Saturday, May 15, 2010

Iceland A-Ö

Vertu sælt, Ísland, og þakka þér fyrir allt! (Good bye, Iceland, and thank you for everything!)

After nine months, which flew by so very fast, I am flying out tomorrow afternoon! Well, that’s the plan, if the Eyjafjallajökull volcano condescends to let me leave. It’s been an amazing year, and it’s been an amazing last week here too!

I was lucky enough to have one of my good friends fly out from Maryland to visit me, and of course it ended up being a much bigger for her than she expected—thank you very much, volcanic ash cloud. She got routed through Glasgow, then Akureyri in the north, and then she had a 6-hour bus ride from there to Reykjavík! At least she was able to come at all, though, and we’ll just hope that doesn’t happen again tomorrow afternoon!

We had two lovely adventures together in the few days she was here: first, we saw the puffins! I didn’t think I’d have a chance to see Iceland’s most famous bird before I left, but my friend was clever enough to find a tour that was operating already—so we went! Puffins are adorable birds—clumsy and frantic in the air, bumbling on the ground, and oddly formal in their tuxedo outfits with those ridiculous toucan-colored beaks. We were entirely charmed.

Then, the next day (having rescheduled once due again to the ash cloud), we took a day tour to Akurkeyri and Mývatn! Akureyri is the “Capital of the North,” and Mývatn (the unprepossessingly-named “Midge-fly Lake”) is one of Iceland’s greatest natural wonders. We stopped at Goðafoss, a horse-shoe shaped waterfall that’s almost as famous here as Gullfoss on the Golden Circle. It’s not very tall, but it looks a little like a miniature Niagara—only without the hydroelectric power plant and casinos.

The lake itself is dotted with pseudo-crater islands, the remnants of ancient volcanoes that exploded and left great pockmarks on the land. We were so lucky in terms of weather! We had only a little rain here and there, mostly while we were on the road, and only one stop where we couldn’t see anything because the fog was so thick. Sadly, that stop was Krafla, an active volcano—but I think I might have seen enough of volcanoes already, thank you very much.

The next stop was Dimmuborg—the Dark City (or, more accurately and more creepily, the Dark Fortress). It is a vast field of basalt formations left by volcanic eruptions underwater, and legend goes (in the North at least) that Grýla and her thirteen impish Yule Lads live here. I personally kept looking over my shoulder for orcs.

Also at Dimmuborg is another section of the rift where the Eurasian and North American continental tectonic plates are drifting apart. Here, you can stand with one foot on each plate, straddling a gap half a foot wide and several yards deep. Talk about a tourist photo op!

Then there was a geothermal site to visit: Námaskarður, I think it’s called. It was eerie to be standing in the midst of what looks like the surface of Mars, knowing that all of Iceland is turning green and lush everywhere else!

Because our flight wasn’t until late, we had the bus drop us off in Akureyri so we could see the town. It’s a city of some 17,500 people, but it only took half an hour to see the downtown shopping area. Akureyri is famous for several things, including its burgers, which are eaten with béarnaise sauce and with the French fries inside, and its stoplights, which are shaped like hearts.

With those adventures under our belts, my friend departed (this time with much less hassle!) for home and I decided to check one last thing off my to-see list: the Reykjavík Zoo (Húsdýragarðurinn). It’s not a big zoo and it only houses native or common animals, but I got to pet a cow and see a baby goat standing on top of its mother—and best of all, I got to take pictures of a very lively Arctic fox! Well worth the entry fee, even if they did look at me like I was speaking Chinese when I tried to ask for a ticket in Icelandic.

I decided to title this post “Iceland A-Ö” because Icelandic adds several letters to the end of their alphabet and has removed the Z (along with C and Q) altogether, so A-Ö is the local version of A-Z. But I haven’t gotten to know Iceland from A to Z yet. I’ve reported on things here and there, posted pictures where I could—yet there’s still so much more to see! I hope to come back here someday, and someday soon.

But as a final reflection, I’ve put together a list of things I will and won’t miss in Iceland, as well as an answering list of things I look forward to at home:

Things I won't miss in Iceland
-Never finding ANYTHING on the shelves in the library (Dewey, come save us!)
-The wind
-The cold—the really, really long cold
(The fact that this list is so short should give you a sense of how much I’ve liked it here—or at least how nostalgic I’m feeling at the moment.)

Things I'll miss in Iceland
-Safety (You could probably walk drunk and naked down the creepiest ally at 3a.m. and nothing would happen to you.)
-The smell of the sea
-The super pure tap water, and the geothermally-heated hot water that never runs out
-The really blue sky (when you see it, that is)
-A phone book organized by first name

Things I'm looking forward to at home
-Not having to use big heavy adaptors for electronics
-Being able to play local DVDs on my computer
-Having more than four choices for cereal
-Real peanut butter (Oh my goodness, you have no idea.)
-Talking with native speakers
-No longer being the only “dumb American” in company

I hope to continue this blog, not so regularly, but perhaps when I have good pictures to put up or ramblings to share. Thank you for reading, and verið sæl (be well)!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Westward Ho!

Barbara Ara bar Ara araba bara rababara (Ari´s Barbara brought Ari the Arab only rhubarb—an Icelandic tongue-twister)

At the very beginning of the school year, our program director told us that one of the highlights of the program would be a class trip to the Westfjords in the spring. The Westfjords are to Iceland what the Aran Islands are to Ireland, or maybe what the Pacific Northwest is to the US—rugged, stunning landscapes where the old ways of life have not yet entirely died out. Well, at last the long-awaited trip arrived, and now I can say that not only was it one of the highlights of the program, but it was one of the best trips I´ve ever taken!

I am entirely at a loss to describe the Westfjords. Even my pictures don´t capture how amazing the land is. The road skirts the coast, weaving around every fjord (and there are many!) so that you can see the place you´re trying to reach but you know it will take you two hours to get there because you have to drive around this massive body of water in order to reach it. The villages are few and far between—in fact, even Ísafjörður, the biggest town in the Westfjords, has only 2500 people, and the village where we stayed for two nights, Flateyri, was so small the owner of the local swimming pool was able to track us down an hour after we left in order to return a pair of gloves someone had forgotten!
We spent four days driving in this bleak, stunning, practically untouched subarctic fantasy land, visiting saga sites and archeological digs, as well as touring a museum of magic (the picture is a magic staff for changing the weather), a maritime museum, and a fish factory owned by our program director´s cousin. In fact, everything in Flateyri seemed to be owned by a cousin of our director—it´s that sort of town.
It is still winter in the Westfjords—in fact, it was hit or miss whether we would be able to complete the trip as planned because there is a high mountain pass that is closed in bad weather, and there was a real possibility of snow. Actually, there was a snowfall the day before we drove through that pass, but it wasn´t bad enough to cause the road to close. For the most part, though, we had very good weather, and we were very conscious of how fortunate we were in that department!
On the one hand, it´s unreal to stand at the top of a mountain pass and say, “Here, on this very spot, on this same road, a saga hero decided to ride to his doom.” It was especially unreal to hike down to the site of another saga hero´s famous last stand, and find it to be a peaceful and deserted mountain slope now, with no evidence of the violence that occurred there a millennium ago. (This hike, by the way, was not for sissies—it was very steep with loose rocks most of the way, and a patch of dwarf birch forming such a thick undergrowth that we were quite scratched and bruised by the time we wrestled our way out of it.)
On the other hand, it was really wonderful to get a sense of daily life in the Westfjords now, something we couldn´t have done without the knowing aid of our program director. Towns get wiped out by landslides, farms will be isolated for months on end when the roads close, there is only one real grocery store in the whole of the Westfjords, it is winter until June. It is a hard life, especially for the farmers and the fishermen, and it is fast disappearing as people leave the old farms for an easier and more profitable life in the city. Most of the towns in the Westfjords are made up primarily of summer homes, populated only a month or two each year. The depths of winter must be incredibly bleak—but while we were there, we experienced as close to the “midnight sun” as most of us will ever get!
Driving back on Saturday night, seeing Reykjavík rise out of the ocean as we came south, we realized what a big city the capital is. Some 100,000 people may not seem like much in terms that the rest of the world uses, but when you´ve gone for three days without seeing another car on the road, and when you run into the same tourist twice because there are so few places for tourists to stay…Reykjavík suddenly looks much, much bigger.