14.05.2016 - 19.05.2016
As I sit on the couch of my host in Bergen, Norway, I realize that it's probably time I update this blog from the road. It's been over a week since I set out from the US to begin this summer of travel and a more nomadic lifestyle, but it feels like 10x that long. In just over a week, I've met countless interesting people, seen incredible things, and made many new friends (I've also probably spent too much money...yikes! The nordic countries are really expensive).
So, talking about Norway will have to come another time, because it's time to discuss my first European stop- Iceland.
They call Iceland the land of Ice and Fire, and for good reason. You may be familiar with George R. R. Martins' epic fantasy series, made popular by the HBO show "Game of Thrones". Well, the original trilogy was called, "A song of Ice and Fire", and it's no wonder that some of the show has been filmed in Iceland. This is a land torn apart by two of the most powerful forces on our planet- glacial movements (Ice) and Volcanism (fire).
The fact that there are glaciers all over Iceland shouldn't really surprise you given the country's name. They cover approximately 11% of the country. If you're unfamiliar, Iceland is about the same size as the UK. Are you surprised by how large it is? I was as well, but I was even more surprised by how empty it is. There are currently more than 64 million people living in the UK- Iceland has 300,000.
Glaciers have carved valleys into many of the mountain ranges that cover the Island, and it was the largest of these (in the southeast corner) that the vikings saw when they first approached it 1200 years ago- leading to it's name. It was a warmer country then, and the vikings settled and thrived for hundreds of years...until things changed- but more on their history later. The glaciers also feed the countless rivers that run through the landscape, bringing fresh water to almost every part of the Island. It is a place blessed with an abundance of water. While I was there it rained daily, although usually in short, frequent sessions and of a light, misty variety. The locals said that was pretty much par for the course, unless it was winter and then it changed to snow.
The volcanism (volcanic activity) that makes Iceland famous is the result of the island straddling two of the world's biggest tectonic plates- the Eurasian and North American. The two areas move further apart each year by a few centimeters so, like Hawaii, the island is still growing. The 'rift valley' is the name for where the are of the country where the two plates converge. As they move apart they either form mountains (if lots of lava is coming up) or valleys (if not as much is coming up). Currently it's a valley, and in the center is a lake. Some people go cold-water snorkeling or even scuba diving so that they can swim in the narrow passages that separate the two continents, and put one hand on each side. I would love to have that experience, but the prices for those tours were astronomical. The volcanic activity on the island also fuels the country in a very literal way. Aside from countless natural hot pools, and man made ones (the average Icelander goes for a hot public swim multiple times a week), Iceland derives all of it's electrical generation from renewable resources. This includes water power, wind power, and solar, but most famously they generate 25% of their nation's power consumption through geothermal resources. Our guides told us that drilling a hole into the earth at different depths provides different amounts of heat. that heat is coming up from under the ground due to all the volcanic activity (basically, lava being closer to the surface than most places on earth). They use this limitless free heat to turn water into steam- and also to power all of those public hot pools. I had to give one a whirl before I left (pun intended) and it was indeed a refreshing experience.
I saw many things in Iceland- gigantic rushing waterfalls, glaciers, the beautiful and unique Icelandic horse, puffins, dolphins, whale meat, geyers, a black sand beach, and lots of blonde people, but aside from the landscapes, what will stick with me the most are the stories I heard.
Stories like that of the Sagas- those ancient tales of Icelandic heroes and villains that inform the national identity and give Iceland so much of it's unique flavor (and preserved language). In some of the sagas we learn about the ancient political process of the island- like how their ancient democratic system (the first in the world post-antiquity) actually worked really well. In other sagas we learn about wandering warriors who fought in England and Norway and composed the first rhyming nordic verses. Or, sagas about revenging dead sheep boys or chicken farmers!
Stories like that of the struggle for survival during multiple centuries when, do to a changing climate and intense deforestation, there were no trees on the entire Island. During this time period people's houses were unheated. UNHEATED HOUSES- IN ICELAND. Imagine that! This was long before anyone had discovered how to tap the natural heat of the earth a few meters beneath their feet, and with no wood to build houses, they were build out of sod and grass and anything else the locals could find. At one point the population of the island was less than 10,000.
There are other stories that are more hopeful as well- the story of how the Americans and British built the first airstrips in Iceland (during WWII), and how for many of the people hired to work on the bases and construct the fields, it was the first time they had ever seen real money. How in less than a hundred years, Iceland has gone from a country of 89,000 people living in sod houses and mainly using a barter system, to a modern-day country of 3 1/2 times that number, with international acclaim for the high standard of living and the beautiful wilderness of the country- a place where people from Spain and Poland and other countries are actually GOING to find work. It's a hopeful story.
One last interesting tidbit. Unlike the rest of the world, Icelanders still keep to the old viking traditions when it comes to their last name. In most of the world you take the same last name as your father (or mother, or both), but for vikings, your last name was just the first name of your father, + a 'son' or 'daughter' suffix. For example, the favorite guide I had was named Ragnor Thorsson. His father's first name, then, was Thor. Ragnor's daughters name is Christina (he told us). Her full name is Christina Ragnorsdottir (daughter).
I found that really wild, and pretty cool.
Now I'm in Norway. I saw Oslo and Bergen this week, and tomorrow I go on a daytrip to explore some of the worlds most beautiful fjords by boat. Until next time!