Thursday, July 24, 2014

Iceland outtakes

I am back to Summer and back for sleep. Perpetual daylight sounded brilliant to me--but after a week, my internal clock had become a real mess. 

I'm going to bed! 

Have some funny signs.

Chuck Norris once took a lie detector test. The machine confessed everything.

Chuck Norris can do a wheeling on a unicycle. 
In Monopoly, you pay Chuck Norris to stay off your property.

The Icelandic people are an odd but entertaining bunch.
You should go. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The day I took a tern for the worse.

At the end of the trip, I took off on an epic 17-hour bus journey, covering 235 miles (377 km, one-way) of Iceland's southern coastline.  Some visual highlights from our route included geysers and waterfalls; massive, untouched lava fields; and a surreal lunar-feeling landscape with black sand as far as the eye could see. 

This is not a black and white photo. 

All of this beauty aside, our destination, in my opinion, proved to be the most stunning and ethereal (yet mournful) scene in Iceland.

The slow demise of our glaciers, reluctantly sliding from the mountaintops into the lagoon at Jökulsárlón

In the lagoon they melt away and break apart, until they are small enough to cross into the Atlantic to be swallowed by the warmer water. 

I was compelled to take a gazillion photos, none of which can accurately capture the otherworldliness of this place.

Wait! Is that a tern-shaped iceberg...mocking me?

Of course something crazy happened to me! While admiring the serene landscape I was attacked by a bird. An Arctic tern (I later discovered), and it's a mean little bastard. 

These curmudgeonly beasts hover above the water scoping for prey. When they spot lunch, they dive razor-sharp-beak-first and absolutely vertically into the water, surfacing a split second later with their reward.


Here's a tern in action at a lake in central Reykjavík.

So there I am--playing the role of "Melanie Daniels"--walking away from the lagoon toward the hot chocolate stand. (It's quite chilly there, duh.) Suddenly a bird swoops down so close to my head that I could feel the wind from its wings. 

"What the hell?!?!" I thought. Certainly birds must have better spatial judgement than that. 

And again, this time just inches from my jugular. Seriously?

No, two-foot, you misunderstand. 

"This is my space, and all of that [waving arms overhead like a frantic wack-job] is your space!"

After a few more repetitions, I'm ducking for cover under my arms, peering side-to-side to see if anyone is witnessing this madness. I realize that I am wearing one of my favorite scarves--grey and black with a few light-catching sequins sewn here and there. I conclude that the bird thinks those sequins are lunch. 

While running, I unwrap the scarf and shove it down the front of my sweater. 

Death is averted by a narrow margin. 

When I recounted the story later, my friend Spike cleverly noted that I had "taken a tern for the worse."

Tangential anecdote: Spike said that the Bodega Bay, California schoolhouse from the Hitchcock classic The Birds had been converted to a restaurant. Spike's friend had been a chef there in the 1970's. Once, a customer complained to the waitress that his baked potato was bad. Apparently having had her fill of whiney patrons for the day, she picked up his potato and spanked it three times, chiding, "Bad Potato!" She returned it to his plate and said he should alert her immediately regarding any further misbehavior.

He gave her a $20 tip.

Bad tern! I would've spanked it, given the chance. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Reykjavík rolls off the tongue

Melissa: "Are you going to try the fermented shark?"

Jenjinha: "Uh, no. Anthony Bourdain, a man with significant experience in these things, said that fermented shark was the single worst thing he had ever put in his mouth. And I've seen him eat some things way beyond my adventure-seeking limits."

Nope. Tonight I shall have lamb (she says, again)! But first, my descent into Þríhnúkagígur volcano.

Say what? 


(press play)  "Þríhnúkagígur"

Normally, I attempt to learn--at a bare minimum--greetings and pleasantries, some numbers and basic directional language when traveling. Iceland is the first place that this felt utterly futile. 

I mean, honestly Iceland: is all that really necessary?

I departed central Reykjavík on a bus with a driver, a guide, and about 15 other visitors from several different nations in the morning. After half an hour, we arrived atop a peak, at the departure station for the hike. 

You must walk over the bulbous lavarock terrain for about an hour to arrive at Base Camp, at the volcano's crater. 

It's not an overly difficult hike, but maintaining balance on an uneven surface works a different set of muscles than I'm accustomed to. Hiking boots would have helped, but I hadn't done my due diligence before this trip. I was wearing Keens, which have decent grip but no ankle support--and my abused ankles were hurting the next day. 

The view from the top of the crater

Arriving at the crater, we harness up and listen to a brief safety presentation.  Then we make our descent in groups of 5 (plus the guide, and the "lift" operator). There's a good video here, though neither it, nor my photos can fully capture the depth or the vibrancy of the colors inside. Check out some professional photos here

The colors vary based on what minerals are being scorched by the magma, I was told. For perspective, this image captures approximately a 75 vertical feet (23m). 

That small circle of light on the upper right side of the photo is the opening of the crater--where we started the descent in the lift. 

Thfreekgnoukerkeegir (or something like that): absolutely worth a spot on your Bucket List.

What the Huldufólk?

The BBC came out with this piece just a few weeks before my visit. One of my tour guides distilled the situation thusly: "10% of us don't believe in elves at all, 10% firmly do, and 80% are undecided--but err on the side of caution." 

Mind you: she brought it up. A guidebook had warned me not to do so because any perceived incredulity on the part of foreigners can be quite offensive.  I have certain beliefs that others may mock, so who am I to judge? 

I'd rather contemplate all of these mystical mysteries over a beer. So I find myself at The Lebowski Bar. 

Great signs, fun decor, nice happy hour specials. 

An all-around good place for day-drinkin' -- that is to say, all the time. 


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Iceland: up the hill, under the hill, over the hill

It's late afternoon, the day after my 40th birthday: to the keen observer, this statement of fact will adequately summarize the festivities.

I went out last night, as one might expect. Since it always appears to be afternoonish, I stayed out. 

The perpetual light deceives. This picture was taken unmentionably late. 
Good fun. 

There are videos of tequila shots which shall only ever be seen by yours truly. 

I would like a Viking for my birthday. 

Why, thank you.

True story: The night before my birthday, the mayor of Reykjavík and his well-heeled clan celebrated his birthday at the hostel bar. I almost asked him to take a selfie with me--how great a souvenir would that have been? Me and the mayor of Reykjavík, at a hostel bar on our birthday. Alas, I didn't muster the nerve. 

On to the tourism highlights. 
All the rumors are true: Iceland is phenomenally pricey. I will take three excursions: the Golden Circle tour, Inside the Volcano, and a visit to Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, for which I shelled out $80, $350, and $270 respectively. Yowza. But you only turn 40 once, and I only anticipate one trip to Iceland.

Sadly, this was the majority of my Golden Circle tour yesterday.

I did see some of the fissures between the North American and Eurasian continental plates...


I took a selfie and a piece of lava rock at Gullfoss ("golden waterfall")...

I learned that Iceland sustains its own produce needs with geothermal greenhouses. The President of Peru was gifted a bunch of Icelandic bananas to welcome him on his State visit. And the salads are amazing. Veggies so flavorful and crunchy, topped with yogurt and avocado spread. This time served alongside a fresh baguette with smoked salmon, arugula, and tzatziki, at the very charming Stofan Café. Everything tasted as though it had actually come into existence just 3 hours earlier. 

So that's the craic. :)
Today, I'm recovering. Happily chilling. Reading, drinking coffee (they have already named a special drink after me!) at Kaffitár. Might seek out some of the famous lamb for dinner, before a reasonable bedtime because the volcano tour departs at 9am.


Friday, July 18, 2014

Let's go to Iceland!

Iceland is an odd (in a good way) little place. 
The weather has been atypical for "summer" here. Unseasonably cool, like everywhere else it seems. Rainy and in the 50s (F), but I was prepared for that, having stalked the weather sites pre-departure. 

Departure... ah, yes. My outbound flights switched 4 times before being cancelled altogether due to bad storms in New York. I was re-routed and re-booked for the next day. Rather than the direct flight I'd reserved, I now had a long layover in Minneapolis. For part of this, I played Tom Hanks in The Terminal. You see, Delta directed me away from Terminal 1 to it's lesser stepsister Terminal 2 (a walk, a tram, then a Metro stop away) where I would "check in at Iceland Air." They failed to mention, though, that I couldn't check in for 4 hours--when the check-in counter for that flight opened. Since these flights to Reykjavík are only offered once daily, it doesn't pay to have Iceland Air staff on site or a counter open outside a limited check-in window. So, in fact, I had to check in at the "Sun Country Airlines" counter-- não têm nada a ver!-- an airline I've never even heard of.  At this point I'm not very confident in any of this process, and I'm definitely not enjoying my foray into the dramedy, "Dealing With Delta." 

Had I known any of these key details, I would have stayed in T1 and used a United Club pass to while away the layover time. There were no airline lounges in T2 and all the restaurants were located beyond security--where I couldn't go without a boarding pass that I wouldn't be issued for 4 hours. D'oh! So I'm stuck in baggage claim. I'd have entertained myself with conveyor belt rides if I thought I'd have gotten away with it.

Not one to give up, I made my way back to T1, where there was a single restaurant in the pre-security zone. 

Ahh, the savory reward of perseverance. 

With the passenger overload on Iceland Air from Delta's cancelled flight, I wound up in Business Class: it was a nice surprise/recompense for the frustration. It wasn't as luxurious as business class on U.S. airlines (I was served a microwaved ham & cheese baguette), but the extra wiggle room was appreciated!

If you look close, my plane bears the name of the famed 2010 volcano. 
Phonetically, in English, approximately: 
AY-uh few-at-luh you-coo
Foneticamente em português:
Ê-ó fio-at-lá eu-quel
(I spent 40 minutes on a bus ride working that out. You're welcome.)

Resulting from the flight delays, my lodging reservations were all shaken up. Not a big deal, but I had to cancel the swanky hotel night at the Blue Lagoon because I added a day to the end of the trip--shifting everything--and they couldn't accommodate the change. 

Arriving too early to check in to the hostel, and tired, I winged it at the airport and bumped my Blue Lagoon visit to NOW. (Why Not?) 

The Icelanders have this tourist spectacle down to a science. You can check luggage at the first "room" off the bus. You pay for your entrance package at the reception area just down the path. You get a fuzzy robe, slippers, a locker key, and head the to changing rooms. There are showers with everything you need: shampoo, conditioner, soap. Extra towels. Out the other end of the changing area is the main lagoon. 

Glorious. Even on a grey day, utterly surreal. 

Honestly, no filters or enhancements on these photos. This is the real deal. Beautiful black lava rock against a murky-white, powder-blue lagoon. Spectacular.

Dive in. 



Have a smoothie and a mud mask. 

Ahhhh. I would do it again. 
Sure it's touristy. (The locals have secret places every bit as lovely that they enjoy--and good for them.) But this is a tourist trap worth visiting. 
Still, I was glad I had cancelled the swanky hotel because a few hours is plenty: an overnight stay would have been overkill melted on a boredom sandwich.

I took an afternoon bus into town. (There's only one town in Iceland, when you get down to it.) 

The Loft Hostel is great. Well located, well staffed, clean, and fun. Great bar on the top (4th) floor--though the the locals boast about the hostel bar's "spectacular" views which leaves me entirely puzzled. I get that the 4th floor in Reykjavík equates to 60th floor in Chicago... yet it doesn't, you know? Not much of an awe-inspiring panorama.

Nevertheless, I'd found a happy home for my celebratory week. Vamo lá gente!