What a year, 1996! From the 1st of January, from unemployed i found myself with 3 jobs: running a library, writing for a newspaper, teaching at a school. When summer arrived I dumped 2 jobs and decided I needed a holiday. For some obscure reason I thought of Iceland and decided to invite my friend Domenico for dinner. I knew he had been there and could be of some help (in fact he was of none). By the end of the evening I had made up my mind. By the end of the following day I had gone to my travel agent and booked a hiking/camping trip. Did i want an active holiday? Nope, but I wanted a small-group holiday, and choices were limited to one. I did not think twice about it - well I then regretted having gone more than twice. But I had a great time.
Reykjavik, cheap city, come to me
My first stop for in the capital, for a couple of days. The weather was, the say the least, chilly? I had brought with me lots of nice skirts, sandals and blouses, so before going to explore the city i decided I needed to do some serious shopping. And everything was so cheap! Before I left, and because I'm so clever, I had found an easy way to convert the local currency into Irish Pounds by diving it by 2 (i think) and subtracting a 0? After years of Ireland converting the Irish Pound into Swiss francs was a joke. So, armed only with a credit card, I shopped till I dropped? found everything cheap? and shopped more. When i received the credit card bill I nearly slashed my veins: something went wrong with my was of converting the money (after all I did not take 4 years of private maths classes for nothing - other than failing my maths exams shamefully) and the price of everything was more than the double than i had expected. What else did I do? I saw the tourist sights, I ate the tourist food (shark kept underground for 3 months -lightly rotten obviously- and puffin breast), went to the tourist bars. And when I was tired of it all, I headed for the Sport Bar (don't ask me why - at that time i hated sports) and chatted up a drunk fisherman who told me the sad story of his life and how he had seen his captain die without being able to save him. At that point I decided it was time to leave.
The morning after i was picked up by our driver, guide and cook in front of the hostel where I was staying, the Sport Hotel (another bad omen of what was going to lay ahead of me the following days). There were 7 of us taking the 2 weeks trip, a Dutch couple in their 60's, the most boring German young woman I have ever met, a Swiss guy with his Russian wife, an apollo look-alike guy from Israel and me. We were immediately put into teams for camp chores and I was assigned to the Israeli guy: Brosh. We hit it off immediately and became inseparable. Of course, knowing my luck, he was a great sportsman, in every discipline. Of course, knowing myself, I never said no whenever he suggested doing something. Of course by the end of the fortnight I was a walking wounded. But let's start from the beginning, and let's divide Iceland, the most impressive country I have ever visited, full of drastic contrasts, into the four elements.
Water is everywhere in Iceland, at every temperature and in every shape. The Icelandic people are fond of swimming so even in the middle of nowhere you can find a swimming-pool. Some have normal water, most have natural hot water. Some rivers are cold, others are warm streams. The there are natural hot pools: some are too hot (which I discovered after sticking my hand on there) and others are pleasant to be in. One occurred inside the crater of an extinct volcano (Viti), another was produced by a glacier (Kverkfj?ll). Wherever it was warm enough, and making sure it wasn't too warm, we got rid of our clothes at the speed of light and pleasantly swam naked for hours That's where two of several accidents happened: I banged my head in a swimming-pool while trying to beat Brosh at some obscure water ball game.
Then there were the geysers (great sight, especially with hailstones the size of tennis balls falling on your head), then majestic waterfalls (Godafoss), then the rain (our faithful daily companion while hiking and setting up or breaking up camp) and then again solid water (ice) both in the shape of icebergs at Arlon Laron and of glaciers, which we tried to climb (no luck there - that piolet-traction method did not agree with me) or hiked. This is where the second accident happened: trying to catch up with the rest of the group I cleverly decided to take a short-cut over the glacier, only to fall into a small crevasse and have to be fished out with a slightly torn knee and with a mountain ahead of me still to climb. It was painful but I did not desist? but oh boy? i did curse and complain all the way to the top.
Fire is an important element of Iceland, and fire here means volcanoes. There was sadly none erupting while I was there but the remains of it could be seen everywhere: lava. Lots of it, in lots of different colours? taking all sorts of different shapes. When crossing the wasteland of the interior, all lava-covered and slightly monotonous (boring as hell actually), it provided the only source of entertainment. We spent the time playing the guessing-game, trying to see all possible hidden imaginary figures. And when we had enough of it, we asked for the van to stop, stripped, laid on the ground and pretended to swim. We didn't go very far or establish a world record, of course, but we did catch a nice cold in record time.
Finally fire in Iceland also means sunsets and dawns (with 5 minutes break in between), when the sky gets covered with all hues of yellows and reds. A very magic sight, especially when viewed from a hot pool with a hot guy.
Air means one thing here: wind, and to make sure you notice it's wind, the country makes sure it's always chilly and biting you to the bones. It doesn't matter where you are, or where you try to hide, the wind is always there. On a more positive note: the wind brings air, and fortunately Icelandic air is pure? and lovely to breathe in and out, in between cigarettes of course. Air for me only meant bad luck, and I blame Brosh (poor guy) for it. When asked if I wanted to charter a small plane with him to fly over the Myvatn area, how could I admit I'm scared of flying? I couldn't. What's worse, I even volunteered to call the local pilot and try to charm him to get a discount. Luckily enough he was going to be busy on a medi-vac that day but he promised he would take us for a cheap ride the following morning at 6am. Unlucky twice then since I love sleeping in. We decided to sleep under the stars and the occasional dash of soft rain - very romantic - only I was panicking and could not sleep much. At 6 am there I was again, trying to charm the pilot is a very sleepy voice, only to find out they were forecasting a storm and the plane would go nowhere. So how can two very sad souls do for a couple of hours? Practice karate of course! I did tell a small lie when I said I had some notions of ju-jitsu but I figured Brosh would not notice: after all I was a tom-boy as a kid and thought i knew how to defend myself and fight. I had also done a bit of acting, which I thought would come in useful (I had learned to make pratfalls after all). Moral of the story: I'm a good actress - he did not notice my lack of experience - but yes, I ended up with a bleeding nose and black eye pretty soon. I caught a few punches on the face and fell graciously.
Earth is dramatic in Iceland. Very little of it can be farmed, while the rest takes the shape of treeless mountains, which look very primordial. The best example is the area of Landmanlaugar, where the mountains are barren, colourfll and particularly steep to climb. Those people who established trails there did not help and showed without doubt that they were the natural grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) of the notorious Marquis De Sade. They cut paths straight up the mountain, but forgot (or decided not to) put bends. So while you try to walk up, you take two steps up and then naturally slide 3 steps down.
A different type of earth can be seen at Thingvellir, the site of the old Icelandic Parliament. These vikings were lucky souls, they chose the place well. That's where the American plate and the European plate meet - or better - clash. After centuries of earthquakes and countless breaks in the upper crust of the ground, they cleverly established that the parliament should be moved to a safer place. Still, they did not abandon it all together: they still killed some witches there, by throwing them off the cliffs. Lovely people indeed. Pity that I read that they smelled or I would look for a time-warp machine.
The 5th element - the mozzies
Here's the unofficial 5th element - and I wonder why Bresson did not think of it: the mozzies! They are everywhere and in vast numbers, and they bite! Oh yes, just about anywhere you can buy head-nets, so you look like an alien, you still get bitten and you risk to set yourself on fire while smoking a cigarette. Not to mention that it's hard to look sexy in it. (well, it's difficult to look sexy while wearing two jumpers and long woollen underwear too, to be honest). The only consolation is that Icelandic mozzies are the most clever I have ever come across: in all other arctic areas I have been to there have been plenty of them, but only near the water - in Iceland they only are in the most beautiful spots - basically nearly everywhere except in the centre - where there was no beauty at all and no human settlement to visit. Thinking we were safe we rented horses and went out in the middle of nowhere, and the little bastards suddenly came out of nowhere. First only a few, then they multiplied, then they multiplied again, then we were riding in the sunset surrounded by a cloud of mozzies! What a sight!