Glutton Aboard: A Slog of Fire and Ice
I am not a nature lover, unless I am being paid to be one. On my off-duty trips, I only want to pursue the interests dearest to my heart. Unfortunately, I have very few interests: 1. what I eat; 2. what I drink; and 3. how do I get something to eat and to drink? Anything that falls outside of the purview of this admittedly very narrow scope is something that I am not interested in, and if I’m not interested in it, I want you to know that.
Unfortunately, I don’t travel alone. I have to deal with other people’s interests, and they have to deal with mine. This is how I found myself on an 8-day trip traversing the island of Iceland, which is known for its stark natural beauty, its mountains, its black sand beaches, its glaciers, its volcanoes, and its many, many waterfalls. You might ask, how did you end up on this trip? to which I would answer, I think I agreed to it while I was writing something, which is when most people who know me know to ask me to do things I normally would say no to (“Can I invite my investor’s extremely talkative secretary to your birthday party?” “Will you go to a Friends trivia tournament with me?” You get the picture.)
George R.R. Martin started “A Song of Ice and Fire” many, many years ago and only now have I realized that he probably took that “song” (theorized to mean Jon Snow, but I digress) from Iceland’s very apt name for itself (as opposed to Thailand’s “Land of Smiles”, which is not always a land of smiles) but simply reversed the order. I will now attempt to chronicle my own trip through this land, even though I am now in an airport and have forgotten most of it.
Reykjavik makes me think that maybe I won’t have such a hard time of it after all. It is super, super cold, yes, but not as mind-numbingly icy as it was in Harbin, where I could only walk one block before worrying that my nose would fall off (looking for a drink, I found a Russian discotheque, but didn’t go in because they had a cover charge. I bought a Tsingtao from a convenience store and drank it in the hotel lobby). Our first meal is at a place called Kol, which will be the first of many, many instances in which I see a sign marketing the Icelandic lamb (“Roaming Free since 874”). The thing is, how do they know this? Did they carbon date some lamb bones or something? Or is it a myth along the lines of the famous Thai saying “There is fish in the water and rice in the fields” a la King Narai the Great? The other guests having dinner at the unholy hour of 6pm are an American honeymooning couple (they told everyone, which is how I know) and four French men. The fish of the day is Arctic wolf fish, which I later learn looks like this. The meat is surprisingly light, tender and flaky.
I have lunch at the Seafood Grill after an aimless morning walking all over the place. I do not spot Bjork, or even Damon Albarn, although I’m not sure I would recognize him even if I did. I imagine I see Alan Wilder at the church’s bell tower, the highest point of Reykjavik, looking over the rooftops like any other boring tourist (me).
Everyone goes to sleep at 5pm, having just traveled from Thailand, but a few of us paint the town mildly pink by staying up until 8pm. We go to a bar where there are only locals, and I have my first pink gin and soda, which quickly becomes the best thing I have discovered in Iceland up to that point.
We are slated to go to Vik, in the south of Iceland, which is when I realize that I am not here to stuff my face, imagine myself in the same room with a former member of Depeche Mode, and drink pink gin. Instead, I am here to bear witness to Iceland’s many, many, many waterfalls. This puts me in a terrible mood, which is only slightly alleviated by my first trip to a gas station convenience store where I have my first hot dog.
Guess what we are doing? If you guessed walking out of a toasty car to face stiff winds while walking half an hour to see some water trickle through some icicles into a lake below, you would be correct! I now know how visitors to Thailand feel when they are expected to fill their days with trips to various temples, as suggested by the all-wise Tourism Authority of Thailand. After a few hours, all of these things start blending into each other. One waterfall is much like any other. Sorry, Tourism Authority of Iceland. We go to one where you can walk behind the water (Googling “waterfall in Iceland that you can walk behind” gets me Seljalandfoss) and, because it’s freezing and I quite sensibly don’t want to get wet when it’s freezing, I opt to watch as everyone else in my party chooses to venture behind the falls. Everyone, not just our Thai group, poses with their arms flung out wide like they are going to hug all of Iceland. I start to actively hate them all. This includes my husband, who is standing tantalizingly close to the edge of the falls. Alas, he does not fall in.
The bright point is, again, the gas station convenience store where I once again get a hot dog. I also get two gloriously cozy pairs of alpaca socks and a packet of licorice, because this is Scandinavia. It doesn’t even bother me when I try the licorice and it tastes like a burning puddle of melted rubber, plus sugar. I tell the cashier, “I never want to leave”, and I can tell she thinks that I mean Iceland. I don’t. I mean this particular gas station convenience store.
We have moved beyond the waterfalls section of our trip, on to the annoyingly-far-from-the-parking-lot-in-typhoon-like-winds-glacier-lake part. The winds are so strong that I am occasionally blown backwards. The experience is so ghastly that I am led to believe that the tour guide is trying to kill me. I know he thinks it’s for the good of the group.
That night, however, we see our first set of northern lights. They are not bright green and glow like you see in photographs. They are like spotlights from a building, if that building was in Gotham. They only glow green (and other colors!) when you view them through your camera. They are easy to miss, because if you are from the city, you are used to seeing bright lights in the sky. You only realize it’s strange when you are in the middle of nowhere, which is very much exactly where we are.
We are close to the far-eastern edge of the island, which I guess means lots of great lobster and langoustines. We take advantage of this wonderful bounty, and I, for once, am transcendently happy to be there.
I have also become a huge, huge fan of Icelandic lamb. It is the most tender lamb I have ever eaten, so tender that I even Google “why is icelandic lamb so tender”. I learn that the lambs are slaughtered abnormally early, in the fall after 4-5 months as opposed to New Zealand lamb, which is considered “early lamb” and slaughtered after 6-7 months. I am glad I do not have to slaughter the lamb in order to enjoy it.
I get to walk for the first time on an actual glacier, strapping on crampons (or are they clampons?) in order to gain purchase on the ice, which is coated in volcanic ash. Our guide tells us that ice coated in this fashion is doomed, although I have just spent a whole day in a Reykjavik museum learning that all ice is pretty much doomed. In spite of myself and the fact that I cannot eat the 1,000-year-old ice, I enjoy my day, imagining that the ice is hiding all manner of ancient viruses/bacteria/man-eating organisms/aliens that will be unleashed by one hapless tourist who stumbles and falls in exactly the wrong spot.
We head back to Reykjavik, with a strong grounding of knowledge about what the waterfalls, lakes and beaches of Southern and Eastern Iceland look like in November. I cannot say that I would definitely rush back to this island. But I can say that I have softened, a bit, towards this country. Before we leave, we take a group photo to commemorate the trip. I take a deep breath and spread my arms like I am hugging the whole island.