Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Travel | A Snowy Fortnight

2014 had me bear the ignominy of experiencing two winter seasons in the same calendar year. The first was a chilly 30+ days in the Southern African country of Malawi, starting from somewhere in the first week of June to a couple weeks into July. The second was during a short stint in Scandinavia, towards the turn of the year.


It’s a sunny afternoon when my phone buzzes with an incoming call from some random landline number. At the other end of the line, a lady with a high-pitched voice says she’s calling from the Norwegian embassy. My Visa is ready, she says. I could pick it that afternoon if I was around town, she goes on.

I had been chasing this for some couple of weeks. But every time I made my way past the security detail, there was always that one document missing. This had been the third attempt.

Long story short, I make the short journey to the Norwegian embassy on Akii Bua Road. I am ushered into the high-walled edifice from where I am supposed to confirm the good news. In the waiting room is a burly security chap whose face suggests he’s been trained to look mean.

I guess it’s their way of showing responsibility. He looks totally different when a female officer he is crushing on crosses his path (Okay, I made this up). He is big and tall, with a skin complexion that looks closer to navy-blue than black.

I exchange pleasantries with Mr. Officer before he sends me over to the counter. The lady across the counter looks at my twice before handing over my passport. I am Sweden-bound, finally.

My destination is Karlskrona, a small town in Blekinge County, somewhere along the Baltic Sea. The trip is only a couple of days away. Sweden is almost snowing, I am told. I talk to a couple of workmates who had been there before.

“That jacket you are carrying is going to feel like a vest. You had better find warmer clothing”, said Mohammed, an office colleague. We are on our way to the airport, and I can almost imagine how cold it would be for my jacket to feel like a vest. “But I handled the winter in Malawi”, I whisper to myself. I try to forge a confident look and assure him I will handle. 

“My friend, you are going to freeze. The temperatures in Sweden are almost Sub-zero”, he goes on, looking at me with the kind of pity you would reserve for a quadruple amputee. We part ways at the Check-in (he was going to Nairobi), leaving me to embark on my 12-hour plus flight.  

The flight is rather uneventful, save for the funny accents from the air hostesses. They sound like they are nibbling on some hard sugarcane. My KLM experience ends in Copenhagen, and I am supposed to find my way to Karlskrona.

This is 12 hours and 55 minutes later, and I am yet to reach my destination. From Copenhagen, I take a train that does another 3 hours or thereabouts, at one point changing direction and leaving my head in a spin. Imagine sitting in a bus speeding in reverse. You look at people around you and they are all looking normal. And calm. They look unbothered. Like wet mushrooms. Poor you. You are clutching both sides of your head, with your eyes half closed. That is how I felt. Motion sickness, clearly, is not done with me yet.

At the end of each train cabin is a running screen showing different destinations and the respective arrival times. Every stop is preceded by a croaky voice that announces the latest stoppage and the name of the station. Several stops later, the train grinds to a halt. We’ve finally reached Karlskrona.

I can almost feel the coldness eat into the marrow of my fingers as soon as I touch the ground. Google maps say my hotel is a 5 minutes’ walk from the station. I almost take a cab, out of the fear that I might freeze on tarmac and end up looking like a giant glacier. A pair of gloves I had got from Malawi saves the day, and I am able to reach my hotel in one piece.

Clarion is a strategically positioned hotel that makes one imagine what it feels like to live in Nirvana. Each day, you wake up to the sight of the calm Baltic sea, in a serene environment you would sacrifice anything to have all year round. It makes you imagine what you miss because you could not afford one of those prime plots on the shores of Lake Victoria.

The Food

In his article titled Dark lands: The grim truth behind the 'Scandinavian Miracle', The Guardian columnist Michael Booth talks about Denmark's 22m intensively farmed pigs, raised 10 to a pen and pumped full with antibiotics. I am inclined to believe this is the case for Sweden as well. They (the pigs) seemed to be part of every single meal.

There was bacon at every breakfast serving, some fried pork at lunch, and a bit of bacon as part of the dinner menu. I can excuse the coffee because I felt like the whole town had been locked up in some giant freezer every time I stepped out of my room to do the short walk to office.

The fish was always raw and cold. Like a forsaken corpse in one of those hit-and-run accidents on a rainy day. I had stumbled upon it on my first meal, and I almost felt it breed before it could reach my stomach. That was the last time I tried it out. The Irish potatoes tasted real, though.

Karlskrona is one humble town. Motorists stop to allow pedestrians cross. You would have to write your Will first before attempting the same in Stockholm or Copenhagen. It has a rich history as well; of culture and naval warfare.

One morning visit to the naval museum lifted the lid on this copious collection that left me in awe of Swedish history. I had been able to see the Baltic Sea that I only read in history books, the Sub-marine we studied about in high school physics and the ammunition detail I had only watched on History Channel. Here I was, feeling like the most fortunate man after Adam (before he ate the fruit).

My journey back featured a sojourn in Copenhagen, Denmark’s hyped metropolis. The last day in the capital saw me traverse Vesterbro, one of Copenhagen’s administrative districts. The streets have a high concentration of restaurants, each at an approximate 10 meters from the other. They have a richer food variety as well, although I found them pricier than Karlskrona.

Vesterbro is more populous. There are people from all walks of life. While majority of the folks in Karlskrona looked 6 feet tall on average, Copenhagen had them all. Native Danes. Short Chinese with bad hair. Fat, Black women with bandy legs. Stocky men with wide faces. Everyone. All the specimen drafts God played with before coming up with a final copy of a decent human face.

On my early morning walk to the train station, I espied a lady slouched at the edge of one the buildings. She was black, and looked to be somewhere north of 30. She cut a miserable look, and wore a tight pair of pants with a body-hugging top that struggled to veil mounds of carefully packaged cellulite. She must have been one of those hookers living their dream, in one of the world’s most expensive cities.  

A lot had been said about Denmark. Michael Booth had not spared Copenhagen in his master piece either. He said the trains sometimes don’t leave on time. I almost missed my flight after there were no signs of a train 5 minutes after it was supposed to have set off. I had to catch a cab – A Mercedes Benz (forget our jalopies, here) – to the airport.  

Dan A.