Iceland

Listen! Do You Smell Something?

Everything we did today smelled bad.

It was all fun, and I’m glad we did it…but it stank. We sorta knew it would.

Let me back up a bit. We may have mentioned that we stayed for the last couple of days in a room we rented from some dairy farmers in north central Iceland, near the town of Húsavík on Iceland’s northern coast. These were lovely folks, named Ari and Freydis, who married a few years ago and in so doing blended their families. The lot of them now live on the farm…Freydis and Ari, their five children, at least one farm worker (Gabriel from Brazil), some herding dogs and a cat…plus a bunch of cows, horses, and sheep.

Interestingly, Freydis told us that she grew up in the city, and that farm life was new to her when she and Ari married a few years ago. She was telling us this while single-handedly managing the process of milking their 40+ cows, which she does a couple of times a day, every day. The ease with which she executed this process made it appear that she had been doing it all her life. 

The whole family setup is like a mash-up of the Brady Bunch and Green Acres, except that there is no conflict around the farming. Everybody is into it. At least they act like they were. If I had spent more time on it, I bet I coulda gotten one of the kids to crack.

I can say this…it looks like a lot of work. After two days on a farm, I understand utterly that I have no legitimate interest in nor aptitude toward farming. 

Don’t take that the wrong way. I have absolute respect for the people who do and enjoy this work. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and attention to detail to be a successful farmer. These people work hard, long days. They do things that I don’t want to and probably could not do. One must have an astoundingly diverse set of skills to manage the breadth of activities ocurring on a farm. I respect the hell out of farmers. Salt of the earth. And of course, farming is absolutely necessary. 

But, farming appears to take an incredible amount of time…more time than I would care to spend on earning a living. I like the living part way more than the earning a living part, and farmers I think must spend almost all of their time on the earning a living bit. These guys were at it when Becci and I got up, and still at it when we went to bed. They worked for a few hours each night after dinner.

Plus, farmers deal with a lot of shit. Figuratively and literally. Animal poop is just part of the deal. When you are a livestock farmer, it’s around you and potentially coming at you at all times. We had been tourists in the farm’s milking room for 10 minutes when Bex’ jacket was randomly selected for some airborne cow feces. The debris in question had bounced over onto her from the concrete underneath a nearby cow, who was being milked. The cow just let it rip right there, next to a bunch of other cows, and the three of us, who were adjacent to and a few feet lower than the cows, never had a chance. The cow didn’t seem nearly as concerned about this event as Bex and me. It was like a poo bomb had gone off over there. Well maybe not a bomb, more like a forceful splatter. Freydis’ advice? “When that happens, you have to run.” A few minutes later, she herself took some in the face via a similar incident. When it happened, she casually pulled her head scarf down and wiped off her cheek. It was one of the most casual moves I have ever seen anyone make…barely noticeable; a ninja move. It is what you or I might have done if a single raindrop had fallen onto our cheek. It was just then that I became more attentive to our surroundings; I perked up and noticed that she was wearing rubber boots, and that her entire sweat shirt and head scarf was smeared with brown. I looked at the cows, re-examining the stuff caked on all of their legs that I had previously imagined to be mud. Yes, farmers deal with a lot of shit. 

I know this makes me a farming lightweight, but that right there was enough to put me off the whole program.

We met these guys right away, and they were pretty interested in the new people.

 

The calves seemed way more excited to see us…and way less suspicious…than their adult counterparts.

Freydis preparing to hook up some milking machines. You can get a sense of the setup. There are five or six cows on each side , with the operator on a lower platform in the middle. She connects, disconnects, and monitors the whole operation from down there. And dodges cow droppings.

Close up of the milking machine, prior to connection. Those tubes feed into a large collection system that gathers the milk into a large container in the next room.

Each time you hook up this rig, it goes like this…clean off the udders with a rag. Possibly / probably to get all of the shit off of there. Hook up the suction. After all is said and done, each nozzle gets a loving dab of vaseline. That’s more than I do, I can tell ya!

This batch of cows had just come into the room, and had not yet been connected. Since she can do about ten at a time, it takes 4 complete rounds to get all of the cows milked. That’s two and a half hours, including all of the pre-cleaning and wrap-up activities, and that happens in both the morning and the evening. I’m not sure what happens if you sleep in and miss a session, but I expect that that’s frowned upon down on the farm.

 

This cow had a sore teat and was getting checked for infection. We were told that the milk looked funny, although it looked OK to me. But I think we’ve already established that my skill level at this is approaching or at zero.


 

She was right, of course. She tested the milk from the “bad” nozzle, and it turned some reagent purple. That’s the bad one! A treatment protocol was intiated: rubbing balm on the exterior of the affected gland.

The infected cow had her milk put into this separate jug, for further inspection, and not mixed into the big collection tank. We were also told that treating a cow with antibiotics screws up the whole natural purity concept of their milk production chain, and would be a last resort.

 

We learned that a highly-productive cow can produce 30-40 litres of milk a day. That’s about 128 glasses.


Based on what I’ve written so far, it may seem like we didn’t enjoy ourselves on the farm. Not true. I enjoyed immensely seeing and learning all of this. Although I have grown up in Tennessee, I’m a city guy. I know nothing of farming.

I do know about pups, however, and this family has three dogs. One of them is an older pet dog, while the other two are working dogs that help tend the cattle and sheep. We played with these two quite a bit. The older border collie wanted me to play a never-ending game of fetch with a rock. Both Bex and I spent quite some time engaged in this activity.

She wanted to play a never-ending game of fetch. My old dog Liberty, who looked a lot like this girl, used to play fetch with me for hours in our back yard.

 

Freydis was a great host, and we spent several hours sitting in her kitchen talking with her. She seemed disappointed when she remembered that we were leaving on the day that she planned to cook up a big mess of traditional Icelandic delicacies. We were gonna miss all of the goodies. She was nice enough to tell us all about them though. It was a bit horrifying.

One of these dishes is sviðasulta, a food that is best described as “sheep’s head jam”, made by boiling a sheep’s face, tongue, and other edible head bits (but not the brain!; they aren’t savages), and then getting it all into some kind of gelatinous format. Although, hey, who can help themselves if they help themselves to a little sheep-face-goodness while it’s in transit to gelatinous form?

The other stuff she planned to make is slátur (sounds like slaughter), a haggis-like stuff that is made using sheep innards and some spices like oh-my-God-I-can’t-listen-anymore-you-are-just-messing-with-me-now-aren’t-you?

Regrettably, we missed both the cooking and the eating. But who knows, we may find some of this stuff along the way!

Although we didn’t get to eat any sheep face, we did get to look at one. This guy is going into the sviðasulta.

Bex also managed some star-watching from the farm. The location is fairly remote, not too close to Húsavík nor any other town. She got these great shots. 

Nice clear shot of the Milky Way.

We think the green that you see in these last two is a faint bit of Aurora Borealis.

After a couple of days of chilling on the farm, we headed for Mývatn, a lake located somewhat south of Húsavík. There are a number of interesting things to see around the area, all of which are malodorous.

We began our day at the Hverir, a lunar landscape of mud cauldrons and steaming vents. Iceland itself is a young place in geological terms, sitting atop and between two major tectonic plates. The level of volcanic activity on Iceland is high. Hverir is the result of water encountering near-surface magma, which heats the water to its boiling point and sends it back to the surface in a much less friendly fashion.

Somewhere along the way…I know not where…it gets real smelly. We are talking rotten egg / sulphur smell, in volume capable of covering a significant three-dimensional area. Real fire-and-brimstone stuff, without the fire. I kept looking around for the devil.

Steam was literally screaming out of this fumarole. That’s a real word; look it up!

Aha! One of the culprits. This stream of water coming off of a glacier is feeding down into the earth, and finding magma that’s about a kilometer down. Instant steam.

This large pool of stinking grey mud was gurling and crackling. I thought of the Bog of Eternal Stench from Labyrinth. Becci even wondered if Jim Henson had visited this site when preparing for the film.

Caught in mid-blorp.

Each of those giant steam clouds is hot as blazes and reeks of sulphur. It’s pretty though, ain’t it? You’re welcome!

The ground in this area is covered with mineral deposits that are brought to the surface along with the steam. Visitors are warned not to venture away from the designated walking paths; these warnings tell of guests accidentally sinking knee-deep in scalding mud.

 

Next up was a visit to another volcano. I told you this place was a “hotbed” of volcanic activity. I don’t lie*! We decided to take a trip up to see Krafla, which erupted in the 1700’s to produce a nearby crater lake. 

When a volcano blows it usually leaves a crater. Sometimes that creater fills up and there’s a lake. This is one of the “lake” kind.

That volcano was lovely, and windy, but we had more smells to smell. Off to the next thing!

The next thing being Leirhnjúkur. Leirhnjúkur is an adjacent lava field, which appeared in 1727 and spouted lava for about two years before subsiding. Like I said, you can’t throw a frisbee in this part of Iceland without it hitting something volcanic. 

The lava fields of Leirhnjúkur aren’t too pretty. In fact, this might be the most desolate and foreboding landscape that I have ever been in. But it is striking. This is what I imagine a strip-mined coal operation must look like after it is abandoned. There is no life. There are black lava rocks in every direction for as far as the eye can see. There are occasional mud pots and steaming vents in the field, although they are not as active nor hot as those seen at Hverir. They still smell of brimstone though, and this is a place where I could truly envision Satan. It is prototypically Hellish.

Bex lost her burgundy mittens here, while getting her phone out of her pocket to take one of these very photos that we are serving up to you. That’s a bummer. She got those mittens for £5 in a thrift shop In Whitby during the very first week of our year long travel adventure, way back in April 2014. 

 Hopefully, those mittens didn’t fall into a vent, back it up, and become the catalyst for additional volcanic activity here around lake Mývatn. In any case, here are the photos.

Not volcanic at all, but a lovely shot of the moss / lichen / whatever that is along the long path to Leirhnjúkur. This stuff is real springy if you step on it, although it’s illegal in Iceland to know that firsthand.

Fissure in the earth. You see alot of these as well. Try not to fall in, as this thing is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

Looks pretty Lord of the Rings, does it not? Find the Nasgul in this picture!


These panaramas are great. I think if you click on this you can get a super-sized version.


It had been a busy day, and we were feeling a little run down. We decided to treat ourselves to a pizza. Our visit to Iceland is in the off season (the clue is in the name; Iceland is a summer destination), and we are in a truly remote location, but Bex somehow managed to navigate us to a decent pizza joint called Daddi’s Pizza (and Bar). It was alright, albeit preposterously expensive. Iceland is pretty, but she ain’t cheap.

Fortified, we decided finally to visit one of the great attractions of the island. We had not yet been to any of Iceland’s renowned hot baths, and we decided that today…Stinky Saturday, as it were…was a perfect day for a hot sulphury bath.

Hot baths in Iceland are probably pretty much like hot baths anywhere. They are geothermal heated, requisitely suphury, overpriced, and offering some sort of ambiguously-stated, unprovable health benefit. They feel amazing though, and that’s a great and undeniable benefit, right?

We (by we I mean Becci) are researchers, studying every facet of these trips before we take them. It would be fair to say that we were already very familiar with the bathing process and the commitment of Icelanders to this process before we set out on this trip. There is a very specific process that one undertakes for visiting any public bathing facility in Iceland. The most important part of this process is the pre-bathing shower that one must submit to prior to entering the public hot bath. It’s just a shower, but they are real specific about the fact that you have to invest time, soap, and attention into the head, armpits, crotch, and toes, in order to satisfy national expectations.

What made this sort of funny is that Becci has been concerned a bit about this process. The natives, based on the reading, are really uptight about making sure all of the scrubbing happens every time. The attentiveness to this had both of us but especially her cued up to a higher level of anxiety than normal about making sure the correct process was followed. In an attempt to alleviate the pressure, I did the usual thing and verbalized a malformed version of the necessary steps as we pulled into the parking lot.

John: “So…doing this as the natives do…I take off all of my clothes in the locker room, avoid the shower, and then go jump in the hot springs naked?”

Becci: “Yes, that’s it. Do a cannonball.”    (Whenever I say some silly shit like that, she always agrees and then adds a little bit on)

We laughed, went in, and took our naked showers. I scrubbed the hell out of all of my dirty bits. We visited the hot springs and it was amazing. I think its safe to say that we considered never ever leaving. 

In the interest of decency and because our cameras aren’t waterproof we didn’t take any pictures at the bath. Amazingly, MANY PEOPLE DID! There were guys in there with waterproofs cameras. 

Since we didn’t do that, let’s try this: imagine a giant pool of hot, somewhat smelly water. It’s got 200 people from all over the world milling around in it. It’s 45 degrees F air temperature outside the water and 100 degrees in the water. Everyone is very happy. Many of them are drinking beer.

It doesn’t get much better than that folks. Over and out! for now, but God willing, we’ll be back!

Sunset at our hostel.

The very sad grill at our hostel. I don’t think barbequeing is all that big here. Nice try though!



*Although I will ocassionally embellish if it improves the story. And that’s called polishing

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