Iceland

June 27th — July 3rd

All in all, we spent a fairly short time in Iceland, arriving on June 27 and departing on July 3rd, so don't expect anything of tremendous depth. Here’s what struck me the most about Iceland.

Isolation. Iceland is a tiny country, tucked in a desolate corner of the earth. It's one thing to realize that Iceland’s population is just 300 000, but it's still a somewhat abstract figure. Stepping into their capital and largest town, Reykjavík, population 120 000, is what really puts things in perspective. It akin to walking into a medium sized town. You walk around it for an hour, maybe, and you realize that yup, that's it. It took for me to be there to realize how tightly knit this country must be. They survived for over a thousand years on this inhospitable island, and they maintained a separate culture and history, and never gave up despite extremely harsh winters and chronic resource shortages. That takes some resolve. Somehow, despite the adversity, they have modern infrastructure, renewable energy powers almost everything, their GDP per capita is one of the highest and their political and economic systems seem functional in so far as their Gini coefficient is extremely low.

National pride. On the night we arrived, Iceland was scheduled to take on England in the euro cup round of 16. Anaïs and I made our way to a bar after the first half was already over, so we missed all the goals, but it was awesome to see how involved everyone was with their team. We went downtown after the game ended. The streets were flooded. A samba band was playing in the street and leading chants of “áfram ísland!” (go Iceland!). People went for round after round of the infamous Icelandic crescendo clap. The partying continued obstinately as the sun refused to set. We looked forward to the following week when France would take on Iceland in the quarter finals.

Prices. I know that I talk a lot about prices. Some people dislike it but hey, who doesn’t want good value for their money? Iceland has a reputation for being particularly expensive, and boy did it deliver. Some of the craziest purchases were regular meals. Expect to pay at least $25 for a regular entree at a sit-down restaurant, but I can go higher easily. Gas is through the roof as well. You can pay $70 for a full tank. Accommodations are more expensive than elsewhere but not as outrageous as some of the previously mentioned items. The funny thing is that based on what locals have explained to us, prices in restaurants are artificially inflated. It's not necessarily the limit in supply, or the cost of import that makes goods that expensive. It's simply that people can get away with it because tourists don't mind paying that much. For proof, if you go to a Bonus store, you can get food for very cheap, including brand name goods. Go there!

Chow. Iceland didn't strike us as having a particularly rich culinary tradition. They have plenty of decent restaurants because of how many tourists they host, but they seem mostly inspired by foreign traditions. The restaurants that were labeled Icelandic or norse did have some excellent fish dishes, often served with dill, cream, potatoes, etc.

Waterfalls, waterfalls and more waterfalls. Iceland is the country of dramatic, plentiful, varied waterfalls. Wherever you go, one won't be far. You kind of get spoiled and desensitized after a while. One truly stood out to me though and it wasn't even a proper waterfall. Hraunfossar and Barnafoss are a series of medium sized springs that spurt out of the rocky edges of a torrent. The pictures will describe this better than I can, but it's one of the most unique natural sites I've seen in our travels so far.

Geysers. There are incredibly few active geysers around the world, so seeing some for the first time was stunning. I never knew that streams of boiling water were a thing. Instinctively I would have imagined that water, when exposed to the atmosphere, would simply cool down. But it flows and steams, or sits in silica-rich pools, or in the case of geysers, it boils in a deep underground chute and heats up until it erupts. Fun fact, the word geyser comes from the water hole named Geysir in Iceland. Strokkur is the name of the one we saw erupt in a frequency of approximately once every 3-4 minutes. For some reason, I imagined the eruptions to be extremely regular in frequency and in height, but it actually varies a lot.

Permanent daylight. This is something I was really curious to witness in Iceland. It is after all the furthest north I have ever been. On the day we landed in Iceland, the sun set at midnight, but it rose at approximately 3 in the morning. The concrete effect of this is that it never really becomes night. The light we are accustomed to at dusk doesn't really come up either. It's just a dimmer version of day. This definitely messed with our sleep and contributed to the eerie sensation you occasionally get in Iceland. The rhythm of the sun, its angle and the light it dispenses is such an integral part of how we experience earth. Because we mostly stay on the same latitude, it varies gradually and we take it for granted. But when you change latitudes drastically, it just makes it feel like you're on another planet.

The flip side of this of course is winter. I'm told that during winter, the sun comes up a bit during the afternoon for a couple of hours, but it never becomes fully fledged sunshine. Rather, it’s closer to a brief moment of dusk. I'm not sure I could handle that. It's definitely another reason why I give the people of Iceland major props for enduring the quirks of this fitful little island.

The elements. While driving around the island, on the eastern side, we drove through a gravel strewn road called Öxi, up a fog infused valley. We spotted a dense waterfall fed by a rushing torrent and stepped out of the car. What I felt then was the most overwhelming combination of elements I can remember. Myst was coming down the sides of the mountain, incredibly strong winds almost picked me up as rain battered down. Adding to this was the rush of the waterfall. For a short moment, I forgot about my car and I imagined trekking through such a landscape. Not out of fun or adventure, but out of necessity. I pictured the thousands of men and women who lived on this island for centuries and dealt with this regularly as a matter of survival. Then I got back into my warm car. The volume receded, the wind stopped, I took my windbreaker off and I was dry. But the road was still scary! It was some of the steepest, most slippery and windy driving I had ever been subjected to. I was a little scared at moments but it made for a very powerful moment.

 

Overall, everything in Iceland conspires to infuse an otherworldly vibe. You don't even have to hike much or expend much energy to appreciate it. But mixed into this outlandish and occasionally desolate landscape are some of the most stunning natural sights. The southern coastline in particular is just as scenic and breathtaking as Big Sur. If you can forego the idea of spending your precious little summer time freezing your ass in the north (I’m not sure I would visit any other season), then you must check out Iceland.