Thursday, October 1, 2009

Repost of Iceland Part One with Photos

So much of what we know comes in brain bits the size of a few paragraphs in a child’s encyclopedia or fourth grade text book, complete with one to three photographs. I keep running into my dreadfully shallow understanding of people and places as we do this trek back and forth between the U.S. and Sweden. Take, for instance, the fact that where we work and live in Sweden there is rarely any snow. That inevitably surprises many people’s ingrained conceptions of Sweden!

Take Iceland, for instance. What do we know of the place? Isn’t it nearly as foreign to many of us as Antarctica? Who really goes there? Do people survive in such places? Where there is miserable cold and ice “all” the time? Honestly, it has been a secret dream of mine to go where it is snowy year-round. Alaska was close, nine months out of the year, but that wasn’t long enough (we lived there a few years). Maybe Iceland would prove to have a longer season….

Not too long ago, I was introduced to one of Phil’s colleagues at the Malmö Securitas Direct. He said he was from Iceland. He looked like a fairly normal human being and was obviously intelligent enough to work with software and hardware, or whatever else they need at the home security systems business. He did not wear leather mukluks or a beaded leather shirt. His name was difficult for me to say, but it is normal for my thick tongue to struggle with any name not spoken by me in my sheltered youth. I’m even learning that I speak the British names of English Literature incorrectly. But I digress (I love to type that cliché).

About six months ago, in a conversation with my daughter, Natassja, she mentioned the news that SAS (Scandinavian Air) would be discontinuing its direct flight between Seattle and Copenhagen. This sounded ludicrous. We repeatedly flew those convenient flights along with approximately 300 others—rarely an empty seat.

We decided to ask at the check-in counter the next time we flew, and it was verified! If we wanted to continue flying SAS, they told us, we would need to fly through Washington D.C., Amsterdam, or Heathrow airports. The direct flight from Seattle to Copenhagen is a merciful nine to ten hours. A flight through any other city increases flight time up to 15 hours, not including layovers. Furthermore, the three cities listed are notorious for losing your luggage. You can imagine that as frequent fliers to Sweden, we weren’t excited about the limited options

In another conversation with Natassja we were dreaming about what it would be like for her to visit us for an extended time in Sweden. She had looked up fares and liked the Iceland Air fares—she said they were considerably lower than SAS. That story is yet to unfold.

Iceland! The hub had to be Iceland. Oh! The blinking lights in the brain!

When it was time to book our own flight, we chose Iceland Air, deciding to take a few days layover to look around before arriving in Sweden in time for Hunter’s first day of first grade. Thank the Lord my husband is an adventurer, too!

The differences were obvious from the beginning of the flight. It was only a 747 (great for domestic travel. . .); no meals or even peanuts included, no extra comforts, fewer toilets, and a nine hour flight time to Iceland, itself. It was a good thing Phil’s step-mother had made a new batch of oatmeal raisin cookies—we lived off of them since we hadn’t brought sack lunches. (There were meals for purchase, Phil just didn't want to purchase them.)

There were seat back movies, at least, but the options were few. Hunter was glad to find his favorite caveman game, but there were no game controllers. It would be a long flight.

Being August, when the sun is still up nearly 24 hours a day in the far north, it was difficult to sleep on the airplane. They didn’t come along requiring everyone to shut their windows (like they did on SAS) so people could catch an abbreviated night’s sleep. We would not even be able to take a nap in so much light.

No discomfort, no adventure, right? Absolutely!

When we touched down, it was raining (of course). While we waited to deplane, we could see through the windows that our oversized boxes were exposed to the rain.

Keflavik International Airport is small enough to navigate easily, provided you don’t have too many customs concerns (whi

ch we did, but it was worth it). Tired as I was, my heart was bursting to go outside and step foot in Iceland. But we had three huge boxes, five suitcases and three carry-on pieces to maneuver into an economy station wagon rental (an upgrade from something too tiny for words) before we could enjoy the scenery.

It’s amazing what little a person can ascertain outside of an international airport. Think of all those you’ve seen on television or personally experienced. Miles of tarmac, crowds of weary, inconvenienced travelers, vague aspects of plant life, and the natural physical reaction to humidity, cold, rain, wind, heat, etc. There was no such thing as an egg dish for breakfast. The metal sculpture out the front, rotating doors of a fin emerging from a monster-sized egg held some intrigue (not to eat, silly).

Loading the rental car in a steady wet drizzle (threatening to disintegrate the boxes), standing on yet more pavement, we could not sense anything about this place except that it was too warm to wear our raincoats, but too wet to go without.

Warmth? In Iceland? I know. That’s what I thought.

After plugging our hotel address into the rented GPS (our European system didn’t include Iceland—again, foreignness and inaccessibility—adventure!) we left Keflavik

to pass Reykjavik to the suburban area where our hotel was. We passed mile after mile after seemingly unending mile of volcanic desert land. Not the least hint of snow, even in the distant hills and mountains.

In our low station wagon, it was intimidating to be passed on wide, straight, four lane freeways by monstrous SUV’s that make those in red-neck North Idaho look like play toys. Hunter asked, “Was that a MONSTER TRUCK?!” The tires were taller than the Volvo! There were many smaller cars, as well, but many large vehicles. There wasn’t a dog-sled to be seen.

Of course, we were on the western, almost north western, side of Iceland. We were told there were huge glaciers, a third of the country forbidden by our rental car company to traverse, in the central portion of Iceland, but that’s not where we were. We were only hoping it wouldn’t rain all two days of our stopover.

Speaking of rain, I sat on the airplane by a couple from Seattle coming to Iceland for their first time. They planned to take several weeks to BIKE Iceland. They were more than a little disappointed by the rain. As we disembarked, I begged for their blog address so I could follow their route and observations. They didn’t even have an e-mail address, and didn’t expect to have any internet along the way. They told me they had done abs

olutely no training for this event. Whew. What an adventure they must have had!

We checked into our hotel and enjoyed excellent service. It was early Sunday morning, so we asked about English church services. The receptionist was able to list some good area churches, but none in English and they nearly all would start in the next few moments. We weren’t into being late only to be lost in a foreign language. Furthermore, we were too weary to sit through something we didn’t understand without nodding off to sleep.

We decided to take a three hour nap since we’d had no sleep. We didn’t dally; we slid under those traditionally warm duvets and barely woke up when the alarm went off.

When we roused ourselves, showered and dressed, we were ravenous. International travel really messes with the body’s fuel economy and intake expectations. We had no idea where to eat good Icelandic food, so we stepped out of our hotel and walked to the first restaurant we saw: a KFC the size of an American Kmart.

KFC happens to be Phil’s least favorite fast food. He knows this is un-American, but it’s true. We can get him to go to a KFC if it is partnered with A&W so he can enjoy a frosty glass of A&W root beer. Otherwise, he’d rather go elsewhere. So we’re looking at the menu and it’s different. Where are the biscuits? How do you understand the side dishes? The almost miniscule portions bore such prices as 1,266 (ISK) for a chicken thigh and fries?!!! Phil reeled. He’s not quick to part with his money. He had to consult the exchange rate. The little Icelandic girl on the other side of the cash register told us the exchange rate in halting English, but Phil didn’t believe her: 26 ISK (Iceland Kronur) to one American dollar. Could it be?

Phil had me get the very least thing we could buy, was relieved they allowed us to freely fill our glasses with water and Hunter enjoyed climbing the children’s gym (like MacDonald’s) between bites of popcorn chicken and a fry or two. The popcorn chicken container we ordered for all of us was in a box the size of a half pint. A heap of fries came in a paper plate-like box the size of a side of fries you’d get in a diner. Forget the balance of protein to carbohydrates! Phil said, “Well, they make up for their abysmal portions with fries, at least.”

By the time we waddled out of KFC, it was afternoon, much later than we’d hoped to get started on our tour of Iceland. I got my computer out to read the PDF chapters purchased from Lonely Planet and, being as ignorant of the

Icelandic geography as any poorly educated American, I had purchased all but the two chapters we needed to cover the area we were actually in. We had to wait in our car, outside our hotel room, car running, to get wireless enough to download two more chapters. My how guidebooks have changed.

Silly us, we didn’t unpack our jam-packed car (so jammed it was difficult to see out of the windows and mirrors or to adjust our seats), but headed off in the direction of the first ever sulfuric geyser to be so named, “Geyser.” We had to stop and admire the Icelandic horned sheep,

a field of hand-stacked rocks and heather, to climb around and through some interesting volcanic rock formation in a national park, and, of

course, to get fika (tea and goodies) and a sampling of books full of Icelandic

fairytales—or should I call them troll tales? The stops kept us awake and helped the person in the backseat actually see something other than boxes, but stopping so often kept us from getting as far north as Phil had hoped we would.

We drove for hours, actually, past green rolling hills, oceans, glassy lakes and more volcanic rock. As the afternoon progressed, the sky parted into sunshine, warming us to the point that I would lean on one of those huge boxes and doze so frequently, I could barely endure the drive. Good thing Phil was the only driver on the rental agreement. I could not keep my eyes open. In Iceland, a place of my dreams, no less!

A place, perchance to dream? But I di….never mind.

By the time we reached the Geyser, we’d gone down several wrong roads (the GPS kept getting confused and giving us strange directions), and it was growing dusk. Cloud cover and rain darkened the scenery even more. The lighting was terrible for photography. We were, again, hungry, having eaten lunch at noon, fika around two and now it was 6:30 pm. We needed to use the bathroom (Hunter: “I need to go poo"! Now!”) and the bathrooms were closed at the restaurant across from the geysers. We were exceptionally weary. You can see the problems building. This is always part of the adventure and we are rarely prepared.

We ate strange sandwiches. Hunter didn’t like the sauce. Phil, always inhaling his food, took off looking for an alternative restroom (no good hiding places outside) and found one for us, but he had to wait agonizingly longer for us so he could cross the street and hope to catch maybe one geyser eruption.

Geyser (it’s actual name and the first to be named such) is not like Old Faithful. You don’t have to wait long for it to spew. The sulfuric water in the whole bubbles and churns then roils then, bam! There it goes. The longest wait was about five minutes. Boy was I glad to be out of hot water, then--metaphorically speaking, that is.

Some things are not only impossible, they are impossibly impossible. This is when my husband can’t stand having a family on a perfectly good adventure. One of the most beautiful sites touted in the travel literature about this part of Iceland is a huge waterfall (I’m not sure if this one would have been huge in the sense of long and tall or long like Niagara, but there were both within a few hours of each other). When you’re traveling distances like we were, it makes sense to see both Geyser and this waterfall. It really does.

We had a two hour drive back to the hotel already, an hour to the waterfall and adding two more hours to the trip at 7:30 pm was asking for trouble when we normally can’t stay awake on any of our international first days past 8 pm. We were worried Hunter would fall asleep on the drive and not be able to sleep through the night while we needed to sleep. Parents know this can be a BIG problem.

Phil had to wrench himself away from the possibility of seeing that waterfall, even in the darkness. He thought maybe we could travel again the next day, that whole long distance and back, so he could see it, but Hunter and I were not game for that prospect. We wanted to see landscape we hadn’t seen yet. We wanted some sleep. We wanted to see PUFFINS.