A Travellerspoint blog

The land of Ice and Fire

Iceland


View Europe- 2016 on Ohokjb's travel map.

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!

Best Wishes,
James

Posted by Ohokjb 14:27 Archived in Iceland Tagged history travel vikings iceland names stories impressions sagas Comments (0)

Perspectives/Assumptions

You don't always know what you think you know

Hello.

I am currently sitting on my parent's couch surrounded by postcards I need to mail out in the next couple days. These postcards are from the beautiful places I traveled with my family last month in the great South Western Desert, including Zion, Arches, and Bryce Canyon National parks, among several others. They are being sent in all directions, but mostly to China. I have to mail them out soon, because Saturday morning I will be waking up early to fly away to Europe! It's currently Wednesday.

There are lots of things I could talk about today- the nature of trying to pack for 6 months (or longer) in one carry-on sized backpack; the wonderful birthday/mother's day I just had; how good both Captain America Civil War and The Jungle Book movies were....but today I think I will share a story from my time in China.

The school I worked at had multiple branches located throughout the city. Most were 40 minutes or more away from each other by public transit. I was at the same location (the central branch) every day- except for Sundays. On Sundays I would go to work, teach a class, and then walk to the subway, where I would ride for a half hour or more before exiting, walking another mile, and teaching another class at one of our Southern locations. I would then repeat the process but in reverse, as I headed back to the central branch to teach my last class of the day. Because of this mid-day commute I typically had about 10 minutes for lunch, but I didn't write this post to complain. When, after 6 months, they found a more local teacher for the Southern class, I was actually sad to leave them.

The story today focuses on an encounter I had with a young Chinese man while on the Subway. It's notoriously hard for foreigners to pick out the age of the Chinese sometimes, so he could have been 12 or 18. I assumed he was around 15, and when I sat down next to him, he turned toward me and stared.

Now this is not uncommon. I am not tall or blonde or outrageously overweight, so it is less common for me to experience this than any foreigner who is also one of those above things, but just the fact that I am white (and usually wore a beard), drew attention. My poor coworker Vasti was almost 7 foot tall, platinum blonde, with blue eyes and very fair skin. She was gawked at hourly, if not more. Luckily she had a good sense of humor about it, and would smile and pose for pictures with old people and children alike.

After a few moments of staring at me, he starts fumbling with some words. I can't tell what he's saying, or if he's even talking to me, but I have the feeling he wants to, so I turned to him and said, "what?" in Chinese. "Shem ma?" He responded in Chinese, but I couldn't understand. I asked him if he could speak English. Nine times out of ten this ended conversations in China, as most of the country is still very poorly educated in foreign languages (much like the United States in that regard). To my surprise he did in fact speak English, and proceeded to ask me this question.

"Why is your hair brown?"

For a moment I just sat there and stared back at him. I wasn't sure what to say. Maybe he meant something else, and this question came out wrong? But he didn't try to clarify, and his accent sounded confident. His eyes were wide with curiosity, so I had no choice but to answer him the best I could.

"It just is. I was born this way."

He sat back and continued to stare at me, but his face showed more than curiosity now- it showed confusion. He looked at me and then looked around the rest of the packed subway car. Everyone else's hair was black. He looked at me again and I could see the genuine disconnect. I tried a different approach, and began to explain that my hair had always been brown. My dad's hair is black, and my mom's hair is red/brown. I wasn't sure how much he understood, so I simplified, and changed my approach.

"Why is your hair black?"

This question he understood. He opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it again silently. His face looked like the face of someone having an identity crisis. In my mind's ear I heard his mental gears turning, with thoughts that must've sounded something like, "I have never thought of that before." A few moments later the train stopped and he got out. I had another 10 minutes left on the subway to think about what had just happened.

I could talk here about homogeneity- when a society all looks, acts, and thinks in the same or similar ways. In the United States we don't have this problem (for the most part) but that's because we are a country full of immigrants, different religions, races, and ethnic groups. We do fall victim to group think every 4 years, but for the most part we are a mixed-up country of various ideas and values. Many other countries are not this way. China, partially because of it's historical isolationism and partially because of it's rigidly controlled information and education systems, might be one of the most homogeneous in the world.

But that's not what I want to talk about. Not really. What I want to talk about is perspectives, and assumptions.

This boy, I believe, genuinely didn't understand my hair color. I think he saw that my beard and my hair were the same color- and neither of them were black, and he started to question is previously held assumptions. I can only assume myself what those were (Ironic, isn't it?) but I think I have a pretty good idea.

In China, everyone has black hair and dark eyes. And when I say everyone, I mean 99.999% of the population, give or take a couple 9's. In Korea, and Japan, this is also true. In Africa most people have dark hair and dark eyes, and the same is true for native Australians and native Americans. In South America this is usually the case, as well as through most of Asia.

The ratio in the world of people who have naturally black hair to those who don't must be staggering. The only people this boy had ever seen with different color hair were Europeans (or people of Europeans descent), and the occasional rich Chinese, Korean, or Japanese person- like teen pop stars and boy bands. Basically, he had only ever seen Rich, Western people, or those who aspired to be just like Rich, Western people with hair that was not black.

This boy must have assumed growing up that everyone is born with black hair, no matter where you are in the world. Every picture of a blonde Nordic woman or a brunette newscaster must, in his mind, just been one more example of Western extravagance. There are many around the world who think that all Americans own guns- it must not be too far of a stretch to think that most of us dye our hair.

We all have assumptions about ourselves or about the world. Some are just out of habit- like our assumption that it's better to drive on the right side of the road than the left side (here's looking at you, Thailand and Great Britain), but others are deeper, and have a bigger impact on our perspective of the world. What if our assumption really is that the only safe places in the world are the US, Canada, and Europe? That will profoundly impact our global perspective (it's also completely wrong, FYI). What if our assumption is that climate change isn't widely accepted by the world because it is still such a contentious issue in the United States (this would also be wrong- across the world it is almost universally accepted as true)? Some of us are held prisoner by these assumptions.

Travel, and in this boy's case, interaction with someone different (who has traveled), can help us see past our own assumptions. It can help us broaden our perspective.

Go travel. Meet someone new, and different. Don't be held prisoner by your assumptions about the world (or about people's hair color).

Best Wishes,
James

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Posted by Ohokjb 10:04 Archived in USA Tagged china subway perspective assumption anecdotes haircolor Comments (0)

Introduction

A new day

Hi. My name is James. It's 3:52am. I'm a night owl.

It's been several years since I last had a blog, but as I'm beginning to make this travel-thing full time, I suppose it's high time I combine my love of writing with my love for travel.

So, some background.

Two months ago I returned to the US after spending 19 months abroad. I was in China, to be exact, also known as The Middle Kingdom. Hangzhou, China, a city famous throughout Asia for its fairytale lake, beautiful gardens, women, and tea fields. There is actually an ancient Chinese saying regarding my city, which every schoolboy or girl could tell you. It's universally known in China. "Paradise in Heaven, Suzhou and Hangzhou on Earth." Or, if you happen to be far more talented in languages than me, "上有天堂,下有蘇杭". (Suzhou is a city near Hangzhou, also famous for its waterways and gardens).

What they don't tell you about is the pollution.

This is a tired story, but yes, it's true. The pollution in China is terrible. That lovely morning mist rolling over the West Lake? That's not fog, that's smog, and it's present about 70% of the year. I'm a healthy, non-smoker, and I contracted Bronchitis- twice. I also had a lung infection for 4 months. This is just from breathing the air. The air in Hangzhou can routinely get over 300 pm2.5- which is 10 times over the amount determined by the United States to be hazardous, and 30 times what is considered safe. The highest I ever saw was 500.

So I left for my health, but before leaving China did have some serious gifts for me that made my time spent in the Middle Kingdom very much worth it.

1. Confidence! It's the first and most important thing. If you have survived (and thrived) in China, you can survive almost anywhere. The cultural differences, hygienic differences, and language differences are nothing to dismiss in China. Do you know how to squat over a hole-in-the-ground toilet? You will before leaving China. Are you afraid of touching people while on elevators, buses, or other public spaces? You won't be after leaving China. Are you an impatient person who can't stand bureaucracy or pointless paperwork? You will get used to it by the time you've left china.

2. Experience. Under this heading I group both business experience and travel experience. Before moving to China I had never even stepped foot in Asia. Now, aside from the Middle Kingdom, I've also been to Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. I've seen real, desperate poverty, awe-inspiring ancient temples, world-class beaches, ladyboys, monkeys, and monks galore. I've adjusted to living out of a backpack, changing my schedule every couple of days, and sleeping on a train (with one eye open). On the business side of things, I've picked up some very important experiences. All 19 months were spent teaching English in a language academy- something people are doing all over the world, and a golden ticket to expat opportunities.

3. Friends. Before going to China I had lived briefly in Europe during my senior year of University, but it was China that gave me my first truly global network of friends and acquaintances. I know people from all 4 corners of the Earth, and that will make traveling long term much easier (and more fun!).

In 2 weeks I leave to start a trip that doesn't have an end-date. That's why this blog is called The Endless Odyssey. I know that for the first three months of this trip I will be in Europe, but I don't know where the winds will blow me after that. Stay tuned to find out.

Best Wishes,

James

Posted by Ohokjb 00:52 Archived in USA Tagged china europe rtw hangzhou endless odyssey introduction starting infinite Comments (5)

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