Monday, March 05, 2018

Suðurland on Ice: a Road Trip Along the South Coast of Iceland

The South Coast of Iceland is arguably one of the most eye-roll inducing areas of the entire island, so it may seem relatively hypocritical that this is where I chose to go for a weekend away. As a side note, I totally blew my entire budget for what may have been a nice writer's retreat, since this is the month during which I need to finish my thesis. It would have, without a doubt, been cheaper to fly to either Prague or Katowice and then take the train to the Slovak/Polish Tatras, respectively, hole up in a lovely little Airbnb for less than it costs to camp in Iceland, and have a lovely couple of days in the mountains.

But those flights don't leave Iceland when I need them to leave, nor do they arrive when I need them to arrive, so I stayed home...and payed a lot more. With that I chose, consciously chose, to drive the entire southern length of Iceland and camp in freezing temperatures on purpose.

Now, I admit that camping in sub-zero temperatures is an art that I have not yet mastered; it requires a delicate balance between not freezing to death and not asphyxiating to death. But, I am happy to report that despite the wind at the tongue of Skaftafellsjökull, I secured my tent with rocks (because the ground was too frozen for stakes) and slept a good 5-6 hours before getting sick of the fact that I couldn't feel my toes. It's not the fault of my sleeping bag (it's Big Agnes, rated for 15 deg F/-10 deg C) but rather the fault of my poor circulation.

Anyway, the South Coast has kind of a bad reputation for being the "tourist coast." When the tourist boom happened in Iceland (and is currently happening now) the tourists did not have convenient opportunities to evenly distribute themselves around the island so unfortunately, businesses anticipating a tourist boom in the East Fjords, Westfjords, and the North did not necessarily get the slam that the Reykjanes peninsula, the South Coast, and the Golden Circle did. 

So, the South Coast (Suðurland) is where we send everybody because there are, like, a billion waterfalls and it is where the glaciers are most accessible. Because of this, the glacier tours all go down to Suðurland. Most Icelanders and most RVK locals will avoid Suðurland like the plague because we really don't want to deal with a ton of traffic on the Ring Road (okay, there's really no traffic in Iceland. But imagine being stuck on a two-lane highway behind somebody going a hot 50 km/hr with too many curves and too many cars to pass...ugh, not my idea of a pleasant afternoon drive) or people who don't know how to drive in Iceland under certain conditions (the weather can be awful) or visitors who are rendered utterly flabbergasted by the one-way bridges that make accessible the otherwise impassable glacial moraines. 

With that, I had people back in RVK requiring that I check in occasionally just for traffic accident reasons alone (fair) as I'm not driving a lot anymore, and sometimes tourists (and occasionally locals) drive like they're on fire. Luckily, though, I picked this past weekend because the weather was so good and the roads were completely dry so I figured I'd be okay.

I left RVK on Saturday morning and arrived at Skaftafell around 2PM, where I did a quick hike up to Svartifoss. Svartifoss is a beautiful basaltic waterfall; it's interesting because the basaltic columns that form from slow-cooling lava are falling as well as the water. So, you get kind of a fast-moving waterfall and the slow-moving, indistinguishable falling of the basaltic columns. Well, indistinguishable until they succumb to gravity and crumble in chunks at once. 

After that, I went up to the glacial tongue Skaftafellsjökull, and although it was super windy, I was able to walk around on the ice for a little bit because I brought my ice spikes. Up there, I discovered a couple of moulins, a little ice tunnel and a little bit of crevassing; I didn't go very far because although I was not alone, I was by myself and I didn't want to unnecessarily risk my own life. I did wear a climbing harness just in case something happened, and on top of that, I was checking in with Salóme back in RVK who knew my whereabouts and would be able to alert me if weather conditions ended up taking a dramatic turn for the worst. Conditions followed what had originally been forecast, so I enjoyed loads of sunshine for the first time in a while.

After I got off of the ice, I went to set up my tent and, as I said before, secured it with rocks because it was so windy. The campsite at Skaftafell is nice because they know that their worst wind comes from the East (we were getting the Northeast wind) and so they have planted a bunch of small trees and shrubs to help break up the wind a bit. Since the sun went down around 7PM, I didn't have a whole lot to do; there are not any serviced buildings in the area in the wintertime (it's a National Park) so there really wasn't anything to do. So, I did actually write a couple of paragraphs about elevation-dependent sliding laws and stress balance in glacier models, which I thought was pretty appropriate because I was literally sitting at the foot of what I was talking about. That was nice, but after a while I couldn't feel my fingers so I settled in and eventually drifted off.

I woke up around 2AM because my feet got really cold, so I rubbed some heat back into them and fell back asleep. I woke up again around 4AM, listened to a bit of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and then around 5AM I got up, threw everything into the car, and headed out.

Since it was still so early, it wasn't quite dawn. To kill some time, I stopped at two glacier lagoons: Fjallsárlón (literally Mountain River Lagoon) and the famed Jökulsárlón (Glacier River Lagoon.) I managed to experiment a little bit with night-time (well, I guess dawn-time) photography and braved the wind to see if I could take advantage of the moonlit ice. 

I had a couple of hours before my destination would open up, so I went down to Diamond Beach thinking I'd be pretty much the only person there. I was, for a second, and all of a sudden around 7:15 AM, a bunch of people started to show up. An entire tour bus even came, and then I realized that I was bearing witness to the "sunrise crew" for Diamond Beach. So, these were going to be professional photographers, and there I was with my Google Pixel and my adventure camera that I had bought second-hand from somebody on Amazon.

Side note - it's a great camera; it's an old Canon DSLR and I got it because it can take decent low-light photos. I live in Iceland so I need northern lights photos, and this is why I bought it. It has served me well; it did great in Africa and very well this past weekend, but it isn't fancy or even clean. It has been sand-blasted by Iceland and safari-dusted by Uganda, so it really kind of paled in comparison to all of the professional-grade gear that I was watching these visitors unpack. 

All of these people with tripods and telephoto lenses headed down to the shore and I decided to just go ahead and join them, find my own diamond, and photograph that until the Sun came up since I had time to kill.

Diamond Beach is a place where the icebergs that are calved from Breiðamerkurjökull arrive back onto the black-sand beach so when they're washed up, they can often have rounded corners or interesting shapes from tumbling around in the water. They are often made of very clear ice, and if they aren't so clear, then they have pronounced crystallization features or ash intrusion lines through them which is very cool. The black sand offers a bit of a contrast to that clarity. 

I found some smaller, very clear pieces which were nice to photograph as the Sun was rising, as well as some larger, internally broken chunks which refracted the light in interesting ways. As the Sun came up, the light changed and the waves were crashing onto the beach so it ended up being quite a spectacular thing to experience. 

After that, I went ahead and drove to Höfn and made my way down to the beach down there, to a place called Stokksnes. Stokksnes is a place I've been wanting to find for a while. Because of my overreaching suite of hashtags, I assume, Instagram often markets to me other photographers who photograph Iceland. I am not a professional photographer; I just have a decent phone camera as far as phone cameras go, a relatively creative eye, and I live in a place where...the photos just take themselves. Nevertheless, Instagram associates me with Iceland and so loads of professional photographers of Iceland end up in my feed. 

One of them was featuring the place where I went yesterday, and because this person is so well followed, they do not usually geo-tag their posts whereas I do. I have fewer than 1,000 followers so I feel that there is no danger in my geo-tagging locations. But, I understand why they chose to do this; it's because once people see something on Instagram, everybody goes there and it gets ruined. This is kind of what's happening to other parts of Iceland; the argument can be made that social media has had a large presence in the Icelandic tourism boom which is both a good thing and, sometimes, not so great. 

So, this person chooses not to geo-tag their photos; however, I figured out where it was based on looking at a map of Iceland and rationalizing to myself where a place like this would be. And, it turned out to be Stokksnes. 

Stokksnes is about 10 km outside of Höfn and it is a privately owned farm area. It's just...really precious, and I think you should go, and I think it's okay to for me to say that you should go because, again, my following isn't huge. Those of you who are coming to visit me generally go wherever I go anyway, so it's alright. 

I looked this place up just to orient myself with what to expect because a lot of attractions in Iceland are privately-owned; they're not public land. Since they are private, the land owner has the right to decide what to do about that. They can decide to charge for parking, they can decide to charge admission, they can decide that everything is free but that there are certain opening hours...things like this.

So, a whole lot of people were complaining on the internet about how the land owner was this unfriendly person who would chase you down if you didn't pay 800 ISK (~$8) admission, and was super rude, and to me...I took that with a grain of salt, because people will complain about everything while hidden in the trashy corners of the worldwide web. 

By contrast, when I arrived, I found the land owner to be just wonderful. He has it set up now such that there is no need to chase anyone down anymore, because he has the access to the beach gated off and the gate can only be opened with a ticket that has a QR it's actually really brilliant. He is usually around from 9 until 18, and there is a little cafe there where you can go to pay the admission fee and get some snacks. I am not trying to pay $8.50 for a mocha, but you can if you wish! 

On the property, he has access to a little Viking village that was used in a film as well as a hiking trail that goes all the way around the mountain that descends to the beach. You may access all of these things with the admission fee. The mountain descent to the beach was the reason I wanted to see this, because it's absolutely beautiful. 

So, I thought that he was really nice. I went in and ordered a muffin from him, paid my 800ISK for admission and 500ISK for the muffin, and without any prompting from me, he went ahead and explained to me where everything was, where I was at that moment, where I could go to access the Viking village, and where I could drive to get a little bit closer to the beach. He explained that there had been some storms and that it may be hard to access, but he noticed that I had a 4x4 vehicle so I should be able to pass over the sand drifts without a problem. I thought that this was very kind and attentive to me, his guest and customer. 

I think you should go; he's not rude and he's not unfriendly, and I think he's doing the right thing by charging $8 per person. If you own a farm road in Iceland on which visitors are constantly driving, it's going to keep breaking and it's going to require constant upkeep and constant construction. In order to keep your land accessible, you would need to charge admission for something. He even offers facilities, so for Iceland, it's not a bad deal.

I did end up driving down to the beach and snapping a few photos, but it was crazy windy and I got sand-blasted the entire time. I was super glad that I had purchased Sand and Ash Protection (SAAP) insurance for my rental...kinda wish I could have purchased SAAP for my poor raw face. But, SAAP is something that you should always get with your rental vehicle, especially if you're traveling in Suðurland due to the sandy moraines and high winds. My car was sand-blasted on several occasions, and according Blue Car rental agency this morning, everything looked fine to them when I returned it and I wasn't held responsible for anything. The deductible is pretty high for SAAP; the premium is not bad, something like $15/day, but the deductible is $900 through Blue. So, if something had gone terribly wrong, I could be held responsible for $900 worth of damage. My guess is that this $900 deductible has to do with worst-case scenario volcanic activity, though, which there was none; a good thing, too, because if there were, I probably would have died in a glacial flood since my tent in Skaftafell was pretty close to a drainage floodplain of the volcano underneath Öræfajökull.

But, Stokksnes is absolutely gorgeous. It's stunning and it's worth a visit; I'd like to go back and spend some time hiking around the mountain but I wasn't feeling up to it yesterday. My knee is acting older than 27, my body was pretty sore from the previous day, and it was super windy and freezing so it's probably a better trip for another time. 

On the way back to RVK, I stopped back at the glacier lagoons so that I could snap some daylight photos as well. Since it is the end of winter, the lagoons are doing well; they're not completely frozen and there are plenty of icebergs to see that are nice and blue in the sunlight. 

There are a couple of ways to do Suðurland: one is the way we did it last May when we did #fosstour2k17 and visited about a billion waterfalls because the weather was far too horrendous to go up onto the ice. But this weekend, I did a more rustic, more freezing and windy tour of Suðurland because since it was so sunny, everything was clear. This is the clearest I've ever seen the South and it's been breathtaking; I've lived here for 18 months and I have not seen views of Suðurland like this before. I've never seen it so consistently clear and I've never had good visibility of the glaciers all the way down the coast, so this was an absolutely wonderful weekend to do this. Even though I've taken a weekend of writing away from myself, hopefully this was just what I needed to continue cracking away at the thesis this week. 

Bottom line: I very much enjoyed my weekend on ice. And I still haven't been to that famous plane wreck yet...but I had, I think, a much more fantastic adventure.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Moon Sees Me

I'm down here on Earth, staring at a full Moon. A full Moon that I know will eclipse during the wee hours on the other side of the world...and now I'm kinda wondering if it knows, like if somebody were staring down at me just before I walked straight into an enormous shadow but couldn't tell me, warn me, would I know? Would I want to?

I can't warn the Moon. The Moon has done this a zillion times and is clearly unconcerned with my foresight. And the moon probably doesn't speak English. Or Icelandic. Or whatever languages are in my head or heart or spirit. 

I used to tell myself that healing was slow, sweet, and golden...but guarded by bees, like honey. I'd say that you'd either have to work like mad to make it, or endure the sting to get it.

I was probably right. But now, I'd say that it's probably both of those things. Healing is loads of unrewarding work and tears that make no sense and that feeling like somebody, something stepped on your chest and crushed you, that they reached down your throat to personally pulverize your heart. It feels fuzzy but not like a blanket, instead like a fog.

Like a shadow.

And on the other hand, healing makes no sense if there's nothing to heal. If you've never been stung, you don't need lavender or witch hazel or tweezers.

But it is true that it's slow. Slow both in pace and in displacement, because it's nonlinear as all get out and setbacks feel like failing and hurting and dying, probably, dying before this is over.

Dying before this is over is how everybody gets out, but do me a favor and take that statement without indulging in the temptation of focusing on morbidity. It isn't morbid; it's the truth. We die before this is over because the "over" doesn't look like being restored. 

"Over" is somebody who died of old age, but lived with everything else. Learned how to live with it, learned how to manage it, learned how to love herself in spite of it, learned how to finally let somebody love her completely.

That's "over." 

And the Moon will be just fine.

I don't have any pictures of the Moon, but here's another pretty night thing.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Trash Day

Upswings are strange for me right now because they feel a bit like mania. They probably feel that way because my wintertime baseline has fallen so far below what my normal baseline should be such that feeling well, feeling motivated, feeling all feels like mania and I am skeptical of it. But lately, it's been one of those times during which my reflections are more in the spirit of awe for my own survival than anything else.

At least, I can pretend that they are. I have so far to grow yet, but I am pretty okay for now.

It's the events circling the non-events that get me; the implications and the results and what it is to be twenty seven and dealing with those results. It's the things that put my hair on end. The things that gut me and make me dizzy. Those things.

I's dark here. Cut me a little slack.

So anyway, here's me standing in my truth, or whatever colloquialism you prefer to assign to the following.

A Letter to a Piece of Trash

You are the standard against which all garbage is measured. You ruined my favorite store; how dare you. And since nothing is real unless it's compared to 1990's grunge, you are Alanis Morissette's proverbial black fly in my Chardonnay...except the fly is a scab and the Chardonnay is obviously a vintage Montepulciano because I'm worth at least that.

For some reason, you had better advocates than me but that one's probably on me picked your behavioral counselors and the advocate I picked ended up going to jail for child porn a decade later so...yeah.

I miss my favorite store but I don't miss the flight response that kicked in when I realized that you work there now..? I don't miss the hiding in the nail polish aisle and the not being able to see straight. I do not miss the cruel irony of having to go to that store to pick up my meds for which you are, in part, responsible. I do not miss the terror I associate with seeing your dumb fucking face. Get out of my head.

I came to Iceland to make something of myself, but I'll admit that I came here, a tiny bit, to put an ocean between us so that I can finally go grocery shopping in peace.

Fuck you. 

Never yours,

PS: Obviously, I forgive you. But still, stay away from me and probably everyone else.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Travelogue: Autumn Hiking in Slovakia

I've been here and there over the past few weeks, but I haven't really had the chance to sit down and tell you much about it. I had the opportunity to visit a few really interesting places, but I thought I'd share a little bit about a region with which I especially fell in love. 

First of all, I have this nasty habit of booking trips six months in advance with absolutely no clue what my schedule or financial situation will be when the departure date comes around, because when the deals are good, I pounce. So of course, I found myself overlapping with a conference and rapidly running out of cash (typical) but I couldn't feel too bad because 1) I had enough Delta miles to get to the conference on nobody's dime, and 2) it is legitimately cheaper to fly to central Europe and eat really well for a week than it is to just simply exist in Iceland. 

So, anyway. I'll have my roast half-duck and eat it too, thanks.

I went to Prague which was wonderful, but I want to talk instead a bit about my little side trip over to Poprad. In order to up my efficiency, I decided to combine two nights of accommodations with travel time and took the night train both ways. I knew that I wanted to use the six hours to sleep, so I splurged and got myself a sleeper cabin.

Even with the splurge, though, this cost me under €40 total: €14 for a cabin I shared with three other young adults on the way into Slovakia, and €25 for a cabin I shared with two women on the way back to Prague. For two nights accommodations and basically a guarantee that I'd be able to sleep through the trip, I wasn't complaining!

When I booked my cabin, I wasn't exactly taking it for granted that the train company was actually legit. Their website has a good user interface, but the booking and payment process was kind of confusing because you can, apparently, book seats on credit and I wasn't sure how to navigate that. But my friends (from Galway) Dana and Francesca were with me at the train station in Prague to see me off, and everything turned out great. In fact, I can't recommend RegioJet enough. 

Since Prague was the first stop of the route, I boarded and found my linens ready for me to make my bed. I set an alarm for well before the scheduled time to reach Poprad and followed along with our location on Google Maps, then took a snooze. I woke up with plenty of time to collect myself, but I didn't realize that the train attendants would be there to wake us up with a warm croissant in time for our stop! On the way back out of Poprad, my stop was not the first one since this line was the Prague-Košice line, so I boarded to find that my bed had already been made and I had orange juice, mints, and pastries for the morning. That was rad.

What was slightly less rad was that upon my arrival into Poprad, I couldn't check into my hostel until the afternoon and there were still a couple of hours until sunrise. But I decided that I'd take advantage of the good weather and head up to the mountains as soon as the sun rose, because the mountain trains run every half hour and I had read loads of advice from this guy's blog. So, I stashed my bag in the luggage lockers and decided to go up to Tatranská Lomnica at 7:30, right after sunrise. And oh, what a gorgeous sunrise it was!

It was sunny and chilly by the time I got up to the quaint ski town of Tatranská Lomnica, and the autumn view of Lomnický peak was stunning as I made my way to the ski lift and cable cars. I even met a very friendly dog in the parking lot! Turns out, it is possible to hike to the subalpine directly from town...but the trail through the riparian is really just a boulder-logged wash where they had cleared everything out for skiing and I wasn't wanting to waste any time trudging through that. In my opinion, the cable cars are worth it because the trail gets much nicer up at altitude. I was one of just a few people when I got up to Skalnaté pleso, a glacial lake in the valley of Lomnický peak. 

I opted to explore a rim trail that connected Skalnaté pleso with the lower cable car stop, but I only did that for a little while because I realized that I was seeing too much bear scat to feel comfortable by myself. I made my way back and took the small educational trail around the lake, then went up towards the Skalnaté pleso Observatory, which I learned was connected to the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

Continuing onward, I reached one of the main trails through the High Tatras, which I followed for an hour or so. I noticed that the trail side-kicked to the summit of a small peak, so I figured I'd go up there and then go back because I could see some weather coming in. Between alpine glaciation and granite boulders and rolling piedmont, this trail was an absolute dream...and the view from the summit, even more so.

Eventually, I made it back to Poprad where I stayed on the outskirts of downtown at the Aqualand hostel near Aqua City, Slovakia's enormous and extensive waterpark. I opted not to visit the waterpark this time, because it was not cheap even with my discount from the hostel and I'd really rather experience an intense Slovak spa session with a group of friends! Instead, I lounged around Poprad for the evening and the next day before my night train back to Prague.

I took a long walk through the city and discovered that Poprad is quite a bit bigger than I thought it would be! I mistakenly thought I could walk to the foothills of the High Tatras, but it ended up being a little bit too chilly and too far. Instead, I spent some time in the gallery Tatranská Galéria

For just €3, I was able to see some Russian originals as well as Czech and Slovak pieces, from sculpture to painting to glasswork and even old pieces of Charles Bridge from Prague. As a nice surprise, I discovered for myself an artist I didn't know anything about before: Ivan Ivanovič Šiškin. His command of light and shadows make his landscapes mesmerizing; looking at one of them is kind of like looking at a photo. You can see some of his work in this video:

There are a lot of things I would still like to do in Poprad and the surrounding mountain towns. More hiking, certainly, but also more exploration of the little cafes and local cuisine. Of course, I get self-conscious about speaking English in a non-English-speaking country (and for some reason automatically default to Icelandic, because that makes sense) but am usually privileged to be able to get by in larger cities. In Poprad, though, English is known but uncommon. As a solo traveler, I didn't want to burden the Slovaks in Poprad with my lack of language skills, which oddly came up a lot because people randomly came up to talk to me on several occasions. I don't know what they wanted or were trying to say, but I couldn't respond, either way!

The vibe in Poprad pleased me in a surprising way. I felt comfortable in the dark, post-Communism air, and noticed the relics of Communism only because Dana had pointed out the square-box buildings to me in Prague and that was fresh in my mind. But Poprad is a quirky place; it's colorful and artistic and friendly but has an almost sinister undertone, unsettling at times. It's industrial and dreary and vibrant and beautiful all at the same time. My charming Slovak host at the hostel sugar-coated absolutely nothing except the delicious Polish caramels she gave me with my coffee. She was easy going and gracious but not overtly so; she dictated her life and her schedule and was sad that the gallery wasn't a night club anymore. I liked her a lot. 

And, I liked those mountains. There are a lot more footsteps for me to take in those peaks, but I am grateful that I was able to get a taste and slip in before the winter snow. Up there, it was warm and Earth-toned and bright; the air more fresh than I've breathed in a while (i.e. sulphur-free) and the peaks taller than any I've summited in some time. I'll be back.

Until then, Slovakia. 🇸🇰