I awoke on my 40th birthday to a chorus of well-wishes. 40 is a big year, and Eric had asked me earlier in the trip about how I felt about turning 40. I thought about it, and I have to say that I feel really, really good about it. So much has changed in a generation – when my mom turned 40, we threw her an “over the hill” surprise birthday party. If anyone even thought of throwing me such a party, I would hurt them. Eric thinks that some of the difficulty with the milestone is that for many, it seems that few surprises remain after the age of 40, in that your life is relatively established and you can map out the future course with relatively depressing certainty. Not downhill, then, but perhaps more of a plateau. I can’t say that this resonates either – five years ago I never would have pictured myself where we are now nor predicted living in New Zealand for most of my 40th year. I think it’s easy to settle into a routine, and seems daunting to think about breaking it, especially as you reach mid career point which many people are at this age. We’ve been able to step out of that, and take the first big leap and you know what? It makes other big leaps seem so much more possible. So who knows what is on the horizon now? If anything, I feel excited by the time to come ahead.
I love puffins. Something about their ungainly potbellied birdy bodies and their curved orange beaks is just too adorable not to. For my birthday, I thought we’d do a puffin tour! I’d read that for most of the tours, you can’t get much of a photo unless you’ve got a telephoto lens as puffins are surprisingly small. Instead then, I chose a tour where we would have some time with puffins but also venture out to the bay to do some fishing and then eat the fresh catch! This may seem like an odd choice for a mostly vegetarian family, but I thought it would be nice to do something very, very different. And because I do eat fish occasionally, it seems hypocritical of me to not be able to kill one myself.
I went with Happy Tours, a small family run company, because it was one of the few tours that provides good binoculars for the trip. Captain Snorri welcomed us on board the Saga and outfitted us with protective waterproof clothing, which was adorably oversized on the kids, making them look as though they were wearing rubber sumo suits.
First, off to the puffins! They nest on a small island in the bay, and we saw quite a few with the binoculars. Most surprising is how fast the little critters are when they’re in flight, zooming across the sky despite what would seem like a lack of aerodynamic form.
Then a little further out to drop long fishing lines and catch some cod for our lunch. The fishing poles were taller than us and a bit unwieldly at first, but we all got the hang of it. I can’t really say that fishing like this takes much skill – you drop the line down, the cod chomp on and you pull them up and into the bucket. The girl had a bite first out of our family, squealing excitedly and then needing a little help in holding the rod while she rotated the reel to pull up a nice sized catch! Captain Snorri efficiently dispatched the fish with a quick cut to the main artery, and we soon had a bucketful.
On the way back to the dock, Snorri sliced open the fish, showing us what they’d last eaten. A few small crabs for some, and for one a gourmet bellyful of caviar. At least he’d had a nice, rich last meal that one. He efficiently filleted the fish, tossing the offal overboard for the waiting gulls, who sometimes snatched the piece out of the air before it hit the water, and other times engaging in a battle for what goes as gull gourmet – the liver.
Once at the pier, Snorri pulled out a hot plate and began to pan fry the fish with lemon pepper, tossing on new potatoes for a side dish. Friends, this was the most delicious fish I’ve ever had. The boy couldn’t get enough and ate four large platefuls. The girl, who normally doesn’t like fish at all had a fair share as well. Bellies full, we thanked Snorri and his son and headed out to town for some souvenir shopping.
My main interest in Icelandic souvenirs is the yarn. Iceland has a very proud knitting tradition, and even sells yarn in the grocery stores. Not the acrylic crap that you’ll find at a Wal-Mart in the States, but actual Icelandic wool from the sheep that dot the countryside, direct decendents of the original 9th century immigrant sheep, with long fibers that are spun into a delicate untwisted wool.
At the Handknitting Association of Iceland, I walked passed the sweaters and hats and scarves straight to the walls of Lopi, or Icelandic wool. It was so difficult to choose colors, but I managed! Yarn, it should be noted, is one of the few things in Iceland that is actually cheaper there than elsewhere and I picked up a sweater’s worth for $50. A handknitted Icelandic sweater will cost you around $200-300, which is a fair price for the time involved. In a world where mass-produced fast fashion for the lowest dollar has become the norm, it’s refreshing to see a place where artisan work is still valued.
It was now almost 4 p.m., but as we didn’t have looming darkness to contend with, it was like we had a whole second day ahead of us. Eric found a hot spring river, where you hike about an hour in and then can have a relaxing soak. Normally, it would seem insane to start this at 4 pm – 40 minute drive, then hour long hike, then hour at the river, then hike out and drive back, we were looking at not getting back until 9pm. But as the light at 9 pm was no less bright than that of midday, off we went, fields of purple lupine flanking the highway.
Changing radio stations in the car, Eric happened upon one called “80s flashback,” and we headed out, appropriately enough, to “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” They played mostly really good 80s music, and I could sing along to most of it. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” came on, and we talked of the music video with the bright colors and dressing room scenes, and then lamented the sad fate of poor Whitney. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” started playing as we rounded a sharp corner, and Eric reminisced about the time he saw the Smiths on the “Meat is Murder” tour, and I reflected that Morrissey had kind of turned into a racist jerk. Soon enough, “Beat It” was on the playlist, yet another 80s artist with a sad ending. Later in the trip, “You and Me in Paradise” started up, and I immediately groaned and turned down the radio, because there is no reason to ever be forced to listen to the doldrum nasal plodding of Phil Collins. “God I hate Phil Collins,” I said out loud. “Why?” Piped up the girl from the back. “Was he a really bad sort of person?” “No,” I replied, “I just don’t like his music…as far as I know he’s a decent person who’s still alive.” At first I couldn’t figure out where her question came from, but then remembered our earlier conversation where Eric and I talked about the downfall of the prior artists, and realized that she must have surmised that poor lambasted Phil Collins must have also suffered some horrific drug-addled fate.
The hike itself winds through gorgeous volcanic hills and valleys, covered in moss on the south side, the north side a black rocky cliff. Dramatic landscapes await around corners, where steam rises in long puffs from the ground in otherworldly welcome. Stretches of the trail had zero visibility with steam clouding the way, and as we rounded one such corner and emerged into view again, the river curved around before us, vapor rising into the cool air. Little natural and manmade dams of rocks and stones are laid across it at intervals, creating a series of small pools. The further upstream you go the hotter the water, so wandering along and dipping a toe in we found our Goldilocks pool, changed underneath towels and hopped in. The kids and I passed the time by balancing rock cairns on the stone dam in front of us. While there were a fair number of people there, there’s also quite a bit of river so we had our own little pool to ourselves and stayed in for an hour before the hike and drive back again.
Our last day in Iceland, and we thought we’d drive around the Golden Circle, what should be called the choking tourist yoke of Reykjavik. The drive itself is fine, but once you arrive at the sites you’re contending with tourists that have been spat out by the busload, small and large. I swear, one of these days I’m going to grab someone by the selfie stick and start beating them over the head with it. I can’t stand those things. The only saving grace of those idiotic fidget spinners is that all of the sidewalk stands that used to sell only selfie sticks now sell fidget spinners, which are far less intrusive to other people. In hindsight, I wish we’d skipped the Golden Circle and just driven somewhere a little off the path to a hike or perhaps to an accessible glacier, but that’ll have to wait for another trip.
First stop was the Thingvallir, where the North American tectonic plate meets up with the European. You actually walk along the plate itself, and at places along the short walk it has split and fissured, as it’s still constantly moving, albeit slowly. It borders a little marshland with goslings and their protective parents, as well as shorebirds.
Another 50 minute drive took us to Geysir, the original geyser. Is there a geyser there? Yes. Is it kind of cool? Meh. Are there a ton of people standing around waiting to get the exact same picture? Yes. The kids really wanted to see the geyser here, and I had a smattering interest but honestly, I think it’s kind of skippable given the other cool things Iceland has to offer. In false advertising, the large and impressive Geysir rarely erupts, and mostly you’re watching it’s smaller and poorer cousin Strokkur erupt every five to ten minutes.
As we drove back to town, we happened across the Kerio crater and dropped by to take a look. Formed from the carcass of a burned out erupted volcano, a pool of aqua water rests at the bottom ringed by red lava stone. The water at the bottom doesn’t fill or drain, instead is reflection of the current water table.
Back in the car, we picked up 80s Flashback again about 40 minutes outside of town. One of my 80s favorites “Right Here Waiting” came on, and of course, I knew all the words. As I sang along, Eric commented that he was basically the 80s precursor to Adele, singing as he did about pining after a lost love. Soon after “Every Breath You Take” was on, and I thought that that song could be the 80s precursor to Taylor Swift, the vindictive response of a jilted lover.
The following morning we piled our luggag into the car, and turned on 80s flashback for one final trip to Keflavik Airport. “And you may find yourself in another part of the world…and you may ask yourself, ‘well? How did I get here?” the Talking Heads crooned as we drove, in a fitting last soundtrack before our flight back home.