Somewhere in the suburbs of Reykjavik, my bus stops, the doors open, and I’m hit with a blast of arctic air; it is cold, very cold. Stepping out into the frozen void, seemingly abandoned in a vacant street of snow and ice, the sky a jet black despite being nearly ten in the morning, I make my way to a small house on the edge of a stream that has long been frozen white.
I was staying with an elderly retired couple, Teddy and Arnheiour, who lived just outside of Reykjavik, the single-story home dark, covered in wood paneling and furniture I haven’t seen since my youth. Why did I have the feeling I just wandered onto the set of Fargo?
My reason for being in Reykjavik, other than my perpetual curiosity, was practical. A layover courtesy of Icelandic Air, which found that by breaking up the flight from North America to Europe, it could say money and hence offer cheaper airfare. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to spend a day or two during the dead of winter in the world’s most Northern capital, a city that barely qualifies as such with a population of just over 100,000.
Unpacking a change of clothing, I headed to the shower. The sulfur-laden water reeked of rotten eggs. In Iceland, hot water is literally piped in directly from the ground, and supposedly has all sorts of health benefits. I dried myself off and, after applying some fragrant deodorant, found myself smelling akin to a breakfast burrito. Well, it was better than a deviled egg.
I looked out the window; the sun was finally peaking above the horizon, casting the country in a dim twilight that would last for only a couple of hours before sinking back into the depths of blackness.
Why leave, I thought? Why step out into the cold and dark? But I knew I couldn’t really stay inside as much as I wanted to jump beneath the comforter on my bed and spend the day immersed in a good book, preferably one set in the tropics. Even if Iceland was the ninth circle of hell (it already had the ice, darkness, and sulfur), I needed to know for myself.
It was still relatively gloomy when I took the overpriced public bus back to the center of the city which was lit up like a Hindu temple at Diwali. I walked down the main shopping drag Skólavörðustígur, full of boutique stores and eateries, eventually making my way to the port.
Before Iceland became a giant in the financial markets, this island was nothing more than a backwater fishing community. Today, Iceland still trawls the seas and is one of the few countries that continues the tradition of whaling (you can actually purchase whale meat at specialty stores, although most is sold to the Japanese). At one time, these giants were on the verge of extinction here, but conservation efforts have restored local populations.
As much as I would have liked to hitch a ride on an Icelandic whaler, I had to settle for a run of the mill whale safari. On a nice day, you are guaranteed beautiful vistas of Reykjavik and the surrounding mountains, pods of playful porpoises, and if you are lucky a whale or two. But this is the mid-Atlantic, in winter. As if to accentuate that point, I was provided an arctic waterproof coverall. And, yes, it was necessary.
The cruise started off well enough. Just past the harbor, we came in contact with some porpoises. But once we hit the open oceans, the weather changed, and things got rough, really rough. Suddenly, waves were cresting the bow, sheets of water crashing down upon us poor paying customers brave enough to still be outside hoping to get a shot of cetacea stupid enough not to have migrated south for the winter.
Despite the conditions, the coveralls did their job. Sure, frozen icicles hung from my nose and chin, but hell, I couldn’t feel my face anyway. Maybe I was even having fun trying to keep my balance as buckets of freezing water rained down upon me. Unfortunately, as the weather deteriorated, the possibility of spotting whales evaporated, and we returned to port, riding a roller coaster of water all the way.
Back on shore, I decided that my best option was to warm up with some indoor activities. For such a tiny population, Reykjavik boasts an impressive number of museums. Chief among them is the Phallic Museum, a motley collection of animal penises preserved in formaldehyde.
But having seen my fair share of genitalia (animal or otherwise), I opted to take a peek at The National Museum, where one can travel through the span of Icelandic History, from the first Viking colonists to neutral Iceland’s occupation by British troops in World War II. Particularly interesting are the ancient sagas and excavated Viking ships, as well as a collection of artifacts from Iceland’s early 20th century. Who says history isn’t sexy?
By the time I had finished, the sun had already set (not that it had really risen above the horizon, anyway). It was getting late, but I still needed to participate in one very important Icelandic tradition: bathing in the thermal waters of the volcanic Island.
Tourists tend to head for the Blue Lagoon, a massive complex of pools formed by wastewater from the geothermal Svartsengi Power Station. A cheaper, and by far, more local experience is to take the waters at one of the local municipal pools. In Iceland, it seems every town has its own thermal baths, and prices are much more modest. I headed to Árbæjarlaug, near my temporary residency, where a dip costs you no more than ISK 980 (EUR 7).
After spending more time than recommended soaking in near excruciatingly hot water, I walked back to Teddy and Arnheiour’s place, where dinner was waiting. The thermals had taken their toll. I was relaxed, maybe too relaxed. I should have been on my toes. Nordic eating can be tricky, and my hosts were pulling out all the stops.
Before I realized it, I had a plate of little white cubes sitting in front of me. They looked innocent enough. Indeed I suspected them to be some type of pungent local cheese. Nonchalantly, I popped one into my mouth and bit down. Almost immediately, I was hit with one of the most nauseating tastes I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing. This was no cheese, but the dreaded Kæstur hákarl, putrefied shark. And for those of you that have not had the pleasure of trying Kæstur hákarl, just think of the last time you smelled rotting fish. Now think about voluntarily putting that fish in your mouth and you’ll have some idea of what I’m talking about.
To my credit, I did not spit the little morsel out, but the contorted expression on my face must have said it all. Luckily, my host had more or less anticipated my reaction and handed me a glass of Brennivín, popularly known as “black death.” The unsweetened schnapps is just about the only thing that can help kill the taste of Kæstur hákarl.
Happily, the rest of my Icelandic home cooked meal was much less terrifying. Besides an array of cured meats, I was served panned fried fish, which fortunately had not been aged for flavor.
After dinner, Teddy took me out for a walk in the countryside. The weather had vastly improved since my boat trip, and the stars shined brightly. Darkness may be a fact of life during island’s winter months, but it doesn’t seem to hinder Icelanders who seem to share a special bond with the harsh nature of this Island.
Above me danced the northern lights, white streaks that played against the black sky. Iceland, I thought, a land of white and black, one horrible extreme to another. I casually raised my camera and took a picture, expecting to see nothing more than a white band against a background of black on the LCD screen. But the photo I had taken was not what I had just witnessed with my own eyes. Instead, it was full of colors. From the green of the aurora borealis to the red hue of the city lights and the deep purple reflected from the snow, the camera had brought the imperceptible out.
Iceland in winter is a dark place, a cold place, a harsh place. It certainly is not an easy place to travel. But it is also a magical place. And if you close your eyes you just might see the color through the blackness.