Wednesday, August 05, 2009

purple prose, part I

Having just finished writing a 4000+ word essay about my recent trip to Iceland (which I returned home from a week ago) that will be published end of July/beginning of August, I want to give you patient readers a little taste of things to come once it goes live.

Icelandic summertime greeted us in Reykjavík so vibrantly: the perfume of the Nootka Lupines, the tall purple flowers that densely carpeted most of the Reykjanes peninsula in the southwest, was thick in the air, and they were a delight for the eyes. Even though I haven't seen Sandra since 2005, we immediately slipped into an easy rhythm, often comically anticipating each others words and whims. Even though we didn't spend a great deal of time with any of the locals, her presence brought me such insight into Scandinavian culture in general and the rest we learned on the fly.

With less than a week to accomplish a great deal we had streamlined everything possible beforehand, so we always knew where we would be by what time, but always had time to stop wherever we wanted along the way. Sandra was a very cool and collected navigator and trip adviser, not only keeping us on the right path but always spotting points of unexpected interest, providing both musical entertainment and interesting narratives on the road and feeding me nibbles to keep spirits and blood sugar up when we didn't have time to stop at the N1 to grab some skyr.

No one who knows either of us well (despite my penchant for abandoned building explorations) would ever have been able to picture the two of us going to the remotest corners of this country alone, with no clear idea of what to expect at any point along the way, driving on the edge of deadly cliffs with falling rock raining on the other side of us, appearing at a swimming pool at the end of the world, and coming back slightly shaken but still swinging. We scarcely could believe what we had proven ourselves capable of. Sure, it looks like I am going to drive off a cliff, over and over, sure a 4x4 could meet us at the top of the blindhædir hurtling at top speed, or there might be a small troupe of sacrificial lambs around the next bend. Onward! I was quite proud of us.

The drive from my house to JFK was plagued by heavy downpours that were nearly blinding at times. Once checked in I went to the gate and after sitting mostly alone for some time was approached by this guy who had emailed me that he was also going to Iceland - the same day I was - flying from JFK and he recognized me from flickr. I won't lie, it was a little weird. I probably came off stunned, confused or terrified... or maybe just a jerk, but I was completely caught off guard and just froze. Icelandair is the first airline in recent memory to provide a blanket and pillow to everyone on board, the TVs in the backs of every seat provided a broad variety of language lessons including Icelandic which I was acing.

AND they were showing Heima, which I watched for the third time and still managed to get a bit choked up while doing so. It made the short flight fly and miraculously I was seated next to a well-behaved (maybe 8 year-old) boy and his dad who were both quite pleasant. The airport at Keflavík makes the airport in Lancaster look expansive. The security processing coming in is incredibly low-tech and slow, but while standing in line I was able to watch the sun setting in a lavendar haze over the fields of purple lupines. I felt quite upside down, elated and anxious. After grabbing my bags and fidgeting with my phone willing it to start working so I could let Sandra know I'd arrived I hopped on a Flybus. The driver seemed a bit daffy, repeatedly asking everyone on board which hotels they were going to, skipping me numerous times and then making mumbled announcements and getting aggravated at the passengers who misunderstood. The road from Keflavík to Reykjavík was fairly barren, a few tiny houses, expanses of lupines, fields of volcanic rock that looked like heaps of blackened muscular men sleeping on top of each other, blanketed with dusty gray-green mosses, like ash. There were tiny towns here and there, ultra-modern Scandinavian architecture in bright primary colors. Barely a soul on the roads, and though it was probably around 1am by then, that was not unusual at any time of day.

We dropped passengers at a number of guesthouses, anonymous hotels, hostels and one what appeared to be a Viking-themed resort. The city was small and clean, very little graffiti and fewer familiar shops. As we drove onward, down to the last two people, the driver informed us we were seeing the hour of 'darkness' which was actually much brighter than the sundown at 9pm back home in the summertime. Moments later he commented that the sun was now rising. We pulled up in front Hotel Cabin, a big gray boxy building, at the east end of town on the waterfront. When I stepped outside I was again overtaken with the scent of flowers and nearly forgot that I was in a metropolitan area. Across the water huge indigo mountains loomed in the pale purple sky, capped with a thick layer of matching clouds, the sliver of moon hanging just above. I had officially landed on another planet.

I crept upstairs to our room and had awakened a dozing Swede. Our jetlag was straining us in opposite directions but we managed to stay up chatting for a couple hours. She showed me our amazing view... our window looked out onto the hallway. Bad for dramatic photographs, good for helping us forget the sun was currently just about shining full force outside. The walls were paper thin, so we spoke in excited whispers. I laid in bed for a few hours, drifting in and out of sleep until we both realized the other was awake and we dressed to partake of breakfast. The cafeteria room was bustling and the fair was very typical of what we would see (and essentially survive on for the next week): cut up bananas and oranges, sliced boiled eggs, cold cuts - cheeses and ham, cucumber, tomato, a big bowl of skyr, honey, fruit preserves, hearty breads, cereals, and coffee. We loaded up on skyr with fruit and cereal as well as cheese toast with eggs and cucumbers. And I plenty of coffee. We returned, showered and got our bearings to go collect our rental car. We took a brisk walk over, wind urging us onward and collected our chariot: a silver Renault Elf Megane, which though considered a compact car was quite a roomy hatchback, which we would basically be living out of for the coming days.

vivisection © Laura Kicey, All Rights Reserved.

Our first stop, rather embarrassingly (especially as I hadn't taken a single photograph yet) was the Kringla Mall. Huge by Icelandic standards, but quite tiny on a US scale (and let's face it, all cultural crossover aside, it was A MALL), we were looking for the tourism center where one flickr photographer, Maja Paja works. Though we had given her no warning, as we crept into the shop, she recognized us immediately. Despite the sudden influx of customers, we made plans to meet up later for some people-watching on the town that night. After we bid her adieu, we stopped at the Hagkaup (a big chain supermarket) to pick up some things for lunch and to keep in the car for snacks. Finally hitting the road proper, the more well-traveled roads we were on did not afford many places to stop, but we did find a picnic point that looked there should be some Von Trapp's in action. After part of our salad took flight and we pranced around in the wildflowers a bit, we took off and shortly reached Kerið crater, a privately owned hole in the ground. But what a massive and ridiculously colorful hole in the ground it was! A steep drop of reddish earth, decorated with chartreuse foliage, into a pool of super-saturated blue-green water, with rings of white and gold on its shore.

gouge © Laura Kicey, All Rights Reserved.

In the southwest, the Icelandic horse is a plentiful beast, although it seems to have been almost completely domesticated, their numbers divvied up among the farm owners, and fenced in. They seem to have not lost any of their spunk regardless. While horses of standard stature, thoroughbreds - seem to have a more stoic, powerful air, the smaller Iceland breed are quite the comedians, frolicking, rearing, nipping and chasing each other... and such expressive faces, they seemed at times to laugh. We only pulled over once to attempt to photograph a herd near the roadside, and as soon as we pulled over they went running off... down to their feed trough. When we finally caught up with them, they were drawn to the fence, inquisitive and bashful. Whenever we would drive by a group, they seemed to all adopt the same activity simultaneously - all playing at once, or standing and staring off toward the same distant point, preening each other, such a familial unity.


The hill upon which the geyser Strokkur explodes is thickly covered in lupines and the runoff from the mineral- and algae- rich blue waters of the original (now dormant) Geysir and the nearby pools. As we were just starting to scale the hill, Strokkur exploded grandly.

undercurrent © Laura Kicey, All Rights Reserved.

fervor © Laura Kicey, All Rights Reserved.

Sandra decided that because the geyser had blown its load before we actually had a chance to enjoy ourselves, it would need some dirty pillow talk to get things moving for us again. So as we stood by, cameras ready, trained on the pulsing, sloshing pit before us, Sandra whispered sweet and sultry nothings to coax Strokkur on. When it finally performed, the high winds created a ghostly steam and mist mass that hovered and drifted away before dissipating. In our jetlagged and near-constantly-euphoric state, we started to make our way up the nearby hill setting our sights on a dense patch of lupines, where we both decided we should just set up camp. We plopped ourselves down in amongst the rather tall plants and basked in their perfume and the intense sunshine.

spilled milk
spilled milk © Laura Kicey, All Rights Reserved.

lupina © Laura Kicey, All Rights Reserved.

Not far down the road is Gullfoss, the Golden Falls, the force of wind and mist coming from the well-hidden source suggest raging turbulence nearby. Removing our hats for fear of their taking off, we crested the hill on foot and made our way down into the wide chasm that was roaring with the power of the misty, rainbow tinted falls. Gullfoss is one of those places so vast and much more exciting as an experience... one which literally nearly pushed us over the edge, and less so as a photographic impression.

fosswalk © Laura Kicey, All Rights Reserved.

tread © Laura Kicey, All Rights Reserved.

It was a bit late, though the sun was still radiant and high in the cloudless sky, so we decided to take a miss on Þingvellir State Park and go directly back to Reykjavík. The road which seemed most direct path was Route 365 according to our map, so we turned onto 365 which appeared to be partly under construction at the junction and once over a hill deteriorated into rough, dusty gravel road. There were no buildings, no animals and the landscape had changed dramatically. We hand landed on the moon. Only the occasional passing of a 4x4 indicated we were on the path to somewhere. And when they did pass, a dust storm erupted every time, completely obscuring the road and blotting out the sky. Hurried drivers would pass our slow moving car every so often, leaving us feeling like we might drive off the edge of the earth. At one point we decided to pull over to examine the terrain a bit more closely.

moonwalk © Laura Kicey, All Rights Reserved.

I pulled over to a spot where I would be visible and walked over to what appeared to be the footprint of a small stone building. As Sandra crouched down to admire some tiny lichens and flowers, I stood perfectly still. Though I could see three sheep, tiny dots on a near-distant hillside... the air was so perfectly still and silent, not a bird or a gust of wind was heard. It was so perfectly silent, my ears began to ring. When I finally spoke to Sandra my voice felt more like a shout, it was uncanny. A truck drove by suddenly stirring up another massive cloud of dust and we took shelter in the car, then drove onward. The terrain started to change, greening up a bit, more horses and lakes, until we passed the entrance for Þingvellir. From there on out, the scene took a turn for the urban, at least as much as Reykjavík's suburbs allow: sporadic small homes and shopping centers peppering the vast plains of lupines and moss.

freckled © Laura Kicey, All Rights Reserved.

The sun still high in the sky belied the late hour as we got back to our hotel. We performed our awkward unloading dance between and on the beds, zipping and unzipping our bags, taking turns standing and checking our social media as good nerds should. Maja said she was waiting for her friends to bring her beer to their place and she would meet us at a bar later - since it is very expensive to go out to bars to drink in Iceland, as is alcohol in general - it is common for Icelanders to purchase beers to drink at home with friends before going out and then once they've had a few, venture out to bars for one drink, or go dancing. We decided to go downtown leisurely-like, and do some small-scale people-watching. In a city less populous than Lancaster where I grew up (which was a painfully small city to grow up in), immediately you had a sense, just walking down the main drag, that everyone knew each other and we were very obviously fresh meat. Every eye was on us.

directive © Laura Kicey, All Rights Reserved.

It was close to 10pm by the time we walked up into the bar, with a bit of the Icelandic-hipster vibe about it, and things were evidently picking up for the evening. Maja was nowhere to be seen so we hit the streets and just wander and shoot in the dwindling light. There were quite a few half-finished now-deteriorating construction sites, high rises, along the waterfront. Reykjavík's most famed cathedral, Hallgrimskirkja, was completely shrouded with scaffold and mesh. After finding ourselves walking in ever-decreasing circles, we decided to drive back to the hotel and call it a night early since tomorrow morning we would have to leave quite early to make it to Jökulsárlón and back to Reykjavík. Of course we ended up packing, talking, and making travel notes until almost 3am anyway. The collective asses would be dragging the following morning....

under my skin
under my skin © Laura Kicey, All Rights Reserved.

Stay tuned for the next installment!

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Blogger Betty said...

That was a lovely read with Sigur Ros playing in the background. Can't wait to see the full published piece.

11:29 AM, August 06, 2009  
Blogger helveticaneue said...

Thank you Betty! I have a good feeling about this one :)

5:25 PM, August 06, 2009  

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