23 October, 2010

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.