Browsing Date

July 2015

Destinations, Europe

Saving Graces

July 26, 2015 • By

Every now and then my curiosity leads me astray. As a single woman traveler, I tend to balance hiring private guides with booking group tours, as I am the annoying American who likes to ask all the questions. As a teachers pet, I sat in the front row and raised my hand with fury because of course, I knew all the answers. It’s the same concept here. I want to learn as much as possible during my travel and local guides are a great resource.

My South Shore adventure with 15 other tourists in a minibus aided by our guide, a Scottish transplant took me to the southeastern part of Iceland. We departed Reykjavik hugging the coastline through wind and rain to Seljalandsfoss waterfall where the sun radiated through the clouds and revealed a rainbow at a series of waterfalls. I fought my way through the swarming flies to survey the landscape. This area is ripe for farming and fields of green give way to volcanic mountains many still active in the area. It’s a tourist’s paradise for hiking and a photographer’s dream for nature shots.

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When our steady guide announced we were approaching the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano, people feverishly rummaged through their bags for cameras. Eyjafjallajökull gained worldwide fame in 2010 not for the damage it caused to the area but for the problematic ash cloud carried by the jet stream from Iceland to Europe. The thick gray smoke hovered over Europe’s airspace from the United Kingdom to Germany cancelling thousands of flights between April and August 2010. You can just hear the Europeans saying, “those damn Icelanders and their volcanoes again.” The wind tried to scare my fellow tourists from snapping a piece of history but we persevered for bragging rights. Next time Eyjafjallajökull erupts we can help pronounce that %$&*% volcano from the news.

It’s quite a picturesque scene with ice caped mountains thrusting through the clouds with this quaint active family farm sitting at the foundation of the range. The enormity of the volcano reminded me of the biblical story David versus Goliath. At any point, a lava flow or even mild eruption could decimate this farm and take with it surrounding communities. Nature’s force is ever present.

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Erupted in 2010 and family farm

While many of my fellow tourists participated in the horseback riding activity near Eyjafjallajökull, I value my insides remaining intact and I opted for a solo visit to the Skógafoss waterfall. My strong desire to stretch my legs for two hours and to twirl with the sky above me and this beautiful land at my feet got the best of me and I darted down a hiking path without much sense of my surroundings. The sun warmed the temperatures and I lost track of time as I stepped higher and higher and deeper along a path I predicted would lead to the waterfalls.

Eventually, I realized the trail would take me way off the beaten path and I retreated to find myself trapped in a farm. I noticed a distant “house” across the field and I stepped carefully but with purpose on the freshly plowed land as I came to the conclusion I was trapped by barbwire fence as far as I could see. To make matters worse, I glanced at my phone and my 2:00 PM tour rendezvous time was fast approaching. I walked deeper into the farm and realized all was not lost. The waterfall to my right and a wooden cabin of some sort to my left I trotted to the source of activity–more tourists. I followed the fence hoping for an exit, scanning ahead seeing no opening and then as panic ensued I noticed something that resembled a gate. Was it a mirage? Moving at the pace of a light jog, I spotted a ladder hanging atop the jagged wire fence providing me with an escape. That’s right just a 3-step ladder perched on the fence granting me freedom. I surveyed the probability of falling and moved quickly hurdling myself to the other side. I moved away from the scene turning my back to the farm but then something caused me to pause.  I turned around glared at the ladder and thought to myself,

“I really do get myself into ridiculous situations.”


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The Ladder for the Farm

Skógafoss waterfall  is more beautiful than Seljalandsfoss. I suppose it’s the contrast of the black volcanic sand, blue skies, intermittent clouds, gushing water and rainbows but it was a heavier flow of water and the mist hung longer in the air before evaporating. Mountains of varying degree surround the falls and again the lime and emerald green color grass accented the farms.  Making haste with my visit, I ran (literally) back to my group with time to check out the guest shop. Thankfully, those darn horses went rogue and the riders delayed from returning in a timely manner.

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Skógafoss waterfall South Shore

Back in the bus, the skies opened up giving way to pouring rain and dangerous wind. When we arrived to the black sand beach and Reynisfjara, our guide recommended ducking into a ball if the gusts knocked us off balance. I informed him I was hardly worried about hitting the deck but more concerned I would be picked up, carried and dropped into the freezing temperatures of the Atlantic. He assured me the puffins (birds) survive therefore, I should feared not.  Keeping in mind Iceland is an island and this is the south coast next stop United Kingdom, Norway or Ireland but most certainly death I sank my feet into the black sand wet but soft and sinking and enjoyed the view. With roaring, misting waves, dark skies and severe winds, the beauty of the mountainside contrasting with the pounding of the water created a gloomy and mysterious setting.

Drenched and fighting negative thoughts, I most enjoyed a rain reprieve and a visit to Sólheimajökull, the shrinking glacier slopping down from Mýrdalsjökull, the fourth largest glacier in Iceland. It’s blue like a raspberry Popsicle but with ash crevices from the 2010 volcanic eruption making it look “dirty.” It’s retreating at a relatively fast pace but there have been times in its history that the glacier expanded as recently as the 1990s. It is estimated the glacier advanced approximately 1,900 years ago and it could potentially vanish in as little as 100-200 years from now. Special tours grant groups the ability to hike on the glacier if people are interested. I passed as the winds swept through my core and kicked me in every direction as evidence of my blowing hair.

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Shrinking Glacier, South Shore


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Culture, Europe

I’ve Become Icelandic

July 19, 2015 • By

When traveling, it’s entirely appropriate to want to blend into local life, and nothing says “Icelandic” more than the comedy production How To Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes, performed nightly at the Harpa in Reykjavik.

It touches on some very interesting points:
To act like the 330,000-some locals, one must show no emotion (“almost like a dead person”), learn to be rude, give general directions with hands waving in the air and walk with a Texas swagger. For true assimilation, you must provide tourists with magnificent whale watching excursions, only to have boats simultaneously set sail to kill the same wild whales. You must learn the language; the importance of this focused on a clip of international broadcasters butchering the pronunciation of Eyjafjallajökull (Ay-ya-fyat-la-yo-kuddle), the volcano that erupted in 2010, wreaking havoc on European airports.  The audience practiced a few lines, and I am happy to report even the Norwegians and Danish, from which Icelandic is derived, suffer linguistic misfortunes like the rest of us non-Icelanders.

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Live one person show

Now that I completed the Icelandic course and needed to ingratiate myself into local culture, I immediately shunned my layers and marched right to an ice cream store on the main thoroughfare. Icelanders love their ice cream at all hours of the day and in varying temperatures of the year. This isn’t Tasti D-light or Mr. Softee–this is real soft-serve, silky as an Indian scarf and as flavorful as freshly churned cream. I added the obligatory caramel toppings and continued on my journey to camouflage myself as a local.

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We all scream for REAL ice cream

I visited the Sagas Museum and learned about the Vikings version of storytelling. With seemingly everlasting flare for the dramatic, the sagas depict Viking history. Based on oral traditions that were eventually written in the Old Norse language, the ancient texts compile more than 27,000 pages of killing, revenge, marriage and religion. There is some back and forth regarding the authenticity of the sagas but Icelanders uniformly agree they illustrate “dressed-up facts.”  The stories most certainly prove Icelandic families are related, even if it’s necessary to go back 10 generations. With my Germanic heritage, I could definitely be an Icelandic cousin.

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The local trolls hanging on the main street

This blog is called Fantasy Aisle, and I’m always on the look out for a great fairytale. Icelandic folklore certainly fills that narrative.

Becoming Icelandic also includes accepting the existence of the hidden people or elves (Huldufólk). This was a topic I brought up to any local who might entertain the conversation. While polls indicate the majority of Icelanders do believe in elves, there are many who are plain afraid to admit it either way, for fear of ridicule or an unwillingness to upset the elves. The hidden people live in the lava rock formations or maybe gardens, and they do talk to people. My guide told me that the tale he often hears stems from a visit God made to Adam and Eve. Eve, embarrassed by her dirty children, hid them from God, who was very upset.

Alda Sigmundsdottir, Icelandic author of The Little Book of the Hidden People, vehemently denies the existence of elves but instead focuses on the stories and traditions from which they originate. I think she is trying to convince the world that Icelanders are not crazy.  In her book, she discusses how the stories of the hidden people actually stem from the settlers living in destitution, dreaming of better lives and creating fantasies of elves to imagine what life could be.

I’ll buy that explanation for now, but allow me an opportunity to change my opinion after I complete my course at the Elf School in Reykjavik, where I can learn about the 13 different types of elves in as little as a day! I’m on the hunt for trolls as well.

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Icelandic Folklore

Lastly, to become Icelandic, you need to work hard and value hard work, starting at age 14, drink alcohol only on Friday and Saturday (alcoholics drink at lunch–oops) and take an Icelandic name from an approved list. There are no Christines or Jennifers here. Icelanders use the patronymic system, where a surname is a combination of the father’s Christian name (possessive) and then “son” or “daughter” (dóttir) is added. I could be the next Björk Guðmundsdóttir (“Guðmund’s daughter” or, if Björk were a boy, “Guðmundsson”). Additionally, I contend you need to enjoy darkness as much as sunlight, learn to cook lamb soup, salmon and cod, hike to appreciate the country’s gorgeous landscape, fish for entertainment and for survival, and buy and wear at least 12 Nordic wool sweaters.

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Icelandic Last Name

Oh, and get used to the earth quaking–daily.

…and maybe have an evacuation route if you live near an active volcano.