⎈Norway Part 1: A Rocky, but Lucky Start and the Search for the Spirit of Lyra Belacqua

December 28, 2016

Our travels to get to Norway were filled with challenges and unexpected luck at each turn. It was as if we were being tested on our resilience, patience, and ability to be creative despite unexpected roadblocks throughout the entire trip.

It began on December 26th.

After a holiday week of family and delicious home-cooked Chinese meals, my Company and I missed our original flight to London from John F. Kennedy Airport by ten minutes. The airline we booked with American/Finnair was confused about one another’s booking reference, and we missed the check-in time despite having arrived at the airport in time. Sobbing at the counter, we were shuffled from person to person, airline to airline, until finally arriving at British Airways’ ticket counter. I was beside myself, face red and puffy from tears, unabashedly hiccupping with loud crying. My Company was busy trying to console me while trying to find cheap flights via questionable airlines that would have routed us to Poland or Ukraine before landing us in London, where we had planned a buffer night before flying to Norway the next day.

Finally, Joy, a British Airways ticket manager whom we were shuffled to by uncomfortable airline staff who did not know how to handle my crying said, “Well, you already have a ticket! You paid for one. Give me your phone,” she commanded me and then, “Keep looking for other flights,” she commanded my Company. Minutes later, she waved us over to the counter and had printed two British Airway flights and said, “Now, you enjoy your honeymoon. Here’s two tickets and priority boarding. Go through the Gate there.” Giving Joy a hug and waving the British Airway staff goodbye at JFK Airport, my Company and I enjoyed a relatively smooth flight to London.

Mountains at polar 'dawn' on the Malangen fjord.

We woke up at 3:00 am on December 28th in London Gatwick and spent the morning waiting for a delayed Norwegian plane only to be diverted to Oslo for a plane swap. Our captain was not licensed to fly into the Arctic circle. Our 4 hour travel time from London to Norway turned into 8, and as it turned out, traveling to the Arctic was not going to be easy.

The following dark and cloudy taxi drive from Tromso to Malanagen Resorts was terrifying. Malangen is located about 1.5 hours east of Tromso, the closest major city and second most northern commercial airport. After our delayed landing and having missed our bus pick-up time from the airport, we shared a taxi with another couple headed for Malangen Resort. The windy, snowed in roads around the fjords made it difficult for our driver to go faster than 40 km/hr. Our first taxi driver (a Somalian man who came to Norway in 2011 and proclaimed upon learning where we each came from, “Oh! The Americans and the British are friends!”) had rejected us shortly after hearing where we were going. He then called his friend, a quieter and more reserved man who drove long distance taxis, drove up to a random house in the suburbs several miles from the airport, parked on the wrong side of the street, and swapped us to his friend.

Upon seeing that we were being exchanged without another taxi to be seen, the other couple proclaimed, “Uh…sorry to ask, but, is all this above board?”

To which our first driver responded back laughing, “Oh don’t worry! Of course it is! Where do you think we are? This is Norway!”

Despite the treacherous route in the snow, our brave, new driver impressed us with his skills at navigating around the windy roads on the fjords, inlets created by glaciers’ cutting valleys against the earthen bedrock. “If you look out there,” my Company said during our drive, “That darkness and those cliffs aren’t just valleys. That’s the sea!” All around me, all I could see was darkness and shadows in the darkness, illuminating the outlines of mountains; once in awhile, the bright Christmas lights of warm homes appeared. It was 4:00pm.

After grabbing a coffee at the resort, our taxi driver took off again, likely to rescue another host of tourists eagerly scrambling to experience the Arctic but duly unprepared for the travel challenges, as we had been. My company and I were exhausted but tingled with excitement at the beginning of our honeymoon when we appeared at the lobby of Malangen Resort.

“Will we see the lights with these clouds?” I asked the hotel receptionist impatiently.

“Oh it is a lot of luck, but all you need is ten minutes of a clear sky…and the skies are unpredictable here. If you’re staying for five days, I’m not worried at all that you’ll see something. Keep a look out for green clouds, it’s the aurora behind a cloud that may move,” the friendly receptionist assured me.

Our resort kindly moved our private sauna and outdoor jacuzzi rental to later in the evening and hosted us an early dinner. Over wine, expensive beer (there’s a high tax on alcohol in Norway), and steaks, my Company and I exhaled relief: we finally made it, and we were rewarded with a warm and delicious meal. After stuffing ourselves, we waddled our way in the dark and through the snow and sleet to the sauna where we baked ourselves silly and silently for over an hour. And when we were dripping with sweat and starting to feel dizzy with heat, we would walk outside into the cold and look for stars before repeating the process of baking again. It was the perfect respite after a difficult two days of travel.

On our slow, hot/cold slightly delirious walk back from the sauna to our cabin, my mind kept playing games with me. The night was clouded over, but I could swear that off in the distance, there was a green glow of the aurora teasing us through the clouds. My Company and I tried to capture it in photo, but we were unsuccessful. Tuckering into our warm cabin, we shared champagne and read a tourism guide for Norway before collapsing to an early sleep, listening to waves and the wind crashing against our windows, shaking our warm little wooden cabin from side to side.

Red cabins on Malangen fjord.

When I first described our honeymoon plans to friends, a few asked, “Why Norway? And why in the middle of winter?!”

Since childhood, it has been a dream of mine to see the northern lights. I’ve been captivated by its mystery and by the beauty of the natural world that produce such phenomena in the north. Created by the ionization of oxygen and nitrogen after a disturbance in the earth’s magnetosphere by solar winds from solar storms, active auroras, the ones that are photographed to move across the sky in arc like forms, line up in the local direction of the earth’s magnetic field and can light up the night sky. Typical colors from these oxygen and nitrogen ionizations are red, green and blue.

I first heard about the northern lights when I was about eleven from Philip Pullman’s young adult book “The Golden Compass” (or “The Northern Lights” in the UK edition). The book left a strong imprint on me alive even today. In the stories, the aurora always captivated me with its intersection between physics, legends, dreams and art. To this day, I think about the book’s main protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, with a temperament that mirrored my own at that age: impetuous, impatient, bossy, fearless, and kind.

While Lyra grows up by the end of the trilogy to become more poised, thoughtful but still maintain her bravery and confidence, I’ve been wondering about my own growth from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence well into adulthood. In recent months, I’ve ruminated over what had been gained and what had been shed over the past ten years: as I’ve matured into my own shape of adulthood, I’ve been presented with more constraints and examinations that have tested my previous emotions and proclivity. Are these things who I am, or are they a sign of immaturity? And finally, shall we take it to the next stage of life to be tested again? At each junction, at the end of each of these life examinations, I’ve picked the well-worn, well-liked pieces up and decided I’d keep them from that point. For me, at this particular junction and after these series of tests, I longed to search for Lyra Belacqua.

So off to Norway my Company and I headed, our purposes two-fold: to find childlike adventure in the Arctic during the polar night and to search for the northern lights. After extensive research on where we could most easily find the lights, we settled on the port city of Tromso, the northern-most city with a population over 50,000, settled onto the fjords of northern Norway. The municipality Tromso boasts the highest probabilities in the world of seeing the northern lights given its location within the Arctic circle, where the earth’s magnetosphere converges. Seeing the lights, however, required two circumstances: strong solar activity and a clear sky. The challenge we faced was that given northern Norway’s coastal environment, the fickle winter weather blew clouds into and out of the fjords without warning. Yes, the probability that the northern lights were above us at any given time were extremely likely. But, we would still be dependent on luck that the clouds would part just as we were outside, viewing the skies while strong solar activity emitted colors above us.

So that is how, in my search for Lyra Belacqua, I found myself experiencing yet another examination which would appear over and over again. Our unexpected challenges during the travel to Norway were just the beginning. As the trip progressed, we would be tested with learning to face a pursuit bound by circumstance outside our control with presence and flow.

Red boat house on Malangen fjord.

Category: Travel Tags: norway-travel-2016,