Tromsø, Norway 2018 – Successfully Chased an Arctic Dream

Starting off with a somewhat-emotional introduction…

Ok, so for those lads and ladies who eventually made it to this post, I want to ask a general question about life. Have you ever had that goal… that special thing in your life which you have dreamed of ever since you were a child? And you promised yourself that one day, you will realize that dream and you will never lose your sight from that target. But life has its own way of setting your path into reality (in many people’s lives, their path is what life served them in a cold plate). Many people become contented with the path life paved for them. And that is alright – after all, life is about being content with what you have. But going back to my previous question – have you ever had this insatiable ambition and fought so hard to reach it that even when life gave you lemons, you still squeezed the lemons hard enough to turn them into the apple that you’ve always wanted?

If your answer is a yes, you may proceed  in reading this post.

Before I begin my first article (and since I really haven’t shared much about my personal experiences yet), my name is Edward. When I was 5 years old, my dad brought me to a local bookstore and asked me to choose a book that I could take home. I eventually picked an atlas. Yes, I know it sounds preposterous – a boy that young would like to read a big and heavy book full of landmasses and filled with information about different countries? Would he even read them in detail? Soon enough, he would trade that book for a sports ball or some awesome toys like robots. Indeed, I was too in love with that book that I never traded it for an awesome remote-controlled car. Instead, I looked at the world map in such detail and thorough that even up to this day, I could draw you a map showing where countries are located and how they share borders. So much detail that I could name you the capital of each country in a few seconds and can even locate them almost precisely in a map. The point here is that I am so in love with geography and history that even up to this day, if I find a financially sustainable career out of it, I would pack my bags from the corporate world and live the rest of my life with that career.

“The point here is that I am so in love with geography and history that even up to this day, if I find a financially sustainable career out of it, I would pack my bags from the corporate world and live the rest of my life with that career.” – me walking through the aisle in the center of Cartagena, Spain during the Semana Santa (17 April 2017)

A couple of decades later, when my career in finance (particularly accounting and auditing) kick-started and I was able to save enough money, I kept on looking back at my childhood dream of being able to go to my favorite places – to appreciate the architecture and make-up of those places the way I saw them in the encyclopedias that I used to read during my elementary and secondary years; to establish great and lasting connection with people from those places and exchange fruitful conversations about history, language and their way of life; and to immerse myself and reflect on my life as I stay in those places. It was indeed a struggle! It was not easy to move on with the path that life has paved for you and trying to overrule it and pave your own. I’m just fortunate to be able to do so and fast forward to 2 years, I am here writing this post.

Now, when it comes to personal experiences, I usually prefer keeping my life story to myself. But in recent months, after all the traveling that I have done and as I shared my experiences with a number of my close friends, there have been some of them who have seen this passion in me and suggested that I should make a blog about some of my travels. After a third friend recommended me to do it, and after some introspection, I finally got the boldness to do so. I may not be able to do this as frequently as more than one article every month, but here I am, ready to share an excerpt of my life to all of you. I’m not quite sure how this will end up but I hope it continue to have a positive impact for you and me – for me, that I have a positive outlet in sharing to you how I appreciate the beauty in this world from my perspective and for you, that hopefully, these articles resonate with your life and interest and that in whatever positive means, these articles would inspire more people to live their lives to the fullest and reach their dreams (to live them).

So what about Norway?

So for my first post, why Norway? Indeed, I have been to 28 other countries before I went to Norway. Apart from my belief that I should keep most of my past trips as personal as possible (and even this first trip to Norway, I will retain a huge portion of it as personal as I should), I felt that the central theme of my blog is to successfully reach dreams. For me, dreams are often hard to achieve. They have this magical element to them that distances them from reality. But when one finally reaches his dreams, there’s that feeling of elation – a feeling that would make one want to cry for joy (believe me, before reaching this dream four years ago, I could never understand it when someone cries after winning something in a contest). But indeed, achieving the seemingly impossible can be too much to handle for a person and for me, I have experienced that myself. I would like to share this to people so that you may continue to burn that desire of fulfilling your dreams. And when you finally reach it, please let me know how that “tears of joy” moment came to be for you.

Norway is a country whose area covers more than 385,000 square kilometers, a constitutional monarchy with citizens of currently more than 5.3 million and is mostly located on the western side of the Scandinavian peninsula. With a rich history that spans thousands of years, through the Viking Age, the birth of the current Norwegian monarchy and ultimately, becoming the modern and financially developed state that it is now, I just have a stupefying appreciation on the gifts that it offers to the world – in summer, one can enjoy the scenic views of the cliffs, the fjords and the architectural design of the southern cities such as Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim, among others. And in winter, once can enjoy activities such as skiing, glacier caving, dog sledding and of course, witnessing the magic of the northern lights, the Aurora Borealis in the northern towns such as Tromsø.

Indeed, I was hopeful that one day, I will get to see those lights dancing in the sky with my own eyes. Last year, I met a French guy during my stay in Luxembourg and ever since, we made a few travels together in different parts of northern France and the low countries (I used to think that it would be hard for me to ever have a lasting bond with French people due to the language barrier and the somewhat differing opinions on the warmness of the French people, but boy, did I just found the opposite!). We eventually became travel buddies and as winter set in, we decided to do such a trip together (after more than six months of not seeing each other in person, we decided to try to meet more frequently as possible).

“We eventually became travel buddies and as winter set in, we decided to do such a trip together”. – me and my French travel buddy from the “funniest” blooper-of-an-escapade that was Colmar-Berg castle, Luxembourg (8 July 2017)

Preparing for a trip is always like preparing for final examinations…

Let me tell you a sweet secret here. For those who really haven’t done traveling before or for those who are not too confident about doing one, the beautiful experience you get when you travel is as hard as it is to prepare for it. Many bloggers would give you tips like there is a key to a successful traveling for idiots. But with every successful story, there is always a beautiful struggle that comes along with it. It was quite ambitious for me and my partner to set the trip. We went to Tromsø from the 16th to the 20th of February and around that time, it’s quite hectic for people working in the financial sector. And when we decided to push through the trip in late December, it only allowed us a few weeks to organize everything as smoothly as possible.

First, we had to book tickets separately as we fly from different countries (I come from Malta where I currently reside and he flies from Belgium). For a destination that’s very in demand during winter, it is highly recommended to plan the flights way ahead as the plane tickets could really get very expensive. This goes the same for the accommodation that you prefer. We eventually stayed at one of the most reasonable yet comfortable hotels in the city center. Everything was really reachable from our “headquarters”.

Then, there’s planning for which activities you wanted to do. Five days seem to be a long time but as you travel with someone, it is quite important that you do itineraries a little less squeezed than what you could do when you travel alone. We eventually opted to explore the town, do some dog sledding adventure and chase the northern lights (I almost forgot to say that in Norway, it is also a cool experience to try the different beers that they brew… yes, they’re also quite pricey but eh, it’s still something that deserves to be tried).

As I’m an enthusiast about keeping quality documentation (i.e. photos and videos) from my travels, we brought our own high-resolution camera and tripod. Tripods are extremely useful to capture the rapid movements of the northern lights and since we’re trying to capture images in the pitch-dark night, the flash properties of a camera work well when the camera is attached to the stable support of a tripod.

…”since we’re trying to capture images in the pitch-dark night, the flash properties of a camera work well when it’s attached to the stable support of a tripod.”

Apart from these material preparations, the only thing left is to prepare your overall being into the trip. I was quite anxious before we went there because I sometimes have the tendency to want to control as much aspect of my travels as possible. Of course, everything settled perfectly up to the day of departure and the trip went well overall, but before that I was looking out at these three things:

(1) our health and clothing – I mean, we really didn’t do a lot of strenuous activities apart from walking for hours and being exposed to extreme cold for hours. By the way, as Tromsø is located further north to the arctic and as February is still winter time, expect that the temperature could go as low as -25 degrees Celsius, especially at night. Yes, chasing the northern lights would be a beautiful sacrifice because after you endure the extreme cold (granted you brought the right winter apparel), you will also see one of the most mystifying phenomenon in the universe. So, in this case, we just really brought the appropriate coats, scarfs, earmuffs, bonnets and boots for the occasion and we made sure we sleep and eat well so that we had the best immune system heading to the trip.

(2) the weather forecast – note well that the northern lights is best seen when the sky is clear. This usually happens from February onward. Now, I highlighted usually because weather patterns could be extremely erratic in the Arctic. I remembered getting anxious because no one could really guarantee that the skies are clear when you have your northern lights tour. A week prior to the trip, I had to call the heavens to change the forecast to clear as it showed that it would be snowing on the day of the tour.

(3) solar flare intensity – for those who have no idea how the northern lights come to be, here’s a quick explanation. The sun regularly emits plasma into outer space like pimples from the face, and some of this eventually reach the outer atmosphere of our planet. As the material collides with the Earth’s magnetic field, a process called ionization causes this material to lose its energy and emits light in the sky of differing complexity and color. Some astronomic organizations forecast solar flare intensity (with 1 as the weakest and 6 as the strongest) and with an intensity of 3 or 4, one can see the Aurora with his naked eyes.

There’s really not much that you can do about numbers 2 and 3. I mean, if you have booked your tickets way before your trip and these two factors suddenly change, there’s really no guarantee that you could exactly witness the lights. Just keep your hopes up and of course, when you travel to a destination, go there to enjoy the place and culture;  the phenomenon (e.g. the northern lights) comes as a silver lining. Nobody wishes for an unfavorable scenario but if it happens, at least you would still get the most out of your trip even if Aurora will not show herself to you.

Tromsø marina during winter daytime (16 February 2018)

the Paris of the North

With more than 60,000 inhabitants, Tromsø is one of the largest towns in the Arctic. But if one expects to see only a fishing village with not much going on, one would be surprised to see a town center that actually has impressive architecture taking influence from both the Norwegian culture coming from the south of the country and the Sami culture coming from the northern Scandinavian interior. When visitors first came in to Tromsø, they dubbed it as the “Paris of the North” due to some of its infrastructure standing out in terms of design. Tromsø houses the only Norwegian cathedral made out of wood – the Tromsø cathedral, which stands right in the heart of the city. Crossing the Tromsøbrua (Tromsø bridge), on the opposite side of the town, one will find the pyramid-shaped Ishavskatedralen (Arctic cathedral), which, along with the Tromsø cathedral, are the 2 northernmost cathedrals in the world. We actually spent most of our time exploring the town by walking as it gave us more time to witness the views from different angles.

The heart of Tromsø is located in an island surrounded by bigger islands on the west and the Norwegian mainland on the east. This makes for an easily spectacular view of the entire area from above. The Fjellheisen is a cable car system which brings one to the top of the town on the mainland side. We went up there and it just took our breaths away – so much that we went there not just during the day but even during the chilly night. We loved taking in every second of it just being awed by the view.

Apart from these, the city also hosts the northernmost aquarium, the Polaria, where we saw some bearded seals being fed after they played. We also went to the old town where we appreciated the different shopping stores, restaurants and museums that lines the main streets. As we visited during winter, the sun set around 3 to 4 PM, and as the weather was very cooperative the whole time, sunsets emitted colors of golden yellow to pink that were very nostalgic to behold (I love viewing and basking in sunsets).

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…by the way, allow me to introduce you to our new friends…

During our third day in Tromsø, we took a tour to do the dog sledding. A very comfortable coach took us to Camp Tamok, which was 1.5 hours drive from the city. For my buddy, he almost slept the entire duration of the trip but for me, it was a great time to enjoy the scenic views. As we passed through the coastal road of a fjord system, we witnessed the sun rising through the waterways with snow-covered mountains in the background, small towns dotting the icy coastline, people fishing (I never imagined anyone could do that in the harshest cold), steam coming out of frozen water as the sun’s rays made contact with them, among others. We even witnessed rocks that have ice forming like stalactites and stalagmites on their surfaces. How incredible was that!

We finally made it to the camp, where we wore thicker winter apparel (Yes, it was still -25 degrees celsius even in a sunny morning)! We met the dogs who took us into the interior for the adventure. For dogs as strong and resilient like those winter dogs, they were also as charming and super-friendly to humans. As my buddy and I love dogs so much, we cuddled and played with them before, during and after the sledding. How I just loved those attention-seekers (insert heart emoji here)!

When we did the sledding, people are formed into couples. One drives while the other rides, but with each having a chance to swap places midway. I used to imagine that sledding is just a no-brainer – that I don’t need to exert much effort except to hold a selfie stick and take some photos and videos. But boy, every step of the way, both driver and passenger have to control the sled as precisely as possible. jaja. So it was one thing to capture the best photos and clips of the journey, and it was another to stay balanced and focus. Otherwise, the sled could overturn, especially on uneven ground. Eventually, my buddy drove 90 percent of the time, so I could just sit back and take most of the documentation.

We finally ended the experience with hot chocolate (and a lot!); their local signature of hot cod and meat soup, a twist of the skrei soup (that was really terrific!); and a sweet local tart made by the village people / all within a warm traditional Tromsøværing cottage to culminate our dog sledding experience.

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Our common denominator – Gastronomy!

When we first planned the trip to Tromsø, I instantly told my companion to be in charge of selecting the places to eat. First, I’m too appreciative of food that I am not so good in distinguishing which is quality or just ordinary food. Second, it’s been our ritual that when we travel together, I take care of the activities and sightseeing while he takes care of the gastronomy. In the latter aspect, Tromsø delivered.

For such a small city, we never find it lacking in food and drinks, although we found the latter quite pricey. During our first night, we explored the central square to find a small eatery that offers arguably the best baked potato and veal in town. We ate dinner outside in the square, where we also witnessed a faint episode of the northern lights while having a great night view of the harbor. Later that night, we headed for drinks at Argenturet. As we both appreciate a chill ambiance and since we have a common interest in beer, we returned to the bar several times during our stay. In one of those times, we even met three Norwegians who spent time with us describing the beers that are common and the best in the region. They are teachers who visited the city for a convention and they actually came from different regions. What amazes me is that the people don’t have problems communicating in English and they’re quite warm and welcoming, considering how cold the temperature is in that side of the world.

In one of our nights there, we also went to a local version of a tapería, where it gave us a Spanish feel of a dinner while enjoying local “tapas”. The highlight in that meal was their reindeer meat. Apologies as these animals are quite cute to think of eating them, but we took some out of curiosity… and they actually tasted great! There’s this tenderness in the meat and while the taste is distinct, there’s a sweetness in it.

In another night, we went to one of the signature restaurants in the city, Bardus. my companion didn’t get enough of the reindeer that he took the restaurant’s specialty. I took the plate of bacon and cod with omelette and we were really satisfied with how the locals were proud that we loved the meals they prepared.

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A beautiful chase, indeed…

…and finally, it was our time to experience the number one activity we went there for – chasing the northern lights!

It was really exciting to see the lights after anticipating for such a long time. It was a mixed feeling of nervousness and excitement. Nervousness because for traveling that far (especially for me that I traveled one way for 12 hours, layover included), there was literally no room for any unfortunate event (i.e. if the solar flare was too low that the photos wouldn’t look great or if the sky becomes cloudy, or worse, if it snowed). On the other hand, there was excitement because we never knew how the lights will look like in person. Will they dance rapidly? In what colors will they appear? What could be the formations that they take shape in? Definitely, I felt these two emotions while we traveled from the city center to Kvaløya (“Whale Island” in Norwegian).

When we arrived in the first viewing point, it was too early for the lights to appear. The guide told us that usually, they appear a couple of hours after 7 PM. So we waited a bit for them to appear, while the temperature was already hovering around -20 degrees Celsius. In such condition, we felt like a few minutes already seemed like hours have passed. Finally, when we are about to decide to just wait inside the shuttle, Aurora finally appeared in a faint streak. They seemed to resemble like party beams, only that they emit fainter light. At that point, it wasn’t that impressive; but after about 30 more minutes, the streaks became more apparent, and we were already delighted by the view of it. Just a few more exposure to the extreme cold and we’ll finally see the lights!

Indeed, within a quarter of an hour, the lights were in full display. At this point, I was thinking more of taking photos rather than enjoying the view. I saw the lights in motion and they were actually very quick. My concern was that, if we just stare at them, there’s a chance that we might not even take photos (something we could still see in the future at our homes) as they vanish in space. So, with the help of our awesome guide who happens to come from Indonesia (this was crucial because as I come from the Philippines, there was a closeness we shared right on the spot and that allowed me to gain leverage to ask her to take beautiful photos of us with the northern lights). Jejeje Up to this day, I still remember how we had fun, felt awe and enjoyed each other’s company while the Aurora was elegantly dancing and proudly revealing herself in as much colors as she could manifest herself in.

We eventually moved to another viewing spot to see the lights in another angle and as the night progressed, we had to endure the harsh exposure to the cold. This time, the guide told us that it was between -25 to -30 degrees Celsius. I’m very certain that we wore and prepared our clothing for a -20 degrees Celsius temperature but 10 degrees lower? Oh my goodness! Jaja If it wasn’t for the lights, we would have just stayed in the shuttle. But the guide and the driver told us not to miss it. And when we stepped out of the shuttle once more, OH MY GOD!!! It was almost like New Year’s Eve! It was such a beauty – a sight to behold and definitely, I will remember the lights’ movements in detail forever. This time, we took more time to savor the moment and just indulge ourselves with the magnificent view above us. We seem to forget that it was chilly, that we just stare at the lights without even moving to create warmth. Although the lights danced rapidly, it danced for us for a long time. And we even managed to capture it in our camera. It was literally a magical experience for us.

We eventually headed back home and served with hot chocolates and cookies in the shuttle, realizing that we managed to live in that dream while we were awake, until we dozed off for the night.

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…and the rest was history

By the time I composed this post, it has been more than a month since we returned from Tromsø. However, the order and depth of the experience has lingered in my mind with crisp. It feels like the entire trip just happened yesterday.

We are just very grateful that everything went well almost perfectly according to plan – the activities, the weather, the photos, our mood and the people we encountered throughout the journey. Because of this trip, my buddy and I really got closer and more comfortable with each other. Truly, we have been very proud sharing some of our experiences to everyone who resonates with these kinds of milestones.

Overall, our short but well-spent time in Tromsø was filled with unforgettable adventures and experiences which we will definitely treasure for a lifetime.