Category Archives: Iceland

The Benefits of Being a World Traveler

IMG_1998 (1)I usually don’t like posting photos taken from an airplane. Especially ones where the wing of the airplane is clearly showing, like this one …

IMG_1994 (1).jpg

The situation was just too good! The flight path, which varies from flight to flight based on upper level winds, happened to track right over Iceland. At a time of year when days are only around five hours long across much of Iceland, and less than 1-in-5 days feature clear skies, it is impossible to overestimate how fortunate of a circumstance this was: To fly over the volcanically influenced terrain at the onset of winter, seeing it in all its glory from above in broad daylight like this.

I couldn’t help but reflect on my experience there, less than two years ago, hiking on the glaciers, standing next to all the waterfalls, and seeing the northern lights.

IMG_5287

As I had noted then, Iceland seems to be becoming a more popular destination for American tourists. However, according to a recent study, it does not crack the top 20 countries visited by Americans (based on data from 2015). Number 7 on that list is Germany, where my flight originated, where I had spent the prior evening, in Munich.

This was the second time Munich happened to be my final destination on a longer trip to Europe. This is an interesting coincidence as Munich somehow seems to feel closer to home than most other European cities I visit.

For example, nearly every other European city I visit has a significant number of really narrow streets, like these streets in Stockholm…

IMG_1916 (1)

Munich, by comparison, feels wide open.

IMG_1979 (1)

Part of the reason Munich feels familiar to me is because, for several years, I lived in the State of Wisconsin. With an estimated 42.6% of the population having German heritage, Wisconsin has its fair share of bars and restaurants that are decorated almost exactly like this one.

IMG_1973 (1)

Places like the Essen Haus, have a similar layout. The serving staff dress in similar Bavarian style attire, and serve similar food and beer.

IMG_1975 (1)

IMG_1971

By the way, the food at Augustiner, walking distance from Munich’s Central Station, was fantastic!

After visiting several countries, and flying over one that I had visited quite recently, I was headed home, to an America that is, based on the perspective of being abroad for a while, in a confusing place.

According to a recent article, while Americans are the 2nd most well-traveled country in the world, only 36% of Americans hold a valid passport. This is possibly the source of one stereotype about Americans, that we generally don’t travel outside of our country.

The numbers here tell a different story, one that matches what I have observed, interacting with other Americans.

IMG_1698 (1).jpg

 

There are people here who are interested in traveling to different countries. They often plan a lot of trips to may different foreign lands. There are also a lot of people that aren’t. As, we are a vast Country. Most people can experience almost anything they would want to experience without having to leave the U.S.

We are a well traveled country, partially by virtue of being wealthy. A significant amount of that travel manifests as travel within our Nation. Travel abroad is mostly done by roughly 10% of the population with genuine personal or business interests in other places.

I in no way intend to shame anyone for not wanting to travel to other countries. That is their choice (or limitation, as some people do not have the time or money to fly to another continent). Truly secure people validate their choices in life, not by diminishing those who chose differently. They validate their choices with confidence in the benefits of those choice.

That validation, for me, can be best demonstrated in a recent article in Entrepreneur Magazine, titled “Don’t Let You Butt Dominate Your Brain“. Traveling to other places is one of several ways we remind ourselves one of the most important things we need to remember, as we take on whatever endeavors we take on in life.

Our way of doing things is not the only way things can be done.

Other cultures have other ways of doing things. We may conclude that our current culture is the best fit for us. However, just because something we observe is different does not necessarily mean it is “wrong”. In fact….

Assuming someone is wrong because they do something differently invariantly comes across as condescending.

IMG_1726 (1).jpg

I generally try to keep anything political off of this blog. This is not a politics blog. I don’t see the world as currently in need of another person chiming in with their opinions about the news, at least not in America. However, going out and seeing other cultures made me reflect one something that feels like a real shortcoming in our current political situation.

The way our political system is currently set up seems to encourage us Americans to see a false dichotomy, a false choice between two ways of thinking, both of which have serious flaws.

On one side, there is a group of people who believe America can do no wrong. On this extreme, any criticism of our country is done out of hate, and there is absolutely nothing that can ever be learned from other cultures.

On the other side, a group of people that sees our country as deeply flawed. This group appears not to acknowledge what is good about America. They long for us to be like some other country, and when our culture and history is discussed, the response is usually something like “meh”, or worse.

IMG_0989

I can’t get down with either extreme, and it is my sincere belief that most Americans also find themselves somewhere in between these two maddening extremes. I sometimes think of countries in a similar way I would think of any other entity; a group, a person, a sports team, etc. I think of anyone that has a healthy sense of self. They believe that they are great, and do great things for the world. That does not mean they are not always looking for ways to improve, ways to be better. It also does not mean there is no room for some friendly criticism when it is warranted.

Traveling in general, particularly to other cultures, can be a powerful reminder that there is no one correct way to go about our lives. It also exposes people to new ideas. I believe everyone needs experiences like this, in order to stay open and avoid becoming too set in their ways. However, that does not necessarily have to be world travel- for everyone.

Iceland Air’s Glacier Hike and Northern Lights Tour

As part of their push to encourage tourism in Iceland, Iceland Air now offers a variety of one-day excursions that travelers can embark on whether they are visiting Iceland specifically, or taking a stopover on their way between Europe and North America.  These one-day tours offer a variety of options for experiences, including which places to visit and what types of activities to take part in.  For all of them, the general idea is the same; a bus picks tourists up at various hotels in Reykjavik, and gives visitors what basically amounts to a one-day “Taste of Iceland”.

My tour of choice was the Glacier Hike and Northern Lights tour, which offers a lot of what I was looking for out of my time in Iceland.  The Northern Lights is something I had never seen before.  In America, we hear about such phenomenon occasionally. Roughly once a year, we will hear in the news about a particularly strong solar event occurring, and the potential for the Northern Lights to be visible much farther from the North Pole than is typical.  Sometimes that zone would even reach the Northern parts of the United States, and news outlets would provide maps of where the lights could potentially be visible.

For years, living in Chicago, such stories would provide a particular brand of torment for someone that is curious about seeing the Northern Lights.  It is not possible to see the Northern Lights from such a large, lit up city.  One would need to travel somewhere less populated. To get outside the populated metropolitan area, I theoretically would be able to travel in any direction, but it makes little sense not to go North, as the lights get better the farther north one travels. However, North of Chicago is Milwaukee, and the area in between the two cities is populated enough to make it less than ideal for viewing the phenomenon.  So, the prospect of getting in a car and driving out to see the Northern Lights was always a multi-hour trip.  Some combination of time constraints, or frequent wintertime cloudiness in the Midwest always stopped me from driving up to Central Wisconsin (or Central Michigan) to try to see the Northern Lights.

The tour started like every one of the Iceland Air excursions, with a mid-sized bus going from hotel to hotel picking people up.  The bus went to about six different hotels to make pick-ups, finally leaving Reykjavik around noon.  The tour group was quite mixed.  There were a couple of other Americans, a few Canadians, and even two people from France on our tour, but the majority of the group was from Great Britain.  I have relatively little experience traveling to Europe (this trip, and a trip to Italy, Austria, and Germany in 2012), but on both occasions I ended up hanging out with tourists from the UK, specifically England.  I don’t know what that says about America, or who I am as a person, or if it is just due to a common language, but I am curious to see if that happens again next time I go to Europe.

IMG_5276.jpg

Driving East out of Reykjavik, towards Iceland’s South Coast area, the first thing I notice, which is common throughout Iceland are lava fields.  Across much of Iceland, the land is covered with ashes from previous volcanic activity.

IMG_5250.jpg

The previous day, I had learned at the Volcano House in Reykjavik that Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places in the world, as it sits on the ridge between the North American and Eurasian plates, which are drifting apart from one another.  In geologic terms, this is actually happening quite quickly.  On average, a volcano occurs somewhere on the Island once every 5 years, and as the plates pull apart, the Island is literally growing at a rate of 2 cm per year. 50 years from now, Iceland will be 1m wider than it is now!

IMG_5279.jpg

About 30 minutes into the trip, the bus passed by the hotel where one of the scenes in the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty took place.  In the movie the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupts, and Walter is lucky enough to have been picked up by a friendly local to escape before being covered in ashes. In real life, this gigantic volcano erupted quite explosively in 2010.  In the most unfortunate of circumstances, the wind happened to be coming from the Northwest that day, and the ashes covered the sky over Great Britain and much of mainland Europe halting air traffic for several days.

IMG_5286.jpg

The next stop on this tour was Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls. Iceland is not only a hot spot for volcanoes, but it is also a hot spot for waterfalls. This is due to the glaciers, which cover 15% of the land area of the island, the terrain and relatively moderate maritime climate. Waterfalls like this can be found all over Iceland, and they probably look even more amazing in summer, when the ground appears lush and green!

IMG_5295IMG_5287

The main event of this tour, the Glacier hike, worked for me on multiple levels.  I love being outside, hiking and getting some exercise.  There are many times, when on vacation, I purposely try to find the most strenuous activities possible.  I especially do this when I am on a cruise or in some other kind of vacation package, where I know an activity does not need to be super challenging, or even that physically exhausting for them to be labelled as such.  I also got to try something new, hiking with crampons.  Now, I am not sure they were absolutely necessary for this particular hike, as back in Colorado I had hiked in areas that were steeper and more slippery and gotten by without them.  But, I did learn how to use them, how to attach them to my hiking boots, and how to walk with them on, a good thing to know for future activities down the road.

IMG_5298.jpg

In addition, the glacier, and what our tour guides told us about it was quite fascinating from a scientific perspective.  Apparently, this particular glacier is receding at a fairly rapid pace.  Along our hike, the tour guides pointed out where the glacier used to end in past years compared to where it ends now.  As recently as 2010, the glacier covered nearly all of the area near the entrance of the park that we traversed before getting onto the current glacier.  When this portion of the glacier melted, a gigantic lake was left behind in the lower lying area.

IMG_5302.jpg

The tour guides then informed us that we are actually witnessing a the formation of a fjord.  Roughly an hour into the hike, we had climbed to roughly 100m above sea level. However, the ice was thicker, somewhere between 150m and 200m.  Over time, the ice had pushed the land beneath it below sea level. Once these glaciers melt, the area will be under water, creating a fjord in this very spot.  This is one of many spots where this process is happening as we speak.

As a weather enthusiast, who had studied meteorology, I asked the tour guides what the primary mechanism was for the melting glacier.  Specifically, I asked if it was reduced winter snowfall or warmer summer temperatures.  They indicated that both were contributing factors, but also mentioned that, since temperatures in Iceland are commonly quite close to freezing, the area was starting to see precipitation fall in the form of rain (as opposed to snow) more frequently.  I could sense that, as even on this February day, the snow I stood upon was quite wet.

But that was not even the most fascinating scientific aspect of this tour.  Almost everyone is familiar with climate change, and it’s become the subject of sometimes-ridiculous debate.  The most fascinating thing I learned about this glacier is that fact that, due to the presence of volcanic ash, the glacier is creating terrain that is constantly changing.  Here, volcanic eruptions spill out on top of the ice, causing ice to melt faster in some areas.  The ice then flows in a manner that brings more ice into areas that are currently in “valleys”.  Even when there is no new volcanic activity, the cycle of ice flow and differential melting can happen rapidly enough that each year the terrain of any given section of ice is significantly different from the previous year.  Literally, if I were to return to Iceland at the same time next year, and come to this very glacier, the hike would be significantly different, as the terrain would have been significantly modified.  Amazing!

The glacier hike concluded a little after sun down, which was right around 6:00 P.M. After the hike, the tour bus took us to a hotel restaurant in the area for a traditional Icelandic meal.  To my surprise, the meal did not involve fish.  For some reason, I had this impression that since Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic, it would be a place where almost every meal consisted of fish.  Instead, the traditional Icelandic meal was a hearty meat soup.

IMG_5329.jpg

On the tour bus, I learned that the Icelandic cow, which is a special breed of cow that is smaller than the ones most of the world is familiar with is quite popular on Icelandic farms (they actually once voted in favor of keeping the cow over switching to a more efficient Norwegian cow).  In addition to these cows, many farms also keep lamb and sheep.

IMG_5331.jpg

After dinner we drove in search of an ideal place to view the Northern Lights.  This involved driving around and looking at weather conditions in a manner that actually seems reminiscent of storm chasing.  We drove around for hours, and every time it felt like we had found the right conditions (i.e. clear skies), something would change.  At one point, sometime between 9 and 10 P.M., as drove through an area where it suddenly started to snow!  At 11:30 I was in despair.  We were clearly headed back into Reykjavik, and I thought we were just going back to the hotel.  After all, the tour does not guarantee that the Northern Lights will be seen.  It can’t be guaranteed.  The weather is always changing, and the solar activity, which leads to the Aurora phenomenon, is also quite variable.

Oddly enough, though, just after midnight, we pulled into a pier on the far West end of town, along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, on a peninsula.  Our tour guide informed us that we would now be able to view the lights, and, sure enough, they appeared. I was unable to capture them on camera in a manner that would do this amazing natural phenomenon any justice.  I mostly just sat there, in awe, watching the lights glow and move from side to side along the horizon.  I thought about how amazing this phenomenon was.  I wondered if people who lived here took it for granted, noticed it less, the same way many people become less appreciative of what is in their own back yards.  At the end, I just thought about what an amazing day it was, from when the tour began, over twelve hours ago, until now, ending with this amazing light display.

Life in a Northern Town

IMG_5245.jpg

It’s 8 AM on a Thursday morning in Reykjavik, Iceland’s Capitol and largest City.  The sun has yet to come up, as this far north (64 degrees latitude) days are still quite short in the middle part of February.  A quiet dawn persists over the town for nearly two hours, from 8 to about 10.  A couple of local teenagers are hanging outside the grocery store.  A group of tourists can be seen hanging outside one of the few restaurants that are open.  Otherwise, the streets are quite empty, and the shops are mostly closed.

IMG_5248IMG_5246

It’s odd because, in many most major cities, 8:00 is the peak of what is often referred to as “rush hour”.  It is a time of people hurrying to and from train stations, and crowding highways trying to get to work.  Even in the more touristy sections of cities, which this most certainly is, a lot of motion can still be found at this hour.  At places like Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, and New York’s Time Square, which are utterly packed with tourists nearly every day, there are still plenty of people to be found at 8:00 on a weekday morning, mostly people headed into work.  Here, that culture just does not seem to exist.  Are all the office jobs elsewhere?  Do people have office jobs?  Do they work different hours?  Or is the economy so heavy on tourism and fishing that there is just no point in being awake at an hour when all the tourists are likely still asleep and the sun is not out?

By noon, things start to pick up.  On some days, the sun comes out and hits the harbor.  At this latitude, when it hits the harbor, it hits it in a way that seems to highlight every single feature, from the boats in the harbor to the snowy mountains on the other side.  From the perspective of someone that has always lived in the mid-latitudes, is feels neither like mid-day nor twilight.  It is a different feeling altogether, and those who take a pause from their tourist itinerary and truly soak up the moment are reminded as to why it is worthwhile to visit different places in the first place; to see something, experience something, do something that cannot be done at home.

The day progresses.  Tourists fill streets whose names are too intimidating to even try to pronounce, make their way into the bars, the restaurants, and the dozens of souvenir stores that feature a gigantic stuffed puffin in the window.

The weather inevitably changes- but, well it doesn’t.

IMG_5350

There is this saying, “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes, it will change.”  Anyone that travels on a regular basis to places outside the tropics has most likely heard the phrase too many times to count.  It is used here.  At souvenir shops, mugs and shirts about Iceland sport the phrase.  And, it is true to some extent.  At any moment, it can turn from sunny to cloudy, or suddenly get windy.  But, the temperature does not vary too much.  On a four day trip to Iceland, the temperature, including daytime and nighttime, seemed to only vary between a few degrees below freezing and a few degrees above freezing.

Regardless of these changes, winter in Iceland is consistently cold and damp.  For this reason, one of the most popular items made in all of Iceland are wool sweaters.  While any visitor to Reykjavik can find these sweaters for sale all over town, the best deals on them are found at the Kolaportid Flea Market.  Even at the Flea Market, though, they can be quite expensive, the equivalent of roughly $100.  Money talks, and it is easy to figure out what a certain culture values by seeing what they are willing to spend money on.  Coloradans are willing to spend thousands of dollars annually on ski equipment.  Icelanders are willing to spend money on a warm wool sweater.

IMG_5348

Reykjavik’s population is only just over 200,000 people.  In fact, the population of all of Iceland is 330,000- significantly less than every borough of New York City, even Staten Island.  Yet, it is a place that knows how to party!  The nightlife is surprisingly good- probably better than many towns 2-3 times its size!

Making up for the lack of action at 9 in the morning, festivals, shows, and clubs give locals and tourists alike plenty to do in the nighttime hours.  Iceland has been promoting tourism quite hard since the economic collapse of 2008, which hit Iceland particularly hard.  Iceland Air has been particularly active in promoting tourism, by adding direct flights to more places in both Europe and North America, possibly with the goal of becoming a preferred airport for making connections while traveling between Europe and North America.

IcelandAir_Map

Looking at this map, it is hard not to imagine an executive with Iceland Air looking at at map, possibly even Risk the board game, and thinking of this grand plan to become a connecting point between the continents.

Well, it’s working.  Recently, more people talk about Reykjavik being their favorite place to make flight connections, and more and more people seem to have visited Iceland.  At this point, in Reykjavik, it is probably impossible for locals and tourists not to interact with one another in some way, especially at clubs and shows.

After hours of partying, all of a sudden it is 4 AM.  Many clubs still have lines to get in!

At 5 AM, on the streets, music can still be heard coming from multiple directions.  In fact, by this hour, it almost becomes easier to find a place to eat than it was at 9 AM on Thursday morning.

Sometime in the next few hours, the blurry memory of a fun filled night fades into the next morning, likely to be delayed through at least part of that lengthy twilight period.  In my particular case, it faded into the realization that it is now noon, and Millions of New Yorkers (where the local time is 7 A.M.), despite the time difference, have woken up before me on the other side of the Atlantic!

IMG_5346

I only spent four days in Iceland.  I do not know the full extent of life in this nearly arctic city of Reykjavik.  I only know what I experience in this short period of time, where I did the best I could to experience the local culture.  Regardless, it does appear quite different from any place I have ever been.