Iceland 2021 Page 4

Thoughts in a Reykjavík Cafe

A hundred years ago, when international travel was rare and difficult, everyone considered “race” and “geographical origin” interchangeable. In modern times we’ve driven a wedge between these things and started to whittle down the importance of “race” as a carrier of behavior and value, which strikes me as a positive change. This change is not comprehensive though. People with the same origin but a different appearance are still treated quite differently, within their own communities.

Some of this is inevitable, because stereotypes are a very natural shorthand. They’re how we operate in communities larger than a few hundred people, where it’s impossible to personally know everyone we meet. A cab driver can be expected to know the traffic. A frail senior citizen would appreciate your seat on the subway. An angry-looking man in a giant shiny 4×4 is probably not a defensive driver. If that man has a bumper sticker reading “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” he probably doesn’t march in Pride Parade. Et cetera. Without stereotypes, society couldn’t function in real-time.

Stereotypes become even more obvious when we travel. If I meet someone from Saudi Arabia I am fully prepared to assume they pray to Allah multiple times a day, because that’s what modern sociology has prepared me to assume. If I think of the Vikings that sailed around in the North Atlantic, I think “socially conservative, environmentally destructive, and violent in their settling of disputes,” because that’s what historians have repeatedly told me. And despite knowing that people from different places can be all shapes and colors, if you asked me to picture these people in my head, I would conjure up specific clothing, facial hair, and skin colors.

And that’s where things can go sideways, because that’s where “race” gets involved.

I think we should all continue to drive that wedge in, between race and stereotypes, to reduce friction in our connected world. But how do we do that, on our own personal scale?

If I meet a Black man on the street in Oakland, I bring to bear a decades-long and complicated accumulation of assumptions about how that man perceives me, how other people who look like me have treated him, and how I can present myself so as to show I am not bound by those assumptions and will treat him with dignity and camaraderie. It took quite a while for me to be aware of that baggage of stereotypes, not just on an intellectual level by reading about it in a book, but on a behavioral level from living in Oakland. Sorting through the baggage I kept asking myself, “how can I act that actually helps?” I wanted to act in a way that would move the interaction beyond the fear and suspicion and get somewhere else. I didn’t want to just signal that I was what people used to call “woke”. That would make the interaction about the stereotypes, or even about me.

Sometimes I’ve asked myself, in this kind of situation, would it be better for both of us if I was completely unaware of any stereotypes, like my young nephews generally are? Then I would be guaranteed to treat him like anyone else. A little bit yes, a little bit no. It’s likely I am more helpful when I see what we’re all working against. Plus I can avoid saying or doing something stupid by accident.

Like, say, excitedly asking the Icelanders I meet if they can teach me how to forge a sword and build a longboat.

Answering the question of “what helps?” is often difficult, but I find that a good place to start is with another question, “what do I have to offer?” Sometimes the answer is, your social standing is what you can offer, by finding a way to make it transferable.

An easy example: Several jobs ago I was asked to collaborate with a group of software developers, one of whom was a Black man, a first-generation American whose family was from Morocco. Where I live, it’s extremely rare to meet a software developer of that ethnicity. He was shy, very hard to read, and kept his head down in design meetings, but he could write good code. It seemed like he had grown used to being kept at arms length by other developers, and felt that since he would inevitably be marginalized, why fight it? Since I was joining the group in a lead capacity, I had a chance to do something about that.

We worked together one-on-one for a while, establishing some trust. A month later I began to deliberately defer to him for advice during meetings, which raised his social standing just a little bit to the rest of the group each time. Eventually he was comfortable making arguments and presenting his work just as often as everyone else, and I was glad for it. It didn’t just make him more comfortable, it made all of us better at our jobs.

(As an aside, there are people who will actually try to denigrate this sort of action by declaring me a “white savior.” I poked at that for a while and found there was a reasonable conclusion: Those people are jerks!)

Sometimes the thing we have to offer is subtle, like social credit. Sometimes it’s immediate, like protection from physical harm. (That’s come up for me a bunch of times, being out and about in Oakland.) Sometimes it helps just being a witness in a sketchy situation so we can make sure the truth is told later, anywhere from a traffic stop to a classroom to an argument in the street. What’s especially great is that when we move outside our comfort zone to elevate someone else, we are also expanding the range of who we feel comfortable with internally. So, we improve ourselves. We decrease the chance that we might unconsciously be part of a problem.

This is a fine effort. But you know what it demands? Security.

People who do not feel safe – physically, financially, socially – are in less of a position to take risks extending help or protection to people they don’t know, especially people who might respond unfairly. And that means, when you can – when you feel some security – you’ve got to meet people more than halfway.

That’s a lot to hold in your head, when the pace of life and the immediacy of social interaction make things shift around you. Don’t stress yourself out even more by involving guilt. Just think about what you might have to offer in a situation.

Oh, and I suppose this is a bit ironic given where you’re reading this, but … why waste your time signaling virtue online, when you can go outside and have it?

Headed East

Time to leave civilization for the rugged frontier of slightly less civilization!

I find this map - printed on the side of a van - highly amusing.

For almost a week I’d been staying at Birgir’s AirBnB place on the north side of town. We had pretty different schedules, but when we did collide we always had fun conversations.

Birgir is an awesome host, and he's a fellow cyclist too!

Since it was my last day I had to pack all my gear on the bike, but before I did I asked if he wanted to give it a test ride, since he’d never tried a recumbent.  It wasn’t adjusted for his height (Icelanders are such tall people!) but he bent his legs awkwardly and managed to go 50 meters, then turn around without help. He said it was pretty cool but not his kind of ride: Not aggressive enough!

I rode to my habitual coffee shop and enjoyed the mocha for the last time, and assembled my final set of visa paperwork. I had a decision to make: Should I go to the print shop in town today, or try and find one later so I’m not hauling a stack of paper across the country? My plan was to submit the papers at a government office in Egilsstaðir, near the ferry terminal. Could I rely on a city that size having at least one printer I could use? Probably.

Next, I rode up the peninsula to the hardware store and bought two batteries for my speed and cadence sensors.  The clerk thought I’d purchased different batteries at the store a day ago, and apologized for “the trouble” of me supposedly having to come back because I bought the wrong ones.  Did I have a doppelgänger wandering around? It was too late for me to correct him; I’d already paid and was on my way out.

And that was my last piece of business in Reykjavík. I went north again, winding along the upper edge of the city towards highway 1. So far I was on the same route I’d taken two years ago, but that would change.

Looking over to the island - and archaeological site - of Videy.

Vatnagarðar harbor. Modern shipping is indispensable for maintaining Iceland’s first-world affluence.

On the way out of town!

I stopped at a fast food gas station joint and did some tourist watching.  The olympics was on the TV.  I got a “Memphis” burger, which turned out to be a cut-rate fast-food style burger with barbecue sauce added.

Honestly, it wasn’t bad! And it checked the protein and calorie boxes.

Replacing the batteries in my cadence and speed sensors. I love data!

Yes, it has fish collagen in it. Or at least, that's what it claims.

I was able to use good bike paths almost all the way out of the city. Geese and rabbits lingered in the parkland on either side.

This sign is brought to you by the local gangs "FLORA" and "KGB"...?

Lazy bun-day!

So many rabbits! I guess that’s the thing about rabbits: Where there’s a few, there are soon many.

The weather was glorious. For a while the path followed a riverbank. I stopped at an intersection and discovered a free water fountain, and a collection of bike tools hanging from wires. How thoughtful!

It has no button. It just runs perpetually. Well, unless it freezes I assume?
Bike tools are everywhere!

The path ended at the highway. I passed fields full of horses, and people on horseback. The highway was legal for bicyclists but I didn’t like the noise, so I tried to escape onto a parallel road for a while, which suddenly turned into dirt and loose rock. Whoops!

Along that road I was passed by a large group of young women riding horses. There was no place for me to pull aside because the bushes were quite thick, so I just stopped. They went about 200 meters ahead, then shuffled to a halt where the road got even worse, and chatted for a while in a low cloud of dust. Slowly the whole group turned around, and soon they passed me again going the other way.  I stopped and waited again as they went, just in case some of the horses were nervous. Many of the women waved and nodded or said hello, always in English. It was obvious I was a crazy tourist.

I enjoy signs like this.
I thought it would be easier than the highway. I was wrong!
Just when I thought the road couldn't get worse...

When I went ahead I saw just how uneven the road was.  Passable for a horse but not very fun for a packed-together group. I cycled along with a leg out for balance, wiggling around the largest rocks. Soon I found the main road again.

No winter service! Good thing I'm nowhere near winter!

It went up and up for hours, following a pipeline on the side of the road. What was in there? Hot water maybe?

I paused many times, and ate a bunch of leftover fish.  The wind pushed down on me and I ranted out loud to the sheep that since I was saving money on hotels I could spend extra money on fish.

The going got steep and wiggly, but I wasn’t bothered. I listened to lots of Goon Show and podcasts.

The road behind, with the city beyond.
The road ahead. Up and up it goes!
Some steamy action in the distance!
Now we're pretty high up...
Check out the little joint at the bottom to handle shifts in temperature.
I call this rock "Pointy Gap Rock". (I also call it my temporary bathroom.)
Ugh, when will the climbing end?
Floridana: Produced in Iceland. Hilarious!

At the 1300-foot mark it finally peaked, and I wiggled around through a couple of high valleys.

Just before the road pitched downhill, I stopped and ate a few more snacks. My destination was a campsite called the Úlfljótsvatn Scout And Adventure Centre. I was worried because it was getting late and I’d never been able to confirm that walk-up camping was available. Perhaps I could sneak in at the edge of a group?

The descent to lake Úlfljótsvatn was monstrous.  I was very glad I didn’t need to climb it.  The road was striped with tire marks, some of them moving alarmingly around the road.  People overcorrecting, or lane-wandering, or perhaps being surprised by sheep.

Holey Muckei!! That is well beyond a 15% grade!! ARRRGH!

I passed a hot spring with a sign warning about the extreme temperature. The water was weirdly inviting, but I decided there was no time for another stop.

I love the politeness of this sign.

Eventually the hour grew so late that it got dark. I found the camp and wandered from one building to the next, hoping to find an official who could tell me where to put myself. No luck. I did see a mowed field near a long stand of trees with campers gathered on it, so I rolled the bike over to the fringe of the crowd, pretending like I knew what I was doing, and quietly set up my tent.

I was almost done moving things around inside the tent, when some older guy with a daughter waved a flashlight at me and went “Weeeooo weeeoo, it’s the police! Haa ha ha ha hahahaa!”

I scowled at him.  Then I picked up my tent and moved it further away.  No one likes to be messed with at night, and this guy looked like the kind who would do it.

I wiggled into my sleeping bag and poked at maps for a while on my phone. In about an hour the camp grew quiet, as the last of the revelers turned in. A decent end to a solid day of riding.

Sesar and Skuggi

I was up and packing well after dawn, which was alright, because dawn had technically begun at 3:30am. I knew there would be trouble as soon as I looked at the side of the tent: The outside of the mesh window was a fluffy constellation of mosquitoes, dozens of them, perched and waiting as close as they could to the smell of fresh human inside.

I stared at them groggily. I’d managed a little less than six hours of sleep. Now on top of sleep deprivation I was going to be deprived of blood! I shook my first at them, which did nothing. I smacked the mesh and a few of them moved, then quickly landed again. Oh well, nothing for it. At least the day’s riding would be relatively easy.

A cozy first night in the tent, on this trip.

As soon as I stepped out of the tent my head was encased in a furiously buzzing cloud, and I instantly began scrabbling at my face. I ducked back inside and grabbed my wool hat and rain hood, plus my sunglasses. The buzzing cloud reformed a few inches in front of my nose and laid siege.

The little jerks were plentiful but not as sneaky as the ones I’d met in Alaska. Around me I noticed adults were stepping out of tents and cars and immediately breaking into a run as they went for the bathrooms. Nearby I saw a woman pick up her child and jog him over to a washing station. It took her just a few seconds to wash his face but before she finished he was crying in terror and waving his arms ineffectually at the bugs. I realized that I was one of probably two or three other people in this whole crowded campground who would think “Oh, these aren’t as bad as that other place I’ve been…” and that almost made me laugh.

I secretly hoped the guy who harassed me the other night was itching all over. I also gave thanks to my pee bottle, which saved me at least one trip outside into this madness in the early morning.

As easy to set up as ever.

An absolute bombardment of hungry bugs.

I disassembled and packed the tent with extra speed. On my way out of the campground I looked around again for a place where I might pay someone for the space, but saw no signage anywhere, and none of the buildings looked prominent enough. Had I wandered into the middle of some other event, for which people had purchased tickets elsewhere? I noticed that all the inflatable rides and toys I’d seen on the way in were now deflated. Was the event over, or would they start back up again?

Alas, the fun has deflated.

I shrugged and turned the bike onto the main road. The bugs were still harassing me, but as I got up to speed, the cloud swapped out for progressively smaller clouds and then dispersed entirely. Always good to be back in the saddle.

Sunlight breaking through just around the mountain slopes.

I descended some short hills, stepping down into a valley. The cloud cover stayed with me but there was no rain. Each mountain pushed up through the clouds, leaving a narrow gap along the slope, which illuminated the hillsides in the distance even as the valley stayed in perpetual shadow. It was strange light.

It's some kind of petting zoo I think?
Julie Andrews is standing somewhere on there, spinning around, about to burst into song.
Mountain slope cut into a wedge by the clouds.
Marching into the misty distance.
Glass insulators on the giant power lines.

I passed fields of grass, with occasional horses roaming around. A few stared curiously at me from behind wire fences as I sailed by. I always hoped they would start running along the fence and follow me for a while, because it’s quite enchanting when that happens, but none of them were inspired today.

Hello horses!

As I turned south and headed closer to the coast, the air grew colder, so I stopped to add some layers. I strolled around a bit to help my circulation.

Stopping to put on some warmer gear.

That’s when I noticed the bridge. It crossed a small ditch and then pointed directly into a tangle of weeds. There was no path I could see. What was this all about?

This bridge apparently leads straight into a thicket.

I walked across and waded into the grass. Was this some kind of overgrown campground? Wait, there are pieces of wood here, with labels on them…

The plaque remains even though the information has slid off!
I have to wonder... Are there so few white stones here because tourists have been stealing them away, a few at a time, for years?
I guarantee you this cat lived a good life. Iceland is paradise for cats.
Frida lived a mere 12 years, but I bet they were good ones.
Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ is a Sanskrit mantra, representing a condensed form of the Buddhist teachings.

Well now. This was not something I expected to see today.

I had a lot of thoughts about this. One was, my cat Mira is getting old, and it would be nice to lay her to rest in a place like this when the time came, where the site could be marked and remembered. It couldn’t be Iceland of course. It would have to be closer to home.

Another thought was, a place like this couldn’t really exist back in the city I called home, because any use of space would be subject to an encyclopedia of regulations, some of which would require money. One possible exception might be the weird wasteland of the Albany Bulb, but even that would be a tenuous negotiation with artists and traveling campers.

The redwood forest where I spent my childhood might be able to conceal a pet cemetery. In fact it might conceal one already. I could bury Mira there, but it wouldn’t be appropriate: Mira never lived in the redwoods. She was born in Santa Cruz, in the crawlspace underneath a house. I suppose the best place for her would be the back garden of her current residence in Oakland. She loves that garden.

I felt lucky to have seen this little memorial to beloved pets. I took my photos and then pedaled on, carefully storing the memory so that it didn’t grow too heavy and make me homesick for my little fuzzy cat and the sunbeams under the avocado tree. I could see that later. She’ll be on the Earth for a while yet.

I was very tempted to go hiking off into this!

The traffic began to increase. I was nearing a section of the Ring Road again. The clouds descended into mist for a while.

Warning: Big trucks parked really badly across the whole dang highway, ahead.

Soon I passed a roundabout, and the traffic got crowded. By the time I crossed the Ölfusá river on a two-lane bridge, the cars were actually wedged bumper-to-bumper, stacked up across the bridge and down to another roundabout just inside the city of Selfoss. I suspected a lot of the drivers were tourists who didn’t quite trust their instincts on a roundabout.

Oh boy! Another local cat!

I rolled past all that, and up to a local cat, who was perched on the sidewalk and staring at the tangle of cars with a bored expression. I imagined it was employed as a town greeter and paid every evening in fish.

Local cat pettings are the best.

All local cats are called into service in the summer months to spread fuzzy love.

There were a number of sights to see here but my main interest was a place to sit and some snacks to chomp.

I was a bit curious about this place but skipped it in the end.

I got a late breakfast and coffee in a cafe next to the roundabout, tucked into a small table among a crowd of tourists, mostly fellow Americans. Then I rolled down the road to my hotel room and checked in, and stowed my gear. I decided to spend an extra day in Selfoss because my rear brakes were giving me trouble, and I didn’t want to over-use my front brakes and end up with none.

With the bike safe behind a locked door, I set out on foot to a second cafe.

The two skulls are the owners of the bakery, cackling over a treasure chest of bread!

So this is where Nick keeps his ice cream!

A weird reminder of home, hanging on the bakery wall.

Then I walked uptown and bought soap and milk and KFC sandwiches. Depending on how the repairs went, I might spend all the next day squirreled away in the room.

Stopping in Selfoss

Today was one of those “rest and repair” days. I did get out for a little while, but mostly I stayed in the hotel doing a thorough tune-up of the bike, while the weird pale daylight spilled through the ground-level window of my sunken room.

Sunset at 11pm, sunrise at 4:00am. I hope you brought a sleep mask!

I’d been at this high latitude for weeks now, but it still felt strange to see the numbers for sunrise and sunset, right there in my weather app. It looked like some kind of software glitch.

For a good chunk of each evening, this bridge is a traffic jam.

During my outing I passed by the bridge into town, and it was just as clogged with traffic as before. What a serious mixed blessing for the local residents.

The river under the bridge was one of the largest I’d seen in all of Iceland. Dig that tiny island! I wonder how many people have tried to anchor a boat there and climb up. Humans love being on little isolated chunks of land. There’s something cozy about it. Perhaps the whole of Iceland has that advantage, relative to other places…

They're all too tiny to wear, but they're quite adorable.

I’ve seen sweaters shrink in the wash before, but this is ridiculous!

Those lovely birch-carved trout bits!

As I worked on the bicycle I put the movie “Jungle Cruise” on in the background. A bit of brainless action to help the process along. Staring a the bike, I couldn’t help thinking about my relationship to it, and to travel in general.

Riding a bike doesn’t use the full range of movement that a human body can do. It’s actually pretty restrictive, especially on a recumbent. I could get the same exercise sitting at home on a stationary bike, and in that situation, whenever I stop pedaling I’d have my entire house around me, including a giant comfy bed and a pantry full of snacks. What else am I really getting, out here in the world, that’s worth the trouble and the expense?

Do I actually stop and touch the environment I’m pedaling through?  Yes, but sometimes not for hours. Is the air better out here than at home? Usually yes, but sometimes not, because of truck fumes and grit. The sun can be intense and the rain can be chilling, and indoors I’m safe from both. If my interaction with the world is primarily visual, couldn’t I get the same thing by planting the stationery bike in front of a television set? There are readymade products that do exactly this, complete with a fake 3D view of a fantasy world, or a processed recording of a real trail in some exotic place that crawls along at the same speed I pedal.

With that available, how does my desire to bike tour make any sense at all?

I guess there’s just something way down in my hind-brain that settles itself when I’m traveling, that doesn’t settle when the travel is simulated. Driving has this effect, but bicycling has it much more. I think it has to do with the idea of reducing my existence to a container – something smaller and more portable than everyday life allows – with my body at the center of it. It draws me back into my body.

The effect isn’t absolute. I still carry all my obsessions and interests, and I often feed them along the way with audiobooks. Also, I’ve been a computer programmer for so many years that you could pick me up and drop me in the middle of the Mongolian steppe, and I’d be standing there thinking CLC, REP #$30, LDA $00, ADC #$75, PLX, … “Oh, what a nice view.” … STA $2000,X, INX, BNE $2014 …. “Wow, the wind is amazing.”

That makes traveling for the memories a bit slippery.  Now that I’m middle-aged, a lot of the stuff that’s fixed in my brain is outdated engineering specs. Sometimes I have to knock my senses about pretty consistently to crowd the new memories in.

But that’s it, really: The idea of reducing my physical existence to something smaller, and then moving it. Call it a nomadic instinct. There’s something important about the movement itself; the fact that you’re never in the same place for too long. A feeling of safety or security in that.

Committing to the highlands

Must ... eat ... baked .. goods!

Spontaneously ending a road is a dirty trick to play on a cyclist.

Fasten your seat belts!

I dig the highly visible vest!

This is the intersection where I commit to a trip through some of the highlands.

Pastoral goodness.

Suspicious sheep.

Very pleasant riding out here.

Fellow adventurers!

Nearby the kids had a boombox blasting "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

Resting where a pond used to be.
Hay is for horses!
Pleasant country riding.
More stuff that way than this way.
Up and away!
I'm not entirely sure what operation is happening here, but it looks difficult.

The register display was stuck in self-test mode. I was amused.

Enjoying the weather and my hat flaps.

Tucked away in the tent.

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