Monday, February 1, 2010

Iceland on $500 a Day

[This post was written on 12 January 2010.]

We got a slow start today. From all the research last night we were ready to be gung-ho this morning, but I just couldn't fall asleep when it was time to be doing that.

I had hoped to get up at 8am, but I probably didn't fall asleep until around 6am, so, consequently, I didn't get up until noon. And if it wasn't for Robin's prodding it wouldn't have even been then. Though, to be sure, it's silly to sleep through the daylight since there is so little of it.

The first errand was to find the shop with all the maps; my Insight Guide gave the address for the office of the Iceland Geodetic Survey. However, my Insight Guide is from 2000, so when we arrived at the address we found the office no longer there. We did find a helpful person inside whatever organization is now using the space at that address. I don't know what the office was; there was a rack of postcards on the reception desk, but there was no sign or anything identifying what the business was, so I don't think it was a place for the public. In any case, this helpful person gave us the address for an academic-type shop that had loads of maps and just what we needed. We got a nice map of the Reykjanes peninsula, and a road atlas of the country. All together, about $50, which I thought was very reasonable considering our experiences with the knitting book and the dictionaries.

The walk to get the maps was windy and far, but we got to see the striking mountainous scenery across the bay. Since we'd only been out in the dark so far, we hadn't seen this yet.

We did a little grocery shopping to get a few more items for our larder, including some milk to replace what we mistakenly thought was milk when we were shopping yesterday, but turned out to be a carton of yogurt. You'd think that mjolk would be milk (the label on the yogurt carton), but no, milk is clearly marked "Muu." Silly me.

Next we went to the Tourist Information Center where we learned that there's no easy way to get to the Blue Lagoon other than an extortionately priced coach ride. And the admission to the Lagoon itself has become extortionate: nearly $40. I remember it being something like $12 or $15 when I was last here, in 2001. Now that Conde Nast Traveller has been singing its praises the Blue Lagoon can apparently charge virtually whatever they want. What other reason to travel to Iceland than to bathe in the runoff from a geothermal power plant? (Okay, to be fair, it's a pool of interesting silt and minerals that is heated by the runoff from a geothermal power plant...)

In any case, the costs involved caused me to think that perhaps a car rental would be better. Frankly, I hate being without a car. I love the freedom of going where I want when I want, not having to wait for someone to pick me up, to keep checking my watch to make sure I am on schedule. The cost for a car is high though. I sent my sister Jess a text to look up the cost on Travelocity since I thought it would be cheaper to book from home. $76 per day for two days, $204 total. (This compared to renting a car in Scotland last year which cost about $200 for two weeks.)

We also went to the handknitter's shop (see Handknitting Association of Iceland). They still have the nice style Nordic sweaters similar to what I bought when I was last here for about $100 and other more bulky knits for about three times that. Perhaps the ones I like are not handknit? They also have some yarn for sale, but it was hard to get to in the shop as it's near the stock area. They have some pattern books, but I didn't see anything terribly inspiring. I bought some Icelandic (probably machine-knitted, but reasonably priced) mittens for our friend Brandi, the vet tech who is helping out with Zose (my kitty with chronic renal failure) while I am away. The woman on line in front of me bought a small ball of yarn for the equivalent of about $3. My eyes were surprised to see such a low price. I would love to find a nice Icelandic pattern and the wool to make it with. There are other shops. The search is not yet over.

The best turn of the day came when we were leaving the house to try to find the thermal beach we saw on the map yesterday. Hlin was outside and she was telling Robin about her cats. She told a familiar story of families moving away, leaving their cats, and she takes them in, or at least looks after them. There's one ginger tom (a doppelganger for my Little Ginge) who is incompatible with her indoor cat, so he lives in a shelter that her husband built for him. Hlin also has a parakeet that was brought in (alive) by one of the cats. She invited us in to meet the parakeet and in the course of conversation asked us how things were going and how our plans for the week were shaping up. We expressed our desire to find a car and right away she was on the computer looking at local rental agencies. The first one she looked at was more expensive than what Jess found, but Budget turned out to be cheaper. They don't allow you to reserve online less than 24 hours in advance so Hlin picked up the phone right away to call them to inquire. They have a good rate (for here, anyway): the equivalent of about $200 for three days.

So now, with our car, our plan for tomorrow is to head to the Reykjanes peninsula which (I hear) has lots of lava beds, hot springs, and other geo-interesting things to see. And some lighthouses. Hlin's husband Sigi had a look at our map and gave us a very useful overview.

Hlin and I talked about how expensive entry to the Blue Lagoon now is. She seemed slightly surprised that I also felt it was expensive. I have the feeling she thinks the rest of us (in the world? in the US?) are much better off than the Icelanders, and that spending close to $40 to sit in a thermal pool is small money. Frankly I was encouraged by her reaction. I was starting to feel that maybe the Icelanders weren't bothered by these price tags.

We have not had a meal out yet and have been quite satisfied with our diet of bread, cheese, tea, yogurt, toast with jam, and juice. Today we even had some meat: salami with cheese and crackers (for me) and bread (for Robin). Yesterday we found ourselves hungry often; probably from our adjustment to the time and place. But we don't seem to eat more than a snack at a sitting. Maybe it's the good Icelandic air?

I read tonight that the cold water here comes from springs, and the hot water comes naturally heated from geothermal sources (and that's why it smells like sulfur; after lunch today Robin had a good laugh making farting sounds while he was doing the washing up to pretend that he was making the smells rather than the hot water. Ha ha). So no energy is needed to make the hot water, and most electricity is generated by harnessing the geothermal energy, making transportation the primary source of pollution.

Later in the day (that is, when it was more or less dark) we had a nice six-mile hike (as tracked on my Garmin wrist GPS) to the "Dome", a funny, yes, dome-shaped building that houses a revolving restaurant at its top, then to the thermal beach which was unfortunately closed, then a walk along the path that follows the coastline before heading back home. It was a nice walk but I am not struck by Reykjavik. It's hard for me to remember my exact impressions from when I was here eight years ago. There is something about it that seems unsettled, as if it is trying to be a modern European city, but it's not sure how to go about it. Even though it is nice to walk along the coast, there were several areas of detritus (presumably from the business of the Reykjavik Airport which we walked around) and some derelict huts of unknown (current or former) function. Even on our walk to get the maps, once we got past the swanky shopping area that is clearly dressed up for the tourists, the buildings look much more utilitarian (that is to say, ugly), the roads are busy and the ambiance is far from charming. Robin said yesterday that he didn't care so much for Iceland and wouldn't want to live here; he much prefers Scotland. I challenged him, citing that we had hardly been here long enough to make an informed comparison, but for now I have to agree with him. I think that the next few days will tell. We will be getting out of the city and exploring the countryside to the south, north, and east.

We still haven't seen any aurora. Perhaps tomorrow we will stay away from the city until after dark (and hopefully it will be clear!) and we will have a better opportunity. If nothing else, it would be nice to have a clearer view of the night sky than we get at home.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Arrival in Reykjavik, First Impressions

[This is my entry from 11 January 2010.]

The flight was awful. I don't know if it was because I wasn't in a flying frame of mind (whatever that is) or that it really was just awful, but we were so uncomfortable most of the time. There are worse things that can happen on flights, to be sure, but this one was awful because it was so cramped, and hot, and dry. It was like being in a sauna. The two small children (one yabbering, a younger one screaming and carrying on most the time) didn't help, and Robin's incredibly frequent coughing and throat-clearing left over from his Christmas flu also did nothing to help me as I tried to get some sleep.

As an extra bonus, on arrival at Keflavik airport, you get to go through the security rigamarole all over again. This is because, once you arrive in the airport you "mix" with all the people who have already cleared security. So even if you're staying in the country, I guess just in case you change your mind and hop on another plane, you must be cleared through security: take off your shoes again, take your computer out of its bag again, put your liquids in a separate container again, and have a friendly pat-down by the security guard AGAIN. Thankfully the line moved pretty quickly, but the inanity of this exercise is striking. [rant]Do they ever stop anyone dangerous this way? Has a terrorist attack ever been prevented through these checks? If a guy can still get on a plane with a bomb in his pants, I know it's an obvious question, but what is the point of these "security" checks?[/rant]

In fact, a minor note: I usually bring an empty water bottle with me into the terminal, and once through security I fill it up at a water fountain in the terminal (this useful tip given to me by my good friend Cathy Andrulis). When at JFK, after passing through security, I went to retrieve the bottle from my hand luggage, and I realized that the bottle was not at all empty and had about 10 oz of water in it. Maybe they're not as careful if you're leaving the country?

In any case, our minds dulled from the time spent in the Sauna in the Sky and a general lack of sleep, we had a pretty hard time making our way out of the airport. As if something in the air sapped our intelligence we wandered around a very quiet terminal and it took some amount of effort to even find the luggage carousel (when we finally did, it was only our bags sadly traveling round and round on the belt).

We took a very expensive coach trip (about $35 for both for a 40 minute ride) to get from Keflavik Airport to the bus depot in Reykjavik. We walked to our apartment, at Forsaela, from there.

The apartment is adorable. It is lovingly maintained and has a lovely entrance done with lights on the tree outside and in the garland decorating the window boxes. My heart warmed as soon as I saw it. As I walked past the kitchen windows with their pretty lights, I thought, how lovely if that was to be our kitchen. And it is! As with our wonderful cottage on Islay, I feel lucky to stay in such a lovely place. Two views are below:

Our hostess, Hlin, is very personable and has offered to help with any extra arrangements for tours, etc., that we may want to make. She instructed us that we must leave our shoes on the rack in the entryway outside the door to our apartment and don the slippers she has provided when inside.

Many people still have their Christmas lights and decorations up. It is fun to see how others in the world decorate for the holidays. Not that it's much different, but there are some cute departures: Santa in Iceland has a more Scandinavian physique (read, skinny) and a less full beard.

I had a lovely nap after we settled into the apartment; I had some of the best sleep I think I've had in weeks. Unfortunately, I slept through almost all the daylight, of which there was very little. When we got on the bus from the airport at around 8:30am and were walking to the apartment at around 9am it was dark as night. The streets weren't even busy and it was a Monday morning. Many shops open at 11am (sunrise is at around 11:30am). What do people do for work here? Why wasn't there rush-hour congestion?

Also, why are the houses covered in corrugated sheet metal? It's generally not very attractive (unless painted a lovely cornflower blue, like our apartment house) but perhaps it's long-wearing? Good for keeping out the elements?

Robin's first comment on starting out from the bus depot was "Iceland smells like farts." I thought the smell was from the sea; the smell seemed similar to the kelpy, salt-watery smell common to the seaside, but no, he's right, it smells like farts. The hot water smells like sulfur. Turning on the tap in the apartment, it's a bit strange to smell the "eau de sulfur."

After napping, we walked around the shopping district some. We bought some groceries; the grocery store was pretty rudimentary by our standards, even by those of the Scottish Co-op in Bowmore on Islay. The store here is called Bonus; their logo is a cartoon fat pig with money popping out of his spine. I find it unpleasant; he looks crafty to me. Here's a screenshot from their website:

I like that their refrigerated food section is an actual refrigerated room that you walk into: kind of the inverse of what we have at home. Neither of us is in the mood for elaborate meals, so we bought some basic staples: yogurt (Icelanders love their yogurt), bread, cheese, pasta, and what we thought was milk, but turned out to be a carton of yogurt. Robin tried to make the best of it by putting it in his tea, but that turned out to be a bad idea. Thankfully there was at least some powdered creamer left by a previous resident.

We walked around the main shopping district where there are lots of swanky boutiques; no sign of a collapsed economy here. We went into a couple bookstores to try to find an English-Icelandic dictionary; I thought this might be useful for signs and labels (everyone here speaks at least passable English). Even the teeny-tiny one we found cost the equivalent of about $30 (something that would cost about 6 USD). The exchange rate is currently about 120 Icelandic Krona (ISK) to the US dollar (compared to around 85 ISK when I was last here in the summer of 2001). I saw a beautiful knitting book, on sale for 15,900 ISK (about 132 USD). I couldn't believe the price could be so high. Surely it must be 1,590 ISK? Who would spend so much on a knitting book? The high prices are discouraging to me. I was expecting things to be priced more reasonably than this.

Of amusement: we passed a (closed) sex shop while walking through town. Their URL is included on their shingle: Cute.

We've been seeing lots of cats around. Since I am a cat magnet I guess this shouldn't surprise me. We've already seen three or four, including one who said hello as we were walking from the bus depot (what better welcome than one from a cat?). They all seem very tame and friendly and have collars with tags. It's heartening to see that people here seem good about keeping up with their animals.

Tonight we took a walk to the harbor area where we thought it might be darker to try to look for aurora. It was a bit overcast though. No aurora to be found.

We spent the rest of our time today at the kitchen table poring over our guidebooks, brochures, and maps, most of which we picked up at the airport and bus depot, trying to work out what to do and where to go (the picture below shows the spread). It's hard to work through all this! The maps are hard to follow and the brochures don't give a lot of practical information; for example, how to take the bus to the Blue Lagoon. This and the extortionate book prices we encountered earlier are making my head spin. Thankfully we have an adorable apartment and lots of cats to meet.