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.