My trip to Svalbard starting very early. As if typical for me, I opted to stay up packing, cleaning, and organizing before I left for the airport. The taxi arrived at 3:45 am and we went on to pick up two friends who were also going on the trip before heading to the airport.
Our flight left Austin at 6 am which put us in Newark around mid morning. We had an 8-hour layover, so most of the group (about 20) decided to head into Manhattan to pass the time instead of being cooped up in the airport.
The train ride to Penn Station really took me back to my Philly days, train conductor and all. I had been a LONG time since I was in NYC, much less near the touristy bits like Times Square. The place was buzzing with late-summer tourists. The group I was with opted for lunch at a nearby pub we stumbled upon followed by a trip to the World Trade Center Memorial.
The Memorial is still under construction, but it’s nearing completion. It was a dreary day, unlike September 11, 2001, but it seemed fitting for the solemnity of the site. The sky was white with clouds so the mirrored skyscrapers nearby seemed like ghosts.
The memorial itself consists of two large reflecting pools, each placed where the towers once stood. The wall surrounded each pool is engraved with the names of victims from those buildings. There is also a museum on the site, though we didn’t get a chance to stop in there.
We had only a short time at the Memorial before it was time to head back to the airport. We had to get there plenty early to get our carry-on bags out of storage and get to the gate for our flight to Oslo. We opted for the subway in the way back to Penn Station and it again took me back to my East Coast days.
We got back to the airport with a few minutes to spare, so I was able to talk to Brian on the phone before I headed off to the land of no cell phone service for a week. Then we all boarded the plane for the 8-hour journey to Norway.
I had an aisle seat, so the trip wasn’t too bad. The food was pretty good as airlines go and there was a lot of it; I was still too full from snacking on dinner to eat breakfast. Finally, we arrived in Oslo. We had a quick turnaround for our flight to Tromso, Norway. After waiting in line for customs, many of us arrived at the gate as our flight was boarding.
It was a few hours to Tromso where we all had to de-plane to get our passports stamped again because we were technically leaving Norway when we went to Svalbard. The plane was delayed as 100 people tried to get through the customs line; I think they’re more used to processing EU passports which go faster in this case.
After more than an hour, all of us had re-boarded our plane and were officially heading to Longyearbyen, Svalbard.
We arrived in Svalbard around mid-afternoon. It took some time for everyone to collect their luggage and then we boarded two buses that took us to the ship. We dropped off our bags on the ship and then had about an hour to go explore town. It was about a 10-minute walk to the “downtown” and most of us walked over despite the rain. Some stocked up on candy and snacks at the grocery store, while others dropped into the tourist ships, and still others made sure to get their last beer before we alcohol-free week on the boat.
Snowmobile parking lots were everywhere and there was some interesting art around, including the metal polar bear above. I got some postcards from the grocery store and walked around town before heading back to the ship.
We were back on the boat and the gang-plank was pulled up about 5pm. We quickly learned that the boat was pretty much a hotel; we all cycled through reception to get our room assignments and then were greeted by cozy bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. My roommate was a petroleum engineering student who I had met on the early flight to Newark.
Shortly after, we were asked to gather in the Discovery Lounge where we got sandwiches and a safety briefing. At one point we all had to don our life jackets and follow our evacuation routes to the life boats just in case we would ever have to abandon ship.
There was even a demonstration on how to put on a gumby suit. These are full-body suits, also called immersion or survival suits, designed to keep you warm and dry in cold water. We didn’t try those on, but there were enough on the life boats for each person to have in case of emergency.
The first evening we were introduced to the ship’s staffed and received a lot of information about safety on the shore as well. Around 9pm we got our first assignment, due the next day. Since we hadn’t seen the field site yet and were all tired from a long travel day, most of us opted to head to bed. Breakfast was at 7am the next morning and then our adventure would really begin!