I'm in a small town on the south coast of Iceland, left behind as all the backpackers with cars continue clockwise around the Ring Road. I've decided to stay in Vik for a swim at the geothermal pool and to look for puffins on the beach.
The puffins are supposed to be gone by now. This is what everyone tells me: “Ordinarily the puffins leave on August 20.” A few claim the puffins leave on the 16th for France. Today is August 21st so I'm already pressing my luck.
When I came to Iceland, I'd intended to sample local cuisine: whale sashimi,
sheep's head pate, even roasted puffin. Then I saw the prices. I end up settling for hakarl, cubes of putrefied shark that's been buried in the sand for three months, washed down with a shot of caraway-flavored potato vodka. Hakarl tastes better than it smells, which isn't saying much.
In Iceland, even the dollar store charges $3. It's the second thing everyone says when you tell them where you're going, how expensive it is. The first is to question your choice of destination.
“You're going to Iceland? Why?” I can't tell you how many people ask why I'm going to Iceland and not, say, Hawaii or the South of France. Apparently they haven't seen pictures of the glaciers or mossy covered lava rocks or steam vents. Or maybe they just have a different notion about what travel is for.
And then they warn you: “I hear it's really expensive. Like twice as much as London.” I laugh and pack my suitcase full of Luna bars and pecans from Trader Joe's. I'm not laughing the first time I pay $5 for a bag of potato chips. Pylsa, hot dogs served with fried onions, are the only affordable meal, and they're still $3.50.
There are 71 krona to the dollar, and it's tempting to round down. But 200 krona isn't $2, it's $3. A puffin appetizer runs at least 2000 krona.
Still after a few days of hot dogs and $30 dorm beds and an $80 pony ride, I decide to treat myself to a decent lunch at one of the two restaurants in town. (The other is inside the Esso station.)
I've been on the beach all morning, where hundreds of puffins bob in the waves, just out of reach of my zoom lens. They don't seem to be flying off for Brittany imminently. I'd considered going to the folk museum at Skogar today. But Sylvie, the French woman at the hostel with the close up shots of puffins, set me straight over breakfast. “You came for nature, you told me, not museums” she says scornfully.
I have a choice between a $10 bowl of soup and the $30 arctic char. I order the fish and study my Lonely Planet until I notice a group of women across the room. There are six of them in their late 50s or early 60s, wearing rich colors of North Face and Patagonia fleece. Short hair, expensive hiking boots, and windbreakers. Americans.
I haven't heard a lot of English on this trip, mostly Canadians who came to run the marathon. In fact I've heard so little English that I feel a pang of familiarity when anyone is speaking Italian or German around me, even though I don't speak those languages. The Americans look well rested, and I imagine their tour guide waiting outside with a cushy sightseeing van. The ladies who lunch. Their hotel probably has views of the ocean, and duvets.
I resist dessert and savor the meal. It's one of the few days where I don't have to catch a bus or be anywhere. I go for a swim, then head back to the beach on my mission.
Puffins are adorable, but they're pathetic fliers. Their wings are too short for their round bodies, like black and white rubber ducks with orange and yellow beaks. They flap madly and careen around as they fall from the mossy cliffs. No wonder they haven't left yet.
I'm joined in my bird watching by all the tourists passing through Vik on their way around the Ring Road. An Italian couple with a little boy come and point. A friendly Australian lets me look through her binoculars. “You're a long way from San Francisco. Are you traveling by yourself?” she asks. I wonder how she figured out where I'm from. Then she points out the luggage tag on my daypack.
Three hikers wander over. “You were eating in the restaurant,” one of the women says. Ah, it's the ladies who lunch.
But I couldn't be more wrong. It turns out they've just completed a 4-day, 30-mile trek across the ice cap, walking with poles and sleeping in huts. This morning they climbed up the muddy cliffs in search of puffin nests; their guide is sick, so they have the day off too. We stand on the black sand beach and talk about Oaxaca and Southeast Asia and Iceland, and then they head back to the Lundi (puffin) Guesthouse. I fill my pockets with smooth black stones to remind me where I've been.
For the rest of the trip, I'm inclined to be more generous with the travelers who've somehow made their way to the fissure where the North Atlantic and European plates meet near the Arctic circle, first time marathoners and Dutch social workers and especially these women from Colorado.
The next day, I head north and tour the Golden Circle, photographing the requisite waterfalls and geysers. It's spectacular, sure, but also the beaten track, less than two hours from Reykjavik. Huge coaches unload at the snack bar and souvenir shop. I've taken 50 photos already today, so I read a novel, waiting for my bus. Next to me, an elderly British woman finishes a homemade sandwich.
“Where are you from?” I ask politely. She's from Bournemouth, she says, south of London. I try to remember if I've been there. “We came for the day,” she boasts. It's only a two-hour flight. “We have breakfast on the flight over and dinner on the way home!” It's not even 3 p.m. and already she's been to the Blue Lagoon, the double waterfall, the geysir, and on a city tour. I wonder what country they'll visit next week, as impressed as I am appalled.
Iceland isn't for everyone. The rocky landscape either speaks to your imagination or feels unbearably barren. You cannot love Iceland just for the waterfalls, the quaint homes, the puffins. It's a harsh place, a dispassionate beauty.
Do you mind that its people are reserved, even stoic, demanding of their children, and visitors, a streak of independence? This is easier to admire in principle than when you arrive at the hostel having climbed half a mile up the hill and no one's there to check you in, and you have to figure out how to use a coin phone, which promptly eats your handful of shiny krona. It's an island nation with a language and heritage that go back 1000 years with little change. They're Vikings; they don't need you.
Even at the end of August, there's too much daylight, and I spend the entire trip sleep-deprived, which is a little like being in love until you fall down. I can't imagine the darkness in winter and what it must do to your mental state, trying to ignore it.
But this oddness draws us, people seeking hidden worlds that aren't readily apparent. The soul of the county remains elusive, safe from the stopover tourists and the all night party people. On some level, it's negation that's the essence of the place: spread out and crossing paths with other people, but alone; the absence of color on the black beach.
I catch a glimpse of it the night I arrive in Vik. Aesa, the pregnant woman who runs the hostel, drives me and her daughter and the French boy and German girl who work for her out to the nature preserve with the stone arches. We wind up the grassy hills chasing the sunset, the Myrdal ice cap in the distance, steam rising from the rivers in near darkness. We don't see puffins or any animals that night. Not that it matters.
a selection of photos of the trip:
black beach, lava hills, coast line
another story from Iceland:
words: Diana J. Wynne, California (The Daily Interface)
photo: Jerry Finelli, Canada (Iceland 2006)