August 8, 2016

#50 - Icelandic Adventures! (Part 2)

Dear Dubrovnik,

I feel so blessed to celebrate my 50th blog posting! Just about three years ago I took a deep breath and decided I had a unique perspective that might me worth capturing, and I've been so happy to share my experiences with friends and family from all corners of the earth. I've been so fortunate to travel and see what feels like a great amount of the world. Though, when I look at my scratch map I'm well aware I have a long way to go, which is exciting because that means I have so many more opportunities, new meals, and missed trains to live and breath new cultures.

I suppose it's time to continue with our story and tell a bit more about the wonders of Iceland! Before departing our adorable little cabin Air BnB, we packed all of our bags, including a couple pounds of cooked pasta we stuffed into a ziplock and later ate at a gas station when we were taking a brief break. Did people give us strange looks? You better bet, but they were really cute Icelandic folk so it was almost endearing like they were looking at a little puppy eating a sock powdered with paprika dust. We headed back down the road a couple miles and ended up at Reynisfjara Beach, which is easier described as the black sand beach. We were lucky to get there with few tourists, some of which were speaking Italian....! Moreover, I can't describe the love these folks have for their country. Being from Maine, I feel like I know remote, and untouched nature, but was excited, and humbled to see the honor and pride these people have in their land, history, and the hidden people. In the far distance to the West you can see the Dyrhólaey arch, and to the right, Reynisdrangar, the sea stacks which are believed to be the three mast ship of a group a trolls who were turned to stone when the sun rays caught them.

Some of the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar
Dyrhólaey arch seen at a distance
Watch out for those Sneaker Waves!

From this point, and intermittently throughout this day and the next, I took to the helm as the driver of the sneaker car, and despite my overwhelming desire to shift like I was in Fast and the Furious, I was able to drive a standard with very few issues! Having two co-pilots was tricky at times as one would be stretching their arms wide explaining the gears catching while the other was drifting in and out of French translations making motions like their rolling pizza dough as we approached a stop sign, and subsequent start, but all in all, they were wonderful coaches. I think if one can learn a car with multiple instructors, it just gets easier from there.

From here we started out by ducking into the Secret Lagoon and ended up being able to do a walk through and even checking out their hydroponic tomato greenhouses without anyone batting so much as an eye lash in our direction. Next, we headed to a rather deserted area and even patched our trip across a gravel stretch to head into the Golden Circle which was the most touristic part of our trip, which means it was also quite tiring! We did see a literal band of horses being herded and had to stop for a bit to take in the event. The herders were really friendly and wished us well on our trip. Little did they know - we'd seen an owl already!
Purple hills of lupins!

Of the three major sights we stopped off at Gullfoss which is an extraordinary set of falls tucked down into a hillside, famous for it's protection from hydroelectric development from a very brave, and forward thinking lady called Sigríður Tómasdóttir. Her father was offered 50,000 Ikr to sell the falls for power, and she put up great protest, even walking 120 kilometers to Reykjavik to stand for her beliefs. When electrical investors persisted, she threatened to throw herself from the falls, but eventually is was throw out and the falls were reserved for the people on Iceland to enjoy.
Next we headed to the Great Geyser, which is actually not active at the moment, instead there are a number of other little geysers that are bubbling crystal clear stinky water, and others bursting into the air.

After some attempts at a small hill start (I did it!) we set out for Þingvellir National Park to stand between two tectonic plates! The UNSECO sight is famous for other reasons, including the translation of Þingvellir to quite literally "Parliament Plains." It's the first place parliament met, among many other strange stories we encountered... like a section of the river know for drowning folks who committed crimes.

Waterfall between the plates! Yay for science and nature!

With all of our energy drained we drove to our Air BnB in Hafnarfjordur that was about 20 minutes out of town with a cute older couple who loved the whole premise of Air BnB for the real reasons, to make connections, share stories, and education others on their culture and history. This included clearing up some grey area around whales and whether they were only hunted for tourists. Our hosts explained that whaling had long been a part of the culture, and cuisine, and had been the staple of many of their relatives work and industry. *Great story I'll return to about a sassy fellow guest we met and then met later on in our trip.* After hearing some stories from them we were very relieved, and happy to give any and all of their food suggestions a go! We ventured to their favorite, and most recommended restaurant, Gamla vínhúsið at around 9:30pm to celebrate the approaching Birthday of dear Sego, and give a go at some local foods!

We had the most bubbly waitress ever who was more than happy to give us some advice for a night on the town, even exclaiming that people arrive around 11:30 -12:00, stay until 5:00am, drink with friends, and wait for places to open for breakfast, and then starting it all over! It was indeed a very fun night full of crazy expensive drinks (we debated snatching peoples half finished beers - but didn't for sake of looking less weird.) We got to see a very local preformance at a 3rd floor coffee/ very local bar, a more touristic bar, Icelandic dance bar, Kiki the gay bar full of the Icelandic soccer team that ended up crushing at the recent tournament, and many other places we dipped into. We then went and stood on the shore of the harbor as the sun rose, well it never really went down, but around 3:00am we headed home for a couple hours of sleep, packing, breakfast, and heading north to another part of the wonderful Icelandic world!

At breakfast (revisiting the whale topic) a sassy guest to exclaimed how impossible it would be for her to really "immerse" in a place for ONLY one week, let alone traveling as frequently as we were, said "Oh I'm sorry," in response to my story about us sharing a great dinner and trying whale. And although we would have been much happier not seeing her again - Marge and I did at the airport, and in Boston, which was funny because she was suppose to be really "immersing" in the culture for another 3 weeks..... ;)

Our hosts sent us off with some amazing ideas for sights and we did our best to seek all of them out, even some other ones that were pieced together in the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. We headed north under the Hvalfjörður Tunnel, and proceeded to drive the wrong way for twenty minutes of so, and eventually ended up in a small town where we stopped for coffee and sandwiches, and of course, paprika Pringles, which I might also be eating while writing this post. Thought rare and unavailable in the US, my dear friend and coworker, Sarah, who just returned from Iceland, kindly brought me back a tube that I've been rationing ever since. We then took a long pitstop at the beach where we dressed perhaps the warmest on our whole trip. We then, happened upon a waterfall in the mountainside and mustered the courage and strength to climb up to the top where it met the glacier chunks!
Sneaky seals spying on us
Tim Gunn may even approve of this outfit 
The waterfall we hiked!
Buðir black church

This church is one of three black churches in Iceland, colored so due to the use of pitch often used with ships to protect from the salty, icy winds.

Turf house restaurant!

This was the foggiest day (aside from when we arrived, and it got more and more dense as we approached Snaefelljokull to venture to the singing caves. We tried to take the 570 over the mountain, but the sneaker car was objecting to even the shallowest inclines and we preferred the scenic route any who!
This sign cracked me up so much.
Entrance to the singing cave 

When trekking around these rather haunting caves, I spooked myself by talking as I approached a cave only to realize that they produce an incredible acoustic that felt like I was talking with another person.
Peculiar moss formation we found after taking our chance singing in the caves!

And of course we have to venture down to the creepy seaside house with no one in the nearby area.

Within a matter of minutes, the fog started to burn off, and the weather improved 300%, which we can only attribute to our pleasant singing in the caves which we feel must have pleased the gods enough to give us some sunshine! We set out for Olafsvik where we camped for the night, and successfully made pasta by mini camp stove, despite some sea breeze.

The next morning we set out with no real destination in particular and ended up seeing many great sights along the way. We passed Kirkjufell just outside of Grundarfjörður which is a strangly shaped mountain which is long and tubular from two sides, and short and narrow from the other ends. It too has been featured in a few films and famous photo shoots!

We then stopped off in Stykkisholmer a port city to see some small town living. It was a beautiful little town with a passion for fishing, and interesting drawings. Here I bought a few post cards and a small book that depicts many different, unique parts of Icelandic culture, like why they're not into the idea of trains, what they think about stinky sulfur showers, and it even touches on the "non believers" of the hidden people. It says only a small percentage of current day folks will admit to believing, in hidden people or elves, but if you were to ask those same people to smash a rock - they wouldn't... they know better than to meddle with elves...!

From here we ventured back towards the Hvalfjordur, and drove around it to the most inland region where we got out to stretch our legs and hike to Glymur, the second tallest waterfall in Iceland, after spilling a lot of yogurt in the car of course.
After our hike, we were heading back to what was expected to be, the best, most well earned shower, wifi, and swimming ever, except that site was closed- and the only sign was on the front door...! We ended up tucked behind the mountains near a beautiful, but very windy lake, with no amenities, and we might have witnessed a man loose a fight with a giant fish but we weren't sure what to do.

The next morning, we tried to swim in many pools, and kept running into ones that didn't open for a few hours, which was when we decided to go get some famous Icelandic hotdogs to buy some time before my volcano tour at Thrihnukagigur. My bus arrived promptly tardy, as customary, and we set out for the mountains! My ground contained a variety of folks from my age, and crazy enthused, to older and there because the wife was having a spa day. I also ran into a group of folks who were visiting for the tattoo convention, and they had some very impressive art!

Although I thought my opportunity to hike from a local ski resort to nearby volcano sat among the more fancy things to do, I learned quickly upon arrival to the base camp (after a 45 minute hike across the lava fields) that there will always be fancier people in life. But perhaps, where I sit in these experiences, fortunate to be there, is the perfect place because I am still humbled by nature and such opportunities. After we settled down at base camp we could hear the copper blades of a helicopter arriving. The young couple, no older than 32 either of them, stepped off in their designer leather and patent outer wear while the rest of us sat their sweaty from the hike. The older gentleman leaned in towards me and chuckled "how the other half lives." I briefly thought I'd have something in common with him, only to find when he asked "so where's your next trip" and I said "well I'm here... haven't thought of other places..." he was really waiting to tell me about his plans to trek to Antarctica next month with his wife. And after he took international calls in a volcano field to discuss his housing complex development in the South, I felt that I was perhaps the other half, of the other half he was depicting.

Just before my group headed to the mouth of the volcano, a black ops heli flew in with a whole family, decked head to toe in gucci, and prada. Half of them didn't care to actually go into the volcano, and those that did, got priority, and even left early once we arrive to the bottom of the cavern.
Thrihnukagigur is a rather young volcano at only 4,500 years old by comparison to the two that sit adjacent at over 20,000, and 50,000 years. is very unique in that it's the only know volcano in the world where you can descend into it. It's left so hollow due to a secondary flue that acted as the mouth of a kettle would when the water boils. When it stopped erupting, the secondary flue acted like a little vacuum and shot out all the magma from the inner volcano.

When the volcano was discovered about 40-50 years ago, the first explorer was lowered into the volcano, not knowing how far down it was, or what was own there with the help of 6-8 men using a lot of rope. The main cavern is about 200 meters down, and holds a pretty consistent temperature year round, about as cool as a fridge, as do most caves in Iceland which made perfect hideaways for the outlaws who were banished to the hills. our ride down was about 10 minutes by a jerry-rigged windowwasher of sorts.

The descent!

The colors were wonderfully brilliant and it was explained that they were largely due to the various gasses that were exposed to the rocks. The giant hole seen above, about 25 feet wide was investigated by getting the largest latter the country and lowering it into the volcano only to find it was another flue that ended about 15 feet further in the wall.
 This was looking down to the entrance of the secondary flue that was closed because it was a bit too slippery. Thank goodness, because it really felt like we were getting too close to the center of the earth for my liking...!
About a minute off the ground, you can see the orange helmets of others! 
It was very humbling, and beautiful experience to get to be inside a volcano. As the earth itself makes up so much of Icelandic folklore and history, it was certainly a very unique, and unforgettable experience! It was even raining in there, who would have thought?
The snowy mountains in the distance where we hiked from

Marge and Sego spent the day in town and picked me up upon my return to the bus station and then we all headed off to our final resting spot before heading out the next day. Despite the sulfur stink, we were so grateful for hot, steamy showers, and wonderfully soft beds. We all passed out and woke up around 4:00 to get Sego to the airport. After saying our so-long-for-nows Marge and I headed to Reykjavik to pass a little time before our (delayed) flight. We found a wonderful little place called Kaffir and enjoyed a yummy bagel salad sandwich with coffee, and of course, hot chocolate.
The main church Hallgrímskirkja
modeled after the basaltic columns
Marge and I then headed off to the airport to return our car only to find the rental place was closed, but thankfully some locals who were probably the same age as us made a couple calls and solved all our silly touristic problems! After some delay, multiple security checks, and a 5 pack of beer, we boarded our flight back home! I then caught the 11:50PM bus home, and went into work after a couple hours of sleep... sounds a lot like Mexico right? ;)

All in all, a place that will truly steal your heart if you let it, (highly recommended) and a place that will remind you that there are still many good people on their earth who are willing to help, entertain, and just coexist if you're willing to let your guard down a bit, and dance in the midnight sun! 

next time,
svo lengi!