Iceland – Day 1 (Saturday, October 4, 2014 – Sunday, October 5, 2014)

Tumbleweeds at an Airport?

791800_originalI can be nervous spastic neurotic a little bit antsy about making my flights, so I err on the side of caution by arriving at airports a little earlier than I need or should.(1) Some of this is my excitement for a trip and/or imagining all possible things that could happen, and the rest because getting through airport security is a crap shoot at the best of times. My parents had one Hell of a runaround last year in Dulles International Airport (IAD) being bounced around multiple check in counters all over the airport for their flight to Italy, and my imagination had me anxious about going through a similar marathon of frustration, sweat and ignorantly yelling at hapless/fellow-victims-of-the-system airline employees. On top of all of this, I tested my new girlfriend’s resolve because of my pre-occupation obsession fixation on running last-minute errands and squaring away final preparations, despite my flight not departing until that evening. I’ll say this for the record, she has a saint’s patience – anyone else probably would’ve slapped the shit out of me (my guess is she was far more tempted than she let on). I arrived at Dulles early Saturday evening with a solid two-and-a-half hours before my flight. A quick goodbye to the friend who gave me a lift, I lugged my bags out of their car, I rushed into the airport and…it was practically deserted.

Dulles services the DC area and consequently is one of the busiest airports on Earth. I’ve been there with throngs of people heading off for Spring Break, picked up and/or dropped off friends and family alike during busy holiday travel seasons, and until now, thought I’d seen it all. This was a new one for me – the airport was practically a ghost town. Images of a dusty western town long since abandoned came to mind, the only thing missing was the quiet howl of wind kicking up tumbleweeds and swirls of dust. I almost expected the Scooby-Doo gang racing around and finally unmasking Old Man Withers as he kvetched about how he would’ve gotten away with his haunting scheme if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids. I couldn’t help wondering if the early stages of panic had started regarding the recent news about airline passengers infected with Ebola arriving in the U.S. My mind was ablaze with visions of hazmat suit-wearing CDC teams spraying me down in a chemical shower, sunglasses-adorned men in black kidnapping me, or Milla Jovovich gunning me down as a zombie in another craptacular and hopelessly unnecessary Resident Evil sequel. The TSA raising the ante from passengers taking off their shoes to stripping down for body cavity searches seemed preferable by comparison.(2)

tsa-cartoon-19And speaking of security…I must be on the TSA’s “Passengers Who Enjoy Being Felt Up by Government Personnel” list, ensuring that I get a free pat down EVERY…FUCKING…TIME I go through airport security. For whatever reason, my touristy, suburban white boy appearance is the new “Terrorist Watchlist” look. Nevertheless, the TSA was consistent as ever and kindly did their routine best of copping a feel without asking me to turn my head and cough or taking me out to dinner and a movie first. On the bright side, with barely 20 other passengers in line with me, I was through security in a record-breaking 12 minutes (an all-time record), leaving me with more than two whole hours of free time on my hands at a near-dead airport on a Saturday night.

The flight is almost six hours, so I “treated” myself – a ridiculously undersized while grossly overpriced crab cake sandwich, fries and beer at one of the airport’s big chain, generic “microbrewery” eateries across from my gate. Months earlier, Paul hosted a couple of pre-trip get-togethers for breaking the ice with interested travelers who didn’t know him and answer any of their questions in-person.(3) I attended the meetings, only vaguely remembering who the other attendees were, but as I finished dinner and settled in at the gate,(4) some of the faces started looking familiar. I was wracking my brain, wondering how many complete strangers standing around me might be among the 18 people going on this trip. Beyond the few somewhat familiar faces, I couldn’t tell. Paul had also set up a Facebook page for the trip, so I posted on the group’s wall about where I was at the gate for meeting up with anyone before boarding. Soon enough, a small crowd of us gathered and were re-introducing ourselves and kidding around. Before we knew it, the announcements began for boarding the plane.

The Icelandair flight was booked solid and as I slowly crept down the narrow aisle, I found a man and his two daughters filling up my row, including my seat. I greeted them friendly enough and the father asked if it was time for his kid to move. I suggested taking the other seat so the kids could stay together, but a pretty-yet-severe looking flight attendant who overheard us sternly ordered the kid back to their assigned seat and that I should plant my ass in mine (apparently, Scandinavians are a very law-abiding bunch). Nevertheless, the flight was gloriously uneventful (i.e., no dramatically bad weather, no flight emergencies, no Ebola outbreaks, no screaming babies, no “silent but deadly” farting passengers next to me, etc.) and I even nodded off for a short while.(5)

(1) My long-time friend Stephen H. experienced this a bit when I visited him last Fall in San Francisco, and he demonstrated far more patience with me than I probably deserved.
(2) And if you’re good, they’ll apply lubricant on the rubber glove.
(3) In fact, Paul used me and this blog as a reference for some travelers who wanted more background information on him, his business practices and testimony as a tour planner and guide. Something I’m always happy to do for him because, quite simply, he’s the best.
(4) By way of the men’s room. First rule of airline travel, never board a plane without relieving yourself first.
(5) I usually avoid sleeping while flying because I have a difficult time getting comfortable on planes…and I snore.

Where the Hospitality is Warmer than the Weather

A year and a half ago, I left a chilly, grey, snowy DC area and arrived at a sunny, warm and vibrant Hawaii. This time around, the situation was the reverse – I left the DC area on the cusp of early Autumn and its comfortably warm days and cool nights, and arrived at a rainy, chilly and grey Iceland. Keflavik International Airport (KEF) didn’t seem like a large airport by any means (this becomes relevant when we left Iceland), but the duty free shopping area on the way out was enormous and populated by fellow travelers who were wasting no time in stocking up on tax-free items…mostly booze. One weary-looking world traveler had commandeered a luggage cart for wheeling away a beer stash that was larger than his actual luggage (being dragged behind him).

Icelandair times its flights on a schedule that arranges flights arriving and departing at around the same time, so flights from the East Coast were landing around 6:00 AM that morning. While most of us flew on the Washington, DC flight, a few of our party were en route from Boston, and combined with winding our way from baggage claim, through customs and finally the airport entrance, we trickled out in spurts, converging around a bleary-eyed Paul.(1) The area we waited in was adjacent to an exit, so mercifully brief but intense blasts of chilly, rainy air greeted us as we patiently waited for the rest of our party. We marveled at one family arriving from Florida, decked out in their uniforms of tank tops, shorts and sandals (I couldn’t tell, but I’d bet vital parts of my anatomy that their tattoos all matched).

Finally all gathered together, we marched out into the rainy, windy outdoors and loaded up on the bus. Keflavik is stuck out on the end of the peninsula that stretches south and west from Reykjavik, making for a 45 minute ride into the city. As the bus rolled along, we drove through the pea soup fog-enshrouded countryside, getting a muted first look at Iceland’s lava rock and mossy terrain. As we entered downtown, we drove through what can best be described as the largest, most neutral-colored stretch of suburbia one can imagine, arriving at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, still early in the morning. Things were hopping in the hotel lobby as a large tour group was checking out, leaving us red-eyed souls in painfully patient expectation about who’s rooms were ready and who would be camping out in the lobby for the next few hours. Those of us with single rooms were ready and checked in immediately, while more than a few sharing rooms were left waiting a while longer.

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Top: My room and the hotel. Bottom: The view of eastern, downtown Reykjavik from my window.

793207_300The Hilton’s décor and design followed the traditional Scandinavian aesthetic of clean lines and neutral pallets, with bolder accents (most notably in the hotel’s Vox bar and restaurant). After the moderately long and uncomfortably warm flight, walking into a clean hotel room and eyeing what I hoped-beyond-hope was an as-comfortable-as-it-looks bed was just what I needed. What caught me off-guard, and presented itself as my first challenge to fix, was that the lights wouldn’t turn on no matter what switches I flipped. After five minutes of aimlessly searching around and exhaustion-fueled swearing, I finally spotted the room’s Main Switch, complete with universal HEY MORON, INSERT YOUR KEY CARD HERE icon, right next to the room door.(2) Oddly enough, the room was outfitted with a bed, comfy chair, desk and armoire, but no dresser, so my suitcase sat in a corner and took on double duty. Also, despite the chilly but quickly-lifting rain and clouds, the room was unusually warm, resulting in me shutting off the radiator and opening the window.(3) The bathroom was larger than I expected, but still smaller compared to my American standards, not that it’d stopped me from taking a desperately-needed shower. By the time I got out of the shower, the rain clouds had almost totally cleared, offering a great view from my street-side room, and I could see most of the eastern side of the city, with the impressive Esjan mountains across the bay.(4) A quick scan of the TV channels revealed that I was at the mercy of mostly Icelandic-speaking shows or channels, with only Euronews (cycling the latest three headlines every five minutes) and two BBC channels (showing either news, nature programs or cooking shows). Cleaned up, comfortable and worn out, I collapsed on the bed (definitely comfy) and passed out within minutes.

(1) Who had been up a bit late the night before…but a little more on that later.
(2) Yes sir, that Liberal Arts education was worth every penny…
(3) It turns out that many of my travel group did the same in their rooms, too. I generally prefer things on the cooler side and hate feeling too warm, and we’d discover that most places in here kept their indoor areas on the warmer side, and I seriously believe that only a handful of larger buildings actually need air conditioning in this country.
(4)
Snow covered the peaks the day we arrived, but had almost completely melted by mid-week.

Things will be Great When You’re Downtown

San Francisco, Honolulu, Bordeaux, Killarney, Munich…I love walkable cities. Whether they’re just small and therefore more easily accessible, or have convenient public transportation (bus, subway, tram), I love places where you can practically (and often literally) walk from one end to the other. This probably comes from a combination of American-brand urban sprawl making public transit less practical for outlying areas and traditional feelings of independence making us reliant on more private modes of transportation. There are few things as liberating as not worrying about parking, filling up at a gas station or convincing the state inspector that your worn-to-the-mounting-plate brake pads should be passing inspection.

Before retreating to our hotel rooms for post-travel R&R, Paul announced that he was leading a walking tour of downtown Reykjavik that afternoon, and the meeting point was the hotel lobby at high noon. I was in a dead sleep when my “spidey sense” woke me up with a start, and a glance at the room clock revealed that it was almost a quarter after noon. Grabbing my jacket, assorted personal items(1) and chewing gum for killing off the I-was-sleeping-and-have-dry-mouth-bad-breath-from-Hell taste, I raced downstairs where one or two of my merry band were waiting. As it turns out, the hotel room clocks are set 10 or 15 minutes ahead of the correct time, which would be both handy and annoying as the week rolled on. Soon enough, a few others and Paul arrived and we headed out.

One of the first things you notice about Iceland is that it’s windy. REALLY windy. While the wind significantly died down later in the week, it was always there. So much so I wore a baseball hat as often as possible, and bought one on the day I neglectfully didn’t bring it with me for our Golden Circle tour . The Hilton Nordica is on Suðurlandsbraut, which becomes Laugavegur a few blocks down the street and the main drag into and through the shopping district, less than a mile from our doorstep. We quickly discovered that, if you can tolerate the chill and windblown hair, a walk into town was often more convenient than waiting for a bus. Paul took us on a dime tour of downtown, pointing out various shops and eateries and landmarks that would get a closer look at later on. We noticed some of the local oddities, such as the Chuck Norris Grill (based on the conflicting reviews, I’m not sure we missed out much on not eating there) and Lebowski Bar (which we checked out, but didn’t eat at), and apparently Reyjavik’s own Hare Krishna temple.

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Reykjavik is definitely a working town. Iceland has approximately 300,000 people living on an island that’s roughly the size of Virginia, and two-thirds of that population is in the world’s northern most capital, so a lot of trade and work happens here. The closest American comparison I can make is a northeastern fishing village (I mean that as a compliment). And the whole place’s local dress code consists of those who buy their entire wardrobes from REI, hipsters who love skinny jeans far more than anyone EVER should, and working class heroes who don’t give a shit…about anything. On the whole though, everyone here is polite, even friendly, and happily help out when asked for directions or about local etiquette.(2) As an added bonus, most of the locals speak English, and especially without a “You could at least TRY speaking our language” attitude.(3)

794602_300Another thing I noticed as we walked through town was the lack of big chain (or at least recognizable) restaurants and stores. There were brand names we recognized in many of the stores, but the only identifiable, American big chain label we saw with any real frequency was Subway (apparently, Icelanders LOVE the chain and definitely not McDonald’s). As time went on, we were hard pressed to see more than a handful of recognizable chains, though we did spot at least one Ruby Tuesdays, TGIFridays and Quizno’s. Personally, I consider it almost a moral violation to eat at a place anyone can find on any street corner that slings the same practically-machine made, boring food back home. And speaking of food, as we finished our foot tour, it was mid-afternoon and growling stomachs were a reminder that some of us hadn’t eaten since flying over the southern tip of Greenland. We debated a few places we passed, but spotted a little place by the harbor called Hofnin and a quick review of the menu confirmed that this was the place for a late lunch. Our first meal in Iceland consisted of generous servings or bread and a plateful of creamy fish stew deliciousness that was as satisfying as it was long lasting. The owners there were kind enough to give us a quick lesson on the ideal local brands of drink to imbibe (they recommend Reyka (high-quality vodka) over Brennivín (which we would eventually try), and especially if we dared the infamous local delicacy Hákarl (fermented shark).

We met for a happy hour at the hotel bar in the early evening, reviewing the night’s plans, the week’s itinerary and addressing any issues that came up after arriving and getting settled in Iceland. Always up for trying something I’ve never tasted before, I opted for Egils Gull – a light lager (5%). From what I’ve read, Reykjavik is more of a “beer and a shot” kind of town, and honestly, I was expecting/hoping for something tasty and interesting, but had a pint of the Icelandic equivalent of Miller Lite instead.(4)

(1) In the course of getting dressed, I discovered a very clever way of securing my neck stash/body belt under my clothes that was both much more comfortable for me (neck stashes and body belts are necessary evils when traveling) and difficult and trickier for any would-be pickpockets. Your move, mother fuckers.
(2) For example, they rarely jaywalk and we got more than a few dirty looks if and when we did.
(3) There were a few rare exceptions, such as having dinner at one or two places where the wait staff was far less than thrilled about a table of obnoxious Americans (…not that I blame them).
(4) This pretty much sets the tone for all of the local beers I tried. However, I’m honestly shocked that Iceland produces a handful of regional wines.

Lights! Camera! Nothing!…and Musical Chairs on a Bus

Afterward, we headed out for the trip’s first scheduled event – seeing the Aurora Borealis (a.k.a., Northern Lights). As a long-time astronomy buff, I’ve always jumped at the chance for sky watching. I spent more than a few nights in high school out on the back porch with my telescope, spying anything I could through the relentless pea-soup, light pollution haze of Northern Virginia. A college girlfriend of mine was in the Virginia Tech Astronomy Club, and enjoyed multiple trips out to the school’s meager observatories for viewing Saturn and its rings, Jupiter’s Galilean moons and the odd nebula or two,(1) as well as spotting one or two comets passing by one year. While not strictly an astronomical phenomenon, one of the items on my bucket list was seeing the Northern Lights firsthand, and I finally had the chance. Knowing we’d be exhausted and jetlagged, Paul still planned this excursion because the tour groups take customers out for free again if the lights have a little cosmic stage fright.

We piled onto a bus with several other groups (i.e., a VERY full bus), and rolled out until Reykjavik was little more than a string of lights on the horizon. And judging by the last gravel road’s abusive attitude toward our kidneys, we were way out in the boonies. As we piled back out, flashlights were at a minimum for preserving our night vision, though that didn’t stymie the occasional flash of someone’s camera and nearly blinding us as we stumbled over uneven, moss-covered lava rocks. The wind was still whipping up a bit so we were bundled up against the chill, and the tour guides insisted that “conditions were ripe” for seeing lights that evening.

Almost 20 minutes later, we were shivering and the sky was little more than twinkling stars and a few wispy clouds. Tourists were staring up into the sky, tour guides stamped their feet, and the once-in-a-while a douchebag driver passing by would kindly insist on keeping their high beams on no matter how much the guides or tourists yelled at them or saluted with dirty hand gestures.(2) A few more minutes of chilly anticipation later, the tour guides loaded us back onto the bus for trying another location (would moving a few miles down the road really make that much of a difference for such large scale phenomena?). We had no sooner gotten in our seats and the bus engine rumbled to life when someone yelled out that they saw lights forming in the sky. We stampeded out of the bus and back into the chilly field and indeed saw a hazy, grey/green swath stretching across the sky. At first glance, it looked like little more than an odd cloud, something anyone might see anywhere else, but as we watched, it gently curved and deepened in color. Immediately, everyone planted themselves on the ground and steadied cameras started clicking. I fumbled a bit with my own camera, trying my best with adjusting to night settings without seeing a damn thing, and started taking whatever shots I could get. Eventually, the lights dimmed and faded away, and the relative warmth of the bus beckoned us back in.

Over the next hour, the lights appeared two or three more times, resulting in multiple exoduses in and out of the bus for a glance at the lights and taking more pictures. Each appearance was much more impressive than the previous, as the lights came back brighter, more structured and active each time. Unfortunately, bumbling around in the dark, I was reminded about how petty and territorial people get over ridiculous shit. The one down side of the multiple runs outside is the resulting game of musical chairs, where more than a few people took seats where others had previously been sitting, causing a bit of disruption for those in need of relocating. I didn’t mind this since most people had their personal belongings with them, and a few of us specifically picked new seats that were clearly empty. However, many didn’t share our “one seat is as good as any other” philosophy, garnering reactions ranging from “Whoops, I was sitting there, but that’s okay” to one stubborn Asian tourist who – rather than speak to me (in any language) – simply grunted and glared (as fiercely as a five foot tall Asian man can) at me in the aisle until I removed myself from the one seat he MUST sit in (I would’ve held my ground, but the bus driver was getting impatient). The long day was definitely catching up with me and mild irritation was germinating into me getting punchier each time someone communed with their inner child, effectively whining “but that’s MYYYY SEAT,” and ultimately I was so tired that causing a fuss wasn’t worth the trouble.(3)

Nevertheless, on the way back into town, everyone was comparing pictures, some of which were excellent, and also confirmed my belief that pictures of the Northern Lights frequently look more impressive than the actual lights themselves. Unfortunately, when I checked my camera, I marveled at the snap shots I took of spectacularly-framed and captured…black boxes.

Fuck it.

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Pictures courtesy of Tom Diehm.

(1) Though some may have questioned why we visited an astronomical observatory on more than one cloudy night.
(2) It’s almost a comfort knowing that the DC area doesn’t have a monopoly on asshole drivers.
(3) I didn’t want to be “that guy” and chances are I would’ve gotten my ass kicked anyway.

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