I’m riding at the very back of a large tour bus jam-packed with heavily-dressed tourists, with the modest goal of seeing just a bit of the exotic Icelandic landscape. The bus is moving slowly over the narrow frozen roads, in no particular hurry. Outside the large windows, the landscape is mostly flat, white and more or less barren, punctuated here and there by a sharp and steep mountain – a volcanic relic I’m told. Though it’s midday, it could be dusk. This far north, the sun barely peeks over the horizon in mid winter.
The tour guide is narrating over a microphone, trying her best to describe what we cannot see and filling the gaps with geological facts and folksy stories about the old days when most people lived on small farms, got around on sturdy Icelandic horses. At least a third of the passengers are snoozing in their seats. I am the only one with his laptop out, connected to the internet through a spotty on-board wifi network. Though we’ve been on the road for hours, we’ve stopped just twice. We’ve been warned about wandering off too far and about being back to the bus on time. There's a schedule to keep.
I’m not surprised or disappointed. Tour bus excursions are what they are: safe, predictable, easy. You don’t have to think or plan but you are at the mercy of a tour guide and have no control. Bus tours are almost always optimized for shuffling tourists between only the most touristy of places, with gift shops of course. There were other excursions that were considerably more ambitious (climbing lava rocks, ice caves, snowmobiling, etc) but they took more time and preparation. This bus tour would have to do for this trip.
I didn't have big ambitions or expectations for my brief visit to Iceland. It's winter, the days are short, much of the remarkable landscape inaccessible. I have spent most of my time in the relatively small city of Reykjavik and I haven’t made it to a single museum. I’ve kept no particular schedule, set no particular goals. All part of the plan if you can call it that.
I’ve taken in Iceland this trip through slow osmosis. Staying in a regular house in a regular neighborhood, I’ve frequented the ordinary places: grocery stores, cafes, small shops, parks, the occasional restaurant. It’s been relaxing and stress free. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Some might call it boring I suppose, yet for me Iceland is an amazing place with an interesting history. It’s the only major landmass to be colonized by humans in modern history. We have a written record, more or less, of the first landfall by Vikings in the 9th century, and the future settlements - a testament to the ability of humans to live just about anywhere. Reykjavik means “Smokey bay”, so called by the first Viking Floki Vilgeroason when he saw the steam rising from the hot springs.
The Icelandic people are Scandinavian but can, perhaps, claim a purer viking heritage. Mostly isolated for centuries, the language is a sort of pickled version of old Norse and, though they share the same roots, is generally unintelligible to the rest of Scandinavia (I can’t understand a thing). The alphabet is very similar but to my layman's eye it retains stylistic elements of Rune writing. So preserved and unchanged is Icelandic that texts from the 12th century are still understandable to Icelandic schoolchildren.
Góðan daginn (hello)
Ég tala ekki íslensku (I don’t speak Icelandic)
Hestarnir eru Traustur og áreiðanlegur (their horses are sturdy and reliable)
Tungumálið hljómar öðruvísi en norsku (the language sounds quite different from Norwegian)
The landscape is a geologist’s dream. Iceland was built by volcanic activity on the mid-Atlantic ridge (where two continental plates meet) and today is still one of the most active volcanic regions on the planet. The scent of sulfur is at times in the air and the water too, though quite pure and drinkable, also has a fairly noticeable sulfur aroma. The lava-rock landscape even under snow and ice looks alien. So much so that NASA has used Iceland as a simulated lunar landscape and movies about Mars have been filmed here.
courtesy of wikipedia
Tomorrow I return to Norway. I’ll definitely be back some summer in the future with the family to hike around. Just a 2.5 hour flight from Oslo, Iceland is close enough that we can wait for the right conditions.