Inside Norway: A Photographer’s Journey
By Josh Smith
Avid travelers ‘acquire’ new destinations the way others buy pieces of art (or Precious Moments figurines). Some talk of their journeys in a way that rivals the tales of old fishermen. But by listening intently you’ll note an exuberant joy from their travels that exceeds the simple pride of a partially filled map of U.S. states on the back of a Winnebago or their braggadocios Facebook plug-in.
I’ve heard it said that travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer. And, as Creative VP for Inspiration Cruises & Tours, I have a few opportunities each year to put this maxim to the test. One such occasion happened when my wife and I accompanied Chuck Swindoll and Insight for Living Ministries as coordinators on their cruise to Norway. Despite our days being mostly filled with managing logistics and schedules for the large group, we still found a number of niche moments to experience the phenomena of Norway—a place I never expected to visit.
Among the dozens of photographs we have, I most love the few that vignette the small, unplanned experiences sandwiched between major events and destinations. So much more than train and plane schedules, travel is about connection—the park bench where we sat for 30 minutes one afternoon and the unforgettable Daim Bar ice cream we shared on our way back to the dock and the spectacular Flam train ride through some of Norway’s wildest and most magnificent mountains. The photos bring these moments back to life, and, over time, become the touchstones for this grandiose trip to a place over 5,000 miles away.
Talk with any traveler and their stories will fall into one of three general categories: places of note, palatable memories or persons of interest. For me, it’s the people I meet who make for the most lasting memories.
On my desk at home is a business card from the banker my wife and I met during a day in Kristiansand. While running errands we needed to stop to withdraw cash and the teller we spoke with surprised us by walking around his desk to warmly shake our hands and engage with us more personably. (One gets used to being asked questions by a bank, but they rarely involve ones about your hopes and dreams!)
I had been surprised before by the hospitality of people in other countries. Their value for time with family and friends is revealed in how they prioritize together moments. This gentleman banker wanted us to come home to meet his family and share dinner together. Regrettably, we had to decline, but I won’t soon forget the simple gesture of welcome offered to strangers. In Ireland my wife and I had a similar experience with a local coast guard who invited us into his loft for tea and an hour’s conversation, after which he offhandedly commented, “Well, you’d do the same if I was in your hometown…” But, would I? Having been shown such graciousness time and again I’m mindful to treat the foreign travelers I encounter here at home in a similar way. Of course, I’ve never yet invited one of them home for refreshments (or ruined them with Starbucks). Yet.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”
– Saint Augustine
Pining for the Fjords
Norway is legendary for its raw beauty. Captured in major motion picture franchises from Star Wars to James Bond, it’s a magical land with seemingly no bad views. Having cruised the comparable scenery of Alaska several times, I was still unprepared for the breathtaking personality and monolithic splendor of Norway’s fjords.
You hear about Pulpit Rock long before you get to the Geiranger Fjord. While no secret, it’s the whispered treasure of that place, and the boat ride to see it is as exhilarating as the moment it comes into view. The narrow waterways that wind between high cliffs hide a thousand glimpses of granite walls robed in forested green and curtained with gushing waterfalls. Silenced in amazement, my mouth literally opened up as my eyes raised to take in the mountains crowned in silent clouds. It was majestic, and the reminder my God made that gave me chills. The view from atop the world-famous Pulpit Rock? You’ll want to sit down for that one.
The Little Things
After the grandeur of Geiranger Fjord, I’d like to say everything else pales, but that’s not true. My single favorite photo from our trip captures a wooden seat—my chair—next to an open window that framed an orchid and a stunning view of Oslo in the distance. I’m not a foodie, but I still remember the bisque, salmon, buttery rolls and after-meal coffee of Dyna Lighthouse. It’s one of my top 5 dining experiences…ever. But my enjoyment extended beyond the food.
More than the harbor outside, that window framed an interior moment between the staffs of Insight for Living and Inspiration. The hum of pleasant conversation, laughter and even music (as we sang our prayer) rose to the painted rafters, filling the small single room of the lighthouse with a warmth like the smell of baked bread (which they made while we talked, and it was amazing). The sounds of seagulls squawking after fishing boats and the susurrus of ocean waves lapping against the stone foundation created a rhythm that slowed time in a way I imagine all seafaring people know.
I rarely linger over meals at home, but that lunch took hours—and somehow our capacity for savoring expanded from food to deepening friendships. Our purposeful pause together was rewarded with stories and memories as we chatted, laughed and discussed things trivial and important. Did I mention we laughed?
Works of Devotion
Some of my most precious “away” moments include reconnecting with my faith in new places. Megalithic cathedrals and unassuming chapels all over the globe house fond memories for me as I often like to sit and drink in their unique atmospheres. Sunlight falling through clerestory windows is one of my favorite things to chase, and the act quiets my heart and helps me hear God’s still small voice. Usually, these structures are large and stone, more imposing than heartwarming. Norway is home to some beautiful and unique Christian stave churches, and I immediately fell in love with the cultural personality of the houses of faith there.
None of the wooden exteriors, as detailed and intricate as they were, rivaled the interior of the Kristiansand Cathedral. While housed in stone, the foyer and chapel were perfectly constructed by the loving attention of craftsmen, honed from centuries of fitting boats together. It was like discovering a master woodworker’s private worship space. I felt the devotion to detail necessary to keep one afloat on rough seas—easily translated into a warm space where centuries of Norwegian Christians committed their faith and lives to Jesus. The chapel was a jigsaw of perfectly carved and fitted wood. I enjoyed imagining the heart and effort that lovingly crafted that space, and my awe and affinity grew as I connected with it.
“I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”
– Mary Anne Radmacher
A Pilgrim’s Progress
Coming back new isn’t a new concept. Shakespeare often wrote significant transformation into his characters through the process of journeying to faraway places. We all travel for different reasons. And whether the need to do so is for conquering, connection or curiosity, you’ll discover that new places are stages upon which the characters and conversations of life play out in unexpectedly beautiful ways.
My photographs bookmark those stories chronicling my own transformation—the precious moments (in wooden frames, not figurines) of my personal journey. These beautiful vignettes need to be spoken for our testimony to do its work in another person. And if we don’t share our stories, their intensity ultimately dulls and grows soot-covered with time and busyness. Or, they can bloom from regular watering as we recount their vividness—like an orchid in the windowsill of Oslo harbor.
Just as the allegorical Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress does, the testimonies of returning sojourners are meant to inspire listeners to learn for themselves this truth: that the gold of good travel is mined in the small veins of real precious moments, shared with beloved family and friends. I could ask what you most desire to learn next, or I could simply ask, “Where do you want to travel?”