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Vagamonde: Chasing Euphoria and Getting Hit by Reality
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Monday, May 21, 2012

Ready or not here we go

This blog post is from the beginning of our trip, that is, two years ago. Iceland in May 2010. We have gone back to our notes to redo the old posts in the writing style that we established later.

May 25, 2010 - June 7, 2010

Despite the excitement, the flight to Iceland was somewhat routine but there were a few funnies. Our first destination being Boston, we had to clear US customs in our own country. I step up to the kiosk for the scornful and tight-lipped officer to stamp my glorified coffee voucher. First, he types a few things in his computer.
- Is this yours? he asks.
I look over to see a picture of my bike on his computer screen. I had never seen that before. Being excited and in a good mood, I had to resist the urge to say "wow, that's really cool!".
- Yes it is I tell him.
Next came that loud thump on my passport and off to Boston we went.

On our approach to the Boston airport, I thought we were going to land in the ocean. At the last second, the runway appeared. Then, it's through the rat maze we go to catch our connecting flight to Iceland. At the check-in counter the Iceland Air employee asks us if we already paid for our bikes.
- Of course we did. Even though we didn't.
And good thing we didn't, because on the plane, we get nothing but a glass of water. No matter, with the excitement, we don't really care.

On the seat in front of us is an American family who looked like they lacked certain cultural subtleties. He's got an high and tight and overgrown John Waters mustache. She's about as wide as she is tall. The only thing we could make out is that they were heading home to the army base in Germany.
- Shut the fuck up and be good the woman yells to her kids.
This was our cue to put in our ear plugs and close our eyes. When we open them up, the plane was already on its descent into Keflavík.

Once out of the airport, we assemble the bikes for a short ride to the hotel where we'll spend two days getting our bearings. Once in our room we sit silent: we can hardly believe that this trip has started. Later that night, we look out the window to see the start of the season of perpetual light. For the next month, there won't be any night.

Michèle comments: We just arrived in Iceland and already we are exhausted. It was difficult, this past month, with all the last minute preparations and saying goodbye. Finally, it was here. The start of our bicycle trip. We found ourselves in the land of the midnight sun. At this time of year in Iceland, the sun sets around 11:30pm and rises around 3:30am. For some silly reason, I imagined the four-hour night to be completely dark, just as the night is in Montreal. So when I awoke in the hotel at 1:00am, I was startled and confused by the illuminated scene outside. How could it be so light out? Then, realizing my mistake, I shook the confusion out of my head and went back to sleep, still feeling pretty stupid.

All showered and rested, it's time to go look for a restaurant. Down the street, it's slim pickings. At one restaurant we have a look at the menu.
- I have some nice whale meat the owners says.
Whaling is a big issue here in Iceland. However, being firm believers that we are in the 21st century we decide to go to the Thai restaurant next door. Then, it's back to the hotel to get ready to start riding the next day.

Before we know it we are on the road. The weather is nice and the wind is at our back. Our equipment is shiny new; we feel fresh and squeaky clean; ready for adventure. The ride takes us right into the lava fields that stretch for kilometres. You can see large lava tubes that form small caves. There is a bit of moss but in general, the scenery is black and lifeless.

We get to the town of Grindavík which has a small campground. This is the town that is next to the world famous Blue Lagoon. It was just our luck that Iceland was in the midst of an election. Maybe this prompted the volcanic eruption that almost fucked our plans around. Luckily, the volcano stopped spewing just before we left. Anyways, nothing gets stolen in Iceland, so we leave all our stuff at the campground to go to the supermarket: one of the political parties is there trying to round up support. The candidate hands us a pamphlet and invites us to a BBQ.
- We can't vote for you I tell him.
He tells us that it doesn't matter and that we should come anyways. The lure of food and beer is irresistible to a cyclist. Our species would not last long if it was hunted. With punctuality we show up at the party's party. We say hello to the candidate before bee-lining for the beer and hot dogs. Once seated, the people-watching takes over. Occasionally, some of them come up to ask us questions. One of them in particular, an older rough-looking guy, wants to show us something. He looks from side to side and lays a fat line of snuff on the back of his hand. Then, he inhales the whole thing, smiles and walks away. Later, all the other parties will join the party. By that time we are tired and before we leave, I ask the candidate what he will do if he is elected. He gives me a weird look as if the question caught him by surprise.
- When tourists come here they go straight to the Blue Lagoon and never come into town. I hope to change that he says.
We say thank you and head back to the tent. The next day we join all the tourists at the Blue Lagoon to swim in the water heated by the power plant next to it. They don't really tell you that it's not a natural hot spring. Anyway, we never did find out who won the election but the candidate did get his wish: we stayed in town for two days.

Michèle comments: We were sitting outside a bakery in Grindavík one day. Coffee is called the national drink of Iceland. It usually goes with sticky sweet desserts drizzled with chocolate and icing. That was what we were there for that day. Two young boys about ten years old came blasting up the road on their bicycles. They were riding rough, like young kids do, up out of their seats, their bikes shifting back and forth with the force of their pedal strokes. They skidded to a stop in front of the bakery. Only then did I notice the toddler in the baby seat on one of the bicycles, helmet on and strapped in. He was unstrapped and plucked out of the seat by the kid riding the bike and plunked on the ground. The two older kids went into the bakery and selected some bread, as the little one waddled in front the display case of sweets banging on the glass. The bread paid for, the baby was plunked back in the seat on the bike, the safety strap just clicking into place before the older brother (I'm guessing) was back to power pedalling down the road with his friend. I loved it, because it was such a contrast to the overprotective world of socket protectors and table corner bumpers that we see all the time in Canada. It reminded me of my friend who moved from Canada to live in Holland. At first, she freaked out at seeing people on bicycles loaded with kids and babies and groceries, thinking it unsafe.
- Of course it's safe, they'd say. You're just not used to it in your country.

We decide to take a dirt road out of Grindavík that follows the coast. The sun is shining which is unusual for Iceland. Not far into the ride, we see a sign that says "Free Camping". How can we pass that up. The only thing you are asked to pay for are the showers and the fresh duck eggs that sit in a basket at the entrance of the bathroom. Again there is no-one is sight except the owner in the distance, banging on some nails. The nights are cold but we are well equipped. It is silent and in the morning it's poached duck eggs all around. How lucky we are to be vagamonde.

Aside from volcanic eruptions and lunar landscapes there are many large 4 x 4 trucks with tires so big you would think you travelled back to the eighties to a monster truck show. You can see many youngsters cruising around in these things with all the obnoxious attributes: peeling tires and loud music; SNAFU I guess. At a campground, a Scottish man tells us that the trucks are used to go on ice fields in the winter. To get better traction, the tires are deflated so that they almost look flat.

We tell the Scottish guy that we will be in Scotland in a few months. In asking about the weather he tells us that sometimes the midges are not bad and that if you don't like the weather ... wait five minutes. Then, the topic of wild camping comes up. In Scotland, you are allowed to pitch your tent anywhere. Always joking around, he tells us that when he sees people camping on his land he usually takes out his gun to fire a warning shot.

In the morning there was a lot of wind which stirred up the leftover dust from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. We had to go in town to buy masks to filter out the tiny particles floating in the air. Mixed with a good downpour, it took a few hours to pedal out of this black rain. Once in the clear, all our stuff was covered by a thin film of mud. Lucky for us the campground in Þingvellir has a washing machine.

Michèle comments: At Þingvellir (pronounced 'Thingvellir'), we meet Roland, a cyclist who is a treasure trove of tips on how to do Iceland on the cheap. Go for coffee at the N1 gas station stores, he told us, where you get unlimited refills and there is milk to be had à volonté. He was wild camping whenever he could and grabbing a shower at the municipal pools where the entrance fee was way less than the rate for a campsite. Later we would meet again, and get more money saving ideas from him.

We cycle back towards Reykjavík which means cycling on a busy road. It's a few kilometres to a less busy turn-off where the wind is in our face: so strong that we can't even ride.

However, there is a B&B not too far. Once there we ask if there is a spot for our tent. We are told that we can camp in the adjacent field but warned that we are in the windiest place in Iceland and that every year tents just fly away. So, we decide to shell out the money for a room. In the morning the caretaker invites us for coffee. After some small talk he tells us that he has cancer but that he is better now.
- I am getting stronger he says.
Then he offers me a cigarette which I politely decline.
- I don't understand, people nowadays don't smoke anymore he says.
We chat for a bit longer and then I offer to help him clean up.
- This is my party he says, I will clean up.
When we step outside, the wind has died and the sun is shining. Looks like a great cycling day.

The nice weather and the absence of tourists are a real treat: campgrounds are so vacant that sometimes no-one comes to charge us. And, there is no shortage of hot water.

The days are infinite which removes the stress of finding a place to crash before night falls. Yet it seems that you can never avoid a dark cloud over your head: despite a very generous chunk of savings, I find myself unable to stop stressing about our cash outflow. I have many talents for risk but money and general business is not one of them.

Michèle comments: A bit tired of camp stove food, we decided to splurge on a meal at a hotel restaurant. We had heard that Iceland has a great reputation for innovative cuisine, a mix of local ingredients and international flavours. This restaurant specialized in seafood. Not wanting to push our wallets too far, we ordered a seafood stew that was amongst the less expensive items on the menu. It was more like a swirl of fluffy seafood soufflé and it was delicious. At the table next to us, there were two couples; one, locals from Iceland, and the other from Germany, I think. The Icelanders were ordering the best the restaurant had to offer, clearly trying to showcase the fantastic food to their friends. The hotel reception guy, doubling as a waiter, stood there all smiles and puffed up in pride as they were finishing up their meal.
- Is it to your satisfaction?, he queried, his hands clasped in barely-contained joy.
The man of the German couple replied:
- I like fast food. Hamburgers. Ketchup. This was ... good, but not my taste.
The waiter somehow managed to keep his smile, though I think inside he was exploding. Later that evening, he was back at reception, temporarily having recovered his calm.

Shortly after, Michèle was sitting in the lobby with her writing book in her hand: the ribbon bookmark dangling from the side. The book was held us close to her heart for some reason. She was smiling and looking up to the heavens when an old man walked in. He then looks at the book and says
- Ah ... bible.
For us, this could be the beginning of a long running joke.

Later that night, I dunked my feet in the North Atlantic. The temperature of the water was the same as the cold tap water in mid February in Montreal. So much for body surfing.

Michèle comments: At the tip of the peninsula is the Snæfellsnes volcano, which some might remember from a Jules Verne tale as the entranceway to the centre of the earth. Putting aside the sci-fi fantasy aspect of his tale, how much can you trust his descriptions of Icelanders? After all, if you read 20,000 Lieues Sous Les Mers you might think that people from Quebec are harpoon-wielding whale-hunting Protestants. But, in Voyage au Centre de la Terre, Jules Verne did describe Icelanders as being voracious readers, and that, I believe, is true. I have also heard that they are fiercely proud and protective of their language. So that it is not "tainted" by words from other languages, the country votes on the adoption of a new word. For example, sími, the word for telephone in Icelandic, has its roots in the Old Norse word for thread; and cell phone incorporates a word meaning travel and so becomes a travelling thread. As much as I am fascinated by Icelandic, I don't expect to pick up much of it. They say that if you don't learn it from childhood, you'll spend the rest of your life in its study and still never master it.

There's not much to worry about here in Iceland. Except for the wind. No worry of darkness: you can get up to pee at 3:00am and it'll be as bright out as a spring morning. No worry of crime: Iceland supposedly has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. There is rumour that even the prisons let out for the weekend so that the inmates can go visit their families. No worry about wild animals growling outside your tent: there are only lambs with wiggly tails, and clusters of horses with shaggy forelocks, and occasionally, a very friendly cat.

Iceland, to be continued ...

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