From August 6 through 16, 2014 five of us — my parents, Karin, Claire and I — drove the Iceland ring road. Our adventures were numerous and my photos were plentiful. I chronicled our trips in a live-ish blog post summarizing the highlights of our trip, in chronological order… but I often find that after such a mind-blowing adventure, it’s good to step back and reflect on the many things that have left an impression upon your mind, body and spirit. This is the second of four of those Icelandic Reduxtions, reflecting more narrowly…
on Wool & Knitting
We bought wool. We all did. Some of it was in the form of clothing. Some of it was in the form of coarse balls of raw yarn intended to be knit when we got home.
I don’t tend to brag it up a lot because our culture has this thing about the masculinity of guys who can do arts-and-crafty things. But taking after my late grandfather, I learned to knit when I was a kid and can purl with the practised adequacy of a thirty-something middle-class dude who learned to knit when he was seven…. In other words, just so-so.
But still, I can knit well enough for me to buy three skeins of orange-hued Icelandic wool, all of which I will be attempting (in the coming months) to craft into a very basic scarf. Very. Basic.
Karin, on the other hand is more ambitious.
See, Icelanders seem to like their wool products. There are sheep everywhere, after all. Once you leave Reykjavik, and find yourself driving through less populated areas you often find yourself counting sheep (taking note not to fall asleep while doing so)… and then not counting sheep (because there are so very, very many of them and you’ve lost track)… and then counting more sheep because you cannot believe that in this random, barren and remote place you find yourself staring at a half dozen sheep have beat you there and are watching you patiently as you snap their photo and climb back into your car.
I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to also state that in every restaurant, every shop, and every location willing to take your money someone was selling knit products. A wool cap or some cozy socks in a coffee shop. Or a whole line of beautiful sweaters (each with a little “Hand-knit by Friðþóra” — or some other local knitter — hanging from the collar.)
It might be that confidence that ‘everybody knits here’ which compelled Karin to –rather than buying a sweater– buy a pattern book and a suitcase full of wool skeins and attempt to knit her own.
on Museums, Churches & Picnic Sites
Otherwise known as a long list of the many places we stopped along our epic adventure…
And stop we did. I suppose, when you visit a place like Iceland you do one of two things: you either go on a capital-A adventure vacation, climbing mountains, white-water rafting, whale-watching, swimming-in-volcanos-type adventure, or you tour. We toured. I like touring, too. It was a slower pace, let me take all those photos, and when the rain and wind were pelting those poor souls on their road bikes –the one’s we zipped by in our Land Rover in what seemed like the middle of nowhere– I could crank up the heated seat another notch, recline back into the soft leather and gaze out the window.
When you tour, however, you stop a lot. We stopped a lot. When we looked at our tour map, we’d see stretches of two or three hundred kilometers between hotels. “Oh, a couple hours driving and we’ll have lots of time to wander!” We thought. But that wasn’t exactly the case.
First, you’re only averaging 80 – 90 km/h on the good roads.
Second, you’re always stopping. And we stopped. We would get out and tour a little museum about the herring fishery in one place, wander through the hobbit-hole-like burrows of numerous turf houses (and yes, hobbit-hole is an apt description, inside and out), or poke our noses into a few of the various little churches that appeared in the strangest and most remote of places imaginable.
We also stopped at picnic sites. Not always for a picnic, of course, but the little blue road sign with the picnic table pictogram became our photography beacon as we drove. Whenever there was a sight worth seeing along the long, long highway –whether a distant peak with a good line of sight, or a panoramic vista over the ocean, or just a cluster of weird shaped rocks along a twisting riverbed– there was a picnic stop. On a road where shoulders are more rare than other vehicles, a picnic site was a safe place to stop, a five minute break after twenty minutes of driving, and a almost always marked by at least a dozen photos of yet-another-awesome sight.
on (Other) Tourists
Iceland has the air of a place that still figuring out that people are coming to visit, like a host who’s still doing the washing up as the doorbell is ringing and the party guests are rumbling through the door and tossing their jackets into a pile. Admittedly we visited largely tourist-drawing locations, but the number of tourists was –other tourists– was higher than I’d imagined in the Iceland of my mind. Buses. Buses. More buses. And then folks like us, bumbling around the country in cars. Oh, and don’t forget the hitchhikers.
I could write an essay on the cultural clashes of tourists who converge on a humble little country …about how yes, talking boisterously and loudly on your phone while sitting in an otherwise quiet hotel lobby is still rude even if I don’t understand your language …about how me pausing to let someone come through the door the other way, at least where I come from, is not an invitation for you to push around me …about how tramping down the ancient moss on a path clearly marked “do not walk here” in four languages and pictograms makes us all look bad …about how being on vacation is supposed to make you happy, and yeah I get that you’ve been stuck on a bus that is full of strangers and is barrelling down roads barely fit for 4×4 vehicles let alone luxury coaches, but c’mon!
I won’t write that essay, but I will not-so-subtly imply that my least favourite part of Iceland was the other tourists. Icelanders are generally lovely people, and all the moreso for having the patience to put up with the people who’ve invaded their countries with cameras slung around their necks.
I tried to be patient, but near the end we’d see a bus load of our fellow tourists and I’d cringe, perhaps even hint to miss a scenic view or two because I was tired of being jostled out of the way by an overly-entitled fellow-foreigner.
It isn’t that I’m (a) cheap, (b) broke, or (c) a big complainer about the price of things… but gee whiz, Iceland, you were expensive.
As a general rule, we save for –and spend our extra cash on– travel. And we’re are fortunate enough that (lately) each of those trips is able to get better and better with less and less stress about how much things cost, the price of souvenirs, or the bills at a countless parade of restaurants.
To be honest, I had heard/read that things would cost more than in Canada when we arrived in Iceland, but I suppose –foolish me– that in my mind “cost more” implied some magic number slightly rounded up from what I was used to paying. Y’know… if something was five bucks here, then the equivalent in Iceland may be seven or eight bucks (but in the local currency, of course.)
The local currency is the Icelandic Kroner, and for simplicity’s sake –for you now and me then– we just called the conversion rate a steady 100:1. One hundred kroners was abooooout a single Canadian buck. So, one Kroner (in my mind) became a penny… move the decimal over two spots, and voila… easy, right?
But let me tell you, the first time a cashier tells you, for example, “that will be eleven thousand blah-blah-blah-uuuuuuuuh…” that’s about exactly what you hear. Which is actually only a hundred and ten bucks but then I will add, not an out of scope number for say (as we quickly learned) filling your car with gas, buying a few souvenirs, or paying dinner.
Now, when we go out to eat in Canada –and admittedly, I do get it, we travel to broaden our minds and experience weird and wonderful things– our meal bill tends to hover somewhere in the thirty to fifty dollar range for dinner, for the three of us. In Iceland, I pretty quickly learned that dinners were going to be, minimum, a hundred bucks a pop. And that’s if we didn’t have a beverage –any beverage– and they had a cheap kids meal for Claire. Throw in something exotic –a bit of lamb roast and a bottle of wine with dinner or that tempting desert to share– and the bill was pushing two hundred bucks.
I don’t write this to complain. I write because it legitimately threw me for a loop for a couple days and the mind needs time to wrap around these simple facts. A cup of coffee for four hundred and fifty kroners. A liter of diesel for two hundred and eighty kroners. A bowl of chicken soup for one thousand eight hundred kroners… at that was on special! An average, basic magazine –like a Time or a Cosmo– that costs the equivalent of twenty bucks, or paperback books for easily double or triple that.
Some stuff was cheap. Your kroner went much further if you were in a bakery, or buying candy. Our mobile pay-as-you-go SIM cards were ridiculously inexpensive in retrospect, full-in for about forty bucks with five gigs of data that worked almost everywhere on the island. And we never once paid for parking. But in general, cheap was not the norm, and we quickly blurred our minds to paying what seemed at least double for prices we were used to back home.
And yet for all that spending, I rarely handled cash. I think, ten days in, I personally used less than two thousand kroners — or twenty bucks– in cash and may have had coins in my pocket once. Icelanders like their plastic. Credit cards were the preferred method of transaction, and our Mastercards worked just nifty wherever we went, usually with PIN-based machines, but occasionally using signatures.
All that said, my point is not to suggest avoiding Iceland because of the cost –go, go GO!– but save your pennies because you’ll need a few extra for when you visit. We sure did.