Velkomin til Íslands. Við vonum að þið njótið brottflutningsins ykkar. (Welcome to Iceland. We hope you enjoy your evacuation.)
For months and months I’ve been looking forward to my family’s visit to Iceland--playing tour guide to an appreciative audience in a country I have come to love very much is only slightly less exciting than the simple fact that my parents and sister actually braved the crazy weather to fly out to the middle of the North Atlantic to see me! And it was quite a visit, I must say--perhaps more remarkable than we had hoped. Certainly more remarkable than we had expected.
With a little over a week to spend in and around Reykjavík, we made the most of our time--visiting the famous flea market in town just a few hours after my poor family stumbled sleepily off the red-eye and trudged back to my apartment in the wind and on-and-off rain (which, by the way, accompanied us practically the whole time they were here).
We hit the Blue Lagoon the next day--the geothermally-heated pool in the lava fields (which I had visited in January but hadn’t swum in until this visit). It was so wet and foggy when we first got in that we couldn’t see the far side of the water--in fact, we couldn’t see each other if we got more than ten feet away. It was all very mystical, once we got over the strangely primal fear of being in water up to our necks, isolated from everything familiar and solid--and we stayed in the water for five hours, squelching our toes (and, let’s be honest, our hands too) in the soft silica mud that coats the bottom of the pool and is bottled and sold for big bucks in town.
The next day, it was the Golden Circle (Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss--the Parliament Plains, the geyser park, and the waterfall)--another obligatory tourist activity. I had been there on a big bus tour the same day we attended the sheep round-up in September, but we rented a car this time and practically had the whole of Þingvellir to ourselves. Not only was the experience more personal, but it was significantly easier to line up a picture without getting strangers’ elbows in the shot.
After that, there was of course a horseback riding trip for my sister and me--the 'advanced rider' version this time, though we couldn’t figure out why you had to be advanced to take this trail, unless it was simply for the fact that we tölted more than we walked. It rained on us the whole time and my sister gallantly called it an “epic” experience, but weather notwithstanding, it truly was intoxicatingly exciting to be out on the river delta, splashing through the water on our sure-footed ponies and feeling very much like the first settlers of an uninhabited Iceland. My pony, for the curious, was a big-boned, fuzzy black fellow named Nekvi, and he was a terrific tölter; my sister’s chestnut pony, Frísa, was less of a tölter but a real sweetie. (Google “tölt” if that means nothing to you--I’ve written about it before, the first time I rode here.)
During the week, my family was very accommodating, entertaining themselves (to say nothing of sleeping on my floor night after night!) while I ran back and forth between being with them and going to classes. We saw just about all the interesting museums in Reykjavík--and a few that weren’t so interesting--and experienced some nice traditional Icelandic foods too (we’re talking lamb stew and flatbread, not putrefied shark or pickled ram’s testicles--what kind of hostess do you think I am?).
Then, this past weekend, we rented a car again and drove down into South Iceland to visit Skógar one day and Vík the next. We saw three absolutely stunning waterfalls (Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfurárfoss, and Skógafoss) and drove across the heart of saga territory while I regailed my very patient family with stories from the sagas. (Over there you can see the place where Gunnar’s wife let Gunnar die because he slapped her one time years before...oh, and over there is where Njal was burned to death in his own home. Oh, and did I tell you the story about Auðr, who bopped her enemy in the nose with the bag of coins he was trying to bribe her with? That happened in the Westfjords, but it’s a good story anyway.) I must say that, even beyond the beautiful waterfalls, it was an entirely strange experience being in South Iceland because there are simply no real towns. Once you pass Hvolsvöllur (itself a town of maybe 1000), it’s just small farms widely separated from each other, dotting a truly vast landscape, until you get to Skógar--and even that is little more than a hotel and a museum of curiosities (which, by the way, is very entertaining). It was almost unreal to realize that there was absolutely no place to stay the night--not even a place to eat!--for mile after mile of deserted road. It was more like driving in parts of the American West than anything--mountainous Utah on one side of the road and pancake-flat Illinois on the other, until you reach the sea.
We doubled back from Skógar and stayed the night at a farmer’s house near the Bakki airport (remember I was saying how the tradition of hospitality lives on here? It’s true--I can attest from first-hand experience!). At least, that is what we intended to do. A little after midnight, we were woken up by the farmer, who told us we had to evacuate to Hvolsvöllur because a volcano had erupted under Eyjafjallajökull, the glacier a few miles away. Needless to say, we didn’t argue. In fact, when we got to Hvolsvöllur, we just kept going and drove all the way back to Reykjavík, watching the red glow on the clouds--the reflection of the volcano in the sky--disappear in our rear-view mirrors. The farm where we were staying was in the flood plain, and they were worried less about lava and ash than they were about flash flooding from glacial melt--but then, it IS a volcano after all, and who knows what might come out of it? It turns out it hadn’t actually erupted under the glacier but beside it--a much safer event, if anything involving lava can be called safe. If you haven’t yet seen pictures of the eruption, check out this video, and practice your Icelandic at the same time: http://vefmidlar.visir.is/VefTV/?channelID=STOD2&programID=d93d6ddc-f3df-4c27-90e2-28d49738f306&mediaSourceID=47b8d1b3-4c40-41b3-8d5d-aa2280563582&mediaClipID=96771c94-1541-493b-84da-c3cc9f729912
So there was no Vík for us--a disappointment, to be sure, as the area is famously dramatic and beautiful--but we do now get to say that we were four of the 450-some people evacuated due to the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption of 2010. My parents and sister were very good sports about it all. (Can I just say, though, that it WOULD be my luck to take my volcano-paranoid family on a trip in South Iceland when a volcano that hadn’t erupted since 1821 suddenly decided to open up and spew molten lava all over the place?)
And THEN, as if the volcano wasn’t enough, on Monday when my family was supposed to fly out, the mechanics at Keflavík Airport went on strike, causing such chaos and delays that my dad just rebooked for Tuesday. Not that I objected to having a bonus day with my family, but first of all, I think they were rather tired of sleeping on the floor every night, and second, they had kind of "finished" Reykjavík and we were hard-put to find anything entertaining to do for that extra day they were here! But the strike ended Monday afternoon and the volcano wasn’t putting out enough ash to close the airport, so my family was able to make it out Tuesday evening.
I miss them already, and I hope they’ll remember the fun parts of their visit--but really, Iceland? A volcano AND a strike? What kind of sense of humor does this island have?!