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November 15, 2015

A story on Sweden that inspires and demonstrates the vicissitudes of life

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Unlike the cold-hearted sailors and fearless warriors of medieval Scandinavia portrayed in History channel series ‘Vikings’, Scandinavia today hasn’t seen a war for over 200 years.

My first encounters with the north men began when I started a post-graduate programme years ago in Umea, a university town at a stone’s throw distance from Arctic Circle. Since then it has held a special place in my memories for being one of its kind among all the places I have been. Windstorms, gales and snow-clad barren landscape look bleak -- but there is more than meets the eye.

Marked with ravaging wars, disease, poverty and unfavourable environment, the living conditions in this area were miserable, as depicted in the sagas and poetry of the Norse literature. In 18th and 19th centuries, American exploration had reached its climax, enough to lure the religiously-oppressed but hardworking farmers of Sweden to move to the Great Plains for a new life. The American dream was sold by agents in Sweden, a dream that ensured farming lands, churches of their own, peace and prosperity. Everything they lacked in Scandinavia.

Vilhelm Moberg’s classic Swedish novel Utvandrarna (The Emigrants) that pictures a heart-shattering tale of a family moving from Sweden to the US is now considered to be one of the best works in Swedish literature.

Not all was bad though. They just needed to pull together and find a way to get lemonade out of the lemons. They finally managed to do just that. A concept now spoken of and extensively written about was in its inception as the emigrants sailed across to the US. In 1928, Per Albin, two-time Prime Minister of Social Democrats in Sweden came up with the theory that became the binding force for the whole nation. He coined the term Folkhemmet, the home for people where everyone has the right to universal education, healthcare and unemployment benefits. It literally took good bits of Socialism, Marxism and Democracy and endeavoured to make a society where people paid according to their means and received according to their needs.

Less than 100 years later, today Sweden tops the charts in education, healthcare, life expectancy and science. It has a per capita income among the richest in the world and excels in technology and healthcare research. Folkhemmet has succeeded.

This all brings us the travellers and adventure junkies to a law that helps us to explore the dazzling taiga and tundra of Sweden. It’s called Allemansrätten (everyone’s right). This means that as long as you keep the forest clean and remove traces after you have camped, you can camp anywhere in Sweden. Privileges come with responsibilities; that means be courteous and ask if you feel there are other people around you. This makes Sweden heaven for the wildlife exploration and adventure camping.

With forest lakes and huts, it has become one of the top spot for trekking and fishing.

Getting to Sweden should be least of the problems. Most people take a flight to Stockholm which sounds quite banal for a trip. Some of the ways to get into Sweden, depending on your location, make it more colourful.

If you happen to be in Finland or Baltic countries there are cruise ships that start off from all capitals Helsinki, Riga and Tallinn. It takes a wonderful overnight ride through the Baltic Sea to Stockholm. A multi-storeyed Titanic-like ship is a world of its own with tax-free items you can purchase and a wonderful deck to just look into the vast emptiness of the sea. You can also visit Mariehamn, a Swedish Island which belongs to Finland but where everyone speaks Swedish!

Now getting into a cruise ship without a ticket can be tricky. It has been done and luckily it’s not that hard. Students are quite leniently treated in Scandinavia. In off-seasons tickets are sold for literally nothing. Cruise ships make money from the things sold on the deck. Keep your food with you and enjoy the free ride. You can also get these cruise ships literally from all countries with a sea route to Sweden -- Norway, Russia, Germany, Poland, Denmark, and Belgium.

Another way is train. Trains (SJ) can be generally expensive in Scandinavia but there is always a way to go around things. If you are a student, there is a special discount on SJ tickets. Swedes are keen on saving money and cutting corners, which shouldn’t be surprising given their geography and high taxes. This means they like to sell out things they don’t need. is a website which is an ebay equivalent. You can find last minute tickets which can be found between 48 hours to 6 hours before departure. If you are internet savvy, you’ll crack it. A side tip -- in Europe, don’t underestimate the value of ebay and second hand shops. For cheap airlines try Ryanair and look no further.

Hitchhiking, the ultimate way of travelling for the young, can be quite tricky. Swedes are extremely introverted and suspicious of strangers in general. Most famous and sold books in Sweden are criminal novels.

So, you have to be quite experienced in order to hitch your way into Sweden. You have to plan.

Get to know your gas stations. Rasta is the website for Swedish gas stations also known as Rastplatser. You have to start early in the day and always keep a map of the country with you. You can pick one up from these gas stations. In emergency situations, note down the 24 hour stations on your way. Luckily there are only a handful of highways in Sweden and you have a better chance of getting a ride if you follow the general rules and start early. No one likes to pick a shabby looking hitchhiker. Always dress bright and clean, hold a placard with the name of your destination written clearly. Keep it visible so that people know what you are up to from a distance and have enough time to pullover. Learn some Swedish words and phrases to help you explain even though practically the whole Sweden speaks English.

One of the most important things in Sweden is to understand weather. It can be very unpredictable. Always dress in layers and keep warm clothes even in summer. It can change in matter of minutes and can be lethal. People have died outdoors in Sweden because of hypothermia. Make sure you have arranged your accommodation especially in winters and double check if you have planned a couchsurfing stay. US army survival guide states that cold weather not only is physically damaging, it wreaks havoc on how you think. It deteriorates your will to survive. Always, always check the forecast. In Sweden everyone does that.

If you are in a survival situation feel free to ask for help from people around you. Do not try to be adventurous unless you know what you are doing. Europe in general is not a hospitable place. You are on your own and people leave others to their best judgement unless it’s obvious you are going to perish without their help.

A smartphone can literally save your life in Europe. With information economy things have become a lot easy to manage on phone. For example, if you have an iPhone you can install the apps for SJ, the Swedish train service, SL the Stockholm underground metro, Couchsurfing, Rasta the gas station app, Ryanair app and practically everything you need to plan your journey. Weather apps and compasses are of utmost importance. Tradera makes it possible to buy and sell in Sweden. Always keep soft copies of your documents on your smartphone. You can use GPS to find addresses which is almost always something you’ll have to find.

In Sweden food shops, restaurants and stores close quite early. We are quite relaxed in terms of all-nighter shopping sprees and late night going out in Pakistan. Shops generally close around 8pm. You have to plan your times and stock things you need. Weekends are closed but there is always a supermarket quite far which isn’t quite convenient. Cold weather burns your calories faster than anything and requires one to eat loads.

Make sure you have lots of dried fruits, raisins and fatty foods to make up for it. Much of the Swedish traditional food is not available in halal meat but you can try cinnamon buns called Kanelbullar, a traditional smelly fish called Surströmming and Köttbullar which is some version of our Kofta if available in halal meat.

I have least to recommend when it comes to places. People have different interests and inclinations and it’s hard to recommend for all. One of my hard finding was a Swedish Muslim Sufi from the 17th century called Ivan Agueli or Abd al-Hadi Aqili. A painter, Sufi, and disciple of famous Rene Guenon whose paintings can be found in National Museum of Fine Arts in Sala, quite close to Stockholm. A very ambitious young man who had to pay the price for his belief; he travelled to places far away as Sri Lanka and Egypt before a tragic death in Barcelona.

If you are more of the mundane type, Stockholm’s old town and the archipelago overall is a feast. With lots of Unesco heritage sites all around in Sweden it’s a place to explore. An active hotel totally made of ice only in winters is set up in Kiruna each year where people actually live. You can have dog-sledge ride and play with reindeers far north as well as have a deeper look at nomadic Sami tribes of the Arctic Circle. Watching northern lights is something nobody should miss.

Lives of nations and people are short lived and palaces are made on graves and end up in tombs. It’s important to learn the lessons from what you see and what you experience.

Saadi once said, "I was sad because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet."

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