Flateyri Will Get You Nowhere

The Town of Flateyri in Iceland’s Westfjords

One of the most picturesque parts of Iceland is its northwest, usually called the Westfjords. Here the mountains come close to the coast, and distances between towns are magnified by roads that laboriously travel around the shores of the long fjords that characterize the region. One town I went through in 2013 was Flateyri on the shores of Önundarfjördur, scene of a disastrous avalanche in October 1995. The town had a small population to begin with; and, after twenty people died in the avalanche, many of the survivors pulled up stakes and moved to other parts of Iceland which were not as susceptible to avalanches.

There is still an active fish processing industry in Flateyri, so guest workers from Poland and the Philippines were invited to take up the slack. This caused some problems, as the town fractured on cultural fault lines, with the native Icelanders not mixing well with the Poles and Filipinos, and the latter not making much of an effort to mix with the natives. You can read about this in a 2006 article from the Reykjavík Grapevine. I imagine that, over the last eleven years, the situation as changed for the better. For one thing, there is now a tunnel connecting Önundarfjördur with Isafjördur, the largest town in the Westfjords, taking hours off the trip by highway. I took this tunnel, called the Bolungarvíkurgöng, and it is quite an achievement—17,717 feet in length,

To protect against future avalanches, the Icelanders built a retaining wall (visible in the above photo, shaped like an upside-down “v”). The local restaurant, Vagninn, has re-opened; and a cultural center has been built.

Small towns in Iceland have had a difficult time surviving, especially when there are no large local projects such as aluminum smelters to act as an employment draw. Meanwhile Reykjavík continues to grow at the expense of rural Iceland. One possibility is that global warming will benefit rural Iceland, with more cash crops being grown outside of greenhouses.

Unfinished Business

Accordion Player in Downtown Buenos Aires

Accordion Player in Downtown Buenos Aires

I always say I have unfinished business with the people, places, and things that I love. Take Argentina, for instance. I have been there in 2006, 2011, and 2015. The first time, I broke my shoulder by slipping on the ice in Tierra Del Fuego; the second time (the best), I went with Martine and saw a good chunk of the Patagonia; the third time was mostly just fill-in, with visits to Iguazu Falls and Sar Carlos Bariloche. But I am by no means finished with Argentina, nor Argentina with me.

There is a broad stretch of the South Atlantic I’d love to see between Rio Gallegos and Carmen de Patagones. I would not mind taking long bus rides to God-forsaken ports like Puerto San Julian, Puerto Deseado, Caleta Olivia, Comodoro Rivadavia, and Bahia Blanca. I don’t even care if there aren’t that many notable tourist sights. I could easily put up with some slow time, especially as I would have two Kindle readers with me, and some 3,000 different titles to read. At my side will be my pocket digital rangefinder camera to catch people and places in the process of being something special.

Guanaco in the Buenos Aires Zoo

Guanaco in the Buenos Aires Zoo

Argentina isn’t the only place I’d like to see again. I wouldn’t mind spending more time at the English Bookshop in Quito, Ecuador. And Iceland will continue to be a lifelong love of mine. I only wish I could get Martine to come with me. She has some idea that she would have to dress like an Eskimo amid huge snowdrifts. Far from it! Iceland will be one of the few countries to benefit from global warming. My favorite destinations in Europe are on hold for now, because I suspect that mass immigration will change that continent forever. I also want to see more of the American Southwest, and Martine and I are planning one such trip right now that will take up large swaths of New Mexico, Colorado, and possibly Utah.

As Lao Tzu wrote, “From wonder, into wonder, existence opens.”

 

Not So Uncivilized

Carved Door at Reykjavík’s National Mseum

Carved Door at Reykjavík’s National Museum

“From the fury of the Norsemen, Oh Lord deliver us!” This was the cry of Western European churchmen in the 8th through 10th centuries as the Vikings raided coastal areas throughout Europe, seemingly killing and plundering at will. By the time any effective resistance was formed, the marauders had sailed away in their ships.

What many historians neglect to say is that these same marauders were every bid as advanced culturally as their victims. The main difference was that, until around AD 1000, the Scandinavian peoples were still pagans worshiping Thor, Odin, and Freya. By the time they themselves were Christianized, they left us a literature that was in no way inferior to that of the English and French.

The Icelandic sagas were written down in the 13th century, but they celebrated the deeds of their pagan ancestors (with a few Christian touches). In fact, I believe that no one could understand the period until they read the following five sagas: Njals Saga, Egils Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Laxdaela Saga, and Grettir’s Saga. (The first two sagas listed have entire museums dedicated to them in Hvolsvöllur and Borgarnes respectively.)

If you visit the National Museum or the Culture House in Reykjavík, you will see the work of a people who do not deserve to be thought of as barbarians.

 

Long Ago and Far Away

Borgarnes, Iceland, As Seen from Borg á Mýrum

Borgarnes, Iceland, As Seen from Borg á Mýrum

Today is the first day of Winter, and my mind goes back to that land I associate most closely with Winter, namely: Iceland. When I took this picture in 2013, I was at Borg á Mýrum, the historical farmstead of Egill Skallagrimsson, poet and hero of the 13th century Egill’s Saga, which was thought to be written by Snorri Sturlusson, perhaps the greatest writer of his time.

About Iceland, I will say about every place I’ve visited that I’ve loved deeply: I have unfinished business with the place. I still want to see the Northeast of Iceland, from Seyðisfjördur to Raufarhöfn, and the national parks around Þórsmörk and Skaftafell. And I hope to take Martine with me. My last two visits to Iceland were by myself, and I hope to share the places I love with the woman I love.

Alone or accompanied, I plan to return to Iceland—had I but world enough and time.

Do You Ever Want to Live There?

Parque El Carmen in Lima’s Pueblo Libre Municipalidad

Parque El Carmen in Lima’s Pueblo Libre Municipalidad

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know that I love to travel. The question that many people have asked me is, “Yes, but wouldn’t you like to live there?”

The answer is very simply no. It’s not because I have any great hopes for the United States, but because I know that many of the places I love to visit have or have had insurmountable difficulties which make me think twice.

For instance, I love Iceland; but I dread the idea of six dark months out of every year in which the weak sun comes up for only a few minutes in the middle of the afternoon. And even though virtually everyone speaks English, I would probably have difficulties getting my kennitala (registration number), because officialdom likes to do its business in Icelandic.

Of all the countries I have visited, I would probably like Argentina the best. Even though my Spanish is adequate for travel, however, it would not fare too well dealing with the authorities in matters relating to housing and taxation. Also, all the South American countries I like (including Peru, Uruguay, and Chile) have had problems in the not too distant past with rightist dictators and left wing insurgencies.

We’re not quite there in the U.S.—yet!

As for Hungary, Slovakia, France, England, Scotland, Belgium, and the Netherlands—they’re nice, but I have a feeling they are just at the point of entering a bad time, what with the hoards invading from the Middle East and Africa. I just don’t see a good path around the problems they are just beginning to face.

There’s always Canada, I suppose, and I really like the Canadian people, even the Québecois, but I think I’ll stick it out in the U. S. of A. for the time being.

 

Reykjavík

“Downtown” Reykjavík Scene

“Downtown” Reykjavík Scene

As I write this, my friends Bob Alonzi and Suzanne Holland are spending a few days touring in Iceland. And, as for me, I cannot think about Iceland without wishing to return—and soon. There is something about a brave little country, whose total population is some 330,000, which has had such an outsize influence on world history:

  • An Icelander, Leif Ericsson, landed in and colonized the New World some 500 years before Columbus.
  • The Icelandic sagas were probably the greatest European literature of the time, with the exception of the Italian Dante Alighieri.
  • The “Cod Wars” against Britain in the 1970s led to Iceland winning, without a single bullet fired. Subsequently, most countries joined Iceland in declaring a 200-mile coastal sovereignty limit.
  • The Iceland soccer football team defeated powerful England 2-1 (before losing honorably to France).

One of the things that keeps me going is my love for so many lesser-known parts of the world, parts that are wild and fascinating, as Iceland surely is.

Kim Kardashian Flashes Reykjavík

If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It!

If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It!

And that’s exactly what Kim Kardashian did as she boogalooed down Laugavégur, the main shopping street of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. I’m sure that scores of Icelandic women (who for the most part look a whole lot cuter than our Kim) must have wondered what strange beast was stalking their city streets.

But then Kim is a celebrity, like Donald Trump or Paris Hilton. She is famous for … being famous. It’s like talking about the Donald’s career holding elective office or Paris Hilton’s contributions to Western Civilization. In other words: zip, zero, nil, zilch.