Reflections on visiting Iceland

This blog was written in September, 2009, following my first and (up till now) only trip to Iceland.

This blog is written from the assumption that most of my readers will never personally travel to Iceland.  Therefore, I’ll give a general introduction that would be unnecessary for any previous Iceland visitors.  By the way, in terms of misleading nomenclature, the island of Iceland is mostly green, while the adjacent island of Greenland is mostly white, i.e. covered by an ice sheet.  

We flew overnight via Iceland Air, leaving Minneapolis in the early evening, and arriving in the early morning after a six-hour flight.  We rented a car for our island travels (which was very expensive–$560 for four days in a Subaru station wagon).

Our first stop was the Blue Lagoon, a hot-spring spa, which advertises itself as the world’s top-rated spa, as voted upon by Conde Nast travelers.  (The first thing I had seen out the plane window as the plane crossed the Iceland coast was the steam rising from some hot springs located right on the coast.)  The Blue Lagoon is close to Iceland’s main airport, Keflavik.  It’s a large outdoor pool of cloudy blue water, cloudy due to the minerals dissolved in the water.  The pool has a large fountain spewing hot underground volcanic water.  Vats of fine white mud are available by the pool for skin cleansing and exfoliation.  Going to the spa was a good way to feel refreshed after the overnight flight.  Following the relaxing soak, we checked into our Reykjavik hotel and slept through the afternoon.

The hotel was located in the heart of the city, not far from the port and near many cute stores.  Susan was frustrated that there was no time to shop!  When we arrived, looking around the area, we found (to our amazement) an Indian restaurant that turned out to be run by a Pakistani.  He explained that he had opened the restaurant 13 years ago.  He told us that his family was in Iceland, having come following his sister who came here first to study.  She is now a teacher, and the next generation of kids is alive and well.  Needless to say, the food was great.  (Reality check:  Dinner for three, one course, with one beer for Dallas, was about $120 US!)

Iceland is a country of only 300,000 citizens.  200,000 of them live in the capital, Reykjavik.  We had made the decision in advance to drive immediately out of the capital and see as much of the landscape as possible.  And what a landscape it is!  Iceland is a volcanic hot spot.  It is practically impossible to drive anywhere without seeing steam rising, from a streambed, from a mountain fissure, or from the middle of a barren lava field.  Indeed, the unexpected comparison that came to mind was the big island of Hawaii.  Here as there, there are lava fields on top of lava fields.  The youngest fields are devoid of vegetation.  The older ones are smoother from erosion and often covered by a thick green moss.  There are relatively few trees in Iceland. Like Hawaii, there are large sheer volcanic ridges with numerous silvery waterfalls pouring cascading over their edges.  Iceland is said to be the richest country in the world in terms of water resources as well as geothermal power.

It was something of a shock to leave the ninety-degree late summer warmth of Reno to arrive in instant relative winter of temperatures in the forties (5-10 Celsius).  Everyday, the early mornings would be clear, and then scattered rain showers would appear by midday and throughout the afternoon.  Nighttime temperatures dropped into the thirties.  One could see a dusting of light snow on the tops of the surrounding mountains, indicating a relatively low snow level.

There are several large glaciers on Iceland.  However, if global warming continues at its current rate, they are predicted to melt away within the next two centuries.  How ironic that “Iceland” could end up devoid of ice.  We drove around the southwestern coast, passing large farms and a few fishing villages.  Much of the coastal land is uninhabited, due to the fact that nothing grows on the younger lava fields.   Our second night was spent inland, in the midst of what I would call the “breadbasket” region of Iceland.  There are beautiful lush fields, covered in plastic-wrapped hay bales at this time of year.  There are many herds of Icelandic horses, many sheep, but relatively few cattle.  Icelandic horses are a different breed from American horses, smaller, with thicker necks and manes.

This “breadbasket” region is also home to many greenhouses, some with “grow lights”.  They are usually heated by the numerous geothermal springs.  It was amazing to drive through the lush valley in which steam rises from vents all around the landscape and between the farmhouses, barns, and greenhouses.  The hotel/spa where we stayed had outdoor hot tubs, which were filled with the hot spring water.

I had been worried in advance that Susan might have trouble adhering to her vegan diet in Iceland.  But due to the greenhouses, there were plenty of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and squash, all locally grown.  Indeed, in general the food in Iceland was excellent, with fresh lamb, fish, and locally grown vegetables available everywhere.  We visited a local grocery store to see where all the produce came from.  Besides the local vegetables listed above, there was lettuce from Holland, mangos from Brazil, and garlic from China.  Prices, however, were quite high compared to the cost of food in the states.

One very interesting tourist destination was the Settlement Museum.  This museum contained a guided audio tour, telling how the original settlers came from Norway in the year between 870-930AD.  Their stories were told in the famous Icelandic “sagas” (another word assimilated into the English language) written several generations after the original events.  The farms settled by the original inhabitants still retain the same family names.  Indeed, the Icelandic language reflects the different family lineages in the names given to successive generations.  The history of the early Icelanders was full of conflict, hardships, and the ongoing battle to survive the harsh nature.

Now a brief discussion of the Vikings:  In English, the word Viking is used to refer to the original seafaring Norsemen, or people from Scandinavia.  However, not all Norsemen were Vikings.  Norsemen were fishermen and farmers, for the most part.  The word Viking referred to an expedition or exploration.  However, such “explorations”, while ostensibly for trade purposes, were more often raids to plunder their victims of their riches.  Indeed, the Vikings were notorious for taking slaves from the Celtic/Irish regions of the British Isles.  In recent DNA tests, it was determined that 70% of Icelandic women carry Celtic DNA markers, while only 20% of Icelandic men do.  We were surprised to see that the Icelandic people are not so predominantly blond as in the rest of Scandinavia.

The “Viking Age” was roughly from 800-1200.  I learned that the Vikings in their longboats traveled as far as Constantinople in Turkey, Kiev in Russia, from the British Isles across northern Europe.  I learned that the Normandy region of France is named for the Norsemen (i.e. Vikings) who settled there.  There were other maritime raiders during those centuries from many nationalities.  But the Vikings were most feared, perhaps because they were not Christian.  They worshipped the so-called pagan gods, such as Thor and Odin, who lived in Valhalla.  The Vikings were did not look forward to an after-life, which accounted for their desire to accrue wealth through “honorable conquest”.  In their raids, they did not burn or destroy the cities they conquered, nor did they massacre the peoples they dominated.  Indeed, it can be said that the Vikings did not so much conquer peoples as become assimilated by them, much as the ancient Greeks influenced Roman culture after being conquered by the Romans.  And so, by the year 1200, the Viking age was over, with the advent of the distinct countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland.

In order to reach our third night’s hotel destination, we traveled on a dirt/gravel inland road for about thirty miles.  This reminded me of the road within Denali National Park in Alaska.  The hills were almost completely barren, with occasional lakes in between.  The vistas were long and dramatic.  We prayed for no car trouble, since traffic was relatively sparse, should one need roadside assistance.

At the end of our dirt road high altitude inland journey, we passed by the site of the historic meeting place for the original tribal leaders of Iceland, which occurred between 1000-1200AD.  It was here that the first laws were negotiated and declared.  And it was here that these various Viking settlers coalesced into the nation of Iceland.  It was one of the world’s early representative democracies (along with Athens in Greece and the nation-state of Venice in what eventually became Italy).   Iceland has one of the world’s longest traditions of record keeping of events that transpired in its earliest days.

On the fourth day, we visited two of the most famous tourist sites, the Gulfoss=”Golden Waterfall”, the largest waterfall in Europe, and the Geysir park, home of the spouting springs from which English borrowed the word geyser, as in Yellowstone Park.  I had purchased a new, small HD video camera, just for sites like this.  And so next year, viewers of our CARE Channel in hospitals will have a chance to see some beautiful Icelandic landscapes as well as Gulfoss.  The geysers did not lend themselves to being captured on video.

On our last evening, we spent some time with an Icelandic friend of our travel companion, Bani.  This 51-year-old lady runs her own business, a lawnmower distributorship for an American manufacturer.  (Who knew that Icelanders needed large riding lawnmowers!)  Her business is stagnant, typical of the terrible crisis afflicting the Icelandic economy.  Iceland was the first country whose banking system collapsed in August of 2008.  Banks failed; many Icelanders lost all their savings; businesses continue to fail; unemployment is high; the Icelandic krona is devalued by 40% compared to a year ago.  (Our trip would have cost 40% more just over a year ago, according to the dollar-krona exchange rate at the time.)  The per-capita loss for Iceland is actually much worse than in the US.  Their banking system is paralyzed, whereas G. W. Bush quickly infused $700 billion into the financial system, followed by a similar additional infusion by Obama early in this year.  Despite objections by fiscal conservatives, it is generally recognized that this financial rescue prevented the current depression from reaching the depths of the great depression of 1929.  However, in the long run, the American dollar is bound to lose value against other currencies, based on continued deficit spending.  Thus, our international trips in future years will probably be more expensive to those countries whose economies have better overcome the current worldwide depression.

We talked with the Icelandic lady about their social system.  Iceland, like other Scandinavian countries, has universal healthcare through a single-payer government system that reimburses private doctors and hospitals (as opposed to true “socialized medicine” in which the government would own the hospitals and the doctors would be employees of the state).  When we told her that in the US, when someone becomes unemployed, that their whole family usually loses the health insurance that had been provided by the employer, she was shocked!  “How could that happen?  Why would someone set up such an unjust system?”  We explained that it wasn’t an organized system, but rather, a holdover from World War II, during which time employer-provided healthcare became a perquisite to get around wartime wage and price freezes.  Ever since, practically every president since Harry Truman has proposed fixing the healthcare system.  But the money being spent by insurance companies and healthcare industry lobbyists has thwarted any meaningful reform, and they might succeed again this year.  The Icelandic lady realized that perhaps the current economic situation in Iceland was not so bad as she had thought, compared to the US.

Hi, I'm Dallas Smith

My blogs offer the vicarious pleasure for my readers to learn of my travels and musical adventures.
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