Growing up, the one thing I knew I would never be was a teacher. Watching my mother grade until one in the morning, volunteer evenings for endless nonsense celebrating mediocrity and take phone calls in the middle of the night when a student was killed in a car accident was not my idea of a blooming career. After working in Malawi and returning home penniless, however, I substituted at my mother’s school system to get my life back in order and before I could stop it, I was blindsided by a teaching certificate and now I’m on my 15th teaching year. One of my biggest motivators for going into education was to bring students abroad- I can’t describe what it’s like watching a student experience a new part of the world for the first time. It’s pure magic and a reminder of the wonders of travelling. After leading four trips from the States to Costa Rica, an adventure with students in Sumatra and a journey to Lombok, I feel like I have my chaperone feet well in the sand. Taking privileged, Western students from a modern country to the developing world is a no-brainer, but where do you bring kids when you live in Nigeria?
How about… Norway? Although a rather random European country as a destination, this seventh grade trip evolved in 2015, and I wanted to lead something with ground plans before I changed gears- I already had designs for resurrecting my Costa Rica trip next year- a program I have well established. The Norway trip was a monumental event, a school year in the making: 57 students representing dozens of different nationalities (i.e. dozens of different passports), 20 of which required visas in advance (a full day field trip in itself), prior travel permission from immigration and the Nigerian National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking Persons, and endless emails and meetings with anxious parents. I went through reams of paper, hours of data entry and days of documentation. By the time the day of departure was approaching, I hated everything Norwegian and I couldn’t wait for the trip to be over. The other leader of the trip, Acacia, had taken care of the itinerary, and I couldn’t even be bothered to find out what we would be doing each day (not that that’s happened before).
On the Friday we were to depart, the students were unbearable with excitement. Over sixty pieces of luggage delivered to the school were homeless, so my classroom became a suitcase orphanage. We had a last brief meeting in the gym, then boarded buses with parents waving goodbye at the school front gate and armed security vehicles flanking our caravan to the airport. Our entourage included the grade 5’s going to Space Camp in Alabama, so the Lagos airport, already turbulent, suddenly swarmed with over 100 zany middle schoolers as if someone had just kicked the anthill. My carry-on carried on only pounds of immigration paperwork, student travel documents and gum. Fortunately, we navigated through to our terminal with minimal incident, but if only I could have gotten a picture of the stewardess’ faces when they walked past our students to board the plane. Sheer terror. We flew first to Amsterdam, shopped with adoring eyes in beautiful Schiphol, then flew in two waves to the Norwegian city of Bergen, whose small airport was immaculate and incredibly efficient. We were greeted by our bus driver and as we moved through the breathtaking Hardanger district, all the ridiculous paperwork became insignificant. We travelled over fjords, into tunnels and through snow squalls to our destination, Hardangertun in Kinsvarik.
When Adrian and I first heard we would be all staying in cabins (of course he’s chaperoning the trip, too, along with Darlene), we thought we would be roughing it a bit, but the housing was in fact a modern tribute to Ikea. With clean lines, minimalist and bright furniture, and efficient kitchen appliances, it was a Scandinavian poster child for accommodation. The camp gave every cabin food supplies, and the students were responsible for making their own breakfast, packing their own lunch and keeping their cabins tidy. It was immersion into responsibility and self-reliance, which our spoiled, nanny-dependent seventh graders desperately needed. And no electronics were allowed on the trip- they were required to experience Norway, not Instagram it. The cabins were set along a fjord below towering, snow capped mountains, a stunning backdrop for our stay in the Norwegian countryside.
The week was packed with activity, getting the most of our short time and keeping the kids worn out (tired kids are quick to sleep). Our first day was a trek up one of the nearby mountains, and it was an arduous hike for many of our more sedentary students. The destination was worth it, however, because at the top was chicken soup and hot tea over camping stoves, lunch and a seventh grade-wide snowball fight. The amount of shoe tying, backpack adjusting, and hand holding kept me multitasking through the hike, and I had to pull some snow out from my back after the snowball fight, too. Our next day was a round robin ensemble of canoeing (windy and cold bumper boats), rock-climbing (terrifying for some of the kids, but they all did it), zip-lining (a favorite), and orienteering (we may have students still lost in the Norwegian woods). It was a good day of conquering fears, cheering on your team, and time spent in the great outdoors.
99% of Norway’s power production is hydroelectric, so a brief tour of the country’s second largest power plant was a must, followed by a quick run through the local nature center the next morning. That afternoon was a snowshoeing hike, where students braved their coldest day yet (14º F; to be fair, deathly for our 93º F/day Nigerian kids), donned their snow gear and walked through the stark landscape over snow feet deep. Pork sausage soup (and an emergency few bowls of carrot soup for the Jewish and Muslim kids) with homemade bread in front of the fire at a nearby chalet made for a comfortable recovery.
Then a day to appreciate breathtaking Norway. Our early scenic two hour excursion by bus brought us to a ferry dock for a tour of Nærøyfjorden, one of the most magnificent of Norway’s fjords. The ferry ride boasted views of Norway’s finest mountains, cliffs, and small hamlets nestled in the cusps of valleys. Waterfalls made from the melting snow poured into the cold fjord waters and porpoises played tag and showed off in the waves close to the boat. This brought us to the small town of Flåm, where we took a tour of the Railway museum, offering exhibits of Norway’s historic rail system. We then boarded the famous Flåm/Myrdal Railway, sending us up Hardangervidda for majestic views of the mountains and the fjord below.
It was soon time to return to Bergen for our final day, and the students were reluctant to pack their things and part from their cabins and the staff at Hardangertun. We all especially lamented the loss of our dining hall and resident chef Krisztian (from Hungary, thus a natural in the kitchen). Each evening after an unbelievable dinner buffet, the kids, warm and stuffed, headed out to play soccer, as we chaperones would adjourn to another table where we were served coffee and a special “dessert du jour”. A lifestyle I could get used to if there were reinforced seats to hold up my growing ass. I’m not one to take flowery dessert photos, but I thought my Hungarian grandmother would appreciate these.
Bergen is a succinct, clean European city wrapped by fjord waters. Although it is said to have been established in the 1020’s, 90% of the city burned to the ground in 1702, so much of the architecture reflects that reconstruction period. After a tour of the city, which included the leprosy museum (grim, so a hit with the kids) and school museum (not as much of a hit), we had a chance to wander around a bit and tour some of the sites. More importantly, the chaperones and the students were able to restock on some of the developed world supplies scarce in Lagos.
My plans to bring students to Costa Rica next year were scratched. Norway, even with its sprinkling of Scandinavian weirdness (you all know what I’m referring to) was an ideal destination for my dystopian-weary and cold weather-hungry students. Welcoming people, magnificent landscapes and an efficient culture make for a perfect getaway. Rest assured, you will see another post on Norway about this time next year.
Additional photo credits to Adrian Horton, Darlene Heilman, Douglas von Hollen, Lori Halvorson, Acacia Croft and Grade 7 student Ellie Pearson