Iceland is tough. Jess and I knew it going in, but really it was a spur of the moment decision. Jess and I agreed we both wanted to see the Northern Lights or at least a place that would present the possibility. When Alaska seemed too expensive, deals for Iceland kept popping up. We went with TravelZoo and nailed down a deal in November for March - about $900 for some tours, hotel nights, and roundtrip airfare. Turns out Iceland used to survive by fishing. Now, fishing is second to tourism.
With our flight jumping through time zones, we completely missed bedtime, so we headed to our hotel, the Reykjavik Natura, and shoveled breakfast food into our bellies. Our first unofficial tour was our delirious and wide-eyed Friday morning wandering around downtown Reykjavik. We walked a couple of miles to hug the coast and see a bit of the mountains behind the low-hanging rainclouds. We first ran into the church, Hallgrímskirkja, which would be our North Star for the trip, it standing 70 meters (almost 80 yards) tall. And just in front of it stood a statue, gifted by the United States, of Icelandic explorer Leif Erikson.
We walked until we couldn't anymore and downed a couple of happy hour beers, Iceland's version of Coors Light, Viking. And we settled on an Icelandic Thai restaurant when we couldn't explore any more after that.
Misery of Wet Jeans
Our first official tour was postponed on Saturday after the threat of a hurricane delivered 60mph winds and rain. So what did we do? We walked out into it. We were both forward-thinking enough to bring rain-jackets but somehow the idea of having wet legs didn't cross our minds. Jeans and thermal underwear underneath, soaked to the bone. Walking the minimum of a mile from our hotel to downtown Reykjavik was the most miserable and helpless I was during the whole trip. We just kept marching and hilariously complaining out-loud about the sheer ridiculousness of it. It made me realize what it is to be from Iceland.
We ended up at the Café Loki for some traditional Icelandic food, which was recommended to us by a friend and coworker, Zach, who had visited Iceland last October. The most substantial meal on the menu was good enough for both of us: lamb pate and lamb soup. Icelanders love lamb.
And then we had dessert to lighten the mood.
To avoid the rain, we skipped across the street from Loki to check out the insides of our North Star church and get a view of Reykjavik from the top.
And what better place to go to after church but the Icelandic Phallological Museum, quite possible the only penis museum in the world. And yet it sticks out for me as the only place in Iceland during our trip that only accepted cash and did not greet us as if they were happy for the patronage. That's right, a dick ran the dick museum.
Anyway, we saw all sorts of animal dicks and other historical penis paraphernalia. There were penis bones from various animals, penis artwork (of course), and even the donated penis of a 95-year-old man. Yikes! I can't say I've learned much about the penis but it was a good thing to do.
We were already soaked and downtown, so we continued Jess' tradition of eating pizza around the world and had some for dinner. It was surprisingly okay for coming from the Land of Fish and Lamb. And we visited the Kolaportid flea market, which was also surprisingly okay. It wasn't much different from some flea markets I've seen in New Jersey or New York except it featured Icelandic foods, like fish and hot dogs, and some Icelandic clothing.
"Were you going to rage?"
On Sunday, we woke up and Jess discovered that we could actually see some mountains from our hotel window. It turns out the clouds were hiding them the first couple days and seeing them Sunday was a good omen for the South Shore bus tour we went on. We stopped first, near Vik, at Mýrdalsjökull, a big-ass glacier. It was a watery shade of blue and the soil beneath our feet was soft. I collected some rocks and we snapped some photos before running back to the bus. We were warned by our tour guide to grab our food quickly from a rest stop since the staff wasn't the most efficient and we only had a half hour. Jess and I proceeded to inhale some more lamb soup and french fries to top it, so we could run out into the rain and catch a glimpse of the black sand beach nearby. Soaked again.
It turned out we were headed for some more black sand beaches down the road and we hopped out for a quick peek. The Icelandic shore Reynisfjara features giant basalt columns that are formed from the rapid cooling of lava. They are the main inspiration for the shape of our North Star, the Hallgrímskirkja. They felt like stacks of paper crammed together, so much so you could slide a plate out, examine it, and slide it back in.
Next, we ended up at the Skógar Folk Museum, a giant collection of over 15,000 artifacts telling of Iceland's history and culture. We heard some stories about the hardships of Icelandic fishermen a century earlier. Throughout the whole trip, Jess and I wondered why someone would choose to stay in such an unforgiving environment. The Icelandic fishermen knew they had the advantage of plentiful fish, so that's one thing, but the hang-up was that the fishing season was the dead of winter. To combat the weather, the fishermen had hard leather pants they needed to rub with fish oil to get soft enough to put on. And if you can imagine how rubbing fish oil all over your pants smells, you can understand why they threw up regularly getting ready for work.
I'm normally not one to take in what museums have to offer, I suppose I wasn't normally amazed by history. I'm more interested in what advances we can make today, but Iceland really opened my eyes to the struggles of the past. Before I could breathe it all in, we were rushed to see as much as we could of the museum before jumping back on the bus. Jess and I took the chance to run to the Skal farm, which includes two sod-covered homes curated like they would have been years ago. They were quite tiny to hold in any available heat insulated by the sod roofs. They were cute, little hobbit homes, but it wasn't exactly the home sweet home you'd want after a day of hurling over your fishing pants and bringing home the catch.
It made me so grateful to be born in an era where I could make my own way without such intense, unforgiving physical labor and struggle.
We zipped to the Skógafoss waterfall, where the legend goes that the first Viking settler, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a treasure in a cave behind it. Personally, I just found it incredible to stand beneath and witness.
The next waterfall and final stop before the end of the tour was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. I wasn't feeling it anymore after a day of being rushed and rained on that I almost stayed on the bus. Peer pressure got the best of me, not only from Jess heading out with her camera, but most of the bus going too. I ran out with a renewed confidence and when Jess didn't want to risk taking her expensive cameras behind the waterfall, I felt I had to go. I traversed some ice and snapped some pictures, marveling again at Mother Nature.
It was such a long day and I made the quick suggestion we hit the Lebowski bar for some Americanized comfort food - hamburgers and fries and soda and milkshakes and, of course, if you've seen The Big Lebowski, White Russians. The walls had bowling paraphernalia and pin-up girls and the bar was lined with the kind of carpet that ties a room together, as Lebowski said. Plus, our waitress was this gorgeous Icelandic woman. She would not stop smiling and I almost wanted to keep ordering drinks just to see it. Jess and I experimented with their variations of White Russians and I forgot why I stopped drinking them. I suppose it's a hard drink to pick a season for being it's cold and has milk as a main ingredient.
We were sharing a square booth near the front door big enough for maybe six people to sit and we were stretched out. We zoned out watching Dazed and Confused on a projector screen for a bit until some middle-aged ladies from Manchester sat down next to us. Luckily, we were on our way out because they started to ask us about ourselves and commented we looked like we were headed out to rage. Wishful thinking on their part. Jess and I kaboshed that immediately, almost comically. We were so ready for bed and ran away.
Old Lady Adventure Club
We started out Monday on our shorter tour, postponed from Saturday. The first stop was Þingvellir National Park. The rain was stabbing my face with a thousand tiny needles until the sun came out for a solid, beautiful five minutes. I hoped it would remain and it did when we hit our lunch stop. Jess and I wolfed down some more lamb soup and Jess got chicken nuggets for good measure. I snapped some shots of Icelandic wrestling memorials and statues. I knew Iceland was a strongman haven but I didn't know about wrestling.
No time to find out more because Jess and I wanted to see some geysers erupt. On our way walking to see Strokkur erupt, we saw a couple of old ladies walking away from them. It didn't strike us as a place for some fragile older people to be, so we were amazed by their strength. You only live once, right? We started joking with each other that we need to start the Old Lady Adventure Club.
We dove so deep into this idea we came up with the some catchphrases to rope more friends in. What do you think?
Do you like adventure, within reason?
Do you want to be in bed at 10pm?
Do you like eating breakfast? Like a lot?
Join the Old Lady Adventure Club - Adventuring within reason.
We kept laughing and headed down the road to the Gulfoss waterfall which spills into a canyon within the Hvítá river. It was awe-inspiring, almost as wild as the Niagara Falls.
We decided it was a good night for the traditional Iceland hotdog and had two each for dinner. Jess was the more adventurous one and opted for everything, which, to Icelanders, is mayo, mustard, ketchup, and onions, crunchy and raw. And of course Coca-Cola.
Because Iceland is so isolated on its own, importing products in can get expensive. McDonalds closed their doors in Iceland after 2006. We only noticed a few familiar brands, like Subway, Quizno's, Domino's, Coca-Cola, Toyota, and a few others. It's almost counter-intuitive, Iceland works better making everything themselves. They stick close to their own.
After hotdogs, we hit the bar for dessert. It was a quiet and tiny spot, full of knitwork, which made me want to give it a try to make some cool 8-bit looking framed pieces. Then, we stumbled on the church which was lit up green for St. Patrick's Day.
Walking back to the hotel, Jess almost peed herself because she has the bladder of a schoolgirl. I laughed my ass off, mocking her while she struggled with the hotel door.
After we both gathered our bearings, we hit the hotel bar and bothered the bartender with so many questions and comments that he gave us some samples of Brennivin and Opal. Brennivin, or "Black Death", is the signature Icelandic liquor. Usually, Icelanders get a kick out of having tourists drink it after sampling fermented shark. Opal tastes like cough syrup. Apparently, Quentin Tarantino is a fan but he once said he thought it tasted how he imagined poison would. I enjoyed them both so much I said what the hell and brought a bottle home of each.
Warm Water, Cool Lights
We accidentally saved some of the best experiences for last. I'd dreamed about the Blue Lagoon since I saw it somewhere on the Internet. If I'm really honest with myself, the first time hot springs really intrigued was when I first saw Japanese macaque monkeys steaming in them on an old wildlife VHS. They seemed so luxurious for monkeys, I knew I needed to try it. And by God did those monkeys have the right idea! The Blue Lagoon was otherwordly. You could barely see the mountains in the distance, past the bright glare of the (unfamiliar) sun and the steam coming off the hot water. It was the perfect temperature no higher than your chest and you could float up and buy a beer with a wristband.
You're meant to shower before and after going into the hot springs. Before was to keep the hot springs clean of all the human funk brought in there. After was more for your own personal hygiene since the hot natural springs made your hair and skin a bit dried out. Showering somewhat in public was a thrill too. They were separated by gender, which was normal enough, but the experience itself felt unnatural. Growing up guarded in America, I never had the locker-room experience, but it was freeing to step outside the norm of myself.
On the way home from the Blue Lagoon, some guy passed out on the bus. Another passenger jiggled him a bit until he woke up. The bus driver wasn't concerned, though. Apparently, it happens here and there because of the heat of the springs.
When we returned to Reykjavik, we still had some time to kill before we headed out to find the Northern Lights. We had a quick dinner and grabbed a taxi to head back to the hotel to grab our tour bus. And just as we pulled up to pay the cab driver at the hotel, she leaned out the window and with the enthusiasm I'd only expect from a foreigner, she exclaimed, "Oh, look, the Northern Lights!" Sure enough, despite the sky still being a bit light, you could make out some faint green swirls. We knew we were in for some great sights that evening!
And so we loaded into the tour bus from there and sped down Road #1, the main highway of all of Iceland. Even heading to Iceland, Jess and I didn't want to get our expectations up that we would see them. The Northern Lights were forces of nature and even though they were the impetus to book the trip, they weren't the only reason, so I think Jess and I pushed the possibilities out of our heads. But then the tease of the night sky and some good weather rumors seeped in. All of a sudden, we were going down the highway seeing all sorts of shapes appearing behind the bright highway lights. When we hit the roads beyond there, it became clearer and clearer. We jumped out the tour bus and ran for some clear, dry ground. They started to appear more and more, in all their glory. It was perfect! The Lights were brightly dancing over the sky above our heads. It looked as if the Sun cracked an egg full of magnetic yolk over the atmosphere above our heads. I turned my head and they were dancing like a wind-whipped curtain. They weren't as green as all the pictures suggest, it's more light green and white clouds that make incredible shapes. The camera pulls in more color than the human eye so that's what you're seeing in the pictures. Jess and I did some poses to capture ourselves with the Lights, and just admired them with our eyes for a bit. Normally, I try to make meanings of these things but it was just amazing and lucky to be able to experience it. Apparently we were incredibly lucky. Icelanders hadn't seen the Lights since the New Year and we happened to take the tour on the first perfect night of the year. I was and still am extremely grateful.
The Old Lady Adventure Club decided sleeping in was acceptable after spending the night searching for Northern Lights. We found a good weekday brunch spot at Cafe Paris and were dumbfounded by some young mothers leaving their babies outside the restaurant in strollers. It was a reminder of how neurotic and Nerfed America is and how relaxed Europe can be. Even during tours we could have easily skipped over flimsy rope barriers to fall into waterfalls or burn ourselves in geyser waters.
Jess and I went to a fancy restaurant we didn't realize we captured Jess on video attempting to pronounce earlier in the week. We shared a smoked puffin appetizer that tasted like some smoother, chewier jerky. Not terrible if you didn't think about the fact you were chewing on a little puffin's chest. The whale steaks Jess adventured to buy were way better, though. She read a review prior that it was better than any steak you'd ever eaten and they might not have been off. I'm no foodie, but this steak was good!
We braved the rain falling after dinner because there were no taxis available, and returned to the hotel for an Icelandic movie night. They had their own mini theater and we watched an amazing film called Hafið. I'm still trying to digest it but it was the story of an incredibly dysfunctional Iceland family figuring out what to do with the father's fishing business when he passes on. They were so mean to each other! They were so hardened by their upbringing in the cold climate and the equally cold interpersonal relationships that they couldn't turn away. In 100 short minutes, there was insults, incest, a mischievous ram, incompetent police, graffiti sprayed on one Land Rover and a metal rake taken to another. There was double-crossing and fistfights and sexual abuse. Insane. It drove Jess and I to drink and count our blessings once again.
Was there something to be learned from all this? Sure. We could always find something to learn. The greatest part was the simple experience of stepping outside. The act of exploring itself makes you more curious. Jess and I asked each other questions all trip long, wondering out loud.
Where does black sand come from?
Is the arctic fox really the only native animal? How?
You can't see the Northern Lights through an iPhone? Why?
It was an exercise in learning more about myself too. Jess and I are pretty much the same person and the joke of starting the Old Lady Adventure Club only solidified how we like to travel. We're not there to party, we're there to explore. And I can't think of a better way to wrap this up and avoid over-analyzing than using the words of Joseph Campbell:
"Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”