The thing, above all else, which makes a journey exceptional is the people you meet. To find unexpected places off the tourist trail and get to share real life with locals, not just what the tourist industry lays on and sucks you in to.
Before we set off a month ago, we joined up with an organisation called Servas (see http://joomla.servas.org/content/view/16/28/). It was founded after the War with the aim of promoting peace on the simple pretext that if people of different nations around the world get to meet and stay in one another‘s homes, unwarranted prejudices and xenophobic tendencies will melt away.
We had a list of Norwegian Servas contacts who were willing to act as hosts but, so far, our attempts to link up had failed, either because they were away on holiday or it wasn’t a good time for them. The deal is that, provided it is convenient at the time for the host, travellers can stay for 2 nights in the host’s home gratis. There is no obligation for travellers to reciprocate when back home, although many will.
Having experienced a fair bit of tourist fatigue on the Lofoton Islands, we needed this type of contact and warmth that such experiences can provide. There was a host family on the small island of Vaeroy at the southern end of the chain and we phoned them half expecting, as before, that they might be away themselves. Aina answered the call, saying that they already had a Servas guest arriving in 3 days time but we would be welcome to come to stay tomorrow anyway. Having been reassured that this wasn’t going to be too much for her, we gratefully accepted and were on the ferry first thing the next day.
The last dry cod on the island
You know that you have left the tourist trail behind when car drivers tip their finger at you in friendly acknowledgement of you, a stranger, walking along a quiet country road. Vaeroy is such a place. It is small compared with the other Lofoton Islands and connected to the mainland by ferry or helicopter. Coming into the harbour at a hell of a lick - the ferry captain could probably do it with his eyes closed - the importance of the cod industry was immediately apparent. Row upon row of tall wooden racks filled the land around the harbour, used to hang the fish up to dry. All of them were empty now until next year’s bonanza begins again in February.
We’d been told to look out on the ferry for a man with 2 chairs - the partner of the family’s eldest daughter - and he guided us to Bjornar, Aina’s husband, waiting to meet us at the quayside. Bjornar is a technician on the island’s radar station, way up in the wilds of the island’s tallest mountain. Plenty of gaffer tape is required to stop it being blown away in the winter gales. Since the cold war ended, the station is used more for monitoring oil tanker traffic than military activity.
Oysten (left) and Embla (right) with friend Kristina
Aina and gorgeous grandson, Kasper
We were taken to their lovely family home around the back of the island’s “Town Hall”. In the next hour or two, we were incrementally introduced to their 3 younger children as they made brief sorties back to base for refuelling before running out again to rejoin friends on their bikes, on the trampoline or wandering off to fish in nearby pools. Life for them is so much more free compared with that which has evolved for kids back home with the worry of traffic and other potential harms.
Aina, as well as being a busy mother, sells many different items made at home in her workshop. She uses fabrics and materials recycled from old garments, curtains, furniture coverings etc. and ingeniously transforms them into beautifully creative items such as bread baskets, cafetierre covers, gloves, She is always thinking of new creations whilst also hiring out cycles to visitors and acting as honorary tourist information officer to regular callers-by. Oh, and I forgot to mention that she is also involved in a community action group opposed to plans for the oil industry to open up a new field just off Vaeroy - reminiscent of the film “Local Hero”.
Des Res birdbox
To say that we couldn’t have been made more welcome is a gross understatement. We were immediately sworn to treat the home as our own, help ourselves to drinks and food whenever we wanted (the latter unnecessary as Aina’s cooking was wonderful), borrow the bikes and generally muck in with family life. Many hours were spent chatting into the long evenings and exchanging information about our respective lives and experiences. We were told to ignore the 2 nights rule and one of the children was happily displaced to make way for Laura, the other Servas guest, who later joined us.
This has, without doubt, been the pinnacle of our travels so far. Such open, trusting generosity is a beautiful gift which lives on in the mind forever. As our first experience of Servas, it could not have been bettered.
White-tailed Sea Eagle