Jökulsárlón

A Hypnotic Glacial Lagoon in Southeast Iceland

On both of my trips to Iceland (in 2001 and 2013), I stopped by the glacial lagoon at Jökulárlón to see the strangely-shaped and colored little icebergs. The second time, I even took a boat ride around the lagoon.

The lagoon is a must-see on the road between Höfn and Kirkjubæjarklaustur, neither of which could be correctly pronounced by visiting tourists. It is an outlet to the biggest glacier in Europe, Vatnajókull, which occupies approximately 8% of the total land area of Iceland.

Fanciful Shapes Abound, Like This Duck

Never mind that the sun doesn’t seem to shine much at Jökulárlón, the sight of all those odd ice shapes tinted electric blue catches and holds your attention. All the buses in South Iceland make a point of stopping there for a half hour on their way either east or west.

I even had a taste of glacial ice from our guide, who fractured a pane of ice and passed it around among the tourists. It was delicious, having been frozen for millennia.

Although the Vatnajókull glacier is, like most glaciers, receding, it still occupies a large chunk of real estate. While I was staying at Hófn, I even played around on the glacier’s surface on a Ski-Doo snowmobile.

Atop the Glacier

I have been atop two glaciers in my lifetime, Vatnajókull and the Athabasca Glacier in Canada’s Jasper National Park. Something tells me that this is an activity that future generations will not be able to enjoy.

Vikings

Vikings: They Did a Lot More Than Loot and Pillage

They were the bad boys of early Medieval Europe. From the pulpits of all of Europe and even farther came the prayer “A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine”—“From the fury of the Norsemen, O Lord deliver us.” Sailing out of Scandinavia, they occupied large parts of Britain, Ireland, France (surely you’ve heard of Normandy), Ukraine, Russia, and Italy. They formed an elite regiment in Constantinople, where they were called the Varangian Guard.

They just happened to be the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas some half a millennium before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. They had a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, which they abandoned only after constant warfare with the Skrælings (Indians).

We call them Vikings, but for them the word was a verb, not a noun. Most of the dread Norsemen raiders were farmers who would “go viking” when their short growing season was over. They were, in effect, part time terrorists.

Also, they just happened to create a great literature in the sagas, particularly those created in Iceland in the 13th century. They included such works as:

  • Njúls Saga,, the greatest of them all, about revenge that gets out of hand
  • Egils Saga, about the bard Egil Skallagrímsson
  • Laxdæla Saga, with its female heroine Guðrun
  • Eyrbiggja Saga, with its berserkers (yes, they actually existed)
  • Grettirs Saga, about a famous outlaw warrior

These were probably the best works of literature to come out of Europe in the period in which they were written. They are all available in excellent translations from Penguin Books.

Incidentally, as a French woman of Norman heritage, my Martine is herself a Viking.

Geldingadalir

The Volcanic Eruption at Geldingadalir, Iceland

When one takes an international flight to Iceland, one usually lands at Keflavík Airport on the Reykjanes Peninsula. From there, it is a From there it is 30 miles (50 km) to Reykjavík. Those 30 miles contain some of the most desolate volcanic badlands that I have ever seen. It is south of that road, on the way to Grindavík that a fissure in the earth started belching out lava on March 19, 2021. It is still going strong, and it looks like it will destroy the road to Grindavík, forcing the locals to take a more roundabout route to the capital.

The area of the eruption is part of the Krýsuvík-Trölladyngja volcanic system on the Reykjanes Peninsula, a scene of active rifting between two major tectonic plates: the Eurasian and North American. The boundary between these two plates cuts north/south right through the west of Iceland. This is the first eruption on the Peninsula in over 800 years. You can read about the eruption at Hit Iceland and Wikipedia.

The Desolate Reykjanes Peninsula Terrain Seen from the Airport Bus to Reykjavík

I took the above picture from my bus to Reykjavík in June 2013. It amazed me on both my trips to Iceland that the road to the capital was so desolate, so uninhabited, for so many miles. At places, one could see geyser activity marked with little steam clouds. I can only speculate that the Icelanders knew this place was going to blow at some point, so they decided to stay away in droves.

Now, of course, tourists are flocking to the scene of the eruption, but they are warned that things can get ugly fast. In 1783, there was a major eruption along a 27 km fissure called Laki, killing some 9,000 Icelanders with the lava and poison gases associated with the event. You can read about it on the Scientific American website.

No one knows how long the eruption at Geldingadalir will continue, and how much the Peninsula will change as the result of the massive amounts of lava being pumped out.

Unfinished Business Abroad

The East Fjords of Iceland

I still have places to see. Even though I have been to Iceland, Argentina, and the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico several times each, I have missed a number of destinations. These are just some of them.

Iceland’s Far Northeast

I have been to Egilsstaðir where I had to change buses on my way to Höfn and Hornstrandir, but I have never seen Iceland’s wild northeast coast between Seydisfjorður and Borgarfjörður Eystri. As my brother once told me, I am drawn to wild and desolate places—probably because I have lived most of my life in the United States’s second largest city.

This is one trip for which I would have to rent a car, as public transit here is mostly potty. And I would have to be prepared for bad weather at any time of the year. But with a good four-wheel-drive vehicle, I think I can hack it.

Southeastern Campeche State

Look at All the Maya Ruins Along Route 186 in Campeche

Back in the heyday of the Maya from around AD 600-800, the southeast of the State of Campeche was where it was happening. Particularly important was Calakmul, which was a major competitor to Tikal in Guatemala’s Petén region. The only town of any size in the area is Xpuhil. Ruins include Balamkú, Chicanna, El Ramonal, La Muñeca, Hormiguero, Xpujil, and Rio Bec.

This is one trip where I would have to hire a guide with a car. The accommodations and dining are probably acceptable, but not great. And I would need to apply large amounts of DEET insect repellent, as this area is jungle and thinly inhabited now.

Argentina’s Patagonian Coast

The South South Atlantic

I am intrigued by this wild coast and would love to visit Rio Gallegos, Puerto San Julian, Puerto Deseado, and Comodoro Rivadavia, the port from which Argentina launched its attack on the Falkland Islands, or the Islas Malvinas, as they insist on calling it to this day.

The extreme South Atlantic coast of the provinces of Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego are very much unfinished business. In 2006 in broke my shoulder in Ushuaia, which forced me to cancel my ride via a TecniAustral bus to Rio Gallegos, from which I planned to work my way north back to Buenos Aires. But, as the pain was too much to bear, I had to fly back to the United States and get better.

In 2011, Martine and I flew from Ushuaia to El Calafate, and thereupon on to Trelew and Buenos Aires. I’d love to do it by bus, at least as far as Comodoro, from where I could fly the rest of the way.

Obviously, I still have places to go.

Places: South Iceland 2001 and 2013

Looking South from the Island of Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar

These are my oldest image files. They were converted from my Kodachrome slides from a trip I took to Iceland in 2001. Before I went to Iceland, there were parts of Europe that fascinated me. After Iceland, I was fascinated only by Iceland. Was it that I have an inborn need for wastelands like Patagonia or the Southwestern Deserts of the United States or the Peruvian Altiplano? I think so.

With the above photo, I was trying to see if I could find Surtsey, the island that was created by a recent volcanic upheaval beneath the sea. (The island still exists, but it is gradually getting smaller.)

The Ice in Iceland

The Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon Near Skaftafell

One of the most incredible sights in South Iceland is the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon visible from the Ring Road on the way to Höfn in Hornstrandir. On one side of the road are these incredible chunks broken off from the giant glacier Vatnajökull; on the other, is a black sand beach dotted with tiny chunks of transparent ice like diamonds in a black satin setting.

The lagoon and beach are so spectacular that it is almost impossible to just pass on by. Even the bus to and from Höfn stops for a half hour or so. It’s not long enough for a boat ride on the lagoon—but it makes you want to come back, as I did in 2013.

Ice like Diamonds on a Black Sand Beach (Breiðamerkursandur) 2013

Why I Want To Return

My two visits to Iceland have merely whetted my appetite. I have read all the major Medieval Icelandic sagas, most of the novels of Iceland’s lone winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (Halldor Laxness), and the superb books by Jesse L. Byock on Medieval Iceland. Plus there are parts of Iceland I have not seen, such as the Eastfjords, the stretch between Bru and Akureyri, Siglufjörður, and the Sprengisandur route through the middle of the island.

The Golden Circle

Thingvellír on Iceland’s Golden Circle Tour

If you should be so lucky as to visit Iceland, I highly recommend taking the Golden Circle tour offered by several tour bus companies. It attempts—and successfully—to highlight the uniqueness of the country by visiting three or four major attractions within a short distance of the capital at Reykjavík.

Before it got gobbled up by Norway, Iceland was governed by an annual outdoor meeting at Thingvellír, where the laws were read out loud and cases were tried to resolve conflicts. It also is a significant site geologically, as the line between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates runs right through it. You can see how much the plates have moved since the early days of the 9th century AD.

The Waterfall at Gullfoss

Not far from Thingvellír is the huge waterfall at Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”) on the Hvitá River. The falls is in three “steps” before plunging 11 metres or 36 feet, and 21 metres or 69 feet as seen in the above picture. One of the most incredible things about Iceland is that, throughout the country, I saw hundreds of waterfalls of various sizes.

The Geyser Strokkur at the Original Geysir

The word geyser comes from the name of a famous erupting hot spring which, for many reasons, does not erupt any more. Not to worry: There are dozens of other geysers, especially Strokkur, which erupts several times an hour. There are numerous bubbling hot springs throughout Iceland, necessitating considerable care to avoid boiling your extremities as the result of a misstep.

Some of the Golden Circle tours also include sa visit to a geothermal power plant on the route back to Reykjavík. It was incredible to me that the whole city of Reykjavík has central heating: no coal, no oil, no gas—but steam as the result of drilling strategic holes in the earth’s crust near lava and sending water down the hole.

Iceland is one of the most eerily beautiful countries on earth, even if it isn’t very green.

How Not To Be Mistaken for an American Tourist

Second Class Buses in Antigua Guatemala

If you actually want to look like an American tourist, stay the hell away from me. When you look at me as if I were a fellow gringo, I will answer you in my rather coarse Hungarian. I don’t want to be anywhere near you with your flip flops, fanny packs, baseball caps, and selfie sticks. You will be the target for anyone who can rip you off in broken English, and I don’t want to be a witness to that.

I remember my friend Janice. Her ex-boyfriend took her to Europe, but they didn’t really see anything. He was what I call an “experiential traveler”: “Hey, look at me. I’m walking on the Champs-Elysées” or “Hey, we’re in Amsterdam. Isn’t this cool?” They took pictures of each other in front of various famous locations which they didn’t take the time to visit. If I were her, I would have dumped his inert corpse into the canal.

Early Morning on Laugarvegur in Reykjavík, Iceland

The best way to enjoy strange places is to explore them—and not in large groups. I keep thinking of Rudyard Kipling, no mean traveler himself, who wrote in “The Winner”:

Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.

I have on occasion been tempted to replace the word “fastest” with “farthest.” I have done most of my traveling alone, especially as Martine thinks I am too adventurous for her comfort. On the other hand, I have enjoyed traveling with her and on two separate occasions with my brother. But as soon as I find myself in a large group of Americans, I quickly search for the nearest exit.

When I was in Mexico last year, I frequently hired guides by myself at the various Maya ruins I visited. Rather than joining a group that sauntered around absentmindedly, I enjoyed asking questions of the guides, who invariably knew their stuff. As opposed to the tour guide the parents of one of my friends had in Yucatán: He told his boat people tourists that the Maya ruins were built by Egyptians.

I know I must come across like a horrible grump sometimes, but I have had numerous bad encounters in foreign countries with my fellow Americans. And yet, in 2013, when I went to Iceland for a second time, I helped a couple of French tourists find a hotel in Höfn in the Hornstrandir, where no one spoke their language.

A Long Flight to … Where?

This may sound strange to you, but I am surviving the rigors of self-quarantine because I am good at lying to myself.

The Coronavirus Quarantine Is Sort of Like Jet Lag

I have on occasion taken some longish flights to Europe and South America. The ones to Europe are particularly problematical because I arrive early in the morning after a night that has lasted for only a few hours. I know that if I drop into bed upon check-in at my hotel, I will awake while it is still light; and I won’t be able to go to sleep until the next morning.

So what do I do?

  • First of all, I pretend to myself during the flight that I am somehow outside of time, and that during the flight, time has no meaning.
  • Most important, I set my watch to the time zone of my destination. Nobody else I know does this: They insist on holding on to the time zone of their city of origin.
  • When I arrive, I stay awake until it is a reasonable bedtime in my destination.

When I went to Iceland, for example, I arrived in June—when the sun doesn’t set until the wee hours of the morning. I ate extra meals, went on a walking tour of Reykjavík, and finally collapsed in bed while the sun was still up around midnight. I woke up refreshed at an acceptable time the next morning.

So what does all this have to do with the coronavirus? Fortunately, Martine and I are retired, so I could pretend that this whole period of the outbreak is like a long flight to nowhere.

A Nook of My Library Circa 2002

I have in my apartment several thousand books as well as hundreds of films on DVD. With my subscription to Spectrum Cable, I have access to hundreds of films for no additional cost using their On Demand service. Plus: As a member of Amazon Prime, I have access to thousands of other films.

So on my “flight” to nowhere during this seemingly endless quarantine, I am reading 12-18 books a month as well as seeing 25 or more feature films a month. (And in between reading and film viewing, I do all the cooking and go out for walks.)

I realize I would be in a radically different situation if I had to worry about a job, but fortunately I don’t. I have to worry that that madman in the White House may decide to cancel Social Security or destroy the value of the American dollar, but other than that I am not dependent on the workplace—though I am affected when restaurants are shuttered, museums and libraries closed, and so on.

There is an 1884 novel by a French writer named Joris-Karl Huysmans called Against Nature (in French À Rebours) about a dilettante names Jean des Esseintes who, instead of actually going on a vacation, does an armchair traveler “staycation” and is happy about it. The epigraph to the novel is a quote from the 14th century Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck:

“I must rejoice beyond the bounds of time…though the world may shudder at my joy, and in its coarseness know not what I mean.”

Strokkur

The Geyser Strokkur (“Churn”) Erupts

Everyone knows what a geyser is, but do you know that it is named after a particular geyser named Geysir in the Haukadalur Valley east of Reykjavík, Iceland? Its situation is similar to that of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. In their hurry to precipitate an eruption hordes of tourists over the years have poured detergents and other foreign substances into the holes and succeeded only in making the eruptions more sporadic and unpredictable.

Tourists still visit the area in great numbers in the various Golden Circle or Great Circle tours offered by coach lines. (These tours usually include Þingvellir National Park and the waterfall at Gullfoss, among others.) Instead of waiting for Geysir, they have the nearby frequent eruptions of Strokkur, “The Churn,” which sends a column of steam 15-40 meters high every 6-10 minutes.

Tourists Waiting for the Next Eruption of Strokkur


Iceland has a number of these geothermal areas. Visiting them calls for a certain amount of care as a slight misstep can result in boiling your foot as the soil around your footprints starts to sink. Not all of these areas are carefully fenced; and tourists, being their usual irrepressible selves, have a tendency to risk a serious hotfoot.

Two English Poets in Iceland

The Falls at Gullfoss Around the Time of Auden and MacNeice’s Visit

Around 1936, W.H. Auden and his companion Louis MacNeice visited Iceland, which resulted in a delightful travel-cum-poetry book entitled Letters from Iceland. Here are a few excerpts from the poetic “Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard” signed by MacNeice:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air.
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness seems beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture,
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like Stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.
And yet I like it if only because this nation
Enjoys a scarcity of population
And cannot rise to many bores or hacks
Or paupers or poor men paying Super-Tax.

Later in the poem, he becomes more reflective:

Here is a different rhythm, the juggled balls
Hang in the air—the pause before the soufflé falls,
Here we can take a breath, sit back, admire
Stills from the film of life, the frozen fire;
Among these rocks can roll upon the tongue
Morsels of thought, not jostled by the throng,
Or morsels of un-thought, which is still better….

Harðfiskur

Both the prose and the poetry are worth reading. For instance, here is Auden’s opinion on the cuisine of the island:

Dried fish [harðfiskur] is a staple food in Iceland. This should be shredded with the fingers and eaten with butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one’s feet.