In June of 2007 I took a trip to Iceland with Road Scholar and as always I kept a travelogue and took zillions of pictures. The route was something like this. It was a hell of trip with food from grilled lamb to putrefied shark and landscapes ranging from Mars to Eden. And then there's drinking Vodka through a fly net under the midnight sun... Ya Ya!
Cast of characters
Well there's Kristinn, our guide who knows the story behind every rock in Iceland and sings opera after a few beers. Then there's Elaine from Road Scholar, who got us all addicted to licorice. And don't forget Gudni - our bus driver who carried the luggage and broke into toilets. And 22 other people on the tour - from all over the States and all of them characters themselves. Fun crew and quite the party.
17 June 2007
Landed! I think - the ground is still kind of moving beneath my feet. let me see if I can recap the last day(?):
Flight to Boston:
I left from the C Gate - Actually a really nice area - there's a huge food court with about 3-story tall windows looking out over the airport. Nice tables and chairs, all the food places (which for some reason think that travelers only want eggs before 10) and the mountains poking out over the clouds in the distance. Sure beats the waiting rooms with CNN blaring. I only wish they had clock - why on earth don't airports have more clocks???
The flight to Boston was a kick - the flight attendants were teasing each other over the PA: "Tell Scotty he has a nice haircut" "Tell Charlie you like his tie." I was sitting next to a gal who'd been going to U of A and was flying to Boston to look at law school. Her boyfriend lives in Boston so she was looking forward to spending a day at the Cape. She'd never been to the east coast before and was pretty excited by the trip. Meanwhile, Scotty the airline steward is quite the flirt, and shows up part way through with a small bottle of champagne for her for no apparent reason. Then he shows up later with a cloth napkin from first class on which he'd drawn a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and written "not quite $5" and his e-mail address! Totally weird - made the flight much more interesting.
I had about 5 hours to kill at Logan so I had dinner at a pub - the laziest flaky service I've had in ages, but at least the food didn't come wrapped in tin foil from a microwave. They had the game on: Boston losing badly to SF. Ah well.
Landing in Iceland
So once you stumble off the airplane (it's tomorrow now), then you need to find your way to your baggage and through customs and figure which line you're supposed to be in. This was actually easier in this airport than others.
Then we meet on the bus and set out. My first impression of Iceland is that it looks a lot like Hawaii: It's volcanic so you get the volcanic rocks everywhere in cool piles with the ocean crashing in the background. And there's a rift valley where two of the plates are pulling apart. Not to mention these geothermal steam vents. And the Blue Lagoon - we got to swim in that. It's a geothermal pool. And today is June 17th, which is like their independence day, so there's like a street fair going on outside. And this is just day 1!
National Day party
There is going to be some drunken revelry tonight - it's 10pm and I think the National Day party is just getting started. From a walk around town, I didn't realize there were that many 13-15-year-old boys in the entire country, and they're all partying in the street tonight. I think every adolescent is here - should be a long night. I can hear one of the stages from my hotel room, and someone is doing Willie Nelson's "You were always on my mind" - in Icelandic. How very strange.
Even stranger: Stores actually close on national holidays! They don't make them into sales! Eateries are open (and doing booming business) but every other shop was closed. Whoa.
18 June 2007: Geysir and Gulfoss
Another busy day. First we went off to see the plant where they turn the geothermal water into power - lots of cool pipes and machinery (oh, and some science, too). Some guys were working and ended up spilling a lot of oil on the floor - they were rather embarrassed when they looked up and realized that two dozen people saw this.
Then we were off to see the national cemetery - which holds the bones of a drunken Dane and a Drunken Icelander. Just those two (it wasn't very popular). Then we hiked through a rift caused by the tectonic plates splitting apart. Followed by a trip to a town called Geysir - and I'll let you guess what we saw there. Then our last stop was at Gullfoss - an amazing waterfall complete with beautiful weather and a double rainbow.
Got back around 8 and I grabbed a slice of pizza and a coke at a hole-in-the-wall down the road. Not my normal diet, but when in Iceland...
19 June 2007: Tolts and kittens
Another full day - this one with horses, cows, and waterfalls. First stop, Icelandic horses and a demonstration of the different gaits. About 8 riders - the youngest of which was 8. Beautiful horses - small and stocky and very quiet and mild-tempered - there were several in the same stall together and they were just chilling. There were some young colts who were fabulous to watch, and also some young kittens and a mother who was just a beanbag - you could pick her up and she would just fold into your arms.
Then it was on to a farmer who is doing some fascinating organic farming. An interesting combination of technology and nature: The cows roam around the hillside, then when they show up to be milked the whole thing is computerized - they have these little collars and the machine takes their temperatures and records how much milk they gave etc. He's also growing his own wheat (and starting brewing next year) and has a hydro plant to generate his own electricity. His backyard is some fantastic scenery.
Then it was on to lunch and a chance run-in with a motorcycle gang called the Plungers (no kidding) who were biking from one island to another to meet with their friends the Toilets (no kidding).
Then we went down to a beach to see these fantastic spires and basalt formations - really cool. And then a fabulous waterfall with some great mist over lumpy hills. And then a museum of... well, just about everything. The curator is about 800 years old and played the dulcimer and the organ for us.
Now I'm at a farmhouse - that's the hotel. While we have beds instead of hay there's no wifi! Gasp! And we're here for two days, and I think the next place is just as remote, so it may be a while before I get a net fix.
20 June 2007: Westmann Islands
Flight to the Westmann islands: We flew over in groups since the planes only hold 6-8 people. It's a six minutes flight, and I guess the ferry ride is 3 hours - I'll take the plane, thanks. Besides, the pilot was quite a piece of work himself (we girls liked the ride).
The islands are really cool - they had volcanic eruption in '73 - the spewing-flames-into-the-air kind - that started at like 2am with no warning. Some guy woke up, thought his neighbor's roof was on fire, and called the fire department. They couldn't do too much. But they could drive up and down the streets making a lot of noise and waking people up. It's a fishing village, and because the weather had been bad that day, all of the ships were in the harbor, so all 5,000 people got out on the boats. No one was killed, despite the fact that half of the town was smothered in lava, and the other half was covered in feet of ash. They saved the harbor, and the eruption actually improved the harbor by creating a jetty that makes for better protection.
We went on a boat ride around the islands, and the rocks are fascinating. Great layers and colors. We saw tons of puffins and the Icelandic elephant. We went into a few caves, and in one the captain of the boat said that the acoustics were fantastic, and then pulled out a saxophone! He's right - the acoustics are great.
Then we went on a little land tour, and the driver of that bus lived on the island and was 14 when the volcano erupted. The lava ended one block from his house - so they just had to dig it out. We ate some lava bread - they bury the dough in the volcano and let the natural heat cook it. It's good - a rye-like bread but with a texture like carrot cake.
Then it was back to the hotel (past several marshmallow farms) where we got to chill for a while - some folks went horseback riding, but I painted - then on to dinner for some fabulous lamb.
Tomorrow is waterfall day! (And I need to remember to pick up my laundry before I go).
21 June 2007: Waterfalls and Vodka
The day of waterfalls! Started by checking out of the farmhouse - my laundry was ready and she even made bunnies out of my socks.
First stop was the waterfall that you can walk behind. Very beautiful waterfall and a nice approach. Then we drive to another wonderful waterfall. Then we drive for a while through this rather desolate landscape and Kristinn tells us that we are going to have a picnic lunch here - and lo and behold there is this sort of Eden inside a little valley - lush green, several waterfalls, beautiful flowers, and all surrounded by desolate nothing. It was amazing.
Then we went for a hike through the countryside to a Viking longhouse. This is an actual excavation site that has been preserved, and a short drive away is a reconstruction of what it would have looked like. Not bad, actually, you just need to be short. There were sleeping quarters, eating quarters, and even indoor plumbing (so to speak).
Then we stopped by a power plant. Then it was off to another waterfall, which was in this little lake and surrounded by the coolest basalt formations. Something about having those rock formations around that made the power of it all so much more real.
Then it was on to the next farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Actually a really nice place. It just opened today because the roads open tomorrow. We had a fabulous dinner, and the Russian ambassador to Iceland is here. Although apparently he was pretending to be Swedish. Fred made friends with him and came away with a bottle of Vodka - I think the boys are in Kristinn's suite drinking it now. Dinner was quite the event with Fred, Kristinn, and Gudni all sitting together - this is when the girls say, "The Boys are at it again."
So now it's 10:30pm on the solstice and it's looking like a good night for the midnight sun. Someone managed to wrangle up some wood for a bonfire. I'm not sure where they got it from, but it sure looks like the shelves from someone's closet. The hotel rooms come with fluffy robes, and we girls decide to show up in our bathrobes, and the boys bring the vodka. Oh, and there are flies so half of us have fly nets on - in our robes around the bonfire, drinking vodka. One gal couldn't find a fly net before she left for the trip, so she bought the next best thing: A wedding veil. Too funny, and I'm not sure if it works the other way: Can you wear a fly net at your wedding? Then the boys start singing (in Icelandic) and we're all dancing around the bonfire - in our bathrobes and fly nets drinking vodka under the midnight sun. I'm telling you, these Icelanders know how to party.
22 June 2007: Hiking and barbecue
Wow. First you're driving through what looks like the moon. And this just goes on and on. And then suddenly it's green. We stopped by an amazing crater lake on the way, but it was nothing compared to this campground. You're surrounded by painted mountains of all colors on all sides and there's still some snow pack, and then when you hike in you're going through lava fields and then - pow - you're in this valley and then you're walking up this mountain next to a steam vent and then it's down by this river and all the while you're just surrounded by this amazing landscape. It is the most jaw-dropping hike that I have ever been on anywhere in my entire life.
And then you go soak in the geothermal pool. And then there was lunch. Barbecue lamb steaks. Lamb in the states is this gross bloody red meat, but here it's grazing free in the hills and it's the most delicious thing. This barbecue is some of the best food I have ever had - it will be hard to beat. Even the hot dogs are to die for, and these sauces. Mmmm.
On the way out, everyone wanted to get a picture of the bus crossing a stream, so I got a picture of them getting a picture of the bus, and Kristinn got a picture of me getting a picture of them getting a picture of the bus...
23 June 2007: Glaciers and sharks
James Bond was here. He shot a movie on the glacial lake with gunfights and chases. We just road a duck. It was awesome, though. I've been to a much smaller glacial lake in Alaska, but this is very cool: Big chunks of ice floating around - some of the them the bluest blue. We even got to taste some of it - thousands of years old, this ice.
The shark may have been just as old. Way back when, when food was about survival, you ate what you had and stored the rest for winter. This means that if you catch a shark, you bury it in the sand for several months, then lay it out in the sun. Then you wash it down with moonshine. Tastes as good as it sounds. Nice folks, cute house, an interesting slice of culture, and the cakes we had for dessert were fantastic. (Not to mention seeing a Bollywood movie with subtitles in Icelandic was an experience worth having.)
Then on to the hotel, which was in this cute little town. It's actually 3 buildings (the hotel, not the whole town) with the single girls, Kristinn, and Gudni in one building, and I got the party room. Kristinn was out all night at his favorite pub, but I was up early for pictures because the lighting was perfect and the town so scenic.
24 June 2007: Sod houses and dental floss
Or maybe it's "Dettifoss." Anyway, the first stop was a sod house - practical and well-insulated. Here we got to sample more moonshine, putrefied shark, and I'm not sure what happened to the lamb. But no worries, because lunch was fabulous lamb soup and bread (which Elaine ate most of, I think) followed by sparklers on a birthday cake for one of our crew.
Then it was on to Dettifoss - with perhaps the worst road in all of Iceland. I think that just driving cross-country would have been smoother. But the falls are amazing, even if Kristinn failed us in the lighting department (overcast, so no good shadows). Then back down the same bad road, and on our way to the Lake Myvatn.
In the evening we arrived at Fly Lake, where Elaine and I had hot dogs followed by ice cream. It was at this point that we discovered licorice sauce, which is incredible. (On the ice cream, not the hot dogs.)
25 June 2007: Trolls, tefra and bubbling mud
Lake Myvatn means Fly Lake. There's like 60 tons of biomass worth of flies, which is one hell of a lot of flies, and great for the bird life. It peaked a few weeks before we were there so there were a lot of flies but it wasn't black clouds. Beautiful area - there are these awesome pseudo craters and amazing landscape. I went hiking around the craters and it's really cool.
Then Kristinn took us on a hike through the trolls. You understand where the troll stories come from when you hike around in great huge piles of lava. First we saw the kindergarten trolls. Then we hiked through the grown-up trolls. Then up some godawful pile of tefra that had a great view from the top. Then it was on to the bubbling mud. Way cooler than it sounds - it's these steam vents with orange ground and, um, bubbling mud. Trust me, it's actually really cool.
In the afternoon I flew to Grimsey Island. Little tiny island up in the Arctic Circle. We got a nice flight around it, then went hiking out on the cliffs. We saw terns and their nests (they can fly around the world, but they're not much for housekeeping) and zillions of puffins up there. Then a flight back with a scenic tour over the lake and a fabulous view of the pseudo craters. Those things are so cool.
26 June 2007: Ayureki, Godafoss, and dinner
We stopped by Godafoss on the way to Ayureki. The lighting here made up for the lack at Dental Floss, and even Kristinn had his camera out. He's a Canon boy, but I forgive him.
Ayureki has an airport, and that about sums it up. No, wait, it also had a lot of wind and a botanical garden, with giant blue poppies. And a cafe with good food and a rather well-appointed basement, but alas, we could not find ice cream. We flew back to Reykjavik after lunch, and domestic flights in Iceland are a trip: You just walk in and get on the plane. No security or nothing. Whoa.
Dinner was with a local family, and our little group had some great barbecue and fabulous rhubarb pie (and I think Mary ate half of it herself).
27 June 2007: Genes and goodbyes
In the morning we visited Decode Genetics, which aside from having some really cool architecture is also doing some fascinating work mapping the genome of Iceland. Since everybody knows their family tree and the population is so small, they can track diseases and pinpoint their location. Cool stuff.
Then it was off to lunch at a little museum with some cool little displays, and then the rest of the crew was off to the airport. I stayed on in Reykjavik for a few days after the tour. I took a half day to see parts of Iceland that weren't on the tour, but most of the time sitting in the warm summer Iceland sun watching life and doing nothing in particular. This was great. I did make it a point to go to the sculpture garden, and Freddy, you were right, it was awesome.
30 June 2007: Back via Boston
I'm ready for my own bed but not ready to go back to work. The flight from Iceland got in late at night, so I decided to just spend a day in Boston. Quite the shocker to go from Iceland to Boston, but I met up with my godmother, whom I haven't seen in over 30 years - we've kept in touch with Christmas cards and e-mail, but we're not sure the last time we actually saw each other. So we caught up over crab cakes. She's scuba diving for lobsters and her daughter is in college and wants to be a lawyer. It was good times and we'll need to do this again, but not wait 30 years!
I'm still digging through 3,000 pictures but already planning the next trip. Antarctica anyone?