July 17 -25 2004 / Svalbard: Land of the Ice Bears
In which we travel above the Arctic Circle, amid the ice
And we are in the airport in-–where are we? Copenhagen, Denmark. Does it count? I am sitting here in a little cafe, awaiting the flight to Oslo. Only it seems a few short hours ago we were in the train from home, enjoying the luxury of not flying to Newark. Then a monorail to the airport, and the plane, which was stuffed, absolutely stuffed. Early on in the flight, a person took sick. Immediately pax around the person were calling loudly, Help! Help! and waving their arms. Flight attendants came running down the aisle, a defibrillator was brought, and the person attended to. It seemed to me that pax were much more aggressive in their response to this sick person. I mean more than they might have been before 9/11. I don't think a hijacker would have much of a chance these days. I personally would be happy to kick someone in the backs of the knees, or the front of the knees or scream to distract. Or throw something.
Anyhow, the people came and tended to this person.
Very quickly and efficiently, and when we arrived here, the entire plane sat quietly in their seats while the EMTs came and took the man off. The captain, a blond and older and very effective looking person, came to oversee. The first officer, a good-sized blond woman, stood by also. It was reassuring and kindly somehow.
Our flight seemed short. All the big planes now seem to have these individual at-seat "entertainment" systems, so that even in the night if you walk up the aisle, you see a tiny lit screen at each seat, each one with that person's choice of distractions visible. Everyone in his or her little cocoon of isolation, apart from the others and yet sitting crammed in with them. An odd thing.
I slept a few minutes I think. Not uncomfortably. A short night.
As we flew into morning, the sky at the horizon glowed eerily violet. On the tiny screen one could call up an image of the sky ahead of the pilot, which was a lovely pale blue and gold. You could also get an image of the land below, but it was covered with clouds.
So here are some of the fellow pax, not very interesting. I just hate this part! Fortunately I am with my dearest man so I do not need to be social. If I were by myself though, I have learned that I have to be, to fill that space quickly, the organizer space.
In a couple of hours we will be in the hands of the Lindblads at Oslo, and swept up in the trip, the journey.
Before we left, daringly and recklessly I called Tom's house, to tell him we were going and to get advice on what to see specially. I thought he might be there. But he is in Scotland (we flew over him), and instead I talked to Paulette, awkward as always, abrupt, ungracious, flustered, and also to the grownup Laura Lee, charming and sweet. It has been nineteen years.
OK, enough for now. Needed to get started.
Here we are in the airport at Oslo. This machine is not nearly as good as the old one but I suppose it will have to do
Yesterday we arrived in Oslo, flying over the fairy tale green country. Small squares of every shade of green. So tidy, so unamerican with its huge tracts of land marked out.
I am paying more attention to the typing than I can stand. You have to space way over to one side and the keyboard is terrible.
Oh well, I must stop b and w-ing [bitching and whining].
People were very grumpy yesterday. There seem to be a large number of folks who are determined to find something wrong.
We had a tour of sorts, the kind of thing I really don't like, city tour and that, with a person with a difficult accent. I would rather just drive and look by myself. We visited the Vigeland Sculpture Park, with its weird and intimate sculptures of human relationships. One thought the Scands were too private for this sort of thing. The images are embarrassing to view. As if you were reading a person's diary, or seeing inside his most intimate thoughts, or making literal his chats with his psychiatrist.
Forgot to mention that in the airport in Newark I had a massage, a lithe young black man who leaned into my back and shoulders and said shame on you when I told him I did not have massage regularly. I let myself fall totally into it, and didn't mind when he reached inside my shirt to do the upper and lower back. He asked first: Is this too much skin? It was delightful and I found myself smiling as I rested my head in the little head hole.
Then we went to visit the ship Fram, which had been specially constructed—I read about it--to pop upward when crushed by the ice, rather than being broken to bits. There it was, the amazing thing. I went down into its bowels, the thick planks, the curves, seeming so strong yet nothing against the ice.
Then back to the hotel, a nice European one, with lovely bedding and bed and high ceilings, and a fine shower. A brief cocktail thing, where, alarmingly, Magnus what's his name appeared as the guide--is he the Ex Leader?
Then we went out to forage in our counter-culture way--got McDonalds ($21 for two sandwiches, two fries, two brownies!) and gobbled it down in privacy in our lovely room, and to sleep deeply.
Now this morning sitting around at the airport, this time waiting for our domestic flight to Longyearbyen.
I feel quite distant from all the other people here. I don't care if I don't speak to a single one of them.
I want to see--the place, just the place, hear the echoes of those who came here before me. Who came here in great difficulty and confidence.
Yesterday in Longyearbyen ... a scattering of buildings in the stony valley. the colors of them subtle, and we learn from our guide, a delightful young Finnish woman who has come there to study geology, we learn from her that one cannot paint one's house any old color but that the color is determined by someone who oversees this. Seventeen hundred people live here, but none for very long, a year or two. There are 200 children in the school. There are only two coal mines still running. We visit the small museum where there is an exhibit of coal mining, and you can crawl on your belly through a few feet of simulated mine. It is quite horrible. A horrible way to earn a living and to supply the people with the energy they need. Nowadays most of the people in Longyearbyen are there for science purposes, and to supply the things those people need.
We visit the little shopping center, where I buy gifts and things for myself, not many as we already have so many of these kinds of things. I buy an etched polar bear in the snow, and I have hopes that I will see a real one.
Also we are taken to an art gallery. There there are images of the ice, the land pale in the summer, pale with ice and mysterious light, pink and blue and violet. And then the night descends, and the people keep to their houses, and their bright colors, and the warmth of each other. They lie low and wait for the light. There are many images of the return to the light, with black skies and a great triumphal slice of yellow light below the black. How the people must rejoice! It would be worth living here for a year just to experience that moment. Like an eclipse, only six months long. With what an abandon of joy one would greet the return to light.
Then we go to the ship, make ourselves at home in our little cabin, eat, converse sparingly, me wary and nervous of conversation, not really wanting to say anything to anyone, and in consequence talking too much out of nervousness.
I most certainly do not want to hear anything about anyone's trips. I don't want to talk about my trips. I don't know what I want! Mostly I want to be enfolded by the land, the landscape, insert myself into it, be taken up by it, be no more nor no less a piece of it than I truly am. Just another organism among the millions.
So we begin, moving carefully away from the land, and almost immediately we are surrounded by ice, the pack ice that lies just off the coast.
The ice shushes and grinds and grates and thumps against the hull. In Antarctica we experienced these noises only a few times. Here it goes on for most of the evening.
And a good thing too, because here is already a Polar Bear.
He is spotted on a piece of ice ahead. Everyone comes out on deck to watch him. He appears to be a young bear, perhaps not too long from his mother's care. His coat is pristine and creamy, his muzzle, eyes, and pads dramatic in their blackness. He has apparently either caught or found a bird, a black murre . But he doesn't seem to know what to do with it. He occasionally picks it up in his jaws, carries it a bit, then puts it down. He rolls around on his back, waving his great paws in the air. He writhes, wriggles. We come very very close. Very very slowly. Once in a while the bear seems to realize there is something large nearby, and raises his nose and sniffs, sticking out his tongue also the better to scent us. But he seems quite unconcerned. That is doubtless because he knows quite well that he is the master here, even if he is young.
After a long time of looking at this bear, we gently back up and pull away, much to the side of his piece of ice. As we pass him and pull slowly away, the bear looks after us fixedly.
Earlier in the evening we saw a seal on a piece of ice, a hooded seal. Dark against the ice. He was not as sanguine about our presence, and as we drew nearer, he slid into the water.
How can it be that some animals are doomed all their lives to be fearful, watchful, hunted--while others fear nothing their whole lives? We humans are sometimes fearless, as in the presence of, say, another human in a benign role--a shopkeeper, a child perhaps, or some other innocent encounter. Or a bird, a worm, a--well, but almost any other creature, human or animal, can cause fear to humans, or humans can cause fear to them.
But then up here in the Arctic we are prey to fear of the prey animal. For up here, in the Ice, the Polar Bear rules. The Ice Bear, Isbjorn.
There is a sign on the road just leading out of Longyearbyen. It says something to the effect that in Svalbard, Bears Rule. This is not something that humans are used to. Humans are used to causing fear in others, not being the fearing one.