Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kayaking in the Nærøyfjord and Aurlandsfjord (Norway)

The main draw for us coming to Norway was the chance to go kayaking in the fjords. Now we've been on a few kayaking trips - the most memorable included a capsize we still refer to as a "marriage-building experience" - but enough time passes that memories fade, and we think, yes, maybe we should try a kayaking trip again. When we arrived in Norway, the weather report had changed considerably enough for the worse that we seriously debated cancelling this portion of our trip and losing a significant deposit. Despite the ominous forecast, and our poor track record with kayaking trips, we committed to going ahead.

In Gudvangen (about 45 min northeast of Voss), we packed clothes in dry bags; donned wetsuits (again), spray skirts, and jackets; and secured food and gear in holds and in bungees strapped atop the kayaks. Everything we'd need for the 3 day adventure with tour operator Nordic Ventures. It was chilly and raining intermittently when we launched out into the Nærøyfjord, but the sea was relatively calm, and a light tailwind made the paddling surprisingly relaxed. It also helps that the Nærøyfjord is a UNESCO world heritage site. Traffic is restricted to only a handful of small boats and ferries, and the only aircraft we saw were likely rescue helicopters. We stopped for a picnic lunch on a beach just around the corner from where a huge pile of stones marked the burial of Viking of some importance, judging by the size of the mound.

Being on the water ended up being the best case scenario. The rain doesn't matter so much if you're in wetsuits already, and our guide Hamish pointed out about a half dozen smaller waterfalls that only appeared on the cliffs in such abundance. The old faithfuls were truly impressive dropping off such steep cliffs, and it was so much fun to fill our bottles straight from the cascades! One of the falls was so strong you could paddle hard into the rapids developing at the foot before the strength of them pushed you quickly out to sea again.

The middle of our trip was broken up with a day on land. We made camp on a beach one evening near the hamlet of Dyrdal, and the next morning we hiked from sea level all the way to the top of the fjord. Luckily, the weather cleared up for most of it, and the long hours of daylight we're on our side. We climbed 1100 meters (~3600 feet) and back down again in about 10.5 hours! As our guide warned us, Norwegians don't really go in for catwalks or zigzagging. The trail pretty much went straight up. It was also highly technical. The wet created boggy areas of mud, moss, and curiously springy lichen. The higher elevations were strewn with boulders and smaller, uneven rocks of the perfect size and shape for trapping feet or rolling ankles on. Fortunately, the views more than made up for it: thundering waterfalls with bluish rapids, towering mountains with the odd sheep, hay fields swaying with breeze, and tiny wooden cabins in the meadows. Stopping for a breather, tasting the raspberries and blueberries that grow wild along the trail made for a delightful respite. The sun was shining at the summit, and looking down, the boats on the Nærøyfjord far below us were practically microscopic. It was strange that our party had started the hike in shorts and t-shirts, but the changes in elevation had us layered up in fleeces, jackets, and knitted beanies at the top. After a brief nistepakke (Norwegian for "packed lunch," i.e. for me, as much smoked salmon and avocado as I could pile on a sandwich), and snapping photos off the edge until the acrophobia makes you queasy, we bundled up and headed down again... just as the snowflakes started to fall and a rainbow formed over the highlands. Glorious!

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Whitewater rafting in Voss (Norway)

Our foray into the Norwegian wilderness continued in Voss, about an hour on the train northeast of Bergen. Known as the adventure capital of Norway, Voss sits on the shore of the lake Lundarvatnet.

We were booked for a day of whitewater rafting... or canyoning, depending on the water levels. All of that rain we'd been experiencing meant for some truly awesome-power-of-nature-type rushing water. The guide told us the spectacular Tvindefossen (literally "two waterfalls") was the largest he'd seen it in several years. Ergo, we were going rafting.

We stuffed ourselves into thick wetsuits, jackets, and booties, which still didn't quite prepare us for the brisk 8C (~46 F) temperatures. Avoiding the wet was not up for debate, as this tour operator (Voss Active) insisted on a practice run and a swim test for good measure. We had to wade in, assume the legs up position (so your limbs don't get stuck under rocks), deliberately float into a swirling rapids, flip over, and swim across the current to the bank. Easy, right? Well, the cold was still a shock, and maybe I panicked a little with the strength of the current, swallowing more water than necessary, but I made it. Rich, on the other hand, was having so much fun in the rapids that he forgot the swimming part, ending up much further downstream.

The rafts were six or seven people each plus the guide. The Strandaelva river was flowing swiftly with Class 4-4.5 rapids. For the connoisseurs, it was the kind of rafting where there was a real possibility of flipping. We watched as one of our flotilla followed us over a big rapid, and the guide exclaimed, "Whoa, that was really close! If someone would've sneezed, they would've gone under... Probably means we shouldn't have done what we just did." In short, it was awesome!!

One poor sod was blue-tinged and shivering with cold in the van back to base. Luckily, there were hot showers awaiting, a wood fire going, and a hearty lunch of baked Norwegian salmon and potatoes ready for us. Nothing like cold and adrenaline followed by a hot meal to remind you life is good.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Bergen (Norway)

Having enjoyed our jaunts to Denmark, Iceland, and very briefly, Helsinki, we thought we'd give Norway a go. Flying into Bergen, the shuttle bus is an easy choice into the city center... All the more easier with only half our luggage. Unfortunately, we spent the first part of our holiday wondering when or if my pack, with all its technical gear, would join us. The situation was more agonizing when we realized, yes, Norway is as expensive as everyone says, and shops could be closed for Sunday by the time I found out. Here's hoping the jacket and trousers I purchased for 2-3x what it'd cost in the U.S. gets reimbursed by the airline!

We quickly discovered the weather in Norway is very changeable so layers with water- or wind-proofing are essential. We imagine the city is pretty when the sun is out, but we also heard that Bergen typically gets about 20 days of sunshine a year. Visiting in August did mean that even on a cloudy day, there was good light well into the evening, with dusk beginning around 10:30 pm. This was handy as shopping delayed the start of our hiking on Mount Fløyen, one of the seven hills of Bergen. Catching the funicular near the city center, we hiked about 5 km of trails around little lakes and in the mossy forests 320 meters (~1050 feet) above Bergen. It was great seeing families setting off rain or shine with tiny kids in Goretex coveralls, climbing into canoes or swarming over ropes courses.

A haven from the cold and wet are the KODE museums, one of the largest art and design collections in Scandinavia. The docent persuaded us to join the free tour of Edvard Munch's works in KODE 2, and it was amusing to hear her obvious annoyance that Oslo insists on retaining all 3 copies of his most famous piece, The Scream.

Our favorite break from the weather came from a guidebook's interview with one of the members of the Norwegian band Kings of Convenience. We may have missed out on one of his guest dj spots in the city, but Eirik Glambek Boe knows his coffee. Kaffemisjonen served us up the best cups we've had since our trip to Italy, and his recommendation for a local roaster had us looking out for the brand elsewhere in Norway.

Bryggen is the historic quarter of the city, hearkening back to its days as a trading powerhouse in the Hanseatic League. Buildings in warm reds and yellows, dating post a 1704 fire, but in the style of the 12th century, line the eastern side of the wharf with wooden alleyways containing craftsmen workshops and plenty of souvenir shops. Directly opposite lies the Torget Fish Market, a fancier version compared to many we've seen. A selection of caviars, shellfish, and other treasures from the sea were on display. A salesgirl at one counter proffered curious tidbits of Norwegian land-based cuisine. We tried smoked sausage made from elk, reindeer, moose, and a small, furry weasel-like creature Google suggests might be a pine marten. Chewing on a greasy piece of whale sausage brought back terrible memories of hakarl (Icelandic rotten shark). For more al fresco dining, there were fishmongers - mostly Spaniards it seemed - in pop up tents selling seafood plates from the grill or flat top.

Bypassing these options, we struck gold with a restaurant recommendation from the bus driver. Although the prices were shocking, the presentation was decidedly upscale and the food superb. From the first bite, we knew we were in the hands of a master: arctic char with beautifully crispy skin on a bed of melted root vegetables, tender wolffish, creamy fish soup (a Bergen specialty), and a light and airy pavlova (meringue dessert) made with cloudberries (an amber-colored relative of raspberries that grows in the arctic wild in Norway). Compliments to the chef, indeed!

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Final Thoughts on Nepal

A former manager of mine had been to Nepal as a Fulbright Scholar, and he maintained his enthusiasm for the country from grad school through to his recent visit for a different Farmer-to-Farmer assignment. Despite some the initial difficulties, I am happy to report I share his good opinion of Nepal. I will definitely have to come back some day to see more of the country. 

Here are some odds and ends from my visit:
- Diversity: Even when boarding the plane in Dubai, I was struck by the ethnic diversity of Nepalis, just from the sample of overseas workers headed home. In a lineup of agro-vets, individuals could have easily been mistaken for Mexican, Arab, Indian, Greek, Chinese, or Native American. The day I showed up at the office sporting my only salwar kameez (the long shirt, pants, and scarf combo I purchased in India but is also common dress in Nepal), my Winrock colleague told me he nearly mistook me for a Nepali woman. The turnabout was also true. I couldn't stop staring at the Pesticide Registrar when we met because he was a dead ringer for my Filipino uncle. We even joked about it later, as through a translator, he told me he also thought I looked like his relatives! 

- Food: No matter the ethnicity, the staple for Nepalis is dal bhat or dal bhat tarkari. The lentil soup (dal) and steamed rice (bhat) is eaten 2 or 3 times a day. The upgrade includes a vegetable or meat curry (tarkari). The dal bhat tarkari I had with agro-vets was an excellent value for about 150-200 rupees ($1.50-2.00), and that would even come with seconds or thirds if you wanted! ... and instead of bread rolls or chips and salsa, they leave a bowl of popcorn for you to snack on. The fanciest dal bhat tarkari come with multiple curries and spicy pickles in little stainless steel dishes, similar to an Indian thali. When I've been on assignments, the limitations to local cuisine can be monotonous after so many days. Not so in Nepal, where even the dal changes daily or different cooks have different takes on the same lentils or beans. I credit Indian cuisine with teaching me to enjoy vegetables, and its less spicy - though still spiced! - cousin in Nepal was no exception. The veg curries came in varieties of cabbage, carrot, pumpkin, beet, okra, cauliflower, different greens, and even the dreaded bitter melon. Sorry, Mom, I still don't like ampalaya in any form. 

- Logistics: While my Winrock colleagues stuck to US/EU business hours, the government officers in Nepal have shorter days (~ 10 am to - 4:30 pm) but work 6 days a week with only Saturday off. Nepal also has their own calendar, a lunar one in which I believe the current year is 2072? When trying to set up meetings, what really threw me for a loop were Nepali numbers. Zero still looks like an "O," but the script for their 1 and 5 look more like how we write "9" and "4," respectively. Confusing! ...and of course, Nepalis drive on the left-side of the road like the Brits.

- Himalayas: One colleague liked to say that Nepal is not rich in much but mountains. Before this Farmer-to-Farmer assignment, my main interest in coming to Nepal would have been to go trekking in the mountains. As this would take more time than I had, one alternative was to take the Himalaya mountain flight. Catering to tourists, the plane leaves early in the morning and flies for 1 hour over to the mountains. Visibility is always an issue, and even the day, I went the flight was delayed a half hour as they waited for better conditions. Each of the approximately 20 passengers has their own window seat, and the flight attendants come down the aisle to point out Everest and the other tallest mountains in the world. It was something to see, especially since I had no other alternative and none of my commercial flights would have passed by them. However, the price tag is pretty steep at $200/seat and probably would have been better justified if I was a good photographer or had a better camera. We did each get to step inside the cockpit in midflight to see the Himalayas from the pilots' view - something I definitely thought, especially in a post-9/11 world, would never be possible!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Kathmandu and Pokhara (Nepal)

Tacking on a few days for some sightseeing at the end of my assignment, I visited the Boudhanath temple complex in the Kathmandu valley. A UNESCO World Heritage site, entry into the Great Boudha Stupa was closed due to earthquake damage, but the outer buildings are well worth a visit regardless. One of them houses a prayer wheel the size of a car with a big metal rail installed for worshippers to spin it as they circumambulate clockwise. The Guru Lhakhang Monastery was richly decorated with elaborate murals even in the stairwells, colorful hanging textiles, and giant gold statues. A Buddhist monk wrapped a white scarf around my neck and prayed for me in a ritual that involved chanting and throwing rice grains onto the pages of his book?!

Pokhara, only about a half hour by plane from Kathmandu, is a lakeside town framed by mountains. It is a popular stop either before or after trekking the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas. Sadly, I didn't have the time or money - or the legs - to do such a thing at the moment. But the hotel arranged a taxi to take me to see one of the sights: the view of the mountain Machhapuchchhre, sacred to the god Shiva and off limits to climbers. It’s best to capture at dawn so I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m., only to find no one else awake besides the security guard. Apparently, I had misunderstood the man at reception and was an hour earlier than I needed to be! They roused the driver, and we drove out in the dark and up the mountainsides. I had expected a hike, but evidently, the driver intended to take me all the way to the viewpoint. It was comically pitch black when we arrived, so after taking in the town lights, we adjourned to a neighboring shack. The proprietor of this makeshift café was just waking up, and yawning in her house dress, she put the kettle on to make us tea. My driver and another who appeared out of nowhere made some lighthearted conversation, probably about the silly foreigner who woke him up in the middle of the night. In the growing light, the site revealed a view of Pokhara’s lake in the distance and the Seti Gandaki ("White River") winding through the valley. With the haze of dawn, I wasn’t sure exactly which of the mountains was the sacred one so I took pictures indiscriminately, along with the rest of the group that had gathered. As with any mountain chain, the cloud cover is unpredictable in the Himalayas. I just had noticed that some of the clouds seemed to have more of a distinct edge to them, when the sun shone through, and we all realized this was actually Machhapuchchhre, rising at least twice as high as the mountains we’d been photographing madly. This makes sense as I later learned there is about a 6500 m change in altitude within this 30 km. Unfortunately, this was the one glimpse we had before the clouds shifted again and we gave up with the full morning upon us. Along the steep road down, we passed small groups of young men running up. They were training in the military. Some of them looked pretty miserable with heavy packs on a strap slung around their forehead, which seems to be the preferred load-bearing style in Nepal. It made me a little relieved I didn’t do the hike.

Pokhara is the second most visited city by tourists in Nepal. The differences were jarring. Every business was either a hotel, restaurant, spa, souvenir shop, or hiking store. I didn't mind so much as it gave me a chance to purchase some fine textiles to bring home. Cashmere, anyone? Seriously, one shopkeeper going through all the grades and mixtures made my head spin. I studiously avoided anything more than window-shopping in the trekking stores as who knew if I could get those flood gates shut in time. As it was, I bought enough to make me nervous about the bag weight coming home. Despite it being off-season, I saw more foreigners than I’d seen in my previous 3 weeks in the country, even chatting to a couple of backpackers in an attempt to share the huge portion I ordered.  Pokhara was virtually untouched by the earthquake, but Nepalis were very concerned – and rightly so – that the international media coverage had scared away all the tourists. The upcoming high season would be the real test: Was the drop in visitors temporary? Or would the blow to this significant part of Nepal’s economy be permanent? Despite my comments about the earthquake damage I’ve seen, it was by far not as widespread as the media let on. It’s a gorgeous country, and I would urge people to still consider going… maybe now might even be the best time!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On