Polar Reversal

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“So after you’re done with the car, you just park it here, in front of the gate to the dock [where our cruise ship was docked], and you leave the key on the little ledge inside the driver’s side wheel well. Then we’ll come pick it up.” The car rental company agent took a photo of my driver’s license, jotted down my credit card information, and that was it. I had rented a car, a little blue Subaru for the day we were on shore in Narvik, Norway to drive ourselves to Polar Park.

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Before I left home to go on this cruise, I had looked up the shore excursions for each port, out of curiosity to see what kind of attractions there were at all these little coastal Norwegian towns I had never heard of. I had also talked to my friends who had been on cruises before, and they were only too happy to give me advice.   “Really? I get to give you, Miss World Traveller, tips on cruises?” joked Hubert. He told me that the shore excursions booked through the ship were usually overpriced, so one could often just show up on shore and there would be local tour companies offering a similar tour for much cheaper. The only saving grace of the ship’s excursions was that if there was a delay, the ship would definitely wait for their excursion clients to come back, and not sail off without them!

Narvik had boasted of an attraction called Polar Park, which billed itself as the “World’s Northernmost Wildlife Park”, about 68 km away inland. I can easily skip churches, but I didn’t want to pass up the chance to see animals like wolves, bears, and deer. The exchange rate was 1$US = 8.6 NOK (Norwegian Kroner). So I had persuaded Wendy (my mom), Auntie Shujun and Uncle Harry that if we rented a car for $80 US, and paid the zoo admission of 215 NOK (about $30 US) per person, we’d still come out ahead, instead of $150 per person by going with the ship’s excursion. They agreed, so I booked the car online.

“Are there signs telling us how to get to Polar Park?” I asked the rental car agent.

“Oh yes, there’s signs.” I had printed out google map directions before I left home, but still, it was good to know. I figured we couldn’t really get too lost in a rural area; there weren’t too many roads. It was a big attraction for small town Norway, so I was sure there would be signs. Even on Highway 5, there are tons of signs for Andersen’s Pea Soup, and that’s hardly worth writing home about.

“This car isn’t very clean,” said Wendy and Auntie Shujun from the back. An empty plastic soda bottle rolled around on the floor. Small town in Norway, end of tourist season, I didn’t expect to find much choice in the fleet. “So long as it gets us there and back . . .” I shrugged in the driver’s seat and shifted into first gear.

I was glad I had rented the car. So far on the cruise, Uncle Harry had been paying for all the wine we ordered for dinner each night, and wouldn’t let Wendy or me pay, even though we tried to insist. It’s a very Chinese thing, to fight for the honor and privilege of picking up the check. In a way, it’s also chivalrous or chauvinistic, so I call it the ‘old geezer’ act. It usually amuses non-Chinese whenever they see it happen, whether or not they understand what they are seeing. So in my renting the car, I would be able redress that balance a bit, along with paying for the zoo admission and filling up the gas later. I would be drinking the wines Uncle ordered with a clearer conscience.

It was a clear, sunny crisp day. We left Narvik, driving north across a suspension bridge that was also slightly cloggy due to reconstruction. Wendy and I ooh’ed over the pretty fall colours, since we don’t get much of that in California. Uncle Harry and Auntie Shujun aah’ed as we skirted the coast, winding through mountains and a couple of long tunnels, since they live inland in the flatter areas of  Ontario. After being on the ship for so many days, and walking around the port towns we stopped at, it felt a little odd but liberating to be driving a car.

An hour into the drive, someone requested a pit stop, so I pulled into a restaurant/convenience store parking lot. To back out of our spot to continue our journey, I had to shift to reverse, which was to the left of 1st and 2nd gear (In my car at home, the reverse is to the right, below the 5th gear). I tried to shift, but each time I pressed the gas pedal, we went forward, not back.

“Here, get out and let me try,” offered Uncle Harry. He got into the driver’s seat, and tried shifting. “The clutch is a bit soft. Maybe it’s worn out.”

“Well, the rest of the gears shifted fine on our way driving here,” I pointed out.

“Maybe it’s just the reverse gear doesn’t work, maybe it’s broken.”

“Ai yah, not only is the car dirty, but they gave us a car that doesn’t work!” chorused the back seat.

“That is pretty awful,” I agreed. How could this company be so irresponsible and reckless to rent out a car that without a functional reverse? It was shock to have something like this happen in Scandinavia, where you expect everything to be orderly, efficient and done by the book. “I’ll email them when I get back,” since I didn’t have a SIM card in my phone to call them.

Wendy, Auntie Shujun and I got out to push the car backward, while Uncle Harry steered the car. What to do now? We decided to press onto Polar Park, since we were more than halfway there, rather than waste our limited time to go back to complain and exchange the car for a fully-functional one. The car’s forward mobility was fine. We simply had to cross our fingers that when we got to the parking lot of Polar Park, they had drive-thru type parking spaces so we wouldn’t need to reverse!

We ended up missing the turn at the major roundabout for Polar Park. Continuing along the coastal road E10 for 20, then 25, 28 miles, we found ourselves in a rural area, with buildings far and few between, with no sign of Polar Park. We eventually found another gas station and asked.

“Oh you’re in Bogen now, you have to go back and turn at the roundabout at Bjerkvik about 28 km back to take E6.” said the clerk. It always blows my mind that even in the dinkiest of towns of Norway (and the Netherlands), the locals are pretty fluent in English. I can’t imagine a gas station clerk in the US being able to give directions to lost European tourists in German, French, Spanish, etc.

When we backtracked to the major roundabout there was no sign for Polar Park, but tons of official directional signs for the site of the 1940 Battle of Narvik. I thought that was odd; I would have thought that most tourists who come to these parts would be more interested in seeing a zoo than a battlefield, and that the directional signage would reflect that.

When we arrived at Polar Park, it was already noon. There weren’t too many people there. We found a drive-thru parking spot. Uncle Harry elbowed me out of the way and won paying for the admission tickets, though not before incurring the ire of European man in front of us, thinking we were trying to cut in line.

Polar Park is set on a long swath of hillside, along and above a creek. The day we were there, they had wolves, arctic foxes, brown bears, lynxes, elk, musk ox, deer and reindeer on display. (They also have wolverines, but not on display then.)  While some of these animals have been socialized and are used to humans, the setting itself seems to have been kept natural. There are various enclosures each the size of a neighbourhood park, spacious enough to give the animals roaming space; even in confinement, they need enough elbow room. Each enclosure is habitat for one species of animal. For the human visitors, it really does take a lot of walking uphill and downhill to get around and see them all. The enclosures are full of bushes, trees and natural vegetation, so you have to peer mindfully in stillness, until your eyes are tuned in to little movements that are not of leaves and plants rustling in the wind.

Just a short distance past the ticket office as we headed towards the main enclosures, we passed a wolf-visit enclosure, where some other visitors had each paid 1,500 NOK to hang out with the wolves for 30 minutes. (It was also possible to hang out with the arctic foxes for the relative bargain of 200 NOK per adult.) The wolves had been socialized enough to interact with visitors, and were excitedly loping around the group. One wolf stood up on its hind legs, resting its paws on the shoulders of a trembling young Asian woman, as if to waltz with her while trying to sniff and lick her face. “Don’t be scared, don’t show fear,” said the zoo guide in a firm voice.

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Dancing with wolf

Once we got to the main enclosures, we usually had to walk all the way around the chain link fence perimeter to spot the animals. There were only a handful of other visitors when we were there. One stocky, middle-aged woman by herself seemed to be pretty good at quickly spotting where the animals were, so we followed her wherever she went, very quietly, so as to not scare or disturb the animals. Perhaps she was a professional wildlife photographer, or simply had honed instincts. Or maybe she had that vibe that drew animals to her. Being a photography buff, Uncle Harry was very interested in her camera, with a very long/large lens. Later she told him she had driven up from Switzerland in her own car over the course of a month, and her camera cost over 200,000 Swiss francs.

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The animals can be in an elusive, private mood and cocoon themselves away. Or they may deign to show themselves and come closer to the fence where people are. Who knows why animals do what they do, or when they’ll do what. Maybe sometimes they’re curious about the visitors. Maybe sometimes they’re bored and want to people-watch. Maybe they like getting attention from visitors who are respectful, calm and quiet (when they’re not fighting over who’s paying).

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Arctic Fox

The coats of the arctic foxes had changed into their winter whites from the summer browns. Covered in snowy fluffy long fur, and bushy long tails, they looked adorably cuddly, like a doggier type of cat. Their faces and pointy ears were grey. With their squinty eyes, they looked drowsy and relaxed basking in the winter sun, although they were very aware of us as they curled up in front of us, with the chain link fence separating us. “After you walk away,” their expression seemed to say, “we’ll relax our guard and take a real nap.”

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There were two wolves in the next enclosure. We’d spotted one deeper in the enclosure and walked up to the chain link fence to take closer-up shots by zoom. Wendy was so engrossed in taking pictures of that wolf in the distance, she was completely oblivious to other wolf that had come up to her, scoping her out.

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…oblivious to the other wolf that had come up to her

The wolves began to walk away, but still sticking close to the fence perimeter, as if to entice us, so we followed. They would glance at us, as they paced around, stretched, yawned, and sat down to rest in front of us. Maybe they had caught scent of the ham and cheese sandwiches in our backpacks we had packed from the breakfast buffet.

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These wolves had calm demeanors and dignified expressions. I didn’t find them intimidating, and it wasn’t just because they were safely separated from me by a tall fence. They just looked like leonine dogs. Whereas before I had pooh-poohed the idea of paying 1,500 NOK to interact with the wolves, now I began to think it might have been worthwhile after all.

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We stood there taking photo after photo of them through the diamonds of the chain link fence, until we had enough shots, put out cameras away, and simply gazed at each with mutual unabashed interest. Then one of them howled, as if to communicate with the wolves higher up the hill that were out of sight in another enclosure. That set off a call and response racket that went on for a few minutes. Maybe they were lamenting their enforced separation from each other. Or maybe they were just exchanging gossip about what they might be having for lunch. It was an eerie racket, mournfully fierce, unbearable to my untutored ears. If I heard such noises while camping in a nylon tent, I would be terrified.

The lynxes were the most reclusive of all the animals of Polar Park. With their tawny coats with black splatters, reminiscent of a leopard, they were very hard to spot. The tips of the tail and the points of the ears are a solid black on adults; on the cubs, the black was a more faint smudge. I primarily know the lynx as model of Mercury car; I really had no idea what they were. They are bigger than domesticated cats, and much smaller than wild cats such as tigers and lions.

Luckily, we were with the Swiss Miss, who saw the mother followed by two cubs. The mother was very wary: as we came in closer to look at her through the fence, she would move to the right. We started walking towards the right as well, following her. Her cubs stayed close to her, and as she ran as if to shake us off, we started jogging too. The mother ran though the tall grass, but followed the inner perimeter of the fence, so we could still track her, pausing intermittently. It made her hard to see (and photograph). It was curious: if she didn’t want us to see her, she could have run inwards towards the center of the enclosure and be completely out of our sight. But she was always within several feet of us. Was it a form of practice, a game for her of cat and mouse? Her cubs, with the naiveté of youth, paused to check us out with unabashed curiosity.

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Lynx cub

Having seen the highlights, Uncle Harry headed back to the car to rest and eat his sandwich, since he was tired. The rest of us, continued on to look at the red deer and the musk ox. The red deer stag reminded me of my high school classmate Kevin, with its wide set eyes perched high on an inward looking face.

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Red deer stag

The musk ox is the most cartoonish looking of bovines(?). With a short bow of a horn over its eyes, the tips taper into a flip up curl on either side of its face, giving it the look of a Tory judge on a bad-wig day. One of them entertained us by getting up and using a stump still rooted in the ground to scratch the inner ‘armpit’ of his front left leg and then backing up to scratch his rear. The stump had been carefully sawn off to the right height. The musk ox wore a shaggy coat of long fibres, like a bison. His front hump was taller and more pronounced than his hindquarters.

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Musk ox

“There will be a special feeding today at the lynx enclosure at 1:30 PM,” the ticket seller had told us. It turned out that it had been arranged for a large group of tourists . . . from our very own ship. Even though we had already seen the lynx and her cubs, we thought it would be fun to see them again while feeding. So we tagged along with the group, but stood at the far end. The zookeeper had a bucket of food in her hand, and she stood by the door to the enclosure, calling “Josefa . . . Josefa!” a few times. But the mother lynx didn’t come out, and neither did her cubs.

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 . . . waiting in vain . . .

The three of us smiled lightly at each other. We all felt lucky and smug that we had gotten to see Josefa and her cubs, even without feeding, and that our visit to Polar Park was a bargain, compared to what the tourists in the group paid. “The only benefit of going with the ship’s excursion is that you won’t get lost driving yourself!” we joked amongst ourselves.

We headed back to the visitor’s center and the car. Uncle Harry would probably be worried that we would be late in getting back, and missing the ship, but we figured if we left BEFORE the ship’s tour group, we should be able to get back to Narvik in time. Uncle Harry had tried fiddling some more with the reverse gear, but the problem remained.

On our way through Narvik, I had spotted a gas station and pulled in to fill up the tank. “Let me pay for the gas,” said Uncle Harry.

“No way,” I said. I ran off into store/kiosk to pay. “I’m at Pump 4,” I said. “Do I give you my credit card now or later.”

“Someone is already paying,” the clerk nodded towards the window. Uncle Harry had spotted the ‘pay at pump’ option, and had whipped out his credit card to pay, while I had wasted precious seconds going inside.

“Garghh!!!!!!!!”

“You’re not supposed pay,” I scolded him, as I started up the car. “Please let me pay.”

“No, you already paid for the car rental. That is only fair.” Uncle Harry retorted.

“Well, you paid for the zoo tickets as well. So you better not buy any more wine for dinners!” I glared.

“Then what am I supposed to drink? Gasoline?”

All four of us burst into laughter simultaneously in the little blue Subaru.

FAST FORWARD to one week later. I was a tautly strung up bundle of nerves driving to pick up Dad from Inverness airport because:

  • I had gotten lost trying to find the Inverness Railway Station car rental office – which turned out to be in a kiosk in the shopping mall across the street
  • I was driving a beast called the Nissan Qashqai (Qinghai? Qaddafi? Is it a Chinese or Libyan name?) that was much larger than what I normally drive at home. (This was on behalf of Dad. Apparently he prefers to ride in bigger cars now. When he last came to visit us in the States, he made me rent an SUV to drive him around.)
  • I had not driven on the left hand side, on narrow roads, liberally peppered with roundabouts since five years ago. I was rusty.
  • I didn’t know if my Dad would actually arrive at the airport on the flight. If he missed his connecting flight to Inverness from Manchester, he would have to figure out how to contact us (he had no smart phone) and how to get to Inverness, since the next direct flight would be the following day. He is not quick on his feet, literally or metaphorically.
  • We were late – if the flight had arrived on time. We were critically late – if Dad had indeed arrived on the flight – we might have missed him. If Dad didn’t see us at Arrivals, he would conclude we weren’t coming to pick him and simply catch a cab to the hotel on his own.

I found an empty parking space in the airport short-term parking lot, but misgauged the turning radius. I shifted to reverse to back up. The ‘R’ was to the left of the 1st and 2nd gear.

Once again, the reverse gear did not engage. I was stuck, blocking the lane.

“Let me see,” Joe tried to shift it to reverse, but he couldn’t figure it out either.

When it rains, it pours: everything had been going wrong today, and now this? How was it even blinking possible, that two rental cars in a row couldn’t go in reverse?? Argh!!

I spotted a man walking in the parking lot with a roll-on bag, and rolled down the window.

“Excuse me,” I hollered with the most sheepish of smiles. “We’re American tourists. We can’t get our reverse gear to engage. Can you help us?”

He came over. “Usually you have to press a button or knob or pull it up,” he said fiddling with it. He pulled the waist of the skirt around the gear stick up the shaft. The reverse gear clicked into place. “There you go!” Aha, maybe that’s what I was supposed to have done in the Norwegian rental car as well.

And fortunately Dad was waiting in the arrival lounge. “When I didn’t see you, I thought maybe you had missed your flight to Inverness and weren’t in town yet!”

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Can you name the six languages on this sign?

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