The most admired kid on the block
If you think of countries as teenagers attending the school of life, Norway would be the most envied kid on the block. An obedient role-model that every mom could only aspire to raise, secretly sighing to herself - if only her kid was more like that! Someone who would never brag about the glowing grades - #2 in Prosperity, #3 in Governance, #5 in Education & Environment, #6 in Safety, Security and Social Capital - yet effortlessly inspired the rest of the class to buck up and do better in life. A nonchalant kid who somehow has it all - good looks, good education, a kind heart, a progressive mind and yet chooses not to be a dick about it. Norway - you are truly special!
Before we get into the million things that fascinate me about Norway, lets get ‘How beautiful is Norway?’ question out of the way. Norway's long jagged coastline, deep fjords, towering mountains, countless skerries, picture perfect valleys together form a unique topographical maze. Most of Norway was covered in a thick ice sheet during the last ice age. The glaciers gradually retreated carving out deep U-shaped valleys which were eventually filled up by the melting ice and gushing sea water creating Norway’s signature fjords. A fjord cruise passing through the narrow inlets of water surrounded by steep hills and cascading waterfalls is a must do activity in Norway. Since the western and northern coastline is cut into blocks of land, a road-trip along the coast is a unique journey as it entails driving through numerous tunnels cutting through mountains, passing over roller coaster bridges, boarding car-ferries to sail over the choppy Atlantic and hopping from one floating piece of land to another. We started our trip in Oslo and ended it in the remote Lofoten islands - saving the best for the last. Lofoten islands are so dreamy it’s as if time has stood still to keep its sheer wilderness intact. Surf-swept beaches, snow clad mountains and lush meadows of grass in every shade of green and gold shining under incredible nature light - capturing all of this in a single frame is a surreal feeling. A typical stay in Lofoten involves waking up in a traditional rorbuer which are renovated fisherman cabins set amid towering peaks, eating the fresh catch of the day and watching the squawking seabirds as the sun goes down leaving you with a lingering thought of how simple life could be if we only let it be.
Norwegians and turbans!
When it comes to first impression, Norway presented us with an interesting one. We had just arrived in Oslo and kicked-of our trip with a casual stroll exploring the city center area. Suddenly we saw lots of people queuing up to enter an area with food stalls and ethnic decor. As we walked closer, we could see local Norwegians - kids, parents, guys and gals everyone sporting bright colourful turbans - it was an unusual sight to say the least especially because they seem to carry it off with such ease. Turns out that we had landed on Norway’s annual Turban Day - an event organized by Norway's Sikh community where locals are encouraged to try on the turban and feast on sarso ka saag and makki-di-roti for free.
Given the growing tendency towards polarization in all societies, the Turban Day aims to demystify the turban, eliminate misconceptions and promote solidarity, equality and religious freedom. As such the Sikhs make up a tiny fraction of the population and much of the community came to being as Norway took in thousands of Sikhs refugees who were fleeing the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that were sparked in Punjab after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The curiosity and enthusiasm embodied at this event showed what cultural diversity and inclusiveness actually looks like in action. Norway's progressive attitude towards embracing diversity is not limited to such one-off events but was also recently echoed by the King of Norway in his impassioned speech… Pretty progressive for an 80 year old man!
“Norwegians come from the north of the country, from the middle, from the south and all the other regions….Norwegians are also immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Poland, Sweden, Somalia and Syria... Norwegians are girls who love girls. Boys who love boys. And boys and girls who love each other...Norwegians believe in God, Allah, everything and nothing..In other words, Norway is you. Norway is us”
The Doomsday Vault
Norway is also home to a very special vault. When researching about interesting things in Norway, I came across Svalbard Seed Vault aka the Doomsday vault and it got me reading. Located between mainland Norway and North pole in extreme permafrost conditions far away from civilization is a vault with boxes containing nothing but seeds. The vault is used to store duplicates (backups) of plant and vegetable seed samples collected from around the planet. It holds more than 3000 variety of coconuts, 4500 variety of potatoes, 35000 variety of corn, 200000 variety of rice, 125000 variety of wheat and more. In the event of some unforeseen global crisis, the Svalbard vault ensures we will have the seeds of life to begin again. The primary purpose though is to safeguard as much of the world’s unique crop genetic material as possible so that it is accessible for future generation in light of changing climatic conditions. Crop diversity is not a topic that most of us ever consciously think about even though most of us have experienced staring at four or five varieties of potatoes at the grocery store, deciding which one to pick. Many plants that were grown centuries ago are grown less frequently today as most farmers have adopted industrialized agriculture methods which focuses more on yield i.e. growing the same variety of crop in bulk over growing different varieties of the same crop.
Over time, this large-scale mono-culture crop production, leads to decline in biodiversity and increases vulnerability of crops to climate change, pests and diseases. For example the widely exported bananas we consume today are mere clones lacking any genetic diversity. This means that if even a single type of fungus is able to break its natural immune system, it could destroy all bananas putting the entire banana crop species on path to extinction! It seems this is already underway as 10000 hectares of bananas were reported to be destroyed last year. The loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur and seed banks offer a way to preserve the historical and cultural value of crop varieties. If you now find yourself staring at that banana which has been sitting on your counter top for days, go ahead - savor it.
We often hear about how everyone is super happy in Nordic countries. They keep their streets clean, recycle plastic, enjoy high starting wages, pay high taxes without cribbing and in turn benefit from free universal healthcare, public education, unemployment benefits and generous paternal/ maternal leaves. Norway is governed by a 50% women cabinet and has a female prime minister - who was once seen playing Pokemon Go in parliament - never doubt a woman’s multi-tasking skills! The gap between rich and poor is definitely smaller which is again tied to the Norwegian tax system which is purposely designed to create a more equal society whereby the poor pay less and rich pay more in taxes. Norway’s success in creating this egalitarian welfare system is mainly attributed to the fact that Norway is richer than most European countries and with a population of only 5 million, it has relatively less people to share its enormous wealth with.
But how did Norway get rich in the first place? Norway’s discovery of huge reserves of oil in 1969 under the North Sea was like winning a lottery ticket. Norway switched gears from being a predominantly agriculture, shipping and fishing based economy to a major oil-exporting country in Europe. With the sudden influx of moolah, Norway’s government did what most countries would do - increase public spending and splurge a little. The revenue from oil profits flooded the local economy, wages went up and so did the standard of living. On the flip side traditional factories lost their top talent to the oil industry and exports from non-energy sectors began to decline. It is at this junction that Norway set itself apart from other oil-rich nations. Recognizing the limited nature of petroleum resources it wanted to ensure that oil revenues benefit Norwegian society as a whole and not just current Norwegians but future generations as well. Instead of spending ridiculous crones on military or building obscene skyscrapers to show-off its financial strength to the world, the Norwegian government decided to set up a sophisticated savings/ investment account sorts for the benefit of future generations of Norwegians. The oil-revenues were directed to this state owned wealth fund to invest across real-estate, stocks and bonds globally significantly limiting government spending back home. Today Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is worth over 800 billion dollars and has investments in over 9000 companies across 78 countries giving it the financial backing that most of Europe lacks.
Treat people like dirt, and they will be dirt. Treat them like human beings, and they will act like human beings
Personally one of the things I admire most about Norway is that it values life of every individual.
It has managed to not become desensitized to human suffering like most countries have. Nothing demonstrates this better than how Norway treats its prisoners. Halden is a maximum-security prison, home to Norway’s most serious offenders. It is surrounded by a conventional high wall but inside is a self-sustaining village in guise of a prison. All inmates have to work and participate in various labour training programmes offered by the prison. When it’s time to take a break, an inmate can head to the shared living room, eat food on a dining table, watch TV, read books or newspapers. Nothing interesting to watch on TV - no problem, the inmate can head to a recording studio, or play video games or try rock-climbing all while being inside the prison. Each cell has a bed, flat-screen television, desk, mini-fridge, toilet with shower, and unbarred windows - definitely nicer than most US college dorms.
Instead of industrializing its prison system, Norway has adopted a restorative criminal justice system which focuses primarily on rehabilitation. Taking away an individual's freedom is seen punishment enough, hence the prisons are not designed to seek revenge or inflict suffering. Maximum sentence is capped at 21 years with few exceptions, there is no death penalty and long-term solitary confinement is outlawed. By offering an ordinary life and job training programs inside the prison, it aims to train inmates to start a new life, encourage employment, discourage crime, influence behavioral change and prepare them to reintegrate with society at the end of their sentence. This model seems to be working in Norway given that when criminals in Norway leave prison, they tend to stay out. On the topic of guns, Norwegians love their guns but it's uncommon to see guns outside organized settings like gun clubs or during hunting season. The police don't carry guns during routine patrols and while access to public is not banned, it is highly regulated - You cannot just walk into a store to buy a gun unless you have a written permission from the local police to own one. Not surprisingly the gun crime rate is relatively low.
Norway’s ability to approach common problems with a different perspective is fascinating. Their model might not work like for like in other countries but is definitely worth studying for pointers.
Brokering peace around the world
In addition to keeping its own house in order, Norway also plays big brother to other countries. Being a small rich country with no colonial past or desire to rule the world or conquer territories, Norway has developed favourable diplomatic relationships with most other countries and often assumes the role of a neutral third-party mediator between conflicting nations. It has been successful in bringing conflicting parties to the table for dialogue and helps facilitate negotiation meetings without publicizing it or siding with either party. Norway brokered the first face to face peace talks (Oslo Accords) between Israel-Palestine in 1993, helped end the complex and bloody civil wars in Mali and Guatemala as well as played a key role in reconciling differences between the government and rebels in Philippines and Columbia respectively. Norway is also big on charity and funds NGO’s in over 100 countries - it is also the largest contributor towards humanitarian aid in war-torn Syria.
Norway’s genuine care for human rights and willingness to invest both time and money in promoting international solidarity is admirable. Given the recent political affairs and that the world is slightly losing it, looks like Norway’s peace services will be extremely handy in the coming years.
Norway is without a doubt one of the most beautiful countries in the world. From it’s humane prison system to the incredible scenery formed by the fjords cutting deep into its western and northern coastline - the more we explored Norway, the more our fascination grew for this timeless beauty.
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