NORWAY: The Land of the Midnight Sun

What comes to your mind when you think of Norway?

Northern Lights? Mountains? Polar Bears? Salmon? Black Metal? Vikings?

Wait, I got it. You were thinking about Thor, right? I know you were. The most badass Norwegian ever. Well, in any case, you’re right all the way. It is all the above and so much more!

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting what I believe to be one of the most breathtaking countries in the world a couple of years back during our Scandinavian sojourn along with my family. In fact, my fascination with Scandinavia began much earlier since some of my favorite bands in the world hailed from there and it got me thinking, “There must be something in the air, the environment, the landscape that surely plays a part in composing such melancholic and mind-numbing music?” Once I was there, I realized everything I thought about Scandinavia turned out to be true.

No other country that I have been to can even compare to the absolute joy of being in nature, the way that Norway did. It has left an enduring and indelible mark on my brain.

If you haven’t visited, here are some of my experiences that may help you add them to your bucket list.

The Mountains

View of the mountain range in Molden

Norway is one of Europe’s most mountainous countries, dominated from north to south by a series of Scandinavian Mountain ranges. Over two-thirds of Norway’s landscape is made up of mountains. There are 300 peaks that climb more than 6,500 feet above sea level in these vast, deserted regions. The sheer remoteness of this rocky country will appeal to anyone who has been bit by the wanderlust bug. Grandiose is the only word that comes close to describing the splendor. And the most important thing, they are accessible to all. Non-Scandinavians may not realize it, but in Norway, the “every man’s right of access” (allemannsretten) is fully implemented when it comes to the outdoors. That means you can roam and explore any location, climb any mountain, hike, trek, forage, hunt, and camp anywhere you like. What more could one ask for?

The Fjords

A Fjord is a long, narrow inlet of water with steep cliffs on either side, created by a glacier. Norway has 1200 of them. But the most beautiful and majestic one of them is the King of the Fjords, Sognefjord.

Panorama of Lustrafjord

Located in the heart of Vestland County, and as the country’s longest fjord, it stretches more than 200 kilometers into the country and reaches a depth of 1,308 meters at its deepest point. You have to see it to believe it. I’ve never felt as insignificant as I did when I was standing on Molden Mountain.

It reminded me of what Carl Sagan said when he spoke about Earth as seen from Voyager 1, some 3.7 billion miles from the Sun. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.” It was truly a humbling and character-building experience for me. Whoever said nature has all the answers knew what they were talking about. Simply spectacular.

The Weather

As someone who hails from the tropical part of the world, cold weather almost seems like a blessing. I know of many who might think otherwise, but I would take snow over the desert any day. Usually, people visit Norway in the summer months – June to September. But the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) are best seen between late September and late March when the sky is dark from early afternoon until late morning. So, we decided to make the trip to Norway. In November. In Winter.

Let me tell you something about a normal person’s definition of Winter in India. Anything south of 20°C is cold and anything below 10°C is madness. In Norway, the average temperatures across the year vary from 0°C to 10°C. “Hmm… that doesn’t seem too bad, we have our winter gear in place. Should be doable.” Well, we would be all be millionaires if our predictions about the weather came true even half the time. So, even with all the winter gear, there was a simple factor that we missed. Our adaptability. 

Take Tromso, for instance.

Tromso by Night

If you Google Tromso weather, the adjectives you would most likely get are short, cool, mostly cloudy in the summers, and long, freezing, snowy, windy, and overcast in winter. Temperatures during our visit were around 3°C to -3°C. “Well, anything for the Northern Lights,” I said to myself.

Northern Lights at Tromso

And it was 100% worth it!

It was like a celestial ballet of light, with a color palette of green, blue, and occasionally pink and violet, moving across the night sky.

Even if the lights can’t be taken for granted — they are, after all, a natural occurrence like the weather – Tromso was magical that polar night. Apparently in the day, the sunset colors in the south are stunning, while the sky in the north is a deep midnight blue. The snowy landscape was drenched in a crystalline, deep blue color during “the blue hour” at nightfall. Even if the Auroras aren’t dancing, just gazing up into the endless sky can help you reconnect with the universe. Remember Carl Sagan’s quote?  I had the same feeling here as well and throughout the entire trip.

Unfortunately, half of Norway’s view of the universe has been obstructed by light pollution. You may often see much of the Milky Way with your naked eye if you manage to leave the city lights behind.

And it was freezing. Or so I thought. Till we visited one of the farthest human settlements in the world.

Svalbard

Previously known as Spitsbergen, Svalbard is a cluster of islands in the Arctic Ocean, north of mainland Europe, it is about midway between the northern coast of Norway and the North Pole.

It’s tough to imagine a more distant location than Svalbard’s Arctic wilderness. It’s the farthest north you can fly on a commercial aircraft, and it’s a vast, white stretch of frozen emptiness, apart from the adjacent town of Longyearbyen, where we were stationed.

Polar Bear Territory – Applies to all of Svalbard

Yes, they have a signboard letting you know that you are encroaching polar bear territory.

Longyearbyen, with a population of just over 1000 people, is the World’s Northernmost Permanent Settlement and the largest inhabited area of Svalbard. Other settlements in Svalbard like Ny-Alesund and Barentsburg are populated only by researchers and can only be accessed by snowmobiles and boats. How cool is that?

I don’t even know what prompted us to include Svalbard in our itinerary. I read that it was just a desolate place, empty, dark, bleak, and freezing. Oh, and the temperature was -18°C. I couldn’t feel my face, my skin was as hard as stone, and my fingers felt like they would break any minute if I wanted to form a fist. Remember what I said about what cold weather means to an Indian? Well, I felt that this must be what it feels like if Hell froze over. They even have a place named Hell for Heaven’s sake, and it freezes over more often than you would think. Ok, I’m done digressing.

In hindsight, I can tell you right now that it was the best spur-of-the-moment traveling decisions my family and I have ever made in our lives. Being in one of the most isolated places in the world, where the climate and polar bears decide what you can or cannot do on a normal day, forgetting what body warmth means, learning to walk on slabs of ice, and being perpetually surrounded by night not knowing when you would see the sun next, shows how dependent we are on technology and machines. But then, it also shows us how we as humans have overcome almost every conceivable hardship to get to where we are today. To the point that we are messing it up all over again.

Ever heard of the Doomsday Vault?

The Doomsday Vault – Much cooler sounding than “Svalbard Global Seed Vault”

A resource of essential importance for the future of humanity is hidden deep below the bowels of an icy mountain in Longyearbyen, which will be used in case of an apocalyptic event or a global catastrophe. That resource is seeds. Not coal, minerals, or oil. Seeds.

Officially named the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, it has millions of these small brown specks from more than 930,000 different varieties of food crops. It’s effectively a massive vault containing the world’s largest collection of agricultural biodiversity. There’s 13,000 years of agricultural history inside this edifice.

Map showing the location of The Doomsday Vault

The Doomsday Vault is a remarkable and optimistic exercise in international cooperation for the welfare of humanity in an age of heightened geopolitical tensions and uncertainty. There are big and small doomsdays going on around the world every day and genetic material is being lost all over the globe on a massive scale. While crop yields have increased in the last 50 years, biodiversity has decreased to the point that now only about 30 crops provide 95% of human food-energy needs. This monoculture nature of agriculture leaves food supplies more susceptible to threats such as diseases and drought.

Any group or country can transfer seeds to it, with no constraints imposed by politics or diplomatic needs. North Korean red wooden boxes sit next to American black wooden boxes. On the next aisle, boxes of Ukrainian seeds are stacked atop Russian seeds. It doesn’t matter to the seeds that Indian and Pakistani seeds are in the same aisle. All that really counts is that they’re temperature-controlled and safe up there. This is the sole purpose of The Doomsday Vault. To save humanity for when it cannot save itself.

I would never have guessed that such an inhospitable, non-descript, non-commercial location would one day provide for the world that is slowly but surely decaying due to commercialism and avarice.

Ok after that exceedingly bleak interlude, I give you huskies!

Dog Sledding in Svalbard

Huskies are the heart and soul of Svalbard (along with the Polar Bears, of course). They are bred as watchdogs as well as for dog sledding/mushing. We had an entire day of dog sledding and ice caving where you can soak in the Arctic landscape along with these magnificent and lovable furballs. The experience reminded me of The Great Serum Run of Nome, Alaska in 1925 where 150 sled dogs traversed the harsh landscape of interior Alaska with the Diptheria Antitoxin to prevent the epidemic from spreading. Such a heroic story of perseverance and doggedness. Pun intended.

However, the best part of the trip for me personally was when we came back to the Dog Yard only to be greeted by 80 or so more huskies! The Dog Yard has over 100 active huskies along with puppies and retired heroes. They are unbelievably sociable and think of humans as their pets. They were almost evenly divided into sections of 50 (males on one side and females on the other. I don’t remember why though). The huskies were a ray of sunshine in an otherwise barren land. I’ve never seen any animal more excited to see humans as much as dogs are after returning from a day’s work. Even humans aren’t that excited to see humans ever (sic).

Svalbard is by far the most ambitious and adventurous place I have been to in my life. I long to go back again as soon as I possibly can.

In conclusion

Norway is Epic. Grand. Imposing. There are so many things that I haven’t spoken about. From the World’s Longest Road Tunnel to one of the best welfare systems in the world, from introducing Salmon Sushi to Japan to having the World’s Largest Sovereign Wealth Fund, from featuring in the Top 5 of World’s Happiest Countries regularly to meeting more than 95% of its energy requirements through hydroelectric power (more than any other country), and some the best metal bands ever, Norway is everything you would expect from a country. As a Norwegian friend told us nonchalantly, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

If you do happen to visit and see the Midnight Sun, do let me know all about it 😊 Ha Det.

P.S. – All images belong to the respective owners and are only used for representational purposes.

SINDIA: India’s Own Sin City

Imagine a city built on vices. Our own version of Las Vegas. Replete with gambling, drinking, drugs, prostitution, organized betting and crime, horse racing, easy marriages, and divorces; add any other vices that I might not be aware of. Would it be a dystopia or a utopia? I think –

·        It would be uncompromising and extreme.

·        It would be intrinsically groundbreaking and terrifically vicious.

·        It would bring a shadowy world to vivid life.

What if it could contribute an additional 8-10% to India’s GDP in 10 years? 

What is a Sin City, anyway?

Wikipedia says, “Sin City is an urban area (a city or part of) that caters to various vices. These vices may be legal or illegal depending on the area and its tolerance levels. Examples of vices include sex-related services (prostitution, strip clubs, sex shops, etc.), gambling (casinos, betting shops, etc.), or drug use, and even excessive organized crime and gang activity.

Though no longer existing, Berlin, Shanghai, and Chicago in the 1920s had their own areas that could be considered significant to the birth of this phenomenon. As of today, there are about 35 commonly agreed-upon Sin Cities in the world. Asia alone has nine. Would it baffle you if I said that Baku in Azerbaijan and Manama in Bahrain have their own versions as well? Well, it baffled me. The closest to the concept of a Sin City in India would be Goa. But I don’t think of Goa that way since it has a lot going for it apart from vices. In my opinion, it is many things to many people, therefore it cannot be labeled a Sin City. Also, the local government has been trying extremely hard to rid itself of such an image.

I’m talking about a city built from the ground up in a remote location that would be proud of its counterculture and sure of its purpose. More on that in a bit.

For the record, we will use the Big Daddy of them all – Las Vegas, as an example.

The direct visitor spending in 2019 and 2020 in Las Vegas generated revenues of $36.9 billion and $17.6 billion respectively (reduced drastically because of the pandemic). Let’s say that we make only half of what Las Vegas made in 2020 in the first year. That comes up to $8.8 billion. Around $2 billion less than the GDP of Goa in 2021. At an 8-10% estimated YoY growth, imagine the potential. (NOTE: Sindia will be a special administrative region with its own bylaws, governance and will be treated as jurisdictionally independent from the National Law for stated purposes) 

I am aware that there will be a significant majority of detractors who will vociferously oppose this idea. Statements like “This will lead to even more human trafficking, create a new industry around narcotics, what if we become Detroit instead of Vegas, this will create even more unethical tax havens like the Cayman Islands, we can barely support our existing infrastructure – how can we even envision something at this scale?” are expected.

Well, all these are fair questions, and we can debate them if we reach a consensus in the first place.

Before that, we need to remove our blinders and stop pretending that things are under control because they are clearly not. We can police, govern, control as much as we want but people will always find a way. We cannot play anti-smoking ads in cinemas and sell cigarettes on the other hand. The same goes for surrogate advertising and online gambling. It just doesn’t work that way. There is no medicine for people whose vices have become habits. The thing is – Vices bring in billions of dollars to economies around the world and I will be the first one to forbid it as soon as you can name a virtue that brings in as much revenue. 

Think about it.

Every day you hear about at least one instance of prostitution (legal in India, in case you didn’t realize), organized crime, money laundering, gambling, black money, drugs, smuggling, yes? At this rate, will we ever be able to fix anything? What would you rather choose – The uneven distribution of prosperity or the even distribution of misery? What if we capitalize on this “decadence” and “immorality” by localizing them to one place? A place where anyone can wallow in their vices and end up contributing to the economy. Within 10 years, we would have a legalized, self-sufficient, burgeoning parallel economy. It will bring in additional tourism, forex, and tremendous employment opportunities. We would still need to regulate it but let us shed our double standards first and leave politics out of this. For that would mean this endeavor would never take off. This is an economic decision. Not a personal or a political one. 

If it were up to me, I would choose Little Andaman as the site for our Sin City. (After relocating the locals, of course) 

It is around 707 sq. km (double the size of Vegas) and about 88km south of Port Blair. The flight time from Port Blair to Hut Bay is around 40 minutes and can be undertaken via a helicopter or a seaplane. It is also at a safe distance from the mainland to not disturb the fragile status quo and trouble the purists and the conservatives. This strategic location is close to Singapore, Macau, Bangkok, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur all of which have an already existing counterculture and an established clientele. Throw in our exotic heritage and colors for good measure and we have a swanky, new world-class attraction.

One thing I am sure of is that we Indians will flood the place first and, fast. Weddings, holidays, casinos, hotels, resorts, nightlife, businesses, conventions, amusement parks, stadiums, concerts, shopping, entertainment – what’s not to like?

Maybe we can give Goa a well-deserved break at least then. 

Sources:

https://bit.ly/3jbxw5G – About Las Vegas

https://bit.ly/2Xopuip – About Little Andaman

Aguante Megadeth \m/

Aguante – Spanish for Endurance, Strength, Stamina, Grit, Passion, Resistance.

In the context of Megadeth, however it means “Go!” or “Soldier on!” or “We are with you!”

I first came across this unusual chant when we were watching a bootleg concert of one of Megadeth’s concerts at a friend’s place circa 2005. Those were the days of Winamp, bootleg videos and pathetic dial-up internet access. At least where we lived.

Over a couple of hundred beers and what seemed like a million cigarettes, we were tripping on the concert as 20-year-olds do. And, like I said, the internet service was extremely patchy, and the buffering ate up half our trip, so we were all very in between. After a while, the internet somehow held its own, started behaving, and the next song turned out to be Symphony of Destruction, a song we considered to be the Enter Sandman of Megadeth. It was so ubiquitous, and you could either love it or hate it, but you could never ignore it. It was a staple of every Megadeth live show, and we were, kind of, indifferent towards it. I mean it was no Holy Wars or Hangar 18, was it? It was like an appetizer before the entrée.

But little did we know that it would be the start of something beautiful.

As soon as the eerie acapella soundscape that introduces the song came in, we heard the atypical, boisterous crowd letting loose, knowing what song was coming. The opening riff was immediately accompanied by a monstrous chant of “Megadeth, Megadeth, Aguante Megadeth.” It caught us off-guard, and we were left wondering what the hell was the crowd singing over the main riff. Was it a part of the song that we somehow didn’t pay attention to? Or was it localized to this particular concert?

What we also didn’t know then was that this would become an insane, global phenomenon that continues even today and that is point of this post. That is the reason why we absolutely love the energy, madness, loudness, and the all-encompassing brotherhood of live concerts.

Unbeknownst to the 30,000-odd fans who attended the concert that day, and to us living on the other side of the world, their “Aguante” chant would quickly be latched onto by Megadeth Fans world over.

Apparently, it was in 1994 during Megadeth’s first visit to Argentina that the birth of this crazy miracle took place. It didn’t take too long for the phenomenon to be lapped up by so many nations across the world that no matter where Megadeth played, be it Europe, America, Australia or Asia, fans missed no opportunity to sing along with the opening riff of Symphony of Destruction in their own fanatical way. For example, Peru has “Peru es Megadeth” and Colombia has “Que Chimba Megadeth.”

Absolutely amazing.  

Here’s a picture of Hitler seconding my opinion even before it was a thing.

Hell, when Megadeth toured India for the first time in 2008, the atmosphere was lit and you bet the Indian fans (yours truly included) continued the tradition, screaming our lungs out over what was now one of my top five Megadeth songs ever. Even though the concert was plagued by very bad sound, to me, it was still stunning, and I felt that we shared our solidarity with all the fans in the world. I don’t recall any other band having their trademark chant like the one Megadeth has.

NOTE – “Ole, ole, ole, Me-ta-llica!” doesn’t count. You use that in every football (or soccer if you prefer) match and for every other band. It doesn’t have its own identity. So. Nope.

I found this amazing fan made video which I would love to share with all of you where Mustaine explains this unexpected, but welcome, surprise when he heard the crowd singing over his riff for the first time. In fact, he is so surprised that he forgets the lyric of one of the opening lines of the song. 😛  

Costa Rica, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Ecuador, Canada, the US, England, Belgium, India, Greece, Australia, Turkey, Israel, Russia, Philippines, Romania, Ukraine, Spain, France, Singapore, Croatia, Denmark, Portugal, Norway, Bulgaria, Finland, Italy, Slovenia, Slovakia, Ireland, Switzerland, Poland, Germany, and ARGENTINA! I’m 100% sure there must be many more countries on the list who have taken this chant and made it their own.

En unión y Libertad.

Muchas Gracias, Argentina.

Maradona, Messi, Mustaine, Megadeth.

You deserve the mantle of having the best crowds ever!

Thank you for uniting all of us.

Aguante \m/

Do we really care about others?

A very dear friend of mine, one I had lost touch with since we graduated from university, called me recently. I was happy to hear from him and immediately started exchanging pleasantries and reminiscing about the good old days. He was always a slow conversationalist, so I jumped right in to ask him about how life was treating him and simultaneously inundated him with what was going on in my life. I was rambling on for about 20 minutes and he graciously filled me in. Apparently, I had a lot of things that I wanted to be filled in on.

I assumed that since he was not much of a talker then, that he would still have the same disposition even today.

When I exhausted my loquaciousness, he finally broke the news. He had called to tell me that he lost his Father. Shell-shocked, I berated him by saying “Why did we have to go through this inane conversation when you had something so heartbreaking to share?” I could almost picture him looking down, shrugging his shoulders, slowly dropping his eyelids before replying “You didn’t let me speak.”

Those five words he said taught me a lesson I will never forget.

Speak Less. Listen More.

Ever since, I’ve vowed to say a little less and listen a little more.

Don’t you think that we live in a world where everyone is talking, and nobody is listening? Or am I the only one? Aren’t we’re all so quick to hand out sage-like advice, but we’re equally reluctant to receive it?

I think we are inherently hyper-focused on ourselves as people. I know I am. We’re anxious that everyone will judge our creased trousers, that lingering mustard stain, or the dust on our computer screen shortly before a presentation. In actuality, no one notices your trousers, your coworkers are unconcerned about your condiment spill, and those dust particles are nothing out of the ordinary. Even if people did notice, they probably wouldn’t care since they’re too preoccupied with their own stuff.

Consider the last time you went grocery shopping, strolled down the street, rode the train, or took the elevator. Now attempt to recall one detail about someone else you met in any of those scenarios. Try recalling a time if you succinctly remember another individual in one of these instances. Not so easy, is it? That’s because we’re all preoccupied with ourselves and our own lives.

All right, maybe that’s an abstract example. But you get what I’m saying.

Do we really care about what happens to others, how they feel, and if they have a good life? Or do we constantly think of ourselves as the object of our pity? Do we aid others for their own sake or for our own benefit?

The simple answer – We don’t really care.

The profound answer – It’s not really that simple.

We treat empathy as a non-replenishable resource. Like fossil fuels. We have it in limited quantities and like all resources we choose where or who we invest it in. And that happens by discretion. Our lives aren’t usually defined by people we don’t meet often, much less by strangers we pass by on the street or on the train. Our lives are defined by the people that are right in front of us, daily.

In his book, the Survival of the Nicest, Stefan Klein argues that selfishness is self-defeating and proves the evolutionary advantages of altruism. In her book, The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand identifies and validates selfishness as a rational code of ethics, and propagates the destructiveness of altruism.  

So, which is it then?

If only we had answers readily available to all of life’s burning questions, then we would have already achieved a level of oneness that we only ever dreamed of.

However, I will leave you with this. I believe that we are more observant, perceptive, and able to think more clearly, when our mind is quiet. The frenetic energy of other people can have a major influence on our own capacity to think clearly if we haven’t developed inner silence. Just as our own chaotic thoughts can induce feelings of stress and anxiety, so too can the words of other people if we don’t know how to remain silent and listen. After all, silent and listen consist of the same six letters.

We all live inside our heads. It’s time we get out.

To my friend – Thank you lighting a candle in my heart. I promise to light another one.

The advent of Soen

Not long after Opeth branched out into their more expressive, albeit eclectic style of playing with Heritage in 2011, I wondered what happened with the two previous members of the band – Lead Guitarist, Peter Lindgren and Drummer, Martin Lopez. A quick Google search made me realize that Peter Lindgren had become a partner of an IT consulting firm in Stockholm! Talk about shifting gears. Another Google search for Martin Lopez, however, made me extremely excited. He had gone back to Uruguay (where he is originally from) and then came back to Sweden. More importantly, he was part of a new full time band called Soen, and they were set to release their debut album in Feb 2012! That was great news for me as I was (and still am) a massive fan of his drumming style, versatility and innovation. He plays as though he has a built-in metronome in his arms!

Then came their debut album, Cognitive, in 2012 and the rest is history. Every album they have released since then has been a an absolute joy to listen to. Usually, people tend to like and appreciate a band’s earlier stuff more than their newer stuff. While that is true of most bands, Soen is cut off a different cloth, which is why it’s absolutely brilliant that 6 albums in, my favorite album of theirs is their latest one, Imperial. It is a beast of an album that shows how great hardship can spark creativity.  “Imperial’ is a supreme collection of unbelievable songs that together create an even better album. It is an elegant, passionate and intelligent affair, one that also adds plenty of human emotion, eloquently wrought through music and lyrics. Progressive, beautiful, and deep, it resonates powerfully with me, to the point where I just don’t want to stop listening. Check out my personal favorite track of the album here. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Eternal Rains Will Come

Opeth – Eternal Rains Will Come

Passion.

Mikael Akerfeldt = Dave Mustaine. Only in terms of bullying, that is. Band members come and go on a whim in both Opeth and Megadeth. Maybe that’s what is required to keep the band ship- shape. Or maybe they really just are bullies.

Whatever be the reason, I think Mikael should be given credit where credit is true. To remain unencumbered by the demands of Opeth’s record label or their fans. Something I don’t think even MegaDave can boast off. Ever since Opeth branched off from playing progressive death metal with hints of subtlety, to full blown progressive rock, I have been drawn to them even more. I absolutely love their old style, but I have utmost respect for their left turn. You may love them or hate them post Watershed, but you have to give it to them (him?) for their balls-to-the-wall attitude and their new-found freedom to express themselves in an even more profound way.

This song is a classic example of what happens when one embraces their passion.