Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Can you talk another språk (language)?

Ever since I was young I've been fascinated by people who can talk another language. Fascinated by what it must be like to think in another language and how it must feel to effortlessly move between two sets of people, who can only smile at each other. I've always wanted to learn another language and I guess more than anything that is the reason I chose to live in Sweden.

What I didn't realise was that Swedish is an extremely difficult language to learn. It's not tricky grammar, or that you must sing as you speak, or even the precise prononiciation that make it difficult. Instead it's the fact that nearly every Swede you meet is so damn good at talking English. The bare truth is that it's very hard to motivate yourself to speak a foreign language when you can effectively communicate in your mother tongue. I guess this is the reason why many foriegners live in Sweden for many years without learning anything more than how to order a beer.

I, however, was determined not to be one of those people.

My first attempts at speaking the language were nevertheless pathetic. I was over-flowing with excitement to speak this language I had read about in a book, but my pronunciation was terrible so no one could understand. It was so frustrating.

Looking back all I needed was a lot of practice and time. There seems no short cut to learning a foreign language, you've got to just do. You've got to speak and make mistakes and get corrected. You've just got to listen and try to understand and ask again and again for help. It's a hard road.

In particular speaking requires a lot of confidence. I always feel nervous when I speak. I think this is the major reason why adults have a hard time of learning a second language, because the older we get the more we hate to feel stupid. And trust me, learning speaking another language makes you feel stupid. Really stupid.

One little trick I developed in the begining was too remind myself how much I love hearing my French friends speak English. Yes their pronunciation is not that great and they miss a few words here and there. But does it matter? No. They still get there message accross. I can tell they're French so they don't sound stupid to me. Infact if anything, they sound exotic and sexy... So I just assume this is how I seem to the locals here!

The process to learning a language might be long and painful, but the rewards are great also. Like the day you have a your first real conversation, or when you suddenly realise that when you talk to strangers they don't swap to English straight away. At these times you feel like you're really alive, and that feels so incredibly good.

And there's so many interesting experiences along the way. While learning Swedish I've believe I've also learnt to talk a third language, Simplified English. I've seen what's it's like from the other side so I know that non-native English speakers require me to speak slightly slower and to use simplier words. Excellent, fantastic, brillant, awesome are all fabulous words which I love, but sometimes "good" is the only suitable choice.

Living in a bi-lingual culture is also interesting in itself. It's taught me a lot about what mother tongue means. At first it annoyed me that my friends would talk Swedish around me even when they knew I couldn't understand them. But now I realise that when it's the weekend there's only one truly relaxing choice, and that's your native language.

Living here, learning Swedish is definitely entirely optional, but I really don't think it's a good long term action. If you don't learn the language you'll always be an outsider. Language and culture go hand and hand. You can't learn to understand people talking if you don't know also learn the popular culture that they refer to. And likewise you'll never really understand how people think, unless you can understand them in their own language. And just sometimes, it's so nice to put your friends totally at ease by talking to them in their language.

When I finally go home, maybe I'll forget a lot of the language I have learnt, but I don't think I'll ever forget some of the funny experiences I have had on the way. Like talking my friend on the telephone in Swedish for the first time and wondering if she really really was the person I thought she was. And then finally hearing her speaking a little English, and realising it was her after all!

Or the time when a friend introduced his friend to me in Swedish. I assumed his friend was Swedish, and I started to ask him which part of Sweden he was from. However at the last moment I recognised his English accent so my question came out as a jumbled "Where come you from?" That English words, but the Swedish sentence order.

So I challenge you. Do you know the joy of your first real conversation in a foreign language? Or the first joke that you actually get? Or the fun of asking someone whether your can share their bed tonight when all you want is a car ride home? These are my memories and I will treasure for ever.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sunlight sends me on my way...

For once this blog isn't about some scarey river, or a mountain trip complete with stunning photos. Instead it's about a journey, and that journey is the one we call life. It's a little reminder about not giving in when the going gets tough.

One tough thing I've tried is my life is to come and live in this crazy country called Sweden. This comfortingly western land, with habitants adept at speaking English cunningly disguises for tourists a different side. Behind this fascade you'll find a land that is actually filled by people who most of the time speak a foreign language, and lots of small cultural differences with huge implications.

When I first came to live here I was amazed just how challenging everyday life was. Weeks wizzed by and all I'd managed to achieve was mastering the how to do my laundry and finding where to buy stuff I needed. Now I've been here over a year things have become a lot easier. It’s starting to feel like home. Heck I'm even starting to get the hang of the language thing. Well, at least that's what I thought until October hit me.

Ask any Swede what the worst time of the year is and they'll tell you it's October and November. Infact you don't even need to ask. In the height of Summer you'll go to a party and Swedes will say to you, "Isn't this great. Summer is fantastic. But you just wait until October and November. Then it's horrible here, you'll hate it". It's no coincidence that I ended up in Nepal for these two months last year.

Unfortunately they were all right. It's rained everyday for the last two weeks. It's cold, it's damp and it's already really dark. It's depressing. Of course there's plenty of water in the rivers but everybody else is too sick or tired or busy to paddle.

Unfortunately, I've had a real hard time of it. It's been a depressed, crying over nothing, craving companionship but struggling to string sentences together, kind of time. For several weeks I’ve also missed the sunshine in my mind, and that makes life pretty damn hard.

But if this journey of living in a foreign country has taught me anything, it's taught me that it doesn't matter how bad life gets, I still have the power to fix it. For example, if I’m lonely it’s up to me to join a new club or invite someone to dinner. If I’m frustrated then it’s definitely time to start running every day again. The point is, no one else is going to fix the problem for me, I've got to do it myself.

As the depression tried to suck me in and take me down, I realised this time I really did need to dig deep and find some energy to start crawling back out of the hole. If there was going to be a test of my believe that I could change my predicament then this was going to be it.

I knew I had to fix some things that had been annoying me for a long time. So I made some changes. I put energy back into my relationship and work and friends. It didn’t take much, just a little bit of honesty and a couple of small changes and things started to come right.

Slowly at first and then more quickly the sunshine poured back in. Now it is blazing in my head and I am on a real high. I still can barely sleep but this is way better than where I've been lately.
My point? Most of the time in life all you have to do is to keep moving incrementally towards your goal, but sometimes a little more is required from us. Sometimes you really need to summon all your energy and make some big changes you’ve been thinking about for a long time.

At that time it’s important to realise that you can fix whatever you feel is wrong. Now, this maybe not true for absolutely every human on the planet, but if you’re reading this then it’s probably true for you. But what's more, simply believing you have power makes you feel better. Stop being a victim. Empower yourself and follow those dreams!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Kebnekaise, and the roof of Sweden

Our trip to Kebnekaise, the top of Sweden, reminded me just how uplifting a day in the mountains can be. Kebnekaise may not be one of the highest, or most difficult mountains I've climbed, but this was definitely a trip to treasure.

Don't get me wrong, this trip wasn't quite the easy walk I was expecting. We had cold, difficult conditions and there were many challenges along the way. But maybe that's where the magic comes from. It's a special feeling knowing you've meet all the challenges the mountain decided to throw at you.

Our trip began by boarding a plane and flying 1500km north to above the polar circle. It was an exciting was to start to the trip. Amusing also, as my heavy jacket, mountaineering boots and hand luggage in two plastic bags attracted plenty of stares from the ordinary Friday night commuters.

We reached Kiruna in the dark, jumped in a taxi, brought some fuel and then drove 70km to the start of the track. I felt really exciting about finally being here in the far North of Sweden. At the same time I also had a sinking feeling that the fuel we had brought was not actually white spirits even though the the bottle had said good for all "spirit köks". The next morning, we found out that I was right.

You could say it was a ominous start to the trip. Here we were at the end of the road, with no car, no one in sight and the wrong fuel. Four days of freezing temperatures and cold dinners didn't appeal, so as Greig patiently tried to convice the cooker to burn the stuff, I went off to find some petrol. Eventually I found a local family and after some persuation in Swedish that I really did want normal petrol, they gave me some. First problem solved.

So it was midday by the time we started our slog up the valley heading for the Kebnekaise Mountain Station. In summer this place is swarming with tourists eating reindeer burgars and the enjoying the luxuries of the huge mountain station with electric lights, drying rooms and a sauna. In October, however, it's completely deserted, and that suited us well.

We found a good spot for our tent and quickly cooked dinner before the rain settled in. In the morning the rain and snow had stopped so we crawled out of our tent, threw some supplies in our pack, and headed for the top.

Right from the start, things were more difficult than we had expected. The route was poorly marked and almost impossible to follow with snow on the ground. Also the clear weather didn't stay and before long we were in the middle of a white out.

The new snow had also created terrible walking conditions. There was too much snow to see where the boulders were, but the snow was so fluffy that we sliped on the rocks with nearly every step. To make matters worse we were confused by a false sighting and the map stopped matching up with the terrain.

Lost in the cloud, stumbling up the mountain we both hit a low point. We felt like we'd never make with all this cloud. We felt like quiting but we keep on walking.

Eventually we reached the glacier and regained our bearings. But where to from here? At home finding our own route from here on seemed like a fun challenge. But it didn't seem so fun when we couldn't see the mountain we needed to climb. Fortunately, as we sat on the moraine wall the clouds cleared just enough to make out a route. Across the the glacier, up a spur, traverse right and then up the gut. We couldn't quite see the top of the route, but maybe it would be okay.

We roped up and headed across the glacier, and then up the spur. As I climbed up the spur my hopes started to fade. The traverse itself looked scarey enough with all the new snow, but getting to it was going to require some serious climbing. Then at the last moment I spied a fixed wire protecting the traverse. My despair lifted instantly. We were going to be able to climb after all!

The minutes that followed were awesome. It's was a real joy to be on such an exposed face in the mountains without the worries of dodgy protection that normally accompany such terrain.

But the joy was short lived. The wire stopped after only 30m and once more we were alone on the mountain. It felt like the mountain was playing with us by getting our hopes up only to destroy them again.

After a bit of exploring, and a few worring moments carefully steeping on the loose snow and rock we finally managed to find where the wire started again. Again we had exhilarating climbing. Now we were climbing up the steep gut. Despite the wire we still had to be careful as a slip would still result in a serious fall.

By the time we topped out to the ridge it was snowing quite heavily. We saw the hut and made a beline for it. We both knew we needed food, so when Greig suggested that maybe we should stay the night and finish the route tomorrow it seemed like a good idea. Luck was shining on us again as inside there were blankets and we had brought our stove with us. As we ate dinner we talked about making the summit before dark, but outside the snow just got heavier and heavier.

That night we lay on the wooden bunk huddling together under the blankets to keep warm. We were comfortable enough until the middle of the night when Greig woke up with a burning pain in his eyes. The rest of the night he couldn't sleep and sometime in the early hours he was forced to remove his contacts. From then on he was half blind.

The next morning Greig's eyes were still burning and the cloud was thick round the hut. Despite Greig's desire only to go down, I managed to persuade him to follow me to the top.

Outside it was well below zero with a fresh wind. As we walked our pack straps froze solid and we started to turn white from the cloud freezing on us. However, as we climbed the cloud seemed to get thinner. After half an hour I could make out the sun and a little while later I thought I could see through to the sky. We didn't know it, but a little bit of mountain magic was begining. After days walking in cloudy, overcast, grey conditions the mountain had chosen to reward us.

It was like someone had suddenly turned the colour on.

First the sun shone through the cloud, enveloping everything in a soft red light. At this point I remember suddenly being of aware of how surface of the snow was covered in delicate snow ball bearings.

We climbed still higher, above the last of the cloud and were greeted by the golden glow of the mountain landscape bathed in the morning sun. Behind the sky was a brillant blue. Ahead of us each pile of stones covered in snow seemed like a work of art.

A little further on lay the small but nevertheless perfect peak of Kebnekaise, covered in fresh snow. It was then I knew, for sure this time, that we were going to make it. Suddenly it felt like the mountain had put the obstacles in front of us in order that we would summit at the perfect time.

We climbed up to the peak together, enjoying making the first tracks in the new snow. We were above the cloud now and it felt like the top of the world. On the top, we I took heaps of photos and I described to Greig just how beautiful it all looked.

We felt a strong sense of accomplishment. We had experienced so many problems but by keeping on walking, even when it was slippery and cloudy and seemed impossible, we had made it in the end. In the mountains, as in life, sometimes all you need is to keep moving upwards in order to reach the sun!

Two days I turned up for work smelly and tired from my 6am flight back to Stockholm. I was still smiling. Infact, I'm still smiling now days later. The mountains had worked their magic once again.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Sjoa River Festival

Sjoa was magic. As I sat in the car on the long way home from Sjoa, I felt happy and energised. I hadn't felt so happy or relaxed on the way over, so I concluded that there must be something in the water in Sjoa that refreshes the spirit. Or perhaps it something to do with the relaxed camping (and in the shade this time), great people and awesome paddling.

This year, the Sjoa trip was to be more than a standard paddling holiday. It was a journey of the heart and mind. Only a week or so before going to Norway, I had learnt of the news of the tragic death of a Sam, a fellow kiwi and all round great guy I knew from home. The news of the death of such a talented kayaker as Sam had come to me as a huge shock. I started to question whether the risks we take when we paddle are really worth it.

It turns out Sjoa is a good place to find the answer to such a question as that. This year we were in for a special treat as the weather was warm and sunny - something not normally associated with paddling in Norway. The meant the water levels were a little low, especially on the play run, but as I found out, around Sjoa there is always some gem to paddle if you look hard enough.

If anything it was the first few days of playing with my mates, which helped me remember what it is I really love about paddling. The Sjoa River was exceptionally beautiful. The water was super-clean and clear and it was an amazing feeling to float over the huge pressure waves and stare straight down to the river bottom. It also felt really good to realise how much more confident I felt now, than a year previous when I had first paddled in Sjoa. (Although last time the the water was much higher and the trees swimming and I got a terrible black eye within minutes of hitting the water and well that's another story...)

However perhaps what I loved most was leading some of my less experience friends down the river for their first time. To see them challenge themselves and succeed past perhaps even their own expectations, now that felt really special. It seemed as though we were all having a good time, and we were all paddling well.

Eventually, after several days of chilling out I was itching to try something a little harder. Unfortunately I didn't have a creek boat with me. Luckily, everything suddenly came together. I found my new boat and went off with some friends to paddle the Lågan river... Then, when I got to the put in I realised I had forgotten my dry top. But even that wasn't a problem, as my friend had a spare one....sometimes it feels like the world is smiling on you!

The Lågan River, was such good fun. At that flow it is a low volume creek with lots of boat scoutable rapids punctuated by a few big drops. It's the sort of paddling I really love and that day we had so much fun. Small team, beautiful river, great paddling and good waterfall drops for a nice picture or two. Splendid!

The next day, me and my new kayak followed "Team Sweden" to the Bovra. Sun + glacial river = lots of water + lots of fun! More than twenty paddlers and and a good spanking in the first hole made the day a lot more exciting than it should have been. The spanking, which included an underwater spin of the paddle, did the trick though. I was really focused for the rest of the river and I paddled really well. Afterwards, for dessert, we finished the day with a surf at "shock wave".

On my last trip in Sjoa I had the chance to paddle with some new friends I had met at the festival. Several Norwegians from the Oslo club guided me down Ridderspranget. This is another fun run on the Sjoa, with lots of different types of rapids and on a sunny day there's always a lot of turists at the put in to watch you begin. At the end of the run I ended up in the wrong eddy, and had to complete a "must make" ferry glide. It was a heart stopping moment, but I believed I could make it, and I did.

With the Sjoa River Festival going on the whole time, there was of course lots of cool people around the camp to chat with. We also got the chance to watch the pros race in the boater cross. It's always inspiring to watch good paddlers at work, and it is a chance to learn some things to try for next time. On the last night there was of course a big party and just enough darkness to get out the fire pois. The dancing really started well after midnight as the sun started to come up again.

So it was a sleepy Clare in the car on the long, long drive home with much time to ponder the question, "So why, paddle?". Of course everyone must answer this question for themselves, but for me it’s this renewed lust for life and for experiencing life to the full that I get when I paddle that makes it all worth while. It makes up for all the boat carrying, the suffering from the cold, and also for the risks we take on the water.

Paddling and climbing and mountain biking have taught me so many lessons including to value my dreams and not to stress about the small things. I believe 100% that I am a better and happier person for it than I was before I brought my first pair of tramping boots, nearly 9 years ago. What's more for the last year, I have met many people from many walks of life, and many different countries. And it is outdoorsy people that always seem the most motivated, outgoing, cheerful, friendly and encouraging of the people I have met. For me that is enough.

Thanks to everyone I paddled and talked and played with in Sjoa. I hope to see you next year! And big thanks to Pelle for the photos.

Remember, play hard, play safe and smile as you do it!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Paddling the best of Norrland

My week paddling in the north of Sweden was the perfect kind of Summer-holiday kayaking trip. The sun shone almost too much! The mozzies mostly stayed away. And paddling was fantastic.

Norrlandsturen is “the kayaking tour of Sweden”. For one week, kayakers from all over Sweden head to the very north of the country to try some of the best paddling Sweden has to offer. This year, we were two minibuses, many cars, and around 40 people.

Ask any Swede and they will tell you Norrland is a very special place. It’s the land of the midnight sun, where tents become saunas at 6am. It’s where you’ll find lots of reindeer and only a few people. It’s where Sweden greets Finland and place names start to have ridiculous numbers of i’s and j’s. It’s where even the Telia mobile network stops working and life becomes simpler.

For me the fun begun on the Laisälven. After a night of searching for the non-existent bridge and meeting point, we had given up hope of paddling this river. Luckily in the morning we found our friends and some fantastic rapids. This trip is something of a Swedish classic. It’s a lot of relaxing class II broken up with adrenalin-pumping IV rapids. In particular there was a highly memorable long rapid that finishes in a high fast slide and huge breaking wave. Good clean fun woohooo!

After that it, we moved to Paltvalsen on the Piteaälven. This is one of the best white-water campgrounds I’ve been to. From the lakeside camp it’s only a 10 minute paddle to “the play wave” which leads onto a lovely class III-IV run. In the other direction it’s only five minutes to the end of either a crazy class V-VI run or a more manageable class IV creeking trip. Take your pick!

What’s even better is that parts of all these runs here many channels. They call it a delta landscape. So you paddle any of these runs several times before you’ve even seen all the whitewater!

The play feature, Paltvalsen (Palt hole), is named after palt, a local delicacy. It’s a little like a scotch egg with a bit of sausage wrapped inside a thick batter made from potatos. You then cook the balls in a big pot of hot water. When the palt is cooked it rises to the surface and that’s how you know that they're ready. The play hole is pretty similar. It’s pretty big and pushy, but you know if you just hang around you’ll pop to the surface when you’re ready to get out.

One night we got to try palt at Palt. With a little butter and sylt (jam) it’s good shit after a hard days paddling. (Mind you anything is good shit when you’re hungry and someone else has done the cooking for you – Thanks Eric!)

I just loved my based at Palt. We stayed three days, but I think I could have stayed two weeks. One of my favourite runs in the area was called bonebreaker. It’s “boating at it’s best” with big water, and big waves. There are also plenty of continuous sections were you could eddy hop your way down. Finally, there’s the un-missable friendly little waterfall called “Autoboof”. If you’re dreaming of staring in your own kayak-porn film, here is a good place to start training for the camera!

From Palt the tour moved north to the Torneälven on the border with Finland. Here the fun meter stepped up a notch as we were there to paddle Matkakoski, the monster wave. This wave is three meters high, and has a wicked bounce. Of course after paddling the wave, I couldn’t resist visiting Finland in order to complete my first (illegal?) crossing of international waters.

The final stop on the tour was the Kalixälven. By now we really were in the very north of Sweden, so north that mobile telephones stopped working completely. (Significant to Swedes, many of whom suffer withdraw from the moment “contact” is lost). However even our little one room stuga (bach), beside a lake in the middle of the forest was not far enough away to escape the world cup. Sweden was playing and the boys had brought a generator just for the purpose….

We were here to compete in the Swedish National Champs and locals put on a great show. It was big water, big waves, good music and big fun. Thanks guys. After the Swedish national champs on Saturday our week was ended and it was time to go home.

There’s only one thing problem with paddling in the north of Sweden. It is a bloody long way home…. After 18 hours of driving....

Thanks everyone for a fantastic week of boating!

Picture credits: Honk, David and Lotta

Friday, June 09, 2006

Bouldering in Åland

Last weekend, I wanted to get out of Stockholm. So when I heard that of a plan to go bouldering in Åland, I thought that sounded perfect.

Åland is just hop and a jump from from Sweden, but technically it’s part of Finland. No one has told the locals this and they wouldn’t care if you did. They speak Swedish, and live by there distinctly local customs, which unfortunately means they don’t like free-camping mainland climbers!

The island is quite flat, but somewhere in the middle of it is a line of small over-hanging cliffs of red rock. It is also a really beautiful spot with a treat for those who make it to the top. Up there you get a wonderful over the forest and out to nearby sea.

The rock steep and like sand paper. After a couple of days at Åland if you’re hands are bleeding you haven’t climbed hard enough! The problems are mainly overhanging, but if you hunt around you can find some slabby stuff. There’s also a couple of more obscure problems such a lie down start and a hilarious mounting problem.

The trip to Åland was really fun because it was a relaxed fill up the car with people and go trip. We all spoke English and just had so many laughs together. The weather was kind, and the sunset on the red rocks magical. We even had a campfire and a birthday cake with candles.

Also I got to sleep in my tent and I really love sleeping in my tent. There’s not much better than waking up in a tent in a beautiful place, on a sunny morning!

To top it off I was climbing really quite well. I am starting to feel strong enough to enjoy the challenge of over hangs. On the last day just before we left I did a climb over a big over hanging shelf. It’s the sort of climb that I used to not even try, but this time despite being tired I managed to get up it. I was stoked!

On the way home we did what all people living in Sweden must do on the ferry to Åland – we brought duty free alcohol. Lots of it. I even texted my friends for their requests! Technically you shouldn’t be able to by duty free alcohol between EU countries, but they make a special exception for Åland.

This is perfect because next week I am away for 9 days of paddling right in the North of Sweden. According to local legend, this is where the best Swedish white water is. So I’m off to see how good it gets.

I’m really excited about the trip. We’ll be visiting Lappland, (a magical place since being in a theatre production on the life of Carl von Lineaus) and because we’ll be north of the polar circle we’ll get to see the midnight sun– I just hope I can sleep!

Return to Åre

Åre is Sweden’s main ski resort and an excellent Spring time kayaking destination. Previously I had visited the place for an unforgettable weekend where we paddled at midnight and surfed the excellent wave at Tångböle. So I was really excited to be going back.

Last time, we scouted but didn’t paddle a river called the Över Dammån. At the time there was no one else willing to paddle this sweet but committing stretch. This year with around 50 paddlers meeting in Åre I was hoping to find a playmate.

The first day in Åre we went to the freestyle competition at Tångböle. The play features there really were as cool as I remembered them. The wave was such tremendous fun. I just loved that surfing the wave without a paddle, using the edges of the kayak to steer. It’s such a thrill to just sit there and feel the water rushing under my boat. I even learnt to bounce back on to wave to prevent myself from flushing – How cool!.

On the second day, I found a playmate, well actually 19 of them and we all headed to Över Dammån.

The run is something like a roller coaster as once you start, there’s no stopping. It 4km of continous, rocky class IV, with the odd micro eddy along the side. Luckily there’s no must make line, but there’s plenty of features to keep you busy on the way down. It takes about 20 minutes to paddle and the same time to swim!

So swims are long and brutal and result in the loss of gear. This makes it different from typical kayaking in the south of Sweden. Here it is mostly park and play, or small volume rocky rivers with IV drops and class I water between them. Maybe this explains what followed.

It was one of those days when I felt the approaching chaos before you even hit the water. As I was worried about the abilities of some people in my group, I was happy to lead the last group down. Better I thought to go first than to be scared by watching other people making it look difficult.

My plan was to relax, stay in the flow and conserve energy. It was rocky and I really didn’t want to roll, so I decided to stay upright. The plan worked well, however, I still got tired as there were nearly no easier bits to stop and catch your breath.

About half way down I paddled into the chaos. As I hit the hardest section, I saw pinned boats, people in the water, throw ropes, the works! It felt as half the paddlers were swimming. Someone in my group was swimming, so it made for quite exciting paddling as I tried to follow her and keep an eye on the river coming up.

But all is well that ends well. There were actually only three swimmers and it didn’t take us long to rescue them and most of their gear. All that was lost was a little skin, some pride and a couple of paddles. On the other hand I think it was a huge learning experience for everyone involved.

There was still more good creeking to be done, so the next day a smaller team headed to Medstugaen. The river turned out better than I had expected. It had some really nice three and four part drops which kept me on my toes.

In particular main rapid was a good opportunity for me to push myself a little. I found it scary because it consisted four drops, each harder than the previous, with very little time in between them. I always find drops with poor run outs scary, so it was time to suck it in and go hard.

Unfortunately, today it was me who was struggling to find my form. On the biggest drop, about 2 meters, I miss-read the water and completely missed my line. According to the others I had quite look on my face as I bounced down the rocks. Thankfully I stayed upright!

As luck rather than skill had kept me out of trouble on that river, I decided to take it a little easier after that. The weekend finished with some more play boating and a good party.
That night many paddlers from all over Sweden visited where we were staying. We put the picnic tables together and made a nice long table. On one side of us we had snowy mountains and on the other side the lake. We grilled food on the fire and around midnight there was a beautiful sunset. It was a nice end to fun trip.

There is still one more river I would like to paddle which I never quite made it to. It’s called Vålån. I guess that one’s waiting for me next year.

Check out the Medstugeån movie my frriend Anna made

Monday, May 22, 2006

A day in Paris

My trip to Europe started in Paris with a quick stay with Franck. He’s a rather crazy French kayaking buddy I had met several years ago in NZ. Franck had been a bit of wild child at the time so I felt a real sense of adventure stepping onto the plane. This was my first adventure in Europe, and the first time I had travelled to a foreign speaking country alone.

I shouldn’t have worried. Paris was a perfect start to such an adventure and Franck was the perfect host.

As I stepped off the plane I was greeted by the sights and smells of spring. Paris, always beautiful with many old buildings, was further adorned by flowers of many colours. Spring is always a special, energetic time but after a long Scandinavian winter, spring in Paris is sensational. I wanted to dance in the street, even while carrying my two packs and a paddle!

I eventually managed to navigate both the subway (easy) and the huge railway station (more difficult) to meet Franck at the correct sortie (exit). We then went to his central Paris flat and squeezed both of us and all my luggage into his tiny 1.5 person lift in the middle of the stairway. Then there was time to catch up before eating a fantastic dinner at his favourite local café complete with a drunk French waiter.

The next day Franck was working, so I was free to explore Paris on my own. As an art student I had always loved the impressionists, so I decided to aim for Musée d'Orsay and hopeful check out some other sights on the way.

The day started at Arc de Triomphe This bridge in the middle of a humongous roundabout, is impressive sight. A few moments later you notice the people standing below, and realize it is ten times bigger than you had imagined. “Wow”.

Next I visited the Eiffel Tower, which on first view surprised me by with it’s ugliness. (Well I have been brought up on romantic Hollywood shots of it after all.) However as you come closer you realise just how big it is and how much steel has gone into making it. Standing below, I was impressed by it’s size and strength. Pure and simple, it’s a symbol of strength and that quite appeals to me.

I then made it to the museum and then realised I should have got up earlier! There was a massive queue, so it was off for some bread and cheese to eat while I did a spot of people watching.

I was definitely worth the wait. Art books cannot tell the same story as an afternoon in a gallery.

Inside, I discovered the delicate pastels of Degas, the glowing pointillists pictures and the energy of Monet’s Bastaille day painting. I also discovered the importance of space, the areas in a painting without paint. My art teacher had tried to teach us this exact thing many years ago…
By the time I left the museum I felt like both my heart and mind had been on a journey through time and art. Through my own eyes I had seen and felt art process through the years.

On the way home, I visited Notre Dame Cathedral and listened to the organ playing. Inside was still and timeless, outside was metropolitan Paris. There, some inline skaters were jumping a bar well over head height to earn a few euros. The cathedral is also surrounded by a beautiful park with blossom and matching tulips. Here locals would meet, relax, play and read. Here I found, beautiful everyday Paris.

So Paris is more than just the museums and fine wine. It is walking beside the Seine river and admiring the buildings. It about cafes everywhere. And it is about the feeling of wanting to have someone to walk beside you because you’re in Paris and it’s Spring.

But what makes it is best is meeting an old friend and catching up. Then, it is about being kissed by an old friend on greeting, though many years have passed. It’s about visiting his local café and drinking wine and having a drunk waiter. That's Paris from the inside!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Life can change so fast!

When I came back from Norway I was greeted by the news that I had a job at a company in Stockholm. Good news, but it wasn't the job I really wanted as I was still dreaming about working and living near the kayaking over Summer.

The week that followed was truely surreal. I had a couple more interviews and then by the end of the week I actually had four different job offers! It had taken me four months to get any job, and then I had to choose between four, CRAZY!

After a really really stressful week, I finally made my decision. I decided to work for DICE, a computer games company, in Stockholm. This was a bit of a turn around, from my kayaking plan, but it was an opportunity I felt that I didn't want to pass up. They are one of best companies in the field and known all around the world. I am really excited about working for them and learning something new! Life should be an adventure, and even work passes as part of that.

With that sorted, I decided to make the most of the time before I started so I decided to head to Europe to catch up with a few friends. I signed the contract on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, I flew to Paris for the start of this new adventure. After months of not doing so much, suddenly everything was happening so fast!

It feels so exciting to be nearly be working again. At first I was a bit sad that I would not have so much freedom, but now I am excited because I will have money to travel round Europe and go paddling at the places I really want to go. It will also mean that I will be around Swedish people all day which will be a much better way to learn to talk Swedish than at language classes with other second language speakers.

Looking back, I can see that searching for a job in Sweden was a huge growth experience for me. I had to face a lot of rejection, and this combined with loneliness was really difficult. I have huge sympathy now for unemployed people, especially foreigners.

I learnt that was that how you feel about yourself makes a huge difference on your ability to get a job. The longer your are unemployed, the harder it is to feel positive about an interview, the harder it is to get a job. It wasn't until I really decided I wanted a job, and than I had many great skills (even if Swedish wasn't one of them) that I became successful in my job hunt.

And I think that this is true for life in general. You have to believe in who your are and what you stand for, even when outside events and other people make this difficult. Always know your strengths, weeknesses and of course your dreams!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

In search of Heavy Water

Last week Greig, Mike and I headed to Rjuken, Norway to do some ice climbing. It was great to get out of Stockholm and a real joy to switch off my mobile phone for the week.

As you cross the border from Sweden into Norway you actually experience quite a change. The mountains become steeper, and the roads become windy. Norway is a little like New Zealand, well except for the trees. The Nordic pine trees just aren’t the same thing as the lush green podocarp forests of home. But the Norwegian’s have tried to make us feel right at home thought by naming their main supermarket chain “Kiwi”.

In any case, it was great to be back in the mountains, and but also a little intimidating. It’s a long time since I’ve put my crampons on or even been on rock climbing so it took me several days to really feel comfortable with the equipment. My recent experience of head butting a tree had also hit my confidence pretty hard.

Rjukan is an amazing place to go ice climbing and when you first get there you just can’t take your eyes off the huge waterfalls that line the high valley sides. What is even better, is that the English guide book “Heavy Water” makes it really easy to find the climbs. You have the option of going ice cragging and challenge yourself on top rope, or you can try one of the long, 10 or more pitches, routes that that line the main valley.

I had climbed alpine ice, and glacier ice before but waterfall ice is quite different. For a start it tends to be blue or yellow and not white. Initially, I found it quite terrifying, because I couldn’t read the ice. What looked like solid ice would shatter when I struck it with the pick, while some of the fragile looking stuff was deceptively strong.

We climbed through the gloomy, snowy weather for four days and it was exhausting. Ice climbing is really strenuous on the arms and hand and calf muscles and I got pretty tired. I always had a sense of relief to make the top of a waterfalls, some of which were more than 30 meter high. By the top of the climbs, my arms where often so tired that I had trouble getting my tools to strike the ice straight.

Finally on the last day the sun broke through so Greig and I decided to bag the nearby peak. Mt Gaustatoppen, is remarkable because from the top on a clear day you can see 20% of Norway and all the way to Sweden.

Despite all the snow that had fallen, it was a pleasant trip and the mountain was even icy in places. (Greig was so sure that it would be soft snow the whole way he wasn’t even going to bring an ice axe along, so this was a nice surprise.)

We stopped for lunch just below the top, next to the incredibly ugly building, which actually a military elevator that was used during the cold war! It takes you all the way from the valley floor some 1600 meters below, and is now being tested as a winter attraction for rich skiers.

From the saddle we walked along the sharp ridge in nearly white out conditions. The snow sculptures on the boulders made it seem like a magic garden up there. At the top we were lucky as the cloud cleared for a while and we got to look over the town below, but unfortunately not all the way to Sweden.

On the descent we enjoyed a good bum slide but we had to stop several times because our feet sprayed up a fine mist snow which completely blocked our view. The Scandinavian snow, is much drier compared to the stuff at home, so this was a new experience.

What made Rjukan really stand out from similar experiences was the sense of history in the place. On the first night I read what had happened during the war, and I was completely intrigued. This was the first climbing trip I have ever been on where I actually wanted to visit the local museum instead of going climbing!

During the second world war, Norway was controlled by Nazi Germany and the heavy water (D2O) factory at Rjukan became a strategic target for the Allies. They were desperate to stop the heavy water production which could be used to make a nuclear bomb. So a team of hard-core Norwegian commandos went into the area in October 1942.

Unfortunately things didn’t go according to plan and the commandos ended up enduring the entire winter in the mountains, subsisting on lichen, moss and reindeer. Eventually, with the help of some more troops, they succeeded in their mission of damaging the factory, and all ten involved escaped on skis. Some of them skied 400km to safety in Sweden.

These feats of human endurance seem amazing at the best of times, but when you are freezing after a day outside ice climbing, they honestly seem unbelievable. I think these men, must have endured a great deal more suffering than modern ice climbers could endure!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Reflections on winter and ice climbing

I am so glad this week is over. Firstly, it is a relief because last week occured one swedish test and three job interviews which felt something akin to exam week at university. But mostly I am super excited because next week I am going to be ICE CLIMBING in Norway. Yippee, yah!

So it's one last blast of winter, one last winter sport to add to the list, before (hopefully) the kayaking season starts again.

In Stockholm there's still a lot of snow around, but it's starting to warm up so a lot of it has turned to ice which made walking to my job interviews (in horrid high heals) particually percarious. Of course many Swedish women are slaves to fashion and wear their high heals no matter if there's snow or ice around but then I'm not Swedish.

Looking through my photos tonight I realised there are few a stories about the winter here that I never got around to telling.

Firstly, winter, snow and ice happen here every year, so people have learnt over the years to adapt. When it snows here, daily life keeps happening. The cars have winter tyres with studs, and when it snows the footpaths and roads get regularly ploughed. There are people who clear the snow off the roofs of buildings preventing collapses like the one that happened earlier in the winter in Germany.

But not everything functions perfectly. When it snows our road becomes one way and the trains get delayed. And the people moan about the trains, because "it snowed last year and the same thing happened so why didn't they fix it for this year?"

It's how the families adapt that really makes me smile. Like when you see a child going to dagis (pre-school) by sled after it has snowed. Or skating along and next to you is a parent skating pushing a pushchair. I once watched a father taking his small son skating. He triped on the uneven ice, pushed the child off balance and then by some miracle he managed to lift his son up while he regained his footing and they continued skating.

Skating has been fun. Winter in Sweden to me, is going on a skating tour and having lunch on a "swiming and diving" platform in the middle of the ice. Of course you must have godis (sweets) and something hot to drink from the thermos.

Skating on "real ice" keeps you awake. It can be smooth or rough. It can look white, blue or black and makes me wonder what the different colours "mean". The first day I went out on the ice, a large group went through the ice near Uppsala and a couple of people even died so it's good to be careful. Generally it's pretty safe as long as you're carry spare clothes and isdubber which are handles with a spike which you can use to pull yourself out of the ice.

There's even down hill skiing here in Stockholm. The slopes are not long, but it's a good place to brush up the skills for the bigger fields. You always know you're not in NZ anymore because there's no scarey access road and no chains. There's also the cute red buildings and pine trees which marking out the runs.

Sometimes it's the little things can make you realise you've started to understand a place. Like two days after it has snowed, you know that someone will have walked even the smallest trails in the forest. Or wandering home late at night you notice that a street is empty and then you guess that tomorrow is "plough" day for that street, and you check and you're right.

Then with Spring (well March atleast) came the declarations of love next to the subway. These are trampled in the snow over the frozen lake and are very Swedish. Every one is neatly written and no-one has over-written someone else's message.

Yes winter here has certainly had its fun times. Of course it's definitely been about taking the good with the bad. I definitely ready for Summer! Bring on the ice climbing, bring on Spring for real, and bring on the kayaking!

Red eye reduction.

Even the crazy occassionally need some downtime. After hitting my head, the first thing I did was to pretend everything was normal. I didn’t go to doctor, I kept going to Swedish school and I even went skiing again! After a week I still looked like a freak and felt really tired. Only then did I realized that I really had done a spectacular job of hurting myself this time and so I decided to take it easy for a week.

Now, my face is pretty much healed. My eye is still red but it is only bruised. However, with my red eye I still attract a lot of stares on the subway and questions from people I meet. Perhaps I should wear sunglasses, but my only pair are covered in duck tape so I’m not sure they would help!

On the train people still stare at me quite a lot. The adults know they shouldn’t and try to hide it, but the kids usually just stare. For a couple of weeks I get to experience what a few permanently disfigured people experience their whole life.

I know a lot of people feel really uncomfortable when people stare at them, but it doesn’t bother me so much. I guess I assume people are just friendly and curious – I know I would stare at others more if it wasn’t “against the rules”. I also got used to people staring when I was in Asia.

In Asia, it’s not culturally impolite to stare and as a white person people really do tend to stare at you. In Nepal, I learnt to stare back at people. Sometimes it would take a full 10 seconds or more of staring and smiling at someone but then you would get a connection and they would smile back.

Actually is really amazing what you can say with your eyes alone. For instance have you ever wondered what happens if you do break the eye contact rules? One day in Stockholm before I hurt my eye, I was feeling a little lonely and crazy so I decided to find out. It was a pretty funny experience.

I was on the train about eight minutes from my station, and opposite me sat a young guy about the same age as me. So I looked at him and when he looked back at me I didn’t do what was expected – I just keep looking, and of course smiling. Well what happened? After a short time, it occurred to me that he thought I was “checking him out”. Opps, so that’s what happens if you break this rule. The last few minutes to my station were a little uncomfortable and I couldn’t get off that train fast enough!

So where ever you go in the world you can say a lot without even opening your mouth. The problem is that sometimes what you are saying with your eyes depends on where in the world you are. I’m really proud of the fact that in Nepal I left my western ways behind to really reach out and communicate with the local people.

One thing is for sure though, wherever in the world you end up, a friendly look and a smile can open doors. It’s definitely worth learning to let your eyes do the talking!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

It works better than Botox!

Sometimes life doesn't work out as planned.

My ski trip after my last post was one such example. I had decided to go somewhere new, and went to Norra Djurgarden. Unfortunately the ski tracks there are not so well prepared or well marked.

By the time I finally found the narrow track, I was impatient to get started and skied straight down the hill (down the uphill I think). I managed to stay upright for a long time which I was amazed about. Unfortunately this meant that when I saw the tree I didn't have much time to react. And when I hit the tree, I hit it really fast.

Of course, that night when I was watching TV, wondering what hit me, someone rung and asked to interview me the next day. Isn't that always how life works!

On the brightside things are now looking a bit better. I can once again see out of my left eye, and on Saturday, I had a wonderful couple of hours of skiing in the sunshine. So I still love skiing, but now I am a little more careful than before.

And like everything in life there's always a few things to learn from an experience like this.

  1. Using your face to protect your body is not a good idea.
  2. Even cross country skiing is dangerous. Invest in a helmet.
  3. People sometimes do look at you on the tunnelbanan. (Infact they sometime even offer to take you to the hospital!)
  4. As long as you smile it appears you can even make a good impression at a job interview even with a black eye!

Monday, March 06, 2006

Skiing is fantastic!

Life can be really tough when you'll living in a new place. For me the worst part is not having a "proper job". Before I went to Nepal I was actually offered a real job, and sometimes I regret not taking it. But then I remember what a growth experience Nepal was and I realise I made the right decision for me.

In my situation, sometimes the smallest actions of others can make a huge difference. For example, when a stranger asked me to help her check on a woman acting strangely in a car, I realised people here do care. Suddenly Stockholm stopped being a big, heartless city.

Sometimes a friend can make a huge difference without realising all that they have done for you. On Sunday when I feeling really low, my friend Lotta rang me up. She suggested we go for a walk or ski even though she couldn’t find a second pair of skis for me to borrow.

I was really excited because cross country skiing is my new addiction. I think it is just fantastic! After an hour of skiing I just can’t stop talking about it. I love it because it's got the right mix of requiring balance, technique, fitness and fear. It’s extremely aerobic, but it’s really fun, because you’re so busy trying to coordinate the legs, arms, skis and poles that you don’t think about how hard you are working. And then when you get to down hills it’s exhilarating. Cross country skis are very narrow so it’s a real challenge to stay upright as you go very fast, straight down the hills.

Sunday worked really well for me because Lotta watched me ski and then told me what I was doing wrong. Before then I had only been cross country skiing once, a month ago, and I had been so impatient to learn that I taught myself to ski on Friday night, alone, in the dark when it was -15 outside. So it was high time for some “professional” instruction.

She gave me two main pieces of information. First, I need to put my poles further back, and secondly she showed me how to get the arms and legs working together. Last night, Monday, I went out again on the lit tracks near my house. Well, skiing used to be super fun and now it’s twice as good again! Her advice has made all the difference! I now feel much more confident and I know what I am trying to do, even if I can’t do it every time.

The best bit of all, is that there’s fantastic snow in Stockholm at the moment and she’s lent me her skis for a whole week. This is great because it means I will get some exercise and exercise always makes me feel better. Skiing also makes me feel good about being here, in Stockholm, and it gives me something to do during the day when everyone else is working!

Today is great. It’s -10 and the sun is shinning. It’s a perfect day to go skiing so that’s what I will do. Everything else I need to do can wait for another time. Well everything except a special thank you for my friend!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Scandinvian Winter and LoudMail

Today the calendar announced that Spring has arrived, but it hasn't reach us yet. We recieved 7cm of snow today , and the temperature is currently around -5 and getting colder.

For me the snow is a mixed blessing. I still feel excited when I walk to school with the snow falling around me and Stockholm is stunningly beautiful with all the snow around. On the other hand, I really want to try skating on the sea, but while snow lies over the ice this is not possible!

Many people in Stockholm, both Swedish and foreigners hate the cold and snow, but I love it. The cold, crisp air brings back memories of magical days climbing in the mountains back home. It's also about making the best of the cold. I've been down hill skiing, long distance skating and cross country skiing.

For Stockholmares, the winter is kind of a time to hibernate and gain energy for the long summer days. My friends have been very good to me and we have have had many fun days skiing and skating together. But it has still been extremely hard sometimes to cope with the loneliness I have felt. The cold outside is nothing compared to the cold and closedness I sometimes feel from people here. Don't get me wrong. People here are very nice, it's just that people aren't so outwardly friendly like they are in Nepal and New Zealand. They say that travel teaches you about yourself and this is very true for me. I really miss sharing a smile with anyone and everyone who walks past. I have realised that I need daily interaction with people to share positive energy and with and build a good feeling.

The winter has been a time to reflect and to ponder my future. I loved Nepal and it was very difficult for me to return "home" to Stockholm. The rhythms of the places are so different. Nepal is like one big friendly village while Stockholm is a sterile, annomous big city.

During that time, I have come to realise how much I want to paddle and see the world and touch people's lives. I want to travel and understand how people think and what makes them tick. I have a long term dream of being able to travel the world, kayaking, instructing and maybe doing a little programming work now and then. As part of that dream, I have in my spare time in Sweden developed a programme to help poorly sighted people to read their email which I am now selling through the internet.

The program is called LoudMail. I started developing it to help my Grandmother stay in touch with her family through email. She is legally blind, and now finds it very difficult to read. With LoudMail her computer will read the messages, and she'll be able to stay in touch with family such as myself who are spread through out the world. I really hope that it takes off because I would love to develop LoudMail further so it is better for my Grandmother and other people in her situation. For example, I'd love to teach the program to read the "forwarded message" header so she doesn't have to listen to a lot of computer generated crap.

So please lend me a hand if you can. Download my program and if you like it please spread the word or add a link to the sight. You'll put a smile on my face, and in Stockholm, in Winter, I could really do with that smile!

Friday, January 27, 2006

Ice paddling

On Sunday, the sun was out so it seemed like the perfect day for a mid-winter paddle in the heart of Stockholm. As I wandered along to the train station the ordinary had become exquisite. The low sun cast a golden glow and the newly fallen snow glistened. I felt as though I was on the cover of a Christmas card. As I walked along I had to keep my camera inside my pocket so that the battery wouldn’t get cold. However, every few steps something would to catch my eye and out it would come again.

On the train, the locals stared at me. I had on my down jacket, gloves, scarf and hat, but so did everyone else. It was the paddle and life jacket which made people stare. Outside the train window the sea was frozen and covered in snow and here I was going paddling. No wonder they thought I was crazy!

The sun may have been shinning but it wasn’t warm. Some people in the club had shown an interest in a mid-winter paddle but the high of -8 had put off everyone except David. With a few taunts like “Are you Swedes not tough enough?” I had managed to persuade him to come along with me.

And it was really was cold. It was the sort of cold that takes only a minute to make your hands tingle with pain. At the get in I had stopped to take a couple of photos, and by then I was unable to get my deck on by myself. One of the curious bystanders, who had interviewed us for his home video, had to help me with it. By the time we dropped into the water quite a crowd had formed to see what these crazy people were up to.

In the water it didn’t take long to find a sizeable block of ice to take a picture with. Yeah, there was ice everywhere. A bit later we found some broken ice and practiced our play boating moves to try and get on top of some of the pieces. We also found a traffic cone in the water, slowly drowning. David, like a true Swede, decided that we must rescue it so we carried it on our head like a huge orange witch’s hat until we reached one of the stone walls.

Unfortunately there was so much water flowing into the sea that the play wave wasn’t really doing much and the water was so fast we couldn’t get up to wave. So we had a couple attempts at a small hole and satisfied ourselves with some flat water play boating. It was like playing with fire. Even with a hot head on, the cold water would make you head sting when you rolled. Once I missed my first roll and then it took several minutes for the pain to subside. I didn’t want to be swimming there!

As we headed back to the club house we were hanging out for our warm sauna. We had doubled checked that we had turned it on because today we really needed it. By now we were coated in a layer of ice as was our boat. The strap on my life jacket was frozen solid. I could see why water sports and negative temperatures don’t mix very well!

After a final photo we carried our boats to the club house, with David laughing how the keys were in his pocket and the zip was frozen shut. When we got to the club house we discovered we really did have a problem. The pocket wasn’t going to be wrenched open, and he couldn’t even get the jacket off! I offered to pee on it but he declined.

(To understand this last comment you must read “Popular music”, a Swedish classic about life in the north of Sweden. There is a story at the start where the main character gets his lips frozen to a plague when he tries to kiss it. It describes how he rescues himself using the cup that all Swedes carry).

Luckily, some kind people nearby helped us out with some hot water. So, we ended the trip with a touch of luxury. A lovely long hot sauna, and the compulsory can of lite öl.

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