Monday, June 24, 2019

Song of Ice and Ire - Day 2

September 22, 2018

A few of us packed breakfast food and carried it to Iceland in our luggage.  This was a helpful tip for deferring the high cost of food here.  We foraged for breakfast amid the granola bars, dried fruits and bagels piled onto the little kitchen table.  Then we bundled up in our cold-weather gear and piled into the two rental cars, driven by Dad and Mike, that would carry us about the country.  Even with just one bathroom for the eight of us, we managed to be out the door by about 9:30 a.m.GMT.

Jenna kindly mapped out our tour of the Golden Circle, a popular tourist rout in southern Iceland.  Our first stop was the gas station for fuel of the automobile (gas) and human (coffee) kind.  The self-service stations are quirky in that, if you wish to use a card to buy gas, it must be a card with a PIN, and you have to pre-select how much you want to spend.  Estimation is a handy skill to have here - tricky when you are switching from USD to Icelandic Króna, and from gallons to liters.

Our little caravan headed off through the wide-open countryside, beautiful snow-capped mountains in the distance.  Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park (the "th" looks like þ,so people want to say "Pingvellir.")  This park is a UNESCO world heritage site, significant because this is where the Icelandic parliament was founded in 930 AD, and where independence from Denmark was declared in 1944.  It is a huge rift valley created by the drifting apart of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.  They are drifting apart at the rate of about 0.8 inches a year.  We walked through a relatively young gorge and climbed up a small stone lookout.  We wandered along some trails - some went to check out a scenic little white church at the side of a stream.  We saw several people in wet suits and wondered if it was some kind of training session.  (I learned later that Silfra Frissure is the only place in the world where you can snorkle directly in a crack between two tectonic plates.)  Ted and Mike jogged back to get the cars so Tim could rest his broken foot.  Driving from one parking lot to another was a much longer drive than expected, so we had lots of time to relax while we waited.

A marked example of the rift between tectonic plates
My men

Next stop was the Haukadalur Geothermal area to see the Geysir.  The entire valley is an active geothermal site, and we could see some plumes of steam in the distance.  The Haukadalur field is surprisingly close to the road. We pulled into the lot, and stopped into the tourist center first, to use the restrooms and get some snacks - the gelato was quite popular.  We walked across the small, two-lane highway and along a short fence to get to the geyser field.  (We get the English word geyser from one of the vents here - it's an old Norse word for "gush.")  We could get surprisingly close to the geysers; one had to pay attention to where the ground was wet for an indication of where not to stand.  Large circles of boiling mud and water dotted the landscape.  The star of the show used to be Geysir Glima, which holds the record for the highest geyser blast of all time at 400 feet.  But it is quiet of late, with the smaller Litli now the main event.  This geyser erupts every seven minutes, and the build-up to the eruption is spectacular.  Visitors can watch in close proximity as the clear water of Litli appears to breathe as it gets more and more excited, creating a huge clear bubble just before shooting high into the air.  We have seen geysers in the US and in New Zealand, but none with such a dramatic pre-show.  I could have watched for hours.

Back on the road, this time we headed for the raw, wild beauty of the Gullfoss Waterfall, located in the canyon of the Hvitá River.  Visitors can walk along the top of the canyon to view the multi-level cascading falls, or hike down to a lower lever for a closer up view.   We all walked along the stunning rim, the roar of the water in our ears and the icy spray in our faces.  An attention-grabbing rainbow posed for pictures at one side of the falls.  The kids hiked down closer to the falls while the "old folks" went back to wait in the warmth of the welcome center.  Tim grabbed some food, and I sat at one of the big windows so I could see our group when they came up.  The center was big, with multiple entrances, and a big shopping area, so it was a bit tricky to get everyone back in one place.  Once that was accomplished, we maneuvered our way through the crazy traffic in the parking area, making our way to our next destination.

The ladies

Now that's a tour bus!

Several of our group had read about the tasty, and fairly inexpensive lamb hot dogs that are available at gas stations in the area - an affordable alternative to the ubiquitous pricey fare.  We'd been keeping an eye out for one such place.  Jenna was using her GPS to try to guide us, and it took us along some very back roads.  We saw some interesting sights hidden from the main highways, and finally found what we were looking for.  An old, yellow-brick, two-story building with a gas tank in the lot.  The proprietor of the establishment was a bit taken aback when we said we wanted eight hot dogs.  But he lifted the lid of the boxy metal cooker behind the counter, and said he could do it.  The place was much like a convenience store, with aisles of tasty snacks, and we all loaded up with chips, candy and drinks while we waited for the dogs to be ready.  The guy made a killing on us!  We sat at some little metal tables and chairs in one corner of the shop, and ate like Americans.  The dogs were quite good.

The last stop of our tour was the startling Kerid Crater.  Traffic backed up into the highway, and it took us quite a while to get into the lot.  Weaving through cars, we made our way to the ticket counter, then followed the paved walkway to some seats along the rim of the crater.  A dark, circular lake sits at the bottom of the red-rock caldera, formed as land moved over a localized hot spot in the earth.  Tim and I watched as our younger counterparts made their way around the upper rim of the crater, becoming barely recognizable dots in the distance.  Some tourists braved the climb down to the bottom of the crater, splashing in the water.

Our Golden Tour complete, we returned to our house.  Some of us napped, while others went out shopping.  We all met at Brew Dog, a microbrewery at the corner of our street, for drinks and grub.  The food was yummy, especially the Mars Bar Wellington dessert!  The servers didn't seem too fond of Americans, but kindly asked if we wanted them to take a selfie - someone handed them a camera, and got a picture of the servers!

Mars Bar Wellington - yummm

Crashed for a bit, then up at 10:30 p.m. to search for the Northern Lights.  We drove to a peninsula not about fifteen minutes away, where a lighthouse stood guard over the sea.  We shivered in the cold as we gazed up at the heavens, and saw whitish wisps that appeared and faded again and again.  We saw four tremendously bright shooting stars as a bonus.  Some of us walked back to the the cars around 12:30 a.m. to escape the cold, and saw some of the most brilliant green s-shaped ribbons in the sky through the rear window as we waited for the others to return.  We dodged late-night partiers weaving across the streets as we returned once more to our little Reykjavik house for a quick nap before our 3:30 a.m. departure.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Song of Ice and Ire - Day 1

October, 2018

Hello, old friend.  How I've missed you!


We made a sacrifice to the wanderlust gods, and found ourselves on a journey to the lands of Ice and Ire - Iceland and Ireland.  How happy we were to share the journey with our sons and their lovely ladies.

Sept. 20th and 21st:

Tim, Tim Jr and I left home around 9:30 a.m. and drove west to Chicago in the pouring rain, sheets of water blurring the drivers' vision.  We were following the GPS directions to the hotel where we would leave our car for the duration of the trip.  Driving through Chicago while following the directions of our electronic navigator was a challenge.  We would be heading to the left lanes as instructed, when a random toll booth would appear on the far right.  Most lanes were dedicated I-Pass lanes, used by most of the drivers on the road.  We couldn't figure out the system, and inadvertently bypassed two different tollbooths along the way.  We were more concerned with getting to the airport on time, and hoped we could sort it out later.

We checked in at the Holiday Inn Express near O"Hare, and were given a parking pass and told where to leave the car.  I told the guy at the desk that we had missed some tolls, and his eyes grew wide.  He said we had better go online and try to pay as soon as possible.  More anxiety to add to my already travel-anxious demeanor.  We tried to relax in the lobby for a bit, before hopping on the airport shuttle.  It was a quick drive to ORD.  Because we were not on one of the major airlines, we were let off quite a distance from the terminal, and had to haul our luggage across to the entrance.

We arrived in plenty of time for our Icelandic flight to Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.  Our end of the plane was full of noisy American women, who seemed to be on some sort of girls getaway, and were determined to have rowdy fun the entire time.  We plugged into our entertainment sets, and I was more than halfway through my movie, when I realized we were still on the ground!  We sat for 90 minutes on the tarmac before finally taking off.  We arrived in Reykjavik at 7:30 a.m., just a little over 30 minutes late.  Tim's girl, Chloe, was waiting for us when we arrived.  We got our first ridiculously expensive coffee (Iceland is notoriously expensive), before queuing at the Avis counter for our rental car.  The lovely lady at the counter sat with her fur jacket around her shoulders, and instructed us to follow the "long plastic walk" to find our car.  (The walkway was covered by a plexiglass roof.)

First things first - a stop in the snyrtingar

Giant puffin hangs over the baggage claim area
Luckily, Icelanders drive on the right side of the road, like we do.  It was a 45-minute drive to Reykjavik, with lots and lots of roundabouts (traffic circles).  The landscape was quite barren - very few buildings or trees and lots of lichen, making it possible to see for miles.  Iceland is the least-populated country in Europe - almost 80% is uninhabited, with a population of only 338,000.  A third of those inhabitants live in Reykjavik, which is located in southwest Iceland, perched on the edge of Faxa Bay in the North Atlantic.

Faxa Bay with Mt. Esja in the background


We arrived several hours before our rental home was to be available, so we drove around to get a feel for the city.  We drove around and around...and around.  At the waterfront, we got out of the car to take pictures of the Sun Voyager, a stainless steel sculpture depicting the bones of a ship.  The wind was biting and cold - our first taste of the Iceland weather.  We rushed back to the warmth of our car.

Parking is at a premium in Reykjavik, and almost all parking is for a fee.  We were told we could park for free at the 10-11 store, but it was only for fifteen minutes.  We parked and quickly walked the few blocks to the location of our rental - it was not visible from the street, so we wanted to make sure we could find it.  It was actually tucked back behind another little house.

The pathway back to our Airbnb

le voilà
Once we were confident we had found it, we hurried back to the 10-11 and drove to Hallgrimskirkja, a huge, modern-looking Lutheran church in the center of the city that towers over the landscape.  Here we could park for free.  We slipped inside for a peek at the church, and enjoyed just being out of the car for a bit.

"Martyr" by Sigurjon Olafsson

Leiff Ericsson Monument - a gift from the US in 1930
  Bracing ourselves against the biting winds, we strolled up and down hilly Hverfisgata Street, stopping into some small shops to pick up some souvenirs.  We saw lots of beautiful Icelandic wool sweaters, hats and mittens.  The volcanic rock ice cubes caught my eye - apparently, once frozen, they will keep your drink cold better than regular ice cubes, and won't water it down.  We saw mugs made out of animal horns that were used in the TV series, Game of Thrones.

We were in search of some hot soup for lunch, and settled on a colorful little cafe, Babalu, where we enjoyed a grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup for around $15 US.  The tomato soup was different than what we were used to, more like a runny tomato sauce, but we appreciated the warmth of it.  The atmosphere of the shop was kind of retro/hipster - very cozy.  We practiced using the Icelandic phrase for "thank-you": Takk Fyrir (sounds like Tahk FEE-rish with a rolled "r").


I found a Thai lady in Iceland - she must be very cold
Back into the cold, we stopped in another shop where the Tims got Thor mugs, and I found a troll that Mary had asked me to get.  Near the top of the street was an art museum, which we didn't want to see enough to pay the entrance fee, but a stranger recommended the free outdoor sculpture garden.  The Einar Jónsson Museum opened in 1984.  Einar Jónsson (1874-1954) was Iceland's first sculptor.   The sculpture garden is home to twenty-six bronze casts of his dynamic, passionate, complex pieces.  Much of the symbolism of his work eluded us, but the pieces were beautiful in their own right.

Still cold and too early to go to the Airbnb, we opted for a rest in our car.  We watched tour buses come and go in the church parking area, until finally it was time to check in.  Tim was able to find a metered parking spot on the street, and we used the lock box to let ourselves in to our place.  It was a little house that had clearly had a makeover by a novice DIY.   A bedroom was on the first floor just off the little kitchen and dining area, with two more up the steep stairs/ladder, and a fourth in the basement with the only bathroom and a tiny shower.  Nothing glamorous, but it served our purposes well enough, and was well located in the downtown area.  We were pretty whipped, so we took short naps until the rest of the gang arrived.  They had opted for a trip to the Blue Lagoon before coming into Reykjavik.  We heard about their adventures eating "Hákarl" (rotted shark), a local "delicacy," that apparently tastes and smells horrible.  Hard pass.

We all walked to dinner.  We had a lot of restaurants and pubs to choose from nearby, and finally settled on a place called Staff.  It was cozy, with lots of warm wood and red plaid.  Some of us had our first sampling of Viking beer, which was quite tasty.  The dinner special was plokkfiskur, or fish stew - not really a stew in our sense of the word, but a tasty combination of fish and potatoes.  I couldn't finish mine, and apparently doggy bags are not a thing here, so I just wrapped mine in a napkin and hoped it wouldn't be too messy.

Back at the house, we played the inaugural game of First Watch, a card game created by Mike and Jenna, currently in its beta form.  It is cute and fun - watch for it soon in a store near you!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Thai Dyed

June 17, 2018

A final love letter to my beloved, adopted home, where I left my heart - Thailand.

When we knew our time was drawing to a close, we lamented the loss of the beautiful sunsets we witnessed every day.  We decided to capture a month of sunsets to preserve a little bit of the magic.


The Permanence of Dye

Dye has a sense of permanence
It changes unchanging
The transformation cannot be undone

I have been Thai dyed
Forever changed
Yet the colors disappeared into the skin
lingering just below the surface
Where I can no longer see them

What is left

Is a lingering sadness
a mourning for the colors that once were