Back in the Saddle
Have you missed us? We’re back. We sure missed you. And we missed the road.
This time around we are visiting the land of fire and ice. But it wasn’t Game of Thrones that inspired this trip; rather, we were first inspired to visit Iceland by our friends Amy and Jeremy, who honeymooned here while we were doing our first big trip ’round the world. Later my friend Darren also visited. Amy and Darren both returned and wowed us with tales of rare sights and natural beauty. We were lured by the possibility of seeing the northern lights. We decided a while back that this would be our next big trip.
Before we get to the trip itself, I must tell you about the last big thing that happened before we left. My buddy Africa Jeff asked us to assist him in a big race for which he had been preparing for a year.
What sort of race requires a year’s planning and requires a “pit crew”?
A 24-hour race.
Yes, you read that correctly. This is a race in which participants start running and then keep doing it for a full rotation of the earth. They can stop if they desire to…although Jeff didn’t. The winner is whoever runs the furthest during the 24 hours of the race. How far can a person run in 24 hours?
In Jeff’s case, the answer is 110 miles. Yep, we watched him go around a one-mile course 110 times. Each time around, we would briefly interact, sometimes providing food, liquids, supplements, and encouragement.
On race day, there were a solid 7-8 hours of 90+ degree temperatures. It was brutal. Around mile 45, Jeff looked ready to drop, and he told me later that he almost bowed out. About half of the race runners packed it in at that point. Jeff willed himself through that part of the day and continued, picking up steam as the sun set, and cranking off several hours of back-to-back 12-minute miles. Jeff’s 10-year old son Carter accompanied him for an incredible 31 miles, while his wife Kara, as well as Becci and I, provided whatever these two needed along the way.
[Becci]: I want to note that I only contributed about three hours worth of effort before my back went kaput, and I spent the next 2 days familiarizing myself with heating pads, drugs and my trusty back brace. I got updates about the race via text, and was bummed I couldn’t help out more. Back update: still crappy…but, hey! I’m in Iceland!
For Jeff, it was grueling 24 hours. For us, it was an honor to help him in this small but important way to achieve this incredible life goal. And it was part of our own sprint to the finish in preparing for our first ever trip to Iceland.
I’ve learned two things about how the length of time that you will be away affects how one prepares to travel. The first thing that is affected is how one prepares his home and affairs. When we were planning to be away for a year, we planned out the disposition of everything that would be left back home. It was almost like planning one’s own death. We put everything in order, down to preparing wills.
The Iceland trip is a little short of three weeks, but I still felt compelled to put things in order before we left. I spent the last two days before the trip documenting, cleaning up, and preparing. Some of this was necessary (cleaning clothes to take them on the trip; locating luggage, etc.); some of this was deemed unneccassary by Bex (washing the cars, scrubbing the floors in the house; updating the music on the iPods). Becci noted “I feel like we are taking two trips: one to Iceland, and one to Compulsively Clean Town”. She doesn’t share my interest in “next-to-godliness”, I guess.
The other thing I have learned about trip prep is that the longer you are traveling, the less stuff you take. This must be because the longer you will be away, the more obvious it is that you won’t be conducting business as usual. When a trip is going to last 3-5 days, there is a tendency to take everything that you might potentially need in “regulars life” during that time, as if you weren’t traveling. This almost always leads to excess packing and the inclusion of “I might need” stuff. For example, my friend Denise once took 3 large suitcases for an eight-day trip to Ireland. One of them contained nothing but shoes.
Conversely, when a trip is extremely long…a year for example…it is obvious that this kind of packing won’t work. The logistics of how one would move that amount of stuff around for a prolonged period of time are more obviously difficult. That in turn forces one into a realistic mindset about what can be taken. I traveled for a year, and everything I needed for that year fit into a backpack that I carried with me every single day. You get real practical when you are staring down a year…and everything unnecessary gets jettisoned.
Nice shoes? Nope. Comfortable shoes, yes. And don’t pack them, I’ll just wear them.
For a three week trip to Iceland…well it actually worked as my hypothesis predicts…we ended up with an amount of gear in excess of what we took for the 365-day drip, but less than we would probably would have taken for a week at the beach.
In the end, we got it all sorted, packed, and ready to roll. We said goodbye to the pups (my progeny Alex is pup-sitting) and headed for the airport. Saying goodbye to Lincoln and Penny is always the hardest part.
We were heading to Iceland via Icelandair. We found that the least expensive place to fly from was Boston, so the first leg of our journey was a quick flight there. This flight occurred at a time when I try never to be awake, so there’s that. At least the TSA was there to cheer me up first thing in the morning.
We had a couple of hours to kill in Boston before the flight across the pond, and we spent some of it visiting the duty free shops in the international terminal of Logan airport. We came up with a new game, called Find the Most Expensive Thing.
I thought it would be a watch, and it almost was. They have a couple of $4,000 Montblanc watches for sale at Logan. However, the most expensive thing for sale on the duty free shops turns out to be a bottle of Scotch whiskey.
If you have never checked out Icelandair, you should. They offer budget-priced flights to Iceland and Europe, but the service is decent, far surpassing the lousy service offered by US carriers. Although they are a low-cost air travel provider, they still manage to put together an airplane that includes comfortable seats with human-sized legroom, individual in-flight entertainment in every seat (although I wasted it watching X-Men Apocalypse; please don’t make the same mistake), and friendly attitudes.
Boston / New York to London takes around 8 hours and seems like a chore. The flight from Boston to Iceland takes around 5, and takes less time than flying between coasts in the U.S. We were there in no time. We even caught some Aurora Borealis action from the plane as we flew into Reykjavik.
[Becci]: In good Brace / Levy fashion, we tried to cram way to many events into the week before we left, which threw us both into a bit of a tailspin. Lack of brain space + muscle relaxants had done a doozy on my normal compulsive organization. Hence, there were many things left undone. T-1 day, as I checked us in to the first leg, John said “oh crap, did we reserve seats for the iceland flight?!?” We had not. After a quick scramble, we snagged the last two seats available together, and let out a collective sigh of relief. I bring this up only because when we boarded the plane, we were two of about 30 people total on this enormous plane. We each could have had one row, and we would still have 20 rows to spare. I have no idea what seating chart Icelandair displays online…but it is full of lies!!! This bonus space resulted in John immediately scooting away from me and taking the window seat, while I snoozed on the aisle. I think we talked to each for about 5 minutes the entire flight. That’s love, baby!
My favorite part of the flight was listening to the flight attendants talk to the other passengers in Icelandic. It’s like listening to English, played backwards at double speed, on a tape deck that has developed a lisp. It’s freaking beautiful and I want to marry it.
We had purchased a “How to speak Icelandic” book in hopes of at least mastering the alphabet do we don’t sound like complete rubes when we flag down a local on a deserted moor, our enormous map flapping in the wind, and try to communicate where we think we are [side note: I believe our enormous map might be rendered in a 1:1 scale. I know that it is going to be very convenient to use while driving].
I settled into my favorite part of the language-learning process: making flash cards, and was feeling pretty good about our chances. Here’s how this exercise went:
A is like “a” in “bar”, “tar” and “car” – Fantastic. Got it. Great.
E same as in English except that it’s always short, like in “bed” and “end”. – No worries.
É is like “ye” in “yet” – Alright, now we are getting interesting. Cool. Bring it, Icelandic.
G is like “g” in “good” at the beginning of a word, “k” in “wick” between a vowel and -l, -n; /ɣ/ after vowels, before a, u, ð, r, and when it’s the last character of a word; like “ch” in Scottish “loch” after vowels and before t, s; like “y” in “young” between vowel and -i, -j; dropped between a, á, ó, u, ú.
SCENE: WOMAN 1 tosses flash cards into the air, walks away, muttering “what the ever-lovin’ Christ?” As cards float down to the rug in zig-zags.
Arriving in Iceland
We touched down on the island a little ahead of midnight, so the airport was quieter than usual. Our trip through immigration was the fastest that I can remember, and the immigration lady sorta flirted with me. She asked if I was going to be naughty in Iceland, and when I promised not to be, she asked “what’s the fun in that?”. I like this place. Bex chalked up the extra attention to my new svelte look. Bex was also peeved ’cause I got a new passport stamp and she didn’t; apparently her so-called “most powerful passport in the world” is so fearsome that some other nations don’t even dare deface it’s pages.
Iceland is an expensive place. It’s expense profile is the love-child of two recklessly expensive parents: Scandinavian socioeconomics and island living. Imagine the worst financial excesses of Norway (high-end designer Socialism; home of the $20 Whopper) and Hawaii (everything but pineapple is imported; home of the $5 Coke), throw in high taxes on booze, and that’s how expensive Iceland is. Knowing that beers are 12 bucks and mixed drinks are more, we decided to pick up a couple of bottles at the Keflavik airport’s duty free shop.
This, in turn, led to another round of Find the Most Expensive Thing, followed by a round of the old classic Find Something Reasonably-Priced That Will Give Me a Good Buzz. Luckily, I am a seasoned player of the second game, and we left the shop with two bottles to keep us company during our road trip around the island.
That’s the format of this journey, by the way: road tripping with my favorite ally. We will be here for 2+ weeks and plan to spend most of that time traveling the ring road that encircles the island, traveling around 1,000 miles and seeing what there is to see out there.
It being fall in Iceland, we have employed the services of our new best friend Jimny, a 4-wheel drive mini-SUV made by the fine folks at Suzuki. We drove Jimny about 40 kilometers from the Keflavik airport to the metropolis of Reykjavik, where we are staying for the first couple of days of our journey. It was about 0100 when we arrived, but that didn’t deter Becci from watching the Aurora Borealis for another 90 minutes once we arrived at our Air BnB lodging in town. We had wondered whether we would get to see this phenomenon at all during our trip: I had imagined that if we did, it would be later in the journey, as we traveled the ring road in some of the more remote, northern parts of Iceland. But we got lucky: Northern Lights activity is unusually high for this time of year. The lights were visible on our first night in Iceland. It is a great portent for the trip.
Our First Day in Reykjavik
The entire country of Iceland has only about 350,000 citizens, and about two-thirds of these people live in Reykjavik. That makes Reykjavik the big city here.
The first thing we noticed is that the weather here is awesome. Neither Bex nor I are real happy about being too hot, and summertime in the southeastern U.S. is somewhat unpopular around the house. Conversely, we love the fall and winter, and when we arrived here in Reykjavik, we were met with 10 C / 50 F temperatures. It was sunny, breezy, and bracing.
Our first stop on our first morning in Iceland was the beach near our flat; we are staying a stone’s throw from the Greenland Sea, which sits adjacent to and north of the North Atlantic Ocean. It was low tide, and the beach section we visited was covered in sand, small volcanic rocks, and seaweed. Iceland is itself the product of volcanic activity, and black volcanic rock is omnipresent on the beaches, the roadsides, and even in some building construction.
Buildings here are rarely wooden, due to the windy coastal conditions, and due to the relative scarcity of trees here. Tall trees are never seen on the island, and wooden structures are not favored due to the threat of rot and the potential for earthquakes on the island. Buildings are generally constructed using corrugated metal and concrete, and we saw many corrugated metal homes and businesses while walking around the city. Many of these are brightly colored, although we also admired a large metal house, painted black, with a bright red metal roof.
Our first meal in Iceland was taken at a hot dog stand in the shopping district of Reykjavik. We opted for hot dogs served in the classic Icelandic style, which includes some sort of ketchup-like substance, some quasi-mayonaissey stuff, as well as onions and relish. It was tasty. The toasted bun was a nice touch. It isn’t the dog I woulda drawn up if left to my own devices, but we always try to do it local-style, and that’s how they roll in Reykjavik. It was good, although I’m gonna go with mustard and chili on the next one.
As faithful readers already know, we get high in every city we visit, so we found the highest spot in town…the tower at the Hallgrimskirkja (Hallgrim’s church; built in the 1900’s and named after Hallgrimur Peterssun, author of the Passion Hymns). I love to climb the stairs in these cathedrals, but that option wasn’t available here, so we paid for the elevator ride up her eight stories. We checked out the city from the 360 view up there.
With the exception of this tower, the entire town is kept at under 4 stories, so the view from this tower is a must-see. We had a great view of the entire city, whose uniformly-sized, brightly-colored houses and buildings looked like a Lego city from that vantage point.
It was mid-afternoon, and I had the Dramamine blues…I was still coming off of the drugs I took to get through the flight the day before…and I was dragging myself around like a zombie. Literally, I was dragging one dead leg behind me, and I had a blank look on my face while I lurched down the street. We hit a coffee shop to try and get my heart started again. Two cups of strong coffee at Cafe Babalu did the trick.
[Becci]: Drawing on deep reserves of cool self control, I have resisted the urge to insert sentences like “oh my god this place is awesome” into this post, but I can’t take this silence any more. OHMYGODTHISPLACEISAWESOME. I want to live in every house, eat every hotdog, and learn to pronounce the letter g. This place is magic. Case in point: Cafe Babalu. Tiny little cafe, snug booths, friendly staff. In the enchanting lilt that every Icelander has when speaking English, the lady behind the counter said with a smile “Regular coffee is self serve. Grab a mug, and have as many as you want. Stay a while!” She laughed when I replied “Tak!”. “That’s sweet”, she managed through her giggles. Alex, please box up and send my stuff over now.
We found our way to the Harpa Concert Hall, a remarkable piece of architecture in downtown Reykjavik. The building is striking inside and out, consisting of a steel framework clad with geometric honeycombed glass panels of different colors. The panels are of different shapes as well, giving the building a modern yet organic look that is unlike any other I have seen.
I think that’s it for today. Tomorrow we shall find Iceland’s greatest record store. More hot dogs perhaps? Who knows?!? Stay tuned for our next exciting adventure…