Friday, August 30, 2013

That's Why They Call It Iceland

I've taken so many overly long night trips on planes by now that my mind and body have adjusted in a strange and wondrous manner.  After popping a sleep aid I go into a state that is neither asleep nor awake.  Kind of a Standby mode.  And then when I land I don't have the nerve frayed jitters and confusion that one usually has when one has not slept for 24 hours.

It was 7 am and I picked up my tiny rental car and started to tour the airport environs.  Keflavik is on a tiny little southwestern promontory, and Iceland did not exactly start out on a bang.  But it was pleasantly grey and slightly raining and rural, and after a while I came upon my first hot springs and steam and sulfurous smell.  Lichen covered volcanic rocks.  And then I passed the Blue Lagoon, a tourist spot where they charge $80 to use the pool.  The water was indeed bright blue, but somehow all the tourist pictures forget to include the giant power plant right next door.

By now it was close to 10, and I figured that Reykjavik would be open, so I headed on up.  The city is about 40 miles from the airport, but there was a nice freeway connecting them.  For a town of around 200,000 people, the suburbs start at least 10 miles away.  Nice low slung modern Scandinavian buildings.  A pleasant enough place to live.

But when I finally found my way down town, I was surprised to find that there wasn't any.  That is to say, there wasn't even remotely the zazz of a small American tourist town such as, say, New Hope, PA or Traverse City, MI.  Yes, there was a really cool looking modernistic Lutheran cathedral in the shape of a giant spire/pipe organ, and praise be to Luther I was able to find a parking space there.  But as for the main tourist street and the rest, well, if a place can be both clean and drab, then Reykjavik has figured out how to do it.

And the weirdest thing is that for the past twenty years or so the world's hipsters have decided that Reykjavik is Party Hearty Central.  Really, Dubuque would be a better choice.  But I guess it's like Bjork's music.  Part of being a modern hipster is declaring meaning randomly.

Getting out of Reykjavik was just as annoying as getting out of any foreign city where you're hopelessly confused.  But here you had to make sure you noticed when Bustabrevagur turned on to Reykjanesbraut and then make the right on Mikrebegut, which sooner or later becomes the national ring road, the 1.  Of course, you do have to notice when the south 1 turns off from the north 1, because they don't tell you.

Anyway, I was finally on my merry way to Selfoss, with the rain becoming the occasional blinding downpour.  And I was realizing how hungry I was.  I had noticed the $25 burgers and $60 sushi in Reykjavik, and although I know that they do such things in Monaco or Tokyo, it was still a bit disconcerting to see it on a grubby street that wouldn't even pass muster in small town America.

But when I got to Selfoss, at 3,000 souls the largest town in southern Iceland, I was reassured to see a Subway right next to a Domino's Pizza.  And for $9 I could get a foot long (add a Coke and tiny bag of chips for $4.50!).  There were a bunch of innocent, teenage locals frequenting the place, and the whole scene took me back to sitting in a Subway in Nova Scotia or Newfoundland.

In fact, that was my first impression of rural Iceland: As if Atlantic Canada were volcanic.  Maybe throw in a touch of NZ for the hell of it.

Now I was headed north and inland toward the Great Circle, the 3 or 4 places where All Tourists Must Go.  But all of a sudden the giant sandwich in my stomach reminded my body that it hadn't slept for forever.  I had to pull over and take one of my 15 minute power naps.  Usually I snap back refreshed, but this time my body wanted to stay there, and I had to resort to biting my tongue, pinching my nose, and every other trick to keep me awake until dark.

Fortunately I made it to the first stop, and walking to the lookout point woke me up.  Now most waterfalls are incredibly repetitive and ho hum, but I have to admit that Gullfoss is up there with the best in the world.  Lots and lots of water, different cataracts dramatically changing direction, you even forget about all the other tourists.  AND it had stopped raining.

Next I went to Geysir to see a geyser,  The original Old Faithful.  A hundred tourists standing around a circle with cameras held aloft.  And then every ten minutes or so a burst about forty feet high.  Kind of neat, actually.  And then the steaming pools and the sulfur and all the other Yellowstone stuff.

Then about forty miles later there's Pingvellir, an open air site by a cliff where the original Rainbow Gathering, the annual Icelandic hoedown and law courts, took place from the year 930 until 1785.  Again, certainly worth the visit.

I now turned off the tourist circuit and took a back road to Borganes, my first pre-booked International Hostel site.  Even though it's now less than a month to the Equinox, it was still light past 9 pm.  The sky had finally cleared somewhat, so I could sit there with a fjord mountain on one side, the sun going down in the ocean to the west, whilst munching on my actually quite tasty gas station pizza.

Iceland was turning out to be Niceland.

I slept wonderfully for eleven hours, and awoke to heavy rain.  Not to worry.  But when I went downstairs for coffee, the hostel owner was worried.  Northern Iceland was going to have terrible weather for the next few days.  Especially tomorrow.  And I said I was heading up to the West Fjords.  Maybe I shouldn't.

But I had already pre-booked everything.  For me to go around Iceland and be done on the 6th, I HAD to do the circuit I had planned.  Well, today wouldn't be that bad.  How about if I make it to tonight's hostel and figure it out from there?  He agreed that this was doable.  And so off I went.

I had already blown off my original idea of going around one peninsula and taking a ferry to the West Fjords.  Can't see anything in the rain anyway.  I did try taking another peninsula, but that road degenerated into endless potholes, so I gave up on that idea.  But, first, how about walking out to that little headland over there?  Turns out that the flat area on the way was muskeg, which is spongy vegetation soaked in water, so that my boots and feet were sponges by the time I got back to the car.  Never to mind, it's got a heater.

Anyway, once you're in fjord country, the only way to get to the next one is either all the way around the headland, or up and over.  And the first five or so up and overs weren't much of a problem.  Still unending, endless rain, but a bit of visibility.  Would have been spectacular in the sun, but thems the chances you take when you travel.  No real problems so far.

But now it was four thirty and I was a lot higher up then I had been before.  The rain had turned to sleet, and the road was forking.  To the left it went 36 km down to the hostel booked for tonight.  But the big storm was tomorrow, and I could be stuck there for days.  On the other hand, I could turn right and go the 100 km or so to the next hostel.  There I'd have an extra day to ride out the storm.  And, hey, it looked like I was near the top, and nothing was sticking to the surface yet. 

I turned right.

The road did go up a little bit more, and the sleet started to stick, but the road was flat, and I could tell that I was at the top.  Down, down, down I went.  Everything turned back to rain, and at some point I made it down to a beautiful, wide fjord.  So far, so good.  Even though ever since my fateful turn the road had become miserably potholed, I was now safely at sea level.

All the way up to the head of the fjord, then all the way back the other side.  Hopefully, there would be some low spur to take me to the next fjord.  Okay, here's the right turn and up I go.

By now you could see that the snow level was at about 500 feet on the sides of the fjord mountains.  And as I headed up I sinkingly saw that the gash of the road went way up past that.  Nonetheless, I kept pushing up.

It was pretty steep.  And then I got to the place where the snow was sticking.  And then I got to the place where my tiny little rental car was sliding.  Okay, I had already decided that if I started to slide, I'd be nice to my wife and turn around.  So I very carefully turned around and started down.

As soon as I'm heading down I pass this bus heading up.  And I thought, I'm either a wuss or that bus driver doesn't know what he's doing.  But, true to my mental word to my wife, I kept going back down to the wide fjord.

There was only one habitation on the fjord.  I went up there to ask if there was any place to stay, three quarters expecting him to say, 'Sure, we've got a cot set aside for just such emergencies'.  Instead, the guy simply said, 'No'.  He also said that it sounded like I had just about reached the summit.  And that I could always just follow the tracks of the bus.  Basically, that I had been a wuss.

I usually don't do trepidation, but I must admit to a set of nerves as I headed back up.  But what were my options?  I couldn't stay at the fjord.  I couldn't go back up the other side.  Anyway, if a bus can make it...

I got to the place where I had started to slide and just kept going.  He was right, I was near the top.  But now I was 100 yards from the summit and I was spinning like crazy and doing 1 mph.  If I lost all forward momentum I would be dead.  I kept straining along at a dead crawl with the snow blowing around me.

To my left I could see a tiny emergency shelter.  Yes, this was the top!  And then I was past it, and going down.  3 mph, 5 mph... 

And then there was the giant bus stopped in the middle of the road. 

I was already in first gear.  I hit my brakes as hard as I could, but kept sliding, sliding, sliding.  I pulled the emergency brake, and kept pulling, as if that would make a difference.  The back of the bus kept getting larger and larger.

I stopped five feet from it.

I got out to see what was going on and almost lost my footing.  The bus driver was trying to put on chains.  But it was clear after a while that he didn't know what he was doing.  At least twenty minutes went by, with the snow getting deeper and the air getting colder.  Finally, a lady in a regular car who had come up the other side slowly turned around and headed back down.  If she could do it, so could I.

The bus had inched forward, and I inched past it.  Then 3-5 mph in first gear, hugging the mountain side, on an incredibly steep pitch.  Past a couple of hairpin turns, keeping telling myself that the steeper it is, the faster the snow will go away.  Then a long straightaway, and keeping the discipline to stay at 5 mph.  Finally, finally back to the rain and the relative ease of an infinity of potholes.

At the bottom of the next fjord was a town of 200 souls, the most civilization that I had seen all day.  Great, they had a gas station, since through all of this I had also been almost out of gas.  And the road to the next fjord was over a low spur, so I just had to deal with blessed cold rain.

I made it to the hostel, which in an old farmhouse at the head of a fjord.  It was 37 degrees at sea level when I arrived.  Today it is much colder, much windier, and the sleet is pounding against the window.  Friggin' August.

But they keep it nice and warm.  And I have survived again.  Just too bad I can't go outside and enjoy the beautiful fjord.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Counting Countries

Visiting strange countries is like walking on a roof.  The main thing is getting past your fear of getting there.  Once in position, you acclimate pretty quickly.

But I no longer trust my legs enough to get up on roofs.  After all, at my age it's one fall and it's over.  So, the question naturally arises, why do I keep on traveling to uncomfortable places that no one has ever heard of?

The short answer is that I trust my mind more than I trust my legs.  But that's kind of disingenuous.  After all, I still need my legs (and my back) to lug my luggage around.  Besides, although horribly poor and/or quasi-dangerous places aren't that much of a problem if you have your wits about you, you do still need to have your wits about you.

Which leads into the next answer: I keep doing this in order to see if I can keep doing this.  (Which begs the obvious question, How do you extricate yourself when you discover that you can't keep doing this?)

But I think the most compelling reason I have is that, in this totally insane, all inclusive post-modern world that we inhabit, going to the ends of it is the best opportunity to have at least a moment of clarity about it.

Because back in the Sixties virtually everyone this side of the Young Republicans understood that the System was a failure.  The only argument was what was anybody going to do about it.  Flash forward to nowadays when everybody knows that the System is totally bankrupt.  Yet it is so all encompassing and we are all such a part of it that now we are all victims of the Fear That Dare Not Speak Its Name.

You see, a Facebook user in Kazakhstan is the same as a Facebook user in France is the same as the Facebook user living next door to you.  So going to London, while still nice, doesn't jolt you out of the everyday the way it used to.  It's the same brands, the same fast food, the same internet, except that everyone drives on the left to get to them.

But Tajikistan, that's still pretty neat.  Standing on a train platform in Siberia on a beautiful September day, suddenly gay marriage is not on the top of the agenda.  Spending a sweltering day at the share taxi stand in the slums of Conakry, suddenly Fancy Feast cat food is pretty damn obscene.

So off I go again to some of the Earth ends that I haven't been to yet.  Hopefully my youth will magically return, as it has on various other journeys I've taken in the last few years.

Although, even if it doesn't, I'll at least have added a few more countries to my tally.  Right now, on the list of the club for people who have gone to 100 countries or more, I'm at 198.  On the list of UN member states I'm at 146.  And on my own list, which is way too complicated to explain here, I'm at 181.

And, no, I'll never have the time and money to see them all.  But at this point I've certainly seen more than enough.  And each one has been a total fascination.

Which brings me to the main (and best) reason to travel.  Because, even when I've been horribly ill or otherwise suffered miserably, I've never regretted a single trip that I've taken.

It's always more fun than just sitting around here.