Saturday, December 23, 2017

Day 11 – Norway 2017. An unknown island in the middle of the Atlantic

I am going to break tradition and tell an interesting anecdote about my return trip. I always choose an aisle seat, particularly in long trans-Atlantic flights, because it gives me the chance to get up and stretch my legs without having to wake up my seat neighbors. Of course this comes at the expense of not being able to look out the window (but honestly, when you are up at 35,000 ft all you can see is clouds or the interminable ocean), although I have been known to crane my neck to get a glimpse of some interesting feature.

Speaking of seat neighbors, mine were a couple that politely introduced themselves and made some small talk (I usually discourage small talk, but these folks were low key and nice). As part of the conversation it came out that I was a geologist, which always triggers some memory of “ black rock I had as a kid, and do you think it could have been a meteorite?”. I always say yes, and that makes everyone happy.

After a while I settled into movie mode, only now and then glancing at the map that shows the path of the airplane. This time we were crossing the Atlantic pretty far north of Iceland, and were heading for northern Greenland, and from there we were going to go over Canada to reach the US. I had just made a mental note that we were over the North Atlantic, when my neighbor pointed out of the window and said “Look, a volcano”. What? I immediately became alert and, lo and behold, almost under us was a tiny island with a short, stubby volcano rising from its eastern end. The mountain was covered in ice, but had the unmistakable shape of a volcano. I doubled check with the map and we were a good 500 km from the northern tip of Iceland. How come nobody had mentioned this mid-Atlantic Ridge volcano to me? I wracked my brain going over what I knew Arctic geography and finally, Eureka!, I got it. This must be the island of Jan Mayen, and the volcano must Beerenberg, which erupted in 1970 and in 1985. Well, what an unexpected treat J

Day 10 – Norway 2017. On the tracks of great explorers

Today I was a brave and dedicated tourist. I was out of the hotel as soon as daylight made its modest appearance (about 9 am), only to find a cold and drizzly day. Ha, no stinkin’ rain was going to stop me, so I walked down to the bus station and took Bus 32 to the peninsula of Bygdøynes, where all the interesting museums are clustered (unfortunately the ferry that crosses the bay does not run during the winter months). By 9:30 am I was eagerly pacing between the Nautical Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, and the Fram Museum (winter hours are from 10 am to 4 pm). Man, that was a long half hour!
Finally 10 am chimed, and I was able to enter the single, vast room where the Fram emerges from a bluish mist as a ghost sailing out of the ice. You know, the Fram . . . yes, the famous ship in which Fridtjof Nansen drifted with the Arctic ice from 1893 to 1896, doing all sorts of interesting oceanographic observations (e.g., he noted that ice drifted to the right of the direction of the wind, a phenomenon we now know as the Ekman effect). A couple of years later, the explorer Otto Sverdrup took her out for another spin, to explore the islands of the Canadian Arctic. Finally, she was also used by Roald Amundsen in expedition to the South Pole from 1910 to 1912.

To think that I was able to caress her gunnels, walk through her decks, and stand on her quarterdeck! The Fram (“forward” in Norwegian) was the strongest wooden ship ever built, designed to stand the crushing pressure of ice flows. It had two unique design characteristics to accomplish this: internal buttresses to oppose the force of the ice, and a rounded cross section to help her to “pop up” on the ice, rather than let itself simply be squeezed.

On a separate nave of the same museum one can find another famous exploration vessel, the Gjøa, the ship that Roald Amundsen used from1903 to 1906 to navigate for the first time the northwestern passage from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific. By now you have noticed that Amundsen was a busy little bee when it came to polar exploration. He considered himself a polar explorer, and apparently was never happier than when he was freezing his buns. He was not just an attention seeker, however, but also a pretty dedicated ethnographer and polymath. In his voyage with the Gjøa, which he could have completed in one summer, he chose to remain in the Arctic for three years to study the Inuits, and to learn from them survival and voyaging craft in the Arctic, a knowledge that he later put to good use in his expedition to be the first man to reach the South Pole.

My next stop was to visit the Kon-Tiki balsa-wood raft and the reed vessel Ra. Both were projects by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002). In 1946 Heyerdahl came up with the notion that Peruvian seafarers might have reached Micronesia by drifting along South Pacific gyre on their balsa-wood rafts (most archaeologists think exactly the opposite). To prove his point he and a buddy entered the Amazonian jungle of Ecuador, felled 9 enormous balsa trees, lashed them all together, and floated down to Guayaquil, and from there south along the coast of South America to El Callao (the port of Lima, Peru). That part alone would have earned him membership in the Explorer’s Hall of Fame, but he topped it by actually using the 9 enormous logs as the base of a raft, to which he added a bamboo cabin and a mangrove mast, and in 1947 proceeded to do the crazy trip from El Callao to Micronesia!

Heyerdahl re-invented himself as an archaeologist, and did some very interesting work in Easter Island. . . And then he got the crazy idea of sailing from Morocco to Barbados, across the Atlantic, in a reed vessel of the type the Egyptians used in the Nile. The first vessel, Ra, fell to pieces before they reached their destination (1969), but try-and-try-again, he built Ra II and made it to Barbados (1970). I am not sure what he was trying to prove, but in 1978 he built a third reed vessel, Tigris, to prove that trade might had taken place between India, Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. Things get murky at this point, and according to Heyerdahl he put fire to the boat in Djibouti as a protest against the wars raging around the Red Sea (another version has pirates seizing the Tigris and burning it).

I could have quitted at this point, having quenched my thirst for famous voyages of exploration, but I still had the energy to visit the Nautical Museum, have a brod m. Rekkersalat for lunch (a delicious open face sandwich filled with the tastiest shrimp salad ever), visit the Viking ships museum (absolutely amazing reconstruction of two of the vessels), and take a quick look around the Folksmuseum. The latter is an open-air museum where in sunny days there are all sorts of displays and actors in folk costumes, but was not much to see in a drizzly afternoon.

Back in downtown I made my final visit, to the Nobel Peace Prize Museum, which had the ultimate effect of depressing me. Attaining peace is, alas, an elusive dream.

Well, that is it. I have had a great time in Norway, and am looking forward to finding an excuse to fly to Svalbard sometime in the next couple of years (Ceci, are you putting attention here?). I was delighted to spend time with Ceci, Greg, and Evan; they are a cute young family and I am glad to see that they are making new friends with incredible ease. Also, I will now have a good reason to dream about the stark beauty of the Arctic regions. Yeah!


Day 9 – Norway 2017. Tromsø to Oslo

Little Evan gave me a great goodbye, running from one window to the other to say “Bye bye” to Tio Vivi. He is one cute and very curious little boy, who will keep his parents on their toes for a few years to come. Greg got the task of preparing him for school, while Ceci drove me to the airport, which is less than 10 minutes away from their home. They are a great young couple, and I look forward to seeing them again soon.

The flight to Oslo was uneventful, and by 10:30 am I was leaving the airport, and at 11 am the bus dropped me off in the downtown area. A comparatively short walk brought me to my hotel, where I left my backpack to start my exploration of the city. My plan is to walk through the city today, soaking its atmosphere and vital force, and to buy an Oslo Pass for tomorrow, which I plan to devote to the visit of the Fram and Kon-Tiki museums, the Viking museum, and the Cultural History museum.

I like Oslo. It is a modern city, with lots of new glass buildings and public spaces, now and then interrupted by historic monuments of considerable gravitas (e.g., the National Library, the National Theater, or the Royal Palace). Christmas has arrived already (in fact, Christmas was already on its way a week ago in London and in Bergen, and in a modest way in Tromsø as well), and the streets were full of people doing window shopping, buying groceries for the weekend (tomorrow Sunday nothing but museums and restaurants will be open), and attending the big Christmas market near the Parliament building, or the crafts market near the Cathedral. The latter was particularly interesting, because many Sami products were being offered for sale, including reindeer wool sweaters and gloves, reindeer sausages, knives and cheese slicers with antler handles, and delicacies from northern Norway. On my way back I allowed myself to be carried by the crowd into the Christmas market, where a group of about 20 young skaters delighted the audience with their skating routines, well choreographed to happy music.

I walked and walked and finally came back home to my comfy apartment to put my feet up. I still need to go out to get some dinner, although at this point I am not highly motivated to do so. 

Day 8 – Norway 2017. My last day in Tromsø

After dropping off Evan at the Barnehagen, we headed to the northeast, with the intention of reaching the small town of Oldervik, on the Ull Fjord. It was a pretty ride, but the wind was blowing and the whole landscape looked uninviting and very cold. We finally reached the tip of Oldervik, where there are three small mountains that look like young volcanoes, with crater lakes and all (who has heard of young volcanoes in Norway???). We bravely got down, and took a few photos, but truth be told we were freezing even though we were all well padded in our big jackets. Alas, temperature alone is not what will freeze you; it is the wind chill factor that will be your undoing.

Back in Tromsø we stopped at the funicular that goes up Fjellheisen, a mere 400 m geain in elevation, but one that affords you a fantastic view over the island of Tromsø, the Grøtsundet (the fjord channel to the north), and the Bals fjord to the south. Behind Tromsø, the jagged peaks of the Lyngs Alps form a breathtaking frame to the glacial landscape in the foreground. We were there at about 11:30 am, and although we never saw the sun, sunlight was approaching its maximum, and the scene extending below us was bathed in a golden glow. All these obervations we had to make in a hurry, because a fierce wind was blowing and we were all very grateful to accept Ceci’s invitation to hot coffee and waffles at the funicular complex.

Back we went to the home to have lunch, which each one composed to his or her own taste out of the multiple leftovers. I had a turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce, together with some stuffing. Yumm! I also took some of the leftover bones, neck and gizzards, and got a nice pot of turkey soup going.

When the time came to go pick up Evan at the Day Care we left a little earlier to go visit the Tromsø Museum, which has a very nice section on the archaeology of the area, followed by a series of dioramas that showed the local wildlife. A mounted skeleton of a whale neatly complemented the natural history display. The second floor was devoted to the ethnography of the area, largely on the Sami people whose historic range has extended from northern Finland into the northern parts of Sweden and Norway. A different ethnic group, the Kvens, emigrated out of Finland over the last 1,000 years, and now is found exclusively in northernmost Norway. Oh, and there was a section explaining the form in which the Reformation progressed in Norway in the mid 1600’s (basically King Christian III of Denmark one day decided that his empire was going to turn Lutheran, and that was the end of that).

Back at home we had a nice dinner of turkey soup. Evan has a good appetite for those things he likes (soup being one of those things) and is a master of the spoon, but when he got frustrated with the small servings of the spoon picked up his bowl and ending wearing half of the remaining soup all over his shirt.

As I am writing this note little Evan is taking a bath. We already said our goodbyes, because I will leave early tomorrow morning for Oslo. I have had a great time visiting with Evan, Greg, and Ceci, and look forward to a future visit. I have also invited Evan to come spend some time in California with Ronnie; perhaps we can all go in a camping trip!

Day 7 – Norway 2017. Preparing for a big feast

Yesterday, after visiting the Polar Museum I met with Ceci to go shopping. They were having friends for dinner tomorrow (that would be today as I write this blog), so we needed to get ready. Ceci and Greg wanted to roast a turkey, and prepare all sorts of ancillary dishes (mashed potatoes, green beans, apple crisp, and the like), and I wanted to make a bacalao a la vizacaina (both to give them a foretaste of Christmas, and because I grew up with the idea that the best salted cod came from Norway and here was my chance to do the dish with authentic ingredients).

Afterward we all went to pick up Evan from day care, and following up with another trip to the big supermarket to buy some more stuff. Once we came back and had dinner, Ceci stayed to give Evan a bath, while Greg and I went in safari, hunting for the northern lights. Conditions were as good as they were going to get, with a clear sky and a solar activity index of 2.7 (more than 2 is propitious for good northern lights), and Greg had recognized a somewhat distant fjord, Ersfjordhofn, as a good viewing spot. Our safari was a rousing success! We started seeing the ribbons of light even before we got to the head of the fjord, and once there we braved the wind to get into a really dark hollow from which we could observe the spectacle in relative comfort. It was not quite the rainbow of colors you see in photographs; rather, the light appeared in faint ribbons or shreds across the night sky, hang in there for a few minutes, and sometimes increase suddenly in brilliance and wavy pattern, to a few seconds later disappear just as suddenly.

In the “intermissions” I gazed at the northern sky, and was quite shocked to see the North Star almost directly above my head (actually 70º from the horizontal, but without a sextant I would have guessed a much steeper angle). I have never before felt so close to the North Pole.

As for today, Evan went to Barnehagen but the rest of us stayed home to cook. Ceci was a bit paranoid that with so many dishes to prepare we would not have enough time, but three pairs of experienced hands proved to be more than a match for the challenge. The bacalao spread its garlic aroma throughout the house, a mountain of potatoes was cooked and mashed into a creamy consistency, pumpkin pies were baked, and a delicious turkey roasted itself for nearly 3 hours until it reached perfection just as the first of the guests arrived.

The guests included Anna, her husband Alexis, and little Fjodor (all three from Russia), Laura from the Netherlands, Max from Finland, Frank from Svalbard, and Haeicka from Finnmark (the northernmost state of Norway. Except for Haeicka, whose relationship to Ceci and Greg is being the downstairs neighbor, all others are work colleagues of Ceci at the Polar Institute. Haeicka is a member of the Sami tribe of original inhabitants of northern Norway, is a hunter, and has the unheard amount of 7 rifles—a factoid that triggered considerable discussion because guns are strictly controlled in Norway. I guess I should also point out that Fjodor is a year and half old, and one of Evancito’s best friends.

The dinner was a smashing success. Each of the guests thought about bringing a bottle of wine, so there was plenty to enjoy with the rich variety of dishes. Our visitors were a delightful chatty group, and they were tickled pink to have been invited to a feast American style. The children played until they were beyond exhaustion, the dads sat to watch a football game together, and we all got “to explore the world” as we exchanged stories about the places we have visited. Frank lives in Svalbard, working at the university there, and had many interesting stories to tell about life in the end of the world. The main town there, Longyearbyen, only has 2,000 inhabitants, but is a busy point of embarkation for people working in the Arctic Ocean (try searching for the TV series “Fortitude”, which intends to portray life in this last frontier, even though it was filmed in Iceland). It is also a hunting paradise (Haeicka embellished on many hunting stories), and has a healthy population of polar bears, which every other year kill an unsuspecting tourist. I am totally going to plan a visit to Svalbard next time Ceci goes there (but in the summer, because going in the winter is totally crazy).

By the time the guests had departed, rolling down the hill with full bellies, we were exhausted ourselves. However we were good at it, washed most of the dishes, pick the turkey carcass clean, put away the leftovers (they are going to be living on leftovers for a week), and picked up all the toys. We had earned a good night sleep!

Day 6 – Norway 2017. A day exploring Tromsø

The day started early, with little Evan proclaiming in his best singing voice that he was ready to get out of his bed. Today was a regular day for the family, so we had a quick breakfast, and Greg started adding one layer after another to Evancito, until he looked like an overstuffed tamal. This insulation against the cold is necessary, because in Norway they believe on making the kids tough since birth, and he spends most of his time at the day care playing outdoors (in the extreme, many kids take their naps outdoors in their baby carriers, while their mothers visit with each other inside a warm café;  Evan actually takes his nap indoors). Once ready Greg put him inside his bicycle carrier, and the two of them got lost in the night, bicycling on the snow a mile or so to get to the Barnehagen (barne for children, and hagen for hut; in other words, the day care). In the meantime Ceci and I got going in the 15 minute walk needed to get to her work. She had to attend an important monthly meeting that she couldn’t avoid, so she gave me careful instructions on how to move on the bus system, lent me her bus card, and asked me to be back at noon.

Tromsø is largely developed along the east side of an island that is about 15 km long, so most of the buses run in a N-S direction. Almost anywhere you get a glorious look at the fjord that bounds the island to the east. The university is at the north end of the city, and that is where I headed to start with, together with a whole lot of students heading for class. Mind you, at 9 am it was still dark, with only a hint of dawn on the eastern sky. At the university I visited the planetarium (closed of course) and then headed for the center of campus, where I made a warming-up stop at the library. I finally found a map of campus and noticed that the Geology Walk started right by the planetarium. Rats! So I went back, found the proper trail, and got my first introduction to the geology of Tromsø. The island is underlain by thrust sheets of the Caledonian orogeny of the lower to middle Paleozoic, with most of the rocks now turned into high grade metamorphic rocks. For the benefit of my students I will remind you that the Caledonian orogeny happened in the late Ordovician and Devonian, when the Iapetus Ocean was closed as the Paleozoic terranes of Laurentia, Baltica, and Avalonia collided and fused together.

There was not much to see under the snow, although one could hardly miss a few big hunks of rock labeled as gneiss, marble, and the elusive eclogite. The real punch of the whole walk was an outcrop, maybe 2 m high and 5 m long, where one of the main thrust faults was beautifully exposed. I have now seen the hallmark of the Caledonian orogeny! That outcrop was worth the whole trip to the university J

From the university I made my way back to town using the bus, and spent the following hour just window shopping. I wanted to make sure I would not be late to my meeting with Ceci, so I got there with 15 minutes to spare. Ceci works at the Polar Research Institute, which is housed in a beautiful building where all sorts of other Arctic Research units are also housed. Ceci had told me there was a library in the ground floor, so that is where I went, curious about the geologic development of the ocean floor around Norway. This question arose because when I went to the Fisheries Museum in Bergen the description of the ocean basins off the coast of Norway included the relatively shallow and oil-rich North Sea between Norway and England, a deep “trench” or “trough” off the west coast from Bergen to Tromsø, and a shallow “shelf” off the coast of northernmost Norway. The North Sea I know started as a rift (think grabens and volcanism) during the Triassic and Jurassic, but the rift failed during the Cretaceous and was filled by Cretaceous and Paleogene sediments (this is where the oil is). What about the offshore “trench” or the “shelf” far to the north? Well, the “trench” is no such thing, but rather the abyssal floor as the opening of the Atlantic spread north from the Gulf of Mexico in the Jurassic to the old suture of the Iapetus Ocean in the Cretaceous. It is just that the northernmost Atlantic has not spread that much since, so the abyssal floor is unusually narrow before the bathymetry shallows toward the mid-ocean ridge. The “shelf” on the far north is the drowned Caledonian basement that is separated from the Atlantic floor to the south by a big transform fault. The things one can find in a library given a little time!

Ceci and I finally got together, and she took me to lunch at a delightful Mediterranean restaurant. Tomorrow we are having guests for dinner, so we also had a chance to talk about menus and the things we are having to buy on the way back. But first Ceci had a couple of things to accomplish after her interminable meeting, and I wanted to visit the Polar Museum, so we once again said away and I headed into the twilight. Twilight? Yes, we had some sort of sunlight from 11 am to 1 pm, although the sun never rose high enough over the horizon for me to see it. The winter days are short in the Arctic Circle!

The Polar Museum was great. Most of the explanations were in Norwegian, but the displays were pretty clear, and with a little attention I could make some sense of the Norwegian, which includes some words reminiscent of German. Anyway, the first part of the museum was devoted to the story of the seal hunters and whalers, who were crazy tough hombres that would spend years on a row roaming the Arctic Ocean. Their center of operations had been Svalbard, a rather large island complex half way between the northern end of Norway and the North Pole. It is under Norwegian sovereignty, but is a free economic zone, and a demilitarized zone, to which Russia has access. It is also the home of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (a repository for the preservation of seeds from a vast variety of existing plants), and the point of departure for research cruises into the Arctic Ocean (Ceci has on many occasions boarded ships at Svalbard).

The second third of the museum chronicles the many expeditions of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928). He was one of the last great world explorers, having spent most of his life in Polar latitudes. Curiously, his main claim to fame was being the first to reach the South Pole, although the larger number of his expeditions were into the Arctic Ocean. For example, he was the first to navigate the northwest passage in 1903-1906. He was the commander of ship expeditions, zeppelin expeditions, and plane flyovers (it was in one of these flyovers that his plane never returned).

The final third of the museum is devoted to the work and expeditions of Norwegian oceanographer Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930). I have purposefully called him an oceanographer rather than an explorer because he was a scientist by training, and his famous trip with the ship Fram was a well conceived (albeit crazy) plan to get his ship locked in the Arctic ice off the coast of Siberia so it would passively shift with the ice across the North Pole and into the coast of Greenland. His plan succeeded beyod all expectations, and in its 3-year drift the Fram conducted many valuable oceanographic observations, using specialized instruments designed by Nansen himself. Besides his scientific work Nansen became involved in diplomacy and advocacy work for the oppressed in the world. In 1921 he was named the High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations. In 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of the displaced victims of the First World War and related conflicts.

Overall a very satisfying day J

Day 5 – Norway 2017. Bergen a Tromsø

I was very disappointed when I checked the time of departure of the first leg of my flight Bergen-Oslo-Tromsø. I was under the impression that it was at mid afternoon, but no, the flight departed at 13:30 pm, which meant I had to leave Bergen at 11:30 am at the latest. This completely screwed up my plans for museum visits, since all museums open at 11:00 am. Instead I used the morning to meander through the university grounds, with the campus smoothly merging with the town in a very European style. It was 8 am when I was there, so I got a chance to see many students walking briskly to their respective schools, muffled against the chill of the morning.

By 11 am I was back at my hotel to pick up my backpack, and 45 minutes later the tram brought me to the airport. Norwegians are not as uptight regarding flight security as we are, and although you go through a full x-ray screening nobody peers closely at your passport picture as if trying to decide if it is you or a fake of you who want to board the plane. Finished with all formalities I still had an hour to wait, so I took a nice nap.

Speaking about naps, I have been going to bed at 8 pm, and have been waking at 6:30 am, which for me is a lot of sleep. Yet, because of my congested nose and sinuses (plus the always present sleep apnea) I have been sleeping poorly, with lost of bizarre dreams, so I am not fully rested. This means that as soon as I sit down for a moment I fall immediately asleep! I have now learned to set an alarm in my cell phone, so I will not risk missing a flight, and having done so I through myself gleefully into nap mode. Needless to say I slept through the 50 minute flight from Bergen to Oslo, and during the 4 hour flight from Oslo to Tromsø.

I don’t think I have mentioned that Tromsø is way north along the coast of Norway, just north of the Arctic Circle. I have come this far to visit with my niece Ceci, her husband Greg, and their little boy Evan. They are here because Ceci got a Fulbright Fellowship to come do research at the Polar Research Institute here in Tromsø, and I am here because they are here and someone had to come visit them.

As soon as I arrived I walked out into Arctic conditions to wait at the curb, and two minutes later the whole family drove by and picked me up. They have the use of the car of one of their friends this week, for which I am very glad.

Once we got to their comfortable house we shed all the winter boots and heavy coats, and there were embraces and happy hugs all around. Evan will be 2 years old next week, so he is a small bundle of energy that happily climbs over the furniture and shoots “goles” with remarkable precision with his soccer ball.

We had a yummy dinner of salad and pasta with pølsen, and then caught up on family news over a steaming mug of coffee. Afterward Evan had to take his bad and go to sleep, and I took the opportunity to go out for a walk in search of the northern lights. And I got to see them! (or at least I think I did). Unfortunately everyone has their outdoor lights blazing, and the nearby stadium keeps its big lights on for the best part of the night, but after climbing the hill that is behind the house I got to a dark spot, and after staring intently at a patch of black sky I could see ghostly bands of light forming shreds across the sky. At first I thought I was just looking at thin clouds, but after staring at it for a while the shreds of light coalesced into bands, and the bands starting undulating, just to suddenly disappear. I have three more days to complete my observations, but the start was really auspicious. 

Day 4 – Norway 2017. Tourism in Bergen

I do like the fact that Norwegians take breakfast very seriously, and once again amply partook of the offerings on the buffet bar. As I was finishing my delicious breakfast darkness made way to light (around 7:30 am) and I knew it was time to start my touristic exploration of Bergen. The first order of business was to walk to the old town, to buy a Bergen card, which should give me free access to all buses and trams, and a goodly number of museums. I was contemplating all the wonders I would be able to visit when I suddenly realized I had forgotten my wallet back at the hotel. Bummer L. So I went back, retrieved my fortune, and off I went. Incidentally, here everybody has a credit card and it is only old fashioned tourists like me who carry a stash of cash.

After getting my Bergen card (310 kronen or about US$40 for two days) I decided to go to one of the museums in the farthest part of the city. Accordingly I hopped on a bus and promptly got dragged in a completely different direction than what I had wanted (this is why I prefer trolleys, who have tracks and cannot make sharp turns). So I went back to being a pedestrian and enjoyed looking at quaint little houses and narrow streets. Bergen is a mountain city, with small houses precariously hanging from the mountainside, not unlike what one sees in say Guanajuato; of course this is a port city, and in that regard could be compared to the old town in Lisboa or in Seattle.

My first museum (and the only one today, now that I think about it) was the Fisheries Museum. Norway in general, and Bergen in particular, are very proud of their fishing past, although in this times of sustainability that past seems reckless and cruel. For example, catching enormous hauls of cod and herring, hunting seals for their pelts, and whales for their blubber, are pretty much a thing of the past (although both practices were still going in the 1970’s). Today fishing is heavily regulated through a quota system, the condition of the fisheries is constantly being assessed by international teams, and a fair volume of the fish exports of Norway come from farming of high-value fish like salmon. Back to the museum, the exhibitions occupy an old fish-mongering warehouse (and I swear the smell of fish still pervades some of the rooms) and they are cute and somewhat informative, but not as good as some others I have seen.

After the Fishing Museum I wanted to visit the Hanseatic Museum, but they were not in the list of museums that accept my Bergen card, so I gave them a pass. I do notice that Bergen was one of the cities in the Hansa League.

By this time I was in the midst of the old part of town, the Bryggen, so I spent a happy hour wandering through the streets. A funicular ride took me to the top of Fløyen mountain, where I enjoyed incredible views of the convoluted coastline and the different sections of the city. I also enjoyed walking down the mountain, which in its upper reaches is a very pleasant, albeit steep, city park.

Unfortunately during the summer museums are open only from 11 am to 3 pm, and I had taken a long time for my hiking and sightseeing. That’s OK. Tomorrow I plan to visit the Maritime Museum, the History Museum, and . . . something else.

To finish the day I took advantage of the fact that the Bergen card gives me free access to buses, jumped in bus 15, and allowed the driver to take me on a long and twisty way through the residential portions of the city. Eventually the bus driver told me we were at the end of the line, and that I could take line 14 to get back to city center. Nice guy! I did a bit of window shopping, had dinner at a Thai restaurant, and eventually took the tram back to my psychedelic room at the Magic Hotel. I have been wondering what a typical Norwegian restaurant looks like, but I don’t think there is such a thing. The “pølsa” or sausage seems to be the go-to fast food, but otherwise I think one would have to look for things like Lutfisk to hit an authentic chord. I know from past experience that Lutfisk is this very “bland” cod fish that is done by soaking the dry cod in water with lye, and then boiling it to death so any shred of flavor the fish might had had is gone. You end with a tasteless, soggy mass that could very well be tofu. The key, it seems, is on the side dishes, which—just like with tofu—are the way to inject flavor back into the poor old cod. 

Day 3 – Norway 2017. Flåm to Bergen

I am feeling a bit better, and actually spent most of the night asleep rather than choking. Furthermore, my luxurious room has a bath tub, so I treated myself to a bath before getting ready for breakfast. More than a breakfast the hotel prepared a luxurious smorgasbord, with smoked salmon, lamb salami, venison ham, and all kinds of cheeses. Yes, there was brown cheese as well; this peculiar type of cheese, the color of old wood, is a great source of pride to Norwegians, who invented the cheese slicer just so that they could shave themselves a slice at all hours of the day. It was pretty good, in a Scandinavian sort of way.

After overeating I rolled myself back to my room, grabbed my backpack, and headed for the port to take ferry that was going to take me along a portion of Aurlands Fjord all the way to the small town of Gudvangen. The day was glorious and the cruise down the fjord was absolutely mesmerizing, because in contrast to other fjords I have visited this one is fairly narrow and twisting, which makes for very nice viewing. Amazingly, here and there you find small hamlets hanging precariously to the steep walls of the glacial canyon. This fjord is an inland branch of the larger Sognefjord, a fjord estuary that extends nearly 200 km into the land.

Once in Gudvangen I transferred to the bus to Voss. Being smart I took the seat on the very front, planning to do some serious sightseeing. Unfortunately we were heading to the southwest, against the sun, and I got both blinded and cooked during a good portion of the one-hour trip. I have been a bit paranoid about being cold, but a fleece and a good hiking jacket have kept me more than warm so far. Once in Voss I took the train to Bergen, which afforded me one more opportunity to admire the snow-clad mountain landscapes of the Norwegian Alps.

Bergen is a handsome city built across two peninsulas and one island in the ria estuary of Osterfjord. We arrived around 3 pm, so I had plenty of light to walk the half hour I needed to reach my accommodations at the Magic Hotel. It is a pretty funky, modern hotel, with repetitive geometric patterns that are sure to cause epileptic fits if you have a tenuous grip in reality to begin with. After checking in I went and grabbed a chorizo and pepperoni pizza for dinner, and by the time I left the restaurant (around 5 pm) it was already pitch dark. I will have to leave very early tomorrow morning for my exploration of the city, to make sure I will have enough daylight to see it all! Turismus muss Weh tun.

Day 2 – Norway 2017. Oslo to Flåm

I woke up with a start at 5:30 am, with enough time for a quick shower before it was time for me to walk to the train station. The hotel had kindly prepared a breakfast box for me, but outside of that I felt miserable, with barely enough strength to carry my comparatively light backpack the few blocks to the train station. I had to be there extra early, because I had to pick up the tickets for the tour I had arranged (Norway in a Nutshell) from one of the employees of the train organization, in time for my 8:20 am train departure. Unfortunately the young woman representing the train company had no idea what tickets I was talking about, and for a brief moment I thought I would have to buy the ticket on the train itself. But the person who knew what I was looking for eventually arrived, gave me my tickets, and wished me an enjoyable trip.

The tour started with a four hour train ride up the mountains that form the western backbone of Norway, from Oslo to Myrdal. Oslo itself had just had its first dusting of snow the previous day, but clearly the mountains have been experiencing heavy snowfall since the beginning of October, and the mountain was transformed into a veritable Winter Wonderland. I would like to describe for you the gorgeous scenery, but my cold was now in its extreme phase, and I spent the four hours falling asleep and sneezing. Ay, ay, ay.

Once in Myrdal (a tiny mountain town) we transferred into the Myrdal to Flåm mountain train, which over a modest 50 km descends from 1,222 m above mean sea level in Myrdal to 2 m in Flåm (pronounced Flom). The transfer implied getting down from the big train into a blinding flurry of snow and walking across the station yard, with snow up to our knees, into the much smaller Flåm train. It was a very beautiful ride, and I managed to stay awake for much of the time so I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Once in Flåm I checked in at my rather posh hotel, went for a walk around the town (fortunately I brought an umbrella because there was a persistent cold drizzle), ate my first Norwegian pølse (pronounced palse) or sausage, and visited the railway museum, before returning to my room to tackle email and write this blog. Come 7 pm I plan to go down and treat myself to a good Norwegian dinner.

I wonder, if they write å to represent the sound “o”, and write ø to represent the sound “a”, wouldn’t it be easier to use a for “a”, and o for “o”. Not to be “criticoso” or anything, but I wonder if I should start writing my name as Hårøciå. Hey, now that I see it written I kind of like it; it has a definite Viking flare!

Day 1 – Norway 2017. Oakland to London Gatwick to Oslo

I forgot to mention that a few days ago I had gotten the infamous flu vaccine, so of course a couple of days ago I came up with the flu L  So the long flight from Oakland to London Gatwick was pretty wretched, and when we landed in London, at midday, I was tired and grumpy. For a moment I thought I could spend the 5 hours of layover I had by making a quick dash to London, but I found that the city is 50 km away, and the trip there would take half hour in and half hour back. I have been in London before, so I gave it a pass and decided to enjoy the beautiful day my simply walking around the green areas that surround the airport. Yes, well, that took about one hour because there is not much you can walk before coming to a freeway, so I turned around and sat in the terminal nursing my cold.

Finally, after another delay we took off at 7 pm and two hours later I arrived at Oslo airport at 10 pm (Norway is one hour ahead of London). The immigration formalities were brief, and in perhaps half an hour I was out in the arrivals hall, planning my next step. First I got 5,000 Kronen out of the ATM (8.25 Kronen = US$ 1), and then stopped by the bus counter to see if there was a bus that could bring me close to my hotel. Yes, Bus 11 comes close, so I should go outside and ask the conductor to drop me off near the Central Station. It turns out that the conductor was a happy fellow who immediately identified my accent as being Latino, and after I confirmed his shrewd guess he switched to Spanish and proceeded to tell me how he was Peruvian, had been an officer in the Peruvian army, and had fled Peru as a political refugee when El Sendero Luminoso started targeting officers in their guerilla strikes. With the enjoyable conversation the 60 km between airport and city went by very rapidly, and my new friend even went out of his way to drop me off right on front of my hotel. Life was perfect!

Or not, because I spend a wretched night with my raging flu.

Day 0 – Norway 2017. Rush to the airport

As often happens when I want to go anywhere, the few hours leading to my departure for Norway were extremely busy and hectic. Faby and Ronnie were taking me to the airport, so my plan was to be at their house around 1 pm. But then Faby asked me to pickup Ronnie at the Child Development Center, and I misunderstood that she would join us at my house. Ronnie of course fell asleep on our way there, so I had to bring him in, put him on my bed, and let him recharge his batteries. When I got a text from Faby saying “voy” I went to wake him up and found he had had an accident. So I had to change him and the linens in bed, and then fix him lunch (a delicious left over turkey sandwich). But where is Faby? She clearly read my mind because a few seconds later I got another text “Where are you guys?” Aha, she was waiting for us at her house, so I packed kid and luggage and went there as soon as possible. Yet, by the time we got on our way was nearly 3 pm, and my flight was scheduled to depart from Oakland at 6:15 pm!

To complicate things it started raining quite hard (the first heavy rain of the 2017-2018 season), so Faby had to be extra careful driving. By the time we got to the Pleasanton BART station it was 4:05 pm, and after a very hurried goodbye I bolted for the metro. I made it with 5 seconds to spare, so by 4:13 pm I was on my way. At about 4:40 pm I arrived at the Oakland Stadium station, where I was planning on taking a shuttle to Oakland airport. Boy, was I surprised when I found out, miracle of miracles, that the bus had been replaced by an automated elevated shuttle, so I was entering the terminal at exactly 5 pm. In theory my flight was starting to board, so I was moved to the front of the check in line, and by 5:15 pm I was past security and running to my gate. Puff, puff. After all this excitement I found out that the flight was delayed, and the departure ended being at 7:30 pm.

Europe 2017 - Day 6. Up the slopes of Etna

A dedicated group of tourists (Christine, Andrea, Frank, a reluctant Gustav, and me) met at 8:30 am, with the plan of going as high as we could on Etna. Now, we are here at 1,900 m elevation, and Etna is 3,247 m high, so we were not thinking on doing something crazy like hiking all the way to the top. Rather, more appropriate to our level of fitness, we took the funicular up to 2,500 m elevation, and then a Unimog ride to 2,900 m elevation. From that point the volcano still looked like an impossibly tall and steep mountain, so we opted for the more sensible option of walking around the vents of the 2002 eruption, at a maximum elevation of 3,000 m.

The station where the Unimog dropped us off is at the edge of the March and April 2017 lava flow, a very thick and extensive lava flow that issued fairly high in the mountain and then parted as it hit the 2002 cinder cones. It is amazing to think that in a couple of months the mountain completely modified its topography, and that this happened less than six months ago!

The 2002 eruption started as a fissure eruption, no doubt with some spectacular “fire” curtains, but eventually focused in five vents aligned along the extent of the fissure. The vents are locally known as “La Buttoniere” because they resemble the line of buttons on a shirt. They are pretty impressive deep vents, and by just digging a few centimeters one can feel the steam rising through the tephra. Gustav was hanging behind, enjoying the volcano by himself, so he was just starting the climb when we were on the way down. His “backpack” was a paper bag, bright red and with the logo of the family business, where he had his sunshades and some candy. When he got to the edge of the craters he looked for a nice rock to sit on and relax when, puff, a gust of wind blew the bag over the edge of the crater and down and down it went until it landed near one of the vents. Now, for years and years, tourists from all over the world will be able to see this bright red paper bag down in one of the great wonders of nature, and will shake their heads in disbelief at the way German tourists just throw trash around, oblivious to the importance of keeping our Mother Earth clean.

Joking aside, being so high in the mountain we got some fabulous views of the three peaks that form the summit, from which issues a steady column of steam. It is a harsh world, with very little vegetation, but its raw beauty is mesmerizing.

On the way back we decided to give the Unimog a pass (the tremendous power of these trucks looses its charm very fast), and enjoyed a very nice walk down the slope of the mountain to the point where we had to catch the funicular to get down to the level where our hotel is located.

Boris and Catherine had to go back home today, so we sat in the terrace for a last beer and lots of laughter. Ida, their daughter said goodbye yesterday because she spent the night at a friend who was having a birthday party. Boris and Catherine are a wonderful couple, gregarious and full of good humor, so we were a bit sad of seeing them go. But Etna is pretty regular in its eruptions, so maybe next time there is a good show of volcanic activity we will get the group together again.

As a last gift to us, Boris called one of his friends at a local winery (he seems to know everyone in Sicily and everybody knows him), and in a very colloquial Italian he recommended us to his attention. I should add that Boris is an amazing linguist, who can shift from German to Italian to French to English to Spanish with the greatest ease. So off they went back to Catania, and off we went toward Linguaglossa to taste the Vino della Etna.

The Gambino winery is built on a slope, with wide terraces cut in the hard basaltic rocks. After that heavy part of the work was completed they brought soil from different parts of Etna “to add complexity” to the grapes. Curiously for such a high tech effort, they did not add an irrigation system, as if that were an insult to the art of the wine maker, who every year has to contend with different water budgets and quality of the grapes.

We were received in grand style, by the grandfather who originally took the decision to move from bulk vino di tavola to smaller quantities of quality wine, by one of the two brothers who runs the winery, and a young man who in perfect English introduced us to the history of the place. It turns out that Sicily had a tradition of wine making, but it was somehow lost after World War I, when everybody had to scramble to wrest a living out of their rocky land. This opened the opportunity for Signor Gambino to plan and execute his winery project on a comparatively small plot of land (though they mentioned a second area in the center of the island where they perhaps have a larger plot).

We were then escorted to see the processing plant by the Gambino brother who had greeted us earlier. Gustav made his best to annoy him, by talking over him and suggesting alternative ways to operate the process, until mercifully we were escorted back to the main room, to enjoy the process of having a light lunch and tasting the different types of white, rose, and red wine on offer. It was a delicious afternoon, with a breeze cooling the room, good food, and wines that were being offered with lots of explanations about their bouquets and body characteristics. A perfect Sicilian moment!

And on this high note I will put an end to this telling of my summer trip. I have ahead of me three days of travel before I can reach the house of my parents in Monclova, but most of it will be about jumping from one flight to the other, which is of little interest. It has been a fabulous trip, with many new memories made with friends, new and old. A rivediamo!


OK, so here is a brief note to let you know that after nearly 18 hours of flying I finally made it to Monclova, where I will spend a week visiting my parents.

In retrospect, I consider myself lucky in that after taking 14 flights (with four more to go from Monterrey, Mexico to Sacramento, California) never once did I miss a flight, nor did I get separated from my backpack. Not bad!

Europe 2017 - Day 5. Around Mount Etna

We have a lot of plans for today, so we stated a firm departure time of 9:30 am, and working in our best Sicilian time, we started at about 10:15 am. Boris was our guide, and he and his family wanted to show us their favorite places around the volcano. Boris is married to Catherine, and they have a single daughter, Ida, who is 12 years old and thus the perfect model for photographs. We were going around the mountain clockwise, starting in the south at our hotel, the Hotel Corsaro.

Rather than describe the different stops, let me see if I can summarize for you all that I learned today about Mount Etna. It is a large volcano, in the same league as Mount Shasta or the Nevado de Toluca, but it is largely basaltic in composition. The bulk of the magma erupted can be described as a mildly alkaline basalt, or hawaiite, although in some instances it has erupted magmas that could be better described as mugearites (a mildly alkaline basaltic andesite) or benmoreites (a mildly alkaline andesite). Being a large volcano, it is subject to gravitational spreading, which expresses itself as extensional rifts where many of the eruptions form parasitic cones. There are maybe 50 of such cones along the flanks of the volcano, and just by looking on the topographic map I would say there are a south rift, a western rift, and a northeastern rift.  Boris tried to explain to us the tectonic setting, but it is not easy to grasp. On one hand you have the African plate pushing north, and apparently causing a subduction zone to form under Greece and southern Italy. To the west, the African continental plate has already met the continental crust of the European sub-plate, so subduction cannot take place. It is at the odd junction of these two regimes that Etna is located, perhaps the result of a tear end of the Greek-Italian subduction zone causing mantle decompression, partial melting, and alkaline basalt volcanism.

The puzzle of geology aside, the rift zones are decked with beautiful forests, whereas the slopes away from them are covered by young and spiney lava flows (aa lavas being a lot more abundant than pahoehoe lavas). Volcanic activity in the area seems to have started half a million years ago, but most of the volcanic edifice was built in the last 100,000 years, and most of the surface lava flows are variously dated to the Roman era, the Middle Ages, and of course historic and quite recent times.

Throughout our outing the summit loomed above us, with its continuous plume of steam that eventually coalesces to form clouds.

On our way we passed many beautiful Sicilian towns, perched precariously on top of a cinder cone or on the sides of the rifts. We made sure to make many stops along the way, to check “refreshment stations” because the day was pretty warm (although the breeze and the shade of the many trees made it bearable). But Boris had saved the best for last, and as the afternoon got on its way on the north side of the volcano he led us to the Rio Alcantara, where we found a shady cleft in the basalts with one of the best swimming holes you can imagine. The water was deliciously cool and we enjoyed ourselves tremendously. 

Europe 2017 - Day 4. Paris to Sicily

It took me a good part of the day to hop from Paris to Lyon, then Lyon to Rome, and finally from Rome to Palermo, but at last here I am. All the flights were in small planes with Air France and Alitalia (Really? There are no big planes between Paris and Rome?), and short enough that neither airline had a chance to impress them with their service. But besides the multiple opportunities for something going amiss both me and my luggage arrived on the same place and at the same time.

Gustav was already waiting for me at the airport, and just across the street was the Alfa Romeo he had rented (oh boy, a fast Italian car in the hands of my very impatient friend). This island is of course much larger than I had thought, so we had a trip of a good 250 km ahead of us, into Catania. As we started on our way I couldn’t help but notice that the towering cliffs around the city were made out of limestone, and not volcanic rock as I had imagined. What is Etna volcano doing on top of a limestone island?

The drive through Palermo was pleasant enough. It is a big city that in many respect reminds me of the cities of northern Mexico. We just went through it, catching up with the news of family and friends, and in no time whatsoever were out in the countryside, which is hot and dry. Most of the mountains are covered by sparse golden grasses, but the valleys have enough moisture in them to support ripening fields of wheat (that delicious Italian pasta has to come from somewhere) and small orchards of olive trees.

As we approached the pass between the west (Palermo) and east (Catania) sides of the island we started looking for Etna. Where was it? We puzzled this question over a celebratory beer half in a small mountain village near the pass. Once we crossed to the east side of the island, green started dominating over yellow, and orange orchards became more abundant. It was hot and hazy and so it was not until we were just 40 km from Catania that we were able to see the dark mass of Mount Etna in the distance, like a vague monster looming over the city.

Gustav pointed to a tiny yellow speck high on the shoulders of Etna and said “That is where we are going.” What a crazy idea! So we bypassed the city and started climbing through narrow streets chocked with traffic, which were like a red cloth in front of an enraged bull to my impatient friend. He had choice words for all the slowpokes that insisted getting on our way until, with a satisfied growl he saw empty road ahead, and started road testing his Alfa Romeo in a winding mountain road, with me petrified at his side.

Eventually we made it to the lonely hotel high in the mountain, where the air was fresh and the view spectacular. I have to give it to Gustav: This time he chose a fantastic location! But first we had to do something about our parched throats, so we went to the bar where a few minutes later were joined by the other members of our party: my beloved Christine, and our long time friends Andrea and Frank. It was a happy reunion and the setting was spectacular. I went to the lower terrace, searching for a better view, when the father of a family that was approaching said in Italian: “Ah, but I know this gentleman!” Oh dear, who was he? Medium build, probably in his late 50’s, white spiky hair. “Sorry, but I don’t remember”, I said with some embarrassment. “I even have the same haircut I had then”. What? Did I know any Italian punks? “I am Boris”, and with that name came a flood of memories from 1987, when I was in Germany, and had met Boris as an undergraduate. Boy, what a surprise! (It was a carefully crafted surprised planned by Gustav, who when I suggested Sicily as a meeting point, had remembered that Boris lived here).

So, Boris was one of those young Geology students who seemed to know the details of every eruption that had happened in the last 100 years, and his driving ambition was to become a volcanologist. Common story, isn’t it? I would have recommended to him to forget about it, because nobody hires volcanologists, but he persisted and moved to Sicily after his undergraduate, volunteered at the Etna Volcano Observatory, eventually got his PhD at the University of Catania, and is know gainfully employed as a volcanologist in the Institute of Volcanology and Geophysics of Sicily. Talk about grit and determination!

Europe 2017 - Day 3. Vieux Lille

I woke up to the sound of hard rain. How ironic, I came from dry sunny days in equatorial Africa just to find heavy rain in the north of France. Then again, it could be horribly hot and oppressive like in the southeast of France, which is experiencing “la canicule”. I wonder if Sicily will also be hot and dry? (I just checked, and in the next five days the midday temperatures will be between 93 and 96 degrees Fahrenheit (33 to 35 degrees centigrade. It is going to be miserably hot L)

Anyway, I have reserved today to visit Lille, and in particular the old part of the city, or Vieux Lille, so off I go. I managed to get close to Vieux Lille, parked, and walked the rest of the way. Lille, like so many French cities, has modern and very impressive high rises in the commercial areas, comfortable neighborhoods where the normal people live, and fascinating old neighborhoods, squares, churches, and palaces for the delight of the tourists. I don’t know much about the history of the city, but I suspect many of the “old buildings were reconstructed after World War II. They certainly did a fine job at it!

On the northeast of the city there is a large green area, surrounding La Citadel. This vast fortress was constructed in the late 1600’s, after Louis XIV wrestled the city from the Flanders (Lille was then called Rijsel and was the capital of French Flanders). The architects of the Sun King gave it the form of a large star, and today it is the general quarters of the Quick-Response Military Forces (and thus out of limits to the public, who is happy enough to use the many paths around it to jog or take the family on a bike ride.

I don’t have the time, nor the inclination, to visit the many museums that are found in every European city, but I try to visit at least one, and this time the choice was the Museum of Natural History, which is described as typical of the Art Nouveau movement, when architects discovered steel as a great material to span wide spaces. In Mexico the old Museo del Chopo was built in this style, and I have fond memories of going through its immense halls, looking at glass cabinets loaded with thousands upon thousands of animals of every type (mammals, birds, insects, reptiles), the skeletons of whales and dinosaurs, and a collection of “monsters” like a two headed calf. The museum closed when I was about 15, but me and my friend Paco wriggled our way in a couple of years later, and found the place still filled with the dust covered cabinets, the enormous steel and glass vault of the ceiling dim with grime. An owl flew down on us, screeching, and gave us both the biggest freight of our lives and the amazing thrill of having entered a lost world.

The Lille Natural History Museum did not disappoint me, although it is a lot smaller than the Museo del Chopo. The cabinets were completely overloaded with stuffed animals, but great care had been taken to maintain the cabinets dust free and well illuminated. There were the obligatory skeletons of whales and dolphins, plus a few of varied species to explain evolution, and how most vertebrates share the same body plan. There was also a nice section on fossils, a couple of large models of dinosaurs, and a second floor with displays of minerals and rocks. Overall a nice museum, but to me a way to live again one of the adventures of my youth J

After walking through the charming streets of Vieux Lille and visiting la Citadel I went into a supermarket, bought a baguette, five slices of Jamon Serrano, and a beer, and had my dream lunch in a small park. C’est ci bon!

To complete the day I got back in my car and drove south of the city, to the area of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux and the Parc Naturel Regional Scarpe-Escaur. The name of the park suggested to me that there was a big fault scarp, or maybe a deep fluvial canyon to admire, but I was wrong. It is a beautiful area, and I enjoyed the drive through the countryside, but it is absolutely flat with no scarp to be seen. Still, I took this prime opportunity to hike through the forest, trying to imagine the many events that it has seen over the last 500 years.

Tomorrow I need to leave Lille at 3 am to be at the Charles de Gaulle airport at 5 am, return the rental car, and board my 8 am flight to Palermo, where I will meet my dear friends Christine and Gustav for four days of serious R&R.

Europe 2017 - Day 2. A day in Belgium

I couldn’t resist. Brussels is only 100 km from Lille, and I have not been there in 30 years, before the European Union had crystallized and brought the European parliament to this city. I thus woke up early and headed for the border. Once in Belgium I took to the streets, greatly enjoying the countryside and the small towns I went through.

No sooner had I entered the city when the road disappeared in a long twisting tunnel that totally disoriented me. I emerged near a canal (later I learned that it had been the main commerce route between Brussels and the port of Antwerp) and thought it was best to park in one of the small streets and tackle the city on foot. Fortunately I was but a few blocks from the old downtown and I was soon immersed in the streets of this quintessential European city. My plan was to get on the tourist Hop On Hop Off bus, to visit the city in full comfort.

Line 1 took me to the north half of the city, past some of the old commercial districts, and parallel to the Antwerp canal (a masterpiece of engineering completed in the mid 1500’s, way long before canals became the rage in other parts of Europe in the late 1700’s), and into the royal gardens. Belgium became independent of the Netherlands in 1830, at which time the old Dutch king was evicted of the royal palace, and Leopold 1 was crowned king of Belgium. Unfortunately the gardens and the palace are the residence of the current king (Phillip, I think) and are out of limits to the rabble. At the edge of the gardens is the Atomium, a giant representation of the crystalline structure of iron, built as part of one of the World Fairs. From there we headed back to the city center, past some of the beautiful old landmarks of the city, such as the Fish Market or the Marolles Flea Market.

Line 2 took me to the south portion of the city, past the Avenue Louise, which is Brussels answer to Les Champs Elise, El Paseo de la Castellana, and the other grand boulevards of Europe. Our route wove through the Art Nouveau portions of the city, slowly climbing toward the hill where the very impressive buildings of the European parliament are located. I learned that the talks behind the European Union went back to the 1950’s, and that in the 1990’s Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and Luxembourg agreed to form the union, followed at a later date by England, Ireland, and Denmark, and even later by the 17 additional countries that are now part of the European Union. Note that Belgium is listed in first place, an innocent delusion that goes well with the Belgian spirit that has led them to claim the invention of the praline (that delicious shell of hard chocolate filled with a different type of soft chocolate), the saxophone, beer, and French Belgian Fries.

After I concluded my tour I stopped at a small shop to buy a most delicious baguette with chorizo, bummed on foot through the city center and the Grand Place, paid my respects to the Mannekin Pis, and treated myself to a waffle with Nutella (both invented in Belgium, you know).

Honestly, I had but a vague recollection of Brussels and must confess that I am very impressed by its beauty and cosmopolitan flavor. I wouldn’t mind at all living here!

Europe 2017 - Day 1. Paris to Lille

I landed in Paris at 6 am, came out of the terminal by 7 am, and by 7:30 am was driving a rental Toyota out of the Charles De Gaulle airport. Unfortunately I screwed up coordinating with Geraldine and her family, who happen to be in Canada at this very moment. Since being in Paris alone is no fun, I had decided to drive a couple of hours north, to Lille, and spend these three days exploring the region.

As expected I was tired, and felt sweaty and stinky, so I had to stop half way to Lille to get a cup of coffee at a gas station by the autoroute. There I found a kiosk with information about the region and found out that Dunkerque (or Dunkirk) is less than an hour from Lille, and that they have a Maritime Museum. With my interest piqued by the movie I saw just a few days ago, on a whim I decided to keep going to check it out.

Dunkerque is a pretty port town, with a magnificent wide sandy beach, but has the sad distinction of being one of the first French cities occupied during World War II (June 1940), and one of the last to be liberated by the Allies (1945), by which time it had been bombed to rubble. Thus, the city I visited is comparatively new, although the port has been one of the main ports of France since the mid 1800’s.

You may remember that I “collect” visits to maritime museums, so I spent several happy hours going through the displays, which were very good. I learned that Dunkirque had started as a fishermen port, and that fishing boats would go from there all the way to Iceland to fish for cod. From there the port became important for the commerce of wool with England, and for the contraband of sugar, specialty foods, and wine. Lunch was at a nice restaurant by the water, and consisted on a huge bucket of steamed mussels and a tall beer. Maybe it was the ambiance, but I swear those were some of the best mussels I have ever had. I was seated by the water and was amazed at the fabulous variety of sea anemones floating in the crystal-clear water; unfortunately I was also under the rays of a blazing sun, so when I finally finished my meal I was panting.

After lunch I went back to the museum, to visit a a tall ship that was rescued from the scarp yard and is now a historical monument, and a.lighthouse ship. It turns out that this is the place where the Channel of la Mancha, between France and England, is at its narrowest point, so the tidal currents are very strong and have built a series of sand bars parallel to the coast. Any ship trying to reach Dunkirque would have to navigate a zig zag course through the bars, and many of them became stranded. Because the bars change positions, and are under water, there was no option of building regular lighthouse to indicate their positions. Instead, lighthouse ships were deployed on the shallowest bars, manned by crews that were rotated every 15 days. Being for two weeks in a ship that went nowhere must have been the most boring job in the world!

On the way back I got lost inside Lille! I blame it to the fact that I had no map of the town, but just a recollection of the map I had seen in the internet when I booked my hotel. So I knew roughly where it should be, but European streets take many turns, tiny neighborhoods spring out of nowhere, and the freeways have been designed by madmen. So I went round and round, waiting for my famous sixth sense to kick in, but to no avail. I finally asked a nice lady who had no idea of what I was looking for, but who identified the road I was looking for as the A-22 Freeway. “Just follow the signs for A-22”, she said with confidence. So I did, and found not one but two Hotel Ibis, both of them in areas I had driven past! The good news is that I have not lost my sense of orientation; the bad news is that I am becoming hard of hearing to the voice of said sense of orientation.

Europe 2017 - Day 0. Accra to Paris

The highlight of my departure from Ghana is that Abigail very kindly offered to take me to the airport. I really like Abigail. She is smart and a very good Resident Director, and in the way to the airport we started talking about our families, and of our plans for the future. She travels to the US maybe every other year, and she has promised that if she comes to California she will let me know so we can get together again.

Since I am a bit paranoid about catching a flight she picked me up by 8 am, and by 8:30 am we were already at the airport. By 9:30 am I was booked, and for the next two and a half hours I cooled my heels walking up and down the terminal.

From Accra I flew to Addis Ababa, where I had a two hour layover, so I had the opportunity of buying a traditional Ethiopian lunch box for Ronnie (a bit of an antique, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t use it regularly), and eating a traditional lamb tebs dinner, with enjera, using the 300 birrs I had left a month ago. Finally, at midnight, I took the flight from Addis to Paris. I should have slept all the way, but I was too hot and couldn’t get much sleep, so tomorrow I will be dead tired.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Ghana 2017 - Day 31. My last day

To mark my last day I took the long promised trip to Achimota Forest Reserve. First, with the ease of long experience, I took the trotro from the Nite Market to Achimota Police Station, turned left at the light, and walked down to the second light to the single entrance to Achimota Forest. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that the EcoPark is open only Monday through Saturday. Why would they close a park on Sundays, which is when families can go for a picnic. But wait. The forester asked me if I was going to the zoo, which was open. Yes, I was going to the zoo. Oh, in that case I could go in, and walk through the park to the zoo, about 25 minutes straight down the road. So the park was open, but not if your intention was to simply be in the park. Strange logic, but it is out of those small contradictions that we get to enjoy the zest of foreign cultures.

So I walked, and walked, and walked. True to my pledge I kept going straight, intent of finding the zoo, until I got to a sign that could be interpreted as “Zoo to the left”, or “Zoo to the right”. I trued to the left, and went deeper and deeper into the “forest” of scrub bushes, thinking that this would be a bad spot for meeting a lion or a warthog. It did allow me to see that the so-called forest reserve does not have any big trees, so in that regard the University Botanical Garden is much more a forest than this “forest reserve”. The poor Forestry Department.

I went back to the right side of the intersection, and a few minutes later came upon the small cabin that hosts the administration of the zoo. I solemnly paid my 20 cedis (Ghanaians pay 10 cedis), and followed the forester guide, together with a couple that had arrived by car a few minutes after me. It is a really tiny zoo, with a couple of monkey cages, two ostriches, two emus from Australia, a camel, two cibet cats, two tortoises, three antelopes, a dozen parrots, and three boas (alas, no mambas). The story is that these animals were relocated here after the zoo in downtown Accra was closed, a few years back, and that the big animals (elephants, lions, zebras, giraffes) were sent temporarily to Komasi Zoo, in southwestern Ghana, while the new zoo is built in the EcoPark. Since there is no evidence that even a shovelful of dirt has been dug, I suspect that the new zoo is never going to pass, and that the EcoPark will remain a name and nothing else. Achimota might have picnic potential for the inhabitants of Accra, but they are going to have to clean some of the brush to open picnic spaces and play structures. Always room to grow here in Ghana.

Being a USAC Visiting Professor was a top notch experience. Not only was I treated as a VIP (a treatment that, alas, I don’t get very often), but adapting my course to a new setting was a great learning experience. My class is an upper division GE, but it isfairly technical, so I have a good deal of experience cajoling my non-science students to learn something from it. But in a study-abroad setting it is very important that the students can see a connection between what they are learning and the dazzling kaleidoscope of a new culture, a new geography, and a different stage of social development. I had done my homework, of course, and knew quite a bit about Ghana’s accomplishments and challenges in the field of water development. I should have been quicker, however, in grasping opportunities for the students to see the issues we had been talking about in the new world surrounding them. Next time I will have to correspond with the local USAC team way in advance, to know what activities they have planned for outings and fieldtrips, and then research the places I will visit with the students to identify potential learning opportunities. In any case, I am now a devote adherent to the notion of study abroad in general, and to the USAC program in particular.

It is time to say goodbye to this charming country, and its likewise charming people. I will miss its colorful clothes, Gospel music, and interesting languages. I will miss, in a fashion, being accepted in the warm community of a trotro and the nasal call of the ticket taker as he tells the world that this particular trotro is heading for Accra-ccra-ccra-ccra. I will not miss mosquitoes, torrential equatorial rains, nor baobabs, for the simple reason that I never got to see one. I will certainly miss eating soup messily with my bare hand, and the half liter bottles of Club beer (or the lady at the Bush Canteen, who by now knows I always order a cold Pepsi from her). And I will miss my friends Abigail, Claudia, Shasha, Ama, Theo, Yunuss, and Edde. Not to worry, I now know the way so am sure that I will come back again someday.

Ghana 2017 - Day 30. A visit with the Presbyterian Annual Retreat

Curiosity led me to wake up early in the morning to walk to the place where the Annual Retreat of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana is taking place. They have put up a giant tent near the stadium, where a good two thousand people can gather. By the time I got there at 8:30 am it was about half full, so I got a good seat, and by 9 am the place was packed. The church has all sorts of high power amplifiers, giant screens, and enough electronic equipment to launch a satellite.

When I first got there two young deacons were rapping at full volume, exchanging throaty shouts that I couldn’t understand. They kept it up for a good few minutes, and the exchange was clearly raising the fervor among the attendants, who joined in the shouting and mumbled under their breath. Then came a chorus, and another young deacon (dressed like the others in jeans, t-shirt and ball cap), and for nearly an hour we sang in rapture beautiful psalms although I could see the fervor was starting to boil, until a dozen of people started having convulsions. This was an expected effect, for the organization included a sufficient number of aides to restrain the thrashing people, who one way or other were dragged to the front. They were the vessel through which the Lord chose to speak to their congregation, and we heard four or five of them speak the message of the Lord in between screams or chilling bouts of laughter.

To ease the mood, the next deacon asked the people to dance to the music, and in short few minutes the tone of the crowd changed from solemn to joyous. A young man and his guitar then came on stage, and accompanied a series of other deacons who engaged in a more harmonious rapping, which with the backdrop of the guitar sounded more like cowboy poetry than rap.

The final music was provided by an ensemble of men, who played percussion instruments and sang, and once again moved the crowd into joyous dancing. By then we had been there for a couple of hours, and I for one started to feel restless. But I wanted to hear the pastor speak, so I held my peace in the best way I knew. We wnte through another round of testimony (which I cynically thought was directed toward opening the purses of the attendants to the collection), and we finally approached the moment of the peroration. The speaker (for I am not sure he was a pastor) was introduced at length by a deacon who stressed that we had to listen very carefully not on account of what we were going to hear, but because the Apostle General had approved the speaker. So now I know the head of the Presbyterian Church is the Apostle General, whoever he might be.

The speaker was a financial advisor, CEO of his own company, who proceeded to give a mixed pitch of the importance of investing in securities, and how the power of compound interest guides us through the Lord’s path, and thus is the way to make the church strong and financially secure. There was a dab of spirituality in his words, but overall I was sorely disappointed that this speech had been the culmination of 3 hours of religious fervor.

After I came back home I started to work in my computer, and was happily getting ready to upload my blogs to the internet when someone knocked at my door. A smiling man expressed some surprise of seeing me very much at ease and at home, and told me they expected for me to have already gone. No, I responded, I won’t be leaving for another couple of days, early in the morning of Monday. “But this room is being given to a new guest”, he informed me. Well, that was some sort of news. So I pledged ignorance, sticking to the fact that I was not scheduled to leave for a couple more days, and he politely asked me to come talk down with the General Manager of Volta Hall.

I had met this lady before, and in a very amiable way we went through the whole puzzle again. So she pulled the letter of reservation she had from USAC, and sure enough it requested the room from June 30 to July 29. “Well, I guess they made a mistake”, I said in my most innocent voice, “I really don’t have any suggestions to make”. The Manager thought for a moment and said “Well, we cannot ask you to leave, so I will have to figure out something else. But they should really have told us.” I remained silent, with downcast demeanor, and quietly slid out the door. It is a pity, but at this stage of the game I have zero interest of moving my stuff to a new place. Lo que será, será!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ghana 2017 - Day 29. Sharing the last few hours with our Ghanaian friends

I woke up early, as usual, and having nothing better to do I cleaned my room, put all the excess paper I have fluttering around in the trash, and consolidated all my plastic bags into an enormous ball. You may or may not know that in California we no longer get a plastic bag for our groceries, and that I hate every moment of it. In Ghana, on the other hand, they give you a plastic bag (and sometimes two, one inside the other) for anything you buy. The result is that now I am the proud owner of several dozen plastic bags, for I don’t use them for trash disposal at the same high rate at which I receive them. I know I will look with longing at my happy days in Ghana next time I come out of the supermarket back home, joggling my purchases all the way to the car!

I also packed, which is a silly thing to do because I still have three days before departure. I did find, however, that I have too much stuff, and that it is going to take a miracle of packing to be able to fit everything inside. Where has all this stuff come from? I know I acquired four beautiful shirts and several books, but surely I had lots of empty space when I got here. I will have to compress everything as tight as I can if I am going to be able to close the zipper in my travel backpack, and will probably overload my regular backpack, all the time pining for the 5 kilo carved rhinoceros that I saw at the Handcrafts Market the other day.

At 11:30 am I headed for the International Student Hostel, to meet Kaleb and our five Ghanaian student assistants. Kaleb and I have planned a trip to the mall to share lunch with our friends, and to go see the movie Dunkirk. We had invited all the other USAC students as well, but nobody took our bait, so it was just the seven of us that walked to the trotro stop and headed for Accra Mall. Once there I suggested going for pizza, and we stormed the local Pizza Hut (which claimed to be the largest in Africa but was indeed not much larger than the take away outlets back home). When asked what we should get, everyone at unison asked for meat, so we ordered the meat deluxe, double pepperoni, and spicy chicken pizzas, plus a spicy vegetarian just in case any one amongst us had seditious vegetarian tendencies. In contrast to our young people, however, young Ghanaians are decidedly carnivorous, so Kaleb and I were the only takers for the vegetarian pizza.

Our five friends include two young women, Charlotte (aka Shasha) and Ewurama (aka Ama), who couldn’t be more different from each other. Shasha is sweet and a bit shy, but always wears a smile. In contrast, Ama is always ready to give the boys a piece of her mind, is the spokewoman of the group (and is the one I can depend on to get a cup of coffee at the USAC office). Of the three boys Yunuss is the easy going one; he is in charge of taking the photos and is one of my main informants. Theophilus (aka Theo) is a pretty cool guy as well, but he comes across as being the serious one; if you ask him a question he will probably answer “Let me think about it” and after a few minutes comes back with the requested information. Edward (aka Edde) is our computer whiz. I know that their involvement with the project helped the foreign students enormously, as they were the guides to eating places, laundry, email access, theater outings, and so many of the student activities. But they were also angels to me, as a professor, making sure I knew what was going on, where the class was going to meet, having the digital projector ready on every occasion, and in general being available to do any odd chore, which they always performed in a cheerful and prompt fashion. I very much enjoyed spending the afternoon with them.

I am on purpose not telling you anything about the movie Dunkirk. It was a really good movie, so I will not spoil it by telling you what it is about.

Our Resident Director, Auntie Abigail, organized one last event for us this evening: Dinner at Afrikik, one of the hot spots for night entertainment in Accra. She was going to pick me up at the front of Volta Hall, so I made sure I was at the curb, waiting, a few minutes before the appointed time. This gave me the opportunity to sea the flood of young women that were coming out of Volta Hall, lining up in a long queue to await for the next bus, which would then take them to the temporary church they have erected by the stadium. Yes, they are all from different Presbyterian churches across the country, here at University of Ghana for their annual retreat (I think I will go to church tomorrow to see what that is all about). They are a very nice group of young women, many of which greeted me with a “Good evening” as they streamed past me.

Afrikik was a lively place, with a life band, and we had a delicious buffet waiting for us. There was something for everyone, and I managed to try mostly new dishes (e.g., cow leg stew, palava sauce, refried beans, corn tamal) and a few of the ones I had at the beginning of my stay (e.g., okra stew). After the meal the younger generation was getting ready to go dancing and stay up until the wee hours of the morning, but Ama, Kaleb, Edde, and me took the opportunity to say goodbye and go home with Auntie Abigail. A fine ending to a fine day.