If you’ve ever gone on a group tour, you know the routine. On the bus, gaze at the unfamiliar scenery whizzing by, get off the bus, troop into an exhibit, a lecture hall, a factory, a significant natural wonder. A series of experiences of great variety, strung together by bus-trips down the road. One after another, like a strand of beads, not necessarily, actually probably not, related, except they all take place in a foreign country.
And so are notes taken during the trip to Iceland . A string of unrelated events that add texture to our days. Welcome to my notebook.
First, the flag: A red Scandinavian cross bordered by white on a field of blue. The blue for the ocean; the white, snow and glaciers; and red for volcanic fire.
Iceland is geologically part of the mid-Atlantic Ridge. It straddles the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate. These two plates are pulling apart about two centimeters a year. We saw the rift and walked across a bridge connecting the two continental plates. Steam burbled noisily out of the ground; extremely hot water burped in mud.
Iceland is on the very edge of the habitable world. Reykjavik, the capital, home to 2/3 of the population, is about 37 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
Iceland’s is a market economy: sheep kept early settlers alive; fish and agriculture were the foundation in the 20th century; add tourism in the 21st century. Dried cod is the main export.
Icelandic sheep are a Northern European short-tailed breed. They have been vitally important to people’s survival over the centuries. Currently there are 500,000 winter-fed sheep. The sale of meat is 90% of farmers’ income. We saw sheep, in distant pastures and up close. One afternoon as we were visiting an Icelandic-horse farm, one of their ewes delivered triplets! Another time a flock of sheep and some shepherds were scurrying up the narrow road with our bus trailing along behind them.
Today’s farmers need another job for income. Some use their farms for summer residences. Some are part-time farmers. Barley and rye are grown and harvested twice a year. Timothy (a grass) is grown and baled as silage for winter; livestock spend September-May in barns. Icelandic cows come in all colors! Original breed was from Galway, Ireland. No hormones used. “Cows are as natural as possible.” They produce 50,000 liters of milk/year.
We saw many waterfalls, all with a story attached. One, Godafoss, is where Porgeir threw his poles of Norse gods, similar to totem poles, into the falls when he proclaimed he’d become a Christian.
An example of the power of the people: A hydroelectric power company came in to dam a waterfall. Farmers protested and “exploded the dam project.” Thirty-five people claimed, “I did it.” A few days later, the case died away. There was no one person to prosecute.
Along a road, I saw name signs and asked our guide Eirikur if they were the farmers’ names. “No, that’s the name of the farm. It has had the same name for many generations.” He added, “To address a letter, write the person’s name, the name of the farm, and the 3-digit zip code.”
We passed through a small town and learned that first there had been only a boarding school. Children from remote farms boarded during the week and went home on the weekends. Then families of school-children moved in to form a town. Their main industry is drying fish. I think I mentioned that dried codfish is Iceland’s main export.
There is no litter in Iceland, except a little–a paper cup rolling around on the floor, a page of newspaper skipping across the parking lot–at the metro bus depot in Reykjavik.
Fact: Icelanders are genetically 40% Irish and 60% Norwegian. When the settlers came to Iceland in the 800-900s, they stopped by Ireland to pick up some women.
I think that the Irish brought with them a great belief in the “Hidden People.” They are little people who live in rocks and borrow your glasses and car keys when you can’t find them. They are descendants of the first children of Adam and Eve. One day God visited Eve and asked to see her children. As it happened, she had been bathing them, so sent the clean ones out to meet God. The others, those still unwashed, were hidden and He never got to see them. Nowadays, very few of us humans can see them. But we know they are around for all the mischief they create.
A different breed of little people: the Trolls, who come out at night. If the sun shines upon them, they turn to stone. All over the Iceland we visited, they were pointed out to us as stone formations.
The Blue Lagoon is the largest of many warm-water pools in Iceland. The water is run-off from the filtered water used for heat and for hot water supplies in homes, offices, businesses. Even to clear driveways and sidewalks.
While standing shoulder deep in the soothing water, I spoke with a young woman from Seattle. She asked how long we were staying and when I told her until May 20th, she sputtered, “OH! How do you get to stay so long? I can stay only until Friday.” I told her we could stay because we are old and don’t work any more and have the time. The lesson is to stay healthy, grow old, and you, too, will have until the 20th.” She laughed and said, “That’s inspiring.” I hope she remembers.
To review the Blue Lagoon: When Joanie and I took a taxi from the international airport in Keflavik, 45 minutes to our hotel, we noticed that we were surrounded by a vast lava field from which steam or smoke spewed forth here and there. Then around a corner, we saw a cluster of large shiny steel buildings, and just beyond that, our hotel! In the US we don’t build nice hotels in industrial areas. We asked the hotel clerk and learned that what we thought was a factory was indeed a geothermal power plant in which ground water at 300 degrees C was filtered. A 100% renewable resource. Then we learned that the Blue Lagoon was an enormously popular tourist attraction. Hence the Northern Lights Hotel.
Iceland has no standing army. They do have Coast Guard, who literally guard and would defend the coastal areas. However, war has affected Iceland in that during WWI, Britain needed wool for uniforms and Icelandic sheep farmers benefitted from that. May 10, 1940, Britain occupied Iceland as a base from which to patrol the North Atlantic for German submarines. July 7, 1941, seven months prior to Pearl Harbor, American troops arrived. They brought with them trucks and tractors which promoted mechanization of local farming. Just one example of the exchanges between two cultures. Before WWII, Iceland was one of the poorest countries; after WWII, it became one of the richest.
Iceland does claim to have been in one war; The Cod War, between local fisherman and British trawlers, who dragged nets two miles behind their boats. Icelandic fishermen cut the lines and that was that. At least, that is what I understood.
In conclusion, let me say that Joanie’s and my trip was an over-view, titled The Best of Iceland. We cannot become experts in 12 days, but I’m sure she will join me in sharing enthusiasm for this small bright country. I can’t recall another country that has so stimulated my curiosity. I am still ordering and reading books about Iceland. I’d be happy to share these books. And I’d go again in a heartbeat.
Note: When you look at a map of Iceland, note how many place names end with vik. Vik means cove or bay. Note foss. That means waterfall. Ness, headland; kot, small farm. The language is ancient and fascinating.