I don’t know how many times I have flown between Europe and North America and each time, about halfway over the North Atlantic, glanced down on a mysterious and rugged looking island. Big swaths seemed covered in glaciers. But not everything. It looked largely empty, but I could still make out clear imprints of humanity from thirty five thousand feet in the air. Mostly along the coastal lowlands, where the fields had a fresh green color. Just from areal views out of an airplane I knew that this country named Iceland was not stuffed to the brim with cold and hard ice, even though I love insisting on exactly that when my lovely sister-in-law, who happens to be an Icelander, is anywhere within ear shot. Precisely because this sister-in-law, Bjorg, hails from Iceland, I jumped on the opportunity to visit her native land, when she and her husband – my nutty brother Abdul – visited her family there.
As my Icelandair flight descended over Faxafloi Bay toward the former US airbase of Keflavik, now an international airport, I could see big fishing trawlers pulling into the bay. There were a lot of them. In fact so many that I got curious about it and tried to find out why so many. The answer was very easy: fishing is one of the biggest industries here, one that Iceland is slowly weaning itself from, now that fish stocks are declining and the country is becoming more and more hi tech. There was plenty of hi tech from what I could see as soon as I arrived there. By the time I arrived in the capital of Reykjavik, an hour bus ride away from Keflavik, I was convinced that the living standard here in Iceland must be among the very highest in the world. Nothing that I saw wasn’t somehow automated, mechanized, computerized.
My only initial problem was my grasp of the exchange rate, which, at the time of my visit, was roughly seventy kroners for every US dollar. Somehow I thought it was seven kroners per dollar. With that erroneous ratio in mind, I withdrew the equivalent of six US dollars at an ATM machine and then later found out that that withdrawal cost me seven US dollars in transaction fees. Not so good; if kept up these kinds of currency exchange miscalculations, then my trip would be over before it really even began. Nevertheless, I quickly realized that with six dollars you can’t really buy a whole lot in Iceland. To get an easily communicable sense of the price of things, I wandered into a McDonalds to check out the cost of a Big Mac: about fourteen dollars or so for a Big Mac, medium coke and medium fries. Yikes! I am not against hamburgers, as my love for California’s very own In-n-out Burger chain attests, but I don’t eat even one dollar Big Macs, let alone fourteen! After wandering from store to store and restaurant to restaurant during my first couple of days in Reykjavik I realized that the cost of most goods and services are beyond my reach. Along with Norway and Japan, it must be one of the most expensive countries in the world. Now I was really happy to have Abdul’s in-laws around to stay with and do things with.
Iceland’s name doesn’t really serve it very well, as the country is neither icy nor buried in glaciers or pack ice. There are some mighty glaciers in the interior, but they only take up about twelve percent of inhospitable land. I found plenty of green, most of it in the form of mosses and grasses, some in the form of trees, especially during the late summer season. If it was up to me, I would rename the geographically much more inhospitable Greenland, located only about two hundred miles to the north, Iceland and vice versa. But the Vikings, who settled here about a thousand years ago, found it to be an apt name to keep other competing would-be settlers out. And it worked and it probably also worked because the Vikings were known to be fierce warriors, who didn’t shy away from hacking their enemies’ heads off and dragging their women (at least the pretty ones) off with them. Thankfully, now they are far mellower people. One thing that has not changed at all during the past millennium is the Icelandic language. Elementary students today can read Viking sagas written many centuries ago with the same ease they can read a Spongebob Squarepants book. You can’t say that about English, where Shakespeare stumps me more often than not.
Meeting the rest of Bjorg’s family did wonders to allay my fear that I would spend my days in Iceland just talking to myself. The problem that I have had in the past in other Scandinavian countries, namely Finland, Sweden and Norway, was that outside of bars, where you drink yourself silly, I found the native people hard to approach and talk to. Not here, not this time. They were a wonderfully hospitable bunch and every single one of them spoke impeccable English, including mom and dad. As did Bjorg’s brothers Ausgeir and Hukur, who, by the way, did not seem to exude any of the jackass qualities of Abdul and me. That’s to their credit. In fact, I found that most Icelanders, young and old, speak English more or less fluently. Amazing, given that it is not even a language that is really used here.
We got rained in for a couple of days, but decided to do like the Icelanders and venture out into the country side anyways. Otherwise, with the amount of rain that falls here, we would just sit inside most of the time. Bjorg’s dad graciously allowed Abdul and me to borrow his Mitsubishi Pajero, probably not really realizing what the two of us might do to a 4×4 in a country with very few paved roads. Well, when it was all said and done, her dad only had to replace two front tires after a few days’ use of the vehicle. We found that the gravel roads are really not that bad, as long as you stay away from the sharp volcanic rock that the land is littered with. A far more interesting option would have been a little cross country trek on those famously sturdy Icelandic ponies, but that will have to happen during another trip here. But that is the way the country used to be traveled by.
Bjorg’s family owns a chunk of land and two beautiful cottages well outside of Reykjavik and it turned out to be the perfect base from which to explore the country side. Birch trees have been planted all over the property and it has the feel of a wooded island in the middle of green mossy tundra. To top it off with a Nordic feel, there is even a little sod roof storage building with dirt, grass, and moss completely taking the roof over. We spent some rainy days here, but Bjorg’s uncle Steini promised that a sunny day would soon come along and that we could take a 4×4 trip deep into the country’s virtually untouched volcanic interior. I wasn’t so sure about the sun ever coming out, though. But sure enough, one brilliant sunny morning uncle Steini burst into my room to wake me up and jump into his Nissan Patrol. We flew over the paved roads steadily uphill and inland until the pavement ended and the washboard gravel road began. All traffic died down completely. The rest of the day we saw maybe three or four other vehicles in the back country. Any vestige of green grass and trees disappeared, too. Only a stark black volcanic landscape was left, crisscrossed by infinitely braided rivers and endlessly blue lakes. And where the black rock met the horizon, there was the thick layer of white and icy glaciers. Among all this rose fat columns of steam from the various geothermal vents that littered the volcanic rockscape. “From the land of ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow” Led Zeppelin nailed the description of this area in their “Immigrant Song”, which paid tribute to Iceland and the Vikings. Now I understood the true necessity of a 4×4 in navigating any of this terrain and why so many people in Iceland owned them. In anything less we would have been hopelessly stuck in the first of many river crossings that had the lower half of the trusty Nissan completely submerged.
A totally different driving experience was afforded by Hukur, Bjorg’s youngest brother, back in Reykjavik, who, at the age of twenty, had somehow acquired himself a souped up three series BMW. One drizzly evening he offered to take me “drifting” in his race machine. I had a vague notion that we might be going kind of fast in his car, but only later realized that “drifting” meant going mostly sideways with the tires screaming and spewing white smoke. A lot of intersections in Reykjavik consist of turnabouts. He “drifted” around all the turnabouts, meaning that the BMW was going around the circle like all other cars. The only exception was that we also did it sideways and of course with all the tire smoke for maximum effect. Other drivers looked at us dumbfounded. I loved it, hooted and hollered, and egged him on for more. We “drifted” round and round and round in empty parking lots until I was so dizzy in the head that I couldn’t tell what country I was in anymore. This was as good or better as any stunt in the “Dukes of Hazzard” episode. Not to be outdone by anyone else, Hukur is planning on installing a supercharger in the near future to squeeze another hundred horsepower out of an already steroided engine. Sounds like I’ll have to return to see how it feels to “drift” around turnabouts with four hundred horses under the hood. And get better health insurance beforehand, too.
After all that dizziness, the Blue Lagoon was the perfect place to piece my brain back together. One of the most well known attractions of Iceland, the lagoon is actually a large geothermal vent, where hot mineral water bubbles to the surface from deep underground vents. The name alludes to the deep blue color the silica lends to the water. Once at the surface, the temperature is just perfectly spa like and all of this outdoors where the wind blows and the rain and the snow fall. Nothing feels better than to step into hot, dense, opaque blue mineral water after walking those few feet from the changing rooms through the wind and weather. Amazingly close to the airport, the Blue Lagoon was the perfect place to experience a last bit of Iceland before I hopped back on Icelandair to fly over Faxafloi Bay with all its fishing boats and the North Atlantic to yet another destination. In retrospect I am extremely happy to have taken Bjorg’s family up on their offer to visit them. Besides all of the above described experiences, I got to taste her mom’s and grandmother’s excellent cooking, usually in the form of sheep, which is a delicacy of Iceland. Must try the sheep’s head next time.