Quick Trip to the Land of Ice and Snow
28.01.2016 - 31.01.2016 -15 °C
Not everyone is lucky enough to find themselves recently single, horribly sick, and flying to a foreign country within two days – envy me, because I have been that fortunate. Two days before my much anticipated trip to Iceland, I found myself with a high fever lying in bed marathon watching episodes of “The Bachelor” right after my boyfriend had determined that our cultural differences were too great and thus he just wasn’t “feeling it” anymore. I went to the doctor who indicated that my horribly sudden illness could be bacterial or it could be viral, and he diagnosed my ex as a commitment-phobe. Clearly, I’m joking about the last part (although it's probably true) but I am basically as qualified as this doctor because I too know that illnesses must be one of the two: either bacterial or viral. I wasn’t looking for a treatise on indecision, I was looking for an answer. He prescribed antibiotics, so I took them and promptly my stomach protested. The next day I waited it out in pain, praying for a miracle as the following day was my overnight flight. Wednesday arrived. I had to make a judgment call. If I could hardly walk to the washroom, could I master the frozen slopes? I decided that I was more than capable. And then I changed my mind, and fled to another doctor. He changed my antibiotics and told me that the only one capable of assessing my capability to fly was me. For once, I wanted a man to make a life decision for me and he abdicated responsibility. I went home in a panic and realized that regret is harder to deal with than a bad experience so I packed my bags in a hurry and fled to the airport.
I had warned my travel companion and oldest friend in the world, Karen, that I had no voice and that I was fairly phlegmatic. She wasn’t too worried until she saw me and realized that I wasn’t exaggerating. I had to text her while she stood beside me looking on in fear for the fun we had anticipated having. It slipped away with each tap of the keys. Suffice it to say that it was a really quiet flight for me: no small talk whatsoever with my new neighbours. Karen, unfortunately, found herself at the back of the plane in the aisle across from a very vocal baby.
Upon arrival, we caught a shuttle to the hotel and reckoned that we’d have more than enough time to change, leave our luggage, eat breakfast, and then catch our tour for the day. Instead, we arrived back at the hotel five minutes before the Reykjavik Super Saver: Blue Lagoon plus Gulfoss and Geysir with Viator tour company departed (early). The front deskman was, fortunately, straight out of Norse mythology – a first class hero. He showed compassion, sympathy, and gave me a lot of tissues for my phlegmatic face. Our first stop on that thunderous Thursday was the Blue Lagoon – a spa that exists only because a geothermal plant was built beside it and led to significant liquid waste, which one day the employees began bathing in and found to be favourable. I could have done without the back story. In any case, Karen and I had a fabulous time floating around in the misty waters and plastering our faces with whatever the employees gave us – from clay to algae. The water itself is full of silica and sulfur, and averages between 37 and 39 degrees centigrade so my skin remains as soft as a baby’s bottom weeks later. We also particularly enjoyed looking up at the snowy mountains, and feeling the hail hitting our backs as we smugly strolled through the hot waters with drinks in hand. The volcanic rocks surrounding the baths were a sight in of themselves, so we decided to exit with sufficient time to take photos before heading back to the bus and its jovial tour guide, Willy.
The second half of the day was spent sightseeing with the same older Icelandic guide, Willy, at various locations including: a waterfall, a geyser, and a horse farm. I had been waiting my whole life to see a geyser, and it definitely met my expectations. Mainly I just enjoyed the different possible ways to pronounce the word, which is actually of Icelandic origin. When we got there it was clearly the geyser’s party and it would erupt if it wanted to... or bubble with passive aggressiveness. I saw the greatest selfie attempt ever at the Strokkur geysir. The man stood there with a stern face and his smartphone in hand (in camera mode) for a good five minutes waiting patiently, waiting angrily. It was him vs. the geyser; and the geyser won. I’m almost completely sure that by the time it erupted he blinked. Although I could hardly eat, I did manage to stomach a special Christmas chocolate bar at the tourist bar built beside the pooling of geysirs. It was the most delicious dessert I had on the entire trip, yet sadly I couldn’t stomach it for long.
The sights on the tour were glorious, and I particularly enjoyed visiting the area where the tectonic plates for North America and Eurasia meet and are moving at a rate of roughly 2 cm a year. It was found in a national park called Thingvellir National Park where Iceland’s first parliament was founded in 930. I realized on this day trip that I don’t care as much for waterfalls as I thought I did; although my temperament may have been impacted by my state of sickness combined with the cold mist surrounding the journey to the falls. Gulfoss was by all accounts spectacular, but did it really need to be so cold? What happened to roughly 87% of the country’s buildings being heated by geothermal energy – where was that geothermal energy to heat the area surrounding the waterfall? I would have accepted a heated bus stop, or maybe heated benches. By the time the tour was done, I was utterly exhausted and ready to sleep, but upon arrival in Reykjavik Karen wanted to go for dinner – which is what any sane, non-sick person would want to do. It seemed completely illogical to me at the time. We ended up trekking off in the cold to find a restaurant that had been recommended to her. I paid $20 for a bowl of soup at “Glo”, but she assured me that it was worth it because it was refillable. How many bowls of soup can one human drink? Or eat? The soup was delicious, and the Icelandic bread, Rúgbrauð, was very tasty. What makes it special is that it’s baked in the ground near a hot spring – I was told it can take 10 to 24 hours before it’s ready. Again, where is that heating when you’re outside braving the cold for the sight of pretty falling water? We had a difficult night, as I had multiple coughing fits and ended up spending time in the lobby looking like a forlorn castaway (which I suppose I was).
On Friday morning I told Karen that I would rather try to sleep in the hotel room while she went out and explored, and that we could reconvene using Whatsapp later in the day. She was happy to part ways for a bit (and avoid the hacking sound). When I did finally get up I beelined it immediately to the local library, art gallery, and old harbour so that I could take in the most aesthetically pleasing sights before spending a few hours at the national museum, also known as “oh, that place where we keep old things?” by the local man I asked for directions. I’m glad I went to the museum because it gave me some crucial insight into the history, and also visuals for how the religious customs and lifestyles had evolved over time. After the museum, I raced back to the hotel area to meet Karen at a bar nearby packed with foreigners and locals alike called the Laundromat Cafe. She had, not surprisingly, picked up an American fellow who had quit his job in academia to become a full-time musician. We chatted for a bit and then I rushed us off because we had to get ready for our next tour – Warm Baths and Cool Lights which traversed the Thingvellir National Park on its way to Laugarvatn Fontana´s Open Air Geothermal Baths. Our tour guide, Raven, was young and very knowledgeable and enjoyed telling us folklore about the elves that inhabit Iceland as well as the spirits of the deceased. She didn’t have the best punchlines, or quite understand phrasing so we were left with stories that ended like so: “The moral being you shouldn’t go party after leaving your child to die of exposure”. I must say this evening was probably the low of the entire trip. Although the food was delicious (and the first full meal I had on the trip), I found that the spa facilities were far too small for the size of our tour group. I didn’t appreciate stepping out into the -15 weather and running into a sauna, which was full of the scent of pungent rotten egg; or tripping over rocks that were hidden in the hot tubs (for authenticity perhaps); or having to shower naked in front of dozens of other women. It felt like an awful summer camp combined with a sick candid camera episode. While our trip out there found us in a whiteout snow blizzard, the return trip was calm and entailed two stops to spot the Northern Lights. It was one of the reasons why I went, and it left me green with envy of its natural beauty. If only one day I could be as shiny, and mystical.
Saturday was our Sensational Iceland tour with Extreme Iceland. I was looking the most forward to this day, but also the most fearful of it as it included the glacier hike. When you’re having difficulty walking down the street, it’s a bit daunting to picture yourself climbing a mountain of sheer ice. Our tour guide, Didi, was a classic silver fox which really helped with knowledge transfer. We learned about how the island had been genetically tested, and how there was even an app called the Islendiga-App (“App of Icelanders”) which allows users to bump their phones into each other to determine their degree of relatedness. He also taught us some key phrases in the language and recounted Viking tales to us. My favourite Icelandic word happens to be the name of the disruptive volcano that erupted in 2010 – Eyjafjallajökull. If I’ve taken one thing from this trip, it’ll be the ability to pronounce that excuse for a word.
I learned, by observation, just how much most people love horses. Karen went nuts when she saw the Icelandic stallions, which I referred to as ponies (much to the chagrin of Didi). They’re adorably coiffed and quite small. Apparently they can sell for up to one million dollars because they have a unique gait and are the only type of horse in Iceland (purebreds). Icelandic people are so focused on purity of race, that if one of their horses leaves the island (for whatever reason), it’s never allowed to return. It’s like a really intense version of Survivor, but for non-humans. In any case, we saw two sets of waterfalls: the first was Seljalandsfoss, and the second was Skógafoss. I’ve already made clear my stance on waterfall viewing while ill in a country that literally has “ice” in its name.
Speaking of ice, we got to the glacier fairly early in the day and I was immediately convinced that I wouldn’t be able to walk further than its base (which felt like a full hike in of itself just to get to). The Sólheimajökull glacier is a part of the fourth biggest glacier in Iceland -- Myrdalsjökull, and it covers the volcano Katla. For this reason, the colours are a mix of ice and ash – crystal blue and jet black layers upon layers. Climbing up the glacier felt like an endurance test. I had to stop from time to time to cough up phlegm, and then rejoin the group as nimbly as my shaking muscles would allow me. By the time we reached the top, I stood in silence and looked out over the mountains, the glacier and to the ocean, and felt like I had hit nirvana, if only for a moment. In perfect silence it was the most rewarding peace after an arduous trek externally, and within myself.
We were all too tired to speak much after the glacier hike, which was fitting for our next stop: the black sand beach of Reynisfjara. It felt like we had entered another world, and made me better understand how and why Norse mythology came to be in such naturally violent surroundings. The waves didn’t creep up on us, they pounded the sand and within minutes were metres closer than they should have been. It felt like we had no protection from the natural elements, and it was intoxicating for that exact reason. Leaving the glacier and then Reynisfjara I felt overjoyed to be able to have visited this incredible island – full of volcanoes and glaciers.
That night upon return to the city, Karen and I decided that we had to go out and experience the famous nightlife we had heard so much about. It exceeded our expectations. As we were leaving our hotel lobby around 11pm, we stumbled across a group of very handsome, very tall, and very intoxicated Icelandic men. We joined their group, and went to a nearby bar called Jacobsen Loftið. They told us it was the classiest bar around, and it definitely appeared to be – one shot of their local spirit, Brennivín (also known as “black death”), cost the equivalent of $20 Canadian. I wasn’t too bothered because the Icelandic men were generous, in addition to being charming. Suffice it to say that we had a very nice night, and enjoyed the scenery.
Sunday was our final day, and I had only returned to the hotel around 4am, so I wasn’t too thrilled to be waking up early but it was worth it so that we could do a walking tour and also visit the local flea market. We went with CityWalk Reykjavik, which is staffed by two young Icelandic men who care a lot about local culture and history. It helped that they fed us licorice at the end of the two hour walk too. With that sugar high, we headed off in search of the famous hot dog stand -- Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Karen ate, and I waited patiently for the moment when we could head inside the Kolaportid flea market in the old harbour area. Immediately upon entering the market, Karen and I split up so that I could find a genuine Icelandic wool sweater and she could buy presents for her family. I found a stall manned by a group of grannies, and decided I couldn’t get more authentic than that. It turns out that they had created their own business of Icelandic grandmothers who handle the knitting of the sweaters, as well as the sales. After considerable discussion, and try-outs, we selected the newest member of my closet – a bright red, patterned sweater.
Short, but sentimental our trip to Iceland was meaningful because it taught me how much I’m capable of mentally and physically; and the importance of strong friendships.