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 Fylkisvegur 6 turned out to be twenty minutes or more from the city center, and that online review was a bit out of date (day pass now cost 900kr rather than 700), but the trip was worth it for a basic, well-stocked gym.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. 

17 October, 2010

New York, in 18 hours or less.

Thursday i worked from late afternoon until nearly two AM trying to finalize and export a video before the weekend's deadline. Friday night a Bangor contradance with Boston-based Nor'Easter, and late night food and networking at Dysarts Truck Stop. When i got home at two i still hadn't packed for the trip. Thank God i'd at least done laundry. 

Saturday morning dad roused me after about three hours of sleep - thankfully, he was driving south anyway. I snatched sleep on the Downeaster from Dover to Boston, and tried on the bus i hopped heading for New York. Without a couch to surf, or any cheap hostel options left, i had decided last-minute to meet a friend from Bilkent and spend all night clubbing. A toddler threw tantrums sporadically for the duration of the four hour ride, spending the last twenty minutes in what seemed like her death throes.

Akif was waiting at Penn Station when i arrived. A quick Subway ride to 17th street, where we danced until 5 am, then made for Times Square. When, on a Central Park bench about 8 AM i couldn't keep my head up, he offered his lap for a pillow and read short stories while i power-napped. Then it was off to the Lower East Side to meet another friend for bagels.  

When we all parted ways midafternoon, i settled into a pub and googled for Turkish restaurants. Turns out there are many in New York - scattered from top to bottom of Manhattan. The most promising budget-friendly option was within walking distance. Istanbul Grill, on 14th Street, was even better than i'd hoped. The lokanta (cafeteria-style) offered most kebabs from $6-7; a hot bowl of mercimek (lentil) soup just like i remembered and a bowl of sutlaç rounded out the meal on either end. And of course, the bottomless glass of black tea. For an hour i felt strangely at second-home. The host, a fellow named Şukru, seemed tickled when i walked in and just started speaking Turkish.

Over dinner, a Swiss traveler at the next table told me about the High Line, a retired section of elevated-train track that had been transformed into a mile-long promenade of gardens and art installations. Sunday afternoon was the perfect time for a visit; it was bustling with camera-toting New Yorkers. The plantings relied heavily (if not exclusively) on native perennials and grasses, with broad naturalistic sweeps of planting. Heuchera, Polygonum, and small birches fluttered in an October breeze.

Then it was time to head for the airport. Fellow traveler and journalist Wade Shepard left a great tip about getting to JFK airport from the subway system - without paying extra to change directly to the Air Train. Taking the Q10 bus from Lefferts Circle isn't exactly a shortcut, but it's worth saving $5. With one qualifications - beware the cabbies, if as i did you happen to dash down from the train just as the bus pulls away. 

"It's a Sunday," the cabbie said. "Won't be another bus for 45 minutes. And it's a 45 minute ride to the airport."

I was worried. I'd allowed more than three hours from leaving 14th Street to boarding the plane, but i couldn't afford that kind of wait. Still, i turned him down. "Gonna ask a question upstairs," i replied to his hounding. Sure enough, the MTA attendant said "i don't have the schedule in front of me, but they run about every ten minutes." So jtake the Q10, and beware dishonest cabbies. 

Waiting to board Icelandair 614, i tried to read, but literally dropped the book as sleep loosened my fingers. My seatmate was a horticulture journalist from Helsinki, but as soon as we reached altitude, my eyes clicked shut and stayed that way for the four? hours until descent began. I woke only enough to get through passport control, then napped away the 40-minute bus ride to Reykjavik too. 

The waitress pours a third cup of coffee. After four days of sleeping in intermittent less-than-three hour stints, Reykjavik at last wakes slowly around me. Sky wisped with pink and cream clouds, the sun rose low and late, softly painting massive hills across the "smoky bay" that gave this city its name.