A first ride around Keflavik

For almost all of the next day I worked on putting the bicycle together. It’s a dirty business. I had to pause to wash grease off my hands about ten times!

This is one of those weird things that sets touring cyclists apart from other people: They’re perfectly willing to give up a big chunk of their vacation – perhaps an entire day – hunkered down in some room carefully reassembling a bicycle from a box of parts. They really don’t want to make a mistake or lose anything so they make it part of the schedule. It’s good planning but it’s also bizarre. Assembling a bike is tedious work that people usually pay someone else to do, and who wants to do work on a vacation? Who would want to make that their first activity upon arriving in an exciting new land with limited time to explore?

I admit it. I’m weird.

There were two points in the process where I couldn’t find a tiny part that would have made the bike unusable if it was missing.  One was a tiny threaded ring that attaches a steel plate to the rear axle, and the other was a little interconnecting piece of the under-seat rack. I got quite annoyed and a bit panicky … And then I found the parts squirreled away in other luggage.  I’d been too tired when I packed them to remember where I put them.

Once the bike was put together and sitting there in one piece, I stood back and marveled at the fact that I hadn’t actually lost anything. Not even a single bolt. I was honestly a bit surprised.

Later on as I rode through Iceland I would discover how important this was: Many supplies, parts, devices, and even pieces of clothing are almost impossible to find anywhere in the entire country, and must be ordered online and shipped in slowly or at great expense. When you come here you better have specific, conventional activities in mind for which you can rent all your equipment, or you’d better be fully prepared and arrive with everything you need.

Anyway, with the bike finally together in a new country, it was time to take it for a spin.

Valoria out and about for the first time in Iceland.

Since I was just going around town I only needed one set of bags, and my “around town” set of gear. It’s what I’m used to carrying around in Oakland on a typical day, plus the fancy camera.

This is the light outside at 11:11pm. My kind of place!

The fact that it was nearly midnight did not matter. There was still light in the sky, and a number of places open for business in the nearest town.

I probably won’t ever forget what it was like heading out of that hotel on the bike for the first time, just like I won’t forget the first day in New Zealand, or Colorado.

I set out wearing full rain gear, because the report promised rain in a few hours. For now the sky was exhaling a constant mist of tiny drops that churned silently around in the air before touching down and coating everything, like spores descending from the dome of a giant mushroom. It wasn’t fine enough to completely obscure things like fog, but it gave everything more than a hundred meters away a slightly blurred and somber look, like an aged painting. As I rode out into it I could feel the mist colliding with my face, and plunging into my nose. After only a few minutes I reached up to wipe my beard and a splash of water rolled off my hand.

I navigated the empty lamp-lit streets to the edge of the complex, and the edge of the hill looking down into the city of Reykjanesbær. (The first of an endless parade of names I can only flail desperately at pronouncing.) I could see plenty of lights on, but no movement. The most recognizable building was the massive shipyard, a cluster of industrial buildings right on the water, dominated by a dome-like structure open at two ends and large enough to cover an entire cruise ship. One was just visible inside, halfway through a restoration. At the top of my hill I estimated that I was just about twice as high as the roof.

Above me the clouds split and scattered as they moved out over the ocean. The sun was somewhere beyond it, below the horizon, sending up a blue-tinged wave of light that filtered through the clouds and illuminated the land below without casting any shadows. A perpetual twilight. This is as dark as it would ever get in the month of July, and it’s only this dark because of the mist.

I paused for a moment to take it in: The lumpy clouds, the dark ocean, the curving hillside entirely devoid of trees, the town below — all washed out in blue light, except for the pinholes of the phosphorescent yellow lamps and the rare unblocked window. Plus one more lamp, punctuating the view: A spotlight embedded in the ground, throwing up a dramatic beam turned solid by the mist, illuminating the cross of the town church.

The wind picked up from the ocean, buffeting my face, like a hand patting it in affectionate greeting. Then it died away, leaving the smell of salt. Welcome to Iceland.

I coasted down the hill in a dramatic rush, blinking my eyes as they were battered with tiny raindrops, and followed the road as it curved onto the main street of Njarðarbraut. (Good luck pronouncing that, fellow Americans. Just let your eyes drift over it…) At first it seemed like everyone was asleep and I had the town entirely to myself, but every five minutes or so a car would come drifting through, audible in the thick air long before I could see it. Sometimes the cars slowed down and I could tell the drivers were inspecting me; whether out of suspicion or just curiosity I couldn’t tell.

I've only been out one day and I already have a favorite hangout spot!

Pretty soon I arrived at my destination: A coffee shop that claimed to be open until midnight. Personally, I couldn’t see why all businesses didn’t just stay open 24 hours, since it was light all the time anyway. But I’m biased by my night-owl nature.

Back in the Bay Area this would have cost me ten dollars. Here it cost a little under seven. Iceland is expensive to most people ... to me it seems more affordable!

I arrived just as people were finishing up for the night. It was 15 minutes until closing time, but the barista said I was welcome to order something and then linger while she cleaned the place up. This led to the following conversation:

“Uh, I’m really embarrassed I didn’t think of this earlier but, I don’t suppose you take American money? It’s all I have…”
“Oh. No, we don’t take that, but if you have a credit card you can use it.”
“I have one of those, yes!”
“Also you can use your phone!”
“My phone?”
“Yeah, it’s contactless payment. Some people just hold their credit card up to the reader. Try holding up your phone.”

And sure enough, I held my iPhone close to the receiver, and it beeped and registered a credit card payment. Just like at home.

It was the Apply Pay system, and I soon found out that it had been integrated all over Iceland, for all sorts of things. I did eventually get Icelandic money from an ATM because I naturally assumed that somewhere out there was a store or a hotel or a campground that didn’t take contactless payments. There wasn’t. For the entire trip I used my “Travel Rewards” credit card, which converted Icelandic Krona to US Dollars at the current exchange rate without any fees, and I didn’t even have to take my wallet out of my backpack. I could have gone all through Iceland without ever touching their money at all.

Anyway, back to the coffee shop.

There wasn’t any real food available, but I got a donut, a slice of cake, and a swiss mocha, for the equivalent of about nine dollars. That’s basically 3/4th of what I’d pay in Oakland for the same thing.

Yes, I’m visting Iceland, a country notorious for being an expensive place to vacation, and it actually feels less expensive than my home town.

Everyone else left and the barista began clearing dishes and organizing. I asked her if I could put the cake in a container and she said, “Stay here! It really is okay; I have lots to do!”

It felt a bit strange, honestly. It was just her and me alone in the shop. I was obviously not a local. And she was – what – 20 years old?

I shrugged and took my time, then asked her if I could fetch my camera and take some pictures of the place. She agreed.

Adorable! But not for sale!
Stuff like this on the walls, you know a place is hip and cool.

Then I took a detour to the bathroom, and found this on the wall.

A rather clever map of the town.

Pretty nifty! I liked how I could see the church and the shipyard as little symbols. I wonder if they made maps like this for every town in Iceland?

Rain will strike anywhere, anytime.

The famously variable Iceland weather had struck while I was inside the cafe, and my bike was coated with a layer of rain. Good thing my bags are rainproof.

I rode out again, this time just wandering with no destination in mind. I’d given up on the idea of finding something real to eat. It was well past midnight and even the American fast food joints had closed down.

And you thought you could get away from American food?

I don’t know what “svooogott” translates to but I can guess.

I was closer to the ocean down here, and the smell of it was stronger. Combined with the eerie silence and the luminescent cloud cover, the smell brought me visions of ancient sailors on primitive boats, thrashing around in angry seas, hauling wet ropes and shouting into the wind … and seeing weird half-human shapes gleaming in the water, and wrestling with scaly monsters crawling over the rails, black and barely visible in the moonlight except when a flash of lightning etches their horrifying bodies in chiaroscuro along the deck, with claws reaching out…

My imagination gets a little out of hand sometimes.

Anyway, I eventually blundered into a Subway sandwich shop that was open very late, and used my magic phone once again to buy a tuna sandwich.

The teenager behind the counter saw my bike and made a very un-Icelandic move by actually asking me a curious question:

“So how far are you riding?”
“I’m going to the other side of Iceland, where the boat to Denmark is. But if I have time, I’d like to try crossing down through the middle of the country too.”
“Not very many people in the middle. Can’t build anything up there because of the glaciers.”
“Yeah, I have a tent and I’m going to have to carry all my food with me.”
“How long will it take?”
“To cross the middle? I’m thinking five or six days.”

He nodded in agreement, then went back to making sandwiches.

I sat down to eat mine. At the cafe earlier, and now at this sandwich shop, I was leaving the bike parked outside with all my gear on it, visible 10 meters away through a window. The few people that were around mostly ignored it.  If I was still in Oakland, I would feel completely insane doing this. If I was in a place where I was worried about theft I would unload the entire bike and take the baggage inside, and carry it around with me or leave it somewhere safe.  And lock the bicycle up of course. But here? At 1:30am in Iceland? Meh.

As I ate, the loudspeakers in the shop played “Eye Of The Tiger”, then “Two Princes”, then “Don’t Stop Believin'”, then “Another One Bites The Dust”, then a string of 90’s hits that I knew but couldn’t name. This was the beginning of a pattern. All over Iceland, in any restaurant or cafe, the music had the same focus: America or the UK, 30 years in the past. I wouldn’t find out why until later when I visited the Viking World museum.

Part of the answer was actually right in front of me, though I didn’t know it at the time. On the way back up to the hotel I passed by this:

The air force is well established here.

Apparently there is a military base here?

As I approached the hotel I also grabbed one final photo for the day, just down the road from the photo of the plane. It turned out to be another clue:


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