Jetlag is an odd thing, especially since I’m a night owl by nature. No, wait, let me rephrase that – I am not, under any circumstances, what you would call a “morning person”(1) – so recovering from west-to-east jetlag is usually pretty easy for me. It’s like pulling an all-nighter and fighting through the following day…which I’m used to from old habits, college and work. On the other hand, east-to-west jetlag hits me like a freight train, which I experienced in spades last year in Hawaii. However, for some reason this time, and despite having adapted easily to Iceland’s four-hour time difference, I found myself staring at the ceiling just minutes before 6:00 AM. Needless to say, I was alert and cleaned up in time to watch a sunrise over Reykjavik, which was worth getting up for.
An observation that has been floating around in my head since I arrived here, but didn’t really sink in until now was how quiet this city is. My room faced the main street the hotel was on, so you’d think I’d be sick of hearing cars and buses going by at all hours. But watching what effectively passes for Reykjavik’s rush hour (as in, not even worth comparing to anywhere in the U.S. that’s bigger than Mayberry), I realized that I can’t recall hearing a single car horn, police or rescue siren or car crash. Not even music pounding through bass speakers that cost more than the car itself. For that matter, except for the coast guard ship in the harbor and one noted occurrence of hearing a siren a few days later, I can’t recall seeing or hearing any representatives of the local authority on the whole trip. Considering how the most dangerous objects in anyone’s household here were kitchen knives, I was pondering a few things about American culture.
(1) Your honor, I present the court with Exhibit A – testimonies from my parents, former teachers and professors, several ex-girlfriends, and if my pets could talk, they would tell you that the standard punishment for dancing on the bed in the morning is a vicious and decisive sweep of my arm, as well as an angry blue streak of expletives with varying meanings.
The Golden Tourist Trap
I went to Disney World years ago, back when one of my cousins worked there, and he was celebrating his birthday by having my uncle and aunt, as well as my mom, dad and sister visit. My lack of zeal regarding the trip wasn’t because I hate Disney (I enjoy their movies, but I’ve always been a Looney Tunes aficionado), or that I didn’t love my extended family (I do). It’s because of my preference for places with a history and culture ripe for exploring, rather than resorts that are artificially-gorgeous vacuum cleaners for people’s money (this is probably why I’ve never been particularly motivated about cruise ship vacations).(1) While we did genuinely have fun and enjoy ourselves,(2) Beautiful people singing It’s a Small World After All feels a little less genuine as they usher you toward another shop full of soon-to-be-forgotten kids toys and/or future garage sale items. Now, admittedly, my one touristy habit along these lines is collecting magnets and shot glasses, but that’s really it, so gift shops are mostly lost on me (not unlike buffet-style restaurants).
After breakfast and our daily Yoko Ono hotel sighting, we piled into a tour bus for a tour of the famous Golden Circle.(3) This is a popular tourist route because it hits several natural wonders and man-made sites that are all conveniently within an hour or two of downtown Reykjavik. Some versions of this route include a couple of Iceland’s power plants, but we were opting for seeing more of mother nature.
Our first stop (and only manmade locale) was the Fridheimar Greenhouse, one of several Iceland is experimenting with growing crops all year long in for a place with a not-ideal-for-agriculture climate. One of the greenhouse’s guides pointed out that Iceland’s increasingly tourism-based economy came with an unsettling downside – larger food requirements. The number of tourists visiting Iceland has been climbing since 2000, meaning a for-the-most-part-previously-self-sufficient country must import more food or develop new ways of producing its own. Besides row after row of tomato plants hanging in a giant hydroponic garden, bright lights simulating the sun were so bright that you took off your jacket or started sweating, there were very real bees buzzing about on their pollenating rounds from artificial bee hives (made of cardboard). And the facility’s entrance and exit? A makeshift gift shop selling just about anything you can think of made from the produce grown there (kudos though for it all being native resources and keeping the money local).
Moving on, our next stop was the Geysir Hot Spring Area, home to the Strokkur geyser and is the first geyser ever discovered by Europeans. The first thing that hits you as you walk the path toward Strokkur is the smell. Being a result of Iceland’s volcanic nature (like many things here), the entire area was churning up blistering hot water and steam, and combined with brutally high winds, there was no getting away from the heavy scent of rotten eggs. It was also mildly discomforting that a park requires posting a health warning for visitors given the nature of the sites there. We couldn’t help noting the sign’s “Respect fences and barriers – for your own safety” warning) as we watched a couple walk toward the far side of the geyser (and off the paved path), only to be drenched by the geyser as we approached it.(4)
Strokkur goes off every five to ten minutes, so we patiently waited through several eruptions (and unyielding and powerful wind that was freezing us where we stood), trying to get the best pictures possible as steam and water sprayed into the air. Walking back, the park has a combination dining hall/gift shop, offering everything from wool sweaters, leather coats, t-shirts, magnets, and coffee mugs…to underwear and condoms.
Afterward and not far down the road, we checked out the Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”) waterfall which is as breathtaking as it is deafening. It really is an impressive site and one that you can practically stand on top of, with the roar of the falls overwhelming everything and making everyone there effectively deaf and mute by comparison. Probably the only equally amazing site was Paul, who was marching around and taking pictures in nothing more than a pair of shorts and a t-shirt while we were chilled by never ending high winds. Oh, and we stopped at the gift shop before leaving for the next stop.
By mid afternoon, we reached our last stop and one that I had been looking forward to the whole day – Þingvellir, Iceland’s first national park. The park grounds are famous for being the site of the first Parliament in history (930 AD for you history buffs), as well as the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. We were dropped off at the bottom of a trail that leads to an overlook of the entire valley, and there was definitely a thrill of standing on one tectonic plate while looking over at the other one. It’s a view that I’m already eager for comparing to the Grand Canyon someday.(5) And we made sure to stop at the gift shop/shack there before heading out…because, y’know…we’re tourists.
(1) I grant you, that may apply to just about anywhere in the world that’s a popular tourist destination.
(2) In the interest of full disclosure, we ate great food and my mom observed that we were never once bitten by a single mosquito. That, and my sister (who is autistic) had the time of her life with the princess breakfast, and staying for the end of the day parade/fireworks/watching Tinkerbell “fly” up to the castle. Coincidentally, my sister LOVES gift shops.
(3) Not to be confused with the Golden Fleece, the Golden Egg or the Golden Mile.
(4) They were okay afterward, luckily being in greater danger of dying from embarrassment than anything else.
(5) In point of fact, I saw the Grand Canyon way back when I was six years old, but I just remember bits and pieces of what I saw there, so another trip is definitely worth it.
Dinner was a Surprise
By the time we arrived back at Reykjavik, it was late afternoon/early evening, and made a pit stop at the hotel so those of us who wanted to could hop off. The rest went downtown in hopes of taking one of the ferries out and seeing Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace memorial lighting ceremony. Cold and hungry, those of us at the hotel ran upstairs, cleaned up and wandered out for dinner. We walked downtown, hoping to eat at the highly rated Ban Thai restaurant, but a handwritten sign in the window made clear that it was closed until that following Tuesday. Stomachs grumbling and patience wearing a little thin, we continued walking and considering options as we passed them by, finally opting for the Nepalese Restaurant (try as I might, I couldn’t find a single website for or mentioning this place), which looked a little on the “hole in the wall” side of eateries, but the menu looked good and hunger won out over caution and lack of local knowledge. We were rewarded for our curiosity as the food was not only good, but AMAZINGLY good, both comfortably warming and filling us up.