Shoes of a Nomad

Exploring the Fjords in Norway.

My second day in Norway found me shuffling to the central train station in Oslo at the break of dawn. I broke one of my general rules about traveling (don’t patronize American based chain establishments) and got coffee at Starbucks inside the train station before boarding the train. The good thing about jet lag is that the constant exhaustion makes the actual local time completely irrelevant. Nonetheless, it still hurt to catch the 6am train after only sleeping a handful of restless hours the night before (the first sleep I really had in over 30 hours).

Oslo Central Train Station.

Oslo Central Train Station.

When I had checked into my hotel the night before, I asked the front desk clerk to give me a wake up call since I am always nervous about setting my phone alarm in another time zone. The front desk clerk said politely, “There is no phone in the room.” I nodded. “Is there an alarm clock?” I asked.  He shook his head.  No clocks in the room. “Really?” I asked, and he looked at me as if I’d strolled in from 1995 and asked to use the FAX machine. He then offered, “I’ll be working tomorrow morning, I will come knock on your door to be sure you are up and don’t miss your train. Would you like a breakfast pack to go?” I smiled at the seemingly instinctive courtesy that felt sewn into the Scandinavian culture. “Sure, that would be great!” I said, half-wondering what exactly the ‘breakfast pack’ would include.

The next morning, promptly at 5am, there was a knock on my door. I had been up since 4am, when the first pink lines of daybreak pierced the grey sky. I slung my backpack over my back and followed him down to the lobby, where he gave me my promised breakfast pack: a sandwich, pastry, and bottle of water. I had enough not just for breakfast, but also for lunch.

Train from Oslo to Myrdal, Norway.

As I approached the train, I realized that I hadn’t looked at my ticket since I got it in the mail a month earlier. I found Tog 4, my train, and double checked my seat number as I slid into the window seat after hoisting my backpack to the overhead luggage rack. As it turned out, the woman sitting next to me in the aisle seat was a solo traveler from New York City. As the farmland gradually gave way to snow fields and mountains with waterfalls, the other solo traveler and I compared notes on places we’d been and more we still wanted to see. She was also divorced, her children grown, and she traveled a lot for work. I enjoyed hearing about places we both had yet to visit and what we each loved about traveling alone, where we felt safe and where we didn’t.

By the time I got off at Myrdal to head to Flam, we had exchanged phone numbers and offered each other a place to stay should the other visit. I told her I would absolutely look forward to visiting New York and staying at her place in Greenwich Village. I’ve never been in the Village and visiting with a local seemed like a really good idea.

This happens so frequently when I solo travel. I find my people, and my tribe expands. My friends often comment about how I know so many people from so many places and from all different walks of life. I can’t really explain it except that every friendship starts with a conversation, and I enjoy talking with people that I meet. I enjoy hearing about their stories and how they got to this place in time. I usually have no trouble finding things in common with people, even if on the surface their lives seem very different from mine.

We had to wait at Myrdal for about a half hour for the train to Flam. There were several mountain bikers that disappeared into the cold fog on the other side of the railroad tracks. I talked with a couple from San Francisco while we waited. The first thing they said to me was, “Isn’t it great how happy people are here? I wish Americans could stop being so angry and just be happy with each other.” It really was that noticeable.

The train trip down the valley from Myrdal to Flam was slow and packed with tourists, mostly Australian and Chinese. We stopped at the Kjosfossen Waterfall, where tourists streamed out in the rain to see a weird interpretive dance of a woman on a rock ledge. Several of the Australians asked if I was Australian as well.  I said no, but that there seemed to be quite a few Australians on board.  Each of them replied, “Oh, really?” so that by the time our train reached Flam, I had introduced all of them to each other. A couple of them said they always appreciated the friendliness of Canadians. I started to say that I wasn’t Canadian, but instead I just smiled.

Kjofossen Waterfall, Myrdal, Norway. Total fall is about 225 meters (or 738 feet).

It was raining off and on during the fjord boat tour from Flam to Gudvangen. I loved the storybook towns folded into the creases of the fjords, which seemed to have been solidified as the land poured into the water. The boat captain pointed out churches that dated back to the 1600s, and then even the 1200s. They looked similar in architecture as the stave church I saw the day before at the Folklore Museum, but each had a fresh coat of white paint.

Fjord village with whitewashed church dating to the 1600s on the bottom right.

There were waterfalls carved into the fjords, they fell like strings of cut pearls over the heavy lush green landscape. Apparently 9 of the 20 longest waterfalls in the world are found in Norway.

Rails to trails mountain bike path zigzagging next to the waterfall just outside of Flam.

From Gudvangen, the tour group boarded a bus to Voss, where we would board the train to Bergen. Unfortunately, the bus driver said that “something is hanging from the tunnel” on the road that we were traveling and traffic was at a standstill. I looked out the window to see a long line of cars ahead of our bus, people had gotten out of their cars and were standing in the meadow next to the road. I softly punched my backpack in the seat next to me, and leaned over, crossing my arms and burying my face. If I was stuck in traffic and I wasn’t driving, I was going to take a nap. 

I awoke as we turned into the last curve near the train station in Voss. We had been delayed by two hours on the road, so we had missed our train to Bergen. There was one last train that night, but we had to wait for an hour. By this time, it was nearing 9pm and people wandered around Voss in search of food.  One small deli was open, and people filtered in through the small train station with foot-long hoagies wrapped in white paper.

Finally, around 10pm just as the sunset painted color beyond the trees, the train to Bergen rolled into Voss.

Waiting at Voss for the last train to Bergen, Norway.

Since this train had fewer cars, there weren’t enough seats for everyone. I got on the car with the cafe and bought a bottle of water just to grab a seat. I was just about to sit at a bar stool to watch the setting sun out the window when I heard someone call to me, “You can sit here, please!” I looked to see a friendly face tapping the seat next to him in a small booth. He was maybe 35 years old, handsome (it is worth noting that absolutely every man, woman, and child that I saw in Norway was fresh-faced and beautiful), and had an open bottle of beer on the table in front of him. I hesitated, but then realized I would welcome some conversation after the long day, so I nodded and slid into the booth next to him.

The stranger (whose name I didn’t hear at first and then after he repeated my name several times with emphasis on different syllables, asking if I preferred the German pronunciation, I didn’t want to ask him to repeat his name again) asked me if I spoke Norwegian. I shook my head, not able to really take credit for the handful of words I was learning or able to identify because of their similarity to German words. He then asked if I was Canadian.  I laughed and shook my head. When I told him I was from the States, he said that he was on his way to a conference in Las Vegas. He worked at a heating and cooling company in northern Norway, and was on his way to Bergen to stay with his sister and her family overnight. He would then hop a plane that would eventually lead to Las Vegas. The thought of going to Vegas from Norway seemed like such a stark contrast in my mind that I shook my head with feelings of being disoriented.

Over the course of the hour train ride to Bergen, we talked about politics, our families, our careers, traveling. He told me about what it was like to live in northern Norway, and said that when I return (because I told him that I would) that I should take the “mail run boat cruise,” up the fjord coast of Norway all the way to the Russian border. The boat stops at 30-some ports, delivering mail to the small villages along the coast. He said the coastline of Norway, if total land-to-water distance is measured, is longer than the coastline of Australia, it’s just folded up in the fjords.

Just before the main Bergen stop, my seat mate got a phone call from his sister.  He spoke to her briefly, then turned to me and smiled as he got up to leave. “I have to get off before you do. My sister has her kids in the car and I don’t want her to wait,” he said. We wished each other well and said our goodbyes with friendly handshakes and a wave. 

It was pitch dark by the time the train pulled into the station at Bergen. I walked a block to my “self check-in” hotel, and dropped my backpack next to my bed. I brushed my teeth, and fell into my tiny single bed. I left the window shade open so that the morning light would wake me up since I would be catching a flight to Stockholm the next morning. A neon sign down the street summed up this day well:  There are a lot of good people around.

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