Posts Tagged ‘travel’




Days: 60

Meals out: 16

Hot pools:  36

Ice creams:  Selka 29, H.W. 26

Nights paid for: 26

Nights indoors: 23

Nights outdoors: 37

Km on bicycle:  Selka 910, HW 1124


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Although my brother and I were smitten with Iceland the first time and planned to go again in 2012, time trundled right along and 2012 showed up without us having produced any concrete plans, like tickets.  The pressure built; if we’re going to go, we have to start making it real… Then all this unexpected upheaval happened, which made Iceland recede into the distance and off the priority list so the likelihood waxed and waned.  Just when we’re getting back on our feet, H.W. and I got some welcome fall work that lands right when it would be ideal to be in Iceland.  So it seemed to be on the outer edge of possibility.

I wanted the relief of saying, Oh, let’s just go next year, but when I thought about waiting until next year, I got a knot of sadness in my chest.  Besides, if things go according to our plan B or C, we’ll have animals and gardens to care for, so now is the time to travel.  Even though it’s neither ideal timing nor convenient, I figured I’d rather just go while the going was possible.  My brother concurred, H.W. shrugged (he doesn’t know what there is to get excited about yet), and so we’re going.  It’s on!

Just when I surrendered all planning, because nothing, ever, at all, went according to plans, the probability field seemed to tighten up and now plans seem to be working again. We get things done, less falls through, it’s safer to have an expectation… I think it’s safe to make plans again.

Here’s hoping!

We’re going late in the year, in the rainy season, possibly well into the cold weather.  Oh well.  We’re cycling around the island, hopefully doing the ring road, plus all the good stuff that isn’t on the perimeter.  We’ll be camping all the time, like last time, and this time we’ll know all the things that we can miss and many that we must do.  And we’ll have more time, not be racing around everywhere to “fit it in”.

Bicycle travel will do that for you.  Slow things right down.

This time, I’m taking my little Rite in the Rain journal, and I am NOT making grand plans to write an illustrated diary of our every moment there.  No way.

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After landing in the rain and early dawn on Keflavik, sleepless, I was starting to get that nauseous all-nighter feeling and dozed woozily the whole bus ride to our hotel.  Derek says I missed nothing.

We weren’t expecting to be allowed to check in at 7am, but we were welcomed in (all the Canadians arrive at that time- that’s when the flight from Toronto gets in) and promptly passed out for 4 or 5 hours.  It was like getting two nights for one, because we got up and walked all over Reykjavík in the afternoon and then got to sleep at the hotel again.

We were officially welcomed to Iceland by this cat. It’s not every day you both say out loud at the same time “Hey, is that a Norwegian Forest Cat?”

As we walked around Reykjavík I took pictures everywhere of road signs and apartments and houses jutting into the sidewalk, etc, to remember the difference about them, knowing that in no time we’d be so used to it all that we’d stop noticing the uniqueness of common design.

I love the freedom of being a tourist like that.  Instead of “Why is that strange woman taking a picture of the roundabout?”, any bizarre behavior gets completely dismissed with “Tourists.” and they barely even look at you, as you’re snapping photos of door handles.

First we headed for the Saga Museum at Perlan, because it was close to our hotel.  Little realizing I would practically live on the stuff for the next month, we sampled skyr for the first time at the Perlan cafe on the viewing deck overlooking the city, among a fantastic overload of breakfast sugar.  A “Belgian waffle” here bears no resemblance to the grilled pancake batter of NA (North America- I’ll be using this a lot).  It’s dark, to start, like whole wheat bread, and thick and “meaty”.  Not fluff.  You know you’ve eaten something, and it was delicious.  And “cream” in Iceland, whether ice or whipped, is another different animal.  It’s not white, and it’s not Cool Whip.  It’s cream coloured (wow!) – a distinct yellow buttery colour, and it tastes thick and complete and real.  I was in love with the cream in Iceland.  It must be local.  There are enough cows it would be absurd for the island to import milk.  I did not confirm this at all, but kept a fantasy that all the milk there is whole and minimally refined and therefore good for us, because it tasted good.

That was breakfast.  Luckily, a delicious introduction to Iceland, because it rather went downhill from that meal, food-wise.  I’d later be reduced to wandering gas stations in a hypoglycemic haze going “I just want something that’s not a skink sandwich!”  Skinku=ham.

The Saga Museum is a bunch of wax figures of Vikings being Vikings.  Well executed.  Static.  Except for the animatronic breathing Viking.  I wasn’t convinced he wasn’t one of those crazy people that stands stone still while people speculate whether or not they’re real, so I spent some time lurking and spying on him from other parts of the museum. Like I was going to jump out from behind the witch being burned at the stake (so that’s where all the trees in Iceland went), all “Aha!  You are real!  You moved your hand!”  No such luck, he just kept breathing and breathing.

The funnest part (and that’s saying something, considering the above-mentioned lurking) was trying on the chainmail and waving around blunt swords which are there for kids to play with.  Getting oneself extricated from a 50 pound chainmail dress provides entertainment to all passersby.  Can’t believe THAT’s not chained down- that thing is VALuable; an amazing piece of chainmail work.  Although, difficult to imagine anyone wearing it out under their clothes to steal.  Waving to the person at the desk “Thanks, great exhibit… clanking?  what clanking?”  Difficult to breathe in, as a matter of fact.  Lifting one’s chest against all that metal to inhale is work.  Them Vikings were tough.

On to Hallgrímskirkja.

Kirkja=Church.  Don’t dare say that like Kirk, a man’s name.  It sounds like there’s a bunch of “e”s in it.  Hallgrímskirkja is the highest point in Reykjavik, apparently suffered controversy over the design (surprising; considering church design throughout the country, this one looks just like a church) and some bad contractors, and the architect died before it was finished.

We were quite fortunate; after coming down out of the bell tower, the organist playing in tomorrow nights’ concert was practicing his program on the huge and very unique organ.  For free, we got to see and hear the organ boom and rumble.  Very exciting, although I would guess not so fun for the organist, to practice with an audience of tourists and cameras milling around.  No pressure.  The pew seats were another instance of cool design (I was already collecting advanced “scandinavian” design features), which could switch to face either the altar or the organ.  Genius.

I loved the clean lines of the church, the most minimal church I’ve ever seen.  It may be irreverent, but I couldn’t get fish bones out of my head looking at the lines inside this church, which is actually a compliment because fish are very elegantly designed.

Across from the church we wandered through the sculpture garden of Einar Jónsson at dusk, as the Lonely Planet suggested.  The gate was not immediately apparent so we jumped the fence to get in.  It was nice to see these bronze castings on our first day, because the whole rest of the trip we recognized his works reproduced in parks and parking lots and generally random places.  Clearly he’s an artist beloved in Iceland; his work is just shockingly, compellingly weird and striking.  So, love at first sight for me.  Can’t believe I’ve never encountered his work before.  Some of his stuff is so beautiful it makes you feel ill.

Finding the real gate, we continued, trying to find the Volcano Show on time.  Even with a map and not being confused at all, let’s just say we got there circuitously.  It’s not really on a street, so it’s kind of hard to find.  But we saw some more cats and architecture on the way.

The Volcano Show.  Well, can’t tell you much about it, because while I’m sure it was terribly interesting, the soundtrack was incredibly soporific and the little theatre was black out dark.  All I retained were visions of orange lava boiling and spewing, hypnotic music, and the feeling of struggling against sleep because something important was happening.  Heimaey may have been being destroyed by lava.  I jolted awake for intermission, learned Derek had also been asleep, compared notes (we didn’t have many), and went back in to sleep through the second half.

The Volcano Show is the work of Villi Knudsen, who is really funny, has been stealing pens from Icelandic banks since 2008, and cannot quite conceal his glee at the prospect of the next big eruption happening imminently, sure to cause unimaginable chaos, destruction, and loss of life and property (I was wake for his commentary; the lights were still on).  Hekla and Katla are both due or overdue.  Villi is a volcano chasing son of another volcano chaser, between them capturing 50 years and miles of stunning and one-of-a-kind footage of eruptions.  Which we slept through.

Refreshed, we carried on back into town; light still in the sky at 10:20.  We shared a great pizza, made for us by an engineering student, walked through the streets that were beginning to party this Friday night and walked back across town and walked some more, especially after taking the bus one stop too far, about a hundred miles past our hotel (but if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have seen that one really weird sculpture that made us laugh).

My first impressions of Iceland after one day, as noted in my book:

Google gives Icelandic results first!
Water hot as f***.  I’m going to spend a lot of time in the water here.
Lots of cats.
NFLD in corrugated steel.
Everyone’s blond.

Really, a window into my soul.  I hadn’t even twigged to the weird sculpture and ice cream habits of the Icelanders yet, although I’d seen a fair bit of both.  I continued to be constantly mind-warped into Newfoundland, what with the picturesque fishing villages and fjords and bright-coloured housing.  The similarities are really quite innumerable, although it could never quite be mistaken for exactly the same place.  Maybe that contributed to why I felt so damn at home there, all the time.

Want more pictures?

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On Day Two we prepared our luggage properly, separating actual camping supplies into backpacks, and city supplies into our suitcases. Since I’d packed to leave by essentially hurling things I thought I’d need at my suitcase, this was an important step to take before entering the hiking phase of our trip.

Elf rock

We dropped off our luggage at BSÍ to be stored (in a room choked with the backpacks and suitcases of other travellers) while we spent some more time in Reykjavik for the day. The Free Walking Tour was worth every cent. We learned a number of things on that short walk, from the talkative, bold Icelandic guide who mentioned sex often, told us what he thought of real estate and Icelandic banks, and who had lived nine years in Canada:

The rock in the picture is an elf rock. When machinery breaks or gets stuck when trying to move a rock, they don’t use bigger machinery, they call in a mediator who negotiates with the tenants of the rock for an amicable solution. In this case it was a week to get ready and a new downtown location. I guess hidden people don’t have so much to pack.

Reykjavik’s city hall houses a wonderful handmade relief map of Iceland. Odd to say, but it really put Iceland in perspective, especially the magnitude of their glaciers. Iceland’s glaciers spit on our “glaciers”. Vatnajökull wouldn’t deign a glance at the Columbia Icefields. Vatnajökull might give PEI a passing nod. Jökull = Glacier. This beautiful piece of work made of 1mm layers of paper took over 16 “man-years” to create- four people over four years. All those complicated little fjörds. I can imagine whoever worked on the Eastfjörds feeling like Slartibartfast from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy– “those fjörds there- I did those.” It is remarkable.

Inside, Reykjavík’s city hall looks like a place where work gets done, meaning, it’s not pompous at all and doesn’t put on airs. Maybe an air of streamlined efficiency. Outside, it had a striking wall of moss on rock with portholes in it overlooking a square pond.

We didn’t notice the anchor on a welded chain rising up out of the water. We saw that a week later when we went by and said “Hey! That anchor couldn’t have been sticking out of the water like that when we were here before, we would have noticed!” Are these people fucking with us? The next time we passed city hall, the anchor was sticking out of the water, but at a totally new angle. By that time, we could file it under weird sculpture, which we were quite familiar with, but we still don’t know what’s up with the anchor and why it does what it does.

Reykjavik 871 +/-2 is perhaps the world’s most oddly named museum (names of attractions rarely include tolerance factors, I’ve noticed), but it had an awesome elevator. What’s most extraordinary about this place is that an entire, modern, multi-storey building is built over top of an archeological dig, completely preserving the excavation and housing an interpretive museum around it. There’s even a window through the sidewalk looking down into the entrance “lobby” of this hall built in 871 (+/- 2 years – hence the name). They don’t seem to think this is remarkable, and all the pictures and info about discovering the remains of the Settlement Age hall under the foundation of a few other builds, the exceptional effort of preserving it, and the engineering of building around it, all live in an unassuming little room adjacent to the bathrooms. We wouldn’t have seen it except for admiring the elevator.

The elevator!

The exhibit itself is quite interactive with lots of high tech flashy bits. We were already noticing a trend with Icelandic museums: there isn’t a lot of actual stuff in them. Not stuff that’s old, and real. Every single Viking and Settlement artifact known in Iceland could fit in a short wing of the British Museum, if not a room. It was a staggering comparison- the incredible glut of collected historical artifacts jam-packed into every museum we saw when we were in London, versus the starkly empty exhibitions of Iceland (with one exception, that comes later). So, there’s a lot of interpretation going on.

Museums started to feel like books, written on walls. Like being inside a book. Walk around instead of turn pages. This made me crazy. “I want to be outside, not be in a book!” So we’d dart around museums taking pictures of all the copious text, in two-four languages, for reading later someplace more boring (like Canada) and run back outside. Or not go in the museum at all, once they started to become suspect entities. But this opinion coalesced much later on after more museums. All that my notebook said this day was: I’ic museums don’t seem to take very long to go through. As opposed to say, the British Museum, where you should make sure someone knows when you went in and how long you can live on the snack bars you brought, in case they need to send in a search party a few days later.

Despite this “lack of old stuff”, Icelanders know their history with a detailed, intimate completeness that’s unrivaled, thanks to the sagas. Caveat to this generalization about Iceland’s museums: we did not take in the National Museum, unfortunately. Possibly there’s a bunch of stuff there. We also missed the Phallological Museum, a members-only “must-see”.

Most crucial to our travel plans was the information we could glean about puffins. I was on a mission to see puffins, and we knew our timing was cutting it close, arriving in mid August when the puffins are scheduled to depart.

The Olís cat.

No one seemed to really have their ear to the ground on puffin status in Reykjavik, but consensus seemed to be “you will see puffins still, but they are leaving now.” This solidified our plan for the next couple of days- head for Vestmannaeyjar in pursuit of puffins.

We caught a kid on a two wheeled skateboard and some off-duty blue ninjas practicing in the park on our way to retrieve our packs and get on the road. We got camping gas and ice cream on the way out of town at a gas station that had an interested cat. Cat strolled into the gas station through the automatic door and weaved the aisles like it was looking for something. I shared my ice cream.

We hitchhiked to Selfoss that night, where we camped among an innundation of German travelers at the campsite. First time with the new tents, and all the research paid off: it rained, and none of our stuff got wet. Success.

***** This better not carry on like this – one post per day? I’ll be writing the most comprehensive Iceland travel diary ever- Journey to the Center of Iceland; 20 000 Photos to See (really, really bad pun). Then again…I’ve little else as exciting to write about for awhile.

More pictures of Reykjavík

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Day 8 was difficult. It was characterized by hunger, inconvenience, frustration, helplessness, and weakness. It was a travelling day. All my hitchhiking has told me that when you wait forever, then there’s somebody coming that you’re supposed to meet, but this day’s struggle was really hard to see the silver lining in (although it appeared, eventually).

We started out on the road before noon, headed now back toward Reykjavík, having sorta tasted most of the southern coast of Iceland. Almost immediately, a guy with a dog pulled over who was going to Vík, however…. there was another hitchhiker ahead of us, who had oddly walked far down the road away from us, to a bad place to stand (in my opinion), and hadn’t responded to my yelling into the wind at him/her. I did the honourable thing, pointed at the hitchhiker who’d been there before us, and waved goodbye to the guy with a sheepdog in a zippy car.

Then we waited for two hours before anyone else stopped.

Who stopped was a pair of Italian men in a tiny car that was full of stuff, reticent about our chances of fitting in their vehicle. I was NOT about to let them go too, now, so we wedged ourselves in, with our backpacks on our knees, and a limited view of each other and our hosts. The Italians were hilarious though- super nice, adorable, and adoring (the colour in my hair- “bella, bella!”). The smaller one (“I’m an assassin!”) kept up a running stream of song and commentary and swearing in Italian and English, mixed with questions and short stories fired into the backseat and punctuated with outbursts of abuse hurtled out the window at any hapless sheep we passed, while the other, more sedate one drove at a leisurely pace, with frequent stops for pictures. We couldn’t really figure out if he didn’t like the sheep, or just enjoyed screaming at them, but at any rate, it was all so funny we laughed until we cried, until it was just a perpetual state of achingly funny entertainment.

We made it to Kirkjubæjarklaustur,that's the salad, lower right. hoping to find something to eat. After frowning dubiously at the hideously garish hotdog menu of the gas station for awhile, the four of us looked at each other and piled back into the car, to go down the road to a eating place recommended in our trusty Lonely Planet books (his in Italian, ours in English). This place was an odd cafe/bar hybrid where the staff was utterly disgusted to see clients walk in the door, and the food was just weird! I ordered a caesar salad, and I confess this was the first caesar sal"I swear, I'm an assassin!"ad I’ve ever had that included canned black olives, canned pineapple tidbits, sundried tomatoes (haha! my spellcheck called them “sundered tomatoes”), and cocktail sauce for dressing, all on a bed of iceberg lettuce. Not one single ingredient corresponding to a caesar salad as formerly known. This salad definitely expanded my “caesar salad” consciousness. I took a picture of it, and ate it. Did I mention how hungry I was? The bowl it was served in was really cool though; all the bowls were like ufos crossed with art deco chairs. After an hour of clowning around, we got back in the clown car and headed for Vík, where we parted with the Italians. They were on a decidedly more unhurried schedule, our legs were atrophying from holding our packs on our laps in their little car, and I wanted to make tracks while the sun shone.

I made the excuse of wanting to explore Vík, which was true, but it was raining when we got there (so much for the shining sun), Derek was manifestly getting a cold now, and tramping around on seacliffs in the rain fully loaded was unappealing. So we bought food with fervour at the first real grocery store we’d been in, in Vík, almost too much to fit in our packs, and got back on the road. This time was better.

We got an “instant ride” from a shockingly good-looking, talkative sheep farmer and his quiet wife, who took us to Hvolsvöllur. They were really helpful, telling us stories, telling us about the annual evacuation practice that the residents of Vík do in the event of another eruption or flood (after releasing all their animals, they have to mark their farm as evacuated, so any potential rescuers know where to direct their energies). There is also no speed limit on the highway in the event of a disaster. Just get the hell out, afap. They told us (well, he did) that their favourite place in Iceland was Ásbyrgi, where Óðinn’s horse “put his foot down”, and gave us a battered postcard of Askja caldera, along with a whole bunch of practical advice about what to skip and what was underrated, that influenced lots of our choices. He also gave us the most valuable tip of our entire trip, that shaped the whole rest of our stay: two website addresses, the equivalent of an Icelandic Craigslist, and the tip that since the crash, people were renting out their second cars privately in order to make ends meet, and you could rent a car privately for a week for what it cost commercially for a day. It killed me that I didn’t get either of their names when they dropped us off, although Derek said we could always find them by word of mouth in Vík. I would have loved to thank them; they were magic.

Our next ride, a German/Icelandic international translator, took us to Selfoss, confidently assuring us that there was plenty of summerhouse traffic to Laugarvatn. On the way he suggested a short detour and took us off the path to Urriðafoss, a giant waterfall that almost no one goes to see. It’s not exactly in a pristine setting, it has something to do with hydroelectric generation, but it is huge, unexpected, loud, and impressive. He just grinned at our delight in the understated way we were getting used to from Icelanders, took pictures of us standing in the wind and the roar of the water, and then took us back to the road and to where we were going.

We were aiming for Laugarvatn at this point. We were on our way to Reykjavík, to sort out the drowned camera and because the next day was the Reykjavík marathon/ Culture Day, but I was pushing for making this day hold some adventure in its own right. I was trying to squeeze in the Golden Circle on the way back to the city, but we had taken so long to get back here from Skaftafell, that we’d toned it down to just hopefully hitting the hot springs at Laugarvatn. This was a mistake; seriously trying to push the river. However, it all seemed to work out in the end.

We got a ride from a young mother and her two children from that windy corner at Selfoss (sunny again though) in the late evening, opening her hatch and reshuffling all her cargo to fit us in, too. The people who were picking us up were turning all my hitchhiking assumptions on their head, and they all played out new generalizations: they will always pick you up if they are at all able to, they will take you out of their way to show you something cool if they think you might miss it otherwise; they are very well-traveled and know their country very well, and love it passionately. True to form, she turned off to stop for us at Kedir caldera, a small volcanic caldera totally out of sight off the road, with a blue eye of water at its base. I say small, but it was big enough that none of us could throw a rock far enough to land in the water. Even the kids talk English. I talked about Björk in the backseat to her son (I was pronouncing it wrong), and she drove us through a lush country speckled with little cottages- summerhouses, to Laugarvatn, and dropped us off at the hostel.

The hostel was full. No vacancy, try the other hostel. Full. The hotel: full. The hot pools (still never been in one!) closed 15 minutes ago. Hot pools are not an evening pastime for Icelanders. By now, Derek looks like he’s dying, we’re starving, it’s late, and now, we have no where to sleep. We walked down the road towards Geysir, me begging Derek for another 15 minutes on the road, to maybe get to the next town where there was a nicer campsite (according to the book). The campsite in this town was apparently notorious for partiers, and in fact, we could hear it thumping as we approached. Not to mention, the wind was blistering.

We saw our first Icelandic horses here, though! Three of them, eyeballing us from where we stood on the shoulder from across the road, so we visited. They were very sweet; friendly and cute, bumping shyly for pets.

After 15 minutes, I walked up to the “art galleri/bed and breakfast” that we were hitchhiking in front of and asked for a room before asking the price.

This would be the last night I spent under a roof in Iceland, although we didn’t know it at the time.

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August 22, 2010

There’re lots of sheep.  Many cats.  In the city, men walk very small dogs (“murse dogs”?) with no sense of embarrassment or irony.  It was days before we saw a real medium-sized dog (English shepherd).

Lots of horses.  The horses are short, sweet, gorgeous, and friendly, with the longest, thickest hair.  It’s a wonder they see anything, their manes are always in their eyes.

Icelanders build very unique churches.  The churches are edgy and experimental and fun, like architectural fights of fancy. Hmm, what could we do and still have it recognizably a church?  The design and treatment of churches is so playful it’s almost as if they’re mocking Christianity, but I don’t think that’s the case.

They also like their sculpture.  Sculptures are everywhere, weird, abstract, and usually substantial.  There isn’t much that’s wispy in Iceland at all.  Even the people are substantial.

They build with imported wood or else concrete, and clad everything in stucco or corrugated iron.

There aren’t any biting insects.  No snakes.  No predatory animals.  This is an indescribable difference coming from hiking and camping in Canada, where you have to always consider a variety of other beasts that could want to get into your food.  Here, none.  Food in the tent, no problem.

There’s not many warning signs.  There’re no shoulders on the roads.  Even on “highways”, people just stop in the middle of the road for many reasons, such as to chat with other drivers.  Seeing as there’re no shoulders, this is reasonable.  They don’t have flag-people to control road construction.   Very few police.  There aren’t restrooms, or “WC”s, as they’re called here, provided at designated rest areas.  Public garbage cans are few and far between.  What there is a hell of a lot of, is high expectations of everyone’s common sense, self-governing, and self-reliance. (more…)

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Back in BC

September 18, 2010

My milk run flight back home bounced up and down off the major cities like a ping pong ball.  Three takeoffs and landings; enough to make one sick.

It’s nice to fly over BC’s green-carpeted mountains and remember that I love this place. So much wilderness, so close. And Vancouver doesn’t look so badass from the air, just squeaked into the flat space of the river delta where the mountains shrug aside.

All the verdant abundance we have here, this surfeit of trees and resources and adventure, makes me wonder why Iceland took such a hold on me in comparison.  Just look at the gorgeous Keremeos valley, a pastoral landscape and serene photo ops like many we just saw.  In this whole country, we have so much more than little Iceland, about the size of Newfoundland, does.

All I can say is that there’s something about Iceland that defies description or definition that exists only there, and I can hear it calling me back…

Thank you for visiting.  Visit my home blog to read about the rest of my ongoing life.

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