Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Iceland Part Two with photos

[Note: I know you have nearly given up on my posting this portion on Iceland. So have I. It has been written, but I was determined that you should see photos of Puffin. Boy, has the photo part been menacing. I apologize for the delay, but I have probably spent a total of 30 hours or more on this portion, alone. Hopefully you can click to make the images larger.]

When we lived in Alaska, the mascot of my daughter’s school was the puffin. We’d never seen a puffin other than stuffed in a wildlife museum, mind you, but we lived somewhere near their habitat. Believe it or not, this has to do with Iceland.

Hunter wonders why he can’t remember Alaska or ever wanting to know about puffin before, but the first morning he woke up in Iceland saying, “Mom, I don’t have jet lag: I slept the whole night,” he desperately wanted to take the Puffin Tour on a boat in the sea. Other than breakfast, nothing else mattered. He made sure to pick up a Puffin Tour brochure on the way to breakfast (adding to those Phil and I picked up individually) so we wouldn’t forget.

We could have done an art tour, gone fishing in the sea, taken a whale-watching tour or, as mentioned earlier, driven a few hours to some famous waterfalls. We could have been typical tourists and only wandered around (shopped) in Reykjavik, but, two against one, we wanted a puffin tour.

wanted to take the tour, as well, but he’d hoped we would be out the door early enough for the first tour so we could drive the better part of the day. As it (always) happened, we had to take the midday tour because we weren’t finished with breakfast and fussing early enough. He was already in waiting and antsy, mode. Traveling was much easier for Phil when he was single—but that was a good long time ago. That was before the need to charge camera batteries, computer batteries, download photos, verify photos and run into memory problems. That was before little boys who can’t stand to leave the hotel room before seeing at least one whole morning cartoon, or have a turn at using the computer—American in Iceland.

We dragged ourselves out the door, had the great idea to remove the large boxes from the back and backseat of the car and leave them in the hotel room, which took more time. As we were leaving, I opened my laptop to read a downloaded chapter of a guidebook on Iceland, only to realize I’d downloaded every region of Iceland except the one we were in.

Car idling, boy in the backseat wondering why we haven’t left yet, the electronic whir of a slowly fuming husband, the slow connection to free unsecured wireless and the equally slow payment and download of the last available chapter on Iceland (could have purchased the book more quickly!), so we could figure out what to do in Reykjavik while we waited for our ship to come in.

Sometimes we can be so technologically savvy, that we are time and adventure stupid. Phil and I have acknowledged this and sworn to go back to our more simple roots—where our parents studied fold-out maps and headed somewhere with only a vague idea of what the family might see. It was so much easier than trying to scroll up and down, up and down, to view a map on a tiny screen. But there we were with everything one could need in a PDF on a tiny screen and no map. Even the GPS we rented seemed stupid, making us drive several miles only to require a u-turn back to where we’d started.

Thus armed, we drove to the Capitol city of Iceland as fog and rain clouds disappeared into the warming clear blue sky. Hunter was already getting hungry. I thought we’d park near the tour and walk around the city a bit, see an architecturally interesting church built of cement, but Phil wanted to know exactly where we’d walk so he could estimate the amount of time it would take so we didn’t miss the tour.

We bounced all these ideas around while standing on Hamburgergatan which lead toward the tour and started at an intersection where the whole tiny corner houses a hip little hamburger joint, complete with posters of Elvis, the Beatles, gnarly looking rock n’ roll angry fashion statements and cute children’s drawings of themselves eating at their favorite hamburger place. Hunter wanted to eat there. He didn’t even mind watching the tiny television hanging from the ceiling from a barstool though the language was even more foreign to him than Swedish.

Oh yeah. You wanted to read about the puffin tour. It’s coming. The most roaming around we did was to see a house decorated in the most kitschy garden art, better seen from across the street than up close due to the high surrounding wall. We decided we’d get burgers and fries to take with us on the two hour tour after we’d walked up and down the harbor a bit. (This may have happened after the souvenir shop.) We let a souvenir shop lure us all the way inside such that we entertained plunking down some money for odds and ends (some of which have proved useful—like a pair of underwear, a rain hat and a baseball cap. Not telling which was for whom). We tasted things. We asked a lot of questions about the area. Then an ordinary looking man walked in with a painting and I asked if he was an artist.

He was.

The painting in his hand wasn’t his. It was a sepia toned painting with black outlines. He painted in oil somewhere very north of here, but could I come and see his gallery? It would take four hours by car, but not so long by boat. This was to be my waterfall. (Oh! Look at the time!) We’d have to leave seeing such paintings behind.

They were the kind of paintings sought out by “Chicago. Don’t know why they’d want my paintings so much. They are of fields, boats and the sea, of farmhouses and ordinary things.”

He was a farmer and a fisherman, too. His boat bobbed at the harbor, along with the Puffin Tour boat, near the place we stood talking, lost in the wonderful world of shared interests with humans from around the world.

“Do you have a website?” I asked, getting pen and paper ready.

“No, but my daughter is working on it.” I hand him the paper and pen and ask for an autograph because you never know who you’re really talking to: Gunnar I. Gudjön,” he wrote, taking care to include his art signature, his telephone number and the date (10/8/2009, mdy).

I keep the piece of paper in plastic so it doesn’t get ruined. Will I ever see his paintings? Guess we’ll have to go back to Iceland….

My husband was kind enough to let me enjoy this moment, but gently reminded me, after the artist excused himself, that we still hadn’t made our purchases and we hadn’t grabbed lunch to take onto the boat.

Purchases and lunch in hand, we finally went to the tour boat. We were directed onto a medium-sized boat-made-restaurant where we bought our tickets at the bar, then sent below deck where there were water closets (toilets) and a tiny side deck from which we would access the smaller tour boat. We admired the heavy wooden staircase and walls, highly varnished by marine varnish and time.

The tour boat arrived, was tied up with heavy rope and its human contents spilled quietly out, onto the tiny deck and through the narrow door near where we stood. Soon, we were allowed on the boat, pleased as ever.

Especially Phil. We were finally doing something.

We wove our way up tiny stairways to the top of the boat for a great view of the harbor. There were picnic tables, exhaust pipes, the captain’s windowed area and a walking deck surrounded by rails, but the space was barely large enough for ten people to enjoy at once. Since we were there first, and Phil was tired of holding the food bags and drinks, Hunter and I sat at the table and set up our picnic. Others joined us, but without food. Phil barely sat down before he was up taking photos.

We waited for the boat to “set sail” before we started eating. I watched Hunter dive into his hamburger with great enthusiasm, but the smell of yet another fast food meal swirling around our heads with the exhaust and the inevitable swaying motion of the boat spoiled my appetite. Soon, Hunter set down his not quite half eaten sandwich and laid his head on the table. “I can’t eat this, mommy,” he said, apathetically. “I don’t feel well.”

Phil had already crumpled his food papers into balls and come to see if he could clean up after either of us. He was surprised to find us not eating much. Hunter sipped some of his orange soda.

The water was smooth as glass. The weather had cleared into a clear blue sky. The only reason our boat swayed at all was the passing of other boats, even a huge private cruise ship. There was really no reason to feel queasy.

I decided to lean over the front rail, overlooking the bow. We were headed in the direction of a mountain I had been using as a point of reference. It reminded me of Steam Boat Rock in Electric City, Washington. They call theirs Mount Esja (the j makes a y sound). Leaning over the rail, this way, I could get a little farther away from the exhaust.

Just then, one of the shipmates walked out onto the bow below me. She enjoyed a long, peaceful smoke. I kept hoping she would finish and move on, but she continued long enough that I couldn’t take either kind of exhaust, so moved below deck. There were no windows, only a small kitchen beyond some

booth/table lined walls. There was a large photo of some Puffin to look at, but that was all. How was I to see amazing birds down there?

So, I went to the back deck to look out over the side. I had read, in Lonely Planet’s chapter on the history of Iceland, that one of the first to settle in Iceland (after monks seeking silence) did what any well-bred intending settler would do. “He heaved his high-seat pillars into the sea as they approached land.” These pagan paraphernalia, symbols of authority for Norse chieftains, and “the gods” supposedly led Ingólfur Arnarson to his settling place (which he called ReykjavikSmokey Bay—after the sulfur steam of the area).

We were passing an island not far from Reykjavik. A few posts jabbed the air. I wondered if these were the land-finding pillars. I must have said it aloud because a resident who was also on the boat pishawed the idea, saying they were nothing other than a mess left over by some long-gone industry. So much for my trying to get my mind around the history of the place (or letting my imagination run loose).

We were called below deck for a few minutes of instruction. Wewere told that the North Atlantic Puffin is quite small compared to those in Alaska. That the female lays a single egg and both mates incubate the egg. They also take turns feeding the little guy once he’s hatched. They can both fly in the air and underwater. They fish for herring and other small fish. Though their beaks look small, they can carry quite a few fish.

Of course, I didn’t remember much of this, so had to look it up at

They are fascinating creatures.

“These puffins gather and lay their eggs on craggy rocks, oh, and look! We’re almost there,” we were told and rushed up to the front of the boat. I was shutter-snapping happy, but my lens was too short and too slow for these critters zipping overhead. The boat captain was a photographer with the same camera but an impressive lens. When he found out I was interestedboth in photography and birds, he stood nearby as snap-happy as myself, but giving mepointers. I was in

bird heaven!

My photos are nothing like those the captain could take. His photos were on the brochure and in some other magazines. But I’ll show you a few here.

Just because you like the little critters, doesn’t mean you can’t eat them. I didn’t get to try (wasn’t aware of the possibility at the time), but I guess the locals do.

All too soon it was time to turn back.

Beautiful as the water and landscape was, it was nothing after being so near puffin. As if to keep my mind off of wanting to go back, some of the captain’s old coast guard buddies waved from a passing coast guard boat, then another group of them buzzed overhead, close-range, by helicopter--smiling and waving.

When we reached land, the dock was covered with school children laying over the sides stick fishing. They were all colorfully dressed enough for a photo.

Before the helicopter, I had asked the captain if he recommended The Blue Lagoon for tourists. “Sure!” he said, “I used to go there. It’s a great place!”

But when I told Phil what the captain said, he just grumbled. He’d seen a photo of one of the lagoons and wasn’t impressed with how touristy and crowded it looked.

After we had disembarked the boat and were trying to figure out what to do next, we were invited to get back on the boat for a free whale watching boat-ride which would take four hours. We knew we wanted to see more on land so we passed up the deal (that tour was more expensive than the puffin tour). Now, I kind of kick myself for that.

As usual, it took us awhile to agree on where to go and I have to admit that I was pretty insistent about going to the thermal springs instead of trying to drive around the rest of our last day. We ended up driving awhile, anyway, because Blue Lagoon was farther south, even, than the airport. And it seems we had to go back to the hotel for a swimsuit.

I also asked to see a lighthouse on the way. Everyone is getting tired of lighthouses in my family, because I like them so much. But how often does a person get to see a lighthouse in Iceland, may I ask? The closer we walked to the lighthouse, but more beautiful and astounding the shells were. Shades of purple, pink, black, pearl, white, green, blue and more that look like the streets of heaven. I tell you, Iceland is a rather heavenly place—if it weren’t for its quirky pagan mixed with Catholic roots.

We were all getting that jet-lag kind of tired; the kind that messes up touring. Hunter fell asleep in the backseat.

Reluctantly, Phil drove us to The Blue Lagoon. It was a fairly long drive (not as long as it would have been to the waterfalls). Did I mention mile upon mile of volcanic rock? The view seemed to spread as far as the Grand Canyon. Not as high, of course, but it seemed as wide. But then, I’m an impatient traveler. The quicker it is between two points, the better as far as I’m concerned, especially when the landscape doesn’t seem to vary much.

Several times, Phil wanted to give up, even after we started seeing signs pointing to the place. These were small road signs, not billboards like for Wall Drug, or something. We’d put in our time (driving), I wasn’t about to let him give up.

Even when we parked in the parking lot, we couldn’t tell why so many brochures mentioned this place. The only thing we saw was black rock, busses, cars and a tiny spout of steam or two. People were leaving--from where, we couldn’t tell—with wet hair and towels under their arms. What crazies, we thought. Even us. Phil still wanted to get back into the car and drive away. His skepticism was affecting Hunter. Or was it the fact that Hunter had been rudely awakened from his jet-laggy nap?

“Mom, why do we have to go here? What is it anyway? I don’t want to go swimming!”

Mean mom and bull-headed wife that I am, I grabbed our bathing things and walked the same way people were leaving. The sidewalk led us down into the rock. Before we reached the entrance, there was a little pathway around several bright blue pools of sulfur. Phil was definitely interested in this. I almost couldn’t get him through the entrance. He thought he’d found what he was interested in.

But we forged our way in. Inside was a spa like none I’d seen before—not that I’d seen many. Needing coffee and a snack for Hunter, we walked toward the café in the center to get some snacks. There, beside us, were floor to ceiling windows looking out over the hot springs. Somehow we had woven our way to a place featured by Conde Nast—we the dweebs of Northern Idaho.

Photos exist, but not many as we quickly realized it was time to get out there and experience it for ourselves (after paying through the nose). Ah, warmth, sometimes, ouch! Hot! You should have seen Phil under the hot sulfur water waterfall. He kept returning to it, letting it pound him in the back and neck. If I couldn’t find him, he was under the massaging waterfall--there, or in the hotter part of the pools where Hunter and I feared tread.

Speaking of tread, though they had carefully painted the lava rock with lime to soften the volcanic rock under foot and against the walls, it was fairly common to be among those frequently stubbing their toes.

Since we had been able to see people so well from the cafeteria, we made sure not to go near those tall windows. You know, it’s one thing to be dweebs, another thing altogether to display how much. We kept a low profile, trying to keep all but our heads under water. Hunter enjoyed the whole bit, and we were glad, because it was a romantic place.

Showering afterward was interesting. There must have been 25 or more showers in the women’s locker room alone. It was necessary to wait for a shower, especially one with a curtain. But the wait wasn’t too bad. Each shower came with special shampoo and conditioner to get the salt off of body and hair.

Did I look back? I’m not sure. My shower was one of the only booths with a curtain but the special conditioner was empty. There was just enough shampoo. So I thought. It took awhile for my hair to dry, but when it did, my hair was a pillar of salt! I couldn’t run my fingers through it or even wear it on my head without feeling like something just wasn’t right. (When we were back at the hotel, I asked the receptionist if she had anything for sulfuric/salty hair. She understood right away, telling me about the time she visited the place at the age of 10 with hair "down to my butt." She took me up a few flights of stairs to a linen closet and found a box of things left by former customers. There was a shampoo conditioner mix as well as some very good conditioner. She advised me to use both and to do it twice. She was right. It worked. )

We drove away from that place happy. Even Phil. It had been a good choice. We had soaked away our jet-lag, the stress of moving again, and the stress of trying to travel together with different perspectives.

Furthermore, the sun began to set. In many ways, it was as brilliant as sunset on the Painted Desert in Arizona. The colors of the setting rays refracted off every facet of those black volcanic rocks. I even found a cave for Hunter and Phil to climb around in while I reveled in the rays. Glorious. Perfectly glorious. What a reminder of our Glorious Creator!

The rest of our time was spent trying to find cheap food, repacking a few of our bags, making room for souvenirs, sleeping, eating a sound breakfast and heading for the airport. As we did so, we stopped at the Perlan and Saga Museum for a look out over the Reykjavik. This was something Phil liked, too. (It was from the Perlan building that the first photo on this post is from.)

What do I know about Iceland? I know I want to go back. There is so much to see and do in the quiet natural world. I haven’t seen it in winter, haven’t seen its glaciers and fjords and Phil has to see those waterfalls. Two days touches the tiniest tip of such a volcanic iceburg…

[post script: We flew Iceland home to Idaho and back for Christmas. There was no snow at Keflevik when we landed December 19 and only a skiff January 4. The man next to me admitted to being Icelandic and said the Icelanders get used to it being rainy, dreary and dark--that there isn't usually much snow in those parts. He said, as people in most parts of the world say, "You have to go toward the mountains."

He also told me that while Blue Lagoon must be a nice place, he'd never been there. He said it is one of the places in Iceland that doesn't use the local currency. So the locals don't even go there. (Sigh, we were such tourists!) He said most every town has it's own hot springs, anyway, so that's where he goes. (What? There was a cheaper way of soaking in the springs?) So when the boat captain said he "used to go there," he meant before it was all fixed up for the Conde Nast types. And we're not even of that type. Boy, were we suckered!]

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