Thursday, August 18, 2011

August 16 -- Traveling home

We got up in time to say goodbye to the half of our group on early flights, then worked on photos for the web and blog. At 10, we hiked to a mall to turn in our VAT refund paperwork and buy dinner for the plane. We discovered that the VAT station didn't open til 1, and we had to be on a bus by then, so we walked around and looked at stores. I especially enjoy home-oriented stores in other countries, and we found some interesting items.

I hate to think about the size of bug that this swatter is designed for.
Cubic watermelon -- probably quite the space saver for shipping!
 Our trip to the airport was quick and security was fast, so we had a bunch of time to kill there. The Duty Free store had more little bottles of wine and Bailey's cheap, so I bought a few beverages for the plane. Audrey came back from her wanderings and announced that she had found Magnum Bars!  Keep in mind that as we hiked the steep hills in Greenland, I thought of how I was walking off the excess Magnum Bars, and I had already resisted TWO purchasing opportunities in less than 24 hours. The third time, my resistance was down, so we got our last Icelandic Magnum Bar.

East Greenland from the plane -- you can see the glaciers and hills and pack ice.

This is West Greenland, south of Nuuk -- here it looks like the glaciers are melting into rivers. Closer to the sea, the ground appears to be a lot flatter.

The flights were full, but trouble-free except for one thing: the plane we were due to take out of Minneapolis was an hour late because of thunderstorms. On the plus side, it arrived, our luggage appeared quickly, and we got home only an hour later than planned. On the down side, our planned arrival at SFO was midnight, so with Erika and Jesse retrieving us from the airport and driving us to the car we had stored with them and THEN driving home, it was approaching 2:30 AM when we got here. BUT we did, and it sure feels good!

We had a wonderful trip and have posted the rest of the trip photos (ok, not all 1700...) in Picasa.  You can find the photos by clicking on the photos at the bottom of the page or clicking on this link: Picasa Photos

Time to start planning our next big trip! But first, 2 smaller ones: a couple days in Oceanside visiting my mom and daughter, and then a week in DC visiting Dan's family. 

August 15 -- Start the trip home

We had the morning to ourselves before our helicopter flight around 1pm to Kulusuk and our 2-hour flight back to Reykjavik. Tuesday we leave for San Francisco.

We decided to hike around the hills behind the hotel, rather than walk DOWN to the harbor because of the nasty walk back up again. We found a route down to the reservoir where we had seen the moon rise and then over to the remnants of a ski hill and a high point above town. After we checked out and stowed our luggage, we had time left, and I had $20 of Danish Kroner burning a hole in my pocket and no souvenir of Greenland, so we walked down the hill after all to the tourist shop we had visited yesterday. With fewer people there it was possible to find something reasonably priced. Everything in the $20 range was unappealing, but I did find a nice bone necklace of a ptarmigan for a bit more than that. I ended up getting 9DKK in change (darn!) and then noticed that the 3 coins (a 5 and 2-2s) were actually quite attractive and have holes in the middle. I kept them, with the idea of making a necklace and earrings when I get home.
At the reservoir behind the hotel
Tasiilaq from the top of the ski hill

This dog near our hotel got into a howling contest with a bunch of other dogs in the village below.
On our way back up we saw the garbage trucks and the 'honey bucket' collectors -- they just enter houses as needed and have keys if the doors are locked. We also saw a lot of items like strollers just left outside and think maybe its a society where nobody has a lot, and as a tightknit community, the worst that might happen is someone would borrow and return something vs. steal it. There are also no roads that connect communities -- the only way in or out is helicopter and boat in the summer and snow mobile or dog sled in the winter. Winter actually makes travel easier because many of the fjords freeze over.

When we got back, we learned that there was a delay in our flight to Reykjavik, which also delayed our helicopter. We were in the second group of travelers to Kulusuk. When we finally got to the heliport, we learned that the schedule was majorly munged up. Only 4 of the first 8 had been able to fit onto the first helicopter. Since there was only room for 9, that meant 3 of us were not going to make this flight. Lucky us, Jim and I and Joan were tagged to be it and instead took photos of our bird flying away without us. When the next one finally came, we got our pick of seats and it got filled with a bunch of German tourists. Joan ended up sharing a tight side seat with one and questioned their bathing habits. I got the window seat I wanted, next to Jim and was not affected. When we landed, our Reykjavik flight was still on the ground, but as soon as we got into the airport, we boarded within 5 minutes and left 30 minutes behind schedule, arriving only 15 minutes late.
There goes the 1pm chopper without us!
Back at the Hilton, we are getting ready for tomorrow's return home. Our flight is not til 4:30, so we leave here at 1. That should give us time to go to the supermarket in the local mall and pick out food for the flight. Icelandic Air is one of the few international flights that does not provide meals.... We are looking forward to getting home and doing laundry, but the trip has really flown by, and I can see why we shoot for 5 week trips when we can manage them.

August 14 – More of Tasiilaq

The sun woke us at 3:40 this morning, so we took a picture, pulled the drapes some and went back to sleep.

After breakfast, we took a walk into the hills near our hotel to an area euphemistically known as the Valley of Flowers. We had also heard it called the Valley of Bugs (potentially a lot of mosquitos and black flies here – bug nets for your face are quite popular). It was a very pleasant valley, which had quite an alpine look despite being close to sea level, and there were more flowers than in other areas. Mostly we saw more of the lovely periwinkle flowers called Hare Bells and some pink ones called River Daisies. There was also sort of a ball of teeny pink flowers called Thrift. I didn’t get a name for the 3rd type of pink flower, though it could have been just a variation on Thrift or River Daisies.
River Daisies
Hare Bells
We walked back into the hills to a series of lakes connected by small waterfalls. Snorri suggested we might want to walk all around the last lake and we hiked out to some boulders to investigate the options, but it seemed like the trail petered out about halfway around, so we stopped there and headed back to rejoin the group. On the way back, a puppy started following a local woman on the path sniffing at the bags she carried – presumably food. He didn’t pay much attention to us though – not carrying food, I guess.
The last of several small waterfalls

Jim at the third lake in the Valley of Flowers
After lunch we got a ride to a church near the center of town so that we could walk to the top of a hill with a stone cairn on top to get a view of the city.
Our group at the center/top of town, harbor behind. This village is Tasiilaq which means "the fjord that looks like a lake". It is by far the largest "city" in East Greenland.
Per (pronounced ‘pear’), a local man whose father is a Dane and mother is an Inuit, told us about the town and led us around a bit. According to Per, 80% of Greenland voters approved what he called the new contract with Denmark that grants Greenland more freedom, although there is still a huge dependence on the financial support of the Danes. This contract limits the amount that Denmark pays each year to support Greenlanders and grants mineral rights to Greenland. 

There is a theory that there is more oil here than in Saudi Arabia, and there are companies actively searching for it. When and if it is found, what to do about it will probably generate a lot of contention. Because most of Greenland is in the Arctic Circle, the first challenge is dealing with the weather. Secondly, there are serious environmental concerns, especially in the wake of the BP disaster in the gulf. If there were a spill, it would take much longer for nature to recover from it because of the cold. Thirdly, some people are concerned that if Greenlanders had a guaranteed annual payment from the oil, it would significantly dis-incent them to work and learn. There is also a problem in defining who is a Greenlander. Most of Europe does not use a birthright citizenship concept like the US, so people who were born here and whose parents are Danes would not necessarily be considered Greenlanders. Right now, Greenlanders who travel have Danish passports and the advantages of being in the European Union, even though Greenland is not in the Union.

Currently Denmark supports home building and rentals, education, health care, and apparently a number of municipal services for the Greenlanders. A person can rent an apartment or they can rent to own. Once they have paid in rent whatever the agreed to value of the house is, they own it. Typically this is paid over 30 years of renting. If they move out after 20 years, the next person only has to pay for 10 years to own the house. Or they can borrow or use savings to pay off the remainder before 30 years is up There is a waiting list for this plan that is currently 5 years long. When it was 15 years long, the Danish government offered a plan where people could pay 10% of a house value for a home foundation, and got instructions on how to build the rest of the house themselves. Once the waiting list was down to 5 years, this deal was withdrawn. Most houses today have running water, and some are on sewer systems. In the old section of town, however, most homes do not have running water and use rudimentary bathroom facilities (we saw one – a bucket with a wooden cover on it just outside the front door) which is emptied 3 times a week by a company here.

Children start school at age 6 and education is mandatory for 10 years – called elementary school. The schools in the East Greenland towns cover only the elementary education. After that is 3 years of Gymnasium. Kids here who choose to continue, are flown to boarding schools in Nuuk, the Greenland capitol on the other side of the island. Their housing, schooling, one trip home each year, and some spending money are provided by the Danish government. Language is a serious challenge. While all the Inuit languages are similar (Per says he could probably pick up Alaskan Inuit after living with them for a month – but he also appears to have good natural facility with language), the language in schools is West Greenlandic, not the dialect spoken here. School used to be taught in Danish, but that changed in 2009 with the new Danish contract. However, Gymnasium and college (only three majors are taught in Greenland, the rest in Denmark) are taught in Danish, which is taught here as a foreign language.

We walked to the local tourist facility, which is primarily a souvenir shop. There were a few interesting items, but many things were made with seal skin or bone and not something I was inclined to buy. The few things that were interesting were very expensive.
Home with fish drying along the roof line and a dog sled.
Next we walked to a local woman’s (Thomasina) home to learn about her life and have her demonstrate drum dancing, an old art that has nearly died out. She was born the same year I was, but obviously had a much harder life. Her first 11 years were spent in a traditional turf house in a neighboring village. This house was shared with other families. Her father died when she was 4, eliminating the primary food supply for her mother and 6 siblings. In this hunter society, the woman provided cooking and sewing while the man hunted and provided food and the seal skins that were used in sewing. When hunting was good, the other families shared their food and her mother supplemented the services provided by the wives in the home. When times were leaner, her family was the first to lose out.

When she was 11, her mother developed TB and moved to Tasiilaq for treatment, bringing her family with her. Thomasina attended school for 3 years during this time. She married a local teacher at 18 and had 7 children, 3 of whom are still alive. Her husband died in 2002 and she is currently living in her home with 3 of her grandchildren. She is reknown for her sewing, needlework and beading skills. Her home is elaborately decorated with many of her projects along with lots of family photos, as is typical. We were shown some of her work in creating the traditional Greenlandic costumes, which are worn on special occasions like confirmation, graduation, and Christmas church services. She  prepares the seal skins herself and is able  to create very white skins for the boots. She also does elaborate trimming of the boots for her granddaughters. It can take more than a year to create the beadwork and other decorations, so it is a guess as to how big to make things for growing children.
Thomasina (who speaks no English), tells Per her story for us.

Per shows us the seal skin boots Thomasina made -- these are for her granddaughter and are thigh high.

This is the elaborately beaded traditional top that goes with the boots and seal skin shorts, all of which Thomasina made.
After her husband died, she decided to learn drum dancing in his honor. He had enjoyed it, but previously, she had not been very involved. This was a traditional way of settling disputes which involved each party telling their side of the story alternately using a special drum dancing vocabulary and singing and drumming the tale. The winner of the dispute was evaluated by the community after listening to both sides. Interestingly, the Greenlanders do not drum on the stretched drum head (traditionally, polar bear stomach, but now, latex). Since she started studying and practicing drum dancing, she has become rather famous. She is one of the top ten drum dancers in Greenland and recently was invited to Denmark to demonstrate her skills.

After our visit, we hiked back up to the hotel for dinner and to prep for our trip home.

August 13 – Helicopter to Angmagssalik

We woke up ridiculously early to sunshine (no blackout curtains), but refused to get up until 6.
Time is 5:55 AM! This is the cove behind our hotel.

This is my new sweater and the turtleneck -- Icelandic wool is warm but scratchy, making the almost invisible turtleneck critical to comfort.
The water here is unbelievably clear.
After breakfast, we headed to the airport for our flight to Angmagssalik. The van and the helicopter both hold 7-8 people, and there are 15 of us with Snorri. We sent the first group off with the van when Snorri came out so he decided to walk over—it’s less than ¾ of a mile away—and Jim and Ron accompanied him. The van was back so fast that the rest of us got to the airport before the walkers. The chopper fits 2 on each side looking out and 5 in the center looking forward. Interestingly, our luggage was between us and the pilots secured in netting. Not quite like a tourist flight, but we had a great view of the fjords and pack ice along with a view of the village we just left.
Luggage between us and the pilots

Aerial view of Kap Dan

The pilot's view (sort of) of the ride.
Angmagssalik is an island with a few communities, and we are staying in Tasiilaq, a town of about 1,800 – nearly half of the 4,000 people who live in East Greenland (vs. 53,000 who live in West Greenland). This side of Greenland appears to be somewhat disenfranchised – there traditionally has been little contact between east and west, due to the huge ice cap between them, so the language is quite different. The culture here is more hunter-oriented, and school is taught in the western dialect, so kids are learning a new language along with everything else. Life is quite a bit harder here, with more Arctic pack ice along the coast and not enough greenery to support herds of any type, even reindeer. Our hotel is at the top of a hill that looks like our Rosemont street (very steep), only twice as long. I did wonder if cars were of any value in the winter. They must have to switch to snowmobiles and dog sleds. We have a wonderful view of the harbor and the village, though.
The harbor from our hotel room -- room looks exactly like the Kulusuk Hotel (same owners).

Our location is the circle, and pack ice flows from the arctic down the east of Greenland.
After lunch, we headed to the harbor for a boat ride. Since the only van is only suited for half the group, several of us decided to walk, and Jim and I definitely took the scenic route, which involved a few more uphill sections than it should have. I have to remember: “the hills are our friends, they make us strong…”!

Our boat ride was a 2-hour venture out of the harbor toward the ocean through the pack ice. Like kids looking at the clouds and seeing shapes, we looked at the ice bergs and saw whales, ducks, nudes, mushrooms, and sheep among others. I suspect we will look at some of our photos later and wonder what we were thinking of when we took them! We probably took nearly 100 ice pictures. Isn’t digital great???

The flat pieces are the pack ice, which is supposed to be gone by now. The tall chunks have calved off glaciers.

Glacial piece with a cave

After the boat ride, we visited the local museum and got a tour from the curator – he is a Dane who was born in the US and elected to come here 3 years ago. He offered an interesting perspective on the people here that was somewhat more generous than that of the Latvian guide yesterday.

I had been reading about early discoveries here in boats called “women’s boats” and wondered about the name – they are sealskin boats rowed by the women! The men use kayaks which are designed for seal and whale hunting. We also saw many highly decorated hunting tools because the people thought that animals would rather be killed by a beautiful weapon than a crude one. He said that seal is a main part of the diet here, and that seals abound. When well-meaning outsiders come along and castigate the locals for following these traditions, their lives are made worse. In the past, when seals were killed, their pelts brought funds to the family and they fed the village. Now, they still feed the village with seals, but the pelts have become unsellable, so an important source of income is gone and the skins are tossed out.

We walked back up the hill (pant, pant) for relaxation and dinner. Around 9:30 pm, Melinda came to tell us the full moon had been sighted so we rushed out to catch a glimpse of it. We spent about a half hour wandering around the hills behind the hotel to photograph the moon from various points of view. In some places, you could see its reflection in the reservoir below us and on the ice pack behind the ring of hills. Quite magical!

August 12 – Arrival in Kulusuk, Greenland

We got to sleep in today, although we woke up before the alarm again. Something about forgetting to close the drapes and having sun stream in by 4am! At breakfast, we ran into a couple we had met on our Adriatic cruise last January. Thinking about all the people who take more than one trip with this company, it’s surprising we haven’t run into more of them already!

At 10, we headed out to go to the National Museum, and then the airport. They are next to each other – we are using the smaller local airport even though this is an international trip. The National Museum was organized to take you on a path through Iceland’s history, starting from settlement in 870. Unfortunately, another large group had arrived before us, so Jim and I and Audrey headed upstairs to the end and started from the back. They had a display of artifacts by decades, and even listed who donated them – I saw skates like the ones I had as a kid, and they also had one of IBM’s first ‘portable’ computers – we called it a luggable—it was the size of a small suitcase and probably weighed 15-25 lbs!  They had a whole room of carved horns too – drinking horns and power horns – all very elaborately carved.

Snorri took our luggage to the airport while we had a boxed lunch --sort of a Chinese Beef Salad -- and checked us in while we ate – another clue this wasn’t going to be a high security trip, even though it was officially international. When we got our seat assignments, Jim and I discovered we were both in window seats in different rows, so we started looking for people to trade with and managed to make 2 moves to get us in the same row, on the other side of the plane. There was actually security here – we had to show our passports as we entered the boarding area and they ran our bag thru a check, but it was quick and painless compared to the US.

When we boarded, we realized that we were the only people on the plane! The 2 hour flight was uneventful (a good thing), but as we neared Greenland, I saw land and sent Jim to a window seat on the other side (the side we were supposed to be on originally) to take pictures, then just before we all had to stay where we were, I moved over too – I think most of the group had moved to the right side of the plane for the landing!  There were thousands of little icebergs floating around and a very rocky landscape. We learned later that this is not the part of Greenland where Erik the Red settled – he went to the west side which was more arable and more like Iceland. But the stories about the name being a marketing ploy seemed quite believable – there is no agriculture here at all, not even grazing animals.
Approaching Greenland -- photo from the plane
Our hotel is modest and the room even more so. Internet connection is expensive -- $10 per half hour, so no connections while we're here. The bathroom is also tiny, and although there is a curtain around the shower corner, I think it will be advisable for the non-showering person to stay outside the bathroom while showering is occurring.
Our first excursion was about a 2k walk into the town of Kap Dan, a town of 300, mostly Inuit, though some Danes maintain summer homes here. Even though Greenland has a level of independence, they still are largely supported by Denmark. Our guide, a Latvian college student who is interning here for 4 months, said that up to 80% of the population is on Danish welfare and have no interest in working, not that there are a lot of jobs in any case. But available jobs, like at the airport, go unfilled and parents don’t see the need to educate their children due to the arrival twice a month of free money from Denmark. (Our later guides had somewhat less jaded views of the situation.) There is some fishing and seals are also killed for food. Running water in homes is rare, and one house is setup as a service house, where there is running water, laundry facilities, etc. We poked around a little souvenir shop and the local grocery –the grocery was apparently baking, because the aroma as we walked in was heavenly.
Our guide, Christine, points on a road side pole to the red tape, marking last year's snow depth

Kap Dan

Sled dogs during their summer vacation. You do NOT pet or feed them!
 After our walk back, we took a jeep ride on the rest of the roads in the area – 5k to the top of the hill (1000 feet up) to the site of a former US DEW station. There isn’t much left because when the US arrived, they agreed to take it all apart, but some building foundations are still there. We stopped a couple times on the way up to take photos of  the scenery, which was spectacular, if stark.
Kap Dan from the DEW Line road

Base of the former DEW Line barracks.
After dinner, we collapsed early – Greenland time is 2 hours earlier than Iceland, so our bodies are out of whack again.

August 11 -- Wrapping up Iceland

Today was a quiet day in what has, at times, been kind of an aerobic tour. We drove south to the Blue Lagoon. This was accidentally formed by the output of a geothermal heating plant and the original lagoon was replaced by a planned one to make it more usable. It is a very popular tourist attraction in Iceland. We got there before 9:30 and waltzed in. When we left at 11:30, there was a long line.

Although its called the Blue Lagoon, it was actually more of a milky color with a slightly bluish overcast. The water has lots of silicates in it, and is supposed to be very good for the skin, particularly psoriasis. The heat ranges from maybe the high 90s to over 105, so you can find a spot with the right temperature just for you. It is only about 3-4 feet deep in most places, so it is easy to wander around. They also have vats of the silicates and encourage you to put them on your face and rinse them off in the pool. There was also a steam room (I tried it -- hard to breath in all that steam!) and a waterfall was position to provide shoulder massage.

Even the technology is pretty cool. When you arrive, you are issued a wristband with a chip in it. There are private lockers, and several are centered around a chip reader. When you close your locker, you tag the chip, it locks your locker and verifies the number. When you return, you tag the chip again and it tells you what locker your belongings are in. There is no limit to the number of times you can open and close the locker.

When we got back to the hotel, we headed to a nearby mall for lunch and to try to find a turtleneck tee to wear under the Icelandic wool sweater I bought. I realize that we are at the end of the summer season and there would be lots of summer clothes on sale (amazing to see so many camisoles and tank tops in a place where a really warm day gets to 72...) but I thought there would be decent choices with the fall season arriving. I was wrong. Nobody carried any simple turtlenecks like the kind we have by the thousands in the US. I found one, finally, at a department store on sale, a bit heavier than ideal, but for $13 (vs the $70 we were seeing elsewhere for less ideal garments) I was sold. We also found our cheapest Magnum Bars, so how could we say no? I had hoped to leave a few pounds behind here in Iceland, but I don't think its working.

After shopping, we walked back to the Botanical Garden we explored the first day to take photos of the former boiling springs used as a laundry, and also to see more of the garden. Either blue and lavender flowers grow better here than other colors, or the gardeners are very partial to those colors, as they predominated.
Boiling water filled these areas. The photo below shows how they were used -- both for safety and positioning clothing to cool.

Once we got back, all that was left to do was re-organize our packing -- we can only take 22 lbs each to Greenland -- and to go to our 'Farewell Dinner', which is sort of premature, since everyone in the group is going on to Greenland, including our tour leader. This is kind of unusual, especially for the tour leader to go along, but apparently the Greenland work crew is not sufficiently large or experienced enough to fill this role. Since we have really enjoyed Snorri, this is fine with us, but strange to have the farewell with 5 days left on the trip!

August 10 – Rafting!

Today we headed back to Reykjavik with a few stops along the way. First up was a trip to a greenhouse. Because of the short growing season, things like flowers and vegetables are just not practical crops. However, the presence of cheap electricity and hot water make greenhouses a reasonable investment. The one we stopped at specialized in flowers for the Icelandic market. They grow 15 kinds of flowers in several different enclosures. Each flower type has its own requirements for warmth, humidity, and fertilizer, which is all computer controlled.
Our host, showing off his greenhouse of Gerbera daisies

White roses in the process of being dyed blue to meet a customer request. This is an hour or two into the process. The cut stems sit in dye and by shipping time in a few more hours, they will be all blue.
Then we got to the main event for the day – a rafting trip down the glacial river, downstream from Gullfoss, which we visited a couple days ago. We dressed in wetsuits with booties, splashshirts, helmets, and life jackets. A 15 minute ride in an old US school bus over questionable roads took us to the starting point where we were instructed how to paddle. Once we got started, it was apparently that Jim and I were among the few who had ever put paddle to water before this, but people improved and we all had fun. The water was seriously cold!  Fortunately, it was also pretty deep so the rapids were not challenging, though we had a few opportunities to verify the water temperature. Our bus driver and one of the group who decided not to get wet were escorted by the raft bus driver to several spots along the route and they took pictures of us from the shore. Only one person had a waterproof frame for his camera, so you will have to wait for someone else to publish their photos to see what we all looked like. We stopped along the way to jump off a perfectly good cliff into the water – Jim and two other plus our guide tried it, plus EVERYONE in the other two boats (not our group and about half the age that we were). Some of those folks jumped twice – once from the 12 foot location and then the 15 foot. Later on, we asked the accompanying kayaker (safety crew) to do a roll, which he obliged us with.

The totally funniest part of the trip was when we had an opportunity to jump in the river and swim a bit. We had been given instructions on how to retrieve a man overboard, so Jim and several others decided to give it a try. The problems came when I tried to bring Jim back on board. He backed up to the raft, I held onto the shoulder straps of his life jacket, pushed DOWN (to generate buoyancy), and then lifted him up and (theoretically) in. I tried twice on my own, to no avail, so Joe and someone else volunteered to help. They got him up further, but he got stuck with his feet in the water and head in the boat with his back arched over the side. He had his life jacket on so loosely that it had half pulled off and was covering his face. I did not have the best view, but one of the women said she was laughing too hysterically to be of any use. He really looked like a beached whale (a very sweet, lovable whale…).
As we were driving away from the rafting trip, we encountered this horse on the road -- he apparently jumped his fence and was having a grand old time running along the road.
Once we were dry, we went to lunch and drove toward Reykjavik with a stop at a geothermal electricity and hot water plant owned by the city. There is so much geothermal potential in Iceland, that they are currently selling 75% to 85% of their production to the aluminum smelters, and are talking about doing more and laying cables to Scotland through the Faroe Islands to expand the market. Cheap energy is one of the things that allows the country to provide the social services it does and no one is too worried about how much electricity or hot water they use because it is so cheap. According to the plant representative, only 17 people were needed to run the place. He also said that internationally, only 2% of the geothermal potential is being used and Iceland is only using 18% of their potential. One of the obstacles is the location of plants, which Icelanders want to keep out of their wild areas. Icelanders drill down through the planet’s crust over 9000 feet and are targeting going down 3 miles in the future.

August 9 - Southern Iceland

On our way to the southernmost city of Iceland, Vik (pronounced Veek), we passed the volcano responsible for last year’s travel disruptions: Eyjafjallajokull. Although the name looks like a handful, it is actually 3 Icelandic words run together: Eyja (island) Fjalla (mountains – the j is a y like ‘you’), jokull (Glacier). It is so named because the Westman Islands are visible just off the coast. Place names are very much inclined to be descriptive. Despite the fact that this is a small country, there are at least 3 communities called Reykholt or smoky hill – because of all the volcanic activity here. We stopped at the farm made famous in a photo of the eruption. The ash on parts of the countryside has destroyed farming in some areas of the most fertile area of Iceland.
My photo

Professional photo

Our first official stop was Skogafoss, which was wider than most of the waterfalls we saw and also had a rainbow. We took a stairway (up 181 steps) to a promontory about halfway up to get great views of the falls and rainbows.

Lookout point we climbed to at top right of photo
Nearby was Skogar Folk Museum, developed by Thordur Tomasson who is now 90 and still actively involved in the Museum. While we were being told about the artifacts in the building, he joined our group twice – once to demonstrate playing the dulcimer, and later to show us how to spin wool without a spinning wheel. He looked pretty spry for 90, and reminded me of  how good my Mom is doing as she turns 91. One of the interesting things I learned was about the wooden soup bowls. Apparently these were very common in the old days, but, being wood, when their usefulness was over, they were recycled for heating, leaving very few examples for modern people to see. Some were nicely decorated. The museum, we were told, is second only to the National Museum in Reykjavik in terms of the volume and quality of items on display.  For me, the more interesting part of the museum were the examples of homes through the ages. There was a sod house, and a couple more modern (but still old) homes, a church, and a schoolhouse. The school house had a book apparently listing all the students and details like birthdates and years of attendance.

Before lunch, we drove off road to the finger of a glacier that came within a couple of kilometers of the main road and walked around on it for a bit. The Solheimajokull is a finger of a larger icecap. It melts from underneath and you can hear the roar of a waterfall without seeing anything more than a few drips. The glacier is covered with the ash from last year's eruptions (which slows its melting) and so it looks pretty dirty and it is rare to see the characteristic blueish ice normally seen readily on glaciers. It apparently has receded about a half a mile in the last few years too.We apparently were only supposed to set foot on the glacier and get off because Snorri is not a certified glacier guide and we did not have crampons or ice axes. We're pretty uncontrollable though and walked around quite a bit. I didn't think we were too far out of line, but I guess he was pretty relieved when we all exited safely.

At least some interior areas showed the bluish ice typical of glaciers
We had lunch at a hotel on a bluff overlooking Dyrholaey, famous for its sea stacks (or trolls caught out in the sun). After lunch, we drove to the foot of Reynisfjall to black sand and pebble beach with views of magnificent formations of basalt columns and sandstone as well as back to Dyrholaey
Dyrholaey rock formations

Nearby was Vik, a somewhat unremarkable town, which fortunately had a post office and a bank, allowing some of us to buy stamps and others (who will remain nameless...) to buy money and Magnum Bars.

On our way back to Selfoss, we stopped at another famous waterfall called Seljalandfoss.  This one didn’t have the volume of Skogafoss, but the hill behind it had been hollowed out, so we could talk a walk behind the falls. It was another example of a great activity for a hot day, because spray from the falls was impossible to avoid at some points. It also had great rainbows from some viewpoints. As we walked up there, I noticed another interesting falls that dropped halfway down the cliff into a hole and disappeared.

Back in Selfoss we were on our own for dinner and 8 of the 14 of us arrived at the same pizza place, two at a time, expanding the table as we came in. The pizza was pretty good and not that expensive, a positive improvement from the sushi we tried in Akureyri.