Iceland · travel

The Iceland Sagas: To Havalfjordur with Love

In the interest of preserving memories and acting as a future guide, this series of posts reflects on adventures spent abroad- meaning, outside of my own community, wherever I might land. It serves not only as a record but also as an exercise in memory and language. 

May 16, 2015

Having traversed the maze of customs and the rental car agency, we exited the small airport to the blustery concrete pad of Keflavik Airport. Our pewter Ford awaited us as it warmed in the sun. I pushed back any concerns or comments for storage as we organized and reorganized the tiny boot of our car. The nagging GPS wailed out in its peculiar British accent as we made our way down the two way road, bound for IcelandAir Keflavik hotel. It would be best to ditch our gear and wash up, we decided. 
 
The land seemed scorched. Red crumbling rocks jutted out from the burnt umber earth. The coastline glinted on my right as it lapped gently against the easing shore. Small red-roofed white houses dotted the horizon. Lutheran churches- able to hold no more than forty parishioners- sprung up between towns as beacons on the bleak landscape. “If Mars was colonized by Northern Europeans, this is what it would look like,” I thought to myself. The GPS teased about potential historical tales it could tell, offering no further details. Large rock formations balanced themselves on hilltops, sometimes as solitary monuments, sometimes as anthropomorphic croppings. A set of five in a row greeted us as we entered the town like a cheerful family of B&B owners. 
 
After a series of roundabouts, we found our hotel nestled along the coastline among run-down tiny homes and vacant shops. Supposedly, Keflavik had some attractions to offer but we had more pressing matters to attend to. We had tourism. So, we lumbered back into the waiting Ford and sped off toward Reykjavik which sat like a jewel among the mountains with a shining assortment of candy-colored roofs and a towering spire reaching towards the low clouds. 

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Hallgrimskirkja sat upon a high hill with rows of houses and shops radiating down the hills towards the harbor. It was stark, yet beautiful, pointing like a white shard into the blue sky. We tiptoed into the lobby, shuffled a few coins into the collection box and slowly ascended to the observation hall. The wind whipped us as we excited the brass box. Small grates covered the tiny whitewashed port holes as visitors clamored to get a view of the outlying city. I tied my hair back and stepped up onto a concrete block. The city laid out before me, tiny and bright. Tourists and citizens moved between the colorful corrugated steel cubes like ants. We snapped a few photos and clamored back into the 
elevator.

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We trundled down the sparse isles beneath soaring groin vaults as tourists filed in around us. The room warmed to the perfect temperature for gentle nodding and one by one, all foreigners began to doze as the choir sang out. I struggled to keep my eyes open and held them wide as the preacher began his Icelandic sermon. Locals chuckled at a few jokes. My eyes slid in and out of focus as another tourist kept turning to stare at me. “This must be what sleeping with your eyes open feels like,” I thought. I glanced back at the gawking man and over to my friends. My companions were nestled against one another like doves. We needed coffee.

During a Gregorian-style chant, we snuck out and flung open the heavy bronze doors. Sandholt bakery was just a few blocks ahead, towards the glittering sea of the harbor and through row after row of tiny painted homes.

Unassuming, the bakery was wedged between scaffolding and a series of local shops. We ordered lattes and Swiss mochas, tucking into our sandwiches, soups, and quiches. The coffee whispered through the chocolate- its velvet texture balancing the crisp edges of the filo wrapped around a rasher and cheese quiche. I felt I could melt into my seat.

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While the others dabbled in a housewares store,  I snuck into the local design shop Systur og Makar where a tall blonde plied me with dresses and wares. After trying on three locally produced dresses, I lamented that my petite frame could not withstand the cocoonish nature of the garments. I shrank within them, no matter how lovely and delicate. “Perhaps this instead?” she asked. She gestured to a leather, tartan and shearling scarf and wound it around my neck, fastening the leather snaps at my chin. I agreed, setting it aside with a delicate fish leather coin purse.

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Piling into the car and navigating a series of roundabouts, we made our way north east, wrapping around the peninsula and fjord. Our goal was the waterfall of Glymur. “Maybe we’ll see puffins!” Pamela cried. The land rose up before us as we pushed on. Clouds sank into the forthcoming mountains as light pierced through, illuminating patches of teal and gold on the steep hillsides. Small houses dotted the landscape like beacons. It seemed as though I could never get enough of the same image. The fjord unfurled itself as we pushed forward, changing just enough to warrant another snap. 

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“A cloverleaf!” Kim shouted. Cloverleaf signs marked places of interest and we had made an agreement to stop whenever we saw one. This particular clover was for Fossarett- a small waterfall, preceded by another small waterfall, both ending at stone farmstead ruins. We parked and set forth, climbing down loose boulders, crossing a small bridge, and hobbling through uneven grass and rock. The spray from the foss felt like a blessing- as if the universe was saying, “This is it. You belong here, now,” and I stopped to take in the fullness of the fjord. Steel water lapped at the steep coastline as Arctic Terns zipped and dove into its glossy surface. A procession of compact cars sped along the two lane highway. They seemed oblivious to the world they enjoyed while I felt like a baby, witnessing everything for the first time. I tried to remember everything as it was- the tumble of water over volcanic rock, the rusty gravel of the mountain’s footing, the yellow straw bending in the gusts of wind. But there was much to do and little time. 11143161_10153045208353842_1893307636657629279_o.jpg
Glymur was less impressive than we had imagined, if we had found Glymur at all. We stopped at a second clover and hiked up a mossy bramble-covered cliff. Eventually, we found a modest waterfall, which we assumed was Glymur and challenged ourselves to climb higher. To cross the small river, I had to return to the shoulder-less highway, sprinting fifty feet or so as a stream of travelers came around the bend. We hiked three quarters of the way up before I decided to turn back. The others continued to the top; I looked for little worlds. Sheep grazed across the highway in small plots along the ocean. The gulls plucked small fish from the fjord as the sun illuminated their white feathers. I sat beside a carpet of brilliant lime moss two inches thick and ran my fingers against its wooly mass. Small mushrooms pushed their way to the surface. Each cap looked like a tiny immature pine cone. The water bubbled beside me, churning its way through granite boulders flecked with mica. 11289508_10153045208773842_8899413359006470139_o.jpg11169664_10153045207953842_7628159772755186152_o.jpgIMG_0052.jpgIMG_0036.jpg
With tired muscles and cold noses, we headed back towards our final destination as Celine Dion’s greatest hits wailed on. The GPS informed us of a headless ghost bent on luring travelers to their deaths and of the volcanic activity which allowed the Blue Lagoon to flourish. I longed for silence. I longed for warmth. I longed for a silica bath and a clay mask.

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We suited up and wrapped our hair tightly having been forewarned of the hazards of drying clay. Women buzzed about the locker room. They attempted to tame and dry their cakey strands but the silica waters had rendered them nearly stiff. I slipped into the open showers amongst naked European bodies.  Our shower-mates eyed us suspiciously as we bathed fully covered before tiptoeing to the lagoon.

The pool seemed to be a puddle of milk amongst a cropping of rock. Bodies bobbed in its opaque warmth, drifting from edge to edge. We sank in and searched for warm pockets. “Here, put some clay on my back,” Melanie instructed. I dipped a long steel ladle into a bucket and produced gobs of white, sandy clay paste. “Ah, it’s cold!” she shouted as I slathered her shoulders. She smeared a handful across her chest and face. We took turns painting each other and waited for our faces to dry.
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“Do I look any different?” Melanie asked.
“Not really, but you’ve got clay eyebrows,” Pamela replied. “Maybe you should try it again.”
We smeared and dabbed again, paddling through clusters of bathers. Steam rose up around us in soft puffs. 
“That couple over there,” Melanie tutted. A couple by a set of black rocks entwined round each other, exchanging kisses and longing glances. “I would never.”
“You wouldn’t?” Pam asked. “I would!” Her eyebrows raised.
Kim peered over at the pair. “Yeah, I would. Seems…fitting.”
She rolled her eyes.

The blue sky seemed surreal against the red pitted rock- it was as if we had been transported onto another planet- as if amongst fields of desolation, one small place to recuperate had sprung up just for us. I imagined I was seeing the moon from a place other than earth. I wondered if anyone else thought of these things as group after group of friends passed, splashing, kissing, and talking of nothing of the sort. Perhaps I was destined to be strange, I thought. Perhaps it was very much time for bed, I thought, as the water lapped against my collarbone like a silent lullaby.

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