Paradise rich in RGB
This is a series of chronicles that shares some of the more memorable travel experiences of a starry-eyed tourist over the next three months, in small bytes.
Chapter 3 — Norway
I thought it’d be hard to beat Sweden and Denmark, but Norway proved me wrong, and how! It was in the train journey to Oslo that I realized the impact of tall international borders on us Indians. It hit me as the static on the train speakers crackled to life:
“Welcome to Norway. You can now see the border monuments to your left.”
Hell, at this second, traveling from Sweden to Norway seemed safer and easier than shuttling between the strife-ridden Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, leave alone India-Pakistan. This was despite Europe pulling up its socks amidst fears of economic and social turmoil. It was fascinating just how seamless the borders were.
If I had to describe Oslo in one word, it would be Grey. Oslo failed to impress me, partly because of how spectacularly Stockholm stole its thunder away. It was woefully idle for a major metropolitan city. Many shops remained closed, which I would soon learn was an annoying norm for most of Europe on Sundays. Sections of some streets were cordoned off for construction, with rubbles and tractors present in the clearings.
Oslo gave us three reasons to smile that day — the Akershus Castle, Americans and Punjabi Food. As we perched on the ledges of the castle fortress protecting the coastline, we went back a couple of centuries in time. We had a friendly chat, over tea, with a retired American engineer couple, whom we would later bump into in Flam. Our final stop for the day was at a Punjabi restaurant, where I checked my ‘First Indian Meal’ off the to-do list. I had never imagined how musical Hindi would sound to my ears. Language truly breeds familiarity like little else.
Our second stop in Oslo was marked by a visit to the national museum, which was the seat of Scandinavian art heritage. The skins and bones of artistes might have long decayed, but they breathed life into the museum through parchment and canvas. The tones of the paintings varied from exuberant to melancholic, with brush strokes betraying traces of depravity, tranquility, expressionistic genius, and sometimes, just raw talent. It struck me then how our brain is the first seat of conflict. How different the two hemispheres of our brain are, in thought and skill. We boarded the train for what was the ‘vagabond phase’ of the journey.
Over the next two nights, we were constantly on wheels, as we made two cross-country trips in three days. Oslo might be Norway’s capital, but it’s an unfairly bland sample of the rest of the country. For me, the Oslo is a dark cloak to Norway — the voluptuous Kardashian that hides beneath and sprawls luxuriously beyond. Norwegians are brilliant at two things — fishing and building wooden houses — and their countryside stands testimony to it. Bergen was a small, beautiful and stoic town in the western coast. It’s from here that we embarked on the Fjords tour, which is easily the most scenic stretch I’ve yet witnessed in life.
We set out on a train that took us through the Nordic countryside, after which we boarded a bus to the pier which took us to the valley down the winding roads around the cliffs. The sparkling inlet was shielded by its towering big brother cliffs, which basked in the afternoon sunlight. As we sailed on the ferry along the fjords, we were taking pictures, sipping coffees, indulging magicians, and making small talk with a dozen mates from IIM. We took another overnight train to land in Stavanger.
Stavanger is technically a city, but is a far cry from the manic trains of Mumbai or the noisy markets of Chennai or the toxic skies of Delhi. It is an archipelago with three scenic modes rich in hues of RGB — wooden houses, greenery and the Atlantic Ocean. The beauty about the scenery is that it doesn’t saturate you despite the lack in variety. It makes you want to whip your phone out for a photo — Every. Single. Time.
We trekked to Pulpit Rock, with an extremely trippy Iraqi-origin Englishman, Tadek, for company. It was amusing how he couldn’t stop talking, or abstain from stereotyping slit-eyed Asians as Japanese, or babbling about football, or stop asking us for photos at every second clearing on the trek. The trek in itself was a nice and crisp exercise after quite some time. To reach the summit and span across the fjords was invigorating. We spent two days in Stavanger, which was the best decision of the trip.
If we thought students of IIMA frequently accused each other of hiding under the blanket of ‘First World Problems’, Norway spanked us and firmly put us in our place. All four of us were mildly jealous of how Norway is endowed with all the ingredients of the ‘perfect’ life — a sinful extravagance of oil money, pristine environment, impressive health and fitness, benevolent welfare system that’s second only to almighty, a gender-equal society, and exotic scenery.
“What problems could Norwegians even have?”
Our host in Stavanger, Tore, is an educational counsellor. He, along with his psychiatrist girlfriend, unearthed the dark side of Norway over an engrossing evening conversation. When you have a country that’s squeaky clean and pure on the outside, the real toxins lurk inside the head. The air is thin and clear, but saddled with the weight of unspoken words. The problem with abundance is it distorts your benchmarks. Your head is constantly craned upwards, looking to ape an increasingly unrealistic ideal, often at the cost of tranquility. The perfect job isn’t perfect enough. The chiseled torso could have had sharper contours. One could obviously do better than the current the girlfriend. And as hard as it might be to believe, reality is often harsh when it disagrees with expectations — be it in Norway or Nigeria. As a result, a large proportion of Norwegians are clinically depressed. The country’s high suicide rate is a stark, but not surprising black mark on an otherwise stellar report card.
We did have a couple of places unchecked on the bucket list, but if I’ve learnt something from back home, buckets never get full. Besides, it’s when you give headspace for the water to splash do things get interesting, right?