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.)