Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Monday, August 09, 2010

Bergen in a Nutshell

Probably the only nuts involved in today’s tour were us. We should have had our heads shrunk for planning a 10-hour tour [which ran late].

After breakfast in the room, we met the rest of our group at the Stuyvesant Room at 9:15. We were early, of course, but the others were right on time. As soon as we left the ship, we found two taxis at the gangway, so we piled in and headed for the Bergen, Norway, railroad station. The ride was interesting but expensive. In fact, we have found everything to be expensive when translated into US dollars. The ten-minute ride cost the group almost $22 for each of two cabs. A bottle of Coke at mid-day cost $5. That’s a bit pricey, but that’s the way it is.

We were almost an hour early for our train which wasn’t scheduled to leave until 10:28, so we sat and talked amongst ourselves. Jay and Sharon sat with us while we waited. At one point, D cajoled MA into buying a T-shirt which says, “Norway in a Nutshell.” It wasn’t until we got back to the ship tonight that we realized that we had been charged 199 Norwegian krone instead of 119. That difference is almost $15. We decided to try to call or even write when we get home because the cab fare will be double what we were overcharged. We hope it was just a clerical error.

Anyway, we were taking the Bergen in a Nutshell tour. Jay had promoted it and D made the arrangements. We took a train from Bergen to Myrdal; another train from Myrdal to Flam; and a boat from Flam back to Bergen. That amounted to three hours of train rides; five hours on the boat; and two hours between segments for a snack.

We had reserved seats on the train out of Bergen, four pair on opposite sides of the aisle. The seats were so comfortable that we wanted to take them with us for the flight back to the States. We saw beautiful countryside, streams & rivers, small waterfalls and lots of tunnels but not any fjords. There were so many tunnels that Roxanne gave up counting when she reached 27 in the first 30 minutes.

The fjords, pretty much by definition, are water-filled valleys, remnants of glacial action. We were climbing well above sea level, so we saw valleys and mountains [and tunnels!] but none of the famous fjords. We enjoyed the ride and the view [when there was one] for two hours.

Myrdal, our transfer point, has no town to speak of. There was no place to go except the station which contained a lunch counter and the mandatory souvenir shop. We grabbed a Coke and what we thought were chocolate teddy bear cookies; the cookies turned out to be chocolate covered marshmallow bear cookies which we shared. We had also brought some pastries from the ship and Ed & Roxanne brought homemade sandwiches made from bits and pieces of the Lido’s buffet breakfast. Marvin and Barbara split a hot dog. Our Coke and cookies cost 58NOK, about $10.50. But it’s vacation.

The train to Flam appeared right on time, coasting quietly to a stop in front of a mob of people. Seats on this train are not reserved and we were grateful to find seats at all. A uniformed attendant on the platform assured us that they do not over-sell the train, but that was little consolation as we searched for seats. The six of us were split up in pairs, so it wasn’t too bad. The seats, however, were not the comfy ones we had had earlier. Instead, they were three across with little room to move. Again, it could have been worse – at least the seats were padded.

We ended up in the middle of a group who had their own guide. She was very helpful to us as well. We think her group boarded the train in Flam and simply rode it round trip so they could see on the way back whatever they missed on the way up. And up is the proper word. Myrdal is 2800 feet above sea level. The ride up was so gradual that we didn’t feel the rise. The trip to Flam, on the other hand, can be quite steep and the pitch is accentuated by the squeak of the brakes keeping us from hurtling to the bottom. The ride is only 20 kilometers but takes an hour and, remember, drops 2800 feet in that 20 km. It also contains twenty tunnels one of which has a curve of 180 degrees.

We made two stops on the way down to Flam. At the first, passengers were invited to exit to the platform to take pictures of Kjosfossen waterfall which has a drop of 305 feet. It is not the wide river torrent that Gullfoss and Godafoss are, but a cascade from a single stream high on the mountain. D obediently went out and took pictures and was there when a woman in a red dress started to dance around high on the falls. Those of us on the platform knew something was up when the music started. It could have been Enya for all D knows, but it was that type of sound. The guide told her group that it is a re-creation of an old local legend. We thought it was another part of the Bergen Nut.

Once down the mountain, we were in Flam, a picturesque village obviously on the water. There were lots of places for tourists to spend their money, but our group decided to eat again. Barbara found ice cream, her passion; Ed got a hot dog and split the fries with Roxanne who had gotten a bowl of local raspberries; and we got meatloaf sandwiches, which were really good, a chocolate chocolate chip muffin and a bottle of water. We finished in plenty of time but Barbara got antsy and went to wait in line for the boat.

By the time we joined the queue, it was sizeable. We had no trouble finding seats in the front, but the upper deck, which offered the better vantage point, was full. Once again, the seats were roomy and comfortable and the ride started well enough.

We sailed from Flam into the fjord and headed west. The day was beautiful and had turned sunny when we reached Myrdal. It was actually hot when we left Flam. We were enthralled by the fjord. Steep moun-tain cliffs; evergreen trees; and bare rock faces and outcroppings made the view unforgettable. Marvin, Ed and D went outside on the front of the boat to take pictures and Marvin stayed there for three hours. The whole front of the lower deck applauded his fortitude when he finally came in.

It was quite windy out front and it was often hard to stand still much less hold a camera steady. Jackets billowed so that people looked like the Michelin Man. Camera straps were flapping and lens covers became lethal projectiles. And then it started to get cloudy. And then threatening. And then it cleared up before we got to Bergen.

We decided afterwards that three hours was long enough for this boat ride. The cabin was filled with noisy children and adolescents; there were crying babies; and it was just too too long. There was an express boat from Flam to Bergen at 3:10, but our tickets specified the 3:30 boat. We were supposed to dock in Bergen at 8:40 but, to add insult to injury, were twenty minutes late. Perhaps the best part of the last hour was watching the television which was turned on in the bow of the ship. Nothing was in English but we watched a cooking show and tried to figure out what the Nordic Rachael Ray was doing. At least one recipe was for shepherd’s or farmers pie. And the word for pepper is pepper. When we couldn’t figure it out, we made things up and had a good time, but, again, it was the nutshell tour.

Tired and hungry, we found [expensive] taxis easily and were back “home” by 9:15. As soon as we got to the cabin, we pulled out the room service menu and order Caesar salads and cookies. D went to update the journal before he forgot anything and MA read before turning her light out.
We have only a half-day in Bergen tomorrow and have no plans. We’ll just see what happens.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Oh, Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

We slept late today and did not finish breakfast until 10:00. D went in search of a telephone number for the store where we bought the T-shirt yesterday in hopes that the salesperson would issue a credit based on their conversation. He approached the port security “officer’ who was just a twenty-something. D had seen him texting from the cabin window but discovered that he had been playing video games to pass the time; his main purpose is to check IDs when people return to the ship. At 10:00, everyone was leaving and no one was returning.

The young man was very cooperative. When he could not discern a telephone number on the sales slip, he pulled out his cell phone and asked a friend to look it up. After he dialed the number, he handed d his phone. The woman who answered the phone was less than friendly and even less helpful. She claimed that her father owned the store; that she knew nothing about it nor its operation; and that he was out of the country and could not be reached. Click.

After thanking the security person, D went in search of a telephone book but saw no phone booths. He did find a door open to one of the adjacent office buildings and went in. On the second floor he rang a doorbell and surprised a woman who was working there. She was skeptical at first that she could be of any help, and said that she had no telephone directory, but led the way to her office and began a computer search. The short version is that she found a phone number which turned out to be the same one the security man had offered. D thanked her and returned to the ship. We will call the credit card company when we return to Florida, but it is a lost cause; they will say it is our responsibility to read the sales check and that there is nothing they can or will do. Once again, Norway proves to be very expensive.

The sun was shining and the day warming up when D left the ship, but, by the time he returned 20 minutes later, clouds had rolled in and the skies had become threatening. MA decided she was not that interested in going out. It was almost 11:00 and we would have had to be back by 2:00, not enough time to really do any sight-seeing and get lunch, so we stayed aboard and read. We had lattes and ate lunch in the Lido where there was a barbecue by the pool. We had a short conversation with Captain Gunderson, the main captain of the Prinsendam, who lives in Bergen and stopped by for lunch. Trivia followed and we lost again, our streak broken. [What is the name of the author of the Mary Poppins books? Who was the first billionaire? What word is the Spanish equivalent of princess?]

We read some more after trivia and then, at 5:00, we went to the Crow’s Nest for a meeting of those passengers who are continuing on the next segment. There are not too many of us, perhaps 40 [at the most]. We returned to the room to get ready for dinner [channa masala curry for both]. Back in the room. D wrote in the journal while MA got ready for bed and read. D is going to see at least part of the Filipino crew show tonight before retiring.

The Filipino show has extra significance for us this year. Of the six numbers being performed, our favorite bar server is featured in three. Hernelia is the only female performer in the troupe but we assume she is also talented. D wants to get her picture.

Hernelia is an interesting young woman. This is her first tour with HAL and she says it will be her last. She wants to go to nursing school, preferably in the US if she can get a student visa. We have talked to her in detail about her life. She grew up dirt poor after her father abandoned the family when she was 5 years old. As a child, she wanted to become a doctor and took the entrance exam for a special program at the University of Manila. Four thousand applications were received for 60 positions in the accelerated program which shaved two years off of the normal program. Hernelia was number 32 of the 60. She asked her father, who came from money, if he would help her with the expenses and he refused and forced her to get a business degree instead. We don’t know what she did between graduation and Russian along with some Chinese, Hebrew and other languages. She told of going with a HAL group on tour in Russia and surprised everyone by being able to translate for them, especially when the passengers needed restrooms.

Hernelia is only one of several interesting crew members. We wrote about Thom Faulkner, the Cruise Director, last year. We are as impressed with him this year as we were then. His assistant, Kevin, was on the Grand Med as well and is just as even-tempered and low-key as he was. He normally moderates the team trivia competitions and has to be firm but diplomatic. We enjoy joking with him and give him Goetze’s Caramel Crème candies [often called bull’s eyes in other parts of the country] when we have done well. He has made comments which led us to believe that other teams think we are bribing him, but it has not paid off yet. We usually sit close enough so he can hear our sarcastic comments, but he still tolerates us. And he has said that he will still be on the Prinsendam next spring when we sail her again.

The there is Blue Tarp Guy. We think he is German or perhaps Dutch, based solely on his accent. He often goes around wrapped in a blue tarpaulin which makes him look like a Florida roof after a hurricane. Some days he is dressed almost normally except that he wears blue slippers instead of shoes. There is always at least one eccentric aboard. Last year there was Hat Lady who made, named and talked to her hats. Or the hippie and his wife we referred to as boogie and his wife. They had never left the 60s. As Bill Cosby said years ago, “There’s a nut in every car.”

We used to dread Japanese tourists because they were almost as pushy as the Germans, but they have all been replaced by the Dutch. There are many Nederlanders on board; the trip for most passengers ends in Amsterdam which is not all too far from London. We have overheard them complain about the number of Americans on the ship. One couple went so far as to correct our table manners while we were eating the Lido the other day – we should use our knives to continually push food onto our forks and shovel food in instead of keeping one hand in our laps; we should eat toast and sandwiched with a knife and fork they way God intended; and so forth. We love our Dutch friends but the rest have made a bad impression.

And finally, there is the question of celebrating Ramadan on shipboard. We asked Eko, our waiter, how it would be observed since we were so far north. At the time we asked him, he did not know but was awaiting word from someone. When we asked again Tuesday, he said that the Muslim crew members would begin observing Ramadan at 2:30 Wednesday morning with breakfast and prayers. The waitstaff’s day normally begins at 5:30 anyway, so this isn’t so much worse. They will eat their evening meal at 10:00 which they do anyway since the late diners usually finish then. The interesting part of this is that the schedule was sent from HAL’s main office in Seattle. The inference we made is that the hours would remain the same whether we were above or below the Arctic circle; the same hours will be observed on Alaska cruises as well.

Tomorrow – Kristiansand, Norway

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