In Search of Better Questions
October 6, 2018
The sun bursts through the thin curtains as if they weren’t even there. My startled eyes struggle, squinting in the light trying to adjust as my hand pats round the vicinity in search of my phone. The clock reads 3am. It’s the height of summer up here in the Nordic Arctic and the only respite from the midnight sun is when it passes behind the mountain behind our lodge. Or there’s Mjød, a traditional nordic tipple, but that is a headache in the morning.
It was only a few months before this trip that I had decanted myself into a chair on a concourse in Johannesburg where I was reminded that I could be anywhere in the world. Sipping my morning cappuccino I looked up at the vast glass and steel structures that carve deep into the sky. Skylines are a very exotic thing, especially for an Englishmen who country is only just catching up with the idea that a building can be taller than St Paul’s Cathedral. A skyline is a signature of a city but here on the ground the shopping malls and the Golden Arches are all the same.
The Two-Way Street
Knowing that just a few hundred metres away from that concourse there are people who cannot even comprehend what it’s like to be in a place like this. Knowing that there are people in this place who know nothing of what it’s like to be out there beyond the high fences. There are no pavements along the sides of the roads where children play precariously as trucks clatter past at pace. Your ideas of humanity, expanded through travel, grow usefully revised.
Perhaps the destination between a tourist and a traveller is the difference between those who leave their prejudices at home and those that don’t. The common grumble of the tourist is, ‘It’s not like it is at home!’, where as the common grumble of the traveller is ‘Everywhere is all the same 😤.’
I suppose that our destinations are relativity easy to get to. If you think about it, the reason most of us take trips to places are because they are well connected or at least the local airport are and they are cheap to get to. The world would seem a familiar place, on the surface at least.
These shopping malls might look all the same on the surface but it’s what they’re filled with that is most important; different people, different ideas and different meanings. Wealth doesn’t come just from money, it comes from a better understanding. We carry with us values and beliefs everywhere we go. That t-shirt you wear can spread ideas without the need for a common tongue, but it’s a two way street.
Excavating Cultural Riches
Those moments when you allow yourself to grab moments are precious. You can let your mind wonder through thought cycles, depending on the company of course. In this case, after a minute or two of nice quiet contemplation across my frothy coffee a colleague piped up,
“What’s the most un-P.C. thing you’ve done lately?”
Well, I didn’t expect to be bouncing between small striates of treeless islands in Vestfjorden 6 months later heading toward a whale supper.
Eating whale is something that I must say I had a bit of a problem with. I’m sure the majority of you will remember the campaigns about saving whales through the 80’s and 90’s and even still today. Not a lot has changed, whales are still endangered, but up here in the Nordic North they have no live stock. Farming of the Minke whale, it’s explain to me, is just the same as sheep farming anywhere else. There is nowhere for them to graze, except during the summer maybe but then come winter there will be more frozen lamb than Iceland. Importing chicken, beef or lamb from the south costs a fortune and it’s reflected in the pricing on the menu. A beef steak is the equivalent of £45. Whale on the other hand is £15.
Out there on the those exposed islands, two planes, a boat and a bus ride later, is like nowhere I’ve been. The sense of community, that we’ve left behind in the towns and cities, is instilled in the hearts of each and every single person within it. These communities thrive because each person takes a role and they rely on each other to watch out for each other and survive the cold depths of the 6 month winter.
We can easily see the dissonance in places where wealth and poverty live side by side, and this enlightens the traveller. But surely, travel isn’t just about seeking a more enlightened you, it’s searching for those better questions to ask of the communities around you.