Monday, October 24, 2016

Iceland Day Four: The Pool

The one thing you must do on a visit to Iceland is swim, ideally in a geothermal pool, such as the Blue Lagoon. Apparently the Blue Lagoon is the most-visited site in Iceland, and it looks like it must be incredible. Since it's located somewhere between Reykjavik and Keflavik airport, you can arrange an excursion there either on your way to or from the airport, which was my original plan. I thought I'd spend my last morning in the Blue Lagoon and then take a bus straight to the airport.  But then I had second thoughts. I didn't want to spend my last hours in Iceland hustling out on another excursion. I wanted a leisurely cafe breakfast. I wanted to revisit some of my favorite places in Reykjavik. Also, I didn't want to spend my last day with tourists. (Sorry.) So I decided to visit one of Reykjavik's municipal pools instead.

I almost chickened out. I had done a little reading about Icelandic pools, so I knew I was in for a potentially awkward cultural experience. But then, I'd practically broken off all my fingernails cramming a towel into my already overstuffed backpack at the last minute before leaving Charlottesville. Was that effort going to be in vain?

The closest pool to my house, Vesturbæjarlaug, opened at 6:30 am, so on that cold Monday morning, I found myself walking through the dark and deserted Reykjavik streets. The temperature felt like it was in the thirties. I don't think it was below freezing, but then I did see someone scraping a car windshield.

So the thing about Icelandic pools is that they have very strict standards of cleanliness, which means you must shower, at the pool, without a bathing suit, in a communal shower, before swimming. I'd read that there are even "shower guards" who stand there and MAKE SURE you're actually washing yourself. It's not that I couldn't deal with the communal shower, I was mainly worried that the three whole blog posts I'd read about Icelandic pools hadn't fully prepared me and that I was going to commit some sort of unspeakable blunder, while naked.

I paid my 900 kroner ($8) entry fee and headed up the stairs to the ladies' locker room. Step one is to remove your shoes, just inside the door. There's a special shoe shelf that you put them on. Then you proceed into the locker room proper and select an empty locker. It will have a key in the lock that you wear around your ankle on a rubber band. Take off all your clothes at your locker and then proceed to an anteroom, where you stash your towel and bathing suit. Then you enter the shower room and wash up. There are signs, in four languages, showing you all the areas of your body that you need to wash. There are soap dispensers, so you don't need to bring your own soap, but you do need to bring your own shampoo and your hair is one of the areas you're specifically directed to wash.

It really wasn't as awkward as you'd expect. Everybody is just minding their own business, although the other ladies will greet you with goðan daginn (good morning). If YOU were in a communal shower with a bunch of other women would you be staring? Of course not. So the shower was fine.

Once that's done, you go back to the anteroom, dry off completely and then put your bathing suit on. I should mention that my bathing suit is a sexy, ruched, halter style, number that I bought at Anthropologie a few years ago. It looks like something Marilyn Monroe would wear and was nothing like the sensible athletic suits the other women were wearing, the pool population that early in the morning being somewhat elderly.

Properly attired, you leave your towel behind (the blogs say that while towels aren't forbidden, most people don't take a towel into the pool area) and head out to the pool. Barefoot and wet-haired as I was, the thirty-five degree temperature and half-frozen concrete pool deck were something of a shock. (In my anxiety about the shower procedure, I'd completely forgotten the fact that it was, by Virginia standards, winter.) There's a lap pool and an adjoining pool for general splashing about. There's also a huge modern hot tub, but I made a beeline for the smaller concrete hot pots, each labeled with a sign indicating the water temperature. The 38-40 C pool seemed to be what I was aiming for, and it was heavenly.  There were two Icelandic women in the pool and they said goðan daginn, and then continued their conversation.

Have you ever noticed how soothing it is to listen to people speaking in a foreign language? Nothing is required of you. You can just let the words flow around you like music. This fact is doubly true when the speakers are two 70-ish women speaking Icelandic.  The only words I could understand were "yes" (sounds like "yow") and "no" (sounds like "nee"). It was like watching someone knit, or take tray after tray of fresh cookies from a hot oven. For a few moments I was about as relaxed as I've ever felt in my life, when suddenly I was gripped by a new worry.

On the railing above my head was a sign depicting a woman's head with long hair and a word that clearly meant "forbidden." The two women in the pool with me were wearing bathing caps. Were bathing caps required? I peered over the edge to observe the other women and all were wearing bathing caps. There are signs in four languages with illustrations, admonishing you to wash your crotch before swimming, but this little tidbit is kept secret until you're actually in the water? The two women in the pool with me seemed unperturbed that my long, outlander hair was clogging their pool's filter and on further reflection, I decided (hoped) the sign was saying that it's forbidden to put your head under water. (Eventually I did see a woman without a bathing cap.)

I walked over to the modern hot tub for a change and drifted horizontally from the edge while gazing at the curiously purple Icelandic morning sky.  I switched back to my original hot pool to take advantage of its super strong air jet. I'd been walking ten to twelve miles a day and my legs were sore. There are ropes hanging from the railing so you can lift yourself and let the air hit wherever you need it to. There's also a cold pool (8 C /46 F) if you're into alternating between two extremes, which some people claim has health benefits. How is any of this better than a hot tub in the United States? First of all, the absence of a suffocating chlorine smell is certainly a plus. The air jet is about a million times stronger than anything I've encountered in the US. Also, I liked the novelty of using an outdoor pool in the winter and the Icelandic cultural vibe.

But here's where things got weird. Two older men sprinted across the pool deck, yelling in Icelandic. They both got into the hot pool next to mine and all was quiet again for a few minutes until the two men got out of the water and started yelling again. The women in my pool also started yelling and got out of the water and I saw that everyone was exiting all the pools and heading toward the two men. I got out of the water too, because I'd been planning to leave, but now the entire pool population, about twenty people, was gathered between me and the exit. Under the shouted direction of the two men, everyone began to exercise; a sort of brisk Viking yoga of lunges and toe touches and jumping jacks. I looked around wildly and didn't see a single person in any of the pools. Was this compulsory? I couldn't possibly walk past the crowd to the exit. I attempted a half-hearted lunge with the crowd, but then fancied one of the men was glaring at me, so my Marilyn Monroe bathing suit and I slunk back into the pool, wondering if we'd be trapped there until I missed my flight and how I'd explain that to Jon. "I had to stay an extra day because a gang of Vikings were doing calisthenics and wouldn't let me leave the pool."

At any rate, the exercise session lasted only about five minutes and then everyone streamed into the hot pools. For a picture of this ritual, scroll through this article. A little poking around Google has since taught me that poolside exercise, even in the snow, seems to be a thing in Iceland. Indeed, it has a name: Müllers-æfingar. IIcelanders do have the longest life-expectancy in Europe, so maybe there is something in this.

I reluctantly left the water and headed back to the locker room for another quick shower. There are hair dryers you can use, and even a nice large makeup mirror; handy if you're going straight from a swim to your job. I left the pool, in search of breakfast and feeling faaan-tastic.

There's still a bit more of my Icelandic trip to write about, although much of it will be about the disastrous journey home. I hope to get that post written this week and not drag this out any longer.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Iceland Day 3 (Part Two): Gullfoss and Þhingvellir

When we left off, I was on a super jeep tour of Iceland's Golden Circle and had just explored a bit of the Langjökull Glacier. Now, we drove down to Gullfoss, an impressive waterfall.  It was now brilliantly sunny (with a killer windchill) and the views of and around the waterfall were gorgeous.



It was so windy I had to keep my hair bundled in an unattractive collection of clips.

Where there's a waterfall, there will be a rainbow


In addition to showing us these sites, Arni gave us a lot of information about Iceland. It's only 16 million years old. Compare that to the Appalachian Mountain chain, which had its beginnings in the Grenville orogeny about 1 billion years ago. The Rocky Mountains, relative babies, are still 64 million years older than Iceland. The island was formed by volcanic activity that persists to this day. The geothermal areas generate electricity and hot water for most of the country, so there's no need to burn fossil fuels. The drinking water, Arni said, is filtered by glaciers. Arni and I hung out a bit when the Hong Kong couple were off doing their thing. I told him about mistaking city hall for the National Museum. "I suppose it happens all the time," I ventured and he responded in a polite, noncommittal way.

Our next stop was a brief one at Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermal area with a spa and baths. We didn't go to the spa, but walked along the shore of a lake. The lake water itself was cold but steam was rising from the beach and in one spot, water bubbled briskly out of the sand. Arni pointed out mounds of black sand, under which was bread dough, left to bake in the geothermal heat. The only picture I took is this movie of water boiling out of the sand.


Our last stop of the day was Þhingvellir National Park, site of the world's first parliament and the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Althing (parliament) was found in 930 A.D. Later, Iceland fell under the rule of Norway and then Denmark. In 1944, when Iceland once again became an independent nation, citizens gathered at Þhingvellir. 

Image from here

The two tectonic plates are drifting apart at the rate of one inch each year. That's quite fast when you consider that just within my own lifetime, the landscape has shifted four feet. If you're really adventurous, you can scuba dive between the plates here. 

Icelandic flora

North American plate

Þhingvellir was our last stop and it was only a half hour drive from there back to Reykjavik, where Arni dropped me off at my guest house. It had been a nine-hour day and it wasn't over yet, because this was my last chance to try and see the northern lights. Most people book a tour, where you're taken out into the country, but I didn't want to spend three hours on a bus, so I decided to take my chances in the city. Arni said they're only visible from Reykjavik if they're very strong, but I didn't feel discouraged. 

I finished dinner around 9:00 pm and headed out for a sculpture garden we'd visited on the walking tour on my first day. Audur had said it was a good place from which to see the northern lights. But then, while I was still downtown - right in front of Government House - I saw something in the sky. It could have been a wisp of cloud, but I knew it wasn't a cloud. It faded and then reappeared as a stripe of bright green across the sky. The green faded and came back a few more times and I knew I wasn't imagining things because other people had stopped to look too. This day had been my best-ever travel day, but for it to be finished with a northern lights sighting was almost unbelievable. 

This picture is terrible. You can barely see them, and you'll have to take my word for it that the lights were more intense than that in real life. Another word of wisdom from Arni was that all the fantastic northern lights pictures you see were taken by professional photographers with a slow exposure. This fleeting glimpse seemed to be it for the night, in the city at least. I walked up to the dark sculpture garden and waited there for a while, but didn't see anything. (Another thing about Reykjavik - I never felt unsafe, not even when walking alone at night.) 

So this was my last night, but since my flight home didn't depart until afternoon, I had time for another Icelandic experience the next day, which I'll relate in the next post.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Iceland Day 3 - The Golden Circle

For my third day in Iceland, I booked a tour of the "golden circle," a ring of geysers, waterfalls, volcanos and geothermal areas all within day trip distance of Reykjavik. It's like doing Ireland's Ring of Kerry, only with less seaside and more explosions. I didn't want to be on a huge tour bus, so I booked the "super jeep" tour through the company Extreme Iceland. These have a max of ten people. The tickets are pricey, but for one person, it was cheaper to do this than to rent a car and explore the area on my own.

We started at 9:00 am, and when the jeep picked me up, there was just a young couple from Hong Kong and our guide, Árni, who told us that with such a small group, we would have the opportunity to do some extra things. Did we want to go up on the glacier? Of course we did.

Our ride for the day. It's so high off the ground, we needed a step stool to climb in and out.

Our ride wasn't actually a Jeep, but a Ford van, jacked up onto a massive chassi with huge wheels. We stopped at a gas station for a quick toilet break and headed to our first destination, Kerið, a volcanic crater lake, where we hiked around the crater, an exhilarating experience in the brisk wind, with beautiful views into the crater and of the countryside all around.

Around Kerid

I saw this red shrub everywhere but I don't know what it is.
I saw a lot of rainbows in Iceland

After a brief stop at the Faxi waterfall, we went to Geysir, a geothermal area that has several geysers: the famous Geysir, which is now dormant, and the active Strokkur, which erupts roughly every ten minutes. Despite it's lack of activity, Geysir is an interesting sight because of the delicate blue color of its water, and even though it doesn't erupt, its water is scalding hot. Árni told us that Geysir became active again for a while, after an earthquake in 2010, but then went back to sleep. It was freezing cold with a stiff wind and it was tempting to try to warm yourself by the geyser, as if it were a campfire, but the steam loses its heat immediately, and you can't touch the water because you'll scald yourself. 
Water literally boiling out of the ground

You can tell when Strokkur is about to erupt because its water will start to gloop and gurgle, and then blast, a huge plume of water rises into the air and immediately dissipates. (You don't want to be standing downwind or you'll get soaked, but not burned because it cools so quickly.) The quality of this video is so bad - I'm too discouraged to load more, but I put a couple of other ones on my Patience Crabstick facebook page, so you can check them out there, if you want.

There are toilets, a cafeteria, and gift shop at Geysir, so we stopped for an early lunch and rest. Árni, in addition to being very knowledgable about all the sights and wonders of the surrounding country, was a pleasant guy with whom to spend a day. 

Langjökull is the large glacier, furthest to the left.

Not too long after we headed for the Langjökull Glacier, the paved road ended.  Árni pulled over to let some air out of the tires, explaining that for the terrain we were about to cover, this was necessary to reduce bouncing and to allow as much rubber as possible to come into contact with the road. The vehicle was equipped with a system for efficient deflating and re-inflating of the tires and soon we were on our way again and Árni let us know that the tires were down to just 10 psi, which is pretty flat. ("We go down to 5 psi in the winter," he said.) Anyway, at first the road didn't seem THAT bad, but then Árni said, "We don't need roads. Roads are for cars," and made an abrupt right turn and we went jouncing down a rocky cliff, until we reached a river, which we drove through - the bridge well above us - and then clawed our way back up to the road.

The "road" to the glacier

After that exciting diversion, the road became pretty bad and eventually ended altogether and we slowly progressed across a difficult, rocky terrain. But let me back up to when we were still on the paved road. As we drove, I could see, far off in the distance, a vast, inexplicable thing such as I'd never seen the likes of before. It was high above us, seemingly at the same height as the mountains in the distance. With a mist rising off it, it looked as if the sea had somehow invaded the mountaintops. Of course, the thing was the glacier, which sits about about 4,000 feet above sea level. Langjökull Glacier is the second-largest in Iceland and covers roughly 1500 square kilometers.

The landscape changed dramatically as we neared the glacier. The grass and trees around Kerið and Geysir gave way to a greenish-grey moss which eventually disappeared and we drove through a barren moonscape, devoid of all life except for patches of livid yellow moss. (Fun fact: astronauts were sent to Iceland to practice before going to the moon because Iceland is the most like the moon of any land on earth.)

On the glacier

The black cones are volcanic ash

The glacier itself has a deep margin of black volcanic ash. We drove right onto it, past the ash and onto the ice and got out of the car to walk around.  The ice is blue, because, Árni explained, it is so compressed. It was absolutely freezing. The wind was from the north, and thus had traveled across 1500 square km of ice before hitting us. The air temperature itself was probably not that cold, but the windchill was easily as cold as the coldest winter day you'll ever experience in Virginia. (But not as cold as weather I've experienced in Buffalo.) I'd lost my hat on Videy Island :( 

After we left the glacier, we made three more stops, but this post is getting long, so I think I'll save the second half of this day for later.