Frugality became my best friend on our international exchange semester, leading myself (and Marshall) to encounter some pretty ridiculous scenarios. Despite this, we just couldn’t shake it off! After working six jobs between the two of us the summer before exchange, there was nothing quite as rewarding as stretching every penny (Nickel? Kroner?) as far is it could possibly go. None of our experiences highlighted this more than our ‘potato week’ (that is, Danish reading break) trip to Bergen, Norway.
In the September 18, 2014 entry into my international exchange journal, I confidently declared that I had been “bitten by the travel bug”. Sometimes I wonder if I truly felt what I wrote in some of these journal entries, or if they were simply the “correct” feeling to have while on exchange.
You see, planning travel on exchange was one of my definitive, high-stress inducing activities. We had limited financial means (to say the least!), that needed to be stretched across our entire four month international exchange semester. This resulted in immense tension while attempting to plan what we would do, where we would go, and how we would see it all. When you cross the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, the world is suddenly at your fingertips and you naturally assume that it is all there for the taking.
But MAN! Oh man.
What a burden it is to be smacked back into reality with the sight of your ever-dwindling savings account balance.
September 18, though, was an important day. Marshall and I were finally salivating at the thought of our next adventure. We had just completed our budget-friendly, exchange travel “warm up” – that is, two Denmark-based cycle touring trips (Bornholm and Møns Klint). We used these trips to build our “guiding principles” that would aid in our exchange-travel-locale decision making process:
- We will stick to our “Scandinavian Pocket” of the world. This meant that Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland would be prime candidates for us to narrow down and commit to.
- We will use all of the gear we have brought along. Poor Marshall, really. What a guy. Four months away from home, travelling across the world for university and I packed our suitcases to the brim with cycle touring, backpacking, back country camping, and hiking gear. No sense bringing all of this for nothing!
- We will strive to stay in a “real” accommodation, where possible. This really just meant that we would not always sleep in a tent. To be honest, to this day I still have issues forfeiting the affordability of camping for the luxury of a bed, but alas, I continue to learn and adjust for my dear Marshall.
And that was it! That was all we wanted—adventure, outdoors, and a swath of Scandinavian travels that would allow us to compare a variety of relatively “similar” (using the term similar, loosely) cultures. So on September 18, we purchased our plane tickets to Bergen, Norway. Why Bergen? It was the closest location to Trolltunga, a hike that my exchange journal declares I had “dreamt of standing on for six months” and that I would “trade one hundred rainy outdoors trips” to experience in beautiful weather. Yikes! That would be quite the condemning trade.
>> Fast forward to October 14, 2014
We caught our plane at 10:00 PM in Copenhagen, arriving in Bergen, Norway at 11:30 PM. My budget-friendly-self, of course, did not book accommodations for this evening. Why would we pay to stay in a hotel for only a few hours? Obscene! It was not a tent that we slept in (so I am still 1:0 for appropriate night stay selections), instead, we stayed the night in the tiniest one-room airport, on a row of airport bench seats. Voila. A perfect slumber to begin our trip. Just kidding. There were a plethora of sounds that would lull us into the most unpleasant half-asleep state of consciousness:
- The airplane pilots and stewards after their shift—rolling their bags and chit chatting emphatically about the day’s high-maintenance passenger drama.
- The THUD of the daily newspaper bundle delivery, accompanied by the cold, Norwegian air that blasted into the airport through its automatic front doors, which were only about 6 feet away.
- The floor waxing machine. This was my favourite. It was one of those sit-on-top waxing machines which produced a consistently loud bzzzzzzrrrrrrrrrrr for the duration of the evening.
We picked up our rental car at 7:00 AM, after our formidable battle for the slightest shut-eye. Lucky for us, our vehicle had been upgraded to a Volkswagen Golf. It was a hatchback which would come in SUPER handy on one of our upcoming nights and was also highly fuel efficient. Can you say Cha-CHING. All I see are dollar signs, headed right back into our budget.
Our first destination was Odda, nearly 200 KM away. As the sun poked up at the start of our journey, it was clear that the Norwegian fjord landscape would provide us with the much-needed mountainous comforts of home. We spent the day driving alongside fjords, lakes, mountains, and through tunnels. LOTS of tunnels. Our tunnel-highlight was an 11 KM tunnel south of Granvin. At the end of the 11 KM, there was an under-mountain roundabout. We circled through the roundabout, came out of the tunnel and were launched onto a massive bridge across a mountainous fjord. At the end of the bridge, we entered another mountain on the other side, back into another under-mountain roundabout, and another tunnel. It was spectacular. What we didn’t know beforehand was that all of these highways and bridges are heavily tolled—a wonderful little surprise when we returned our rental car a few days later. But, the tolls are also unavoidable AND are a small price to pay to experience beautiful Norwegian scenery.
We stopped in Voss for lunch then proceeded along the cringe-inducing, super skinny fjord road to Tyssedal. And I mean SUPER skinny, like, barely-fit-two-vehicles-across-but-still-filled-with-massive-tour-buses-and-trucks-that-make-you-feel-like-you-will-slide-down-the-fjord-wall-skinny. This resulted in a lot of holding-my-breath moments, as Marshall (the only one of us who could drive standard) carefully (read: frustrated with my breath-holding and gasps of fear) drove us to safety.
The ride to Tyssedal was also nerve-wracking for another reason. October is shoulder season to complete Trolltunga, as mountain conditions are oftentimes rainy, icy, and snowy. Because of this, we had been anxiously watching weather reports since we bought our plane tickets. Shoulder season meant that there would be very few hikers in the area (hello, beautiful solitude!), but it also meant that we may need to cancel the hike altogether if we arrived at the trail head and the conditions were not optimal (to see what Trolltunga looks like with a massive swath of summer tourists, check out this video). It was doubtful that we would be able to complete the trek during this season, but we carried onward, waiting until the absolute last minute to make our final decision. Becoming lost or in ending up in significant danger in the mountains of a foreign country would not make for a positive international exchange story.
Our day of travel from Bergen to Tyssedal was perfect and tomorrow (our “hopefully” hiking day) was supposed to be, too. It was chilly and crisp, but stunningly clear and beautiful. As we moved closer to our destination, it was evident that small pockets of snow (most often, resident glaciers) were only at the very top of the mountains.
Could this be?
Could we really get up to Trolltunga during the shoulder season?
We could not contain our excitement. Just to be sure, we stopped to check out the trail head a day in advance. It was easy to find and there were a few hikers’ vehicles in the parking lot (just enough to make us feel not-so-crazy about our adventure). At the base, we met two gentlemen from Vik who had just completed their hike. Their guidance that the trail conditions were safe was reassuring. This was it. As long as the weather held up for one more day, we were going to hike Trolltunga.
We drove the last 15 minutes to Odda, picked up snacks for the next day, and settled into our campground for the night (sigh…sorry, Marshall).
Before the sun had risen, we had already left our campsite. Why so early? We wanted to ensure that we would have every moment of daylight for our 22 KM trek—both for safety and for enjoyment. A key piece of context is that this hike was at the very beginning of our outdoor trekking addiction. We were relatively new to hiking and fairly slow, but also highly prepared for all possible weather conditions, a healthy bit nervous, and all parts ready to have a rockin’ adventure.
After driving up the mountain switchbacks in the dark, we arrived at the parking lot, donned our boots, and were ready to go. The first five kilometers were supposed to be the most difficult. Yep! Confirmed. KM 1 was straight up a stone staircase through the trees (if you are a Vancouverite, think Grouse Grind elevation gain). In all honesty, we wondered (sometimes quite vocally) what we were getting ourselves into. There was no way we could finish the hike in the limited autumn daylight if it continued to be this rigorous. A couple kilometers later, the trail (well-marked by red “T”‘s on little rock piles) leveled out as we entered an alpine mountain valley.
I am certain that this was the moment I fell deeply in love with alpine landscapes. Here we were. Sun rising. Brisk, chilly autumn air breezing across our exposed faces. Little snowflakes floating left and right. Smiles grinning from ear to ear. We could see only mountains for miles and miles, seemingly stretched until the end of the horizon. The air was clear, the views were vast. Full, wholesome breaths were taken. I had never been enveloped in such a take-your-breath-away mountain scene.
We were here. With each other. Living our big dream. Achieving our big goal. Oh! how blissfully thankful I was. The world was ours, even if only for today.
There were barely any signs of life as we carefully made our way through the valley, across huge rocks covered in
Yup. That was the sound of me, ever so gracefully thwacking down, falling onto the hard rock, sliding down sheets of ice. It was clear that the ice sheets would make this slow-going, but who could complain about more time to enjoy to take in the views? Around the boulders and across the ice, at the next ascent we met a Norwegian fellow who had recently moved to Bergen. He had camped in the alpine valley yesterday, as he did not have enough daylight to reach the top. We would leap-frog with him for the remainder of the hike—he was our safety, our welcome reminder that there were others present, that we would be okay up here in the alpine.
His presence was in addition to our furry little friends, the mountain lemmings. If you’ve never seen a lemming before, you are in for quite the treat when you meet one of these fellows for the first time. They are quick, dexterous, hamster-like creatures with courageous, territorial attitudes. For the entire hike, they scurried up, down, and in-between rocks, ready to fight when human-onlookers came within stomping distance. Observing our angry-but-oh-so-cute little friends up close, we quickly realized that these were the creatures we had been driving over on the road from Bergen to Odda. Squish. Squish. We thought they had been mice, but alas, they were these little guys trying to make it to the other side of the road.
The first glimpse of the towering mountain cliffs over the lake below was breathtaking. We turned a corner and there they were—welcoming us into prehistoric times while also threatening us with their sheer, barren rock-face cliffs. Our lungs were full of laughter and love. This was our international exchange, our adventure, our time—I drew in long, deep breaths of gratitude, wishing our time up here would never end. At 12:15 PM, we reached Trolltunga, and for about 20 minutes, had the place all to ourselves. There were 5 people at the top, all of which kept to themselves, silently enjoying the view. How pleasant and how wonderfully contrasting to the summer-time tourist season.
The precariously-placed sliver of rock jutting out from the cliffs was larger than expected, but was nonetheless daunting as we inched our way closer to the edge. I am terrified of heights but Marshall is not. He edged right out to the end and hung his legs over, dangling his toes 1,100 M in the air. We realized that our camera battery was now dangerously close to being empty, so asked our Norwegian hiking friend to snap a few pictures for us. From there, we rested, at peace with the moment while we ate our lunch: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (the de-facto breakfast-lunch-and-dinner staple for our entire budget-constrained exchange).
With one last look we turned around, bittersweet, understanding that we would likely never see this view again in our lives—not because we would not desire to do so, but because there are so many more views to see, and mountains to conquer.
Feet burning and legs shaking (remember, it’s one of our first treks), we quickly began our descent. Even with less than an hour at the top, we knew that we would be cutting it close to get down to the parking lot before dark. About an hour into our trek down, we heard the quick pitter-patter of something behind us. We looked back, and low and behold there was an elderly Norwegian man RUNNING the alpine trail. He moved swiftly from rock to rock, boulder to boulder, without a misstep.
He was wild! How crazy to run through the mountains, with his little shoes and barely-there running gear. As he passed us, he smiled with radiance, exchanged a quick, broken-english ‘hello, how are you’ and handed us three sweet caramels from a local confectionery. This was the first time I had seen a trail runner. OH. How wild it would have been if you had told me in that moment that, one day, I would run through mountains seemingly effortlessly, just like him.
Sometimes, life is funny like that.
We made it back to the car at 5:30 PM (alarmingly close to sunset in Norway, in Autumn), nine hours from when we left our scared-y pants in the parking lot that morning, and we had officially conquered Trolltunga. What a day. Exhausting, but exhilarating. We drove back to Odda, where we camped again for the evening.
The next morning we awoke early, packed up our camping gear, and left the campsite. We did try to pay. I am a whole-hearted believer in camping-karma and honesty, but there was no camp attendant to be found. With another beautiful day ahead of us, on a whim we decided to take a side journey to Flåm, the town at the southernmost tip of Sognefjorden (the deepest fjord in the world!). Here, we took a round trip ride on the Flam Railway to Myrdal—one of the most highly coveted train rides in the world for its scenery, steep inclines (0 – 900 M elevation gain total), and hair-pin turns. Each direction is 20 KM, with a little stop at the top (Myrdel) to enjoy the view. When we stepped off the the train at Myrdel we were greeted with soft winds and tiny snowflakes dancing through the air. At this point, we were “bagged” as my Mom likes to say, so it was back onto the train. Then, back into the car to drive to Voss, where we would stay for the evening.
You would think that after a few nights in the tent, we would undoubtedly be ready for one of those “real accommodations”. Well, I am sorry to say that sometimes our deepest wishes do not transpire. The campsite in Voss would cost us upwards of $30 CDN to stay, but at the same time, a ham and pepperoni pizza at Peppe’s Pizza was also $30. We could not afford both, so there was a decision to be made.
We’d figure out this “accommodations” thing once it got dark.
Our eventual solution was conjured up after our bellies were full: we would sleep in a parking lot in our little VW Golf. We pulled into a lot—the campsite parking lot, no less—just past midnight. We left the radio on for a few minutes, and low and behold, the whole entire 10CC Deceptive Bends album started playing. Nostalgia galore, this rather obscure album has accompanied many-a car ride trips while my Dad and I were embarking on our big adventures. It also contains the song “Things We Do For Love”, which happens to be the song Marshall ironically hums along to when we (I, drag him to) cycle, run, and hike through all adverse weather conditions. Perfect. This was a sign for the ages. We were exactly where we were meant to be.
Remember when I said that the hatchback came in handy? Well, it was perfectly Maddie-sized. Ready for bed, I climbed into the back of the VW with my sleeping bag, Marshall stayed in the front with his, and we were ready for yet another deep slumber. In actuality, it was one of those toss-and-turn-are-we-going-to-get-caught-by-Norwegian-police type of scenarios. Marshall and I often fall victim to over-worry-anxiety.
And then I said it. The words that would forever haunt me during “funny story” sharing at all parties we would attend henceforth. Consumed by the fear of being labelled as these two ridiculous Canadians found in the trunk of a hatchback, and with the windows fogging up, my deepest fear fell out of my mouth abruptly:
MARSHALL. Are we going to run out of air?!
Marshall “forgets” this part, but he was equally concerned. My logical brain should have told me that we drove in the car all day with closed windows and survived just fine. But my post-midnight-half-slumber-self turned on the car, cracked the windows, and went to sleep. There was no way we would not live to tell our tale of triumph in Norway.
We awoke from our vehicular-slumber to deliver our VW back to the car rental agency at the airport. We planned to stay two more days in Bergen, but knew we would not need a vehicle while doing so. We took the scenic route, Vos to Os to Bergen, to cap off our 677 KM of driving in three days. After taking the Flybus back into Bergen, we wandered aimlessly around town and then took refuge from the pouring rain in a cozy McDonald’s. McDonald’s, oddly enough, became a home away from home, and a piece of familiarity among the sometimes-overwhelming chaos of international exchange. Sitting there, looking at the torrential downpour, drinking hot chocolate, and using the wifi, we knew that we could not have timed the weather for our hike more perfectly. There was so much to be thankful for. What we did not yet know, was that this torrential downpour would not reaaaally subside until we got on our flight to leave Bergen.
As afternoon slowly arrived, we moseyed on over to Bergen’s residential neighbourhood to this evening’s accommodation. And no, you are wrong! It was not a tent (or a vehicle). It would be our first stay in an AirBnB property, ever. Erland, a Norwegian Architect, would be our host and we would stay in his 4×3 M attic. We were warm, dry, just about to be well fed, had a small heater in our room, and would have the first proper sleep of our trip. After you’ve braved the elements, even the simplest of pleasures are appreciated. My exchange journal also declared that after having some time to reflect on our Trolltunga experience, “Marshall LOVES hiking. How perfect. I was really hoping he would, because I do too”. That was it for the evening. We cozied up and went to sleep.
The next morning gave way to another beautifully rainy weather forecast. But, my relentless positivity was fully-charged with eager gratitude, because I would “easily trade 100 rainy days if it meant being able to reach Trolltunga”. The rain also meant that I would be forced to, –ugh– “relax” –sigh– a formidable task for me, really. I am more of a schedule-something-every-day-don’t-stop-don’t-stop kind of person. We swung by McDonald’s for some warm french fries before heading to our next accommodation, the Montana Hostel. Overwhelmed by our need to be frugal, we decided to walk for over an hour with our backpacks, rather than spend $12 on bus tickets. After getting a little bit lost and side-tracked on a very steep trail that originally looked like a street, we had made it. Soaked. But, still smiling.
The hostel was too far away from the city centre to go back to explore today. So, we surrendered ourselves to a Netflix day, that is, an introduction to Game of Thrones day. It was eerily quiet and clinical-looking in the hostel since it was the off-season, but there were cookies. Cookies make everything a-ok. After our Netflix marathon, and before bed, I sat on the top bunk in my ladies-only room, watching Sara from Hong Kong (who was on international exchange in Helsinki) dry every article of her clothing with a handheld-hairdryer.
I hear ya Sara, this is a moist city.
We woke on our final day in Bergen to pouring rain that would once again humble us right to the core. We took shelter (and ate pastries) in a small cafe in Bryggen, found some Subway for lunch, and headed to the airport to go back home. Our Copenhagen home, that is. Norway trip, conquered.
Looking back now, exchange on a budget was all about managing trade-offs. We slept in a tent on cold nights so that we could have seat warmers and flexibility during the day. We ate a sickening amount of PB&J so that we could ride the world-renowned Flam Railway. And we forewent any travelling in November so that we could hike Trolltunga. Realistic expectations, adaptability, and a desire for adventure have always taken us a long way. And, of course, those moments where we had no choice but to get a little bit creative, have become the moments that we circle back to continuously, the ones that warm our hearts, the ones we laugh and joke about, the ones that our friends and family find most endearing, and the ones that we remember distinctly for years and years after the conclusion of our adventure. What a gift it is, to travel on a budget.