Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Something Fishy In Norway

Norway is a big country. Or at least it is a long country. Many Norwegians I have met have regaled me with the factoid that if Norway were flipped over, using its southern point as the axis, the northern end would hit Barcelona ... or Rome, or Morocco, or some other impressively distant southern point. The accuracy isn't too important, but suffice to say it's a long way to the top. A lot of my time spent since Trondheim has been in the pursuit of bridging the gap to the north. Such is the size of the country that in Norway (and Sweden) when people talk of distances they talk in miles (mil), but not our paltry 1.6km miles, no, Scandinavian miles are each 10km long; so beware if a Norwegian tells you that something is only a few miles away, it may be further than you think!
I spent quite some time hitching in the north of Norway. It's quite a boring way to pass the day and so any amusement, howeverlame, is always welcome. Like the sign in Mo-i Rana.

Since about 90% of (the less than 5 million) Norwegians live in the third of the country from Trondheim southwards the northern two thirds are very sparsely populated and are one of the last true wildernesses left in Europe, dominated by craggy mountains, wild, wide rivers, and two-tone forests: light green silver birch and darker spruce. every bend in the road seems to offer a newer, more stunning wilderness vista than the last, with the mountains, frosted with snow, still trying to cling onto winter for as long as possible. I have also expanded my list of spotted fauna from musk-ox and elk to reindeer and Arctic fox

Some colleagues at worked remarked that my language skills were being under-utilised, but I have finally found a chance to use them whilst hitching. I mentioned in my last post how Norwegians are not inclined to picking up hitchers, well I've found a group of people who are even more reticent: camper van drivers. There are a great many of them here in northern Norway, and their main motivation in having a mobile home with everything in it seems to be so that they can have as little contact with other people as possible. A couple of days ago I was passed by the same convoy of 6 Italian camper vans on 4 separate occasions, and although after the second encounter some of them would wave to me as they drove past none of them had the nous to actually stop and offer me a ride despite my frantic thumb-waving and pointing to my sign. Even more galling are those who shrug their shoulders and spread their hands as if to say "I'd love to take you but I've just got no room." No room? you're trailing an entire house behind you, complete with kitchen sink, and you've got no room?! But I digress. I was standing by this insignificant mountain village on the main (only) road north when a flash Mercedes screeches to a halt behind me; the trunk eerily opens; I put in my rucksack and make my way round to the open door. Even before I get in I realise that they are Russian when one of them says tuda (over there). Ruslan, Islam and Rustem didn't strike me as your average Mercedes owners - not that I want to stereotype, but most people with £50,000 cars aren't in their 20's, wearing tracksuits, with bowl-cuts and drinking own-brand coke. They said they were from Rostov, living in Norway and they asked me about the possibilities of finding jobs in the construction industry in the UK. I kept the conversation to easy chit-chat and comments about the beautiful scenery (partly because that's about as far as my Russian stretches, and partly because I didn't think that asking whether they were part of the Chechen mafia was a good idea, especially as they were giving me a 250km lift). My second surreal hitching experience occurred a few days later when I got picked up by a foreign-sounding man with an enviable moustache. He introduced himself as Nasser al-Khalil. It turns out he was from Iran, fled to Iraq after the revolution (he's ethnically Arab), made himself a life there, and has now had to flee to Europe and Norway. I certainly hadn't been expecting to use my Farsi so early in the trip, but it was enough to impress Nasser. He then bowled me over with his Middle Eastern hospitality by offering me a much-needed shower (I had been free-camping the 3 previous nights), an offer which I gladly accepted.
Drying cod is everywhere in the Lofoten islands, and still very much prepared the old fashioned way.

My first destination after Trondheim was the archipelago of Lofoten, some 800km further north and already some 150km north of the Arctic Circle. Lofoten is primarily famous for two things: its scenery and fishing (and for anoraks like me it is also known as being the the furthest north location in the world to have positive average winter temperatures, thanks to the Gulf Stream). As you approach the islands on the ferry they look like something out of a Tolkien wet dream, with sheer mountains rising straight out of the sea, like the teeth of a primeval sea monster. There doesn't even seem to be any flat land on which to build a single house, let alone a town or village. These mountains are a universal draw, attracting armchair enthusiasts who take pictures from beneath, to the adrenaline junkies who try and conquer the vertiginous peaks. As you get closer you see that there are a few villages on tongues of land that form sheltered bays, the calm waters reflecting nature's spires looming above them. The sheltered harbours are in strong contrast to the treacherous currents that surround the islands, which have given us the English word maelstrom. But it is precisely these strong, and dangerous, currents that cause the waters to be so nutrient-rich and attract the Atlantic cod to come and spawn there in huge numbers in winter and early spring. Since time immemorial the cod off the Lofoten islands has been one of Norway's economic mainstays, and indeed it was this same cod (dried and exported, mainly to Italy, Portugal and Spain as stockfish or bacalao) that formed the basis of the Hansa trade in Bergen (and once more the Hansa connection - which just goes to show that you can find interconnections everywhere if you look hard enough). Iberia and Italy are still the main destinations for stockfish, but in a nice example of globalisation, Nigeria is also a big buyer, especially of cod heads, which are used in a popular local soup. Although tourism has overtaken fishing in importance for the Lofoten economy, it is still an essential part of it, and every village has racks with fish hung up in pairs to dry. Indeed some villages have so many that the fish smell has an almost physical presence and I could feel it tickling the allergic response at the back of my throat.
The landscape of the Lofotens is probably one of the most beautiful in the world.

As a demonstration of how important fishing still is whilst I was hitching out of Lofoten I was picked up by Bjørn, a local fisherman. He was off to the main town on the islands to take part in a stakeholder meeting regarding the opening up of the waters around Lofoten to the oil industry (up until now it was the one part of the Norwegian Continental Shelf to be off limits to oil prospecting). Many fisherman are against it and believe that it will adversely affect the fish stocks and their ability to catch them; they also believe that any oil spill would cause irreparable damage. Although many on the islands are in favour of opening up the area as it would provide jobs for a region locked in a long-term population decline, the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico has certainly strengthened the hand of those wanting to keep the ban.

Free camping in Lofoten was rather problematic due to the topography, as it was nigh on impossible to find some flat ground away from built up areas, but I eventually succeeded in finding an almost-dry bog. The dampness wasn't the biggest problem though. In this part of the world at this time of year the sun never sets, even at midnight, and so going to sleep is not an easy task. Luckily I came prepared with an eye mask which I borrowed from my brother who has a small collection from his trips abroad. Normally the sound of songbirds doesn't bother me and I quite enjoy their chirping. Seagulls, however, do not chirp. Certainly not at 3 o'clock in the morning!

1 comment:

Horia said...

Best post so far. Your trip is exciting already as seen through the posts :-)