After two weeks of R&R (and teaching), it is time for an update on our Icelandic Adventure! I guess I should start at the beginning. Back in June or July, I was browsing Groupon trips, scratching at my travel itch, when a trip to seek the northern lights came up. I immediately called up my sister, Lydia, and bought tickets for January of the following year. About six months passed, and after a giant REI trip, a frantic night of last minute packing, a 3:30 AM departure for LAX on the 14th, a flight to Boston, we finally arrived in Iceland at 6:30 AM on the 15th. We snoozed in our hotel room, gaining strength for our first night of seeking out the northern lights. A long bus ride and an even longer line for the bathroom later, we returned cold and aurora borealis-less.
The next day, we booked another day looking for the lights in the sky, but while we were waiting we trekked all over Reykjavik. First stop was the Saga Museum, full of unsettlingly realistic models of people burning at the stake, dying of the plague, and being beheaded. After learning about the main MVPs of Icelandic settlement, Lydia and I took a turn putting on our viking hats duking it out with mini-broadswords, to the amusement of museum employees.
Another trek, and we were at the Icelandic Phallological Society. Yes, you read that correctly. This is a museum devoted entirely to the penises of the animals of Iceland and the surrounding oceans (don’t believe me? Visit their website: http://www.phallus.is/en/). As we approached the door, we saw a T-shirt in the museum store through the window which read “This museum is not for pussies.” It was not. The museum boasts a collection of 230 specimens (I think, maybe it’s 230 species?) from a variety of animals including fish, whales, walruses, birds, mice, raccoons, horses, etc. Although no human penises are currently on display, there is a room devoted to the human phallus which includes pictures and x-rays of human penises which will be donated to the museum after the deaths of their owners. The best part of this whole experience was watching the other visitors to the museum, from the older woman with her child or grandchild (she was on her cell phone the whole time, pulling along this elementary aged kid ogling up at all the specimens) to the couple from England (the woman insisted on taking pictures with the largest penises as though she were licking them), the the abashed tourists, who all seemed a little ashamed of being found in a penis museum but took small comfort in the fact that we all were there for the same thing.
After a trek back to the hotel, we took a nap then left for another night of hoping for the northern lights. For me, the single best thing about Iceland was the sense of humor of its occupants. For example, on the Icelandair menus, they suggested eating your yogurt with fork to take up time that you would otherwise be bored on the plane. Shortly after we boarded the bus, our guide began the same informative speech we had heard the night before about solar wind, cold temperatures, and the fickle nature of the lights. We settled in to read our books until the guide began a new topic, this time about the area which we would be visiting and the types of mythical creatures which we were most likely to be carried off by as we waited for the lights. She settled on the souls of drowned sailors, qualifying that while trolls and elves were also possible candidates, trolls don’t usually hang out near oceans and elves usually only take off with children (note: she also specified that Iceland is unique because half the population readily admits the believing that elves are real, while the other half does not deny their existence. Perhaps this is due to proximity to the north pole?). We got off the bus, stood on the seashore for quite some time, then boarded the bus again after our guides had given up hope. On our way back to town however, a weird, winding cloud appeared in the sky, which the guide declared was an aurora borealis. The northern lights are obviously a weird phenomenon in general, but the weirdest part to me was that you cannot see the colors in the lights unless you have a camera (I think this is for the lower energy lights only, as the displays get more spectacular I think you can see more color). Regardless, we piled off the bus, set up the tripod, and started shooting. Were we surprised when the amorphous gray cloud dancing above us came out on the camera display as a long line of bright green in the sky. At this point, I think the pictures can speak to the experience more than I can, se here you go:
We returned to the hotel feeling very successful and immediately booked another tour the next night, then collapsed into bed. The next day, and our final day in Iceland, we woke early and jumped on a bus before daylight for a “golden circle” tour, which inc luded visits to notable churches, a geothermal energy plant, waterfalls, hot springs, geysers, and a place where two tectonic plates part. The whole sunrise and sunset thing in Iceland is a little weird: at this time of year, daylight is short. The sun rises just before 11 AM and sets around 5 PM. With so few hours of daylight, most of the Iceland natives we spoke to were grateful to be inside under florescent lighting, so they could at least pretend it was light outside. Anyways, back to notable sights. We stopped at a geothermal energy plant, one of the coolest parts of the trip. Here, we learned that 90% of Iceland runs on geothermal energy, and that all the hot water used in Iceland (or almost all) comes straight out of the earth. We had experienced this in the shower at the hotel, which left us smelling a little like rotten eggs and turned my rings brown two days. We also learned that many of the main streets are heated as well by putting pipes under the streets filled with hot water to prevent snow from sticking and ice from forming. Residents in Reykjavik also have this technology under their driveways, so they never have to shovel snow. We then visited the Gullfoss Waterfall, and immense and powerful waterfall dropping multiple steps down into a giant canyon. At this time, a significant portion of the falls were frozen, creating an amazing and alien landscape of ice formations. We piled back on the bus and went a few kilometers down the road to the hotsprings and geyser park, where we witnessed the ground steaming and boiling hot water flowing right next to snowbanks. We stuck around to witness the main geyser go off a few times, spewing hot water and steam 20-30 feet into the air, and checked out the dormant geysers in the surrounding area. We then visited Thingvellir Park, the place where the North American and Eurasian continental plates move apart, which is responsible for the creation of Iceland. Here, we were able to walk through the valley between the plates in a place which used to be a mid-ocean ridge but which rose over time so now it can be seen above land. Thingvellir is also where many scenes beyond the wall are filmed for Game of Thrones, and the site of Iceland’s first parliament (pretty cool to have your politicians holding their meetings out in the woods, right?).
Later that night, we tried for our third, and final, night in Iceland, to spy the aurora. After a short bus ride, we abruptly unloaded. Lydia and I tried to beat the crowds by running out into an open field and staking out with the tripod. Unfortunately, the wind was gnarly enough that we ended up with mostly slightly to very blurry photos. However, the aurora borealis itself was amazing (this night, it was bright enough that we were able to see a little bit of color without the camera), and was very active. We watched it dancing in the sky for almost an hour before we shepherded back onto the bus to visit another location. Upon our arrival, the aurora still active but slightly less bright, and we were freezing. We opted for a few neat shots while everyone else was standing in lines for the restroom or for a beer, then went back to the bus and snoozed until it was time to go, as visions of the northern lights danced in our heads.
The morning after we said our goodbyes to Reykjavik and boarded a bus, then a plane, back to USA. It was super cool looking out the window and seeing giant sheets of sea ice over the polar north, but not as cool as time traveling (we left at 4:55 PM Iceland time on the 18th, and landed at 4:50 PM Seattle time on the 18th. Pretty badass). It was spectacular to sleep in my own bed, see mom and dad, and waking up to Daniel coming in from the station.
While this was a crazy whirlwind trip, I absolutely recommend visiting Iceland. I hope to go back and visit sometime in the summer when some of the snow has melted and the volcanic landscape can be seen.
Till the next adventure, cheerio!