Reindeer Races

The post you’ve all been waiting for! Considering that I missed seeing any polar bears on Svalbard I’m pretty sure that I can already call the reindeer races the highlight of my Norwegian animal experience.

Now the website for Sami Week is pretty atrocious, but after much button clicking we eventually found the schedule for the reindeer races. Considering the website only has something like five tabs, it’s almost impressive how much effort it took to find the schedule. I’m convinced the webmaster is secretly an evil mastermind since it took us a good 30 minutes to find the schedule hidden away on an obscure section of the Norwegian version of the site. BUT we finally realized that the races weren’t starting until about 1 pm on Sunday. That meant that we were able to introduce the very American concept of Sunday brunch to a few of the local international students. One student, Caspar, graciously agreed to host brunch and let a few people cook in his house. After some deliberation, Kari and I decided to arrive a bit on the late side of things. Our strategic planning meant that we avoiding cooking but arrived just in time for eating. It was perfect.

After we gorged ourselves on pancakes, bacon, scones, and sausages we all bundled up and headed into the center of town. All of the Fulbrighters were quite happy to pay to enter the reindeer races, but some of the international students decided to set up shop at the local Burger King and view the races for free on the second story. Although there were some venues around the racecourse that would provide you with a view, many people were quite content to pay and stand along the course. In my eyes, the most impressive spectator was a guy in a reindeer onesie. How could you tell it was a reindeer and not a moose? Why, the red Rudolf nose on the costume. Sidenote: out of the five Fulbrighters who went to Sami Week only one of them had yet to see a reindeer. The fact that the rest of us were incredulous about this just goes to show how in touch with nature you are in Norway.

IMG_9016  IMG_9014  IMG_9055The main street in Tromsø, Storgata, was blocked off for the race and announcers even translated some of their commentary into English. From what I could gather, there were two different kinds of races. The first race involved one person and their reindeer and was timed. The second race was what we would think of as a more traditional race since it took place between two people. They had junior races for some of the younger racers and I suppose what you would call professional races for the adults. There were even people from Russia who had come to compete.

IMG_9037  IMG_9040  IMG_9081You can sort of see how the race actually worked from the pictures, but it mostly involved a skier being dragged along by a reindeer. Apparently different kinds of skis are chosen depending on what the skier is trying to do. Slalom skis allow for easier control, while cross country skis are better for speed.

IMG_9024  IMG_9046  IMG_9047IMG_9051  IMG_9060  IMG_9061IMG_9070  IMG_9127  IMG_9145IMG_9111  IMG_9116  IMG_9141Once the races were finished, Kari and I bunkered down at one of the local coffee shops. Kari was lost in a book she was reading for graduate school interviews, while I was lost in The Amber Spyglass (the snowstorm didn’t stop me from racing through the sequels to The Golden Compass).

We eventually made it back to our original brunch location and settled in for a pizza party and the first Harry Potter movie. After that, we went back to Kari’s place and called it a night.

Gjelder Hele Svalbard

My last day in Svalbard was really only a half day. My flight left in the afternoon so there wasn’t too much time to do anything; however, one thing that I did want to do before I left was to go to Svalbard’s famous polar bear sign. The sign itself lies on the outskirts of town so it required a bit of a walk. Although I wasn’t overjoyed to step outside of the university’s warm halls and into the bitter cold, things looked up when we serendipitously we saw a reindeer along the way.

IMG_8812  IMG_8886  IMG_8887The reindeer in Svalbard are slightly different from the reindeer on the mainland. The first thing that I noticed is that they are much shorter than mainland reindeer, and they also have thicker winter coats. Additionally, unlike other reindeer, I’ve been told that they tend to live alone or in groups of 2-6. Reindeer can still graze on Svalbard during winter, as this one was doing, but it’s much more difficult for them to find food in the midst of all of the ice. Because the winter conditions are so tough, Svalbard reindeer put on about 10 kg (22 lb) of fat during the summer in order to keep warm in winter. On the plus side, the reindeer don’t have any predators on Svalbard so their greatest risk of death is through starvation.

IMG_8819  IMG_8827  IMG_8829IMG_8837  IMG_8844  IMG_8850After snapping a few pictures, we continued on our way to the sign. It was about a twenty minute walk away from the university, but before too long we reached the sign. The only problem? Just as we completed our walk, a taxi full of tourists stopped right in front of us. This means that we had to wait for eight or so tourists to take their pictures before we could finally go and take our own. Apparently you can take taxi tours of Svalbard, and considering the prices of the more expensive tours, the taxi tours seem quite cheap.

For those of you wondering what “Gjelder hele Svalbard” means I’ve been told that it translates to “Valid for all of Svalbard.” In other words, you should watch out for polar bears throughout the islands.

IMG_8864  IMG_8865  IMG_8883After that all that was really left to do was to buy a few more souvenirs (I bought a Svalbard hat that is apparently 30% possum—who knew that possum was a clothing material?) before heading to the airport.

The airport itself was pretty cosy. It’s so small that there aren’t even gates, though I suppose you could make the argument that the airport technically contains two gates—they just aren’t numbered. I caught my flight out of Svalbard without a too much of a hassle and eventually made my way back to Trondheim. I have to admit that compared to Longyearbyen Trondheim seems like a major metropolitan area. While I’m incredibly grateful to Sarah for hosting me, I’m definitely glad to be snuggled back in Trondheim and to have the (limited) sun for company.

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Home Sweet Home

I’ve been back in Norway for the last three or so weeks, but a combination of sickness and laziness have prevented me from blogging about the present until now. Clearly blogging regularly is not one of my New Year’s resolutions. Anyways, now that I’ve gotten back into the swing of things I’m happy to continue typing out my random thoughts and experiences.

I will say that one of the things that surprised me upon my return to Trondheim was realizing that I consider Norway home. Granted I was sick when I arrived, so being able to sleep in my own bed and consume American meds definitely contributed to my excitement, but not even my tiny college bed and modern medicine could entirely account for the level of happiness that I experienced when I came back. So it seems a bit fitting that I should take a moment and reflect on my experiences thus far and the reasons why I love Norway:

  1. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking and it’s never far away. I wouldn’t label myself as outdoorsy, but I definitely appreciate that nature is never more than a short walk away. Plus, the reindeer are a pretty huge perk.
  2. As a whole, things function really well here. Things tend to run on time, everything works, wifi is everywhere, and you can accomplish quite a bit (banking, travel arrangements, public transportation, grocery store discounts, etc.) on your smartphone.
  3. Overall Norwegians seem to be super active, which means that I’m guilted into exercising.
  4. Norway is an incredibly safe country. I’ve seen five year olds take the bus without assistance and I’ve been told that people regularly leave their young children outside and unattended to nap.
  5. There is a huge focus here on family and less of a focus on work. Almost everything is built to be child and stroller friendly, there are playgrounds everywhere, and Sunday is pretty much a day dedicated to spending time with your family. I’m not a huge fan of the fact that everything shuts down on Sunday (or is super expensive if it’s open) but it’s still nice to walk around and see a lot of families getting in some quality time by going skiing/hiking/running together. The childcare and other welfare benefits for families are also pretty incredible from what I’ve heard.
  6. Work scheduling is really flexible. It’s pretty easy for me to lesson plan at home and I’m really able to take ownership of my time. Granted I, as well as most other teachers, probably have a more flexible schedule than most Norwegians, but overall work scheduling seems to be pretty accommodating.
  7. The small population. Having lived in Los Angeles and Boston for most of my life, I have to say that I enjoy cities. In fact, I’m pretty used to living in crowded areas. That being said, it’s nice to have things be a bit smaller. The biggest perk: public transportation is almost never crowded. Seriously though, Norwegians think having to sit next to someone on the bus qualifies as “crowded.”
  8. A pretty functional public health system (I promise to blog more on this later).
  9. I’m pretty sure that I will never live anywhere more expensive, which means that when I travel everything seems ridiculously cheap.

Now that’s not to say that there aren’t some things that I struggle with or critique. I mean people go out of the country just to buy groceries and alcohol. It’s a bit ridiculous. But any country is bound to have its pros and cons, and overall Norway’s pros weigh heavily in its favor.

It’s recently hit me that in the six or so months that I’ve lived in Norway I’ve come to see it as home. And the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve come to realize that I would actually be quite happy to live here for another few years. Just living here these past six months has shown me why past Norwegian Fulbrighters keep returning to Norway, whether it is to stay permanently or just to visit. And while I don’t intend on moving to Norway permanently, it’s still pretty cool to realize that I’ve fallen in love enough to consider staying for an extended period of time.

The House in the Woods

It’s been a while since I’ve gone on a cabin trip so I was excited to be invited on one this past weekend. Because TEDx Trondheim isn’t hosting any more events for 2014, the group decided that it’s be a good idea to get some bonding in and talk a bit about plans for 2015. The founder of TEDx Trondheim, Martin, happens to have a cabin in Gjevilvassdalen and graciously offered to let us spend the weekend there.

There were thirteen of us who were able to go on the cabin trip and Friday afternoon we all piled into two cars and headed to Gjevilvassdalen. Considering that my last cabin trip had an old fashioned wood burning stove, no electricity, no running water, and an outhouse, I was originally prepared to rough it. So I was a bit shocked when I was told to bring toiletries like shampoo with me on the trip. Yes, there was a shower at the cabin, there was running water, electricity, a refrigerator, and even a dishwasher. Even Martin admitted that it wasn’t a cabin in the woods–it was a house.

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We spent that first evening more or less relaxing and playing games. After dinner we played a get to know you game where we all wrote down a fact about ourselves, shuffled the facts around, and then voted on who we thought each fact belonged to. Shockingly enough, most people believed I had dreamed of being a professional athlete. I dislike most forms of physical activity but I guess I come across as athletic. The other fact people thought belonged to me involved playing bongo drums for a band that makes stoner rock music. I guess I shouldn’t have talked about Venice Beach earlier in the evening. In case you’re curious, the fact that I did submit was that I have ridden an elephant. Only one person out of the thirteen guessed that it was me so I felt pretty successful.

The next day was a day mostly dedicated to hiking. Martin has a five year old son and he told us that the path we were taking was one that even his son was capable of. So, with this extra bit of motivation we all set off. Within ten minutes of leaving the house we encountered reindeer! A whole herd of them calmly crossed the road in front of us. For our part, the only people who remained calm in our group were the Norwegians and the Swede. The rest of us were shutterbug happy.

IMG_5955  IMG_5961  IMG_5966Once we had finished taking pictures of the reindeer, we continued on our hike. The hike wasn’t too strenuous, but it was incredibly windy. Because of the weather we didn’t spend too much time at the top of the mountain, but the views we got at the peak made everything worthwhile.

IMG_5970  IMG_5979  IMG_6019After the hike, we warmed ourselves up in the house and started to discuss the organization of TEDx Trondheim. The objective of this was for the group to determine how TEDx Trondheim should be structured in the future. It was a long three hours, but by the end of it I think most people were satisfied. Or at least just happy to finally eat dinner.

We spent the rest of the night lounging around the cabin until Martin convinced most of us to play Cranium and Cards Against Humanity. I decided to sit out both games in favor of reading a book, but as the only native English speaker I was occasionally called upon to help with both games.

Our last day at the house was very relaxed. There happens to be a beach in Gjevilvassdalen so we took the cars and drove down to it. Considering that the weather wasn’t exactly what I would call warm, we spent most of our time just walking around the beach and exploring.

IMG_6052  IMG_6118  IMG_6145After that it was just a matter of heading back to the house, cleaning up, and then hitting the road. I would say that the trip was definitely a success and I came out with it with some nice memories and closer friendships.

The Charmed Cabin Trip

One of the great advantages to having a roommate who has lived in Norway for a year is that he knows just about everyone. This week it meant that I had the chance to go on a cabin trip that one of his friends had organized in Vekvessætra. Because the cabin was large enough to house 20 people, two cabin groups ended up merging to form what was ultimately a group of 24 people (don’t worry we didn’t wreck the cabin, some people slept outside in tents). The cabin was really quaint and even came with a traditional wood burning stove and an outhouse.

Because we arrived at the cabin in the late afternoon we didn’t actually get to do too much hiking. The hiking that we did do involved trying to find a lake…and instead finding a swamp. Two of the boys ended up trekking through the swamp until they found the mythical lake, but the rest of us turned back after getting thoroughly muddy and getting our feet soaked. The real highlight of the evening was getting to see the Northern Lights! Of course I didn’t bring my camera since I thought that nothing exciting would happen on our trip and the Northern Lights typically appear in winter. That was clearly the wrong packing choice. Sadly my iPhone wasn’t able to capture the Northern Lights because they were pretty faint.

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Anyways, there are a few important things to know about cabins and hiking in Norway: both things are a huge part of Norwegian culture, and it’s traditional for Norwegians to go on hikes on Sundays. There is also a pretty extensive cabin system throughout Norway, and you can rent a cabin from the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) for fairly cheap. Things get even better because once you are actually in the wilderness you can drink straight from streams and eat any of the wild berries. My group personally liked gorging on the wild blueberries.

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While our second day at the cabin did include slogging through a few more swampy areas we also got to see reindeer! They popped up out of nowhere and proceeded to calmly run around the mountain (and I admit they were doing a much better job than we were). We almost reached the summit of the mountain but decided to turn back at the last minute due to the weather. We ended up taking a slightly different route back from our original one, the result being that we got lost for two hours. While we had brought a map with us, it ended up being fairly useless since it didn’t have any features on it other than mountain contour lines. Our struggle to navigate back to the main road included wandering on a narrow ledge between a river and an enclosed pasture, talking to an elderly Norwegian man who couldn’t speak English, and asking for directions from a family that was quite literally gold mining in the river. Luckily we managed to find a cabin that had a road leading back to the main road. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to see pavement in my life.

IMG_0702   IMG_0717 All in all it was a truly charmed trip since I got to see both the Northern Lights and wild animals. I’m already looking forward to the next one!