My Scandinavian Sojourn (travel diaries) :Wrap Up Post!

We travel, initially to lose ourselves; and we travel next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We will travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel in essence to become young fools again, to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more. – Pico Iyer

The credit for planning and researching this three week trip goes almost entirely to Shikha. I can’t remember why but I was insanely occupied with work and travel in those months of 2014 leading up to our trip. Shikha poured over tonnes of research for weeks after which we had a call to put a pin on the finalized hostels and modes of travel. I was at my company’s Peddar Road guest house in Mumbai and over a long call that night, we took a couple of critical decisions;

a. The Backpackers hostels we would be staying in Stockholm. Copenhagen and Oslo. (This was the most difficult part – there were too many amazing options to choose from; a refurbished jumbo jet hostel in Stockholm,  a ship hotel in Copenhagen and so many more)

b. Modes of travel between Stockholm to Copenhagen (by air), Copenhagen to Oslo (by cruise) and Oslo to Stockholm (by train) – we wanted to get a feel of all three and in retrospect, what good thinking that was!

The Great Nordic Adventure 2014

This was the first rudimentary version of our route map  that I’d sent to Shikha in July 2014.  I’d captioned it ‘The Great Nordic Adventure’ :) We both were so excited at the idea of getting there, beginning to explore Europe!

c. We also zeroed in on how much time we’ll need in each city and the day trips (Malmo & Bergen) we will need to make from these cities. It took a lot of research (which is hands down the most exciting of travel – all the planning!) on umpteen websites to zero in on what we must do/see/eat in each city.

So here we are in 2016 writing about a trip that happened almost two years go. In an ideal world (where I do not procrastinate at all), this post should have been filed in 2014 but since I didn’t get it done, I could simply not have written about any other trips that happened afterwards. Why so? Continuity is very important to me in a very strange and compelling way. Unless I got the chronology in order, I couldn’t post at all. (On a side note, this blog will certainly be useful to my doctors in the future.)

So, onward and beyond we go!

Travel broadens our perspectives. Suddenly, the palette with which we paint the story of our lives has more colours. – Rick Steves

#1 Malmo, Sweden

We took a train from Copenhagen back into Sweden only to be able to see and travel through one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels – the Øresund bridge.  The Øresund is the longest combined road and rail bridge in Europe and connects two countries! The bridge runs from Copenhagen, the Danish capital city to the Swedish city of Malmö.

Malmo

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Malmo is the third largest city in the Sweden after Stockholm and Gothenberg. We saw a couple of more places in Malmo – the Turning Torso, the Art Museum and had a lovely lunch at the park overlooking the Øresund. I would say the whole fuss of travelling from Denmark back into Sweden was more than worth it just for that beautiful park and the breathtaking views of the sea. Shikha and I spent hours there just talking, walking back to the cafe to have lunch and walked around some more around the park.

#2 Gotland, Sweden

So Gotland was before Shikha arrived. It was a part of the Swedish Program itinerary for us to get a deeper insight into sustainable living. We traveled on a very small plane from Bromma to Visby. It was the tiniest plane I’ve ever been on. An unnerving experience, if you ask me.

Gotland is a quaint island about ninety kilometers off the coast of Swedish mainland. The whole city of Gotland seems like its popped right out of a fairly tale. We spent much of our two day stay in the medieval town of Visby. We arrived on Saturday, 20th Sept 2014 around noon. I spent most of that Saturday afternoon walking through Visby. Sweden itself is a very safe country so you don’t really have to think twice before stepping out. But there was something about Visby that made you feel that you couldn’t get lost there. It felt like walking through happy, enchanting sets of Walt Disney, only that this was real. The window sill of every house that I walked by looked like a work of art. The official website of Sweden describes it aptly – ‘The word ‘charming’ was invented for this town’. The beautiful flowers pots that adorned every door step, cobblestone path ways, bewitching weather, old world shops and bars, the little cafés tucked away into corners – each one so warm, personalized and tranquil that you could spend days there curled up with a book and some coffee. Swedish architecture, from what I observed was about simplicity, elegance, integrating nature and comfort – straight lines, long windows, lots of wood and glass.

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12569b37-49ce-4954-bb49-b8d095b1ad4dLate night on Saturday, we had an exquisite three course Italian dinner at a cozy little cave like restaurant lit up only by candles. After a heady mix of risotto, red wine and perhaps the best Tiramisu I’ve ever had, most people left to go back to the hotel. Some of us went to a tiny but vibrant Irish bar we had spotted on the way over. And that what a good choice that was! There was a live band playing that night. It was a group three relatively old men who played Irish music with a spirit and passion that no one in that bar could resist dancing. However they could, everyone tapped along. And before I knew it, the clock struck twelve and I turned 28. It was the first time I was away from my family and friends on a birthday. But the lovely group with whom I’d traveled and the Swedish Institute staff, made the day very memorable for me. Don’t ask me why I am on that illuminated swing in our hotel lobby at 2 AM in the morning. I have no idea. This is what an Irish Bar will do to you.

Another amazing memory from Gotland is the organic farm ‘Lilla Bjers’ we visited (bottom, right) – one of the many stops in our study of bright spots in Sustainable Living. Lilla Bjers  is the brainchild of a couple who moved back from the city to help with the family agro business and eventually committed themselves to a life of organic farming. They’ve opened up a little restaurant in the middle of their farm that serves incredible delicacies made of fresh farm produce. I have no idea what they put on my plate with all those veggies and that divine sauce but whatever it was, it was spectacular! They also had a shop that sold fresh produce, preserves, sauces and jams. I was very tempted to load in a few mason jars of everything but by now I know my weak spots during travel. A day before the departure, I invariably end up sitting on the suitcase to forcefully snap it shut and then it dawns on me – ‘I’ve probably bought way too much stuff’. This trip was no different. In fact it was worse, Shikha and I both had to sit on the suitcase to seal it shut. And then we repeated the process for her suitcases too. :) Blame it on H&M!

#3 Copenhagen, Denmark

After Stockholm, we flew to Copenhagen. Our place of stay in Copenhagen was an vibrant hostel called Copenhagen Downtown. We chose it for two reasons – one, it looked really warm, comfy and affordable and secondly, it was in the city center, just a short walk away from Strøget – the world’s longest pedestrian street known for its cafés and street style shopping.

Copenhagen

As soon as we reached the hostel, we put our stuff in the storage and set out for a walk through Strøget. More H&M time! :) After a quick lunch, we went to Nyhavn which is a 17th-century waterfront and Copenhagen’s most lively and fun space. It is lined with brightly coloured 17th and early 18th century townhouses and bars, cafes, restaurants and the dockyard is a home to many historical wooden ships. Through our stay in Copenhagen, Shikha and I spent a lot of time sitting around Nyhavn having lunch, drinking wine and just soaking in the Danish summer! Along this harbour is the house of the famous children’s author, Hans Christian Anderson whose fairly tales like ‘Little Mermaid’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and ‘Thumbelina’ have been enjoyed by many generations of children all over the world. I had a instant liking for ‘Thumbelina’ when I read it as a child and I remember doing a narrator’s script on this story with my Grade 2 kids. It was one of our early reading lessons and kids enjoyed it very much.

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Copenhagen gives out a happy, fun and young vibe wherever in the city you go. They’ve even put up a huge wall (#Happy Wall) for people to share their dedication to anything that makes them happy. There was also a Shoe Wall, where you could stick one of your shoes and write its story of where all the shoe has traveled. We also watched a movie in Copenhagen. I can’t remember the name – it had Woody Allen that much I recollect but rest of the movie is a blur. The thing I was most surprised about was that there was live bar outside and you could carry your glass of wine into the theater. That was new! Even without the wine, Shikha happily slept through the movie. We walked back to our hostel quite late at night. My direction sense is pretty decent, thanks to my father’s training. Shikha, on the other hand, has the the direction sense equivalent to that of a baby penguin. Most of the times, she’s merrily walking beside me singing some latest Bollywood number while I try to read some maps, ask a few people and figure out which way we need to take. So if I falter with the roads, we are definitely doomed.

I remember before the movie we set out on one of our familiar quests – the search for an Indian restaurant. Now most people will frown at the idea and I get it. But here’s the thing, I’m a vegetarian. The options are severely limited. And Shikha too was on a all-veg diet those few weeks. So everyday we would map out our route and list out all the nearby Indian restaurants. Interestingly most of these restaurants had Indian names like Taj Mahal or Cafe India but were majorly run by people from Pakistan (in Denmark) and Bangaladesh (in Sweden). Anyway, we were happy to have the comfort of ‘bharatiya khana‘ and to be chomping on our parathas and samosas, in spite of their ridiculously crazy high prices. At one point, I looked at Shikha and said – “Do you realize this roti is 600 rupees?”. She said “Yes.” and continued on chomping. It is like that with Shikha. Food is not an area of compromise or open to negotiations of any kind.

I remember in Oslo (the last leg of our trip) which happens to be one of the most expensive cities in the world, we both realized and more importantly agreed that we have been spending way too much on food. So we decided that we will live on sandwiches/yogurt/fruits etc for the next few days. That was in the morning and then we went to see the Royal Palace, wandered around the Norwegian national opera & ballet and walked around some markets browsing through the staggering variety of flowers and fruits. At noon as we sauntered towards the main market square, out of the blue Shikha started talking about the importance of food in our lives and how her Dad always tells her that everything that goes into your body must be of high quality. It took me a few minutes to process where this monologue was coming from. But before I could ask, I looked up and saw a huge sign over my head that read ‘Jaipur Indian Restaurant’. I looked back at her and we both burst out laughing. And then of course we went in and had a hearty meal. :)

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That’s Shikha (below, left) at a grocery store in Copenhagen standing against the backdrop of the most mind-boggling variety of wines – with a Banana in one hand, orange juice in the other. (Wine, incidentally, was cheaper than both of these things). She’s like the epitome of goodness – the ‘acchi bacchi’. No wonder my mother loves her so much. Also, in this trip Shikha has sampled the Bananas from every city we went to. She is the officially the brand ambassador of bananas. Our very own Bob, the minion. :)

ce9a565d-ce68-4984-9ec8-2bb5ce0f7922In the pic above, some fun blackboard messages that were updated everyday at our hostel. Oh by the way, we did visit the Carlsberg brewery in Valby. The Old Carlsberg Brewery from 1847 has been converted into a tourist attraction which gives you a view of the brewing process complete with a merchandise store and a luxurious bar. The tickets were 80 DKK each and after the visit we could redeem them for any of the Carlsberg drinks. I took one sip of beer and redeemed my second coupon for mineral water. I don’t get beer, at all.

We did a lot of shopping in Copenhagen – at H&M, local shops, at supermarkets picking up Danish cookies and jams. We also did a free walking tour that our hostel offered.It was fun but we lost the group mid-way through the tour because we couldn’t keep up. I realized there is A LOT of walking to be done in these countries. Pedestrians command respect on these streets, the sights are beautiful so when the weather is kind, its quite a joy to walk. But as it turned out, both of us are not very used to walking, so it was quite an effort. :)

Another surreal experience in Copenhagen was visiting Christiania. It was established in 1971 by a group of hippies who occupied some abandoned military barracks on the site and developed their own set of society rules, completely independent of the Danish government. In fact, when you exit Chistiania and walk into Copenhagen there is a sign that reads “You are now entering EU”. I have no pictures because visitors are advised to not take any photographs in Christiania, mainly due to the hash dealing, which is illegal in Denmark. Although the hash trade is illegal, authorities were for many years reluctant to forcibly stop it. Within Christiania, people are free to trade and consume cannabis. This is possible because, civic authorities have granted the area an unique status. It is regulated by a special law, the Christiania Law of 1989, which transfers parts of the supervision of the area from the municipality of Copenhagen to the state. It was a different experience for both Shikha and me. We were actually quite scared all through out the time we were walking within Christiania, especially the Pusher Street – where drugs are traded from small tents.  It really felt like walking through a no man’s land that was completely divorced from the country that it existed in. For that matter all of these drugs, be it the allegedly mild ‘marijuana’ or the more potent ‘chemical stimulants’, I feel are sought out by individuals who are looking for some kind of an escape from reality and are either completely or partially divorced from the realities of the world around them. I often wonder what kind of life it must be when the only highlight of your day is rolling a joint. I know this isn’t as simple a discussion but it isn’t as complex either. It all boils down to being a matter of choice. Anyway, it was a place to visit in Copenhagen and we did. That’s about it.

Moving on, to Oslo!

#4 Oslo, Norway

And the time had come to leave Copenhagen. While we were going to miss it dearly, Shikha and I were also super pumped about our first ever cruise. It was breathtaking sailing over the Baltic and North sea. The views were just splendid. And thanks to Shikha’s judicious planning, we were booked for something they called a ‘Commodore Class’ cabin. Our cabin was on the top floor and our breakfast buffet was in some kind of a super exclusive enclosure. We spent a lot of time roaming about on the deck in the morning until we hit the shores of Oslo at about 9 AM.

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c8bdca5f-dcfb-480a-8e8c-6933c9459b36We stayed at the Perminalen Hotel. It was also a hostel for Norwegian soldiers visiting town, so we saw many of them at breakfast everyday with us. It was a good stay and the staff was extremely kind to us but if I had to go to Oslo again, I’d definitely try another hostel – something more lively, maybe.

There were two major highlights of the Norway visit for me – one was visiting the Fjords in Bergen via Flåm rail route and the second has to be the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo. Flåm railway was named the world’s most incredible train journey by Lonely Planet in 2014. We took a day trip to Bergen, first by train up to Flåm and then a cruise through the fjords. It scenic in a way that words can’t really do justice (well, at least my limited vocabulary can’t). After our cruise, Shikha and I set off on our usual pursuit from Bergen train station late night- to find an Indian restaurant for dinner. It pouring that night in Bergen and we had to be back at the train station by 11 pm. A very chatty cab driver dropped us off at one his favorite Indian restaurants. Unfortunately, this was a fine dining kind of place and both of us were drenched and exhausted. Beyond a point, we couldn’t really care much because we were famished. We had the most expensive dinner of our entire trip that night. :) And we took another cab back to the train station, slept through the train journey and reached Oslo in the wee hours of the morning.

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Only the Nobel Peace prize is given away from Oslo, rest of them from Stockholm. The recipient is selected by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, a five-member committee appointed by the Parliament of Norway. Since 1990, the prize is awarded on 10 December in Oslo City Hall each year. There is room in the Nobel Peace Center that is dedicated to the award recipient of that year. My only regret is that I missed seeing Kailash Sathyarthi’s life long work adorn the walls of that room by a mere one and half months. Another memorable experience for me was to walk into a room aglow with the light of ipads and tiny star like lamps in the ceiling. Each display was dedicated to a particular year and the awardees and nominees of that year. On a whim, I looked up the winner for the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize – it was Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor who has authored many books based on his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. He dedicated his life to raising the consciousness of fortunate, privileged people like us who have never  had to personally endure gut-wrenching humiliation and witness the utter contempt for humanity that was shown in Hitler’s concentration camps. I realized that one my favorite quotes of all time came from this man. I used to think this quote was credited to Dr. King.

The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. – Elie Wiesel

It was an amazing feeling walking through that room, reading about men and women who dedicated their lives to make our world a better place, for emancipation of disadvantaged communities, making quality education accessible to marginalized children, providing healthcare to impoverished nations, bringing peace to countries torn apart by war and for many, many such selfless causes of humanity. I wonder all the time; What did it take for people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mother Teresa — to what they did in one lifetime? How did they sustain the fire within for so long? Clearly, knowing your purpose plays a role – knowing your ‘why’. After all, your moral compass has to point somewhere when you feel utterly lost and dejected. I was watching ‘The Revenant’ with my colleagues some months ago and there is a line the movie that stayed with me for weeks after the movie; “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight.” I get this concept. I have no trouble understanding this and internalizing it. That you should be willing to die for the things you believe in and while you are alive you fight with everything you’ve got. That’s the relatively easier part, isn’t it? The hardest part in life is figuring out what is it that you want to fight for? Figuring that out can take time and often the path to knowing, isn’t exactly pretty. That is if, and this ‘if’ is very critical – if you want to find out all. It is possible and perhaps even wonderful in its own way to go through life without seeking out your purpose, your calling  or your ‘why’. Life is short and our time on this planet is limited. The question to ask is not whether we have the ability, the grit & the determination to fight but what is it that we want to spend our life fighting for and more importantly why?

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One of the rooms in the Nobel Peace Center was dedicated to answering the question – What does Democracy mean to you? and you could carve out own answer with wire and that picture above is my answer. To me, India and Democracy are inseparable concepts. When India goes into elections, the world largest democracy votes. And this is a bold reaffirmation for institution of democracy. As for India, we wouldn’t have been what we are today had the founding fathers of this nation not chosen the path of democracy & secularism. No matter how much ‘intolerance & saffronization’ is hyped within media circles, the truth is that in 70 years of independence both democracy and secularism have formed very deep, indomitable roots in India.

One the things, I’m happiest about in the last few months is that I have finished a book that has had and I know will continue to have profound impact on my life. It is been the longest (800 pages) and the most inspiring read of my life so far. ‘India After Gandhi’ by Ramachandra Guha. For as long as I can remember, I’ve worn India on my sleeve and very proudly so. But Guha has added much more depth and substance to my love for India. Through telling the story of how Independent India came to be forged, the riveting character sketches of the men and women who built modern India, Ramachandra Guha has instilled in me, a sense of pride and awe for my country that is more authentic, grounded in the tenets of history and hence stands stronger that ever before.

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Our flight back home was from Stockholm. The picture (bottom, left) is one of the most cherished memories of this trip. When my boss heard of my travel to Stockholm, she suggested that I meet with one of her friends in the city and we did meet the lovely couple. Turns out, her friend was the Indian Ambassador to Sweden! It was a lovely dinner at their home and an evening of captivating, inspiring conversations. It was fascinating hearing about Ms. Bose’s journey, all the countries she’s served in and her most challenging assignments. An evening to remember for life!

#5 Goa, India

Technically, the Swedish chapter ended with our last module, a 4-day meet at Park Hyatt, Goa in December 2014. All participants graduated with a Diploma in Sustainability from the Swedish Institute and received their degrees from Mr. Jan Campbell-Westlind, Consul from Consulate General of Sweden in Mumbai.

The highlight of these few days were hearing Collin Gonsalves, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court of India and a human rights activist. He spoke of his life long work in human rights and advocacy. It was a brilliant session. Something he said in response to a question I’d asked, has stayed with me since. – (This is the paraphrased summary of his answer) “All kind of work in education is important, whether you are teaching, running schools or working within the government. All kind of initiatives in education have value because at the end of the day, they are serving children. But in a country of India’s proportions, the way for you to make education work is when you can have the law ammended to make it work for all children. It is a tireless, long and ardous legal pursuit but when you accomplish it, you make it better for all children.” All children for India would mean close to 320 million kids. It is a powerful statement when you think of the scale. It made me think of the continued demand to increase the %GDP allocation to education, the demand of including pre-school education under the ambit of the RTE Act, to the impact of Sec 12(c)(1) of the RTE Act – the tremendous potential, the power that a piece of legislation holds.  Collin is actively associated with HRLN, an organization that has done groundbreaking work in furthering the civil, political, economic, social and environmental rights of Indian citizens

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Another big highlight for me was a session with Mr.Santosh Hegde, former justice of the Supreme Court Of India, former Solicitor General of India and was Lokayukta (ombudsman) for Karnataka State of India from 2006-2011. This is a man who has done phenomenal work after retiring from the government. A man who saw the world very differently when he was in the system than how he experienced it after he was out of it. It was an extraordinary opportunity to hear his experiences. In Goa, we spent a lot of time meeting various stakeholders and understanding the impact of Goa’s mining industry on its environment. The last memory that stands out is from the very lovely dinner we had at Martin’s Goa (bottom, center). I will always remember this night because I ‘willingly’ went on stage for a rather bold karaoke attempt – John Denver’s ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’. :) It was a cheerful, sparking, fun night that will always stay etched in my memory.

 Once you have traveled the voyage never ends, but it is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers.  The mind can never break off from the journey. – Pat Conroy

This post has become way longer I wanted to be, so I’ll stop here. But I should probably do a separate one on my favorite ‘Shikha moments’ of the Great Nordic Adventure. There are so many of them from this trip alone. :) When I look back at all our trips – the mails, the planning excel sheets, the photos, the knick-knacks collected over time – I end up smiling as if I have a hanger stuck in my mouth. All these trips were what they were only because we both enjoy each others company immensely and understand each other so well. We’ve been friends for fourteen years now. It is hard for me to imagine life without her comic effects, weird nicknames for me, the hilarious telling of anecdotes from work, hours of intense conversation on life, love & dreams, our fail-safe golden plan of becoming wedding photographers or food bloggers, her random messages to my mom, her legendary bargaining skills, and even more legendary direction sense, her sparrow-like appetite and yet her undying love of food, her rendition of the most dhinchak songs in the most unexpected settings, her invaluable fashion counselling for me (the look she gives me when I am about to pick up a color/size/style she doesn’t approve of. It’s scary. After that look, whatever I have in my hand, drops to the ground) and millions of other things that make Shikha an incredibly special part of my life.

Travels aside, every time I think about her and what an anchoring force she has been in my life, I can only feel the deepest gratitude to the Universe for making our paths cross in that summer of 2002.

Thank you, dear Universe!

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