Notes from Iceland 2009

I have just completed two years of research in Korea, Taiwan, and in Shandong, China. This summer I returned to my hometown Stavanger for a few weeks and then made my way to the US with a cheap ticket from Iceland Air. Just as I did once before, I made a two day stop in Iceland in order to explore that magical place a little more. I wrote a little about my previous stay here, but this time I managed to get out of Reykjavík and explore the southwest quarter of Iceland by car.

In order to keep things to a reasonable budget, both of my trips to Iceland left me with a choice between paying a few nights in a hostel and renting a bicycle, or renting a car and forgoing a place to stay. On my first trip I chose the former, but this time I decided to rent a car and sleep two nights in the vehicle.

As I suspected, the biggest problem with sleeping two nights in a car in Iceland is that it gets very cold, even in early August. Having recently come from the sweltering heat of Taiwan and Korea, I had no coats and little more than a few t-shirts packed with me and forgot to bring an extra sweater I had put aside to bring from my stash of possessions in my mother’s apartment in Norway. My first attempt at a solution to this problem was to “borrow” a blanket from Iceland Air, slipping one of their nice fleece blankets into my backpack upon boarding the aircraft. Given how cold I got, I should have stolen two of them. Since I’m not really the thieving type, I returned my blanket on my flight out of Iceland, but the experience sparked an idea: Iceland Air ought to consider providing a cheap – or ideally free with deposit – “blanket rental” service for poor backpackers like me who are sleeping in the expensive rental cars to be had in Iceland. Here is how it could work: pick up a blanket or two on disembarkation at Kevlavik airport, leaving a deposit, and return it when boarding your plane out of the country. Who should I contact about this idea?

The first afternoon I headed into Reykjavík and walked around the main street Laugavegur again. The bankruptcy of the country in the current economic crisis is immediately visible. Perhaps the most common word I was to see in Iceland in the two days I was there this time was “Útsala” (sale; clearance sale) plastered on hastily computer printouts on almost half the stores along the main street, a significant contrast from the chic shopping street I saw on my previous trip. At the airport, there is a sign in the duty free section which asks foreign shoppers something along the lines, “Should you feel guilty about taking advantage of the current circumstances? We at Kevlavik airport think you shouldn’t.”1 To be honest, though, Iceland still didn’t feel like it got a lot cheaper since my last trip. That may be because inflation has stolen some of the best bargains to be had when the currency crisis initially hit.

I spent a few relaxing hours of reading and eating at a great, and apparently famous, coffee shop on Laugavegur called Hljómalind, where I enjoyed a wonderful and reasonably priced vegetarian lasagna and great coffee. It seems to be a regular hangout for foreign travelers, and is also popular among Iceland’s Couchsurfers.

I picked up some groceries and was surprised to find grocery stores open on Sunday, a shock coming from Norway where the only thing open on Sunday’s are Chinese take-out, gas stations, and a few very small stores, mostly run by immigrants in the downtown area. As on my last trip to Iceland I was very underwhelmed by the selection and quality of bread, which I found to be very sub-Scandinavian par. There is more selection than one might expect, however. One cannot noticing a strange mix of Scandinavian and American consumer products. Maarud paprika potato screws and Lucky charms cereal could be seen in the same aisle of a grocery store. At the ubiquitous N1 gas stations small Taco Bell booths are found alongside familiar Scandinavian sites like soft ice cream stands and racks of beautiful woolen sweaters. It was almost as if Iceland were located half way between Scandinavia and the United States. Oh wait…

After feeding myself and picking up some supplies I was eager to hit the road. Although it was late afternoon by the time I got out, I hopped back in the rental and drove north of the city, aiming for the peninsula leading to Ólavsvik. I drove as far as I could towards its western edge until the sun hit the horizon and I turned back to the city.

DSCF2487.JPGOn this first drive, I immediately discovered how dangerous driving could be in Iceland. Let us call it, “Death by Beauty.” Since the landscape is so unfamiliar and its mountains so breathtaking, it invites close inspection by the traveler. The contrast between the light of a sinking sun and the shadows created by the clouds produce an especially beautiful effect as intermittent patches of orange light illuminate the bare hills. I often saw clouds just barely spilling over distant peaks, as if the valley beyond could not quite consume their volume. There is so much to stop and admire, even along the main highway, but the roads rarely have enough of a shoulder to come slowly to a stop along the edge in order to take in the scenery without blocking fast moving cars that might approach from behind. There are small gravel roads that shoot off the edge here and there, but these are easily missed when one is driving 90kph and not always available at points where one wishes to stop. DSCF2508.JPGOver a dozen times during my trip, I found myself glancing off to the right or left in order to take in a view, and then nearly driving off the road into a field of hardened lava, moss covered rocks, or grass plains. My technique improved with time: slowing down, taking shorter glances, and making more frequent stops at nearby gravel turnoffs, but I often found myself envying the exhausted looking travelers who could be seen pedaling overloaded travel bikes through the vast wilderness. For the benefit and safety of both bicyclists and drivers, I suggest Iceland give its construction industry a surely much needed boost by adding a generous shoulder to both sides of the entire stretch of highway 1 around the island, then later label further roads as targets for shoulders based on a cost-benefit analysis of the “Death by Beauty” risk of any given stretch. Who should I contact about this idea?

DSCF2570.JPGPerhaps the next most important observation was really the confirmation of a hypothesis I had. I’m a big fan of Sigur Rós and soon began blasting their music on my first drive. I can now say, with some confidence, that their music is such a perfect fit for driving through the Icelandic countryside that rental car companies in Iceland should consider including CDs with the band’s complete works in the glove compartment of every rented car. Who should I contact about this idea? I especially recommend some of their strange but progressively building songs such as Hafsól, Di Do, Saeglópur, Staralfur, and softer but eerie songs like Kafari, O Fridur and Refur.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the landscape of Iceland is simply amazing. As I drove through the countryside, even in the most “populated” – to the extent one can call any part of this massive island anything of the kind – southwestern quarter of Iceland, I kept find myself thinking two similar thoughts:

“You know, I don’t think humans belong here.”

“Umm….I don’t think this island is done yet. Shouldn’t we come back in a few thousand years?”

DSCF2603.JPGYet, somehow, a few hundred thousand people make their home here. Every hour I spent outside of Reykjavík I felt a strange and deep loneliness, but the kind of productive loneliness that is a wellspring of cultural inspiration and cleansing introspection. How else can one explain the amazing wealth of Icelandic contemporary music, photography, literature, and design? They might name their streets after vikings and play up their old sagas to tourists but the people on this island clearly have no need to embrace an illustrious but distant past. The island is itself so visibly alive, that there is no need for its culture to rest on the achievements of the dead.

I particularly like one of the advertisements for 66º North depicting the cool stare of a young pale faced girl holding a fishing pole:

I can’t remember the exact wording but it said something along the lines of, “Somewhere there is a girl in a warm house playing with her barbie dolls. I figure I’m the lucky one.”

DSCF2520.JPGObviously, this bold defiance in the face of harsh nature is a common theme found throughout Nordic nationalisms, and the seemingly endless expanse of stoney plateaus suspended above the lush forested valleys and the dark blue fjords of Norway may also inspire in the traveler a feeling of icy isolation. Yet, in southern Norway especially, it is precisely the promise of embrace in those rainy valley forests, the comforting smell of vegetation and the older more tamed appearance of the southern Norwegian landscape which sets it apart from Iceland. With perhaps the exception of the bare sharp but short peaks and the tundra of Northern Norway, the rest of Scandinavia simply cannot generate the same sense of complete nakedness one is faced with when they confront the mountains of Iceland, or its strange rock and lava fields. Even the bright green of a field of moss surrounding a lake might share the horizon with steam emerging from some mouth the earth has yet to close. And the smell…everywhere in the country a mix of strange and unfamiliar smells, perhaps sulfur? Perhaps some other product of subterranean fires?

DSCF2586.JPGThe Icelandic language too continues to fascinate me. I am still intrigued by the strange sense of familiarity the language has when spoken. I feel like I should be able to understand what is spoken (given its close connection to the Norwegian idiom) and everytime someone mistakes me for a local and I am able to guess the meaning, I sometimes catch myself responding in Norwegian, as would be the perfectly natural thing to do in Sweden or Denmark. I feel a deep frustration at having to respond in English. I know many Icelanders can speak Danish or some other dialect of what many of them rightly call the “Scandinavian” language but I cannot assume this. The written language, with its prolific use of those beautiful and ancient letters ð and þ, is almost completely unreadable to me but when spoken, it sounds so bizarrely familiar, and occasionally whole phrases come through only to descend into what seems like playful gibberish. Learning a language that only a few hundred thousand living and perhaps a few million dead people can speak seems unpractical, but if I found myself living in the island at some point, I would eagerly take up the challenge.

On my first night I stayed in the city, parking my car in a quiet neighborhood and sleeping in the back of my car. I woke frozen in the morning and decided early August was a great time to buy a nice warm winter fleece and promptly went shopping for one. After this early morning shopping spree, I decided to visit a thermal pool. I avoided the one I was told was most favored by tourists and instead visited a thermal pool deep in a residential area. Already by my second day I was beginning to wonder if there were openings for historian of East Asian history at one of Iceland’s few institutions of higher education that I might apply for and began imagining what life would be like here if I could spend a decade on the island. I loved the thermal pool, which warmed me right up in a quiet and relaxed local environment. It resembled some of the smaller scale sento public baths or hot springs in rural Japan I’ve been to. Old men exchange gossip in the shower room, and local neighborhood residents bathe and swim together in a steaming outdoor pool and collection of other hot pools and steam rooms.

DSCF2539.JPGMy full day of driving (see the map linked to below for the GPS track of my travels) following my morning bath took me to heavily touristed sites like the rich historical þingvellir, the Geysir, and Gullfoss. As I suspected, however, I far more enjoyed my own slow wandering on the roads (many of them rough gravel) south from these sites towards the southern coast, which was nothing short of spectacular. The glaciers of the south were hidden far above the clouds with only an arm extending into view here and there. The best clue of their presence were the hundreds of waterfalls that descended like so many white ropes descending from the clouds.

DSCF2600.JPGBy early evening I had reached Vik on the southern tip of Iceland, and spent some time watching the waves crash against the cliffs at nearby Dyrhólaey before driving late into the night all along the southern coast until I reached the lighthouse at Iceland’s southwestern tip, west of Grindavik.

DSCF2639.JPGMy late night trip on a long and bouncy gravel road through black lava fields was dimly light by the sun, already rising – or was it still setting – at one in the morning. I could just make out the strange shapes of the terrain around me and I hope some day I can make the same drive again by day. I finally parked along the coast and lay down in the back to sleep while strong winds coming up from the coast rocked my car and sang me to sleep.

DSCF2643.JPGI awoke at five, freezing, despite my new fleece, and walked out to a nearby cliff beyond the lighthouse for a last moment of reflection before heading to the airport.

Later, on arriving in the US my dear friend Sayaka showed me a Sigur Rós video she thought I might like. The video concludes at the same cliff of that last morning:

Sigur Rós – Glósóli from on Vimeo.

More of my pictures from the trip here. GPS track of my trip and map below:

2009.8 Southwest Iceland at EveryTrail

Map created by EveryTrail: GPS Trail Maps

  1. anyone see this sign? I think this is pretty close to the original. []

3 thoughts on “Notes from Iceland 2009”

  1. I very much enjoyed your travel report. On my only trip to Iceland, I only got to see the tourist sites you mentioned outside Reykjavik, and I envy your free-spirited travels across the less-touristed landscape!

    I’m sure you probably already know this, but the “complete nakedness” of the barren landscape you describe was actually the result of human intervention. Iceland was heavily forested when the first Nordic settlers arrived 1,100-odd years ago, but within a century or so the frigid winters had prompted them to completely deforest the island! I guess nothing is quite as pristine as it seems…

    In any case, you’ve definitely got me motivated to go back. I just wish their economic crash, as sad as it is, had made the country even more affordable, because when I went, prices were outrageous.

  2. As living on a tropical island, I feel very distant from the Iceland’s sceneries that you beautifully described. But, right because of that, I want to see them with my own view.

    I like the idea of blanket rental service and you may suggest this to their customer centre. My friend, Jihye would probably like to support the idea with her suggestion for Norwegian rail. She found this very nicely warm blanket on the train headed to Bergen, which she also borrowed but didn’t manage to return to them, as far as I remember.

  3. Thanks Brendan. I have indeed repeatedly heard the story of deforestion in various descriptions of Iceland, but my understanding was that the forests never covered more than, at most, around a quarter of the island, mostly around the settled and farmed areas. I don’t think anyone knows how much was lost, but I don’t think they covered the many black sand faced mountains and bare rock or lava fields. Some of the many grass fields and farms I passed, though, look like they could have once been the site of forest.

    Sunkyoung – I hope you get a chance to visit Iceland some day soon! For now, I hope life is good on the smaller island you now occupy!

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