Iceland: Another Realm
Under a luminous full moon at midnight, my partner and I buy tickets for the shuttle bus from the airport to the Reykjavik central bus station. We pay 33 Euro for the two tickets and receive our change in Icelandic kroners, beautifully decorated paper money, including a 2,000 note with a woman in full frontal nudity. What a way to start our vacation.
We transfer at about 1:30am to a mini-bus that circulates among the hotels and guesthouses. We all lug our suitcases up and settle in. And then comes the special welcome Iceland bestows on us: As the driver starts to pull out, he puts on the breaks and says, “Everyone out. Hurry.” He’s not being rude. There’s no bomb scare. No, he has just spotted the start of the Northern Lights – the first sign of them this year. Between the moon, the aurora borealis and my jetlag, my mind is blown. We all stand outside, heads lolling backwards, speechless. But several of the other passengers long to get to their beds, so we load back into our seats. Luckily, once we settle into our lovely large room inSunna Guesthouse (highly recommended), we are able to continue to watch the Northern Lights from our balcony until 3:00am. My partner tries to photograph them but they are elusive and faint – shimmering briefly in one part of the sky and then surging unexpectedly in another. He describes them as “eerie green sheets of undulating light,” but manages to get one shot in which they are really visible.
Wednesday August 25, 2010
Breakfast is a spread of scrumptious home-baked bread, boiled eggs, magic granola and treats of every kind. We get wind of a free walking tour of Reykjavik and stroll about a mile to a travel shop called My Reykjavik to sign up. Our guide Jonas is an entrepreneurial character who surely makes more in the tips he repeatedly begs for – although tipping is definitely not part of Icelandic culture – than he would have as the guide for any agency. He is an entertaining and opinionated Icelander who lived abroad in Denmark and Canada for 23 years before bringing his family back home in the midst of this vicious economic crisis.
Iceland was a little-known, poor island of colossal, if unrecognized, geological interest until WWII, when the Americans paid Iceland gobs of money for services to their troops, enriching the country’s coffers as never before. “We’re now waiting in hope for WWIII,” Jonas jokes. Shortly after being rated one of the most successful economies in the world, Iceland was hit very hard by the global banking mess. The government had to take over the three major banks and apply to the International Monetary Fund for help. In short, the country went bankrupt. It is now struggling with high unemployment, a demolished housing fabric and increased emigration.
Iceland has a shitload going for it: it has no army and promised in 1985 to remain nuclear-free. Their universal healthcare system (with no private health provision at all) sports proportionately more doctors per person than any other nation. They have the lowest adult death rate for men (Cyprus beats them for women) in the world. The education system is free from age six through university and the pre-schools, from age 18 months, are highly subsidized. Iceland has the world’s most pristine water and energy sources: the steam that escapes from its boiling insides.
And then there’s the fact of their leaders. The (world’s first openly lesbian) prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir was the first person in Iceland to legally marry her same-sex partner. Forty percent of Iceland’s parliament members are women. Perhaps the prominence of women in public life has something to do with the level of security and safety in Iceland. No security measures are taken at City Hall, at Parliament or at the prime minister’s home, although, funny enough, the prime minister’s office building was, historically, a jail. Infants can be safely left in strollers on the sidewalk and young children happily spend the day at the local thermal hot baths without parental supervision.
Did I mention that Reykjavik’s new mayor, Jon Gnarr, is a comedian who promised free towels at the neighborhood swimming baths and bragged that his foreign relations experience included crank calls to the C.I.A.? He famously refused to form a coalition with any party whose members hadn’t seen all five seasons of The Wire. He made headlines when he got up in drag for Gay Pride in August. This isn’t all that newsworthy in Iceland, where Pride is more Mardi Gras than protest and where 90,000 attended the latest Pride, out of a total Icelandic population of 320,000.
But back to our walking tour. I best enjoyed Jonas’ historic story, which I have not fact-checked because I like it too much, about the year 1,000 when Iceland was still Catholic. The bishops went to the Pope to explain how cold and dark it is in winter, and voila! the Pope was persuaded to make an exception and allow these Catholic priests and bishops to have wives and kids as protection against the chill.
There are lots of other cool Iceland fun-facts. Our guide says that a genetic mapping exercise on this particularly homogeneous, small island population indicated that the men are originally from Denmark (the Vikings) and the women from Ireland. Wherever their genes originated, I have the same impression as I had during my first visit nine years ago that the Icelandic women are styling and sizzling.
After the tour, we munch down at the most popular Reykjavik restaurant “Bæjarins Bestu” (translation: Town’s Best) – a shack near the harbor serving lamb hotdogs. We then amble along the shopping street looking for the second-hand stores I had researched online. I notice a store called “Smekkleysa” with the tagline Really Bad Music, and I remember that Jonas had mentioned an intriguing pre-fame album of Bjork singing with a jazz band. Turns out to be the store of the record label that produces Bjork – she’s never left them for a more corporate group – where a platinum vinyl of the album (the album is only available in Iceland) is displayed. The manager of the store is a sweet and modest music geek and once he plays a few cuts for me, I make the purchase.
The buildings in Iceland don’t generally last for centuries because the next volcano or flood may be just a year or a decade away. With little local vegetation, especially trees, Icelanders imported corrugated metal for their roofs, only to decide that it worked so well against their intense rains that they’d use it for siding too. If there is a particular Icelandic architecture, it is probably these houses made of brightly painted corrugated metal. Iceland builds for human survival, not for design.
Our guesthouse sits directly across from the one remarkably striking, uniquely Icelandic building: the Lutheran church of Hallgrímur. Named after a local poet, its concrete sides resemble the flow of lava down a mountainside and its tall spire is visual from almost every point of Reykjavik, a huge convenience when I’m trying to get back “home” to my room. It was started in 1945 and completed in 1986.
The weather, warmed by the Gulf Stream, is consistently mild – about 60 degrees F day and night during our stay. Reykjavik is a small, intimate place and it is easy to return to Sunna Guesthouse to rest and to use the kitchen facilities outside our door to make my tea, using the PG-tips bags and wedges of lemon I carry with me no matter where in the world I am.
Like any island country, Iceland must import a great many things. And with a nation where there are more lava fields than agricultural ones, that becomes a rather expensive endeavor. Perhaps that is why the restaurants in Reykjavik seem high-priced. For dinner we decide to skip the expensive horse or puffin meals I had during my first visit nearly a decade ago, and to dine instead at the intriguingCafé Babalu (free wifi), on Skolavordustigur, one of the main streets. I’ve been eyeing Babalu’s funky exterior and roof garden the day long. A Spanish academic we met at breakfast named Isidora who is on a research grant in Reykjavik for a few weeks comes along.
Turns out that Glenn, Babalu’s owner, is a Jewish gay guy originally from Long Island married to a local. Somehow he guesses that I’m from Pennsylvania, although he has the wrong end of the state. He says he’s one of very few Jews in Iceland. The other six meet monthly – amusingly enough under the name of The Atheists Club – at his café for pinochle. The only other activity constituting the Jewish “community” is a mailing list.
As for the gay scene, Glenn says that it is fine if you are married and in a family, but for those who are single, considering the small size of the population, it is not easy to meet someone or even to find a posse. We have crepes with spinach and cheese and then savor what he advertises, with minimal exaggeration, as “the best cheesecake in the world.”
Before the crash, there was a huge construction boom, built on the importation of foreign workers, in particular from Poland. Now there are many unfinished building sites. But foreigners still work in the tourist services: Babalu’s waitress is a young woman from Germany who tells us that she had never met a Jew before working for Glenn. “A bit thin on the ground at home, eh?” I say to her, and she nods and smiles. Sunna Guesthouse’s lovely night worker is Italian. He confirms our tour for the next morning, promises breakfast will be available before 7:00am and we retire.
Thursday August 26
Nirvana is getting the front passenger seat on a tour bus. I am in Nirvana. Our tour guide Lena, too thin and speedy, lives in a village an hour outside of Selfoss. We’re talking rural isolation. She needs to make most of her money in the summer leading tours because during the winter the only bits and pieces of work she can get are babysitting other peoples’ sheep, doing local handicrafts and providing home care.
Lena can’t shut up; unfortunately she isn’t talking to us, her customers, but to the sullen, silent driver Ludvick. This tour is 14 hours and she is as relentless as he is stony. We are taking the ring-road that circles Iceland for 14,000 kilometers. The country itself is 100,000 square kilometers and with a total population of 320,000, giving them a mere three folks to populate each square kilometer. Or it would do so if 180,000 Icelanders (more than half the population) didn’t live in greater Reykjavik.
The greatest part of our day’s views will be of lava fields, many of them left from the 1783 eruption. In Iceland, history is linked back to this or that eruption – much as a country like Israel charts history by its wars and a friend of mine by her hairdos over the decades. All the volcanic activity is caused by the boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which crosses right through Iceland.
That’s also where all the glorious clean geo-thermal energy comes from. On the plate boundary, they drill down 1,500 feet where steam at the unbelievable heat of 350 degrees Celsius speeds up and out to generate electricity and hot water for the 90% of houses on the grid.
We pass Selfoss, the biggest town in the south at 6,000. Before the economic crash, they had built a huge hospital here. As we drive on we begin to see, at a great distance, steam rising from the most recent volcano that erupted in April – disrupting Europe’s air travel for awhile – with the unpronounceable name: Eyjafjallajökull. As our guide Lena talks about volcanoes to us, I get the impression that for Icelanders, it’s all about preparation and survival.
People in volcanic areas sleep with a packed suitcase permanently under their beds for quick evacuation. The government keeps all-terrain vehicles in strategic points for extracting people caught by lava or floods. After all, Iceland has 8.000 square kilometers of ice cap – the most in Europe. When a volcano erupts, it melts its ice cap and the resulting water cascades down, changing the whole make-up of the land at sea-level.
For example, we drive over a 1974 bridge on the ring road that Lena brags was the biggest engineering project ever undertaken in Iceland at 900 meters. It is the longest bridge in Iceland. Despite her palpable pride, it’s a slightly bittersweet accomplishment for not long after it was completed, an eruption caused massive amounts of water to descend, literally moving the river that the bridge was built to cross about a mile away, under a different bridge, which is now under threat from so much water. “Our” bridge goes over the dry remnants of the riverbed. “Don’t worry,” she says, “Maybe something will happen and the river will move back here.” Welcome to Iceland, where the landscape of fire and ice is in constant flux.
For many miles, the sea cliffs tower over us on our left while the sea is two kilometers away to our right. Yes, the sea has moved, or rather the shore has been built up by ash from past eruptions. We’re driving on a relatively new hunk of land. Lena points to islands that have appeared and disappeared and reappeared over time.
Iceland is a land of waterfalls, too. We stop to see Skogar – 60 meters in height. When it rained after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, the waterfall water turned black from washed-down ash. The glacier on the top of Eyjafjallajökull itself is still black. And generally, glaciers are retreating in Iceland by 100 meters a year, according to our guide.
All the fresh water flowing into the sea from the volcanic melt-downs of glaciers is a big concern to scientists, as it dilutes the salt and causes a chilling factor.
As we pass miles and miles of stark ash fields, some covered with a thick, slimy-looking but oddly evocative moss, someone asks about animal life in Iceland. They’re very proud of their horses – last time I was here I ate some horse stew. Lena says the small, strong horses (beware of calling them “ponies” which the locals take as an insult) have five gaits – most horses have four. She calls them a “soft ride.” There are cows too, originally imported by the Vikings. They are also small, but give excellent milk, she assures us. Perhaps that is the source of their favorite local treat: the yogurt-like Norwegian dairy product Skyr. I buy some at a pee-stop restaurant that is otherwise offering rather unappetizing greasy food –and it tasted rather, well, yogurt-like.
Long past the steaming Eyjafjallajökull volcano, we continue on the southern shore to our destination, the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. This glacier has only been building since the 1920s and the lagoon – situated between the retreating glacier and the Atlantic Ocean – has increased four-fold since the 1970s. It now takes up 23 square kilometers and is 300 meters deep – in fact, this is the deepest point in Iceland. In the summer the water ranges from +2 to 6 Celsius; in the winter it is about -6 Celsius. Somehow herring, trout and seals succeed in living in that environment. Icelandic scientists believe the combination of global warming with the seawater is what melts the iceberg.
We mount the amphibious bus/boat (thanks to the WWII American army) and chug into the water, having secured our life-jackets and pushed to a spot at the railings. Smaller vehicles buzz around us, staffers looking out for our safety and checking for humongous hunks of glacier that are turning over, something they do for no apparent reason at odd times. The icebergs are stunning: some are milky white and some are an eerie bright blue, from the interplay between the crystals and light. The main iceberg is a veritable mountain, although 90% of it is underwater. And it’s not like household ice: it’s about three times more compact.
With all that unique visual magic, it is amusing to see that what all the lagoon people are really proud of is the filming of “Die Another Day” in 2002, a James Bond film. Talk about accommodation! Because the script called for the famous car chase between a Jaguar and Aston Martin, the Icelanders had to freeze the lagoon. They dammed the salt water and flooded it with fresh, allowing the water to freeze faster at a higher temperature. The salt water already in the lagoon sank to the bottom as it was heavier.
Our young lagoon guide reaches out with a hook and grabs a hunk of glacier about the size of a toddler. She allows a couple of us to cradle it in our arms, then chops it up in ice-cream-cone sized pieces for each of us to suck on. It’s kinda wonderful.
We return to the bus, only too aware of the long trip ahead retracing our steps. We make a few stops, including at the 200-foot-high Seljalandsfoss waterfall, part of the former coastline. We climb the muddy, slippery black volcano rocks to a high ledge where we can pass behind the fall of the water and climb down the mountain on the other side. Under the setting sun it feels like a very Icelandic adventure. Our guide has already told us stories about idiot tourists who go climbing without telling anyone only to be found – skeletons – months or decades later.
Even taking into account the highly annoying woman who keeps jabbing her oversized camera lens into my ear from behind me, I wish we could extend the 14-hour tour. Tomorrow morning we must rise very early to make the reverse trip back to the airport to continue on to the main part of our travels on the mainland of Europe. Iceland is the perfect stop for American tourists on their way to Europe because in just a few days, you can be catapulted into vacation mode. It is so other-worldly, it is so downright different than the US, and it is so welcoming that just five hours off New England, we achieved that holiday suspension of daily life in favor of a sense of wonder. My only complaint is that no Northern Lights were provided on our exit from this island as they were on our arrival.
Sue Katz, an author, journalist, blogger and rebel, used to be most proud of her martial arts career and her world travel, but now it’s all about her edgy blog Consenting Adult.
All photos by Barry Hock.