The Land of Ice and Snow

Repost of travelogue from a decade ago which has disappeared from the interwebs.

My friend Gojira and I were discussing our respective travel-bugs and our never-ending competition to visit at least one new country each year.  When she suggested that we both travel somewhere, anywhere, together, I whimsically accepted the offer.  The conversation went something like this . . .

“Hey, wanna go to Australia?”
“Yeah!”
(several months pass)
“Ummmm, Australia is too far and too expensive to fly to – how about Iceland?”
“Yeah!”
(few more week go by)
“Why don’t we add Denmark too?”
“Yeah!”

And so, taking advantage of Iceland Air’s offer to fly to a European city and for no extra charge, stop over in Iceland for three days, we took off from New York and traveled to the northern-most capital in the world and points east.

Pre-Day One: August 21, 2003
To get to Iceland, I first had to get to New York City to meet up with Gojira. I took the train which was supposed to take a little over three hours but delay after delay got me into the city five hours later. By then, I had exhausted my supply of York Peppermint Patties which I had intended to use as a substitute for brushing my teeth on the various planes and trains and buses through Scandinavia. Ah well.

Gojira met me at Penn Station and we dropped off my luggage at her lovely Lower East Side digs so we could discuss travel plans. DC had a heat-index of about 100 that day and I am certain that NYC reached those breath-robbing, brain-melting temperatures as well. Over a delicious Thai dinner, we caught up on each other’s lives and swapped stories. Later, at the Pink Pony, we chatted over coffee and discussed literature, movies, and music. Even later, until about 5 a.m. the next morning, we talked about friends and family, quoted our favorite lines from film and television, tried out different accents and voices, did a few comedy routines and generally managed NOT to accomplish anything in the way of planning our trip as we had intended.

At 8:30 a.m., Gojira staggered off to work while I stumbled over to the computer for some last minute research for our trip. I sluggishly went out in search of Ray’s Original Jumbo Slice Pizza for a Coke-and-a-slice (Thanks, Christopher Moltisanti!) and when I returned to the apartment, I was so wiped out by the heat that I couldn’t even bear to open the pizza box. I cooled off, gobbled some cold pizza, and napped for a couple of hours until Gojira returned home, drenched and winded. We double-checked our packing, had lunch at the Pink Pony, and, since we had allotted ourselves plenty of time to reach JFK, leisurely made our way to the subway to catch the first A-train we saw. Unfortunately, it was not the right A-train. In fact, it was the completely wrong train to take and it wasn’t until we reached the end of the line in the absolute opposite direction that we wanted that we realized that small but important fact. It was rush-hour on Friday afternoon and we were at the northern tip of Manhattan when we really wanted to be near the southern end of Queens. We looked at each other, dumbfounded and aghast, and jumped back on the now-empty train, anxiously waiting for it to switch directions and take us to our destination. Turns out, the Ramones had it wrong; it was very hard and it was very far to reach Far Rock Rock Rockaway Beach. We constantly checked the map and our watches, held our breaths at each stop, willed the train to go faster and mentally encouraged the conductor to refuse entry to the slow passengers who, with each passing minute, were making us late for our flight (Yes. That’s right. It was the train and the other passengers’ fault).

Gojira was so distraught that she could only retain a tiny nugget of information each time she went to look at the map to see how many more stops we had left. I consoled myself by imagining worse scenarios that made this one seem palatable. “Hey, at least we don’t need dual emergency heart transplants and if we miss this flight and don’t receive the healthy hearts awaiting us in Iceland, we’ll die” kind of thing. At least I didn’t share this out loud (please refer yourselves to the classic film “Young Frankenstein” and the genius line from it: “Could be worse . . . could be raining” . . . smile, pause, wait for torrential downpour to begin).

With less than an hour before departure, we reached Far Rockaway Beach and nervously awaited the free shuttle bus which, in our fantasies, would whisk us away straight to the gate. Alas. By the time we got to our terminal, we had only 15 minutes before boarding and departure. Cue the “Mission Impossible” theme music. We ran up the escalator, skidded around the corner to a nearly-deserted Iceland Airways Check-In counter, and breathlessly awaited the punishment to be handed down to us.

“You are checking in NOW?,” the airline agent asked, flabbergasted.
“Yes, please?”
(clacking of the keys, frowning of the face, glancing of the eyes at these two wretched, sweaty women)
“You two are lucky. You are getting the last two seats.”

Relief washed over us as we raced through security, through the boarding area, and onto the plane. We laughed maniacally and marveled at the fact that, in this day of hyper-security and uber-suspicion, we managed to get through the entire JFK terminal (entrance, security, and plane doors) in under 10 minutes. We found our seats at the back of the plane, slumped down with relief that the last several harrowing hours were behind us, and then settled back and idly wondered when they were going to serve us some water and give us our cashmere blankets that we could later steal. Craptastic airplane food, not nearly enough water, acrylic blankets, and five-hours of flying time later, we arrived in Reykjavik.

Day One: The Land of Puffins, Prices, and Popp Rokk

Having flown all night from sweltering New York, we arrived in nippy Reykjavik, Iceland, a.k.a. Break-ya-bank, Priceland.   We staggered our way through customs, hit the ATM (Fun Fact: Iceland is one of the most expensive countries in the world, second only to Japan!), and threw our sleep-deprived bodies into the FlyBus shuttle from the Keflavik airport to the capital.  We got our first views of the Icelandic landscape which was decidedly lunar-like with its dark lava fields covered lightly in moss.  After being dropped off in the heart of Old Reykjavik, we checked into the Salvation Army Guesthouse which was much more pleasant than we expected.  Our new home was in a perfect location, just north of Tjörn lake (teeming with waterfowl and children) and west of the street Bankastræti (teeming with shops, cafés, and tourist information centers that employed chilly-demeanored personnel).  We dropped off our luggage in our garret room which was so tiny that you couldn’t swing a puffin in there. I could stretch my arm and leg and touch the opposite walls. Trust me; I tried it.

Lava Fields of Iceland Salvation Army Guesthouse

Attempting to follow the walking tour suggested by a guidebook, we ended up walking clear across Old Town and reached the bus station at the other end of town without finding any open cafés in which to have our breakfast/dinner. Neither locals nor tourists were to be seen on that early Saturday morning. I would not have been surprised to see tumbleweed-like snowballs drifting down the deserted street and to hear someone whistling the theme song to “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. Doubling back, we found Kaffitár, the #2 champions in the 2003 World Barista Competition. We were surprised at how good the bagels were in Reykjavik and Kaffitár became our favorite coffee/bagel hangout (Fun Fact #2: USD$8 for a bagel with cheese and a swiss mocha!). We watched some ice-blond children feeding ducks and gulls at Tjörn lake until the chilliness and bone-tiredness hit us and we returned to our mini-room for naps.

Three Icelandic Kids

View from our room in Reykjavik

Refreshed, we strolled around the town until we reached the end of the main street again which did not take very long.  Apparently, the exchange rate is one American step = five Icelandic steps.  We leaped and bounded back up the street and decided to try Icelandic Thai food for lunch at Nudlehaus.  The black noodles were topped with what we originally suspected were raw shrimp and then figured were canned shrimp but at any rate were gross.  Score negative one for Icelandic cuisine.

Whole Mess of Black Noodles and Shrimps

We strolled around Austurvöllur park which had an amazing exhibit of Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s “Earth from Above” photographs.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand Exhibit

Afterwards, we parked ourselves at Café Paris for a three-hour coffee break and before we knew it, it was 9 p.m. and the sun had disappeared!  It had been completely obscured by clouds all day, but by night, it was really “night” – no midnight sun, no insanity, nothing.  We later learned that only in July are there a couple hours of darkness in southern Iceland.  Since it was dark and surprisingly quiet for a Saturday night, we decided to pack it in.

Day Two: Bláa Lónið
After a good night’s sleep on comfortable beds with thick blankets, we stacked up our beds, packed our few belongings, and said goodbye to the weeping baby portrait hung on the candy-colored walls of our single room to shift over to a double room.  Kaffitár did not open until 10 a.m., so we occupied ourselves by walking along the main street, loitering by the harbor, and counting ducks.  Over breakfast, we leafed through the local paper where several news-worthy ducks made the front page (seven ducks on the front page and another five geese on the second page).

Gulls & Ducks

Bellies and minds fed, we returned to our spacious double room to get ready for our excursion to Iceland’s famous Bláa Lónið, or the Blue Lagoon.  The geothermal spa boasts healing power water that is warm (38°C/100°F year-round), silky (from the mineral salts, silica, and blue-green algae), and dreamy (clouds of vapor surround the pool and the lava rocks beyond).

The bus picked us up at the Guesthouse and we arrived at the Blue Lagoon about 40 minutes later.  We ran from the bus through the chilly mist to face our biggest fear: the communal shower.  Icelandic protocol requires all patrons to shower sans swimsuits before entering the pool.  All accounts thus far indicated that we would have to join throngs of naked swimmers jostling for positions under the shower sprays.  One helpful individual suggested we “just suck it up.”   Our fears were allayed when we entered the locker room with electronic-key bracelets and saw that there was a bathroom in which to change clothes and several cubicles with shower curtains.  Whew!  The indoor pool led to the outdoor pool where several areas were available to explore: the silica mud dispenser stations where one can glop Iceland’s #1 skin-care product on one’s face to draw out impurities, the intense waterfall that pounds one’s shoulders, and the sauna that can lull one to sleep (and/or suffocation) in an instant.  Definitely an experience to be had.

Back in Reykjavik, we walked along the coastline and clambered over Sólfar, a metal sculpture of a Viking ship.  We treated ourselves to a meal at the relatively inexpensive Kebob Husio of fried fish and kebabs, and then warmed up with some coffee at Svarta Kaffið.  We chatted amiably for hours, sipping on our mochas and observing the clientele, when suddenly, in mid-conversation, I gasped “We don’t have any money left!”  We had spent our last bit of Icelandic kroners on our trip to the Blue Lagoon having received false information that the bus took credit cards.  Luckily, the café took plastic so we were saved the embarrassment of not having enough money to pay for two coffees.  On our way back home, we wandered around Yann’s exhibit again (Fun Fact #3: touring over 20 countries for more than 30 million visitors, the photography display is the world’s most seen exhibition ever!).  A round of cards, a review of the next day’s itinerary, and a sound sleep all around.

Iceland View of Atlantic Ocean 2

Day Three: Gullfoss and Geysir

Kaffitár was hopping that early Monday morning, so we ordered our breakfast to go and went to enjoy it in a patch of rare sunshine on a bench at Tjörn lake.  This time, not only did we count the ducks, we fed some as well.  One geezer duck came right up to us to be fed and I think I may have contracted duckpox when I hand-fed a half-blind duck and he mistook my fingertip for a piece of the bagel.  We made our daily trek up the main street to book a six-hour tour with Iceland Excursions that day and returned for a power-nap.

The tour of South Central Iceland began with þingvellir (the þ is pronounced as a “th” as in “Thor’s Hammer”), the setting of the first parliamentary house established in 930 A. D. (and by “house” I mean wide, open fields precariously resting on a still-active rift between the continental plates of Europe and North America) and later, the first national park established almost 1000 years later.  Close to the beautiful, crystal-clear þinvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake, one can see the Öxaráfoss waterfall (Fun Fact #4: women found guilty of crimes such as having illegitimate children were executed by being tied up in bags and tossed into the immensely powerful waterfall which led to Drekkingarhylur, The Drowning Pool!).  At the wishing-well spring Peningagjá, we looked longingly at the numerous shiny coins glittering in the chasm that mocked our empty pockets.  The pure silence and beauty of the area was palpable and it would have been easy to lose hours and hours just admiring the scenery.

pingvallavatn lake 3 pingallavatn lake at pingvellir peningagja wishing spring

On our way to the next spot, we stopped at a farm in the countryside for an unexpected treat of being greeted by the handsome Icelandic horses.  Friendly, soft, and gentle-natured, the horses came right up to the road and allowed us to pet them.  They were so docile and short-statured that we were tempted to call them “ponies,” but our guide warned the group not to call them that because that would upset the farmers who take great pride in their purebred Equus scandinavicus.

pony pony pony Icelandic Horses

Gullfoss (the Golden Waterfall) provided us with a great place to take pictures of the glacial river Hvitá’s long drop (11 meters and then another 21 meters of rushing, falling water) and to snack on granola bars (our version of lunch in Priceland).

Gullfoss

If the sun was shining, we could have seen a rainbow, but it wasn’t and we didn’t and so we moved on to see the Great Geysir.  The English word “geyser” is derived from the Icelandic word “geysir” which means gusher and all of the world’s spouting hot springs are named after this one.  The petulant Great Geysir was not in action that hour, but the nearby geyser Strokkur (The Churn) erupts every 5-7 minutes.  If you time it just right and don’t get distracted by a bit of sunshine that may suddenly appear behind you and wait for the big, blue bubble to appear at the mouth of Strokkur, you can catch its white column of boiling hot, sulfuric water that furiously shoots up as high as 20-30 meters.

Geysir

On the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped at the 3000 year old explosion crater Kerió that is filled by a symmetrical green lake.

Kerio crater

We drove through the clouds along a mountainous path and Odin (yes, that was our guide’s name) told us tales of trolls (apparently they like blueberries and dislike sunshine), the shortage – and shortness – of trees (classic Icelandic joke: Q-What do you do if you are lost in an Icelandic forest? A-Stand up!) and golfers (every town has a golf course because they are thought to be classy even though not many Icelanders play).  Upon our return, we thought we’d try out the restaurant Pasta Basta for dinner and figured even Iceland couldn’t get pasta wrong. Result: score negative two.

Day Four: Aloha, Iceland. Aloha, Denmark.

We had an early morning breakfast at Café Paris of smoked salmon (although at first, the waitress brought us some lamb; presumably, she heard “smoked lambon”) which was very good and finally scored Iceland a positive point in the culinary ratings.  Quick stops at Kaffitár for our last bit of award-winning coffee and croissants, at Hallgrímskirkja church that was built to resemble a jet of lava, and at our room to pack.  We confirmed that the FlyBus that was to take us to the airport did accept credit cards (because at that point we didn’t have two kroners to rub together) and bid adieu to Iceland.

All the text above is copyright 2003 Bajidc

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