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From Iceland

By Sahand Rabbani

from Iceland (Keflavik, Reykjavik, Golden Circle, Eyjafjallajökull)

Dear Friends,

As the sun sets on the twenty-third hour behind the harbor of the quiet town of Reykjavik, I am moved to recount the occurrences of the past few days since I began my journey to Iceland. I start with an indictment of the airline that barely delivered me here, Iceland Express. With a flight delay and cancellation percentage large enough to pass a US constitutional amendment, Iceland Express did not contradict the odds, leaving me with a painful four hours in Gatwick Airport culminating in a midnight boarding.

The plane landed in Keflavik International Airport minutes before sunrise. The sky was just bright enough to expose the dense moss and a few colorful shacks on the peninsula as the plane pierced the low clouds on its approach to the runway. A bus ride had me in Reykjavik shortly after four in the morning. The city was fully illuminated but still quite asleep. I managed a few hours of sleep at the KEX Hostel in a former biscuit factory on the water, but resigned soon to the daylight and enjoyed my first cup of Icelandic coffee while overlooking the harbor from the hostel's chic cafe. Coffee is popular here. Much like in Sweden, it has a satisfyingly deep and sour taste compared to what I normally drink.

The air was light and crisp on that Saturday morning as the wind blew drizzle around the sleepy town. Later that day, I explored the center of Reykjavik, which is modest and underwhelming, geared mostly toward tourists and offering nothing particularly unique aside from souvenir shops selling pathetic cans of fresh air and over-sized novelty stuffed puffins. But the country's natural beauty is vast, diverse, and unbearably captivating. During these past few days, the clouds have hung thick and low over the unending plains of moss and sea, forming an ominous canopy over this infinitely wide corridor that is perpetually dim and mystical. The valleys are dark with volcanic ash and black sand, flanked by steep mountains with narrow waterfalls and geothermal outlets billowing steam into the air. The vegetation in Iceland is low, trees small and rare, but the mountainous backdrop is still painted a thick forest green by the moss, the first plant life to grow on a lava-scorched field.

On Sunday, we explored the Golden Circle, a circuit of geographic sites consisting of the Gullfoss waterfall; the Geysir, a geyser and namesake of the English word; and Þingvellir national park. While the Gullfoss waterfall is perhaps the most famous waterfall in Iceland, it did not engage me as much as the more picturesque falls along Iceland's southern coast did. The Geysir, on the other hand, was impressively eruptive, blowing nearly boiling water thirty meters or so into the air every few minutes. The Geysir sits at the base of a tall hill, on the other side of which lives a picturesque valley with a few rustic buildings and a serpentine stream. The national park, Þingvellir, site of Iceland's original outdoor parliament dating back to its Nordic settlers, boasts its position on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. A deep and narrow chasm runs its course, a reminder that the island is constantly growing as these plates drift apart and their gap is perpetually patched by cooling magma.

The imminent threat of earthquakes and volcanic eruption does not appear to faze the Icelandic people, only a few hundred thousand in number. Perhaps it is this inescapable awareness of mortality, reinforced by a backdrop of the island's looming volcanoes, that informs their demeanor. While some Icelanders may seem cold on first contact, a deeper interaction unearths a refreshing frankness as if to reallocate that time wasted on interpreting arcane social dances in favor of something more fulfilling.

On Monday, we enjoyed an off-road tour of the ash-filled valley blessed by the infamous Eyjafjallajökull, which halted European air travel when it erupted in 2010. We also enjoyed the sight of one of Iceland's many receding glaciers. Much of the day was spent cruising through the country alongside the majestic Icelandic horses with their luxuriant manes and the colorful pastels of free-roaming sheep and farm huts.

Lamb is a staple of Icelandic cuisine, often served smoked and on flatbread. Horse and whale steaks are popular too, while consumption of puffins, in danger of extinction, is increasingly discouraged. Neither of these are quite as amusing, however, as Hákarl, a fermented shark meat that is controversial even among Icelanders. Shark, for its lack of kidneys and a traditional excretory system, sheds its urine through its skin. As such, shark meat is naturally toxic. To render the meat to this disputed periphery of edibility, it is fermented under gravel for weeks and then hung to dry, resulting is a pungent yet arguably esculent delicacy whose fetid and piercing stench of ammonia ensures that only its most worthy client will survive to taste it. So fascinated by this food and by the polarized reviews that it has drawn from native Icelanders, I embarked on a mission to obtain it. With the help of our volcano guide and his well informed father, we tracked down a few hundred grams of Hákarl in a vacuum sealed pack at a grocery store on the outskirts of Reykjavik as we returned from the glaciers. Permitted neither by the tour guide to open the package in his car, nor by the hotel lounge clerk to open it anywhere near a hotel guest (for its stench), I was relegated to the street with a few toothpicks and a shot of the iconic Icelandic liquor Brennivín to help manage the aftertaste. I convinced my father to accompany me as we not only tasted but incontrovertibly ate several cubes of Hákarl. We managed just fine, especially with the liquor to chase, but there is no mistake: the shark smells exactly as it is, a combination of urine and rotten fish.

I intend to try the horse and whale steaks as well, and though they may taste better, they will certainly not be as fun.

As the sun, never really having set, has begun rise, I adjourn this account. Tomorrow holds the promise of a hike up Esja and a visit to the thermal delights of the Blue Lagoon.


from Iceland II (Esja, Snæfellsnes, Stykkishólmur, Breiðavik, Látrabjarg, Ísafjörður)

Dear Friends,

Our final day in the Reykjavik area commenced with a pleasant yet challenging climb of the mountain Esja. At an altitude of 770 meters, Þverfellshorn, one of Esja's accessible peaks, offers a great view of the capital and the surrounding landscape. While the hike begins with a leisurely ascent along a steady gravel path, the climb becomes increasingly difficult as the gravel turns into large, loose, and jagged rocks and the grade steepens. Near the top, the mountain is so steep that chains are required to climb the last leg. The subsequent descent felt precarious. The persistent sun keeps the mountain's slopes toasty on a clear day, but dehydration is easily avoided as the swelling streams that line the mountain are a bottomless natural drinking fountain.

The excursion yielded more than just a refreshing hike, as the taxi ride into town secured us a delicious meal that evening. Our young taxi driver, Palmi, was also a chef. He recommended dinner at the Seafood Cellar in Reykjavik, an upscale restaurant specializing in New Nordic cuisine, a toned-down molecular gastronomy of sorts with Scandinavian ingredients. While I am skeptical of fancy restaurants, especially ones that sell clothes to the emperor with unlikely optical qualities, and while I had previously found Nordic food in Norway and Sweden tasteless and unpalatable, I was pleasantly surprised by the food at Seafood Cellar. Though the service was arrogant and rude, I long ago accepted that upscale restaurants preclude dignified service, since it is the guest, it seems, who must be wholly obsequious and thankful for the opportunity to dine. The four-course meal featured two starters of arctic char and cod and a main course of lamb fillet. Dill, parsley, and angelica featured prominently as garnish and spices. Dessert consisted of ice cream and biscuits with a curious tarragon jelly. The recipes were sound and the food expertly prepared.

That evening, before dinner, we also paid a visit to the well advertised spa and natural thermal pool at the Blue Lagoon. I would not consider entrance to this overrated facility worth any price, for its crowded pool looks anything but natural, how I imagine a low-budget tacky resort in Mexico might be. Unfortunately, the Blue Lagoon is not suitable for low budgets, adding a fiscal insult to this injury, which was, in disparaging summary, an unforgivable waste of scarce time in a country offering so many worthy activities. The only benefit that we, as a society, can extract from my failure is a warning to those of you yet to make this trip: do not fall for this scam.

The following day, we left Reykjavik and drove along the comfortable paved rural highways to Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, just north of the capital. Following check-in at Stykkishólmur, we drove the full circumference of the peninsula, which offered diverse terrain from mossy lava fields to majestic landscapes of mountains and lakes. The peninsula is perhaps best known for the glacier-peaked mountain Snæfellsjökull, where Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth begins. The perilous dirt road, at times, nearly discouraged us to the brink of resignation, but we finally reached the plateau and were thankful to have done so. The view of the glaciers on the mountain and the valley below were well worth the prolonged spike in heart rate.

The next morning, we rode a ferry north to Vestfirðir, the West Fjords. Our accommodation, one of only maybe three hotels in the area, was the guesthouse of a small farm called Breiðavik, some miles along a rough gravel road. Discouraged by poor reviews of the guesthouse's dinner, we went in search of an alternate meal, the closest one being a small diner and hotel named Gotti í Kroppinn, located some thirty minutes along a gravel road. We made the acquaintance of Sverrir, the kind owner, when we stopped for a coffee on the way to Breiðavik for the first time. My father had recovered Sverrir's cell phone in the lot in front of his restaurant (across from the wreckage of a US Navy aircraft from what must have been World War II). We asked Sverrir if he served whale meat, for which I have been searching. Though he did not have whale on the menu, he said, he was prepared to go to certain lengths to obtain and prepare it if he could be certain that we would in fact return for dinner. We promised that we would, and Sverrir, reliable and persistent, obtained two servings of whale steak from his brother-in-law in the town of Patreksfjörður, a good three quarters of an hour's drive (they met half way). We returned to Sverrir's restaurant that night where he served us a delicious and interactive meal. Before cooking the whale, he offered us a piece of the raw meat to try. Its taste and texture lay somewhere between tuna sashimi and beef carpaccio. The meat is undeniably red, and the final pan-seared preparation was tender, similar in taste and texture to medallions of fillet mignon. Our experience with Sverrir, his whale steak, and his unreserved hospitality is memorable. I would recommend his restaurant to anyone who makes the trip through this part of Vestfirðir.

We concluded the evening with a journey to Látrabjarg, the westernmost point of Europe. A long stretch of steep cliffs at the tip of a peninsula, Látrabjarg is a popular site for bird- and whale-watching. The fearless puffins abandon modesty as they pose in front of visitors and their cameras mere feet away. Home to millions of birds, Látrabjarg is a stunning example of Icelandic fjords where ribbed cliffs extend for kilometers along the jagged coastline. The following day, we followed these fjords further north to the bustling metropolis that is Ísafjörður, where we are to spend the last two nights in Iceland. With a population of a few thousand, Ísafjörður is the veritable capital of the area. According to Palmi, who recommended Seafood Cellar, there is a fabled restaurant here that serves heaps of fresh fish. His one attempt to find it did not succeed, but he urged us to track it down, and we did.


from Iceland III: Reflections

Dear Friends,

Having returned from Iceland several weeks ago, I have finally found a few moments to reflect holistically on my experience in the country.

As a first matter, the final two nights in Ísafjörður were a relaxing conclusion to the trip. The fabled fish restaurant exceeded its reputation. The family-run establishment was housed in a large cabin by the harbor with a seating area of benches and a kitchen from which oozed a delicious and unending stream of massive skillets containing diverse preparations of seared fish, including monkfish, cod, salmon, and halibut. The self-serve buffet offered a seafood bisque and some vegetable concoctions in addition to the star fish platters. This well timed dinner, following a few picturesque hours of kayaking in the fjords, was by far the best meal of the trip. The following morning, we drove a long, but paved, 500 kilometers back to the international airport in Keflavik where our Iceland Express flight awaited us on time. I was amused that the immigration officer insisted on seeing my entry stamp, which was well hidden among the pages of other haphazardly quilted stamps, before she would release me to my departure gate.

As a final matter, I do feel compelled to write something about my observations of Icelandic society. While I have long been skeptical of the relative socialism of some European nations, Iceland has shown me that in a society sufficiently small, homogeneous, and dispersed, the idea of a social state translates into practice rather well. On one stretch of long, sheepful road during our tour of Eyjafjallajökull, our guide, Hlinur, pointed out a small romantic country cottage where a man was undertaking some leisurely yardwork. "That is a prison," he said, "and that man there is a prisoner." While the cottage was not exactly a prison, but a post-prison holding area allowing inmates to re-integrate into society by learning life chores, the observation was still meant to emphasize the difference between a country of some three hundred thousand people and one of three hundred million. Iceland's per-capita murder rate, for example, is one of the lowest in the world, and most murders, when they do happen, are the result of a domestic dispute or drunken brawl.

While Iceland is not particularly well endowed with natural resources (aside from its beauty, which drives its tourism industry), it is large enough for its population so that people can have their space when they need it. I believe this may help temper a society and fulfill its needs of privacy, freedom, and diversity in beliefs even while government policy is socialistic. Coupled with the people's relative wealth equality and open-mindedness--at the time of writing, Iceland is one of only ten nations allowing same-sex marriage--Icelandic society functions well, or at least appears to from the perspective of this ten-day visitor.

On the final day of our trip, already three hours on the road back to the Keflavik airport, we realized that we had left a vital credit card with the hotel clerk in Ísafjörður. "Not to worry," said the clerk, for she would, she explained, pass the card to her good friend who operates the bus service from the village to the regional airstrip in Ísafjörður, who would then pass it off to an operator there, delivering it to a couple we had met at the hotel who was flying to Keflavik on the daily flight shortly before noon, who would return it to us at the airport in Keflavik. "Call me in one hour and I will tell you if the card made it to the flight." Much in the same way father makes it home for Christmas against all odds in the corny made-for-TV American movies, so did the credit card make it back to us, with the help of the good people of Ísafjörður and our kind acquaintances from New York.


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