Ibiza and Spitsbergen 2011

We are on a vacation in Europe. We didn't set up a full-blown WordPress weblog because we didn't expect anything exciting to happen until our cruise in Spitsbergen, at which time we'd not be connected to the Internet. As it has turned out, much has happened, which is summarized here. Additional material will be added from time to time at the end, so you can read about the entire trip from top to bottom.

A Weekend in London

I met Ray, who had been traveling for a week already in Texas and Florida, in our airbnb.com-arranged accommodations in southeastern London. Margaret, my cousin who had come down from Leeds, and Philipp, our friend who flew up from Dortmund, were there too. It was a little old barn with some interesting renovations, including a stairway without a railing and a transparent landing at the top. Our hosts were an urban designer and an internet entrepreneur.

We walked up to Greenwich Park so that we could take a picture of the GPS at longitude zero. Our friend Frank recommended Needoo, a nice little Punjabi place near Whitechapel, for dinner. It was a little too spicy for Philipp, but everything was quite tasty.

The next day the four of us joined our friends Carla and Mike for their Saturday ritual of going somewhere on a train, walking on quaint country paths according to directions found on a website, stopping at a pub for lunch, walking some more, stopping for tea, and then taking a train back to London. This week the walk was a long 25-km walk from Salisbury to Stonehenge. It was a little rainy as we started, but it cleared by the end of the day. We only got a little lost twice. When we got to Stonehenge, we didn't go in: there wasn't that much time left, and not much reason to pay ₤7.50 to get close but not inside the circle of stones.

On Sunday, we saw a good exhibit of Hungarian photography at the Royal Academy, spent an hour or so in the National Portrait Gallery, had more tasty Indian food near Carla and Mike's house in Leicester Square, and moved to our airport hotel at Stansted.

Back to Gaudí

We had carefully arranged our luggage so that our checked bag was less than the 20kg allowed on Ryanair, and our cabin bags were single units of less than 10kg. We sardined ourselves into the nonreclining seats, and made the short trip to Barcelona. It was easy to find our next airbnb.com accommodation on the east side of town. The rest of the day was pretty much a day off, doing laundry, buying stamps. In the evening we had a nice dinner at Port de la Lune, the bistro we'd gone to the previous time we were there. Even though the restaurants are open quite late, during the week the Metro stops at midnight. We went halfway home on a night bus, the other half by walking (though it turns out we could have gone further on the bus.)

Our hostess warned us of the dangers of pickpockets in Barcelona. She said that they don't really use weapons, but they do use distraction -- it's crucial to keep an eye on all your stuff all the time. She said she'd been robbed five times in eight years. We walked up to Parc Guell, where Ray wanted to study and take more pictures of the tilework on the long undulating bench there, gathering ideas for an eventual planter for our deck. I worried a little bit about two guys sleeping on the bench, their backpacks sitting there next to them. Walking up to a little tower in the park reminded both of us of doing the same thing in a park in Urumqi a few years earlier with a young Kazakh we met there. Then we went to Casa Batllo, a house Gaudí designed for some rich guy. There were virtually no straight lines in the house -- the doors nestled organically into the curved walls, a central light well brought natural light into all of the seven levels, the stair railings felt very comfortable to the hand. We met Opcode's Spanish distributor for dinner at a nice Catalan restaurant. On one wall was a photograph of dozens of plates of food meant to represent Barcelona: asparagus was the towers of the Sagrada Familia, a cucumber was another landmark.

No Foam Party

One of the main reasons for this trip was to hang out with our Romanian friend Andrei and his posse. They rented a villa in Ibiza which sleeps 10 -- we stayed in a nearby hotel along with a few others in his party. After dropping off our clothes at the hotel, we went to the villa and then returned to the airport to help one of his friends rent another car. On the way back, we stopped in town to pick up some groceries. I dropped Ray off, and then parked the car, being careful to stash the backpack and camera in the trunk so no one would see them and break into the car. Ray and I brought the food back to the car, and as we started to pull away, a man walked up and said in French that his cat was stuck under the car, inviting us up to see. That was the distraction -- as we got out, his accomplice opened the doors on the rear of the car and snatched our backpack and Ray's camera, which was stupidly loaded with everything valuable -- two computers (Ray's and a brand new one I'd bought for one of Andrei's friends), my iPad, my medications, power adapters, my iPod and earbuds.

We spent most of the rest of the day making a police report (it took quite awhile to find the correct police station), and communicating with our housemates, who assembled a care package to rescue the trip, including a computer with Ray's data on it, a replacement camera, and binoculars (though it turned out those hadn't been in the backpack). They sent it to the Oslo airport where we got it a few days later.

Thursday included a visit to a doctor, who made many phone calls trying to locate the most important of my medications on the island. She finally found some in a hospital pharmacy in town. That night our friends went to Pacha, from midnight to 5AM, which was basically completely crowded, and expensive (€70 tickets, €10 beers).

Friday we picked up the pills, and went on a walk in Old Town Ibiza, a fortified hill surrounded by city walls and cannons. Much of it was under renovation, including the castle and the contemporary art museum. We saw a charcuterie where we bought some cheese and Spanish cured ham, and as we took it back to the villa, a grocery truck was blocking most of the road. As I edged around it, it backed into the rental car, creating some scratches and dents. That evening we went on kind of a cheesy all-you-can-drink-of-7-oz.-Amstel-beer sunset boat trip. At least it was expensive, €50 each. It did have views of the awesomely beautiful west coast of the island -- I really like the white-stucco-cube design of many of the houses. On the ride, we heard about the bombing in Oslo.

Saturday we went to a beach on the west side of the island, renting beach lounges and a sunshade. The sun was hot but the water was refreshing. There were lots of people. We heard from Expedia that our Oslo hotel had been damaged, and that they had rebooked us into a new one. Expedia required my approval to do this, so another 45 minutes listening to about 4 bars of on hold music.

Sunday we said goodbye, returned the rental car, paying for the damages that we didn't cause, and squeezed ourselves onto yet another Ryanair flight to Oslo. It was a long bus ride from Rygge, one of Ryanair's terminals, and a short walk to the Clarion Hotel Christiania, a very nice Hyatt Regency-like hotel right next to the central station, with a big atrium.

Water, Water Everywhere

Monday morning we bought a replacement backpack, and took the bus to the Gardemoen airport (the trains in Oslo were not running this summer due to maintenance, not the bombings), and picked up the rental car and the package from home. We left the airport about 2:30, and started driving. Except for the road, which was in the process of being upgraded to four lanes, things were quite beautiful almost immediately. We drove a few hundred kilometers along a large lake, which became a big river; crossed the divide to the west side and continued driving towards the peninsula where our friends' summer house is. We were always next to water, either a lake or a river or a fjord. Everywhere water was cascading, either down the side of a distant mountain, or off the hill right next to the road. It was raining, but not too hard. We considered staying in Oppdal, but the hotels were quite expensive, about $200 per night, so we pressed on and decided to try to get to the house around midnight.

We had also spent an hour in Lillehammer shopping for a US-to-Europe power adapter, finally finding one for the obscene price of about $40. One of the shops we were in had a sign announcing that they were closing early that day, as all towns in Norway were having a memorial for the shooting victims that night. Trondheim, with a population of 300,000, was said to have 200,000 people attending its memorial.

Our friends Åse and Per Anders, and their eight-month-old baby Ellen, are spending the summer in his ancestral home of Todal on a peninsula surrounded by fjords. As we approached the turnoff to the peninsula, we were greeted by massive barricades and a large construction truck parked across the road. We learned there had been a large landslide a few hours earlier which has still not been cleared two days later. It became necessary to turn around and spend the night in Orkanger, about half an hour away, in a hotel which cost $200 per night.

Tuesday morning we took another road from Orkanger to the peninsula, and found our friends' farmhouse in the village of Todal a couple hours later. And a fabulous farmhouse it is, 300 years old, built in sections, in the most beautiful countryside imaginable. Little cylinders of hay dot the countryside that look like Claes Oldenburg marshmallows, though the locals call them "tractor eggs". The house is full of books collected by his father. Summer is full of activities, keeping the house repaired and fishing; the fjord has mackerel, halibut, crabs, and some small lobster. There are some salmon, including many escapees from farming operations. Tuesday was Åse's birthday and a few of the neighbors joined us for dinner. I was worried that spending the night in the same house with a baby would make it difficult to sleep, but it turns out that this house is so solidly built that I haven't heard any sounds at all, waking up only when my phone rang with a presumed telemarketer in Las Vegas at 5:30 AM.

The rain stopped, and Wednesday had a mixture of clouds and actual sunny skies, the first we've seen in Norway this time. We spent the day sitting around the house, doing laundry. Per Anders took us on his little fishing boat tooling around the fjord; we had a line in the water but didn't get any bites. His sister came over, delivering a couch and some birthday presents; she knew one of the people at the camp where the shooting occurred. There were 600 at the camp -- probably a good portion of the Norwegian population is connected somehow to the people that were there.

Thursday was the long drive back to the Oslo airport, from which we depart to Spitsbergen. We took a slightly different way back. As we headed towards the first of two ferries, the GPS got accidentally turned off, and we missed a turn. The cost of this was a toll crossing which cost $20 each way. Ouch. Oh well. Things went better after that -- we got to each of the two ferries just before they were ready to leave. It was a pretty nice day; there was a lot of sun illuminating various cute farmhouses and river canyons and hillsides. A few clouds passed by and dumped some little showers on us. Rainbows.

A Taste of Longyearbyen

Arriving in Longyearbean has been straightforward enough. The airport bus goes thru the little town, stopping at all the hotels, and continues on to where we're staying, Spitsbergen Guesthouse, made out of dormitories which housed mine workers a few decades ago. The next mission was to try to rent waterproof pants for the cruise; it doesn't seem that anyone rents them, but there were some on sale for the price we probably would have paid to rent anyway, so now we have some nice cheap ones.

Dinner was at the restaurant called Huset, which occupies a completely undocumented white building sitting far from anything else. It was expensive, but it wasn't just Norway prices, it was a really good restaurant. Smoked reindeer carpaccio with fish eggs and pate; arctic scallops; lobster and Greenland shrimp with a fennel-leek custard that had the texture of tomalley, the substance you find in crabs and lobsters as you clean them; reindeer filet, thoughtfully split onto two plates; a cheese plate with a Brillat Savarin quite more flavorful than the triple-fat cream cheese you get at Whole Foods, a Taleggio, and a Gorgonzola; and a sea buckthorn sorbet served with milk pudding. A bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape from 1998 rounded it all out. Everything tasted wonderful. The chef used to work at "Bagatelle", which was famous for having a Berlin Love Parade photo filling the entire wall except it had been digitally edited (the waiter said) so that some people were duplicated and therefore you could spend the whole evening trying to figure out which ones, if you weren't there to eat.

Saturday was spent mostly on our fossil tour, which was a combination thrill ride, rock collecting, and nature watching. The thrill ride was a boat for which they bundle you up in a "flotation suit" and a Russian hat and goggles to deal with the wind chill (on land, there's not much wind today, and the temperature is around 40°F). The boat goes up to 30 knots, except that we had to avoid the many pieces of ice floating around in the fjords (which were said to have come down the east side of the island from the North Pole, and then got swept in the Gulf Stream up the west side and into the fjord).

The guide tied up the boat and started to walk up to the fossil site. A pair of skuas decided we were getting too close to their nest, and encouraged us to walk in a different direction. It sounded like they were calling "Error! Error!". At the site, atop a hill, there were shovels and hammers, and the guide showed us how to dig down to a big piece of rock, and how to fracture it into layers between which we found tons of fossils of clams and many ammonites. A paleontologist who is a celebrity to Swedes has found fossils of a large sea lizard at the site in the last couple years, and out guide said that mostly Scandinavians take the Fossil Tour because they are following his footsteps. We also learned the Norwegian names for some small flowers and birds.

We walked back to the boat, got an update on freeze-dried lunch technology at the beach (developed for the Norwegian Army, sold as "Turmat" Chicken Curry. When it comes to America they will be subject to "Hazmat" jokes). As we zoomed back to town, the guide spotted some Minke whales and some seals swimming around the fjord. We stopped to watch them for a little while. When our guide dropped us off at the hotel, he refused a tip for some opaque Scandinavian reason. He even commented that usually he took tips but not this time. I asked him were we that bad? and he replied with an "It's not you it's me" demurrer. I've been robbed more often than had tips refused.

Now we are briefly connected to the Internet for what might be the last time in a week -- it will be very expensive on the cruise, if it is even possible.

Welcome Aboard

Sunday we checked out of the hotel, transferred the luggage to the Radisson from where it would go to the boat, and walked around town some more, starting at the cute little museum. Later, we met some students from various places who were starting school the next day. One of them, from Oslo, was downtown in an open square when the bombs went off, and avoided being injured by flying glass though he definitely felt the shock wave. He felt another shock a few hours later when he heard about the shooting at the camp, where two of his good friends were. Fortunately, they both survived, one with injuries.

The cruise started like all other expedition cruises, with a lifeboat drill and dinner. The lifeboats are quite impressive, little sealed capsules which hold 51 people sitting, packed in like sardines or slaves. There are also complete body suits for keeping warm in the water as part of the standard equipment -- keeping your head above water only buys you a couple of minutes in the freezing ocean.

After breakfast the next morning, the staff introduced themselves, and outlined the general plan. This particular ship doesn't have a fixed itinerary -- it just has a goal of getting all the way around the island in a week; if there is too much ice (more than 40% of the surface area being ice instead of water), that might not happen. We left Advent Fjord, where Longyearbyen is located, and proceeded out Isfjord into the Arctic Sea. There we turned left to circle the island counter-clockwise. Fortunately, our stateroom is on the port side where we might have more frequent views of land than folks on the other side.

The food isn't great, but not bad either -- the meat is not overcooked as, for example, at the buffet at the Radission Blu Polar Hotel. The boat has about sixty guests on it, about half of its capacity, so there's more time to talk to guides. We've left Norway and entered the Republic of Turistia -- the only Norwegians on the boat, including the crew and guests, are the doctor and her husband; all transactions are in US dollars; smoked salmon and herring are not served at every meal. Most of the people driving the boat are from Eastern Europe; the staff leaders are from South America; the naturalist staff are from all over, including the US, Canada, Scotland, and the Seychelles. And, as usual, the waiters are all from the Philippines.

Monday afternoon was our first shore excursion, at a site called Gnodallen in the Hornsund fjord, where we were introduced to four different varieties of saxifrage, a tundra plant. But virtually all of the time was spent staring at an oh-so-cute little arctic fox cub who came out from underneath a rock to catch some sun. He sat there and slept and yawned, and chewed on the tundra. And for an hour, thirty people stood and watched, and those with big zoom lenses took lots of pictures. Afterwards, there was the usual captain's welcome champagne dinner.

The Most Dangerous Pixel

Our intended first excursion for Tuesday was to Kapp Lee, a point on the northwest corner of Edgeøya, an island east of Spitsbergen. Here it was often possible to see many walruses. It turned out that only one walrus was on shore, and that another ship was already parked there. So the boat went to a site called Sundheset on Barentsøya, an island just north of Edgeøya, for another tundra walk. Half the group got a close look at a couple of reindeers nonchalantly grazing on the slope; the other half of us saw them only from a greater distance. I'm very happy we obtained waterproof pants -- they came in very handy in our river crossing. After we'd spent most of the time looking at these reindeer, a message came over the staff radios that someone had sighted an ursus maritimus. That's like pronouncing the letters p-o-l-a-r b-e-a-r so the tourists can't understand. So everyone stood up on this cliff, and pointed their binoculars and big zoom lenses about two miles away on a barren slope, and saw this very small white spot move around. After doing this for half an hour or so, we returned to the ship, which sailed somewhat closer to it so that we could see it from the deck. You could see a big brown spot on its rear end where it had been sitting in the mud, but it was still super far away. Some tourists from Guangdong had zoom lenses about two feet long, and they managed to fill up a decent part of their frame with the bear.

The original plan was to have an afternoon shore excursion at a bay on Edgeøya called Diskobukta, where we would see large numbers of nesting birds. But we kind of missed the window for getting there at high tide, and one of the guides had had a bad experience there a few years earlier, where the water became too shallow even for zodiacs, and guests had to walk through the water to where it was deep enough to get on one. So the afternoon consisted of various lectures in the Discovery Lounge instead, one about Svalbard geology, and another about early explorers in the area.

The boat steamed up the eastern shore of Spitsbergen to Torellneset, a point on the island of Nordaustlandet, which is another known hangout for walruses. And at midnight, there was an announcement that another polar bear had been spotted. Most guests went up onto the deck to see it, many of whom got out of bed to do so. There were not too many clouds or fog, and this was our first opportunity to take a picture of the midnight sun. But again, the boat was about a mile offshore, and the polar bear was a tiny white moving spot along the beach. Many people spotted a second bear on the ridge above.

The Birds

Wednesday morning we went ashore at Torellneset, after making sure there were no polar bears in sight. A group of maybe thirty walruses were all huddled together sleeping on the point. Every once in awhile one would turn over, or raise its head. There were some groups of walruses swimming, and three of them swam over to the zodiac landing area to check us out. This was a great photo opportunity, but occasionally a guide had to yell at the walruses to discourage them from puncturing the zodiacs with their tusks. Ultimately they swam away, and we were able to return to the ship. As we were about to leave, a delicate comb jellyfish drifted up close to the shore.

The ship made another search for polar bears at the opening of Wahlenbergfjorden, and the expert spotters found three, a mother with her yearling, and another bear traveling separately. We pushed aside several large ice floes to get closer. The bears were fairly difficult to spot, but some of the guides told us fairly precisely where to look, and we watched the small yellow pixels move along the ice floes which covered most of the area.

We then went to one of the most awesome places I've ever seen in the world, a cliff called Alkefjellet, which is home to 60,000 pairs of thick-beaked murres, little birds with black backs and wings and white bellies which Ray described quite succinctly as flying penguins. The cliff is like high-density housing, providing hundreds of ledges for the murres to build their nests. Higher up the cliff, thousands of gulls called black-legged kittiwakes (after the sound they make) build their nests. At the bottom of the cliff, large predatory glaucous gulls caught and ate chicks of the other species. The cliff is incredibly beautiful, with large columns interspersed with waterfalls and runs of snow covered with orange and green algae. Birds flew overhead in numbers reminding one of Alfred Hitchcock. The original plan was to do a zodiac cruise along the cliffs, but the wind was too strong and the water too bumpy to make that very much fun. The ship was able to cruise along it about 100m from the cliff in very deep water, and then headed up to the northern end of Spitsbergen, just above the 80th parallel.

We woke up on Thursday in an area where there is an upwelling of lots of whale food, and there were many whales. In the space of a couple hours five different species of whale were seen from the boat: blue whale (the largest animal on earth), fin whale (the second largest), humpback, minke, and sperm whale, which was identifiable by its diagonal spouting.

We sailed through the pretty Smeerenburgfjorden archipelago, and landed the zodiacs at a small peninsula in Magdalenefjorden where whaling had taken place. There wasn't much to do there -- we couldn't go out tovisit the graveyard of which nothing was left but a plaque, because we'd be attacked by arctic terns. I don't see the point of going ashore if all you can do is tell the tourists they can't go places.

Close Encounters

Friday started with clear blue skies next to the 14th of July Glacier. We started with a zodiac cruise past some bird-nest cliffs where we saw two gull chicks waiting to be able to fly, many thick-billed murres, and several arctic puffins. The first zodiacs out had headed instead for the edge of the glacier, where they landed and their guests got out, and climbed a short slope up to the top of the glacier and walked some way on the ice. And then someone saw a polar bear, which changed the entire morning. Flares were shot from a pistol to encourage the polar bear away from the glacier, and indeed he walked along the beach in the intended direction. The bear prints had come out of the water -- it hadn't been seen when scouting because it was swimming somewhere.

After the bear was a safe distance away, the guests on the glacier hurried back down into their zodiacs. After awhile, it entered the water and pursued a flock of barnacle geese swimming, including goslings which it probably knew would be unable to fly away. The pursuit lasted awhile and eventually the geese scattered, leaving the bear hungry. We were watching the whole thing from a safe distance in our zodiacs -- some guests were in kayaks. The bear continued to swim across the water, and eventually got out and walked along the ridge on the other side of the glacier. This used up most of the time allotted for the morning excursion, but we did return to the face of the glacier, where we found a bearded seal hanging out on a piece of ice. So it was an incredibly awesome morning.

The original plan for the afternoon was to visit the site of a small research station, Ny-Alesund, but an enormous cruise ship (1300 people compared to our sixty) occupied that spot instead. So we explored the ruins of a marble quarry called New London just across the fjord. There were rusted steam engines, lots of cute little plants, a few reindeer wandering around, skuas and terns chasing reindeer and guests who got too close to their nests, and incredibly awesome views of glaciers and the craggy peaks which give Spitsbergen its name.

Saturday featured two more tundra walks near Longyearbyen. The first, at a cape called Alkhornet, was near several reindeer, including a little one who was still nursing its mother. We noticed a rather deep sinkhole overhung by tundra we were walking on. Other people on the walk saw a mature arctic fox at a distance. The second walk was near the Russian mining town of Barentsburg, and ended at a "fortress" called Finneset where large pieces of sandstone had been lifted up to be vertical and acted as a picturesque retaining wall for a tundra cliff.

The cruise ended as all cruises do, with a cute slide show, a captain's champagne farewell dinner, and cheesy songs sung by the Philippine staff.

Sunday started with a somewhat early breakfast followed immediately by "we've sincerely enjoyed having you -- now get off our boat": disembarkation was at 8 am. We checked into a hotel so that we could take naps before leaving on the 2:30 am bus to the 4:05 am flight, and ran out the clock walking around town and sitting in front of the computer. Dinner was at Kroa, a very popular and tasty restaurant and bar. Prices were high but not ridiculous, and portions were large.

Back to Oslo

Getting up at 2 am after sleeping for about three hours was pretty stupid. We dozed a little on the plane to Tromsø. There we had to show passports, since we were re-entering the Schengen zone, and go through Norwegian customs. Lots of tedious activity for seemingly no reason. We got back on the plane, and headed to the Oslo airport, and then into town on the bus.

Once we got there, things were kind of dumb. We thought we might be staying at our friend's house, but she was at work. Meanwhile, we really wanted a nap, so we shopped around for a hotel, which involved lots of walking carrying all our luggage. We found an "apartment hotel" which was still kind of stupidly expensive, but it really is a nice place. Too bad we can't stay here a week. We slept a little, then successfully returned the overpriced power adapter we'd gotten in Lillehammer at the Elkjøp Megastore, which is like Best Buy, only more so.

Then we had a lovely evening having dinner and walking around with our friend Maria. Dinner was at Delicatessen, a really great tapas restaurant that was quite packed -- we sat at the bar and were able to eat right away. We walked around the area that had been bombed -- many windows all over had been boarded up -- and looked at the thousands of flowers at the memorial at the main church. We heard even more stories of people who knew people who had been killed.