Saturday, September 24, 2011

Horse Latitudes

A brief digression from my endless procrastination on the Road to Vestmanna.

Here follows a short story from a distant, clouded past life. I've written it for submission and consideration by member of #FridayFictioneers and any others that stumble upon it.



The indifferent sea extends unbroken to the horizon and melts into a white hot sky. After nine weeks of hellish sun and no wind our barrels of drinking water are consumed, as are we. The Captain orders that our cargo of forty horses be driven overboard, a questionable but necessary mercy to all as talk has turned to drinking their blood for sustenance.

As Horse Master I helped round them up on the rolling hills of Andalusia and herd them aboard at Cadiz and care for them on our journey to outposts in the colony of Florida. Blinking at the light, nostrils flared, each seems to know their fate after two months in the stifling hold. It takes but minutes for them to stamp and hesitate and then leap into the water. They pump their legs and hold their proud, confused heads high and swim to nowhere.

The screams cut deeper than any blade.

My work finished, I join my charges. A cruel wind stirs my hair and cools my face as the sea rushes up to greet me.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Road to Vestmanna

Past Leynar and the entrance to the Vagar tunnel the road climbs to several hundred feet above sea level and passes above the picturesque village of Kvivik. Tucked into a valley on either side of the river Stora, Kvivik sits like a dream against the breathtaking backdrop of Vagarfjordur, the body of water that framed our view of Vagar from the house in Leynar. In the distance Koltur rode at anchor and somewhere in the mist beyond lay Sandoy. Kvivik was one of the oldest villages in the Faroes and was the site of an early Viking settlement. Something about it called to me, inviting me to explore there and possibly find a home among the hundred or so houses that nestled against the hillsides on either side of the river. A small sheltered harbor had been built snug and high walled where the land met the sea and I could just make out a few boats moored there before we swept around a curve and the Kvivik disappeared behind us. Little did I know that a year later I would finally enter the village proper as we observed the end stage of a grindadrap. Nothing would change in my mind because of what we observed. The town would remain beautiful despite the immediacy of the kill and the bloody asphalt and the hundred or so dead Pilot Whales neatly lined up near the harbor. In fact, I would come away from that day feeling a link with the past more profound than that instilled by ancient mounds and relics.

But that day lay far in the future and was not our destination on this day.

The road led up onto a grassy plateau and swept northeast along the shoulder of the land. In the middle of this empty landscape a pair of black dots appeared and then resolved into two geodesic dome homes, each roofed with bright green turf. They were a mix of modern and traditional architecture where one least expected it and seemed both in place and out of place. We passed them long before I thought to take a picture. Another mental note. Another strange sight. My mind was wide open to the newness.

To our left and many hundreds of feet down, Vagarfjordur had narrowed between the steep side walls of Stremoy and Vagar to become Vestmannasund. Here and there along the shore we spotted arrangements of circles in the water and realized that these were fish farms where Salmon were raised for commercial markets abroad. Closer examination revealed many of these fish farms as we continued toward Vestmanna. The road turned right and gradually descended into the small village of Valar which sits opposite Vestmanna on one side of a small arm of Vestmannasund. A huge swath of glistening rock and tumbling white water appeared on the right. Children clung to handholds in the midst of the cascade and watched us as we passed, then resumed their play in a vertical swimming hole on a Summer's day in the Faroe Islands.

We swung to the left and passed a series of huge pipes that climbed up into the hills above Vestmanna's outskirts and disappeared into some low clouds a thousand feet upslope. They dove under the road and into a hydroelectric plant near the shore to our left. I checked the map and saw a huge lake with a dam indicated on a plateau several miles inland. Oil might be hard to come by in the future but with a setup like this on every island the Faroes would be energy independent as long as the rains didn't let up.

Bonnie turned down a side road and found her way to a small boat harbor a few hundred feet from the power station. She was looking for Gunnar Skuvadal, a gentleman who owned and operated the excursion boat Barbara that took passengers to the Vestmanna bird cliffs. Gunnar, like Pall, had answered the ad Bonnie had placed in Sosialurin requesting help for our expedition. Bonnie wanted to connect with him right away to thank him and to talk about her filming schedule.

Gunnar's office was a sturdy metal trailer that sat on a concrete foundation next to a moveable boat ramp that led down to calm water in an empty berth. The trailer was wide open. A note on the door invited anyone to come in and have coffee and said the boat would be back in about an hour. We must have just missed Gunnar. Bonnie took out her notebook and wrote a brief message for him while I looked around. At each corner of the trailer sturdy 3/4 inch steel cables angled down from the roof to large eyebolts that were driven to their necks in the hard packed earth of the parking lot. The cables went over the top of each end of the trailer and were equipped with large turnbuckles at all four corners. I tested the tension on the cable closest to me. It was as taut as a bow string. I pointed out the arrangement to Bonnie.

"You suppose they get some high winds around here?" I asked.

Bonnie took it all in and grabbed her video camera from the car. She filmed the trailer and the surrounding area and then we got in the car and left the same way we came. Our navigation skills now included how to get to Vestmanna. Not the town proper but the boat harbor. We knew we'd be returning. The bird cliffs were high on the list of things to do on Stremoy.

As we turned on to the main road for Leynar we saw a Texaco station across the street and pulled in to gas up. Inside there was a convenience store with all that hungry travelers could wish for in the way of victuals. We stocked up and when I went to pay I noticed that behind the wide counter there was a big grill of hot rollers turning an assortment of hot dogs. Cheese filled, chili filled or regular. Mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise and relish for inside the bun. The choices were endless.

I got one of each.

On the way back home we stopped on a bluff high above Vastmannasund and Bonnie filmed Larina with the smooth blue surface of the water far below as a backdrop. Shaggy black sheep grazed on the fenced in hillside above the road. The sun was still high in the sky but it was almost dinner time. When Bonnie was finished filming we beat feet for Leynar all the while drinking in the views that changed with every curve and filled my heart with a contentment I'd known only in the Hawaiian Islands.

Another link? Subliminal island panoramas? Or was it more...?

(To be continued.)

(As always, thanks for reading. If this half-baked blog site will let you leave a comment, please do. If it won't, I'm sorry. Might have to go blog site hunting. Call the moving van. Alert the media. Aloha, D.)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Explorations in the (only) Mall

The mall was named SMS, a moniker we could make no sense out of because we were not schooled in the Faroese language. We immediately transformed it to S&M in our minds and it stuck somehow. From there on out we always referred to the mall as S&M and though there was no reason for it, we derived a great deal of amusement from saying, "I'm going to S&M" or "Let's go get something at S&M." It was not the first mental gyration we'd perform with the language, nor would it be the last. We were beginning to make the place our own. Was this how languages and places evolved over time. Probably not...... but maybe.

The SMS shopping center was about four hundred feet long and a hundred and fifty feet wide. It had two levels with a central concourse and was spacious and well lit, a perfect location for upscale establishments. There were clothing stores, a well stocked music outlet, a grocery store on the bottom floor and all manner of people strolling up and down, talking animatedly, pushing baby carriages, smoking cigarettes and enjoying themselves. We spread out and each performed our own exploratory surveys. I found an ATM and withdrew some money then contemplated a bank of pay phones that lined a wall. The phones were of the European variety, with signage in Faorese. I was unable to intuitivley grasp the dialing procedure and decided to cross that bridge when I got to it. There was nothing I needed except for groceries, which I would purchase just before leaving, so people watching became the order of the day.

Five facts became apparent after just a few minutes of observation. First was that there were very few fat people, and by very few I mean none. And by fat I mean of the corn fed American variety. Were I in an airport or a mall in middle America at least thirty percent of the people would be overweight. Here maybe one percent of the people in the mall had a BMI in the high range. Second was that there were very few tall people. Bear in mind that I'm six foot three inches tall so anyone taller than me was 'tall' and anyone shorter than me was 'short'. I saw one person taller than I. On the whole the men seemed to average about 5' 10" and the women an inch or two shorter. Third was that fifty percent of the people were smokers. A blue haze in the sunbeams let in by wide windows in the walls testified to the amount of secondhand smoke in the air. This was definitely a departure from what I was used to in Hawaii and would turn out to be a price I would have to pay for seeing the Faroe islands as if I lived there. Fourth was that a favorite hair color of brunette women was deep magenta, either in highlights or in a wide band somewhere in their hair. Fifth was that only twenty percent of the people were blonde and only five percent were what I would call the full on Scandanavian type. Blue eyes and straw blonde hair existed but were not as prominent as I expected.

Since I'm describing things with broad brush strokes let me add that I saw several people of Asian or Indo-European descent (in my opinion) and one of African descent. Safe to say that the predominant race was Caucasian. This is indicative of nothing, except perhaps that the Faroes are, indeed, a bit isolated from the rest of the world, and my mentioning it should not be interpreted by readers as anything other than a report of what I was seeing that afternoon in the mall in Torshavn.

Next stop was the grocery store where I roamed the aisles and perused the labels of all the products. They were all of mostly European origin, I assumed, but it was easy enough to select rough approximations of items I was looking for. Bread, cheese of many types, cold cuts, fish, snacks and candy were all there to be found and I stocked up and got in a checkout line. The person at the cash register spoke to me in Faroese and smiled. I smiled back, looked at the total on the register readout and handed her the amount in Faroese bills. She gave me change and I spoke my first words of Faroese. "Takk Fyri," I said, which means thank you very much. In her eyes I registered awareness that I was a foreigner and also an acknowledgement that I'd spoken to her in her home tongue. Only 558 words to go until I'd be able to have a rudimentary conversation.

Everyone collected outside and we piled into the car for the trip to Leynar. Clouds were beginning to accumulate around the peaks and the temperature was dropping. Offshore to the southwest wind whipped up whitecaps between Stremoy and the small islands of Koltur and Hestur. We had experienced beautiful weather for two days but I felt this was bound to change. I was reminded of the old saying, 'climate is what you want, but weather is what you get.' This would hold true for the Faroe islands, in spades.

(To be continued.)
(Please join my blog and comment. It's great to know you're reading. Mahalo and Aloha, D.)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tabula rasa.

Just as we finished the arm wrestling match the reporter from the newspaper walked in the door and joined us. Seems his office was just a few blocks away and he'd heard we were at Cafe Natur for lunch. How this happened is anybody's guess, but in this case I think Pall called him, assuming that the tavern was comfortable environment for all parties involved. Introductions were made and Bonnie spent the next forty minutes answering questions. I think it was disconcerting to be the subject of an interview, but she soon found her sea legs and was explaining our intentions in terms of 'promoting cultural exchange' and 'global education'. When asked about why she chose the Faroe Islands she made a joke about throwing a dart at the map. Her answer mimicked a feeling widely held among Faroese that their country is often overlooked in the world. By responding in this fashion she was able to side step revealing that our trip to the Faroes was, in fact, an expedition. We wanted to learn and did not want to be fed 'party lines' because we'd been pigeon-holed in the minds of the Faroese by repeating the mistakes of others that came before us. We wanted a clean slate.

When the interview was over we walked across the street and down a winding lane between the buildings of the Tinganes until we reached a rocky peninsula upon which the ancient council originally met. Careful examination of the rocks revealed petroglyphs, runes and symbols carved long ago by inhabitants of the islands. Here was another striking similarity between the Faroes and Hawaii. I added it to the list as we posed for a series of photographs, thinking about our place in the long line of visitors to this storied place.

What had life been like here 1200 years earlier? How did people survive? What did they eat? How long was the growing season? I tried to imagine a long, wet Winter, dark as a coal sack and cold enough to crack bones. How did one grow and store enough food to last until Spring?

Families and villages must have had to work hard, day in and day out for as long as plants could grow. They would have fished and dried their catch, salted or pickled it, anything to make it last. Sheep would have been a welcome staple, both for wool and mutton. And Pilot Whales? Their appearance offshore in pods large and small would have seemed like a gift from God.

We parted company with the reporter and Pall, who lived close by and said he would walk, and gathered at the car to decide what to do. We had most of the afternoon remaining and lots of light. I broke out my map and opened it up on the hood of the car. After a few minutes discussion we decided to find the shopping mall in town, then return to Leynar to drop off Gabe, Louis and Cristof. Then Bonnie, Larina and I would drive out to Vestmanna, a town far up one of the islands fjords.

All around us life in Torshavn proceeded apace. We were part of the landscape now and as long as we didn't open our mouths we fit right in. Kind of. We piled in to the car. Bonnie drove and I navigated and we drove off in search of the largest shopping mall in the Faroe islands.

(to be continued.)

(Thank you for reading. It means more than you know. Aloha, D.)


Before we walked to our appointment with the reporter for Socialurin I was challenged to an arm wrestling match by one of Cafe Natur's patrons. He was a fisherman fresh off of a two week stretch at sea and was friendly and curious about us. We probably stood out like sore thumbs and even if we didn't, all one had to do was listen to us talk and we were pegged as foreigners.

When told that we were a film crew from Hawaii we were asked a question we would hear many times.

"Hawaii? Why would you come here from Hawaii?"

Somewhere in the middle of our explanation the gauntlet was thrown down and I found myself the representative of our table in an arm wrestling match. When they could not beat me right handed we switched to our off arms and went at it again. More beers were consumed by the participants. We were learning that the people of the Faroes were friendly to fault and good natured as a rule.

I didn't want to leave.

(to be continued...)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


I woke warm and cozy in my sleeping bag and listened to the watercourse that had sung me to sleep. The house was quiet and there was a stillness in the air as I rose and dressed. The waters of the fjord between Vagar and Stremoy were smooth as glass and reflected Vagar's bulk perfectly. To the west, framed by the mouth of the fjord a small island rose from the cobalt sea beneath the blue morning sky. I realized then that the first thing I was going to have to find was a good map. I wanted to know where I stood in the landscape, to learn the names of every village, peak and promontory, and to be able to find myself by looking at the topography. The land and the sea were speaking to me and I wanted to be able to return the favor.

I am, as a hard and fast rule, a night person. I've always said that the best way to see a dawn was to stay up for it. The quiet house made me realize that something strange was afoot. 5:45AM and I was wide awake and by all appearances the first one up in our little household. The Faroe Islands are eleven hours ahead of Hawaii Standard Time. 6AM in the Faroes was 7PM at home. Perhaps my body clock was simply still running on Hawaiian time. I would have to keep track of when I woke see if the time changed in the weeks to come.

The kitchen had a small table and two chairs and I set up shop there with my computer and notebook. Hot chocolate and toast with melted butter and cheese was my breakfast while I recalled and documented as much as I could of the previous day and of the feeling I had right then, in the early morning stillness as the sleepers began to wake.

First to rise was Bonnie. She walked into the kitchen with a big smile on her face and began to make coffee. We sat and talked and drank in the view and shook our heads in amazement. We were in the Faroes! I still get chills up my spine when I remember that morning. Three long weeks to do exactly as we wished and an infinity of possibilities open before us.

"What are you writing?" Bonnie asked.

"Everything." I replied. Bonnie smiled.

That was how most mornings would start for the duration of our stay. Up in the stillness to write about the previous days adventures and occurences and then a hearty breakfast as we planned the new day's activities.

Pall arrived shortly thereafter and we roused the gang, fed them breakfast, then crammed into the car for the ride to Torshavn, a city of about 20,000 inhabitants located on the northern side of the south-western tip of the Island of Stremoy. Larina sat on someones lap in the back and Bonnie crowded in between Pall and I in the front. The trip lasted about half an hour and took us along a route close to the coast. On one side several bodies of water were visible and on the other the land rose to an ever changing view of mountain tops wreathed in clouds. The weather was marvellous. Blue sky and bright sunshine combined to show us the islands in all their green clad splendor. Waterfalls appeared regularly as white cascades that wound up into the hills and disappeared among the crags. We passed through two small towns and gradually turned west until we crested a small hill and saw the capitol of the Faroes laid out before us. As we approached the outskirts of town Pall pointed out a dense thicket of tree surrounding a few buildings.

"That is our forest," he deadpanned with a ghost of a smile that would come to characterize him.

It would have been funny if it were not true. These were the first trees of any note that we had seen besides a few in the river valley that led to Leynar.

"Why are there so few trees?" I asked.

"Sheep," Pall replied. "And cold winters." The answer made perfect sense.

One translation of Faroe Islands is Sheep Islands, supposedly bestowed upon them by Irish monks who used the islands as a hermitage in the 8th century. Whatever the case, the name was fitting. On every hill and Hamrar edge on the way to Torshavn, sheep could be seen in abundance, each wearing a numbered tag to identify them prior to shearing or in the unfortunate event that a motorist hit one.

We made our way along the seaward side of the town, past a ferry terminal and into a parking lot next to a small boat harbor that abutted a much larger harbor that serviced cargo ships. The town came right down to the water, buildings neat and tidy and painted in bright colors. Pall pointed out the Tinganes, a group of older red buildings situated on a rocky peninsula, site of the oldest functioning parliament in Europe. We strolled past the innermost boats, small fishing craft very reminiscent of the classic Viking ships of old. They looked well maintained and seaworthy, lines properly stowed, bumpers positioned carefully and all hatches battened down. Here and there large jellyfish undulated slowly through the shallow water.

One of the first buildings that caught our eye was a two story tavern, black sided with a brilliant green turf roof. Painted in bold letters across the seaward end were the words, 'Cafe Natur'. This establishment was to become one of the unofficial headquarters of our expedition. It was closed, but I knew we'd be seeing its interior later in the day.

Pall led us inland and uphill through narrow streets toward the city center. No building I could see was over six stories high and the majority were mostly one and two story edifices. Old and new mingled without clashing in a spacious yet Old-Worldly arrangement around plazas and squares. Pall pointed out a kiosk, gaily painted in red with white trim.

"My grandmother works there," he said. "She sells newspapers and magazines and has owned and operated it for almost thirty years."

The town was a delightful mixture of modern and old buildings, with sculptures throughout and an endless amount of shops to explore. I found a bookstore with a great section of maps and chose two. The first was a good road map and the other a large folding topographical map that would serve me well when I wandered far afield. We spent the morning wandering and photgraphing and drinking in the sights and sounds. Summer in the Faroes is tourist season and we fit the bill. You have to start somewhere to get to know a place and Torshavn was perfect for our first day.

Around noon we walked down to Cafe Natur and had lunch and some very fine Faroese beer. If I could have figured out a way to stop time I'd be there still. It's that nice. Our meeting with the reporter from Socialurin was scheduled for right after lunch and I felt somehow that the tables had been turned. Why on earth anyone wanted to interview us was a mystery. But, hey, when in Rome...

(To be continued.)

(If you stopped in with us at Cafe Natur, please leave a comment and I'll buy you a round.)

(Especially you, Eric!)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Grindadrap, Groceries and the Midnight Sun

I'd known of the Faroe Islands through stories my father told me when I was young. He spoke of fishermen he'd known during two summers spent as a deck hand aboard a trawler that worked the waters off the coast of New Jersey. From him I got the sense that the Faroes were a proud, seafaring people whose island home was somewhere in the North Atlantic. I heard about the Faroes again in the late eighties, this time in association with the killing of Pilot Whales as depicted in lurid news releases by radical environmental groups. Of the two, the impression left by my father is closer to the truth, but how I found that out is what this story is about. Must not get ahead of myself.

I felt the killing of hundreds of Pilot Whales each Summer in the Faroes didn't have to happen, but my feelings were not the issue. My job, and the job of our group, was to be objective. We had to observe and we had to listen in order to avoid being labelled as activists or troublemakers. Our thoughts had to remain hidden, or at the very least, be carefully articulated, if we expected to walk among the Faroese without a curtain of silence being drawn around us. It was decided after much debate that we were to remain quiet on the subject of the Grindadrap unless asked point blank. At that point it was up to us to try to explain our feeling honestly and in the context of being from Hawaii, an island culture on the other side of the world.

There it was again. Island culture.

Hawaii and the Faroes were linked. Isolated in their pre-history in the middle of vast oceans, reliant on sea life for sustenance, the two archipelagos shared a common bond. The Sea and Pilot Whales.

I knew the sea, having spent many years on or beneath it on surface ships and submarines, but I knew little of Pilot Whales. Why were they used for food in the Faroes and not in Hawaii? Despite a growing list of similarities between the two island groups, here was a curious difference. Did it have anything to do with the fecundity of Hawaiian waters. Were there so many other types of marine life that the Pilot Whales there somehow missed out on being placed on the Hawaiian's menu? If this was the case then how did the Faroese come to use the Pilot Whales of the North Atlantic as a food source?

There was much to learn, this much was clear. As we talked things over hunger began to set in and the urge to get out of the house and explore a grocery store took precedence over protocol.

Pall offered to take a few of us to the nearest store and I called shotgun. Bonnie and Louie needed to buy food for the gang and thus our provisioning crew was set. As we hiked down to the road I noticed the sun in the western sky above Vagar and looked at my watch. The time was 6:30PM but the sun was still high above the horizon. So this was what the midnight sun was all about. At 4 degrees below the Arctic Circle, the Faroes would see the sun for almost 22 hours of every day of our stay. It was going to take some getting used to.

We drove out to the main highway and turned right. The road was modern and well maintained. The only difference of note was that all major intersections were roundabouts, a traffic management solution that I soon became a fan of. At a gas station near the end of a long and narrow body of water called Kollafjord we piled out and invaded a small convenience store. I purchased food from three of the four 'C's' food groups: Coke, candy, and chips. I also bought some cheese and packs of sandwich meat, some locally baked bread and four large Cadbury milk chocolate bars. Heaven. Bonnie and Louie were more restrained and tried to shop intelligently, as we had to make dinner and breakfast before we headed out the next morning. One of their purchases was from the fouth of the four "C' food groups: coffee. I think I was the only non coffeee drinker in the bunch but could not brag as caffeine from soda was my drug of choice.

Back at home base in Leynar Pall (who had taken the bus to meet us at the airport.) said goodbye took our rental car and headed to Torshavn, where he lived with his wife and parents in their traditional house in the middle of town. Louie cooked a fine meal of baked fish, vegetables and fresh warm bread with melted butter. The sky remained clear and the sun slowly pretended to set. We ate and talked and marvelled at the view from our lanai. A cold wind blew in off the fjord and up the steep sides of the hill upon which our house sat.

Careful study of the hills and mountains around us revealled a curious step sided effect to the slopes. there would be a grass covered incline that ended in a steep cliff of stone that rose for a hundred feet or more, then another grass covered slope that again met a higher cliff face and so on until the summit of the peak was reached. I learned later that these rock steps, or divisions in the hillsides were called Hamrar and were a clear sign of the Faroes volcanic origins. Another link between here and home. Another sign to pay attention to.

We talked late into the night, which never became night, until it was clear we'd better get some sleep or pay the price in the morning. I commandeered three cushions from the back of one of the sofas in the living room and arranged them along the inner wall of the lanai. My sleeping bag went on top of these and I climbed in and looked at my watch. It was two in the morning and bright as day. Tomorrow was already here.

I rolled over to face the wall, closed my eyes and fell asleep to the soft music of rushing water and the strange and beautiful calls of birds unknown.

(To be continued.)