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). Their descriptions can rival the tales of imaginative fishermen, but their stories often describe a joy of discovery that far exceeds the value of things in their lives. You’ll hear they trade in stories for the sake of renewing precious memories.
I’ve heard it said that Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer. As Creative VP for Inspiration Cruises & Tours, I have a few opportunities each year to put this maxim to the test. One enriching occasion happened when my wife and I accompanied Chuck Swindoll and Insight for Living Ministries as coordinators on their cruise to Norway. Despite full days mostly managing logistics and schedules for the large group we still found a number of unforgettable experiences to explore and learn a country I never expected to visit.
Among the dozens of photographs we have, I most love the few that vignette small, unplanned moments sandwiched between major events on our itinerary. So much more than train and plane schedules, travel is about connecting with others—the park bench where my wife and I sat for an afternoon, the unforgettable Daim Bar (ice cream) we shared on our way back to the dock, or the spectacular Flam train ride through Norway’s wild and magnificent mountains. Our photos become touchstones to help us remember key moments and bring them back to life again.
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 withdraw some 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. He was unconcerned with the few people waiting behind us and they, in turn, didn’t seem put out by the delay.
This gentleman banker actually invited us to meet his family and share dinner together. Regrettably, we had to decline, but I won’t soon forget the simple gesture of a stranger’s welcome. I love re-discovering this hospitality of people from other countries. Their value for family and friends is revealed in how they prioritize and spend their time. 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 I’m mindful to treat the foreign travelers I encounter here at home in a similar way.
“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 clouds. It was majestic, and the reminder my God made that gave me pause.
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 combined 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, but Norway is home to some beautiful and unique Christian stave churches cut and carved in wood. I immediately fell in love with the personality of their houses of faith.
None of the church exteriors, as detailed and intricate as they were, rivaled the carved wood interiors of the Kristiansand Cathedral. While housed in stone, the foyer and chapel were perfectly constructed by the loving attention of joiners who honed skills through centuries of fitting boats together. It was like discovering a master woodworker’s private worship space, and I felt a devotion to detail in every nook and corner. The necessary skills to keep one afloat in rough seas were translated into a 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 stories of transformation into characters who journeyed to faraway places. We all travel for different reasons, and whether our need is for conquering, connection or curiosity, the places we visit 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—framing the precious moments 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?”