Archive for January, 2012

So you’ve just arrived in Iceland.  Congratulations!  As far as historical leaders go, you are now more courageous than Hitler, and running fairly even with Churchill.  Better stow away your army before it gets too cold and… what?  It’s already the middle of winter?  Interesting.  Well, been nice knowing you.  Even Hitler knew better than to invade a frigid wasteland in high winter–wait, nope.  But don’t worry.  I’ve been there, done that, and come back to tell the tale.  Here are some protips to help you survive your winter in Iceland.

 

1.  Expect to encounter darkness at any time of the day.

Not to be confused with the Darkness.

 

While this is a bit of an exaggeration, statistically speaking, the odds of walking outside at any time in the winter in Iceland and being greeted by an apocalyptic, sunless sky can be as high as 80%.  If you plan to do some exploring or photography, pay attention to the sunrise schedule.  Coming hand-in-hand with the darkness is the wind, which can sometimes kick up snow and rudely throw it in your eyes.  If you find yourself in the path of a plume, it’s best cower in terror and cover your face like Dracula expecting the sun, which, as already noted, is a wholly irrational fear in Iceland. 

 

Photo of my hand in front of my face during Icelandic winter.

 

2.  Take steps on your first day to counter jet lag.

Since most flights to Reykjavik cross multiple time zones, many visitors will be inflicted with some degree of jet lag.  On the odd chance that it’s available upon arriving, expose yourself to sunlight to “recalibrate” your internal clock.  Slog through the entire day and only turn in at your normal bedtime.  Then, set an alarm for the next morning.  I forgot, fell into a deep sleep, and woke up to my host greeting me with a wary “good afternoon.”  I had slept 14 hours.  For comparison, this is how much a Snorlax sleeps.  By setting an alarm, you will be helping yourself to remember to wake up from what will inevitably be an icy coma; you can rest assured knowing that you’re only preparing to drift off to sleep, not drifting off this mortal coil.

 

3.  It’s freezing: Dress for success.

If you’ve ever played a classic “Sonic the Hedgehog” game and ever found yourself on the verge of drowning in an underwater level, your nerves probably stll jump when you hear this music:

 

Warning: This music induces anal clenching.

 

This commanding crescendo encouraged casual underwater spelunkers like myself to drop everything, find an air bubble, and replenish Sonic’s air supply before he drowned in a clusterf*** of a level that was oblately designed to be a submerged labyrinth–it’s even spelled out for you right here.  How is this relevant?  Whenever I’m exploring outside in wintry Iceland, I can’t help but recall this music as I begin to slowly lose all feeling in my fingers and toes; it rises as if from the ether itself.  This slow, creeping death brings to mind the similar slow, creeping death of another hapless mammal, led blindly into an alien habitat, utterly unprepared to survive within.  Wear sturdy gloves, multiple layers, and heavy socks.  Duck inside a store to heat up a bit–think of it as your air bubble.  A heavy coat will carry you through the day and into the next level, which, serendipitous as it is, are the same in both Reykjavik and Sonic the Hedgehog 1.

 

 

4.  Follow in the footsteps of those who came before you.

Specifically, those people who have left footprints in patches of snow.  Want to walk in the deep snow?  No, you don’t; not unless if you can find a path that’s already been forged and retrace those steps.  It saves energy, as it’s easier to walk through the snow that’s already been flattened, and there’s less chance of flakes penetrating your shoes or pants.  You might not even slip and crack open your skull. 

 

That’s when Jesus carried you.

 

5.  Eat and drink cheaply, but don’t be cheap.

Costs in Reykjavik, taken as a whole, are likely to be much higher than equivalent fares in your home country.  There are still deals to be had in this infamously expensive city.  Certain restaurants downtown, such as Krua Thai, serve meals in large portions at affordable prices.  You could also cook your own food by shopping in one of the numerous grocery/convenience stores located throughout the city; try Bonus or 10-11, which is open 24-7, somehow.  Fast food is available–McDonald’s is known as Metro in Iceland–but Reykjavik is more noted for its street vendor hot dog stalls.  Prices for these meat mash-ups range from ~US$2 to ~US$5.  These hot dogs are a solid bet, but not as solid as your lower colon will be after eating one.  Delicious!

 

6.  Avoid universally high hotel fees.

The tauntaun, endemic to Hoth and Iceland.

 

Hotel prices in Reykjavik are astronomical.  To skimp on these fees, you might consider tracking a tauntaun through the snowfields, hollowing out its carcass, and resting inside for a night of peaceful slumber.  Alternatively, search on couchsurfing.org for a local host who has opened his or her home to foreign visitors.  Not only will you save on hotel costs, but more importantly, you’ll have an opportunity to make a new friend and receive privileged insider’s info regarding the local culture to which you might otherwise have remained oblivious.  And after a day spent narrowly avoiding death in several guises–exhaustion, exposure, hot dogs–it’s relieving to come home to a native who simply wants to share a small portion of the city with you. 

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Whenever I’ve visited a new country, I’ve known that learning tangible bits of the local language can carry me a long way toward a lasting (b)romance.  Speaking to locals in their own language, no matter how piecemeal the vocabulary, is always a memorable stumble down Humble Lane.   Knowing the foundation of the local writing system can also be an immeasurable aid to a budget traveler, since often enough, menus and street signs are written in only the mother tongue.  To be fair, for the most part, you could conceivably get by on only English.  However, you’ll be functionally illiterate, and you might start to have pangs of an Imperial jingoist spreading the Queen’s.  Language learning is just something I like to do; I’m not good at it, but I make it a point to show that I’m at least trying to fit in.  This trip around the world will be no exception, despite the large number of borders crossed.

 

This is me fitting in on top of Japan’s Mt. Fuji.  Look closely; I’m the one in the middle.

With that said, a compromise is needed.  On a trip like this, where boundaries are crossed in a rapid succession, there’s no way to absorb and establish a language before leaving the country and tagging out to a new language set, all in a matter of days.  So, I’ve decided to reduce each language to seven key phrases and words, expressing basic communicative ideas universal to all languages.  I’ve skipped the cover-all “I don’t speak Language X,” since I wouldn’t be able to fool anyone in the first case, so why try to pull the wool over their eyes?  Here are the seven phrases and words that will help me to survive and reproduce in Iceland, my first stop around the world, although with the high level of domestic English ability, saying most of these amounts to a mere international good-will gesture.

 

1.  Hello/ Hi.     “Halló/Hæ.”

Simple meet-and-greet territory.  Increasingly casual.

2.  Yes/No.     “Já/Nei.”

“No” is the one-stop go-to reply to anything that any local asks you ever when you didn’t understand the question in the first place.  This will also establish that you are not one to be trifled with.

3.  Do you speak English?     “Talarðu ensku?”

The ultimate conversation cop-out.  NOTE:  Invariably, you must compliment your partner on their English ability if its presence becomes known.  The linguistic equivalent of formal surrender, if you’re simply not making any progress, this Cheshire-grinning caged monster is always in the back of your mind, urging you to open the lock “and let me help.”

4.  Where is…?     “Hvar er…?”

For asking directions when hopelessly lost.  You probably won’t understand the reply–don’t feel too bad.  The pertinent information is in the body gestures, pointing, and wild gesticulation.

5.  How much?     “Hvað kostar þetta?”

Shopping and reading menus, two sitcom plots you are likely to find yourself in repeatedly.

6.  Delcious!     “Ljúffeng!”

It’s both courteous and tasteful to show appreciation to your cook or waiter.

7.  Thank you.     “Takk.”

You’ve just been helped and/or fed.  Congratulate your partner on becoming a bit more internationalized.  If you are carrying prize ribbons or certificates of achievement, give one to your new friend.

Notable customs:

  • If you were a level-headed Icelander in a dispute in the Middle Ages, you might consider cordially inviting the other party to “walk on a small island,” or “hólmganga.”  Standing on a 3 meter square ox hide, you’d first mark the area with hazel staves, sacrifice a bull, and then carefully dodge blows using a maximum of three shields in one of the world’s first turn-based battle systems, thus predating JRPGs by a millenium.  Rather than ending in death, these duels ended in first blood, a cue lost on the Rambo franchise: it was one of the most humane dueling systems around.
  • When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake can be offered.  Refusing is grounds for hólmganga.
  • Due to the high cost of alcohol in Icelandic bars, it is common for Icelanders to stay at home drinking until late at night before stumbling outdoors for a protracted bar crawl.  While the prices of the spirits for sale in Keflavik International Airport’s Duty Free may make your head spin better than anything inside the bottle, this is one of the rare cases in which buying duty-free is actually significantly cheaper than waiting to buy in town.

 

Honorable mentions:

I am a tomboy.   “Ég er strákastelpa.”   

Currently 1,005,800 centimeters above the mid-Atlantic aboard an IcelandAir Boeing 757.  Blood Alcohol Content at a guesstimated ~0.14%.  Thanks, New Orleans!  I had a large beer, a large shot, another smaller beer on the recommendation of a Sammy Haggar fan, and other things I can’t remember besides, plus a can of Icelandic apple juice, way up 105,800 decimeters above sea level.  IcelandAir is frequently rated one of the best airlines in the world, and I can finally understand why: the secret’s in the apple juice.  Or their complimentary seats.  Or their general cheery disposition.  Or the eclectic selection of in-flight movies–screening “Titanic” on a goddamn airplane above the mid-Atlantic Ocean?  Bold move, IcelandAir.  Oh, and the apple juice.  Or their general bedside manner.

 

Over hills and far away.

 

There’s no one sitting in front of, behind, or next to me.  I’m all alone in my little row.  Not too many people go to Iceland in the winter, I guess.  Been making frequent trips to the toilet, so at least it’s not interrupting anybody.  Just me and this entertainment system.  Listening to Bjork.  Lots of Icelandic documentaries/propaganda.  Some of the words are pretty similar to Latin or English.  Just finished watching that “Lazy Town” kids’ show rerun about baking a pretty cake.  No, really.  They have that too.

 

You know you can’t be la-zy.

 

The sun won’t rise until 10 or 11 this morning in Reykjavik, but I will be there waiting, having long since arisen myself.  I can’t sleep.  Been thinking about the reasons why I’m doing all of this, which I haven’t really bothered to explain to anyone.  I’m wondering if it’s even possible to explain it.  It’s just one of those things, packing a life into a bag and moving on.  Shrug.  I do it enough that it isn’t worth the marvel.  My lodging arrangements in Iceland include couchsurfing a scuba instructor with a penchant for gin, followed by a night in Keflavik International Airport, which is notorious for its security force tiptoeing around in the dead of night just to kick awake sleepyheads.  Frankly, I’m not sure which is more depressing; that I know the reputation of airport as reported by bums, or that I’m going to try to add my own voice to the mix.  Anyway, I just finished a beer, which means I win another beer.

Man I wonder though.

It’s odd looking down from up here.  I remember when I was afraid to fly.  But then you start to think about how many people dreamed of having wings over the past thousands of years.  Countless myths of winged man spanning innumerable cultures.  And now, to do it, to take it for granted, these aluminum tubes soaring nearly faster than the words that describe the culmination of those eons can come out of your mouth, seems a bit silly in comparison.  As does complaining about a lack of ice in your soda, or a lack of a smile from a flight attendant, or a galley stocked with exclusively non-Icelandic apple juice.  Shit’s just silly.  There are just other things.

I’ve got to try to sleep.  Greenland is outside my window.  I don’t think I’ve ever been this far north.  Wonder what everyone else has been doing.

A non-stop volcano rave in the North Atlantic frequented by Björk and 318,451 of her biggest fans, Iceland is the most geographically blue-balled of any European country, precipitously close to but never quite penetrating the Arctic Circle.  Not to be confused with Greenland, which is icy due to an odd naming convention, Iceland is relatively temperate and green.  Well, .07% of it, anyway.  The westernmost European country, Iceland first entered popular American consciousness in 1994 with the release of Disney’s “D2: The Mighty Ducks” and enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in 2008 when the unmitigated collapse of its entire economy ushered in a new era of good feelings worldwide.   Having spearheaded this novel free-wheeling, free-fall movement, it should come as no surprise that flappin’ Icelanders are all still much happier than you.

 

An Icelander (Gunnar Stohl) commuting to work.

Local Name:  Lýðveldið Ísland

Language: Icelandic; English and Nordic languages also commonly spoken

Capital:  Reykjavik; thought to be unpronounceable

Population: 318,452 (64% live in a single city, Reykjavik. Of those, none can pronounce its name.)

Area: 103,000 km2

Government:  Republic; headed by a President, a Prime Minister, a unicameral Althingi, and a Supreme Court

Currency:  Króna; symbol ISK.  100 ISK = US$0.81 (Jan. 2012)

Economy:  Traditionally reliant on fisheries; economy floundered with banking collapse of 2008 but has since begun a rebound

Notable International Enemies:  The Sun, Coach Bombay, fans of commercial aviation

 

 

Red symbolizes volcanic fires, White is for the glacial weather, and Blue recalls the ocean that will still kill everybody should the first two fail.

Famous For:  Fermented shark meat, natural geysers, beautiful glaciers, ruining European aviation, ruining European banking, delicious hot dogs

Not Famous For:  Its Olympic handball team; consuming more Coca Cola per capita than any nation on Earth; extremely long nights of clubbing

Obligatory Tourist Detours:  Blue Lagoon, a silt-laden thermal geyser; Reykjavik, the national capital

What US$20 Can Get You:  Up to six hot dogs; a ride from Kevlavik airport to downtown; admission to Blue Lagoon.

Quick History Recap:  ~20 million years ago, Iceland was born in a blaze of glory.  ~19,999,999.9 years later, it’s still true to its roots.

 

Difficulty Level: 3/10

 

PROBLEM:  Alone for the afternoon in your couchhost’s apartment, you suddenly realize you need to clog up some pipes, and fast.  Entering the bathroom, you snap off your leather chaps, straddle the toilet seat, and reflexively flinch–seems this bronco isn’t heated.  You prepare yourself, lost in thoughts of Diglett or whatever. However, on the wall where toilet paper should be, you see only a dung-colored cardboard tube pockmarked with flecks of wispy paper remnants.  You form council with yourself, resolving to postpone and conduct an extensive search of the apartment, but where does your host keep the toilet paper?  There doesn’t seem to be any, no matter where you look.  Your host is gone for the entire afternoon.  You don’t want to have a sticky situation on your hands, in every nuance of the word.  What do you do?

 

 

*Hint 1:  After searching the likeliest places, no toilet paper has turned up.  You won’t be finding any at this point.

*Hint 2:  This problem can be reduced to cleaning up a large stain.  What cleans up large stains well?

*Hint 3:  There aren’t any tissues, the newspaper looks greasy, and the Christmas wrapping paper has already been stored. No composition paper lying around, no foliage, not even a parking ticket.  But what’s near the microwave?

 

 

SOLUTION:  Use, wince, then flush.

 

 

The quilted, quicker picker-upper absorbs 50% more fecal ejecta than leading brands.

So you’ve decided to circumnavigate the world. The spirit of Magellan smiles upon you! But your voyage isn’t likely to be financed by an increasingly tight-fisted Spanish Crown, so you’re probably going to want to pack lightly. Why?  Things sort of feel heavy when you’re carrying them for months on end.  When packing, I place everything I may want to bring in a single pile, throw half of that in my backpack, and then donate the other half to a pharmacy technician–their median salary is surprisingly low.  Fortunately, there is a simple two-step test you can use to gauge whether to leave your Troll doll collection behind when packing:

1. Will I use this more than three times on my trip?

2. Is this NOT the straw that broke the camel’s back?

If you can answer yes to both questions, those pharm techs will just have to do without.

Everything above passed my packing test, along with a pair of shoes (which can be found on my feet) and a warm jacket (which is often on my body).  It’s all being carried in a large water-proof backpack.  Why this stuff exactly?  Here’s how I rationalized.

CATEGORY 1: CLOTHING

Chili pepper boxers essential.

What? A small daypack.  Why? Convenient for carrying small items when the larger pack can be stored somewhere. Used daily. Highly fashionable.

What? A body towel.  Why?  Not used frequently, bulky, but doubles as a blanket–or skirt–when in a bind.

What? Three (3) pairs of pants, shirts, socks, and underwear; pajamas and gloves.  Why?  Heavy, but non-issue when dressing in layers during winter. Boxers ooze sophistication.  After winter, much can be mailed home.

CATEGORY 2: PERSONAL

You will meet people who prefer pens to pencils and vice-versa.  By bringing both, you can avoid hurt feelings.

What? A travel book–but only the relevant sections!  Why? Because you don’t need a 1000-page manifesto. Tear out the pages covering the interesting areas you want to visit. Give the rest to a needy pharmacy technician. If they look at the book and ask for food, don’t give them any.

What? A passport, a wallet, a pen, and a pencil.  Why? The passport and wallet should always be on your person, and if anyone ever asks if you have a pen or pencil, you’ll be prepared to forge that lifelong friendship.

What? Caligula, a St. Christopher charm, an engagement ring, and a memento.  Why? Caligula is a lucky travel companion, much like St. Christopher, the patron saint of transportation, storms, and holy death. Looking at that engagement ring is always good for a laugh.  The memento will be important later down the road.

What? A toiletries bag, toothbrush, and umbrella.  Why? Take your own brands. Rain and tooth decay can both strike at a moment’s notice.

What? A PSP, an iPod, a headset, and lightweight power adapters.  Why? For entertainment. Language lessons on iPod. Skype and wi-fi on PSP. Adapters fit local wall outlets.

CATEGORY 3: COMMUNICATION

Piece together last night, one blurry photo at a time.

What? A camera with charger, mini tripod, lens, remote release, and infrared lens filter.  Why? To remember where you’ve been. Infrared photography is striking.

What? A lightweight laptop.  Why? An entertainment and communications suite. Used daily for movies and trip planning. Six-hour battery life. Not heavy.

Everything here has already found some kind of use.  There are different set-ups that work for each person; this is just what I need.  Caligula is good for a nice, if bawdy, chat. The camera accessories aren’t terribly necessary, but since I’m placing a premium on the photos I’ll be taking during my trip, they’re for a good cause.  On the other hand, my Troll doll collection was left at home, clearly where it belongs.  I wouldn’t use it more than once or twice the whole way, and even then, only as a conversation starter when I go out to hit on loose widows in pubs.  I can’t hardly say no to them widows’ tears, and widows can’t hardly say no to Troll dolls.

You wake up just in time to be late.  Very late.  The alarm clock is buzzing, but not as loudly as your headache.  Why are you sleeping in a toga, anyway?  You have little time to reflect on the poor choices of yesteryear because suddenly it hits you like Liza Minnelli scolding David Gest: you never packed your world travel kit, and you leave within the hour.  “Hypnos,” you blaspheme, “Kratos may have spared you, but I offer you only sleep eternal!”  Rolling out of bed and into a puddle of vomit, you throw open the doors of your closet with a sense of focused urgency.

Your results may vary.

In front of you hangs a series of decisions that you have to make, fast.  Hypnos has taunted you with fifteen (15) minutes to fill a small backpack with everything you’ll need for a trip around the planet.  Can’t you just dump it all in your bag and leave to topple Olympus?  No, because that would weigh too much!  You take a deep breath–and what is that, is that smoke you smell?  Yes, because your house is on fire!  Holy–oh man, the pressure is really on now, champ.  And did you just remember that you live on a houseboat?  Yeah?  You did?  Good, because it looks like it’s sinking!  ACK!  Get out of there!  What do you save?  What do you take with you?  Why is Hypnos singling you out for destruction?  It’s all enough to make you want to scream.

If you were like me when I was in this exact situation, you’d grab the following items, keep your cool, and casually walk out the door as your houseboat explodes in a searing fireball.

“Fire on my sinking houseboat?  Better pack my umbrella.”

Securing everything inside your waterproof backpack, you then leap off the starboard railing into the morning waters as the fireball erupts.  Blue consumes you, filling you, cresting within you; a baptism of resolve.  Your home, a charred husk of particulate remains, slowly wafts to the sandy bottom.   The prospect of twirling in tandem crosses your mind, sinking together as one, resigning yourself to the whims of the Knight of Nightmares.  You feel a joy you’ve never felt before as you relax, close your eyes, and descend under the waves.

Can you see her? 

“Who?”

The goddess, Isis.

“So you’re one of those who believe…”

Do you see her? 

“No.”

Are you sure? You’re almost dead! What’s it like, what’s happening to you? 

“Slowly drifting, like sleep…”

Liar! You can see her, I know you can! What is she like? 

“No… who are you?”

I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night.  Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man and therefore I am a god.

A flash in your eyes.  You fight to surface.  A deep breath.  Only the sun is there to greet.  You forgot.  You weren’t alone.  Caligula leapt with you!  Your hand has been dealt.  Together, you will haunt Hypnos with nightmares the likes of which he cannot fathom.

You have everything you need.  Your journey begins now.