, but when I arrived, there was already a long line snaking from the side of the parking lot. The system was pretty organized, where the workers scanned people’s tickets and led them to pens to be loaded onto a bus once the pen is full. There seems to be a never-ending queue of empty buses waiting to fill with people. It’s like the scene at an airport where taxis line up, except it’s school buses, and there are a lot more of them. There were so many visitors, and the Fiesta organizers knew this and were ready for it. It’s a huge operation, and they don’t mess around. From maps online, the driving distance from the mall to the Park seems short, but the bus ride was probably 20 minutes. Once there, everyone enters the booths area, which is a long strip of vendors selling souvenirs and whatnot. But first, I got an overpriced breakfast burrito from the first booth at the entrance. It’s still pretty dark out, so none of the balloons were up yet. So I walked along the booths, checking things out and killing time. By the time I got to one end of the strip, a few balloons were setting up on the field so I walked towards it, along with everyone else. By the booths at the Fiesta Park.

One row of balloons had set up and seemed to be doing synchronized burner firings to make the balloons glow together against dark sky. Other than that, for about an hour, there was very little happening. Only when the sky lightened a bit more did more balloons start filling up by rows, which were perpendicular to the strip of booths. When I read “mass ascension” on the website, I thought the balloons would go up all at the same time. But what actually happened was that they ascended in rows, so it would take a while before all the balloons would be in the air, and by that time, some of balloons launched earlier would already have landed somewhere else in the city.

American flag balloon glowing.

The field before the sun showed up.

It was a gradual process, but pretty soon, the sun came up, and a lot of the balloons were in the air. But the wind moved them away from the Park so they looked like a bunch of small semi-colored dots in the sky.

There were a bunch of adorable balloons with different markings and shapes in the form of animals or characters. I tried briefly to invoke my inner child to pick a favorite, but there were too many good ones to choose.

Smiley balloon taking off, among dozens more.Bear balloon taking off.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

I looked up foods of Albuquerque, and there was very little special, regional dishes that I really had to try. So, I had pretty ordinary food while I was there, including a small, overpriced breakfast burrito at the Fiesta, a chicken salad at Jason’s Deli near the Coronado Center, and a sad salad from Target with sliced turkey added.

Sad salad with sliced turkey.

Losing My Wallet

Long story short, on my second day of trip, while I was riding the Park & Ride bus back from the morning session, I took out the new travel zip wallet I got for the trip to take out some cash to tip the driver. I saw people do it earlier the last time we got off the bus, so I felt I should do the same. I was still getting used to having a special wallet and putting it in a different place than I normally do to prevent theft, so I somehow forgot to put the wallet back in my pocket. On my walk back to the Airbnb house, I realized my pant pocket felt a bit empty. This led to about 28 hours of dread, disappointment, depression, and desperation that involved calling the Fiesta hotline about their lost-and-found process, asking as many bus drivers and staff members at the Coronado Center as I could about any returned wallets, asking the lost-and-found station at the Park many times, moping around during the evening session, feeling very disappointed at myself, escaping the problem for a few hours at night while I slept, emailing the Fiesta organizers about my situation as a last resort to plead for some help, calling credit card companies to cancel and reissue my cards while arranging with the hostel in South Africa via email to accept the packages two weeks away when I arrive, borrowing a bike from the Airbnb host to get to the FedEx Office store to complete and fax the paperwork to reissue my cards and to send them to South Africa, getting a call while I was at the FedEx Office store that my wallet’s been found, and riding one of the buses to the Park to pick up my wallet. The lovely people at the Fiesta who helped me recover my wallet.

I consider myself incredibly lucky for many reasons. First and by far the most important, the only reason my wallet was found so quickly was that moments before I got on the bus where I lost my wallet, I casually noticed the bus number, and I saw that number again in passing in the later session, and I mentioned that number in the email to the Fiesta organizers, hoping that was the right bus. Second, this happened while I was still in the States, where I still had cell and data access, the people spoke English, and I still had time to arrange for replacements with access to places like a FedEx Office. And third, there are people in Albuquerque who are kind enough to help out-of-towners like me and in a timely fashion. I am very grateful for this and it was definitely a lesson for the rest of my trip.

Bought these at target to mark my stuff in case I lose any more things.

From My Travel Log

 

October 4, 2014, 4:44pm, ABQ Balloon Fiesta [at the Saturday evening session]

 

Learned about self. I immediately thought of backup plan and steps to take care of mishap. But this is relatively not a trip-ending mishap. Losing my passport or getting stuck at a place would be really bad, and costly. Also a big disappointment on my trip.

 

October 6, 2014, 11:54am, ABQ -> IAH [on the plane to Houston]

 

One thing to note: It’s amazing how my day could turn from really happy to devastated to okay. This incident was a wake-up call, a practice round, for how to deal with problems. With hindsight, this was a relatively common problem with no real permanent damage. I don’t know what the next 42 1/2 days will bring. What I worry most right now are being stuck somewhere and/or not having enough money, not being able to communicate successfully with the different languages, being cold/not having enough clothing for Tromsø and Beijing, and maybe Cuzco.

 

Getting Out

The day after my wallet was found, I Lyfted again to the airport, heading to my next destination. On take-off, I noticed more of the unique landscape of the Southwest. More interesting Southwest landscapes on flight to connection in Houston.

Thanks

  • Lyft drivers: Danny (from the airport) and Chad (to the airport)
  • Airbnb hosts: Travis, Reese, and Ryan
  • People I met at the Fiesta
  • Cynthia, the lady on the bus who broke the ice and became Facebook friends with me.
  • Elaine, Janice, Trigo (sp?), the Park & Ride staff who helped me get my wallet back.
  • Kathleen (sp?), my special private bus driver who drove me and only me back to the Coronado Center after I picked up my wallet from the Park.

Tips

  • Rent a car, even if you are doing Park-and-Ride. It’s much more convenient to get around the spread-out city.
  • If you do Park & Ride, tip the drivers (but make sure you still have your wallet).
  • If you do Park & Ride, depending on your interest in spending time at the Park, try to leave the session very early or very late, because the lines to get back to your Park & Ride location is ridiculous. After all the balloons left the park, the booths and exhibits were still open.
  • As far as I know, most of the booths at the fiesta park are cash-only, especially the food stands. Maybe booths selling expensive things will take cards. There are ATMs scattered throughout the strip.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of the Fiesta, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 2: Peru (Cuzco and Machu Picchu)