Puzzles

Somewhere out on one of the eighteen islands which make up the Faroese archipelago, Oleg and Aleksandr were probably crouching in their tents, while outside the temperature hovered around 9 degrees Celsius, winds blew at 30 kilometers an hour, and rain contined to fall.  It had rained the entire day in the northeast islands, but there were two facts I contemplated in their favor:  People say it always rains in Klaksvik and they also say weather is extremely localized here, such that it is possible to go through one of the many tunnels and come out to different weather on the other side.  Having witnessed that on Oahu, where it’s almost always raining somewhere on the island,  I had experienced this phenomenon before.  Oleg and Alex had intended to spend the time on the Faroes until the ferry came back from Bergen cycling around the islands, but from my vantage point in Klaksvik, stormy rains had been blowing in from the north all day long, and the general weather forecast for the remainder of our time here promised to be more of the same.  However, it was possible that they had not experienced the same drenching gales as I had on our first day.

We had met while waiting to board the ferry in Hirtshals.  We were the only cyclists without vehicles, and as we began talking, it was clear that we had not only the same general itinerary, but also a similar intent and motivation.  Alex, a computer scientist from Warsaw, had traveled by a combination of train, bus, and cycling to Hirtshals.  Oleg had been working in Magdeburg up until the very night of his departure and had to rush home and pack before he took the train to Flensburg.  He also cycled as far as he could in Denmark and then took the train to Hirtshals.  If you’ve been following along, then you already know my story of how I arrived.  It seemed that each of us had tried to put in as many miles as we could through Denmark, and we also had been looking forward to cycling on the Faroes and in Iceland.  But as I had booked a room in a local home in Klaskvik, Alek and Oleg had simply brought tents, planning to cycle hundreds of kilometers in Iceland.

“Which direction are you headed?” Oleg had asked Alek during our morning comversation on the decks on Sunday.

“I’m taking the southern road to Rekjavik,” Alek had replied.

“Ah, so you’re turning left.  I’m turning right.” Oleg grinned.  Like Alaska, the road system in Iceland is simple.  There is only one major road which goes in a circle around the coastal areas of the island.  Oleg had given himself three weeks and a pace of 70 kilometers a day to complete the loop, and would be returning via ferry to Hirtshals to end a month of traveling before going back to his work as a researcher at a neuroscience institute in Magdeburg.  This was pushing things, since the road itself is 1,332 kilometers long and a pace of only 63 per day would be necessary to finish within the 21 day period.  However, there were two factors which would slow him down.  First, Oleg was a photographer, and would be looking for opportunities for shots along the way.  More importantly, the weather and terrain would have a major impact on his ability to achieve his daily quota. Cycling 5-7 hours a day in variable weather requires careful management of both fuel and rest. But it seemed that Oleg was a man who was accustomed to pushing himself.

Alex had almost two weeks to get himself to Rekjavik, where he planned on flying home to Poland.  Although he had been much more reticent than Oleg, and didn’t exhibit the same easy command of English, it was clear that he also enjoyed the challenge he had posed for himself.  “I’ve noticed that cyclists never look stressed or unhappy,”. He had remarked with a laugh during our conversation.

“Yeah, it’s because they’re too tired,” I had rejoined.

Now, in the early-morning hours on our second day, I am awake at 4:30 and I wonder how they spent their nights, how cold, wet and exhausted they must have been after yesterday’s riding, and wondered where they had taken shelter. The Faroes are naturally treeless, due to the wind, and the glacier that shaped the archipelago left few places where anyone might hide from a storm.

The Faroes and the people who are drawn to them, both to visit and to live, leave me with a handful of puzzles.  Why do people choose to come to these remote outposts?  Why have they forfeited the chance of a more convenient life?  Why do they spend their vacations in these exhausting trials of physical stamina and mental calculation?   Klaskvik may look like a sleepy village to an outsider,  but it is hosts the  most successful fishing industry in the Faroes, and the fisherfolk who live here make their living manuevering the the stormy north Atlantic waters.  Whatever the appearance, this is no ordinary small town and these the residents are no ordinary villagers.

Another part of my conversation with Oleg comes to mind, in which he discussed an experiment he had designed for mice in order to test the effects of mental and physical conditioning on the process of brain deterioration.  We had been discussing the effects of multilingualism and physical exercise as they relate to medical conditions such as Alzheimers.  As his work focuses specifically on memory and learning, he was keen to discuss his ideas.  In his work, he had designed two rooms for the mice:  one with comforts and a familiar environment, in which they could satisfy their physical needs at their leisure, and one in which they had to make their way through a labyrinth every day in order receive water.  The labyrinth changed frequently, perhaps every day, and he would analyze the effects of both situations on their brains, observing how much of their brains remained healthy over time because of the relative degree of stimulation.

So it there an analogy to human experience?  Oleg maintained that the work of figuring things out, of maneuvering through complexity and the newness of ambiguous situations, which in itself is essential to the experience of travel, has a remarkably positive effect on the brain.  He went further and argued that it was possible to awaken those sleeping genes within us which held certain potentialities, and to activate them via the same process.

So as the morning light turns the fog outside my window white and open my window, listening for rain, I wonder how Oleg and Alek fared during the last twenty-four hours, and what stories they will tell upon our reunion Wednesday evening on board the Norrøna.  The rain has stopped, and although the slopes are wreathed in fog, the wind has slowed to a chill breeze.  It’s 5:30 am in the Faroes, a strange and most puzzling place.

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