My Thanks go to carol Johnston, the mother of a friend for proof reading this. Also Ryan Monerham and mat Tully for their friendship during my adventures and in formation for this essay. Enjoy it everyone.
Iceland Essay Part 1
The journey began with the usual mad dash scramble; first, a two-hour train journey from Birmingham, in the middle of England, to North London, then an even longer and slower underground train ride to Heathrow Airport. I arrived with just half an hour to go before the gate for my 1.00 pm Icelandic Airways flight would be closed. I made it by the skin of my teeth. Three hours later after a bumpy, noisy ride, with cold food and the usual wait for airport assistance, which naturally was carried out by a Polish person! I landed in Iceland.
This first essay involves Iceland by night events and day excursions. I will not linger on the history, as there is far too much of it. All I will say is that Norwegian Vikings discovered the island, around the tenth century. The country was mostly settled during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Once the country had converted from largely pagan to Christian, a decision that happened practically overnight, the bible was quickly transcribed into Icelandic and the language survived. Unlike in Scandinavia, where the German bible was used. The Icelandic language formed the base of the Germanic languages including English. Icelandic, according to one tour guide, has hardly changed in a thousand years.
Reykjavik, the eventual capital, gets its name from Smokey Bay. A Viking tradition upon arrival on a new land was to throw the timbers of his new home into the sea and see where they landed. The conclusion of this event in Iceland was for the timbers to end up at a place that had much smoke rising from it, hence the name.
The other main historical note that could be said to be more myth than historical fact is the Elves. These creatures derive from Icelandic and Scandinavian myth. Often called the ‘Hidden People’ in Iceland, they are thought to be small people, pure and most beautiful. They live in the rocks and terrain, and provoke many legends and stories. It is surmised the author J.R.R. Tolkien of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit probably got the ideas from Iceland and the stories of Elves and such creatures.
Before I address the events and experiences of travelling Iceland blind, and with a severe hearing loss, one question has to be asked and answered, why Iceland? The humorous side to my character might say, why not! However, the real answer lies in the fact that I am a global traveller. I want to explore and gain all experiences. The idea of travelling a country in winter was an appealing challenge. In addition, the fact I have always been interested in history and through research, it was obvious that Iceland had much to discover.
Iceland, fire and ice: the main city
After landing in the small city of Keflavik about 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Reykjavik, I got the Fly Bus to the capital. I changed my British pounds to Icelandic Koruna at the airport, as this gave me a better exchange rate. £1 = 123 Icelandic Koruna. The Fly Bus cost 12 ISK, £10. The journey took around an hour and deposited me at my accommodation, the Reykjavik City Hostel. I booked both my hostel and flight through Student Travel Association. The flight at £200 was excellent value for 13 days. I should have booked the hostel myself, as it would have cost less. The price for one night in a six bed mixed dorm room was 1500 ISK, £12. However, with breakfast and bed linen included, plus what STA charged for commission, it came to £30 per night. I got a deal – if I stayed three nights it only cost £20 a night. However, with everything else in Iceland being expensive, the accommodation was more than acceptable.
On my arrival, the friendly Icelandic driver assisted me into the hostel. I was soon to discover that most Icelandic were similarly inclined. I had a good feeling for the country immediately. Everything was different and refreshing. As soon as I exited the airport, I felt the chill of the wind, the freshness of the air, cold and different – you could taste it. Was it the sulphur, or just the fact that there were fewer chemicals and pollutants? That I could not say, but the cold was definitely noticeable!
I entered the hostel, going up two large steps, passing through one door and then another. The reception area was vast and had an uncomfortable eco, which confused me. I wandered around with my cane for several minutes trying unsuccessfully to find the reception desk. I eventually found it after listening to several voices talking. I introduced myself, produced my voucher and was shown upstairs to a six-bed dorm. I had the top bunk, which was the only bed left in the room. I was given bedding and three breakfast tickets, and then left to my own devices. Naturally, the first staff members I met were not Icelandic! On duty that night was a quiet Dutch girl and an English guy who I quickly became acquainted with. His name was Mat, he was from Manchester, North-West England and he was friendly and seemed to know how things worked. He showed me the soft drinks machine and gave me directions to a nearby food store. He also organised my first few events. Apparently, the hostel was on a good bus route to the city centre, harbour and main bus station (BSI). I was also informed that the hostel was situated next door to the city’s largest swimming pool, which had natural hot pools. It cost 350 ISK, £2.90 a time, and you could spend all day there, the pool closed at 10.30 pm – the pools were outside and exposed to the elements. I went to the nearby supermarket without my fleece jacket and noticed how cold it actually was. The hairs on my arms stood up and my muscles started shivering on the return journey. I followed Mat’s directions, but passed one set of traffic lights and had to walk back. A pedestrian helped me across the road and I just followed the pavement until it curved to the left and led me to the shop. Inside, I got someone to help me get some microwave food. Two meals and a bag of crisps cost me 1400 ISK, £13. Nevertheless, it gave me my first night’s food. I would feel my way after and see about food prices as I went. I knew from my research that Iceland was one of the most expensive countries in the world, second only to Norway it seems, and slightly more expensive than Japan and England. Although, if you budget well, only eat once a day or bring your own food and know what events you wish to do, Iceland can be travelled for less than £1000.
Back at the hostel, which was full and seemed busy, I found the kitchen – one of three, and prepared my dinner. There was an outside deck area that you had to cross to reach the kitchens. It was in the kitchen where I met many of the people that were to make this first part of my journey so tremendous. I had met an Australian in the upper part of the hostel when searching for the showers. He helped me with my microwave meal. I also got talking to several other people. A girl named Molly from America and two Australian girls who I met again later. One of them came from Sydney, and I gave her stick about not being allowed to climb the Sydney Bridge. Two more people later joined the group. A girl named Alex and her friend Jean-Michel, both from England. They had met Mike some time before and fell into conversation. Alex was a posh bird from London, but very friendly and gentle. While I found J-M intelligent but cocky, Mike was quiet and watchful, slightly mysterious, but likeable. Alex and J-M had been drinking Gin and it was only 9.00 pm! It was already dark and very cold; the winds were extraordinary. I had on a thick jumper and my fleece, plus my peaked cap, but this was not enough. If you kept moving, you could just about keep warm, but it was very different to an October night in England. The guys told me about a music festival that was happening in the city. I had not heard anything about it since I was there to travel and explore the land, probably only staying three or four days before going north to the second city. This plan changed accordingly. The group said they were going to the festival and asked if I wished to accompany them. Since it was my first night in the country, I thought, why not. However, they had wristbands for the event, and I did not. Alex figured with my cane and my good looks, as she put it, I would get in, which I did.
We took the bus in, catching it just up the road across from the hostel. There were two bus stops as it happened, so getting around proved to be relatively easy for me. It cost 280 ISK for a bus journey, including any necessary transfer. However, when I boarded the bus I was informed that I could travel free, which was an added bonus. We alighted in the city centre and were blown along the tiny streets to the nearest venue. The streets were busy, and crowded with young locals dressed for the occasion, drinking and talking, or lined up to enter any number of bars and music halls. Many of the art galleries had been transformed into venues for the up and coming events. The festival was called Air Waves and it occurred annually in Iceland. Music from various genres, though much of it was rock. I bantered with the people, J-M proved to be outlandish, but amusing. He made high-pitched sounds to comments that cannot be printed! Alex kept stroking my shoulder and I felt great. The first band we heard was like Pink Floyd, with a loud base guitar. The sound was strange; the vocals were high and kind of gospel. It went from soft melodic to heavy, and then soft again. The second act was slightly better and heavier, but the singer was again weak voiced to my mind. We finished in a bar called The Organ. The act this time was a kind of local R & B group, two sexy looking girls, blondes with big boobs, though this could have been invented by J-M and Mike, I could not tell. Anyway, it was okay and they got the crowd going at the end by getting them to sing different words and going “1-2-3-4″. It was rather bizarre and ended around 2.00 am. We walked home in the crisp early morning cold, the wind had dropped and the rain that had nearly frozen us earlier had disappeared.
The guys showed me the arch fountain in the main square, which was cool and illuminated at night. I heard the falling water and planned to return and explore it further. We walked most of the way back and only got a taxi when Alex began to get really cold. Divided between the four of us, it only cost 400 ISK each. What a first night in Reykjavik.
I decided to spend my first full day in the country exploring the city. I had some trips booked with a day visit to the Blue Lagoon on the Friday, a city tour on the Saturday morning and the famous Golden Circle excursion was booked for the Sunday. I arrived on a Wednesday. After rising early and getting the continental breakfast that consisted of bread, ham, cheese, a couple of glasses of orange juice and a tiny cup of tea, I got the bus and went off in search of information. During the breakfast that I got with help from one of the lovely staff members, a Chinese girl if I recall, I discovered my first unique feature of Iceland. They like their tiny coffee/tea cups. They are minute and in my opinion useless and impractical. Especially for someone who likes tea. I seemed to find them everywhere.
I took the bus to the BSI as Mat had suggested, asking the driver for the stop – almost all Icelanders I met could speak English. The driver told me when I had reached my destination, and I alighted. Another Icelandic local who also disembarked, kindly showed me the way to the building. It was across a road and down several paths. I would never have found it by myself. He was young and friendly, easy to understand, slightly taller than me and kind, as he stayed with me while I got my information. I met people like this all over the city. It made the experience even more fantastic. My blindness may have helped, but I reckon I mostly met kind, friendly people and it made me feel that this is how people from Iceland generally are. When I enquired how to get to the Perlman Museum of Icelandic History, was told the best way was by taxi, as it was out on a big hill, and would involve several transfers by bus.
I also asked how to get to Akureryi in the north, Iceland‘s second largest populated city. I could go by bus or fly. The bus cost 5500 ISK (£50) and ran daily. I also asked about going to Vik on the south coast, but was informed buses only ran on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. That journey only took two to three hours whereas Akureryi took more than five hours. My friend helped me get a taxi and by quarter to eleven, I was at the Perlman Museum. It was a large open building with a manmade Geyser at one end. It was a strange building with a ground floor and a fourth and fifth floor, but no floors in between. On the top was a moving restaurant that rotated slowly and gave panoramic views of Reykjavik, which was vastly expensive. When I arrived at the museum it was closed and I had to wait until it opened. I bided my time by exploring the open floor. I bumped into a statue of a Viking horse with rider and felt the rough texture of the statue. It was fascinating. The rider had a sword and a round shield.
When the museum opened, a delightful girl helped me inside and gave me a headphone audio guide for 800 ISK (£6). It described important Icelandic figures and explained the early history. I was able to feel rubber figures and displays of the first wooden houses, a statue of the World’s second tallest man, a large and mysterious stone that had been discovered and some helmets and armour from the civil war of the early period. It was fascinating and lasted around half an hour. Much of the history was difficult to take in while trying to follow the direction of the display. The audio and tactile display is well recommended, and I was told that many of the museums in Reykjavik have audio guides, that allow disabled people the opportunity to learn and discover.
After the museum, I got directions to the nearest bus stop with the intention of returning to the city centre. However, I became lost in a car park – a frequent habit on my adventures with my cane. Two local guys saw me and offered to give me a lift. They asked me where I was from and what I was doing in Reykjavik. Most people had come for the music festival. I said I was travelling. They dropped me in the city centre by the arch, and one of the guys described the square and the arch fountain to me. There were small holes of water and the arch was made of metal. The falling water was like gentle music to my ears. The guy took a photograph with me in it, then pointed me in the direction of the harbour and told me about a nearby pub called the Café Vic. I thanked him and continued my exploration of Reykjavik.
The streets were small, with lampposts and the occasional car. I had to negotiate my way through a car park, which eventually took me onto the harbour road, a busy two-lane highway, one of the busiest in the city. Someone assisted me across the road via the audio cross light, and once on the harbour front, I began walking, following a metal fence. The wind was gale force and blew me along; the rain was light, but constant and blew straight into my back. There was nobody else about and apart from the sound of the wind on my hearing aids and the noise of the traffic it was quiet. I reached a dead end, so retraced my steps and walked into the teeth of the gale and began to follow the highway. I came to a building site area with rubble on the ground so turned back again and went to locate the road crossing. I found it by way of a gap in the low-lying railing and then used my hearing to locate the sound of the audio light, which clicked slowly. Another pedestrian helped me across and I began searching for a way back into the centre. I became stuck between several cars, which was annoying, but by using my cane I finally extricated myself and found a small road that led me back into the centre. I eventually crossed the small street and entered a large building that I correctly took for a hotel. I got directions for the Café Vic and the receptionist kindly took me all the way to the pub door. I said these people were generous.
I found a table and had a meal; a chicken burger and fries plus two pints of Sprite cost me 1600 ISK (£13). I thought that was reasonable. I asked directions for the Lake, but as the rain moved in and the wind increased, I decided that it was rather silly walking around in such weather. The city as a whole made little impression on me, as it was almost dead, but it felt better at night with the lively bars and music in the small side streets. I asked someone where the nearest bus stop was, and they took me to the bus depot and I was shown where the number 14 bus went from.
In the afternoon, I went to the thermal swimming pool and asked to use the hot pools. The swimming complex was next door to the hostel, but the building was so large that the entrance was a good five-minute walk and surrounded by a car park. I got more directions from another nice hostel staff member – the place was full of them – and went wandering. The car park had several entrances and naturally, I went passed the correct one. A passing pedestrian asked me my destination and when I told them, they showed me the way. The actual entrance to the building was round the corner and I would probably never have found it alone. I paid my 350 ISK, and a lady showed me to the changing rooms. You first have to remove your footwear and put them on a shelf before entering the locker room, where there was a series of individual lockers to store your gear. Then you have to take a shower before entering the thermal hot pools or swimming pools. One of the security guards helped me get to one of the pools. I took my cane just in case of getting lost. There were two swimming pools and six hot tubs increasing in temperature. The changing rooms were nice and warm, but once you went outside, the chill factor hit you and it produced shivers down my body. The coldness was strange, not like England with its damp chill, but very dry and icy, and the wind threatened to push me over at its will. My feet were the first part of me to go numb. I reached the coolest hot tub and entered down a flight of steps. The warm water hit me and it was both delightful and relaxing. Sulphur and minerals, heated by thermal water were dispersed from the ground – no chemicals were required. The first pool was heated at 36 degrees Celsius, and then increased gradually by pool up to a maximum of 50 degrees.
The pools were small and round in shape with enough room for about a dozen people. There were seats cut into the walls like a shelf that went round the perimeter. The water was lovely and the sulphur improved my skin immediately. The minerals helped to remove toxins and produce a healthy glow.
I listened to some of the locals talking, unable to understand a word and eventually asked a couple of questions. Apparently, the conversation was about politics. I derived that for the locals, coming to natural hot pools was similar to the locals in England going down the pub. It was a social gathering and a place of relaxation after a day’s work. I loved it, relaxing in the gentle warm water. I eventually moved to a hotter pool, one with massage jets. I used the jets on my back and kidneys, enjoying the sensation on my body and smelling the sulphur as it emanated from the ground. At its strongest, it smelt like rotting eggs. You could smell it in the showers at the hostel, and when someone ran a tap in the kitchen. It was strong and I could taste it in the air. It was strange to sit in the hot water and have most of my body submerged in heat and my head freezing in the cold air. Hot and cold simultaneously – fire and ice. It was unique, amazing, the air was fresh and pure, when you breathed it in it felt like it was so light, cold, but without toxins, and along with the harsher tasting water, was the best quality of Iceland. I would go out of the hostel just to taste the air, inhale a mouthful and return inside. One of the pools had heated salt water, the only place in Iceland with such a pool. I tried this before sampling the remaining pools. The 50 degree was too hot for me so I returned to a cooler pool to relax in the tranquillity before returning to the hostel. The security guard kindly took me half the way, marvelling at my ability to travel and get about unaided. Many other people also found this incredible, but I just got on with it. Travelling is what I do. I use the senses I have and enhance them to get about and explore my surroundings.
I met him that evening; I was in the kitchen attempting to find my food when he spoke. He asked if I needed any help and when I told him what I was looking for, he introduced himself as Ryan from Connecticut, America. We eventually found my food and we became acquainted as he made dinner. Another American arrived, named Mike from New York – a homosexual in his late 30s, though he looked and sounded much younger. Mike was just passing through on his way to Denmark for the gay film festival. Ryan was in Iceland for the music fest. He had a bracelet and knew about several of the bands; he was into an Icelandic band named Sigur Rós and had learnt more about the country through this medium. Mike and I did not have wristbands, but we all decided to try to get in, I said I had had no trouble the previous night.
The bus dropped us in the wrong place. Our destination was the Reykjavik Art Museum. We eventually got there, but were refused entry to several of the venues that had heavy metal bands. The bouncers were uncompromising. Eventually, we found the art museum and saw the last act. They seemed good; one guy played a guitar in a strange method making it whine slightly. They were called Grizzly Bear from the US. Then we walked to a bar and had some drinks. We met some Danish people named Bjorn, Brian, and a girl whose name I have forgotten. They were young and cool. The two guys were living in Iceland and we talked about music and travel. The bar had a relaxing ambiance with candles and many small tables, and a long wooden bar. The barmaid had soft hands, everyone was friendly. We were kicked out around 2.00 am and the Danes gave us a lift back to the hostel. It was a great night. Yet another night where I failed to get to bed before 3.00 am!
Ryan was cool, young, around twenty-three and friendly; he had read much philosophy as I discovered during breakfast the next morning. I found that Ryan and I were in the same room, that he had a sleeping problem and strange diet requirements. However, once up he was as good as everyone else. His dietary problem was that he could not eat wheat or anything containing yeast, so he brought his own food from the US. This was probably a good move as the food and drink were the most expensive items in Iceland. I was managing to get away with drinking water and re-filling my bottle from the taps, as the water was fine. However, a bottle of sprite cost 180 ISK (£1.50) and could be up to 4-6 ISK for a pint in a bar. A large cup of tea after breakfast, which ran from 7.00 am to 9.30 am, cost 200 ISK (£1.80). Though I often got one free when Mat, or someone else I knew, was on reception.
Friday morning was my trip to the Blue Lagoon. They have a strange operation in Iceland; they send a taxi to collect people to take them to the bus depot, where they then meet their designated bus for their particular excursion, and are all included in the price. The Blue Lagoon cost 35 ISK (£30) including collection and return to accommodation. There is no other way to get there unless you have a car. It is a large, natural sulphur pool in the middle of nowhere, and it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get there.
It is rather touristy, but you get the chance to put mineralised mud on your head and face, which purifies the skin, and definitely works!
You can be collected from the hostel at various times throughout the day, 9.00 am, 11.00 am etc. and return at two-hour intervals. The last bus leaves the Blue Lagoon at 8.00 pm. My bus arrived slightly late and the driver came in and collected me. We drove to the bus station where I boarded a coach to the Blue Lagoon. While I was being seated, I fell into conversation with a young Australian named Luke. We quickly became friends and exchanged travel stories. He said he had a friend in Oz who was also blind and had just had a kidney transplant. This was of interest to me since I am also waiting for a transplant and will need dialysis within the next year or so. He offered to help me around the lagoon and I accepted. As we neared the area, the landscape became even more desolate. Luke described the bleakness of the lava fields and hard earth where nothing was growing. We bumped along at the required speed limit of 80 kph (55 mph), with silence all around.
The closer we got to the lagoon the stronger the smell of sulphur was in the air. Once there, Luke and I disembarked, I took his arm and he led me up the path to the complex. This was about a five-minute walk. We showed our vouchers and went in after being given an electronic bracelet for the lockers. I would have had real difficulty getting around here by myself. After removing our footwear, changing and showering, we headed for the lagoon.
The air once again was crisp and the wind was strong. The chill on the body was cold enough to make us complain. However, seconds after leaving the warmth of the locker room we had descended the steps into the pool where the heated water greeted us. The Blue Lagoon is a natural geothermal crater that was created over thousands of years. The steps and seating had been added, but the rocks and rough texture on the floor seemed original. I felt my way by using my feet and moved slowly; the ground was extremely rough and had large rocks in places. It was gritty, and at the edges there were small sharp rocks and stones. The water was delicious. Naturally heated from deep in the ground and containing nothing except the strong, fowl smelling sulphur and minerals. It had a silky quality that improved the skin immeasurably. The temperature fluctuated throughout the pool and there was a gentle current created by the many tourists and locals. The pool was big enough for all, and plenty of room to find a quiet spot if they chose. It was amazing, the water seemed bluish silver and the air was almost non-existent with all the steam and mist that hung over the area. Again, I was tickled by the irony of hot and cold simultaneously.
I followed Luke around by the sound of his voice and we relaxed in the ever changing temperature of the water. The depth also varied and at one point, my feet were almost off the bottom! We cruised under several wooden footbridges, where I banged on the wood announcing I was the troll of the Lagoon. It was fun. Time slid passed as we got to know each other a little more. I explained that travelling around the world blind was very easy, I just got on with it and had fun. People were very helpful and I had the most amazing time. Life is short; you make the most of it and push all the barriers. Luke had been to Iceland before and was in the accommodation industry, which was mostly internet based. It sounded a great job. He came from Melbourne but lived in Sydney. He was very interesting and a good laugh. Another travel buddy I hope to keep in touch with. The more people you meet travelling, the more people you have to stay with when visiting their country and vice versa. We all need friends on the lonely travel road.
One of the main reasons people go to the Blue Lagoon, apart from its unique geothermal qualities, is to rub mud on their faces. The mud is said to have skin healing qualities and was a definite ‘must try’. The mud was in large containers on the side of the lagoon. Luke propelled me in the direction of one and as I gently collided into the container, he scooped out some mud and placed it in my hand. It felt like chocolate mousse, soft, cold and very silky and greasy. It had a gritty texture and when applied to the exposed dry skin of head and face, it felt even colder and slippery. We got ourselves a face-mask and stood in the lagoon as it dried. The mud produced a white mask on our head and face that felt hard and contained lines through it. My long beard had mud icicles and the mud on my head set like plaster. We washed it off and continued our inspection of the area.
The cave was interesting and quiet. It was in one corner and unoccupied when we arrived. I explored on hands and knees, this time managing to avoid hitting my head! It seemed a good place to make love! It would be fun to have sex in the lagoon; a policy which, I imagine, is forbidden! One of my friends said they had had sex there later, but I was unsure. After three hours, our skin was starting to go crinkly. Before leaving, we spotted a large waterfall packed with people. We got close, and Luke went in for a brief inspection, but I stayed on the edge not wanting to damage my hearing aids. They do not react kindly to water. I wore them in the lagoon because without them I would not be able to hear to communicate, and therefore would be unable to navigate. We changed and went to wait for the 4.00 pm bus back to the city. As we were leaving, I noticed my swimming gear was missing. Luke went back to try to find it but to no avail. We told the staff on reception and they took my hostel contact details and promised to ring me if anything was found. Sadly, they were not. I probably just mislaid them while putting on my boots.
Back at the hostel an hour later, I told everyone who was in earshot that my towel and swimming pants or trunks as they are called in English, were missing. I said some girl had pulled them off me in the water! This was greeted by much laughter. Mat got me another towel and all was well, and I was told I could hire swimming gear at the hot pools.
Ever since I arrived in Iceland, I had wanted to try whale meat – the local delicacy. However, I did not know where to get it. So on the return journey from the lagoon, Luke had asked the Icelandic driver if he knew of any such restaurant. He gave Luke the local newspaper and an article mentioned the name of a seafood restaurant on the harbour front. Luke ripped out the article and that evening I jumped on the bus and went in search of my whale.
During this journey two amazing events occurred. First, as I crossed the road to find the nearby bus stop, I got my angles slightly askew and crossed onto the wrong part of the road. A car passing by saw me wandering with my cane and stopped. The female passenger got out and took me to the bus stop. When the bus came after a chilly and blustery five minute wait in the bus shelter, I boarded and asked to go to the harbour. However, this particular driver spoke no English, so I showed him the article from the newspaper. Twenty minutes later and after several twists and turns, I again asked for the stop. He grunted something incoherent, which I took for sit back down. After he dropped the final passengers off, he drove round the harbour front, stopped the bus outside the restaurant and took me inside himself. That was unbelievable and was more than kindness. That is what the majority of Icelanders are like. Quiet, friendly and very helpful, happy and approachable. That would not have happened in many other countries – certainly not in England.
A young waitress then took care of me. Her name was Sandra, she was Swedish and very gentle. I said I wanted whale, but was told they had run out. The place was cramped; the front of the shop resembled a take-away. That is exactly what it was. Locals came and ordered fish or whale and took it home, or they brought their own beer and sat talking with the owners. It was a local Icelandic take-out, called the Sea Grill. There was a seating area in the back. Sandra took me to a table after suggesting I try the lobster soup and some fish and potatoes. They came on a skewer like a kebab. I tried halibut and a local shellfish; the latter was slightly bitter and had a jelly-like texture. Sandra joined me and chatted. I told her I was travelling from England and was alone. She was amazed and intrigued. Sandra said she was an actress and spent the remainder of her time working at the restaurant. The ambiance was lovely, quiet and homely. I returned there the next three nights running. It became my nightly rendezvous. Sandra was lovely; she gave me free tea and some shark to try. Apparently, they bury the raw shark in the ground for six months before digging it up. I had a small slice and oh, boy, it was disgusting! It tasted very dark and bitter, worse than German chocolate! I thought it was bloody horrible and said so. Sandra just smiled. The meal including fresh bread and two bottles of Sprite cost just under 2000 ISK (£15). It got cheaper each night thereafter – I think Sandra had something to do with that, but I am not sure. At closing time around 10 pm, she offered to walk me back to town. I said, “I was going to try and find a bar and have a drink” I asked her to join me and she agreed. We walked down the harbour front road, which was quiet apart from the night traffic; we eventually turned off, and began following the small streets. The rain began and it was cold and heavy. The city’s atmosphere was electric with tourists and local people. Many were outside bars and clubs, queuing to get in or simply smoking and having a drink or chatting to friends. Many people were dressed lavishly in suits or evening dress, the men in shirts and trousers the girls in everything imaginable – short skirts and stockings, long coats, furs and even denim. Loud, heavy music was emanating from The Organ Bar, but we passed on by and eventually found a quieter place that was free entry. Sandra helped me in, we found a seat and she got someone’s attention and ordered a couple of drinks. I asked for my usual, a large Sprite with no ice. It came with ice! Apparently, a comedian was going to perform, followed by a rock band. The comedian was interesting, mostly in Icelandic and not very funny according to Sandra who spoke fluent Icelandic. Her parents were natives but she had been brought up in Sweden.
Once the band started, it was almost impossible to communicate. Sandra stayed for one more drink and heard a couple of the band’s songs. She said she was tired and that it was very loud. Sandra squeezed my hand and I told her I would return for my whale. The band was good, from London, and played mostly covers. Their rendition of Pearl Jam’s Alive was fantastic. They played two sets and were very noisy. The lead singer kept exciting the crowd with ‘Wo, wo, woho’ etc. It was a good atmosphere and the long bar room buzzed with people and sound. I left around 2.00 am and went in search of a taxi. I asked an Icelandic guy outside and he told me there was a rank round the corner. I followed the building and when the wind increased, I knew I was at the corner. A local girl passed me, and on seeing I was blind and deaf, took my hand and said, ‘Hi baby.’ She laughed friendly and said, ‘have fun.’ Another girl, this time an American from Alaska, showed me to a hot dog stand, common food in Iceland, and told me where the taxis were. I thanked her and helped myself to a hot beef sandwich before getting a cab. It cost me 1200 ISK (£10) to return to the hostel. It was past 3.00 am when I turned in. another long day and night was over.
I was woken by a female voice Saturday morning telling me my city tour was here to collect me. However, by the time I arrived downstairs he had gone. It was around 8.30 am. I had not paid so figured I could re-book it. I still had my horse ride for the afternoon. I ordered a cup of tea and after chatting to the lovely receptionist named Katrine who was also from Sweden, I went and sat in the breakfast room. Mike, the American, arrived along with another guy named Sam from Ohio, USA. Ryan turned up with his bowl of non-wheat cereal sometime later. This is how we got to know each other more. I cracked some rude jokes and Ryan and I discussed the writings and philosophy of Noan Chompsky. Ryan was interesting, different, a musician, but quiet and affable. I discovered he had large, long hands and played the guitar beautifully. This is how hostelling is. People come and go; tell their story about why they are travelling, often searching for something or on the run like Dave, another American in his mid twenties. I was in Iceland because I wanted to explore the country and its people. My life was easy apart from my impending kidney problems; I knew where I was going and what I wanted. I had spent the last ten years travelling to reach my goals and find myself. Now I was just enjoying life, living each day. Showing other people how to live and enjoy things, have fun and make friends.
I was collected by a lovely lady and taken horse riding. A party of us were driven out of the city towards the airport. The riding centre was near a small town called Hafnarfjördur about 45 minutes journey from Reykjavik. The horse tour company was called Ishestar (which means ‘ice horses’ in Icelandic). The afternoon excursion including transport there and back, horse, guides and equipment cost 4900 ISK, approximately £40 for a two-hour ride. At the centre, a delightful Icelandic lady name Sarah got me kitted out with thick waterproofs and a helmet, and told me I would be riding a tall male horse named Fire. I said I had ridden before and on placing my left foot in the stirrup, was helped aboard. My stirrups were adjusted and I sat astride and waited for the group to saddle up. Once everyone was ready, we left the riding centre through a wooden gate, took up a lined formation, and began riding down a gravel trail. The guides were young and female. The lead guide was named Elizabeth and I later discovered she was from Alabama, America. Another girl was from Sweden and more quiet. We rode along a small trail through the lava fields, it undulated in places and changed gradient often. Elizabeth checked on me occasionally, asking me questions and discovering my love of travel and my ability to ride with confidence; nothing bothered me and I let the horse lead, assured it knew its way.
The ride was peaceful and leisurely. The area was completely bare apart from the occasional shrub or bush; there were no trees and that allowed the elements to take their course. The wind was bitterly cold and the waterproofs helped to insulate me. When it rained later, the wind proceeded to drive the downpour into my left side and without the rain jacket and pants we would have been soaked. However, as with Icelandic weather, within half an hour of its arrival it had departed as suddenly as it had begun. Our journey took us up to an area called Kaldarseland. A mountain called Helgafell, which means (Holy Mountain) was also seen. On our return route, we rode through a plant nursery and I got whacked in the face by some small trees that were recently planted. It was an enjoyable exercise out in the breathtaking open space with the cold, fresh air for company and the good humoured banter with Elizabeth who sounded attractive and fun. She asked for my website address, which I duly gave her after the ride was completed. Back at the centre, I got a picture of me on my horse then dismounted, removed my rain gear and got the bus back to the hostel. It had been an enjoyable event that I would highly recommend. There are cheaper riding excursions and longer or shorter rides depending on your keenness and fitness. This was a gentle ride for people who had not ridden before or who wanted a leisurely afternoon adventure into the unique Icelandic countryside, void of picturesque scenery and vegetation, but containing an abyss of bleak, open landscape of baron rock, earth and lava fields – dark, eerie and rugged with a suggestion of a note of hostility.
At the hostel, I got talking to a lovely young girl on reception named Sigrid from Norway. I failed to hear her pronunciation and called her Ziggy as in the David Bowie song ‘Ziggy stardust’ (1972) – it stuck and became her nickname for the duration of my stay. Sigrid was beautiful, nineteen years old, but sensible, she laughed constantly and was full of contagious exuberance! That evening I went for my whale. I walked to the bus stop and reacquainted with the two Australian girls I had met two evenings before. Their names were Tram, an Asian Ausie, and Kerryn from Sydney. Molly from New York also arrived and we caught the same bus into town. I said I was off to try some whale. I asked the bus driver to drop me off near the harbour and this time he obliged, understanding my destination. Molly heard where I wanted to go and asked if I wanted some help. I told her I was looking for a certain restaurant and we went searching. She decided to ask at one of the hot dog stands and the guy gave us directions. Once on the harbour front it was dark and quiet, almost desolate except for the wind and the cold.
Finally, after some searching we found the restaurant. Down one large step, through a tight narrow passage, over another wooden obstacle and we were at the front entrance. Molly said she had eaten, so left after promising to leave her email details at the hostel reception. Once inside familiarity returned when Sandra saw me and gave me a hug. I asked for whale plus the lobster soup, which was superb, and then I went through into the back. As I walked through, a funny incident occurred. The two Aussie girls who I had talked with at the bus stop were there eating. They saw me and asked me to join them, I smiled and accepted saying “Thanks for leaving me at the bus stop girls!” It was funny, because if they had known we were going to the same place we could have gone together. There were two other Australian guys with them who were also friendly. We all got chatting and the food was shared around. I tucked into my whale and it was delicious. It looked slightly pinkish, but was definitely cooked. The meat was quite chewy and very juicy; it resembled beef, but had a slightly salty tang as an undertone. Again, it was on a skewer with onions, and peppers. The potatoes were very salty, but with the Sprites it made for a delightful meal. I tried some different fish and some sea bird, but it tasted like liver so I declined more. The food was messy so I asked Sandra for a small bowl of water, like eating Asian style. We all chatted after the meal, and I got to know Tram a little. Then it was decided to go and try some of the clubs for the music festival. I was unsure if I would be able to get in after the problems of Thursday night, but Tram said, “Nothing tried, nothing gained.” I liked her attitude and enthusiasm and as usual, was up for anything.
Fifteen minutes after leaving the restaurant we arrived at one of the venues, I think it was called Nasa and I managed to get in on Tram’s arm, she just walked passed ignoring the bouncer’s questions about festival bracelets! I grinned and said, “Rock on.” I had a blast; we saw four bands including Mugison, the main act. They were Icelandic and rocked. Apparently, they are not that heavy, but the performance I witnessed convinced me they were heavy enough. Their act lasted a good forty minutes and they finished by playing four base guitars and drums, the volume was loud and I head banged like mad. I was right at the front of the arena and it was fantastic. I sweated and rocked. Tram put her hand on my back at one point and I felt her strong energy and powerful qualities. We saw three more bands; one was soft rock with faster movements in places and another was dance. I twirled my arms and hands and got jumped on by several members of the audience. It was a lively crowd who were in a good mood. The girls loved it all. Tram was short with black hair and silky smooth skin, whereas Kerryn was taller with longer hair; she had almost lost her voice. We left around 2.30 am, as the fourth band was thrash metal and even I had trouble keeping up with them. My head was hurting and I was knackered. The girls had been partying since Wednesday and were leaving in the morning, but were also out of it. We first got a famous hot dog, supposedly the best in the world, and then caught a taxi back to the hostel. We swapped emails and I hit the sack.
I rose early Sunday morning and again without breakfast, got a hot cup of tea and waited for my Golden Circle tour. The weather was harsh, it had been raining already and the sky appeared dark. I can see sunlight and can often tell when it is overcast.
The bus arrived and after the usual transfer, we were introduced to our Icelandic guide and the driver, and then left the city. I sat next to an elderly gentleman from Sweden. He had come to Iceland on a science conference and was now enjoying a day of sightseeing before returning home. He described the scenery to me as we drove along. We were informed about Iceland from its beginnings to the present and about many forms of Icelandic life. We were told that the people live into their late seventies for men and early eighties for women, that the sulphur hot pools were only in Reykjavik and that all the local people learn to swim. It is a daily ritual. Adults go before work and children swim as part of their schooling. Fishing, tourism, aluminum, engineering, IT and farming are the main industries. Food and drink are the most expensive commodities because everything is taxed at 19%. Medical services are free, but to visit a general practitioner costs around £50 a time. Most people have a hot pool in their own garden and although housing is expensive, wages are high. The biggest problem in Iceland at present is the lack of people for jobs, especially in the teaching profession. There is hardly any unemployment. This is amazing. Crime is low and so are people living on social benefit. Disabled people are supported, but most are encouraged to work. The current population of Iceland is around 300,000 with the majority living in the Reykjavik area. Reykjavik itself has about 120,000 with Akureryi in the north possessing 17,000 to 20,000.
Our first stop after about forty minutes driving through wilderness and lava fields was a horticultural village named Hverageri, to see Iceland’s greenhouses where the majority of the crops are grown, and to buy many souvenirs. It was basically a tourists’ toilet stop. After that, we moved on to a large volcanic crater called Kerið. As we drove into the Icelandic wilderness it was explained how the land and crater were formed. (See more information www.wiki.org./Iceland)
By the time we reached the crater, the weather had deteriorated and the rain was torrential. You could hear it on the roof of the bus. It lessened in time for our view of the crater, a twenty-minute stop. I walked up to where the huge hole lay; there was nothing but rubble and grit everywhere. You could not go down into it, as the sides were too steep. The surrounding area was interesting; open space with hills all around. The crater was massive and void of life. The air again was magnificent, pure and thin, hard to describe or do justice to.
Our third stop took us to Gullfoss (golden waterfall) the largest in Europe. This was one of the best parts. Our journey to the waterfall took us along more rugged, barren scenery of lava fields and eventually mountain terrain. At the waterfall, we had three opportunities to view it. First from the top viewing platform, secondly from the front of it and thirdly from the bottom after walking down beside it. We were given half an hour for this adventure. I followed the guide to the first two areas and found the last spot myself. The rain made the area muddy and it was fun finding the steps that led down to the bottom. The sound was magnificent and I was able to use my acute hearing to follow the source. The view from the platform was excellent and the noise was amazing – a steady rumble. Some people said it resembled a miniature Niagara Falls in Canada. The view and sound down in front was also good, we had to descend about seventy steps; I followed the guide holding onto the rail and using my cane. I then crossed a muddy field area to get in front of the falls. I felt the spray and then followed a fence until I found some natural steps cut into the earth. The trail was narrow and rough. I felt the spray and heard the sound as it increased in volume the further I descended. I crossed a large puddle at one point and after assessing the time, I took one more photograph and returned up the hill to the bus. I love the sound of falling water and being down by it with hardly any other people about was magnificent, the rain and dampness, the open cold air only added to the impressive ambiance of the area. It gave me a glimpse of the real Iceland, cold and wet, yet alive and rumbling, hostile but somehow comforting simultaneously. The waterfall was nature at its best. Next was an hour’s drive to the Geyser – hot spring area.
We were told that the geyser erupted every five minutes or so, with help from feeding it salt. They referred to it as a person and were very fond of its performances. When in full eruption it could reach up to sixty or seventy metres high. This was our meal stop and we were there for about an hour and a half. I had a cup of tea that was tiny but free, and then in the drizzle I went with the guide to view the geyser. I followed a winding network of smooth paths that gradually sloped upwards. The wind was now stronger and was incredible. I walked into it, head down and could hardly hear a thing. It sounded like a large jet engine over my hearing aids and I had to turn my head continuously to hear the guide and get directions of where I was going. Finally, we left the paths and walked over rubble and stones. We had to cross a small bridge to reach the geyser. Then we stood round in a circle and waited for it to do its stuff. It was difficult to hear the full impact of the eruption due to the velocity of the wind. We stayed to see three eruptions and then headed back towards the bus. The largest geothermal ejaculation occurred as we were returning to the walkway – typical!
We next headed to Þingvellir National Park, our final attraction. Þingvellir is the original site of the oldest existing parliament in the world and is where The Great Atlantic Rift is clearly visible.
At the national park with the weather abating, we all piled out and took a walk up the hill through the rock bed of the rift. I enjoyed this even more than the waterfall. I was out in the open in natural geological elements. I walked uphill trying to stay in the middle of the rocky path with walls of natural rock on either side. One tourist let me feel the lines of fingers in the rock. You could clearly see huge drops on each side, which increased as we climbed. I tried to stay on the trail, but inadvertently strayed towards the drop on several occasions, scaring several other people walking behind me. The walk was short and only got steep near the end. At the top, we walked over a bridge and could clearly see the Atlantic Rift where the two tectonic plates meet. The site had been the grounds of the original Viking parliament before it moved to its modern day home in Reykjavik. We then had the long journey back to the city. I was deposited at my hostel and thanked the guide for an excellent tour. The lady was very informative and kind. She helped me from each attraction, not worried that I was blind, and happy to help. The tour was an eight-hour all-day trip, there is a shorter excursion, but you get less time at each attraction. It was a wonderful way to experience Iceland’s wilderness and landscape.
That evening I met an interesting new Zealander named Anton, he gave me a lift to the restaurant and Sandra greeted me. She bought dinner that night and I again had whale – I liked the texture and the fact it was a novelty. You can only get whale in Iceland, Norway and Japan. It is Minki, the only specie they are allowed to catch. Even this has provoked international dismay. However, the Icelanders are not bothered; they see it as part of their tradition. Some people will be offended by this – tough, travelling is about trying everything, being receptive to a country’s culture. The traveller has to be open-minded and willing to do and try anything. It is the only way to live. ‘There is no open-mindedness outside the Gate of Eden!’
In the restaurant, I met a group of Norwegians and a Scottish guy. I was introduced and fell into conversation with them. The Scot was a music journalist here for Air Waves the festival and the Norwegians had come for the music. They sounded cool and we agreed to go to a venue together. They liked my attitude and I likewise. We started at the Organ and managed to catch the last song of one band, a cover of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’. It was excellent and I went nuts to the drum rhythm. The second band was called Coral from the States. They were interesting and had a trumpet and a sax amongst their instruments. I lost the Scot sometime during the entertainment, but Mike, the Australian, and J-M plus Ryan and Dave the Americans, spotted me and the fun re-commenced. We chatted and they gave me stick as before. I cracked jokes and was as rude as possible. J-M told me he had had sex with his girl in the Blue Lagoon, but I just smiled and nodded not believing him. Mike was in a good mood. They also had another girl with them named Sophie from England. She was getting pissed on gin – the guys were just refilling her glass!
Coral were pretty good musically; playing a cross genre of jazz-rock, their singer was too high pitched for me and lacked real style. The crowd was getting busy. I wandered around and eventually met a local Icelandic girl. I kissed her hand and said, “I love Iceland, you’re beautiful.” Then I kissed her on the cheek, she kissed me back then kissed me on the lips with a bit of tongue for good measure. She was really pretty with nice small breasts. The gang laughed and said she was hot! We moved onto another bar and Mike and I rocked to the band Cut off Your Hands, from New Zealand. They were fast and heavy. After that, it was decided that Sophie was pissed and we should try to get her back. Dave was also pretty far gone. It was comical carrying Sophie down the road searching for a taxi, while I was saying all manner of rude things! We eventually got back and somehow got Sophie into bed. Dave proceeded to vomit everywhere and Ryan had to take care of him, even packing his bags for him. There had been some notion of driving around the country mentioned by Ryan earlier, but I did not take it seriously, as he said Sophie wanted to come. It might have saved money, but Sophie was in no condition to go anywhere. Time would tell.
The next morning I had my city tour. It was ok, but not really worth doing. It cost 3100 ISK (£28) for a tour around the city by bus. It was very informative and the Icelandic guide once again was delightful and helpful. However, most of the places we passed were seen from the bus and we only went into two or three attractions. I could have done it myself on foot if I had been inclined. Back at the hostel three hours later, I met up with Ryan and we went to the hot pools together. It was an experience for Ryan. The weather once again was horrendous! Strong winds and driving rain. It was only a five-minute wander to the pool and once there, I acquired some trunks and we went for it. Sitting in the hottest pool with Ryan with the wind blowing like a hurricane and the rain pelting down was interesting. We hopped from each pool until I found the correct temperature for me and then I relaxed. I got to know Ryan even more. A funny, gentle, easygoing guy who I liked almost immediately. He had an education, was practical, kind, and possessed a sense of humour beyond his years. He was different from your average yank! After one hearing aid packed up, we climbed out and made a retreat through the impending storm back to the hostel. The five-minute walk under normal circumstances took nearly ten in sheeting rain and galactic winds, the weather in our faces was so severe it was almost sleeting! Just a normal afternoon in Iceland!
My final night in Reykjavik was a quiet one. Sophie eventually woke up and along with Ryan and myself discussed the possibilities of renting a car and driving round the country. After hearing Sophie’s plans, I suggested she make Reykjavik her base, as she would meet more Icelandics that way. Ryan left to meet some local musicians he had met and Sophie and I went out for dinner. Yes, back to the restaurant and the waitress I liked! Unfortunately, Sandra was not working that night, but the Norwegians and the Scot were there. We had a laugh about the previous night’s events. Then Sophie and I caught a bus back to the hostel and watched a film all in Icelandic! It was called 101 Reykjavik, and was rather funny.
So, this was my first six days in Iceland, and what an adventure it was. I met fantastic people; the locals were kind, gentle, happy and very friendly – willing to go the extra distance to do things for you. My main surprise was the amount of foreign people I met and the diversity of nationalities; Swedes, Norwegians, Americans, Australians, the odd New Zealander, Canadian, lots of Germans, and even a lady from Finland – amazing. This small country and Reykjavik, a large town rather than a city, had all these personalities and nationalities, I could not really understand why. I could see it being busy in the summer and the music festival attracted young internationals, but it was busy permanently. A young group of teenagers turned up in the hostel Monday evening waking me out of my dreams and making a huge racket, it was unbelievable.
Reykjavik is a delightful city, but there is not that much to do once you have seen and explored it. For me the art museums were off limits and the extreme elements of the weather that could arrive at any moment left walking around for long periods unappealing. Since I no longer drink, pubbing soon gets boring. The city’s best activity is sitting in the hot pools, meeting the locals and relaxing in natural healing minerals. I would return to Iceland and Reykjavik tomorrow for the people, the hot pools and the fresh and pleasant natural non-chemical air and atmosphere.
The hostel was enjoyable while it was filled with activity and characters, but when a large group arrived or when it became empty as later, then it became somewhat blank and stale, the large concrete, empty spaces echoed and the metal rang. The staff were outstanding, booking tours, offering advice and generally being helpful, enthusiastic and willing to communicate on a human level. They made the stay better than it otherwise could have been.
I made many friends and impressed lots of people, probably upset one or two and confused others. I mean, what was a blind person doing in a hostel? Why was he in Iceland? Travelling? Surely not!
I enjoyed the first six days of uncertain entertainment, knowledge and fun and this was only the tip of the Icelandic iceberg – much more was to follow.