Archive for the ‘Iceland’ Category

3 Days In Iceland

Posted: December 8, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, Iceland, Travel

“It is also easy to hitchhike…I think it will be easy for you.”

This is what my couchsurfing host Marcin messaged me in response to my inquiry about how to get from the Keflavik airport in Iceland to his house just outside Reykjavik. My choices: An expensive shuttle, a local bus that was only running once every hour, or hitchhiking. It was the end of November, I’d just landed in a small snowstorm, and my local connection was suggesting hitchhiking. Well…it wouldn’t be my first time so…okay!

I walked out into the snowy Iceland evening (with warmer weather than New York, according to the pilot of my flight), through the parking lot, and towards the airport exit, figuring that would be the best spot to flag a car. I stuck out my thumb, watched a few cars go by, and then…

”Are you trying to hitchhike to Reykjavik?”

Wow! I’d been waiting maybe five minutes, and already a ride! “Yes I am!” I replied, and hopped into the back of the car, driven by a very sweet Icelandic couple just returning from a trip to NYC and Paris, where I’d just come from and where I was going. How cool!

As we drove, the couple (I don’t remember the pronunciation of their names so I will call them A and T) told me about Icelandic culture and their thoughts on New York and Paris. They couldn’t get over how many cars honk in both Paris and NYC; as A explained, in NYC the honking seemed like a way to greet fellow drivers and/or just a necessary part of commuting, while in Paris people seemed to honk for no reason. A thought it seemed rude in Paris, and just part of life in NYC. She also told me that in Iceland, honking is extremely rare; if someone honks, everyone stops and immediately thinks “Did I do something wrong?”

As we drove, A and T told me more about Icelandic culture. I learned that in Iceland, the Christmas season begins on December 11th, when the first of thirteen Santas (Yule Lads) visits each Icelandic house. Each of the thirteen has a specific quirk or interest (one is tall and lanky and cannot bend, another loves to eat Skyr – an Icelandic yogurt -, another loves candles, etc.). Each night, a Yule Lad leaves a small gift in each child’s shoe on the windowsill; if children are good they get little gifts, but if they are bad they get…a potato. A and T said the kids always seem to accept the potato as well-deserved if they’ve misbehaved, and many children decide to cook the potato so they don’t waste it. Each Santa also plays tricks; for instance, in A and T’s house the Santa who enjoys Skyr often smears Skyr on the window before leaving.

In addition to the thirteen Santas, Icelandic children learn about the parents of the Santas, mean trolls who enjoy eating children (their mother is an ogress named Grýla), and their cat, simply called the Christmas Cat. Children know that if they misbehave, they might meet the Christmas Cat and the troll parents, so they aim to behave. According to A and T, it really works!

Another Icelandic tradition is Sunlight Pancakes, which happen every year around January 21st, when the sun comes back after the darkest days of the year. On this day, families gather together to cook pancakes and celebrate the return of the sun. My host Marcin (who is Polish, not Icelandic) said that his job gives everyone a half day for Sunlight Pancakes, but another Icelandic local I met, Sveinn, said he had never heard of this tradition. Perhaps it only caught on in certain part of Iceland. 

To my surprise and gratitude, A and T generously decided to drive me all the way to Marcin’s house rather than drop me at a bus stop. I left their car with lots of advice on what to do in Reykjavik and an incredibly kind welcome to the “Land of Fire and Ice.” Icelandic people are so nice!


When I arrived at Marcin’s house, I rang the doorbell and was surprised when a Russian woman answered the door.

“Uhhh…hello. I’m couchsurfing here?”

The woman let me inside and told me no one was home, so I should make myself at home. She showed me what she said was probably going to be my room and then promptly went into her room and closed the door without a word.

For a few minutes I stood in the hallway, confused as to what to do. Was I in the right place? I’d just been in contact with Marcin from the airport…maybe I somehow got the wrong house? After standing dumbly in the hall for a few minutes, I put down my bags, then knocked on the woman’s door again to confirm tat I was in the right place.

“Yes,” she replied. “Marcin, he tell me nothing.”

Alright, well, at least I’d established that this was the right house. I asked her if she had the internet code but I don’t think she understood my question, then apologized and closed her door again. Then I remembered that I’d written down the password Marcin had given me, so I logged on and discovered that I had a message from him: He thought I would have been dropped off in downtown Reykjavik and had gone there to meet me.

Not long after, Marcin arrived and offered a cup of tea and snacks (this would continue to be a trend; Marcin is an extremely generous host when it comes to food and drink). Two other girls staying there that night – couchsurfers from Singapore – soon arrived as well, and we all got to know each other over tea and hummus. The girls had been there a few nights and were departing in the morning.

Marcin is from Poland and rents out rooms on his level of the house (in Iceland, sometimes people can have just a single floor of a multi-story house), plus one room for couchsurfers. Marcin also rents out a vacation home 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik, which I drove with him to visit on a mini tour later that evening, since he had to go clean it. Of course there wasn’t much to see in the dark, but he pointed out where I would be able to see the mountains, the ocean, etc. in the daylight. We stopped on the way to see one of the many thermal pools in Iceland, steaming with hot water and the smell of sulfur, and for a quick tour of downtown Reykjavik (including a quick stop at the Sun Voyager, pictured below). I also met his other roommates: Jacob (pronounced Ya-Kob) another Pole, and Anastasios, from Greece. As I learned from Jacob, after native-born Icelandic people, Poles are the largest ethnic group in Iceland (and this is common worldwide? Jacob said there are more Poles living abroad than in their mother country, with the largest population in Chicago).

That night I didn’t stay up too late; I had arranged to join a carpool with some Canadians the next day and was going to have to wake up at 5 AM to join them (eek!).

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Day 2: Downtown Reykjavik, Thermal Swimming Pool

5 AM arrived far too quickly and I begrudgingly woke up to check my messages on couchsurfing…nothing. The Canadians were supposed to land at 4 AM, so maybe they didn’t have service yet? Over the next 45 minutes I continued to check my messages, until finally I got word that they landed late because of a flight delay and were heading to get the rental car. Then they would pick me up around 7:30 AM to head out. When 7:30 arrived I headed downstairs to wait for the pickup, only to receive a message after 40 minutes that they had too much jetlag and were heading to their hotel to sleep. Ummm…darnit? I’d turned down a couple other rideshare options for exploring the area and now it was too late to join another, so I went back to sleep very disappointed with this turn of events.

A couple hours later I woke up and had late breakfast with Marcin, deciding what to do with my day. Marcin suggested renting a car on my own, but gas is extremely expensive in Iceland and this didn’t seem like a sensible option without other travelers. I searched on couchsurfing again, looking for travelers who might want to carpool, and, by chance came across a very enticing event post: A local Icelandic photographer was taking his Jeep off-roading on Saturday to take some photos and he was offering rides to anyone who wanted to come in exchange for gas money. I sent a message, learned that he had one spot left, and suddenly felt much better about being able to explore.

That afternoon I made the most of the half day I had left by going to downtown Reykjjavik to visit the Perlan, a museum A and T had recommended. The museum is about the history of Iceland’s natural wonders (glaciers, volcanoes, ice caves) as well as the animals who inhabit the place and the people who settled there. I really enjoyed this museum (though not as much as Te Papa…that place was awesome). One highlight of the museum is a man-made ice cave replicating the largest ice cave in Iceland. You can only visit ice caves in Iceland with a guide, so this was a nice alternative on my short, budget-friendly trip. My favorite part of the museum however, was the section on climate change and how it affects glaciers. Here are some facts I learned during my visit:

  • Because of the volcanoes beneath, Icelandic glaciers are warm-based, around ten degrees Celsius.
  • Icelandic glaciers have black lines in them, which come from volcano ash. Just like you can use the rings on a tree to figure out its age, you can use the lines inside a glacier ice cave to trace eruptions.
  • The oldest eruption traced is estimated to be 1100 years old.
  • It is estimated that in 150-200 years, glaciers will be completely gone from Iceland because they are now melting faster than they grow.
  • Have you ever wondered why some ice is whiter than others? It’s because of UV radiation. More sun = more UV rays = more white.
  • Glacier lagoons (also very common in Iceland) form from glacier ice that melts and “calves,” breaking off into the water.
  • The temperature of the planet remained consistent for 100s of years until the Industrial Revolution in the 1850s, at which time the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increased dramatically.
  • It is estimated that puffins will disappear from the south coast of Iceland to migrate to colder climates by 2020 (however, later when I told this to Sveinn, he said that he has heard differently and doesn’t think this will be the case quite so soon).
  • Shrinking glaciers exert less pressure on the earth’s crust, which will result in more volcanic activity by 2080.
  • There are over 400 glaciers in Iceland, covering about 10% of the country.
  • There are five types of glaciers found in Iceland, such as the cirque glaciers, formed in a bowl-shaped depression on high mountain slopes.
  • Many are located in eastern Iceland.
  • There are many living creatures on glaciers, such as:
    • Water bears: One of the most resilient animals on Earth, which feed on organic debris algae, plant cells, bacteria, and invertebrates.
    • Snow algae: Produce energy that supplies life to other forms such as water bears and glacial fleas. Snow algae grow in the water film of snow grains and their red pigment produces “blood snow.”
    • Glacier mice: Small stones completely covered with moss, typically up to 10 cm in diameter, found on the “snout” of some glaciers.
    • Glacial fleas: Often appear in large groups of dark hopping bodies during the glacial melting season.
    • Viruses: Active viruses can be preserved in ice for hundreds of thousands of years. When the glaciers melt, what will happen to the viruses that might be dormant inside the ice?
  • Glaciers exist in polar regions and in the highest mountains of every continent except Australia.

At the museum I also learned more about the various Christmas creatures A and T had told me about. For instance, the Christmas Cat, whose name is Jolakotturinn, is of Norwegian origin. Here are some photos from the museum: 

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After the Perlan I took the free shuttle to the Harpa, Reykjavik’s concert hall. The building is quite impressive, with five floors for concerts, comedy shows, and other events. I picked up my ticktets for Saturday evening’s concert, a celebration of 100 years of Icelandic independence, and learned that although the concert was free with reservation, no more tickets were available (I reserved mine weeks ago). I also learned that while there was no dress code, I should dress a bit nice because kings and queens would be present! (I didn’t ask from where but I’m assuming Denmark, which used to reign over Iceland).

Next, I walked from the Harpa along the waterfront to Hlemmur Matholl, a food hall I’d read about on another travel blog. I had the impression that you could get free samples of various Icelandic foods before deciding what to buy, but when I arrived I discovered this was not the case. I ordered a nice but pricey vegetable soup with bread and fresh basil and spent a happy evening enjoying my soup and listening to everyone speaking Icelandic around me.

After eating, I walked another 20 minutes to Laugardalslaug, Iceland’s largest thermal swimming pool. Swimming pools are extremely common in Iceland; even in the middle of winter the pools are crowded with people enjoying the steamy water under the open sky. Laugardalslaug is actually made up of multiple swimming pools; I visited the Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool for laps, a large “hot pot” (like a hot tub but larger), another hot pot designed for people to lay down in, and an ice bath to finish my experience. There were four other hot pots I didn’t visit, plus a large area for water volleyball, another with a giant slide, and a huge indoor pool. Amazing!

Here are some facts I learned about Icelandic swimming pools:

  • There are 170 swimming pools in Iceland, the majority of which are heating with geothermal water
  • The oldest pool is Snorralaug in Reykjavik
  • The first hot pot opened in 1962 in Vesturbaejarlaug.
  • Icelandic children begin to learn to swim at age 6.
  • In 2000, each Reykjavik resident went swimming an average of 15 times.
  • A medium pool uses as much hot water annually as 80-100 single family houses.

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After the pool I walked back to Marcin’s, and along the way it occurred to me that no one locks up their bikes in Iceland. Without fail, every bike I saw was just lying innocently on the front lawn, or against the fence, or propped up against its owner’s house. If only I could do that in NY!

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Day 3: Off-Road Couchsurfing!

The next morning I ate a quick breakfast before Sveinn arrived for our off-road adventure. I met the three other couchsurfers joining: Theresa from Austria, Maruša from Slovenia (working as an au pair in Iceland), and Sridhar from India/US. As we drove we got to know one another and shared information from our cultures. Did you know that in Slovenia there are three Santas? The first is Miklavz (St. Nicholas), who arrives December 5th (the eve of St. Nicholas’ feast day in Catholicism) and brings gifts (he is the only one of the three to bring gifts). Next is Father Christmas on Dec. 24th, followed by Dedek Mraz (Grandfather Frost) to wrap up the year. I also learned about Bolludagur, a day when Icelandic people eat a special cream-filled bun; if you manage to spank your parents in the morning, they have to buy you a bun!

Amidst the conversation, Sveinn expertly maneuvered the very off-road territory. As we learned, Sveinn is not only extremely knowledgeable about his country and its nature, but also loves to share it with couchsurfers. Almost every weekend since 2014, he has gone out on photography expeditions, taking couchsurfers along to experience the Icelandic countryside. As we forged rivers and drove over rocky terrain I never once questioned my choice to join on this adventure; Sveinn puts safety first and made sure to explain to us every choice he made as we drove, even when he had to get out and check the depth of a river before we crossed it!

Throughout the journey we visited:

  • An unmarked road that had some awesome views
  • Hvitserkur (“White Long Shirt”): A waterfall which shares its name with the nearby “Elephant Rock,” also known as “The Troll of Northwest Iceland.” While I didn’t get to see this petrified troll, the waterfall, which is sometimes mistakenly called Eiriksfoss, was beautiful, with ice cascading down with the water. Sveinn mentioned that not many people visit this waterfall and that there isn’t much information online about it; based on my Google searching for this blog, I see that he’s right!
  • Krauma: The newest manmade hot spring, just one year old.
  • Hraunfossar (“Lava Falls”) and Barnafoss (“Children’s Watefall”): Hraunfossar consists of various creeks and cascades streaming out of petrified lava while nearby at Barnafoss, according to legend, an Icelandic widow lost her two children when they fell off a stone archway and drowned on Christmas Day. According to the story, she destroyed the arch so others would not suffer the same fate.
  • Lambarfoss: Another waterfall, next to the Lamba river. We visited this one as the sun was setting.

I’ll post my photos below, but for some professional photos of each area (and many other parts of Iceland), I recommend following Sveinn on Facebook or Instagram: https://www.facebook.com/sveinn71 (shared with his permission).

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As the sun set, we decided to take our chances with the somewhat-favorable Northern Lights forecast in the hopes of spotting the dancing green glow. I had to miss the concert in order to chase the lights, but if I went it would have meant causing the whole group to miss the chance to see the lights if we drove back to Reykjavik and, well, I wanted to see the lights too!

We found a spot to wait in Sveinn’s Jeep and jammed out to some music (we discovered that many of us in the car are fans of metal bands like Nightwish and punk rock bands like Rise Against – awesome!). Then..the lights! At first there wasn’t much to see, just some slightly green-tinted cloudlike objects amidst the actual clouds. However, after we drove a bit to try to get a better view, the green became more apparent (as did the wind…holy moly…). At their brightest the Lights weren’t incredibly bright, but we could see them dance, which was pretty cool. Sveinn also set up a long exposure on his camera and then we could really see them…amazing to think that something so green on camera was only dully there with the naked eye. Both Sveinn and Maruša confirmed that sometimes you can see the Lights as vividly as they look on camera with your own eye, but with some cloud cover that night we had to settle for a duller image. Still cool to see! That night I also saw some wild Icelandic horses and discovered that what we call “Cooler Ranch” Doritos in the US are “Cool American” in Iceland. 

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After the lights, we all returned to our respective resting places and I told Marcin and his roommates about my adventures while we all shared some wine, a nice end to my Iceland adventure.

Day 4: Departure

The following morning I slept in, knowing I wasn’t going to have time to do much of anything other than go for a quick jog and pack up. I couldn’t hitchhike to the airport so I opted for the public bus (significantly cheaper than the airport shuttle bus). It was a longer ride than the shuttle, but the views along the way were great! I arrived at the airport, went through security, and flew home. Since I was gaining a day as I flew, I flew from darkness into a sunrise, as you can see in these photos: 

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This little trip to Iceland felt like a bit of a tease; I saw a tiny bit of the country, but there is certainly more to see. I would like to return in warmer weather, bring more of my own food (food in Iceland is very expensive), and meet up with Sveinn for another adventure. Þakka þér fyrir Sveinn, Marcin, and everyone else I met on this trip – you made my short Icelandic adventure a good one, and I hope I can return to see more of this beautiful country.

Stay tuned for another, less personal entry on general tips for traveling in Iceland on a budget. As always, thanks for reading!

 

Iceland Arrival

Posted: November 21, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, Iceland, Travel

The Iceland airport is eerily quiet. There are people here waiting for flights, but nonetheless it is practically silent. Footsteps echo loudly in barren corridors, lounges sit empty of passengers, enormous white bathroom stalls block out sound and engulf you in their own cavernous world when you shut the door. It’s eerie, and somehow feels…Icelandic?Not that I can say with any real conviction, since I’m still en-route to my first destination, Paris, France.

The flight from New York to Reykjavik was incredible. Just four hours long, I dozed for most of it and then became mesmerized by the sight of what I eventually realized must be the Northern Lights dancing through the dark skies. It was impossible to capture the scene effectively on my phone camera, so I wil describe it:

Imagine that you are flying through the sky in the dark of night. You look out the window and see below you what look like giant chunks of ice floating in an endless sea. These are the clouds. Above this glacial layer of sky, you see a span of darkness and an arc of wispy light, not quite cloudlike, expanding across the scene like a ghostly rainbow. Directly above this milky, pale green-tinted form, pure black sky and a smattering of stars, including one particularly bright star that you keep in your sights for the next hour.

As you stare out the window, the arc of light begins to change before your eyes, performing a wispy dance as shifts its shape. Once a ghostly rainbow, it morphs into blocks of light, then pufffs up and out to surround the bright star you’ve had your eye on. The ice-like clouds below also shift, spreading out as if drifting further out to sea, then all joining close together as if approaching land. You turn your eye from the white clouds, to the wispy lights, to the dark, star-studded expanse above; three distinct layers of wonder. As you watch, an orange-red light flashes across the darkness – a shooting star. You gasp in wonder and glance around to see if anyone else is sharing this experience. Eyes glued to screens, they are missing the true show.

As your plane approaches land, it cuts through the layer of clouds, revealing another layer of darkness and sudden bright lights below: Reykjavik. The shine of a lighthouse’s yellow-white beacon of light rotates round and round, guiding visitors to safety. Welcome to Iceland.

So…this seems like a cool place, to say the least. According to the pilot, the current temperature here is 40 degrees F – warmer than NY! Right now I’m only here waiting for my connection to Paris, but I certainly look forward to returning to explore this wonderous place next week.

Adventure awaits…