Category Archives: Culture

Killing Marie’s Dreams

I want to tell you the story of Marie. It’s been burning on my heart for a few weeks now. Sometimes it just makes me so mad. And in other moments just sad. You see, there are some things I hate with a passion. I hate when people are taken advantage of. I hate when innocent young lives have their hopes and dreams stolen for no reason.

I met Marie for the first time when she was 6 years old and I was 13. She had huge, sparkling, brown eyes that twinkled with mirth and abandon from the pure joy of being alive and chasing yellow winged butterflies through pungent green alfalfa fields. From  innocence. From being loved.

Time went on as it usually does. About 15 years later Marie’s eyes are dead, mirthless and chilling. She moves slowly even though she is still young. She is the spitting image of a walking dead person. It just kills me. Let me tell you why. But first I want you to know that this story is 100% true.  I scrambled some details to hide her identity.

It was a hot muggy August day in southern Kentucky. The Amish community was abuzz. A new family was moving in . The Ephraim Yoder family had been part of an Amish community in a northern state, but Ephraim  felt like his family would benefit from a more traditional lifestyle and so they moved to Kentucky. Several moving trucks brought the family and their belongings. Neighbors got together and unloaded the severe looking utensils, furniture and machinery they brought along, while other men unloaded draft horses, cows, and crates of chickens. The did not need to unload the kids though. And the second oldest daughter Marie lost no time in getting acquainted with her new neighbors and farm.

That was it. Ephraim Yoders were officially part of the community. Ephraim was stalwart. He was traditional. He was well liked. He knew dutch better than anyone else. The bishop loved him. He had lots of kids and they fitted in well. Except for Marie. She got into so much trouble. The poor school teacher had his hands too full. Marie did not run with the bad crowd. She was the bad crowd. She was the ringleader of clean mischief and youthful fun. Her somber-faced teacher plucked out most of the wispy golden beard he had managed to accumulate in sheer perplexity.

Then Marie was old enough to go to the singings and start running around. When the other girls her age were baptized into the church at the age of 17 and 18 she couldn’t make herself follow suit. In her heart she harbored a secret dream of leaving this life style and seeing the world. She dreamed of something greater but she guarded this dream carefully.

Year after year her concerned parent begged and wept, pleading with her to join the church. Older, self-righteous cousins and friends scorned her, chided her, and humiliated her in futile attempts to make her join the church. The bishop, the preachers, the deacons and their wives all had to take their turns in an attempt to break this strong-willed young woman. But they couldn’t.

After four years of pressure, four years of brain washing, four years of mental torture, four years of being told she is hell bound, she finally broke down. She agreed to attend the instruction class, after which she would be baptized into the church. Week after week she was forced to sit with other scared young people while the revered bishops repeated meaningless jargon in a language none of them understood. But Marie’s time had not yet come. Her mischievousness had not escaped the bitter memory of church members and as tradition dictates, members are allowed to give a dissenting vote towards receiving any candidates for church membership. In a back-handed manner, a sniveling member gave a dissenting vote. Marie was devastated. She had sacrificed everything she ever dreamed or hoped of to appease the Amish community, which promptly rejected her.

Marie was down for a while. She had a really hard time engaging her neighbors and community members because she felt like they betrayed her. She was quiet. Her eyes had begun to lose some of their light. But a quiet confidence stole back into her heart. God began speaking to her and loving on her. She began to feel like a person again. In her heart she resolved to run from this group of people and start a new life somewhere else. From a friend of a friend she obtained the phone number of a Mennonite lady far away and in the dead of night she stole away to an unoccupied building and made a desperate phone call. Yes, the Mennonite lady said. Just come. We will take care of you, even though we don’t know you.

Contrary to what every one always said, Marie was a respectable girl. Unlike some young people she could not bring herself to disappear unexpectedly. She informed her parents of her plans, and when they saw that they could not change the mind of their strong-willed stubborn daughter they hitched the horse to the carriage and made a flying trip to the bishop’s house. Weeping uncontrollably at the prospect of the eternal demise of his daughter, Ephraim explained the predicament. His 21-year-old daughter has determined to run away, and in a hushed voice racked with sobs he said, ” and we think she will.”

The community rallied in support of faithful Ephraim. Marie was locked in a house and was not left alone for one second. Beginning immediately, older members from the community sat with her from the crack of dawn to past dark, remonstrating, chiding, shouting, scolding, scoffing, belittling, telling her of the awful wrath of God she will incur if she leaves. Telling her she will burn in hell forever. Telling her she is killing her parents. Reminding her that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft and therefore she is a witch. A servant of Satan. Marie just laughed. But the tyranny and the dastard verbal abuse continued. The second day, the third day, and by the fourth day she was desperately tired. A thousand demonic voices shrieked in her head and each one said something slightly different.

The fifth day dawned bright and clear. Promptly at the 7:00 AM preacher Moses and his wide Martha showed up and began the day by tearing apart this beautiful girl. After several hours they were relieved when another older couple took over. Towards evening Marie was in agony. Her head was spinning. She had no idea what was true and what was a lie. All the things she had believed seemed so distant. She wasn’t even sure that God existed anymore. All she knew was darkness. Complete, utter, hopeless, bone chilling darkess. After 5 days of being locked in a house and having each thought and feeling shredded, she caved. What ever you want, she finally said.

The community was relieved. Yet another person was saved. They lost no time baptizing her into the church so that the thought of deserting may ever be far from her.

But it’s not good. The light in Marie’s eyes just died. And it’s the saddest thing in the world. There is no life. There is no hope. There are no dreams. I believe that the cruelest thing you can do to a person is to steal their dreams. And this Amish community ,in a systematic approach, dismantled and buried her dreams one agonizing detail at a time while she watched in horror-stricken silence, too dead to even mourn the loss.

I will stop there. There really isn’t more to say. But please, would you whisper a prayer for Marie? A prayer that she may find life? And not just her. For the many Maries that are hopelessly stuck in this culture. If you know a Marie, tell her something nice. Make her feel valued. Let her know there is life, there is hope, there is reason to dream.Thank you.

***I should add, that while this is a true story, there are many Amish communities that will not operate in this manner. And even within this particular community there are many good people.***

The Vicious Circle of Life

I want to tell you a story. It’s about Moses and Samuel and Peter and Enos. These four men all lived in a thriving Amish community in western Ohio. It is a very tight knit community where everyone loves everyone. Indeed, it is like a great big family. It is truly beautiful.

But look past the story. Do you see how it is when we all look to each other for affirmation? Do you see the emptiness of following our peers? Have you noticed how we all wait on the next step in life to make us happy? Have you ever thought that those whose example we follow may not be who we think they are? My challenge to each of you is, stop it. Be yourself. Find happiness and contentment now, because time certainly won’t bring it. It is my experience and belief that this can be found in an incredibly deep way in the Creator. Yes, I chose to put this story in the setting of an Amish community. But it happens everywhere. Do these things really happen? Yes, they can and they do. Emma is my classmate.

“Please note that while this is a subject that lays very closely to my heart many of these words are entirely satirical. If you do not know what this word means you may check the dictionary before commenting.”

Moses is 18. He is in the prime of his life. The muscles on his arms…well they look more like stovepipes, you know? Everybody loves him. Especially the girls. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons they will gather in corners giggling and arguing about who they think Moses likes. Of course, they get it all wrong. He is at the point in life where he has to decide if he wants to stay Amish or not. His dad Aaron, thinks he should. But Moses really does wonder how it would feel to drive a big diesel truck. Moses knows full well that if he leaves the Amish he will wind up in hell and that would positively be a bad thing, but lately he has begun doubting whether God is really that strict. It would be an awful shame to not have a bit of fun if you could squeak by with it. He looks at his neighbor Samuel. He can tell that Samuel is truly happy and loves being Amish. Samuel is obviously contented. Moses often thinks that if he got married like Samuel he would feel like a real man. He would feel like he fit in. A sense of belonging. Fulfillment.  And Peter. Moses just lives in awe of preacher Peter. Such a good man. He just makes you want to be Amish. And when he looks at Enos the bishop he feels the deepest reverence. Enos has fearlessly led this community of Amish along the proven and safe road of tradition for decades. Moses thinks Enos will have a special place in heaven.

Samuel is 28. When he was 22 he got married to the only girl he ever loved. Her name is Bertha and she wears round, wire-rimmed glasses. They have 4 cute little children. But he feels empty. He is not sure why. He felt that way when he was Moses’ age but he assumed that if he got married and settled down he would be fulfilled. He thinks maybe once he gets his own dairy farm he will be happier. Especially when Eli and Henner are old enough to help. So life goes on, as Samuel waits to become happy.

Peter is almost 50. He has worked hard all his life and is very successful. He has about a hundred acres of Buckeye soil and most of it he uses to grow grain and hay to feed to his thriving Black Angus herd. The cows are incredible. Their black hair shines like ebony. People say Peter polishes them but they know it’s not true. You can’t catch and polish over 200 beef cows every day. His wife Magdalena is sweet and portly and known clear over to the Indiana line for making the best meatloaf in the state, not to mention her shoo-fly pie tastes as good as what those Lancaster folks make. They have 9 children, the two oldest married, and they have three little cute-as-a-button grand-children. Peter was ordained as a minister five years ago. It’s widely whispered among the men that he will likely be the new bishop once old bishop Enos dies. But deep down Peter just feels so empty. He is a third cousin once removed to Moses and lives a quarter of a mile away as the crow flies. He admires Moses. He often hears Moses sing those sacred old German songs at the top of his lungs when they are both in the back 40. He feels like Moses has a depth and a grip on life that he himself doesn’t have. Samuel also lives in Peter’s church district and Bertha is Magdalena’s niece. Even Samuel, Peter just thinks he is so solid. After all, not once has Samuel had to make a church confession for breaking the rules. Peter’s face still turns red when he remembers all the confessions he had to make in his younger years. Excessive phone use. Hiring taxi drivers when it wasn’t necessary and he thought no one would find out. Trimming his beard. There was that time he drove an English neighbor’s truck. As the now deceased bishop Amos had told him, ”Be sure your sin will find you out.”  And when Peter looks at Enos, he is truly impressed. What a man. What a legacy. That man is obviously walking in the ways of the Lord and is perfectly contented. Peter is the preacher so he must lead by example and it wouldn’t do to show his doubts.  But there are times when he is preaching that the feeling of hypocrisy makes his throat so dry he almost chokes. Maybe it is old age that brings contentment. So Peter pulls down his hat, eats more meatloaf and re-doubles his effort.

Across the creek where Enos lives, times looks like it would go real slow. That’s because Enos goes real slow. He uses a cane these days but he gets around pretty good. He even whacks stray cats with his unvarnished oak cane whenever he gets a chance, never mind he fell in the barnyard last week when he did that. His wife Ella, fussed something awful at him for the way his overcoat looked but he was too embarrassed to say what happened so he made up a story about Harvey, (his son-in-law who took over the farm) having used his jacket to warm up a newly born calf from the muddy field next to the creek. But time goes real fast for Enos. It seems but a moment ago that he was Moses’ age. He still grins at times when he thinks of all the fun he had. He did his share of heroin. Some of the hangovers weren’t that fun. He had been seeing Ella for nearly a year but on the side he kept seeing an old flame Millie, from Holmes County. It was pretty easy to get around and he still misses his 1964 Pontiac GT. It was deep purple and had 325 horse power. It was in 1968 that he was forced to shape up. He had just come back from a night in Holmes County with Millie when Ella told him she was pregnant. Of course he had to sell his car, join the church and get married all in a month or two. He grieved the loss of Millie and the car deeply but he made the best of it. But the worst of it was a week after Ella and him were married, Millie contacted him to say she was pregnant. He told Ella he has to go to Holmes County on business where he was thankfully able to talk her into having an abortion.  He remembers thinking he would feel different when he was married. He would feel good. He would feel mature. He would feel Amish. That didn’t work. So he thought maybe when they have kids.  That didn’t work either.

There is one thing that Enos often wonders about. That would be his secret son Charles. When Enos Junior, their second son was born they hired a maid girl, Emma, from up in Geauga County to help them. Junior was rather sickly and spent weeks in the hospital while Ella faithfully took care of him there. Somehow Enos and Emma really hit it off and spent some nights together. He was glad Ella never caught on. But to his dying day he would never forget Emma’s white, horror-stricken face when she told him she was pregnant. He did his best to talk her into an abortion but she was done listening to him. She left and two weeks later he was relieved to hear that she had run away from home and taken a PanAm flight to London. Enos was blown away and often wondered how she managed that. Ella just couldn’t understand why such a sweet girl would forsake the faith and cried uncontrollably the day they received the news that she was excommunicated and shunned. It seemed like Ella felt they were to blame for Emma’s downfall so she always kept after her family for news. It was Ella that brought back the news that Emma had a son Charles. Later Ella brought the news that Emma got married to an Anglican pastor in London. And many years later that Charles got married, and that he was a professor in some for seminary, whatever that might be. Enos knew that Charles was his son. He wondered what Ella would say. Oh well, no point in telling her now.

After this Enos tried even harder to be a good person. He was so upright and traditional that he won respect far and wide. Becoming a preacher was hard to accept but he saw it as punishment from God to help atone for his sins. He thought it would bring peace and fulfillment. It didn’t. Being ordained a bishop didn’t help either. He loathes himself for it, but doesn’t know what to do. The system obviously works for Moses, and Samuel and Peter, so Enos keeps thinking he just isn’t trying hard enough. Sometimes he wonders if his sins were too great to forgive, but he can’t even say it out loud. But oh, what he wouldn’t give to be 18 again, or to find peace. Sometime when he has nothing else to do, he gets one of his sixty-two grand-sons to drive him over to the cemetery. He looks at the gray concrete markers of his relatives lying under the weeping pines and tries to imagine that he will be there in a few years. That’s when an icy grip clutches his heart so he can hardly breath. He is scared. He feels like he isn’t ready to face God but he just doesn’t know what to do. At night he has fitful dreams. He dreamed he was preaching and saying we are made of dust, when it began to rain. He was horrified to see that the rain completely disintegrated him and reduced him to a pile of fine dust as his hollow soul floated away. On winter days when he sits beside the fireplace sipping his scalding hot, flavorless coffee, and blowing clouds of smoke from his pipe to the white ceiling like Gandalf, he sheds a few tears. Ella thinks it’s because God is touching him. But it’s really just because he is so frustrated with life. He spent his whole life waiting to feel happy and as his steps slow he has this sinking feeling that he will never find it. But he has hope. He always felt like getting to heaven was sort of like shooting a deer when he was hunting. You take a shot. You hit or miss. He hopes that by luck he will hit those pearly gates. Sometimes he thinks of Ella’s second cousin’s nephew Jonas who claims that he knows he will go to heaven. Right up and claimed he met Jesus and talks with him every day. Then he started going to the Baptist church. That’s proof that he doesn’t even know about Jesus. Then Enos prays in German for the lost soul of Jonas. It makes Enos feel a bit better. Enos is a broken old man on the inside, waiting for death. But you would never guess.

Will you become like Enos?

Why I Will Quit Traveling

Yes, you read right. This post is all about why I will quit traveling. Ironically, I wrote it while I was sitting on the endless iconic Trans-Siberian railroad. You see something happened a year ago that made me carefully consider my priorities and gave me a glimpse of what can happen to someone who is an avid globetrotter for their entire life. Now it has never been my priority to travel forever. But I admit to having been really intrigued by these people who had done so.
I had taken an all night bus from San Jose Costa Rica and arrived at the Panama/Costa Rica border as the tropical sun threw its first beams of light into the chaotic place. After about two hours of standing in line I walked across no man’s land to enter Panama. The line was ridiculously long and I stood there for another two hours. Directly in front of me was a wizened old man. Long grey hair in a neat ponytail trailing down from behind an eastern European style hat, piercing blue eyes, olive skin with a grey and blue back pack that shouted world-traveler.
I was intrigued and tried to strike up a conversation. That didn’t work. He was not interested in talking to me. Oh well, I got it. He had traveled for about 50 years, and I for only 3 years.
But then he struck up a conversation with the blonde haired blue eyed Irish girl in front of him who was in her low twenties. At least he tried. She made it very obvious that she did not wish to visit but she answered his questions. It was her first trip abroad. A light dawned on me. The sage did not wish to chat with me because I was not a cute girl. A tiny bit of rage seeped into me.
I listened to the (mostly one sided) conversation. The respected elderly gentleman had been traveling abroad for nearly 50 years. The places he saw, the adventures he had had left one in awe. Without a trace of regret he confided to her that during this time he lost track of his mother, his family, his friends. He didn’t even know if they were alive now. He was heading to Panama to attend an international travelers event that focused on uniting countries and finding peace through meditation. He confided to her that he hoped to find peace there. He asked her if she would like to go with him. The answer was a resounding no. But he didn’t give up. He kept trying to convince Miss Irish of why she should go along, the great time they would have. How he knows this is the event at which he will find the peace and happiness he had been searching for some fifty years and so could she. Not that she had admitted to searching the all elusive peace her new found acquaintance so desperately sought.
Something in me was disgusted at the idea of a 70 year old man repeatedly trying to pick up a 23 year old girl. But as I thought about it the disgust drained away and I was filled with sadness for this man.
This is not me. When I am an old man I would very much prefer to be surrounded by friends and family. To be a respected pillar within my community. To have made a difference in the world. I realize that to be a respected old man one must first be a respected young man.
There is something about traveling that is strangely addictive. I have never in all my  travels felt like I have been searching for something such as peace. It is the unquenched curiousity of meeting new people. The relentless drive to see God’s great big green earth. But this incident showed me the end of the path for this lifestyle of travel if one is searching for fulfillment. It can absolutely not be found. Following this incident I carefully re-evaluated my love of traveling. What drives me to do it. I discovered that I value people much more than places. I have found that I forget many details of the cities and countries I have been to, but long after these memories crumble and fade in the dust the vibrancy of friendship shines through.
So no, I will not quit traveling. I truly can not imagine life without an occasional trip abroad. But it’s not the most important thing in my life. My family, friends, neighbors, and community are much more important.

DSC01258
“Lovely Pacific Sunset in Costa Rica”

Of Refugees and Münich

I had a two-hour wait in the Münich Hauptbahnhoff. It’s been a crazy place the last while, I hear. Yesterday 10,000 refugees arrived by train. The numbers are incomprehensible and staggering to me.

"... I sat with these guys for an hour or two..."
“… I sat with these guys for an hour or two…”

I sat down on a nondescript bench by myself and got lost in my own thoughts. And then a group of middle eastern refugees sauntered up and sat down on the benches opposite me. But there wasn’t enough room so they filled up my bench and sat next to me. Not that I minded, but I considered moving instantly. Not because I dislike refugees. But because of the smell. It was not the smell of unwashed bodies, but the distinctly unpleasant aroma of someone who didn’t make it to the bathroom in time. Well, that’s putting it mildly. Let’s assume this happened, but of course there is no other set of clothes so we just make do.
But I couldn’t move. I mean, what would that say to these poor people who have lost everything. You sit down beside someone and they get up and leave. In reality there is probably not that much pride left, but still it has to sting. So I stayed. And even engaged in some conversation. Not that either one of us understood anything.
Sitting on this bench with a group of brown-skinned young men was really interesting. Several trains arrived and passengers disembarked. Hundreds and hundreds of people walked past us and I got to watch their reactions. Some people walked by, gazing straight ahead. Old ladies especially, would walk very slowly and almost stop, offering giant smiles. It warmed my heart. But nearly everyone watched us out of the corner of their eye as they walked past, careful not to make eye contact. The look was not resentment or mistrust. It was simply curiosity. Who are these people? Where are they from? What have they experienced?
You see, I was sitting in this group of people. I felt like it was an honor. I am a bit dark skinned myself, and with my black hair I melted right in. I heard people say flüchlinge  [refugee] when they walked past. As far as they were concerned, I was just another refugee in this crowd. After all, I was not dressed sharply. In fact, I was actually quite grungy looking. I thought it was a really nice morning. Granted, it was a bit chilly. But these young guys were shivering violently, being unaccustomed to such weather.

"... a moment of kindness from the policeman...''
“… a moment of kindness from the policeman…”

It was a really deep moment for me to identify with these people. To be treated by society as if I was homeless. I looked into the eyes of these young men. Eyes wide with fascination at this strange world. But also eyes that were deeply haunted by the pain, death and suffering they experienced. When I left the group for my train ride to Budapest, I felt embarrassed. I had everything. I could just leave. They couldn’t.
A train pulled in from Budapest. It was quite a long train. And the entire train was filled with refugees. Dozens and dozens of police formed a human wall. News reporters stood on ladders behind them, trying to get pictures. The corridor teemed with volunteers in neon green and orange vests. Some of them were crying. Others had glazed eyes, and calloused faces. IMG_20150908_122907It just didn’t matter any more. I talked with a policeman and he let me through the line. I walked the length of the train studying these faces. It was so touching. Tears welled up in my eyes. But then I had to leave. Budapest was calling.
Somehow this made a deep impression on me. I realize Muenchen is a far cry from the pain and suffering in Syria. But still…I hear so much about these situations and read so much about them. To see it first hand and mingle with these people was an incredible experience. I hope I never forget this feeling.

But then arriving in Budapest there was so much more. Unlike what the media portrays, I was not faced with a million angry people. But there were hundreds and hundreds of people camped in tents and sleeping bags in the train/metro halls. Really it was too much for words. So I won’t try.

Nomad in a Train

I got up at 5 in the morning, packed my bags, ate some muesli with fresh raspberries and shouldered my bags. The morning air was crisp and the sun was threatening to break through the clouds. Daylight comes quite early here and it felt unusual to be walking the streets of Tromsø while it was entirely deserted.
I walked over to the bus stop that I needed to catch the #100 bus to Narvik. This bus was something between a city bus and a long distance bus. You could simply flag it down anywhere and get on, or wait at a designated stopping point. It had room underneath for my back pack, and a comfortable reclining seat to let me snooze for a bit yet. It was about a 4 hour ride with 158 designated stops before Narvik, the vast majority of which we did not stop at.
I wonder if the day will ever come that I am not in complete awe as I travel around Norway. It was the same story all over. Large, imposing, snow-capped mountains. Towering, bald-faced, rock cliffs that make a person cringe. Waterfalls cascading off these or crashing down through the mountains. Icy fjords reaching their fingers deep inland from the Arctic Ocean. Feverishly, I tried to take it all in.

"...perks of a bus ride in the Arctic Circle..."
                                                              “…perks of a bus ride in the Arctic Circle…”
"...perks of a bus ride in the Arctic Circle..."
                                                                 “…perks of a bus ride in the Arctic Circle…”

The ride down was quite uneventful. I was dropped off right in front of the Narvik train station where I had another two hours to wait. I went outside and sat at a picnic table in the warm morning sun where I made and ate a sandwich. Some of that delicious, freshly sliced Norwegian bread [my German friends snicker that I think Norwegian bread is good] that I buttered down with real butter, some spiced ham and Gulost cheese.
I boarded the train which was quite short and had only one car bound for Stockholm.

"...boarding the Arctic Circle train in Narvik..."
“…boarding the Arctic Circle train in Narvik…”

The rest of the train was going to Luleå which is about halfway down across Sweden. This was an amazing train ride. I thought what I saw this morning on the bus was incredible, but the view from the train was so much more. While the bus snaked around the bottom of the mountains, the train went right on up and boldly cut a path around these, precariously hanging to the side while we looped around mountain after mountain with fjords far below. I stood at the window with camera in one hand and Go-pro in the other.

'''..last glimpses of Narvik as the Arctic Circle train gets lost in the mountains...'''
                        ”..last glimpses of Narvik as the Arctic Circle train gets lost in the mountains…”
" the last arctic fjord sliding by as we went inland..."
                                          ” the last arctic fjord sliding by as we went inland…”

DSC07618 DSC07647
About an hour into the trip we got to the Norway-Sweden border high up in the mountains. Up here there are no crazy, heart-stopping, hair pin curves. Only tundra covered plateaus with rocky peaks and giant rock strewn about. It looks like a desperately cold and uninviting place in the winter. I cannot imagine how high the snow would pile. Because of the wind [and perhaps other reasons] there are miles of long wooden sheds on the top of the mountains that the train runs through. It is an electric train so there are wires strung along all the way, even through the sheds. I find it quite fascinating that the Swedes have this infrastructure so far north, and yet in the US we think that a train running from NYC to Toronto is so remote that we have to switch to diesel engines.

" ...a lake up on the plateau..."
                                                                            ” …a lake up on the plateau…”
"...small cottages way up on the mountains..."
                                                   “…small cottages way up on the mountains…”
"...train tunnels..."
                                                                     “…train tunnels…”

A lot of people got on at Kiruna. It is widely known and celebrated as one of the northern most posts of Sweden and I am genuinely surprised that people just believe it. Are they not aware that you could stay on the train another three hours? Interestingly however, practically every one of these dozens of people were wearing huge body back packs, hiking shoes and rain gear instead of the standard travel wear.
I would recommend anyone who comes to Narvik to take the train to at least Kiruna and back. The scenery is unbelievable. And it is so incredibly cheap. My ticket from Narvik Norway to Stockholm Sweden cost a paltry $42.80.
But we went on. Towards evening the tundra started fading away and gave room to evergreen trees. Relentlessly the train carried on sweeping me ever further south. I lost track of time. But at some point we stopped at Boden and the Stockholm car was disconnected and attached to a Stockholm bound train while the rest went on to Luleå. I had a table seat so reading and writing was pretty easy and no one sat beside me throughout the whole journey so in the evening I got out my inflatable pillow [what a life saver] and cramped myself into a short position on the double seat. I managed to sleep for about 6 hours.
In the morning I got a cup of coffee from the restaurant car. It cost 20 SEK which was reasonably cheap and I had my own creamer along. The coffee was strong and dark. So dark that it actually felt like it was a bit syrupy. Oh but the flavor. When it got to my lips I shivered and tingled with delight from head to toe.
I got into Stockholm a bit before lunch, and my train out wasn’t till evening. I was really excited to be in this great city for a day and promptly headed to my favorite cafe, Espresso House for some breakfast. I spent the day going to a few of my favorite places and then watching the sun slide down in the west and watching planes come down into Arlanda.

"...Stockholm at day..."
                                                                         “…Stockholm at day…”
"...Stockholm at night..."
                                                                   “…Stockholm at night…”

Around 11 that evening I walked back to Stockholm Central Station where I got on another train bound for Lund Sweden. I sat beside a pleasant young middle eastern guy and promptly fell asleep. When I woke up, he had moved across the aisle to sleep on a newly emptied double seat, so I laid down as well. I was rudely awakened at 6:30 by an announcement that we were arriving in Lund, so I had to get off. I waited a quick 10 minutes for the Copenhagen bound train to arrive and jumped on it.
I got my morning coffee here, and boarded a train for Hamburg Germany. I sat across from an interesting young man from Australia who was traveling for a year. We had great conversations and visited with the young Libyan who sat across the aisle. When the Libyan saw the conductor come he scuttled into the toilet where he would stay silent and well hidden till the conductor had passed along. He regaled us with tales of how über rich Libya is and how the money flowed. I guess when you have that much you want to hide in the toilet so you don’t have to pay the conductor!
My favorite part of the journey was when we got to the end of Denmark. Literally. I am glad we didn’t just drive off into the sea. Instead the entire train drove into the bottom of a ferry and all passengers got off. I went to the very top and spent the 45 minute ride feeling the salty ocean breeze blow through my hair. The train then drove off on the German side and went on to Hamburg.

"...crossing to Germany on a ferry..."
                                                       “…crossing to Germany on a ferry…”
"...aboard a DB Regional near the end..."
“…aboard a DB Regional near the end…”

I had a 45 minute layover in Hamburg and then I got the sleek red and white ICE1081 to Würzburg. Here I had a one hour layover and I caught a red regional train to Heilbronn. What a relief to be here. To have a shower. To wash my itching hair. Clean clothes. Ahhh. After all that was over 2000 miles of traveling through 4 countries for 3 days and 2 [miserable] nights.

I would be here for just a few days till I would continue. And let the train carry me eastward toward where the sun rises. Eastern Europe, are you ready?

Tromsø, Norway

Tromsø.  A wild place in the far north. Well, that is I used to think it was the far north. Now I know it’s not really. Maybe that would be Svalbard. The flight from Oslo to Tromsø was incredible. Snow capped mountains, towering rock walls, barren peaks, and deep fjords all clearly visible from the plane. It reminded me of J. R. Tolkien’s books.The scenerey was unreal.

"...Norwegian Air slicing through thin air in northern Norway..."
                      “…Norwegian Air slicing through thin air in northern Norway…”
"...of mountains and sea. Of clouds and fjords..."
                                  “…of mountains and sea. Of clouds and fjords…”

I arrived at the airport and took the bus into the city center all the while practically pinching myself to see whether I am actually here and whether this is real. I stayed with several friends here and had a nice time. I was quite independent and went out every day. I really enjoyed Mount Storsteinen and kept going up for the view. I did some hiking in the mountains there by myself and ventured up above the snow line. It was August, but it was frigid. The wind was probably the strongest I have experienced anywhere. Walking into it, I had to lean significantly just to move ahead because the it was strong enough to keep me from falling, even pushing me back a bit at times. Crawling up was a bit treacherous but I kept my footing on the narrow rock ledges. Part way up I found a nice rock to set on and spent some time meditating, praying and hearing from God. It was a very special time.  At the peak, I thought I wouldn’t be able to breathe because of the wind, so I stayed for only a few minutes. Going down was tricky because the wind kept pushing me and making me take bigger steps than I anticipated, which was dangerous because sometimes the ledges where I stepped on were only a few inches wide.

"...Tromsø from Mount Storsteinen on a clear day..."
                                                       “…Tromsø from Mount Storsteinen on a clear day…”
"...mountains to the north of Tromsø..."
                                                           “…mountains to the north of Tromsø…”

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"...Tromsø, when the sun goes down..."
                                                             “…Tromsø, when the sun goes down…”
 I walked up and down the islands along the edge of the fjords that  reached in from the Arctic Ocean. After all this city is 217 miles inside the Arctic circle. It has historically been the launching place for Arctic expeditions and northern whale hunting trips. On Sunday I found a rocky beach overlooking some snow-capped mountains and spent the time reading and meditating while strong waves crashed on the rocks spraying water everywhere.
  Another highlight was seeing the northern lights again. I was not expecting this in August and it was a real treat to see the strange green lights dancing overhead while the bright moon rose from behind a bank of clouds next to the mountains. I was outside for hours admiring this phenomenon. This time of the year darkness comes around 10:00 and daylight at 4:30. It is so different from when I was here last December and it was dark the whole time, or in the summer when I would Skype with my friends and there was broad daylight all night long.
"...when the moon rose over Tromsø with a splash of the northern lights..."
                                   “…when the moon rose over Tromsø with a splash of the northern lights…”

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"...hiking trails..."
                                                                                  “…hiking trails…”
"...free as a bird..."
                                                                                  “…free as a bird…”

Adventure in Bergen

   I have experienced Bergen again and it remains one of my favorite cities. I had a very uneventful flight over which is definitely a good thing. On the bright side, the young lady who sat next to me on the way over was also going to Vladivostok and taking the train across Siberia. It was like the first time I met someone else who wanted to do this.

"fountain in the public park"
                                            “fountain in the public park”
"Bergen and I. Just chilling."
                                      “Bergen and I. Just chilling.”
    Standing in the passport control line for immigration in Bergen I was greatly humored to hear this conversation:
    Girl One: “What do you think they speak here in Norway? English?”
    Girl  Two: “I think so. Or maybe…do you think there is such a thing as Norwegian?”
    Girl One: : I wonder if they use euros here?”
    Guy: “Yeah they do.”
    Girl One: ” This [the airport] looks just like IKEA!” (But I couldn’t see the resemblance.)
    I rolled my eyes. Nothing like fellow Americans to embarrass you when you are trying to act all cool and nonchalant!

    The first day I just walked around town, especially in a nice residential section. I am intrigued afresh with the cute quaint houses each time I come. The stately wooden houses. The pastel colors. The absolute barrage of flowers climbing from every window box. The winding cobblestone streets. The stairs connecting the streets catered especially to the pedestrian population.

“It’s a city of flowers.”
“rose lined streets  

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I stayed with  my friends Numi and Sara who have a stately apartment on Nygårdsgaten. It’s a roomy place with a nice porch on the back to sit on and just down the street from the grocery store Rema1000 which I visited immediately. I love shopping at foreign grocery stores! On an interesting side note, Numi mentioned that a man with an ax broke into a convenience store next door while we were walking home.

    The highlight was a hike that we did across the mountains. We hiked from Ulriken to Fløyen. Standing down in the city and looking at the peaks, it doesn’t look that terrible far. But it’s about 10 miles along the path and some of this is climbing up and down rock walls. Not to mention walking Ulriken and back down Fløyen.

"High above Bergen at mid day."
                       “High above Bergen at mid day.”
"Plateaus and red huts."
                                    “Plateaus and red huts.”
"with a sheep here and a sheep there..."
                       “with a sheep here and a sheep there…”

It was a wonderful hike and miles of it was along semi flat plateaus  with brilliant, soft, green grass and sheep scampering about. First you walk in the complete opposite direction that you really want to head and loop back around several other mountains. Along the way you see lots of deep blue lakes that look so inviting. But they are freezing cold! We packed sandwiches, coffee and water and had the most pleasant of times. I felt so incredibly fortunate to have a warm <<sunny>> day! On average it rains 231 days a year in Bergen.

"yet another lake on the hike..."
                                             “yet another lake on the hike…”
"the water was soooo blue..."
                                          “the water was soooo blue…”
"Bergen's drinking water reservoir"
                           “Bergen’s drinking water reservoir”

     As we approached Fløyen the sun was starting to go down. I found a beautiful spot on a cliff and stayed to watch the sun slide down while the others went on. I watched one of the most breathtaking sunsets of my life before darkness fell.

"fjords...the ultimate hiking experience..."
                           “fjords…the ultimate hiking experience…”
"these Norwegian sunsets..."
                                             “these Norwegian sunsets…”
"sunset over the fjords and the Atlantic"
                         “sunset over the fjords and the Atlantic”

I packed up my gear and headed down the mountain, as I realized that it was getting dark, and I did not know the way back, nor did I know how far it was. That was also the moment I realized I forgot my head lamp and then I heard a wild animal scream. More adventure! All is well that ends well. Other than a 90 minute walk in the darkness and being stalked at length by a stranger, nothing happened. After about a mile of being followed in the darkness I stepped off to the side and pretended to be busy looking at the forest [in the darkness] while he stood 50 feet behind me. After a while he came forward and confessed he didn’t know the way to the city and had planned to follow me.

"midnight fishing adventure"
       “midnight fishing adventure”

    Another highlight was the evening I went fishing with Numi. He is a tall lanky guy who thrives in the outdoors. He has trekked all over Iceland and is a real outdoorsman. But there were no salmon infested-grizzly stalked rivers in Bergen so we went to the large pond in the city park and fished for trout. It was different. The tram ran past about 20 yards away. City busses churned up and down the streets. Curious passers-by discreetly stared. The fishing was great. The catching wasn’t quite as good.

   And then there was National Waffle Day. To celebrate I went to Bergens über cool hipster Bar Barista Kafe and had their amazing waffles that were stuffed with brown cheese. Brown cheese is a delicacy in itself, and when stuffed into waffles it turns into a fiercely scrumptious food.

"brown cheese waffles"
                                         “brown cheese waffles”

All good things come to an end though. I boarded the train for Oslo and headed on. The train ride between these is amazing. Miles and miles of tunnels. Glaciers. Raging mountain streams. Cascading waterfalls. And hundreds of  stereotypical little red wooden houses. Ah, but it does one good to drink all this in.

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                       “view from the Norwegian train window…”
                               “the sinking sun slides into the Atlantic”