January 29th

Tuesday, January 29th: The day started by sleeping in, eating the familiar breakface, and grabbing a Subway sandwich, of all things, as a packed lunch for later; a small step down from last night’s dinner.

We met our guide for today’s tour, a bearded elf in his 30’s with a kind demeanor and a thirst for adventure. Well, I don’t know how thirsty he was, but we were going on adventure time regardless. We got into a van that has windows and seats 16 people (16 mann). For a second it looked like we were getting into the windowless can for a tour “without the hassle of having to turn your neck!” I imagined we would drive up to something and he’d say, “Oh wow, it’s beautiful,” and we’d all squirm with excitement and hand him our cameras, then look at the pictures and go “ooh, ahh.”

I don’t know… seemed post-modern enough to be true. I also thought that there ought to be a Dutch family out there somewhere in Dutchland that runs a minimal effort vanpool service, named the “VanTour” family (pronounced VonToor). So it’d be “The VanTour Service,” and you’d get in the windowless van expecting a tour and be disappointed by the end of the ride, and Mr. VanTour would turn to you and say, “What’d you expect?”

To quote our guide: “Anyhoo…” I learned many things on the two hour ride to Eyjafjallajökull (including how to spell and pronounce “Eyjafjallajökull”), all of which I will dryly recite in a blithering stream of bullet points throughout the following obtrusively droll paragraph. If you wishn’t to dry out, I would strongly suggest skipping this paragraph.

-Iceland has 320,000 pleople
-1871, guy builds first farm where downtown Reykjavik is now. Called the farm “Reykjavik,” which means “smokey bay.”
-We passed large holes in the middle of a lava field called ‘fake craters,’ created when a lava flow meets water, and explodes.
-Tap water is filtered naturally through lava in the ground. They don’t do anything to it except drink it. The tap is the same as the premium bottled water.
-It takes about 3000 years until trees grow after a lava flow. Iceland’s very green because moss is sometimes the only thing that’ll grow.
-11% of the country is lava field, like plain flat barren lava field, but everything is made from lava. The island is a volcano.
-Over half the country believes in elves. Like, actual elves. For real. It’s a bit silly, but it’s a part of their culture.
-We had to pull over to check our head lights. Sometimes it gets so windy your headlights will blow off.
-More often than not, when there is an eruption it happens in fissure line. All the mountains are made from fissures lines.
-Iceland is where the North American plate meets the Eurasian plates. They drift apart at 2 cm a day.
-There are small earthquakes every day, but since it’s a constant steady diversion, they’re rarely big and harmful.
-In the year 1000 the Elves were all pagans and the Danish royalty were trying to convert them to Christianity, but they wouldn’t budge. There was a big eruption and lava flow and all the Elves converted to Christianity overnight and were baptized.
-They use steam from hot springs to heat water; nothing else.
-After everyone converted, all the chieftains (farm owners/rich guys) built small churches on their farms and served double-duty as priests. That’s why there are so many churches in Iceland, and they only seat about 20-30 elves.
-Vatnajökull is the biggest glacier in Europe.
-The main requirement to be a glacier is that it must move.
-Eyjafjallajökull means glacier (jökull) on top of the mountain (fjalla) of the islands (eyja). The reference to the islands are the Vestmanneyjar (Westman Islands)
-The names always mean something; quite literally. The town of Hveragerði means hot spring (hvera) field (gerði)
-The town of Hveragerði dropped 10 cm in a 2008 earthquake. Many hot springs disappeared, and some new ones formed; one in a women’s backyard, so now they have a pool.
-Selfoss is the ‘water-most’ river in Iceland. Water is slightly green, which means there is glacier water present.
-Hekla is the most active volcano and holds the record for most ash produced over its life. It means “gateway to hell.”
-Elves don’t have the letter “W,” and instead say /v/ like /w/, which makes Vikings sound like ‘wikings.’
-two “L’s” together makes a hissing /k/ sound.
-“Foss” means “waterfall,” and the river Selfoss is named that because seals (sel) would swim up to its waterfall and sit there.
-The sagas are their written history. Often the truth is stretched, but they’re more or less accurate, kind of like a toned down version of the epic poetry of the greeks; history sprinkled with mythology.
-Ingolf was the guy who made the first farm in Reykjavik, and he left the location to destiny, picked by the gods. He had pillars with the gods carved in them and threw them into the ocean saying where they land, he will build a farm. His buddies searched the coast for over two years and found them washed up in Reykjavik.
-The town of Hvolsvöllur is where people are brought in an evacuation, but most eruptions are “tourist-friendly,” meaning people run towards the volcanos when they go boom, and not the opposite direction.
-The guide pronounces /sh/ like /s/, and most “a’s” like “u’s”, which puts the words “ash” and “factory” a bit out of context.
-Driving in ash is like driving on wet snow… you know, in case that ever happens to you and you’re worried about driving conditions and not the fact that mother nature is vomiting on you.
-The defense mechanism, if you get too close to the white birds that fly around the waterfalls, is to vomit on you. It would work on me. That’s just gross—and unprofessional no less.
-Skögalfoss (pronounced ‘sköwafoss’) means “waterfall in the forest,” but now the forest is gone due to lava flows… so now it just seems ironic and cruel.
-Sölheimajökull is the glacier we climbed, and is retreating 60m a year due to warmer climate, however it has scooped a ‘U’ shape in the valley; a telltale footprint of a glacier.

That was boring! Yet edjucational! …wow, I just spelled education with a ‘j,’ like ed-yew-kay-shun-ull… I’ve been staring at elvish words too long.

Driving around Eyjafjallajökull is quite a spectacle. The landscape is very flat, and then there’s this huge plateau with a glacier on top of it. The hillsides of this mountain are sheer cliffs, and around every turn there’s a new waterfall to look at. White birds speckle the green cliffs and dance around the waterfalls, and it’s just keeps on going, like some never-ending national geographic magazine.

So… now we’re on the glacier Sölheimajökull. I know this is getting long, so I’ll try to be quick, and probably fail miserably, but nonetheless I’ll try. We put on crampons (‘crumpons’) on our boots and got handed ice picks. The glacier was pretty amazing. It’s not ice because it’s cold, but rather because it has been compressed into ice… I worded that wrong, and there’s no backspace on this pen, but basically that’s why the bottom is liquid and allows the glacier to move. There are layers in the glacier. White is summer ice, and blue is winter ice. It’s whiter in summer because more air bubbles get trapped int the ice, which is crystal clear. I posed for a photo under an ice cave and the guide told me “next time you’re standing under 5 tonnes of ice: be quick.”

Walking on the ice was fun. Without crumpons, which are basically spikes the glacier would be one giant ash-bruising slip’n’slide, but with crumpons you can walk anywhere super easily. You have to walk flat footed, not rocking the usual “heel-toe,’ and have to kind of stab the ground as you step. The one thing to be careful of is to not fall down any crevasses or “swallower.” What swallowers are is when it rains and a stream flows down the glacier, it swirls like a drain and carves a funnel shaped hole all the way to the bottom of the glacier, sometimes up to 60 meters deep. It’s called a swallower because once you slip, you get swallowed in and don’t come out. Since the glacier churns and moves, they’ve found cameras and ice picks imbedded in the walls years later. What I found cool, is that looking at the walls you can tell where summer and winter were, and where certain eruptions marked the glacier, like rings on a tree. There was a thin black line through the wall which was a layer of ass from the 1918 eruption. Where the line met the surface we were able to collect some ass (don’t tell anyone). I felt like a spy and a geologist in that moment… a spyologist.

*clears throat* excuse me. I seem to’ve had a pun stuck in my throat.

So we watched the sun set frm atop the glacier, and got down. It was windy. We saw a waterfall at night. I for the name of it, but it was pronounced “SELL-you-Lance-foss.” It was pretty cool.

For dinner we stopped at a small restaurant in someone’s farm and ate lamb soup. It was good. We then drove back towards Reykjavik in hopes of finding the northern lights, which was basically the whole reason for the trip. The forecast for the northern lights said there would be a north-facing gap in the sky, but on a scale from 0-9, where 0 is just stars, and 9 is the sky is on fire, the activity was 0, so we just looked at the stars. Our guide kept us entertained/destracted by telling us stories, including one folk tale of how a girl, Ketla, had magic pants that would allow her to run without getting tired, and she ended up running off into the forest by a volcano because she was a rebellious teen or something, and disappeared because of some sort of moral in the story. But she didn’t die; she turned into a troll. So whenever she gets mad the volcano, now named after her, erupts. You could say the volcano is temperamental ‘period’ically.

That was tasteless. Moving on: So… No northern lights, but mumsy did point out a dull white spot throbbing gently on the horizon. You’d have to be crazy to see it. What I mean is it was so dim you’d think it was nothing, and you probably wouldn’t bother saying “I see them,” because no one would believe you. But she pointed it out and I stared in that direction. Through a diffusing layer of cloud cover I could make out the irregular white light. I’d like to think that it was the northern lights. I may not have seen their complete brilliance, but that’s just all the more reason to come back.

(next day)

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