Journey to Iceland
What follows is my account of those four days
My sunglasses are perched at the top of my nose. Its 3 a.m. and as we reminiscence over our long day under that big yellow sun and a glass of red wine, I think, Is this really as dark as it gets? It affects the tourists sleep, no doubt, but not the nativesthe concierge, the barkeep, the waitress, the guide, the protester, the host, the beauty queen, the painter, the drummers wifenot a bag under their eyes. Theyre all beautiful.
Iceland is celebrating its independence today, June 17th (Icelandic National Day), from Denmark 64 years ago. Whether this is a collision of parades or standard residential congestion is hard to say, but thousands gather in downtown Reykjavík, which architects itself as part upscale Maine fishing village and part center of commotion. The people gather on the lawn, by the frigid water and around the statue of some 18th-century bay-to-bay adventurer, who overlooks Thjodmenningarhus. This is the Culture House where our group observes 13th-century handwritten manuscripts, eddas and sagas of Norse tradition, all of which wrote themselves into the work of Jules Verne.
The festivities rumble well into the night, oblivious to or simply uninterested in our private screening of Journey to the Center of the Earth in 3-D. After ditching our specialized specs and wolfing the lamb at dinner, we make our way to a bar, situated a lot over from the Hotel Borg. Its here that bedlam eruptsa protestor, maybe because its "in" this year, torches the Icelandic flag, strips of its red Nordic cross turning to orange and black and hovering into the air. Patriots rush to clap out the flames.
Icelandic National Day, June 17th.
Maybe we should get out of here, says one of us.
Maybe you should stop taking pictures, says another.
We hide our cameras and jet away, and with the mute fascists farewell Nazi salute to the police van behind us, we grab a table with an incredible view of the debris.
Its here we fall in love and lust with Icelandic nightlife. This shouldn't be taken as a dare, but white wine and whiskey actually taste "good" together when sipped with and served by these beautiful natives, all eager to share--not cram--their culture: their terminology ("ice bear?"), their tourist attractions (Snæfellsnes, a glorious glacier were to scale tomorrow), their sports (handball and football/soccer being the most popular). To put xenophobes at ease, theyre fluent in English--to an extent.
Do you have a word, for, ehhhhhhh , one of the blondes says.
Weve got more words for every word than well ever need, I say. We live in excess over there.
We praise their minimalism and Go Green! lifestyle that half the States think to be nothing more than an agenda-guided Bogeyman. (When, if ever, will your room key at the Motel 6 in Coralville, Iowa be the only way to activate the energy-saving bathroom lights?)
But enough about them, they insist. They, those inquisitive beautiful people (led by the beat of Christine, a lanky barkeep who knows everyone), want to know us! Drifa, a kind, falleg ("beautiful") doll, wonders why weve come to Iceland (Im an American writer works a real charm), other countries weve traveled (None like this.), etc. etc. until the drinks run low, the waitress clears the final setting and the sun rises again after descending all of about 40 yards since we landed 20 hours ago.
The next morning, we're barely awake. The sun never set so its still Day One, were sure. Straddling the saddles of pony-sized Icelandic horses (brought over in the 800s by the Vikings), we zigzag in and out with a flock of sheep whod find a nice shearing more desirable than tangoing with these loping quarter-beasts.
On a giant pony.
Were worn down and out and the echo of the horses' clip-clop rattles our heads on the bus as we hum along the trail past the rubble, the mountains engraved by lava from many decades ago and the few cars out this early. A half-minute of sleep would be beneficial, but the next words that motor from our guides mouth are too rare to catch Zzzzzzs to: curse brought on by the hidden people. A few of us glance at one another for confirmation. We heard it right all right and our guide treats us to traditional and modern tales of these Hidden People (elves, that is, who live in stone), Trolls (who if caught by the sun are stone) and other curiosities the level-headed tourist wouldnt dare call urban legends in the company of natives.
Ninety minutes later, were at the base of Snæfellsnes, gearing up and peering up at the great, big absolute glacier. Fifteen minutes later, were 500 feet short of a mile high at the peak, one of the only locations Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D actually filmed in Iceland. Were instructed to find the much-gabbed-about center of the earth that Verne wrote on and on about and Brendan Fraser fell down and down into. A few search like the pseudo-geologists theyve made themselves to be, turning up zero openings, runic cryptograms or anything other than ice crystals and a pink mitten left behind from the last batch of tourists. But its hard to be disappointed way up here when you can sit at the apex and gloat confidently, Jules Verne never even went to Iceland!
Spaceship cloud over Snæfellsnes.
Peak of Snæfellsnes.
After an hour or so of scaling, sliding and scouring, we huddle back down the glacier and board the bus to the Hótel Budir, a charming bed-and-breakfast type with volumes of shelved books, freshly dusted before check-in. Sometime after our meal of puffin (which, the afternoon before, we observed while cruising the Atlantic) and between 4 a.m. and 5:30, we fool ourselves into calling a night.
Atlantic Ocean from Snæfellsnes.
In the morning, we rise for what is promised to be an easy day. It is, until that stench of sulfur begins to mist off the geothermal hot springs and seal our throats. Geysir, The Great Geysir of Icelands Golden Circleone of the top tourist havens in the countrywas next. The smaller geysers bubble and gurgle, spooling to the brim of the gape until...nothing. Again...nothing. Again! But still nothing until: Shes gonna BLOW! And the pup rises for photos and shaky video, spitting the hot water onto lenses and the dirt. There are secrets under that ground, secrets to questions we hadnt even thought of, like How do we put every bakery in the Western Hemisphere out of business? Leave the loaf of rye bread in a bag for a full 24 hours amidst the geyser-given heat. Of course!
Good and well, but some of us demand drama and controversy. So after stops at the powerful waterfall of Gullfoss (another key attraction to the Golden Circle) and Thingvellir, national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, a silent plot is formed, to be carried out during lunch.
Over trout, a couple comrades and I, boxing our guide in like a criminal, lay it bluntly: It cant all be cleandont you have prostitutes? Homeless? Illegal immigrants? Addicts? Our guide swallows his trout and then, quietly and assured and without wiping his mouth, abides to the snoopy American journalists: No, and Not really, backbone his defense, which concludes on the growing epidemic of...graffiti! Then, what exactly did we expect from an island country with the area of Kentucky and a population 1/12th the size? What had we anticipated from a country whose biggest headline all week was, "Trespassing Polar Bear Shot Dead off Coast?"
Hours later, our guide announces well be shredding the rest of tonights itinerary for a surprise on our final night in Iceland: a late dinner inside of Mosfellsbær, where in a quiet artsy village littered with writers, songsters and painters, a middle-aged couple, as second jobs, wines and dines out-of-towners such as ourselves.
"Fine, but if we have to look at one family photo album, were out of here!"
The Mr. and Mrs. is a charming pair, no matter how much trout and head-of-sheep they splat on our plates.
Would you like to see where Sigur Rós records?
The simultaneous sound of forks dropping nearly shook the Mr. and Mrs. antique typewriters and blowtorches off the shelves, but before we could witness any potential damage, were at the Icelandic post-rock bands studio on a tour guided by drummer Orri Páll Dýrasons cuter-than-a-hundred-buttons wife. (For those unfamiliar with Sigur Rós, their music can be heard in Vanilla Sky and The Life Aquatic--sample, then buy!)
What are your American drinking songs? one of the hosts asks us back at the Mr. and Mrs. home.
Sigur Rós studio.
The dozen or so of us look around, fumble our words and dig through our minds so not to come off as amateurs. The burly journalist at the far end of the table pulls out the golden ticket from his college years: Making your way in the world today takes everything youve got Wouldnt you like to get away Cue the ivories. Sometimes you wanna go--Then all of us: Where everybody knows your name! Dun dun dun! And theyre always glad you came!
Oh, we havent heard that one! the enthusiastic Mrs. proclaims.
Were collectively about 40 drinks in (what hospitality!) and its time to go.
3:30 a.m.; as dark as it gets in the summer.
Takk, takk, we say to the chef and his Mrs., and its back to Reykjavík.
Inside the bars, the barkeeps flip the chairs and shut the lights, so half of us call it a night once more. The others, myself included, huddle down the street until we spot Drifa, the kind, falleg doll who, way back on Tuesday, gave three of us a lift back to the Hilton. Hugs and cheek-kisses are gifted and leftover introductions are made. On Drifas arm is a brunette.
This is Óskí! Drifa announces, then whispers to me, Miss Reykjavík.*
Miss Reykjavík! Fat chance schmoozing and boozing at a Motel 6 suite with Miss District of Columbia back home!
* After some research, it turns out the Icelanders have a wicked sense of humor. Nobody by that name has ever been awarded the crown. Still, gorgeous.
Six short hours later, the sun just as high as it was at midnight, we're huddled again to the bus.
The Blue Lagoon.
Its best to come here with a hangover, anyway, insists our guide as we trod off the bus at the Blue Lagoon, a renowned geothermal spa that sheds, its said, years off your age after a half-hour dip. For the short period of time before were to be at the airport, the group splits up. Some regain a year or ten, others meander with cameras Me? I splish my feet in the sulfur-laden teal water and think, This really is as bright as it gets.
Id like to thank the good folks at Warner Bros. and Iceland Travel for the terrific time had in Iceland. And of course, check out JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH when it hits theaters this Friday.
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