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The Dark Side of Travel

The Dark Side of Travel

Once upon a time, I had the great idea to go on a trip with my sister in Norway.  We would visit my remaining family there, see the sights, and have an all around good time.  She lived far away and Norway just seemed to be the best place to meet in the middle.  And it really was, we went and had a great time traveling the beautiful country, spending time with family, and even a magical night watching the great Northern Lights dance in the sky.  We returned home content and with hundreds of great photos that I still love to look at today.

You might be asking yourself, I thought this was about the "dark side" of travel, and it is.  You see, unfortunately, travel often becomes a much rosier idea once posted on Facebook or told to friends once the trip ends.  And often times that rosy appeal will lead many astray into wishing for things that travel just really isn't.  The most common example of this is that travel is an "easy vacation."

Anyone who really believes this is really just kidding themselves.  The stress of packing, planning, saving, and staying safe on a trip alone makes even the most relaxing trips a burden.  Add the fact that on many of these trips you are completely out of your comfort zone going to a new place, stressed with looking after multiple people, where to stay, where to eat, and what to do, along with maybe renting a car, or using public transport for hours on end perhaps with family and kids.  Indeed, this is why many would rather just buy a new toy than travel.  Buy a boat, buy a new tv, a snowmachine, the list goes on and on.  It reminds me of a time when I was a ski instructor.

One day I was assigned to teach a couple of elderly women, who were only there because they had promised their husbands they would do it once.  They struggled for a small portion of the day and gave up before ever getting off the bunny hill and told me that shopping was a much better use of their time and money than skiing any day.  As they left, I couldn't help but think that they'd missed the point, the beauty, the magic...

So what is the magic of my Norwegian story?  The truth is that I arrived in Norway a few days before my sister.  It was February and I expected layers of snow and the beautiful city of Oslo to await me.  Instead, I arrived to the warmest winter the Norwegians had had in 80 years.  Rain drenched streets awaited me as I exited public transport and wandered around looking for my hostel.  I spent the first day alone, wandering the dreary streets.  I took a bus to an old viking museum and saw a few Arctic explorer sights, but deep down I was disappointed.  Everything looked drab and dark.  The Arctic weather I had expected had disappointed me.  Later that day, I returned to the streets of Oslo to meet my now pregnant sister (she had become pregnant after we'd bought the tickets).  She looked very tired and stressed from having to spend a night in the airport in Qatar, but her bad luck was just beginning.

We went back to the hostel and she met her loud, obnoxious roommates (gender separated rooms). Since it was winter, all the museums had already closed, so we wandered for some time before stopping at a restaurant where I introduced her to Norwegian prices (Welcome to the $20 big mac).  But we weren't looking to eat a big mac, we wanted true Norwegian food, so I got a whale steak (probably the worst thing I've ever tasted except for maybe Russian холодец).  And the bill was just short of $50.  We ended the night by seeing a ballet and going back to sleep.

Of course, my sister's night was horrible.  We had to wake up early, and her roommates made noise all night, plus jet lag was killing us both.  We took one more flight to Trondheim to see our family and our trip took a decided turn for the better.  They took time off to show us all round the sites, to show us the house our great great grandfather had built.  We drove through the great fjords and ate fresh salmon and brunost.  Life was great.  But, of course, the trip was just beginning.

Soon we were renting a car, and heading on a 10 hour drive to the Arctic isle of Lofoten.  It was one of my dreams to visit this beautiful island, but we soon had trouble.  My sister was still in the early stage of morning sickness.  10 hours in a car with her little brother would be hard enough normally, but add that she had a keenly acute sense of smell that was especially against my deodorant and the 10 hours turned into probably her favorite drive of her life.

What was worse, however, was that when we arrived in Lofoten, we found more drab and dark scenery, the snow sat on top of the mountains, but it barely reached to the plains.  By now, the fragile harmony between siblings was starting to break, everything we tried to see was closed.  All the winter activities were not available because of the lack of snow.  We began quibbling over money, and to make it worse, it was cloudy our first night.  No lights, no activities, no fun.

It got so bad, that I eventually split the last night from my sister to search for the Northern Lights alone.  I drove miles and miles through the dark silent landscape until I reached the northern shore, and walked out in the darkness to the ragged shore.  Far off, I could make out the shore of Svalbard, the land of the polar bears, and there I waited alone, on a dark, cold shore.  I don't remember all my thoughts that night, but I remember being angry, scared, and alone.  I remember doubting every reason there was to go on that trip, and thinking I would never see those Northern Lights.  And then, just as I was about to turn to leave, I saw them start to bow over the horizon, they began to swirl and dance, but to my surprise, they were just white, in my camera they were green, but to me they looked white.  I was confused, but things had changed..  Just like that, all the feelings I had had were replaced with a need to get my sister.  I ran back to the car and drove back to our hotel on a cliff side beach.  I don't think I'd realized how beautiful it was until that moment.  I apologized and we drove back to the northern end.  Eventually we found the perfect dark spot, nestled among mountainous peaks on our sides and a long empty road with just us underneath the great white lights.  We watched for what seemed like hours, while another small car appeared and 6 crazy Italians popped out to enjoy the moment with us.

It's almost strange to think back to how clearly I remember that moment, that sky, and the faces of the Italians we met.  All standing in the cold, miles from home, strangers and yet not estranged.  I chose to focus on that moment, but there were many other moments from that trip I could focus on that made the trip worthwhile.  There were also moments, when I felt like it was a waste of time and money, and I could name moments during almost every trip I've gone on where the same thing happens.  One of my friends told me once that he thinks the excitement for and the memory of traveling are much more fun than the actual time traveling, and I think he is in part right, but I also think there is something more to it.

Why then should you spend oftentimes thousands of dollars of your hard-earned cash on something so fickle and fleeting as travel?  Perhaps because travel reminds us what it means to be human.  To exit our comfort zone, to learn new things, to create new memories.  Because let's be honest, the person that we are is really just our memories.  In the end, few of those memories will be about that once new tv.  Perhaps it's because travel reminds us that we can't take everything with us.  We want to remember that we were at that spot, we want, as if, to own it in some way, but we can't, we have to let it go and return home.  Perhaps it is because it reminds us that the world is not our own, and indeed nothing we "own" is really ours.  It reminds us in a very Tocquevillian sense that the world is shared, and we have a responsibility to others just as they have a responsibility to us.  And perhaps that is the true beauty, the magic of travel.  Just as my sister and I discovered as we stood in that dark open expanse staring at the heavens with eyes that were not just our own.