May 28 2010

Kiss My Ash

As previously noted, there is an impressive amount of volcanic merchandising going on in Iceland – from t-shirts that say “Kiss My Ash” to special “Eruption Tours” that offer to take you mere kilometers away from the glacier under which the volcano lies. I’ve been most impressed, though, by the vials of ash that are being sold in Reykjavik for about $25 a piece. (“And they’re selling well,” a shop keeper told me.) I mean, that’s the Icelandic version of selling dirt – and demonstrates an entrepreneurial spirit that I admire.

So when Peter and I decided to go to Skogar – a small town directly south of Eyajakofull (sp), which is covered in volcanic dust – who could have blamed me for suggesting that we fill up several large bags and set up an ash stand in the tourist district? (Or even better, the international airport.) We wouldn’t have the special vials, so we’d knock a few bucks off the price – say, $20 for a ziploc. Give me a day, I told Peter, and I’d pay for our entire Iceland vacation.

He laughed, perhaps thinking I was kidding, and said something along the lines of “You’re ridiculous” – but really, the only thing ridiculous was that a. I hadn’t thought of this plan before we were back in the non-ash covered countryside – and b. that he wasn’t entirely supportive of the endeavor. If only we still had that rental car. . . .

But missed business opportunities aside, we still had our fair share of ash-related adventures. After spending a night in a dust-covered hostel (the attendants left us alone for the night, so we watched European Idol and snuck a load of laundry into the staff washing machine), we decided to head even further east to the town of Vik, best known for its black sand beaches,  sea bird population, and the fact that it sits directly south of Katla, one of Iceland’s most notorious volcanoes. (It’s at least ten times more powerful than the volcano that’s currently erupting.) I thought this was a bad idea, but I also wanted breakfast, and there were no restaurants or shops open in the entire town of Skogar.

Much to our surprise, Vik was nearly ash-free – if a little quiet, and with no breakfast options other than hot dogs. But such was not the case on the drive back (in terms of ash, not food). In the time it took for us to eat our frankfurters, the wind around Skogar had picked up. Our journey to Vik had been like driving through a mild, carcinogenic fog – but on the way back, the air suddenly turned brown and thick, visibility was reduced to about ten feet in front of our car, and I kept trying to take off my sunglasses, only to reailze that I didn’t have any on. Both of us had the same immediate thought: what if the volcano had begun to erupt again? (Peter feared a flash flood; I worried about a head-on collision with a Reykjavik Excursions tour bus.) Luckily, neither scenario occurred, but dude, the next time you vacation near an active volcano, take my advice and skip the ash cloud.

We continued east toward the Blue Lagoon, a bizarre resort featuring a huge pool of effluent from a nearby power plant. (It’s a geothermal plant, so the water is clean – but it has silica mud in it and is an odd pale blue, with steam puffing off its surface – and at 23 euros per person, is nearly as clever as the ash bags.) But before we could jump in for our daily soak, we needed to deal with the fact that the car was coated in ash. Just as flying into ash is not good for jet engines, driving into it is also not good for your car. In fact, the rental agency had given us a flier specifically explaining that while driving through the volcanic area was not “forbidden,” we were recommended to “exercise caution” and understand that if ash got into all the air filters, we’d have to pay for fixing the engine. What’s more, if any ash stuck to the exterior of the car, it could catch the sunlight and burn through the paint. Oh, and whatever you do, do NOT use the windshield wipers.

I was dealing with ash problems of my own – I’d put on sunblock before leaving the hostel and had fine grains of black grit all over my face. But never mind the effects of volcanic ash on skin – the car took priority. Luckily in Iceland there are little hoses at every gas station, complete with scrub brushes. After two stops and about 15 minutes of high-powered rinsing and scrubbing, I was able to run my finger over the hood without picking up grit. And good thing, too. Whereas the guy who gave us the rental car handed over the keys without so much as explaining our insurance coverage (it didn’t cover any damage caused by nature, volcanoes included), the guy at the drop-off counter spent ten minutes inspecting the exterior, brushing his fingers against the paint as if he were testing to see if we had left behind any dust. Which I suppose he was.

But whatever, car rental guy. What happens at the volcano stays at the volcano (unless it’s packaged in small baggies and sold as souvenirs). We took our soak in the Blue Lagoon, tried our hand at Icelandic horseback riding, and are now on our way to Coutras, a small town in the middle of the French countryside, getting ready to try our hands at dairy farming. Stay tuned.

(We hella loved Iceland.)

May 26 2010

An Icelandic Tasting Menu

I’m writing now from the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, wondering whether it’s worth it to wash the ash out of my hair before dinner. Given how much is currently stuck in my eyebrows, it’s probably a good idea. But first, some photos from the past few days.

First, one of the best meals I’ve had in my life — a tasting menu at the Fish Company in Reykjavik. Dear lord. We’d been trying to sample as much as possible of Icelandic cuisine (see Skyr factory below) — the semantic highlight of which was probably a seafood restaurant that described itself as being a place “where golden lobsters hook their claws together and dance a belly dance while mermaids serve tables amongst shrimp wrapped in seaweed, clapping shellfish and inquisitive haddock.”  (Of their famous lobster soup: “This is the most famous soup in the Republic of Iceland, prepared by handsome cooks who step naked out of the ocean at Stokkseyri with their catch.”) But the naked cooks and inquisitive haddock were put to shame by the meal at the Fish Company, a four-course affair prepared by a 23-year-old chef named Gustave that involved beautifully plated samples of Icelandic lamb, lobster, smoked cod and Skyr ice cream, among other delicious things. Check out my appetizer:

Next we picked up our rental car and headed to the famous Golden Circle of Iceland, the highlights of which were a geyser (pronounced “GAY-zeer”) that erupted about once every two minutes and kept me entertained for more than 45 — and the famous Gullfoss waterfall, which came complete with a rainbow.

I’d enjoyed the day’s sights, but it had been  nearly 24 hours since the last time we soaked in a thermal pool, and we both were getting a little antsy. Thank goodness, then, for the Frost and Fire guesthouse in Hverageroi, which overlooked steaming hills and had a set of “hot pots,” as they call tubs, along the river bank. I think it’s a little funny that they’re called hot pots, considering the eponymous Mongolian dish that involves dipping raw meat into boiling broth and then eating it, but I wasn’t complaining.

But oh, that wasn’t the nicest bathing experience we had in store. The next day we took a hike in the hills overlooking our guest house, where we passed rust-colored volcanic formations and another huge waterfall before coming across a geothermal area bubbling with boiling mud. Usually when Peter and I go hiking we end up at some frigid mountain stream where Peter jumps into the ice cold water and splashes around like a happy dog as I stand on the bank, beating myself up for not joining him, even though I can get chilled by opening the refrigerator, and he has occasionally been known to go swimming in the snow. But not yesterday — thanks to the geothermal/volcanic activity beneath us, we found a stream that was exactly the temperature of a hot bath. It was perfect.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Skyr — you know that thick, fat-free Icelandic yogurt stuff that has started showing up in the United States? It’s made here, at a factory with a rather obscene cow statue outside. And since I’m interested by all dairy products, I contacted the company to set up a tour.  We met a nice young food scientist named Olafur, who used a coffee filter and some fermented skim milk to demonstrate how Skyr is made before walking us through the actual factory. As opposed to other plants I have visited — namely, a fish oil processing factory, and several sewage treatment plants — this one smelled quite nice (like strawberry milk). Its equipment, however — much of which is specially designed to separate water from solids — is bizarrely similar to that at waste treatment facilities. But whatever. When I get home, I’m making my own Skyr. How can something that fat-free be so delicious? Whoever designed this statue clearly had the same question.

It had been a great day, so we decided to cap it off with a drive to Skogar, a town that happens to be directly south of the (now dormant?) volcano. I mean, the rest of Iceland had been beautiful — completely clear, blue skies, fantastic visibility. How bad could it really be?

Answer: pretty bad.

May 23 2010

When is too old for waterslides?

Before today, I would have said “never.” Who doesn’t love a waterslide? And why would they require an age limit?

I found out the answer today at a thermal bath in eastern Reykjavik (not to be confused with the thermal bath we went to yesterday, which was in western Reykjavik and thus totally different). This one was a large complex with a Disneyland-esque parking lot, packed with so many families and children that they had run out of lockers, and the shoe section of the changing rooms had extended into the halls.

But that didn’t stop us. I had spent the morning losing body heat on a whale watching trip in the Reykjavik harbor (Iceland has to be one of the only countries where you can watch sea creatures in the morning and then eat those same creatures at night — lots of whale on the menu, my friends). So I was eager for some warmth.

We jumped into the main thermal pool and then noticed that at this particular thermal bath, there was a waterslide — a four-story tall affair, out of which was popping a steady stream of giggling children. Notice that I said “children” — Peter and I watched it for quite some time, and did not see any adults ejected from the tube. But that’s their loss, right? Sure, there was a sign in Icelandic that said something involving the words “6” and “8” — perhaps in reference to the allowed ages. But we climbed up anyway, taking our places in a horde of dripping kids, and waited for our turn.

Peter went first, hurling himself into the blue plastic tube. I waited for my green light — yes, this water slide had metering lights — grabbed onto the bar in front of me, and pulled myself into the slide. The water rushed around me and for a brief, lovely second I had a flashback to the waterslides of my youth — exhilarating, gleeful –and I wondered why I had ever questioned whether this was a good idea.

Then my bottom got stuck.

I shifted around, got myself to slide forward a bit and then, whoops, stuck again. What’s more, I was wearing my glasses — and since this was a waterslide fueled by thermal waters, they were fogging up.

I have very bad eyesight outside in  normal light, let alone in a dark blue plastic tube when I’m desperately trying to unstick my bottom so that I am not rammed from behind by an eight-year-old. So I pushed them down my nose and began pulling myself along by my hands — slide, stick, slide, stick.

I heard him before I saw him: a small, chubby boy hurtling at me in the dim light. My paddling became more desperate, but it was no use — five seconds later, in a dark section of the tube, I felt his legs slide around my body as he straddled my back. The good thing was that the added momentum pushed me further down the tube. The bad thing was that, thanks to the size of my butt,  I had created a situation where I could be accused of inappropriately touching a child.

Worried that my new friend would soon be followed by others (those metering lights were quick), I reached out for the wall and did another pull — and as I completed the movement, accidentally smacked the boy on his arm. He yelped and said something in Icelandic (probably along the lines of “I’m not the one slowing things down, lard-ass”) and dropped back just enough for me to frantically paddle my way toward daylight.

Whereas most children burst from the tube with the power of a small explosion, I emerged as more of a dribble — a soft kerplunk, followed by several desperate strokes toward Peter, who was confused by what had taken so long.

The boy quickly blended back into the crowd, and I hoped that the number of people in the pool might give me anonymity as well. But then, as I waited for Peter near the entrance, a familiar, pudgy figure wearing socks decorated with soccer balls passed me with his father. Catching my eye, he turned toward me and said something to me in Icelandic. Not angry, but definitely forceful — perhaps something along the lines of “Hey lady, next time, I go first.”