The following feature is technically a part of the Northwestern District report for this issue. All “technically” aside, the photos that accompanied the text simply had to be printed in full color, and thus we have transplanted the story to the feature section of the journal. The gods of journalism would have set us all out on an ice floe had we done anything else.
Everything about Iceland is extreme. Situated on a volatile ridge of the North Atlantic Ocean, this European island nation has just 317,000 hearty inhabitants. I had heard many stories about Iceland from Frida, our Rotary Exchange daughter. At her invitation, my husband, son, daughter, and I were excited to spend four days discovering the unique beauty of her country.
Flying into Keflavik Airport, the first thing I wonder is if we are going to need the Moon-Lander! The landscape is filled with craggy, snowcapped mountains stretching between barren flatlands covered with black lava. Wispy swirls of vapor rise into the air. The juxtaposition of harshness with beauty is mesmerizing.
Frida’s family resides in the world’s northernmost capital, Reykjavik, about 40 minutes east from the airport. As we drive, Frida, gesturing to the treeless terrain, explains that her people are attempting to re-establish all forms of plant life, but the arctic climate continually inhibits their efforts. We all chuckle at the punchline of her next joke. “If you get lost in the Icelandic National Forest, what should you do? Get up and have a look around.”
Travel, of course, comes with all sorts of special moments. This one made its presence known via the olfactory route. Sniffi ng the air, I look suspiciously around the car asthe unmistakable smell of rotten eggs becomes pervasive. With furtive looks, we start to accuse each other with our eyes. When the sulfuric air becomes impossible to ignore, Frida explains that Iceland’s powerful geothermal resources are used to heat all the buildings, producing free, abundant hot water for the entire country. Even the sidewalks are plumbed with underground pipes, making snow shoveling unnecessary! Frida is amused at our reactions, but proud of her country’s accomplishments in natural power.
Those Would Be the Other Vikings ...
In a true Viking tradition, Frida’s parents welcome us into their home with boiled potatoes, fl at bread, sheepblood-sausage, and fish. As an added delicacy, we are offered pickled rams’ testicles and hakarl, a fermented shark that has been buried in sand for several months. If you like ammonia, you’ll love hakarl. My husband graciously accepts while the kids and I politely decline.
Retiring to the living room, we find that Frida’s parents can communicate with some English, but we must helplessly look to Frida, who cheerfully does all the translating. Stifling yawns from a long travel day, we retire early, even though the summer’s 22 hours of daylight saturate the bedroom during most of our slumber.
Keeping Up With the Thingvallavatns
A steamy, hot shower, complete with sulfur smell, rejuvenates me for the morning’s adventure: a march up Mount Esja, a 3,000-foot mountain overlooking Reykjavik. The vigorous trek past fields of large, purple lupines takes us to a vista where Frida can point out the landmarks such as the Hofdi House, the location of the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev
Summit, and The Perlan (Pearl), a distinct black dome topping an upscale shopping area. Beyond the cityscape are seaports, coves, and islands stretching into the rolling ocean. This hike is a good distance for suffi cient exercise and is long enough to require a picnic lunch.
To sooth our aching muscles,later in the day Frida takes us to themost famous geothermal destination,Blue Lagoon, a natural, mineral-rich spa. White silica at the bottom of the
hot water pool has the reputation of healing some skin problems as well as revitalizing weary trekkers. We try to keep the jokes about the strong sulfur aromas to a minimum.
The next day we embark on the Golden Circle Tour. Frida drives us to the country’s largest lake, Thingvallavatn, and Thingvellin National Park, site of the world’s oldest Althingi parliament, dating from medieval 930 A.D. I try to imagine how the government of the Dark Ages must have operated. This entire area is situated on the continental tectonic plates of North America and Europe. The differences between these two shifting land masses, as evidenced by the black cliffs on the American side and the volcanic rock of the European portion, can be appreciated from this sinking rift. I snap a photo of my daughter standing in North America while holding hands with her brother in Europe!
Continuing down the road in Frida’s car, we are enthralled by a place called Geysir. Strolling past boiling mud pots that ooze red and rust tones onto a canvas-like earth, once again we whiff more sulfur from the thermal fi elds. The ground rumbles as a water hole bubbles, churns, gathers, and festers, just before belching 75 feet skyward, spewing vaporous steam. Strokkur Geysir repeats this riveting process every 15 minutes.
A short distance from the hot springs and cauldrons, the glacial melt from Gullfoss waterfall thunders down an immense chasm. Elusive sunlight shining on the misty spray creates a cheerful rainbow. Proceeding with extreme caution, we scramble down an unrestricted but slippery path into the ravine. Standing on a rock outcropping, it feels like the avalanche of water coming directly toward me will violently lift me from my boulder, when in actuality it falls under a precipice below me.
You Have to Be Born Here
On our return drive to Reykjavik, Frida explains two unique facts: First, Iceland preserves its heritage of patronymics by using the father’s last name rather than a surname. For example: Frida’s father’s name is Leif, so her lifelong name will be Frida Leifsdotter (Leif ’s daughter). If Leif has a boy named Eric, that child becomes Eric Leifsson. The mother, father, and child in each family unit have different last names! To add to the confusion, the phone book lists the residents by their first names! Then there is this second fascinating detail to life in Iceland: The two requirements for becoming a citizen are that you must be literate, and you must know how to swim.
Once back in the capital city, we try to purchase some souvenirs but are surprised to fi nd several shops posting a window sign stating, “Closed for the weather”. Because the typical grey Icelandic day includes either sideways rain or straight-down rain, some business owners spontaneously declare a holiday to take advantage of three continuous days of sun!
Though it is off the main travel circuit, Iceland, with its black sand beaches, midnight sun, and unpredictable volcanoes (like Eyjafjallajokull, which halted European airline traffic several times in 2010), is well worth the deviation to explore a most extreme, and most fascinating, island.
*Polly Keith Scotland is a 1973 graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Dental Hygiene and received her Bachelor of Science in 1974. She currently practices with her husband, Dr. Lee Scotland, in Bemidji, Minnesota. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org.