Iceland 2021 Page 2

Boxes and coffee

Now that the bike was unpacked and ready, I had to deal with the box.

I made some improvements since the last trip. Now the box had crude cardboard end-caps, so I could hold all the little foam bits safely inside. I still had to seal it with tape, but I didn’t need a whole dang roll.

Innermost layer of the box, folded up.

The endcap makes a little holder for foam blocks!

Ready for shipping.

The next step was to get the box shipped out of the country. Like last time, I couldn’t be sure of my eventual destination, so I couldn’t just send it ahead of me. I needed to ship it to someone who could hold onto it for three months or possibly longer, and then be willing to send it somewhere else. This time the (dubious) honor would go to my nephew James.

Last time I thought perhaps DHL had a desk inside the airport itself.  Nope!

Super bonus expert strategy time! I booked a free shuttle ride to take myself and the box over to the airport, but instead of getting out at the airport like a sucker, I asked the shuttle driver to take me directly around to the DHL office one street over, saving me almost an hour of pushing the box around on a pilfered airport trolley. He was fine with it, since I was the only person left in the shuttle.

I would have handed him a cash tip, but I didn’t have any cash yet. Bonus expert strategy failure; boo!

The lobby was closed but a guy came out and started to tell me that the nearest DHL shipment center was quite a ways away. Then he paused mid-sentence, shook his head as if to clear it, and told me to come inside because they could just ship the package there.

He led me back into the rear office, and I sat in a chair by his desk. He opened the website shipping interface on his computer and walked through the forms with me. All around, people were moving boxes and loading up a van, listening to 80’s-era rock music loud on a stereo built into the wall. In about ten minutes they shut the van doors with a bang and it sped out of the loading bay.

My friend clicked the last button on the form and saw that the site intended to charge me 900 dollars to ship an empty box. He hissed in his breath, then without saying a word to me, he put on his earphones and made several phone calls, talking rapidly in Icelandic. During the second call, he leaned his head close to mine and said, “bear with me,” then got up and left the desk for a while, still arguing on the phone.

Eventually he pulled out his earpiece and sat down again. He opened another window on his computer, typed a few things, and presented me with a bill for $450 — cutting the cost right in half.  I had never asked for a discount, and he had no obligation to give one to a wacky foreign tourist like me, but there it was. I could only conclude that charging so much to ship a box was morally offensive to him, and he had the freedom to do something about it, and so he did.

It’s kind of morally offensive to me too, frankly. $900 is a huge amount of money. But on the other hand, I have an object twice the size of the average suitcase, and I’m asking a company to transport it over an ocean about 1/4 of the way around the entire planet, and deliver it right to the front door of a specific house, without damaging it, in less than a week. And I want them to do this without my oversight, while I’m off doing something else, and not screw it up. What’s that supposed to cost?

I admit, if the man hadn’t given me a discount, I would have tried to bargain for one. But I would have eventually accepted the bill no matter what, because I really like my bike, and I really like keeping it safe in this box, and these boxes are really hard to find … and so on. It’s a complicated problem, and I’m lucky there’s even one way to solve it, even if that way is expensive.

It reminds me of what my friend Tavys says about batteries and electricity:

“You have a battery. You have a machine you want to power. But the voltages are different, so you get a converter. You look at the specs and it says you lose 10% of the power from the battery, just to do the conversion. That seems crazy, right? Well, only if you don’t know how complicated the problem is, turning one voltage into another without losing power. And trust me, it’s really complicated. Besides, if you don’t do any conversion, you can’t use the battery at all, and that makes the power loss 100% right? 10% loss is way better than 100%!”

Anyway, while the paperwork printed and he ran my credit card, I applied some additional tape to the box and we chatted about traveling the island and the weather projections. I used all the tape I brought and it still didn’t seem like enough. Another note for next time…

I showed him a picture of the bike. He seemed pleased that I was traveling in a slower way than the usual tourists, and wished me a good journey. I walked over to the airport, then caught the shuttle scheduled at the top of the next hour and rode it back to the hotel. Box handled!

It was now evening – at least according to my watch – and I was hungry, so I visited the cafe I’d grown fond of on the last visit.

Cafe Petite in Keflavik
Excitedly showing me the sketches for the remodel.
The local motto of Cafe Petite
Piggy bank butt! Oink!
My gut says this is Bach or Mozart, but I'm probably wrong.
One of my favorite bands.
Comfy and eclectic.
I just love old maps. Even when they're useless artistic prints on bathroom walls.

No one else was there when I arrived, so I got to chat with the proprietor for a while. He was glad that business was picking up again, and showed me some sketches of plans for a remodel of the cafe. He almost had enough money saved up. He said he could actually make money a bit faster if he put out a tip jar, but had strong feelings against it.

“I think a tip jar is just thievery.  People in Iceland get paid a living wage.  But it’s complicated, because sometimes visitors feel obligated to leave a tip, or the custom is too strong and they feel weird if they don’t.  So I have a jar at the end of the bar there.”

He pointed to a glass jar hidden partway behind a plant.

“But I don’t label it.  Really though, don’t tip.  It’s just businesses taking money for no reason here.  It’s almost stealing.”

“I see what you mean,” I said. “Yeah, I wish it was like that back in the U.S.  Employers can hire someone and pay them very little, because they count on making money from tips.  But then they also take a cut of the tips. That’s just sick.  It’s like, people are trying to be nice, but they’re undermining the need for a living wage. And now they feel like it’s compulsory, with this electronic stuff. You hand out a tip at the beginning of the transaction, before anyone does anything. What kind of sense does that make?”

He nodded. “Yeah.  Also it’s confusing for me when I travel. I was back in the ‘States, and I gave a tip to a waiter who did a really good job.  My friends told me that he doesn’t actually get the money; it goes into a pot and all the waiters get a cut, and also the chef in the back.  It gets split evenly, so…  How do I reward good service?  And if a waiter is doing badly, the other waiters will want to punish them, because they don’t bring in as much tips.  Plus the taxes are different in every state.  I feel bad if I don’t tip, but how much is right?  So, I don’t know.  But there’s two things I tell everyone who comes to Iceland:  One, don’t tip for anything.  And two, don’t buy the bottled water.  The water from the tap is better.  And it hasn’t been sitting in a plastic bottle on a shelf for who-the-eff-knows how long, pardon my language.”

I like this guy.

Mmm. The first of probably many slices of cake.

This time I was ready for the fully electronic payment system. Between 2019 and 2021 it had spread extremely rapidly back home, and was now the default payment method for nearly everything. No hands touching money — perfect for pandemic safety.

I ordered a tasty looking slice of cake, and what I’ve decided to call an Icelandic-style mocha, which is more like an elaborate hot chocolate with coffee mixed in. They call it a “Swiss Mocha.” I ain’t complaining — it’s delicious!

A familiar-looking painting.

There’s that guy again… I suppose it’s time for me to hit the internet and try and figure out who he actually is.

Aha. It’s a painting of a fisherman by a German-born artist named Harry Haerendel. Apparently it’s become popular in a semi-ironic way. “You come to Iceland thinking about stoic old fisherman, yeah? Okay, here he is. The rest of us don’t fish much, but he does.”

After my pie and coffee, I went riding around in search of more substantial food, and came upon a tiny little fish and chips shop:

Room enough to dine in ... For maybe three people!

While I chomped my order inside and away from the wind, I read the little “about us” poster they were displaying on the wall:

The charming story of this tiny Fish And Chips shop.

Across the street I could see a situation unfolding that I’d never seen during my previous visit. A police officer pulling over a motorist.

It's the coppers!!

A little more riding around town and I came upon something I never thought I’d see in Iceland: A vandalized car.

Local hoodlums must have stolen this car and taken it for a joyride?

It's pretty messed up in here. What are the rocks for?

For a brief moment it was just like being back in Oakland. And not in a fun way.

But then I saw something that made me laugh out loud, as I was riding back to the hotel for a nap:

TWIN OLSENS. Get it? GET IT??

I suppose you have to be of “a certain age” now to find it funny that a shop is making an oblique reference to “Olsen twins”. (But it’s not really worth explaining, so if you don’t get it, go poke the internet…)

I crawled into my hotel bed and tried to sleep for five whole hours, but tossed and turned with my brain racing instead. “Don’t Stop Believin'” kept echoing around in my head, to my extreme annoyance. The restaurant I used to frequent back in Santa Cruz would play that song every night as they shut down, and I’d grown to dread the way the few remaining patrons would burst into song during the chorus. Now it was filling the silence of this room. Arrgh!

I had coffee but it was seven hours ago.  Would it still be that strong? Was my resistance to Icelandic coffee weaker? Is this some ricochet from jet-lag?

Flowers and trails and boats, oh my!

Only a few hours of irregular sleep, and when I opened my eyes it was half an hour before my 10:45am “oh crap get out” alarm. I always do this; calculating the absolute minimum amount of time I’d need to get out of a hotel room in the morning and then setting my alarm based on that. The idea is, sleep is super important, and I’d rather stay asleep if my body wants to, for as long as it wants, and then pack up in a rush, instead of waking myself up pointlessly with an hour or two to spare. But if I wake up organically before that alarm, that’s great.

As it was, with only half an hour difference, I’d never fall back asleep in time. Might as well get up and start packing…

As soon as I rolled out of bed, the shriek of a wood-cutting instrument pierced in from the hallway just outside my door.  I peeked outside, and saw two workmen cutting a hole in the drywall above my bathroom, trying to find the extent of a leak from an upper floor.

I jammed in earphones and finished my few remaining packing tasks, then shoved the bike into the hallway and pushed my two empty suitcases out behind it.  The workmen had a ladder and a lamp on a stand blocking the way to the lobby, but there was a rear exit so I muscled the bike around to that.

So, with the bike loaded, the box shipped, and the hotel room cleared out, there was only one thing to deal with: These cheap-o suitcases I’d used on the airplane.

A container big enough to dispose of a suitcase.

Getting rid of trash in Iceland is quite hard, actually. It’s rare to find an open-access dumpster you can just chuck things into. Luckily there was one behind the hotel. I was probably not supposed to be using it at all. The very idea that one person would generate an amount of waste that would require a dumpster is appalling to Icelanders, no doubt.

But no one was looking, so I stuffed them in.

Only one of these gets you back into the room...

They handed it to me before I knew what it was! I swear!

Checking my pockets afterward I discovered there was one more thing to discard: The hotel key. In fact I had two of them. How had that happened? And this plastic bottle of “Icelandic water” they gave me on check-in… What an embarrassment. It was empty so I chucked that in too.

I took off down towards the city, and stopped at the shoulder of the hill to look out over the bay, thinking, “This will be the last time I get this view.  Better enjoy it.”  Then I realized, “It was the last time last time as well.  You never know!  If there’s a next time perhaps you’ll be sharing this view with a nephew or a girlfriend.”

At the bottom of the hill I turned right, headed for the Subway again.  I wanted a meatball sandwich but they were out of meatballs, so I got a tuna salad in a to-go box and ate it sitting near the window while I organized photos.

Several dozen pop songs from the 80’s played as I sat there.  I remembered hating most of this music when I was young because it was always being piped into my consciousness at what felt like very inappropriate times.  It was the same now.  I wanted to eat my tuna salad and look at my little collection of Iceland photos.  I did not want this activity underscored by some flashy vocalist doing a go-for-broke screaming chorus about how broken his life was since his lover vanished.  “WELL TAKE A LOOK AT ME NOOOW-OOWWW!  THERE’S JUST AN EMPTY SPAAACE!”  Shut up Phil Collins, and get out of my Iceland photos.

How do people just carry on with their lives in these spaces – eating and talking and thinking – with this stuff burrowing into their ears? I will never understand it.

After an hour I packed up again and cruised around town, debating with myself about whether to buy more snacks.

I don't know what it means, but it's compelling.
This is how you grow sunflowers up here.
The massive Skipasmíðastöð Njarðvíkur in Keflavik
This is growing all over Iceland.
Iceland is a pretty safe place from predators.
Gotta stick close to mom's butt!

I couldn’t help stopping by the Viking museum for a photo or two. It’s just so cute!

I prefer my two-wheeled vessel!

Perhaps I should put some anachronistic horns on my helmet?

Actually my plan was to spend the night in the little camping area in front of the museum, but when I went inside to pay for my spot, the outrageously attractive woman behind the counter told me that the campsites had all been shut down for the season due to lack of cleaning staff and tourism. She offered to find me alternative lodgings using her phone, and in less than a minute she did, pointing me to a campground in the tiny hamlet of Vogar that offered sites for ten dollars a day. I reserved one on my phone, and thanked her.

There didn’t seem to be anyone else in the whole museum. A slow day in a slow season. I asked if there was still food left in the brunch area and she told me in her melodic English that they weren’t doing brunch, but there were some pastries in the kitchen area if I wanted to go pick one out. I wandered over there and grabbed one, then wandered back.

She asked if I wanted museum admission too, but I told her I’d already gone through it top-to-bottom a few years ago. We chatted about the best times to visit Iceland, and what tourists usually tried to see in a rush on their typical one-week timeframe.

Her eyes were almond-shaped and angled downward towards the bridge of her nose, giving her a catlike gaze, which she held on me for much longer than seemed necessary in a simple shop transaction. They were an intense, otherworldly green. She put her elbows on the counter and leaned forward to talk to me.

In the back of my mind, some lunatic part of me jumped up and shouted, “Hey! Forget about this bicycle trip and just hunker down here, and ask this lady on a date! And then stay for three months and then apply for a work visa and then get some of your stuff shipped here and then get an apartment and get hitched and have some Icelandic kids! IT’S A GREAT IDEA DO IT. LOOK AT THOSE EEEYES.”

That lunatic is not in charge. I threw a chair at him and he ducked back down. Then I tore myself away from the woman’s gaze, wished her a fine day, and walked outside.

I had a work meeting coming up and the museum closed at 4:00pm, right in the middle of the meeting, so I couldn’t have it there.  The Subway had free wifi. I decided more snacks was a good idea after all, and rode back down there a second time, ordering a steak sandwich in the form of a wrap.

Meeting done, I used the bathroom a final time (very important!) and then set off for Vogar, hoping to be there before my next work meeting started so I could use their wifi — assuming they had any.

The pace was casual. I could have cycled the shoulder of the main highway but I knew there was this fine coastal path. I slowed way down and waved hello to four different people walking dogs of various sizes.

I remember these cliffs from last time. So lovely.

Some time in the last few years, whimsical residents had started painting little heart shapes all along the path!

Little hearts all along the path!

Apparently other people love this path as much as I do.

I zig-zagged out to the main highway and began to plod along.  The wind intensified and began to deliver sleet into my face.  I realized I’d forgotten to put the rain cover on my backpack, so I stopped to do that. I also noticed that my gloves were leaking a little bit at the fingers.  Why do gloves always do this within a year, no matter how expensive and fancy they claim to be? Am I just getting unlucky?

“I hope there’s a place to dry some of this stuff in Vogar,” I muttered, “Or I’m gonna hate being in my tent.”

The dense skyline in the roadsign is a little misleading...

Vogar was not very far away. The shoulder was narrow but there was zero traffic. The sleet turned into rain, blasting sideways into my eyes and forcing me to put on sunglasses even though the cloud cover stole the light. After a while I remembered that I brought a new piece of gear for this very situation: Little plastic goggles!

Too much water; not enough light.

Aaah; that's better!

They were pretty effective. I could see and my face was a little warmer as well. After a while my gloves got so wet that wiping them clear was difficult, but they were still better than the sunglasses. Good job, previous me!

When I got to the campground I discovered that they also had cute little cabins for only a bit more money. I had an AirBnB scheduled in Reykjavik but I had budgeted two days to get there, and I was a day ahead of schedule now, so I rented a cabin for two days. If it proved comfortable I would rent it for a third night and fill the gap.

Yep, it's tiny, but that means the heater is more effective!

Four coathooks but just one coat? No problem!

There wasn’t enough room for the bicycle, so I parked it next to the door. I briefly thought about trying to lock it to something, but … This is Iceland.

I arrayed my gear around the room, pointed at the space heater, then did some corresponding with workmates.  I was too fatigued to write code but I could do all my other job-related tasks.  By 10:00pm I was pooped, so I deployed the sleeping bag onto the bed and played some ambient music.  Only halfway through the playlist, I was out.

As dark as it gets in this tiny room.

Not much in Vogar

Fragmented sleep again.  Still getting used to the time difference and the light.

I had a very unpleasant dream that I’d recently moved house, and suddenly realized that I hadn’t seen my cat Mira for three days.  I went wandering around the property noticing all kinds of things that were dangerous for an old three-legged kitty:  Steep hills, a muddy creekside, animal dens, a road, rival cats.  Then I saw her, in the middle of a flooded pit filled with dead branches, swimming weakly, trying to move toward me but stuck in the debris.  I rushed down and plucked her from the water and cradled her in my arms. 

She felt warm, which was a good sign, but she had a wound in her stomach that was bleeding.  I implored my neighbors for help getting a towel to wrap her in, and finding a car to get to the vet, but my neighbors just stared, so I set about doing things myself.  Then I woke up, in the semi-darkness of the tiny cabin, with the wind streaming by outside.

“Mira is safe in the little Oakland back yard, and your nephew feeds her every day,” I reassured myself.  “She may be far away but she’s in good hands.” I took hold of the thought like a tiny brush, and ran it across my mind, settling myself. The wind outside ebbed away leaving absolute silence.

I unfolded myself from the bed and ate some chips and peanuts, aired out the room a bit, and then laid down for another long nap.  By the time I woke up again it was noon, five hours later.

I dressed and boarded the bike to have a look around town. Top of my list was food, because all I had for the day was one package of peanuts, and my metabolism was awake and burning in “tour mode” now.

A groovy black sand beach. But a bit cold for swimming.

There were no shops, except for one small place that was closed for the weekend. There was a decrepit restaurant that had shut down some time during the pandemic. I asked at the local hotel but the clerk had no idea where I could eat, unless I rode to the next town.

I decided to stay just for the day, rather than two, and booked a hotel partway to Reykjavik. I could nap here some more, then get up early.

Next to an abandoned building I found a large dumpster heaped with scrap metal, and this perched on top:

Anyone trying to drive this is definitely quackers.

I sent a photo to Andrew, and the chat pinged for the next half hour as I rode around.

Andrew

Oh wow! I saw one of those cruising around locally about two months ago.

Technically not legal in the ‘States, but there’s a program that will allow you to import the occasional non- compliant personal vehicle.

I love how they took the rack/ladder and just mangled and crushed it against the front.

Me

So what the heck did this one go through? It looks like someone cut the cab off and welded a metal sheet across it, then painted Donald Duck there to hide their shame?

Andrew

World’s coolest treehouse? I don’t know!

Me

Hah! No tree big enough in Iceland!

Andrew

That rusty junk in front of it is the frame/undercarriage.

Did they completely disassemble it just out of boredom?

Me

Check out the rusty metal bar on the right edge. It’s “welded” on!

Andrew

Hah! It’s a leveling jack! Maybe this was a treehouse minus the tree!

Me

Dang, I think this monstrosity was used as a tiny “cabin” and rented out to tourists.

The town of Keflavik had clearly benefitted from the international airport nearby. The town of Vogar had clearly not. The government had built an excellent, wide highway connecting Keflavik to the capital, and it blew right past Vogar.

A little bit of history everywhere you go.

Nevertheless, the township had a little money to spare for preservation, and I learned about some early post-Viking settlers.

Local lore of Vogar.

When I got back to the cabins, I saw a giant row of tents appearing all at once. Some package tour no doubt. Hello fellow explorers! I was tempted to ask if they had any food.

Lots of campers setting up together. They pulled all this gear directly out of a large van.

It was another windy night. I had the electric heater cranked up, but the lack of air circulation in the tiny space felt a bit dangerous, so I used some of my gear to prop open a window.

Keeping the window partially open in the wind.

That weird hybrid sense of comfort and dread that comes with being isolated in a rugged place was upon me again, and in a few minutes I was asleep.

From country to city

I packed up early in the morning. There was plenty of daylight to see by of course, since this time of year “night” is mostly of a state of mind.

Decked out and ready for more adventuring.

I headed out on the coastal road instead of returning to the highway. A few days ago I’d scanned ahead using satellite view on my phone, and confirmed it was paved. It was a nice discovery and a lovely road; far more interesting than the main one.

Ahh, those cute flowers!

I was on it for about two hours, and that entire time I was not passed by a single car in either direction. Delightful!

Cold and spooky!
The windy, wet road ahead.
Is this the result of a hundred years of birds nesting?
Bird on the lookout.
I assume this is where the postal worker delivers the packages.
If this were in Oakland, it would be an art collective surrounded by a homeless camp.
It looked neat, but not neat enough for me to make a detour.
Cold winters can destory anything eventually.

A bird posed for me on a ruined house, so I lingered for a while, lining up a shot and chomping a handful of peanuts — the very last of my food.

The bird posed for me.

I took some video of the tundra-like volcanic landscape and the modest farmsteads, feeling glad for my layers of clothing.

“This is what it’s like to cross the interior,” I thought. “Except the interior is more barren, colder, and has far worse roads, including river crossings. So, hmm. Maybe it’s not really like this at all.” An idea was percolating in my head to diverge from the coast somewhere along my tour, but I didn’t have details yet.

There were some gravel patches but the ground was hard beneath, so the bike handled them well.  I was tempted to think it would do well on the gravel roads farther upland, but experience told me there would be deep gravel and even mud up there. My skinny tires would have trouble.

Eventually the coastal road crossed under the main highway and turned into gravel beyond it, so I switched to the highway.

Back on the main highway, headed toward the capital!

Fortunately I didn't have to go down this road.

I rolled onto the wide shoulder and started the audiobook “Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed”, and skipped to the chapter about the Vikings and the colonization of Iceland, Greenland, and other areas. The cars that shot past me were a strong reminder of the forces at play here.

Iceland is the most ecologically damaged country in Europe.  It’s generally the fault of the Vikings.  During the relatively brief time they were here trying all their traditional survival methods, they deforested the island by over 80 percent.  Today, Iceland is 94 percent deforested.  Almost all the trees that remain have been behind fences that shield them from grazing animals.

What's that they say about rolling stones? Pfft.

The other major disaster has been soil erosion.  Relative to other places the vikings were familiar with, soil in Iceland dries up and blows away very quickly.  Large areas of it are accumulated volcanic ash, built up over thousands of years and then held down by plants.  The vikings ripped up the plants or burned them to make space for crops, and the soil disappeared almost before their eyes.

The parable of the three little pigs ends here.

I think of this, and then I think of being a kid back home in the politically left-leaning town of Santa Cruz, and the history I was taught where colonizers from Europe displaced and murdered the indigenous people of North America and began changing the face of the continent. I’d been told the continent was essentially a static place before Europeans arrived, and that the people before them had lived in a state of harmony with their surroundings, and their societies were egalitarian and peaceful, and they were generally disease and hardship free until colonizers came along with infections and guns and horses and corrupted and ruined everything for them.

It was a well-meaning mixture of history and mythology, designed to be an antidote – a corrective – to the patriotic nonsense that existed around me, about America somehow being destined to occupy the lands it claimed. It was meant to counter the cultural imperialism that lingers even now, driven originally by an intense racism, where the colonizers believed it was their duty to “civilize” lands being held by “primitive” people, and confine or exterminate them if they resisted. The early American story is basically naked opportunism justified by religious dogma and buttressed by ignorance, and this needs to be acknowledged. A larger part of the culture wants to pretend this history never happened, and my teachers and peers in Santa Cruz felt (and I still strongly feel) that letting America forget it is the first decisive step in letting it repeat.

But the tribes of America had not been perfect back then. They were an astonishingly diverse collection of peoples spread across a giant area of land and they were as different as they were alike, each struggling with warfare, slavery, subsistence, disease, and ecological damage on their own terms. They also did change the face of the continent long before Europeans arrived, primarily through deforestation in the east, by using fire for various purposes over a span of about 2000 years. These aspects of their history were left out of my early education, because it was trying to correct for a larger, more dangerous misconception, and to counter the absurd assumption that the indigenous Americans were “primitive.” Their ecological destruction through attempts at land management were not relevant to the case.

But I have to wonder: How much mythologizing is healthy here? If you smooth the wrinkles out of a portrait too well, it seems to me you run the risk of turning the subject into something unreal. Something that exists apart from contemporary life. You drive a wedge between the history, and the flesh-and-blood people who are the living embodiment of it today, who have practical needs and problems and need to be considered part of your own world, rather than an abstraction or an irretrievable myth. Perhaps too much mythologizing becomes an “othering” — a sort of reinforcement of a separation that in turn preserves a power imbalance.

Undoubtedly, the larger struggle has been in simply getting American culture to recognize that the native tribes have a history, full stop. That American history didn’t just start with Columbus blundering his plunder-boats across the ocean, and you can’t understand the foundations of the country without knowing what the native tribes contributed to it. But beyond that, and possibly more important for the sake of those living now, is the need to get Americans to notice that the native tribes are still here. The history – but also the exploitation, and the exclusion, and the bigotry, and the disenfranchisement – has marched on this entire time, and viewing these people through the lens of the past tends to defocus them in the present. It’s worth knowing who they are now, what they’re talking about now, what they need now.

This was all rolling around, back and forth, in my mind as I pedaled along, in the pauses between sentences as Jared Diamond outlined the grim history of Iceland. At its most abstract, what I was thinking about was a collision of mythologies, and also the use of mythology as an instrument, to humanize or dehumanize people, as the tellers felt necessary.

I began to consider the Vikings through the same lens. The modern people of Iceland have embraced even the apocryphal operatic horned helmet in honor of the Vikings. It’s on their walls, clothing, even their roadsigns. The mythology seems harmless and fun; a source of entertainment if not of a very mixed sense of pride for a population that can still trace itself almost entirely back to Viking ancestors — or at least, to the women and children the Vikings abducted from elsewhere. But, what are we celebrating here? Certainly not their stewardship of the land.

Yes, the helmet has horns. I don't know what to think of that.

Short summary: The Vikings showed up, and knowing very little about ecology and having no free time to study it, they chopped down almost every damn tree in a dozen generations. They pillaged, kidnapped, and enslaved people to drive their civilization for 300 years, then succumbed to their own mismanagement and infighting, leaving behind ruins, tiny sheep, and beleaguered fishermen, who converted to Christianity and kept on keepin’ on for hundreds of years through famine and volcanic mayhem as they were absorbed into a Nordic trading bureaucracy and mostly exploited by it.

Finally around World War I, Iceland regained independence, and so-called modern civilization quickly arrived on the heels of wartime activity. Now the island is ringed by a paved road, multiple international shipping routes, and a giant airport. In less than a hundred years, life has gotten far easier and safer for everyone, but the ecological pressure has also gotten far worse. Determined ecologists are running experiments to restore trees, and farmers are a lot more conscious of soil conditions, but the trend is still downward, and the tourism dollar is a seriously mixed blessing.

I wonder how much of the Icelandic people’s embrace of the Vikings is myth-making for tourists. Is there a similar pressure in their culture, like in modern Americans, to forget the atrocities of their ancestors? And how much more selective does all of this look, when we consider that there’s about six hundred years of history separating the end of the Vikings and the beginning of modern Icelandic society that is not factored in? Is it too boring? Too sparse to comment upon? Perhaps it’s just not currently useful in our current battles over tourism and ecology?

There is, I suppose, one inevitable outcome, if you take the long view. In time, Iceland will experience another catastrophic volcanic eruption, intense enough to drive out and blast away the humans and everything they have wrought, leaving behind a cooling hunk of re-fertilized land. The best we can do with that is detect it far enough in advance to get out of the way.

Hopefully this trip won't end up in hell!

Anyway, I poked some thoughts into my phone and pedaled along, and a bunch of hours passed. The area urbanized around me. I arrived at the hotel I’d booked online.

It was 7:00am, and there was a crowd of people with luggage standing around outside. I assumed they were either waiting for a shuttle or waiting for breakfast.  Taking a closer look, I saw all of them were rough-looking men, some smoking cigarettes one after the other.  To their credit, they scrupulously collected and disposed of each butt they stamped out on the pavement.

The lobby opened and everyone crowded inside for the free breakfast.  I talked to the clerk and he said the hotel had been full the previous night so I would have to wait for a room to be cleaned, which would probably take three hours.  “Sorry,” he said, “but maybe have some coffee or something while you wait?”  He gestured to the breakfast area.

So I filled up a plate and ate six slices of bread with a heap of tuna and a slice of cheese on each one, plus two hard-boiled eggs. It was touring metabolism, back in force.

Another free breakfast, this one much fancier than the last!

Around me I counted heads and observed that there were almost 30 men, all dressed either for work or for hiking.  Some had fancy gore-tex jackets and hiking shoes, some had overalls and toolbelts.  One table had six electricians at it – at least, judging by the tools – all glowering at their plates and chowing down.  Almost no one spoke.

I was one of them.  I ate until I felt full, then took the bike a few blocks over to the Bónus food store, which I can’t help thinking of as the “Piggly Wiggly of Iceland.”

I know that’s supposed to be an accent mark, but to my non-Icelandic eye it looks like that pig is being sliced with a razor blade.

The bakery attached to the store was already open, so I wandered inside and got some additional snacks.

It's all about the bakeries.

I hate to say it, but they look tastier than they actually are.

I spent about an hour organizing photos since my brain was too fried to work, then packed up again and went to the hotel.  The clerk walked over and handed me a key card.  “Room 433, fourth floor,” he said.

I thanked him sincerely.  Several elevator trips later, with my gear and the bike, I was safe in room 433, burrowing under the covers at 10:00 in the morning.

First step when you get into a hotel room: Close all those day-blocking curtains.

I woke up after almost 7 hours of sleep.  Took a shower, drank some water, went right back to sleep.

Two hours later I woke up again.  Finally I felt rested enough to use my brain and get some work done.

Returning to Reykjavik

After a long and confusing trip through slumberland where I kept opening doors and walking into different rooms and gardens and basements and tunnels, I opened one more door and found myself awake in the hotel bedroom at 6:00am.

I only knew what time it was from checking my phone, since the light in the windows and the quality of my sleep said nothing. But it was good sleep and I felt ready to start biking again, even at this early hour. In most urban places an early start would be a good idea to avoid the traffic, but there isn’t much traffic anyway even in this most dense part of Iceland, and I would be on bike paths for most of the route.

Is it a hotel? Or a bank? Or a warehouse? Or a donut shop? You won't know until you walk inside.

Despite the huge buffet from yesterday, I was protein starved. I made a note for when I hit the first supermarket: Buy eggs, peanuts, and of course, MORE OF THAT FISH.

Very unlikely that a hobbit lives here.
Cool bridge!
Local cat shenanigans!
FORD: Found On Road Dead.
Þorsteinn Erlingsson, an Icelandic poet.

Lots of interesting sights, including a statue of Þorsteinn Erlingsson, a poet from the late 1800’s. Generally speaking, I like being in places that have monuments to poets in them. Good priorities!

Yes, I know it would be better for the world if I ate less of that fish… But ever since the last visit, Icelandic fish been sneaking into my daydreams.

For about seven years of my life I’ve been vegan, in a handful of big intervals, but it’s been many years since the last interval and at this point I don’t know if I could pick it up again. My digestion seemed to work better in the first four decades of my life. But I still think about it, and everything I learned about the impact of fishing and ranching along the way. Iceland is a hard environment for vegans. Almost everything green and tasty needs to be imported from a place that gets more sun.

Hours per year of sun exposure, Europe versus USA.

You’d think that a place with ’round-the-clock sunshine for part of the year would have an excellent growing season. But even though the sun is out for longer during that time, it’s not as bright.

As an aside, I didn’t realize it until I saw that chart, but: There is no place anywhere in Europe that gets as much sun as my home state. Not even close.

I don't think anyone alive knows how anachronistic this really is -- or isn't.

I was headed for exactly the same neighborhood I stayed in two years ago, on almost the same route, but I feel like this time I saw a lot more anachronistic viking stuff. I can’t tell how much of this is to impress tourists, and how much is to amuse locals.

Back home, on the border between Oakland and the neighboring city of Berkeley, there are two giant metal sculptures, right next to each other. One is huge metal letters spelling out “HERE”, and the other, on the Oakland side, is huge metal letters spelling out “THERE”. It’s a reference to the activist history of Berkeley and something the author Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, and it was built by a local artist named Steve Gillman. It looks an awful lot like something meant to impress tourists, or make a statement to them, but it’s not. It was commissioned to please the locals.

I think of that, and I wonder: Even if these fake Viking decorations look like they’re here for visitors, even if I think the locals find them abrasive or hilarious, maybe there’s just something going on here that I don’t understand. Maybe this isn’t about me.

Absurd, right?! Whaaaaat!

I think it means "talk to the hand"?

Well, whether it’s about me (a tourst) or not, I think this stuff is awesome.

Need to spruce up your gravel lot? PAINT THE ROCKS!

Painting the rocks though… I’m honestly a bit confused? I’m going to go ahead and assume that these colors are all non-toxic, because Icelanders.

Items and such. These sorts of things can quickly get out of control...

Some of the art installations look a little less … official … than others!

In Iceland, we make random monuments to marine life. Dig it.

This piece is pretty cool. It must be really good stainless steel – lots of chromium – to keep from rusting into poop, out in this climate.

Time for a real meal!

My surroundings got urban enough to have a bakery and sandwich bar I could just roll up to, so I chomped a big breakfast.

Who is this guy??

That kept my stomach busy all the way to the AirBnB. Before I checked in I lounged at an outdoor cafe to eat chocolate, since the weather was good. Outdoor cafes are not common in Iceland for obvious reasons.

I wonder what the story here is. Does someone just really like their pirated television shows?

I think there’s some politics I’m missing here. Did a group of Russian hackers dig up incriminating stuff about the Iceland government, and earn the appreciation of protesters? I poked around online for context but only found things that would make Icelanders angry at Russian hackers: Stuff about them knocking websites offline, ransoming emails, et cetera.

I shrugged and checked into the AirBnB, which took a while since I had to lock my bike up on the street and haul my bags up several flights of steps.

Various keys to the AirBnB.

Keys in foreign lands are always interesting to me. Convergent evolution at work.

I got a tour of the building from the manager, who pointed out the laundry room in the basement, and a back door at ground level that I could use to get the bike off the street.

Grateful to have laundry machines. Not pleased that all the usage diagrams are in Portuguese

Winter tires in storage.

You can see where the spiky bits come out for extra traction.

The room itself was just a bed and four walls. Thankfully the bed was big enough that I could stack some of my gear on it and still sleep.

If this was a more committed AirBnB, they would get rid of some books to free up a shelf or two. It’s probably a more difficult choice in Iceland though, because, where would they go?

There’s only a half-dozen or so used bookstores in the entire country. If you left them on the curb they’d be destroyed before anyone took them. They’d have to go in the trash, which is an unpleasant end for books. Or you’d need to burn them; but Iceland does not have fire pits at campsites, or wood-burning stoves in houses. So… Books accumulate.

Books in Iceland are also an example of the weird, circular nature of a tourism economy. There are plenty of bookstores selling new ones, including books on Icelandic history, guidebooks, and cute books about Vikings and local creatures for kids. All of these were printed elsewhere and shipped in. Tourists will pick them off the shelves, drop them into suitcases, and carry them back out.

Another AirBnB, another eclectic book collection.

…But probably not these books. This collection really looks like stuff that nobody needed.

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