Thursday, November 4, 2010

Getting Over Iceland

The People

The first Icelander, Ingolfur Arnarson settled in the Reykjavik area in 874 CE. Interestingly, the male settlers were Nordic, and the females were Celtic. Or rather the heritage of the majority of Icelanders is shown to be as such. The culture of the people of Iceland have been surviving on the island for over 1100 years - enough time to make a distinctive language, culture and identity. One of the places we visited on the Golden Circle tour was þingvellir, the site of Iceland's, and the world's, first democratic parliament: the Alþingi (Althingi). This plain is next to the largest natural lake in Iceland (þingvallavatn), on top of the rift between the Eurasian and North American plates, surrounded by glacial mountains, hot springs and is bloody breathtaking. þingvellir was chosen, according to historical Icelandic Sagas as the owner of the land was found guilty of murdering a celtic slave. As punishment - to him and his family - the lands were taken away, and used as a public meeting plain.

Icelandic is derived from Old Norse, and has remained a stable language since the time that the Sagas were written. It is the only modern language to retain the symbols þ (thorn) and ð (eth). One is basically a hard TH sound, and the other is soft. Or at least, thats how I've been reading it. It creates a tongue twister to try and 1) wrap the head around reading a new symbol and 2) say things like Viðskiptablaðið (Vithskiptathith?). The idea of "þing" has been passed down through the generations to mean assembly, entity and now: thing.

The Icelanders I met (which were few, I admit) have been polite, if brusk. They are astoundingly fluent in English, and yet appreciate the effort made to say "takk fyrir". Self described "car loving and lazy" , backed by the evidence of pedestrians. The first night we were in Reykjavik, Matt and I went for a walk to hunt for dinner. The only people we encountered walking around were going from a vehicle to the supermarket. And we took a long walk that night, mainly because we got lost. On the other hand, the adventurous ones hike for miles and miles through terrain I'd be afraid to get lost on. Hiking trails are everywhere, especially in uninhabited regions; such as the central highlands and glacial caps. Something like 75% of the population live in or near Rekjavik, 2% live in rural communities and the rest in various towns along the coast lines. This a recent phenomenon, as up until the 20th century, everyone lived on subsistence farming. There are only 330,000 peeps!

The Infrastructure.

The roads in Iceland are separated into two categories, regular and F roads. Regular roads are smooth, and seem to be made of black tar and chip. But at the side of Hringvegur, we saw a construction zone. Trucks came barrelling through the lava plains, carrying freshly quarried rock, and dumping at the road construction zone. The material was black, same as the lava rocks and sand in the area. The roads are made of the available material - lava rocks! Roads are smooth, and intersections are almost always roundabouts - and the roundabouts vary in size from medium, where one has to shift into 2nd gear to get around, and huge , where one can drive at full tilt. There are passes over the mountains, and near glaciers. Inclines we went over were at 12%.

Marked F roads are prohibited to 2wd vehicles. The roads are not hard tarmac, but soft gravel roads with steep inclines and river fords. We eyed up a couple roads that weren't specifically prohibited, but decided against because of the uphill hairpins with off cambre dirtiness. Hell, there is a reason that so many 4x4, raised, studded tire monstrosities are driving around. Some even have snorkels, for those many occasions when one's engine is underwater.

Water here is amazing. The tap water is from untouched natural sources. Hot water comes directly from underground geothermal sources, smells like sulphur and is really, really, really hot. At the Geysir site, I touched (shh, don't tell) a non-steaming, non-bubbling pool. It was pleasant to the touch on the surface, but obviously much hotter deeper. And the smell is the smell of the Earth under pressure. Definitely like Matt's bum after some rotten eggs. The hot water smells like sulphur in the taps, the showers, and the hot pool. To mediate hot water for general use, it is combined with cold water. Cold water is also directly pumped in from the Earth, unfiltered. It is not smelly, and is the greatest water I have ever drank. Ever. I would import that stuff.

The environment.

It is cold. Okay, thats a mite unfair. The temperature was quite reasonable for 65 degrees North latitude. Hovering around 0. But then there was the wind. Wind strong enough to blow open car doors and move people. On one walk, I wanted to make a sail and use it for transportation. The car was severely affected by the wind, and would blow around the road. Going through one steep and winding pass, on the second night, it was dark, starting to snow, very windy and definitely scary. Transport trucks would barrel past in the opposite direction, and the blowback made the journey more exciting. Wind blew water droplets from waterfalls onto my face, and the drops would freeze on my glasses and face. October is the start of the winter season, and the winds become furious then. I'm sure that they settle down more in the winter, as the weather stabilizes. But man, it was some crazy days there. I would definitely go back, either further into the winter season, or high summer. Only because of the wind.

Ísland (Iceland) is a gorgeous island. The vistas of truncated glacial mountains, conical volcanoes, ice capped glaciers, separating tectonic plates, lava rubble fields, flat grassland and the ocean are like nothing else on Earth. The first morning, my exhausted brain compared it to some as-yet-unknown alien landscape. And it is. I wish I could have photographed it perfectly for you to see. I spent most of my time staring at, and then taking pictures of, everything I could see. That's why there aren't that many of our ugly mugs.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely wonderful commentary Liz! Great insights! Your friend Tara was kind enough to tell me how to post. Aunt Joanne