02 December, 2010


backdate: 1 December

A guy with an archetypal Arizona prospector's beard - brown shirt, darker vest, cowboy hat and clear gaze - shares a table with a kid in a grey hoodie A couple days ago, i saw young folk with rat-tail braids, while a guy in head-to-toe hunter's camo sat two tables away. The sign out front, a bather relaxing in a steaming coffee cup and surrounded by trees and hills, reads "Macys European Coffeehouse". 

The coffee here is great, the menu boards written in deliberate chalk and peppered with sayings from the Baha'u'llah; the owner of Macy's is a skilled photographer, his work displayed in the cafe, and by all appearances Baha'i as well. "Ye are all the leaves of one tree, and all the fruits of one branch," it reads, a foot or so below "avocado BLT, made with tempeh bacon". Which was rather tasty. 

In search of an ATM, i wander across the street to Biff's Bagels. Brightly sunlit, the place isn't nearly as funky; there are no rich wood tones, instead framed photographs of patrons' dogs on (it seems) every square foot of wall. It's wonderfully welcoming in its own way, and i want to soak in some of that sun instead of languishing in dark walnut-colored wood - but i'm already set up at Macys, and can only afford to drink so much coffee. 

Again this morning i wonder how worthwhile it is to spend this time writing, when what i write is at times as devoid of meaningful nourishment as a croissant. Like a croissant or Danish - which the Danes call a variety of names, so let's say - spandauer, i suppose it has a place. With mocha, something indulgent. Still, i wonder what it would be like to write something as concentrated and intent on meaning as, say, Gibran's "The Prophet", instead of crafting sentences as worthless as "I think it's a new reality in Washington, and everybody knows that," which i just heard on some news-talk show in the airport. Words beckon from the margins of my notebook. The only thing i am sure of is that this daily practice serves as mental calisthenics, a stretching, a seeing whether the words fit together quite right, whether they are ready for motion. That to a practicing writer, no sentence is wasted. Writing this blog is a way to put my thoughts into some half-publishable order. 

Still, that i continue to question the worth of keeping a blog signals that perhaps it's time to practice writing to different ends, to invest my writing time in new ways. A long hiatus may follow. 

01 December, 2010

A souvenir shop at the end of the universe

backdate: 29 November

Hiking up out of the canyon is an odd juxtaposition of present and future. Still quite unlike descending from a mountain - since it's not a coming down to everyday life, it's a struggle upward. And it's odd knowing that at the top, toilets and coffee await. It puts the "park" in national park. At Santa Maria spring, there is an inch of ice atop the water trough. Here we meet the only other hiker we see (it's Monday), a sun-weathered woman who has hiked all the park's marked trails at least once.

 Cathedral Stairs, one of the steepest bits of Hermit Trail

At the juncture with Dripping Springs trail, the terrain changes abruptly. In a small saddle, juniper becomes the dominant plant species. The last 1.6 miles are the most turtuous; ending three days of hiking with seven ascending miles, steepest near the end, works the legs in completely new ways. And as the distance to the rim shrinks, each meter feels longer. As you begin to hear the whoosh of wind through the needles of pinyon pine, you forget the stillness below; the canyon - a state of being - evaporates. Where, halfway up, it seemed so immediate, as though you could just reach out (and never quite touch it), in afternoon shadows the canyon's "garden of the gods" retreats, some matte painting in the hazy backdrop of a sci-fi film.

Hermit Creek canyon seen from ~4400 ft

Snickers bars were buy 3-get 3 free at Safeway, and luckily we bought a dozen for the hike. When Kara has a major blood sugar drop a few hundred feet below the rim, we find the last Snickers stashed in my pack. Finally at the top after six hours, we notice the sign that said "eat twice as many calories as usual". Good rule.

Packs off, we relax by the hearth in Hermit's Rest. One of several structures in the park designed by architect Mary Eliabeth Jane Coulter to meet rising demands for tourist infrastructure in the 1920s, the building houses a souvenir shop and snack bar, late on a Monday afternoon there are few visitors. We sit beneath a domed ceiling of rough rocks, gazing out the windowed front. It's a unique architectural perspective, and Joe finds explanation in one of the shop's souvenir books: Coulter tried to design the building "as if it were constructed by an untrained mountain man." Outside, we note the deliberately off-kilter chimney - "An untrained mountain man who was really good at constructing inner domes," Marcus quips. Ah, early 20th-century pretensions.


A handful of elk cross in front of the truck. Three thousand feet below we can see Monument Creek canyon, and purple shades of dusk color the rock.

One feeling that stuck with me far beyond the last gaze, and was echoed by others i talked to, was how seeing the canyon from its rim had little impact. We'd seen the same view hundreds of times in books and magazines, and perhaps it is just too big to feel. Yet to see the canyon with your feet, to feel its enormity by descent - that's when it sinks in. Three tortuous hours to get halfway down, and the river winds for miles. I'll leave the last words to someone who speaks with authority on that matter: John Wesley Powell.

You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.

If you don't have months, at least give it a few days.

Down to Rio Colorado!

backdate: 28/29 November

With our packs safely stashed by the bank of Hermit Creek, we set off to the Colorado. Hermit Creek canyon is certainly worth exploring. Two pools would be excellent places to cool off in summer. Sandstone layers become more visible, and minerals seep from between them like too much jelly squeezed edgewise from a peanut butter sandwich. Further downstream, huge chunks of sandstone that fell from cliffsides lie on edge, testament to the ever-changing nature of this stone.

The trail crossed the creek so many times i lost count, and Marcus leaped nimbly across stepping stones to avoid soaking his socks (he made the trip wearing sandals). We took turns pointing out things - a damselfly clinging to a trailside shrub, unique colors in the rock. 

At last the 1.3 mile trail grew indistinct in a network of sandy dry stream-paths, rushes, and tamarisk shrubs. We could hear its rush close by, then over a tangle of boulders it was visible. Marcus and i settled on separate rocks to wait our companions and mull on things a while. Somehow the river's roar over Hermit Rapids, so loud all around me, vanishes in a daydream, in a certain clarity. Reaching the bottom of the Grand Canyon - a place i hadn't dreamed of visiting in the near future; in fact, never really planned to see, let alone experience in this way - lent a new sense of life's possibility. And while the reflection had a certain distance to it, while dreaming big no longer seemed so preposterous, there was an intimacy to the space, a sense of wild solitude that drew me inward rather than out. Against all of which the occasional airliner streaking silver overhead seemed an odd non-sequitur.  

image © Marcus Collado (used by permission)

We passed a quieter, though chillier night at Hermit Creek, savoring beans, sausages, and after washing dishes in the creek, a round of powdered apple cider. Not bad stuff actually; in the morning ever-inventive Marcus used some to add an apple-raisin twist to his instant oatmeal.

Speaking of Marcus, in addition to thanking him fo his friendship and for the permission to use some of his pictures from the hike, i should take a moment to point out his blog, Nature is the Teacher


backdate: 28 November

An enormous rock garden

On a more immediate, less controversial time scale, changes in elevation and microclimatic variation yield differences in bloom and maturity for plants along a vertical gradient. About halfway down we observe the first blooming flowers; though most plant species have mature seed structures, a few are still blooming. Marcus observes that century plant capsules are less mature at the bottom of the canyon, though variations in plant growth are discontinuous; in addition to elevation, more locally variable factors such as shade, airflow, and moisture availability also shape the microclimates plants experience.

Without time to do a whole lot of research and writing on those plant communities, i shall simply present some images of them. Common in the canyon (but absent here, for lack of a good photo) is Quercus turbinella, which looks deceptively like a holly, until you find its acorns.

We awoke at a juncture of epochs...

backdate: 28 November

Monument Creek "G" campsite
image © Marcus Collado (used by permission)

One perk of hiking in the dark is that morning reveals a new and surprising landscape. Down to the creek to wash breakfast dishes we trod the narrow trail a fourth time; only now could we see what lay around us. Where a seam of mica had caught Kara's headlamp the night before, the glittering mineral lay within granite, marking an important geologic transition. 

The campsites at Monument Creek, named for a stone pinnacle perhaps a hundred feet tall, lie just above the boundary where tapeats sandstone, dated at 545 million years old, meets a layer of crystalline (metamorphic) rock dated 1.7 billion years old. The pinnacle itself showcases this juxtaposition. 

image © Marcus Collado (used by permission)

In many ways, it feels as though descent into the Grand Canyon is a form of time travel, a form most grueling for the legs. I'm sorry if this is offensive to Biblical literalists and young-earth creationists, but the canyon brings up a concept i can't quite contain. It certainly evokes an awe at the majesty of Creation, and for me it evokes a sense of immensity of both spatial and temporal scale. Seeing layer after layer of rock formations on our descent made concepts of the canyon's age inescapable; it lent geologic time a certain immediacy difficult to put into words. Imaging, if you will the time it takes to form a single layer of sandstone, compressed from ancient sea-floor sediments, in turn weathered from still older mountains. Now imagine that red sandstone as the second in a series of nine or more layers, laid down one by one, each process resting on the process before. Feeling tiny yet? 

When i was young, i used to believe in ex nihilo creationism - specifically the idea that a supreme being spoke the earth into existence in six days, around 6,000 years ago - and studiously censor natural history books (which i otherwise devoured) with a black Sharpie. One explanation for the apparent age of earth - an explanation hauled out by young-earth creationists staring at these layers of rock - is that God created earth to appear old, a test of faith for some, a damning untruth for those not chosen and called to faith. These days i think more critically. What God would create apparent evidence of his absence, damning those who believed the apparent? What God would deliberately lie to his creatures? The intellectual contortions necessary for me to believe six-day creationism make me think such a God-concept is, like all concepts, a flawed and imperfect construction of the human psyche - unlike this canyon, a construction and manifestation of supreme Being (no a, an, or the) perfect in its immanent transcendence. 

I just want to crawl into a hole and …sleep.

backdate: 27/28 November

The trail to the Monument Creek campsites (elev. 2995) skirted its canyon, an edge unsettlingly close in the dusk. I could see Joe's headlamp far ahead; then it disappeared. Marcus, Kara, and i made the final meters of descent over loose rock together. 

Unoccupied G campsite was the first we came upon. It lay beneath a sandstone cliff, the edge of which hung perhaps a hundred feet overhead. Huge flat-sided boulders edged the sandy site, and one of them made a perfect kitchen table. As Marcus pitched his tent, Joe cut slices of summer sausage and boiled water for mac&cheese. Kara and i followed the path toward the sound of water, and as we washed dishes in the creek i felt a sudden wave of exhaustion. Nine miles of hiking, pushing through the dusk, and we couldn't climb into sleeping bags soon enough. But there was time to wait for iodine to work its magic on the creek water, teeth to brush, time to lie on a slab of sandstone and look up at the sky as cloud began to obscure the stars. The laughter and glimmering headlamps of two dozen hikers camped upstream gradually died away. 

A ranger had said this was the best campsite in case of rain, but looking upward i couldn't help but wonder how often rock slabs fell from that overhang; no matter how close our tents were pitched to the cliff base, leaving the circle of rockfall a wide berth, the thought of being shattered and flattened in our sleep nagged at me. Rock was not the problem. Wind was. All through the night it rushed down the narrow canyon, our tent fly fluttering loudly, a disconcerting sound drowning out the creek's lullaby. The cliff continued to overhang my thoughts. 

"The descent beckons..."

backdate: 27 November

Our Friday visit to South Kaibab trail left us worried about packed snow and ice. On the precipitous edges, one slip could be the difference between a good hike and a rather bad day - yet the slick surfaces weren't thick enough for crampons. Kara and Joe, who'd signed his name as trip leader on the backcountry camping permit, had the solution: screwing 3/8-inch carriage bolts into our soles to bite into slick surfaces. On the hour and a half ride north i struggled with them; Vibram soles are tough to get a screw into. 

Of course, reaching the trailhead (elev. 6,640 feet) we found that compared to icy South Kaibab several miles east, Hermit was bone dry. Noon. We passed encouragement to hiker after ascending hiker short on breath, then as we passed Santa Maria spring we found ourselves alone on the narrow trail. It wound over rockslides barely marked with red sandstone cairns and along steep edges. At Cathedral Stairs (4422 feet), a trio of ravens displayed tight aerialism, spiralling down like black rocks, spilling air loudly from their feathers as they disappeared below the precipice and emerged in level flight far below. Then it was quiet again. 

Besides being only my second time carrying a full pack into the backcountry, this hike is different from any other i've done. The simplest i can explain it, mountain climbing is foremost a matter of ascent; the objective lies above. Entering the canyon, things are reversed; though no less spiritual a journey, it has a different resonance. More life-like, it strikes me, where the most substantial experiences begin by entering depths - of reflection, of memory, of trauma - and finding a way back to the level plain. "The descent," to echo a line from William Carlos Williams, "beckons / as the ascent beckoned." 

Beginning a hike with downward steps provokes a different sort of reflection, and gives Williams's poem new context for me. Heights are ephemeral; depths leave you changed. As i sit typing up this post in a cafe days later, i cannot find the same perspective. There are two separate thoughts here, hard to separate. Something that made so much sense inside the canyon becomes hard to explain.  On the last mile before the trail junction, Marcus sees two mule deer. The animals blend so completely into the eroded rock and shrub that i miss them completely. 

Just past the junction of Hermit and West Tonto trails (on the Tonto Platform, elev. 3389) we crest a low rise to see the river emerge nearly a mile distant and still a thousand feet below. The trail wound in and out around each crease and wash. Dusk fell quickly, clouds wisping yellow and orange over the canyon west. We made the last mile to Monument Creek by headlamps, pushing through massive clumps of beargrass as rock periodically gave way to sand beneath our feet. 

26 November, 2010

Squash and lentil soup

Our east-west mashup of a basic Indian lentil soup and New-England fall flavors turned out to be a big hit! Since it tasted so good, i thought i'd share...

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp garlic-ginger paste
2 yellow onions, chopped small-ish
1 medium-sized butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1-2 sweet apples, peeled and chopped
4 c. chicken broth 
4 c. water
cilantro, chopped fine

garam masala
chili powder
cayenne pepper
whole cumin seeds (a sprinkle)

In a soup pot, sautee onions and garlic-ginger paste in melted butter. In a separate saucepan, combine lentils, spices, and half the chicken broth and water. Add about half the sauteed onions to the lentils and cook until lentils are very soft. 

Meanwhile, in the soup pot, combine the squash, apple, and remaining broth and water. Spice as desired; when Trish went wild and we felt  it had gotten a bit too authentically Indian, we poured off part of the cooking liquid and replaced it with water, successfully turning things back down a notch. 

Bring the squash et cetera to a boil, then simmer til tender. Puree in a blender and return to soup pot. Stir in the chopped cilantro - it was about three-quarters cup, i think - but reserve some to add color for presentation, if you like. 

Mash the lentils until most are broken, and add them to the squash puree. This gives the soup an amazing texture. Simmer for twenty minutes or so to let cultures and flavors mingle… and enjoy!

It might seem complicated, but in principle this recipe is a simple question of blending textures and following your taste buds (hence the omission of any measurements for the spices). And don't forget, we took two radically different recipes and found a way to hybridize - more proof that recipes are at best a point of departure.

Thanksgiving, from traditional to transnational

When i was a child, there were a few bits of literature that marked mid-November. I can't really remember how "Cranberry Thanksgiving" goes, but the gist of it - an unconventional group of guests and a special recipe - sticks with me, 

This all started a month ago, when i was talking to Marcus about holiday plans - i was looking for a way to avoid uncomfortable family situations, and he and Trisha couldn't afford the drive to Arkansas to spend Thanksgiving at home. Thus it was that i ended up in Flagstaff with a motley crew of friends old and new. Trisha, who grew up in Delhi, had her first Thanksgiving in Maine four years ago; until last year, my mother had been the central figure of Thanksgiving, and after her passing from cancer i needed to find new meanings for the holiday. 

Wednesday night Marcus, Trisha, and their Estonian friend Kati and i wandered the aisles of the Flagstaff Safeway hunting up the ingredients for our communally planned menu: rum-glazed ham, mashed potatoes, stuffed acorn squash, green salad, jello salad, lentil soup, homemade egg nog, and mulled cider. The supermarket was where it hit home - it's the first time any of us have been in charge of Thanksgiving dinner. For Trisha, her first time as kitchen-master for an American holiday; for me, the first time making the jello salad my mother always made at Thanksgiving. I was worried others would find the dish strange, but Trisha recognized it from her first Thanksgiving dinner four years ago. Gleeful, i put on my best Indian accent: "she should not be allowed near the spice aisle." 

Thus it is Thanksgiving takes on new traditions. While we shopped, Joe and Kara were making jambalaya at home, and with a ton of leftover rice we decided to add rice pudding to the menu alongside Kati's cheesecake. I recalled mom's rice pudding - tasty and classic New England style, yes - but i also recalled the delicate flavors of shir-berenj, an Afghan rice pudding i'd fallen in love with. 

With a quick google search, i was amazed by the variety of rice pudding variations from country to country. Thankfully, Trisha's cabinets contained cardamom and rose-water, two flavors that distinguish shir-berenj, kheer, and other Middle Eastern variations. From there, it was a simple matter of adaptation - slipping the flavors into a "leftover rice" pudding recipe. 

After the collaborative meals we'd made back in college, it was a treat to be cooking together once again, and fold a couple new friends into the blend. All six of us took turns in the tiny apartment kitchen, chopping, heating, tasting, improvising, washing dishes, pausing for tortilla chips with homemade guacamole - and making another batch of guacamole when we ran out. Kara chopped apples, onions, and mushrooms, and sauteed them with chicken sausage, bread crumbs, and leftover rice to stuff the acorn squash (out of this world!). Marcus took the helm on his grandmother's egg nog recipe; Joe crafted a delicious green salad with dried cranberries, walnuts, rice vinegar, and the radishes Trisha wanted to use up. By six we had a beautiful spread; by eight we had decided we would never eat again. And then, as we sat sated around the table, we took turns saying what we were each thankful for. 

Too many things to list. 

25 November, 2010

Flagstaff explorations

text coming soon?

To (northern) Arizona!

Westward ho! And with a glint in the sunlight, the wing of this plane shaves through the sky. Beyond its upturned tip my sleep-clotted eyes take in low mountain ranges skirting a desert city.

In the airport, i see people dressed for warmth. Should i be wearing shorts instead of wool and an insulated jacket? I grudgingly remember i'm headed to Flagstaff. Kara and Joe pick me up in her new truck, and we hit the road. A week since they arrived from Anchorage, they've been in the city too long.

We climb up, past cactus-strewn sand, north through rain to hail, fog, and snow. Soon it's icy; cars have slid off the road all around us. We await a warm reunion among the snowy pines.

D.C. i didn't see

Where were we? Oh, yeah. I stepped off the plane in Dulles with only a laptop and half a plan. Thankfully, my friend Efe replied within minutes. Despite having four overdue papers on his agenda, he offered couch space for the night.

On the way, i figured i'd check out a little of the District - after all, having lived in Ankara and visited Tbilisi, Reykjavik, and Copenhagen it made sense to get a taste of my own nation's capital. The problem is that Dulles is a long way from the capital. It was after eleven when i got off the metro, and exhausted and hungry decided to forego the usual sights in favor of a neighborhood where i knew i'd find restaurants - Chinatown.

L'Enfant Plaza metro station

Thus it is that i have only fleeting impressions of Washington D.C., impressions not of grand monuments or museums but of the flavor of city life. It struck me as a coldly concrete town, where like New York the public architecture - of subways and such - made the individual feel small and perhaps even oppressed by its cavernous spaces. "Gaurdian Angel" security volunteers roamed the subways, and i found myself connecting with "1984" in rather disturbing ways. When, after midnight, i caught up with Efe and his roommate, they told me my impressions weren't far from daily reality. People here are overscheduled and impersonal, they said, agreeing with my observations that D.C. has none of the panache of New York to temper impersonal bustle; suggesting that corporate and government IDs were worn as status symbols. Yeah, i got clearance.

The oddest of threads in a traveler's life are the people you can count on meeting in a different city every time. I'd met Efe in Boston; we met a second time over coffee in Istanbul. This time he had a bottle of sweet-tea-flavored vodka, which he found disgusting, and which we proceeded to drain. It was a treat to reconnect with Turkish culture through his company, until i dizzily climbed into a cab around 5 AM. The driver, a fellow from Tunisia, was listening to recited suras - and thus we launched into a discussion of Islam and its role in history and dispersal around the globe.

As i waited in the terminal at Reagan airport, my face was falling into breakfast. I sleepwalked onto the plane and discovered that there's a perk to getting the wing seat. With two empty seats beside mine, i lay across all three; Phoenix was just a nap away.

20 November, 2010

In flight

It was the same airport, five years ago. Mom's cousin in Maryland invited me to spend New Years with him - a week of Canada goose hunting and also volunteering with a managed deer hunt in the park where he worked as a ranger. I'd been aloft twice before, in Cessnas and seaplanes, and even sat once in the cockpit of an F-15 - but December 31, 2005 was my first time aboard a commercial jet. As i stared down at Manchester cul-de-sacs etched like bark-beetle galleries into the skin of earth, i tried to reconcile ecological sensitivities with being borne aloft on petroleum-powered wings.

Curious birds,
staring down a long stretch of asphalt -
how can i curse them
having known the joy of flight?

Now i'm in Manchester again. As one of the attendants mimes the routine, i remember the short hop from Anchorage to Kenai aboard a De Havilland. The attractive young Russian attendant didn't even try to make herself heard over deafening propeller noise; the other passengers were all seasoned, rough-edged men who'd seen the same seatbelt-fastening act a hundred times.

Sometimes the safety instructions become tiring, repetitious. Always put on your own mask before assisting the person next to you. I've heard them - or more likely tuned them - out eleven times so far this year. But just when i start to think, "been there, done that", i remember the reason they're repeated on Every. Single. Flight. There might be a "virgin" on board. I imagine what she's experiencing as the wheels lift off the ground, as setting sun glints off greying shreds of cloud below and cities emerge, a Lite-Brite scatterplot against the black construction-paper earth.

Until this month, i envied travelers lucky enough to experience a Flight of Perpetual Sunset, as the aircraft's speed more or less matches earth's rotational speed, hugging the terminator between day and night. During our year of correspondence, once pen-pal Daniel, an Israeli studying medicine in Latvia, wrote me from Chicago. The flight there had reminded him of St. Exuperey's "The Little Prince" - as in, it made him think of a the lamplighter's planet, which the Little Prince was very sad to leave because on it he could see one thousand, four hundred and forty sunsets every day.

Of course, there are other memorable moments for the frequent flier. When the co-pilot announces we have a medical situation on board, i wonder how this will play out. My seatmate, oddly enough, is an off-duty flight attendant on her way to Charlotte to crew another flight. When i ask if she has stories, she just laughs and nods.

On the second leg of the return trip from Copenhagen just three weeks ago, the flight crew asked if anyone on board spoke Arabic. I could feel passengers around me grow apprehensive, as did i until i remembered seeing an elderly Lebanese(?) woman board. There was no reason to worry, and the sun remained just below the horizon until the towers of Boston glowed against an apricot sky. That perpetual sunset was just another thing to remind me of a long-lost friend.

Flight 3293 to Charlotte is not so lucky. A mid-flight medical emergency not only lands us at Washington Dulles, 50 minutes flight short of the regional hub, but it depletes the aircraft's oxygen cylinders just below the required psi for flight. Taking on extra fuel and getting the oxygen cylinders serviced grounds us just long enough to miss the last CLT-PHX departure of the night. The best i can do to reschedule is a 7 AM departure from either Charlotte or Washington DC.

There's an upside, you know. I have a friend in DC i've been wanting to visit, and i'd actually been wishing there was a DC layover for more than an hour. Wish, serendipitously, granted. On a Saturday night, no less.

06 November, 2010

Still catching up...

If you're a regular reader, i apologize for not having kept up in the past two weeks. Between enjoying Copenhagen and shuttling back and forth to Malmo four days, losing my laptop (and luckily getting it back!), then returning and settling in to home once more, it's been difficult to write. I hope to fill things out from my notes within a couple days.

03 November, 2010

And even at home, the journey continues...

As we walked Copenhagen the morning before my flight, Torbjorn asked how it felt to be returning home for a second time this year… and i really couldn't tell him. In Turkiye we'd discussed the contrasts between life at home and abroad, the different opportunity spaces we found in a different culture, yet this time was different. Whether spurred by deeper confidence as a traveler or by a genuine uprooting from the sense of home (shuffling back and forth among my father's house and the cheapest possible apartments), i couldn't predict what i'd feel. Another friend put it this way in an email: 

I began to think that, after the liberty and freedom of the past two and one-half weeks, being in the village of Newburgh with NO public transport or coffee shop for that matter, how confined (trapped?) you must be feeling.

Yet as the plane descended, and the Boston skyline shone against an apricot sky - one that reminded me of a childhood postcard - i felt a wash of gratitude. Truth is, for the moment i'm quite happy to be surrounded by the familiar. Coming back to Maine i felt a certain sense of relief, the sense that i'd not have to feel a linguistic outsider. It was cold - but this morning the sun, which i had hardly seen in two weeks, shone bright through bare maple boughs, straight into my bedroom.

It's hunting season, and as i clean clotted leaves and pine needles off Dad's roof i can hear the report of a distant rifle. There's one in the closet - but as much as i want to, i'll never be a deer hunter. As much as i yearn that particular familiarity with the forest, my capacity is one for music and prose instead. Hearing shots i think back to security guards i saw in Kurdistan, to the ethnic tension in Malmo - the police apprehended the prime suspect in October's shootings, by the way - yet there's no real comparison to draw as far as safety goes; only the sense of home, the pleasure of raking leaves out of the perennial beds, smelling the catmint, knowing the heuchera and wild geranium and Canada anemones will be there next spring in all the familiar spots, nibbling some parsley from the kitchen garden. There is a great peace to it, though no better than the peace of remaining calm and grounded in the bustle of a million people; a sense of home, though for a traveler that sense winds vine-like through life, too easily uprooted to cling to. 

One more for København

Just how bike-friendly is Sweden?

Here's the picture...

one small fraction of the bicycle parking at Malmö Central Station.

01 November, 2010

Eating kebab in Malmo

Longtime readers of the blog may remember me mentioning Torbjörn, a Swedish dormitory-mate who became a close friend. When in June we parted, i knew i'd see him again someday, despite an ocean between us - but i had no idea i'd see him again so soon. Torbjörn studies at Malmö University in southern Skåne province, which happens to be forty minutes from Copenhagen; trains cross the Øresund, bridging the two cities, thrice each hour. 

on the city bus at 6 AM: Mr. T after a night of dancing

In Odense, Kolding, and Copenhagen i'd hunted up places to eat falafel and shawarma (another name for kebap), a task not that difficult. Middle-eastern food is to Scandinavia what Mexican cuisine is to the USA: immigrant food become an inexpensive, fast-food staple, and often served alongside pizza and burgers. In an Odense kebab-and-pizza shop i chatted halting Turkish, while in Kolding the Iraqi youth who served me grasped English barely enough to communicate. (Not bad, considering it would be at least his third language; i find it ironic when monolingual Americans expect US immigrants to "speak g-ddamn English!" and inspiring when i meet young, perhaps even foreign-born EU service-sector employees fluent in four or more tongues.)

What does kebab have to do with Torbjörn, though? Well, my friend's academic field is international migration, and there could be no better place to observe the challenges of the ensuing integration than Malmö. This industrial city, third-largest in Sweden, swelled with labor immigrants from Europe between the second world war and 1973, then after a year thanks to Sweden's sympathetic policies, family reunification brought a second wave. A third accompanied 1990s ethnic violence in the Balkans and more recent conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan combined with more open borders within Europe, and today in Malmö's Rosengard neighborhood one can hear many different languages. Of the 270,000 people in Malmö, 34% are foreign born; within Rosengard, 86%. 

Today, however, Rosengard's ethnic diversity stands as a question: do Swedes embrace multiculturalism as a value only from a distance? To what extent have ethnic minorities become a collective "them" to the "us" of Swedish society, and vice versa? Similar questions have arisen across Øresund, where in the past week, Danish officials unveiled an ambitious plan to rehabilitate 'ghetto' neighborhoods with "no connection to the surrounding society". In both countries, nationalist parties - Folketing and Sweden Democrats - have found popular support swell along with anti-immigrant sentiments. This BBC article describes the situation in 2006, but as tensions swell, Malmö has seen a spate of riots and (ethnically motivated?) violence, with eighteen shootings, one fatal, targeting immigrants in the past year. Seven, according to the Copenhagen Post, occurred in October alone. 

That unrest is fueled by several interacting factors, many of which collectively contribute to Rosengard's high unemployment rate: language barriers, an absence of social capital (in particular social networks). Since much of the hiring in Sweden proceeds through informal contact, immigrants who know no one in the Swedish labor system have difficulty finding work. Even highly educated individuals from, say, Iran, lack the Sweden-specific education employers seek; for others, previous work references may be difficult to check into. Discrimination plays a small role, as people who assume Swedish-sounding surnames have shown increased likelihood of employment. Torbjorn points out that the third wave of immigration came largely from non-western cultures, suggesting this widened the gap between immigrant and Swedish values and introduced more fear and paranoia to the mix. "No one cared about Islam," he told me, "as long as it came from Bosnia or Kosovo, and not from arab states or Somalia."

Perhaps i was on edge, or perhaps their really was a tension in the air. When i snapped a photograph of a pizza shop (to illustrate the signage in multiple languages), the owner emerged and reprimanded me. Rosengard has, to some, become a case study in the failure of multiculturalism, and maybe he didn't want his business being associated with the place's negative image. 

As i try to make one argument or another, i am left mute. I don't know enough about the place, though i wish i lived in this festering ground of Otherness, wish i could understand and help to bridge the cultural chasms that form when parallel societies, insulated from each other, emerge unable to dialogue. Torbjorn tells me the citizens have worked to increase integration, but their efforts are often unnoticed by media outlets. "If you hear only bad news of an area, you start to think it is true, which also affects the people who live there." One wonders how many moments of tolerance, how much common ground is overshadowed by a single violent act. 

29 October, 2010

Bread wheat in Denmark, days 4 and 5

backdate: 28-29 October

The night in Kolding was a good break, offering just enough time to use a gym and forage up some kebab before everything closed at ten. In the morning, it was back to Sjaelland, to visit Bregentvedgaard.

Windy in the field, it was in the shelter of Bregentvedgaard's barns that we at last saw the grain itself. At several mills, we'd heard excited talk of some unique grains - distributed and built up by a network including Aurion, Anders Borgen, and farmer Per Grupe. There was a unique tall "midsummer" rye, which despite low yields resisted disease and lodging and had small kernels with excellent flavor. Farmer Carsten Hvelplund also showed us a wheat cultivar from southern Sweden. Each of these grains had a story, and it was these cultivars that held the most interest to them in terms of specialty grains to join emmer, spelt, and barley among their rotations. The following morning, at Per Grupe's farm, we got to taste that midsummer rye sprouted.

The Friday grand finale of our trip was a corporate cafeteria - or, as they say here, kantin - in Hillerød, on the capital's outskirts. For this kantin, utilized by roughly 700 of the 3500 employees at Danish pension firm ATP, a team of chefs create a lunch menu and thrice-weekly take home dinner options using 60-90% certified organic - and mostly local - ingredients.

Using flour from Skærtoft Mølle and others, and largely inspired by Jøm Larsen of Aurion and the head chef of Copenhagen's world-renowned restaurant Noma, bakers Helge, Peter, and Jamie create artisan breads. Over a truly delicious lunch, we discussed the way chefs, creating a wider and shifting variety of menu item on a daily basis, may have more latitude than even artisan bakers when it comes to using local flours (which typically have more variation in quality than flours produced in prime wheat-growing regions).

Northern New England Local Bread Wheat - Denmark exchange participants

In sum, we discovered that while Denmark's organic bread wheat producers face slightly different agronomic and disease pressure challenges, they are perhaps not as far ahead of New England as we'd thought. There were plenty of things we didn't expect to learn, which we did, and other questions that remain unanswered, but after thirteen stops in four-and-a-half days, it was a relief to drop off the rental cars, and go our separate ways, settling in to Copenhagen for the night.


farmer Carsten Hvelplund shows this year's crop of Ullands wheat
photo courtesy Ellen Mallory

Bread wheat in Denmark, day 3

backdate: 27 October

On day 3, Skærtoft Mølle provided another sort of exemplar, this time of the value of competencies and connections in other fields. Its husband-and-wife proprietors began farming in the 1980s; along the way he picked up an MBA and is now involved in a business school, while she is a television and magazine journalist. In their absence, their daughter Marie, who holds an agronomy degree, presented us the company's history over - once again - coffee and bread. Unlike some producers, who have difficulty even approaching retail chains about their product, the Skærtoft trio approached a Danish chain with only a product concept and reached an agreement for its launch. Like another we visited, they had also published their own bread book.

Skærtoft's connections, and their attention to graphic design in the packaging - in search of a look that was neither "brown paper with a white label" nor boldly-colored idealized depiction of an organic farming more myth than reality - earned them a Danish design award. It was one thing to hear this, and quite another to see the name "Skærtoft Mølle", among a dozen larger corporations, on a banner hanging from the Dansk Design Center in Copenhagen. (If you're at all interested in product design and marketing, i highly recommend checking out the Skærtoft website.)

Despite their vast differences in character, one thing all these mills shared was an emphatic belief that stone mills create superior flour. Low speed and thus cooler temperature, they told us, preserves nutrients and flavor in the flour. At Aurion, Jøm told us that when measured, his wheat flour had twice the vitamin E content of conventionally milled wheat flours. This focus on stone and cold spoke volumes to our New England millers, who likened the concept to the health value of cold-pressed oils, an as-yet-untapped way of differentiating their product from roller-mill flours. 

Bread wheat in Denmark, day 2

backdate: 26 October

Agronomist Anders Borgen was instrumental in creating our itinerary, and thanks to a change of plans we got to spend some time with him after our morning visit to Foulum research center. In a backyard garden plot saturated with common bunt (Tilletia tritici) inoculum, Anders is selecting about 200 heirloom wheat varieties for disease resistance.

Because of bunt infection patterns, he tells us, commercial varieties must have "vertical resistance", that is, qualitative resistance based on a single gene (either they die or they don't, and only those that don't are considered fit for cultivation) - as opposed to horizontal resistance, a multiple-gene-controlled, quantitative response to infection. While horizontal resistance means plants will tolerate infection (not die), vertical resistance is easily toppled by pathogen mutations (i.e. more sensitive to natural selection), so Anders strives to select varieties which have both, creating "pyramidal resistance". If bunt can't kill plant, it can't select for susceptibility. Not sure if that explanation makes sense - but it's as simple as i can offer, and writing it clarified plant pathology concepts i didn't quite grasp as an undergrad.

It's rare to meet a man who takes such pleasure in his work as Anders. Which is to say that while explaining the breeding and selection projects, and later indoors excitedly showing us blue and purple wheat and unusual varieties of malting barley, he spoke with a sort of glee, laughing like a kid when he was excited about something.

That kind of passion has a quieter, but no less thorough manifestation in Jøm Larsen, director of Aurion bakery and mill. Our most northerly stop, in Hjørring, Aurion spoke to original 'back to the land' values. Milling biodynamic- and organic-certified grain since 1980, Jøm's work is driven by a passion for the living grain, and an ethic of fair, stable prices to producers (higher in low markets, though lower in high ones). It would be naive to say that Aurion's values trumped market savvy, for like the rest it had a well-developed niche and line of value-added products, in this case chocolate. The breads, though, spoke for themselves.

Since car trouble struck our caravan, we'd arrived in Hjørring late, and it was well into the evening when our talk and tour were finished. Jøm ushered us back to the meeting room with its long table, and passed around several breads - there was a rye risen for two days and baked at low temperature over night, among others, by far the best breads we tasted in Denmark. Then his wife Inger surprised us with two casseroles, an egg-and-celeriac dish and a root vegetable bake. It was modest fare, stretched among nearly two dozen, but we shared it all around and were enveloped in a welcoming warmth. It was very late when we arrived once again at Kalø.

Bread wheat in Denmark, day 1

backdate: 25 October

No matter how much practice i get explaining this to people, it's still a challenge to state simply. A group of researchers, farmers, millers, and bakers go to Denmark to observe the organic bread wheat production system, and i'm their videographer. What that implies, besides a free plane ticket to København, is five days of touring. The first two were pretty grueling, but by day four the schedule has relaxed and, with seven stops behind us there's time to look back and begin sorting out what we've learned. 


From København we headed first to Viskingegård, where what began as a conventional pig farm has recently blossomed into an organic grain operation. (If you ever wondered where Danish ham comes from,  Sjælland in eastern Denmark is a center of "factory" pig production.) Milling at Viskingegård seems well-funded by owner Nils Mejnertson's other business ventures; the three-story mill, though home-built and pieced together with what he'd learned from others, was fully automated. 

Agricultural land in Denmark, we learned, is both valuable and difficult to obtain. In part because of restrictions on manure, pig farmers buy land as soon as it's available; they need larger tracts on which to spread their nitrogen-rich manure slurry to remain within legal per-hectare annual N limits. Under Danish and EU organic standards, farmers are allowed to import manure slurry from conventional pig production - but the farmers we talked to explained that many organic producers have agreed to phase out the use of 'conventional' manure. While this may present them with challenges, depriving "pig factories" of easy outlets for manure may force changes in their operations.

Across Storebæltsbroen (the Great Belt Bridge connecting Sjælland and Funen) we headed to the village of Ringe. There, hand-operated Kragegaarden mill offered a sharp contrast to automated Viskingegård. The machinery filling one low-ceilinged room of Kristian Anderson's small-scale operation was crafted largely of wood, loaded and unloaded by hand in small batches.

At Kragegaarden; photo courtesy Ellen Mallory

After a late supper in Odense it was a long drive north to Kalø. Forty minutes northeast of Århus, we were housed in student dormitories along with a handful of international students learning Danish. I'd write more about the school, which trains youth for organic farming certification - but you can learn just as much by visiting Kalø online.

27 October, 2010

The "Wheaties" do Denmark.... a prologue

There's been strangely little chance to collect my thoughts on these long days of riding from farm to farm and filming the learning process. I find myself struggling for a decent title to describe the week, something more fluid than "Travelling the Danish bread wheat system with researchers, farmers, and millers from New England". The above title is what i've got. And that's all you'll get - for now, at least. I'll be trying to synthesize the experience at our thirteen stops into a quick written overview, in part a practical exercise to get my head around the task of editing over ten hours of video that resembles "found footage" more than it makes a coherent narrative. But until i watch some of that footage, the experience remains a mental soup, a hodgepodge of characters, impressions, agronomic details, and places whizzing past at 110km/h - and all the still photos are on other people's digital cameras.

So this is what i can write for now, from a hotel in Gentofte. Meanwhile, if you can think of a better title, i'm all ears.

The next few posts describe our travels through Denmark, and you can also watched the finished "Local Bread Wheat in Denmark" videos

26 October, 2010

Quick update from Århus, Denmark

Arrived, couchsurfed/slept, spent all night in a dance bar, slept, met up with the Local Bread Wheat project group, and now i've traveled from København to Århus in one whirlwind day of organic farm and grain mill visits and long hours in the backseat of a cramped Fiat. Finally added pictures to the last few posts, but it's looking like a journal of the coming week's travel throughout all of Denmark will have to wait until trip's end.

23 October, 2010

One more for Reykjavik …

As Thor said, Reykjavik is a compact place - and yet, that compactness makes even short distances feel long. Interface with the extensive public bus system (stræto.is) at central station Hlemmur. Each ride costs 280kr, so if there's a chance you'll catch the bus just three times in a day, the 600kr day pass is a big saver. Just 50kr gets you a booklet with details on all routes, well worth its price.

My destination was Arbæjarþrek, one of the gyms i had found in an online review of the local fitness options. Fylkisvegur 6 turned out to be twenty minutes or more from the city center, and that online review was a bit out of date (day pass now cost 900kr rather than 700), but the trip was worth it for a basic, well-stocked gym. As i headed out, friendly Ingi at the front desk struck up a conversation, curious about my travels. I explained the hit-or-miss CouchSurfing lifestyle and told him about the work i do. "Give me a mail if you're in town again," he said. "I might have a couch for you."


In the evening Thor and i met up for a trip to the pools. (Thanks to him, i learned that 2500kr buys a pass for ten visits good at all the pools in Reykjavik.) It was late enough that the only one open would be Laugardalslaug, the big pool. Though this one's a little cooler, the pool and hot tubs filled the night air with steam. The expansive, arcing hot tub is punctuated with smooth rocks, and theres a lip at the edge you can lay your head back on.

As we soak, we talk a bit about the pervasively bilingual atmosphere here. I read somewhere that Iceland (pop. 300,000) has the highest rate of book publishing per capita of any nation - and that this is attributable partly to efforts to conserve the Icelandic language. Being multilingual is to Thor an advantage, but he also observes the precarious position of languages like Islenska, Gaelic, and other minor tongues. We talked for a while about the alphabetic and phonetic sides of language - and how Icelanders dropped c, q, x, and z, but still have 32 letters in their alphabet.

He explains that Icelanders speak English so well because it's all around them in film and television. While in most European nations American entertainment is dubbed, in Iceland there are only subtitles. Despite the people all around me speaking Islenska, i hear numerous Icelanders speaking excellent American English, and almost all important signage and public information is bilingual. A male voice crackles through the speakers letting us know the pool is now closed, first in Icelandic, then English. "He didn't say in English about the edge being slippery," Thor commented.

On our way back from the pool to the city center, my companion pointed skyward, where ghostly curtains of white shifted overhead. Though it is, in forecast terms, very quiet auroral activity, and despite light pollution, you could still see it. I chuckled silently, thinking of all those people who've paid for the northern lights tour and not seen an aurora. Better to hang out with a local, get a taste of the local pastimes - drinking beer and enjoying the cheap public pools - and glimpse the aurora by chance, all the more haunting as it surprises you on a late night walk home.

It's 1:30 now, and CouchSurfing here was an epic fail. Thank goodness for the boisterous Reykjavik nightlife; Bankarstræti is one throb of club music after another. With the pack i won't get into trendy Austur - but i can find someplace to dance myself awake until my flight departs at five AM.

Reykjavik triptych

Human geographies

This post is brought to you by the letter "þ" (th).

About sixty kilometers from Reykjavik lies Alþingi. After hearing it referred to as "the Icelandic parliament" more than once, i had rather naively expected Alþingi to be a built structure. It is, in fact, a place in the rift valley of Þingvellir National Park, where the American and European plates meet, a place where from CE 930-1290 Iceland's chiefs met around the Law Rock. Interpretive signs around it - a UNESCO World Heritage site - explain the tenth-century goings on, and also display photographs of the 1944 declaration of Independence (from then-Nazi-occupied Denmark) at this same location.

From Þingvellir we head past Reykjavik to Grindavik and the famous Blue Lagoon. It's another case of "wish i had a guidebook": the Blue Lagoon is, unlike the public thermal pools all around Reykjavik, an expensive spa. Award for taking the effluent from geothermal energy production and charging people lots of money to swim in it. Without debate we decide 28 euros is too much to pay for admission to something resembling blue gatorade, whatever its benefits to the integument. Instead, we find the indoor pool in downtown Reykjavik. That's what locals call Sundhöllin - the indoor pool - since the others are all outdoors. Admission is a much more affordable 350kr.

Standing waist-deep in 42C water, Felicia and i look out over red Reykjavik rooftops and steeples. The last trees were losing their leaves; mountain ash still had some berries. Four days in Iceland, and this is the first thing that feels real, that feels like i've actually touched one of the unique things about this place. Geysir is a showpiece, but to Icelanders, the swimming pools are a way of life. Friends meet and socialize in the hot tubs - at the indoor pool, on this second-story balcony - as steam rises into the October air.

Relaxed and at long last warmed, we go in search of other needs. Where in Reykjavik can one find coffee, wi-fi, and an affordable bowl of soup? We asked tourist information people and passersby to no avail - until, after settling for falafel and the Reykjavik City Library wifi, we found exactly what we had wanted at friendly (and recently opened) Caffe Rót.

After a ramblesome two days together, i parted ways with Devon and Felicia and headed uptown to meet another couchsurfer - this time, a native. Over an Icelandic microbrew at Ölstofan, Thor shared his experiences of family and place. A student of geography, he finds himself drawn most strongly to the emerging discipline of human geography, to narratives of migration and the reasons people choose particular places. As we walk through Reykjavik together, we see a brilliant beam of light rising vertically from nearby Viðey Island. Dedicated to her late husband, Yoko Ono's peace tower is another one of those things the tourist economy packages and sells - as "Imagine Peace" tours to the tower's base, complete with Lennon's music and foods made from his favorite ingredients. Really, it's better seen as the locals see it, a distant beam shining to the sky. The luminous "tower" rises from Lennon's birthdate in October to December 8, his death date. "They shut it off just before Christmas," Thor tells me, "which is sad, because that's when you need it."

It's a fairly long cold walk to the HI City Hostel, but that's the cheapest place around. The night-shift worker, a Peruvian named Marcelita, checks me in to a mostly-empty dorm room and asks if i'm hungry. "There was a misunderstanding this morning," she says, handing me two sandwiches. "We made too many lunch bags." Once again, i feel led, i feel blessed.

Intimate Icelandscapes

Above: along the path to Gulfoss; below: steam rising from the 200C hot springs at Geysir condenses and freezes on the nearby grass. 

Iceland: it's hell, frozen over.

Vik is the southernmost town in Iceland. By car, a little over three hours from Reykjavik. Stand in one place by the shore and turn around. At first glance, there is little to see, and yet i'm glad we came here. The lack of "things to see" is in itself striking; Vik isn't much of a "destination", and perhaps that accentuates just how far we've journeyed. We didn't expect to find anything here. The lone convenience store/bar/grill has a steady trickle of business; at roughly 3,000kr per person/night, the hostel is more than we want to spend.

Felicia and Devon and i walk a black-gravel path toward the shore, where a series of rock pinnacles rise from the water. Like the gravel path, the sand is dark, volcanic in origin. For a brief and exciting moment, we consider taking Route 1 all the way around, just to say we did it. The lunacy is summarily dismissed. We pile back into the Volvo and head for Gulfoss, Iceland's largest waterfall, as early dusk blots out the landscape.


As one drives east, the moonscape of Reykjanes peninsula is gradually replaced by a narrow swath of green. First you see moss for a few kilometers, and slowly grass begins to dominate the landscape.
Anywhere else they'd be called ponies, but by some trick of marketing here in Iceland, they're "horses" - graze hummocky ground. Kilometers slip past. Partway to Vik, Seljalandsfoss drops from a low mountain's edge. Now-dormant volcano Eyjafjallajökull is not far away.

Just north of Fluðir we turn around. At eight, the town's long ago rolled up for the night. We drive back to a desolate little turn-off with a lone picnic table, fold down the seats and climb into the back. Felicia and Devon teach me a card game with their world-traveled one-sudoku-side playing cards, and we extinguish a small bottle of Jameson bought at the duty free. Tired and pleasantly buzzed, a towel stuffed into the tailgate draft, we make a human sandwich between cold metal wheel wells. Barely covered by our jackets and my sleeping bag, it's a chittery, interrupted night running the car every couple hours to keep it warm. Before dawn we drive the rest of the way to Gulfoss and half-sleep through sunrise in the parking lot.

Iceland's largest waterfall is no Niagara, though it has a certain beauty to it. The gift shop next to it is just opening for the morning, so we walk the path to the falls with coffee in freezing hands. I take the stairs down to get a closer look, but the last hundred meters of the path are a sloping sheet of ice. Mist thrown from the falls hits my jacket like sleet, turning the grass twenty meters below into a jagged crystal field, and i wonder if hands can be colder than this.

Less than twenty kilometers away is the next tourist trap, Geysir, and its requisite gift shop. Now dormant, the periodic eruptions of this phenomenon are of etymological as well as geological interest - for it was this site that gave us the term "geyser". Thankfully, the geothermal activity that caused Geysir produced a number of smaller geysers around it, of which only one (Strokkur) is currently active. It's only about thirty meters tall, but the plume of steaming water erupts roughly every seven to ten minutes (a higher frequency than the larger Steamboat and Old Faithful geysers in the U.S.A). Besides, this one is (almost) the original.

We leave the sulfur-scented field of steaming, salt-edged holes as two scientists unload gear to sample sulfur and arsenic species along a spatial gradient from the subterranean water sources. Tour buses begin pulling up.

As we trace in our own, haphazard way the route tour promoters call the "Golden Circle", i reflect on a few paragraphs of Fromm's "To have or to be?". How we accumulate the places we've been, as memories, as images, building along with our self-identity a marketable image of being well-traveled, building with our images a sense of where we've been, a world-picture, accurate or otherwise. In publishing these experiences i too am participant in the creation of world-picture, i generate and perpetuate the very modes of existence i question. It makes me wonder where that narrow line lies between being tourist and being a true traveler, a nomad. In a place like reykjavik, how does one actively choose to learn something, to be conversant with the place, versus being a passive consumer of packaged "attractions"? Against the sense of discovery that accompanied me throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, these over-promoted (and easily accessible) sites paled.

This photograph, and the next one, are to me the real Golden Circle, images that speak of the place itself:

Some things look better in images; sometimes frozen images and the place in real time are distinct and separate realities. At Geysir, i gradually stopped trying to 'capture' the phenomenon and began instead to experience it. Expectations - when i had them - seemed hollow, the Golden Circle not all that Golden. As one Geysir visitor, a fellow from Dorset, put it: "We went on a whale watch, didn't see any whales. Took the northern lights tour, didn't see any northern lights. This is the first thing in Iceland that's not a con."

"Well, that wasn't completely honest," he added after a minute. "We did see some whale. On a skewer."

The title of this post? A stab at marketing slogan that would never quite cut it.

The CS underground

There's a certain soft, low-angle light here in Iceland that photographers prize. CouchSurfing here, though, you may come to see subtle differences in the CS experience in a harsh and unforgiving light. Unlike, say, Turkiye, where the travel is cheap and hosts often seek English-speaking guests with whom to converse, Reykjavik's hosts operate within the oddly charged environment of a tourism-driven economy, and they are not immune to becoming a part of that economy. Living in a popular travel destination that strains backpacker budgets, locals willing to host are often overbooked, and some (ethically or otherwise) use the CS network for economic gain.

When several requests went without reply, i found myself at the modest home of one S, whose name i will omit. With a houseful of children and others, S offered space for one night, before other surfers arrived. The surfing space was shared - the top bunk of the children's downstairs living space, cluttered with toys and a sea of piled clothing. S was positive, energetic, and extended space to those in need; however, she also advertised on her page that a private upstairs room was available at a cost. This action - advertising paid services on a CS page - flies in the face of the community's mission and policies. In her message with directions and phone, S informed me that she had cars available for rent. She also asked a favor: get a carton of Marlboro reds at the duty free, 4,000kr. We'll pay you back. (Several other surfers report the same request, leading one to wonder if S is using visitors to effectively smuggle in cigarettes in for resale.)

When i found sharing the cluttered children's space a bit uncomfortable, i was glad to have another local contact who generously allowed me to use his couch instead. Calling my only other CS option, a fellow in nearby Hafnafjorður, i found him out of town for the week. (New Zealander Josie writes, "I've heard so many similar CS stories from that island.")

Whatever her dealings and motivations, S was nonetheless helpful in connecting me with others in order to pool our resources. I met Devon and Felicia, a sweet young Canadian couple who had paid to use the upstairs room, and over coffee we discussed renting a car together. Since S was away at work, we inquired about a rental car to her partner(?) D, and only after fishing for information did we learn that it would be a two door car with one plastic-covered broken window, no heat, and broken radio. (S later informed my companions by email that there was "a misunderstanding" and this was not the car she intended to rent us.)

In response to a CS group post asking if other travelers want to share resources, another surfer had suggested i check out acr.is for affordable car rentals. ACR is a cottage industry for Reykjavik's CS emergency contact and group moderator James. James seemed a square-dealing, accommodating fellow, though he had no good words about S. "This car," he said, "is registered as a rental car. Hers isn't." He continued to say that others who rented from S have broken down and been left to fend for themselves, or complained that they were manipulated into paying for her upstairs room when there was no place else to stay. Given the unevenness of our experience with S, we could neither confirm or deny these allegations.

James had driven to meet us in the Volvo wagon, advertised as the most expensive of his small fleet. But, informing us that the smaller cars were already taken, he verbally agreed to a discounted rate and dealt generously with us. In a way, we were lucky: the station wagon would save us money on lodging.

Summed up, my Reykjavik CS experience is this: some CS players know, and dislike each other; networks of allegiance and indirect advertising have arisen on the site. It makes perfect sense given the particular economic pressures and empty niches of this tourism-driven place. Those economic pressures and other factors lead to an unreliable and perhaps overexploited CouchSurfing resource; i desperately sought free or inexpensive lodging, turning to the hostel one night and staying awake the night before departure. By the third day, i had my own idea for a cottage industry geared to the CS demographic in high-traffic RVK - prepaid cellphone rentals. Yet even the idea raises questions for me, basic ethical matters about appropriate places and ways to advertise.

With unreliable results even in the off-season, CS in Iceland is perhaps best used as a forum to meet fellow travelers and pool resources. Which leads us, of course, to shared adventures.

Íslenska: a (rough) pronunciation guide

..compiled mostly from observation, so likely not 100% accurate. But close. 

Í = eye, as in Ísland (Iceland)
á = a rounded long a. Skál! (skoal, cheers)
ó = roof-of-palate as in "oar", as opposed to front-of-palate ö ("ew")
Normal o sounds like "phone". 

ý and i are mid-length vowel homophones, as in "it" - while
y  simply lengthens preceding vowels, making ey like bay, and
j   then sounds y, as in most Nordic tongues. Ja.
Put them together to make Reykjavik (rayk-ya-veek), which means "smoky bay".

æ is another of those long-vowels, subtly different from Í. You'll get it "straight" if you "tray".
Þ,þ are the capital and lower-case forms of "th"… and if you can master þose, 
Ð,ð are the toughest letter here. The sound is a stopped "th", close to "d". 

I almost forgot: like English, Íslenska has some combined-letter phonemes. So far i've encountered "fl", as in Keflavik; locals tell me that, when followed by "l", f is actually a stopped sound somewhere between b and p.  Thus KEF is actually Ke(bp)lavik AirportIf that's not enough fun for one lesson, "l" messes with other "l"s. So in Íslenska, that "ll" is actually "t'lh". Now you're ready to pronounce the name of Iceland's recently erupted volcano, the name plastered on souvenir t-shirts:


Have fun. 

18 October, 2010


"The best of small-town Norway with the best of small-town Nova Scotia, all together on the surface of the moon." That's how my friend Richard describes Iceland. Speaking solely on first impressions, i'd add that it has a distinct "outback" flavor to it - which is to say, the ethos of a place whose identity turns on remoteness and a rugged, iconic landscape. Rugged dirty-blond denizens tend to add to that impression. 

Island, as locals spell it, has a reputation for being expensive. What that means, in practical terms, is that the killer french toast i got at Prikið cost, with kaffi, 1100 krona (about US $11). Later in the day, when i'd grown hungry walking around the city and found myself on the corner of Burgerjoint street, a burger, fries and small soda - free refills - at Búllan ran 1390k (there are cheaper options elsewhere). At budget grocery chain Bónus (bright yellow sign with a pink pig), a box of Special K cost 698k, though domestic -say, cheese - prices were closer to what i'm used to.

That outback image, plastered everywhere thanks to Iceland's soft, photographic light, supports a burgeoning tourist industry - 13% of foreign currency earnings, second after fisheries with regard to international trade. This means information on shoestring travel is buried in a slowly-creeping glacier of tourism promotion and pricey inclusive bus excursions; as much as i'd like to check out Isafjórður or another place far afield, the brief domestic flights run around $200 round trip. The two fellows flipping burgers at Búllan gave me a couple pieces of information. Check out The Grapevine - the weekly local digest - and Bakkus has cheap beer until 11. 

One of the key differences between traveling in a place like Iceland with well-developed tourist sector and a place like Iraqi Kurdistan with none is the availability of cartographic information. In RVK, maps are everywhere. There are also thrift stores to be found among the expensive boutiques - i found the Salvation Army store on Gardastraeti - but even that proved pricier than home. Meanwhile, graffiti - like tourism promotion images - is everywhere, though it doesn't serve the marketing expression a sprawling photograph of fjords or dramatic geysir would. Abundant and (mostly) sanctioned murals convey in a different, perhaps more accurate way the cultural spirit of the place - one equal parts spirited and edgy.

As i savored the morning's french toast at Prikið, little did i know i the character-heavy eatery boasts being Iceland's oldest (it's on the sign out front). This town has its reputation for nightlife, and if the number of bars tucked among the boutiques and hotels didn't clue you in, the emptiness of its streets at 9 am on Monday might. For 2150kr, Prikið offers the "hangover killer": a Hangover sandwich, "Bruce Willis" shake with Jack Daniel's, and a painkiller tablet. (Here's the menu.)

I was more aware at Búllan, voted best burger in Reykjavik, where quirky music and film posters add to the place's eclectic decor, and a miniature disco ball spins overhead. I'd heard Reykjavik has a great music scene (alas, it was last week that 252 up-and-coming bands converged here for the Iceland Airwaves festival) but i wasn't prepared for how visible this music culture is. The eateries have serious speakers. As for how i stumble into these best-of places without a guidebook, good question. Like bargain wool sweaters at the Salvation Army, it's hit or miss. The latter was a definite miss. The Grapevine, though, turns out to be a useful resource - for example, this online review of the local gyms. The sort of information you're not necessarily going to get in a guidebook or from the tourist office. 

Harald, a German grad student i'd met online and spent the evening talking with, offered a trove of more such resources. For example, Samferda.net is a simple site for those seeking or offering long-distance rides - the hitchhiker's answer to couchsurfing. This is the way shoestring travel can take you far.