Sunday, August 6, 2023

Up to the mountain

I had been thinking about Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania since the last time I was there, in 2017. As readers of The Discreet Traveler know, on summit night I turned around at 5,200 meters above mean sea level (=17,060 feet), which is nothing to be ashamed of. Kilimanjaro is the highest freestanding mountain in the world. The problem for me was that I kept thinking it had affected me, my ability to go on and pursue other goals—even to get up for work in the morning! I had let Kili get in my head, and stay in my head, long after I’d left East Africa.


Kilimanjaro from the plane

I thought of things that I would do differently, if I ever tried to climb it again. But I didn’t really think I’d ever go back. Then Trish put the idea in my head of asking my brother, Ben, to climb it with me. She was sure that the two of us, together, could get to the top. Ben liked the idea and so we started planning to do it for my 50th birthday celebration. A belated one: the summer of 2023 would be the time.


Then, in the fall of 2022, our Mom’s illness took a turn for the worse, and our world stopped. She died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis on the 10th of November. I felt helpless, and just wanted to do something, make some positive difference. I thought raising funds for the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation was a way to add meaning to our journey. PF is a rare and poorly understood disease, and currently, there isn’t much that medicine can offer to those who have it. Ben and I decided not just to challenge ourselves, but others, to support patients with lung disease. 

When we hike at very high altitudes, our bodies have to work harder just to get oxygen from the air. We want to help people who struggle with their breathing every day.”

As T. and I have discovered countless times in our travels, people want to help!

Colobus monkey in the rainforest, day 1. We camped at 2,785 m (9,137 ft).


Over the first months of this year, we organized flights to Tanzania via Nairobi, Kenya, and conferred with our trekking company. Specifically, I e-mailed back and forth with Henry Stedman, who wrote Kilimanjaro: The Trekking Guide to Africa's Highest Mountain (first edition in 2003) and has probably climbed the mountain more times than anyone else who isn’t Tanzanian. I’d gotten in touch with Henry years ago, picking his brain about my first trek, because I’d read online that he was happy to answer anyone’s questions about Kili—which is true! He’s just such an enthusiast and, although he’d recently organized a company himself with some other experienced people he’d worked with on Kili, his book and website never push you to become their customers specifically. Henry is all about providing information on all the companies and helping trekkers make an ethical and value-for-money choice. Funny thing is, based on all this we decided to book directly with the company he's part of—Kilimanjaro Experts. 


Note Maasai ring on my necklace, which Rachel and I brought Mom from Tanzania back in 2001.

In contrast to six years ago, this time I was determined to make it to the summit. I was motivated by our fundraising goal, and by being part of a team—me and Ben, not just a collection of trekkers who happened to be with the same company at the same time. I didn’t want to let him down, plus I was now six years older, so I found and adapted a mountain fitness training program, and undertook it in earnest for the last three months. Last time I’d “prepared” for Kili by sauntering around Europe for a few months, but this was my challenge for the year I was 50, and I wasn’t going to fail to get to Uhuru Peak if I could help it. Altitude no one can control—it can affect each person differently each time—but I wasn’t going to arrive at base camp out of energy or feeling like I had nothing left in my legs. 


The porters are amazing and carry most loads balanced on their heads.

When I could I hiked up and down hills, with between 500 and 1,000 m total ascent (1,640-3,280 ft). In Toronto, which is pretty flat, I found long staircases in the park and traipsed up and down them—with my daypack, trekking poles, and all! I even befriended, briefly, an older long-distance runner in one of the parks, who was interested in where I was going that I needed to do all these stairs. “The goal,” she said, “is to train hard down here, so you can climb easy [sic] up there.”


Shira Plateau, day 2. Now in the heath-moorland zone

Ben kept remarking that the trip had seemed far in the future for a long time—then, all of a sudden, it was upon us! We conferred about gear; he flew to London; we got to Arusha, Tanzania, and finalized our bags. On Kili, almost all the carrying and work is done by porters, who outnumber trekkers on a team almost four to one. The crew do everything but walk for you; all you have to do is get to the top on your own two feet. I’d tried to tell Ben what a challenge it was, but I guess the only way to understand completely is to actually go there and try it.

 Shira 1 camp, day 2 (3,504 m=11,496 ft)

Our head guide was Ibrahim, ably assisted by Abdallah, Dixon, and Mariam, one of four female crew members. (That made our crew more than 10% women, in a place where crews are usually still 100% men.) Our porters were all well equipped, for example wearing decent boots or walking shoes and sufficiently warm clothing. But for me, the biggest contrast between my first attempt and this one was the pace set by the guides.


Ben at Shira 1. In the background is Kibo, Kili's highest volcanic cone, our goal.

To reach very high altitude safely, one should ascend as slowly as possible. In Swahili, the expression is pole pole. On Kili, guides set a deliberately slow pace from the first day, so that it may take an hour to hike a mile. Ben realized soon that the mileage each day didn’t really tell us much about the length of the trek. In fact, the first couple of days the pace felt unnaturally slow—two of our six teammates, a young (30s) Russian woman now living in the U.S. and Olivier from Paris, soon set their own pace ahead of the rest of us, accompanied by Dixon. What I came to realize, though, was that even the pole pole pace set for our group in 2017 had not been slow enough for me. It was slower than I would hike at sea level, so I thought it was slow, but I was in a “strong group” with 20-somethings, and after six days of hiking with them, by summit night I found myself running out of steam.


The stars at night were awe-inspiring. Here you can see the "evening star"--the planet Venus.

No one was that young on Ben’s and my team. I think the youngest was Anna, a German woman who lives in Sweden, and the oldest were me and a couple of British guys. Our final teammate was Dan, an American with whom Ben particularly hit it off. When I say our “final” teammate, this is literally true. We waited for him on the first morning, to see if he’d make it at all after a bout of food poisoning overnight! He did, and while just about every one of us had some day(s) on the trip when we were feeling pretty rough, Dan was a trouper from the very beginning!


At Moir Huts camp, day 3 (4,161 m=13,651 ft)

At many points on the journey, Ben commented that if we’d been in America, someone would have been explaining what was going on and what was going to happen next. But that’s not really how they do things in East Africa. For example, that first day when we were waiting for Dan, it would have seemed a perfect time to introduce us to the crew, who we’d been told “can’t wait to meet you.” But no guide attempted this at all, and instead we stood around getting to know each other, the Swahili speakers presumably doing the same. Indeed, we didn’t have proper introductions to the people who were helping us so much until day 5, which was Ben’s birthday.


We hiked to this ridge for acclimatization and again on day 4. 4,402 m (14,442 ft)

As in 2017, I found the first six days—all the ascent before summit night—enjoyable, even though the hilly and rough terrain could be tough. Every day we were in a different climate zone, seeing different landscapes, flora and fauna. Unlike six years ago, though, I had some unpleasant symptoms of the altitude the first few mornings I awoke on the mountain, especially at camps 2 and 3. My head hurt so bad that I was sick to my stomach. I thought, if I continued to feel like this, I was going to have a miserable time. Fortunately, the headaches responded to ibuprofen and the nausea to ginger, a natural remedy used often on the mountain. My symptoms resolved quickly, and I was glad to have adjusted to high altitude early in the trek, rather than it hitting me all at once.


Sunset, 2nd Pofu camp, day 4. 4,033 m (13,232 ft)--some altitude lost

Ibuprofen has been shown to help against mild to moderate altitude sickness. I’m used to taking it at home, but we were the only trekkers out of eight not taking acetazolamide, which is used off-label. Ben had a prescription but chose not to take it prophylactically. I had various reasons for not trying it in 2017, but my main one this year was that I hadn’t taken it last time and didn’t think I needed it (I doubt most guides or summit porters take it, and climbers never used to). In my head, if I made the summit this time, I didn’t want the difference to be that I took Diamox.

Because of course the biggest difference between this climb and my previous attempt on Kili was Ben! We’d only ever backpacked overnight together before, but we were a team, in a way I hadn’t been with that group of trekkers six years previously. Before we left England Ben and I agreed that if one of us had to turn around because of severe altitude sickness, the other should continue our mission to the top. But by day 2 on the mountain, we were reiterating to each other that we didn’t intend to be split up into separate groups and speeds. We meant to reach Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kibo, together.


I did feel that little bit closer to heaven.

Ben’s main complaint on the mountain was that every time he lay down, his nose was so stuffed up that he had to breathe through his mouth. With the cold, dry, dusty air (Kili is a dormant volcano), this could not have been pleasant. I felt fairly stuffed up, too; it’s hard to convey how much dust and dirt everything collects up there, including our insides! But neither of us seemed to be having problems with the decreasing air pressure (which is what makes us take in less oxygen with every breath). 


Above the clouds

Every evening in the mess tent, a guide would come with a pulse oximeter, one of those finger things that tests oxygen saturation and pulse. They aren’t super accurate in the best of circumstances—Mom, a.k.a. Groovy Gracie, had often been unable to get a reading with hers because her finger wasn’t warm enough. This happened to us too. One night Anna, despite repeated attempts, couldn’t get any reading at all. Finally Olivier put an end to her misery by observing that we could all see Anna was alive! Fortunately, the guides paid little attention to our numbers (anything over 80% was fine, and Ben’s and mine were usually over 90). Instead, they actually looked at us; there are specific signs of severe altitude sicknesses, such as edema, that they’re trained to observe. 


We were taking the quiet, unofficial "Northern Circuit" of Kili, overlooking Kenya.

Among much other chitchat among the trekkers, most of which I could have done without, was a discussion about whether anyone but our family had called the evening meal supper. Dan had grown up in Connecticut and assured us that they called it that. It turned out the Tanzanians did too! Perhaps they’d learned English from someone from Connecticut.


Here Kili's second (jagged) peak, Mawenzi, becomes visible to the left of Kibo.

Anyway, at suppertime in the mess tent, Ibrahim told us repeatedly how well we were doing, and what would happen on summit night. We would all start out together. Then, if it would be better for different members of the group to continue at different paces, we could split up—what I’d found so disappointing the last time. But there would be eight crew for the eight of us: all four guides plus four porters who would go to the summit. “I will lead,” Ibrahim said, “but if some people are walking more slowly, I will be the sweep.” No matter who was last, or at what speed, the head guide would be bringing up the rear, with them.


By day 5 we were in the alpine desert zone. 
Heading towards the Saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo

This makes sense! Why had the opposite happened in 2017—me in the back with an assistant guide, who wasn’t empowered to make any decisions? Anyway that didn’t matter now. Ibrahim was in charge on this climb, and he would always be the “sweeper.”


Helichrysums (everlastings) grow highest on the mountain.
Groundsel. We did not see nearly as many of these on this route, as the north side of Kili is drier.

Day 6 was a short hike, but our steepest ascent yet. I was somewhat nervous about it, because I remembered how exhausted I’d been six years ago, when I staggered into base camp. How little I’d had left in the tank, going into summit night. But we quite enjoyed the short, slow ascent from Third Cave (3,936 m=12,913 ft) up to School Hut camp. The guides were pacing us even more slowly; I was breathing comfortably, and came into camp feeling ready and focused for the long night and day ahead. 


Abdallah on day 6

By now, our fellow trekkers knew that I’d been to Kilimanjaro before, and reached 5,200 m. It hadn’t stopped one of the two Brits from continuing to speak as if he knew all about it, but Dan asked interesting questions about this and many other subjects, and was relentlessly positive. The other member of our team that we walked with most often was Anna. We didn’t talk about our fundraiser much on the mountain, but we did tell Anna about Mom, one day in the mess tent. So she knew what we were doing there.


School Hut camp. 4,717 m (15,476 ft), overlooking Kenya
Sunset, School Hut (base camp)

At School Hut we had a strange schedule of lunch, naptime, supper, more expected sleep (though I don’t think people got much), and finally awaking at midnight for a night of climbing to the summit, followed by a day of descent! “Breakfast” wasn’t much more than a snack—appetites tend to go at high altitude, plus, who could eat under the circumstances? 

One of the things I remembered happening the last time was that I overdressed for the cold and quickly got overheated, so this time, I didn’t put on my down jacket at all—just my Aran jumper, an old-fashioned wool sweater, over some thin layers. I had the heavier jacket, plus my rain shell in case of wind, but in fact it was not cold by Kili summit night standards. Probably a little below freezing, whereas it could easily have felt like 20 degrees C colder (i.e., below 0 F). My toes were warm inside the winter hiking boots I’d brought from Canada, and I never did put on my down jacket; I think it (along with most of my other stuff) was being carried by a summit porter most of the night.


We started off pole pole, even more slowly than earlier that day. Soon our two relatively fast climbers took off with Dixon, as usual. The rest of us settled into a long, slow trudge uphill, in the darkness, lit only by our headlamps (it had been the new moon on Ben’s birthday). Every hour or so we would pause and sit on rocks for a “snack” but, though I had neither headache nor nausea, I could only manage a couple of peanut M&Ms. 

When we reached Hans Meyer Cave, we were at 5,259 m (17,254 ft). Anna pointed out that I’d now climbed higher than last time! I was encouraged; I felt, and I think Ben felt, that we were surely going to make it all the way to the top. However, I soon remembered why I’d turned around last time, and that it hadn’t been a flippant decision. What are described as “switchbacks” on Kili aren’t really; you turn briefly left, then right, but it’s just steep all the way up. Between Hans Meyer Cave and Gilman’s Point, our goal on the crater rim, was even steeper and, in the thinning air, hardest of all. I needed every ounce of my training for my legs to hold out.


Ginger tea at Hans Meyer Cave. Photo: Kilimanjaro Experts

At our last break before the crater rim, I was sitting beside Ben and he said he was feeling shaky and lightheaded. Anna heard him and immediately went to Ibrahim, telling him, “Talk to Ben.” Ben explained how he was feeling and that he didn’t want everyone else to have to wait for him. Anna said that they didn’t mind, but she understood how he felt, and Ibrahim agreed that the others should continue and Ben would come along with him when ready. Of course, I was happy to rest longer and wouldn’t consider not waiting for Ben.


Photo: Kilimanjaro Experts

I was concerned about him, but we both thought it was a combination of lack of sleep (from the congestion that had plagued him every night) plus not having been able to eat enough in the hours preceding the summit push. After a bit we continued up to Gilman’s Point. From there, we knew we could make it to the summit itself. 


Kissing the ring
Sunrise, crater rim

It would take another two hours, albeit on a much more gradual slope, as we skirted the glaciers and walked the final steps up to Uhuru Peak.


Photo: Kilimanjaro Experts

With the sign coming into view I felt Abdallah take my left arm, and a porter (I’m still not sure who) take my right. “We’ll walk together and make it easy,” Abdallah said. By “easy” he meant “possible”; I still knew we were going to make it, but Ben, walking behind me, said I was “like a rag doll” at this point. Now it was his turn to get a second wind. 


He took my right arm from the porter and draped it over his shoulders. “We’re doing it for Mom!” he kept saying. Together, step by step with Abdallah, we made it the rest of the way.


I found out later that Trish, following updates as Kilimanjaro Experts posted them online, had written the following the day we were at base camp: “They hike through the night to summit for sunrise tomorrow, the 19th, and in the light that brings life to everything, I know they will reach up and touch their mother’s face because surely she will be smiling down at them.”

Photo: Kilimanjaro Experts

 As it turned out, we were only a few minutes behind most of our teammates. One of the British guys threw his arms around me--not the one I'd thought most likely to do this! And Ben had the presence of mind to remind me to put on sunscreen. We'd brought our sunscreen and sunglasses up there, but they'd been the furthest from our mind at one o'clock in the morning. Now, above the clouds, the sun at high altitude was harsh.

The arctic summit zone

And then…the descent. It’s funny; I remember being very aware in 2017 that I needed enough energy to get back down the mountain too; deciding I wouldn’t have that energy if I kept ascending is part of what made me turn around. But somehow, in the euphoria of knowing we were going to make it to the summit together, it felt like we squeezed out every last drop of effort just to get there, and forgot all about having to then walk halfway back down the mountain the very same day.


Looking down on Mawenzi!

The first part of our descent, after a few Pringles at Stella Point (partway back along the crater rim), was straight down a scree slope—not the way you go up! It would have taken forever for us to pick our way down with our hiking poles, trying not to fall. So Goodson, the porter who’d been carrying everything but my water, locked arms with me, took one of my poles in his other hand, and strode downhill with me for the next three hours, counting big steps: “One, two!” I expected to fall at least a couple of times, but he never let me.


We got back down to Barafu Huts (4,662 m=15,295 ft). This was supposed to be our “brunch” break, but perhaps because it had taken us so long, Ibrahim was eager to get us all the way back down to the high camp where we’d spend our last night on the mountain. He urged Ben to eat something, not that Ben wanted it, and then get up and keep going. Ben was not feeling it, and I was getting concerned. Even though the long summit day is exhausting, you’re supposed to feel better as soon as you start going down, because the air is richer and you’re getting more oxygen. I felt it, but Ben seemed to feel as lousy as he had higher up. 


Nevertheless, another summit porter, called Ngana, helped him similarly and we all continued downhill. Like most porters, Goodson and Ngana didn’t speak much English; Swahili is already most Tanzanians’ second language, with their mother tongue being one of many tribal languages. But Ben managed to communicate with Ngana anyway, and says he’d never have made it back down the mountain without him.


Meanwhile, I thought I didn’t need any more help now that we were back down on a normal path, but evidently Goodson was enjoying my company too much to let go. We walked back most of the way to our final camp together—Millennium Hut, 3,827 m (12,556 ft).


Leaving our last camp at dawn, day 8. Photo: Kilimanjaro Experts

The last day we still had to get back down to Mweka Gate (1,633 m=5,358 ft). It was slow going, with lots of rocks and mud. Mariam led us most of the way, amazingly without even the help of trekking poles.


The entire team and crew went to a celebratory lunch together in Moshi. I was encouraged to see Ben eating a hamburger and fries, and figured he just wasn’t in the mood for a beer yet. I guess I drank his share. 


Back at our Arusha lodge, I called Trish. You have to understand that T's hearing loss means that we hadn't had a proper phone conversation in at least 5 years! Amazingly, a cochlear implant (along with a hearing aid and months of practice) are enabling T. to hear things now that she thought she'd never be able to hear again. As cousin Lez said "In many ways, she has climbed her own mountain" ❤️ This was amazing! And surely, after a good night’s sleep in a bed and showers, etc., Ben would revive in time for our trip back to London the following evening.

Well, there was to be a postscript that nobody wanted. Ben still felt rough enough the next day that he thought I should call Kilimanjaro Experts (I actually ended up speaking to Henry, back in England!) and see if his symptoms needed checking out. They did, and Ibrahim, along with Abdallah and Dixon, all came to Arusha’s “hospital,” more like a clinic where a doctor could check Ben out. A chest X-ray showed nothing of concern, and we went on to the airport with some medicines for congestion. Unfortunately, he continued to feel worse on the short flight to Nairobi.


We were only meant to be changing planes there, so we didn’t even have visas to enter Kenya. But it seemed foolish to get on another, longer flight when Ben’s chest felt so tight and he was worried about not being able to breathe properly. I asked the nearest official-looking person—a young female officer—for help, and a Kenya Airways nurse named Winnie soon arrived. From there, it was the airline’s doctor who examined and treated Ben and eventually decided that we would not be able to fly out safely that night. Instead, he would escort us to a hospital in the airline’s own ambulance—after we surrendered our passports to Immigration because we weren’t actually supposed to be in Kenya at all! I was given a receipt for them, indicating that we were allowed to leave to go to the hospital (and, presumably, straight back.)


This was all rather stressful, as Ben was first admitted to the Nairobi hospital, then told he needed 48 hours of antibiotics to fully treat an “infection” (we were eventually told it was pneumonia, but in the way of these places, no one ever brought it up or seemed really concerned about it). The hospital was basic, open to the outdoors and the mosquitoes, but efficient, and the plentiful food tasted like someone had cooked it properly, in a kitchen. Ben was treated well. We hardly had anything with us, since our bags were checked through to Heathrow airport—no change of clothes, antimalaria medication, or even a phone charger (I kept having to take my phone down to the cashier’s desk, where she would charge it for me). 


George, the hospital administrator, kept coming by and updating us on the conversations he was having with Kenya Airways. He declared that we were “his people” and he was responsible for taking care of us until the airline came with their ambulance and took us back to the airport. It was never clear to me why we had to ride in a (rather expensive) ambulance on the way back, since Ben would now be discharged; I think it had something to do with having to enter the airport in some official capacity, because our passports had been taken away.


Eventually, I got a message from an airline contact named Linda that our tickets had been reissued and we would be on that night’s flight back to London. We were relieved! Of course, normally I would expect some kind of record of this, such as a reservation number or a confirmation e-mail. It made me a bit nervous to have nothing but Linda’s assurance, so I e-mailed to ask her “Do we have new tickets or a confirmation of our flight tonight?” 

She just wrote back, “Yes we do.” 🤣


Finally—me texting the Kenya Airways doctor and him assuring me that our ride was on its way—the ambulance arrived, and we were accompanied back to the airport by a very smiley woman. As we jolted and bounced along what was supposedly a five-mile journey, but felt much longer, she said, “Ambulances. Only comfortable for the driver!” She also told us it was fortunate that they’d gotten us on that night’s flight, as after that, there were no seats on the Nairobi-London flight until three days later!


It was just as well we had an official airline escort, because when we arrived at the airport, it was chaos. Long lines of people (I use “lines” loosely) jammed outside the airport, not even able to get indoors to the initial security screening. Our escort, a man who had gotten our passports back from Immigration, took us through various priority lanes and instructed me to hand over the receipt, so that we could exit Kenya without ever having officially entered it in the first place. Finally, we were on our own, going through a regular security line in time to get to our gate.


Ben with Kibo in the background

Most of it was fun. Right, Bro?

The rest of the story is that Ben recovered fine, got a flight later that week back home to Phoenix, and even felt well enough, before leaving our house, to have that delayed celebratory beer. Kilimanjaro was the hardest thing either of us has ever done, by some measure. Literally and physically, we could not have gotten all the way to the top (and back down safely) without each other.

So ultimately, this is a success story. We were able to look back on our climb with pride and, mostly, enjoyment. And we did it for Mom, so it seems only right that she—Groove—should have the last word. As you might observe, people have a habit of coming to another country with me and then having to go to the hospital; jokes have even been made about me being on a secret tour of hospitals around the world. Dad was reminded “of a series of AMEX commercials (in the 80s?), where actor Karl Malden used to somehow always be present when someone's wallet was stolen, yet all was well, because the victims had American Express cheques! Mom used to laugh, ‘Don't you wonder about the fact that whenever wallets are stolen, Karl Malden happens to be right nearby?!’" ðŸ˜‚


Relaxing at Third Hut camp, day 5

Monday, May 15, 2023


 It was our first trip to a new country since we came back from traveling to 29 countries in 2019. Like a lot of people, we had things disrupted in the past few years, especially travel. Cruising to Norway was one of those things that T. and I had talked about doing for years, and when we weren't able to spend Christmas together, we decided to give each other this trip to the fjords.

Few countries in the world can have undergone as complete a peacetime transformation as Norway. Whereas Norwegians' fierce warrior ancestors, the Vikings, once dominated northern Europe and even sailed to the coast of North America, for centuries Norway was ruled by its neighbors, Denmark and Sweden. Until very recently it had always been one of the poorest countries in Europe. All that changed in 1969, when oil was discovered under the North Sea. 

Today, Norway is one of the richest countries in the world, and a place of fascinating contradictions. In another country all that oil wealth would have enriched private corporations, but so socialist was Norway that in the period following World War II, some Western powers feared that it would join the communist bloc. That didn't happen, but the country's great resources are still owned and distributed by the state. It administers the money on behalf of Norwegians, who have one of the world's highest and most equally distributed standards of living. That also means that for visitors, the price of everything is eye-watering. Norway is a country known for its generosity, full of environmental concern, yet a whaling nation and one whose wealth is built on fossil fuel.


Our trip was likewise contradictory. We enjoyed the cruise, but don't recommend such a large ship. Nevertheless, what we saw of the southwestern and western fjords was spectacular. And it was nice to be traveling the nearest to "normal" since before the pandemic: able to share a dinner table with strangers, T. able to hear and talk with them more or less successfully...

We expected snow in Norway and we got it; we did not necessarily expect sunshine, so warm on our sailing from England that we could bask on the deck! Not having to take an airplane anywhere was a bonus. 

On the North Sea. Did not expect to be in the pool!

Ever since we lost my mom, precisely at sunset, M. Soleil has had an even more special place in my heart. When the sun broke through the clouds over the North Sea, where a few moments before we'd felt raindrops, T. said "That's Grace, showing you the sun still shines." The first night I saw some pink in the sky over on the port side and had to run and get T., as the beautiful sun was just starting to dip below the horizon--at 9:00! "She's outdone herself today," T. said.

Anyway, our first port of call was the oil city of Stavanger. Bizarrely, we docked right next to the old town.


This did mean it was an easy walk into Gamle Stavanger--Old Stavanger--and around the city park.


I wanted to visit the Domkirke, Norway's oldest cathedral, but it was closed for renovations. Although a different building is currently serving as the parish church in Stavanger, closed churches would become a theme of this trip. 


Cathedral detail, Archaeology Museum

We had a browse around some shops, not that we were going to buy anything very big at Norwegian prices. We looked at a poncho and both had the same thought: "[Your] Mom would like this." She seemed to be with me everywhere. Back on board there was a pianist in the atrium playing Del Shannon's "Runaway," complete with Musitron part. I got a chance to listen to him, while wearing my gym shorts and desperately fighting through crowds of formally attired people--I had an appointment at the spa but it was black tie night!

The sunlight "fingers of God" cut gorgeously through the sky as we chugged north, even as the waves rocked and reeled so much they had to cancel the acrobatics show. There was a real drop in the temperature that night. 

Early the next morning we docked at the tiny village of Olden. Almost everyone in town seemed to be passengers on our ship, but they all must have gone off on excursions, because we were among only a few people hiking up the trail to Huaren viewpoint.


On that 380-m climb, there was an interlude that T. said was a microcosm of how the world should work (and often does). At the top, a woman offered to take our picture,

and then partway down the track we saw a glove lying on the ground. I glimpsed the same colors as the glove on a man further down the trail--new gear? I hurried back to grab the glove for him, and some time after we returned it, his companion picked up T's lens cap, which she hadn't heard fall to the ground. 

view from the top


That evening we sailed through Nordfjord, with gorgeous views all the way. It must have been after 9:00 p.m. when I put on my down jacket and scarf and braved the cold winds of the forward deck to catch yet another amazing view. The burning sun dipped below a horizon of Viking-dark clouds.


The weather had certainly changed, and now it was against us. The next day, in Ã…lesund, we had actually booked an excursion, to hike Sugarlump Mountain. T. was concerned about back-to-back ascents of 300 m, but in the event, the hike was canceled. There had been snow and high winds in the area that week--not that we experienced any during our day in Ã…lesund! Along with everyone else in town, it seemed, we were climbing the Aksla Steps to a nature trail, and a view overlooking the peninsula.


At the bottom of the hill we finally got good coffee, one of a number of things the P&O company does not get right, at Racoon Coffee (yes, that’s how it is spelled). Nicer than gravadlax (smoked salmon) or even Norwegian fish pie, which I also tried on the trip.


The unique thing about the skyline, as it were, of Ã…lesund is its domination by Art Nouveau architecture. There was a tremendous fire in the town in 1904, as a result of which, much of the city was rebuilt in the style popular at the time, which Norwegians call by its German name, Jugendstil. We visited the Jugendstil center, housed in a 1907 pharmacy. 


I carried on to have a look at Ã…lesund church, but guess what? It was closed!


Church on left; big yellow building at top right is Aspøy skole

I continued up the hill to take a look at an absolutely massive yellow building that you can look up and see from anywhere in the town. A woman (perhaps local; certainly Norwegian) approached me and said “English?” When I confirmed that I speak English, she went on to address me in that language, saying how unfortunate it was that the church, of which Ã…lesund is so proud, was closed, when it’s worth visiting. “It’s a shame!” she repeated after me. She seemed sorry on behalf of Norway. 

(The yellow building, by the way, is Aspøy skole, built in 1921. I thought it must be a museum or something by now but, charmingly, it is what it always was: the local elementary school.)

Joachim Rønneberg led the raid (from Britain) during World War II on German heavy water manufacturing, preventing the Nazis from getting the atomic bomb.

Norwegians may not be a very religious people these days, but everyone we spoke to was extremely nice! Where else in the world would a taxi driver, to whom we gave way as pedestrians, roll down his window and say “Thank you very much” in our language?

 If the drivers of Norway were any friendlier, they’d wait all day for others to go. 

"Sister and brother" statue

Niceness and generosity are much-needed characteristics in Norway, as in other countries. The Norwegian settlement pattern is unique: historically, a farming and fishing population was spread thinly all across the land, with few areas either wilderness or densely populated. Meanwhile, the massive social changes of the past five decades include a significant population change: whereas in 1970 immigrants, including people with two immigrant parents, numbered a mere 57,041 in 1970, by 2017 that number had risen to 883,571. 


Our fourth and last port of call was further south down the coast, at Haugesund. We heard from some women we had dinner with that it had pelted down snow the night before, and there was snow on the deck in the morning.


Polar bear skeleton found when someone renovated their basement

However, the sun came out once again in Haugesund and it was lovely all day! We had more good coffee and pastry at Totalen—our reward for walking 6 km out and back along the coastal path. 

The old and the new

Stone cross in Haugesund, dating from ca. A.D. 1000

Haraldshaugen, monument to Harald Fairhair, who first united Norway

VÃ¥r Frelsers church. Closed!

 On our last, sea day, T. had a little luck in the casino while I, belatedly, discovered the “busker” on board. He played songs like “American Pie” and “Wichita Lineman,” and of course, that put me in a mellow mood. I wish I’d been to more of his shows but I talked to him that night, and learned he’d just bought his new 12-string guitar at a music shop I’d seen in Haugesund.


Relaxing in Olden

In the evening, the sky cleared and once again I saw some pink sky. Had to go out walking on the deck, where there was one other woman, who started talking to me. She lives in London, but sounded French; at any rate, she was enjoying the beauty of the sky.

Norway may not have that many world-famous artistic figures, but their best-known include Henrik Ibsen, the most-performed playwright in the world after Shakespeare (his A Doll's House was the world's most-performed play last year) and Edvard Munch, whose  The Scream set a record price for the sale of a painting.


Much parodied

One of the only Norwegian books I have read is Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. In this novel, Sophie, a girl about fourteen years old, is led through a discovery of Western philosophy and the contributions of wise men and women through the ages. An unlikely subject for a bestseller, perhaps, but philosophy professor Gaarder managed to take a good idea and make it accessible to millions of readers. It is with a quotation from another Gaarder book, seen on display in Stavanger’s archeology museum, that I will leave you. Like so many things, it reminds me of my Mom, and how great a teacher she was of children, including her own.